Monday, 30 January 2017

Arizona Final Day: Madera Canyon

August 1, 2016

Since I'd been out herping until 3:00am I let myself sleep in a little this morning and got up some time after 7:00. It was my last day in the field before heading north to catch my flight, so I'd decided to make it fairly relaxing and spend whole day exploring Madera Canyon. Aside from the hummingbird feeders at the lodge and some owling at night I really hadn't seen much of this famous canyon yet, so it seemed like a great way to end my trip. It was cloudy and still damp from the rain the night before, and from my camp on Proctor Road at the foot of the canyon I could see clouds settled into the mountains.

Cloud in the Santa Ritas 

I drove up the canyon and set out to hike the Carrie National Trail. Along this trail was supposed to be a pretty reliable Elegant Trogon, and I was keen on getting a nice look at one. I'd seen a male super briefly and then a pair high in a pine in the Chiricahuas near the beginning of the trip, but the views just didn't quite do this gorgeous bird justice. Here I had all day to bird, so with luck I'd get to spend some quality time with one of them. Plus, with the weather still damp and not too hot I hoped I might get to find a few more montane rattlesnakes crawling about.

The lower reaches of the trail was mostly deciduous, and lots of the usual canyon birds were about. Quite a few Sulfur-bellied Flycatchers were calling with the Dusky-capped ones, and I had a single Arizona Woodpecker too. Further up the trail climbed higher up into the pine forest, with the creek continuing down the steep slope to the left. The forest was much quieter here, but then from the gloom up ahead I heard the unmistakable rhythmic croaking of the bird I'd come to see. The silence returned, but I excitedly made my way up the trail to try to find it. Soon I came up to a sycamore right off the path that stood out in contrast to all the pines around it. If I were a trogon this is where I would be I thought, but it seemed like the bird must have moved on. Too bad, another that got away. Then all of a sudden the croaking started up again, and I saw the male that I'd somehow completely missed, sitting in that very oak less than 5m away! There it was, an Elegant Trogon in all it's glory. I gawked at it first through my bins (and got unfairly good views) then went for my camera on my belt, but before I could get a photo it flew back down the trail. I was able to re-find it again but this time it was higher up and more obscured by leaves, so while I got another half-decent look I'd missed my photo opportunity.

After my trogon time I kept going up the trail, and soon found rocky hillside that looked like it might be good for snakes. I set off and explored the area but was unable to turn anything up.

Further along I heard s high screech up from one of the pine-clad hillsides, followed by some scolding jays. It definitely sounded like a young owl, and based on the habitat I had a hunch on what it might be. I wasn't able to get a look at it from the trail, but with a bit of climbing I soon came upon not one but two fuzzy young Mexican Spotted Owl fledgelings!

Mexican Spotted Owl fledgelings

It was really satisfying to stumble across these guys on my own, after being the famous family of them at Miller Canyon. I spent a while sitting alone on the hillside just watching the big fluffballs. They were curious about me too, and the one in the pine spent some time trying to figure out what I was.

Or, more accurately, where I was. I read up afterwards that owls do this head-bobbing behaviour is because their eyes are fixed in their sockets and can't move around. Instead, moving their head up and down and side to side helps them more easily gauge the position of what they're looking at.

While still up on the hillside I nice mixed flock of songbirds passed through. The group was mostly Bridled Titmice, but from the mob I was able to pick out a few Painted Redstarts and Red-faced Warblers, and a pair of Hepatic Tanagers. In the frenzy I got a brief look at a warbler-sized bird with a yellow head and darker auriculars and white wingbars, and my thoughts immediately went to female Olive Warbler. This species is very uncommon in Madera Canyon according to eBird, and I'd thought I'd missed it for the trip. But the view was too quick, and after the flock moved on I realized I couldn't eliminate the possibility of an early Hermit Warbler. Frantically I chased after the flock, and caught up with them up on the next hill. I didn't think there was much of a chance to resight the bird, but low an behold it popped up in front of me on a pine branch and fed among the needles! Sure enough it was a female Olive Warbler; another lifer had fallen into my lap.

