Lifers are denoted by Bold
Day three of Camp Chiricahua started as many of the others had: with a walk around Rose Canyon Lake. This walk however was to be the last taste of birding for us in the Santa Catalina Mountains and we were determined to make the most of it.
As we began to walk down the road leading through the different campsites, we heard a sound that sounded a lot like a northern pygmy-owl. Having only heard one of these birds yet and not seen any, we were excited to try to locate it. Excitedly, we scrambled up the slope of the hill from which it was calling. We moved up the hill, quietly, listening anxiously for where it was calling from and moving in that direction. When we reached the top of the hill, we realized that the sound was now coming from a completely different direction than we had at first thought. Pausing to attempt to get a good idea of where the sound was coming from, someone spotted a cliff chipmunk on the ground. Then the chipmunk called, and much to our dismay, it made the same, owl-like sound that we had been following.
A little frustrated that we had all been tricked by a chipmunk, we headed back towards the road. We decided to take a longer way down however that would take us off-trail for a little bit longer. This turned out to be a good decision. After walking for a bit, we paused near a small ravine from which a number of spotted towhees were calling. However, they were not the only birds to call as, from across the ravine, a distinctive “Jose Maria” call wafted.
When I had been preparing for Chiricahua, I had taken some time to acquaint myself with some of the bird vocalizations of the area. One of the songs which I had found to be the most beautiful was the song of the greater pewee. Consequently, I had been very much looking forward to seeing the bird and hearing the song for myself. So, it was impossible for me not to smile as I finally heard the bird which I had been waiting for.
Unfortunately however, the bird was a long way off and it didn’t seem like we would get to see this one. Our luck had not run out however as a great horned owl (probably one of the birds we had seen and heard on previous days) swooped in and landed in a tree nearby. The owl’s presence attracted a number of other birds which came to harass it, and one of the birds which was attracted to the commotion was, happily, the greater pewee.
Over the course of the next few minutes we got great looks at this great bird (including watching it flycatch not far above our heads!). The only disappointing thing was that, despite the 10 pound weight hanging off my shoulder, I had forgotten that I had brought my camera and so wasn’t able to get any photos until the bird was a bit farther away.
After a breakfast at our campsite, we broke camp, loaded up the vans, and departed the Catalinas. As much as I had enjoyed the Catalina’s however, I wasn’t disapointed we were leaving as our final destination was to be the legendary Chiricahua Mountains!
Halfway down Mt. Lemmon, we couldn’t resist the temptation to do a little bit more birding as we pulled over to get some stunning looks at white-throated swifts as well as seeing western scrub-jay, and rufous-winged sparrow (which, looking back after the fact, was my 450th ABA Area lifer).
We then settled in for the long drive to the Chiricahuas. We didn’t get far however, before we stopped at Agua Caliente park for some birding. The good birds came quickly here with great looks at a pair of Harris’s hawks on the entry road in.
The park itself held some good birds as well with me getting my life brown-crested flycatchers and hooded oriole as well as seeing a roadrunner on a nest and spending a good deal of time looking for a Bell’s vireo which was taunting us from numerous trees around the small park. We also heard a cactus wren but I was unable to get a look at this charismatic desert species just yet. The heat quickly got to us however, and we returned to the vans. On the way out however, we had the mammal highlight of the day in the form on a beautiful bobcat just off the road.
Between the beautiful scenery and the inter-van trivia using two-way radios the first section of the ride went by quickly and we were soon in Wilcox for lunch at Pizza Hut and some after-meal birding at Lake Cochise.
I was very interested in birding Lake Cochise as it represented our only opportunity for shorebirds and other waterbirds. As we drove down the road towards the lake, I got anther lifer, this time in the form of a group of western kingbirds perched on a fence. We pulled over at a parking lot overlooking a pond next to a golf course and began to bird in earnest. The highlight there was a vermillion flycatcher but a group of lark sparrows, a ruddy duck, and a unidentified gull also made us excited for what the rest of the area would hold.
The lake itself was loaded with shorebirds. The majority were Wilson’s phalarope, but American avocet, black-necked stilt, and a hadful of long-billed curlew, and a single lesser yellowlegs were also in attendance. Additionally, a flock of Baird’s sandpiper took off from the lake not longer after we arrived.
As we watched, we were treated to a bit of excitement in the form of a peregrine falcon which spooked the phalaropes into flight and proceeded to strafe them looking for a straggler. The falcon was eventually successful in separating a single bird from the flock and eventually managed to chase the unfortunate shorebird down.
A quick drive around the lake produced a few “Lillian’s” eastern meadowlarks but nothing new in the shorebird department.
Having now birded and refueled, we continued on towards the Chiricahua Mountains. The birds weren’t done with us however, as we were able to spot a Chihuahuan raven perched on an utility along the side of the highway.
Having spent so much time birding however came at a price as we were now running very far behind schedule for our arrival at the Southwest Research Station where we would be staying in the Chiris.
The scenery was beautiful as we drove towards the mountains but we didn’t have much time to enjoy it as we rushed towards our destination.
However, no matter how short of time we were, we still had to stop for a black-tailed rattlesnake in the middle of the road. I (and basically everyone else) was very excited by this snake as it was only my second rattlesnake ever (my first being, interestingly enough, a timber rattlesnake only about a week before).
Eventually we arrived in the mountains, and after going through the tiny hamlet of Portal (a place of birding legend) and driving through a beautiful riparian pathway up the mountains, we eventually reached our final destination for the day, the Southwest Research Station.
For those unaware, the Southwest Research Station is a large property designed to give people a place to conduct biological research in the Chiricahua Mountains. It is a fantastic facility, complete with a mess hall (the food served is delicious as well), places for researchers to stay, and a large enough property to support many kinds of projects. It also commands a spectacular view of the Chiricahua Mountains.
After unloading the vans, being briefly shown around the property, and seeing a few of the commoner birds of the station (highlight being blue-throated hummingbird which were common visitors to the hummingbird feeders as well as summer tanager) we went to the mess hall to eat our first dinner in the Chiricahuas.
It was a great ending to a great day.
Sidenote: The previous night, we had all made estimates as to how many species we would see the following the day. I can’t remember exactly how many I guessed or how many we ended up seeing but my guess was way low and our total was over 100.