Sunday, June 2, 2013


I spent this morning birding with the New York State Young Birders Club on our June trip to Doodletown, with the Edgar Mearns Bird Club. Doodletown is a spot in Rockland County, located right on the Hudson. It's famous as the best spot for breeding Cerulean and Hooded Warblers near New York City. This trip, we spotted both, as well as Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Yellow-throated Vireo, Blue-winged Warbler, and a bunch of other species. We also saw a lot of insects, including 4 life dragonflies (Prince Baskettail, Painted Skimmer, Unicorn Clubtail, Stream Cruiser). But the undisputed highlight of the day was a Timber Rattlesnake that we encountered resting on a old stone wall. We knew that they were in the area (albeit rare), but we didn't really have high expectations until Brendan, seeing the wall, said "This looks like a good spot for...TIMBER RATTLESNAKE!! Right there!"


Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Camp Chiricahua Part 3-- The Chiricahuas

Cave Creek Canyon.
Wow, it's been a long time since I last posted. Sorry about that. I've finally gotten around to writing the lasts posts about Camp Chiricahua, and even though this is now more than 6 months old, I figured I'd post it anyway. This one's about our time in the Chiricahuas, then I'll very soon do one about the Huachucas, then some more somewhat more recent stuff (including my report on my trip to Hawaii) will be coming up soon (hopefully). As before, life birds are listed here in bold.

So when I left off the camp had arrived at Portal and settled into the Cave Creek Ranch, in the shadow of the walls of majestic Cave Creek Canyon. It was an incredible spot, with Blue-throated Hummingbirds, Dusky-capped Flycatchers, Magnificent Hummingbirds, Mexican Jays, and Acorn Woodpeckers all abundant just outside our rooms. Our first morning in the Chiricahuas was Friday, the third of August, and we had some great birding ahead of us.

