Tuesday, 20 December 2016

Wonders in the Huachucas

July 29, 2016

After being defeated by the Carr Canyon Road the evening before, Ramsey Canyon moved up in my schedule for my fist morning of birding in the Huachucas. Irritatingly the Ramsey Canyon Preserve was locked up until the late hour of 8am, so I went to bird the open country at the Brown Canyon Ranch first, which was just down the road. I actually hadn't known about this place until I heard about it from a local the evening before, who happened to be taking his three-legged Labrador Retriever for a walk near my camp (she could run surprisingly well!). While he wasn't a birder, he said he often took her for walks at the ranch and always saw lots of birds around, plus the occasional pack of javelinas. Seeing as it was on my way to the preserve and I had time to kill, it sounded like it was worth checking out.

It turned out to be well worth the stop! On the drive in I had a Grasshopper Sparrow and a "Lilian's" Meadowlark singing from the field just off the road, and when I arrived at the old homestead a was greeted by a swarm of Violet-green Swallows circling with a few Purple Martins above the pond out back.

Trees around the old Brown Canyon Ranch

The trails out back wandered through some nice arid mesquite grassland, and the place was absolutely full of birdsong. Flycatchers are often loud and arrogant, and Cassin's Kingbirds put on their best showing so far as their excited, raspy calls battled with those of the Brown-crested Flycatchers for supremacy. Although not quite as loud, the Vermilion Flycatchers shone like flame on whatever snag they perched on.

Arid grassland habitat

While the abundant flycatchers were impressive the sparrows weren't to be outdone, with plenty of Botteri's Sparrows around with singles of Rufous-winged, Rufous-crowned, and Black-throated flying about their singing perches. But the highlight of the stop were my first singing Montezuma Quail. While they were a ways off with no way of tracking them down through the thick grass and shrubs, even the song of these crazy looking birds is pretty unique, an eerie descending humming whistle. A hard bird to find unless you trip over one, I hoped I would have the luck to do so later on in the trip.

By 7:45 it was time to head up to Ramsey Canyon for opening, and 10 minutes later I'd checked in and began my hike up the canyon. I didn't spend too much time in the lower reaches of the canyon, instead trying to make good time further up-canyon where a couple Mexican rarities had been hanging out. The first was a Flame-colored Tanager, a rare but regular visitor and occasional breeder SE Arizona, that had been hanging out for the past 10 days or so past the overlook. The second was a family of much rarer Tufted Flycatchers further up the trail, which before 2015 had only been seen north of Mexico 7 times. In that year a pair was found in Ramsey Canyon with a nest, the first breeding record for the ABA Area, and in 2016 they returned and raised another chick. With two such awesome birds to search for I was eager to get up there before the morning wore away.

Though I was trying to cover ground fairly quickly I still kept my eyes and ears open on the first part of my hike, and in addition to the usual riparian birds I saw my first Arizona Gray Squirrels hanging around in the oaks. These squirrels are mostly endemic to Arizona, barely making it into adjacent New Mexico and Mexico.

Arizona Gray Squirrel

As I ascended to The Overlook I heard the rising, choppy song of a Grace's Warbler, and managed some good looks at it in the pine above. This was a great bird to get off my 'heard only' list, since the birds I'd encountered in the Spring Mountains twice last year played hard to get and never gave me a proper look. I watched the handsome gray and yellow warbler for a while as it fed in the clusters of pine needles and I caught my breath. Then I continued my climb and got some great looks at upper Ramsey Canyon.

Ramsey Canyon

From here the trail descended back down to the creek. It was along this stretch that the Flame-colored Tanger was supposed to be, and sure enough as I neared the bottom I heard the burry sing-song of a tanager coming from the conifers down in the canyon. I found an open spot to look from the trail and scanned the pines, trying to figure out which one the song was coming from. I looked for about 10 minutes and was still unable to locate the bird, when all of a sudden it flew up from nowhere and landed on the top of a pine in front of me. I got my bins on it and wow! I'm not sure if it was just how the sun was hitting it but it was a heck of a lot brighter than I thought it would be; flame-colored indeed, the bird burned brilliantly! The sighting was sweet but short however, since after a few bouts of song an angry Sulfur-bellied Flycatcher flew up and drove the tanager off. Damn it! One day's life bird becomes another day's jerk apparently. A waited a bit longer but the bird didn't show itself again, so I continued on the trail.

Conifers where the Flame-colored Tanager was singing

Up the trail I found a rocky area that looked like it might be good for snakes, so I went off to check it out. In my experience in Nevada I rarely found rattlesnakes when I was actually looking for them and seemed to depend more on luck to find them. Despite that I figured it was worth a search. While I looked many Yarrow's Spiny Lizards scurried over the rocks, the most common lizard I saw in these mountain canyons.

Yarrow's Spiny Lizard

Not really expecting to find anything, I was surprised when I heard the unmistakable sound of rattling from somewhere nearby. It doesn't seem to matter if you're looking for rattlesnakes or happen onto one by accident when you'd rather not see them, that first buzz seems to produce an inate reaction of makeing your heart stop briefly, in a 'holy crap' kind of moment. But you recover quickly, and depending on the person you either get excited and check it out, or get out of there. Being one of the former I investigated and found this Black-tailed Rattlesnake curled up under a boulder.

