Birdwatching at Patagonia Lake State Park in southeastern Arizona
A little-known state park is the place to go to see Elegant Trogon, Green Kingfisher, Black-capped Gnatcatcher, and Rufous-backed Robin this winter
Published: October 22, 2004
|Have you ever taken a birding quiz in which you're given a list of seemingly disparate species improbably seen together in one place and you're asked to try to name the place? Well, I have a good one for you. The answer to this quiz is a place that was little known and underbirded until the past few years -- a newly discovered hotspot for bird species from all over the West with just enough unexpected eastern vagrants to make every bush and bend in the path an exhilarating possibility.|
At this site on a January morning in 2001, I had an Elegant Trogon, a Vermilion Flycatcher, and a Common Yellowthroat in my binocular field simultaneously! At the same spot in January of 2002, friends from Tucson were joined at lunch by Elegant Trogon, Green Kingfisher, Eastern Phoebe, and Louisiana Waterthrush. All in sight at the same time. Believe it. This place exists, and birders migrating south for sunny skies, warmer temperatures, and a great birding experience are beginning to flock to it each winter.
Patagonia Lake State Park, where all of the accompanying bird photos were taken, lies about midway between Patagonia and Nogales, Arizona, on Arizona State Route 82. Prior to the winter of 1997-98, this jewel of the state park system was a well-kept birding secret centered around a 250-acre fishing lake. If birders visited at all, it was usually during the summer as they sped by the park's entrance on their way from the Nature Conservancy's Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve to the well-known ponds at Kino Springs, north of Nogales.
The park's summertime potential for Arizona specialties such as Thick-billed Kingbird and Rose-throated Becard is high, but these species can be found much more easily at the famous Patagonia Roadside Rest Area, without the lake's hordes of fishermen and high humidity. (Here's another well-kept secret -- from July through September, Arizona's heat isn't dry!) And once the breeding season is over, the whole Sonoita-Nogales corridor goes largely unexplored by birders until the much sought specialties return the following spring.
Though Patagonia Lake features a fortuitous conjunction of mild winter weather, proximity to the Mexican border, and wonderful diversity of habitat, the park's only real wintertime birding activity used to be the annual Christmas Bird Count. The lake was inhabited primarily by "snowbirds" taking advantage of the campground to escape the ice and snow up north. Even avid Arizona listers were not tuned in. That all changed when a Nutting's Flycatcher, inexplicably sojourning north from western Mexico, was discovered near the park during a pre-count scout in December of 1997. The secret was out. Patagonia Lake is now a regular stop for winter visitors from all over the country, human as well as avian.
For the birds, water and cover are the primary winter attractions. The lake is a winter refuge for large and small grebes and the occasional loon. Common Mergansers are common, as are Ruddy Ducks and Green-winged and Cinnamon Teal. Neotropic and Double-crested Cormorants are present, often side-by-side on snags at the impoundment's east end for real-time comparisons. A hiking trail from the campground drops down into State Trust land along the southeast corner of the lake. The trail accesses a cattail marsh inhabited by both bitterns. Sora and Virginia Rails emerge from the reeds here to forage just yards from the path, offering crippling views in the late afternoon sun.
From the footpath you can explore your way through the extensive mesquite bosque bordering the lake's upper end. Gila and Ladder-backed Woodpeckers inhabit the woods along with Bewick's and House Wrens, just two of seven wren species recorded in the park in winter. As you approach Sonoita Creek, which feeds into the lake from the east, mesquite gives way to a willow forest where Hermit Thrushes are common, Rufous-backed Robin has become an almost annual visitor, and Varied Thrush is expected any year. American Pipit, Killdeer, and Wilson's Snipe ply the mud bog where the braided creek empties into the lake.
With care and knee-high, waterproof boots, many birders continue upstream through a riparian habitat favored by overwintering Orange-crowned and Yellow-rumped Warblers feeding in mixed flocks with kinglets and titmice. The noisy Belted Kingfisher is usually heard if not always seen, and the small and elusive Green Kingfisher is the much sought and occasionally seen highlight of any trip.
