October 17, 2013
Canyon Wren calling
Canyon Wren calling

I know.  I know.  Just one month ago in this column I chided birders for following one another around like sheep, and now I’m touting an undersung Arizona location for you to check out.  The thing is, the day after the “sheep” column appeared, I camped overnight near Pena Blanca Lake on my way to hike Sycamore Canyon west of Nogales in the Atascosa Mountains.  I stopped at Thumb Butte, overlooking the lake, for breakfast, and I was amazed by the number and diversity of birds greeting the dawn with me.

Three days later Chris McCreedy, who must have been at Pena Blanca a couple days after me, posted to the AZNMBirds hotline that he had found forty species without leaving the parking lot, over seventy species without even birding the lake itself!  That’s a heck of a lot of birds and seemed to corroborate my thought that Pena Blanca might be the birdiest spot in Arizona.

I wasn’t listing or even counting at breakfast in the side doors of my van which I had thrown open to enjoy the sunrise, but I noted nine species of flycatchers, including an Eastern Phoebe, seven species of sparrows, and four species of wrens.  And the three immature Gray Hawks on the road out.  The major attractions for birds in the Pena Blanca environs, besides the water, are of course food and cover, the former enhanced in fall by the hordes of grasshoppers, the latter by the dying but thick vegetation on the upslope oak grasslands.

I struggle with birding by ear, so the best part of breakfast was learning the Canyon Wren location call.  We all know its wonderful song which cascades down the canyonsides just as it slides down the musical scale, but I was hearing an alternating buzz and trill I couldn’t quite place until a Canyon Wren flipped out of a nearby bush, slipped under the restroom door (male side by the way), and emerged seconds later atop the vent pipe on the building’s roof, lustily letting everything in the vicinity know where he was.  Seeing the “lips” move while hearing the song—the perfect learning scenario.

Though close to the Mexican border, Pena Blanca has not had many rarities, but perhaps that’s because not too many birders went there until Least Grebes were found nesting a couple years ago.  Since the lake still seems undervisited by birders, technically you won’t be following the sheep if you check it out.  Remember Ruby Road has long been considered one of the most likely places to see Montezuma Quail, there have been winter sightings of Rufous-backed Robin at Pena Blanca, the first state fall record for Black-billed Cuckoo is from there, and a year ago June a Groove-billed Ani spent a week at the spring.

After disappointingly slow birding in Sycamore Canyon, I wished I had just spent the day at Pena Blanca last month.  Pena Blanca is good any time of year.  Though there is a strong Border Patrol presence in the area, always be aware of your surroundings and, in monsoon season, keep one eye on the weather.  Flash floods happen.