Monday, February 24, 2014

San Rafael Grasslands, December 16

I stayed the night in Nogales, got up while it was still dark, picked up breakfast and drove to Patagonia and headed south and east on Harshaw Canyon Road.  It had started to get light as I approached Patagonia.  Therefore, along Harshaw Canyon Road I kept my eyes peeled for “lumps,” aka Montezuma Quail, near and along the roadside.  I found a few inanimate lumps but no Montezuma Quail.  As I arrived at the vista point, the high point, at the entry to the grasslands, the sun was just starting to break above the horizon in the east.  I drove slowly toward the corrals checking all of the fence posts for sparrows, but found none.  That was not a good sign.  I continued beyond the corrals for about 0.25 mile or more, where I started seeing sparrows flying out in the grassy fields on both sides of the road.  I stopped and scanned with binoculars and eventually telescope.  Most of the birds were Savannah Sparrows.  Eventually, on the south side of the road and quite far out from the road, I found one Baird’s Sparrow sitting low in the grass unlike the Savannah Sparrows which tended to sit high on the grass before dropping down to feed.  I got a better view of this Baird’s Sparrow in my telescope, in which I saw the relatively large, flat head and relatively large bill and the two dark spots near the auricular.  I could not see the whole bird because it stayed low in the grass before disappearing, dropping down to feed.  This behavior was consistent with the behavior of Baird’s Sparrow on the wintering grounds where they are very secretive.  I hoped for a better view and maybe a photograph, and continued driving beyond the corrals to the Santa Cruz River, on this date only a wash without water, and turned around to drive back to the entry point.  I hoped for closer birds on the fences with the morning sun at my back.  As I approached the corrals again, this time from the east, there was sparrow activity on the corral fences and the barbed wire fences not far beyond the corrals.  I found about six Vesper Sparrows but mostly more Savannah Sparrows.  I continued back toward the vista point, but there were fewer sparrows to be seen.  Consequently, I turned around and slowly drove back toward the corrals and stopped at the same spot beyond the corrals where I found sparrows before.  This time I stayed longer and spished and squeaked to try to attract sparrows.  There were not as many sparrows active as there were earlier but I was able to attract a sparrow to sit up relatively far out in the grass, halfway hidden in the grass but not on the top like Savannah Sparrows.  This also appeared to be a Baird’s Sparrow with a relatively large flat head and largish bill, but the bird was somewhat distant and stayed partially hidden making it difficult to get a good look at the field marks.  I took some long distant photos hoping for the best and would look at them in the evening.   At the time, I thought this bird was a Baird’s Sparrow and was hoping for photo-documentation.   See further discussion below.
I continued east and turned south at the intersection beyond the corrals hoping to find a flock of Chestnut-collared Longspurs.  They had been reported at the grasslands in November on eBird, by reliable Arizona reporters, but I had no luck finding longspurs and headed back toward the entry.  I stopped before I got to the entry point and walked the grass outside of the barbed wire fences.  I had success in finding sparrows this way in a past visit to Arizona, and had also obtained this tip from experienced birders from Arizona.  I walked in the grass along the fence and started flushing sparrows, mostly Savannah Sparrow, but also one good candidate for Baird’s Sparrow, due to the flat head shape and relatively large bill and size (larger than the Savannah Sparrows).  However, it sat only briefly on the lower barbed wire near the grass and dropped to the ground before I could get a photograph.  It was between 9:00 and 9:30 am, and I had been relatively successful, having had three encounters with Baird’s Sparrow, often a difficult bird to find and see at San Rafael Grassland.  I needed a bathroom break, and drove back to Patgonia to use the public restroom facility in the square, only to find no toilet paper.  However, I was able to solve that problem with my supply of napkins from carry out food, and then headed back to the grasslands.  Birders need to be resourceful!  On my way back, a White-nosed Coati (coatimundi) crossed the road in front of me, showing its long white snout, white rings around its eyes and the long tail with dark rings.  Unfortunately, by the time I stopped to try for a photo, it had disappeared.