Back in the campground after your hike, check out the seed and citrus feeders maintained by many of the long-term campers. Curve-billed Thrasher, Black-throated Sparrow, and Verdin are regular visitors, especially early in the morning and late in the afternoon. Linger quietly for a few minutes near a feeding station, and you will be rewarded with the chance to compare the shocking red of Arizona's Northern Cardinal, reputedly more brilliant than its eastern counterpart, and the subtler wine-and-gray beauty of the "desert cardinal," the less common Pyrrhuloxia.
The park area has also become renowned as a seasonal reunion site for the flycatcher family, with 10 species possible on a winter's day. Regular family members such as Black Phoebe and Ash-throated Flycatcher are often joined by relatives that are out of season (Dusky-capped Flycatcher), out of range (Eastern Phoebe), or out-of-this-world rare for the U.S. (Nutting's Flycatcher). Vermilion Flycatchers are common summer breeders. One or two often spend the winter. Empidonax school has become one of the lake's major attractions. Hammond's, Gray, and Dusky Flycatchers are all seen regularly, studied closely, and misidentified often.
At 4,000 feet, overnight temperatures in the winter can dip into the 20s but usually stay above freezing. Winter is Arizona's second rainy season, and perhaps once a week a Pacific front passes through, bringing a day of clouds and rain. Typically, though, days are warm and sunny, highs reaching into the 60s. Passerine activity does not really begin until the sun struggles up over the Patagonia Mountains around 8 a.m.
If you have only one day to spend at the park, here's a plan: Breakfast early, fill your water bottle in the campground (there's no water on the trail), and hike to the east end of the lake, arriving there as dawn light hits the mesquites and willows, activating the insects. You'll flush the Great Egret and the Great Blue Heron feeding in the shallows, but the woodpeckers, flycatchers, and wrens will appear as if on cue, which they are, for their protein breakfast. Then follow the creek down to the lake edge. With luck you'll hear the rattle of a kingfisher or the sharp, metallic call note of a waterthrush.
Spend the remainder of the morning hiking back upstream as far as your footwear and your tolerance for the mud will allow. Most of the winter rarities sooner or later seem to pass through the area where the footpath first meets Sonoita Creek and the creek first branches out into separate rivulets on its final run to the lake. For best results, wade or log-hop across the main channel to the shaded backchannels along the canyon's north wall where the Green Kingfisher hunts the quiet pools. Do a leisurely lunch at the confluence of trail and stream, and see what works its way up- or downstream past you.
After lunch, shorebird the mudflats and then sit inconspicuously on one of the logs between the trail and the reeds, and see what emerges to soak up the warmth of the afternoon sun. Finally, as the sun drops into the Baboquivaris on the western horizon and the huge, assorted blackbird flocks return across the sunset to the marsh, check out the campground feeders.
Patagonia Lake's ability to produce Arizona specialties in recent winters is exceptional, but the real prize, the spice in this wintertime stew, has been the breathtaking Elegant Trogon, tantalizingly elusive as a summer breeder in Arizona's mountain canyons. Not known to overwinter in the U.S. until recently, trogons can be difficult to find and see well in breeding season despite their size and brilliant colors. Around the lake in winter, however, they pluck insects off the ground or from the lowest branches of the willows and mesquites, often within a few feet of astonished and delighted observers. Even uninitiated campers and hikers, unable to discern a swallow from a sparrow, are now talking about the trogons and becoming hooked on birding.
Those who are already hooked are coming to the park for an exciting new Arizona specialty: the Black-capped Gnatcatcher. Seen very irregularly in southern Arizona over the past two decades, a pair of the Mexican breeders was discovered at the east end of the lake in the fall of 2002. Prospecting at the northern limits of their range, they overwintered and successfully raised two broods the following spring. Since then Black-cappeds have been seen with regularity, and they nested again this past spring. Listers from all over the country now flock to the park, increasing the chances that other great birds will be discovered and reported.