Black-tailed Rattlesnake

Sweet, there were actually snakes here! Black-tailed are a montane species, but unlike some of the Rock, Ridge-nosed and Twin-spotteds that are restricted to a handful of sky islands in SE Arizona, this species is found more widely through the mountainous Southwest. Still a gorgeous snake (and a first for me), larger than the other mountain species with this one likely 3ft long when stretched out. As it was it didn't stretch out for me, and was pretty content with staying where it was in the safety of its rock shelter. After getting some photos I soon let it be to explore further up the hillside.

Not 5 minutes later while crossing a talus slope I heard more buzzing from the rocks underfoot. The gaps in the rock were very small, and dispite carefully moving some if the rocks I couldn't find the source of the rattling. I suspected they were either Banded Rock or Twin-spotted Rattlesnakes since both are small and like scree, but either way they must have been young because no adult snake could fit between those rocks.

Further along I heard buzzing once again, and this time was quick enough to get a view of a couple tiny neonate Banded Rock Rattlesnakes, each maybe 3 inches long, in the cracks between the rocks. These snakes are a gorgeous pattern of gray on gray, perfect for blending into their rocky habiat. The sighting was very brief and I barely saw the pair before they slipped into the scree and out of sight, so no photos if these guys.

I covered the rest of the area with no more snakes, then after a bit of lunch made my way back to the trail. On my way I stopped by my mystery snake spot and this time was able to glimpse another 2 baby Rocks about the same size as the other pair.

With a Flame-colored Tanager and 5 rattlesnakes under my belt the morning was already a huge success, but the Tufted Flycatchers were still somewhete ahead. I didn't exactly know how far, but just kept hiking and looked out for the cairn of stones that was supposed to mark the spot. As I hiked a young buck Coues White-tailed Deer watched me from the side if the trail. The subspecies down here is smaller and paler then back east. 

Coues White-tailed Deer

Up ahead I bumped into a couple birders, one with an impressive parabolic microphone. They informed me I was almost at the flycatcher spot, but the birds had not been seen while they were there. I thanked them for the info and continued on, and on the way heard my lifer Red-faced Warbler singing and tracked it down. Beautiful birds, kind of wild to see red like that on a warbler. I made it to the cairn, and another birder there said he'd been there for over an hour with no sign if the birds. I settled in to wait and watched a few Red-faced Warblers and Painted Redstarts feeding in the nearby trees.

I didn't have to wait too long, because about 10 minutes later I heard an intriguing double-noted call from on the hillside opposite the creek. I didn't want to sound the alarm because I didn't know their vocalizations too well (I'd only listened to them couple times the day before using McDonald's wifi), but it sounded good so I wandered off after the call. The birders with the mic came from down the trail and joined me; they heard it too, a good sign. The bird played a little tricky, but soon got a glimpse of a buff-coloured bird flitting through oaks across the creek. Everyone got a look, and then we followed the bird downstream to a sunny patch of hillside where another birder and one of the preserve staff had the second adult with a juvenile.

Hillside where the Tufted Flycatcher family was found

Everyone was thrilled, and we all excitedly watched the family as they travelled about the hillside. Camera shutters were firing as 2 of the birders with better cameras than I got some great shots. The birder with the mic (whose name I didn't catch at the time) got some nice recordings as well. My point-and-shoot wasn't quite up to snuff, but here's the best shot I got. You can sort of tell it's buffy coloured at least...

Poor photo of a Tufted Flycatcher

As we watched I mentioned the rattlesnakes I'd found that morning. It turned out the other birder, Justin, was also a keen herper who'd been to Arizona a few times looking for snakes. I was eager to pick his brain about herping tips for the area, and he was happy to give me some advice which was really nice. I was reassured that the spots I'd been road cruising were in fact "good spots," and with some more tries I was bound to find some more snakes. We chatted for a while, but eventually I'd had my fill of the flycatchers and figured it was time to start hiking out. I said goodbye to Justin and the woman from the Preserve (the others haf already left), and headed back out to the trail.

But after hiking only 50m down the trail, I heard a noise off to my right. I didn't think it sounded like an insect, and after a brief search saw a brown snake retreating under a shrub. Could I really be that lucky??? I yelled back to the others

"I've got a willardi!!!"
"Really, are you kidding?"
"No, its up here just off the trail"

I almost couldn't believe it myself: after such a great day already, I almost tripped over one of the most sought-after snakes in the state, an Arizona Ridge-nosed Rattlesnake! Arizona's state snake, it's named after the bright white lines standing out from its dark brown face.

The others came to check it out and we had a bit of a photoshoot as it first curled up under the sapling then decided to carry on its way.

Arizona Ridge-nosed Rattlesnake

Although I usually find myself reflexively calling every snake I find gorgous, this beauty was certainly no exception to that. Really a stunning animal.


Just at the Rock Rattlesnakes blend in well to their rocky homes, so too do the Ridge-noses with the dead oak leaves and pine needles on the canyon floor.

Great camouflage among the leaves

Here's a video I took of it as it crawled by me. It had a really interesting way of moving, inching its way forward instead of the usual slithering.


