Dec
07
2016

Sonoita Creek State Natural Area/Patagonia Lake IBA, Patagonia-Sonoita Creek TNC Preserve IBA & Paton House, and San Rafael Grasslands IBA.

Hummingbirds and Moon Rocks!

Calliope Hummingbird by Tom Benson

Calliope Hummingbird by Tom Benson

Trip report by Craig Anderson for his Arizona IBA Big Year.

To date by the numbers, I have visited 19 Arizona IBA’s, traveled 4,636 miles, spent $885 (excluding gas), and camped 31 days. I’ve had four individuals accompany me on one or more trips and I’ve seen over 225 species of birds.

Sonoita Creek State Natural Area/Patagonia Lake IBA:

Driving into Patagonia State Park was filled with the anticipation of visiting an old and cherished friend.

I have known this park for over twenty-five years and now I know it as an IBA. I first visited the park to see the Elegant Trogon that started showing up on a regular basis along Sonoita Creek many years ago. Over the years, there were numerous quests to find new vagrants from Mexico – such as the Nutting’s Flycatcher. That quest was fulfilled late one afternoon after almost a full days search, sometimes crawling on my hands and knees trying to catch a glimpse of the bird that frequently taunted me with its song and evasive behavior. This was my second visit. I was obsessed with finding the bird that had eluded me and so many other birders in the park. I was one of the lucky few to spot the bird deep within the mesquite bosque.

Mountain lion by Frank Weigel

Mountain lion by Frank Weigel

I also frequently visited the park wishing to introduce friends to the unique and always surprising birding along the lake, sometimes with a peaceful late afternoon glide on the lake in kayaks. I will always remember a February trip with a friend when we woke up to two inches of snow. How exhilarating it was to hike along the lake at day break and be the first witness the fresh footprints in the snow left behind by deer, javelina, coyote, bobcat and … a mountain lion with a cub. Ours were the only human tracks in the mix.

Then there is the unforgettable and often retold trip in which a great birding friend and I came face to face with a mountain lion crouched just 20-25 yards off the main trail during a dawn hike. We took many pictures, one of which later I turned into a watercolor painting. Turns out, the lion had just killed a cow and was in the process of laboriously dragging it back into the bosque.  We later learned she was well-known by the Rangers and had three cubs that year.

It’s 4:47 A.M. on day one and I’m up and ready for coffee. We plan to be hiking the Sonoita Creek trail into that popular portion of the IBA by 6:00 A.M. So, we have time to wake up and have coffee and a protein shake.

One of the first things we notice as we start off are numerous improvements to the trail. There are new viewing areas above the lake and metal benches along the main trail. While the waterfowl have not yet arrived, they surely will before the crowds arrive during the upcoming Labor Day weekend. According to the Ranger, the campground is totally sold out and has been for several weeks.

It’s now official … there are several signs alerting hikers to the presence of mountain lions. The Ranger commented there are several living within the park. Deer, javelina and cattle keep them well fed.  One wonders, if an occasional small dog might also help sustain them. The Ranger said, “I hate little dogs and cats but I love our lions!”

My favorite bird, the Vermilion Flycatcher, was one of the first to greet us as the sun began to rise over the surrounding hills. Always looking for feathers, Terri brought to my attention a squared off, white tipped feather of a wild turkey. Once again, as the result of a chat with the friendly Ranger, Dan, we learned that the turkeys are doing well and have naturally moved into the area.

We circled behind the lake and then followed the creek for about another one and one-half miles. It’s been over twenty years since I’ve seen the area so lush and green. The creek has been changed significantly by floods resulting from the raging monsoon rains this season. Rocks, sand, silt and the stream bed have been displaced leaving only the most obvious and solid land marks to guide our walk.

The three and one-half hour stealthy walk yielded fifty-two bird species, three of which were added to our overall total IBA species list. As usual, we were challenged by some of the birds in juvenile plumage this time of the year.

Our next exploration within this IBA was a visit to the portion of the IBA below the dam. This riparian area is restricted and requires permission to hike it from the Ranger’s Office. In order to protect the area, only 30 permits are issued each day. This little adventure turned out to be the surprise side trip of the week and well worth the effort.  To bird this area, we parked at a designated area and then hiked about one-half mile down a steep winding road to the spill way. Because of the frequent rains, the lake water was up to the edge of the spill way.  We hoped for waterfowl but only a few American Coots, a pair of Pied-billed Grebes, a lonely male Mallard and one Double-crested Cormorant were in the area.

Hiking down the spillway gulch was a geological adventure. The side walls appeared to be a mixture of red volcanic and iron laden rocks while below our feet was a gray ash-like sediment mixed with pebbles. Along the course of the small steam flowing from the spillway were periodic small pools. The pools were lined with tufts of grass, small bushes and sometimes small cottonwoods.

Varied Bunting by Sergey Yeliseev

Varied Bunting by Sergey Yeliseev

It was about one-half mile down this gulch and while approaching one of these ponds that Terri and I both gasped at the same time. A pair of Varied Buntings flushed from the grass at the side of a pool and briefly stopped at a small arrow bush. After the male showed off his dark deep purples, blues and reddish nape, it took off followed by the very dull beige female. Hoping for a return visit, we sought a shaded ledge overlooking the small water feature.

As often happens if one is patient, our vigilance for the return of one bird yielded some other special birds coming to the pool. During the next fifteen minutes we observed several Rufus-crowned Sparrows and a Thick-billed Kingbird. The distinctive Black-throated and Lark Sparrows also came to the pool along with two Cassin’s Kingbirds, an Ash-throated Flycatcher and numerous Mourning Doves. Hiking back to the car we enjoyed Lazuli Buntings, a Ladder-backed Woodpecker, a flyover of a Great Blue Heron headed for the lake, House Finches and several Nashville Warblers.

This little side trip will always be a part of future trips to Lake Patagonia!

Sonoita Creek TNC Preserve IBA and Paton’s:

The first birds to greet us at the Sonoita Creek TNC Preserve where the Violet-crowned, White-eared and Broad-billed Hummingbirds at the feeders hanging from the eaves of the Visitor’s Center. After paying our entry fee of $6.00/person, we check the “Recent Sightings” board. We note the sightings of the Gray Hawk, Lazuli and Painted Buntings – all birds of interest. While just being on the birding trails is usually enough incentive early on a beautiful morning, having a few “special’ birds to look for energizes the search. The preserve gets special recognition because it is a “pollinator corridor”. Volunteers have painstakingly planted hundreds of milkweed, thistle and other plants to sustain pollinators. We noted frequent boxes for wood-boring bees along the trails.

A male, a female and a juvenile Vermilion Flycatcher are the next birds we encounter. My spirits are always lifted by the sight of a male Vermilion with its colors exploding in my binoculars as the bird perches facing the morning sun.  Terri and I follow the signs to the “Creek Trail”. This large loop trail follows Sonoita Creek giving the birder frequent views of the creek and its inhabitants. From scat and tracks it’s obvious that raccoons, deer, javelina, coyote and bobcat also make the preserve their home.

After only a short hike, we locate the Gray Hawks and a little further along the trail we come across a meadow of wild flowers and prairie grasses. The meadow hosted many Lazuli Buntings, Lesser Goldfinch, Green-tailed, Spotted and Abert’s Towhees, Common Yellow-throats and the bigger-than-life taunting calls of the Yellow-breasted Chats. We lingered here for thirty to forty-five minutes, discovering a new species every few minutes. This was our best hope for the painted bunting, but it was not to be today. One can’t be greedy however, having had the Varied Buntings the day before.

Violet-crowned Hummingbird by Isaac Sanchez

Violet-crowned Hummingbird by Isaac Sanchez

We finished the loop to the Railroad Trail. Also being a “railroad buff”, I’ve always enjoyed hiking along this old railroad bed of the Arizona and New Mexico Railroad. It operated from 1882 until 1962 hauling ore, cattle, freight and passengers from Patagonia to Nogales three times each day. The lush mixture of hemlock, scrub oak, cat claw, other bushes and flowering plants along with a small cienega make this a great habitat for thrushes, warblers and towhees. Frequently we got views of the large open meadows. We are hoping to get flycatchers and raptors during these brief stops.

