Friday, June 6, 2014

SE Arizona Day 3: Portal and Cave Creek Canyon

We awoke from our comfortable accommodations at Cave Creek Ranch on our third morning to Blue-throated Hummingbirds at feeders and beautiful views of the canyon. It was a rather leisurely morning as we didn't even head out until 6 a.m., which gave us time to watch the feeders and just enjoy being there.

View from Cave Creek Ranch
Cochise Co, AZ
May 21, 2014


Blue-throated Hummingbird
Cave Creek Ranch, Cochise Co, AZ
May 21, 2014

We had a number of targets for the Chiricahua Mountains, and as a way of ensuring that we got as much of it as possible, we hired a guide for the first day in the region, John Yerger of Adventure Birding. John is top notch is every way. In addition to being a knowledgable and well-rounded naturalist, he is a really friendly, easy going guy and an incredibly skilled birder who has a great familiarity with SE Arizona birding. He customized the day according to our specific target species, and we didn't miss a single one. I also felt like I learned a lot about birding just from being out with him for a day.

Our first stop was at Bob Rodriguez's yard, which is northeast of Portal and has an excellent feeder set up in the middle of extensive scrubby, desert habitat. Mr. Rodriguez is a great guy and he puts a lot of work into keeping this feeding station up and running. The place was loaded with great birds, and the highlight was probably seeing Abert's, Canyon, and Green-tailed Towhee together. We would later get Spotted Towhee, too, making for a 4 towhee day!

 Green-tailed Towhee
Cochise Co, AZ
May 21, 2014

After soaking up this place for about 45 minutes, John suggested we get moving back to Cave Creek Canyon. On the way, he explained that the deeper reaches of the canyon don't see the sunlight until a little later in the morning, so if you time it right, you can actually experience to dawn awakenings in a single day - the first out in the desert, the second back in the canyons and upper elevations. It worked out perfectly for us on this particular morning.

We drove up the famous South Fork of Cave Creek Canyon with a particular bird in mind. After parking at the end of the road, we took a trail south along a dried out creek bed. Less than a hundred yards in we began hearing this, the hoarse though quiet call of an Elegant Trogon! We approached quietly, and John spotted the female, then the male. And at last, I was looking at this bird I had dreamed about seeing from a very young age. With a bird this exotic, and with years to anticipate seeing one, it had almost taken on a mythical status in my mind. There are really no words to describe the time we spent with this pair. Here's the first look I had at the male, perched back in his lair, naturally framed by the surrounding foliage. Elegant indeed.

Elegant Trogon
South Fork, Cochise Co, AZ
May 21, 2014

It flew to another tree out of view, so I quietly worked down to the creek bed to see if I could get a look at the red underside. I positioned myself and stood still for a little while, when out of nowhere the bird came flying right towards me and lit on an exposed branch no more than 30 feet away! I couldn't have asked for a better view. I watched it a while, snapped a few photos, then watched it some more, then snapped a few more shots. And it just sat there, seemingly oblivious to my presence, all the while calling back and forth with the female which was behind me.


Elegant Trogon
South Fork, Cochise Co, AZ
May 21, 2014

Eventually he flew over to her and the whole experience got even better. It turned out this elegant couple was investigating a nest cavity in a sycamore. The female sat just outside the opening in the tree. The male perched on the side, then plopped right down in the hole. We could hear his muffled call coming from within the cavity, as if he was explaining the condition of the interior. Then she would respond with her approval or disapproval, and likely a reminder to check some another part of the cavity. It would grow silent for a few seconds, then he would call back. This went on for what felt like a luxurious eternity, yet it was likely only about 15 minutes altogether. Having had our fill, we left the birds in peace to go about their version of house shopping. It will undoubtedly go down as one of the top 10 birding experiences of my life. Here are the two together, with the male on the rim of the nest cavity.

Elegant Trogons
South Fork, Cochise Co, AZ
May 21, 2014

Other highlights from South Fork included an Arizona Woodpecker nest, another Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher, a single Grace's and several Black-throated Gray Warblers, and at the creek crossing we had a Painted Redstart flit about as we observed the gaudy spectacle of 4 Blue-throated Hummingbirds in the same view. And to think all these things felt like an after thought after that incredible encounter with the trogons.