I spent a bit of time exploring some promising habitat on my hike out, but I didn't have any more snake luck by that point. But man could I not complain!!! Not only did I add 3 new birds to my lifelist including 2 sweet Mexican strays, but in one morning saw 3 of Arizona's 4 montane rattlesnakes. As Justin said while we watched the Ridge-nose, "I think the snake gods are with you." Happily I left Ramsey Canyon to explore Hunter Canyon for the rest of the day.

Tuesday, 13 December 2016

Black Serpent and a Devil Bird

July 28, 2016

I woke up at dawn in a pulloff in the Santa Catalinas to a singing Cassin's Sparrow on the hillside.  After a bit if work I spied the bird, and got to watch my 'sight lifer' giving its fluttering song flights, satisfying after only hearing my first ones east if the Chiricahuas. I didn't spend too long though, since the plan for the morning was to check out one of the local parks east of Tucson. The outskirts of the city are not very developed, and the parks and yards in the area are still covered in mesquite with the odd Saguaro sticking up above them. It'd be a pretty sweet place to live!

I arrived at Agua Caliente Park just after 7am and was excited to spend a bit of time birding the mesquite thickets. When I got there a local birding group was gathering for a walk, but I decided not to join them and instead wander around and find my own birds. It was nice to be back in this habitat, similar to some of our sites in Warm Springs in Nevada, although the vegetation was higher and denser since Warm Springs burned 5 years ago. I enjoyed tracking down familiar Bell's Vireos, Verdins, and Abert's Towhees as they crept through the shrubbery.

Path through the Honey Mesquites

Of course being in Arizona there were many species we don't get at Warms Springs, and Canyon Towhees gave me better looks than the one I'd seen a couple days before as they fed right off the path. This Gila Woodpecker taunted a park sign, since it was free to fly wherever it wanted.

Gila Woodpecker

There was a pond in the middle of the park with a flock of Mallards feeding near the shore. I spent a while watching them, but eventually was satisfied none of them were the "Mexican" variety. I also briefly got my hopes up that some of the turtles floating in the water would be something new like Sonoran Mud Turtles, but it turns out wherever you go in North America people will release their pet Red-eared Sliders into the wild when they get sick of them.

A number Washingtonia filifera palms were planted around the pond and throughout the park. While native to the SW US in a few spots, they're planted almost everywhere else, and whether native or not they're a magnet for Hooded Orioles wherever they're found. These bright birds can be surprisingly hard to see as they sneek through the palm fronds, but their high 'weet' calls are a good way of tracking them down.

Planted palms along the trail

These palms were also home to my first Ornate Tree Lizards, which although pretty plain looking do like to hang out on tree trunks.

Ornate Tree Lizard

Also nearby were a couple of my lifer Clark's Spiny Lizards, but my photos of them were pretty terrible.

Clark's Spiny Lizard

Further down I stopped to watch some whiptails scurrying around on the path, when all of a sudden a black snake shot out lightning fast from under a garbage can and made a go at one of them. Before I get a better look it retreated back underneath the can, so I wasn't quite sure what it was. Looking through my guide I saw that Mexican Black Kingsnakes make it into southern Arizona, and although the snake looked slimmer than I thought a kingsnake would be it was the only all-black snake I could think of. There was a bit of a gap underneath the garbage can the snake was coiled up, so I couldn't make out any more field marks.

Not long after the birding group made their way down the trail. I told them about the snake, and offered to try to get it out to give them a look (and get a better look myself). Some of them suggested that it might not be the best idea to go after it, but whatever it was I was cartain it was non-venomous, and after a bit of coaxing a long, lean snake escaped out the other side. It was a Coachwhip, but unlike the brown and red ones I'd seen in Nevada this gorgeous creature was almost entirely jet-black. Beautiful! Coachwhips are also notoriously quick, and with the group watching me I was at first hesitant on whether it would be acceptable to catch the snake in front of them. Unfortunately one cannot hesitate if one wants to catch a Coachwhip, and before I new it it had climbed up into the mesquite to safety and I had lost my chance at joining the infamous "Coachwhip Club." However, now it was sitting still and in the open, so we got some good looks at it as it draped itself over the limbs above us.

Coachwhip hanging in a mesquite. Check out the red on the lower belly

Close-up of its head. Coachwhips super quick, and I was taught by the NBC
crew that if you catch one, they WILL bite you (this consequently is how
 one joins the Coachwhip Club)

After the snake sighting I walked out with the group and chatted with a couple of them about herping and birding in the area. As we were talking the group stopped, and the leader began to play the recording of a Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet. Before I could do much about it my life bird flew right in and posed meters from the group. While I got great views, I really hate using recordings to bring birds, so that definitely took away from the enjoyment of seeing this tiny little flycatcher. However, I still had a five days to find some of my own and get it off my 'dirty' list.

On my way out I passed by a couple cute Round-tailed Ground Squirrels, my 4th squirrely lifer of the trip and a great way to round out the morning. After leaving the park I drove into town to do some laundry and bum some internet, but soon I headed out east and south to spend the next few days in the Huachuca Range. This range is just above the Mexico border and was the last of the southeastern 'sky islands' I hadn't visited yet, with a number of famous canyons I'd yet to explore.

My destination for the afternoon was Ash Canyon, more specifically Ash Canyon B & B. The owner Mary Jo has a large feeder set-up like many places in the area, but her's is one of the most reliable spots for Lucifer Hummingbird.

