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.

Tuesday 24 January 2017

Listing Blitz: Part 2

July 31 2016

My alarm woke me at 2:45am, 15 minutes later I'd broken camp and was up-canyon trying again for Elf Owls. I spent an hour listening in various spots, but other than one of the same Whiskered Screech-Owls from earlier that night and another Ringtail that ran across the road no other nocturnal creatures were about. From there I started driving my way down toward Patagonia while looking for snakes on the road.

I didn't luck out in the herp department, but made it to the grasslands around Patagonia as dawn broke. I stopped at a couple spots along the highway to try to unsuccessfully turn ravens into Chihuahuan ones, but was rewarded with a dawn chorus of Cassin's, Botteri's, Rufous-winged, and Grasshopper Sparrows, as well as a couple of Montezuma Quail.

With my new directions I found my way to the Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve without any issue, and the way in I heard then saw the day's first lifer, a group of Inca Doves. Their coos of "no hope" tried to put a damper on my listing prospects for the day, but I'd do my best to prove them wrong!

I arrived at the preserve and the place seemed like a jungle. Massive cottonwoods were surrounded by lush thickets of ash and willow, and the woods were loaded with birds! Yellow-billed Cuckoos clacked and crept through the shrubbery along with jems like Northern Cardinal, Summer Tanager, Blue Grosbeak, Lazuli Bunting, and stupid numbers of Yellow-breasted Chats.

Shrubs and Cottonwoods along Sonoita Creek

Yellow-billed Cuckoo
The more open savannah type areas hosted numerous excited Cassin's Kingbirds and a couple pairs of Vermilion Flycatchers. I scanned all these Tyrannids for one of my other targets, and eventually found not one but 3 different Thick-billed Kingbirds calling along the creek. A group of 4 Black Vultures perched on a snag nearby one of them too, my best ever looks at this species.

Open grassland

It started to rain so I took shelter under a visitor centre roof to wait it out and watch the hummingbird feeders. It was fun to watch half a dozen Broad-billed Hummingbirds tried to keep the Black-chins and an Anna's off the feeders. Just before I left a Violet-crowned Hummingbird joined the frenzy, and I got to enjoy point-blank views of this uniquely coloured lifer. Its brown and white body was definitely plainer than most of the other hummingbirds I'd seen, but its large size, bright red bill and orange crown made it a real treat to watch.

What a spot! I was really glad I'd decided to come here in the morning when the birds were active, because the numbers and diversity of birds here were just spectacular. I would have loved to spend more time there, but I'd achieved all 3 of my targets for the area, had other places to be, and it was still raining besides. So after spending the better part of 2 hours at enjoying Patagonia I decided to move on.

On the way out I stopped in some sparser mesquite away from the water and picked up a few calling Northern Beardless-Tyrannulets. They played hard to get and didn't allow looks, so I continued on to check out the Paton's feeders. They weren't super-jumping in terms of hummingbirds, but I got to see another Violet-crowned as well as get better looks at some Inca Doves coming to the seed.

From there I worked my way towards the border and stopped at Kino Springs, which was apparently another good spot for Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks. No ducks in the pond there, but I was able to get my first proper views of a male Varied Bunting in the scope as he perched on a wire. I also heard one of my few Crissal Thrashers of the trip calling from further back in the brush too.

Next was Rio Rico for a second round, and this time I stopped at a trail head by the Santa Cruz River. Here there was a nice riparian area, and although there were no ducks in the river a handful of songbirds kept me occupied. Soon a flock of my first "Mexican" Mallards flew over, and they gave me hope that my whistling-ducks would do the same. Sure enough, some squeaky calls later gave me enough warning to glimpse 2 flocks of the lanky ducks through the cottonwoods as they flew past on the other side of the river. Nice!