We started in the grassland habitat east of and below Portal, near the town of Rodeo, New Mexico, and along State Line Road. There we found characteristic birds of the habitat like the striking Black-throated Sparrow, some Loggerhead Shrikes, and my lifer Cassin's Sparrows, which make up for their drab appearance with their beautiful song. Another very cool sighting was a Round-tailed Horned Lizard, almost perfectly camouflaged by the side of the road.
Excellent Camouflage
"Hey, that's me!"
In the town of Rodeo we spotted a small covey of Scaled Quails, our only ones of the trip, and a migrant Gray Flycatcher, with its characteristic tail-wag. Also around were some nice mammals, including Spotted Ground Squirrel and Black-tailed Jackrabbit. And a penguin:
A lesser known Chiricahua specialty
Nearby State Line Road had singing Botteri's Sparrows that remained frustratingly elusive, but a spectacularly colorful fly-by Painted Bunting was more than enough of a consolation prize. A number of Lark Sparrows were also around, as well as our first Varigated Fritillary butterflies of the trip.
The State Line Road area, with the Chiricahuas in the distance
At Quailway Cottage, some of us (including myself) got brief looks at the unusual and hard-to-see Crissal Thrasher, and everyone got to see a gorgeous male Lazuli Bunting, a nice complement to its painted cousin, which was also present here. As a bonus, a giant dragonfly that buzzed by us could only be the Giant Darner, a specialty of the southwest.
Sounds good to me
We then headed back up into the mountains to Cave Creek Canyon, one of the most famous birding spots in the country. Mexican Jays were everywhere, and we got great looks at an Arizona Woodpecker as well. Some good warblers were around, including Painted Redstart, Black-throated Gray, and Grace's. And the smaller winged creatures were excellent as well, with Bordered Patch (remarkably variable and usually quite colorful in black and red), Arizona Sister (big, black, white and orange, with blue accents), Drusius Cloudywing (brown but rare), and Two-tailed Swallowtail (gigantic and bright yellow) butterflies all putting on a show. As we were leaving, a large flycatcher with a yellow belly, which I first thought was a Dusky-capped, turned out to be a Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher, a large and charismatic species found in the U.S. only in the Chiricahuas and nearby areas.
Mexican Jay
Back at the ranch, we had much of the afternoon to ourselves, and wandered around the grounds by a dry riverbed. A pair of Golden Eagles flew high overhead; a tall conifer was filled with Band-tailed Pigeons, a lifer for me; and someone found a Madrean Alligator Lizard, almost snake-like with its reduced legs, slithering through the leaves. Later in the afternoon we stopped by Maya Decker's impressive array of hummingbird feeders in Portal, where we got great looks at all of the species common in the Chiricahuas, including Magnificent, Broad-billed, Blue-throated, Rufous, and Black-chinned. There were plenty of other birds around as well, and I saw my first Say's Phoebe, Lucy's Warbler (ABA Bird #400) and Bewick's Wren (they were vocal but largely unseen all trip), alongside Gambel's Quails, Pyrrhuloxias, and a Canyonland Satyr butterfly. On the drive back we had a couple of Collared Peccaries, or Javalinas, foraging in the undergrowth off of the road.
Artsy Blue-throated Hummingbird
That night we met up with Dave Jasper, who used to lead the camp, and a local herpetologist for our highly-anticipated "night rattlesnake drive." The snakes like lay on the roads a night because they are warmer than the ground, and we hoped to see some of them. Before we left we found a scary-looking vinegaroon at the ranch, which get their name from the vinegar they can shoot at predators.
Nasty-looking but harmless
Then we drove down along the main road east of Portal, keeping our eyes peeled for any road-resting reptiles. It took a while, but suddenly Jack, the herpetologist, shouted to stop, and we leapt out of the van (first making sure we weren't jumping onto any snakes) to see a two-and-a-half foot Mohave Rattlesnake, a smaller species known for being aggressive and having more potent venom than any of the other rattlesnakes in the area. A bit would require a helicopter ride to a hospital in Tuscon. We were impressed, and kept our distance, but Jack, a trained herpetologist, moved the snake around a bit so we could get good looks, then moved him off of the road. It reputation for meanness seemed well-deserved: it struck (ineffectively) a few times at Jack, and we could still hear its furious rattling as we drove off.
Jack with Mohave Rattlesnake
Seriously pissed-off Mohave Rattler
 We soon came across another rattler, a biggest but slightly less dangerous Western Diamondback, equally impressive. On the return drive we found two baby rattlesnakes, one of each species, each less than 10 inches long and kind of cute. We also spotted (and captured temporarily) a Great Plains Toad.
Big guy-- Western Diamondback Rattlesnake
Isn't he adorable?! I think this a baby mohave
The next morning was our hike into Cave Creek Canyon to try to find Elegant Trogons. I've already written about this for The Eyrie, so I'll just link to it here.
Spoiler Alert-- We saw them!
Juvie Trogon
Cathedral Vista in Cave Creek Canyon
That afternoon we kept a vigil at the hummingbird feeders of Rose Ann Rowlett and Richard Webster, Portal residents and famous birders, to try to spot the Lucifer Hummingbird that had been seen there earlier. We got great looks at the stunning (one could even say magnificent) Magnificent Hummingbirds. But the "dawn-bringing" Lucifer Hummingbird was nowhere to be seen, living up to the other, more malevolent connotations of its name.

That night Dave Jasper again joined us for some owling in the canyon. While the first few spots were unproductive, we finally struck gold with a calling Whiskered Screech-Owl, a rare specialty of the Chiricahuas. Dave soon located the owl and we all got great looks at this excellent bird. At the next stop we made it a screech-owl duo by finding a Western Screech-Owl as well, which was a little less cooperative but still gave great looks.
Whiskered Screech-Owl
The next morning we birded the "road to Paradise," which leads, quite aptly, to the town of Paradise. The Palmer's Agaves, oaks and junipers held a number of birds that we hadn't seen yet on the trip, including my lifer Scott's Orioles and Bullock's Orioles feeding on agave, Virginia Warbler, Juniper Titmouse, and Western Scrub-Jay. A stop at the George Walker House feeders turned up some complementary Indigo Buntings and Summer Tanagers, both brilliant in their respective hues, and we spotted a gray fox in a field alongside the road. However, one bird that we had hoped to see, Montezuma Quail, was nowhere to be found.