After making the short drive from the preserve to Paton’s Hummingbird Garden we immediately appreciated the restoration and conservation efforts made by several Tucson Audubon members. A new water feature to the west of the old viewing area yielded the most unique birds.  It was at this water feature, while watching Violet-crowned, Broad-billed, Rufus and the diminutive Calliope Hummingbirds feed that I met a very unique woman – Melissa from Switzerland. As we shared the joy of seeing these birds revisit the feeders, I learned that she flew from L.A. that morning to specifically photograph the Violet-crowned Hummingbird. Within two hours of landing in Tucson, her camera literally buzzed while she photographed the bird, often exhorting sounds of child-like glee.

I was intrigued by her obvious passion, curiosity and surprisingly deep knowledge of hummingbirds. She often referred to “the bible” of southwestern hummingbirds, which I informed her was authored by my friend Sheri Williamson. She asked about other places to see hummingbirds and we discussed Beatty’s in Miller Canyon. I love people with curiosity, passion and respect for the natural world. Melissa does not stop at photographing birds. She like me, spends time drawing/painting as a way of learning more about them. This multi-talented lady showed me some of her favorite drawings of Anna’s Hummingbirds that frequent a feeder outside her “work window”. They were good!

Inquiring further, I learned that the “work window” was at UCLA. Only to be further awed, I learned this bubbly woman crushed “Moon Rocks”. Yes, literally crushes priceless rocks brought back by astronauts on the lunar missions. She uses a lab at UCLA and is under contract with NASA. Her current research compares the crystal structures of Moon and Earth rocks to better understand the formation of the Moon and Earth from a cosmic collision between a probable asteroid and the Earth.

Patagonia Lake by Alan Stark

Patagonia Lake by Alan Stark

Another of her interests in the natural world are “super volcanoes”. So, we discussed the known information regarding the volcano at Yellowstone National Park … interrupted only by the activities of the hummingbirds in front of us. We exchanged contact information as birders often do and a promise to share future birding adventures if in each other’s area.

The final objective of this IBA adventure was a visit to the San Rafael grassland IBA. While it is too early to see visiting wintering sparrows and waterfowl, the grasslands never looked better to my eye. They appeared healthy and robust, probably the result of this year’s abundant monsoon rains. The sky was unusually clear and the vast stretch of the grasslands extending to row upon row of distant mountains was humbling – bringing tears of joy and appreciation to our eyes. We will come back to this magical area this winter.

The proper way to finish off a trip to Lake Patagonia is to kayak it at dusk and/or dawn. At these times the lake is usually quiet. Birds and campers are settled. On both ends of the day, you usually get to enjoy the magnificent colors of an Arizona sky and the special peace it brings to your heart.

 

Dec
07
2016

Fliers, Flowers and New Friends – Pinaleno Mountains IBA July 24-29

Pinaleno Mountains by Patrick Alexander

Pinaleno Mountains by Patrick Alexander

Trip report by Craig Anderson for his Arizona IBA Big Year.

The title is very descriptive of this IBA trip. While the birds of the Pinaleno Mountains were our primary objective, one could not help but be amazed by all the other “fliers”. The sheer abundance of butterflies, moths, beetles, grasshoppers, dragon flies, lady bugs, deer flies, wasps, and varieties of bees would capture almost anyone’s attention – unless you were comatose or playing “Pokemon.”

Sympetrum flaveolum by Jean-Daniel Echenard

Sympetrum flaveolum by Jean-Daniel Echenard

No matter where I go, my eyes unconsciously search for flowers to appreciate. This behavior was probably learned by observing my Mother, Betty Leu Albright. She always noticed flowers, whether in a house, garden, on a highway shoulder, or a mountain meadow.

While we usually meet other kindred spirits on our IBA trips, this one was made special by “Craig’s Big Year” supporters, Lisa Santi, Mary Villarreal and Candace Kist, who joined Terri and I on this trip. I feel new friendships were given birth and know they will become even stronger on future adventures.

~ The Pinaleno Mountains IBA ~

Spotted Owl photo by USFWS- Pacific Region

Spotted Owl photo by USFWS- Pacific Region

This massive “Sky Island” rises from the desert floor just south of Safford, Arizona. The IBA includes 212 square miles with its most prominent feature being Mt. Graham that rises over 10,800 feet.

Some believe that the Pinalenos are one of the most bio-diverse ecosystems in the Southwest. Just referencing birds, it has Global IBA significance for the Mexican spotted owl and supports eleven other bird species of conservation concern including wild turkey, peregrine falcon, whip-poor-will and Mexican pygmy owl.

I can only imagine similar examples for other flora and fauna, and this will become even more apparent through the rest of my report.

~ Exploring the IBA ~

On the first three days of this trip, my sister Terri and I camped and explored with Lisa and Mary.

After gassing-up in Safford, we met Lisa and Mary at Roper Lake Road and Highway 191. A Dollar General store marks the corner.

We traveled south on 191 to State Route 366 – our gateway to Mt. Graham. While the road is paved for the first 22 miles, it is a tortuous mixture of hairpin curves, switchbacks, white knuckle drop-offs, and challenging grades. As we ascended the mountain, the views became spectacular but the driving more intense.  The driver dare not venture a peek for another hairpin curve is always just ahead and the drop is precipitous.

My goal was Hospital Flats Campground, so named because during the 1880’s, it served as a field hospital for soldiers from Ft. Grant to the West. Some 23.3 miles from Highway 191 and at 9,000 feet, the temperatures were comfortable and pleasing.

Traveling on Sunday, my hope was to get a good campsite at Hospital Flats. This is a fee-supported campground with toilets, tables, fire pits and bear boxes. The ten or so campsites are unique in that one must carry your gear from the parking lot some 30-100 yards to your chosen campsite.

As we turned left onto the Hospital Flats road, the campground immediately opened up. My luck held as we were able to select the “primo” site closest to the parking lot and toilets. As we got out of our cars, I heard Lisa exclaim, “The air is so crisp with pine scent.” Mary followed saying, “What an idyllic mountain meadow.” Terri was equally amazed, “Look at all those tall Blue Spruce trees. It’s like being with old friends.”

My heart echoed all of those sentiments.

It was during these first few minutes that Lisa revealed her passion for flora. She frequently took detours from unpacking the car to examine a flower. Before she left on Wednesday, she had identified over fifteen different species, some of which may be unique to Mt. Graham. Passions can go viral and before long she had infected all of us to look for a new flower not yet seen. It was difficult to follow the camper’s code – which is to immediately setup tents and a canopy.

Mary, we soon learned, was a naturally curious person. Her curiosity was catching as we all became curious about the “expansive meadow” and forest around us. Our first morning was taken up strolling through the crescent shaped meadow that stretched about one-half mile toward the Southwest. One thing I enjoy most about these IBA trips is being surprised by nature and this trip was no exception.

As we walked along the forest edge, we came upon a foraging mule deer. Something seemed different about the deer. Looking through our binoculars, we noticed its left ear was shredded and flopped comically. Scanning the deer’s body, I also saw long rake marks on its side and flank.  This calmly foraging deer, had somehow recently survived a mountain lion attack for it still had an angry open wound on its hind leg.

Moving down the meadow, Mary directed our attention to a flock of little brown birds. Their call was unmistakably that of house wrens. Upon viewing them, I identified them as the Western subspecies. What I had not seen before was approximately fifteen to twenty wrens together at the same time. Some were clearly adults and others, juveniles begging for food. Even though the juveniles begged, we did not see a single adult feed them. Rather, the adults jumped around from flower stem to flower stem pecking at the flowers and leaves. Upon closer examination, the flowers hosted many small insects. Where we witnessing a training outing to show the young birds how to forage?

