Moe and Jeff's Five-striped Sparrow Adventure

Photo: Jeffory Robertson April 11, 2015

One of the best and somewhat more adventuresome trips for an Arizona 'specialty bird' is a trip to see the Aimophila quinquestriata or Five-Striped Sparrow. A native of Mexico, this bird was found nesting in a remote region of Southeastern Arizona a number of years ago in a location called California Gulch. Since then, the species has been reported in various other nearby locations, but California Gulch remains the most popular area to visit for locating this sparrow. Birders from far and wide make the trek on a fairly regular basis to try and add this bird to their lifelist. The gulch is just two miles north of the Mexican border and the trailhead can be accessed by a vehicle with moderately high clearance and good traction. While 4WD was not a requirement during our trip, that could change if the various creek crossings get any worse than they were for us.

I began birding in mid-2013 but this bird only recently landed on my radar screen. When I got the book "Finding Birds in Southeast Arizona" last year, I read how to reach the gulch so I put it in the back of my mind. In late March 2015 a fellow posted a message on the AZNM birdlist with pretty detailed information including GPS coordinates of where he found the bird. I emailed him directly and he kindly responded with some more info and a good luck wish should I pursue the bird.

I asked a co-worker if he wouldn't mind accompanying me on the trip for the weekend of April 11/12...he readily agreed. Not wanting to take my ageing Toyota Tacoma, I reserved a truck with Enterprise. Due to work scheduling, I had to pick the truck up on the Friday. We ended up working late Friday night so we decided to just leave for Tucson about 130am and stop for a quick nap somewhere along I-19. That worked out pretty well as I hit a rest stop about 5am and we napped for a little more than an hour. By then it was light enough to proceed south. I set up the Garmin GPS and selected our destination.

Once back on the road, it was just a few more miles to the exit at Amado, so we made a quick stop at the Amado Water Treatment Ponds. A quick scan with the binos revealed a few ducks but nothing more. From there it was a 20-minute drive on a winding, paved road to the small town of Arivaca. I stopped there to snap a photo of several Turkey Vultures roosting in a tree near the road. The air was alive with dawn bird song. Not wanting to loiter much, we pressed on. Soon we left pavement for the dirt fire roads we'd be on for the next several hours.

Photo: Jeffory Robertson

I'd made detailed instructions for finding California Gulch. Along the way, I second-guessed myself a couple of times but ultimately made the right decisions in all but one time...and that wasn't a critical or costly mistake. For the first time visitor to California Gulch, the advice to take odometer readings cannot be overstated. Once past Arivaca, we only passed two vehicles: Border Patrol trucks. During our hike in the gulch we saw an Arizona Air National Guard F-16 fly over a couple of times and a Department of Homeland Security Eurocopter made a couple of passes.

Photos: Aeromoe

The one incorrect decision I made was when we arrived at what I (correctly) thought was the north parking area and decided to head further south. And this was only because GPS noted we weren't at our destination yet. I may have incorrectly made the destination as the location of the recently-spotted bird, not the parking area. Anyway, as we were driving on, I decided we'd in fact passed where we wanted to park but I decided to head further south to the entrance to the south parking was really the only way we could turn around, and after driving for another mile or so, we turned around and went back to the north parking area..

Photo: Jeffory Robertson

During that short detour, we spied what looked like some abandoned campers down in the gulch so I snapped a long-distance photo to examine later on. We were soon back at the north parking area so I got the truck parked in the small pullout and we prepared for the hike into the gulch. While not sign-posted, the footpath is easily located. Apparently the path is a former 4WD trail but my impression was it didn't seem wide enough for that. Walking east, the initial descent is moderately steep and according to Google Earth you eventually lose 220 feet in elevation down to the bottom during a short hike of about a quarter of a mile; while birding the area you can easily cover another half mile or so (or even more) depending on how adventuresome and fit you are.

