Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Camp Chiricahua Part 2-- Mt. Lemmon to Portal

The New Mexican desert east of Portal, AZ
When I left off this narrative, the thirteen of us at Camp Chiricahua were camping among towering ponderosa pines on Mt. Lemmon. We woke up that morning eager to see as many birds as possible, and there were certainly plenty to be found. The usual suspects from the day before: yellow-eyed juncos, hermit thrushes, pygmy nutchatches, and western bluebirds still dominated, but we found plenty to add to our list. First up, just outside of the campground, was a stunning male Painted Redstart (as before, life birds, or birds that I had never seen before, are in bold). This species can only be seen in the U.S. in Arizona and New Mexico, and is strikingly colored in black, white, and scarlet. The species is usually active and energetic, and this one flitted around rapidly and flicked its tail, flashing bright white tail feathers.
Looking for Buff-breasted Flycatcher
A little ways down the road, we came across a birding jackpot. A pair of Violet-green Swallows that flew over were the 600th species on my life list! A tall stand of pines right the picnic area was filled with birds: a burnt-orange-headed Olive Warbler, a lead-colored Plumbeous Vireo, a female Western Tanager, a Hepatic Tanager, Mountain Chickadees, and a very nice black, yellow and white Grace's Warbler. As we returned to the campground we spotted a very cool squirrel, the Abert's Squirrel, which is large and has a strikingly white and fluffy tail. Two of the most aggravating birds of the trip were in this area: Buff-breasted Flycatcher and Northern Pygmy-Owl. The rare flycatcher was giving its characteristic "whit" call repeated at the picnic area, and some people got to see it, but the best I could see was a flash of motion and a speck of a bird, no where near the look I would have liked to have gotten (and not enough for me to count it, at least not yet). The owl started hooting upslope from our campsite when we were eating breakfast. Food forgotten  we rushed uphill, but the bird quieted and would couldn't find it, the first of many misses of this species.
Molino Basin
After breakfast (we get a lot done pre-food), we headed down the mountain to the Molino Basin, an area dominated by scrubby oaks. The birds here were totally different from those at the higher elevations. Phainopeplas, the sleek, mohawked, red-eyed waxwing relatives, were abundant. In contrast to the pine forests, where Broad-tailed Hummingbirds abound, here the dominant species was the beautiful Broad-billed Hummingbird, the males adorned in emerald and sapphire hues contrasting sharply with a (broad) red bill. I heard but couldn't see Bewick's Wrens and Bell's Vireo, but we did find a couple Bridled Titmice (titmouses?), a Ladder-backed Woodpecker, some Blue Grosbeaks, Hooded Orioles, and a few nice Rufous-crowned Sparrows, whose songs were more impressive than their rather brown plumage.
A Female Phainopepla
The non-birds here were also quite cool, highlighted by an impressive array of butterflies. There were Acacia Skippers, Elada Checkerspots, Desert Cloudywings, Orange-headed Scallopwings, and Two-tailed Swallowtails. The most interesting reptiles were the Sonoran Spotted Whiptails, a lizard species with an interesting reproductive strategy: they parthenogenetic, meaning that are all female, and they are all clones of their mothers.
Desert Cloudywing
The next stop was a little higher up the mountain, at the General Hitchcock Campground, which was, like our own campground, pine-dominated. In the parking lot we found a Western Tanager or two, lots of Mexican Jays, and most impressively, at least for me, at least half a dozen clownish Acorn Woodpeckers, which flying to add to or check on their caches of food in dead trees. We walked a short distance towards a dry streambed, on the way spotting a Painted Redstart, our first Black-throated Gray Warbler, and two interesting squirrels, the Arizona Gray Squirrel and the Arizona Fox Squirrel, the latter a surprising sighting because it is supposed to be restricted to the Chiricahua Mountain Range. The highlight of the stop was in the streambed, where we first heard the excellent song of the Canyon Wren, which we soon spotted hopping, mouse-like, under some boulders in the stream. It seemed unconcerned by us, and its interesting but rather subdued plumage (brown with a white throat) contrasted strikingly with the exuberance and beauty of its song. You can listen to it here: http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Canyon_Wren/sounds, but it really has to be heard in its habitat to be truly experienced.
Canyon Wren, mid-song
We also got point-blank looks at a Painted Redstart at this spot, plus our first Golden-banded Skipper and Northern Cloudywings (butterflies) of the trip, as well as our only Striped Plateau Lizard. And on the way out we added two more birds: an energetic and fast-moving flock of tiny and long-tailed Bushtits, and a very cool (and unusual) Arizona Woodpecker, a very nice southeast Arizona specialty and one of the few woodpeckers that is brown, not black.

