Going to Arizona annually is incredibly exciting for a birder because that state never seems to run out of new birds, and if it does, it can always borrow a couple from Mexico. But fall in general is a tougher time to bird and central Arizona hardly held anything new for me at this time of year. On the other hand, Southeast Arizona can hold wonders and surprises for even local birders. It’s a place where magic happens. Therefore my family and I went on to Green Valley after Mt. Lemmon for a two-night stay or a vacation within a vacation. The Santa Ritas were splendid as were the cooler temps in the higher elevations of southern Arizona.
I had a tougher time picking out a main target bird for this Arizona trip. Whatever I picked just seemed dramatically anticlimactic after last spring’s Elegant Trogon and Painted Redstart. I finally settled on a good one, though, a worthy objective. I wanted to see the Rufous-capped Warbler, a rare visitor from Mexico that, in recent years, has acquired resident status in certain mountain canyons in SE AZ. The most notable of those is Florida Canyon, so that is where I wanted to bird. As time went on and I communicated with Tommy DeBardeleben, he advised me that Pena Blanca Canyon would probably be better for that bird. Okay, sounds good to me. Then as the weeks got closer, I started paying attention to the listserv and was seeing that an even rarer Mexican Warbler was being seen quite regularly even up to a couple days before our trip! That bird was the Slate-throated Redstart. Not only was this bird being seen in Hunter Canyon of the Huachuca Mountains, but there had been as many as five Rufous-capped Warblers in the same area!!!!! Tommy and Gordon were going to be birding with me. I brought up the idea of going to Hunter Canyon, and they liked it. So last Friday Evan and I met up with Tommy and Gordon at a Fry’s parking lot in Sahuarita in the pre-dawn hours, and soon afterward the “Elegant Trogon Fantastic Four” was on its way to the Huachuca Mountains for what would turn out to be yet another epic SE AZ adventure.
The Huachucas run north and south and have many famous birding canyons on its eastern side. We would be hitting up Hunter Canyon, Miller Canyon, and Ash Canyon. It felt incredible to be in this area that I’ve read about on blogs and in books. Hunter Canyon, the site of both ABA-rare Warblers, was where we started.
Even though we didn’t see any Montezuma Quail (darn it) on the long drive up to the parking area, we got out of the car and had a good bird right away. In fact, it’s one Evan and I needed for our life lists–the Northern Goshawk.
The Goshawk wasn’t coming any closer, so we began our ascent up the canyon listening along the way for anything new or interesting.
Tommy’s ear for bird sounds is truly impressive–hardly a chip note, flight call, or song gets by him. In fact, he doesn’t even announce all that he’s hearing unless it’s important, like this lifer Bewick’s Wren.
For the most part, though, all that could be heard was the huffing and puffing of the two flat-landers of the group as we climbed on and on. We were missing our oxygen-rich 1,100 feet back home. Evan sat down on rocks several times, and I had to keep coaxing him to go on. Besides, we were almost to the exciting part of the canyon where the walls were steeper and the trees towered above us and where the Warblers are…
It is where this lowland scrub terminates and the forest of the canyon begins that the Slate-throated Redstart had been seen just a couple days prior. We paused to look and listen, but it seemed well-known at this point that the Redstart was gone. We did, however, start to hear multiple Rufous-capped Warblers all around us! Getting a visual of this brush-loving bird is another story. The sound seemed to come from everywhere and then stopped all of the sudden. Weird. So onward and upward we kept going. At least the view back down the mountain was nice.
The life birds were definitely not coming at a fast pace, so a Spotted Towhee was a nice distraction for the time being.
In hindsight, this was the calm before the storm because things took off in a hurry. It all started when Tommy spotted a male Hepatic Tanager which was a lifer for Evan and me. I didn’t see it, but I spotted my own Hepatic lifer (female).
I really wanted to see the male Tommy found. Eventually I saw it, but it was not being cooperative at all.
I did catch it out in the open once. Not the best photo, but it shows the subtle red coloration compared to a bright red Summer Tanager.Tommy said that sometimes Tanagers will respond to a Northern Pygmy-Owl call. When he played it, a live Pygmy-Owl tooted back! Tommy took off up the canyon trail to see if he could locate it. I started soon after but then saw bright flash of yellow and black come across the blue sky–Scott’s Oriole! What a looker it was! It landed at the very top of a tree offering me nothing but butt views. It’s a pretty nice-looking butt, anyhow.
As I was jockeying for a position from which I could see the Oriole better, Tommy called out calmly, “Guys, Pygmy-Owl.” For some reason I thought this meant he was hearing it, and so I continued to keep working on the Oriole. A few seconds later, Tommy’s voice carried a little more urgency. An Owl lifer trumps an Oriole photo. Evan, Gordon, and I hustled up to where Tommy was. Sure enough, he had eyes on it. Wow, just wow.
Seeing this awesome Owl with my naked vision was much easier than trying to find it in my viewfinder. I was amazed at how small it was. Here’s a reference shot. These pine cones are about the size of an adult’s fist–do you see the Owl?
This was such a fun life bird. I was not expecting this one on this trip. Excuse the numerous photos–I was, and still am, very excited about this sighting.
Time waits for no man, though, and neither do Rufous-capped Warblers. As I was photographing this cool Owl and trying for better angles, a Rufous-capped Warbler started singing nearby and Tommy was off again! In seconds Tommy got a visual on the bird and called me over. I’ve learned from Tommy and Gordon to first get a good look at a lifer with binoculars and then worry about a photo second. So that’s what I did. In no time at all, I also saw the Rufous-capped Warbler pop up for a second and got to see that amazingly yellow throat.
Then it took a lot of patience and blurry photos of sticks and brush as I made many failed attempts at getting a photo. Hmmm, colorful fall foliage?
This was the numero uno (Mexican bird, get it?) target and therefore the biggest thrill of some pretty monumental thrills in Hunter Canyon. The lifering was fast and furious. From the Hepatics to the Rufous-cap, I would guess a maximum of ten minutes had elapsed. It was mind-blowing and overwhelming, leaving no time to linger and soak up the enjoyment of any one of those species. I guess you take whatever SE AZ throws your way. Sometimes that means the cool birds are shoved down your throat. And if that’s the case, you eagerly open your mouth wide in anticipation.
After this, there was nothing else to do but walk down another Arizona mountain victorious…
…and then go to next-door Miller Canyon and Ash Canyon for even more adventure! You don’t want to miss it–there will be coon dogs, guns, and yes, more cool lifers.
A huge thanks to Tommy DeBardeleben and Gordon Karre for a incredibly memorable bird hunt in Hunter Canyon!