I’m back from an amazing nine day bird watching trip to Arizona and Mexico. We saw over 150 birds over five days of birding and I added 60 new birds to my life list which left my head swimming. Even my brother who has to work hard to find new birds wracked up a couple dozen.
It was not as whirlwind as many birding trips have been though it did require 2 days of travel each way to fly to Tucson and then drive 8 hours south to the town of Alamos, a sweet little colonial town nestled in a valley of the Sierra Madre mountains. It’s very arid and part of Sonora, so cacti and other desert plants and scrubby trees like mesquite and paloverde predominate. Like much of mexicao and Central America, Bougainvillea cascade in sweeps of burgundy, pink and purple over every wall and fence.
Alamos in February has excellent weather. Night’s in the 40’s, warm into 70 to 80 degree days, with low humidity and gentle breezes that are extremely tranquilizing, perfect for shady afternoon siestas after long leisurely lunches at the Café del Sol, owned by the Jen and Dave MacKay-our hosts in Alamos and proprietors of Solipaso and El Pedregal. (Check out their whole trip at http://www.solipaso.com/)
The place where we stayed, El Pedregal, means stony place, but its part of a larger area known as the Chaleton, which is named for the ancient Chalate fig trees whose deep green spreading canopies and buttressed roots are the largest thing growing in the area. The centerpiece of El Pedregal is a large round thatch roofed palapa that is flanked by one such Chalate that happened to be loaded with figs while we were there. They are not tasty for human eaters but flocks of long-tailed magpie jays visited the tree by day and fruit bats by night to munch the small green fruits. I spent one afternoon working on my "fig drop-butterfly" meditation while lying under the palapa, listening to the thump of figs falling to the sandy soil while watching butterflies float through the canopy and across the clear blue sky.
Dave is an expert bird guide and well known after living in Alamos for 13 years and leading bird watching trips all over Sonora and other parts of Mexico. This is an area that seems to specialize in big birds with long tails. The Black-throated Magpie Jay and the Squirrel Cuckoo were two of my favorites, each with tails 12-14 inches long. We also saw Rufous-bellied Chacalacas, noisy turkey-sized birds that jumped around high in the fig trees eating fruit and cackling, their name derived from their raucous call.
Other favorite exotics were the Russet-crowned Mot Mot, green back, reddish head, creamy chest and long blue tail culminating in two feathers with small round paddle like appendages. There were tiny Mexican Parrotlettes, who won the prize for cutest bird, the 5 inch mini-parrots clustered together on sunny bare branches, looked like clumps of bright green leaves from a distance, but on closer inspection were revealed to be birds, preening each other and warming up before flying off into the sunny day.
Jen and Dave were fabulous hosts and treated us swell, touring us to local restaurants for dinner, and also to the plaza on Sunday night to eat tacos de carne asada while the whole town gathered to crown three local teen beauties in one of the many such contests that are held each year. Only 10,000 people live in Alamos, which was founded in the 1600’s when silver was discovered in nearby Aduana. Spaniards enslaved the local Yaqui Indians to work in the silver mines and build the grand colonial houses that still stand in Alamos.
Once the silver mines played out the town began to fall into disrepair, but in the 1900’s it was “discovered” by an American who began to buy property and restore it. There are now about 200 expats who own property in the area, many only visit in winter. The 110 degree, high humidity days of summer are not for the faint of heart. My two favorite stories of expat's are the dentist for the Grateful Dead and Zsa Zsa Gabor’s personal assistant of 20 years. The actor Carroll O’Connor also made Alamos his home along with others who have adopted this quaint Mexican town.
After four days of birding we left Alamos and headed back to the states. We spent a night in Madera Canyon- famous for bird watching- especially hummingbirds in spring. We were there in the off season for one reason only, to find the Crescent-Chested Warbler, a bird rarely seen in the US that had been hanging out in one section of the canyon for the past couple of months. We woke early and climbed up a rocky switch-back trail in the chill air, snow dusting the tops of the mountains on either side of the canyon. We encountered several other birdwatchers, all intent on finding “the bird”.
Few birds were stirring because it was still very cold and I wandered ahead of the group. I caught sight of a small group of Red Crossbills, they look like House Finches with their reddish heads but have these crazy crossed-bills, one of those odd evolutionary adaptations that allow them to pop open pinecones to get to the seed inside. While studying the Crossbills- a new bird for me, I saw something smaller flitting through the branches and called to my brother “Hey- I’ve got something here, small bird, yellow breast, white eyebrow” “That’s IT!” he shouted, “my sisters got the bird.” And everyone clustered around craning their necks to see this tiny warbler, with a small chestnut colored crescent on its yellow chest, bluish gray back and white eyebrow.
He was very cooperative as birders say and hung around so everyone could get a nice long look. Before leaving the warbler, my bro got to talking with another birder who told him that a place about 100 miles from Tucson had lots of owls roosting, including a Long-Eared Owl. This was the last North American owl my brother had yet to see and he had been looking hard for this bird. I knew where we would be heading our final day in Arizona. The rest of the day was anti-climactic, not many birds around and so we drove into Tucson for dinner and a night with an old family friend.
The next morning we dropped our traveling companions at the airport to catch their early flight and zipped out to Whitewater Wash. No sooner were we out of the car than my brother met another birder who knew the area well and walked us directly to the tree where the long-eared owl was resting and pointed it out to us. I don’t think we would have found the bird without help, it was so well camouflaged. A large bird with tall ears, half brownish gray, half white. We agreed he was much grayer than portrayed in any of the books, but perhaps it was the light or winter plumage. The facial discs were yellowish brown, a wide line of white feathers covered the center of its face above the beak and the bird blinked at us from his hiding place in the tree. We also spotted several barn owls roosting deeper in the clump of willows at the end of a large pond.
Thousands of Sandhill Cranes also winter at this location, though most of them were out foraging by the time we arrived, we did get to see a few of them standing and flying in and out. There were lots of ducks and good sparrow watching at this location as well. We walked around and birded from the car a bit and then zipped back to Tucson to catch our mid afternoon flight. It was a dandy trip and I’m glad I got the opportunity to go. Getting to Alamos wasn’t particularly easy, but seeing so many great birds and having Jen and Dave as our hosts made it worthwhile.