Pine-clad hillside

Once I was confident there were no other treasures lurking in the flock, I made my way back to the trail and kept heading upwards. None of the hoped for mountain snakes crossed my path, but up near the top some Steller's Jays found me a couple young Northern Goshawks perched in a pine. By then the clouds and come in and put a misty roof on the valley.

Clouds had moved in near the top

On the way back the male trogon was vocalizing again, and was cooperative enough to give me a couple photos and a video (which on my little camera was quite the privilege). I was really happy to get nice one-on-one time with this beautiful species before leaving Arizona.

Male Elegant Trogon

Not much farther along a couple female Montezuma Quail flushed from the side of the trail. The views were quick and the buffy females weren't quite as striking as one of the ornate males would have been, but nice to get them off the "heard only" list. They rounded out a nice morning of birding with the trail and all the birds to myself.

I was back at the trail head before 1pm, and decided to relax a bit as one does in Southeast Arizona: sitting in front of the hummingbird feeders. Some 15 hummers of 4 species kept me entertained, including 3 Magnificents which was the most I'd seen at one time. But the "star" of the show was 5th species that showed up for the space of 10s half way through my vigil, the Plain-capped Starthroat. This shy Mexican vagrant had been playing hard to get at the feeders since the beginning of the month, and my luck was clearly still going strong to get a glimpse of it. The light didn't hit it right to see its namesake red throat, but its large size and really long bill still impressive. Another bird for the life list!

To celebrate I drove to a nearby picnic area and took nap. It was definitely needed, after one long night of road cruising and before one more night of the same. But from there I headed down towards the mesquite near Proctor Road where some Black-capped Gnatcatchers had been hanging out earlier in the month. They hadn't been seen for a while so it was a long shot, but it was nice to change up the birding habitat anyway. The birds were fairly quiet and I didn't connect with any gnatcatchers, but a Bell's Vireo was always nice to see, as were a couple of calling Summer Tanagers and a Varied Bunting. Always lots of colourful birds in the mesquite thickets, and Northern Cardinal, Blue Grosbeaks, and a Hooded Oriole were around too.

Mesquites and the north end of the Santa Ritas behind

This barrel cactus had a single bloom left.

Barrel Cactus

Later in the afternoon I thought about hiking some more of the canyon trails, but I was pretty exhausted at this point in the trip and decided instead to just head back to the Santa Rita Lodge. It was nice to chat with some of the other birders there, and I got to help a few newbies with their hummingbird ID. The starthroat even made another appearance for us! I talked with another couple birders from California about how my questing had been going, and mentioned trying for the Black-capped Gnatcatchers down the road. They mentioned that those ones hadn't been seen in a while, but they had seen the ones in Florida Canyon next door which were quite cooperative. I had seen those birds on eBird, but for some reason thought the canyon was 4WD access and therefore out of bounds for me. Nope, apparently it was an easy dirt road, and the birds hung out near the beginning of the trail.

I checked my watch, and I less than an hour of daylight left. Did I try for it? I'd hardly have any time to look for them, but I wasn't doing much anyways and I'd sat around staring at the same hummingbirds enough for one day. Lets do it! I drove out of Madera Canyon, missed the turnoff, realized that I had and doubled back. By the time I got to the parking lot at Florida Canyon the sun was almost set, but I hurriedly made it to the trail and started birding. This late in the day not many birds were making noise, and I definitely wasn't convinced my lucky streak was THAT strong. So I didn't believe it when I heard a gnatcatcher, then saw it with another one following it. That was them, really them!!! Or was it; the call was different than the Black-tailed Gnatcatchers I was used to, but gnatcatchers can be tricky.