Golden-banded Skipper
Striped Plateau Lizard
At lunch, birding around the campsite was remarkably good, highlighted by a rare and local Greater Pewee, its more common relative the Western Wood-Pewee, and a Hutton's Vireo, all of which were lifers for me. Unfortunately, we had no more luck on the Buff-breasted Flycatcher front than we had had that morning. Also new was a Nais Metalmark, the only time on this trip that we spotted that flashy orange-and-black butterfly.
Evidence of forest fires near Rose Canyon
That afternoon we headed up the mountain, where aspens began appearing alongside the pines. At an overlook we could see across the wide expanse of desert below to similar "sky island" mountain ranges in the distance. Looking up, we spotted some White-throated Swifts and a Zone-tailed Hawk, and a cool orange, pink and black moth, Virbia ostenta, landed on someone's hand (virtually all moth id credit goes to fellow camper Kyle Kittelburger, whose also has lots of great photos from the trip here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/hawk-eagle/7788912662/in/photostream. Linked photo is of the Virbia moth.)
The view from Aspen Vista
We arrrived at Summerhaven, a tiny "town" at the summit of Mount Lemmon, and stopped at a general store there, where we bought some fudge (raspberry-chocolate fudge is excellent). In the parking lot, we heard and saw fleetingly a Virginia's Warbler, but I didn't see it well enough for me to count it as a life bird. A little ways further, we parked and walked along a trail through excellent riparian habitat. We were hoping for Red-faced Warblers, but couldn't locate any. Additionally, we heard another Northern Pygmy-Owl, but it stayed frustratingly hidden, as did a flock of distant Steller's Jays. As consolation, we saw lots more of the common mountain birds, including plenty of Yellow-eyed Juncos, and some cool non-avians: two cute burrowing Botta's Pocket Gophers, the sole Pacuvius Duskywing of the trip, and dozens, or even hundreds of Echo Azures hanging around a small stream. Also there were some giant water bugs (both an apt description and the actual name of the species) and I saw a cool black-and-white Banded Alder Borer beetle.
Banded Alder Borer
We spent the next night camping at Bear Flats, where we had a couple of closer encounters with Striped Skunks, lots of bats (including one near the bathroom we identified as a Western Small-footed Myotis) and heard a few Great Horned Owls after dinner.

On our last morning in the Santa Catalinas, we made another attempt at the Buff-breasted Flycatcher spot, but were not any more successful, and the bird remained elusive. We did spot an "Aububon's" Yellow-rumped Warbler, the western subspecies of the widespread species, which may be split into a full species soon, and also relocated Grace's and Olive Warblers.

We then packed up our tents and gear, and headed down the mountain, en route to the Chiricahuas, a trip that would take most of the day, with lots of stops. The first was at the Gordan Hirobayashi Campground, which has scrubby habitat with lots of agaves and yuccas. There were a few Rufous-crowned Sparrows, and we saw our first Rock Wren of the trip, a rather drab bird with a very long beak perched on a yucca stalk.

