Saturday, October 7, 2006

San Rafael Grasslands and Patagonia

The full moon graced the morning sky as I drove to the meeting point at Houghton Road and I-10 for this week’s Audubon Society bird walk. Our leader, Scott, made sure that we carpooled as compactly as possible and I ended up as a passenger with co-leaders Craig and Dave and fellow birder Danny in Craig’s SUV after originally offering to drive. However, as the morning wore on, I was more and more grateful that I hadn’t driven as the roads to Bog Pond were, to put it mildly, treacherous. The Celica would have never made it.

However, those treacherous roads led to some pretty decent birding. Scott found a White-tailed Kite waiting for us by the road. We had several minutes to look at his very white breast and back before he floated off.

As we birded Bog Pond, we found Sora, Pied-billed Grebe, American Coot, Green-winged Teal, Savannah Sparrow, Vermillion Flycatcher (the male was absolutely stunning in the sunlight!), Black Phoebe, Say’s Phoebe, Meadowlark sp., Cassin’s Kingbird and Northern Harrier. We also flushed about a dozen Scaled Quail from the tall grasses. Some of us almost stepped on the birds (unknowingly, of course) before they broke flight.

As promised, there were many sparrow species present. Savannah seemed to be the most prevalent today, but we also had, after much looking and debate, a Baird’s Sparrow. Lincoln, Grasshopper, Chipping, Vesper, and White-crowned were represented as well.

After a brief stop at the Patagonia rest area, we headed to Paton’s. I vaguely remember reading about this place a while ago, but I guess I didn’t understand the full extent of the idea here. Paton’s is a private residence – a pre-fab home, really that has quite a few hummingbird feeders in the yard. The residents of the house keep the feeders filled and allow the public to come in and view the birds. This has been going on for some 20 years, so the feeders and the birds are very stable.

Today there were four hummingbird feeders, although there were spots for at least 8 more feeders. Each feeder is numbered, so birders can call, for example, “There’s an Anna’s at 9” meaning that an Anna’s Hummingbird is feeding at feeder #9 which is a good thing because the birds come and go so fast that you’d probably miss them without the numbers for reference. Hummers seen today included Anna’s, Broad-billed, Black-chinned, Rufous, and Violet-crowned. They all glimmered in the sunlight like the little jewels that I had read so much about, but what impressed me most, coming from the east coast, was the shear variety of hummers in one spot sharing feeders. Yes, they were aggressive, but many times there were three or four different species all enjoying the same feeder at one time.

There were a few other birds here as well. I got my first look at an Acorn Woodpecker which was very stunning in his black, white and red feathers. Danny found a Gray Hawk that we heard, but I couldn’t get it in my bins fast enough. There was also a Lesser Goldfinch that was almost fully black on his back – just a little bit of dark green. He hung around the fountain for a drink.

Our car was the last to leave Paton’s and now that the “official” trip was over, Craig suggested we check out the nearby Nature Conservancy reserve which is only about a mile away. We stopped along the road for a Canyon Towhee and a few more Cassin’s Kingbirds. We also stopped for a large-ish bird sitting in a bare tree and debated whether it was a hawk, a vulture, a dove or something else. We spent a good 10 minutes trying to decide, but in the end we gave up. It would be our mystery bird for the day. As we were backing the car out of the parking lot, the bird finally turned positions so that we could all clearly see it was a Black Vulture. So much for our mystery bird!

One more bird show awaited us as we drove toward Tucson. Craig spotted a small raptor flying fast on our left. Until we got the car turned around and found the spot, it was gone, however, on the other side of the road was a Red-tailed Hawk being harassed by a Northern Harrier being harassed by an American Kestrel. We thought it unusual for three raptors to be engaged in such a dispute, but it was a great ending to one more great day of birding in and around Tucson.

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