Trogon Trip: Paton House

The Paton House deserves its own post. It was started by generous homeowners, Wally and Marion Paton who loved birds and set up feeders, a chalk board for sightings, and invited birders to their yard beginning in 1973. After their passing, the property was picked up by Tucson Audubon to preserve the scenic location as a haven for birds and birders alike. It warms my heart that such a place like this exists.

We made three visits in our five days in Patagonia and we saw 45 species, including lifers for all of us. And we closed the place down each time we went. It was that good.

At the Hummingbird feeders were Anna’s, Broad-billed, and my lifer Violet-crowned Hummingbird.

On the suet in the trees were gobs of Yellow-rumped Warblers,White-breasted Nuthatch, and Ladder-backed Woodpeckers. Sometimes all at once.

On the thistle was an out of season American Goldfinch, Pine Siskin, and Lesser Goldfinch, including one of the “Texas” varieties with much more black on its back.

The seed feeders (surprisingly) attracted Lazuli Buntings.

And one evening, my lifer female Blue Grosbeak shyly came out for a visit.

In the brush piles below were White-crowned Sparrows, Lincoln’s Sparrows, Chipping sparrows, and Rufous-winged Sparrows.

That totally didn’t look like Chipping Sparrows. Nope, not at all.

Gambel’s Quail would call “pup waay pop, pup waay pop” as they scratched around in the dirt and perched on brush piles.

Like clockwork in the evening a female Pyrrhuloxia would cautiously join the other ground feeders for a snack. We spent enough time here to get to know some of the regular birds and their habits.

One time Sarah spotted a pair of Inca Doves near a brush pile, they are so tiny, they made the White-winged Doves look like behemoths.

In the skies above Max spotted (his and Sarah’s lifer!) a Gray Hawk circling above. (I’d seen one once before in Texas).

And on our last day, with no other expected life birds on the horizon, Max left to get something out of the car then came running back to alert Sarah and I because he thought he’d seen a Zone-tailed Hawk mixed in with the Turkey Vultures in the sky! Sure enough!

Totally not a Turkey Vulture

Life bird for all of us! It was a very lucky sighting. And a very lovely time at Paton House.

Thank you Wally and Marion.

Tweets and chirps,

Audrey

SoCal: Death Valley

Our final destination on this trip was Death Valley. I had no idea what to expect. I’d driven through a portion of the valley a decade ago but didn’t remember how mountainous it actually is.

Temps during our stay were in the high 70s at day and low 50s at night. It was perfect.

The first night we stayed at Furnace Creek Campground located next to the Death Valley Visitor Center and the Oasis at Death Valley (formerly known as Furnace Creek Resort). There’s an expensive inn, an economy hotel and a few private RV campgrounds in the area including Fiddler’s Campground that had live music (karaoke and sometimes yodeling) after dark that could be heard from our campsite a block away.

Bat!

Bats made up for the lack of ambiance. I knew camping here would be a challenge but this lush green “oasis” is where many birds drop down during migration.

Amid festivals, a parade, construction, general business and a constant stream of cars and people around me I made the most of it and birded like I do. Luckily the birds didn’t seem to mind the chaos. The first evening I found a pair of Canada Geese on the golf course, because of course they would be there even in the desert.

Per the Birder’s Guide to SoCal the golf course is private property and birders are not welcome while others “commit golf.” So I followed the rules and birded from the fringes.

Though some were less obedient.

Golf course face-off

Par 4 Say’s Phoebe

From aerial photos (and per some eBird reports) I could see ponds on the property, but I couldn’t find a way to access them without trespassing. I got pretty close but ran into a dead end of thorny shrubs and had to backtrack a couple of miles. Not my finest hour. But I did find a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher (not black-tailed since it has more white under the tail).

And a Verdin.

I ran out of time (energy and water) to find another way in. The best waterbird besides the geese was a flyover Mallard.

Good job desert-duck

The book mentions to look for White-winged doves calling from the Tamarisks or, “lately, Eurasian Collared Doves.” I could only find Eurasian-collared Doves and there are sparse eBird reports of White-winged on the property in recent years and none from 2018.

Shocking

The grounds had a few good sparrow spots. I found House, Savannah, Golden-crowned, White-crowned, weird looking Song Sparrows.

And lots of Lincoln Sparrows.

One lucky afternoon I picked out a (Red) Fox Sparrow in the heat waves.

It was interesting to see birds’ strategies for keeping cool. Most stayed in the shade.

Shady House Sparrows

Some panted, or splashed in puddles or took dust baths. I saw some blackbirds drinking from sprinklers at the visitor center and I found a pair of Great-tailed Grackles taking shade under cars in the parking lot.

The best parking lot bird was a Harris’s Sparrow! A rare bird for the area.

I “pished” for a brief moment and it immediately popped out on a close shrub.

Too close

Amazing! I found a variety of Icterids too, including Brewer’s Blackbird, Red-winged Blackbird, Brown-headed Cowbird, and the best surprise was Western Meadowlark.

In the shade of trees above there was a Cooper’s Hawk.

