Hummingbird Express

7 July update
Hummin’ a happy tune!

This one really will be brief as I’m on a flight, and my laptop battery is low.

Sometimes good things come in fours – and that’s the hummingbird story over 26 hour period. A Rufous Hummingbird plus three rarities: White-eared Hummingbird, Plain-capped Starthroat and Green (aka Mexican) Violetear.

A male White-eared Hummer had been reported shortly after my arrival in SE Arizona from remote French Joe Canyon by a researcher monitoring cuckoos. I tried to find out more about the sighting from the discussion groups and telephone round about, but couldn’t track down the fellow reporting it for better details. I’d heard about the canyon previously, from various trip reports including John Vanderpoel’s big year blog a few years ago. Its notorious for being tough on cars and kidneys, as well as being the place where Wyatt Earp shot Curly Joe. Presumably not the French one - nor Larry and Moe’s mate, but presumably a wild west character maybe played by John Ford or Bruce Dern on a Hollywood film set.

So I took the info I had and hiked into the canyon from an hour pre-sunrise, anticipating a hot morning. But as it turned out, it was an easy walk – only taking an hour and a half, and it was a beautiful cool morning following the monsoonal rainfall of the previous afternoon and partial cloud cover. The oak-filled canyon and surrounding rugged scenery is absolutely gorgeous. Curly Joe’s resting place ranks with Chino Canyon near Madera Canyon as among my favourite arid landscapes anywhere. And as per the previous day's trip report, full of birds. Lots of Black-chinned and Broad-billed hummers feeding from the flowering yucca plants, but no White-eared Hummingbird to be seen. I tried hiking up the two creek forks about a mile each, but no big densities of hummers. I climbed the north side of the canyon to get a better look down at the comings and goings of hummingbirds to the enormous yucca stalks. But no sign of my guy, only ‘poor man’s’ White-eared hummers (female Broad-bills). While up above the gorge mid-morning I was re-entered phone/internet range, and therefore got the heads up that a Green Violetear had turned up in Texas. Not at the B and B place in Utopia where I spent two days on a cold Violetear trail two weeks ago, but a private residence west of San Antonio. I felt like Jimmy Durante when he sang about the ‘did ja ever have the feeling that you wanted to go..., but you you still had the feeling that you wanted to stay?’ conundrum. I decided to give up on the French Joe bird and get to San Antonio, maybe in time for a late avo look for the Violetear. But after clearing the canyon area, I had ‘that’ feeling, and like Jimmy, turned around and went back to the upper edge of the treed area for a final look. From ten o’clock I stood for about ten minutes just beyond the edge of the oak growth watching Broad-tailed hummers chase one another to and fro before ‘the’ hummingbird seemed to purposely zip out of the woods to my right and into a hover position at eye level, no more than three metres away, suspended almost motionlessly while seemingly staring me down. I haven’t had had a hummingbird behave quite that way previously, it would be tempting to authropormophise about it. There was no mistaking the identification of bird. Even in its tree-shaded position the dramatic white on ‘black’ facial markings and red-based bill combo was quite stunning. In the three or four second jaw-dropped mode I may have thought about raising the camera, but know from experience that I’d have never achieved focus if I had. It shot straight back into the oak forest – unfortunately not uphill to the exposed yuccas. As exciting as the experience was, I chose to get to the airport asap rather than hope for another view.

Looking above French Joe Canyon

You meet the oddest people in SE Arizona, including territorial Scaled Quail

Another view looking up, from nearly the top of the extensive oak woodlands

With a skip in my step I got about halfway back to the car – just before 11 before my phone rang. It was Becky at the Santa Rita Lodge giftshop. After giving up on the Plain-capped Starthroat the previous day, I’d left my card with her and asked if she’d please call me if any rarities showed up over the next couple of days. Great news! The Starthroat was seen for an extended period ending just ten minutes earlier. I shifted gears and got to the car in double-time. Could I get the Starthroat and still get to Texas pre sunset? I got in the car, and a few minutes later was hammering north towards Benson. Flashing blue lights from the SUV behind me – damn! But the young guy who tapped on my window wasn’t a traffic cop, but a border patrol agent. After a few questions he loosened up and explained that they’d been watching my sort-of hidden vehicle all morning thinking it may have been related to a report of a group of illegals preparing to pass through the French Joe canyon any day. I told him about some clothing and rubbish that I’d seen a half-mile above the canyon, and he was very interested in my photos of the scene.

I got to the Santa Rita Lodge feeders at something like 12:30. There were a number of birders on hand, but the Starthroat hadn’t been seen since 10:30. I did what I hate doing – I sat and waited. Lots of hummer activity, including impressive Magnificant Hummingbirds. But the target bird was elusive, and one by one the birders left. No more than five minutes after the birder left, the star performer suddenly appeared – firstly at the right-most feeder, then one of the left-most feeder. Again, as happens with hummingbirds – the ‘real deal’ is unmistakeable amongst the usual suspects. Awesome bird!  And off to the airport!

Plain-capped Starthroat: hooray!

The best I could do at that stage was to get a flight that got me into San Antonio at 11PM local time (two hours later than Arizona time). There were hassles with the car hire arrangements – but that’s what you get if you don’t stick with Alamo. I got to bed at 1ish, and kept my appointment with the homeowners Jan and Rick at the ‘gig’ at 8 AM. Several gals from the San Antonio Audubon Society were already there. It was a great atmosphere, but the Violetear was not playing ball, and as Micky Mouse’s arms spun ‘round, I began to face the possibility that I was a day late and dollar short – despite Laura Keene seeing the bird the previous afternoon. But it happened. What a bird! No photo initially, so I hung around another hour or so and it made a brief return visit to one of the feeders before zipping over to a roosting spot in an evergreen, where I could point the camera and at least get a distant shot through the window. 

Happy days when team hummer finally nailed down the sporadic Violetear 
from kitchen and living room window views.

Newly renamed 'split': introducing the Mexican Violetear. Back in the old days, a couple of weeks ago, I spent a couple of days in vane waiting for a rumored 'Green Violetear' a bit further west at a Utopia, Texas B& B. I believe that trail was way cold by the time I had my go, so was greatly relieved when this fresh individual hit the collective birding radar.

Three coded hummers in 26 hours. Sometimes when things happen, they really do happen. That’s 89 rarities for the year so far (including the two ‘provisionals’) and closing in on Sandy Komito’s record haul of 96 coded species during his insane 1998 big year blitz. Exciting stuff!

Reflecting more on Arizona - sorry for the backwards and forwarding, but you have no idea what extreme that can be taken to... I confess to a continuing sense of falling in love with the place. I loved the high desert country and sky islands in the winter. But that summer is here - and the heat is buffered by periodic monsoon rains, the birds are breeding, the snakes are moving, and the wildlife is in an apparent state of exuberance. Haven't the birds, mammals and reptiles heard that the world is falling apart? The splendor of nature to my eye isn't skipping a beat - and I find myself increasingly wrestling with an internal attraction to the place.  I don't want to leave!

The rainbow pointing the way to Five-striped Sparrows and 
Black-capped Gnat-catchers at Chino Canyon

Tucson - I gotta get me some of that! Or should I? What's Jimmy's advice?