While descending, we were hearing birds all around us. As a relatively new birder, ID by call or song is not my strong suit. I used my camera to make a couple recordings of some specific birds for possible later ID. At the bottom of the gulch, the path turns south. We were seeing birds flitting around on the hillsides and in the scrub and trees. I recognized the song of a Canyon Wren and eventually one presented itself for a long-distance photo. When we got to the first wet area, I watched a yellow and black bird flee into the safety of a deciduous tree. I knew it was an oriole, made my mental notes and later determined it was a Hooded Oriole. We saw a male Northern Cardinal, various flycatchers, some Turkey Vultures circling overhead, and the setting waning gibbous moon was in the western sky.

Photos: Aeromoe

We came to the second wet area and decided we could not proceed downstream any further on the western bank. Retracing our steps a bit, we crossed over the narrow creek and made our way a bit further to the south. The GPS coordinates Rich had posted of his bird sighting put the bird about .7 miles from the trailhead. To keep track of our hike, I'd started the "My Tracks" app on my phone but I wasn't completely convinced it was recording properly. As a result, when we came to a spot above a pool of water, the terrain was such that this is about as far as we were going. We looked around a bit and took a few photos of the scenery. Figuring this was as good a place as any to locate a Five-striped Sparrow, I pulled out the phone and started playback of a song I'd recorded from the internet.

I don't remember how much time transpired but almost immediately a blur of a bird flew into a shrub in front of us and somewhat over the side of the "cliff" we were standing on. I could see a small bird in the shrub but I couldn't get a bead on it with the camera. As the recording continued, this bird flew up and landed on a snag right in front of us and in perfect light. I could hardly believe was a Five-striped Sparrow, and here it was staring us down and softly vocalizing his little heart out. Immediately we trained our cameras on it and got what shots we could before it might have a chance to fly away. It was such an obliging bird, but it started playing a version of hide-and-seek with us. It flitted from snag to shrub to trees all around us. At one point it flew straight at me...past me really...missing me by probably two feet.

My lifer Five-striped Sparrow: Aeromoe

Once we hiked out of California Gulch with a confirmed "lifer" I looked at the maps so we wouldn't make any wrong turns getting back to Ruby Rd. Our next stop was going to be Pena Blanca Lake to look for a recently-reported Least Grebe. This water-dweller has nested before at the lake but it would be another lifer for me if we could find it. We turned back out onto the fire road and headed north. As we were winding along, we came upon a clearing and I spied a bird take flight and land in a spiny tree not too far from the road. I put the camera on it and I couldn't believe was another Five-striped Sparrow! Or so I thought. I didn't scrutinize the photos but when I downloaded them at home I found it to be a Black-throated Sparrow. It's just another example of my inexperience at play.

Black-throated Sparrow that initially threw me: Aeromoe

We made it back to Ruby Rd after making one wrong turn that I quickly realized wasn't where we needed to be...the calculated odometer reading didn't jibe. A right turn to the east put us on course for the lake. It was going to be another pretty bumpy dirt road ride but it actually wasn't that bad. The scenery here is spectacular: mountainous desert terrain and a dirt road that demands you pay full attention to your driving. A slip of the wheel could easily spell disaster and send you rolling down the side of a hill.
Photos: Jeffory Robertson

It took us the better part of an hour to get to Pena Blanca Lake. It was my first visit and I found it to be a really attractive desert mountain lake. When we arrived we could see some weekenders were having fun fishing from the shore and from power boats. I started scanning for the Least Grebe as we found a path that skirted the shoreline near the cove where I thought it was reported. In the end, we spent about an hour looking at various species but I never located the grebe. That was a little disappointing but I was still elated about the relative ease at which the Five-striped Sparrow came to us.

From the lake, we were back on pavement for the rest of the day. We arrived at the junction with I-19 and hit the fuel stop and ate lunch. From there we went about as far south as you can go in the United States in Arizona: the town of Nogales. This non-birding side trip was so that Jeff and I could see the border town neither of us had seen before. We tooled around town for a few minutes, snapping some photos for posterity and then we headed north again on I-19. Our next destination was the town of Patagonia and specifically to visit the Paton Center for Hummingbirds for the wonderful bird life in the yard.