Later that afternoon we met Dan, Melissa and Chase Duran. They were on a nearly 8,000 mile trek across the great southwest that originated at their home in Pennsylvania. Dan is a Professor at Tufts University where he teaches biology and ecology courses. We agreed to meet the next morning for some of Lisa’s peach cobbler and then hike the three-quarter mile trail that followed Big Creek and then looped back to the campground.

Osprey by Jim Sedgwick

Osprey by Jim Sedgwick

Dan’s knowledge of ecology was quickly made apparent as he shared it with child-like exuberance. While he was able to help us identify many wildflowers on the hike, his specialty is insects – specifically Tiger Beetles. A newly discovered one he found in Arizona is named after his wife. Lisa seemed in heaven as Dan and she frequently stopped along the trail examining one plant after another. Occasionally, the stops were accompanied by yelps and “oh-my-goshes” as they took cell phone pictures of some rare or unique species. Keeping focus on the birds, Terri fulfilled her long quest to see red crossbills which we had been hearing along the trail. She was finally able to add them to her life list. The hike ended with great appreciation for our brief friendship with Dan, Melissa and Chase.

Before lunch, we drove the arduous twelve miles from camp to Riggs Lake at 10,800 feet. The lake is stocked weekly with trout, so the few people that were fishing were occasionally catching trout. The lake was a restful spot but otherwise unspectacular. I was hoping for some waterfowl, but we only spotted one solitary coot. About one hour after we arrived, I noticed a peregrine falcon fly from the Northwest corner of the lake and disappear over the tall pines and Blue Spruce.

Looking back at the corner of the lake, I saw another peregrine sitting on a dead branch. Everything was quiet for about a half hour when a shadow on the water caught my attention. Looking skyward, I spotted an osprey circling purposefully over the trout-filled lake. As its expanding circle took it to the Northwest corner of the lake, the peregrine launched like a rocket and body slammed the much larger osprey. The impact almost caused the osprey to fall from the sky as feathers exploded from the collision.

The osprey was no match for the aerial skills of the peregrine who seemed to be able to strike the osprey from any angle. The chaotic twists, turns, and falls were accompanied by high-pitched screams. The osprey, usually a graceful bird, appeared awkward and after a few moments sought the refuge of the thick pine trees across the lake. The peregrine made repeated circles around the lake but seemed unable to locate the osprey. Finally, it gave up the search, made a final circle around the lake, and disappeared into the forest, again at the Northwest corner of the lake. Because of the aggressive behavior, I assume the peregrines had a nest somewhere near that corner.

The osprey used its hiding time efficiently. After about five minutes, it emerged from the forest across the lake. It flew over the middle of the lake, made a sharp turn and dove into the water emerging with a trout. As is its custom, it shifted the trout to be head-first in its talons, and with powerful strokes, it cleared the trees and headed southeast.

This specific type of encounter was a first for me. I’ve had some type of surprise on each trip.

Back at camp, the 2:18 P.M. rain shower was a surprise (even though we had expected it from the beginning of our stay).  We huddled under our canopy as the temperature dropped from 72 degrees to 64 in a few short moments. The shower was typical for this mountain, varying from a soft mist to an intense downpour. I forgot how loud thunder is at 8,954 feet. It left as quickly as it arrived leaving the air sweet.

On Tuesday evening, Lisa and Mary prepared a special surprise dinner for us. We learned that Lisa was a culinary apprentice at Christopher’s in Phoenix – and this lady can cook! She prepared grilled polenta topped with parmesan cheese, a mixture of cherry tomatoes, purple onion, and garlic. She also roasted potatoes, yams and onions and finished with peach cobbler using her home grown fresh peaches – yummy!

Wednesday morning, Lisa and Mary needed to head down the mountain and back to Phoenix. Our final hike would be the Snow Flat trail. Snow Flat was the site of a Boy Scout camp that burned down in 1960 and was not rebuilt. We were hoping the small pond would yield some birds but were rewarded with only two Black Phoebe’s.  However, there was an abundance of other “fliers” in the form of Mexican Amberwing and Blue Dasher dragonflies who darted chaotically over the pond. Their brilliant oranges and blues often catching the sunlight resulting in brilliant explosions of color.

The trail ran southwest down a narrow canyon. We became more optimistic about the hike as we saw red and yellow monkey flowers, wild geraniums, and one of the trips only soft yellow columbine flowers. The trail ended at a rock shelf that opened up to an expansive view on Bonita Valley some eight thousand feet below. While enjoying the view, a light morph Swainson’s hawk flew down the canyon and briefly occupied a dead tree above us before launching out over the valley.

Returning to the cars, we bid farewell to our new friends with some sadness for our time together was memorable and filled with many special activities and moments around the camp fire.

Riggs Lake by Alan Stark

Riggs Lake by Alan Stark

Thursday would bring us Candace Kist, an active Audubon Volunteer. She decided to join us for one day following a short stay at Roper Lake State Park. The plan for the day was to hike Big Creek, have lunch at Hospital Flats, and then finish with the Snow Flat trail. Because the trails were familiar to Terri and I, we were able to show Candace all the incredible flora and fauna we had discovered on these trails over the last few days. Pausing for a break, she noticed an Artist’s Fungus that was growing on the trunk of a dead tree. We admired this one for it was approximately 20-24 inches across (normally they have a width of about 16 inches).

Candace seemed extremely appreciative of the planned hikes, the nature around us, and our companionship. We bid her farewell and a safe journey.

Terri and I returned to Hospital Flats and a beautiful final evening for this trip.

While we saw only thirty-four birds, two were new to our species list. We also enjoyed the incredible display of butterflies, bees, and other insects. What could one say about the abundance of flora in the form of wildflowers, grasses, fungi and towering trees, some of which are reported to be over twelve-hundred years old? The diversity included some of the largest Aspens I have ever seen. In camp, we enjoyed watching several Botta’s pocket gophers constantly mend their mounds and dig new holes. Every morning, they seemed to clean house, pushing out dirt and old grass. Then gathering fresh grass to take back into their tunnels.

Finally, this trip was special because of the gift of friendship. Being with friends in nature restores my life force and affirms the importance of appreciating the beautiful existence we share.

Dec
07
2016

Chiricahua Mountains IBA Trip, June 12-18th, 2016

Chiricahua Mountains by Don Ehlen

Chiricahua Mountains by Don Ehlen

Trip report by Craig Anderson for his Arizona IBA Big Year.

Waiting for a trogon…

The blue-gray silhouette of the Chiricahua’s greet me as I leave Wilcox, Arizona at sunrise. They rise to over 9,000 feet and once again, I’m surprised by this massive chain of mountains. My anticipation to be in them rises just as the sun does. It’s been over thirty years since my last visit. The mountains remain ever present as I travel south on Highway 80 towards Portal.

As I reach the Portal turnoff, I noted something new, the Chiricahua Desert Museum. I detour into their parking lot. The sign says “Open 9:00 AM”. It’s 8:45, so I decide to wait and review my notes for Portal and Cave Creek Canyon.

My wait was rewarded. The Museum and Gift Shop were unique and very well-appointed with local art work of desert scenes and wildlife. In the gift shop, a cap said, “Buy me!” I’m usually adverse to one more cap or t-shirt, but this one I could not resist. The image, of course, was a brilliantly embroidered vermilion flycatcher, my favorite bird!

After paying for the cap and the $5.00 entry fee, I toured the museum. The small museum had a fittingly herpetological focus. Steve Prager at the Rio Salado Audubon Center would have been appreciative. It seemed they had live specimens of all the Southwest’s rattle, king, boa and coral snakes, plus some lizards. I was most impressed by two dark, large and very ominous looking Mexican Beaded Lizards.

