Bird #594 — Botteri’s Sparrow

peucaea botterii

Pima County, Arizona — side road off Madera Canyon Road near Florida Wash

Thursday, May 12, 2022 — 9:21 am

I sat in my room on Wednesday night and wondered if I’d stayed in Patagonia too long. I had a list of target birds for the trip, and I’d see all the ones I had a practical chance of seeing except for two—Varied Bunting and Botteri’s Sparrow. A bunting had been seen a few days earlier on the Lake Patagonia birding trail. I’d tried to find it on Tuesday and missed it. I found out later on Thursday that it had been seen again that day. I wish I had gone back—this is the one miss of the trip. The other birds I didn’t see all involved long drives on rough dirt roads and/or being out late at night.

That left the Botteri’s Sparrow.  The problem was that the best spot was at the foot of Madera Canyon, where I’d just been on Wednesday. It meant an hours drive each way, but I’ve gone a lot further than that for a lifer and I felt like I’d exhausted the immediate Patagonia area. I woke up at 5:00 (no alarm) and by 7:00 I was in the Proctor Road parking lot where the birds have been seen regularly and as recently as the day before—when I drove right past the place.

Botteri’s is a big, plain sparrow that lives in desert grasslands with scattered mesquite and ocatillo. People had been seeing it right from the lot. I’d only been there about 15 minutes when I saw two birds chasing low through some brush. One landed low in a bush where I could see it through a gap in a closer bush,  but by the time I got my camera on it, it was gone. It looked like a big, plain sparrow with rufous coloring on the wings, a pale bill, and plain grayish white on the breast and belly. Was it a Botteri’s? I think so. Was it a good enough sighting to count? No.

I spent the next hour and forty five minutes walking back and forth in the parking lot and on the entrance road without so much as a glimpse or peep of a possibility. Finally, after two hours, I gave up on Proctor Road. There was another spot on Madera Canyon road —that I’d have to pass anyway—where someone had see one recently, and I was going to try there but I didn’t like my chances.

But as I was heading toward that spot, I passed an unmarked paved side road. On a whim, I stopped and backed up and turned. After maybe 150 yard, the road ended at a turnaround circle. I stopped the car and before I got out, I could clearly hear a Botteri’s Sparrow singing from a large stand of ocatillo. I took a video of the area with the bird singing to prove I’d found one. I tried to see where it was but couldn’t find it. I looked up the song on eBird and found a recording that I think, by the description, was made at that exact spot—maybe by that exact bird. I played it a few times and the sparrow landed first on an ocotillo stalk about 10 feet away and then in a mesquite not much further off. I got good looks and photos and am pretty sure the bird I’d seen earlier in the morning was a Botteri’s.  But I know this one was. I watched as it moved around the cul-de-sac for about 10 minutes, then headed back to Patagonia happy with my 24th lifer of the trip.

Botteri’s Sparrow is a large, plain looking sparrow with a long bill and buffy-gray belly.

The sparrow can be heard singing (faintly) in the first clip of the video, and making chip notes in the second and fourth. The singing in the third clip, I’m pretty sure, is the recording on my phone.

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Bird #593 — Five-striped Sparrow

amphispiza quinquestriata

Santa Cruz County, Arizona — Coronado National Forest — Montosa Canyon

Wednesday, May 11, 2022 — 8:50 am

I never thought I’d add this bird to my life list. All I knew about it was that birders who saw it in the U.S. spotted it in an isolated spot at the end of a long dirt road where there was a lot of evidence of immigrant smuggling. It didn’t sound like the kind of place I wanted to go alone. But the sparrows have been showing up in Montosa Canyon in the Santa Rita Mountains and on the eBird rare bird reports for the past several months. I thought I might try for it if I had time … and if I could be sure the road wasn’t like the one into Rucker Canyon where I’d punctured my tire. A woman at Paton’s said she’d been there a day earlier and the road was fine—paved to within a football field of where the birds were being seen.  It turned out to be closer to a half mile of dirt, but it wasn’t bad.