Any trip to this area would normally merit a trip to Patagonia Lake State Park but we passed it by today. I did pull into the Patagonia "Roadside Rest" area to get out and see what we could find. A lone hummingbird was about all I photographed during the few minutes we strolled around. In short order we were back in the truck for the short hop to the Paton Center. When we arrived I was pleasantly surprised to see the improvements that have been made to the property. Unfortunately I didn't photo-document these improvements but the parking situation has vastly improved. We parked on the side of the road and strolled in, adding some cash to the pay box to help sustain the costs of feeding the birds.

Several folks were quietly observing the action in the seating area. It was fairly slow going except for a fair number of hummers flitting about the various feeder stations. The feeders used to be almost exclusively located along the back wall of the house but in the interest of the privacy of the new residents the feeders were moved to various locations around the perimeter. We saw a few species besides hummers: Ladder-backed Woodpecker, _______, ________, ________. A highlight for me was getting an overhead photo of my "lifer" Zone-tailed Hawk. I've always been told to examine apparent Turkey Vultures as they soar overhead as Zone-tailed Hawks superficially resemble them in flight as seen from below. I saw what appeared to be a lone "TuVu" approaching overhead and when I raised the camera I immediately recognized it as a Zone-tailed Hawk. I snapped several photos and then it disappeared behind the trees. I was very pleased to get another lifer but then I announced to the other birders I'd just seen a Zone-tail but it was gone. The only reason I saw it was being in the right chair at the right time. The chairs are under a tent (for protection from the sun) and none of the other birders would've had any time to see the bird anyway had I spoke up any earlier than I did. I promised to make an announcement if I saw it again.

My lifer Zone-tail Hawk: Aeromoe

It was getting late in the day and Jeff and I still had to drive further east and south to Sierra Vista, our stop for the night. We bid farewell to the birders and headed out. I decided to drive along the backside of the nature preserve to see what we might see from the road. Previously, Louis and I had done this and did some birding on foot and got some decent birds. However, this day it was very quiet. We got to the creek crossing and another couple, and older couple, were birding from their truck. I asked what they were onto and the reply was Cedar Waxwings. Quite a few of them in the trees were coming down to drink from the creek. I parked and got out to chat with them for a bit. Just then a Great Blue Heron flew over. I didn't get a photo but it was a good bird for the day. By now it was quite overcast and a bit breezy. Little did we know a decent storm was approaching...a storm that would affect our birding on Sunday. I never did see any waxwings during this short stop but soon enough we were back on the road headed east.

Daylight was fading by the time we got to Sierra Vista. I pulled into the Motel 6 and got a room for us. As we approached the room, a very vocal small-breed dog started yapping from the window of the room next door. Oh boy. We'll see how this works out. After stashing our gear, we headed for dinner. We were going to do Mexican but at some point we chose the Golden Corral buffet. It was a reasonably decent meal that hit the spot after a long day in the field and on the road. Back to the room and the dog wouldn't stop barking even after we were in our room. I called the front desk and they readily moved us up front. There was traffic noise...but no dog. Perfect. After discussing the events of the day I think we were asleep by 930pm.

Jeff warned me about his snoring. It didn't affect me falling asleep but I awoke about 130am for a bathroom break and couldn't get back to sleep. I went out to the truck to nap for a while. I'm pretty good at sleeping in the front seat but I couldn't immediately get comfortable in the Ford. I guess I did fall asleep because I awoke again sometime after 4am. I went back in the room and Jeff apologized profusely. I told him not to worry about it at was no big deal. We didn't fall back asleep at that point...just chatted. About 5am I announced I was taking a shower so we could start the day. I'd told Jeff earlier I planned on being out of the room about which he moaned. He was a good sport about it and we were out of the room and headed for Denny's ust before 6am. While waiting for Jeff to finish getting ready, I was standing in the doorway listening to a nearby Curve-billed Thrasher. From across the street I could also hear what sounded like a phoebe. The dawn sky was brightening but it was pretty solid overcast. By the time we came out of Denny's it was lightly raining.

