Birding Blog Archives

January 25th, 2009

Baird’s Sparrow

Embarrassingly, in the six years I’ve been in Arizona I’d never visited the San Rafael Valley… until today. Keen AZ birders will know that if I’ve not been to San Rafael Valley I’ve almost certainly not seen a Baird’s Sparrow, and they would be correct. This scarce winter visitor is very particular about its grassland habitats, and is extremely elusive to boot, so most people take several attempts to locate their first one. I was prepared to be dissappointed…

However, luck was on my side as I had two excellent birding companions with me – Dick Filby, part time resident of Colorado but better known as the owner of the RBA bird news service in the UK, and Al Levantin, Dick’s birding buddy from Colorado and coincidentally one of the subjects of the classic birding tale, The Big Year. I’d met Dick a few times in Britain but I’d not met Al before – they both proved to be superb company. Thanks chaps! 🙂

Having finally got to grips with Dick’s main target the day before, Montezuma Quail, Baird’s Sparrow was now firmly in their sights. Shame I had no experience in trying to find them! No matter. We met in Patagonia at the Sinaloa Wren site, allowing me my fourth unsuccessful attempt to see this increasingly painful rarity. And the bloody thing is still there…

On approaching the San Rafael Valley you travel through oaks and then junipers before cresting a ridge and crashing into a beautiful golden sea of grass. It’s quite sensational. We made our way to the site of the most recent reports – which seemed a bit hopeful to me, seeing as all the habitat looked identical. But Dick explained that Baird’s Sparrows were known to be very faithful to a particular slope, a particular patch of grass even, and then the idea didn’t seem quite so silly anymore.

We worked the grass, flushing Savannah Sparrows and Horned Larks all over, and a pleasing number of Chestnut-collared Longspurs, but there was nothing that looked like a Baird’s Sparrow. Another group of birders was working the opposite hillside and we met them heading back to the car. They’d found one! And told us where they first located it, pushing it to the top of the hill in order to gain several flight views.

We reasoned that the bird would be faithful to the spot they first encountered it and would have made its way back. We spread out and swept up the hillside, but to no avail. We headed back down at a slightly different angle and before long Dick flushed a bird that did what Baird’s Sparrows are supposed to do, fly a few yards then dive back into the grass. It also had some yellow about it’s face… it looked good…

Wary of Baird’s Sparrow’s habit of running at right angles to where they landed and hunkering down, we assembled at the spot it had landed and started to spread out. But to everyone’s astonishment a few seconds later Dick exclaimed “there it is, right where it landed, in the grass right in front of us!”. And what’s more, it was working through the tangled vegetation, mouse-like, heading for the only flat, almost bare patch of ground on the slope. Surely not… would it come right out in the open…? Yes!!!

Typically, after spending a good few seconds taking this new bird in, I then messed up getting a shot by being all cack handed at the wrong time, finally focusing on it the moment it flew, never to be seen again. Still, we saw it, and got stunning views too!

After heading back to the car we rode the roads for a while, getting photos of the resident wildlife.

The rest of the day was spent at Patagonia Lake, searching for a Rufous-backed Robin which was determined to avoid detection (which it managed successfully, and has done ever since, leading me to conclude that it has in fact buggered off). We did find some nice birds there, including a pair of Black-capped Gnatcatchers. Only a few years ago this was still a major US rarity, but like one or two other Mexican species down here on the border, they are now breeding at several sites in SE Arizona.

Back in Patagonia there was still time to miss the wren once more before dusk, plus the Montezuma Quails that Al had guaranteed me. A money back guarantee, I believe Al said… 😉

So, a very successful and enjoyable day with the two ideal companions. Can’t ask for much more than that…

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