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.


  1. What an incredible sequence! That willardi is gorgeous...

    1. Thanks Josh! It was an amazing morning, probably the most productive of the whole trip. And that Ridge-nose was the icing on the cake for sure