My pair of birds disappeared and shut up, and stress levels shot up as daylight began to fade. I was SO CLOSE, they couldn't get away from me now. I checked my recordings in the meantime and it sounded good, whiny but rising-and-falling and more drawn out than a Blue-gray, not angry and harsh like a Black-tailed. But what I really needed to feel good about it was a proper visual. With minutes of light to spare I heard them again, and the pair popped up in the shrubs on the other side of the path. I managed to get a quick look at the male at point-blank range with a black cap without a noticeable eye-ring, then the female with a full white under-tail. Success!!! I couldn't believe the incredible luck I'd had with life birds this trip, and with the gnatcatcher I'd succeeding in tracking down 49 of the ~55 species possible during my stay. Unreal!

As I walked back to the car the silhouette of a Great Horned Owl on the hilltop wished me well on the rest of my night, and I set out for my last chance at desert herping. Despite hours of trying it had been about a week since I'd actually seen a snake on the road, so I was surprised when I saw one in the headlights not 15 minutes after starting out. It turned out to be a new species for me, the iconic Western Diamond-backed Ratttlesnake. You can tell them from the similarly-patterned Mojaves by their black-and-white "coontails" with the black and the white about equal width. UPDATE: not a lifer, the snake we had up at Dave's earlier in the trip was also a WDB.

Neonate Western Diamond-backed Rattlesnake

Although Western Diamondbacks are the monsters of the Southwest's rattlesnakes, with adults getting over 5ft long, this little neonate was less intimidating and more cute.

Who said rattlesnakes can't be cute?

Look at him go:

After trying the desert north of the Santa Ritas I continued up to the deserts around Tucson. To make a long story short, I cruised desert roads from about 8:00pm until 3:30am, and all I found snake-wise were a dead Mojave Rattlesnake and a dead California Kingsnake. Maybe next time I'll find the trick for this road-cruising, but at least no one can blame me for lack of effort.

Unfortunately by the time I was finished for the night the public land I was planning on camping on wasn't public after all, and was open, dusty, and windy besides. That considered, in my early morning delirium though what the heck, it was less than 2h to Phoenix, why not just drive out? Well, after winding my way out of the back roads and getting on the empty highway I realized this was not such a good idea. Instead I pulled off on the very next exit, stopped in a McDonald's parking lot, and reclined in the passenger seat to get a bit of sleep.

The rest of the story isn't terribly exciting. I got to Phoenix, returned my rental car, then relaxed at a motel room by taking my first shower in 2 weeks and sleeping in a bed for the first time in 4 months. I caught my 8:00am flight the next morning and was back in Ontario for a week before my next position.

What a hell of a run! I got to spend the first 5 days with some great friends from GBBO, and the next week as my first solo road trip. I'd got to explore the many incredible landscapes Southeast Arizona has to offer: the Saguaro deserts and mesquite thickets of the Sonoran Desert, oak-pine canyons of the Sky Islands, lush riparian areas of the desert rivers, and the arid grasslands in between. Through it all I'd tallied over 160 bird species of which an unreal 49 were lifers, plus 10 rattlesnakes of 6 different species. Plus all the other cool herps and mammals I'd come across, and the interesting people I met here and there along the way, I really couldn't have been any happier with the trip.

The country down there was so wonderful that I've let it call me back. For the breeding season of 2017 I've got a position with the Bird Conservancy of the Rockies conducting surveys for Mexican Spotted Owls. The project has survey areas all through the mountains in Arizona and New Mexico, and although I don't know where I'll be placed yet (I've put my bids in for SE or Central Arizona...) I'm super stoked to get to spend a whole season exploring the amazing country down there.


  1. I really enjoyed reading about your Madera Canyon adventures.....a hugely successful trip overall. I look forward to your future posts searching for the Spotted Owls. I have only seen them on one occasion, back in about 1983, along one of the back trails at Fort Huachuca.

    1. Thanks for reading Allen, I'm glad you're enjoying the posts. I've heard Fort Huachuca is a great spot too, I'll have to check it out this time around

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