I got to Pancho Canyon thrice in a week, twice w Dog and once without her; all three times with one or two friends. Twice I spent my time looking mostly down and once, mostly up.
Pancho Canyon is on the Gila River at one end of the Gila Important Bird Area (IBA). How it got the name Pancho I haven’t a clue. Nevertheless, Pancho Canyon it is, for birding, tracking, and fishing if you’re looking to catch something wilder than you’ll hook in nearby Bill Evans stocked lake.
The river is lined with ancient cottonwoods and Arizona Sycamore. The sycamore are living sculptures of white-barked branches that arc and arch, intertwine and soar. They must be seen without leaves in order to truly appreciate their magnificent structure.
The cottonwoods earn their name this time of year, filling the air with threads and clumps of white fluff. Cottonwood snow covers everything: rock walls, trails and parking area, and any tree or bush within their snow-shed.
This couple of months are a birder’s heaven along the river. Standing on the river bank, I watched Cedar Waxwings hawking insects over the river. They dashed out from the overhanging branches, darting in C shapes from branch end, out and back to branch end. Four or five of these beautiful birds congregated in one tree-top, hawking in concert. That same flock was in the same territory – the same treetops – every day that I visited.
Red, yellow, rust, black, gray flashed through the understory and canopy. Birds moved so quickly that it was tough to find them still long enough to identify them. Colors helped. That robin-sized red bird was a Summer Tanager. The littler red bird with a quip of black was Vermillion Flycatcher. Waitwait, yellow and red shining in the sunlight across the river – that had to be a Western Tanager. Willow Flycatchers were not eye candy, but their “fitz-pew” was clear from the mid-story. Willow Flycatchers are one of two species that may help us protect the Gila River from diversion – they and Yellow-Billed Cuckoos are locally familiar but officially endangered. Way up at the top of a cottonwood was a shy Yellow Warbler, recognized by the rust streaks down its breast. Violet-green swallows swarmed around a sycamore where we parked, landing at the ends of trunks where branches had broken off, leaving hollow spaces now filled with nestlings anxious to be fed. These were about one-quarter of the birds active along the river and trail alongside. The rest were songs and chips in the trees above us, hidden in the new green leaves.
Overhead, soaring, one of three Common Blackhawks we saw. These large black hawks with a white stripe across their tails are common now, though at one time, I think they may have been less frequent residents. There are numerous pairs nesting along the river, here and further down-stream.
And all this on just one morning.
The other two mornings, we focused on the ground, doing some “dirt work” for our tracking class. The river was recently above its banks and upon receding, left layers of silt and mud, just perfect substrate for tracking. Especially little critters. And critters there were. Most were going incognito, as far as our identification skills stand at this point in time. However, we did get to see tracks being laid down even as we watched. Now, the pictures in our online course make a lot more sense.
A brief story of Dog: She loves to wade into river and streams. Belly deep is just right for lapping up water, snuffling under the surface or watching that leaf or this water-skeeter. Somehow, she must have missed her swimming lessons as a pup. At the edge of the river, she was tentatively edging her way along the visible bottom toward the point where the bottom dropped away into the river’s flow. Uncertain, she stretched out her right front leg, paw extended and spread, above water but obviously an attempt to anticipate bottom. Imagine that you are reaching your arm to its full length and spreading your fingers reaching for something unseen. It did not help Dog for me to remind her that she is one-half Labrador Retriever and that webbing between her toes is meant for swimming. Nope. She wasn’t going under. Not getting her head wet. Not today. Backing up, she glanced up at me and scrambled up out of the water to give a solid not-me-not-today shake off water.