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.


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.

Wednesday, 23 November 2016

Exploring the Southeast

July 24, 2016

We were finally in position in the Southeast portion of the state, and my first lifer of the trip was tallied before I even got up out of bed: a singing Mexican Whip-poor-will. Split from the eastern population in 2010, these birds are distinguished by their lower, burrier song. Here's a video recording I snapped of it singing in the moonlight.

Camped up in the oak-pine forest in Bear Canyon of the Santa Catalinas, our plan was to head downwards as soon as we were ready to spend the morning birding the saguaro desert. However, we couldn't simply ignore all the life birds flitting through our camp, so we spent an hour birding nearby. A few Yellow-eyed Juncos were feeding around the parking lot, as were a gorgeous adult Painted Redstart and a juvenile following its parent around. Man, and I thought our American Redstarts were flashy! Stark black, white, and red, they're very acrobatic feeders like our American ones but flash bright white outer-tails instead of orange. A poor look at a Bridled Titmouse, a raucous trio of Mexican Jays and a heard only Hepatic Tanager rounded out a 6-lifer start to the day, but we needed to leave better looks for another time since we had desert birds to find.

We arrived at our piece of desert near Reddington Pass at quarter to seven, but found things quieter than we were  expecting. Ash-throated Flycatchers, Black-tailed Gnatcatchers and Black-throated Sparrows were numerous, but these were birds we were familiar with from the Great Basin and the Mojave; we'd come this far south in search of different targets. Still, the towering saguaros and chugging songs of Cactus Wrens set a gorgeous scene, the later a lifer for Kayla and Ned and my second time encountering these massive, charismatic wrens.

Compared to the barren Mojave, which is sparsely inhabited by Creosote, a few other shrubs and the occasional Joshua Trees, the Sonoran looked like a jungle! While the saguaros were obviously impressive, the sheer abundance and diversity of all the other cacti and shrubs down here made for a really rich desert environment.

While most of the saguaros were not flowering yet, many of the Pancake Prickly Pears were, adding bright pink to the sea of greens. A park warden that we chatted with told us that the ocotillo had been barren up until less than a week before we arrived, when the rains had allowed them to leaf our in a matter of a few days. Truly incredible how quickly the monsoons can bring the desert to life.

Pancake Prickly Pear in bloom, in front of ocotillo and saguaros
Photo Credit: Kelly Colegrove 

We wandered up the road, scouring the area for new birds. Ned spotted a flash of red in the shrubs, the southwestern subspecies of Northern Cardinal, but unfortunately we didn't get a good look (funny how one get's a new appreciation for them when you haven't seen them all summer). Further up we got some glimpses of a few more cardinal-like birds chasing each other through the shrubs. The brief looks we got showed the birds might not have been entirely red, suggesting they might have been Pyrrhuloxia, the difficultly-named cousin of the cardinal and one of our targets. However, I seemed to remember hearing that the southwestern cardinals were paler than the ones out east, so as we waited for another look I explained to the crew that they might have just been cardinals. Excitement was high, and as I was thinking out loud of how to identify the birds said "Wait, what does a Pyrrhuloxia even look like??". That got a good laugh and went down as one of the quotes of the trip. In the end one of he birds popped up for a good view, and it was in fact a stunning male Pyrrhuloxia.

"What does a Pyrrhuloxia even look like??" Also note Maebe's sun-retardant white t-shirt
Photo credit: Kayla Henry 

Woodpeckers were also on the hit-list, since both Gilded Flicker and Gila Woodpecker would be new for Kayla, Ned and I (I should mention that Kelly used to live in Arizona, so had seen most of the birds before). In the absence of trees they use the saguaros to nest here, so we continuously scanned the sides of the massive cacti. The trunk of one of them had collapsed and looked like an elephant's trunk.

Elephant saguaro
Photo Credit: Kelly Colegrove 

Even after the mostly-fleshy cacti died, they left behind their rib-like skeletons.

Saguaro skeleton

A handful of Ladder-backeds were around, but the closest we came to the flickers were a couple vocalizing birds that we couldn't get eyes on. Although Gildeds are the default in this habitat the two flickers sound almost identical, so we didn't want to count them as heard-only. On our way back Kayla finally picked us out a pair of Gilas on a distant cactus, one of her most-wanted birds for the trip, and we all got good looks.

Also near the end of our hike we spotted a Varied Bunting that gave us poor views atop a cactus, but good enough to see that it was a very dark bird with maroon on its head and breast (not a common combination). While not the most satisfying to ticks, a tick it was, my fourth for the hike and tenth for the day. And it wasn't even breakfast!