Having enjoyed this delightful detour, my attention turned towards Portal and Cave Creek, the East side representatives of the Chiricahua Mountains IBA. Driving the road to Portal, I was astounded by the amount of development that has occurred. It seems many people have discovered this unique part of southeastern Arizona. I later learned that a robust astronomy community exists in the area because of the crystal clear sky.

As I travel past the Portal Store & Lodge into Cave Creek Canyon, I was reminded of the importance of this IBA. It encompasses over four hundred-fifty square miles of special habitat and includes elevations from 5,000 to over 10,000 feet. It is a Global site for the Mexican spotted owl. Birds of conservation concern are Arizona woodpecker, Montezuma quail, whiskered screech owl, numerous hummingbirds and the yellow-eyed junco. Amongst the birding community, it is a reliable place to see many Mexican migratory birds and the elegant trogon. The view of the Canyon ahead is magnificent!

I turn into the Cave Creek Visitor Center. The sign says, “Closed Tues., Wed. & Thurs.” Since its Saturday, I’m in luck. I need to get the current low-down on where best to camp and of course, “notable birds in the area”.

Magnificent hummingbird by Patty McGann

Magnificent hummingbird by Patty McGann

As I enter the Center, I am immediately greeted by Bob and Bettina Arrigoni, whom I will learn over the next several minutes are two uniquely passionate volunteers. Having retired early, they quickly perceived a need to assist National Parks, Monuments and similar places. I believe, they, like me, are very frustrated by the funding cutbacks made by our U. S. Congress. The cutbacks have dangerously reduced staff for the most basic of services such as road, trails, and facility maintenance, fire management, conservation, visitor safety and assistance. The Arrigonis are a generous hard working team that volunteer to complete any of the tasks mentioned above for which they have the skills. Of course, they also find some time for birding. Maybe volunteering at our National Parks and Monuments is in your future.

My first activity in Cave Creek was to complete a bluebird survey in South Fork for the Audubon Climate Watch. This very important survey is to gather data on bluebird migration and dispersal in order to assess the impact of climate change. Following the protocols, I walked the South Fork trail for 600 meters. I recorded no bluebirds on this transect but did report thirteen other species including band-tailed pigeons, Mexican jays and western wood-peewees for a total of forty-five birds.

I tent camped at Sunny Flat Campground. Did I mention that I had nesting elf owls, blue-throated and magnificent hummingbirds as camp hosts?

Sunny Flat has twelve sites, water and a toilet. Each site was clean and comfortable with a table, grill, fire pit and bear boxes. I gladly paid the Senior Pass rate of $5.00 per day for these comforts. No visits from bears but rangers reported a three year old male that frequently visited a large pool of water downstream. Apparently, it comes to play in the water and cool off. To date, it has not bothered anyone. I never got to see the bear but the location was a very good birding spot because of the pool.

At one time, a group of partners and I thought about purchasing the Cave Creek Ranch as part of our Birder’s B&B network, so I decided to visit the ranch and meet its current owner. The guest ranch is quaint, informal and a great location for lodging and wildlife viewing.

Reed Peters has owned the ranch for over 18 years and welcomes visitors to join his guests from 10:00 am – 4:00 pm for bird and wildlife viewing. A $5 donation is appreciated for feeding supplies. Reed established a very comfortable viewing area replete with suet, seed, hummingbird feeders and a water feature. I got over 15 species for my list during the short visit. Reed is a very congenial host and easily shares his knowledge and passion for the area.

My next adventure was to track down the rare slate-throated redstart. My first attempt was a dismal failure. Directions from other birders turned out to be misleading and omitted some crucial landmarks . This was very frustrating, given that access to the site is a very narrow, winding and bumpy mountain road.

As it turns out a “ticker” (serious bird lister) camped next to me had the best directions. Not surprising, since tickers are usually driven to get very precise directions for their next bird.

At dawn, I headed back up the road following his directions. I arrived on site at 6:15 am. There was no activity. Most birders described a pair of birds who seemed to be feeding young near a culvert on the right side of the road.

I was reluctant to play a recording since it was still early and the sun had not come over the edge of the mountains. I also assumed that birders had probably over-played recordings.

After waiting a few minutes, a stunning male slate-throated redstart appeared in a bush no more than three feet from me. It danced around the bush with wing flutters, head down and frequently fanning its tail. After a few moments, the female then emerged quickly returning with an insect to the nest. The male then joined her in this tireless feeding routine.

Emboldened, I decided that my next quest was for the trogons in South Fork. Trogons seem almost “mystical” for most birders. Some of my best birding memories with friends involved looking for trogons.

The most likely spot was about three-quarters mile from the entrance to South Fork. A thick mixture of very large and old Sycamores, Pine and Oak trees cover the road and clog the flowing creek close by.

Elegant Trogon by Dominic Sherony

Elegant Trogon by Dominic Sherony

The South Fork area is restricted from using recordings, so one must actively look for the trogons and hope to hear their calls. Having examined every hole and tree limb that looked like a bird along this quarter mile stretch, I decided to “Wait for a Trogon”. After about forty-five minutes, I heard the unmistakable squawking down creek. I jumped up and almost ran down the road toward the calls only to see a shadow streak over my shoulder, headed back up the creek. OK, I was a little overzealous and careless.

I walked to the other end of this stretch and heard a trogon calling off in the distance. Fearful my presence would drive the trogon further upstream and hoping it preferred its previous location, I decided, once again, to “Wait for a Trogon”.

After a few minutes, the calls seemed to be getting closer. I was perched on the railing of a small bridge. The call was now coming from a large Sycamore … right in front of me!

I methodically scanned the tree. You would think that the trogon’s spectacular colors would make it easy to see but instead probably helps camouflage the bird. At this point, I was wishing for the “birding eyes” of a former birding companion who had the uncanny ability to find this bird on previous quests.

The call was now loud and “In my face”. I was losing my patience “Waiting for a Trogon” but also afraid to move. My wait for a trogon, ended with an explosive aerial loop the trogon made to grab an insect. This time the trogon landed on a bare branch displaying its brilliant red breast towards me. It took a few moments to realize that I was holding my breath as this mystical bird contorted its head and large ringed eyes in search of another bug.  Then it made another aerial loop, leveled off and flew down stream towards its original location.

“Waiting for a Trogon” was successful and as I walked back to the car, I was still in a trance by once again having had the privilege of seeing this beautifully evolved and mystical visitor from the tropics.

Now for the “West side” of the Chiricahua’s. The next day, I arrived with much anticipation at West Turkey Creek and Sycamore Campground. In order to get here, I took the route from Rodeo south to the Texas Canyon Road and then across the southern tip of the Chiricahua’s. This road wound through grasslands, mesquite, juniper and scrub oak. I was hoping to pick up a few more birds common to these environs. Alas, I only added horned larks, northern harrier and the always appreciated loggerhead shrike.

There were eight developed campsites and no other campers. I imagined that would change come Friday and the weekend revelers.

Sycamore Campground and the flowing West Turkey Creek that bordered it’s northern edge, was the biggest surprise of this IBA trip. “The heck?”, you say. The campground was nestled under some very large and old pine, sycamore and juniper trees which showed signs of the devastating 2011 fire. The Forest Service cleaned up the site to make it available to campers and hikers.

Hepatic tanager by Mick Thompson

Hepatic tanager by Mick Thompson

After setting up camp, as is my custom, I took a walk along the creek to explore the immediate area. The first bird to greet me was a buff-breasted flycatcher! I haven’t seen this bird for a long time, so this was very unexpected. Later, I found two active nest sites. Two other unique birds for this area were red crossbills and a pair of hepatic tanagers. I also enjoyed pondering over house wrens in the campground. While their behavior and calls were familiar, something was different. I had ample time to study the bird especially during the afternoon. I made careful mental notes about the bird’s appearance, especially noting a more muted overall beige appearance on its throat and breast and a bolder eyebrow. Consulting my National Geographic Filed Guide, I read about a “southeastern Arizona” race, once thought to be a distinct species. I am by nature a curious person, so I get a lot of satisfaction from making this type of nuanced discovery.