I had a couple of falcon fly-bys a Peregrine and a Prairie.

We had perfect weather until almost the last day when a windstorm blew through the valley. It wouldn’t be Death Valley if it didn’t try to kill us. The windstorm then turned into a sandstorm. Terrible for birding or doing anything outside.

Leaving the storm

Luckily we had the van for shelter, and this was also the day we drove to a smaller campground at higher elevation called Wildrose. It was less sandy here, but still very windy.

From the safety of the van I spotted Black-throated Sparrows on the hillsides.

We drove a little ways past the campground towards the charcoal kilns but the road conditions turned too bumpy so we turned around. On the way back we pulled over for a Horned Lark that hopped right up next to the van.

And we had distant looks at a Golden Eagle!

Back at the campsite I walked the road down to a small creek and found a Ladder-backed Woodpecker.

American Robin photobomb

A Bewick’s Wren.

And a Fox Sparrow scratching in the leaves.

As the sun was setting (at 4pm) and as I walked back to the campground I felt good about how birdy Death Valley was but I was also a little sad I hadn’t seen the poster-bird, a Greater Roadrunner, when just at that moment one walked right out in front of me. It raised its tail up and slowly lowered it down then continued down the road.

It was the perfect ending.

I have to say, writing about our trip I can’t help but think about the recent fires in California. It’s heartbreaking news. I’ve made a donation to the San Francisco SPCA for their disaster relief efforts to save animals affected by the fires. Much love to everyone in the state, they’ve been through a lot.

XOXO and happy holidays,

Audrey

SoCal: Joshua Tree

We spent three nights at Joshua Tree National Park. One night near the southern entrance at Cottonwood Campground and two nights at Jumbo Rocks Campground. The park and campgrounds were pretty busy but people quieted down for the most part at night.

Jumbo Rocks

We explored the park on our way in, stopping at the cactus garden where I thought for sure I’d find a Cactus Wren. But no such luck.

At both campgrounds at night we tried out the blacklight gear our friends lent us to look for scorpions. Lo and behold! They glow!

This was one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen. Basically like gaining a super power: Scorpion Vision. They light up thanks to a hyaline layer in their exoskeleton that reacts to UV light. Theories suggest they glow as a way to determine when to come to the surface to look for prey depending on the amount of moonlight. Cool stuff.

Tomas’s macro shots were even cooler.

Leaving Cottonwood we stopped at the RV dump station to drain the graywater when I spotted a dark bird not far away. We hurried over to see my first Phainopepla!

Pronounced “fay-no-PEHP-lah.” This was pretty exciting and a great way to start the day. I found five more life birds at Joshua Tree. On the small trail at the Oasis Visitor Center, I found Cactus Wren.

They’re like Bewick’s Wren on steroids. It was pretty fun watching them climb up palm trunks.

Another was Black-tailed Gnatcatcher. Smaller than Blue-gray Gnatcatcher with mostly black undertail and a drabber look.

Drab chic

And I finally saw Gambel’s Quail!

What a great spot. Back at our campsite we sat relaxing when Tomas said, there’s a bird under the picnic table. He’d found my lifer California Towhee!

It’s been a while since I’ve had so many new birds to look at. It was quite a treat. I walked around Jumbo Rocks Campground and at site #92 I heard the loveliest twittering song. Finally I saw it.

A thrasher! But which one?! It hopped to the ground and used its long bill to dig out ants while I scratched my head trying to ID.

Eventually I figured out with that dark iris, strong eye-line, and orange undertail, this was a California Thrasher! What an amazing bird to stumble on right at the campground.

Why hello there

One day we took a day trip to Big Morongo Canyon Preserve located about an hour outside Joshua Tree. It is an amazing place with boardwalks and trails (and feeders!) throughout 33,000 acres of desert oasis.

It was here I’d hoped to find my 500th life bird. There were so many potentials: Nuttall’s Woodpecker, Allen’s Hummingbird, Cassin’s Kingbird, and there’d even been a (cooperative) Ovenbird sighted recently. I had my hopes up! In total I spent more than four hours here searching, and walked almost four miles. And I found my 500th bird!

Oak Titmouse! Not exactly what I’d hoped for but a darn cute bird. I talked to some local birders and they mentioned the park was kind of slow this day. It’s too bad it’s not closer! Definitely a special place worth the visit.

Back at Joshua Tree I picked up a pamplet on the Birds of Joshua Tree National Park and wondered why the hell there’s a Cooper’s Hawk on the front cover. But then leaving the park we figured it out. Right on the entering Joshua Tree National Park sign we saw a young hawk.

Accurate

Then it flew onto and blended in with a Joshua Tree.

It makes sense, but still I think a better bird to represent the park would be something more localized to SW deserts like a Phainopepla.

Or a Loggerhead Shrike, to fit in with the desert theme.

Or even a Ladder-backed Woodpecker like the one we saw by Barker Dam hanging out on Chollus Cactus like it’s NBD.

So many good birds and good times in the desert at Joshua Tree!

We had a blast.

Tweets and chirps,

Audrey