Well... we were overdue for breakfast. After skipping supper the evening before and birding a chunk of the morning away, we were all pretty famished. We headed into Tucson to a burrito place Kelly knew about, and on the way Ned and I joked about going up to the counter and saying "I want your largest burrito, and can you make it bigger?". Well sure enough, as we walked up to Tania's we were greeted by this sign:

The answer to our prayers

Ned and I just looked at each other and knew we had to put our money where our mouths were. We ordered "The B. Rex" and they brought out a burrito bigger than my head.

Ned with the B. Rex

Even splitting it between us, each half gave us two solid meals each and it was the only thing we ate all day.

Quite the meal!

Our destination for the evening was the fabled Chiricahua Range a few hours east near the New Mexico border, but on our way we took a detour to make a few cultural stops at the towns of Tombstone and Bisbee. On our way east on I-10 we scrutinized every Turkey Vulture to try to turn them into Zone-tailed Hawks.  While we were yet to succeed on that front, a surprise was a pair of Mississippi Kites I spotted circling over the highway west of Benson. Not a bird I associate with the West, but a small population breeds in south-central Arizona. These were life birds for everyone in the car except me, who'd lucked out on working in Manitoba the year when Canada's first breeding pair settled in Winnipeg of all places.

We made it to Tombstone and had a quick walk in the Wild West town. The main attraction was the Bird Cage Theatre, which was home to countless gunfights back in the day and is now apparently haunted.

Bird Cage Theater in Tombstone
Photo Credit: Kayla Henry

The next stop was Bisbee, an artsy town nestled in the mountains down near the Mexico border.

Main street in Bisbee
Photo Credit: Kelly Colegrove 

These weird flies were all over town

Our main draw here was the Beast Brewery, where we spent a bit of the afternoon.

Beast Brewing Company
Photo Credit: Kayla Henry

Later in the afternoon we made our way around the bottom end of the Chiricahuas and up along the state line between Arizona and New Mexico. Here the arid grasslands were supposed to be pretty productive, so we stopped to try for Aimophila sparrows. We walked down a dirt track and were lucky enough to get great views of a Scaled Quail as it scurried our across the road right in front of us. While waiting for the sparrows to reveal themselves we watched our first monsoon storms rove across the grassland, and soon enough we heard a few Cassin's Sparrows giving their flight songs and got good looks at a silent Botteri's Sparrow.

Monsoon storm

Finally we headed up into the mountains and reached our camp for the night. Since we could see a large storm advancing on us from the east we decided to put up our tents after it had passed (no sense getting them all soaked), and instead headed up the dry creek to look for birds.

The Chiricahuas

It was cool to see yuccas and cacti among the oaks in the forest here

Things were very quiet, but we soon picked out the melancholy whistles of our lifer Dusky-capped Flycatchers and got to watch three birds chasing each other around the sycamores. Then it started to rain, so we turned around hiked back to camp. Just as we arrived a bird flew over our heads across the parking lot. I got on it late and only saw a large-ish dark bird with white outer tail feather, which almost reminded me of a giant towhee. But Kelly and Ned got on it first as it passed above us, and saw ruby-red below. An Elegant Trogon, in our camp!!! We searched the patch of woods it had flown to but unfortunately couldn't get another look. Damn, not the way I wanted my lifer trogon, but at least we knew they were around.

The rain started to fall harder, so we took shelter under the bathroom roof and watched the storm come in.

Sheltering while waiting for the storm

And come in it did! After dark we were assaulted by our first big monsoon storm, and it was the most intense thunderstorm I'd ever experienced. After the storm hit us the sound of thunder never subsided, since as soon as one boom began to fade a second lightning strike would add a second one in on top of it. We sat in awe under or shelter as the rain poured down and the thunder roared around us. Here's a  video clip to give a feel for it.

Now you may remember that we had assumed this storm would pass over us quickly, after which we would set up our tents and go to bed. Well, one hour passed, then two, and the storm just intensified. We began to second-guess our judgement call. As the rain blew under our roof we all retreated to the Subaru and waited another hour there, hoping it would slow down so the four of us wouldn't have to spend the night in the packed, humid car. After a while my fatigue overcame my patience, and I braved the rain and set up my tent under the bathroom roof before moving it out into the parking lot.

Luckily for the rest of the crew at this time the storm weakened a little, so the girls were able to set up their tents, Ned climbed into mine, and we rested up for the next morning's birding in the famous Cave Creek.