I drove the half hour down to Montosa Canyon after leaving Santa Gertrudis Lane. There were three or four cars there when I arrived, and a few birders about 400 yards up the canyon from where I parked. I walked up the road and could tell they weren’t seeing the sparrow at the moment. Soon more people arrived—including David, the guide from my Green Kingfisher adventure with four people who had paid to bird with him. David recognized me and asked me how things were going. I told him his instructions about Santa Gertrudis Road had gotten me two lifers that morning. Another group of about 14 came next. I’d run into them at Ash Canyon on Sunday and at Patagonia Lake yesterday. The lady guide was concentrating on one spot where there were good looks up a steep slope covered with rocks and grass and shrubs and ocotillo. She insisted that was the place to see the Five-striped Sparrows. David was doing more walking around and after 15 minutes or so led his group up the road (and up the canyon) where a large metal culvert runs under the road (and where the birds have often been reported). I’d been in the canyon close to an hour. I wasn’t impressed with the woman guide, so I started up the road towards David’s group.

I was about 100 yards away when I could see them all looking off into the trees with their binoculars and cameras. David started signaling—maybe to the other guide or maybe to me. When I got to the culvert he told me they’d seen a pair. The birds had flown across the road into the thick shrubbery along a rocky wash. David didn’t seem to mind me hanging around so I did.

Someone from the larger group found out about the bird, so the lady guide and her clump of people wandered up the road. David was trying to clear people away from the road immediately over the culvert in case the sparrow flew back across. Some of the people from the large group stood right on top of the culvert and looked put out when asked to move. David quietly remarked that he wanted to find the bird a second time before the woman guide found it at all. He tried to pass it off as a joke, but I could tell he wasn’t impressed by her and there was some competition going on. By this point the woman was pretty much just letting him take the lead. I was looking and listening, but most of the people who were being guided were just standing around waiting for someone to show them something.

David heard the sparrow making a very quiet, high-pitched chipping noise in the bushes. He quietly pointed it out to me and a couple from his group. It was hard to pick up on at first, but once I did zero in on it, I could track the bird. Suddenly it flew up to an exposed branch in the middle of a bush right in front of me, maybe 12 feet away. David and I said at the exact same time, “there it is.”  I’ll give him credit. He did his best to show it to everyone there—his group,the other group, and some other birders who were there looking for it. I had a clear shot and got several good photos during the 30 seconds or so it stayed in that spot. It was aware of us and looking at us. Long before everyone could see it, it flew back into the bushes and disappeared.

The few of us who’d gotten pictures moved down the road to compare shots. We happened to  stop right over the culvert and as we talked someone spotted the sparrow, or the second one, on a branch down below where we stood. It hopped to another branch, and then I lost track of it. I don’t know what happened after that because I left. I’m not a big fan of birding with large groups of inexperienced and often uninterested birders who join groups to be shown glamorous birds. But before I left, I gave David $5. I said, “I’ve never hired you as my guide, but you’ve gotten me three lifers.” He smiled in surprise and thanked me.I wouldn’t have normally done that, but he was actually working—showing a bird to people who had paid him to see that bird—and I felt like I was taking advantage.

Earlier he’d told me the bird wasn’t as rare as everyone supposed. He said if everyone there—perhaps 20 people—each went off by themselves and explored a different canyon, at least half of us would find the bird. I know what he meant, but I thought some of those people couldn’t find the bird if they were locked in a closet with it. The Five-striped Sparrow’s name comes from its chin. A thick black stripe down the center is bordered on each side by narrower white stripes and then narrow black stripes. The black spot on its chest looked like a heart from some angles. It’s a pretty bird with, I think, a clunky name.

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Bird #592 — Thick-billed Kingbird

tyrannus crassirostris

Tumacacori, Arizona — Santa Gertrudis Lane

Wednesday, May 11, 2022 — 6:51 am

It really shouldn’t be this easy.

I continued down Santa Gertrudis Lane to the east, through the mesquite grove, until I came to a strip of lusher woods along the Santa Cruz River. A section of the De Anza trail runs through here. I expected the flycatcher to be along the river, but threatening NO TRESPASSING signs were posted along the road about 30 yards from the bank. I walked past them about half way to the river and saw three birders standing along the far bank looking up. I assume they were also looking for a Thick-billed Kingbird, but they were on the wrong side of the river.