Our next stop was the eastern portion of Saguaro National Park, just outside Tuscon. This was a stop for desert birds, and there were once again plenty of the park's namesake cacti. Typical desert birds that we hadn't seen for a few days were Pyrrhuloxia, Gambel's Quail, Curve-billed Thrasher, Gila Woodpecker, and cactus-nesting Purple Martins. The sought-after Gilded Flicker did not appear, but as we were heading out we had a run of very good luck, and spotted three new birds in just a couple of minutes. The first, and my favorite, was a Greater Roadrunner, the bizzare large ground-cuckoo on which the cartoon is based. Roadrunners are really cool birds, and seeing this one, at very close range, was one of the highlights of the trip. To add to that, we found a Harris's Hawk on a telephone pole and a flock of tiny Black-tailed Gnatcatchers, and left the area with three new birds (plus some cool new butterflies, like Ceraunus Blue, American Snout, and Orange-barred Sulphur).
Harris's Hawk
We eventually made our way out of Tuscon, and ended up on route 10 going east through the Chihuahuan Desert, which, unlike the Sonoran Desert which had just left, is more an arid grassy plain than a cactus-dominated ecosystem. We were pleased to see the characteristic bird of this habitat, the Chihuahuan Raven, which is very difficult to separate from the almost identical Common Raven, but we got a good enough look at the amount of feathering on the bill of one bird to clinch the id. There were also a few Swainson's Hawks, a common western grasslands raptor.
Willcox Sewage Treatment Plant
We stopped for lunch at a Pizza Hut in Willcox, where the abundance of cowboy hats was amusing for the Easterners (myself included) and Californians in our group. The real reason for our being in Willcox, however, was to go to the sewage treatment plant. The Willcox Sewage Treatment Plant is a famed birding location, and has a great reputation as a shorebirding spot. It did not disappoint: in the middle of the desert, this pond is an oasis for migratory shorebirds, and we saw plenty. Long-legged, black-and-white American Avocets and Black-necked Stilts, Baird's Sandpipers, Western Sandpipers, Least Sandpipers, Spotted Sandpipers, Lesser and Greater Yellowlegs, uncommon Stilt Sandpipers, Long-billed Dowitchers, and, most abundant, over 800 Wilson's Phalaropes, feeding in their characteristic method-- spinning in circles to stir up microinvertebrates. It was a very impressive spectacle, and it was also great to be able to study shorebird id with the help of our leader Micheal O'Brian, which quite literally wrote the book (The Shorebird Guide) about shorebird identification. Besides the shorebirds, there were also grassland passerines like the Horned Lark and the "Lillian's" Eastern Meadowlark, the southwestern subspecies that is likely to become a full species in the future.
A big flock of Avocets, Stilts, and Phalaropes
4 species- two avocets on the left, 6 phalaropes, a stilt in the back right, and a dowitcher in the middle
Leaving Willcox, we skirted the northern edge of the Chiricahuas into New Mexico, where we found ourselves driving along a road seemingly in the middle of nowhere, surrounded on all sides by distant mountains with only desert in view. This was also a remarkably good portion of the drive for wildlife, and we spotted a Mule Deer, Black-tailed Jackrabbit, Greater Roadrunners, and we rescued a Western Box Turtle that was dangerously trying to cross the road. By the road we also picked up our first Black-throated Sparrows, a strikingly patterned southwestern specialty, and heard a Cassin's Sparrow.
Western Box Turtle
Box Turtle poses for photos, post-rescue

The desert east of Portal
We soon entered Portal, Arizona, a tiny town whose entire economy is based on being a base for birders exploring the nearby Cave Creek Canyon, arguably the best birding location in the United States. We settled in at our hotel, Cave Creek Ranch (with showers and wifi!), a nice luxury after a few days of camping. It was late in the day at this point, but we still found some birds on the hotel grounds, including a Canyon Towhee. The clear highlight, however, were the awesome, Blue-throated Hummingbirds that were coming to the feeders there. The blue-throats, a specialty of southeast AZ dwarfed all of the more familiar hummingbirds, and chased them away, with their eponymous blue gorgets flashing and tails spread to reveal striking white corners. These were just a taste of the great birds to come over the next four days in the Chiricahuas, our camp's namesake mountains and home to some of the country's (or the world's) coolest birds.
Our rooms at Cave Creek Ranch, underneath the walls of Cave Creek Canyon
Sunset over Cave Creek Canyon

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

White Pelicans in Westchester!