And for those seeking subtler identification challenges, 16 flavors of sparrow have been recorded in the park. The best challenge is finding one of the nearly annual Swamp Sparrows feeding along the marsh margins among the common Song Sparrows. Last year a Fox Sparrow of the red subspecies was discovered and hung around all winter, affording drop-dead looks to some persistent birders while eluding others entirely. If you're an intrepid sparrow aficionado, after you've found your Lincoln's and your basic-plumaged Lark Bunting, and after you've separated immature Brewer's from Chippies, you can drive an hour up to the San Rafael Grasslands above Patagonia and look for Baird's, an Arizona winter regular much sought and occasionally seen along the fencelines there.
For veteran birders, the primary allure of Patagonia Lake State Park in winter remains the now anticipated but deliciously unpredictable juxtaposition of incongruous species. Late last February, at the edge of the willows, I watched a roosting Great Horned Owl, disdainfully disinterested as wrens, titmice, and kinglets harassed it. Nothing new in that, but all the pishing and scolding soon brought a larger bird into the fray. An adult male trogon, chuckling and rattling branches, flew in and made three passes at the owl! On the third, as the owl took flight to leave the neighborhood, I sensed a huge shadow pass overhead. I glanced up to see an immature Bald Eagle prospecting the lake for fish or injured ducks. Just another winter's day around Patagonia Lake - warm, sunny, and full of unexpected delights.
Jim Burns is a freelance outdoor writer and wildlife photographer based in Scottsdale, Arizona. His book, North American Owls: Journey Through a Shadowed World, was published this past spring by Willow Creek Press.
|Visiting Patagonia Lake State Park|
Southeastern Arizona's Patagonia Lake State Park is located off State Highway 82, 15 miles northeast of Nogales and seven miles southwest of Patagonia. Tucson is about 60 miles north of Nogales.
What should I wear? Bring layers. Winter in Arizona can be cold in the morning, especially before the sun comes up, and hot by mid-afternoon. Bring waterproof boots and wool socks if you plan on splashing up Sonoita Creek after the elusive Green Kingfisher.
Is the park birder-friendly? You bet. There's a visitor's center with interpretive displays detailing the fauna and flora of the area, a park birdlist, guided birdwalks during the week, two naturalist-led boat trips up the lake on weekends, and canoe rentals. Plus, the campground features hot showers.
Do I need a scope? Yes. The best way to identify birds at the upper end of the lake is by scoping over the reeds from the bluff before the trail drops down to lake level.
What are the park fees? The day use fee is $5 per vehicle. Camping fees are $10 for undeveloped sites, $15 for developed sites. There are 106 campsites and a 15-day maximum stay.
Will I see other wildlife besides birds? You have a good chance to see deer and hear coyotes. Bobcats are seen occasionally. If you camp, don't leave your food out overnight where it would be accessible to critters.
Are there rattlesnakes? Yes, but they're not looking for you. It's doubtful you would see one in the winter, and it's even more doubtful you could step on one before it gave you fair warning. Cattle in the stream area are a much bigger nuisance. Give mamas with calves a wide berth, and watch out for droppings.
Is there food and lodging nearby if I don't want to camp? Yes. Patagonia, which is seven miles northeast of the park, has a motel and several eateries. Nogales, which is 15 miles southwest of the park, has all the expected tourist amenities of a small city.
My spouse isn't a birder. What to do? Take your backpack with lunch and water and give him or her the car keys. Kartchner Caverns are only a couple hours away, and there are wineries around Sonoita and shops in Patagonia and Nogales. History buffs will love Tombstone Courthouse State Historic Park northeast of Sierra Vista, as well as Tumacacori National Historic Park, which is north of Nogales on Interstate 19.
© Birder's World Magazine, December 2004