Next we stopped at the Southwestern Research Station, which had a nice assortment of birds. This was the only location where we had Hepatic, Summer, and Western Tanager together. I also had a brief look at a bright orange tanager with white wing bars and a reddish-orange wash extending from its head all the way down to its belly. I keep telling myself I saw a Western Tanager wrong, but I can't shake the thought the all the field marks I saw added up to a Flame-colored. Try as we might, we couldn't relocate the bird, and I had to let it go. Sometimes that's the way birding goes! I think I developed a bit of a nemesis in that moment, and it is a bird I am now determined to see in the ABA area someday.

Blue-throated Hummingbird
Southwestern Research Station, Cochise Co, AZ
May 21, 2014

From there we continued to climb in elevation, eventually arriving at East Turkey Creek to find a bird that John had staked out already. We got out of the Jeep, he directed his scope towards a tree above us, and in no time at all we had a Mexican Chickadee coming in to a nest! The Mexican Chickadee can be found in only two locations in the United States. One is a private, largely inaccessible mountain range in New Mexico. The other is the Chiricahua Mountains. Even in the right region they are a difficult bird to find, and these nesting birds are the only ones we had - something we likely would not have had without a guide. A fantastic lifer.


Mexican Chickadee
East Turkey Creek, Cochise Co, AZ
May 21, 2014

While still at the same location, a little bird caught my eye nearby on the slope below us. I got my binoculars on it and called out "Red-faced Warbler!" John and my dad got on it and we had pretty close views, then it was gone as quickly as it had appeared. This was another bird that was high on the target list for us, and yet another lifer for me. Productive stop!

We continued on, birding the stretch from East Turkey Creek to Onion Saddle. In short order we picked up an Olive-sided Flycatcher that my dad spotted high up on an exposed snag, our first Steller's Jays of the trip, more Hepatic Tanagers, and another Scott's Oriole. John got us on my lifer Virginia's Warbler here too, which was much easier to hear than see, though we did eventually get some decent looks. While this search was going on, a Black-chinned Sparrow was singing from the hillsides. We tried to track it down to no avail. I was amazed at how similar it sounded to the Field Sparrow which I'm so used to back in Illinois. This is usually a bird found at lower elevations, but recent fires have altered habitats in a way that have driven some of them further up into the mountains. This was our only Black-chinned of the trip. We had great looks at an Arizona Woodpecker here as well.

Arizona Woodpecker
Turkey Creek to Onion Saddle, Cochise Co, AZ
May 21, 2014

Here's the view from this spot. I really fell in love with Arizona's rugged terrain on this trip.

View from near Onion Saddle
Cochise Co, AZ
May 21, 2014

At last we arrived at Rustler Park, which was the highest elevation we would reach in the Chiricahuas, and the shift in the flocks of birds indicated as much. Yellow-eyed Juncos littered the trail, and we got to watch a pair sparring/fighting for a little while, like little puppies wrestling. These birds are just so striking.


Yellow-eyed Junco
Rustler Park, Cochise Co, AZ
May 21, 2014

A little further up, we ran into a nice mixed flock which included our first Yellow-rumped Warblers (nice to see the much more attractive "Audubon's" after my fair share the "Myrtle" subspecies back in Illinois) and Pygmy Nuthatches of the trip. We had another Grace's and Red-faced Warbler calling here, too. Then came the last remaining higher elevation target for us: Olive Warbler! We got quick glances at a female, then later I tracked down a male that we were all able to see fairly well. They stayed way up in the confers though and had no interest in having their picture taken. Another lifer nailed. Other birds included more Steller's Jay and Cordilleran Flycatcher. The distinct metallic ringing of the Broad-tailed Hummingbird alerted us to its presence, and we happily watched it work its way across a meadow of mountain flowers.

Steller's Jay
Rustler Park, Cochise Co, AZ
May 21, 2014

Cordilleran Flycatcher
Rustler Park, Cochise Co, AZ
May 21, 2014

Broad-tailed Hummingbird
Rustler Park, Cochise Co, AZ
May 21, 2014

And with that, we had completely nailed every expected species in a single morning. I looked at my birdLog trip summary for the day to find that we were already over 80 species! We worked back down the mountain and got back to Cave Creek Ranch. While other lowland avian activity dies down in the mid-afternoon, birding at the ranch is still quite entertaining as the feeders draw a constant stream of exciting birds. John stuck around for a little while, then headed back home for the afternoon. We took it easy, finding our own little perch on the porch and enjoying the 27 species that came in and out over the next couple hours, which included my lifer Hooded Oriole and Juniper Titmouse. I'll let the pictures do the talking, starting with the view from right outside our door.

