Tuesday, 20 December 2016

Wonders in the Huachucas

July 29, 2016

After being defeated by the Carr Canyon Road the evening before, Ramsey Canyon moved up in my schedule for my fist morning of birding in the Huachucas. Irritatingly the Ramsey Canyon Preserve was locked up until the late hour of 8am, so I went to bird the open country at the Brown Canyon Ranch first, which was just down the road. I actually hadn't known about this place until I heard about it from a local the evening before, who happened to be taking his three-legged Labrador Retriever for a walk near my camp (she could run surprisingly well!). While he wasn't a birder, he said he often took her for walks at the ranch and always saw lots of birds around, plus the occasional pack of javelinas. Seeing as it was on my way to the preserve and I had time to kill, it sounded like it was worth checking out.

It turned out to be well worth the stop! On the drive in I had a Grasshopper Sparrow and a "Lilian's" Meadowlark singing from the field just off the road, and when I arrived at the old homestead a was greeted by a swarm of Violet-green Swallows circling with a few Purple Martins above the pond out back.

Trees around the old Brown Canyon Ranch

The trails out back wandered through some nice arid mesquite grassland, and the place was absolutely full of birdsong. Flycatchers are often loud and arrogant, and Cassin's Kingbirds put on their best showing so far as their excited, raspy calls battled with those of the Brown-crested Flycatchers for supremacy. Although not quite as loud, the Vermilion Flycatchers shone like flame on whatever snag they perched on.

Arid grassland habitat

While the abundant flycatchers were impressive the sparrows weren't to be outdone, with plenty of Botteri's Sparrows around with singles of Rufous-winged, Rufous-crowned, and Black-throated flying about their singing perches. But the highlight of the stop were my first singing Montezuma Quail. While they were a ways off with no way of tracking them down through the thick grass and shrubs, even the song of these crazy looking birds is pretty unique, an eerie descending humming whistle. A hard bird to find unless you trip over one, I hoped I would have the luck to do so later on in the trip.

By 7:45 it was time to head up to Ramsey Canyon for opening, and 10 minutes later I'd checked in and began my hike up the canyon. I didn't spend too much time in the lower reaches of the canyon, instead trying to make good time further up-canyon where a couple Mexican rarities had been hanging out. The first was a Flame-colored Tanager, a rare but regular visitor and occasional breeder SE Arizona, that had been hanging out for the past 10 days or so past the overlook. The second was a family of much rarer Tufted Flycatchers further up the trail, which before 2015 had only been seen north of Mexico 7 times. In that year a pair was found in Ramsey Canyon with a nest, the first breeding record for the ABA Area, and in 2016 they returned and raised another chick. With two such awesome birds to search for I was eager to get up there before the morning wore away.

Though I was trying to cover ground fairly quickly I still kept my eyes and ears open on the first part of my hike, and in addition to the usual riparian birds I saw my first Arizona Gray Squirrels hanging around in the oaks. These squirrels are mostly endemic to Arizona, barely making it into adjacent New Mexico and Mexico.

Arizona Gray Squirrel

As I ascended to The Overlook I heard the rising, choppy song of a Grace's Warbler, and managed some good looks at it in the pine above. This was a great bird to get off my 'heard only' list, since the birds I'd encountered in the Spring Mountains twice last year played hard to get and never gave me a proper look. I watched the handsome gray and yellow warbler for a while as it fed in the clusters of pine needles and I caught my breath. Then I continued my climb and got some great looks at upper Ramsey Canyon.

Ramsey Canyon

From here the trail descended back down to the creek. It was along this stretch that the Flame-colored Tanger was supposed to be, and sure enough as I neared the bottom I heard the burry sing-song of a tanager coming from the conifers down in the canyon. I found an open spot to look from the trail and scanned the pines, trying to figure out which one the song was coming from. I looked for about 10 minutes and was still unable to locate the bird, when all of a sudden it flew up from nowhere and landed on the top of a pine in front of me. I got my bins on it and wow! I'm not sure if it was just how the sun was hitting it but it was a heck of a lot brighter than I thought it would be; flame-colored indeed, the bird burned brilliantly! The sighting was sweet but short however, since after a few bouts of song an angry Sulfur-bellied Flycatcher flew up and drove the tanager off. Damn it! One day's life bird becomes another day's jerk apparently. A waited a bit longer but the bird didn't show itself again, so I continued on the trail.

Conifers where the Flame-colored Tanager was singing

Up the trail I found a rocky area that looked like it might be good for snakes, so I went off to check it out. In my experience in Nevada I rarely found rattlesnakes when I was actually looking for them and seemed to depend more on luck to find them. Despite that I figured it was worth a search. While I looked many Yarrow's Spiny Lizards scurried over the rocks, the most common lizard I saw in these mountain canyons.

