Camp Chiricahua Jul 11—22, 2007

Posted by Rob Day


Rob Day

Rob Day became interested in birds and natural history at an early age. His fascination for birds started in Norway with the chance appearance of an elusive and striking pa...

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This camp, perhaps more so than the rest, made me remember…

Page 176 in the 1966 first edition of Birds of North America (retail price $2.95 at the time; eagerly purchased with my allowance money in the 6th grade)—the Southwest Hummingbirds page, lavished with illustrations of Lucifer, Rivoli's (now Magnificent), Blue-throated, and White-eared Hummingbirds…

UC Santa Barbara 1978; the Biology of Terrestrial Arthropods, a much-anticipated required course for a zoology major—I remember the stunning insect collections assembled by graduate students; the spoils of dream field-trips where only the elect could accompany the professor. Long before biologist E. O. Wilson would create the term and paradigm biodiversity, I remember the overwhelming variety of form, and the dazzling coloration and iridescence showcased in a particular collection where many specimens bore data and identification labels marked Chiricahuas…

I recall these episodes, both the stuff of a young naturalist's dreams, because I first visited Southeast Arizona with this awareness of the special nature of the "sky islands" already in place. The participants enrolled in Camp Chiricahua 2007 arrived armed with an impressive depth and breadth of prior knowledge and an eagerness and enthusiasm to match. Binoculars never drooped; energy and enthusiasm blazed from daybreak to well beyond dusk every day. Most impressive was the participants' desire to see and know everything we encountered in the field. While bird lists were important, each day was seen as a feast of plants, mammals, reptiles, and insects, as well as the desired birds of the Southwest and those restricted to the borderlands habitats of Southeast Arizona. I can genuinely say, and know co-leader Dave Jasper will concur, that the participants on Camp Chiricahua 2007 were among the finest young naturalists with whom we have had the pleasure to share Southeast Arizona since we started leading the camp together in 1994.

There they were, in the crystal morning light, rising like a massive blue island from the sea of the desert…And like islands, their climate, plants, their animals are as different from those of their surroundings as though they were isolated by the sea.

…each one also has its own personality, its specialties not shared with its neighbors; that is why…(they) capture the imagination of field biologists.

ROGER TORY PETERSON, Wild America, 1955

The Chiricahuas played out their many personas during our stay: iron desert heat followed by walls of cooling rain in the high country, bristling rock spires painted in pastels of lichen, desert scrub hillsides in dazzling light above, and leaves underfoot in cool canyon-bottom woodlands. We watched an Elegant Trogon pair in a border dispute with another male, and savored studies of individual birds farther up the trail. Mixed-species flocks allowed us many fine looks at target birds: eye level studies of Sulfur-bellied Flycatcher, Olive Warbler, Buff-breasted Flycatcher, and Arizona Woodpecker, often permitting wonderful digital portraits. Raptors were well-represented with scope views of perched Northern (Apache) Goshawk, an in-flight comparison of Short-tailed and Red-tailed hawks soaring above us in the open near Barfoot Junction, and a Zone-tailed Hawk in flight just above the treetops. Dave Jasper teased coy night birds into the open for many stunning looks at target species: Western and Whiskered screech-owls, Flammulated and Elf owls, and a wonderful study of a Common Poorwill (perched incredibly on top of a blooming agave). Spotted Owl fledglings, just independent of the nest, appeared huge when seen close and at length as dusk waned on South Fork Road. We took our time and studied the spectacularly large local race of Red Crossbills going unhurriedly about the business of feeding in the conifers at eye level, the territorial drama of courting Yarrow's spiny lizard males in resplendent colors atop Barfoot Lookout, color variation among Slevin's bunchgrass lizards (including excellent in-the-hand observations thanks to Haynes Warner), and the diversity of wildflowers and their menagerie of pollinators in mountain rock gardens.

I came to learn that worthwhile observations of birds and animals and insects were great in proportion to the smallness of the territory covered…To be a good naturalist one must be a stroller or a creeper…never a traveler.

WILLIAM BEEBE, Nonsuch: Land of Water, 1932

The Crescent-chested Warbler is an endemic of highland oak and oak-pine woodlands of the Interior Highlands of northern Central America. We took our time; the morning's itinerary included a leisurely loop around Silver Peak, condensing habitats from desert scrub to juniper woodland, to pine-oak woodland, to coniferous and riparian forest. After an early morning of relatively "slow" birding we reached the Turkey Creek junction on Paradise Road, hoping to see the bird. A tip from visiting birders from Germany the day before: a female Crescent-chested Warbler feeding young at the Turkey Creek ford where coniferous forest and oak woodland meet. The bird was surprisingly easy to find (thanks to the vigilance of David Whipple, aka D'whip). A careful study of the bird was granted us as it foraged unconcerned along conifer and oak branches about 20 feet above the ground. Digital photographs and much discussion followed, as did a visit to the Southwestern Research Station nature store where the plates in Mexican bird guides were carefully scrutinized.

While the Chiricahuas were a study of extremes, the Huachucas were serene (or maybe it was the always pleasant stay we enjoyed at the San Pedro River Inn, thanks to Walt Kolbe). The grounds of the San Pedro River Inn were reliably "birdy" with kaleidoscopic Vermilion Flycatchers, Gilded Flickers, Blue Grosbeaks, and Common Yellowthroats, and evening flights of Lesser Nighthawks, Tropical Kingbirds, and Barn and Great Horned owls on roost. With the inn as our base, we explored the San Pedro River and canyons of the Huachucas. A morning at Miller Canyon included a relentlessly steep hike up the canyon filled with morning bird song; mixed-species flocks to sort; a beautiful rock rattlesnake for participants who strolled their way back down the canyon; and the best studies of the fanning behavior of foraging Painted Redstarts and Red-faced Warblers had during the camp (I maintain that they are more brightly-colored here than those in the Chiricahuas). In spite of frustratingly low numbers, we managed to see most of the target hummingbirds: splendid Magnificent, Blue-throated, and White-eared hummingbirds displaying the nuances of their iridescence at Beatty's upper feeders, and a too-brief look at Berylline Hummingbird at Ramsey Canyon. An alarmingly magnificent thunderstorm, the most splendidly-colored black-tailed rattlesnake I have ever seen, sorting out the Gila, Sonoran, Chihuahuan whiptail complex, and returning to the inn each evening to savor the day's sightings after a tasty dinner made our stay here pass too quickly.

Our last day in the field was much more than a return trip to Tucson, with stops at the Patagonia roadside rest, Patagonia Lake, Kino Springs, and Miller Canyon in the Santa Ritas. Our rewards included scope views of Thick-billed Kingbird at the roadside rest, and a Yellow-billed Cuckoo feasting on tent caterpillars at Patagonia Lake; the aptly-named elegant earless-lizard in its thorn-scrub habitat; a male Varied Bunting feeding on the ground, allowing a full review of its unique coloration; a Rufous-winged Sparrow hanging-on in fragmented habitat below Miller Canyon; and Montezuma Quail crossing the road below the Santa Rita Lodge. As daylight faded into the colors of sunset and an evolving thunderstorm, male Varied Buntings mounted perches to sing defiantly in splendid thorn-scrub habitat along Proctor Road as thunder growled and curtains of rain muted the hard profile of Elephant Head spire. I was once again reminded why you are never "done" birding in the "sky islands" of Southeast Arizona: each visit doesn't really have an ending, tempting and taunting instead with last-minute surprises and under-explored habitats, and the promise of still more discoveries to be had. I know the participants of Camp Chiricahua 2007 will agree.