Sunday, 20 November 2016

Heading South

Hello again everyone! I've had few months' hiatus from posting, but now that I'm back in Southern Ontario for the winter and have some free time I'll try to catch up on my past three months' adventures. And with the the first dose of winter hitting us today here in Ontario, why not warm up again with tales from hot and sunny Arizona?

At the end of this summer's season on the Nevada Bird Count I had the opportunity to make a trip I'd wanted to do since my first season in the project: a monsoon visit down to SE Arizona. In late July into August thunderstorms sweep through the state daily, adding moisture to the parched environment and allowing the plants, birds, herps, and other wildlife to flourish. During this 'second spring' many of the birds are in full song (unlike most places at this time of year), and many species of hummingbirds are either making their way from the north or coming up from Mexico. In addition to the birds, I was almost more excited for the herping in this region, as the storms allow frogs, toads, lizards, and snakes to be more active than in the hotter, drier part of the summer. Rattlesnakes in particular were one of my main goals, as Arizona hosts an amazing 11 species of these impressive venomous critters.

This year I was lucky in that my co-workers Ned Bohman and Kayla Henry had some free time before going back to work, and Kelly Colegrove from GBBO's Crescent Dunes project decided she and her dog Maebe could take some time off to join us as well. So plans were set, and after being set free on our last Friday of work we made plans to head south for Arizona!

Friday July 22, 2016

After our season end lunch in Reno was had and loose ends were tied up, we headed back south at a later-than-hoped-for 3:30pm to Yerington to load up Ned's trusty steed, Sally Suby, with all of our gear. Ned's friend Nai joined us for the first leg of the journey, since her car had broken down in Tonopah the week before and she needed a lift. It made for a tight fit, but we packed up the car tetris-style and in about an hour we had packed and continued on our way.

The Crew: Ned, Kelly, me, and Kayla, with a well-packed Sally Suby

When we added Nai and Maebe the dog it was a tight fit! 

The ride down was a long one, but it passed easily with good tunes and good company.  Around dusk we pulled into Tonopah to drop off Nai with her rig, then the four of us continued on towards the Mojave. Our original plan was to stop around Las Vegas for the night, but as Vegas came up we decided to push for Arizona and make ground while we had the stamina. By 1am we made it to Boulder City and, having missed all the fast-food turnofffs in Vegas, had dinner of an egg salad sandwich and a large loaf of garlic bread in the lamp-light parking lot of a 24h grocery store. It was starting to feel like a real road trip!

Parking lot dinner at 1am
Photo credit: Kelly Colegrove

We soon crossed the Colorado River which marked the border of Arizona, and continued on for another hour before crashing in a picnic area in the Hualapai Mountains for a brief sleep.

Saturday July 23, 2016

At 6am we were up again, with very few birds singing and none of the hoped-for Hepatic Tanagers, Painted Redstarts, or Olive Warblers that mark the NW edge of their range in these sky islands. We packed up camp quick before the wardens woke up and made their rounds, and soon were on our way towards Flagstaff for breakfast. As we climbed up into the mountains and neared the town we entered back into the Ponderosa Pine forest. After some breakfast burritos at a local coffee shop we headed to a nearby park to bird a bit and stretch our legs. Lucky for us, immediately after stepping out of the car we heard the squeaky voice of a Lewis's Woodpecker. This was Ned's nemesis bird, and we were all happy to join him in celebration and watch the gorgeous woodpecker in the pine above us.

Lewis's Woodpecker

Ned, Kayla and I FUTSed around the Flagstaff Urban Trail System for a while and enjoyed the montane birds while Kelly took Maebe to the dog park to burn off some steam. There I saw my first of the Red-backed subspecies of the Dark-eyed Junco in addition to some Pygmy Nuthatches, Mountain Bluebirds, and a nice male Red Crossbill showing well as it fed on the ground. Another treat was my lifer Abert's Squirrel, with long fuzzy tufts on its ears leading to it's other common name, Tassel-eared Squirrel. No photos of it unfortunately.

Ponderosa Pines in Flagstaff

In town we bumped into an entertaining crew member from Ned's work on Desert Tortoises in the Mojave last fall, so we chatted with/listened to him for a while before continuing on south through the mountains. We elected to take a slight detour through Oak Creek Canyon, and despite the swarms of tourists that had invaded it on that weekend day it was still absolutely spectacular. The road runs through a lush riparian canyon surrounded by red rock cliffs, and was definitely worth the extra time. It was really refreshing to see dense oak, maple, sycamore, ash and more, such diversity after working most of the summer seeing only cottonwoods and aspen for deciduous trees.

Near the creek we had a singing Huttons Vireo, as well as a Yellow Warbler that we tried to turn into a Red-faced (we swear it sounded funny). Further down the canyon widened out and transitioned to PJ with some Alligator Juniper which we hadn't seen before.

After passing through the tourist trap of Sedona we were back on the open highway and covering good ground. Soon we began to see signs that we were entering the transition zone between the Mojave and the Sonoran Deserts. An ocotillo here and a palo verde there were all cool to see, but the heralds that sent gasps through the car when they first made their appearance were the mighty Saguaro cacti, the lords if the Sonoran. As we headed further towards Phoenix they be went from ones and twos to dominating the surrounding hills, and were impressive indeed.

Despite venturing deeper and deeper into the American Southwest, it was nice to see a bit of Canadian culture in the form if a road sign Gordon Lightfoot would have approved of.

We arrived in Tucson, the gateway to SE Arizona, in the late afternoon, and headed for the Borderlands Brewery for a snack and a drink. While navigating the roads trying to find it we spotted a prickly pear cactus full of fruit. Apparently Ned had tried them down in the Grand Canyon the fall before and they were absolutely delicious, so we stopped to try one out. I had the honour of harvesting one of the pink fruits and attempting to carefully remove all of the tiny, hair-like spines or 'glochids' with my belt knife before consumption. Ten minutes of ginger work resulted in a few fingers full of irritating spines and a single bite of unpleasant fruit before tossing the rest away. A consolation prize was an emerald-coloured scarab that had been shriked on one of the leaves.

Scarab beetle cashed by a shrike on a prickly pear

After our refreshment stop at Borderlands we headed east through Tucson towards the Santa Catalina Mountains where we would spend the night. The plan was to find a burrito place Kelly knew about on the way for supper, but it turned out to be closed for the evening, so we continued to the mountains without. However, we soon forgot our grumbling stomachs as we gawked at the cacti-covered hillsides in the fading light of the sunset and the view of the desert below.

Photo credit: Kelly Colegrove

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