The evenings were particularly beautiful because of the almost full moon and the gentle cooler breezes blowing in the canyon. I was reflecting on this entire IBA trip, the birds I’d seen and the adventures experienced, when I heard a western screech owl calling from across the creek. I immediately re-called a trip to the Chiricahua’s when my son Kurt was eleven years old. Within a few moments, I saw the silent, ghostly images of several westerns come into the sycamore above my head. Just as had happened with my son, the four or five owls be can a chorus. I ended my trip to the Chiricahua Mountains IBA with a “western sing-a-long” on a calm moonlit night. Life can be exceptionally good!

~ Epilogue ~

Virtually all of the Arizona IBA’s I have visited to date, have been impacted by drought, fire, possible overgrazing by elk and deer, abusive recreational activities and funding cuts by State and Federal governments. I can’t tell which is more disastrous. Fire and drought are more obvious. Reduced funding for conservation, basic maintenance and protection of our natural resources … less obvious in the short run.

My spirit is renewed by being immersed in nature, especially among birds. How can seeing an elegant trogon not soften your heart and spirit?

This trip yielded 69 species, some thirty-five plus species unique to southeastern Arizona. I added seventeen to the total year end count.

Dec
02
2016

Lower San Pedro Trip, May 17-20, 2016

Lower San Pedro River by M. Griffiths

Lower San Pedro River by M. Griffiths

Trip report by Craig Anderson for his Arizona IBA Big Year.

Volumes of Vermilions

This report must start with a GREAT BIG “Thank You” to Celeste Andersen, Nature Conservancy Manager of the 7B Ranch near Mammoth and also her Supervisor Bob Rogers, Manager of the 3 Links Ranch, a Globally Significant IBA site down by Benson. Both of these individuals graciously gave us their valuable time so that our visit would be successful.

Celeste not only coordinated our access to two private restricted ranches, she helped change a shredded tire on a very remote rocky road. This petite “can do” lady can handle a lug wrench, jack and shovel better than most men I know.

Vermillion flycatcher by Carol Foll

Vermillion flycatcher by Carol Foll

This trip represents Terri and I’s eighth IBA explored. I’m running out of “wows”, “awesomes”, and “fantastics”. Each IBA represents some of the most unique habitat in Arizona and therefore, places where birds are concentrated. To date, these visits have given me some of the “best birding” I have ever experienced. I know what you are going to say … “well duh”.

On this trip, we racked up a total of fifty-one species, nine new to our total count.

The Lower San Pedro is a deep green riparian corridor of cottonwoods, willows, mesquite and tamarisk that runs north from Cascabel to the town of Mammoth, a total of 59 miles. The Nature Conservancy has done a remarkable job to protect this corridor. Twenty-two miles of river property are in public ownership, managed by the Nature Conservancy or are under conservation easement or conservation management agreements. These owners have agreed to be acknowledged as partners in the IBA.

Our adventure started just east of Mammoth at the only public access point on the San Pedro. Here we met Celeste our coordinator/guide. This small preserve is off the “Copper Creek Road” and provides the birder a pleasant, mostly shaded walk,that loops through an intense Mesquite Bosque. Warblers, grosbeaks, flycatchers and a nearby nesting Gray Hawk wait to be discovered.

If you are adventuresome and your car and you can stand the “kidney stone” jarring ride, take the “San Pedro River Road” some sixty miles to the town of Benson. Or do it the easy way and take I-10 to Benson and then the same road north for about 15 miles. This stretch of the San Pedro corridor is interesting and productive. You will be struck by the obviously successful ranches, dairy farms and rodeo livestock ranches along the river.  Down here, we observed cattle are often rounded up by helicopter.

After meeting with Celeste, we followed her down the road to a locked gate. She unlocked the gate and we proceeded on a road that wound through an “Arizona Pin Stripe” thicket of mesquite for about one-half mile and ended at a small clearing, old cattle pen and water tank. As we stepped out of our vehicles, Celeste cautioned us about rattlesnakes which she says she encounters on almost every visit to the area.

She lead us down a very small almost non-perceptible trail to a wetland. The wetland is the result of an artisan well head that allows several hundred gallons of water per minute to reach the surface. The well was the result of exploration for oil many years ago. Most of the well heads in the area were capped except his one. While the water is 105 degrees at the well head, it quickly cools. This is a remarkable oasis. All you need to do is pull up a chair and watch the birds and other wildlife come to the water which trails off into the mesquite, grass, watercress and ferns.

Western Diamondback Rattlesnake by Nathan Rupert

Western Diamondback Rattlesnake by Nathan Rupert

We camped with Celeste’s permission nearby. We observed thirty-one species in just a few hours. The numbers of some species were quite remarkable. The trail camera that Celeste maintains showed that a mountain lion, a bear and bobcat had used the trail the night before.

Our first bird was my favorite bird, the vermilion flycatcher. It is a bird and its images that I have a mixed history with. This time, I felt it was a good omen for our trip. Then I got our first of several gray hawks. Strange as it may seem, the most surprising bird at the wetlands was a common ground dove.

At dusk, we witnessed about a dozen lesser nighthawks swirl through the clearing over and over again sweeping up the night insects.

Despite knowing that bears were in the area, we “owled” from dusk to about 9:30 seeking elf, western screech, great horned owls and the common poorwill. As is often the case, our efforts only yielded one great horned, no poorwills and no bears.

In the morning, before meeting Celeste for the trip to our next site, we drove to Mammoth for breakfast at “Mi Puebiltios” restaurant. This is a must for authentic Mexican food. The owner, Maria takes great pride in providing good food, service and “extremely” clean restrooms. Their homemade tortillas are out of this world!

We followed Celeste some fifty miles down the San Pedro River Road to 3-Links Ranch. This ranch is also “restricted access” with no public access. It encompasses over 900 acres including the San Pedro which is wet here all year. Some of that is probably due to the ranch having reduced its water use substantially.

Following a tour of the ranch conducted by Bob Rogers, Ranch Manager, he graciously offers us to camp under a large metal equipment canopy. It had been threatening rain all afternoon so we accepted. That proved to be a wise decision, as it rained during the night. We woke up dry and were quickly able to get down to the river at day break.

Our first three birds were willow flycatchers for which the site gets its “Global” rating and a gray hawk that glided low above our heads. This was the best opportunity I’ve ever had to study them up close.

Lazuli bunting by Andrew Reding

Lazuli bunting by Andrew Reding

Terri remarked as we waded from sandbar to sandbar, we are in a “birder’s paradise”. We were almost … I said almost, overwhelmed by the sheer volume and variety of birds. Vermilion flycatchers and chats alternated dominating about every ten yards along the river. Song sparrows were like a living carpet. As we advanced, they parted and then filled in behind us once we passed. Hooded oriole’s, lazuli buntings, Nashville and Lucy’s warblers, a nesting black-chinned hummingbird, warbling and Bells’ vireo’s were nice additions to our observations just to name a few others. Then there were the tanagers!

That afternoon, we returned to the river in search of kingbirds, warblers, flycatchers and the northern beardless-tyrannulet. We did get good looks at a bullocks oriole, Cassin’s kingbirds, a zone-tailed hawk and a western wood-pewee.

On our last night we watched the ranches two geldings and a donkey play as the sun set behind the mountains and the San Pedro turned grey under the rising moon. It was so quiet and we slept so hard we did not hear the deer come into canopy and feed on loose hay on the ground a few feet away from our tent cots. Only their fresh footprints testified to their stealthy feeding.

Our adventure ended too quickly but what a special trip it was. We are very grateful to Celeste and Bob for making it possible.