When I arrived back at the grasslands, I tried again for a short period of time to look for a better view of Baird’s Sparrow, but was unsuccessful.  There was less sparrow activity later in the morning.  I decided to try a few other locations for longspurs.  I drove past the corrals several times, because during a past visit several years ago, I had seen longspurs at the corral, but it was not to be this time.   Then I drove north on 795, the first left after the entry near the vista point, and continued to Meadow Valley Flat, where longspurs are sometimes found.  I was not successful in finding Chestnut-collared Longspur or even Horned Larks that can be found at San Rafael Grasslands in the winter.  I did not try the two track limited road to Bog Hole Wildlife Area, but now, in retrospect, perhaps I should have walked the 0.5 mile from 795 to Bog Hole.  Perhaps, the longspurs were hanging around any water available there.  I have since my visit read accounts of Chestnut-collared Longspurs coming in to the water at Wilcox Lake.  However, it’s too late now in February, 2014, for those thoughts!

I returned to Patagonia and picked up some food and drink.  There was enough time and daylight left to continue birding.  Richard Fray had told me about finding an Elegant Trogon at Patagonia Lake State Park, and I had checked the location in e bird--between the two bridges on the creek that feeds Patagonia Lake.  There was enough late afternoon light available.  I headed to Patagonia Lake State Park to try to see an Elegant Trogon, which I had only heard before in Madera Canyon.

There was a lot of bird activity on the trail along Patagonia Lake east to the feeder stream.  The late afternoon sun was lighting the cottonwoods and other trees.  Sparrows, woodpeckers, Hermit Thrush, a Gray Flycatcher and a Vermilion Flycatcher were quite active.  I walked the trail slowly and spent a lot of time looking for a slow moving Elegant Trogon, but had no success finding this bird.  I guess Elegant Trogon will remain a heard bird.  The new red and orange colored ribbons were helpful to stay on the trail on the way back to the parking area.  As the sun was setting, I left Patagonia Lake State Park and headed east planning to stay near Wilcox to next go to the Chiricahua Mountains to try for Mexican Chickadee and Juniper Titmouse.
As I left Patagonia, I enjoyed a spectacular and typical Arizona sunset in the west and a full moon rising in the east.  See below.

After enjoying the sunset and rising full moon, I headed to Wilcox to stay the night.  I had dinner and settled into my motel to download my photos of the Baird's Sparrow.  See photos below. 

The photos are not the best due to the difficult circumstances in obtaining them from a relatively long distance with interfering grass.  They are not very sharp.  As I looked at them, I started having second thoughts about my identification.  This sparrow looked too large, and had a notched tail.  (Right then, I forgot that Baird's has a notched tail unlike most other ammodramus sparrows.)  I wondered if it could have been a longspur.   Was my identification incorrect?  Neil Heyward, record setting Big Year birder and buddy, and I had been communicating almost daily about our progress.  I answered his text requesting an update about my visit to San Rafael Grasslands, and told him of my uncertainty about the photographed Baird's Sparrow.  He offered to take a look, and I sent him the photos.  Neil pointed out that the shape, short tail and especially the bill looked right for a Baird's Sparrow and sent a link to an internet photo to compare.  See link by Chris Taylor.  Neil also pointed out that my impressions from the field are probably more valid given that the photos are not very clear.  I looked at the photos on Chris Taylor's website.  The top photo shows the body and bill shape that is very similar to the bird in my photo.  All of Chris Taylor's photos show a very robust sparrow with a short, notched tail.  The National Geographic Field Guide that I had with me also shows the notched tail.  When I first downloaded and studied my photos, I was tired and getting sleepy.  Meanwhile, I had fallen asleep.  After Neil sent me his comments and the link, I awoke with a clearer head, looked at Chris Taylor's photos and I could see that my original identification was correct.  Here are the points that support my original identification as a Baird's Sparrow. 
Body and bill shape: short, notched tail; streaking on the side and white breast show good comparison to Chris Taylor's photos.
I remembered that when the bird flew away after the photos, it looked like a sparrow and not a longspur and did not have any white in the tail.  It also behaved like a Baird's Sparrow, staying mostly hidden behind the grass.  This sparrow flew up from grass near the road, dropped down and then flew to the right to the perch in the grass where I photographed it.  
I should not second guess my original impressions from the field, especially when I am sleepy.
Baird's Sparrow raise the total to 720 plus three provisionals, White-cheeked Pintail, Common Redstart and Eurasian Sparrowhawk.   Tomorrow, December 17, is a trip to the Chiricahuas. 


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