Yarrow's Spiny Lizard

Not really expecting to find anything, I was surprised when I heard the unmistakable sound of rattling from somewhere nearby. It doesn't seem to matter if you're looking for rattlesnakes or happen onto one by accident when you'd rather not see them, that first buzz seems to produce an inate reaction of makeing your heart stop briefly, in a 'holy crap' kind of moment. But you recover quickly, and depending on the person you either get excited and check it out, or get out of there. Being one of the former I investigated and found this Black-tailed Rattlesnake curled up under a boulder.

Black-tailed Rattlesnake

Sweet, there were actually snakes here! Black-tailed are a montane species, but unlike some of the Rock, Ridge-nosed and Twin-spotteds that are restricted to a handful of sky islands in SE Arizona, this species is found more widely through the mountainous Southwest. Still a gorgeous snake (and a first for me), larger than the other mountain species with this one likely 3ft long when stretched out. As it was it didn't stretch out for me, and was pretty content with staying where it was in the safety of its rock shelter. After getting some photos I soon let it be to explore further up the hillside.

Not 5 minutes later while crossing a talus slope I heard more buzzing from the rocks underfoot. The gaps in the rock were very small, and dispite carefully moving some if the rocks I couldn't find the source of the rattling. I suspected they were either Banded Rock or Twin-spotted Rattlesnakes since both are small and like scree, but either way they must have been young because no adult snake could fit between those rocks.

Further along I heard buzzing once again, and this time was quick enough to get a view of a couple tiny neonate Banded Rock Rattlesnakes, each maybe 3 inches long, in the cracks between the rocks. These snakes are a gorgeous pattern of gray on gray, perfect for blending into their rocky habiat. The sighting was very brief and I barely saw the pair before they slipped into the scree and out of sight, so no photos if these guys.

I covered the rest of the area with no more snakes, then after a bit of lunch made my way back to the trail. On my way I stopped by my mystery snake spot and this time was able to glimpse another 2 baby Rocks about the same size as the other pair.

With a Flame-colored Tanager and 5 rattlesnakes under my belt the morning was already a huge success, but the Tufted Flycatchers were still somewhete ahead. I didn't exactly know how far, but just kept hiking and looked out for the cairn of stones that was supposed to mark the spot. As I hiked a young buck Coues White-tailed Deer watched me from the side if the trail. The subspecies down here is smaller and paler then back east. 

Coues White-tailed Deer

Up ahead I bumped into a couple birders, one with an impressive parabolic microphone. They informed me I was almost at the flycatcher spot, but the birds had not been seen while they were there. I thanked them for the info and continued on, and on the way heard my lifer Red-faced Warbler singing and tracked it down. Beautiful birds, kind of wild to see red like that on a warbler. I made it to the cairn, and another birder there said he'd been there for over an hour with no sign if the birds. I settled in to wait and watched a few Red-faced Warblers and Painted Redstarts feeding in the nearby trees.

I didn't have to wait too long, because about 10 minutes later I heard an intriguing double-noted call from on the hillside opposite the creek. I didn't want to sound the alarm because I didn't know their vocalizations too well (I'd only listened to them couple times the day before using McDonald's wifi), but it sounded good so I wandered off after the call. The birders with the mic came from down the trail and joined me; they heard it too, a good sign. The bird played a little tricky, but soon got a glimpse of a buff-coloured bird flitting through oaks across the creek. Everyone got a look, and then we followed the bird downstream to a sunny patch of hillside where another birder and one of the preserve staff had the second adult with a juvenile.

Hillside where the Tufted Flycatcher family was found

Everyone was thrilled, and we all excitedly watched the family as they travelled about the hillside. Camera shutters were firing as 2 of the birders with better cameras than I got some great shots. The birder with the mic (whose name I didn't catch at the time) got some nice recordings as well. My point-and-shoot wasn't quite up to snuff, but here's the best shot I got. You can sort of tell it's buffy coloured at least...

Poor photo of a Tufted Flycatcher

As we watched I mentioned the rattlesnakes I'd found that morning. It turned out the other birder, Justin, was also a keen herper who'd been to Arizona a few times looking for snakes. I was eager to pick his brain about herping tips for the area, and he was happy to give me some advice which was really nice. I was reassured that the spots I'd been road cruising were in fact "good spots," and with some more tries I was bound to find some more snakes. We chatted for a while, but eventually I'd had my fill of the flycatchers and figured it was time to start hiking out. I said goodbye to Justin and the woman from the Preserve (the others haf already left), and headed back out to the trail.

