Archive for Sonora
Tucson doesn’t really have a beach, but less than four hours’ easy drive south and west are the sands and rocky points of Puerto Peñasco, the nearest and easiest place for us desert rats to do a little seabirding. This past Wednesday I led a Tucson Audubon group down to the Sea of Cortez in search of shorebirds. We wound up with only eighteen species of waders, a slightly disappointing tally for this time of year–but among them were some goodies, and there was plenty else to keep us busy during the nine hours we had on the beach before turning back to Tucson.
We left town that morning a little after 4:30, with a hint of dawn already visible behind the Rincons. By the time we entered caracara country, it was daylight, and we saw two Crested Caracaras checking out the night’s offerings on the highway east of Sells. A bit of a puzzlement was a medium-sized, relatively brown owl flying stiffly across the highway near the old Mesquital Migrant Trap: anywhere else, at any other time of year, I’d probably have ticked it off as a Long-eared Owl, but that’s just too weird for the desert in August.
Our border crossing at Lukeville was easy as pie–we didn’t even show our passports, much less have to stop for what is usually a desultory inspection. A few Black Vultures and Harris’s Hawks joined the abundant Turkey Vultures around the Sonoyta dump, and then, good conversation making the time and the miles slip away, we were in Puerto P.
We’d timed our tour so as to have a few hours before tide started coming in. We started in the inner harbor, which was lined with the usual Brown Pelicans and Heermann’s and Yellow-footed Gulls; our only Lesser Yellowlegs of the day flew past us here, and Willets hunted the rocks and the sandy edges, oblivious of fishermen and early swimmers. Off the seawall we saw our first terns of the day, mostly Common Terns but with the odd Black Tern or Royal Tern passing. Careful scoping produced small numbers of Brown and Blue-footed Boobies, and two distant Black Storm-Petrels. A couple of Black-vented Shearwaters flew in and landed on the water, but so far out that for most of us they were nothing more than occasional heads occasionally visible above the more than occasional waves.
With the tide good and low, we decided to run out to Rocky Beach (or whatever the beach at Sinaloa Ave. is called) and see if we could find any rockpipers. Wilson’s, Semipalmated, and Black-bellied Plovers were wandering the flats and pecking at the edges of the tide pools, accompanied by the omnipresent Willets. A couple of Black-vented Shearwaters were in attendance on the pelicans right in the surf, the splendid views more than making up for the frustration the earlier birds had caused. Royal Terns were almost constantly in sight here, and it wasn’t long before a fine Elegant Tern came in, passing close to us and to its thicker-billed cousins for an excellent comparison.
But this was a shorebird trip, and so we kept our eyes downcast, hoping for the movement that would betray the presence of waders on the rocks. Aha, there they are! Three Surfbirds, all adults, all still with a hint of golden spangling on their scapulars and hearts not on their sleeves but on their flanks, were feeding quiet and calm nearby.
For a long time, this was the only shorebird I’d seen in Sonora and not in the US (a fall trip to California finally took care of that for me)–and I still haven’t seen it in Vancouver, which may well have been an earlier port of call for these very individuals as they made their way south.
The day couldn’t get any better, I thought, but we trundled out to the rocks at Pelican Point, where the tide was so high that people were swimming merrily on the path I’d intended to use to get out to look for boobies. We did stand on the ever narrower strip of beach, the tide lapping at our tripod feet, long enough to see another Black and two Least Storm-Petrels, completing the list of tubenoses reasonably to be hoped for from shore.
The usual constellation of boulders had disappeared beneath the tide, so we looked for a spot to look down on the rocks. We’d been seeing both species of booby fly past all morning, but here was where we finally got good views of them perched, some of them at distances so close as to convince us that they deserved their disparaging English name. Most were Blue-footed Boobies, their eponymous webs glowing blue-violet against the white glare of the rocks.
But there were Brown Boobies among them, too, adults dapper in brown and white, juveniles elegantly somber in two-tone chocolate.