On Sunday, Benjamin van Doren and I birded Rye, hoping to find the pair of American White Pelicans that were seen Saturday at the Marshlands Conservancy. We started our search at Marshlands, and saw lots of birding, highlighted by a few Nelson's, Lincoln's and White-crowned Sparrows, a nice Pileated Woodpecker. There were lots of warblers: Black-throated Blue, Black-throated Green, Blackpoll, Yellow-rumped, Tennessee, Magnolia, Northern Parula, Yellowthroat, Black-and-white, and Nashville, with the Black-and-white Warblers a surprising sighting this late in the fall. Despite the abundance of birds, there pelicans were nowhere to be found.

We decided to check briefly a few spots up the Rye coast a bit to try to locate the pelicans. Rye Beach had lots of raptors overhead (Bald Eagle, Peregrine Falcon, Kestrel, and Cooper's, Sharp-shinned, and Red-tailed Hawks), but no pelicans. We decided to make one last stop at the Edith Read Sanctuary, behind the Rye Playland amusement park. Playland lake was devoid of ducks and pelicans, but when we stepped out of the car at the nature center, two gigantic white birds with huge bills and black flight feathers flew directly overhead!
Not a very good photo, but they are pretty unmistakable
The pelicans started gaining altitude and seemed to be soaring south towards Marshlands, but then turned around, circled a bit, headed north, and then south, then finally, after being in view for 20 minutes, they disappeared northward.
Then twice more, as we were birding the wooded area of the Sanctuary, we would look up to see the two pelicans soaring overhead. They eventually stopped circling back, but someone else reported them from a lake just north of Playland, and they are apparently still in the area today.
My high school's mascot, the Pelham Pelican (which is white) has always seemed a bit far-fetched given the general absence of pelicans from the area, but these birds proved that a real pelican could indeed show up in Westchester.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Camp Chiricahua! Part 1-- Tuscon and Mt. Lemmon

 At the start of August I was lucky enough to be able to attend Camp Chiricahua, a 12-day camp for young birders in Southeastern Arziona (with a little bit in southwest New Mexico). The camp is run by Victor Emanuel Nature Tours, and sponsored by the ABA and Leica. Since it would otherwise be an incredibly long post, I'm breaking up my narrative into a few parts (which are still going to be long). This is the first.

On July 30th, I flew from New York into Tuscon, and met up with rest of the camp-- nine other campers from all over the country and Costa Rica, and two excellent leaders: Michael O'Brian and Louise Zemaitis, both well known birders and authors.

We ate lunch in the airport and then headed to our hotel, noting a couple of House Sparrows on the drive, and two life butterflies-- Sleepy Orange and Fiery Skipper-- in the airport parking lot. After unpacking in our rooms we quickly got outside for our first taste of Arizona birding, in the parking lot of the hotel. The heat and huge cacti made it obvious that this was the desert, but the birds confirmed that: just in the parking lot were Cassin's Kingbirds (lifers, or birds that I have never seen before, will be in bold for this report), Lesser Goldfinches, Verdins, White-winged Doves, and a pair of vivid orange Hooded Orioles.

