Saturday, May 17, 2014

May 16 (Day 136) - High quality Arizona birds

Southeastern Arizona might be my favorite place in the whole country to bird. It is incredibly beautiful, and there are always lots of birds - both common and rare - lurking about its many distinct habitats. The Chiricahuas, where I currently find myself, are just amazing. I am now at a fairly remote research station at 5400' of elevation. The nearest town is Portal, AZ about 6 miles downslope. Portal is little more than a collection of houses around a general store, so even that doesn't really count as significant civilization by most standards. The research station does have internet, but my cell phone is useless in this mountain range. Apart from the fact it makes talking to Sonia impossible, it is nice to feel that I am at least partially unplugged for these few days. 

The Chiricahuas are a serious birding destination; There are essentially zero unbirders here at the moment. Wait, I take that back. There are also some "herpers".  Herpetology is the study of reptiles and amphibians, so a person who appreciates and searches for these beasts is called a herper. Most herpers are really nerdy. Birders are way cooler. Don't even get me started on the myrmers ("mer-mers" as myrmecology is the study of ants) as they are completely crazy. Just joking, all these folks are great! On a more serious note, the group staying next to me at the research station studies bats. The point is that there is lots of wildlife in these parts, and the fact that most folks here have come to seriously enjoy nature/ecology means that campsites are generally quiet and trails are not like highways. The serenity makes birding here a real joy. 

The view from my cabin at the research station

Yesterday I added a lot of birds to the year list, but most of these birds were species that I would have found at one time or another. Today I was hoping to chase down some high quality birds specific to Southeastern Arizona. By birding the famous South Fork of Cave Creek Canyon this morning I was able to do exactly this. As soon as I turned into the canyon, I heard Elegant trogon barking away. A male soon appeared right over the road, and, despite a near meltdown as I tried to hurriedly assemble the camera, I was able to capture a decent record shot of this gorgeous bird. This bird is a classic Southeastern Arizona specialty!

 Elegant trogon #406

Two minutes after finding this guy, a Buff-breasted flycatcher made a very nice showing. As you can see, this is also a Southeastern Arizona specialty. This bird was quite cooperative on the photo front!

Buff-breasted flycatcher #407

Next up was Red-faced warbler. I found him singing away just 1 mile up the South Fork trail. Couldn't have been any easier!

Red-faced warbler #408

In the middle part of the day, I was able to tack on 3 more species: Hutton's vireo at #409, Broad-billed hummingbird at #410, and Black phoebe at #411. The hummingbird is an Arizona specialty, but it is usually very easy to find it by visiting any of the many hummingbird bird feeders people in this vicinity have put up. I was not able to photograph any of these birds.

My evening owl walk was also very productive. After receiving a tip as to the whereabouts of a Whiskered screech-owl, I headed out on the bike right after dinner to try to reach the spot before the sun set. I was able to do this, and just when I was about the throw in the towel, I saw two tiny ear tufts poking out of a hole! The bird stuck around for 10 minutes and took off right at last light. This is yet another example of how much help is needed on a Big Year. I did hear another Whiskered-screech owl as I was biking back up to the research station, but chances are the one towards which I was pointed by others will be the only one of these that I actually see this year. I used my bike light to throw some quick light onto this guy to grab this shot - ISO 6400 on 7D (had to do it!). I also saw an Elf owl on the ride back. Elf owls are only about 5" in length. This makes them about the size of a sparrow. They are the smallest owls in the world. Sadly, I did not get a photo of him before he flew off.

Whiskered screech-owl #412

I was also able to photograph a family of Yellow-eyed juncos very early this morning. These are probably the same birds I saw yesterday as they we in the exact same spot. There was not much light since it was so early, but I did manage to squeeze out one decent shot of two of them. Incidently, Yellow-eyed junco is another Southeastern Arizona specialty.

Fledgling (left) with adult Yellow-eyed junco

Looking at all of these maps should make it abundantly clear why Southeastern Arizona is such an exciting place to birdwatch. There are so many essential Mexican species that can be found in this area and nowhere else in the country. Tomorrow I will hunt for two more of these species, Mexican chickadee and Olive warbler, at much higher elevations. As a teaser let me just say I will be trading in my current touring bike for a mountain bike for the day!


  1. What do you call a naturalist that into everything? My favorite areas are birds and dragonflies although I quickly gaining interest in wildflowers. Other areas I have interest in are butterflies, miscellaneous bugs, lichens, mammals and herps. I have field guides for mosses, mushrooms and fishes and I may pursue these in the future. I used to be interested in astronomy but by the time night falls I need to go to bed. I'd like to get more opportunities for observing moths but as with astronomy my nighttime window is short.

    I can't think of any else to call a naturalist jack-of--all-trades than an amateur naturalist. But to earn that title you have to do more than just listing. I am slowly moving beyond listing with contributions of data to ebird, and a odonata database. I may start with ebutterflies once the season starts in earnest.

  2. Rumor has it Paradise cemetery downslope from you is a good place to try for Montezuma Quail. Mountain bike will be helpful to get there...good luck!