Mary Jo Ballator, owner of Ash Canyon Bed and Breakfast, welcomes "day birders" to her yard at sunrise. Despite that we bypassed Turkey Track Road and headed further south, to the Coronado National Monument. This location is less than a couple of miles from the Mexican Border and the vista to the south across the border is sweeping and impressive. To the north, the National Monument is nestled against the base of the Huachuca Mountains and the view is equally impressive. I've been down here a couple of times and have done some walking around. Because of the drizzle, we just drove around for a little while as slow speed to see what we could see. There were some birds singing in the trees but the only birds we positively identified by sight were a couple of Mexican Jays at close quarters. The gift shop was due to open shortly at 8am but we didn't stick around...we made a bee-line back up to Ash Canyon BnB.

As we were pulling in to Mary Jo's place, I noticed a car following us and it parked with us. The folks turned out to be a couple we'd met the day before at Paton's. Mary Jo was already in the yard tending to her morning chores and she welcomed us with her contagious friendliness. Despite the rain, the birds were feeding in the back yard. We parked our butts under her porch and started observing and photographing the birds. Several of the mammals usually present near the back fence were foraging alongside all the bird life. A nearby Wild Turkey was calling to the north but we never did see it, and we spotted a Mule Deer through the trees to the northwest. Mary Jo's yard is so bird and birder friendly I always have a wonderful time during a visit. Even with the rain, photos of most of the species were possible. I used the pop-up flash for many of the photos but it created an unnatural spot on the birds eyes due to reflection. We spent a good hour or so at Mary Jo's and decided to head into Miller Canyon to visit Beatty's Guest Ranch. I invited David and Debbie to follow us up there so they'd know the way for a visit later on.

The entrance to Miller Canyon is only a couple miles north of Turkey Track Road and before long we were at the rest stop taking a bathroom break...always a good idea before heading up canyon. The rain was steady but we weren't deterred. The road up Miller Canyon is doable in a passenger car...which David and Debbie were driving...but it is fairly bumpy in spots, especially at the stream crossings. Every time I make the drive up, it seems shorter and before long we'd driven the 1.5 miles to the end of the road. We put our cameras in plastic bags and strolled up to the entrance gazebo. Before long Tom Sr. met us at the gazebo and invited me to drive up to the parking lot so we could all pile into the truck for the drive up to the crossing. This was a most welcome gesture as the rain was steady and we were getting pretty wet. I hadn't prepared at all for the rain this trip but I was dealing with it.

Sometime last fall Tom Sr. said they had a good flood come down the creek. As a result they rebuilt the bridge spanning the creek and it is now very easy to make it to the base of the climb up to the hummingbird feeders. A small outdoor theater provides covered seating to watch the action. The first time I was here in August 2013 I was totally amazed. The quantity of birds then was similar to Paton's and Mary Jo's (a LOT) but the theater-style presentation makes this feeding station stand out from the others. April provides a reasonable amount of action. On the short climb up I heard the tell-tail buzz of Broad-tailed Hummingbird, with numerous Broad-billed and Magnificient Hummingbirds hitting the feeders. Black-chinned Hummingbirds also made regular appearances. Apparently we were still a bit early in the season for White-eared Hummingbird so we dipped out on that specialty bird. After a short while Tom Sr. made his way up to chat with us for a little while. Both he and Tom Jr. are pleasant folks to talk to during these visits to Beatty's Guest Ranch. Because of the foul weather, we weren't going to hike up canyon any further. I've been 1/2-3/4 mile up but no further. Spotted Owl nest in this area and are easily seen if you make the effort. Just last year we saw the parents and two fledglings.

