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


  1. This is a great post, and nice pictures as usual! Please keep these coming.

    James Purcell

  2. Loved reading this, as well as part 2!