With the tide rapidly approaching its highest, we turned back to visit the head of Cholla Bay, where rising waters can concentrate shorebirds and terns in impressive numbers. I can’t say that we ran into masses of birds this time, but the quality was high if the numbers weren’t: we had up to eleven Snowy Plovers at once on the beach, and Least and Forster’s Terns joined the Commons, Blacks, and Royals loafing on the rapidly submerging sandbars. The commonest of the large sandpipers was Marbled Godwit, always a happy sight.
They shared the sand and salicornia flats with curlews, including plenty of Whimbrels
and gentle-faced Long-billed Curlews down from the prairies.
The really big show here at high tide is the abundance of Large-billed Sparrows, the large, blurry Passerculus endemic to the Sea of Cortez. When the water is low, they scamper through the saltwort, generally unseen this time of year; but when it rises, they emerge to feed on the roads and to fly flutteringly from emergent patch to emergent patch of taller vegetation. Our estimate this time: no fewer than 33 individuals, many of them giving great looks as they fed on the sandy road and sought shade under the rocks (all the time, no doubt, aware that my camera batteries had died).
I replaced my batteries, or at least my camera’s, and we struck off for terra incognita–the golf course ponds tantalizingly just visible across the head of the bay. We’d been watching birds drop in there, from terns to an adult Reddish Egret, and decided to spend the last of our day trying to figure out how to get in. Geographically, it turned out to be quite straightforward: the golf course is called Laguna del Mar, and it’s reached from Highway Eight north of town. Fortunately, it didn’t take much Spanish to let the guard at the gate know what we wanted, and even less to understand that he would give us 20 minutes, no more.
We zoomed. We zoomed past small ponds that must be some of Puerto Peñasco’s very best migrant traps, past lavishly irrigated lawns that must prove irresistible to stray grasspipers, past remnant patches of bleak saltbush that must hide Le Conte’s Thrashers. But we stopped, too. We stopped for a gang of some 45 Horned Larks, with streaky and spotty juveniles among them, and we stopped for an incongruous female-plumaged Red-breasted Merganser on one of the large ponds. And we stopped for a fine flock of shorebirds, including the day’s only dozen or so Ruddy Turnstones and a couple of American Oystercatchers.
We pushed it hard, but it was still half an hour before we turned in our permit and thanked the friendly guards for letting see their muchos pajaros; on the way out, we pondered whether it might not be worth it to buy a lot just for the birding privileges.
The drive home was as pleasant as the drive down that morning had been. Our border passage took no more than ten minutes, and Tucson was nearly in sight by the time the Lesser Nighthawks started swooping over the road. Home at 7:30 pm, and ready to dream of the next visit to our very own tropical beach.
The day’s list is on line here. If you see anything you like, join us next August for another shorebirding trip to the Sea of Cortez; it will be announced on the Tucson Audubon website as soon as we’ve settled on a date.
Registration starts today for our free Tucson Audubon tour to the Sea of Cortez, August 11.
Shorebird numbers should be increasing rapidly at Puerto Peñasco by early August. With high tide not until after 2:00 pm, we can take it relatively easy and let the rising waters push birds up the estuaries and onto the beaches for the best viewing.
In addition to all of the common Arizona shorebird species, we can hope for American Oystercatcher, Wilson’s and Snowy Plovers, Red Knot, Black and Ruddy Turnstones, and Whimbrel. Longer-legged wading birds might include Reddish Egret and Yellow-crowned Night-Heron.
We’ll check the harbor and beachfront for Black-vented Shearwater and Black and Least Storm Petrels, and look for the distinctive and beautiful Large-billed Sparrow on the salicornia flats.
Drivers must purchase Mexican auto insurance before starting the trip; riders must reimburse the driver for that insurance (in addition to the usual 10 cents per mile). We’ll stop in Why and at Organ Pipe for restroom breaks, then cross the border at Lukeville. Bring your passport, sunscreen, a hat, a long-sleeved shirt, lunch and a snack, and abundant water. Plan to arrive back in Tucson at about 8:30 pm.