Ash Canyon B & B

Overall things weren't too busy, and most of the action involved a few bossy Anna's Hummingbirds scaring off the smaller Black-chins. Then about 20 minutes after I arrived some other birders there spotted the male Lucifer perched up on a bare branch, and we soon got some decent looks at it came in to feed a few times and showed off its long, curved bull and extensive purple gorget. A pretty spectacular hummer, it wouldn't hesitate to call it "devilishly good-looking."

Afterwards it disappeared (unfortunately right before a couple other birders arrived), and while we waited for it to return I headed over to the other side of the house where no one was watching the feeders. There I was able to add a couple Broad-billed Hummingbirds, a female Magnificent and female Calliope to bring the stop up to a respectable 6 species (the latter my first for the trip as well). There were plenty of other non-hummers visiting the feeders and keeping us entertained, as well as some more whiptail lizards and some Rock Squirrels. Eventually the Lucifer did come back, and luckily the birders who missed it before were able to get some great looks and photos. Soon after I decided I'd seen what there was to see (and had sat on my butt for long enough), so I headed out to Carr Canyon for the evening.

Carr Canyon is one of the higher elevation canyons in the Huachucas, and it was supposed to be good for some high elevation species like Red-faced and Olive Warblers, Greater Pewees and Buff-breasted Flycatchers. I had read that the road up was supposed to be rough and "4WD recommended," but I figured I'd give it a shot with my rental Hyundai. The first part of the road was fine, and it gave a nice view of the highlands the canyon was nestled in.

Highlands around Carr Canyon

But as I reached the base of the highlands the road began to ascend in a series of steep switchbacks. Still it wasn't too rough, and taking it slow in low gear I gradually made my way up. Thankfully the road wasn't too busy, since there wasn't a lot of free space when other vehicles came by in the other direction  (almost entirely trucks, jeeps, and SUVs I noticed). There was the occasional pull-off, and these gave increasingly spectacular views of the plain below.

View of Sierra Vista from Carr Canyon Rd., with Century Plants in
the foreground

I'd made it most of the way to the campground when a woman coming the other way warned me of a truck up ahead that was half off the road. Apparently the driver had tried to drive on the shoulder to go past an incoming car instead pulling over safely and waiting, and had ended up stuck for their efforts. She assured my there was still enough room to get by, but I still didn't really like the sound of it. Besides the image giving me flashbacks, I thought that if a truck can get stuck avoiding traffic, my sedan certainly wouldn't have much of a chance. But still I kept on going to see how bad it would get.

Well it turned out I didn't even make it to the truck, since at the next bend some washouts had my car spinning her tires and rubbing her undercarriage on the road. While she probably could have made it, I wasn't sure how hard I wanted to push my rental and figured the safer thing would be to turn back around. I ended up backing up down to the last switchback where there was room to safely turn around, then made my way back to the lowlands.

Although it was too bad I couldn't make it to Carr Canyon, the drive was both scenic and a bit of an adventure. Plus there were plenty of other birding options in the area, and I decided instead to find a camp for the evening and then head to Ramsey Canyon the following morning. There were a couple sweet Mexican rarities hanging out there so reckoned it would be a good substitute. And man was it worth the change of plans...

Wednesday, 30 November 2016

July Showers bring Amphibious Critters

July 27, 2016

Before our crew went separate ways Dave took us up to see Meadview's namesake, the view of Lake Mead. Its bright blue water provided brilliant contrast with the barren rocky mountains looming around it .

Lake Mead

From the same vantage point I also got to see the Colorado River for the first time as it exited the west side of the Grand Canyon.

Colorado River and end of the Grand Canyon

After saying our goodbyes Sally Suby carried my companions off towards Nevada, while my unnamed rental took me on the beginning of my first solo road trip. I was pretty tired to start off, but I decided to take the detour through Flagstaff and Oak Creek Canyon anyways. While it turned a six hour drive into 7 and a half, the route through the mountains was absolutely gorgeous, plus on a weekday it wouldn't be choked with tourists like last time we drove it. near Flagstaff, and I enjoyed my second drive through the mountains.

Oak Creek Canyon

When I stopped in Phoenix to fill up on gas the car thermometer read 115°F (46°C), which was the officially the hottest temperature I'd ever experienced (although anything over 100°F its is just stinking hot). Luckily Tucson is at a higher elevation than the low desert of Phoenix, so it doesn't get that as hot. I arrived there around 6:30 that evening I was greeted with an absolutely wonderful sight: a rainstorm pounding the Santa Catalinas and coming my way. Rain on the desert and night falling seemed like the perfect equation for some good herping, so I eagerly headed up into the mountains to wait for the storm to pass and the critters to come out.

Storm clouds over the Santa Catalinas



Waiting for darkness

After the sun set I made my way back down, and on my way a couple massive Sonoran Desert Toads that bounced across the road in my headlights. Once I hit pavement I soon got my first lifer of the night, a Red-spotted Toad.

Red-spotted Toad

Not long after I discovered this young Long-nosed Snake. Although this was a species I really wanted to see, when I got it off the road it was acting injured which really took the enjoyment out of the encounter. I checked it over and didn't see any obvious damage, but it was still acting fairly sluggish. Afterwards I read that they have a few defensive behaviours including writhing around and void the contents of their cloaca, so perhaps this was some other defense, sort of playing dead? Or maybe it was cold. Either way, I left it be and hoped it would be alright.

