Arizona 2016: THE Trip Bird–#16 Becomes #1

Since my parents have become AZ snowbirds, our family has now made four trips to Arizona.  Each trip has had its own life bird goals or priorities.  Each time the target bird(s) have been realized along with a generous complement of bonus lifers.  Here’s a quick recap of those priority birds:

2014: Burrowing Owl, Vermilion Flycatcher, Cinnamon Teal

2015 (spring): Elegant Trogon and Painted Redstart

2015 (fall): Rufous-capped Warbler

So then what was the trip bird for this most recent Arizona adventure? It was an Owl, but before I tell you which one, it is worth noting that each Arizona trip has already produced multiple Owl lifers:

2014: Burrowing Owl, Long-eared Owl

2015 (spring): Elf Owl, Western Screech-Owl

2015 (fall): Northern Pygmy-Owl, Barn Owl, Spotted Owl

So what’s left in the Owl department? A few actually, but the only one I was after on this latest trip was the Whiskered Screech-Owl. It would be this trip’s most-wanted bird.

It is no coincidence that my Owl collecting started accelerating after I first met and birded with Tommy DeBardeleben in 2015.  Tommy of Tommy’s Owl Big Year (TOBY) fame is the reason why I have a pretty sweet collection of Owls.  Just like how you can never leave Grandma’s house hungry, Tommy has made sure I’ve never left Arizona feeling an Owl void.  No, he has made sure I have always gotten a good helping of a fresh Owl or two or three.  This past year our roles were reversed as I got to help Tommy find some Owls in Minnesota for TOBY, but now it was back to Tommy taking the lead once again in the storied Madera Canyon as we pursued my 16th Owl lifer.


On the evening of October 19th, Dad and I drove out from our hotel in Green Valley to Madera Canyon to meet Tommy who was accompanied by another good birding friend, Gordon Karre.  Gordon, Tommy, and I have owled together many times all the way from the Canadian border down to the Mexican border. We’ve driven hundreds of miles together (3.6 of those were even in reverse!). We have logged an extraordinary number of Owls together from well over a dozen different species.  And here we were doing it once again.

As we waited for darkness to settle over Madera, we hung out for a bit at the feeders at Santa Rita Lodge, watching some Magnificent Hummingbirds and chatting with a birding couple from Tennessee.  With plenty of time to kill, we also successfully pursued a Rufous-winged Sparrow lifer.  Finally, though, complete darkness had fallen and it was time to go to work.  Tommy had assured me that Whiskered Screech-Owls are easy in Madera, but there was one catch: Tommy had only ever tried for them in the spring when Owls are more vocal.  Going after these birds in October was uncharted territory for Tommy. Yet, he was confident that even if the Owls were silent, we might be able to rouse them with some playback.

It turns out that the Owls were still fairly vocal.  Almost immediately when it turned dark, we started hearing some in the distance. But as we would pursue them, they would clam up.  Then the silence would hang on, which initiated the doubt-worry cycle about whether the night would be a success.  Tommy was unfazed, though, and has a lot of experience to draw from.  He owled on and kept the flashlight moving even when it seemed bleak.  Turns out the worry in my head was for nothing because shortly after we walked in the direction of a vocalizing Whiskered Screech-Owl, one landed in a tree right near us! But it must have been hunting and wouldn’t look at us…

img_0369As we crept along the canyon hillside to get in a better position to see the Owl’s face, it suddenly flew off! We could not find it again.  The satisfaction of getting the lifer was muted by the Owl showing us his bad side and only briefly at that. Would this be my lifer sighting–the side view of a bird?  The discouragement was returning the longer we weren’t finding it.  Again, Tommy never panicked or wavered; he just kept that flashlight moving. And then I heard him say those awesome words that I have heard him say so many times before, “Hey, Josh!”

Whiskered Screech-OwlThis, this is what I had been waiting/hoping for.  Tommy did it.

