Southern Arizona is a national hotspot for photographing migrating birds, that is, when the birds are migrating (www.tucsonaudubon.org). Bruce Hollingsworth and I just returned from a photo trip to southern Arizona and discovered that timing is everything. Everywhere where we attempted to photograph birds, we found that we were to early and that the "real" migration hadn't started yet. It is true that, although the winter had been mild, spring turned out cold and late. Bruce and I commented, as we drove to the birding hotspots, that the terrain still looked like winter. Desert shrubs were still without leaves and there were no sping flowers anywhere, except peoples' yards. We had planned an extensive itinerary, three days around Green Valley, three days around Patagonia, and three days around Sierra Vista. We had taken our own photo-blinds hoping for opportunities to set them up at strategic locations for some close-up shooting. All in all, the venture was only partially successful. We did not capture as many images as we had hoped and only had a few new species to add to our portfolios.
We started our trip at Bill Forbes' "The Pond At Elephant Head" in Amado, Arizona (www.phototrap.com). We spent a day and half shooting at Bill's place. Keeper images there are almost guaranteed. Bill has set up shooting blinds around a very small watering pond and has spent years habituating the birds to his feeders and perches. Gambel's Quail, Orioles, Thrashers, Cactus Wrens and a variety of finches and sparrows are regular visitors to the feeders at the pond. We had also hoped to shoot in Madera Canyon where Bill has another setup for shooting hummingbirds from blinds. The target species was the Magnificent Hummingbird. Unfortunately, Bill was the first of many to tell us that the birds had not yet arrived. I'll have to go back in the future to get my Magnificent.
From Amado, we traveled to Patagonia. All the birding guides rave about the Patagonia area. We explored Patagonia Lake State Park, Paton's backyard, the Nature Conservancy's Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve, and the area around our B&B (Cross Creek Cottages). The story was much the same, birds had not arrived yet. At Patagonia Lake State Park we carried our heavy equipment along the wooded lake trail and steep chaparral covered hillsides looking for shooting opportunities. This of course, was an exercise in futility. Without a well established feeding station and blinds, photographing birds is a fruitless effort. But as luck would have it, we did have some success. As I was carrying my gear up a steep, brushy trail, Bruce spotted a Gila Monster. It was big, ugly and scary! We had an exciting time trying to get good images as it lumbered along in the weeds and brush. The other success at the state park was a Vermillion Flycatcher. We had spotted the bright red bird perched in a tree, but way to far for a shot. Then it toyed with us as it fluttered, back and forth, overhead only to perch again out of range. We had given up and were heading back to the car when we stumbled upon some Pipits. The little birds were foraging on the ground among the old leaves and grasses. The Pipits were so preoccupied that we had time to set up our tripods with 500 mm lenses. Just then the Vermillion Flycatcher swooped in and perched on an old tree snag not far from us. Although still very small in the view finder, we did get some keepers.
Due to the overall lack of birds, we left Patagonia a day earlier than originally planned and headed for Siera Vista. There we explored several birding hotspots, including Huachuca Canyon, the Nature Conservancy Ramsey Canyon Preserve, and San Pedro House, in the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area (www.sanpedroriver.org). In al those well known hotspots, there were very few birds and no real photo opportunities. We ended up arranging with Tony Battiste to shoot from blinds at his B&B (www.battistebedandbirds.com). That proved worthwhile and emphasized again that you need well established feeding and watering stations and blinds for productive shooting. Morning light was best at Tony's, so we photographed there two mornings. I got some new species to add to the portfolio, including a Bewick's Wren, Inco Dove, Audubon's Warbler, and Lucy's Warbler. Not bad, considering it was an off-spring for bird photography. Tony invited us to come back in the evening to photograph an Elf Owl pair that has a nest on his property. However, that turned out to be a unproductive. Although we saw the owls swooping around the trees in the darkness of late twilight, the birds did not perch in the open area we were prepared for.
Images from this trip can be viewed in the Birds of Southern Arizona gallery. Bruce also keeps a blog and you can read his version of the trip there (www.logofspartina.blogspot.com).