San Rafael Grasslands, Patagonia 11/19/2009

Lorel Picciurro decided to cash in on her free "guided day of birding", won at the Tucson Audubon's annual Birdathon brunch, and brought along friend Barbara Burns for the day. Boy am I glad she did! It was a great day to be out and birding yesterday: temperatures were mild, but the sun was out and the wind was down. Unfortunately we only managed 1 out of 3-4 plausible target lifers, but to be fair they were difficult and scattered targets. :)

Undoubtedly one of the highlights of the day were several exceedingly cooperative BAIRD'S SPARROWS, one of which remained perched for several minutes while we gawked and I snapped photos. These plump little Ammodramus sparrows are usually very difficult to see, skulking about in the grass, with mere glimpses obtained as they flush from their hiding places to some other distant piece of ground. Also present were a number of GRASSHOPPER SPARROWS, along with the more common Savannah and Vesper.

Baird's Sparrow

Grasshopper Sparrow

From the same exact location, we watched as a lovely WHITE-TAILED KITE perched and then hunted by "kiting" over the grasslands north of the road. This magical spot was located on FR 58. It is 1.7 miles east of the point where one first views the expansive grasslands, after exiting Harshaw Canyon, along the main road coming from Patagonia (the same point that is the junction of Harshaw Canyon Rd, FR 765 to the north, and FR 214 to the south; FR 58 continues east). There are two large and partly dead cottonwoods on the south side of the road, and a small 2-3 car pullout on the north side.

Another highlight was encountering all 3 species of bluebirds in one day: a single Mountain Bluebird not far from the western entrance of Las Cienegas NCA; a flock of Western Bluebirds along Harshaw Creek Road; and finally a small flock of 4-6 Eastern Bluebirds at the Spirit Tree Inn!

We rounded out the day with a stop at Patagonia Lake State Park, where we walked the nature trail around the east end of the lake. Afternoon birding here was slow, but we lucked into a bizarre encounter with an unusual marsh bird. We were following the trail-of-use paralleling Sonoita Creek, when I stopped short; in front of me there was a small backwater channel, and in the middle of it an AMERICAN BITTERN materialized! It had been standing with neck scrunched, waiting for some small fish to swim by for dinner. Unfortunately we caught it wide out in the the Bittern proceeded to strech out its neck, as if it were surrounded by reeds (which were at least several hundred meters away), and half walked/half trotted out of the water and across the forest floor:

Taking off on a slow run, only to attempt hiding behind some seep willow!

Deciding that wasn't good enough cover...

Hiding in between the...trees?

Quite a different experience than the norm! Usually bitterns are tucked well into the reeds, where a birder can consider themselves very lucky to glimpse their striped, outstretched necks as they try to blend in with the surrounding marsh vegetation.

To cap off the day, we caught a Great Horned Owl flying into a tree at the edge of the riparian area, again close to the point where the creek meets the lake. Thinking this was splendid enough, at almost the same moment I heard a rapid "kruk-kuk-kuk" nearby. Looking up, I realized that it was a male ELEGANT TROGON giving its classic non-breeding call! It was not the least bit happy with this owlish intrusion, and made sure that its feelings were known by flying from perch to perch, cackling, and pumping its tail wildly. Neat!

The only other birds of serious interest (for me, anyway) was a calling but unseen PAINTED REDSTART about 0.5 upstream; also at about the same point we heard a sustained tremolo that must have been a calling LESSER NIGHTHAWK! This is especially noteworthy because they are considered to be "accidental" after the first week of November. Unfortunately there was no way to obtain a visual on this bird, given its cryptic plumage and (likely) well-camoflauged perch.

We ended up with over 80 species detected for the day, not bad for starting off in the lower-diversity grasslands during the peak of morning bird activity!

Good birding,
John Yerger
Tucson, AZ
Adventure Birding Company

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