Arizona & California April/May 2020

One might think that after our Peruvian debacle, we’d have zero interest in travel for birding. One would be wrong. We have all kinds of interest, since flights are so crazy cheap right now. This was the perfect opportunity to go mop-up in the southwest USA and nail some recalcitrant North American lifers. With sixteen targets in southern Arizona and southern California, the plan was to fly to Phoenix on April 25, rent a car, and fly home from Los Angeles on May 4.

Since Claire grew up in Sierra Vista and studied Ornithology at the University of Arizona in Tucson, most of these were not new birds for her. But the first one was:

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Rosy-faced Lovebird, just south of ASU campus (lifer!)

Not sure when the Rosy-faced Lovebirds escaped and formed wild populations in Phoenix, but the city is full of them now, and neither of us had seen them before.

Next we headed to a known stakeout near Hassayampa, west of Phoenix, where the dreaded LeConte’s Thrasher had been seen of late. I’ve dipped on this one before, and, irrationally, because a certain Ammodramus sparrow named after the same person has been (and continues to be) the absolutely most horrific Nemesis Bird, I had a bad feeling about this. (Maybe in a past life I made some terrible insult against the LeConte family?)

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LeConte’s Thrasher (lifer!) above, with a Northern Mockingbird

After about two hours in the sagebrush, looking for the thrashers (and rattlesnakes), we found a group of four of them – despite the Northern Mockingbirds that kept distracting us. Dare I say it? I am halfway to ending my LeConte Curse.

Next up was the Wickenberg area, northwest of Phoenix, to search out Common Poorwill and Elf Owl, two more that have eluded me to date. And both obliged by singing once it got dark. No visuals, but recorded them, and into xeno-canto they went.

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Phainopepla

Sunday morning we headed down to Tucson, where Mexican Duck had been reported at several locations. We tried the Sweetwater wetlands and after first being fooled by a Mallard x Mexican hybrid (a “drake looking like a Mallard hen with the deep yellow bill” but also having the distinctive white and curly black tail feathers), we found a clean pair of the Mexican variety.

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Mexican Ducks (lifer!)

We then headed south of Tucson, to Box Canyon, to look for the rare Five-striped Sparrow. Having only a couple hours there on a very hot mid-afternoon, we dipped on it, finding little beyond a Costa’s Hummingbird. First miss of the trip so far.

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Mexican Jay

Claire needed to work starting early Monday, but thanks to the time-zone difference, her workday stopped around 3PM, and we could go birding in the evenings. So Monday afternoon we went south to Madera Canyon. Here there had been recent reports of a Northern Pygmy-owl, which I needed. One of the great birding lodges in the area, Santa Rita Lodge, is up here – and they are being hit very hard by the COVID-19 lockdown. I expected to first start hearing about tropical eco-lodges in Central and South America shutting down, and was not expecting one in Arizona to be on the verge of closing up permanently due to lack of business. Great place for Mexican hummers and trogons.

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Elegant Trogon in Madera Canyon

As for the owl, I’d seen photos of the bird in its nest hole, in a large sycamore, and thought it would be easy to find. It was not, as the campground was large and there were many of these trees. Everntually we we did find the hole, and a suitable distant vantage point, where we waited about ninety minutes before one finally made an appearance.

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Northern Pygmy-owl (lifer!)

Once it was fully dark we headed to the top of the canyon and immediately heard and recorded two more targets, Mexican Whip-poor-will and Whiskered Screech-owl.

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The ubiquitos Vermillion Flycatcher

On Tuesday after work, we figured we would give the Five-striped Sparrow in Box Canyon another shot, and this time it paid off, with two birds showing themselves. This place was birdy as hell, with much less human disturbance than Madera Canyon.

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Poor photo (it would not be the last) of a Five-striped Sparrow (lifer!) in Box Canyon
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Cassin’s Kingbird in Box Canyon
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Ladder-backed Woodpecker in Box Canyon
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Bell’s Vireo in Box Canyon
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Ash-throated Flycatcher in Box Canyon

At nightfall, we swung by the mouth of nearby Madera Canyon and recorded a pair of Western Screech-owls calling, another lifer for me.

Wednesday night we tried the Catalina Highway leading up to Mount Lemmon, as a campground there had multiple recent Flammulated Owl reports. We got not a single hoot, but we only stayed till 8PM – Claire’s work morning starts at 4:45AM.

