It's not really a secret anymore, but nestled just a little bit away from the world-renowned Madera Canyon in the Santa Rita Mountains is one of the must-see winter destinations in the Arizona birder's travel log. Florida Canyon doesn't pull in quite as many spring and summer attractions as Madera Canyon or those old guard canyons in the Huachuca Mountains, but for the last two winters now it's hosted Rufous-capped Warbler, an exceedingly rare and beautiful vagrant from Mexico that does as much to give the canyon its namesake (meaning, 'flowered' in Spanish) as any of the flora. And there are lots of other great birds hanging out too.
I was fortunate to see Florida Canyon's main event last February while on tour with Birding Is Fun's Robert Mortensen and Jeremy Medina, but I was forever nagged by my unsatisfactory photos, and Pops still had to log this jaw-dropping bird to his ABA list. What more of an excuse is needed?
Truth be told though, I was feeling anything but confident when we arrived at the base of Florida Canyon. It was bitterly cold outside (in the 20s) and in from 7:30am to 9:30am we saw maybe seven actual birds and only four or five different species. With the canyon slopes keeping out the early morning sun, it was simply too cold and dark. The birds were much wiser than we were.
We ambled up and down the lower canyon, staying within a half mile or so of the old dam that used as a checkpoint for the Warbler location. The sun would occasionally burst through the clouds and we'd get small doses of activity, but with snow all over the ground and the weather so uninviting, I had a hard time imagining what would keep tropical Mexican warblers in this far north of their normal range.
For a while we had to content ourselves with some of the braver local birds, and sightings of the chromatically opposed Pyrrhuloxias and Mexican Jays, along with the sweet serenades of Canyon Wrens, kept our morale high enough.
By 10am the sun finally got its act together and the birds started to make up for lost time. The canyon started to echo with more and more chatter. Rogue groups of Lesser Goldfinches and Kinglets began their daring daylights raids and then, all at once we felt as though we were being swept off our feet! A massive mixed flock made it's way down the canyon, gathering birds and noise like a tropical storm. Dozens of Black-chinned Sparrows joined with Bridled Titmice and the Finches to form a feathery gallimaufry that conglomerated with Lincoln's and Song Sparrows along the creek to obliterate every exposed seed and insect in their path.
I was particularly jazzed to get so many nice views of the Black-chinned Sparrows, an uncommon emberizid I'd seen only once, and fleetingly, before. Of course, being camouflaged Sparrows with an affinity for low-lying scrub brush and an constant motion, they weren't the best photo subjects, but I wasn't complaining. These birds alone made me feel the trip was worth it, and there weren't even any Warblers (including Yellow-rumped!) in sight.
We followed the big mixed flocks down the Canyon, with great delight. After the first two hours of frigid birding we had scarcely logged a dozen species, but in the span of fifteen minutes it shot up near forty, as the Bridled Titmice and Bushtits met with the other foragers and caused a sensory overload. In all the madness we even managed to see (and hear) fives Wren species. The Canyon, Rock, Cactus, Bewick's, and House Wrens all made appearances--my first and only five-Wren day, and this was, again, all within a very short span of time. Thinking back on it now, the Wrennaissance was perhaps the most remarkable experience of the trip... obviously I didn't get any photos to prove it.
After half and hour or so of mixing with the mixed flock, Pops and I felt like we were finally starting to get a lid on everything. Ladder-backed and Acorn Woodpeckers were starting to pop in at points along the canyon, and jealous Jays were always squawking in the background. Some larger, pointy-headed Finches caught our attention as they made their way down the grassy canyon slope (west side), with their noises and coloration seeming very good for Cassin's. While trying to snatch a photo of these fleeting Finches, a different flash of color cut across the west-side path and stopped me dead in my tracks. I had almost forgotten we were after this bird!
From the grassy cover on the west side of the trail, a single Rufous-capped Warbler darted to the base of a scrub oak. After much shivering and scheming, it had finally worked out! Though the bird only stayed close for a minute, Pops and I both got beautiful up-close looks of this well-traveled bird--for all I know the exact same one I saw last year. We watched it forage down on the ground, mostly obscured from any clear shots. I was happy enough just seeing it again and knowing that Pops could add this incredible critter to his list. But the Rufous-capped Warbler did me one better. With no apparent aim other than to check us out and let us know that he was made of sterner stuff, he ascended the tree and perched right at eye level, first showing his fuzzy fanny...
Behold! One of the rarer butts in North America
We were on cloud-nine (one of the few clouds I like while out birding) as we descended the Canyon, picking up Spotted and Canyon Towhees on the way, along with Arizona Woodpeckers and a Roadrunner. It's been three weeks and I still feel buzzed thinking about this sighting. The remarkable turn-around from six species to forty in about thirty minutes, is thus far one of my best birding experiences. I've dipped on Mt. Lemmon and the Estrella Mountains this winter, but Florida Canyon has too much good stuff to dip, and this worked out to be one of those days when we just about hit it all (ok, to be fair, we didn't see any Montezuma Quail, but most scientists now believe those birds died out with the Aztecs two hundred years ago).