02 August 2013

Alĭ ṣonak (Arizona)

Miles.  Lots of miles.  That's what had happened since I finished working in Georgia in June.  At this point it was already July and I had finally arrived in Arizona after driving "the long way home" which, as any insane person would guess, involved New York, a little bit of Michigan, and a whole bunch of other random states.

BUT, I had arrived in Arizona with NOTHING on my mind other than some serious birding... and maybe not breaking down... and finally getting home... and not getting bit by a rattlesnake... and not dying of a heat stroke... and... well... here are some highlights.

First things first, the Chiricahuas.  Ok, but BEFORE I ventured up into Cave Creek, it was time to make my usual stab for BENDIRE'S THRASHER, a bird I've seen fewer than 5x in my life.  It was a hot and quiet mid-afternoon in the lowlands and, simply put, I was NOT hopeful for my target.  I tried at my traditional spot and, surprisingly, left even more depressed than I thought I would.  I decided to give up, take State Line Road back up to Portal Road and get up somewhere cooler.  

Orrr.... maybe I shouldn't go this way?  

Maybe I'll take this chance to ask... what IS an earth fissure?!  I mean, am I going to bend down to tie my boot to find myself flailing down into some human-eating crevice?  On second thought, maybe that's what happened to the OTHER tattered orange flag.  Oh, it was then I noticed a thrasher off to my left.  Sweet.  A distant but glorious Bendire's.  Note the fairly straight bill with a pale base:

After the serendipitous thrasher, it was time to mount a ditch witch and leave the hot lowlands behind me; up towards Cave Creek I went.  Below is one of my favorite views in Arizona; looking up through Cave Creek into the Chiricahuas:

At this point, I just wanted to get up the canyon so I didn't bird much in lower Cave Creek.  I DID stop briefly at the research station for the very-reliable BLUE-THROATED HUMMINGBIRDS that visit the feeders there.  (I didn't know this at the time but these would be the last BTHHs I'd see on this trip!)

Once up in elevation, I stopped for the local MEXICAN CHICKADEES at the East Turkey Creek Junction.  I don't often stay this (because it's over- AND mis-used), but literally the first birds I saw were the chickadees!  Right on... so I pushed on.

I set up camp in the primitive Pinery Canyon campground (I highly recommend this place, btw) and then did some afternoon birding at Barfoot and Rustler park.  If you've been to these spots, you'll know just how abundant the YELLOW-EYED JUNCOS really are despite their limited range.  Here's one gleefully pondering the morbidity of an ex-cricket:

Weirdly, one of the sightings I was most excited about here had nothing to do with birds; it was finally seeing ORANGE-EDGED ROADSIDE-SKIPPERS.  They might just look like another bug to you but I had wanted to see this species for many years (thanks, I already know I'm a dork).  In the US, they're only found in two mountain ranges and I happened to be in one of them.  Here are a couple of photos of the easily-distinguishable skippers:

They weren't the only butterflies flying though.  TAXILES SKIPPERS were abundant as well:

This satyr came floating by and after a bit of chasing it up and down the mountain road (yes, I understand this looks less than perfectly normal to the casual observer), I finally managed some pictures.  Meh, crap, it's just another CANYONLAND SATYR (I was hoping for a different species).  It's still an attractive butterfly though in its own way:

A more common species was the RED SATYR, like this one, that inhabits the canyons of southeast Arizona:

"Wait, what the crap is THAT doing up here?" I thought to myself after getting a distant look at a SULPHUR-BELLIED FLYCATCHER.  They're supposed to be way down the mountain, not up here.  Turns out, I was right in thinking it was odd.  In all of the eBird records for Rustler Park, this species was last seen there more than 20 years ago!  Right, so here's proof:

That night I had a mission.  I needed to hear or see a FLAMMULATED OWL for my year list.  It was that simple, an easy mission.  I've had them there before so it should be easy, right?  It wasn't.  In fact, I owled up and down this mountain road in the pitch darkness for several hours with NO LUCK.  More like Mission Impossible.  Stupid bird.  Like me, Thor was pissed off and an intense lightning storm was brewing overhead which made for some of the eeriest (and yet most spectacular) night birding I've ever done.

I DID have luck hearing MEXICAN WHIP-POOR-WILLS though.  In fact, I tallied almost 10 of these nightjars that night.  I finally caught sight of one by using my flashlight to get a reflection off an eye of the bird.  I have a picture of that... does this count as a new species photographed for my list?  The vote was 1 to... well, it was just me.  I guess it counts.

The next morning I was up bright and early.  So were the birds.  The campground, which was void of people, was instead full of birds.  The area had the usual interesting things like OLIVE WARBLERS, a family of CORDILLERAN FLYCATCHERS, lots of HERMIT THRUSHES, etc.  All of a sudden my ears perked up.  I thought I just heard an empid?  I DID.  I tracked it down and it was a BUFF-BREASTED FLYCATCHER, a fairly local denizen of open pine clearings mostly in the Huachucas.  However, after the big fire in the Chiricahuas a few years ago, much of the burned forest is now suitable habitat for this species.  Although I had never seen a BBFL in the Chiricahuas before, I wasn't going to argue about getting that target right from my campsite!  Here's the backlit empid:

I had finished with most of my targeted year birds so I started back down the mountains.  It was a beautiful crisp morning with beautiful views:

I stopped at one point to take a picture (see below) and ended up hearing a distinctive song.  I then realized what habitat I was in.  Burned mountainsides with thick, low brush:

It made perfect sense, what I was hearing were BLACK-CHINNED SPARROWS.  I had only seen/heard this species four times prior in my life so it was important to me to try to get a look.  I eventually got a couple of brief looks before I managed to photograph one way up the hillside:

Another neat species that decided to just plop itself in front of me was SCOTT'S ORIOLE.  I ended up hearing or seeing 8 of these in Arizona on this trip, more than doubling my life total up until that point:

I finally rocketed out the Chiricahuas and started stabbing my Volkswagen westward.  One of my last stops before heading to Phoenix was Saguaro National Park east of Tucson.  I've loved the Sonoran Desert ever since I first visited it 15 years ago and even though it was 110+ degrees, I still enjoyed the starkness of the hillsides peppered with saguaros.  What a cool place with an amazing view:

The birds were satisfying too.  Besides seeing my first LUCY'S WARBLER and GILDED FLICKER of the year, I finally pulled out a ZONE-TAILED HAWK from amongst the soaring vultures:

Another interesting sighting was this martin.  Now, you're probably wondering why that's interesting?  This is a "DESERT" PURPLE MARTIN, a distinct subspecies that is only found in the lower Sonoran Desert.  This subspecies (Progne subis hesperia) nests in old woodpecker holes in saguaros and unlike the very colonial martins out east, the desert martins typically don't nest in tight, large colonies.  They start breeding much later in the year as well, typically in July when the monsoon rains begin (and the flying bugs are more plentiful).  Here's a backlit "DESERT" PURPLE MARTIN:

It was finally time to pick up Ash from the airport in Phoenix.  Find airport, find gate, find Ash, get bags, look for car in wrong part of garage, find car somewhere else, out the door birding.  The first stop after leaving the airport would be for a potential lifer for her; the now-countable ROSY-FACED LOVEBIRDS.  I took her right to the spot where I got my lifer just a couple of months earlier (Encanto Park).  They were just as easy:

At this point we decided to start making our way down towards Madera Canyon.  There was one bird HEAVILY on my mind at this point; the long-staying BUFF-COLLARED NIGHTJARS that had been present for months in the Proctor Road area.  This would be a world life bird for both of us; would they sing tonight?

We were primed and ready, we had made the walk out through the primitive campsites and now all we had to do was wait for dusk to approach.  It did:

As dusk settled in, the CRISSAL THRASHERS began to sing.  It was 7:59 PM.  Suddenly a strange sound filled the air; a BUFF-COLLARED NIGHTJAR started singing not even 50 meters from us!   We were ecstatic.  I made a few recordings on my phone and just as quickly as the bird started, it stopped.  We waited around for a bit but the bird must have flown somewhere else.  We considered ourselves lucky to be at the right spot at the right time; the bird had only sung for 30 seconds!  -whew-  It was dark now but we drove up Madera Canyon to listen for nightbirds; one of my favorite nighttime birding locations.  Up at the top were several ELF OWLS giggling at us along with several WHISKERED SCREECH-OWLS chiming in.  Not to be outdone, there were some MEXICAN WHIP-POOR-WILLS singing as well.  It was a fun ending to a good day of birding in Arizona.

The next morning we swung down around to Patagonia.  First on our list was a pitstop at the famous Patagonia Roadside Rest specifically for one species.  This species:
That is the rare THICK-BILLED KINGBIRD.  However, this exact pull-off is the most reliable spot for this species in the entire USA.

Next was a quick stop at the Paton's feeders for VIOLET-CROWNED HUMMINGBIRD.  Again, the target was quite easy to snag.

We then traveled on to Sierra Vista for the evening hummingbird show at Mary Jo's feeders in Ash Canyon (part of the Huachucas).  I highly recommend visiting her wonderful setup (see details here).  One of the interesting visitors on this visit was this striking male hummingbird:

However, something didn't quite click.  It had a fairly-pointed gorget but not as sharp as a pure COSTA'S would show (and yet it was too pointed for a LUCIFER).  It had some purple on the crown and behind the eye, something a LUCIFER wouldn't show.  And yet the bill was relatively-long and had a slight curve to it, something a COSTA'S wouldn't show.  Hmm... confused?  Yes, this is one of those infamous hybrid hummingbirds (people have started calling them "COSTIFER HUMMINGBIRDS").

However, it wasn't long before our main target, LUCIFER HUMMINGBIRDS, visited the feeders as well.  Here's a pure male:

... followed by a visit by the much-less reliable female:

Ash Canyon is the hands-down most-reliable spot for this species anywhere in the USA.  If you want this species, Mary Jo is the person to contact.

The next morning was sadly our last in Arizona on this trip.  We had a morning to spare so we headed up Miller Canyon in the Huachucas.  We had two main targets; SPOTTED OWL and WHITE-EARED HUMMINGBIRD.  Neither Ashley or myself had actually seen a SPOTTED OWL before (we had only heard them once before in California).  We started up a random trail but we honestly had no idea where we were actually going.  Realizing this, we made a quick retreat and figured someone down by the feeders might be able to give us some pointers.  We were right.  We met Mrs. Beatty and she was able to give us excellent directions to exactly where the owls had been roosting.  A quick half-mile later, we got to the spot and split up.  Within 5 or 10 minutes we found a dark clump sitting quietly in a shady spot of a sycamore.  Success!

That, alone, made the trip to Arizona worth it for me.  We watched it quietly for several minutes before reluctantly heading back down-canyon.  Our next stop was the always-impressive hummingbird feeders set up by the Beatty's.  Our target bird, the rare WHITE-EARED HUMMINGBIRD arrived within 15 minutes.  Again, the Beatty's feeders are your best bet for seeing this species in the USA:

Our birding in Arizona had come to a close.  We started for home, a place I hadn't been in 3+ months.