Dec
02
2016

Elk, Birds and Bears – The Mogollon Rim Snowmelt Draws IBA, May 9-15, 2016

View of the Mogollon Rim by Craig Anderson

View of the Mogollon Rim by Craig Anderson

Trip report by Craig Anderson for his Arizona IBA Big Year.

The bottom line: the snowmelt draws along the Mogollon Rim are well-worth adding to your high-priority birding locations. Allow yourself two to three days to be in the area.

This is our first trip to the snowmelt draws and it yielded 57 species of birds including two rare or accidental species – an orchard oriole and red-eyed vireo. We also got a high percentage of “expected” birds. Of course, many of these we usually only see if at altitude and in the right habitat – birds such as the red-faced, Grace’s and olive warblers, plumbeous and warbling vireo’s, violet-green and tree swallows and uncommon species such as the goshawk and three-toed woodpecker.

Pale Chanting Goshawk by Sean van der Westhuizen

Pale Chanting Goshawk by Sean van der Westhuizen

Our first impression of Rim Road 300, about nine miles north of the town Strawberry, is a light brown rutted dirt road winds through the tall dark green trees that seem to touch the sky.

About seven miles onto the road, we arrive at the Kehl Springs Campground. It is a beautiful location adjoining Kehl Springs Canyon, one of the several snowmelt draws we will visit over the next four days. The campground has nine well-placed sites plus a toilet but no other services. We had the campground to ourselves from Monday through Thursday. The Rangers indicated that the campground was usually available most of the summer as most campers go further east to camp at Knoll Lake for fishing. The campground was surrounded by forest and a large half mile-long meadow that was crisscrossed with elk tracks. We were cautioned to use bear-safe camping practices.

Setting up camp was a combination of practicality and birding. We logged eight species including the pine siskin, acorn woodpecker and red-shafted flicker. Later, we would find nearby the nest sites of the white-breasted nuthatch, house wren and common raven.  Robins and vireos sang to us while we set up.

“Snowmelt Draws” are narrow drainages that wiggle north (back) from the Rim. They accumulate moisture (snow in the winter) that results from the upward deflection of air at the rim face. Because of the altitude (7,400 feet) and the moisture, these drainages include a rich biodiversity. The habitat includes Ponderosa pine, Douglas fir, southwestern white pine, quaking aspen, Gamble oak, New Mexico locust and maple trees. The drainages were usually stunning meadows 200-300 feet wide covered with clover, grasses, wild flowers and small shrubs. Most of the draws also had small side areas that were often the habitat of particular bird species.

Our first night was spent in camp and the adjacent meadow owling and enjoying the wispy half-moon and the stars twinkling between the trees. Day two found us backtracking West to Potato Lake. The half-mile trail to the lake parallels a velvet green meadow. We started picking up birds immediately and had eleven new species by the time we reached the lake. The list included the dark-eyed juncos unique to the Rim and often referred to as “red-backed.” Pygmy nuthatches, western bluebirds, and western tanagers also added value to this hike.

Potato Lake photograph courtesy of Coconino National Forest Service

Potato Lake photograph courtesy of Coconino National Forest Service

Potato Lake is a small intimate place, ringed with aspen that I imagine quake and shimmer golden in the fall. The backdrop is a stand of oak and pine trees.  Sitting for a spell at the lake, we marveled at the swirling violet-green swallows and added a solo great blue heron who arrived and seemed familiar with the lake.

We returned to the area and nearby Potato Canyon a few days later for a late afternoon hike. After about a quarter mile into the hike, we started seeing frequent and fairly fresh bear scat. We of course had bear spray. Only problem – it was back at the car. We persevered, periodically blowing on our emergency whistles in order to warn bears in the thickets or just around the next curve in the canyon.

My sister and I acutely sensed the presence of bears around us and I periodically felt the hair on my neck bristle. We cautiously continued until we also encountered areas where bears had obviously torn up dead trees in search of grubs and where they had rooted the earth for tubers. In some ways, I was hoping for my first black bear sighting in the wild but all within us was screaming for us to return to the car. Not wanting to come across a bear that had wandered in behind us, we repeated the whistle routine until back at the car just as the sun was beginning to set. Reflecting on this experience, we felt very vulnerable and exhilarated at the same time. This is just one of the ways being in nature makes you feel fully alive!

Flammulated Owl by Kameron Perensovich

Flammulated Owl by Kameron Perensovich

Over the next two days we explored the draws crossed by FR 141H. This dirt road transects four awesome “Snowmelt Draws” between FR 320A and FR 123, approximately 3.5 miles east of Kehl Springs Campground. We hiked into these breathtaking draws getting most of the trips best birds, including the goshawk and at night the flammulated owl. One could easily spend three or four days just exploring these four draws, and I plan to do so on my next trip. It was while exploring these draws that we saw the most elk often moving like ghosts through the shady forest lining the meadows.

On our final day, we traveled several miles east to Knoll Lake in hopes of getting some waterfowl and to check out the campground. We added common mergansers and a bald eagle, plus scrub jays and a red-tailed hawk on the ride over. The campground had approximately 30-35 sites and some were able to accommodate groups. Toilets and water were also available.

The uniqueness of snowmelt draws makes them a must for my birding locations and I hope this visit to the IBA will generate a visit from you.

Nov
14
2016

Sonoran Borderlands & Lower Colorado River IBAs Trip Report

Photo by Matt Griffiths

Photo by Matt Griffiths

Trip report by Craig Anderson for his Arizona IBA Big Year.

Spectacular vistas, sunsets, the Streakbacked Oriole, and thousands of swirling tree swallows made this tour memorable. I now have traveled over 1,300 miles to visit seven Arizona Important Bird Areas and they have exceeded my expectations. I’m in awe of Arizona’s varied habitats and unique wildlife.

This trip began for my sister, Terri Ratley, and I in Organ Pipe National Monument just 76 miles south of Gila Bend. After living in Arizona for 46 years, this was my first visit to the monument. A nominal fee of $15/night was made even more economical with a senior pass. Venues exist for RVs, car camping and tents as well as for those interested in the solitude of remote camping. The main camp ground has 208 sites with restrooms, showers, water, visitor center and park ranger led programs. As usual, campers were friendly and interesting. Birders love to share birding stories … especially with a glass of wine around a campfire. Where and how to find the Ferruginous Pygmy-owl was the hot topic on this trip. Elf, Screech and Great Horned were easily observed.

A moderate round-trip hike of about two miles takes you into Alamo Canyon where a Peregrine Falcon hung on the updraft above a lava dome. At trail’s end were the remains of an old windmill and corral, symbols of the cattle ranching that once existed throughout Organ Pipe. On day two, we took the Ajo Mountain loop and hiked the Arches Canyon trail. Once again, a moderate hike into spectacular volcanic spires that twisted and surged into the sky. It is obvious that many birds and critters use the small oasis nearby.

Streak-backed Oriole by Dominic Sherony

Streak-backed Oriole by Dominic Sherony

Vistas are not the only things that greet the visitor to this magical landscape. Many desert species such as Curve-billed thrashers, Cardinals, Phainopepla, Cactus Wrens, Gnat Catchers, Abert’s and Canyon Towhee’s, Cooper’s and Red-tailed Hawks were abundant. Scat and foot prints along the trail also give testimony to many creatures that use the trail during the night. Arches is another canyon ripe for the diminutive Ferruginous Pygmy owl.

“Quito ba Quito” was by far the best birding site and one we almost passed up. We were reluctant because of the proximity to the border (about 100 yards) and the 13.8 miles of rutted dirt road. Hold on to your teeth fillings! There we found a small pond and a shallow winding stream about 200 yards long. Bedrock appears to force the water being slowly released from the nearby volcanic mountains to the surface. In short order, the Cottonwood and Mesquite trees yielded 15 species of warblers, sparrows, woodpeckers, doves and a calling Pacific Slope Flycatcher. This one-of-kind desert oasis added nine species to our count total.

