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Saturday, February 17, 2018

Madera Canyon: A Birder's Paradise

My parents have always spoken fondly of Madera Canyon, a region in southeast Arizona known as one of the best bird-watching locations in the country and where they made several trips back in the 1970s. Ever since I became a bird watcher, I've been dreaming of making a visit there; more than 250 species have been documented there, and thanks to its proximity to Mexico, for many of them it's one of the only places they can be seen in the United States. When we were talking about where to go when we decided to road trip south this winter, Madera Canyon became a focal point of the trip. Specifically, the Santa Rita Lodge, which for decades has been home to rustic cabins and a host of bird feeders drawing in a whole host of birds for great photo opportunities.

When we arrived, I couldn't even make it from the car to the door of the office to check in before seeing my first life bird: a Mexican jay.

I made it another two steps before noticing the coati roaming the property; I had been tracking recent sightings at the lodge and had read coati were making a daily appearance, and was really hoping to see these bizarre mammals that primarily live in South American but also just cross the border into the United States here.

Also known as coatimundi, or specifically white-nosed coatimundi, it turns out they would be a constant presence during our visit. The owner of the property, who suspects they're coming in during daylight hours because of a lack of food elsewhere, is in the middle of a constant battle trying to outwit these tenacious animals from their attempts to reach the feeders. Like raccoons, to whom they are related, they are wily and don't give up easily!

But they are so darn cute and fun to watch!

After finally succeeding with check in, and already realizing that two nights would not be long enough, we spent the last hour of daylight at the feeders, and I amassed an incredible seven life birds in that time. I haven't experienced birding like this since my early days when I was still seeing common species for the first time: it felt like every other bird I looked at it was completely new to me! Later that night we would go out owling and I would hear my eighth: the whiskered screech-owl. If these species names sound unusual, again, it's because many of them don't occur elsewhere in the United States!

Yellow-eyed junco
Bridled titmouse

We had one full day in the canyon, and it was hard to leave the lodge. We did explore a few other short trails, and while the few birds we did see were also "good" ones, it was hard to beat the constant activity at the lodge feeders.

The hanging bird feeders were suspended from free-standing poles and numbered from 1 to 12 so observers can more easily describe to each other where to look, as in, "An Arizona woodpecker just flew in to #3!"
Arizona woodpecker, one of my most hoped-for species to see in Madera Canyon
Female hepatic tanager

The coati weren't the only innovative feeder visitors - I never thought I would see a wild turkey at a tray feeder, let alone one about 8 feet off the ground!

I was determined on this trip to play closer attention to sparrows. One of the notoriously difficult bird groups to identify, we actually have a pretty low and comparatively easy diversity of sparrows back home. Here, without the extra attention to detail, I easily could have missed another lifer, the rufous-winged sparrow, which is incredibly similar to the chipping sparrow.

Chipping sparrow
Rufous-winged sparrow
Madera Canyon can record up to an astounding 15 different hummingbird species a year; by comparison, we are only likely to see two species on San Juan Island. We were a bit early for hummingbird migration so there weren't many around yet, but they had a couple birds over-winter. Luckily for us, these included two more life birds for me: the Rivoli's (formerly magnificent) and broad-billed hummingbird.

Rivoli's hummingbird: small bird, large hummingbird!
I could have easily spent a few more days at Santa Rita Lodge and Madera Canyon, but all too soon it was time to pack up and head onwards. Before leaving, we made one more hike along another short trail where a rare elegant trogon had been regularly seen. We came across two other birders looking for it, and while they also hadn't found it, they tipped us off to where they had just seen what to me was an equally exciting species: the montezuma quail. If they hadn't told us where to look we never would have spotted these slow-moving, well-camouflaged ground birds among the grass. My dad, who can be credited with getting me into birding, has MANY more specices on his North American life list than I do, but not this one - it's always pretty special to get one he hasn't seen! (Sorry dad!)

Montezuma quail!
All in all I added 11 lifers in our ~36 hours in Madera Canyon which blew my expectations out of the water. I will definitely have to go back, hopefully at a slightly different time of year, and hopefully for a longer visit! While this was the first place I was truly sad to leave, our trip was far from over. Instead, we were heading further south into Mexico to see what other birds we could find!


Vera said...

Such exciting stuff!

RG said...

Re: Elegant Trogan. (Ha Ha) Several years ago several of us went to Lake Patagonia and camped. We got up really early to hike up Sonoita Ck. because word was out that the Elegant Trogan was up there. We passed several people coming back and all said - yes, just a way up the trail. It is there. Eventually we came to many people with scopes and such all looking. Oh. You just missed it! We stayed an hour. No Trogan!

Ps - Hummingbirds. Last evening a fellow named CJ Battie who is a doctoral student at UW and works in the Burke museum came to Anacortes and spoke on Hummingbirds. 206 people came to hear. Standing room only. What a fascinating story he tells. 3 rounds of applause!