2017-05-01 2 Days In The Santa Rita Mountains

Black-Capped Gnatcatcher - Polioptila nigriceps

With instructions to find Florida Canyon, I headed south from Tucson to explore new places. I’ve visited nearby Madera Canyon twice before, but I’d been hearing about Florida Canyon for years and thought it was about time I got acquainted with the place. I was told I might find a couple of new birds there; the Rufous-Capped Warbler and the Black-Capped Gnatcatcher. When I finally found my way to the canyon, both birds eluded me. Lucky for me, I don’t gauge the success or failure of a trip by birds on a checklist. The quest for birds is a means to lead me into wonderful natural places. If I find birds, it’s a bonus.

Hiking into the canyon is not too difficult, but by the time you strap on 40-50 pounds of camera gear and drinking water, whatever level of difficulty the trail might offer is compounded. I don’t attack a trail when I’m on a mission to photograph birds. Rather, I engage it by walking a short distance, then stopping to look and listen to the actors in the area. If I encounter an interesting subject, I’ll linger longer and attempt a capture.

Hepatic Tanager - Piranga flavaWhile I was about halfway up the trail I met a group of three photographers with a different agenda. These fellows were on a “Warbler Big Year In Photographs” mission. They were good friends and seemed to enjoy each other’s company as much as they did the birding. They had been up the canyon and did not get the images of the Rufous-Capped Warbler except for a fleeting “ID” quality image or two.

In the few hours I spent ascending and descending the canyon trail, I met the Bridled Titmouse, Broad-Billed Hummingbird, Western Flycatcher (Cordilleran?), Dusky-Capped Flycatcher, Green-Tailed Towhee, Canyon Towhee, Phainopepla, Summer Tanager, and Western Tanager. I was especially happy with my visit with the Summer Tanager as my previous meetings with this bird in years past yielded only unsatisfactory images. After exploiting Florida Canyon for all the treasure I could loot, I took a quick run to Madera Canyon to scout the Black-Capped Gnatcatcher. Then I spent the night in the desert on the north flanks of the Santa Rita Mountains.

At first light I drove back up to Proctor Road in lower Madera Canyon and found a gnatcatcher which provided me with some nice photos. Following my time with the gnatcatcher, I found Bell’s Vireos in the riparian woods were very chatty, but it was the Hepatic Tanager I most enjoyed. With the Western and Summer Tanagers I found yesterday, this bird made it a Tanager Trifecta! I spent the rest of the morning with hummingbirds and warblers. When the trio of bird photographers I’d met yesterday in Florida Canyon showed up, I visited with them and enjoyed their company and that of other local birders.

Madera Canyon is a beautiful place. One can experience it while never leaving the pavement. You should usually expect a lot of visitors, as many people come here, not just for birds, but to hike and picnic. I wet my finger and raised it to the wind, then made the decision to return to Florida Canyon to see if I might get lucky with the Rufous-Capped Warbler or the Northern Bearded Tyrannulet that hang out there.

After driving the six and a half miles from one canyon to the other, I gathered my gear and drinking water and started my way up the canyon trail again. I met two more groups coming down that struck-out with the warbler, but I was determined to make the trek, anyway. I had the canyon to myself (try THAT in Madera Canyon!) and I found several stops under the shade of trees to relax and enjoy the ambiance. When I was done with the canyon, I’d not found either target bird, but I had a swell day. As I reached the lower canyon, I finally spotted the Gray Hawk’s nest I’d been told of. The nest was at a distance and in the middle of the fenced off compound at the end of the road accessing the canyon. Hikers park their cars below the locked access gate and the nesting raptors are well insulated from the activities of the people on their day trips up the canyon.

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