We then began up the dirt road (at times crossing the portions of the road where flash floods cross were a bit touch-and-go, but both vans made it). The destination was Barfoot Park, near the highest peaks of the Chiricahuas and a much higher elevation habitat than we had seen previously. The area had burned badly the previous year, and we passed through areas that had been totally torched, but there was also a profusion of brightly colored wildflowers shooting up between the charred trunks of the pines.
Evidence of the fire
The strategy of "looking at things that cross the road in front of the van" paid off yet  again when we spotted a Greater Short-horned Lizard scurrying in front of us, our second horned lizard of the trip. They're awesome reptiles, and we continued the traditions we had established with the earlier horned lizard by posing this guy next to his field guide portrait, and rubbing his belly for good luck.

The lucky lizard definitely worked, because our first target pretty much found us-- a pair of stunning Red-faced Warblers that flew across the road in front of our van (noticing a pattern here?), then gave good looks after the furious scramble out. One of the prettiest of the southeast Arizona specialties, they're a small gray bird with a vivid red-black-and-white head pattern. They're also one of the trickier species to track down, and found nowhere else in the country, so we were all overjoyed to have the opportunity to see them.

The other main high-elevation target was tricker, but it didn't take too long before we heard the calls and tracked down some Mexican Chickadees, with their large black bibs and tiny U.S. range, in a gorgeous landscape of burnt pines and purple flowers.

When we reached the towering pines of Barfoot Park, we took a lunch break, ecstatic at our morning successes and also pleased to be back in the company of some Yellow-eyed Juncos, our constant companions in the Catalinas but present here only at the highest elevations. A Steller's Jay high up in a pine was the third jay of the day, and a first for me. We also climbed some trees. One disappointment was that the rare Chiricahua White butterflies were nowhere to be found, but everything else made up for it.

After lunch we headed back down the mountains, first stopping at the Southwest Research Station in Cave Creek Canyon, where there were lots of butterflies (Dotted Roadside-Skipper, Juniper Hairstreak, Common Buckeye), but no hoped-for Montezuma Quail.
We also found this Desert Grassland Whiptail
 In "downtown" Portal (a single store, no gas station), we found some nice birds, including a migrant Olive-sided Flycatcher, but we also found this sign, taunting us:
Damn Montezuma Quails
So with what was essentially our last opportunity for Montezuma Quail all trip, a couple of us campers spent our free time in the late afternoon in a desperate quest for the harlequin-headed beast. The calls of Dusky-capped Flycatchers, similar to those of our quarry, sounded all around us, fooling us on a few occasions. We  followed at trail from the ranch, but soon ended up well away from the ranch, on the low slopes of the canyon over Portal. After scrambling up a very steep cactus-lined "path," we were just about ready to turn back, but fell silent at the not-very-distant whistle of a Montezuma Quail! After some deliberation, we headed off the trail to try to find it, but were unsuccessful  and it did not call again. We turned back in two groups, and suddenly a bird erupted out of the grass at the feet of the other group. It we got only a brief view as it rocketed away, but there was no mistaking-- it was a male Montezuma Quail. We saw where it landed, but when we walked over the bird had vanished-- a testament to the elusiveness of the species. Still, we headed back to the ranch elated (and broke the bad news to those who hadn't joined us).

That evening, our last at the excellent Cave Creek Ranch, had two new birds for the trip-- Common Ground-Dove and Lesser Nighthawk. A night expedition did not turn up the hoped-for Elf Owl, but we did see a Couch's Spadefoot, a tarantula, and had some incredible stargazing (lots of shooting stars) untainted by light pollution in the empty desert. A very cool, if slightly disconcerting sighting so close to our beds, was a big Black-tailed Rattlesnake in the leaf litter by the side of the driveway as we drove back into the ranch for the night.
The spadefoot
Fairly self-explanatory, I think
Our time in the Chiricahuas had come to a close, but it had exceeded all expectations-- we missed very little, and what we saw we saw amazingly well. It was bittersweet to know we had to leave the next morning, but that was tempered with excitement for our next stop: the San Pedro River and the Huachuca Mountains.
One last Cave Creek Canyon Panorama