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. 

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