We then headed to Sweetwater Wetlands, a great birding spot in Tuscon, for the afternoon. There we walked a loop around some wetland habitat and saw plenty of desert and wetland birds. Gila Woodpeckers were common, as were Verdins, big reddish southwestern Song Sparrows, and the range-restricted and black-masked Abert's Towhee. In the ponds were lots of Mallards, some of which seemed to be pure or at least close to pure Mexican Ducks (currently considered a subspecies of Mallard), plus some Cinnamon Teal, American Coots, and a Common Gallinule or two. The bird highlight was probably a Sora that gave great looks for a while in the reeds by the side of a pond. A family (with lots of chicks) of Gambel's Quail were fun to watch hiding in the underbrush. There was also a pair of Tropical Kingbirds, which have a very small range in the US, defending their territory from a Cooper's Hawk. On the way out, we added two more new flycatchers to the trip list (and my life list)-- Black Phoebe and Western Kingbird. The kingbird perched right next to a Cassin's Kingbird, giving us a great comparison of these similar species. It wouldn't be Arizona without hummingbirds, and we saw two at the end of the walk: Black-chinned, which were common the whole trip, and Costa's, which was a good sighting, and one of only two for the whole trip.
It is a sewage treatment plant...
But it has good birds! Like these Yellow-headed Blackbirds.
So the birds were pretty incredible, but the camp was not solely focused on birds, and we saw cool lizards like Desert Spiny Lizard, Side-blotched Lizard, and Southwestern Fence Lizard, and mammals like Desert Cottontail and Round-tailed Ground-Squirrel. There were lots of insects too-- butterflies included Giant Swallowtail, Pipevine Swallowtail, Reakirt's and Western Pygmy Blues, Lyside Sulphur, and plenty of Queens, the common southwestern counterpart to the familiar Monarch Butterfly, and dragonflies were everywhere, with interesting species such as Blue-eyed Darner, Roseate Skimmer, Spot-winged Glider, Mexican Amberwing, Flame Skimmer, and Red Saddlebags.

