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.


  1. Awesome posts so far Mark - looking forward to the rest!!

    1. Thanks Josh! It's fun reminiscing and I've got a lot more on the way.