Camp Chiricahua Aug 06—17, 2013

Posted by Michael O'Brien

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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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Southeast Arizona’s magnificent “sky islands” and the surrounding desert, grassland, and riparian forest have long been a mecca for birders and naturalists. The uniqueness of this area stems from the confluence of four major biogeographic regions: the Sonoran Desert from the west, the Chihuahuan Desert from the east, the Rocky Mountains from the north, and the Sierra Madre from the south. Each adds a different suite of species, and together they hold an astonishingly rich flora and fauna. We timed our camp for the monsoon season, or “second spring,” and a good monsoon season it was. Vegetation was particularly lush this year, and many species were in particularly good abundance. We were also late enough that migrants were plentiful. Armed with sharp eyes and ears, and field guides to everything that moves or grows, our eager group of campers set out on a ten-day exploration of this exciting region.

Red-faced Warbler

Red-faced Warbler— Photo: Michael O’Brien

We kicked off this year’s camp with a barbeque dinner at Madera Canyon, hosted by fellow VENT leader and Camp Chiricahua alumnus, Brian Gibbons. Along with a tasty dinner, Madera Canyon offered our first looks at some of the amazing birds that would become familiar friends by the end of camp. Magnificent Hummingbird, Acorn Woodpecker, Bridled Titmouse, Mexican Jay, and Painted Redstart all dazzled us that first afternoon, and welcomed us to Southeast Arizona! After Madera, we spent a couple of days camping at 7,000 feet at Rose Canyon Lake on Mt. Lemmon. Finding species like Broad-tailed Hummingbird, Mountain Chickadee, Pygmy Nuthatch, Red Crossbill, and Pine Siskin reminded us of the Rocky Mountain influence to this region—as did nighttime temperatures that demanded an extra blanket! However, we were especially delighted to find species of a more southern affinity such as Zone-tailed Hawk, Greater Pewee, Olive Warbler, and Yellow-eyed Junco. And we will not soon forget our hike at Marshall Gulch where we tallied an impressive 17 Red-faced Warblers, many of them exploiting an outbreak of tiny aphids on Box Elder. That same hike produced an adorable baby Greater Short-horned Lizard, and numerous interesting butterflies and dragonflies.

After a stop at Willcox, and a quick haul of 17 shorebird species, we moved on to the core of our camp, four nights in the Chiricahua Mountains. The Chiricahuas have a particularly rich diversity of plants, insects, and herps, which is why our home base, the Southwest Research Station, attracts researchers and educators from around the world. The experience of staying at this American Museum of Natural History facility was marvelous, not just because of all the wildlife present, but also because of all the interesting people we met. On our first night, we couldn’t help but stop at the moth sheet, which was covered with moths of every shape and size, as well as beetles—the Western Hercules Beetle was amazing! Birds were abundant right on the grounds of the research station, and it was particularly nice to have such yard birds as Band-tailed Pigeon, Blue-throated Hummingbird, Arizona Woodpecker, and Hepatic Tanager. And right down the road we enjoyed watching a Buff-breasted Flycatcher feed its young on the nest while two recently fledged Northern Goshawks screamed in the background. Our three quail day (Gambel’s, Scaled, and Montezuma) was a real highlight, as were sightings of such difficult birds as Bendire’s Thrasher, Black-chinned Sparrow, and Scott’s Oriole. We enjoyed learning local bird sounds, like the inhale-exhale song of Bewick’s Wren, the rubber ducky call of Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher, and the Cassin’s Kingbird that constantly called the name of one of our campers—“Abir!” When we explored higher elevations, we found mixed songbird flocks including Mexican Chickadee, as well as Orange-crowned, Virginia’s, Grace’s, Black-throated Gray, Townsend’s, and Hermit warblers. We also watched White-throated Swifts zip overhead at amazing speed, and discovered a Twin-spotted Rattlesnake near our picnic site. But some of our favorite moments in the Chiricahuas were at night when we would cruise slowly down the road, getting out to look at every snake, frog, toad, or mammal. On one occasion, we ran into a graduate student and watched him take some scale samples from a Western Diamondback Rattlesnake. On another, we were excited to find a Ringtail staring at us from a roadside tree. That animal obligingly remained for minutes on end while multiple passers-by stopped to enjoy the sight. Unlike most other parts of the world, when you go out at night in the Chiricahuas, most of the people you run into are looking for critters!

Southwest Research Station

Southwest Research Station— Photo: Michael O’Brien

The final leg of camp was based in Sierra Vista, where we had our first taste of riparian forest along the San Pedro River and Sonoita Creek. Some of the special birds we found here included Gray Hawk, Violet-crowned Hummingbird, Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet, Thick-billed Kingbird, Lazuli and Varied buntings, and Abert’s Towhee. We also saw an endless supply of lizards, and enjoyed some of the best butterflying of camp. Nearby ponds and wetlands yielded additional surprises, such as Black-bellied Whistling-Duck, “Mexican” Mallard, Tropical Kingbird, Yellow-headed Blackbird, and some very local dragonflies and damselflies. Towering above Sierra Vista are the Huachuca Mountains, home of some of the most famous birding sites in North America. Although the Huachucas harbor many of the same species found in the Chiricahuas, the clear highlight of our visit to this hummingbird-rich mountain range was our time in Ash Canyon. Additions to our hummingbird list here included Costa’s, Calliope, and Lucifer, topped off by a Plain-capped Starthroat! Thanks Bob and Karen!

As with any adventure, it’s always a little sad to see it come to an end. However, our final day proved to be one of the most exciting. As we were heading back to Tucson, we got word that a Blue-footed Booby had been sighted the previous day at Patagonia Lake, a location we had driven past that morning. After a series of phone calls and text messages, we finally got confirmation that the bird was still present, so we backtracked an hour-and-a-half, and got to Patagonia Lake a little before 5:00 pm. It only took a little bit of searching before we found this out-of-place seabird resting and feeding at the west end of the lake. We were a little late for our dinner at Jennie’s house that night, but nobody seemed to mind!

A big thank you goes out to Leica Sport Optics and the American Birding Association for co-sponsoring this camp. And a special thanks also to all those who assisted us in the field, invited us to view their feeders, or just took the time to talk to us and share their knowledge and enthusiasm. They included Bob Behrstock, Brian Gibbons, Jo Musser Krauss, Karen LeMay, Lee Rogers, Heather Swanson, Jack Whetstone, and Ed Meyer. Their contributions are greatly appreciated.