Friday, 29 May 2009

Back in Portugal

We've spent our first day back in the Algarve checking some of our regular sites around Tavira and Castro Marim. It's been quite warm (25°C) but pleasant enough and, considering the date, we found a reasonable number of birds.

Other than the saltpans everywhere is now very dry. Breeding Avocets, Black-winged Stilts and Kentish Plovers are numerous and there also seem to be plenty of Little Terns. Wader passage seems to be almost finished with just a few Curlew Sandpipers, Turnstones and Redshanks and single Ringed Plover and Sanderling seen. Two Stone-curlews were presumably a local breeding pair. There are still a few Greater Flamingos and Spoonbills around Tavira, probably more at Castro Marim when we get to cover the whole area properly.

Curlew Sandpiper

Little Owls were easy to see and it was good to find our local Barn Owl roosting in a favourite ruin. Nearby a male Blue Rock Thrush was at a regular site but a pair of Cirl Buntings in the same area were unusual.

The day's raptors were a Common Kestrel, a male Montagu's Harrier and a pair of Marsh Harriers.

In total we saw about 60 species, most of them from the car.

Monday, 25 May 2009

Arizona - Part 2

On the way to our next three-night stay in Sierra Vista there was another step back in time when we stopped for an hour in Tombstone, 'the town too tough to die', best known for a 30-second gunfight that took place at the OK Corral in 1881. No matter that they are on a birding tour, almost everyone we have ever taken to Arizona wants to have at least a brief look at Tombstone with the Boothill graveyard a particular interest.

Site of the Gunfight at the OK Corral, Tombstone

Boothill, Tombstone

We also stopped near the small 'town' of Apache to see the rather unremarkable stone monument that commemorates the final surrender of Geronimo in nearby Skeleton Canyon in 1886. The capture of the Apache leader effectively brought to an end Indian guerrilla action in the USA.

At Whitewater Draw, where we found eight White-faced Ibises, an American Golden Plover was the most notable amongst a selection of shorebirds. This is a very unusual species to find in Arizona in the spring and so we were surprised to learn that it was the second to be found at this site in the space of a week.

While based in Sierra Vista we had two days to spend birding in the canyons of the Huachuca Mountains. We actually started though by going to the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area, a ribbon of green through the desert that provides a corridor for migrating birds and more than a few illegal immigrants from across the border just a few miles to the south. Whatever else you might see here, it is the Vermilion Flycatchers that make the most impact.
Vermilion Flycatcher

When we reached Ramsey Canyon Preserve we found that it had just been closed as a precautionary measure because of a wildfire that had broken out in the mountains. This seemed a bit of an extreme reaction and it was disappointing particularly to those amongst us who were ready to spend heavily in the excellent bookstore. However, it did mean that we could spend more time in Miller Canyon where, at Beattys' Guest Ranch, a White-eared Hummingbird was the star.

In order to visit Garden, Scheelite and Sawmill Canyons, accessed through Fort Huachuca we had to arrange in advance to have an escort with military credentials. This is because as non-US citizens we were a security risk and obviously a single retired US military person would be more than a match for a group of seven birders heavily armed with binoculars and telescopes! Anyway, our main aim here was to see the endangered lucida race of Spotted Owl, often referred to as Mexican Spotted Owl, which we did with little difficulty. There were also good views of Buff-breasted Flycatcher, Greater Pewee, Botteri's Sparrow and others so it was a successful morning.

We also had a drive out to Ash Canyon B&B where Mary Jo Ballator's feeders regularly attract one or two Lucifer Hummingbirds. It took a while before we saw one but with the temperature around 35°C we were happy to sit and wait.

