California Gulch on the 4th of July, 2008

Because it is such a long drive from almost anywhere, many folks head for California Gulch in the late afternoon to maximize the potential for rare residents here; namely Five-striped Sparrow and Buff-collared Nightjar. Our focus on the morning of July 4th did not include the Nightjar, so we opted to head down in the morning for higher bird activity. In addition to the birds, of course, there is always plenty of good scenery in this corner of the world!

A view from the southern end of the Gulch, looking north.

We even ran into a couple of herps:

A Canyon Treefrog (Hyla arenicolor) blending in well amongst the rocks.

An Elegant Earless Lizard (Holbrookia elegans) scurrying amongst the sparse grass.

Our main mission was a serious attempt to track down a reported (but as yet undocumented) Plain-capped Starthroat, a VERY rare hummingbird - even in this land of rarities. We went through the morning with no sign of it, but we did find a few other species that I dare not insult by calling them "consolation prizes."

We also found something very interesting instead: a strange female Broad-billed Hummingbird that not only showed a white supercilium, but also a hint of white striping which framed the lower side of the auriculars, complete with darkish-colored throat (pollen). While this discovery certainly does not negate the previously reported Starthroat, it does indicate that caution should be used when identifying hummingbirds in the Gulch. We also learned that bringing feeders, even for just a morning of birding, can attract at least some attention from hummingbirds in the area. In 4 .5 hours spent in the Gulch, we noticed no other hummers besides that female Broad-billed, which particularly liked our feeder.

We did, however, track down this little guy:

A beautiful male Black-capped Gnatcatcher! A female was following closely behind him, though we didn't obtain a photo of her. These pictures were very difficult to obtain, as the subject was almost directly above our heads at a neck-wrenching height. I'm impressed that Keith managed any photos at all! Keith also recorded a half-minute or so of vocalizations which will be useful in documenting this occurrence. I believe that Dave Stejskal, Jerry Bock, and Mark Stevenson found what is almost certainly the same bird 2 weeks prior to us, in about the same area.

This fellow and many others like him were in full song throughout our visit:

He didn't afford the greatest angle for a picture, but this view is neat because you can actually see all 5 white stripes of the Five-striped Sparrow (Aimophila quinquestriata). After the monsoons begin in southeastern Arizona, these sparrows become very vocal and much easier to find. While they are quite common in the appropriate habitat throughout western Mexico, the only two places you can currently find them north of the U.S. border are California Gulch and Sycamore Canyon. (They are probably more numerous in Sycamore Canyon, but this requires a 9-10 mile round trip hike...needless to say, most folks opt for the Gulch. However, if you are fit enough, I strongly advocate birding and hiking Sycamore Canyon. It's both beautiful and bird-filled!)

My personal favorite, however, was this spectacular Montezuma Quail (Cyrtonyx montezumae):

This entertaining male and his duller-colored mate entertained us for at least five minutes, scratching at the gravel in front of our car and generally showing off. While they can be very difficult to spot initially (they hunker down in grass taller than themselves), they are often easy to observe if you can manage to find them. We just got lucky; they were sitting on the road as we drove into California Gulch! All in all, a 4th of July morning well spent.

John Yerger

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