2020-05-27 Arivaca Cienega

Black Vulture - Coragyps atratus
This very cooperative bird was the first Black Vulture I’d met in Arizona. I found them quite common in South Texas.

After my visit to the Boyce Thompson Arboretum on Tuesday morning, I drove south 170 miles to Arivaca. The route I chose was not conventional and I passed through Three Points where AZ-86 connects to AZ-286 and headed south towards Sasabe. I turned east on the Arivaca-Sasabe Road and traversed this rough, pot-hole ridden road into the rural town of Arivaca. I was too tired from the drive to enjoy a tour of the cienega that afternoon, so I turned back and drove out of town west a few miles and found a side road where I could park for the night.

I woke at daybreak to a beautiful, golden sunrise. The promise of rewarding encounters with nature only became stronger when a small group of White-Tailed Deer, with tails held high, snorted at me from 100 yards away and decided I wasn’t their kind of company, then galloped away over the brush covered hillsides.

After breaking my fast, I drove to the Arivaca Cienega and hiked out to meet the day. The concrete trail leading from the parking lot to the cienega passes through a dense woodland of mesquite trees, where I was greeted by Lucy’s Warblers, Gila Woodpeckers, Blue Grosbeaks, Brown-Headed Cowbirds and Vermilion Flycatchers.

While I worked to capture images of these little guys I spotted a very large, very dark bird crossing low over the trees a hundred yards away from me. It sailed south toward the cienega. Turkey Vultures are common here, but this bird’s flight didn’t seem right for a Turkey Vulture. Not seeing the bird land or pass from my view of the cienega, I continued out to the end of the concrete walkway, keeping my gaze toward a large dead cottonwood tree to the right of the end of the entry path.

I was in luck! Perched low on the tree in the warm light of the morning sun was a Black Vulture. These birds had been a common sight when I was in south Texas, but this opportunity was too good to squander. As soon as I had an unobstructed view, I snapped a few frames. Not wanting to spook this strange and grotesque bird, I inched forward, gently lifting my camera and tripod and taking a step or two forward to take a few more shots. I repeated the process until I was filling the frame with images of the bird. I continued shooting, getting as many poses as the bird might offer, even catching a few frames of the bird preening or repositioning it’s perch in the tree. The red stains on the bird’s feet and head suggested it fed recently. With caution, I proceeded west along the trail looping around the cienega, leaving the bird content to perch in the warm morning sun until the air heated sufficiently to provide a rising thermal column and help elevate the vulture to fly out to seek more foraging opportunities.

Vermilion Flycatcher - Pyrocephalus rubinus
My first meeting with the Vermilion Flycatcher was here at Arivaca in the summer of 2003. I drove for three plus hours to spend two lovely hours with these birds at the Cienega in Arivaca before turning onto my final leg of my homeward journey from my 2020 Texas adventure.

It has been my habit during the past eighteen years that I’ve been visiting the cienega, to turn left at the end of the trail from the parking lot and circle clockwise to explore the grounds, but eighteen years ago there was a lot more water in the cienega. Years of drought and the demands of an ever-increasing human contingent seems to have lowered the water table, leaving less surface water in these wetlands.

I did not execute a full circle through the cienega this morning, but I ventured out in a counter-clockwise direction to the observation deck looking out over the site where once was a large pond. There had been recent reports that a Clay-Colored Thrush had been seen here, but I wasn’t inclined to invest a lot of energy in chasing this uncommon bird. The chats and flycatchers I met were ample reward for me. While exploring the trails past the observation deck, I noticed Mule Deer, and later Javelina crossing the cienega and moving south. Birds were not my only reward this morning.

When my morning here ended, I drove away on the same road I arrived on the previous day, but took a left turn at Three Way on AZ-86 towards Ajo, Gila Bend and Yuma, where I spent the night in a Denny’s parking lot and had breakfast before driving the last leg of my journey home. I made one last stop on Thursday in Brawley at Cattle Call Park before pushing over the coastal mountains, but that story will have to wait for now. Stay tuned!

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