The Great Arizona Encore: The Patagonia Picnic Table Effect Reversal

It’s a busy time of year right now with all the decorating, gift-buying, and holiday food prep–it’s a good thing my wife’s got all that covered so I can finally bring you some AZ stories.  Actually, writing the annual Christmas letter is about my only task this time of year, and much to my wife’s chagrin, this remains a grossly unfinished task.  Please don’t tell my wife I’m blogging right now.

So where were we with AZ? Oh yes, our family had departed Green Valley after a two-day stay and were about to go on a loop tour around the Santa Ritas, heading down to Nogales and back up through Patagonia and Sonoita.  There were only a couple birds on the agenda for the day.  The first (and also most exciting prospect) was checking on a Barn Owl day roost–somewhere in southern Arizona. 🙂  For some reason, Evan has latched on to this species and was one he really wanted to see.  He’ll refer to it by its scientific name, Tyto alba, and he’s been known to play its blood-curdling scream on his iPod in our house.

Once we got to the Owl’s roost, I walked up to this tower of sorts and looked up into the rafters.  Immediately I locked eyes with my Barn Owl lifer, tucked way up in the shadows! Just as I started to point it out to Evan and my dad, the Barn Owl flushed out of the opening right toward us! Of course I wasn’t ready with the camera, but our looks at this Owl were hard to beat.  Evan, bug-eyed, said in an astonished voice, “Whoa, Tyto alba just flew right by me!”

With no photo, the sighting was bittersweet for me.  But a Barn Owl seen is way better than no Barn Owl, so off to Patagonia we went.  In this city (and southern AZ in general), birders are the norm and not the nerd-freaks that people think of us in other places:

Patagonia binoculars

Patagonia is hallowed birding ground where all kinds of birding myths and legends originate.  In fact, a famous birding phenomenon known as the Patagonia Picnic Table Effect was coined from something remarkable that happened here that has also played out numerous times in many other locations.  Here’s the PPTE in a nutshell: some birders in the 1970s stopping for lunch in Patagonia discovered a rare bird which brought in more birders who discovered more rare birds in that location.  Whenever I find a rarity, I always hope it’s the beginning of the Patagonia Picnic Table Effect.  Needless to say, Patagonia is a place I have longed to visit after reading about it in books.

Despite the fact that the PPTE is based on multiple rarities and despite the fact that we were actually in Patagonia, I was after one bird at one very famous location:

Paton Center for HummingbirdsThe famous Paton House–hard to believe I was actually here.

Paton'sNo, we didn’t come for the common White-winged Doves, though they were dapper and only the second time we’d seen one.

White-winged DoveNor did we come for the WWDO’s cousin, the much less abiding Inca Dove.

Inca DoveIt was nice to see a Black-headed Grosbeak even if it was a bit scruffy looking, but that’s still not why we came.

Black-headed Grosbeak

I very much enjoyed up-close looks at my first MALE Gila Woodpecker–still not why we came though.

Gila WoodpeckerWe came for the Hummingbirds.  But not for the Broad-billed.

Broad-billed Hummingbird

Sorry, this teasing is annoying, especially since you knew from the first photo that the main attraction is the Violet-crowned Hummingbird.  Like so many birders before us, we made our pilgrimage to Patons’ just to add this key lifer.  Good thing we saw one.

Violet-crowned HummingbirdAin’t it a beaut?Violet-crowned HummingbirdIt knows it too. Like Orcas or Dolphins, it pandered to its gawking audience.

Violet-crowned HummingbirdSo that was that.  Tommy DeBardeleben and Gordon Karre had told me about a much rarer Hummer, the Plain-capped Starthroat, that had been seen regularly somewhere in Patagonia.  Not knowing exactly where to go for it and not feeling I could make yet another birding stop with the non-birding family, I didn’t even bother to check into it.

Instead, my family and I ate lunch at a park in Patagonia after a successful trip to Patons’.  It wasn’t until we were somewhere past Sonoita that it dawned on me–we ate lunch at a real life Patagonia picnic table.  And ironically, I don’t recall seeing/hearing a single bird in that park while we ate.  Back to that Plain-capped Starthroat, I also didn’t realize until we got home that we had driven within a block of that ultra-rare Mexican bird. I probably could have stopped to watch a feeder for a bit and not wrecked the family’s travel schedule. I am sure this will haunt me for years, possibly decades.

Moving on, we finally made it back to Maricopa. Before we got to my parents’ house, though, we had to check up on a couple of old friends in my parents’ neighborhood.  Love this guy (or gal–there’s one of each).

Burrowing OwlScanning a residential pond in the low light of the evening, I was excited to see the brilliant pop of color of the male Vermilion Flycatcher in my binoculars.  They never get old.

Vermilion FlycatcherWe also saw a Jackrabbit of some sort which was a cool experience.

JackrabbitThe Arizona fun isn’t over.  Next up is the final post and arguably the ugliest and cutest birds you will see.