But the fun wasn't over yet, because not long after the ducks had past I heard the rapid call of my other target for the area, Tropical Kingbird. It headed downriver towards it got good looks at a pair of them by the bridge. I didn't know it at the time, but with this bird my life list hit 500 species, all within the ABA Area. A milestone I'd hoped for but hadn't quite expected to reach on this trip. Clearly I was doing well.

With both birds in the bag, I birded my way back to the car to move on. But the biggest surprise of the stop was just before I left, when I glimpsed a brilliant bird fly out from a bush and across the river to a willow on the other side. Although the look was brief  I was more than confident on the ID: blue head, green back, and red rump, it could only be a male Painted Bunting! Another life bird, and definitely not one even on my radar down here. I found out after the fact that they interrupt fairly regularly to southern Arizona after breeding. Who knew? It was a touch too late on the timing though, it would have been a great one for my 500th! Look and pish as I might it didn't reappear, so I had to let it go and head back to saguaro country.

Next on the schedule was Harris's Hawk. This beautiful hawk became my favorite bird when I first started birding, after watching footage of a group of them cooperatively hunt a rabbit on a David Attenbourough documentary. While the Sandhill Crane had since taken its place as my Totem Bird (under Dave Henderson's rules of the Totem Bird), Harris's Hawk still has a place in my heart and I was eager to see one.

Finding one here wasn't super simple though. They live all through the desert around Tucson, but they're not really a species you can pin down to a certain location. Instead, one's best bet is simply driving around in their habitat and keeping an eye out for them atop saguaros or telephone poles. Well, today was my day for driving around and looking for birds, so I headed up Old Spanish Trail east of Tucson to try my luck. That luck kept running stronger than I'd hoped, and a nice adult teed up nicely on a hydro poll for me. Seventh lifer of the day.

By now it was 4pm, not an ideal time to try for songbirds. But, I was close to Mount Lemmon where Olive Warblers bred, so I set my cross-hairs for my last target for the day. I needed to kill time before evening herping anyway, plus the Catalina Highway to the top was supposed to be gorgeous. I'd driven the bottom stretch of it our first night in Tucson, but this time I was able to take photos in the daylight.

Drive up the Catalina Highway

Santa Catalinas

I then continued higher than we'd gone that first night, and got some pretty spectacular views for it.

View from a lookout higher up

Near the top I finally made it to conifer forest where the warblers could be found. Not surprising for the time of day, both stops were virtually dead of bird activity. Well, I couldn't push my luck too far I suppose. I ate a can of soup for supper and enjoyed the quiet woods before heading back down to get in position for herping.

As I got back down to the desert the day was wearing away and storm clouds were building over the mountains. This all lined up perfectly for my herping plans. The idea was to head off down a back road through good habitat and wait for night to fall and the storm to pass. Once it did, I would drive it back in towards down and then drive some of the paved roads once the traffic died off. Perfect!

Sunset on the Sonoran

I followed the road to just before a big wash then got out to wait. Suddenly flicker flew in to a saguaro right by the road, and the flicker had yellow under-wings. I'd heard some flickers in the desert earlier in the trip that were likely Gilded by habitat, but this was the first one I'd actually got eyes on (except perhaps for the one that got away in Nevada). So another lifer for the day!

Eventually it got dark and the storm hit. I had been hoping for a roving storm that would get the ground wet and then move along so all the snakes would come out to play, but unfortunately it had different ideas. I stayed in the humid car as the rain pounded for over an hour, biding my time until I could hit the road and find some critters. By then it hadn't quite stopped but had let up a bit, but I was eager get out so I started to cruise.

But as they say: "The best laid plans of mice and men..." Not far down the road I saw truck headlights parked opposite a raging torrent. Of course, rain in the desert causes flash floods, and having one in between me and the main road put a quick end to my plans. Stupid of me for not anticipating this scenario! After a while the truck decided the waters had gone down enough for it and with a bit of a run crossed the wash, then he stopped beside me and warned me about taking my sedan through it. I told him I wasn't thinking of it, and instead was prepared to spend the night reclined in the passenger seat with the 4-ways on haha.