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Yellow-eyed Junco, in Lemmon Canyon
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Broad-tailed Hummingbird, in Lemmon Canyon

On Thursday, Claire was able to wrap up work midday, so we drove six-and-half-hours to arrive in Riverside, California. I chose this area because there was a hotel some thirty minutes walking distance to the University of California Riverside, where target Lawrence’s Goldfinches have been popping up.

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California Thrasher on UCR campus
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California Towhee, UCR

On Friday, I got to the campus well before 6AM and found all manner of nice messy, weedy habitat. By the time I left, around 10:30AM, my pedometer indicated that I’d walked about 25,000 steps and I had a grand total of zero Lawrence’s Goldfinches to show for it. But dozens of Lesser Goldfinches greeted me at every site I stopped at. Grrrr. Walking back to the hotel, dejected, I pulled up eBird on my phone to see that the very same morning, someone up in Pearblossom, beyond the mountains north of LA, had seen 25 of them in a tiny city park. And they also had found a Bell’s Sparrow to boot, another target. Since Claire finished up with work around noon, off to Pearblossom we went.

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Bell’s Sparrow (lifer!)

The sagebrush desert west of Pearblossom Park turned up the sparrows after about a twenty minute search. Meanwhile, as advertised, the highly manicured town park provided tons of the target goldfinch. Finally. That might be my highest ever “steps per bird,” in one day, at least in the US.

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Lawrence’s Goldfinch (lifer!)

Since we picked these up rather quickly, we decided to head back south on the Angeles Crest Highway, coming down into Pasadena where target Red-crowned Parrots (and a few other psittacines) have established colonies.

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Red-crowned Parrot (lifer!)

We eventually found some at a small city park / known roosting site, with counts of up to 800 birds several months ago. We didn’t stay long enough to see most of them arrive, though, just a handful. The park (La Pintoresca) also has a meter to tell you how much fun you are having. The parrots must have broken it by keeping it pegged at 100:

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To find psittacine fun in Pasadena, look for this sign.

On Saturday we started at sunrise in the Santa Ana / Orange area, where there are chaparral hillsides that hold California Gnatcatcher. We found them easily by hiking to the hilltop at El Modena Open Space and listening for their petulent, raspy scolds.

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California Gnatcatcher (lifer!)
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California Quail at El Modena

So it was early Saturday morning and we were left with just one, low probability California target – a bird Claire had yet to see as well: Pacific Loon. I say low probability because by early May, eBird shows that most of the birds have already moved through. One recent report I’d read mentioned that they were seeing flocks two miles from shore…ugh, we only had our bins – no scope! We headed up to Santa Barbara which looked to be the most promising area within a couple hours drive.

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Wrentit (I had only ever heard them before, so this was a visual lifer)

We spent Saturday afternoon and evening in Isla Vista, just west of Santa Barbara. The beaches here were NOT shut down, like the ones down in LA, so they were teeming with people and not a lot of shorebirds.

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A very approachable Brandt’s Cormorant, at UCSB

After about four hours of staring out into the ocean, we came away with… zero loons. I was about ready to be done birding at this point. Sitting in the sun, scanning endless distant ocean waves for specks with the bins, is pretty draining. Heading back to the hotel in the evening, I saw an eBird report from the same area, made an hour or so before we had gotten there, with… 18 Pacific Loons. %$#$&! Okay, we would get up early Sunday and head back to the beach and try this again….

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Western Gull

So at Coal Oil Point we put in three additional hours of scanning with the bins and the Nikon P900, starting at sunrise on Sunday. We had occasional distant loon flocks – so distant that we could only honestly say loons… then a small raft appeared and disappeared at one point, giving Claire, but not me, a couple of glimpses of a few grey heads poking up. I finally put the bins down and just tried to photograph every loon-like distant flying speck I could find, with the hope that upon later scrutiny it would be possible to ID them.

It paid off: they were absolutely horrible photos, but we got them.

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Worst photo ever of a Pacific Loon, but… lifer!

So a total of 15 “clean-up” lifers out of 16 targets, in ten days, without leaving the USA. Much better cost per bird than with the 17 lifers of the Peru debacle. Some good luck to make up for lots of bad luck last month. The Birding Gods are fair. Hard, but fair.

Next up… a road trip in a few weeks, up north in Minnesota, for that other LeConte’s bird. Just like we did last year, and I know better than to expect anything but the same outcome.

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