From a natural history perspective, southeast Arizona may be my favorite part of any of the 48 states I have visited. I just love the “sky islands,” those isolated mountain ranges rising above the desert lowlands: in a two hour or so drive you can traverse several of Merriam’s life zones, from desert to ponderosa pine forests. The Chiricahuas, Huachuca’s, Santa Rita’s and other local ranges provide unique opportunities to see birds, mammals, F herps, and other taxa that do not occur elsewhere in the country. I was particularly excited, then, when last year I was invited to present the key note talk at Southwest Wings, a birding and nature festival centered in Sierra Vista. In addition to nature, my sister and her family live in Rio Rico and I have not seen them since 2008. And to top it off, this trip spanned the period from July 28 to August 4, well before Cindy’s school season starts and thus enabling her to come along.

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Through the miracle of Facebook, I have reconnected with several people I have not seen since elementary school. One of these people is Gary Kipnis who now lives in Tucson. So the very first thing we did after leaving the airport with our car rental was meeting Gary for lunch. It was fun chatting about highlights of the intervening decades.

Then it was down to Rio Rico, where my sister Robin lives. She, like Cindy, is a special education teacher (and has been her entire career) so she also was available, as school for her did not begin for another week. Her spouse, Alberto, was working but my nephew Travis, a student, was present. They also have three pugs, long Robin’s favorite breed. We spent the afternoon before we all headed towards Nogales for dinner and the motel where Cindy and I were staying for the night. Robin has a longtime colleague and friend named Maria who joined us the following day for a tour of Nogales. We were originally going to cross the border into Nogales, Sonora but there had been heavy flooding so we stayed on the US side. That was Wednesday and we would see Robin and Travis again when they drove the hour to Sierra Vista to hear my talk, Saturday night. Spending time with Robin and Travis was a real joy and hopefully they will fly north to the land of great lakes in the not too distant future.

Cindy, blogger, Travis, Robin, and Maria.

Cindy, blogger, Travis, Robin, and Maria.

That second morning before meeting Robin, Travis, and Maria, Cindy and I left early for our first birding of the trip. We headed to Sonoita to enjoy Paton’s Center for Hummingbirds (now maintained by the Tucson Audubon Society) and The Nature Conservancy’s Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve. August is the monsoon season in southeast Arizona and the road to the two preserves looked impassable for our low clearance car, but fortunately the washout was very close to Patons which abuts the TNC property so we were able to enjoy the former and could bird at least a portion of the latter. The first exciting moment was when the shrill call of a hawk reached our ears and I thought it was likely a gray hawk. A gray hawk did indeed fly over and land in a tree where we saw it well. (Adding to the fun was that all these southwest Arizona specialties were lifers for Cindy) We walked back to Paton’s and parked ourselves there for an hour or so. Common southwest specialties like Abert’s towhee, gila woodpeckers, phainopeplas, pyryloxias, and broad-billed humming birds were conspicuous.

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After spending mid morning and late afternoon with Robin, Travis, and Maria, we drove the hour or so to Sierra Vista to register for Southwest Wings. We met Gordon Lewis, Sally Rosen, Ann Gallus, and the other folks who make this wonderful festival possible. On to Hereford where Bob Behrstock lives with his partner Karen. They have added a water feature to their backyard and have turned it into an oasis of biological diversity. To date they have recorded over 175 species of birds and 114 butterflies in this small space. Bob’s knowledge of birds, insects, herps, fish, and plants make him a superb field tour leader, something he has done professionally for a good many years now. (Here is a link to his fascinating web-site http://www.naturewideimages.com/)

Plain-capped Starthroat (photo by Bob Behrstock)

Plain-capped Starthroat (photo by Bob Behrstock)

This summer has seen an unprecedented number of plain-capped starthroats in Arizona. This ,hummingbird typical ranges from western Mexico south to Costa Rico. Fortunately, one decided to take up residence in Bob’s backyard and after a most pleasant wait, the bird appeared in all of its glory. It would be my one life bird of the trip. Not unusual, but we were also treated to a Clark’s spiny lizard that lounged on Bob’s back screen.

The festival had us staying at a lovely large house on the road to Ramsay Canyon. The first night we had it all to ourselves and assumed that would be the case for the duration. But we learned the following night that we had six roommates: three homo sapiens, one black vulture, one aplomado falcon, and one kestrel. This was the contingent from the Liberty Wildlife Rehab Center based in Phoenix. They are regulars to the festival. (One member of the group is a graduate of West Point and we had a stimulating discussion of military history.)

Bob-Behrstock

Bob Behrstock

Bob and I were to co-lead a festival field trip the next morning. Our destination was Las Cinegas National Conservation Area. (The trip was filled so Cindy participated on another trip that focused on the history and birds of Fort Huachuca: one highlight for her was having good views of elegant trogons.) Las Cienegas is 45,000 acres of what was originally two ranches. Quoting from its web-site, the area includes “five of the rarest habitat types in the American Southwest: cienegas (marshlands), cottonwood-willow riparian forests, sacaton grasslands, mesquite bosques, and semi-desert grasslands.” We had 62 species including yellow-billed cuckoo (populations in Arizona are deemed federally threatened), gray hawk, Botteri’s, Cassins, and black-throated sparrows. Our stop at Cottonwood Pond yielded the federally endangered Gila topminnow. We returned via Pategonia where we spent quality time at Patons. This time a violet crowned humming bird put in a prolonged appearance. We also saw the nesting thick-billed kingbird at the Patagonia rest stop.

Black-throated Sparrow

Black-throated Sparrow

On Friday Cindy and I were on our own and we headed up to Ramsay Canyon. Back in 1972, when I first visited there was a guest facility with lots of hummingbird feeder. It was called Mile Hi and it was owned and operated by the Peabody’s. Now it is owned by the Nature Conservancy and not one of the personnel were familiar with either Mile Hi or the Peabody’s. Among the many lifers I saw on that first trip there with my parents many decades ago was a sulfur bellied flycatcher and Arizona (then brown-backed) woodpecker. They were among the first birds we saw on this trip too. There was a nesting tufted flycatcher in the canyon but getting there required a long and very steep hike. We did reach the spot where a flame-colored tanager (which I have seen in AZ before) and may have seen the bird.

Sulfur-bellied Flycatcher

Sulfur-bellied Flycatcher

The evening’s festivities featured a showing of From Billions to None: The Passenger Pigeon’s Flight to Extinction, the documentary David Mrazek and I made, so we had to get back in time for that. Among the people who came to see it were Patrick Dome and Karl Schmidt, owners and operators of a gorgeous bed and breakfast that caters to birders (and others) called Casa de San Pedro. It is almost on the banks of the San Pedro River. Patrick in a most gracious gesture had earlier offered Cindy and me two nights at the lodge as his guest when the festival ended. (http://www.bedandbirds.com/).

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