Thursday, June 10, 2010

Patagonia Lake State Park

Before I left for Arizona, a birder friend advised, "You have to go high and low." That's exactly the way I planned it. Our first two days were in the mountains, at Santa Rita Lodge in Madera Canyon. The next two nights we would spend at Patagonia Lake State Park, down low in elevation. I was a bit worried that it would be too hot there, but it was next to a lake that permitted swimming, so I figured I'd survive. They have a protected Natural Area that requires a permit to access, and I was excited to see that as well.

Madera Canyon is on the Northwest side of the mountains, and we drove around the south end, coming within 8 miles of the border between the United States and Mexico before circling northward up the eastern side of the Santa Rita Mountains. As we approached Patagonia Lake (actually a reservoir) we were driving west and enjoyed views of the Santa Rita Mountains and Mount Wrightson we had just visited.
As it turned out, we found the campground nearly empty, and selected a cool, shady spot under a dense grove of trees. I suppose only relatively loco folks go there in the summertime. I hear it fills up fast in the cooler times of the year, or on the weekends, perhaps.

I could hardly set up the tent without distraction from small birds in the branches overhead. "Verdin!," I exclaimed. Some birds can be hard to identify, but these hyperactive small gray birds with yellow heads and a rust-colored patch on each wing were not among those. Of course, I abandoned all responsibility to photograph.

Later I looked at all my photos and found that they had not all been Verdin. A few in the flock were Northern Beardless Tyrannulet as well. I think the names are half the fun! Sure enough, no beard. Well, duh. What bird does have a beard? None I can think of.

It's difficult to help set up a tent when Life Birds (first time I had ever seen the species in my entire life) were flitting about. Cyndi did most of the work. I added to Cyndi's frustration when I later walked ahead while she photographed a wildflower and called back, "Pyrrhuloxia!" When she hastened to see it, I explained, "It's gone now."

Some of these birds I wanted to see in part because their names sound so cool. Pyrrhuloxia, Phainopepla ... who wouldn't want to see one of these, just to drop the names in casual conversation and immediately become the center of attention?

Pyrrhuloxia is like a Cardinal, but more gray. Phainopepla is like a Cardinal but all black with a red eye. Neat to see, as well as to say.
Now the experienced birder will be looking at my photo of the "Pyrrhuloxia" and coming quickly to the conclusion I reached after looking at the photo and the Sibley Guide to Birds. Um, that isn't "like a Cardinal". That *is* a Cardinal. A female Cardinal. So, the good news is, I didn't scare off the Pyrrhuloxia after all. Cyndi and I both saw and photographed lots of Cardinals, though she didn't get to see this particular one.

The next morning we were going to awaken at dawn to go see the "World Famous Patagonia Roadside Rest Area" (famous for the birds to be seen there, including something like 14 species of flycatchers alone). It didn't work out that way. While the stars were still shining, and the sun first began to brighten the horizon, I was awakened long before dawn by a call I recognized as the Western Screech-Owl, a series of short notes. But then it deviated with a long note, more short notes, and another long note, and finished on a few short notes. "Like Morse Code," I had read of the call of the strictly nocturnal Whiskered Screech-Owl.

[Update / correction: 9/30/12.  I was assisted by an experienced birder in recognizing that I did not hear the Whiskered Screech-Owl.  It was just a different call from the Western Screech-Owl.]

Who could sleep with that kind of activity going on? I started my day with stars in the sky and watched the birds awaken. This flock of White-faced Ibis went by, leaving the reservoir before the motorboats and anglers arrived. Anglers are early risers, too, I observed. I was confused by the ducks, of all things, until I read in my Sibley's that there is a Mexican race of Mallard that does have some differences from the Mallard I'm used to seeing. Later I'll give a link to the blurry photos, too. For now, though, you'll just have to trust me on this one ... the Mallards look a bit different down there.
The Turkey Vultures were to be found in great numbers in the campground, and roosted everywhere at night. By day, great flocks would circle in the warm desert air.

This Great Blue Heron silently glided past. There were night-herons and coots and cormorants around the reservoir. I briefly saw one Common Moorhen before it quickly disappeared into the reeds. Hummingbirds, wrens, thrashers ... they were all waking up.

I'll post more about the day's birding adventures in the next post. We were going to go to the Patagonia Roadside Rest and then visit the Paton's yard, known for the hummingbirds that visit there. I blogged earlier about the Violet-crowned Hummingbird I saw in the Paton's yard. But, while I'm on the topic of this nice State Park where we would camp for a second night, I'll tell of the cactus forest we would drive through each evening to get there.

I had not heard of this kind of cactus-like plant called Ocotillo. They're about ten feet tall, with red flowers at the top.

Cyndi and I stopped on the way to the campground to photograph them at sunset.

They seemed to me to be at or near the peak of their color.

The tip of each spiny cactus branch was colored in red. The red fuzz from them was everywhere.

They covered the entire hillside. Instead of a forest of trees, it was a forest of Ocotillo cactus in bloom. I can't recall ever seeing anything like it.

Other desert plants were in bloom as well. This one is Jimson Weed.

And, the Prickly Poppy.

I enjoyed the Desert Willow. Like the mountain wildflowers that show such intense colors in the face of adversity at high elevations, the desert wildflowers were all putting their best face forward under demanding circumstances to attract pollinators.
Hey, wait a minute. I'm getting distracted from birding by all these neat wildflowers. Let's finish up with a White-winged Dove in the campground, shall we? No question about how that one got its name.


Cynthia said...

What a fun post! It brings back so many great memories. I have to mention that when I was growing up in Las Vegas, Nevada, I learned to call these lovely white poppies Prickle Poppies, and jonathan corrected his earlier spelling of Prickly Poppies... but now the only way I see them listed is as Prickly Poppies. Jonathan, you were right in the first place! But I do have to ask if Madera Canyon isn't on the west side of the mountain, rather than the east. Also, strictly speaking (sorry, it's the botany background...) the ocotillo isn't really a cactus, though it's certainly thorny enough! But I did some quick research to be sure, finding an interesting site with photos that explains ocotillo and other desert plants better than I could:
Thanks, jonathan, for sharing this adventure! Cyndi

jonathan said...

Oops, my typo on the geography, and I corrected the location of Madera Canyon (it is on the west, south of Tucson).

I did change it back to Prickly Poppy ... plants often have regional names that vary from place to place. That's why the scientific, Latin name is used by professionals. Even bird common names vary (e.g. Buzzard or Vulture).

I'll put your link on the word Ocotillo right now! (I searched for the sound of the Whiskered Screech-Owl to add as a link, but it must not be very common as the Cornell Labs didn't have it.)