Saturday, January 30, 2010

1/17 to 1/18 in Arizona - Patagonia Lake Area

After 3 straight years of going to the rain forest for our winter vacations, we decided instead to go to the desert this year to see some parts of the country that were new to us. Our journey would start in southern Arizona, continue at Bosque Del Apache NWR in New Mexico and then end in southern AZ. We figured it would be nice to have a week of nice weather and sunshine. That turned out to not be the case, but more on that later.

We arrived on time at Phoenix airport after a nice flight (Thanks US Airways). After the shuttle to the rental cars, the Alamo folks let us pick any car in two rows which we thought would be great. Turns out the choices were limited to a Kia or.....other Kias. So, naturally, we choose a Kia. A Kia Sorrento to be exact which was roomy but turned out to be less than a stellar driving experience. Its snail like acceleration and jumpy gear shifting earned it the sarcastic nickname of "zippy" for the remainder of the trip.

We hit the road for our 3 hour drive to Patagonia Lake and enjoyed the desert scenery along the way. Southern Arizona has a lot more mountains than we expected and other interesting rock formations. After a brief stop at a Nogales Safeway for supplies, we arrived at our accommodations near Patagonia Lake. We stayed at A Room with a view (link) which is a nice location for those spending time at Lake Patagonia because it is only about 10 minutes from the lake itself. We arrived at dusk and decided it was too late to venture out so we turned in early so that we could be out by dawn the next day.

One of the main reasons for us to stay at Lake Patagonia was to maximize our time looking for the Elegant Trogon which winters there and was spotted days before we arrived. So, we were up early and ventured into the park. We stopped at the visitor center hoping to get information on the best places to look for the Trogon but they weren't open yet. However, I spotted a gentleman nearby with huge binoculars around his neck and an REI inspired wardrobe so I knew he must be a birder with insight on where to look. Turns out I was right and he whipped out his map and showed me where the locals said to look. He also mentioned that he saw the Elegant Trogon in Madera Canyon just a few days earlier.

Before setting out, we visited the feeders behind the visitor center which had many new birds for us including a Cardinal (us west coasters don't ever see these birds), the Green-tailed Towhee, and the Arizona and Gila Woodpeckers.

We spent the morning searching for the trogon but had no luck. We did see deer, more cardinals, heron, ducks, and more. In the afternoon, we decided to drive the hour or so to Madera Canyon which is known as another birding hotspot and we hoped to have better luck finding the trogon there. On the drive out of Patagonia Lake we encountered our first roadrunner. The roadrunner was another bird that we were hoping to see and it didn't disappoint. This roadrunner posed for us in some brush, inched its way to the road and then took off running across the road into a drainage ditch. It proceededto run along the ditch with us as we drove. A running roadrunner is a very entertaining sight.

We arrived at Madera canyon to find it without any water which really cut down on the wildlife in the area. The docent at the front entrance did recommend a trail for us to hike to find the trogon since they nested along this trail. So, we drove up to the top of the canyon and set out on a series of hikes looking for the trogon. Once again, we had no luck, but we did have a great encounter with a Painted Redstart.

On the way out of the canyon, we stopped at the feeders put up by the Santa Rita Lodge and saw a few more "lifers" including the Bridled Titmouse and Yellow-eyed Junco.

The next day we were off to New Mexico but took the back roads so that we could stop and hit some hiking and birding spots. Our first stop was at San Pedro NWR which is just east of Sierra Vista. This is a great area to hike and look for wildlife. They too have set up dozens of feeders that attract all sorts of birds. We saw dozens of American Goldfinch, Gila Woodpeckers, and more.

We hiked a 2 to 3 mile loop trail hoping to spot some mammals. We only ended up seeing some white-tailed deer but that was OK given that the scenery was spectacular.

Based on a tip from the docent at the Patagonia Lake visitor center, we headed off to Whitewater Draw NWR after lunch. Apparently there were thousands of sandhill cranes and snow geese in the area and a resident great-horned owl. We took a lot of backloads to get to Whitewater Draw which enabled us to see more roadrunners and our first coyote. Plus, it allowed us to test "zippy" a few times as we passed slow vehicles. Each pass provided ample excitement.

Whitewater Draw itself is not very picturesque. A medium sized lake in the middle of a desert valley. However, it was obviously one of the few water sources around which is why it attracted all the area wildlife. When we arrived, there were probably a few thousand cranes, but every 5 minutes groups of a hundred more would fly in. By the time we left, there had to be over 5,000 cranes with more arriving all the time. Too bad we couldn't' be there first thing in the morning for the big liftoff, but we did get a few mini liftoff shows and some nice flybys.

We also spotted Gadwall, Ruddy Ducks, American Coots, Mallards, a juvenile bald eagle and of course, the resident great-horned owl. We had a very enjoyable lunch sitting on zippy's tailgate watching and listening to the cranes.

The afternoon was spent driving around 4 hours to Bosque Del Apache via Bisbee and then up through New Mexico. I had hoped to have time to venture through Tombstone, but it wasn't in the cards this trip since we wanted to get to our destination before dark if possible The 75 mph AZ and NM speed limits helped a lot but didn't allow for much wildlife spotting although we did spot a coyote in the fields and another roadrunner along one of the back roads on the way to the freeway.

As we left Arizona behind, we couldn't help but be impressed by the mountains, cactus, and trees of southern Arizona. It was much prettier than we thought it would be. And, despite not finding the Elegant Trogon, we did see lots of new birds and had some great hikes.

Highway 10 through southern new Mexico is not the most scenic of drives to say the least and the periodic warning signs of high winds, dust storms and potential zero visibility didn't do anything to add to the experience. We encountered some rain along the way but still managed to reach our destination, San Antonio New Mexico, around dusk.

Click on the "Older Posts" link below to continue to the New Mexico Report.

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