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...


  1. I've never made it to Carr Canyon myself, but several other fabulous places in the area: Ramsey, of course, and Fort Huachuca as well as the San Pedro Riparian area.....looking forward to reading about your adventures there!

  2. Nice to be reminded of Ash Canyon and Mary Jo's hospitality, even to those of us not staying with her. My life Elf Owl there owing to her generosity.