Lifers are denoted by Bold
I was recently given the great privilege of being able to travel to Southeastern Arizona for the 2014 Camp Chiricahua. I have been wanting to go to Southeastern Arizona for a very long time so in many ways, this camp was a dream come true.
In the months leading up to the trip I had been studying about the area extensively which just helped to fuel my excitement when it finally came time for me to go. So, on July 30th, I flew out of Pittsburgh and into Tucson. My flights went without trouble and I was quickly on the ground in Arizona. I had barely stepped off of the plane when I got my first life bird, a greater roadrunner running across the tarmac. After the roadrunner had gone out of sight, I walked down to baggage claim where I met the tour leaders (Michael O’Brian, Louise Zemaitis, and Jennie Duberstein) as well as the other campers. As soon as everyone had assembled, we walked out to the vans to load up the gear before heading to our first stop of the trip: Wendy’s! There we ate lunch and got an introductory speech. It was clear that everyone wanted to go birding however, so we soon left and headed to our first birding stop, a location known for burrowing owls.
We pulled into a parking lot next to some sort of industrial building and sure enough, there were three burrowing owls looking at us from out of a hole. The hole was only six or seven feet from the road and the owls were quite accommodating, allowing us to get incredibly good views (by far the best I have gotten of this species).
While we were watching the owls, a western tanager flew into a nearby tree which was a nice added bonus.
We decided that by this point, we should make our way up Mt. Lemmon to the campsite where we would be staying for the next two nights. The scenery was spectacular as we made our way up the saquaro-covered low slopes of Mt. Lemmon. To make things even better, we pulled into a pullout on the side of the road where we were able to get fantastic looks at a zone-tailed hawk flying directly hove our heads. We also heard rock wren and black-throated sparrow but no one (at least not in my van) got a look at these birds.
One of the awesome things about going up Mt. Lemmon is the fact that you get to see the full scope of life zones. The bottom of the mountain is covered in saquaros, but as you make your way up, that changes to a scrubland composed of juniper and oak (I think) which in its time changes to ponderosa pine dominated forest.
A flock of Mexican jays along the roadside were cool to see and another lifer for me, but we were only afforded a quick look as we were anxious to get our tents set up before the rain clouds we could see in the distance reached us.
We arrived at our campsite at Rose Canyon Lake in good time and we all quickly got out of the vans to look for birds. It turns out we didn’t need to have worried. As soon as we stepped outside, we were inundated by a seemingly never-ending barrage of life birds. The first was a hepatic tanager giving its “chup” call from high in a pine. Lower down in the same pine, a pygmy nuthatch was foraging (which wasn’t a lifer for me). A yellow-eyed junco was foraging on the ground nearby as a broad-tailed hummingbird flew over making the distinctive sound produced by the wings of the males. The icing on the cake however, were two painted redstarts catching the insects attracted to the fumes from the bathroom vents. We all were very excited by the redstarts as they are a extremely beautiful bird and a bird which many people were really hoping to see. We had no idea how accommodating and how common they were to become…
After pitching our tents at the campsite, we decided to go on a quick walk around the area before dinner.
Spotted towhees called and broad-tailed hummingbirds buzzed overhead as we walked along the road leading through the campground. While I didn’t get any more life birds, it was really cool to see some of the geographic variation in some of the birds in Arizona as compared to Pennsylvania. For example, while on the walk, we found a couple of brown creepers. When these creepers sang, you could tell that it was markedly different from the song of the creepers that we have in the east. Another stark contrast was between the white-breasted nuthatches. The nuthatches that we have out east are of the eastern subspecies (Sitta carolinensis carolinensis). However, the nuthatches in Arizona are of the interior west subspecies (Sitta carolinensis lagunae). These subspecies are actually quite distinct both visually and audibly and it was really cool to observe these differences first hand.
After the walk, we returned to our campsite for dinner. However, before we were able to eat, we got distracted by more birds. This time it was a flock of acorn woodpeckers angrily calling and scolding something. We quickly walked across the road and up into the woods where the woodpeckers were as they would have been a lifer for many people (including myself). As we got close to where we could hear them, we saw a large shape take flight from a tree. As it flew we could distinctly make out that it was a great horned owl! In our excitement, we failed to see where it landed so we took off at a jog/walk in the direction in which it had flown. We hadn’t gotten very far however, when the owl was spotted perched in a tree, still being mobbed by woodpeckers. Despite the vanishing light, we were all able to get some really good looks at this spectacular owl. After that, we finally did return to the campsite to eat.