Moving on from Sierra Vista to our next two-night stay in Green Valley we spent the day birding at several sites around Patagonia, including the home of Mrs Marion Paton. Paton's is probably the most famous of all the birdwatching gardens in the USA where for many years the family's well-stocked feeders have drawn in a wonderful array of hummingbirds and other species. You don't need an appointment to visit Mrs. Paton's backyard. You don't even have to knock on her door to ask permission to go around the side of the house to the viewing area. You just walk in through the gate and sit down in front of a row of feeders and enjoy the spectacle. Violet-crowned Hummingbird and Indigo Bunting were our targets here and they duly obliged. It was also here that we again bumped into Sierra Vista-based bird guide, Stuart Healy, last seen only a couple of weeks ago in Texas!
Paton's yard

Other highlights of this travelling day were a Thick-billed Kingbird at the famous Patagonia Roadside Rest, a Prairie Falcon at Kino Springs, 14 Willets and two Clark's Grebes (thanks Stuart!) at Patagonia Lake State Park, 30 Black-bellied Whistling Ducks at Rio Rico ponds and a Bank Swallow at Amado Sewage Pond. Later, just outside Green Valley, we watched several Lesser Nighthawks taking insects from around the street lights in Continental Road.

The highlight of our morning in Madera Canyon was Mr Flame or Flameboy (whichever you prefer), the returning male Flame-colored Tanager that is a frequent and regular visitor to the feeders at the Kubo gift shop. Constantly vocal, this bird would have been truly hard to miss! Presumably he was still hoping to find a mate of the same species!


The Arivaca Cienaga section of the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge provided us with a very pleasant afternoon's birding as always. By now there was also increasing interest amongst the birders in the frogs and many lizards that we were seeing. Once again it was hot!


The next day we got religion! We began with an early morning visit to the Valley Presbyterian Church in Green Valley but this was to see the Great Horned Owls that nest there every year. The young had just fledged and one was half-hidden in a small tree just a few yards from the nest site. An adult was roosting nearby and keeping an eye on us. This was followed by a short diversion off the interstate to see the impressive San Xavier del Bac Mission, a historic Spanish Catholic mission located on the Tohono O'odham Indian Reservation. No birds to see here – this was purely a tourism interlude!

San Xavier del Bac Mission

On the way north through Tucson we called at Sweetwater Wetlands, a site that seldom disappoints. Most of the winter ducks had gone and there were only a few shorebirds but it was worth the visit for the Harris's Hawks and at last a co-operative Abert's Towhee. We also enjoyed seeing the many Zebra-tailed Lizards.

Zebra-tailed Lizard

There was more tourism to come with an overnight stay in Sedona described by some as the most beautiful town in the USA. It was here that one of our group dubbed the USA as 'The Land of the Fee' and it is true that few chances are missed to extract money from visitors to the Red Rock Country.

Red Rock Country near Sedona

Finally we spent two nights at the incredible Grand Canyon. Even though we have lost count of our visits it still impresses. It truly is awesome! Again we went out to Hopi Point for the sunset and to Grandview Point for the sunrise and in between we looked for birds. In particular we looked for the re-introduced Californian Condors and, in Kaibab National Forest for Red Crossbills, Pinyon Jays and Clark's Nutcrackers, all of which eventually obliged.
Hopi Point, Grand Canyon

California Condor

Sunday, 24 May 2009

Arizona - Part 1

As usual, Tucson was the base for the first three nights of our tour in Arizona. It's a great place to start, giving easy access to several really good birding sites. We began with a visit to Sabino Canyon, located on the south side of the Santa Catalina Mountains, for a gentle introduction to the birds of the desert. Curve-billed Thrasher, Cactus Wren, Greater Roadrunner, Gila & Ladder-backed Woodpeckers, Black-throated Sparrow and Verdin were all seen very easily in spite of the canyon being unusually crowded with people even for a Sunday morning. After that we crossed town to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum with a stop on the way that found us a Gilded Flicker. Later in the day a pair of Burrowing Owls along Golf Links Road in Tucson delighted everyone.

Cactus Wren
Burrowing Owl
We spent a whole day on Mount Lemmon spending time at Babad D'oag Lookout, Molino Basin Campground, Rose Canyon and Summerhaven on the way up to Ski Valley. A drive of only about 25 miles took us from the desert to an altitude of about 8300 feet asl. As we travelled through changing habitats from desert scrub through oak to mixed conifers the views were spectacular and the birding was good, too. Rose Canyon provided the highlights with stunning Red-faced, Olive & Grace's Warblers, Hairy Woodpecker, a female Williamson's Sapsucker, Pygmy Nuthatches and a particularly confiding Red-tailed Hawk.

