Friday, November 30, 2012

The early birder gets the bird

Wednesday, November 28th, we left Benson, AZ for the San Rafael Grasslands to look for ONE bird. The Baird's Sparrow nests in the northern Midwest. John looked for it there earlier in the year. The bird winters in open grasses on both sides of the border with Mexico. On our way there, in Elgin AZ, we met Robin. He was leading a group of birders looking for Arizona specialties. We told him of our quest. He looked at his watch and said we should have gotten to the valley by 7:30 AM to have any chance. We soldiered on anyway. The San Rafael Valley is drop dead gorgeous. There are just a few dirt roads crisscrossing it, no power lines, very few homesteads. The tall grass prairie stretches out before you. Robin was right. We saw lots of Vesper Sparrows along the roads, Chipping Sparrows in the creek beds and Savannah Sparrows near the corrals, but no ocher-headed little brown jobbies.

Never mind, off to Patagonia State Park in the late afternoon. There was Robin loading his tour group back into his van. We consulted with him about the difficulty of finding Black-Capped Gnatcatchers anywhere in AZ. The park has a maze of cow trails through mesquite, with plenty of cows and cow pies making our search interesting. No gnatcatcher.

Where to spend the night? Too cold to camp at the park and, besides, it takes too long to get going in the morning. Back to Patagonia and the one hotel in town. Plenty of rooms, adjacent restaurant, early to  bed.

Early to rise and back to San Rafael Valley following Robin's advice to get there by 7:30 AM. We trolled past the first corral seeing lots of Savannahs, drove slowly to the first intersection and turned around to have the rising sun at our backs. Lots of sparrows, probably Vespers, were flying in and out of the grasses. One bird looked a little smaller. It perched up on a grass stalk. It looked ocher. There were tidy streaks. John took some pictures. The grass stalk bent and the bird sank out of sight. Were the pictures good enough? We drove back to the corral. On the back fence, sitting between two Savannahs, was a slightly chunkier bird. It had an ocher head! It posed for even more pictures than the other bird had. Two birds in hand! Congratulatory kiss. Thank you, Robin, for telling us to get there early!

As we were driving out, there was a van by the side of the road and people with binoculars were milling about. They were from the Texas Ornithological Society and their leader graciously vetted John's pictures. No doubt about it, the right head color and the two dots that define a Baird's Sparrow. It was nice to get confirmation from an authority. John has inched up to 679 bird species for his big year!

We tried for the Black-Capped Gnatcatcher for the 5th or 6th time in Montosa Canyon. A Black-Tailed Gnatcatcher gave us some good looks. Ah well, Tucson AZ is too close to home. We chose to suspend birding for our own beds, after more than 6 weeks on the road.

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