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December 31st, 2010
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Atascosa Highlands CBC

I’ve been looking forward to this all year. We had such a good time last year.

The Atascosa Highlands and Pajarito Wilderness are on the Mexican border to the west of Nogales. It’s rugged, remote and absolutely beautiful, my favorite part of SE Arizona. Sadly, it’s also the current hotspot for trouble on the border. A Border Patrol Agent was shot and killed a few weeks ago in Peck Canyon, which is within the count circle, and another 20 or so similar incidents have occurred in the last 12 months. But as Rich Hoyer pointed out, it’s safer than driving down I-19 to get there in the first place, and most neighborhoods of Tucson are far more dangerous after dark, yet we live there every day without worrying about it. As it was, the Border Patrol presence was high and it was probably a very safe place to be. We certainly had no problems.

On last year’s count I had the good fortune to meet Jenise Porter, and we have been friends ever since. Jenise joined me and Joe Corcoran from Baltimore, and we got to Sycamore Canyon just at first light. Our section is Upper Sycamore Canyon, which includes the parking area, Yanks Canyon and Sycamore Canyon upstream of the parking area, i.e. the part nobody ever visits. It’s a really nice piece of habitat and has that special ‘rare bird vibe’.

The weather played a big part though. It was cold and for much of the morning it was snowing lightly. We struggled to find many birds all day, despite a concerted effort. In the end we missed Montezuma Quail again (only two of the 22 groups saw them) and our best birds were a lowland BROWN CREEPER and four EASTERN BLUEBIRDS, which proved to be the only ones on the count.

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Feeling a little defeated, we left our area slightly earlier than planned and headed to Pena Blanca Lake for the last few minutes of afternoon light. Jenise had never seen LEAST GREBE but we put that right as four were seen hiding in the tangle of flooded trees below Thumb Rock. A gull was flying around and later identified at the count up by those who had seen it better as a CALIFORNIA GULL. We saw a couple of NORTHERN SHOVELER flying over at dusk and thought little of it until it turned out they were the only ones seen on the count.

We’d worked hard for a fairly meagre return today, but we still felt somewhat vindicated, and satisfied to have taken part in the best Christmas Bird Count in the World. It was great to see everyone at the count up in the Longhorn Grill, then Joe and I headed back south to Nogales, where we saw in the New Year with an early night at a Motel 6, waking momentarily at midnight to the sounds of celabratory gunfire…

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