A few other trucks coming back from town forded the wash, but I settled in to sleep. A couple hours later I woke up to find the waters had finally subsided, so with some sleep under my belt I was finally able to get some road cruising in. I drove out to the paved road, then spent the next few hours around the outskirts of Tucson before cruising my way back to Madera Canyon. I saw a number of the ever-present toads, but sadly in the reptile department my only find was this dead-on-road Western Diamond-backed Rattlesnake.

Dead-on-road Western Diamond-backed Rattlesnake

Although the herping wasn't terribly productive the day overall was a huge success. I'd connected with over half of my remaining target birds plus the bonus bunting, got to see the world from the top of Mount Lemmon, learned a good lesson about flash flooding, and was now in position to spend my last whole day birding Madera Canyon.

Monday 9 January 2017

Listing Blitz: Part 1

I posted this one a while back and it disappeared on me, so I’ve had to re-write it. I wonder how close it is to the original haha. If you read it the first time you won’t gain much by reading it again, but if you missed the first one then here we go:

July 30, 2016 continued

After spending a great couple days in the Huachucas, I headed back west towards Tucson for the last couple days in the Southeast. Since it was still early in the afternoon when I left Miller Canyon I decided to take the long way, around the south end of the Santa Ritas, and try for a few missing life birds on the way.

On this loop I learned a valuable lesson in researching specific directions before heading on a quest like this. My first planned stop was the Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve, which is one of the most reliable locations in North America for Thick-billed Kingbird and Violet-crowned Hummingbird. According to my map the preserve was just off the main highway, so it couldn't be that hard to find, could it? You would think not, but I came and passed the community of Patagonia without any sign or turnoff for the preserve. I thought maybe it was further down, but as I kept driving there was still couldn’t find it. I could have turned around and tried to look again, but I’d been thinking of coming back the next morning anyways when the birds would be more active, so I kept on going.

The highway took me down to Nogales by the Mexican border, and after driving through a border patrol stop with drug dogs and the whole nine yards I continued north to Rio Rico. Standing water in the fields around here was supposed to be good for Black-bellied Whistling Ducks, and Tropical Kingbirds were found along this stretch of highway as well. Following a similar trend, I hadn’t looked up where exactly these fields were, but I thought it would be straight forward. The fields just off the exit had no water in them, so I kept going down the road looking for more promising habitat. This took me through thick mesquite habitat, not ideal for ducks! But there were lots of colourful birds like Yellow-breasted Chats, Blue Grosbeaks, Northern Cardinals, and Summer Tanagers singing and flitting around which were nice to see. An adult Gray Hawk teed up for me on a hydro pole posed for a photo. 
Gray Hawk
I stopped for each kingbird I saw on a wire, but I couldn’t transform any of the Westerns or Cassin’s into a Tropical one. However, at one of these stops I spotted a couple raptors soaring overhead. The lower bird was a Red-tail, but the second looked like it might have been the reason I’d been scanning every single Turkey Vulture for the past week. I got the scope out, and although it was very high and the overcast light was dull I was able to make out a dark hawk with gray flight feathers and a striped tail, flying with a dihedral. Not the best view of my lifer Zone-tailed Hawk, but I was happy to get the bird under my belt anyways.

The road looped back to the highway without me seeing either my duck or kingbird targets, so I continued north to the Amado Water Treatment Plant. It wasn’t anything special with only a single pond, but that pond was exactly where it was supposed to be, as was a Neotropic Cormorant that was sitting on some of the equipment. Tick!