Mittery National Wildlife Refuge IBA to the South was a surprise. Remote, “No Fee” camping under tall Cottonwoods and a light free night sky made our spirits soar. Because of our minimalist camping style, we had camp setup in less than one hour and birded the area until dark. The lake is a large marsh with some open water – next time, I’m taking my kayak to explore the winding waterways. Mittery yielded 38 species, 16 of which were new for our count.

On the lake by our campsite, we found the immature Common Loon that a park ranger told us about. This may have been the same Loon I saw a month earlier at Cibola NWR on the Colorado River to the north. An American Bittern was one of our best birds. Repeated attempts at rails only gave us the Yuma Clapper.

Tree Swallows by Michael Mulqueen

Tree Swallows by Michael Mulqueen

Nothing can compare to our last night sitting in camp chairs next to the lake. About 15 minutes before sunset, thousands of Tree Swallows came into the area. They swirled and twittered all around us, diving and just ever so slightly touching the water for insects. Often no more than a foot from us, we could feel and hear the whoosh of their wings. I have never been in the middle of such a dazzling spectacle. About ten minutes later, as we began to witness the most awesome sunset, they disappeared. Almost immediately, all was quiet again. As the gray dusk creeped in, 4 White Pelicans quietly glided onto the lake in front of us to fish.

Our next stop on the Lower Colorado, would take us to the East Wetlands in Yuma. Our target bird was the much sought after Streak-backed Oriole. We also continued our quest for the Black Rail. Do we seem a little greedy? The answer is “No”, birders are just a hopeful lot. After two visits, we logged 34 species, 7 of which were new. The Black and White and the Black-throated Gray Warblers were special treats during our first visit. The following morning, we were at the wetlands by sun up. We patiently and slowly walked among the very large Cottonwoods, Mesquites and Willows adding a robust Plumbeous Vireo to our list. No Streaked-backed, however!

American Coot by Teddy Llovet

American Coot by Teddy Llovet

Birder question: “When is a Coot not just a Coot”? As birder’s, we are often guilty of saying, “Oh, it’s just a Coot?” or another “White-Crowned Sparrow” and sometimes miss seeing something very precious. We had one of those moments when scanning the river. We saw a Coot. But this just wasn’t another Coot. It was a Coot carrying a fluffy chick tucked under its wing. Ahh … now, that was heart-warming and precious!

As we walked back to the car, our conversation concluded that the Oriole had left the area since there were no recent sightings. On the path by the “Scenic Overlook”, my sister exclaimed, “Craig … isn’t that … IT?” I turned to where she was looking. A brilliant reddish orange shape appeared at the top of a Cottonwood, accompanied by a mixed “chatter song”. “It is … IT IS … IT IS”, I proclaimed. We were able to observe the oriole for over 10 minutes as it foraged. It seemed to prefer the Willows moving from the top of the tree to almost the ground. We danced around each other and high-fived.

In hopes of finding a few more birds, we made a final pass along the dry river bed road. A Shorteared Owl launches itself from a large ridge and out over the river bed. The streaked chest and wing patches were clearly distinguishable. It seems only fitting that the last bird of the entire trip was a pair of Vermilion Flycatchers … my favorite bird.

Nov
14
2016

Joshua Tree IBA Trip Report

Photo by Jennie MacFarland

Photo by Jennie MacFarland

Trip report by Craig Anderson for his Arizona IBA Big Year.

If solitude and serenity are what you are seeking for your next birding adventure, Joshua Tree IBA (one of  Arizona’s newest important Bird Areas) is definitely a trip for you!

Two and a half hours north of Phoenix, off Highway 93 and immediately west of Wikieup, Joshua Tree IBA is like visiting the enchanted “Truffula” tree forest of The Lorax fame. The 30-40 foot Joshua trees are unique and spell binding with their variety of different shapes and twists. While the forest includes some open spaces, there are places where the Joshua trees are so numerous you can barely walk through them. Other parts of this mixed and robust desert forest include huge Juniper trees, Saguaro cactus, Spanish Dagger, Creosote,
Mesquite trees and numerous flowering plants.

I was joined on this trip by Terri Ratley, Arizona birder and adventurous camper. She was so appreciative of the opportunity to learn about Audubon’s IBA program first hand, that she gladly made a $25 donation to support the IBA program. The adventure started as we stopped for lunch at the rustic Wikieup Trading Post Restaurant. Angie, our waitress and local resident, enthusiastically shared her knowledge of Joshua Tree when we told her of our quest. She was surprised that the area she loves is now a designated “Important Bird Area” and destination for “Bird Watchers”. She came back frequently between serving other quests, to learn more about our desire to camp in the area. “It’s breathtaking and so quiet”, she said, and then asked in a concerned voice, if we had “four-wheel drive”, “It’s a must, there are some rough spots, especially if it rains”, she said.

Leaving our new friend, Terri and I followed her instructions to turn left off Hwy 93 just beyond the Chevron station. “Chicken Springs Road” was reasonably maintained but rutted and rocky; four-wheel drive sure smoothed out the bumps. After a couple of miles, we encountered on the right the white “Sign-In/Out” station. While there are no fees to enter, you must register your car, date in & out plus the purpose of your visit. During hunting season, the area is used by hunters seeking Mule Deer, Javelina, Gambel’s Quail and ducks that visit the ponds. ATV’ers are permitted to use the main roads and trails. “Offroad” travel is not permitted.

Cinnamon teal by Alexandra MacKenzie

Cinnamon teal by Alexandra MacKenzie

After reading the regulations, I prominently displayed the temporary pass from my rearview mirror. We then proceeded 13 miles toward the intersection with “Alamo Lake Road”. At the intersection stood a classic, large steel frame windmill, one of many we would see in Joshua Tree. The water tanks are owned by local ranchers, most prominently the “Bar S” ranch. Signage clearly says you are welcome to visit these areas but “on foot” only.

Most of these areas are short hikes to good birding. West of the intersection’s windmill is a stock tank where we had our first surprise – four Cinnamon Teal dabbling on the pond. We also observed Roughwinged Swallows swooping down to take insects emerging from the water, Turkey Vultures, Western Red-Tails, Cooper’s, three spectacular Harris Hawks and a single Wilson’s Snipe.

Looking for a campsite, we followed a rough trail that started just south of the intersection and headed west. It didn’t take long for us to find ourselves among big, bold and uniquely formed Joshua trees, along with massive Juniper trees, Yucca, Prickly Pear and Spanish Dagger. The land here is mostly owned by BLM and therefore offers remote camping without fees. There is no water or services. You need to be completely self-sufficient including trash bags for your waste.

Our campsite included a forty foot plus Joshua two feet in diameter and a massive companion Juniper Tree that provided some shade. We set up our minimalist camp that did include however, a “tent toilet”. I try not to leave anything except our foot prints, packing up all trash and waste. Other campers seem to share the same values as we saw very little trash throughout the IBA.

Our first birding activity was a dusk visit to the adjacent water tank. While the water tank and surrounding habitat provided some good birding, the stock pens throughout the IBA were the most productive. Around these, we got good looks at Lucy’s Warblers, Say’s Phoebe’s, Brewer’s, Black-throated, Whitecrowned Sparrows and numerous finches such as House and Lesser Goldfinches.

Our first night, while sitting around my gas fire ring, brought us what turned out to be the highlight of our trip … the trifecta… Great Horned, Western Screech and the diminutive Elf Owl. They all quickly responded to my playback of the Western calls. While the Western Screech Owls provided the larger and most sustained chorus, the Great Sonoran Desert Borderlands IBA Horned and Elf Owl could be heard periodically throughout the evening. A single Elf Owl responded to my 6:00 AM playback the following morning. The most striking event each day was the dawn chorus of Bendire’s Thrashers that surrounded our camp site. I found Joshua Tree one of the best places to study the Bendire’s behaviors and calls.