We ate dinner in Tuscon and returned to our hotel, eagerly anticipating this next morning, when we were scheduled to go to the famous Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum.
The Desert Museum
We left early for the museum, where we met up with our third tour leader, Jennie Duberstein, who lives in Tuscon. En route we spotted a Pyrrhuloxia, the gray southwestern cousin to the cardinal.  While we were trying to get through introductions we kept being distracted by birds! Even in the parking lot there were some great sightings, including a stunning purple Varied Bunting, a rare and local Rufous-winged Sparrow, and lots of intricately patterned and rather tame Cactus Wrens.
Juvenile Cactus Wren
We walked around the grounds of the museum, which has exhibits that are integrated into the landscape, which, for a New Yorker, is an otherworldy forest of saguaros, ocotillo, and other cacti. All of the animals in the exhibits could be seen outside as well, and we did pretty well with finding wild animals in addition to captive ones. We saw large and loud Brown-crested Flycatchers, Abert's Towhees, sleek-looking and mohawk-sporting Phainopeplas, an orange-and-black Black-headed Grosbeak, a wild Curve-billed Thrasher hopping around in an exhibit, a couple Bronzed Cowbirds, with their evil-looking red eyes, and lots of other common desert birds that we had seen the day before. And that was even before we went into the aviaries, which allowed closer looks at some of the same birds, including the excellent Hummingbird Aviary.
There were also lots of cacti
As always on this trip, there was never a dull moment. Even when there were fewer birds (which was not a common occurence) there were always plenty of other animals to pick up the slack. We saw our first Rock Squirrels, Ornate Tree Lizards, Spiny-tailed Iguanas, and lots more butterflies-- Marine Blues, an Empress Leilia,  more Queens and Pipevine Swallowtails, a flashy Gulf Fritillary, and an unusual Arizona Powdered-Skipper. Small red damselflies turned out to be Desert Firetips, a southwest specialty.
Spiny-tailed Iguana
A Queen, one of the most colorful and abundant butterflies in Arizona
A drabber, but much less common butterfly-- Arizona Powdered-Skipper 
Around 10, we had to leave, stopping briefly in the gift shop to pick up some prickly pear candy.
It's really delicious!
We then drove towards Mt. Lemmon, in the Santa Catalinas, a mountain range just northeast of Tuscon. The Catalinas are one of numerous "sky islands" in Southeast Arizona-- ranges that form islands of different habitats in a "sea" of desert. This was obvious as we ascended Mt. Lemmon-- we started off in a desert with towering saguaro cacti, which disappeared as we drove up and were replaced with mesquite, then scrubby oaks, and suddenly massive ponderosa pines, a landscape more reminiscent of Wyoming than of the desert we had been in 45 minutes previously. The drive was not without bird excitement, when Michael realized that one of the Turkey Vultures circling overhead was actually a Zone-tailed Hawk, a predator that mimics vultures (which most animals treat as harmless, because they are only interested in dead food) to fool its prey into ignoring it. The degree of mimicry was astonishing-- not only was it colored like a vulture, its flight style perfectly emulated the lazy, rocking flight characteristic of vultures. Only the white bands in its tail and its yellow face gave it away.
Starting in the desert...
Going up...
Through the scrub oaks...
And into the pines.
We set up camp at the Bear Flats Campground, and birded for a bit around the campground, where there was a totally new group of common birds. Most abundant were the Yellow-eyed Juncos, whose entire US range is restricted to Southeast Arizona, but which were everywhere at our campsite. Most of them were banded as part of a research project in the area, and they allowed close approach. Nearly as common were the Pygmy Nuthatches, tiny and energetic tree-climbers that travel in loud groups through the pines, and Broad-tailed Hummingbirds, which at this elevation were by far the most common hummers. We also found a few Hermit Thrushes, plenty of Western Bluebirds, a Hairy Woodpecker, a few Pine Siskins, a couple eye-ringed Cordilleran Flycatchers, and, best of all, a female Olive Warbler, with its lemon-yellow hood. Olive Warblers, characteristic denizens of Arizona pine forests, are the only members of their family, and the most primitive branch of the evolutionary tree that includes all of the nine-primaried passerines (warblers, sparrows, blackbirds, etc.) Butterflies in the area included Echo Azure and Taxiles Skipper, two new ones for me.
Yellow-eyed Junco
To wrap up an extremely eventful day, we headed to the part of Mt. Lemmon known as Willow Canyon, where a homeowner had generously offered to show us the birds at her feeders. On the way we spotted a Hepatic Tanager, named for its liver-red coloration, and a clownish red-and-black-and-white Acorn Woodpecker, a familiar backyard species for the westerners on the trip, but a new and exciting sighting for an easterner such as myself. The feeders were incredible, and the whole area was covered with birds. Most amazing were the hummingbirds, which buzzed and hummed around us constantly. The majority were Broad-tailed Hummingbirds, but there were a few Anna's Hummingbirds as well, multiple Rufous Hummingbirds, and one or two Magnificent Hummingbirds. The magnificents certainly lived up to their name, and were one of the highlights of the trip. Huge (for hummingbirds) and black, males have a iridescent throat (a gorget) that can either flash neon green or vivid turquoise-blue depending on the angle, and a crown patch that shines violet. In all they were a breathtaking bird, and when one made an appearance at a feeder it would set of a mini-stampede of young birders from one end of the porch to the other.  I eventually realized that the broad-tailed hummingbirds were so tame that if I stood in one spot long enough my fingers wrapped around the perch of a feeder, one would fly in and alight on my finger!
Male Anna's Hummingbird
Male Broad-tailed Hummingbird
Female Broad-tailed Hummingbird
Female Broad-tailed Hummingbird on Sarah's finger
The other birds at the feeders were nice too, with common birds from our campsite joined by some less common species, such as Black-headed Grosbeak, Spotted Towhee, and Mountain Chickadee.
Black-headed Grosbeak
A Pygmy Nuthatch duo
Mountain Chickadee
On the way back to the campsite we spotted a flock of large, blue birds, my first Mexican Jays of the trip. Before dinner we had a flyover Peregrine Falcon, and a couple of us climbed a hill above our tents and were rewarded with a flock of Blue-gray Gnatcatchers and a great close look at a Zone-tailed Hawk.

That night we camped out at Bear Flats, where bats and skunks made appearances but the namesake of the campground were thankfully absent.
My tent at Bear Flats