Whiskered Screech-OwlThis Owl was very cooperative (finally) and just let us enjoy the show.Whiskered Screech-OwlWhiskered Screech-OwlMaybe I had it backwards. Maybe it was the Owl who was enjoying the show of four happy birders who had just succeeded on their mission.

Eventually the Owl started to tire of us, perhaps even getting downright annoyed/angry with us.

Whiskered Screech-OwlWhiskered Screech-Owl

It was time to leave this Owl alone. We had gotten our fill.  So with one last look, we were on our way.

Whiskered Screech-OwlAt this point Dad went back to the car on account of a knee that was giving him fits. Gordon, Tommy, and I decided we would try for more Whiskered Screeches.  Why not?

As the three of us walked along, we heard a strange vocalization that Tommy couldn’t identify.  Earlier my dad had heard the same thing and thought it was a Whiskered Screech, but Tommy had said he hadn’t heard them make a sound like that. Eventually Tommy tracked down the source of the sound–a young Whiskered Screech high above us!

Whiskered Screech-OwlHearing this vocalization was an exciting learning experience for Tommy.  It wasn’t as cool as the Morse-code calling we heard the adult make earlier, but it was still pretty neat regardless. Have a listen for yourself:

Finally it was time to call it a night and call it a trip (birdwise, that is). Once again, the Arizona birding was a huge success with Owl lifer #16 officially on the books all thanks to this guy.

Tommy Dad GordonTwo Owl lifers remain for me in Arizona. The question is not whether Tommy can help find them, but rather, will it happen in 2017? Time will tell.

Arizona 2015: The Return to Madera Canyon — Elegant Trogon or Bust!

Getting back to my hotel in Green Valley that afternoon on the 31st after lifering hard at Mt. Lemmon, Florida Canyon, and Madera Canyon, I couldn’t take any more birding, mostly because my stomach bug was still raging hard. I got about an hour’s rest before Evan made a big birding discovery at the hotel that forced me into full-on birding mode again.  This discovery will be the focus of the next blog post. Once that excitement settled down, I finally collected my thoughts enough to remember that Tommy DeBardeleben and Gordon Karre were counting on me to check the internet for Trogon reports to decide what we should do in the morning.  According to eBird, no Trogons had been seen for over a week at Patagonia Lake State Park.  On the other hand, just the day before, Eric Ripma had eBirded two male Elegant Trogons 1/4 mile up the Super Trail at Madera Canyon.  The choice was now clear, especially since Madera was a short 15 minute drive away where Patagonia was closer to an hour.  I texted Gordon and we all mutually agreed that Madera it was.

After telling Evan about the cool birds I saw and after he had some good sightings at the hotel, he was in a birding mood and wanted to go on the Trogon hunt the next morning.  I felt our chances were decent after that eBird report, so I was glad he made that decision.  Adding to the excitement was that my health was back to 100% on April Fools morning.  It was feeling like a GREAT day to lifer on my grail bird.


Tommy and Gordon picked us up at the hotel at 6:00 to bring us back to the mountain.  As we drove to the Super Trail parking lot, Evan lifered on Mexican Jay out the car window near the Santa Rita Lodge.  We weren’t stopping for those secondary lifers, though.  We were on a mission, and our crew-leader Tommy was shouldering all the weight and anxiety of the Trogon hunt.  Like Kirby Puckett in Game 6 of the 1991 World Series, Tommy was putting the team on his back and was determined to bring us all to glory.  Before we got to hiking that morning, Tommy spoke to me in a hushed tone, “Now, I don’t want you to get your hopes up, but Gordon and I scouted the Super Trail last night and we…heard a Trogon.”

“Yeah, I won’t get my hopes up,” I lied between pounding heartbeats.

Almost immediately after we got on the Super Trail, Evan had his Painted Redstart lifer.  I was happy for him because I knew he also really wanted to see this bird too even though he didn’t go with me to Mt. Lemmon the day before. Gordon pointed out a Bushtit at one point which didn’t get me too excited since I had seen them and crushed them in Colorado.  Evan chimed in, though, and reminded me that that was a life bird for him! Oops.

