Saturday, July 27, 2013


News of a Slate-throated Redstart came through just as I was leaving for home from San Diego. Really, I should be excited and grateful for any rarity turning up - the success of my Big Year is kind of dependent on the randomness of these guys. But with the excitement, there's a pit in my stomach - my much-anticipated - and requested - time at home is possibly going to be cut short. I'm not sure how much more of this Gerri and the cats will understand...

Slate-throated Redstart is a code 4 rarity that breeds from northern Mexico to southern Bolivia. For birders north of the border this is a good year for them: there was a spring record in the Chiricahuas, AZ. I was a week late for that bird (a combination of it not sticking around, and me being way too slow.) So - my chance at redemption.

I decide to rearrange my plans so I leave home almost as soon as I get back. I'll head to AZ on the way to my CA pelagic this weekend and the Mountain Quail chase with Bob Barnes on the 30th. Gerri understands some of this insanity although Sally cat doesn't...

What? You're going away again? But you only just got back?
Birds?! *That's* why you're leaving? Humans!

I land at Phoenix and immediately check for news of the bird. I have an email for the AZ listserv, the subject of which is, "Slate-throated Redstart - NO." Shit. As I'm cursing myself for not coming earlier, I scroll up and spot a message from the same guy that now says, "Slate-throated Redstart - YES." It apparently just reappeared. Phew! I could relax. If it was here this morning, and I had the whole afternoon and evening, I could pretty much tick this bird now. Woo-hoo!

Three hours later, I'm pulling into the military complex that is Fort Huachuca. At this point, I start to recall the comments from the rental car rep, who at the time I was just yessing - "watch out of the monsoon rains." Rain?! Really? I spent my whole life with rain. How bad could rain be? As I'm driving through the base, I'm actually starting to wonder...

Cue ominous music...

The road up here is bad enough, without the ..."eeeeeekkkkk." My phone's pretending to be a fire alarm. No - it's just a National Weather Service alert, "Dangerous Flash Floods in your area." And now the rain starts.

Even with my head 3 inches from the windshield, I can't see a thing. The rain is so thick, and the "road" looks like a river. It takes an eternity to navigate the 1.7 miles to the parking area. I can't go out in this - so decide to wait it out in my car.

"Beep, beep." It's the military police. Are you kidding me? Another speeding ticket? I'm not even moving! 

"The canyon's closed. You need to leave right, now." 

"Ummm...Slate-throated Redstart!!!!...Boston...just arrived...Slate-throated..."


OK. So much for my guaranteed bird. I'll be the first person not to see the bird. I guess this is where my recent luck runs out. As if to confirm this, as I'm leaving the canyon...

Next morning starts better. It's dry. The river road to the canyon has reverted back to the bone-dry bone-rattler as if yesterday never happened. As I get to the dam(n) area, I meet Melody Kehl, who originally found the bird. "It was seen 5 minutes ago, above the dam." Great! It's still here! But nothing in the next 2 hours suggests this to be the case. And then it rains. What if if never stops? What if they close the canyon again? When can I have my guaranteed bird?? Is Gerri feeding the cats?

I'm standing under a bare pine tree realizing why I'm getting so wet, when Laurens Halsey arrives. OK. Now we have a pro (see Laurens' photo of the bird here.) And the rain finally stops - and the birds start singing. We're treated to Painted Redstarts, Red-faced Warbler and distant Elegant Trogons. There's about 10 of us all standing around the dam area. I then start hearing a high-pitched chipping noise. And suddenly someone shouts out, "I've got the bird!" And they do. We're all treated to 2-3 minutes of the bird flitting around. What a beauty!

Slate-throated Redstart.

This is the Mexican subspecies, with a red breast and belly. In Guatamala it's more of an orange, and south of Panama it's a bright yellow.

As we're moving uphill to relocate the bird, we run into this guy...

Bear! Presumably the same guy that ripped apart a car earlier in the week. 
And the reason for the subsequent canyon closures. 

Probably a good time leave...

So - I have the afternoon free. And what better way to spend it that looking for a bird that I keep missing - the Black-capped Gnatcatcher. I've tried at least 6 times this year at Montosa Canyon - allegedly the best place (and this year pretty much the only place in the country) for this bird.

As usual, the place is hopping with gnatcatchers - blue, white and gray birds with long, often cocked, tails. Only they're all Black-tailed Gnatcatchers...

Black-tailed Gnatcatcher.
Notice the extensively black underside of the tail feathers.

There are also Varied and Indigo Buntings to enjoy while I'm looking. But it's getting very hot and very insecty, so I decide to leave. I'll just walk up to the bike trail sign and turn around. And that's when I hear it. The rising and falling buzz that I've been listening for. My pishing brings in 2 birds - and both have white undertails (so not Black-tailed) with distinctly long bills and graduated white undertail feathers. It's them! Black-capped Gnatcatchers! Finally!

Black-capped Gnatcatcher! 
White under tail and long bill.

Wow! I came back here more as a kind of ritual than with any expectation of actually finding this bird. In fact, I'd pretty much written off this bird for the year. Clearly the monsoon gods were being kind to me today!

I ended the day at Madera Canyon with one of my favorite, and lazy, birding activities - sitting and watching hummingbirds at feeders. I missed the Lucifer that had been reported today, but did see Violet-crowned and lots of lovely Broad-billed Hummers...

Broad-billed Hummingbird. Sana Rita Lodge, Madera Canyon.

Despite the rains, bear, closed canyon, once again AZ is still my favorite birding place. I'd love to spend a couple more days here watching the buzzing hummers, but my next flight beckons. It's taking me back to California. This time tomorrow, I'll be on a boat.

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NEW YEAR BIRDS (2): Slate-throated Redstart, Black-capped Gnatcatcher


  1. Love Sally's expression! Great blog... keep it up!

  2. Glad you were able to tick the redstart, Neil. Not sure if you received my message about it (though you probably had already heard about it, after seeing your name on the AZ RBA shortly after messaging you), but I tried. :)

  3. Glad you got the redstart and gnatcatcher. Keep the birds coming!

  4. Remind me to lend you my bear bells!

    1. Ha! I was thinking of you when I saw the bear. I knew you'd know what to do. I never know whether to run away as fast as you can, make lots of noise, be quiet, or pretend the bear isn't there. I know at least one of those choices is usually fatal! Thankfully I was there with bear experts.

      - Neil