Long-nosed Snake

The most common species of the night was Couch's Spadefoot, of which I stopped for over 10 and drove by many more. This species is sexually dimorphic, with the males sporting a more contrasting brown and yellow pattern while the females are a more muted green.

Male Couch's Spadefoot Toad

Female Couch's Spadefoot

The "spades" of spadefoots are hard growths on their hind feet which aid in digging. Spadefoots spend much of their time buried underground, coming to the surface during wet periods when they breed. Couch's has a unique sickle-shaped spade.

Couch's Spadefoot's sickle-shaped spade

The only other spadefoot I came across was this single Mexican Spadefoot. They're quite small with a more warty appearance and a more bug-eyed look than Couch's.

Mexican Spadefoot

Their spade is more typical of the other spadefoot species, a smaller wedge.

Mexican Spadefoot 'spade,' more typical triangle shape

One one of the back roads I got a quick look of a pair of Antelope Jackrabbits in the headlights. No photos unfortunately, but these hares have ears that put the more common Black-tailed Jackrabbits to shame, they're ridiculously huge! Not simply to look silly, the large surface area helps them release excess heat for these desert-dwellers.

After some 4 hours of road cruising I'd turned up a few dozen toads of 4 species but only the one snake. I wasn't sure where they were at, but by midnight I'd given my second wind a solid run and spent over 12 hours driving, so I found a spot in the wilderness to crash for the night.

Monday, 28 November 2016

Desert Herping and the Wren Den

July 26, 2016

I woke up with the dawn in Tucson Mountain Park and was surprised with the intensity of the dawn chorus which greeted me. Unlike the last time we birded the desert when the birds were fairly quiet, this morning the air was full of birdsong and calls. Numerous Gila Woodpeckers churred from the cacti, Cactus Wrens chugged and scolded, White-winged Doves cooed from atop saquaros, and the whit-weets of Curve-billed Thrashers pierced the air from the thickets. This was the sound of the Sonoran!

After everyone woke up we packed up camp and wandered the campground a while. What was interesting was that the dawn chorus was just that, a chorus at dawn, which subsided within half an hour of beginning. By the time we started birding things had calmed down to much more sporadic vocalizations. It seems that since it heats up quick out here the birds sing their hearts our at first light then take it a bit easier, and this explained our quiet round of desert birding a couple days before.

Though things were quieter they weren't quiet, and we spent some quality time with the desert birds on our last day down south as a group. A singing Canyon Towhee was a lifer for me and made up for the one Ned got but we missed in the Santa Catalinas. Soon we followed a trail out of the campground proper and worked our way through the desert along a mesquite-lined wash. Many species of cholla were present, including some huge ones that were over head height.

Cholla cacti in Tucson Mountain Park

As we worked the wash a trio of raptors flushed low ahead of Ned and I and disappeared behind some mesquites. Considering the habitat we were in we had Harris's Hawks on the brain, and although our brief look didn't seem right we kept our hopes up end eyes peeled. Sure enough field marks and gut feelings are always more important than what you 'want' to see, and we were greeted by a family of Great Horned Owls further along. Had to keep trying!

Later on we heard the call of a Costa's Hummingbird as it flew over, which sound sort of like a tiny laser gun charging and firing. These birds can be tricky to find and it was only my second time encountering one. Unfortunately we didn't get to see it, but it was a great addition to my hummer list for the trip which was steadily building.

Our best find of the morning was found hiding under the shade of a creosote in an opening in the wash. I can't remember if I spotted it first or if Maebe drew our attention to it, but either way, under the shrub was one if the most regal of desert critters, a Regal Horned Lizard!

Regal Horned Lizard

These guys are similar enough to the Desert Horned Lizards we have across Nevada, although they're diagnostic in that their large cranial horns touch at the bases which give them a triceratops-esque look. Check out those horns! Aside from rattlers and Gila Monsters these guys were at the top of my list of herps I wanted to find.

Close-up of those regal horns

Soon after our lizard find we agreed it was time to leave the South behind and begin the long journey to Meadview. That night the plan was to visit our co-worker Dave Henderson and his wife Sandy at their place in the north of the state before the crew headed back to Nevada. After working with Dangerous Dave for one, two, or more seasons we had all heard many tales of his home in the middle of Arizona's largest Joshua Tree forest, so we were eager to see it for ourselves.

After a quick stop at Tania's for some breakfast burritos we hit the highway and were on our way (no B. Rex this time but just as delicious, I definitely recommend it if you're ever in Tucson). As we passed through Phoenix I picked up a rental car for the solo extention of my trip, then we caravanned in good time as the Sonoran disappeared behind us and we came back into the Mojave. By late afternoon we pulled up to the Henderson's and were greeted by Dave and his wife.

Their place is located in the desert south of Meadview, where the view from their porch looks over Joshua Tree desert and the Grand Wash Cliffs to the west, marking the end of the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. We had to admit it was a pretty nice view.

View of the desert and the Grand Wash Cliffs from Dave's place

After catching up a bit and taking some much-needed showers, Dave took us on a tour of his property. He'd created a nice system of trails crisscrossing his piece of desert, with each trail delineated by its own colour of rocks. We also got to see his newly completed guest house, fondly named "The Wren Den."