I don’t remember what exactly we had for dinner that night but I remember it tasting quite delicious (especially after a long day of travel and birding). A little while after dinner, it was time for sleep and we all retired to our respective tents, excited for another day of birding in the morning.
However, the night itself was not without surprises. I found myself awake at around midnight with the smell of skunk strong in the air. We discovered in the morning that there had been a skunk around and that in fact, it had been seen by the people using the neighboring campground.
Another interesting thing that happened that night is that I woke up at 4 A.M. to the sound of a great horned owl (presumably the same one from earlier) hooting away off into the trees. The sound of great horned owls is a really awesome sound and is one which I don’t get to hear nearly enough.
The next day dawned bright and early with us awaking at 5 to get ready to go birding. Once everyone was assembled, we headed out from our campsite to walk the same road we had the night before. However, the birding this time around was even better than it had been the previous evening. The first highlight came in the form of a Grace’s warbler high in a Ponderosa pine. A little bit farther along the trail we encountered a flock of red crossbills. Not long after that, we found an olive warbler (which is not really actually a warbler but I’m not going to get into that). In other words, the area was filled with birds.
Besides the birds, the first part of our walk also held some good mammals. We had barely left the campsite when we heard what sounded like a bird chipping. However, Michael soon informed us that it was actually a cliff chipmunk. While we were looking at some of the birds that were near the chipmunk, we were called back to the campground where there was an Abert’s squirrel. This is an awesome mammal and one which I had hoped to see for a long time.
The end goal of our walk was to reach Rose Canyon Lake which is at the end of the road going through the campsite. Due to all the birdlife in the area, it took us a while to make it there but we eventually arrived at the lake. The overlook which we were standing on overlooking the lake turned out to be quite productive bird wise. The first highlight were some Mexican jays and acorn woodpeckers which gave quite good looks. However, even more exciting than these was the magnificent hummingbird which someone found sitting in a clump of brush. It was a female so not quite as aesthetically pleasing as the males of this species but it was awesome to see none the less. The magnificent was there because of a few blooming flowers that were on the slope. It was however, not the only hummingbird to be taking advantage of this food source. While we were watching the magnificent, an Anna’s came in briefly as did a few broad-tailed hummingbirds. A few “Mexican” mallards were present on the lake as well.
While we were enjoying these hummingbirds and ducks, one of the campers spotted something quite unusual flying away from us towards a nearby ridge. The call quickly went up that it was a Scott’s oriole! This is an extremely unusual bird for the elevation that we were at so it got us quite excited. However, I was unable to locate the bird as it flew away. Desperate, I prayed it would land. One of the scopes was put on it and I hurried forward. However, before I had gotten there, it had flown again! This happened a few times with it flying and then landing and me never being able to get on it. In the end it disappeared from sight without me getting a look. Oh well, I hoped there would be others.
Returning to camp for breakfast, we heard a northern pygmy-owl calling from upslope of us. Excited, we hiked up the slope in search of the owl. Not long after we started up the slope, the owl stopped calling. However, we were able to get Cooper’s hawk and hear a singing Cordilleran flycatcher.
After breakfast, we headed up the mountain towards Marshall Gulch where we were going to look for red-faced warblers. The scenery on the way up the mountain is nothing short of spectacular. I have been to a lot of beautiful places in North America and I have to say that Southeastern Arizona is right up at the top of the list of the most beautiful. It was amazing to look out over the mountain and see all the ponderosa pine covering the slopes and then the desert stretched out beneath it. It was really breathtaking.
We got our first taste of high elevation birding as soon as we got out of the vans at Marshall Gulch. While we were getting ready to go bird, we heard two cordilleran flycatchers singing and were able to get our first looks at this species. We also spotted a broad-tailed hummingbird bathing in a stream running past the parking lot. This was really fantastic to see as it is a behavior that you don’t often get to see with hummingbirds.
When we were ready to go, we began to walk down the road towards the trailhead. He had barely gone 100 feet however when someone spotted a red-faced warbler in some of the pines off to the side of the road!! We all desperately tried to get on the bird, however, only a few of us got good looks.
