Southwest Birding III,
This will be the final column about a birding trip with my son Casey. We began the trip in San Diego, quickly moved to the mountains and then spent a day around the very peculiar Salton Sea. When I finished last week’s column we were heading to Arizona. I like Arizona; it’s the Florida of the West. It gets wicked hot, has great birds, lots of retired people and tons of Spanish-speaking folks. But instead of palm trees, Arizona has cactuses (cacti?) and instead of swamps (swampi?), there are deserts. And one of the states has manatees, but I’m not sure which one.
Our first stop was Tucson. We stayed in a hotel that’s attached to a golf course. Usually, I’m the last guy you’d expect to see on a golf course, but I loved it. I got up early (before either Casey or the golfers) and walked out onto the fairways to look for birds (not “birdies,” which apparently is a golf term of some sort.) The most notable bird I came across was a dazzling Vermilion Flycatcher. If you are going to see one flycatcher in your life, it should be this one. It has the brilliant coloring of a cardinal, but instead of being nervous and wimpy (like cardinals tend to be), this bird has the confidence and flight skills of a flycatcher. Vermilion Flycatchers are so amazing it’s worth going near golfers to see one.
After Casey finally got out of bed we headed to the nature preserve at Sabino Canyon. I had heard that if you want to see birds in Tucson, this is the place to go. No, it isn’t. It’s actually the place to go if you want to see people…lots and lots of people. The entire area was packed with families, joggers, hikers and people who looked as if they had wandered off a bus tour. We turned around headed across town to the much quieter Sweetwater Wetlands. This place is awesome. Sweetwater is a manmade wetlands right in the middle of the city. There are nice trails, restrooms and lots of birds. We saw several warblers, Yellow-headed Blackbirds, a Red-naped Sapsucker, and a duck that I think is the most handsome in all of North America, the Cinnamon Teal. The minute I spotted one I grabbed my camera and started snapping away. I took so many photos of this one particular teal that the bird finally had to call security. (That happens to me a lot.)
The next day we drove to the town of Sierra Vista. Although it’s not very charming, Sierra Vista makes the perfect base for birding southeastern Arizona. There are lots of new and reasonable hotels and plenty of good restaurants (although for some reason we always ended up eating at Denny’s). About ten miles outside of town is the world famous Ramsey Canyon Preserve. This place is noted for unusual hummingbirds and rare birds from Mexico. I had heard so much about Ramsey Canyon that I couldn’t wait to get there…and it looks like I’m going to have to wait even longer. When we arrived we discovered the preserve is closed on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, the only two days we would be in the area. What? Closed in the middle of the week? What is this place, the Orleans dump? We were disappointed, but not to worry. As I said, the Sierra Vista area has no shortage of great birding sites, and boy, did we find one.
Fifteen minutes down the road is the Ash Canyon B&B. I knew nothing about this spot, except that birders are welcome. The road to the B&B is long, narrow and desolate. When we arrived at the address there was no one in sight and I was certain we were lost…or worse. But lined up along a fence were signs the read “Birder Parking.” How about that? Birder parking! That’s as rare as signs reading “Solicitors Welcome.” Suddenly feeling a little more secure, we parked and walked around back to a series of lawn chairs set up around a dozen birdfeeders. Casey and I sat down and watched the show. Eating from the feeders were Mexican Jays, Canyon Towhees, Bewick’s Wrens, Curve-billed Thrashers and one very cute Yellow-nosed Cotton Rat, which isn’t a rat at all (it’s just cute). Eventually, a few other birders arrived and then a woman walked out of the house. I thought for sure she was going to kick us out, but instead she sat down, lifted up her binoculars and said, “Let’s see what birds are here today.” It was Mary Jo, the owner of the B&B. Mary Jo then proceeded to teach us about the local birds. What a great place. And it’s all free. Well, sort of free. On the entrance gate hung an old, beat up plastic mayonnaise jar (really) and a sign asking for donations. I really liked Mary Jo’s backyard so I eagerly put some money in the jar (plus a coupon for Denny’s).
Next we drove to the nearby San Pedro Riparian Conservation Area, which also has lots of feeders. At this stop we saw adorable Inca Doves, Green-tailed Towhees and those very weird cardinal wannabes, Pyrrhuloxias (yes, that’s how you spell it). Finally, as the sun was setting, we headed to the Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area and watched 20,000 Sandhill Cranes come in to roost for the night. What a show. What a day. What a trip.
After ten days of birding in the Southwest, Casey and I saw and identified 151 different species of birds (plus, tons more we couldn’t figure out). And while it’s true we would have seen more birds if we had gone later in the spring, we didn’t care. The desert in January was beautiful and we never saw a single snowplow or sand truck or had to scrape ice off our windshield. But we did see lots of amazing birds, a yellow-nosed rat and somehow survived several trips to Denny’s. That’s more than either of us could have hoped for.