Strictly limited to four cars; should there not be four drivers, the maximum group size will be reduced.
You can register by dropping me an e-mail at email@example.com . Then fill your water bottle, put on your flip flops, and get ready for a day at the beach!
I’ll be leading a few field trips over the next couple of months, and hope that those of you who are in the area will join us.
Nature Vancouver, September 6: Iona for shorebirds.
Nature Vancouver, October 2: Iona for shorebirds.
Nature Vancouver, October 6: Jericho Beach for migrants and wintering birds.
Nature Vancouver, October 22: Jericho Beach for migrants and wintering birds.
If you’d like to see a list of the birds I saw in Sonora this past weekend, have a look here.
Over these past thirty years, I’ve participated in Christmas Bird Counts in a dozen states and provinces–and in a dozen different weathers. I’ve been snowed on, rained on, and nearly frozen; blown off the road, submerged in ice water, and frostbit.
This year was different.
Molly, Rich, Will, and I met Thursday afternoon to start on the drive to Puerto Peñasco, that scruffy playground on the eastern shore of the Sea of Cortez. We took a few minutes to admire the two (two!) Violet-crowned Hummingbirds in Rich’s urban Tucson yard, then it was west, west, west to Lukeville and across the border into Sonora.
The usual birds on the three-and-a-half-hour drive down, but we arrived in town in time to check the inner harbor, where Rich discovered this nice-looking Western Gull.
(That’s a Heermann’s Gull behind it, and a gluttonous Yellow-footed Gull with its head in the rocks.)
Our hotel, the oddly named Viña del Mar, was a great place to watch the sunset
as Brown Pelicans, Blue-footed Boobies, and thousands of Heermann’s Gulls went to roost on the rocks.
A good dinner, a good night’s sleep, and we were ready for the next two days of birding–scouting on Friday, the CBC itself on Saturday.
As usual, larids accounted for most of the highlights. Highest of them all was a first-cycle Glaucous Gull Molly and Rich discovered at the new sewage ponds, a first for me for Sonora.
Look hard: it’s hunkered down just to the left of the salt cedar. This is a great bird for Mexico, but I have to say that I also enjoyed lingering look at a couple of Thayer’s Gulls and an apparent Glaucous-winged x Herring Gull or two. It was fantastic to be birding with companions who knew their gulls–I’d say that I was rusty after these years in Arizona, but that would imply, falsely, that I had ever been a well-oiled watcher of gulls. Our upcoming move to Vancouver should fix me up!
One gull that doesn’t require a sophisticated eye was, as usual, abundant and unmissable.
I may well be seeing some of these same individual Heermann’s Gulls in British Columbia this coming summer, when they move north along the Pacific Coast to follow the ferries between Washington and the islands of the Georgia Depression.
No depression for us, though, as we kept on tallying fine birds. Western Bluebirds were all over town, and there were a couple of Mountain Bluebirds scattered around the open desert, too.
This male was near the new sewage ponds, overlooking a barren spot that was filled with feeding House Finches, a Vesper Sparrow, and two Sage Sparrows. I’m afraid that I had to be called back to the business of the count after becoming engrossed in watching the Sage Sparrows–likely to be my last of the species until I see them next on their Great Basin breeding grounds.
We managed to spend some time seawatching, too (a grand word for sitting over a fine meal and watching from the restaurant’s balcony). The shrimp boats coming in to the harbor dragged a trail of gulls and other birds, including Brown Boobies.
A few Forster’s and Royal Terns patrolled the shore, and small numbers of Common and Pacific Loons dotted the waves.
It wasn’t quite dusk when we made our final stop at the dump.
Cattle Egrets and gulls abounded, and Rich discovered–for the second year in a row–a Rusty Blackbird on the back corner of the fence, a bird I managed to miss. And then it was farewell to the birds of the Gulf of California and back to Tucson, with fervent hopes that Alison and I can get back to Sonora someday.