But after hiking only 50m down the trail, I heard a noise off to my right. I didn't think it sounded like an insect, and after a brief search saw a brown snake retreating under a shrub. Could I really be that lucky??? I yelled back to the others

"I've got a willardi!!!"
"Really, are you kidding?"
"No, its up here just off the trail"

I almost couldn't believe it myself: after such a great day already, I almost tripped over one of the most sought-after snakes in the state, an Arizona Ridge-nosed Rattlesnake! Arizona's state snake, it's named after the bright white lines standing out from its dark brown face.

The others came to check it out and we had a bit of a photoshoot as it first curled up under the sapling then decided to carry on its way.

Arizona Ridge-nosed Rattlesnake

Although I usually find myself reflexively calling every snake I find gorgous, this beauty was certainly no exception to that. Really a stunning animal.

Just at the Rock Rattlesnakes blend in well to their rocky homes, so too do the Ridge-noses with the dead oak leaves and pine needles on the canyon floor.

Great camouflage among the leaves

Here's a video I took of it as it crawled by me. It had a really interesting way of moving, inching its way forward instead of the usual slithering.

I spent a bit of time exploring some promising habitat on my hike out, but I didn't have any more snake luck by that point. But man could I not complain!!! Not only did I add 3 new birds to my lifelist including 2 sweet Mexican strays, but in one morning saw 3 of Arizona's 4 montane rattlesnakes. As Justin said while we watched the Ridge-nose, "I think the snake gods are with you." Happily I left Ramsey Canyon to explore Hunter Canyon for the rest of the day.

Tuesday, 13 December 2016

Black Serpent and a Devil Bird

July 28, 2016

I woke up at dawn in a pulloff in the Santa Catalinas to a singing Cassin's Sparrow on the hillside.  After a bit if work I spied the bird, and got to watch my 'sight lifer' giving its fluttering song flights, satisfying after only hearing my first ones east if the Chiricahuas. I didn't spend too long though, since the plan for the morning was to check out one of the local parks east of Tucson. The outskirts of the city are not very developed, and the parks and yards in the area are still covered in mesquite with the odd Saguaro sticking up above them. It'd be a pretty sweet place to live!

I arrived at Agua Caliente Park just after 7am and was excited to spend a bit of time birding the mesquite thickets. When I got there a local birding group was gathering for a walk, but I decided not to join them and instead wander around and find my own birds. It was nice to be back in this habitat, similar to some of our sites in Warm Springs in Nevada, although the vegetation was higher and denser since Warm Springs burned 5 years ago. I enjoyed tracking down familiar Bell's Vireos, Verdins, and Abert's Towhees as they crept through the shrubbery.

Path through the Honey Mesquites

Of course being in Arizona there were many species we don't get at Warms Springs, and Canyon Towhees gave me better looks than the one I'd seen a couple days before as they fed right off the path. This Gila Woodpecker taunted a park sign, since it was free to fly wherever it wanted.

Gila Woodpecker

There was a pond in the middle of the park with a flock of Mallards feeding near the shore. I spent a while watching them, but eventually was satisfied none of them were the "Mexican" variety. I also briefly got my hopes up that some of the turtles floating in the water would be something new like Sonoran Mud Turtles, but it turns out wherever you go in North America people will release their pet Red-eared Sliders into the wild when they get sick of them.

A number Washingtonia filifera palms were planted around the pond and throughout the park. While native to the SW US in a few spots, they're planted almost everywhere else, and whether native or not they're a magnet for Hooded Orioles wherever they're found. These bright birds can be surprisingly hard to see as they sneek through the palm fronds, but their high 'weet' calls are a good way of tracking them down.

Planted palms along the trail

These palms were also home to my first Ornate Tree Lizards, which although pretty plain looking do like to hang out on tree trunks.

Ornate Tree Lizard

Also nearby were a couple of my lifer Clark's Spiny Lizards, but my photos of them were pretty terrible.

Clark's Spiny Lizard

Further down I stopped to watch some whiptails scurrying around on the path, when all of a sudden a black snake shot out lightning fast from under a garbage can and made a go at one of them. Before I get a better look it retreated back underneath the can, so I wasn't quite sure what it was. Looking through my guide I saw that Mexican Black Kingsnakes make it into southern Arizona, and although the snake looked slimmer than I thought a kingsnake would be it was the only all-black snake I could think of. There was a bit of a gap underneath the garbage can the snake was coiled up, so I couldn't make out any more field marks.

Not long after the birding group made their way down the trail. I told them about the snake, and offered to try to get it out to give them a look (and get a better look myself). Some of them suggested that it might not be the best idea to go after it, but whatever it was I was cartain it was non-venomous, and after a bit of coaxing a long, lean snake escaped out the other side. It was a Coachwhip, but unlike the brown and red ones I'd seen in Nevada this gorgeous creature was almost entirely jet-black. Beautiful! Coachwhips are also notoriously quick, and with the group watching me I was at first hesitant on whether it would be acceptable to catch the snake in front of them. Unfortunately one cannot hesitate if one wants to catch a Coachwhip, and before I new it it had climbed up into the mesquite to safety and I had lost my chance at joining the infamous "Coachwhip Club." However, now it was sitting still and in the open, so we got some good looks at it as it draped itself over the limbs above us.