It was time to head down the canyon and towards home but we had another stop to make with David and Debbie in tow. I suggested we stop by Tony Battiste's Bed, Breakfast and Birds since it was less than a mile away from the entrance to Miller Canyon. We stopped in front of Tony's beautiful yard and Tony came out to greet us. I introduced myself as a birder he'd met last year and explained the folks in trail were interested in doing some day birding when the weather improved. We chatted for a brief moment and said our goodbyes. I thought we were finished for the day and it sounded like a good idea to get an early start on the drive home. However, on the way north, I saw the Shell Station at the entrance to Ramsey Canyon so I asked Jeff if he minded if we head up there for a quick look. I'd only been up Ramsey Canyon one time and that was just a quick drive up and back to familiarize myself with the area. This time we parked at the gift shop and went inside. The lady behind the counter was quite pleasant and through conversation we learned she may have been seeing a White-eared Hummingbird hit the feeder outside the window. Upon hearing that, I got my camera and waited patiently for a few minutes. We thought we'd seen it in a brief flash but it never returned during the few minutes we waited. Magnificient Hummingbirds were visiting the feeder regularly and what appeared to be a Broad-billed was perched nearby but otherwise it was pretty quiet. I bought a DVD about hummingbirds and Jeff purchased a hummingbird feeder similar to what I have at home. With that it was time to head north toward home.

We stopped for lunch at Benson and saw two Cactus Wren in the McDonald's parking lot. In the tree right in front of where we parked a Eurasian Collared-Dove perched, then flew off...guess it didn't like my camera. I seem to get that from a lot of birds, excepting a specific Five-striped Sparrow from yesterday. THAT bird was super accommodating. Ok...time for I-10. After a few minutes we took the exit for and made the pleasant drive to the Cienega Creek train bridge. This spot is one of the entrances to the Cienega Creek nature preserve but we made just a brief pit stop to listen for birds. We did hear some but no photos were made. Back on I-10 and only a few more miles to Tucson. We had no intention of stopping in Tucson but that thought went out the window when I saw a northbound Union Pacific stack train heading toward the yard. Jeff must've been rolling his eyes as I took the exit and deftly navigated us to the yard. I explained to Jeff that I was at this very spot last year when I learned my nephew A.J. Allmendinger had just won his first NASCAR Sprint Cup race, that race being the road course at Watkins Glen, NY.

The aforementioned train was coming to a stop near the yard office for a crew change. I parked the truck and invited Jeff to join me as we walked up onto the overpass overlooking the yard for some locomotive spotting/photos. The yard was typically full of Union Pacific; a couple CSX were present as well as a Kansas City Southern in attractive "Southern Belle" paint. The sky was still mostly overcast over Tucson but at least it wasn't raining. We didn't loiter over the UP and before long we were heading to I-10.

Time was still on our side and we'd easily make Phoenix before sunset if we didn't dawdle along the way. A few miles north of Tucson I exited the interstate for my typical M.O. of driving the frontage road in search of trains. This UP line is pretty active, being the southern transcon and all. And being a Sunday didn't make much of a difference either. Between Marana and Picacho we had several eastbound trains pass us. At Picacho I took to the dirt again to explain the "wye" to Jeff and snap some photos of some of the tracks. We continued along the frontage road through Eloy and saw a couple more of them was the stack train from Tucson that had the crew change. Not long after that we were back on I-10...definitely headed for Phoenix this time with no further stops planned.

Once we got to the 101 in Avondale we had enough daylight left that I suggested (asked?) if Jeff didn't mind if we made a quick stop at the Glendale Recharge Ponds. No problem was his reply so we pulled in and parked on the bridge at the west end. The sky was clear, sun was low over the White Tank Mountains to the west, and maybe there was still a Wood Duck present that had been reported a couple of days prior. I put the scope on the tripod and we set out to hike the berms around a couple of the ponds. Jeff got to see (and photograph) some of his first shorebirds/waders as we watched from a distance, Great Blue Heron, Great Egret, Snowy Egret, Long-billed Dowitcher, Least Sandpiper, Black-necked Stilt and more. Ducks were fairly plentiful and Killdeer were vociferous. We saw an Osprey fly over, but I couldn't find a Wood Duck on any of the ponds. I didn't have the time nor the energy to look much longer. The sun was dipping behind the White Tanks and it was finally time to think about calling it a weekend.

For an early treatment on Five-striped Sparrow in Arizona, check out this page. (Alternately, click here to viewa copy.)