One of things I'm really going to miss about living in Arizona is the (relative) ease with which one can access some of North America's premiere birding hot spots. Take Madera Canyon, for instance. I've been there three times in the last four months and have seen some of the most amazing birds I've ever encountered. Sure, it's a three hour drive to get there. But the payoff is so worth it.
This trip was no different. Sonja had to work which meant I was going it alone. I don't think she minded all that much, though. She seemed to be getting a little tired of driving so far just to go birding. I left home around 3:30am in order to make it to the canyon before the heat of the day. As it turned out, I could have left an hour or two later and had just as much success, considering how quiet it was for the first couple of hours.
The morning started out exciting, though, as I spotted what I thought was one of my three main target species for the day, a White-eared Hummingbird. Alas, my excitement faded as soon as this little guy took to the air and two brilliant white patches appeared on the tip of its tail. Still, it's not often that one gets a chance to admire a Blue-throated Hummingbird, so even though it wasn't a lifer for me I still took the time to enjoy watching it get chased off the feeder by a noisy Black-chinned Hummer.
Another non-lifer I was hoping to see again was Madera Canyon's resident Flame-colored Tanager, particularly because I wanted to try to get a better photograph of it. My last attempt at trying to capture this bird in a photo was less than satisfactory due to the fact that the damn thing refused to leave the very tops of the 30 foot sycamore trees. Things worked out a little better this time around.
After singing his little heart out at the top of a tree (of course), he finally decided to descend a bit and put on a little show for me (I was surprisingly the only birder around for the first hour or so). I did miss my greatest opportunity to snap a picture when he landed no more than ten feet from me. I was so thrilled to see it so close that I sorta forgot I had my camera around my neck.
This one's kind of a weird angle, but I like how it shows off the brilliant plumage that gives this bird its name.
The other bird everyone comes to Madera Canyon to see is another that has never disappointed me (at least not in Madera): the Elegant Trogon.
By the time I heard the trogon's croaking bark in the distance over three hours had elapsed since my arrival and I still hadn't seen any of my target species. As soon as I heard it, though, any disappointment I was starting to feel quickly vanished and I began to focus on simply enjoying the experience of birding in Madera. It's hard not to enjoy it when you get a bird like this looking down at you from just overhead.
Such a cool bird. Seeing (and hearing) him again made the whole trip worthwhile for me.
Four hours in and still no lifers (or so I thought...turns out I wouldn't identify one until I got home Monday night and examined my photos), but I didn't care. I was having a great time relaxing in a lawn chair at one of Madera Canyon's "Birding B&B's" taking photos of the gorgeous Broad-billed Hummingbirds that seemed to be everywhere.
You can't ask for a more photogenic bird than this one. But the excitement of the chase quickly returned when two guys in the chair next to me asked if I was still looking for the one bird I wanted to find more than any that day, the Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher.
Then they pointed up to a branch overhead. Turns out there was an active nest in a tree no more than 30 feet from where I was sitting.
Not only did I get to see a Sulphur-belly, I got to watch them fly in and out of a nest cavity as they brought an endless supply of bugs to their demanding brood.
But the most exciting bird for me that day was one I hadn't even considered looking for until one of the birders I had been chatting with mentioned that they had seen dozens of them a ways down the road. So, on my way out of the canyon, I made a quick stop at a pull-out and headed down the trail in search of a little bird I really hadn't thought twice about, the Varied Bunting.
None of the pictures I've ever seen of this bird come remotely close to how gorgeous it really is. The deep maroon, violet and indigo of its plumage blend together in a way that is almost indescribable. It was one of the most surprisingly stunning birds I've ever seen.
When the day was done, I left Madera Canyon with three new lifers: Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher, Varied Bunting, and the Cassin's Vireo I couldn't properly identify until I got home. If those three birds (plus all the others I saw) weren't enough to convince me that the trip was worth it, the Gray Hawk that flew over my car as I was driving through suburban Tucson in search of a gas station most certainly was.
Glacier National Park is going to be an incredible place to live and work, there's no doubt about it. I'll even get to flesh out the grouse section of my life list a bit. But I will most definitely miss the world-class birding we've been able to experience during our time here in Arizona.