We shouldn’t have been worried however for we hadn’t gone far up the trail itself when the warbler came down and began to forage not more than ten feet from us! It was really fantastic and was easily a highlight from the trip.
After we had all soaked in great looks at the warbler, we continued along the trail. The next highlight came in the form of a single bushtit. This ranks pretty high among some of the stranger things that we saw during the camp. I saw many bushtits when I was in California earlier this year but never did I see just one. Even the counselors were shocked. However, what we would see directly after the bushtit was even more shocking.
As we were walking down the trail, someone spotted what looked like a Swainson’s hawk soaring overhead. It was the first of the trip so we all paused to watch it. However, when we saw it through binoculars something seemed off about it. It was very high up and hard to see but it didn’t look right for a Swainson’s. Then someone called out short-tailed and that is indeed what it was. What made the moment even better was that there were two of them!
While short-tailed hawks have been increasing in Arizona, they are still very rare in the area where we were and it was a really great bird to see. When at the end of the trip we were all talking about what the bird highlights had been many people mentioned the short-tailed hawks.
After the hike, we returned to the campsite for lunch. While we weren’t planning on birding much while we were there, the painted redstarts were being even friendlier than they had the previous day and so we had to stay for a while.
One of the highlights was when we decided to make a massive pile of all our optics (scopes, binoculars, cameras, everything) just to see how massive it was. However, when we had finished, one of the local painted redstarts came over and was being very confiding (even coming within inches of people!). It was too good of an opportunity to pass up so we placed a few pieces of food from lunch on the optics pile and tried to bait it to land on it. We were successful in our endevour and were able to get photos of the redstart landing on both the optics in the pile and on the barrel of one of the scopes. It was a remarkable experience.
We enjoyed the friendly redstart for a long time before it started to rain. At first we thought it was just a brief passing shower so we just moved all the valuable equipment into the vans and went to sit in them ourselves. However, as time went on the rain got heavier and heavier and it soon became clear that it was no passing shower. In fact, it was our first (of many) experience with a monsoon. The rain got more and more intense with huge pools and streams forming and running through our campsite (and two campers tent being flooded). We eventually had to leave to go to our next stop (a feeding station just down the mountain). However, as we drove down the mountain, it became clear that the rain was just too intense and that the road leading to the feeders would surely be closed.
We eventually had to turn back and head back up the mountains as it would have dangerous to drive any further. We eventually pulled over at a visitor center to wait for the rain to stop. This ended up being a good choice however for at the center’s feeders we were to get great views of a beautiful male magnificent hummingbird.
When the rain eventually stopped, we decided to head back down the mountain to the desert below to do some desert birding (the idea being that many of the spots on the mountain would be a challenge to get to after the rain).
The drive down was not without its highlights however as we, quite sadly, spotted a dead ringtail on the side of the road. We also stopped at an overlook to look around and it was really cool to see how swollen the stream had gotten in the rain and how the downpour had created new temporary waterfalls down the mountainside.
One thing I noticed as we drove back down the mountain was how efficient the road clean up crews were. Before the rain had even stopped, there were trucks already out, ready to clear the roads. It was an efficiency that I had never seen before in road maintenance and one that only comes with a lot of experience in a sometimes very wet climate.
When we got to the bottom, we drove towards Saquaro National Monument, stopping on the way when we saw anything interesting. As we drove, we got acquainted with the common birds of the desert like curve-billed thrashers, black-throated sparrows, gila and ladder backed woodpeckers, Gambel’s quail, and others.
When we got to the monument, we took a walk down the entrance road. This turned out to be quite a success as we were able to see both rufous-winged sparrow and gilded flicker (thanks to the fantastic spotting by Michael O’Brien).
Eventually the heat got the better of us however, and we were forced to retreat back up into the cooler mountains. However, the desert had one last gift for us in the form of a coyote which watched us as we drove past.
Back on the mountain, the time before dinner was uneventful with the exception of thinking we heard a barred owl (an exceptional bird for the area) before discovering it was, in fact, not a barred owl (it’s a long story).
After dinner, we stayed up fairly late talking about birds but eventually all went to sleep (though not without seeing our first scorpion on the wall of the bathroom) ready for some more birding the next day.
NOTE: Any inaccuracies in the above account arise from the my occasional inability to remember exactly what occurred and when. I apologize.