Elf Owl by Bryant Olsen

Elf Owl by Bryant Olsen

There are 78 resident and migrating birds listed for the IBA, 10 of which have conservation status. I suspect however, that as more birders visit the area in the coming years, more species will be added.

Persistent in our birding efforts, we were rewarded by getting most of the “conservation status” species along with many others. Owling at night along the road to our camp and visits to the adjacent stock pen was a special treat. We had a beautiful 3/4 Moon to provide light for our footsteps.

Over the next two days, we drove approximately 14 miles exploring the roads and marked trails. I was extremely pleased we had four-wheel drive as we often encountered rough and sandy spots. Occasionally, we had to back up, as the trail became too treacherous to proceed. We walked a total of 3-4 miles to the various water tanks and stock pens. There were only a few other campers in the area. Our closest neighbors were over a half-mile from us. We never heard them! The ATV’ers were respectful and usually traveled the main roads.

At slightly over 3,000 feet in elevation, I will visit this special Mojave Desert IBA many more times during October-May. It features easy access to remote camping, the uniqueness of the Joshua tree forest and good birding. The solitude and serenity provide what my soul needs the most to be renewed, centered and made whole.

Editor’s note: Joshua Tree IBA is also an excellent habitat for Bendire’s Thrashers and was recently granted Global IBA status because of this bird. 

Bendire's Thrasher at Joshua Tree IBA  by Dave Kreuper

Bendire’s Thrasher at Joshua Tree IBA by Dave Kreuper

Jun
27
2016

Craig’s Big Year Birdathon in AZ IBAs

Flammulated Owl chick at Mogollon Rim Snowmelt Draws IBA

Flammulated Owl chick at Mogollon Rim Snowmelt Draws IBA

2016 is Craig’s Big Year! Veteran Arizona birder and Audubon Arizona volunteer “Bird Nerd” Craig Anderson hits the road to visit as many of Arizona’s 46 Important Bird Areas – and see as many species of birds – as possible from March through December. Join him on his journey through Arizona’s wild places, and save birds at the same time! Important Bird Areas are protected habitat sites crucial to birds, and beautiful areas where the public can see birds and wildlife.

We’re hosting a “Birdathon” in connection with Craig’s Big Year to support our Important Bird Areas program.

Here’s how it works:

  1. Enter the Birdathon with a $5 participation fee – your name will be put in a raffle to win a great prize and you’ll receive exclusive updates about Craig’s adventures.
  2. Pledge per species to help Audubon protect their habitats. For example, if you pledge 10 cents per species and Craig sees a total of 100 species, your pledge would amount to $10.
  3. Finally, you can even join Craig on one of his expeditions for $25 per person (optional of course). All proceeds benefit the Audubon Arizona Important Bird Areas program.

    Craig Anderson

    Craig Anderson

Click here to participate!

Click here to read Craig’s blog!

Mar
23
2016

Searching for Cuckoos on the Coronado National Forest

by Olya Phillips, Bird Survey Assistant at Tucson Audubon and University of Arizona student

western Yellow-billed Cuckoo by HarmonyPlanetEarth

western Yellow-billed Cuckoo by HarmonyPlanetEarth

I am a University of Arizona student majoring in Wildlife Conservation and Management. After I took an ornithology class, I fell in love with birds. Before, I didn’t even notice how many beautiful avian species we have in Tucson. Soon I became an avid birder. I took it as an entertaining game. You see a bird and you test your knowledge and spotting skills trying to identify it. It became a sort of a bird bingo. It was so fun to be able to update my bird checklist. Even when I could not identify a bird from memory, I found it entertaining to go through my field guide and find the correct species. I do wish I had perfect photographic memory, but that would be too easy. Right?

After the semester was over I applied for an internship with Tucson Audubon Society. And I am so glad I did! I got involved in one the projects Audubon was working on at the time: Coronado National Forest Western Yellow-billed Cuckoo Surveys.

Deb Vath and Olya Phillips in Collins Canyon by J. MacFarland

Deb Vath and Olya Phillips in Collins Canyon by J. MacFarland

Right away I was able to go on surveys and assist with cuckoo detections. Jennie MacFarland showed me the ropes and patiently answered all of my questions.

With a permit from the USFWS and partnering with the Coronado National Forest, we were allowed to play a territorial call of a Yellow-billed Cuckoo in order to observe a visual or auditory response from the cuckoos in the area.

One of the surveys that stood out to me the most was one of my very first: Collins Canyon, Canelo Hills. Despite it being mid-August, the riparian area felt comfortably cool. The place was surrounded by dense vegetation and running water: a perfect habitat for many birds. It felt like a great morning hike on a beautiful trail, but it was even better than that because we were working on a great cause of outlining a preferred habitat for a Threatened avian species.

Collin's Canyon in the Canelo Hills by J. MacFarland

Collin’s Canyon in the Canelo Hills by J. MacFarland

During one of our first stops a female Elegant Trogon seemed to have swooped at us when we played a Cuckoo call. This example, along with other evidence led us to believe that there could be territoriality between the two species. Other interesting bird species that I was able to add to my checklist include: Northern Flicker, Mexican Jay, Bridled Titmouse, Yellow-billed Cuckoo, White-breasted Nuthatch, Spotted Towhee, Red-winged Blackbird as well as other equally great species!

Snoozing Racoon in cottonwood tree

Snoozing Racoon in cottonwood tree

We even spotted a raccoon having a snooze on a tree. Although he was pretty high up I was able to take a picture of him though my binoculars.

When we got back from our transect we met up with the rest of our crew at the Parker Canyon Lake. More than 70 Barn Swallows were flying around the lake. I also saw at least 15 nests each witsh 3-4 babies at just one of the buildings on shore.

A truly unforgettable experience!

Sep
16
2014

Grand Canyon National Park Dedicated as Global Important Bird Area

By Jennie MacFarland, Tucson Audubon Conservation Biologist

Dedicating the Grand Canyon Global Important Bird Area

Dedicating the Grand Canyon Global Important Bird Area

On September 13, 2014 the Grand Canyon National Park was officially dedicated as an Important Bird Area of Global Significance. This IBA is only one of fourteen Global IBAs in Arizona and the only one that qualified as Global for three different species. The highest profile bird that made this area a Global IBA is the California Condor. This well publicized species has had a high-profile recovery and was so critically threatened that at one point all wild individuals were captured for an intensive captive breeding program. That program was largely successful and there are now individuals living successfully in the Grand Canyon.

Tice Supplee and David Uberuaga

Tice Supplee and David Uberuaga

The Mexican Spotted Owl is the second qualifying species for Global IBA status found here in surprisingly high numbers. Over thirty nesting pairs have been confirmed by Park biologists and there are certainly others in the unsurvey portions of the canyon. They favor the shady crevices of the canyon and possibly forage for rodents in the small tracts of forest within the canyon or above the rim.

Martha Hahn, Tice Supplee and Jennie MacFarland

Martha Hahn, Tice Supplee and Jennie MacFarland

The charismatic third Global IBA bird that lives in the National Park is the Pinyon Jay. This lovely sky-blue colored jay moves around this area in large groups and was documented by citizen scientists using eBird.org and submitting checklists of where and when they observed flocks. The designation of this National Park as a Global Important Bird Area was a great example of different partners coming together for the greater cause of conservation of bird species and their habitats.

Grand Canyon NP Global Important Bird Area

Grand Canyon NP Global Important Bird Area

There were 70 people in attendance that helped us to celebrate this remarkable habitat and excellent IBA and the signs proclaiming this area as  Global IBA will be prominently displayed. This will help with further outreach by informing the many visitors to this international destination that such areas are beautiful to look at but also serve as critical habitat for many bird species, including those of high conservation concern.

Jennie and Tice at outreach booth for Wildlife Day

Jennie and Tice at outreach booth for Wildlife Day

Huge thanks to all who came out for this event, the excellent speakers who made the event so special and to all partners, including birders engaged in citizen science, that made this Global IBA designation possible.

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