I reasoned brilliantly that if the kingbirds were often seen at this location but birders weren’t allowed by the river, then the river probably wasn’t the place to look for kingbirds. I walked back into legal territory to the trailhead. Before I got there I heard the high-pitched chittering “kitterer” that passes for a song for the Thick-billed Kingbird. I very soon spotted one high on a dead branch that stuck out above a cottonwood. In the photo below, the kingbird was in the sun-lit tree that sticks above the shade.

It sang a few times but mostly just looked around. It was high over my head, but I got good views. At one point, a second bird flew in and landed just below the kingbird, then took off before I could get a look at it. By the way the first bird reacted—or didn’t react (it just looked down casually)—I assume it was a second Thick-billed.

The large head and bill, black mask, thick neck and yell0w-washed belly are all marks.

After about three minutes, during which I tried for different camera angles, the bird flew off. I waited a bit, but it didn’t t come back, and I didn’t hear it again. I walked back to my car and arrived about half an hour after I’d left—two lifers to the good.

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Bird #591 — Rufous-winged Sparrow

peucaea carpalis

Tumacacori, Arizona — Santa Gertrudis Lane

Wednesday, May 11, 2022 — 6:34 am

This sparrow had flown under my radar until I compiled a list of Arizona specialties. It’s seen regularly at Paton’s in Patagonia so I figured I’d pick it up there. But after an evening at Paton’s and skeptical looks from other birders I asked, Paton’s didn’t seem like a likely place. On Monday, I met David at Rio Rico. While we were waiting for the Green Kingfisher to make one of its quick fly-bys, I asked him where I could see the birds I still needed. He suggested Santa Gertrudis Lane in Tumacacori for this sparrow and the Thick-billed Kingbird.

So I left my B&B early and got to the trail by 6:27.The place wasn’t hard to find.

I started walking east along the dirt road toward the river through an area with small trees with grass below. David had told me the Rufous-winged had a song that sounded similar to a Spotted Towhee and I heard it within 20 yards of where I parked. I played the song on my phone and a Rufous-wing flew out of the scrub on the south side of the road and landed in a tree on the north side about six feet above my head. It didn’t move a lot, just a few short hops to different branches in the same tree. It made some very soft chip notes and then began singing again, looking around and seeming pretty relaxed. At one point it turned around, giving me a good look at its back. It then moved to an even more open branch, giving me great views. I never saw the rufous on the wing that gives it it’s name (and which the field guides say hardly anyone ever sees) but I saw and got good photos of the rest of its marks. After maybe five minutes it flew off into the trees.

It looks a little like a Chipping Sparrow with its red crown, but the eye line is reddish, not black, the belly is gray, not white, and the tail is rounded. The dark throat stripes, visible particularly well in the photo above, are also a mark.

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Bird #590 — Whiskered Screech-Owl

megascops trichopsis

Santa Cruz County, Arizona — Coronado National Forest — Harshaw Road

Monday, May 9, 2022 — 9:38 pm

During the three hours we birded up and down Harshaw Road, we saw four vehicles. All four of them were border patrol. Three of them stopped and talked with us. They all seemed to buy our stories about looking for owls, and they all told us to watch out for snakes—they’d seen a lot crossing the roads. There were signs here and there warning that human smuggling might be encountered in the area. So, smugglers, border police, and snakes … It wasn’t the coziest place I’ve been birding.

Matthew picked a spot that appeared to be open oak woods, but it was hard to tell in the dark. He played the calls of the screech-owl, and at the second place he tried, one came in. It landed in a tree right next to us and I got one photo. It then flew high up in a bigger tree across the road. I tried for another photo, but it appeared my flash wouldn’t reach that far. After lightening the picture on my computer, I see that the bird just wasn’t looking at us.

Matthew said a pair were calling in the tree, and he saw the second one fly off, but I didn’t—again because I was looking through my camera. I heard others in the distance. They have one call that sounds like Morse code and is pretty cool to hear. Their regular call is a series of even notes that doesn’t go up or down the scale much.

Like so many of the birds I saw this trip, the greater part of its range is in Mexico and it comes into the US only in southeastern Arizona. It looks a lot like a Western Screech-Owl, but with a splotchier breast and smaller feet. It’s also a little smaller, but that’s hard to tell when you’re just looking at one bird.

As Matthew drove me back to my place, we did see a Black-tailed Rattlesnake on the road. It had been run over and its head was crushed, but so recently that the body was still moving.

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