Not long after that I spotted a crazy-looking creature barreling down the path toward us.  It turned out to be a single-striped morph of the Hooded Skunk.

Hooded Skunk

I’ve learned that birders, myself included, are an easily distracted lot, especially when it comes to cool animals.  The TROGONS-ONLY! mode was now set-aside for a wild-skunk chase, a venture that could have gone south in so many regards.

Gordon Tommy Evan

Front to Back: Gordon Karre, Evan, Tommy DeBardeleben

Thankfully it didn’t, though, and we were back on the Super Trail hunting for Trogons again.  A little bit later as we were walking along looking at every mid-level perch along the canyon wash for our target, an exotic bird sound boomed and brought us to an abrupt halt.

“That’s it!” Tommy exclaimed.  Tommy thought he heard it further up the wash, but as we all paused to listen, the sound was coming from behind us in an area we had already walked past!  Tommy had been leading our single-file procession up the wash and was actually the furthest from the bird.  Tommy immediately sprung into action and quickly walked by all of us to now take the lead in the opposite direction we had been traveling.  It was an extremely serious and tense moment–we were on the cusp of glory, and we could all taste it. The whole time we were hearing the cool sound of the calling Elegant Trogon and multiple heart beats were collectively being skipped.  In seconds Tommy had pinned the location of the calling Trogon from across the wash.  Then, magic happened– he saw it take flight, in all its splendor, and land on our side of the wash!  This was the moment when Tommy pointed it out to all of us and became a greater hero than Kirby Puckett. We got to see it in the early morning light briefly before it flew into an open area allowing incredible but brief looks.  It was staggering. We were really looking at an Elegant Trogon. I managed to get a couple photos before it flew further up the mountain slope.  Considering the early morning light and the bird’s unwillingness to sit still, I was beyond thrilled to get this shot which is the best souvenir I could hope for from the 2015 AZ trip.

Elegant Trogon

I never could get that classic shot of the bright orange belly and white neck band, though I saw those features whenever the bird would fly.  That forward look was the photo I really wanted, but the more I think about it, the more I like the photo above because it shows off the bird’s emerald sheen on its back as well as its coppery tail.  You don’t see that too often in photos.  And considering some birders dip completely on the Trogon or get crummy views at best, I count myself extremely lucky for the sighting alone.  This photo was the icing on the cake.

That said, I didn’t stop trying for the classic shot.  I never got it, but it’s a right of passage that I should post at least one blurry, bigfoot-esque photo of this massive prize.  At least you can get a sense of the bird’s orange belly.

Elegant Trogon Tommy and Gordon were excited with the find too, namely because they had gotten us this key lifer, but also because it is a fantastic year bird for them.  The only comparison I have is a Great Gray Owl to a Minnesota birder–it’s a bird we can never count on, is elusive and easily missed, and is always a thrill to see.  So as the bird kept calling and moving up the slope, Tommy asked me, “You want to go after it, Josh?”  Um, yeah!

Tommy, Evan, and I started racing up the slope for better looks at this bird.  It continued to call and move often, which Tommy believes is a sign that it was looking for a mate.  Evan was having trouble on the steep incline with his sandals, so he waited on the trail with Gordon while Tommy and I went uphill.  Eventually the bird had gone completely out of sight and earshot, and we gave up and headed back down the hill.  Once Evan and I were in sight of each other again, he called up the mountain with a huge grin on his face, “Hey dad, I just got my Arizona Woodpecker!”

“What?! You beat me to it?!”

This was the smug look that met me at the bottom of the hill.  Do you see the smug all over that face?


He and Gordon had gone behind my back, literally and figuratively, for this life bird which I was now desperate to see even though I had just come off a literal mountain-high from seeing the coolest bird of my life.  But it didn’t take long for Gordon to find the AZ specialty  for me too.  I got crummy looks, but a lifer is a lifer after all.

Arizona WoodpeckerAfter double-lifering, our party of four continued up the wash in hopes of refinding the Trogon or finding a new one altogether.