Red-tailed Hawk

From Tucson we drove to Portal on the east side of the Chiricahua Mountains. A stop on the way there at Willcox Twin Lakes produced an excellent selection of ducks and shorebirds plus Eared Grebes, Horned Lark, Black-crowned Night Heron and, surprisingly, a Least Tern.

American Avocet

Everyone we have taken to Portal over the years remembers this little town as one of the main highlights of the tour. It really is a special place. Where else can you find four species of owls nesting within a few yards of the main street and half a dozen gardens along the same street that have bird feeders attracting such colourful gems as Lazuli Buntings, Baltimore, Hooded & Scott's Orioles, Black-headed Grosbeaks, Acorn Woodpeckers and many more?

And we always stay at the splendid Portal Peak Lodge, owned and managed by the Webster family

Of course, finding Portal's owls requires local help and we quickly hooked up with our old friend Dave Jasper for an evening 'owl prowl'. The birds weren't maybe as co-operative as we would have liked but we finished up having good views of Elf, Western & Whiskered Screech Owls but only heard Great Horned Owl, Common Poorwill and Whip-poor-will.

Next morning we had a quick pre-breakfast visit with Dave to Rodeo, New Mexico that produced Scaled Quail, Greater Roadrunner, Inca Dove, Loggerhead Shrike and Bendire's Thrasher. Later we visited what Dave calls his 'office', the South Fork of Cave Creek Canyon where, much to our relief, Elegant Trogon was seen really well. It was a day during which we saw 85 species and yet we spent quite a while during the hottest part of the afternoon just sitting at the feeders at Cave Creek Ranch.

Arizona Woodpecker

Cliff Chipmunk

The following day was centred on a trip out to the nearby 'town' of Paradise and Jackie Lewis's feeders at the George Walker House, a reliable place to see Juniper Titmouse amongst many other species. In the silver mining days Paradise had a population of about 1500 but now has only about a dozen full-time residents. George Walker built his house in 1902 during the town's heyday. The book 'A Portal to Paradise' by Alden Hayes gives an interesting account of the history of the area. Not too far from Paradise we were pleased to find a low-elevation Mexican Chickadee.

That takes us almost halfway through the tour - more to follow...

Wednesday, 20 May 2009

Texas - April 2009

After a month in the US leading tours for Avian Adventures in Texas and Arizona we are both now back in the UK for a week or so. After our time away there's quite a lot of catching up to do, tour reports to write and photographs to process but let's start with a few brief details of our Texas trip.

As usual we began in Texas with a quick visit to W Goodrich Jones State Forest, just north of Houston, where the main target was Red-cockaded Woodpecker but Red-headed and Pileated Woodpeckers were also seen. We stayed long enough to also find Brown-headed Nuthatch and Pine Warbler plus the expected Carolina Wren, Northern Cardinal, Carolina Chickadee, Blue Jay, etc.

Then we headed for the coast, specifically to the Rockport-Fulton area. Large numbers of nesting Black Skimmers and Laughing Gulls are an attraction at Rockport and a good selection of terns, herons, egrets and shorebirds were also found. However, the main feature here was the excellent trip with Capt Tommy Moore on his boat, Skimmer. We thought that by April 20th we would probably be too late to see Whooping Cranes but in fact we found as many as ten of these endangered birds during a wonderful bird-filled afternoon. Other highlights (in terms of rarity) were a nesting “Great White Heron”, a form of Great Blue Heron that we have previously seen only in Florida, and a Lesser Black-backed Gull. Out on islands in Aransas Bay we were surprised to see from the boat several migrant passerines including Painted Bunting, Blue-winged Warbler, Yellow-breasted Chat, Black-and-white Warbler and Black-throated Green Warbler.

Laughing Gulls

Royal Tern

"Great White Heron"

American Oystercatcher

Whooping Cranes

Black Skimmer

Next we headed to the Rio Grande Valley, but not before a diversion to Port Aransas Birding Centre, a wastewater treatment plant located at the northern end of Mustang Island. Again we saw a mixture of wetland birds and passerine migrants, the latter including Blackburnian Warbler, Warbling Vireo and Rose-breasted Grosbeak. This is an excellent site and looks as though it is set to expand with more boardwalks under construction.

