Camp Chiricahua Jul 06—17, 2006
Posted by Barry Lyon
Like an invention with the potential to change lives, the debut of Camp Chiricahua in 1986 was an event of unprecedented significance. Young birders and nature enthusiasts, who previously held virtually no hope of meeting other birders in their peer groups, were suddenly handed a powerful gift that allowed them to find each other and share their passion for birding, nature, and the outdoors. Since that first camp, each summer has brought a new batch of enthusiastic kids, all eager to cultivate their developing interests, and all eager to discover the natural wonders of Southeast Arizona. Now, in 2006, the 20th anniversary of that first camp, we look back with great satisfaction on two decades of providing opportunities for young people to experience nature and take home memories that will last a lifetime.
Our 2006 Camp Chiricahua trip has to have been one of the best and most exciting ever. Featuring a super-talented and highly intelligent group of kids, we spent 12 days traipsing across the deserts and “sky islands” of Southeast Arizona. By the time we were finished we had logged 193 species of birds, 16 species of mammals, 14 reptile and amphibian species, 45 species of butterflies, and innumerable other insects. In addition, we experienced the vast open spaces of the southwest, and enjoyed spectacular scenery.
Our time in the Chiricahuas was unforgettable, and at times magical. Field trips to all the major habitats produced all the expected birds, while short lectures and presentations by VENT staff members introduced an educational component to our activities. The monumental rock formations that dominate the Chiricahuas proved a spectacular setting for exploration of the legendary Cave Creek Canyon. This beautiful canyon, a mecca for birders and naturalists for decades, produced some of the most exciting birds of the trip. Aside from the expected species, like Arizona Woodpecker and Dusky-capped and Sulphur-bellied flycatchers, we had intimate encounters with an immaculate male Elegant Trogon that lasted for at least 30 minutes, watched a family of “Apache” Northern Goshawks near a nest site, and were mesmerized by a family of Spotted Owls by day!
Local resident, guide, and naturalist extraordinaire David Jasper spent several days with us and wowed us by night with Elf Owl and Western and Whiskered screech-owls, and by day with Olive and Red-faced warblers.
Atop the Chiricahuas, at Rustler Park, we gained full insight into the “sky island” concept. Vastly different from the deserts and dry grasslands of the lower elevations, the forests and meadows of Rustler reminded us more of Colorado or Montana than Arizona. The premier event was our hike to the Barfoot Lookout, complete with higher elevation birds as well as Zone-tailed Hawk. A recent invader from Mexico, Short-tailed Hawk was easily seen by all atop the lookout, capping our high country birding for this trip.
The remainder of our trip saw us zigzagging across the deserts, mountains, and waterways of far southern Arizona. Based out of the impeccable San Pedro River Inn, we experienced several canyons of the dramatic Huachuca Mountains, en route to recording 12 species of hummingbirds. We journeyed to the Patagonia region for a very rare Black-capped Gnatcatcher, alongside encounters with more expected species like Gray Hawk, Violet-crowned Hummingbird, Vermilion Flycatcher, Thick-billed Kingbird, and Summer Tanager.
Time around the inn was amazingly productive. Campers were treated to Scaled Quail, Barn Owl, Gilded Flicker, Abert’s Towhee, Botteri’s Sparrow, and numbers of stunning Blue Grosbeaks. Also, we shouldn’t forget the Tropical Kingbirds nesting in the ranch yard!
The final day of the trip was an exhilarating rampage through the canyons and far southern deserts south and west of Tucson. A plethora of spectacular birds awaited us seemingly around every turn, with the likes of Montezuma Quail, Golden Eagle, and Varied Bunting offering thrills. A summering Rufous-capped Warbler in Sycamore Canyon was the highlight for many. A decision to visit California Gulch was immeasurably rewarding. Aside from a singing Five-striped Sparrow, the surrounding Sonoran Desert was rife with canyons and mesas, and was further characterized by a beautiful cactus and thorn scrub plant community.
Had the trip ended there we all would have gone home satisfied, but a late afternoon trip to Madera Canyon provided a rousing finale, as we viewed Rufous-winged Sparrow and a vagrant male Flame-colored Tanager.
Though the birding was magnificent, other facets of the Southwest were equally compelling. Afternoon monsoonal thunderstorms exposed the variety of moods of the mountains and deserts. Such concentrated storms produced spectacular sunsets, rainbows, and massive, rising cloud formations. Nighttime was time for the moon, which lit up the cathedral-like rocks above our campground in an enchanting mix of shadow and light, form and texture.
Southeast Arizona is a living laboratory. The impressive reptile and insect demonstration put on by Barney Tomberlin is a strong example of this point. Like Barney, other naturalists live in and love the Chiricahua Mountains for the same reasons we have spent 12 days there each summer for the past 20 years. The mountains represent the basic fact that nature is truth, and that time outdoors, away from our cities and homes, instills a spirituality and sense of values impossible to replicate in any other way.