From there I stopped in at a Green Valley McDonalds to bum some wifi and plan for the next day. The first thing I looked up was how to actually get to the Patagonia Preserve, and learned that you had to drive off the highway into the community, then take a back road in. Good to know! Next I evaluated my “hit list” to see where I was sitting with my target birds. I’d done really well so far, having tallied 37 lifers in the past 8 days, but there were still a handful of birds left. These included the whistling duck, kingbirds, and hummer I’d fumbled on that afternoon, as well as Harris’s and Common Black-Hawks, Inca and Common Ground-Doves, Elf and Whiskered Screech-Owls, Plain-capped Starthroat, Gilded Flicker (none visually confirmed yet), Chihuahuan Raven, Black-capped Gnatcatcher, and Olive Warbler. I only had 2 full days left, and I’d already set aside my last full day to spend hiking in Madera Canyon. So, that meant I only had the evening plus the next day to do as much damage to the list as I could. I did a bit of eBird research, made some plans, and then headed to Madera Canyon for the evening to try for owls.

When I got there I stopped to watch the hummers a while at the Santa Rita Lodge. Always a nice way to relax after a long day! But I wasn’t only relaxing, because I also hoped I’d get to see the Plain-capped Starthroat that had been coming to the feeders for the last couple weeks. The bird showed up daily, but not often and always briefly, and I’d struck out on this big hummingbird on my previous visit. I spent the better part of an hour and enjoyed the usual Broad-bills, Black-chins, and a pair of Magnificents, but no Mexican vagrant made its presence known. I did get a blurry photo of the male Magnificent though. They’re really neat since in most lighting the head looks black, but when it hits them just right bam! Purple on top and emerald on bottom. Gorgeous!

Blurry male Magnificent Hummingbird, head-on

By 7:30 it was starting to get dark, so I headed up canyon to start listening for owls. I got to the top of the road and walked and listened a while, but it was silent with neither owl nor nightjar calling to the twilight. Next I tried at the amphitheatre, and a couple there had just heard a Whiskered Screech-Owl sing 10 minutes before. Sweet, hope! I stood and listened, and maybe another 10 minutes later I caught the faint bark-like calls of an owl coming from far up-slope. Elf Owl! It was the kind of distance where you’re not quite sure if you heard it or not, but as time went on I kept catching snatches of call, so I hiked down the trail and up the slope towards the call. Eventually I clambered right underneath the tree the owl was barking from. As I was trying to get a glimpse of the bird I slipped on the steep slope, and the noise frightened the bird off. Damn, so close!

From there I climbed back down to the path in the hopes of hearing it again. As I wandered I saw some eye-shine through the trees, and getting closer I saw the big brown eyes of a Ringtail staring back at me. These nocturnal creatures are slimmer than their Raccoon cousins, with little round ears and a long, striped tail that gives them their name. They range all throughout the arid southwest including Nevada, but this was the first time I’d laid eyes on one. I got to watch it for the better part of 20 minutes as it foraged through the leaf litter and munched on something or other I couldn’t make out. I even got some video clips of it in the beam of my headlamp, but unfortunately most video players (Youtube included) can’t make anything out on them. It’s really too bad, since on the camera screen you could see it alright. Ah well, still really cool to get to see one of these nocturnal guys.

The owl didn’t return, so I tried a couple more spots further down the canyon. I didn’t have luck there, but as I checked some recordings I discovered that Whiskered Screech-Owls can also make a bark type call. While the Elf Owl recording was definitely sharper and higher, in hindsight I couldn’t remember how my bird from earlier in the night had sounded. No longer confident with my call from, I went back to the amphitheater and hoped I could clarify the ID.

When waiting and listening at night time always seems to pass by slowly. But it seems to do so even more so when you don’t want to “cheat” and play a tape, so you’re just listening to the silence and praying that your owl will cooperate. Well after 20 minutes of that I finally heard an owl, and like I suspected it didn’t sound quite right for Elf Owl. Over the next 40 minutes 2 birds occasionally called back and forth, and I also wandered back and forth through the woods trying to follow them and get a look. They weren’t THAT cooperative, but they did give me some other vocalizations that made the cut for the screech-owl. Although the bird from before may have been an Elf, I took it off my list and substituted it for the screech for now.

