By Peter Kleinhenz
“California Gulch is the most accessible place in the U.S. to see Five-striped Sparrow, yet it is no easy place to get to. The single-lane road has many rough sections and wash crossings; a 4-wheel drive, high clearance vehicle is strongly recommended. If possible, go with someone who knows the way; road signs may be missing or misleading. The best birding spots are four bone-jarring miles from Ruby Road. As in all isolated areas, do not travel alone. The road is seldom maintained.” Finding Birds in Southeast Arizona, 8th edition.
I was taking advantage of a field trip offering at the Tucson Birding Festival for a day’s birding that would start with an early morning run through California Gulch. August is hot in Southeast Arizona. The forecast high in Tucson was 104 degrees, but it’s the best time to see rare and uncommon birds like Five-striped Sparrow, Buff-Collared Nightjar and Montezuma Quail. Down along the Mexican border, west of Nogales where we would be birding, it would be cooler, with temperatures peaking in the mid-90s.
I was staying at the Riverpark Inn in Tucson on the banks of the Santa Cruz River. The birding festival is centered at the Riverpark Inn and it was an easy walk from my room to the lobby and then out the front door. There was a line of vans, each heading out for a different field trip. I followed a sign to one of the two “California Gulch Adventure” vans, checked in and got on the van. It was still dark, but we had a 1.5-hour drive just to get to the turnoff to California Gulch Road. Our scheduled leave time was 5:00 am.
This was a small group; fourteen birders and two leaders in two vans. I’m dressed like an REI ad; breathable lightweight shirt and pants, floppy sun hat and hiking boots. I fit right in. Everybody has binoculars; some have expensive cameras. There’s probably $50,000 worth of optical equipment in the vans. The group is a mix of in-state and out-of-state birders, mostly older, but all fit. There’s a mother-daughter pair and a married couple, the rest of us are single birders.
It’s a 30-mile drive in the dark down I-19 to exit 48, Arivaca Road, and then another 23 miles to the town of Arivaca. We drive down the interstate in the dark, turn off on our side road and head out across the desert. The sun decides to rise as we drive down Arivaca Road.
Arivaca is a small town with 35,000 inhabitants on a small perennial stream. It started as a Pima Indian village and developed because of small mines in the area that produced gold, silver, lead, copper and tungsten. It has the oldest schoolhouse in Arizona and has been a stage stop and cavalry outpost. The cavalry outpost was established after Apaches under Geronimo attacked isolated ranches in the area during the Bear Valley Raid in 1886. Arivaca’s cavalry made history in 1918 when they engaged a small band of Yaqui Indians in the Battle of Bear Valley; the last armed engagement of the Indian Wars. Troop B of the Connecticut National Guard was stationed here in the 1920’s to guard against raids by Mexican revolutionaries, but saw no action.
At Arivaca, we follow the signs for Ruby and turn on to an unpaved road for the 10-mile drive to the turnoff for California Gulch. Ruby Road is named after the wife of the mining town’s general store manager. The town of Ruby folded in 1941 and is now a ghost town open for public tours. California Gulch Road is easy to miss. It’s not so much a road. It’s more like a place where people have driven before.
The two leaders, Brian and John, are both pros who lead international birding trips. They talk using walky-talkies and it seems that they are less familiar with current conditions than one would hope. It’s monsoon season in Southern Arizona with torrential rains and flash floods in the desert and it rained heavily yesterday. I’m in the lead van and we stop when Ruby Road goes underwater for about twenty feet. After a short discussion, we decide to chance it and make it through. Brian decides that California Gulch Road will be impassable and we turn onto Warsaw Canyon Road, which runs into the bottom of California Gulch just shy of the Mexican border.
The Sonoran Desert in monsoon season is a riot of lush greenery bespotted with flowers. Velvet Mesquite and Whitethorn Acacia are the dominant plants, but there are oaks along the southern hill flanks, valleys rich with Arizona Walnut, Fremont Cottonwood, Sycamore and Willow, Ocotillo forests on exposed slopes and, in the open, a mix of cacti; cholla, prickly pear and saguaro. Grasses and wildflowers form a carpet underneath everything.
We run into Antelope Jackrabbits; bizarre, ungainly creatures with giant ears. There are birds too; Gray Hawks, Rufous-winged Sparrows, Cassin’s Kingbird and Phainopeplas. We bounce up and down as the vans navigate the road. This is open range and we see the occasional cow and even a few horses.
California Gulch is a narrow watercourse in a lush valley. We exit the vans and within an hour we have found Five-striped Sparrows, Blue Grosbeaks, Black-tailed Gnatcatchers, Western & Summer Tanagers and Yellow-billed Cuckoos. There are Canyon Wrens, Varied Buntings and Vermilion Flycatchers. This is hot birding in every sense of the term. We also run across butterflies like the Empress Leilia (not a Star Wars character) and dragonflies like the Variegated Meadowhawk.
We also run across the Border Patrol who show up everywhere. A lone pickup with the standard wide green diagonal stripe that identifies Border Patrol vehicles came driving down California Gulch Road making the California Gulch/Warsaw Canyon loop, undeterred by water and mud. He takes one look at us and keeps driving.
Having found our target bird, we head back up Warsaw Canyon and take Ruby Road over to the head of Sycamore Canyon to stop for lunch. This is Hank-and-Yank Spring. It’s named for neighboring ranchers who survived the Bear Valley raid, but lost family members. For us it’s a pleasant and shaded place to have lunch. There are Black-headed Grosbeaks, Warbling Vireos and Rufous-crowned Sparrow.
The rest of the afternoon is spent at Pena Blanca Canyon and Willow Canyon. We add Dusky-capped Flycatcher and Greater Roadrunner and then head back to the interstate to begin the drive North to Tucson.