View from Cave Creek Ranch
Cochise Co, AZ
May 21, 2014

Bridled Titmouse
Cave Creek Ranch, Cochise Co, AZ
May 21, 2014

Acorn Woodpecker
Cave Creek Ranch, Cochise Co, AZ
May 21, 2014

Magnificent Hummingbird
Cave Creek Ranch, Cochise Co, AZ
May 21, 2014

Blue Grosbeak
Cave Creek Ranch, Cochise Co, AZ
May 21, 2014


Lesser Goldfinches
Cave Creek Ranch, Cochise Co, AZ
May 21, 2014

Bewick's Wren
Cave Creek Ranch, Cochise Co, AZ
May 21, 2014


White-winged Dove
Cave Creek Ranch, Cochise Co, AZ
May 21, 2014

Juniper Titmouse
Cave Creek Ranch, Cochise Co, AZ
May 21, 2014

Band-tailed Pigeon
Cave Creek Ranch, Cochise Co, AZ
May 21, 2014

I was shocked at this size comparison:

Band-tailed Pigeon with White-winged Doves
Cave Creek Ranch, Cochise Co, AZ
May 21, 2014

Band-tailed Pigeons
Cave Creek Ranch, Cochise Co, AZ
May 21, 2014

Bridled Titmouse
Cave Creek Ranch, Cochise Co, AZ
May 21, 2014

Cactus Wren
Cave Creek Ranch, Cochise Co, AZ
May 21, 2014

Broad-billed Hummingbird
Cave Creek Ranch, Cochise Co, AZ
May 21, 2014

Hooded Oriole
Cave Creek Ranch, Cochise Co, AZ
May 21, 2014

Curve-billed Thrasher
Cave Creek Ranch, Cochise Co, AZ
May 21, 2014




Black-chinned Hummingbird
Cave Creek Ranch, Cochise Co, AZ
May 21, 2014


Blue-throated Hummingbird
Cave Creek Ranch, Cochise Co, AZ
May 21, 2014

Western Tanager
Cave Creek Ranch, Cochise Co, AZ
May 21, 2014

Magnificent Hummingbird
Cave Creek Ranch, Cochise Co, AZ
May 21, 2014

Black-headed Grosbeak
Cave Creek Ranch, Cochise Co, AZ
May 21, 2014

And even after all that, we still had some time to kill before meeting back up for dinner and some night time birding. So, we first headed back to Idlewild Campground where there was little bird activity, except for yet another pair of Sulphur-bellied Flycatchers!

Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher
Idlewild CG, Cochise Co, AZ
May 21, 2014

Then we thought we would check out Bob Rodriguez's yard again because the lighting was better than in the morning. We had more of the same from earlier on in the day, with the excellent additions of Varied Bunting and Rufous-winged Sparrow.



Gambel's Quail
Rodriguez Yard, Cochise Co, AZ
May 21, 2014

These were some of our best looks at this awesome bird too:


Pyrrhuloxia
Rodriguez Yard, Cochise Co, AZ
May 21, 2014

Rufous-winged Sparrow
Rodriguez Yard, Cochise Co, AZ
May 21, 2014

We met back up with John for dinner at the lovely Portal Store, which functions also as a restaurant with some quality Mexican food. We ate here both of our nights in Portal and I found the chicken enchiladas "Christmas Style" (red and green sauce) to be my favorite.

From there we headed back up the canyon for some crepuscular specialties of the region. Lifers included Mexican Whip-poor-wills and a couple Whiskered Screech-Owls, one of which we were able to track down and see briefly in flight. The highlight of the night came from Idlewild Campground where we heard Common Poorwill, Mexican Whip-poor-will, and Whiskered Screech-Owl all sound off in a 10 second span!

By the end, we had over 90 species on the day, including 7 amazing lifers for me. A huge thanks to John for taking us out for the day!