Baird's sparrow is a bird that many might not have thought I would have a chance of seeing this year. This bird nests in south-central Canada and the north-central United States. As I did not pass through either of these areas, you might think I was out-of-luck with respect to this bird. However, there is a small group of these birds that winter in the San Rafael Grasslands in Southeastern Arizona. As the Sinaloa wren would bring me close to this general area, it was a no brainer to make tack on a search for this bird. I looked for these birds in January 2011 without success. On that trip, I think my failure resulted from a late arrival to the grasslands. I was not going to make the same mistake today.
A 4:45am wake-up preceded a 5:00am, pitch-black departure. I had a about 13 miles and 1,200 feet of climbing to reach the center of the San Rafael Valley. This valley is nestled in the mountains to the east of Patagonia and to the west of the Huachucas. The flat basin is filled with an assortment of grasses and contrasted with woody foliage on the surrounding hills. It gives visitors a amazing sense of physical space and beauty. There was no one else around when I arrived at 6:25 this morning. It was really incredible to have the entire place to myself.
Up and down
Hills to the northeast of the grasslands
The view from the road
The Baird's search would commence from above spot exactly at sunrise. According to locals, as the sun first rises, the birds and several other sparrows species perch on the barbed wire fences that parallel the main road through the valley. They do this presumably to warm up after a chilly night (It was 44F this morning). However, this perching window soon closes, and the birds disappear into the waist-high grass for the remainder of the day. Upon arrival, I ate a sandwich an settled in to await sunrise. By the time the sun peaked over the Huachucas at 6:50, I was all set to start sorting through the hoards of sparrows in search of my Baird's prize.
Exactly zero sparrows appeared for the first 20 minutes. At 40 minutes, it was the same story. An hour had passed and still zero sparrows had taken to the wires. A local guide came by. He said that this was very unusual as the birds normally come out of the grass right at sunrise. I was starting to wonder what the hell was going on. Maybe the overnight winds had caused a disruption to the birds' normal routine. I started to wonder if I would have to wait until tomorrow to find this bird. Slowly though, a trickle of Savannah sparrows took to the wires. A pair of Vesper sparrows joined the Savannahs. This was encouraging. Alex and Jill Johnson, my hosts for last night and tonight who had joined me this morning, called me from down the road to tell me they had found a nice spot where sparrows materializing. I slowly birded my way to meet them. As I arrived, the guide located for his client a single Baird's sitting on a wire. Dropping the bike in the road, I slinked up behind his car. Sparrows on wires are relatively accepting of people in cars, but much less so of people on foot. I figured I could hunker behind the car to obtain a few photos of year bird #585. This plan worked perfectly as the below will demonstrate!
Baird's sparrow - a lifer for me!
White belly, well-defined dark streaks on cheast,
buffy face, black "ear spot", flat Ammodramus head
The early wake-up had paid off! This bird was located at around 8:20am or so. Over the course of the next hour, we found an additional 2-3 birds along the roadside wires. At one point we had a very nice comparison of a Baird's next to a Savannah which was in turn right next to 2 Grasshopper sparrows! As the morning wore on though, sparrows of all species retired to the deep grasses. By 9:30am it was done. There was literally a 1-hour window during which the birds showed. The plan had worked to perfection! The wind had started to pick up a bit, so I decided to bird my way back home and relax for the afternoon. The wind this afternoon was going to be too strong to make any worthwhile direction along the route. There's going to be a ton of riding in the near future, so a bit of rest now will only help. I did see Mexican/Gray-breasted Jay, Ladder-bkaced woodpecker, and an assortment of other roadside birds as I descended from the grasslands.
We were also joined by Ron Beck of Cochise County bike big year fame.
Me looking sleepy, Ron, Alex
Ron knows about my notorious sweet tooth. He brought
some Tootsie-Pop "contraband" that he slipped me after
we finished birding.
I can now turn my attention squarely towards Texas. It's going to take bit of time to get there, but the payoff should be big. Tomorrow should be a nice ride, but wind will complicate things a bit on Saturday. After that, a nice west blow should be restored for a few days. I gotta throw down hundos on days when I have tailwinds (hundos = rides of 100+ miles).
Also, if you don't get along with your family, maybe you should contact these folks....