Coachwhip hanging in a mesquite. Check out the red on the lower belly

Close-up of its head. Coachwhips super quick, and I was taught by the NBC
crew that if you catch one, they WILL bite you (this consequently is how
 one joins the Coachwhip Club)

After the snake sighting I walked out with the group and chatted with a couple of them about herping and birding in the area. As we were talking the group stopped, and the leader began to play the recording of a Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet. Before I could do much about it my life bird flew right in and posed meters from the group. While I got great views, I really hate using recordings to bring birds, so that definitely took away from the enjoyment of seeing this tiny little flycatcher. However, I still had a five days to find some of my own and get it off my 'dirty' list.

On my way out I passed by a couple cute Round-tailed Ground Squirrels, my 4th squirrely lifer of the trip and a great way to round out the morning. After leaving the park I drove into town to do some laundry and bum some internet, but soon I headed out east and south to spend the next few days in the Huachuca Range. This range is just above the Mexico border and was the last of the southeastern 'sky islands' I hadn't visited yet, with a number of famous canyons I'd yet to explore.

My destination for the afternoon was Ash Canyon, more specifically Ash Canyon B & B. The owner Mary Jo has a large feeder set-up like many places in the area, but her's is one of the most reliable spots for Lucifer Hummingbird.

Ash Canyon B & B

Overall things weren't too busy, and most of the action involved a few bossy Anna's Hummingbirds scaring off the smaller Black-chins. Then about 20 minutes after I arrived some other birders there spotted the male Lucifer perched up on a bare branch, and we soon got some decent looks at it came in to feed a few times and showed off its long, curved bull and extensive purple gorget. A pretty spectacular hummer, it wouldn't hesitate to call it "devilishly good-looking."

Afterwards it disappeared (unfortunately right before a couple other birders arrived), and while we waited for it to return I headed over to the other side of the house where no one was watching the feeders. There I was able to add a couple Broad-billed Hummingbirds, a female Magnificent and female Calliope to bring the stop up to a respectable 6 species (the latter my first for the trip as well). There were plenty of other non-hummers visiting the feeders and keeping us entertained, as well as some more whiptail lizards and some Rock Squirrels. Eventually the Lucifer did come back, and luckily the birders who missed it before were able to get some great looks and photos. Soon after I decided I'd seen what there was to see (and had sat on my butt for long enough), so I headed out to Carr Canyon for the evening.

Carr Canyon is one of the higher elevation canyons in the Huachucas, and it was supposed to be good for some high elevation species like Red-faced and Olive Warblers, Greater Pewees and Buff-breasted Flycatchers. I had read that the road up was supposed to be rough and "4WD recommended," but I figured I'd give it a shot with my rental Hyundai. The first part of the road was fine, and it gave a nice view of the highlands the canyon was nestled in.

Highlands around Carr Canyon

But as I reached the base of the highlands the road began to ascend in a series of steep switchbacks. Still it wasn't too rough, and taking it slow in low gear I gradually made my way up. Thankfully the road wasn't too busy, since there wasn't a lot of free space when other vehicles came by in the other direction  (almost entirely trucks, jeeps, and SUVs I noticed). There was the occasional pull-off, and these gave increasingly spectacular views of the plain below.

View of Sierra Vista from Carr Canyon Rd., with Century Plants in
the foreground

I'd made it most of the way to the campground when a woman coming the other way warned me of a truck up ahead that was half off the road. Apparently the driver had tried to drive on the shoulder to go past an incoming car instead pulling over safely and waiting, and had ended up stuck for their efforts. She assured my there was still enough room to get by, but I still didn't really like the sound of it. Besides the image giving me flashbacks, I thought that if a truck can get stuck avoiding traffic, my sedan certainly wouldn't have much of a chance. But still I kept on going to see how bad it would get.

Well it turned out I didn't even make it to the truck, since at the next bend some washouts had my car spinning her tires and rubbing her undercarriage on the road. While she probably could have made it, I wasn't sure how hard I wanted to push my rental and figured the safer thing would be to turn back around. I ended up backing up down to the last switchback where there was room to safely turn around, then made my way back to the lowlands.

Although it was too bad I couldn't make it to Carr Canyon, the drive was both scenic and a bit of an adventure. Plus there were plenty of other birding options in the area, and I decided instead to find a camp for the evening and then head to Ramsey Canyon the following morning. There were a couple sweet Mexican rarities hanging out there so reckoned it would be a good substitute. And man was it worth the change of plans...