Rose-breasted Grosbeak

We had four full days in the valley, based at the Alamo Inn. During this time we managed to fit in visits to four sites that form part of the World Birding Center network: Bentsen-Rio Grande State Park, Edinburg Scenic Wetlands, Estero Llano Grande State Park and South Padre Island. One has to admire the effort that has been made in recent years to promote birding tourism in this area and to develop some excellent sites and facilities, but really the name World Birding Center is more than a little irritating and could only have been invented in Texas! Other sites visited during this time were Santa Ana NWR, Laguna Atascosa NWR, Frontera Audubon Thicket, Falcon State Park and Salineňo and there are plenty more that we could have gone to if there had been time. Many of the special birds of the area such as Great Kiskadee, Green Jay, Plain Chachalaca, Altamira Oriole, Green Kingfisher and Buff-bellied Hummingbird are not difficult to find but there was no sign this time of Brown Jays or Red-billed Pigeons and, following negative reports from Brownsville, we didn't even go looking for Tamaulipas Crow.

Altamira Oriole

Most of our second week in Texas was spent based near High Island, one of the best-known birding areas in the USA. We stopped on the way there at Brazos Bend State Park, south-west of Houston and it was here that we saw for the first time the destruction caused last September by Hurricane Ike. However, this was just the start and later, particularly along the Bolivar Peninsula, we saw much worse. It is reported that nearly 4000 buildings were destroyed along the peninsula in towns such as Gilchrist and Crystal Beach. Birding in familiar places like Rollover Pass and Yacht Basin Road knowing that so many people had lost their homes and some lost their lives really wasn't a comfortable experience.

Brazos Bend State Park

Rollover Pass

Of course, we were at High Island for the spring migration with our main attention focused on Boy Scout Woods and Smiths Oaks, two of the woodland sanctuaries owned by Houston Audubon Society that in the right weather conditions can attract an enormous number and variety of migrant warblers, vireos, flycatchers, etc. Unfortunately, this year they also attracted an unusually high density of mosquitoes making birding almost impossible in places. Still we saw plenty of birds including gems such as Blackpoll, Blackburnian, Cape May, Magnolia, Chestnut-sided, Bay-breasted, Hooded and Nashville Warblers, Northern Waterthrush, American Redstart and Northern Parula. Surely these warblers are one of the world's most attractive groups of birds! April 28th was the our best day with a sizeable fallout of birds occurring as a result of an overnight storm that brought flooding to parts of Houston.

Blackburnian Warbler

High Island patches are highly prized and have become collectibles over the years among visiting birders

Some of the other well-known birding sites in the area such as Anahuac NWR and Bolivar Flats have suffered severe damage from the hurricane and may never be the same again, but in some ways it is quite reassuring to see the migrants, shorebirds as well as passerines, still managing to use these places in spite of the havoc.

We were also very pleased to find that the Gulfway Motel in High Island had re-opened for business and it was good to see old friends Helen and Becky and enjoy several excellent breakfasts there.

Gulfway Motel, High Island

This was Peter's eighth spring in Texas. We are looking forward to returning in April 2010.

Saturday, 2 May 2009

Aporkalypse Now?

We've just completed a most enjoyable two weeks in Texas for Avian Adventures (more of which later) and another tour starts today in Phoenix, Arizona where the forecast is for a high of 92 degrees. Scorchio!

After a group in Texas that was mostly made up of people who had travelled with us before, unusually there are six new clients to be met off the BA flight this afternoon. Clearly (and thankfully) they haven't taken notice of Vice President Joe Biden's comments about the danger of contracting a virus while couped up in a 767.

Not surprisingly, swine flu is the major news item here and there were a few people at Sky Harbor Airport yesterday wearing face masks. How many times did they wash their hands, we wonder! The threatened pandemic certainly seems to have diverted attention from many of the world's other problems; let's hope it will fizzle out like SARS, bird flu and all those other things that we were promised would wipe us out.