By this time it was 10:30pm, not super late but I was feeling tired after a long day. I had been thinking of herping as well, but I made the game time decision to call it a night early. The owls weren’t very talkative anyway, so I figured I’d get a bit of sleep, try again for Elf Owl in the wee hours of the morning, then road-cruise my way down back to Patagonia for dawn to begin my day of full-on listing.

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

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...

Wednesday 30 November 2016

July Showers bring Amphibious Critters

July 27, 2016

Before our crew went separate ways Dave took us up to see Meadview's namesake, the view of Lake Mead. Its bright blue water provided brilliant contrast with the barren rocky mountains looming around it .

Lake Mead

From the same vantage point I also got to see the Colorado River for the first time as it exited the west side of the Grand Canyon.

Colorado River and end of the Grand Canyon

After saying our goodbyes Sally Suby carried my companions off towards Nevada, while my unnamed rental took me on the beginning of my first solo road trip. I was pretty tired to start off, but I decided to take the detour through Flagstaff and Oak Creek Canyon anyways. While it turned a six hour drive into 7 and a half, the route through the mountains was absolutely gorgeous, plus on a weekday it wouldn't be choked with tourists like last time we drove it. near Flagstaff, and I enjoyed my second drive through the mountains.

Oak Creek Canyon

When I stopped in Phoenix to fill up on gas the car thermometer read 115°F (46°C), which was the officially the hottest temperature I'd ever experienced (although anything over 100°F its is just stinking hot). Luckily Tucson is at a higher elevation than the low desert of Phoenix, so it doesn't get that as hot. I arrived there around 6:30 that evening I was greeted with an absolutely wonderful sight: a rainstorm pounding the Santa Catalinas and coming my way. Rain on the desert and night falling seemed like the perfect equation for some good herping, so I eagerly headed up into the mountains to wait for the storm to pass and the critters to come out.

Storm clouds over the Santa Catalinas

Waiting for darkness

After the sun set I made my way back down, and on my way a couple massive Sonoran Desert Toads that bounced across the road in my headlights. Once I hit pavement I soon got my first lifer of the night, a Red-spotted Toad.

Red-spotted Toad

Not long after I discovered this young Long-nosed Snake. Although this was a species I really wanted to see, when I got it off the road it was acting injured which really took the enjoyment out of the encounter. I checked it over and didn't see any obvious damage, but it was still acting fairly sluggish. Afterwards I read that they have a few defensive behaviours including writhing around and void the contents of their cloaca, so perhaps this was some other defense, sort of playing dead? Or maybe it was cold. Either way, I left it be and hoped it would be alright.

Long-nosed Snake

The most common species of the night was Couch's Spadefoot, of which I stopped for over 10 and drove by many more. This species is sexually dimorphic, with the males sporting a more contrasting brown and yellow pattern while the females are a more muted green.

Male Couch's Spadefoot Toad

Female Couch's Spadefoot

The "spades" of spadefoots are hard growths on their hind feet which aid in digging. Spadefoots spend much of their time buried underground, coming to the surface during wet periods when they breed. Couch's has a unique sickle-shaped spade.

Couch's Spadefoot's sickle-shaped spade

The only other spadefoot I came across was this single Mexican Spadefoot. They're quite small with a more warty appearance and a more bug-eyed look than Couch's.

Mexican Spadefoot

Their spade is more typical of the other spadefoot species, a smaller wedge.

Mexican Spadefoot 'spade,' more typical triangle shape

One one of the back roads I got a quick look of a pair of Antelope Jackrabbits in the headlights. No photos unfortunately, but these hares have ears that put the more common Black-tailed Jackrabbits to shame, they're ridiculously huge! Not simply to look silly, the large surface area helps them release excess heat for these desert-dwellers.

After some 4 hours of road cruising I'd turned up a few dozen toads of 4 species but only the one snake. I wasn't sure where they were at, but by midnight I'd given my second wind a solid run and spent over 12 hours driving, so I found a spot in the wilderness to crash for the night.