Lifers Denoted by Bold
The morning of the eighth day of Camp Chirichua began with a trip to the San Pedro House. On our drive into Sierra Vista the evening before, we had passed over the San Pedro River and the strip of riparian woodland surrounding it. The area along the San Pedro River is rather striking to view as it is a verdant patch of green otherwise surrounded by the drab tones of the desert. It is this inconsistency with the surrounding landscape however which causes it to be as great of a birding destination as it is, attracting a range of species that can’t easily support themselves in the nearby desert.
The San Pedro riparian area also holds a special place in conservation history as it was the very first Important Bird Area to be declared. For both of these reasons, we were all very excited to bird in the area.
We arrived at the house and after refilling water bottles and getting ready to walk, headed out towards the trails on the property. We quickly came across a number of good birds, before we even approached the river itself, such as good looks a Botteri’s sparrow, the first blue grosbeaks of the trip, and best of all, vermillion flycatcher.
As we approached the river, the trail began to get more and more overgrown (and we became more and more worried about chiggers) and we began to hear the raucous calls of yellow-breasted chats hidden away in the vegetation. Yellow-billed cuckoos and warbling vireos also put in appearances, good examples of the unique birdlife of the San Pedro. A grey hawk called once as well but we were unable to see it. However, it was made up for by my first Abert’s towhees of the trip (since I had not seen the one we had nearly ran over the day before).
One of the main reasons for our coming to the San Pedro House was to see the banding that occurs there. We eventually came upon the station and were able to watch the operation for a while. They were about to go check the mist nets when we arrived but before we went with them to check, we got good scope looks at a yellow-breasted chat, the first that had actually allowed itself to be seen. We then split up to go with the banders to check the different nets. My group went across a particularly muddy section of trail, risking the destruction of our shoes as well as chiggers (which I have been particularly blessed never to have gotten before although I am extremely paranoid of that streak ending). We were rewarded for our efforts though with a bird in the net, although it ended up being just a song sparrow.
Over the next half hour or so, we watched the banding operation at work and were able to see them process a number of birds, the highlight being a lazuli bunting.
Eventually, we thanked the banders and turned back down the trials towards the vans.
Back at the vans, we wandered around the small shop they have there, particularly their bird book collection. However, our attention was soon drawn back to birds by the sound of inca doves calling from the trees outside. These little doves have always been a favorite of mine ever since I saw my lifer in Texas and I have always been particularly partial towards their calls. So I was rather happy to see them in a new state as well as to hear them.
Departing the river, we headed towards the Huachuca Mountains where our next stop would be at Beatty’s Guest Ranch where we were particularly targeting white-eared hummingbird and spotted owls.
On the way back towards Sierra Vista, we passed a gila monster dead along the roadside. While unfortunate, to see in that condition, it was still a really interesting animal, and one that is not seen very often. Of note, it was the third unusual roadkill we had seen on the trip following the mountain lion (only seen by some) and the ringtail.
When we arrived at the ranch and paid our entrance fees before hiking upslope towards the hummingbird feeding station. There we settled down, hoping to catch sight of the white-eared hummingbird that had been sighted recently there.
It was very tranquil sitting by the feeders watching the hummingbird activity go by. There was never a dull moment either as there was always some hummingbird or other at the feeders putting on a show.
Unfortunately for us though, the white-eared never showed in the couple hours that we were there for. We were however able to hear a goshawk calling from the surrounding mountains.
After eating lunch at one of the picnic tables close to the feeders, we began a hike up the canyon in hopes of finding spotted owls. Not too far up, we heard a strange sound coming from a tree just off the trail, and, after a bit of searching, were rewarded with some pretty bad views of band-tailed pigeon. However, we were willing to take what we could get for those had were the first band-tailed pigeons we had seen the whole trip and would actually be the only ones we saw.
The hike up the canyon was beautiful but also rather steep and we were quickly all quite tired. To make matters worse, many of us campers thought we had gone to far and had missed the spot where the owls were supposed to be. However, we had faith in our leaders and so continued to follow them up canyon.
A short break to allow people to catch up gave us good looks at red-faced warblers, the first we had seen since the Santa Catalinas, but the real prize lay further up canyon.
Continuing our hike, we began to have less and less energy and less and less faith that we would find the owls. Just as it began to look hopeless for most people, Michael O’Brian spotted something off the trail, and there it was, sleeping peacefully not ten feet away from the path, a spotted owl.
For the next half hour or so, we all got mind-blowing looks at the owl which continued to sleep, seemingly completely oblivious of our presence. It was a truly incredible experience a by far one of the best moments of the whole trip.
Needless to say, we all found it a lot easier to hike back down canyon, ecstatic after our owl experience.
When we returned to the ranch, we headed out towards our next stop. However, we had a little bit of drama when one of the vans got stuck in a ditch but after a bit of pushing from all of us, we were on our way.
The next stop was a private residence where there had been a plain-capped starthroat coming into feeders. We arrived there and the homeowners graciously showed us into their backyard and informed us of where the hummingbird had been coming to. It took a while and we began to worry that we would have to leave without a starthroat (it was getting pretty late in the evening by this time) when the rare hummingbird fly into a tree overlooking the yard. It didn’t stick around all that long (although it came back to the same tree a few times while we were there) but it gave good views while it did. It was a magnificent bird and was also our first ABA Area rarity for the trip.
To make things even better, our first Costa’s hummingbird was also seen while we were at the feeders.
We eventually had to go however and so we gratefully thanked the property owners for allowing us to see such a fantastic bird on their private residence and returned to our hotel in Sierra Vista.