May 05, 2007

Birding the Huachucas

On Thursday, Sonja and I took our first trip to the Huachuca Mountains of extreme southeastern Arizona. These mountain ranges, in the heart of the deep Sonoran Desert, are often called “Sky Islands” for the incredible variety of temperate mixed forest habitats they provide. They tend to be refuges for a huge number of migratory birds and resident mammals that normally wouldn’t be able to survive in the arid desert ecosystem. In many cases, they are also hot-spots for Mexican species that, for one reason or another (range expansion due to global climate change, straying off course during migration, etc) can sometimes be surprisingly common in the lush canyons cutting into the mountains.

While this trip didn’t yield a tremendous list of total species seen (41), we both recorded a good number of lifers (Sonja: 13; me: 9). We saw six different species of hummingbirds, three of which were lifers for both of us, including a Magnificent and a Blue-throated Hummingbird, both of which were almost twice the size of the more common Anna’s and Black-chinned hummers that we normally get at our feeders.

The undisputed highlight of the whole day, however, took place in the afternoon (normally not a good time of day for birding) on Fort Huachuca, an army base in Sierra Vista, AZ. After getting our day-pass (and a dirty look from the guy giving it to us after he noticed the “No Nukes North 2003 Peace Camp” t-shirt), we proceeded to get lost twice before finding our way past all the grenade assault courses to Garden Canyon, one of these forested valleys I mentioned. We parked alongside several large vans, then noticed that everyone piling out of one of them were wearing binoculars and carrying field guides. I overheard one member of this group getting directions from another binocular-clad guy from the other van. So I butted in and asked what they had seen up the trail. The group that was just finishing their hike had seen a pair of Mexican Spotted Owls about a half-hour hike up the trail from where we were standing. They doubted whether or not we would be able to locate them, considering they were have a very difficult time trying to describe where to look, but we headed up the trail anyway.

Once we got to the area they had described, we also began doubting whether we would actually see the owls. Searching a 100 yard section of trail scanning incredibly dense, jungle-like vegetation for a pair of non-descript brown birds that could be perched pretty much anywhere was beginning to feel like an impossible mission. Particularly once Sonja discovered that I neglected to ask what side of the trail the birds were located, not to mention how high they were perched or on what kind of tree. But I got lucky. Sonja decided to head up the trail a bit and work her way back while I lagged behind. I nonchalantly turned my head to look back down the trail when I saw them. Two large, nondescript brown birds perched on a nondescript branch, next to a nondescript rock in a nondescript part of the forest.

“Oh, there they are,” is all I said, trying to sound as casual as possible. Couldn’t let Sonja think that I had agreed with her that there was no way in hell we were going to find them. The birds just sat there, preening themselves and each other, while we sat on a couple rocks not 30 feet away and watched them. We stayed for almost a half hour admiring their beautiful plumage and the meticulous way they went about cleaning their feathers one by one. They were in the perfect position to get some amazing “through the binoculars” photographs…if I had remembered to put the camera in my pocket before we left the car. But the image of those two owls will forever be etched in my memory, even without the pictures I might have taken.

We did fail to find any Elegant Trogons, a species that can ONLY be seen (outside of Mexico) in these tiny canyons in this out-of-the-way corner of Arizona. Oh well, next time.

Here’s our complete list for the day. Lifers are identified by an asterisk (*) and either a P if it was a lifer for me, an S for Sonja, or both.

Turkey Vulture
Cooper's Hawk (on nest)
Red-tailed Hawk
Wild Turkey
Scaled Quail* (P, S)
White-winged Dove
Mourning Dove
Spotted Owl* (P, S)
Whip-poor-will* (S)
White-throated Swift
Broad-billed Hummingbird* (P, S)
Blue-throated Hummingbird* (P, S)
Magnificent Hummingbird* (P, S)
Black-chinned Hummingbird
Anna's Hummingbird
Broad-tailed Hummingbird
Gila Woodpecker
Arizona Woodpecker* (P, S)
Western Wood Peewee* (S)
Hammond's Flycatcher
Dusky-capped Flycatcher* (P, S)
Cassin's Kingbird* (P, S)
Vireo sp. (probably a plumbeous, but not quite sure)
Mexican Jay* (P, S)
Common Raven
Bridled Titmouse
Bushtit* (S)
White-breasted Nuthatch
Cactus Wren
Curve-billed Trasher
Northern Parula* (S - a little outside of its normal range…say, about 1,000 miles outside)
Townsend's Warbler
Wilson's Warbler
Painted Redstart
Western Tanager
Black-headed Grosbeak
Green-tailed Towhee
Great-tailed Grackle
Spotted Towhee
House Finch
Lesser Goldfinch

Our next birding trip will probably be to Madera Canyon to finally see the trogons plus a Flame-colored Tanager that’s been spotted there the last couple years. But we might need a couple weeks for Sonja to build back up her birding bug.

Oh, and we also got to see the world's largest asparagus. Well, that's not what the sign called it, but we think it was mislabled.


Patrick Belardo said...

Southeast Arizona birding.... *drooool*

Mexican Spotted Owl.... *bigger drool*

I'm way jealous. I did a bird tour to SE Arizona and those canyons were amazing. Fort Huachuca was closed when we were there though due to fires. We saw all of the species you mentioned except the owls! You should try to get to Beatty's feeders. I think they are near Madera Canyon. Also, there was a place called the Ash Canyon Bed & Breakfast where we saw Lucifer Hummingbird and Plain-capped Starthroat. I'm sure you'll make your way to all these places eventually. I'm going to fly down there one of these days and you can take me to see a Five-striped Sparrow. :)

P. Ollig said...

Heh, I gotta find one myself, first! We're hoping to make it to Madera Canyon sometime soon. I really want to see a trogon (not to mention the Flame-colored Tanager).

You're welcome down here anytime, my friend! We've been kicking around the idea of taking a trip down into Mexico to bird the Sierra Madre or Copper Canyon. It's still in the "idea" stage, though. It would be fun to go as a group!

Steve said...

If you do go down to the Sierra Madre - just remember the Federales don't always carry badges.

"Badges!? We ain't got no badges. We don't need no badges! I don't have to show you any stinking badges!"