Gordon Tommy Evan

L-R: Tommy, Evan, Gordon

Sadly, we never did see or hear the Trogon again even though we walked the wash as far as we could.  The walk back was pleasant with lots of bounce in all our steps as we had secured the main treasure.  As we walked along, I could visibly tell that a weight had been lifted from Tommy’s shoulders.  He was relaxed; he had done his job that he took more seriously than anyone else.  The rest of us were all just on Cloud 9, now enjoying being in bonus-birding mode.  To kick things off, we had another lovely Painted Redstart, and Tommy found Evan his Townsend’s Solitaire lifer.

Townsend's SolitaireFinally the sun crested the mountain peaks, washing the valleys below with beautiful light.  Evan announced he had found a great photo-op of an abiding Mexican Jay while Gordon and Tommy simultaneously found him his Hutton’s Vireo lifer.  I opted for photographing the Jay while Evan got his Vireo.  Great photo-scouting, Evan.

Mexican JayAnd nearing the parking lot, we were also able to get Evan his Bridled Titmouse lifer.  I was finally able to get a photo of them.

Bridled Titmouse

Getting back to the car, we decided to make a stop at the spot in Madera Canyon where Gordon and Tommy crushed Whiskered Screech-Owls the night before.  I got to sleep in a hotel room the previous night instead of a tent. They got WHSOs.  I guess that’s a fair trade, or not. Definitely not. I’d sleep on a rock for those shots: Tommy’s photos and Gordon’s photos. Sadly, our brief owl search turned up nothing, other than a nice photo op of a lone Band-tailed Pigeon that Gordon found.

Band-tailed Pigeon

Evan and I then hung out at the Santa Rita Lodge feeders to get Evan caught up on some lifers while Tommy and Gordon went to work packing up their campsite.  Evan quickly lifered on Broad-billed Hummingbird, Acorn Woodpecker, and Red-naped Sapsucker.

Acorn Woodpecker

Red-naped Sapsucker

Red-naped Sapsucker

We also had an Arizona Woodpecker fly over our heads, and Evan finally got good looks at numerous Lesser Goldfinches.  His lifering on LEGO was the same brief sighting as mine in Colorado.

Lesser Goldfinch

After enjoying these birds for a little while, Evan and I went into the gift shop at Santa Rita Lodge where we were greatly wooed by anything and everything Elegant.  There’s nothing as effective as victory for loosening the purse strings: Trogon hat for me, Trogon pin for Evan, Trogon postcard for Randy back home who’s always dipped on ELTR…  Thankfully, Tommy and Gordon came back before we were completely bedecked in Trogon bling/apparel.

It was a monumental morning that will go down in the Wallestad birding history books as one of the greatest birding adventures of all time. We got the big guy.  All the dreaming and planning culminated in success. Moreover, Evan added nine additional lifers, including the dazzling and much coveted Painted Redstart. A huge thanks goes out to Tommy and Gordon for making it all happen. The only fitting way to end this post is a group photo of the conquerors.  These men will never be the same; they belong to an elite club.  They stand a little taller.  They walk with confidence. These men have seen the Elegant Trogon.

Josh Gordon Tommy Evan

L-R: Yours Truly, Gordon, Evan, Tommy

The 2015 Arizona series has eight chapters: 1) Maricopa Birds, 2) Mt. Lemmon, 3) Florida Canyon, 4) Madera Canyon Part 1, 5) Madera Canyon Part 2, 6) Evan’s Big Discovery, 7) Owling at Coon Bluff on the Salt River, and 8) Evan’s Nemesis.

Arizona 2015: Welcome to Madera Canyon

Santa Rita Lodge Madera Canyon

Madera Canyon. Wow.  What a thrill it was to be on the hallowed birding ground of which I’ve only read about in books and blog posts.  Tommy DeBardeleben and Gordon Karre had brought me here after an already successful morning of 18 life birds accumulated at stops on Mt. Lemmon and at Florida Canyon.  Yet, my number one target was still not in the bag; the Elegant Trogon, or lack thereof, was now a pressing weight on us all.  Despite this, we had about an hour’s worth of time before Tommy and Gordon would bring me to my Green Valley hotel.  That time would be spent picking up miscellaneous lifers so that the next morning would strictly be all about the Trogon.