An Unforgettable Field Trip to Grant County and the North Ottawa Impoundment

A lot of fascinating bird reports have been pouring out of Grant County which is just a little more than an hour to the northwest.  The biggest news that came last week was a confirmed nesting pair of Black-necked Stilts.  These stilts normally reside in the souther reaches of our country and rarely stray into Minnesota, let alone nest here.  So as people were going to check out this historic find, they were turning up other good birds like Black-crowned Night Herons, Cattle Egrets, and Loggerhead Shrikes.  And just yesterday another southwestern bird popped up within 10 miles of all this action, the White-winged Dove!

Randy invited us to go a field trip to Grant County.  The big attraction for Randy was the White-winged Dove which would have been a new state bird for him.  The dove was just one of many phenomenal birds I was interested in.  Needless to say, we accepted Randy’s offer.  Evan and I were up at 4:30 this morning so we could get up to Grant County to wait at a fellow birder’s feeders for the White-winged Dove to make an appearance.

As we drove we encountered a brutal rainstorm, but we were confident that the forecast of scattered storms would allow us at least some weather-free moments to check on these birds.  Finally we got to the site of the dove which was a farm place down a half-mile long driveway and tucked inside a densely wooded yard. It was not what I expected. I figured we’d be able to park our car and just watch a feeder, but the feeder was on the back side of the house.  The only way to view it was to walk around the house or look through the house’s windows. We decided to creep around the house.  Randy led our silent single-file procession.  Immediately he said, “On the feeder right now.” Wow, that was fast!  The bird then flew up into a tree posing nicely for spectacular views.

White-winged Dove

White-winged Dove

IMG_9015After our lightning-fast, dynamic sighting, we knocked on the door to thank Charlene, the birder and homeowner who made this amazing discovery.  Charlene was the epitomy of Minnesota-nice, offering us coffee and donuts and showing us a plat book and telling us where to find other great birds in the area.  It’s always a pleasure to meet a friendly birder in the field.

Next we were on to the North Ottawa Impoundent, which is a 2 mile by 0.5 mile rectangular pool used to provide flood relief for the Rabbit River, Bois de Sioux River, and Red River.  Before we got there, though, there were many good birds to see, like the abundant Bobolinks.



The North Ottawa Impoundment was an attraction for me because of the reported Black-crowned Night Herons and Cattle Egrets, both of which would be lifers.  When we got to the impoundment, we immediately saw numerous Great Egrets.  We kept hoping one of the white birds would be our nemesis Cattle Egret.  Eventually Randy spied the two Cattle Egrets that had been reported.  Finally!  It was quite a thrill to now gain two life birds from this field trip.

Cattle Egret

Cattle Egret

These egrets were quite shy and did not give many photo opportunities.  The following picture was fun because it clearly shows the size comparison with the Great Egret, and clearly there is no comparison.

Great Egret and Cattle Egrets

Great Egret and Cattle Egrets

Driving around the impoundment was a magical experience.  There were cool birds everywhere.  I guess while I was out of the car trying to photograph these egrets, Randy found an Upland Sandpiper.  Additionally, there were hordes of ducks with other goodies mixed in, like numerous Eared Grebes, a Red-necked Phalarope, and a Wilson’s Phalarope. Taking a short walk allowed us to get good looks at many of these birds.


Ruddy Duck

Ruddy Duck

Eared Grebes

Eared Grebes


IMG_9063As much as we tried we could not turn up a Black-crowned Night Heron.  I guess we can’t win it all, plus there was still more good birding ahead.  Our next stop was the sewage ponds at the city of Herman where two Black-necked Stilts have decided to nest. Because of the work of some dedicated birders who brought this to the city’s attention, the city has agreed to not mow around this pond until the birds are done nesting.  In fact, the townsfolk are pretty excited over the hub-bub at their local sewage ponds.

A nesting bird is easy to find.  It is about the only guarantee there is when it comes to finding a bird.  We were able to see both of the adults today.  It was not a new bird as we saw them in Arizona a couple months ago, but it is a really fun bird that was a treat to see not far down the road from us.

Nesting Black-necked Stilts  at the Herman Sewage Ponds in Grant County

Nesting Black-necked Stilts at the Herman Sewage Ponds in Grant County

You didn’t need any special optics to see these birds well, but an up-close view makes a good sighting even better.

IMG_9093It was fun to see the female sit on the nest which has one confirmed egg.




Black-necked Stilts – a most appropriate name


After the ponds we decided to see if we could find the reported Loggerhead Shrike just north of Herman.  We couldn’t find it on our way to see the Black-necked Stilts.  The second time was the charm, though, as Charlene’s parked vehicle on Hwy. 9 and pointed binoculars alerted us to its presence.  In addition to her own rare yard bird, she was keeping tabs on all these other incredible finds within 10 miles of her home.

It’s always fun to see a shrike, but Loggerheads are rare in Minnesota, so they are extra special.

Loggerhead Shrike

Loggerhead Shrike

And with that last sighting, it was time to head home.  What a phenomenal day of birding it had been. Two life birds, a host of uncommon birds, and great company are tough to beat.  It was one of those big birding days that will stand out for a long time in our memories.  After all, how often will can a birder see a White-winged Dove and a Black-necked Stilt on the same day in Minnesota?