Dave taking us on a tour
Photo Credit: Kelly Colegrove

After our tour we were treated to some delicious pizza and eagerly shared our stories of the Southeast. We watched the sun set on the Grand Wash Cliffs and just generally enjoyed this comfortable end to the 4-day blitz we'd just completed. Once it was dark Dave showed us a couple of the Western Banded Geckos which hang out under the lid of his cistern. The juveniles are more strongly banded than the adults, which show more variable patterns of wavy stripes and spots.

Juvenile and adult Western Banded Geckos

Another aspect of Dave's home that was often boasted about was the abundance of Mojave Rattlesnakes. There were more venemous snakes in the area than non-venomous ones he would tell us, and the potent 'Mojave Greens" were the most common of the bunch. We were all pretty exhausted by that point in the evening, but since we had missed these snakes down south we couldn't give up the opportunity to give them one last try. I have to admit I wasn't too optimistic in finding one, especially since after days of driving we decided to walk the roads instead and would cover less ground. But boy was I happily surprised when Kelly spotted this beauty crossing the road in front of us! UPDATE: while the following information about Mojaves is correct, I've just had this snake re-IDd as a Western Diamond-backed Rattlesnake. A different lifer!

Mojave Rattlesnake -UPDATE: Actually a Western-Diamond-backed Rattlesnake

These impressive snakes have one of the deadliest venoms of all North American snakes. While the venom of most rattlesnakes is haemotoxic and causes tissue damage, the Mojave's is rare in that it contains a neurotoxin as well. This so-called 'Mojave toxin' can cause paralysis and resulting respiratory failure in its victims, pretty intense! However like all rattlesnakes, as long as you give them a bit of space and don't antagonize them you won't be in danger; striking is a last resort. Our friend was pretty docile and retreated under a creosote.

Western Diamond-backed Rattlesnake sheltering under a creosote

The snake was a great way to end the first part of my trip. A whirlwind four days through one of the birdiest places in the states with 3 amazing naturalists and good friends, it was a trip I won't soon forget! The next day Ned, Kayla and Kelly would head back to Nevada, while I would drive back down south again on my own to explore for another week and see what else I could find. 

Saturday, 26 November 2016

Over the Mountains, and Sonoran Night Life

July 25, 2016

Similar to the day before, a Mexican Whip was singing in the hours before dawn, but this time it was joined by another nocturnal lifer, a Northern Pygmy-Owl. The Mountain subspecies found in SE Arizona sings faster than more-northern pygmy-owls, sounding essentially the same as a Northern Saw-whet Owl. But, saw-whets aren't around in the mountain canyons in the summer while the pygmys are widespread, so we were able to make the ID.

The mountains behind us were brilliant in the morning light.

Dawn in the Chiricahuas

Kelly took Maebe for a walk first thing and heard the trogon call a couple times just down the road, but by the time I got there it had disappeared. After the rest of the crew woke up we decided to bird around camp a bit and search for the it while our tents dried out.

Monsoon aftermath

Despite birding the area for a while things were pretty quiet, and we didn't find any new birds or our trogon quarry. Maebe made the most interesting find in the form of a skunk she chased down. Its spray got her a bit, and thereafter she was known as "Maebe the Skunk Dog." And apparently it was just a Striped Skunk, which was too bad since if it was a cool southern skunk like a Hooded or Hog-nosed it would have been more worth spending our time with a smelly pooch.

Maebe post-skunk
Photo Credit: Kelly Colegrove

Just before we headed out to the South Fork I spotted this mantidfly on the bathroom door, my first time seeing one of these super cool insects! Not only do they look awesome with their raptorial forelegs, but they have fascinating life cycles. After they hatch, mantispid larvae find and climb onto a spider and wait until it lays eggs. Once the spider lays its clutch, the young mantispid enters the egg case and feeds on the spider eggs before they hatch.

Mantidfly

After a quick drive we made it to the South Fork Trail of Cave Creek, one of the most popular of the Chiricahuas' riparian birding areas. We had just started up the trail when back from the parking lot we heard the unmistakable, wild croaking of the jewel we were after. Elegant Trogon! We rushed after the call, and in the hurry through the brush I spied a male Magnificent Hummingbird perched on twig right in front of me before it flew off. Bam, this was Arizona birding! We traced the call to a group of tall pines near the dry creek, and as we arrived we saw a female trogon flush from near the top of one of them. Then the calling started up again, and we spied the male in the same tree. Partially obscured by branches, the bright red belly and white tail were clearly visible, and the body pumped in sync with the tropical-sounding croaks. Such an exotic bird, and between the sight and sound it made us feel like we were in the neotropics. I ran back to the car to get the scope for a better view, but by the time I got back it had flown off up cliff and taunted us as it continued to call.

After trying in vain to locate the bird again high up on the slope, we decided to bird our way up dry creek bed instead of heading back to the trail. Soon we heard the rubber-ducky calls of numerous Sulphur-bellied Flycatchers watched a Blue-throated Hummingbird hovering at the edge of the creek, showing off its wide black tail with white corners. It was really satisfying to get our lifer Magnificent and Blue-throateds out in 'the wild' like this, since a lot of the hummingbirding down here involves sitting in front of a dozen hummingbird feeders and waiting for them to fly in.

