Have you ever seen a Five-striped Sparrow? It’s a Mexican species that just makes its way into the United States in a few spots in southeastern Arizona. The phrase “death march” often accompany a description of an attempt to find Five-striped Sparrow in Arizona. The roads require high clearance and sometimes four-wheel drive. Flat tires are not uncommon, nor are encounters with Border Patrol agents, as the spot is just north of the international boundary with Mexico. Let’s just say that looking for Five-striped Sparrow in Arizona can be a bit of an adventure.
Back in 2006 Michael O’Brien, Louise Zemaitis, and I took a group of young birders to California Gulch in search of them as part of a special young birder track at the ABA Convention in Tucson. We drove 15-passenger vans down precarious roads, hiked down into the Gulch, and ended up getting great looks at a few Five-Stripes, along with some Gray Hawks, Blue Grosbeaks, and I can’t remember what else. It was hot and there was a fair bit of hiking, but the birds were really cooperative and we had a great day.
I hadn’t been back since.
On Friday evening I got a text from my friend Noah Strycker. You may have heard of him and his latest adventure. Noah is in the middle of a World Big Year, traveling the world in search of 5,000 species of birds. He was in southeast Arizona for the weekend and wondered if I wanted to do some birding.
Yes. Yes, I did.
So on Sunday morning we met up bright and early at a friend’s house. Noah, Jake Mohlmann, John Yerger, and I headed south, to California Gulch in search of Five-striped Sparrow. Not only would it be a new bird for Noah’s World Big Year, it would be a lifer for him, a bird that he’d never seen before, anywhere.
We made a few stops on the way to find Costa’s Hummingbird and Gilded Flicker, but before long we were exiting I-19 in Amado, Arizona. We drove for awhile. The pavement began to wear thin and then turned into dirt. We kept driving. We turned a bend and John, who was driving, pulled off to the side of the road. I was thinking, “What about the long hike? The treacherous roads?” The pavement had been full of potholes, but it wasn’t anything like what I remembered from ten years ago. “This is the spot,” John said. Jake agreed. We all hopped out of the car.
Within minutes two birds appeared, as if on cue, curiously cocking their heads and calling at us. They were almost too close to get in the scope, in fact. They jumped around the branches of a nearby mesquite and then dropped down to the grass and continued foraging, giving us amazing looks at this sought-after bird.
I tried to digiscope it, but the result, well…judge for yourself. A records committee would accept it, but it’s not the prettiest picture I’ve ever taken.
Long story short: apparently you don’t have to hike to hell and back to see this bird if you know where to stop your car on the way in. Also, they are doing a pretty good job with road maintenance.
I made the guys take a selfie with me because that’s how I roll.
We still had a few hours before Noah was due at the airport to continue his adventure, so we drove down towards the Gulch, parking the car when it got a bit too rough for the car and walking the rest of the way to the riparian area. There were some lovely clouds and what could have been a hot, sunny hike had speckled sunlight, a light breeze, and lots of birds. I don’t know if I’ve ever heard so many Bell’s Vireos calling before. We saw a female Black-capped Gnatcatcher with a couple of fledglings, one with a crazy spiked hairdo of new feathers, the other with a stubby little still-growing-in tail. A fledgling Red-tailed Hawk screamed at us from high in a tree, while the adults circled overhead. There were several ponds teaming with all manner of aquatic life—even some fish that were making the most of these little desert puddles.
We headed out the other way, the other part of a a winding 12-mile loop on a beautiful dirt road that ended up in the town of Ruby, Arizona. Noah even had time for a quick shower before we dropped him off at the airport to head for southern California.