Clouds over the Santa Ritas provided a beautiful backdrop to the lush (though now dry) grasslands and mesquite bosques of Las Cienegas National Conservation Area.
Fellow Adventure Birding guide Keith Kamper joined me on a visit to Empire Gulch and nearby parts of Las Cienegas NCA today. We were greeted almost immediately by a SHARP-SHINNED HAWK zipping back and forth through the cottonwood trees, perhaps searching for breakfast. It was interesting to detect two species of owl during daylight hours (accidentally flushed a GREAT HORNED OWL, and WESTERN SCREECH-OWL responded to our toots).
Passerine activity level was moderate. We enjoyed lingering LAZULI BUNTINGS and WESTERN TANAGERS, as well as a soon-to-be-late TOWNSEND'S WARBLER. A pair of COMMON GROUND-DOVES bathed in the "spring" one encounters when walking west from the parking area with the gigantic fallen cottonwood. Both PLUMBEOUS and CASSIN'S VIREO were here as well. There is currently a good amount of water in the Gulch, and although it is virtually stagnant, the birds found it attractive.
Sparrow diversity was decent, with 10 species: GRASSHOPPER, VESPER, SAVANNAH, LARK, BREWER'S, CHIPPING, BLACK-THROATED, WHITE-CROWNED, SONG and LINCOLN'S SPARROWS. Lincoln's and White-crowned were especially
numerous. We also detected CANYON and ABERT'S TOWHEES, with GREEN-TAILED TOWHEES being more numerous than the other two combined.
Turkey tracks are an interesting find anywhere outside of the forested mountains in southeastern Arizona. There have been several sightings of WILD TURKEY in recent years from this area, and I'm not really sure what to make of it all. After being hunted to extirpation in the early 1900's, they have been successfully reintroduced to many of the Sky Islands. They are certainly present in the Santa Ritas and in the Huachucas, and probably the Whetstones (the nearest range). But are these birds moving in between mountain ranges? That would be good for genetic diversity. Or do they simply wander to lower elevations in the fall/winter? Or, given sightings from the middle of the summer, are they actually residents at this peculiar elevation and habitat?
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