Birding Cave Creek
Photo Credit: Kayla Henry

High red cliffs reared up on either side of the canyon, and the descending whistles of Canyon Wrens echoed off the rocks. Definitely one of my favorite bird songs.

Canyon Wren haunts

The trail gave us a great dose of SE Arizona riparian birding, and we spent a lot of time with many of the area's specialties that we had to leave behind the morning before. The mix of deciduous and coniferous trees in these canyons makes for a great variety of species, with leaf-loving birds like Acorn Woodpeckers, Dusky-capped and Sulphur-bellied Flycatchers and Bridled Titmice along with birds I usually consider higher-elevation species like Brown Creeper, Hermit Thrush, Black-throated Gray Warblers and Red Crossbill. Such great birding! On our way our we even nabbed one of the specialties we'd missed so far, a female Arizona Woodpecker.

In the non-avian department, Yarrow's Spiny Lizards were quite common, and we saw a few Mexican Fox Squirrels which outside of Mexico are only found in this mountain range.

Yarrow's Spiny Lizard

After birding the South Fork we made a quick stop at the Southwest Research Station to check out their hummingbird feeders. The diversity here wasn't astounding with only two species of hummers, but getting to watch half a dozen Blue-throats dominate the feeders was great to see. One thing that really surprised me while watching them was how noticeably slower these large hummingbirds beat their wings than the smaller Black-chins. We also got a look at this cooperative whiptail which sat still enough for us to identify as a Chihuahuan Spotted. Like a number of the whiptails in the southwest this species is unisexual, made up entirely of females which reproduce via parthenogenesis.

Chihuahuan Spotted Whiptail

From here Sally Suby carried us higher into the mountains where we would take the pass up and over the mighty Chiricahuas. The road twisted and turned as we gained elevation, giving us spectacular views of the mountains and valleys below. Unfortunately no one took photos on this while leg of the journey, so you'll just have to imagine it! We had planned this route not only to experience the glorious views but also to put us in the habitat of a few higher-elevation species: Mexican Chickadee, Red-faced and Olive Warblers. But one thing we did not expect was to find much of the area not covered in conifers, but burned. Apparently back in 2011 the Horseshoe 2 Fire swept through a 200,000+ acre chunk of the range, and much of the range we drove through was covered in standing snags. We kept an eye out for Greater Pewees and Olive-sided Flycatchers on these snags while we looked for a promising place to find our targets.

We made it to the top Onion Saddle and were headed down the other side when we realize we'd missed our turn towards a couple parks where our birds were supposed to be hanging out. The road was narrow and we had a cliff to our right, with nowhere to turn around as far as we could see down the descending road. No problem! Ned pulled the car into a many-point turn to take us back to the find the birds. While he was mid-turn, car perpendicular across road and pulled up to the cliff ("Face the danger" we were taught in GBBO training), he decided to stick his head out the window to see how close he was. His update was "Woah, if I had gone any further... never mind, it doesn't matter now." It turned out there may have been a spot where the shoulder had given way, and the hole was within a couple inches of the front left tire. That was another for the quote list, but soon we were out of danger and on our way.

Up our missed road we found patch of conifers and got out to take a look around. Being midday things were quiet, but as we walked up the road our lifer Cassin's Kingbird toyed with us in the burn to our right. We eventually came to a group of pines with a mixed flock passing through, and we worked the cute mob of Bushtits and Pygmy Nuthatches for our target birds. We got our best looks yet at a trio of Hepatic Tanagers including a nice male, but the best of the bunch was a single Mexican Chickadee. While we struck out the two warblers, the chickadee was the only one of the three found solely in the Chiricahuas, so it was good to get that one in the bag.

Ned navigated the rest of the pass without incident, and by the afternoon we were out in the grasslands west of the mountains. Here we checked all the kingbirds along the fence line in the hopes of getting a better look at a Cassin's, and kept an eye on the meadowlarks for a "Lilian's". We came up empty on our kingbird, but one of the meadowlarks was perched close to the road and conveniently sang for us to confirm its identity as a "Lilian's". Here's a sub-par video the bird singing at the end, along with Ned describing what a "Lilian's" Meadowlark is.


Maebe helping us watch for meadowlarks

Before heading back to Tucson for an evening of bat-watching and herping we had enough time for a detour to Madera Canyon to try for more hummingbirds, since this would be the crew's last shot for them before they headed north the next day. We made it to the Santa Rita Lodge tired and hungry (we'd skipped lunch this time because we couldn't decide where we wanted to stop to eat), but a bunch of comfy chairs in front of a yard stocked full of bird feeders was just what we needed to lift our spirits. The yard was loaded with hummingbirds, with our brilliant lifer Broad-billeds buzzing all over the place and giving us point-blank views.

Male Broad-billed Hummingbird
Photo Credit: Kelly Colegrove

This was definitely one of the cases where some birds are under-appreciated due to their abundance. The Broad-billeds sported bright orange bills and iridescent blue and green bodies and were essentially flying gems, definitely the most colourful hummingbird I'd ever seen. But ten minutes after arriving I found myself glossing over the hoardes of them for something different.

Along with the Broad-bills were a handful of Black-chinneds. They're one e of the more common hummers in the lowlands of Nevada so we'd seen them a lot, but what I found fascinating to see here was the interactions between different species of hummingbirds. Size was clearly the dominance determinant here, and even though the Broad-bills weren't that much larger than the Black-chins they went out of their way to keep them off the feeders.

