Buntings and Grosbeaks and Becards, Oh My! The Sights and Sounds of Madera Canyon

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Over 230 species of birds have been recorded in Madera Canyon and recently I had the pleasure of seeing and/or hearing 43 of those, several considered uncommon for the area and 16 new to me. The identification of this many birds was due to the fact that I was with two experienced birders, Susan Brooks Fishburn and Steve Hosmer, who are among the top ten birders in Maricopa County.

Madera Canyon is nestled in the northern slopes of the Santa Rita Mountains, one of southeast Arizona’s forested "Sky Islands." The Sky Islands are named for the way they pop up out of the Sonoran Desert like stepping stones, and they are separated by miles of dry, hot desert. They rise high enough to produce cooler temperatures that allow plants, birds and animals to thrive that could not survive in the desert below. With an excessive heat warning already in affect for the day, we got an early start, but even at the higher elevation, it was already 83 degrees when we made our first official birding stop along the narrow, paved road to the Canyon.

The Colors of the Canyon

There is no doubt that color was the highlight of our day. As we drove south, heat rippled and blurred the browns of the desert floor, the golden color of the fields of grass dotted with gray-green cacti and the impossible blue of the sky, all running together like a muted watercolor. We ascended into the Canyon amid fluttering green Arizona sycamore, cottonwood, hackberry and ash trees, all of which like to keep their feet cool in the area's active springs and seasonal creek. There are several lodges along the road through the Canyon that cater to the birding community, offering viewing areas staged with feeders and water features that attract a wide variety of birds and wildlife. The birds were as colorful as they were plentiful, from the scarlet cap adorning the black and white Acorn Woodpecker to the buttery yellow of the Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher and from the shimmering, iridescent hues of the hummingbirds, to the rich, royal blues of the Blue Grosbeak and Varied Bunting. Soft grays and buffs of bedrock and boulders rounded out the painterly palette of our day.

After birding the area for several hours and finding many new (for me) birds, we went in search of the Rose-throated Becard pair reported to be nesting on the banks of the Santa Cruz River further south in Tumacacori. It was not hard to find the site as it was well marked by birders before us and we were able to get some distant shots of the female as she dashed in and out of the nest and the male, who was perched on a nearby branch. Fortunately, Steve got pictures good enough for documentation purposes since this species is considered a rare visitor to the area. Satisfied that we had had a fruitful day, we headed home, as hot and dusty as the desert itself, our water bottles empty. One more unexpected stop at the Armado Wastewater Treatment Plant, however, yielded a look at a couple of unusual Black-bellied Whistling Ducks and an uncommon-for-this-time-of-year Eared Grebe.

All the Bells and Whistles (and Squeaks)

Many experienced birders depend on the sound the birds make as their call or song may be the only evidence of their presence in the area since many prefer to keep themselves hidden. I'm still learning how to interpret these delightful squeaks and whistles, chirps and chatters, so my experienced birding partners were a big help. Turn your volume up and click here to listen to hear a Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher, who sounds like a dog's squeaky toy, the melodious trilling of the Black-throated Sparrow and the heckling call of the Mexican Jay. You'll see pictures in the gallery below of these birds and more from our Madera Canyon "twitching" tour (as Susan called it). I threw in a picture of a sweet young Whitetail doe, too, just to see if you were paying attention! My thanks to Susan and Steve for a great experience.

Click on one of the images to see them all as a slide show and thanks again for joining me on my adventure.

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