Camp Chiricahua Jul 30—Aug 10, 2012

Posted by Michael O'Brien


Michael O'Brien

Michael O'Brien is a freelance artist, author, and environmental consultant living in Cape May, New Jersey. He has a passionate interest in bird vocalizations and field ide...

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In contrast to last year's severe drought and devastating fires, our youth birding camp in Southeast Arizona was met by a relatively strong monsoon season and remarkably lush vegetation. The "second spring" that monsoons famously bring to the desert Southwest in mid-summer was well underway. During our two-week visit to this incredibly diverse region, we traveled from the desert near Tucson to the "sky islands" of the Catalina, Chiricahua, and Huachuca mountains; to the riparian forest of the San Pedro River and Patagonia; and to the grasslands near Sanoita. Each location and each habitat held its own special inhabitants, and each held its own surprises. Our eager group of bright young naturalists dove right in and soaked up all that Southeast Arizona had to offer.

Banding at San Pedro House

Banding at San Pedro House— Photo: Michael O'Brien


From the very beginning, it was clear that this camp was about more than just birds. We looked at all forms of wildlife, from birds to plants, lizards and snakes, mammals, butterflies, moths, dragonflies, tiger beetles, and more. We made a focused outing one night to look for snakes and found four! And our butterfly and herp lists are nearly as impressive as our bird list. In our outings, we strived for a high standard of field ethics, helping each other see birds and other wildlife, while maintaining the lowest possible impact on the wildlife we were enjoying. We also learned the critical role that both water and fire play in this harsh environment. With ample monsoon rains, there were wildflowers everywhere, especially in mountain meadows that had burned last year. Post-fire regeneration was taking place quickly, and though the landscape had changed, it was still full of life.

Of course, most birders who visit Southeast Arizona can't help but have a "wish list" of Mexican border specialties. During our trip, we did remarkably well in finding these birds. Not all at once (as a few campers probably would have preferred!), but spread across the whole trip as we systematically visited each habitat. A few of these sightings really stand out as camp highlights, such as the Violet-crowned Hummingbird nesting right above our building at San Pedro River Inn; the "Mexican" Spotted Owl that we had perfect directions to at Miller Canyon; those night walks that resulted in good views of Elf Owl and Whiskered Screech-Owl; that first Olive Warbler in beautiful morning sun near our campsite at Rose Canyon Lake; seeing Thick-billed Kingbird and Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet (our biggest and smallest flycatchers of the trip) together at the Patagonia Rest Stop; seeing that first Red-faced Warbler from the van as we ascended the Chiricahuas; the much-desired Montezuma Quail that a group of campers flushed at Cave Creek Ranch; and our amazing and prolonged encounter with a family of Elegant Trogons in Cave Creek Canyon.


"Mexican" Spotted Owl at Miller Canyon— Photo: Michael O'Brien


Beyond all the "target birds," most campers had some very different trip highlights, such as having the opportunity to explore on their own; seeing shooting stars on a night walk; cooling off in a mountain stream; rubbing the belly of a rubber chicken (or maybe sometimes a lizard) for good luck; laughing all day long; and especially, making new friends.

A big thank you goes out to Leica Sport Optics and the American Birding Association for co-sponsoring this camp. Thanks also to all those who assisted us in the field, invited us to view their feeders, or took the time to talk to us. They included Bob Behrstock, Maya Decker, Brooke Gebowe, Dave Jasper, Jo Musser Krauss, Jack Pruitt, Rose Ann Rowlett, Heather Swan, Richard Webster, Jack Whetstone, and John Yerger. Camp Chiricahua was a richer experience because of their efforts.