Female Black-chinned Hummingbird
Photo Credit: Kelly Colegrove

While the previous two species were the ones we saw most of the stay, a pair of Magnificent Hummingbirds graced the feeders from time to time. Ned and Kayla had missed the bird at Cave Creek, so they were pumped to get great looks at these massive hummers.

Male Magnificent Hummingbird
Photo Credit: Kelly Colegrove

The lodge had plenty of other seed feeders up as well, and a whole load of other species took advantage of them. It was a great way to end a long day of birding by having Black-headed and Blue Grosbeaks, Bridled Titmice, Mexican Jays, and Rufous-crowned Sparrow come right to you without any legwork. A whole pack of Wild Turkeys wandered around underneath, showing the white-tipped feathers of Southwestern birds.

Wild Turkeys
Photo Credit: Kelly Colegrove

The highlight of the feeder birds was a female Bronzed Cowbird that showed up on one of the platforms. A hard bird to nail down to a particular location, it was the only individual I saw my whole trip.

Female Bronzed Cowbird
Photo Credit: Kelly Colegrove

The icing on the cake was a pair of Gray Hawks that at first passed briefly behind the treetops but later came back to circle over and give stunning looks. They rounded out a solid list for just sitting on our butts, my third lifer for the stop and my 24th in just 2 days.

From Madera Canyon we headed into Tucson for dusk to watch a roost of Mexican Free-tailed Bats take off for the night. A number of the bridges in the city are home to these bats, with an estimated 200,000 living throughout the city. We headed to the largest roost which was apparently home to 20,000 individuals.

The bridge where they roosted was conveniently next to a burrito place (you may notice a trend here, but while in the Southwest the Mexican food is excellent), so we got ourselves some overdue supper and went to sit by the bridge. I suppose we didn't bring our bins with us since we figured the bats would come out when got dark, but as we neared our supper spot we noticed a raptor eating something atop a power pole. After looking at it for a moment, Ned and I both exclaimed at the same time "Crested Caracara!" I ran back to the car to get my bins and scope to enjoy this awesome bird. But when I got back and scoped the bird I had some bad news to break to the crew: "And by caracara we actually mean Peregrine Falcon." Something about the bird had tricked both of us, so the mis-ID did't hurt as bad, but we watched the falcon eat its meal as we ate ours.

Eventually it occurred to us that the falcon was waiting for the same thing we were: the bats. As dusk neared we got closer to the bridge and the bats were already starting to get active, calling and flying around under the bridge. Then a few small groups left, and before long a stream of hundreds of bats was flying off towards the sunset.

Mexican Free-tailed Bats leaving their roost for the night
Photo Credit: Kelly Colegrove

I'd never seen a bat exodus like this before, and it was incredible to see just that many bats! Here's a video of some of them:


And Kelly's "It's comin' it's comin'" at the end of the clip was in reference to the Peregrine we'd been waiting for, which came in from behind the stream and made a run at the bats.

Peregrine Falcon hunting the bats
Photo Credit: Kelly Colegrove

On its first run it singled one out and picked it out of the sky right in front of us. So awesome! After eating that one it made another 4 runs over the evening as the stream that continued to leave the bridge. Its next 3 runs were misses but it gave us another hit on its final attack before it got too dark to hunt.

As darkness fell we left the bats behind us to take our one shot at road cruising as a group. With 80's tunes blaring we headed out to some out-of-the-way roads through the desert. Our first critter on the pavement was this Great Basin Toad.

Great Basin Toad

About a minute later we came across our first of one of our most wanted herps, the Sonoran Desert Toad. These toads are massive, with some getting larger than a softball.

Sonoran Desert Toad, with hand for comparison. Beasties!
Photo Credit: Kelly Colegrove

A little further on the pavement turned to dirt, and almost immediately we spotted our first snake. It was immediately evident that "That snake's moving sideways!!"and it's was none other than a Sonoran Desert Sidewinder.

Sonoran Desert Sidewinder

Rattlesnakes area always a thrill to find, and sidewinders are definitely one of the most iconic of them. Despite their small size, maxing our at less than three feet long, their little horns and unique method of moving around their hot, sandy habitats are unique among rattlesnakes. Here's a clip of it sidewinding.



I'd heard that sidewinders can be quite common in the right habitat, and not two minutes further down the road we got our second individual of the night, this one a little smaller.

Second Sidewinder of the night

All four of these herps were found in the space of about 10 minutes, a super productive start to the night! After that things slowed down for herps, but kangaroo rats still suicidally ran across the road in front of us as we approached. This one was tame enough to give a photo opportunity.

Kangaroo Rat sp.

Once the road got too sandy and loose for comfort we turned the rig around and headed back the way we'd came. On the way back saw another half a dozen Sonoran Desert Toads, but no more snakes slithered across our headlights and we ended up in Tucson Mountain Park for the night. While walking around the campground before bed we discovered a Western Banded Gecko that got away from us and a number of Desert Tarantula which were more cooperative.

Desert Tarantula

Thus ended a solid night of road cruising and our last night in the Southeast as a group. The next day we would make the drive north back to the top of the state to visit tour crew-made Dave Henderson's home amid Arizona's largest Joshua Tree forest that we'd heard so much about.