Again my stomach bug was preventing me from enjoying every second, but I kept dragging myself out of the car and taking pictures of birds, knowing that I’d be able to enjoy it all later.  The first place we stopped were the feeders at Santa Rita Lodge.  The first life bird was a Mexican Jay.

IMG_2772The Broad-billed Hummingbirds were as thick as flies around the feeding station. I am not sorry I am forcing you to look at another Broad-billed shot.  Drink it in.  It will be the last Broad-billed you see on this blog in 2015.

Broad-billed Hummingbird

Acorn Woodpeckers were a little more down to earth at the Santa Rita Lodge.  This guy and a buddy were clowning around, practicing their dismembered wing illusion for all the Santa Rita guests.  Well-fed birds must occupy their surplus of time somehow after all.

Acorn Woodpecker

The second lifer of Madera Canyon was a Red-naped Sapsucker.  I am impressed with this bird’s limited range and rarity, but I have to say our Yellow-bellied Sapsucker variety back home has it beat, mostly because its name has better potential for insulting someone.

Red-naped Sapsucker

The third Madera lifer that Tommy and Gordon found me was a pair of nesting Canyon Wrens hanging out on the Santa Rita Lodge owner’s personal house and fence.  As compensation for free lodging, the Canyon Wrens provide home security.

Canyon Wren

Tommy and Gordon were right–Canyon Wren is the best Wren.

Canyon Wren

Not long after this I was able to lifer on Bridled Titmouse.  It was frustrating that these birds didn’t give better looks because this was a bird I had really wanted to see well.  That brought the lifer total for Madera Canyon up to four, but Tommy and Gordon had gotten over that number since we shattered it at Florida Canyon.

After 20 minutes or so at the Santa Rita Lodge, we ventured further up Madera Canyon to the feeders at Kubo Bed&Breakfast.  There were a few Hummingbirds around.  One stuck out as it dwarfed the rest.  It was my magnificent Magnificent Hummingbird lifer.

Magnificent Hummingbird

By this point my strength and time were completely gone.  My stomach was churning and my head was spinning with a massive 23 life birds accumulated in about 7 hours.  I didn’t even know my number then, though Tommy always knew what my tally was.  Tommy and Gordon delivered me to my hotel at precisely 3:00, so I could join my family for vacation within a vacation in Green Valley.

The Elegant Trogon search would have to begin in earnest the next morning.  I parted company with these two fine birders that afternoon under a certain level of anxiety and indecision.  Their stress of finding the Trogon the next day for me was palpable despite my assurances that I’d already had a fantastic trip,Trogon or not.  They were taking this way more serious than me.  I know the risks in birding.  Dipping is a big part of it, and I was mentally prepared for it (mostly because I know there will be more AZ trips in my future).

Indecision for the next day’s plan of attack was also clouding everything.  Tommy was torn between Patagonia Lake State Park and Madera Canyon.  A very easy Trogon had been seen all winter at Patagonia, but now in late March/early April, that bird would likely move to higher elevations any day.  Madera Canyon, on the other hand, was the proper elevation, but its birds had not been as easy to locate.  Decisions, decisions….  What would we do?  At the moment, I couldn’t focus on the tough calls.  I just wanted to stop being aware of my stomach 100% of the time.  What would happen? How would this all end? Only the next day would hold the answers.

The 2015 Arizona series has eight chapters: 1) Maricopa Birds, 2) Mt. Lemmon, 3) Florida Canyon, 4) Madera Canyon Part 1, 5) Madera Canyon Part 2, 6) Evan’s Big Discovery, 7) Owling at Coon Bluff on the Salt River, and 8) Evan’s Nemesis.