This article appeared in the December 2004 issue of Birder's World


Spectacular color and stunning diversity at one habitat rich site

Remember those birding quizzes 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, and the answer is a place that was little known and underbirded until the past few years—a newly discovered convention site 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 wintertime 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 Arizona 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 hordes of fishermen and high humidity (here’s another well kept secret--from July through September Arizona’s heat isn’t dry!) present in the lake basin during the summer.  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 featuring a fortuitous conjunction of mild winter weather, proximity to the Mexican border, and wonderful diversity of habitat, the only real wintertime birding activity at Patagonia Lake used to be the annual Christmas Count.  The lake was birded primarily by “snowbirds” taking advantage of the campground to escape the ice and snow up north.  Even avid Arizona state listers were not tuned in.  That all changed when a Nutting’s Flycatcher, inexplicably sojourning north from Mexico, was discovered near the park during a pre-count scout in December of 1997.  The secret was out and 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 at Patagonia Lake.  The lake itself is a winter refuge for grebes, both large and small, and the occasional Common Loon.  Common Mergansers are common as are Ruddy Ducks and both Green-winged and Cinnamon Teal.  Neotropic and Double-crested Cormorants are both present, often side-by-side on snags at the impoundment’s east end for real time diagnostic comparisons.  A hiking trail from the campground drops down into State Trust Land along the southeast corner of the lake accessing the back side of a cattail marsh featuring American and Least Bitterns.  Sora and Virginia Rails emerge from the reeds here to forage in the muck just yards from the path, offering crippling views in the late afternoon sun..

From this footpath you can explore your way through the extensive mesquite bosque bordering the lake’s upper end.  Gila and Ladder-backed Woodpeckers inhabit these woods along with Bewick’s and House Wrens, just two of the 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 Pipits, Killdeer, and Wilson's Snipe ply the mud bog where the braided creek empties into the lake.

With care or with 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 gem, the 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 Thrashers, Black-throated Sparrows, and Verdin are regular visitors, especially early in the morning and late in the afternoon.  Linger quietly for a few minutes near one of these feeding stations and you will be rewarded with the chance to compare the shocking red of Arizona’s Northern Cardinals, reputedly more brilliant than their eastern counterparts, 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 ten 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 and 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.

Winter amenities for camping birders include hot showers, 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.  Did I mention hot showers?

At 4000 feet, overnight temperatures in the winter can dip into the twenties but usually stay above freezing.  Winter is Arizona’s second rainy season, and perhaps once a week a Pacific front may pass through bringing a day of clouds and rain.  Typically, though, days are warm and sunny, highs reaching into the sixties.  Passerine activity does not really begin until the sun struggles up over the Patagonia Mountains around 8:00 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 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 those campground feeders.

Arizona specialties such as Neotropic Cormorant and Rufous-backed Robin have been found regularly around Patagonia Lake in recent winters, 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 hover 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 what birding is all about.

For many coming to the park it now has become all about looking for an exciting new Arizona specialty, the Black-capped Gnatcatcher.  Seen very irregularly in southern Arizona over the past two decades, a pair of these Mexican breeders prospecting at the northern limits of their range was discovered at the east end of the lake in the fall of '02.  They overwintered and stayed to successfully raise two broods the following spring, and since then Black-cappeds have been seen with regularity and nested again this past spring.  Listers from all over the country, seeking this hard-to-find and harder-to-separate-from-its-Black-tailed-cousin species, now flock to the park, increasing the chances that other great birds will be discovered and reported.

And speaking of sparrows, for those seeking subtler identification challenges, sixteen flavors of our “little brown jobs” have been recorded in the park.  The best of these challenges 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 a particularly 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 juxtapose of incongruous species.  Late last February at the edge of the willows I watched a roosting Great Horned Owl, disdainfully disinterested as it was being harassed by wrens, titmice, and kinglets.  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 for visiting birders.