Blast from the past Arriving in Arizona Before The Biggest Twitch

Back in December 2007 we were about to embark on the adventure of a life time...

Magnificent Hummingbird and it really is, even better in real life!

We always thought that Arizona was for American birders without passports with a serious fear of spicy food! But it is so much more than a watered-down Mexico it is a fantastic birding destination in its own right and that is why we had come. It had always been our plan to start in North America as we wanted maximum publicity for The Biggest Twitch amongst the birding community. Given the huge number of birders in North America, it had to begin here. Then it became a case of where in the United States. Arizona has a huge list of birds in varied habitats and usually a great climate, and we had a secret weapon in Tucson.

We had left home, Llandudno, North Wales at five am on the 28th December 2007 and travelled to the USA. It was important for us to recce the best birding sites and plan a detailed route before day one. With only three days of The Biggest Twitch in Arizona, we needed to make every second count. We arrived late in the evening and crashed out after a long journey. The Motel 8 had everything we needed, a bed!

Dawn on the 29th and we were cruising the streets of downtown Tucson looking for just one thing, food. Now one of the things we really love about the states is the breakfasts. A full English, or Welsh in our case, hits the spot sure, especially after an early morning birding session, but here breakfast is mega! There it was, Coco’s Diner, just what we were looking for. The friendly staff made us very welcome, and we were soon devouring huge plates full of pancakes, bacon, toast and washing it down with mugs of steaming tea, just perfect.

We waddled out into the cold bright morning and thought about seeing some birds! First though we needed our secret weapon, Moez Ali. Moez is a friend of ours and lives in Tucson, the very reason in fact why we are here. We love to catch up with friends any time but three days before we were due to embark on the adventure of a lifetime this was not just a social call. We needed Moez, we needed expert local bird knowledge, and he is the man. Now Moez is a little unusual for a Tucson birder being Kenyan of Asian descent, who has recently moved to the US. In late 2007 he was still waiting for his Green Card that would allow him to stay and work in the states. It was a tense time for him, as an Asian he was often viewed with suspicion, while in Southern Texas birding at High Island he popped into a hard ware store for some bits to do some repairs on the house he was staying in and was asked by the shop keeper if he was making a bomb! He has also been given a hard time by immigration officials as he enters the US so you can see he might be a trifle paranoid about doing anything that might jeopardise his Green Card. We even joked his should change his name to John Smith.

A real wow bird - the Painted Redstart and new species for us, gorgeous bird.

With Moez safely in the back of our hired Jeep we are off and heading for Madera Canyon, in the Santa Rita mountains. We flashed through cactus, mesquite and juniper scrub under a cobalt blue sky with the sun inching higher. The mountains loomed ahead and as we neared; we could see more detail of their rugged outline. Despite the bright sun it was still cold, and a fringe of ice clung to the tiny streams. We hiked the canyon and enjoyed wonderful birds, Painted Redstarts sparrow sized with red belly, white wing and tail flashes, the rest black, quite a looker, clown faced Acorn Woodpeckers, and a Granola bar was shared with Mexican Jays. We stood outside a lovely house peering at a hummingbird feeder; the house owner popped his head out and invited us in. From inside we could see another feeder hidden at the back of the house and moments later we were watching Magnificent Hummingbird, and it was!

Speaking of amazing birds we give you Acorn Woodpecker, not sure why it so big!!

It was then back to Tucson for some very necessary admin, our computer needed some tender loving care and luckily, we soon found a store that knew just what was needed. So back in communication with the wide world we logged on and updated our blog, something which was to become a daily routine during the next year.

On the eve of New Year’s Eve, we again had a blow out breakfast at Coco’s Diner and then, with Moez, headed south for Patagonia. No, we did not leave Arizona, but headed for the Patagonia near the Mexican border, an area famous for producing a mouth-watering array of US rarities. En-route we crossed the Sonoita Grasslands where roadside stops produced Gambel’s Quail, White-tailed Kite and Eastern Meadowlarks, Moez made sure we parked well off the road for fear of upsetting any passing highway patrols.

We reached Patagonia Lake State Park and were soon racking up yet more amazing birds: Montezuma’s Quail scuttled out from under our feet, Louisiana Waterthrush played hide and seek amongst the willow roots, American Pipits strolled across the frozen water, and it was a good chance to familiarise ourselves with the call. The open water areas held a good selection of birds including Sora Rails furtively fed along the waters edge, Eared and Pied-billed Grebes dived for fish, popping back up like corks, Spotted and Least Sandpipers picked at the surface of exposed mud, Cinnamon and Blue-winged Teals dabbled in the shallows, what a great place!

Moez said it was time to move; reluctantly we dragged ourselves away from this birding oasis and moved on to Kino Springs. A small pool held a handsome pair of Hooded Mergansers, and the trees Gilded Flicker and with a little work we dug out both Rock and Marsh Wrens.

No slacking, on again to the renowned Patagonia Rest (a lay-by alongside a small stream with sheer rock walls above). It does not look much but to American birders it is a legendary spot, it has turned up a staggering list of vagrant birds for North America over the years. None this day, but we did enjoy Black-chinned Sparrows our main target bird here.

Next stop the famous Paton’s Birders Haven in Patagonia town itself – wow, what a place! The garden was alive with birds all attracted by an array of feeders dispensing a variety of food. Where do you look first? Seed feeders buzzed with Blue Grosbeak, Lazuli Bunting, White-throated Sparrow, the strange Pyrrhuloxia, a member of the Cardinal family, complete with crest and powerful bill, while below Gambel’s Quail fed on the pieces of the feast dropped by those above. On the sugar-water feeder a male Anna’s Hummingbird positively glowed in the late afternoon sunshine. Paton’s is a great place to meet other birders, not surprising given the show, and we chatted and birded, everyone was amazed at our plan for 2008 and keen to offer helpful advice on where we might find that extra species or two. If the first days of the New Year can reproduce the last days of 2007, we should be off to the best possible start!

Dawn on New Years Eve. Less than 24 hours before The Biggest Twitch begins and nerves are building, what we have committed ourselves to? It is another beautiful Tucson morning, calm, clear and cold, we pray tomorrow will dawn the same. One last major site to check before the big day, a sewage-works. Sweetwater Treatment Works, Tucson is not like sewage-works back home in the UK, this place is positively birder friendly. A special parking area is provided which has full colour information boards showing the birds we can expect to see, trails round the pools, with viewing platforms. Loos and miles of smooth trails you can easily push a wheelchair along. Many of our nature reserves in the UK would kill for facilities like these! Sweetwater has one more thing, birds, lots of birds! No sooner had we entered than we came across a pair of Cactus Wrens busily building a nest in, you have guessed it, a cactus. We enjoyed so many birds here that time flew by, so it came as a shock when we realised it was time to head back to town. We had preparations to make for the big day. There would be no time for cafes and shopping tomorrow we would need to have everything we needed in the jeep. So, we loaded up with sugar snacks, sandwiches, and plenty of energy drinks to keep us going flat out all day. Then back to the Motel to update the blog and crash out for an early night before the start of our great adventure.

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