Wednesday, 4 January 2017

Last Days in the Huachucas: Hunter and Miller Canyons

July 30, 2016 continued

After spending the beginning of the day at Ramsey Canyon, I thought I would use the afternoon to check out Hunter Canyon. This canyon is much less birded than some of the other canyons in the range, and as a change of pace I decided to just head there without doing any research beforehand. Most of the other stops on my trip had been planned quite meticulously using eBird and trip reports, and as a result I knew what birds to expect at each location and what targets to look for. While this made for an efficient trip (I'd got 33 life birds in the first 6 days), it definitely took the surprise out of my finds. So at this point in my trip an outing of exploration rather than questing sounded refreshing, and off I went.

The afternoon was overcast, and as I drove up the road to the canyon with thick shrubs on either side my first Gray Fox leaped across the road in front of me. It was a pretty brief look, but definitely a gray fox with a black tip on the tail. They're found in Nevada too and I'd seen probable tracks before, but it was nice to finally connect with the animal.

At the end of the road I parked at the trail head and started hiking up canyon. Here as well the area was covered an shrubbery, and the Spotted Towhees clearly loved it. Otherwise most of the birds were quiet. Further up the trail was a stand of trees around the dry creek bed, and there I followed some sharp flycatcher notes. When I found the bird I was surprised to see a small flycatcher with an orange-washed breast: Buff-breasted Flycatcher! I had been going to try for these cute flycatchers at Carr Canyon before my car decided not to, so it was great to find them here. Plus the find was definitely more satisfying without knowing they were here to find!

Trees around the shrubby creek, Hunter Canyon

Although things didn't seem super jumping at first, gradually I pulled together a nice list of birds. Up ahead I found 3 more Buff-breasted Flys, along with a handful of hummingbirds (always nice to see them away from feeders) and my 3rd ever Band-tailed Pigeons, which I hadn't seen since the year before. The other main highlight were my lifer couple of Greater Pewees I discovered in the pines on my way back down, the other high elevation flycatcher I'd hoped to get at Carr Canyon.

Pines up the canyon

As I worked my way back a bit of a monsoon shower came across the valley. Instead of continuing to hike in the rain I made a bit of a shelter in a shrub with my rain jacket which worked surprisingly well.

The rain didn't last too long, but many other systems were working their way across the landscape and I worked my way back to the car before another one hit.

Another monsoon storm moving across the flats below

I got back to the parking lot just as a more persistent rain came in. As I was about to leave another car pulled up, and it was the couple of birders I'd met taking recordings of the Tufted Flycatcher in Ramsey Canyon earlier that day. He drove up and asked if I'd got the bird. Shoot I though, what bird? Quickly I remembered a report of a Rufous-capped Warbler from one of these other canyons, and asked if this was the canyon where it had been seen. It was. Well, birding without reports is satisfying, but you do miss stuff that way! I told him that although I hadn't been looking for it, the birds had been pretty quiet and I hadn't heard it singing at least. (What I didn't tell him was that I didn't know what their song sounded like, but I was confident there had been no singing birds that had stumped me...). He said they'd probably come back in the morning, and I planned on trying then as well.

Since it was late in the afternoon and raining as well, I headed into town for some McDonalds wifi to plan the next couple days of my trip. After plans were made I came back and camped off a side road in Hunter Canyon, ready to begin questing again the next morning.

July 30, 2016

In the morning I was at the trail head just after dawn, and as I arrived I saw the 2 other birders just ahead disappear up the trail. I caught up with them, and as we neared the copse of trees we heard a series of chips. The other birder spotted the bird first, and soon we got some better than expected views of the skulky Mexican warbler. It even got up to sing for us numerous times, and I got a clip of it with my camera at full zoom. The sound's decent at least, and when it turns its head you can sort of make out its yellow face and rufous cap.

The other birder had a proper camera as well as his parabolic mic, so he got both some nice photos and audio recordings. It was at this point when I realized that after seeing these birders three times in the past 2 days, I still hadn't actually introduced myself. So I did, and it turned out the guy with the mic was Jay McGowan, a specialist at Cornell's Macaulay Library. Pretty cool, and it explained the heavy duty recording equipment!

I birded up and down the canyon again and saw most of the same species I had the afternoon before. On my way back I came across the singing Rufous-capped Warbler again, but this time it was with a mate, and I got point black views of the two of them just off the trail.

Next I headed one canyon to the north, Miller Canyon. This was the last major canyon I'd yet to visit, and I planned to hike up and see what birds or snakes I could find. No real targets here, although what is likely the world's most-seen family of Mexican Spotted Owls lived just up the trail. The Beatty's at their guest ranch at the base of the trail will apparently take you right to the birds if you want, but that sounded to easy so I hiked up myself. They weren't supposed to be too hard to find, and if I missed them it wouldn't be the end of the world.

Base of Miller Canyon

After I'd passed the more open area at the bottom and entered the treed canyon I ran into a group of 3 birders. I decided to be social and introduce myself this time, and they turned out to be Joe Woodley, a local who lived just down the canyon, and his friends Rick and Cindy from Sierra Vista. Joe was scouting for a field trip he was leading for the upcoming Sierra Vista Birding Festival, and he said I was more than welcome to join them. So I did end up having a guide after all! A ways up-canyon we met one of the Beatty's  was coming back down with his hounds as well as a couple folks he'd just showed the owls too. He gave us some tips, and soon I got my first view of a Mexican Spotted Owl.

Adult Mexican Spotted Owl

There were apparently a couple fledgelings around as well, but we only saw one of them. Baby owls are always super cute, and there's something of the deep, dark eyes of the Strix owls.

Mexican Spotted Owl Fledgeling

Also in the maples nearby we had a number of singing Red-faced Warblers, Painted Redstarts, and a nice couple of Hepatic Tangers. A singing Orange-crowned Warbler took me a second to ID out of context; must have been an early migrant. It was great birding with these locals, they clearly had a huge amount of knowledge about the birds and wildlife at Miller and it was really interesting hearing about the various birds that had been found in the canyon over the years.

Sunny, open maple-pine forest

Eventually we came to the end of their route, so I left them to continue up higher, Yarrow's Spiny Lizards always seem to be around to photograph, so here's another one.

Yarrow's Spiny Lizard

Further up the a landscape opened up a bit, looking fairly similar to Hunter Canyon with its shrubby hillsides and pine snags about. Similarly, I had a Greater Pewee "pip-pip"ing here as well.

Mountainside in Miller Canyon

View down the canyon

I didn't luck into any snakes this time around, but it was a beautiful place to explore. On the way back down I heard a strange call and discovered this juvenile Northern Pygmy-Owl! I'd heard them in many of the canyons on this trip, but this was the first of these petite owls I'd gotten a look at. It flew from its snag across the trail and I was able to find one of its parents as well. Such tiny owls, apparently they're pretty feisty and take birds the size of quail from time to time.

Northern Pygmy-Owl Fledgeling

I passed back through the maples and spent a bit more time with the Spotted Owls, then headed out of the canyon to the car. It was a nice outing to end my time in the Huachucas, but from here I would spend the last couple days of my trip out around Tucson.

Trail through the maples and pines, Miller Canyon

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