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.


  1. I really enjoy your write-up, Mark. I have fond memories of places like Madera Canyon and the extensive bird feeders there, as well as the road through the Chiricahuas over Rustler Park....we did it in the snow back in April of 1983 in our 1979 Volkswagen Rabbit and it was the only place on our entire trip where we had snow.

    1. Thanks Allen! Yeah, there were so many incredible spots down there, I can't wait until I can get back. And that sounds like quite the adventure through the snow in a Rabbit! No snow left for us in July and we had a Subaru to boot