Camp Chiricahua Jul 30—Aug 10, 2014

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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If we had to pick one particular theme to characterize this year’s Camp Chiricahua, it would have to be monsoons. For the third year in a row, our annual young birder camp to Southeast Arizona was met with a strong monsoon season, which meant a healthy “second spring” of breeding activity. Great news for the birds, and for us! But this year, heavy rain dictated our activities more than usual, and made for some interesting moments—like when we had to divert a torrent of rainwater around a low-lying tent at Rose Canyon Lake; or when we couldn’t leave Southwest Research Station due to flooded washes on either side of us; or any of several times that we went to plan B because plan A seemed likely to be unsafe, or at least unproductive. But we always did something interesting, and wherever we went, we often ended up bumping into Montezuma Quail. Yes, one benefit of three years of good monsoons is that there were Montezuma Quail EVERYWHERE! We saw these beautiful birds five days in a row and heard them on a sixth, for a total of at least 22 individuals! Those who have birded Southeast Arizona in the past know how unusual this is. The monsoons were also good for grassland birds like Botteri’s and Grasshopper sparrows, which were plentiful this year.

Montezuma Quail

Montezuma Quail— Photo: Michael O’Brien

Another theme of camp this year was hummingbirds. We saw an amazing twelve species, including such local and sought-after gems as Lucifer and Violet-crowned, as well as the very rare Plain-capped Starthroat. In fact, we saw three different starthroats! We also had nice studies of some of the more subtle plumages of Black-chinned, Costa’s, Rufous, Broad-tailed, and Calliope. And having numerous Blue-throated Hummingbirds as “yard birds” at Southwest Research Station was a real treat!

Our exploration of Southeast Arizona took us to the desert near Tucson, the “sky islands” of four different mountain ranges, riparian forest along the San Pedro River and Sonoita Creek, and the grasslands near Sonoita. With so many different habitats, we saw an outstanding diversity of wildlife. Of course, there were many, many highlights during our travels. A few that stand out: That Zone-tailed Hawk that soared right over our heads after we pulled to the side of Catalina Highway on only our second stop of camp! Or our time camping at Rose Canyon Lake, where we had ridiculous views of Pygmy and White-breasted nuthatches, Yellow-eyed Junco, and especially Painted Redstart as they hopped around our picnic table, at our feet, and even on our optics! Or our hike at Marshall Gulch, where we were dazzled by point-blank views of Red-faced Warbler and shocked by two soaring Short-tailed Hawks! Or the simple pleasures of birding the “yard” at Southwest Research Station, home to the likes of Blue-throated Hummingbird, Arizona Woodpecker, Say’s Phoebe, Hooded Oriole, and Hepatic Tanager.

Spotted Owl

Spotted Owl— Photo: Michael O’Brien

Or finding that Mexican Chickadee at East Turkey Creek right before it began pouring rain and we were forced to retreat downhill. Or that impromptu stop at Ned Hall Park in Rodeo that turned into excellent studies of nesting Bendire’s Thrashers, plus a bonus Crissal Thrasher perched on a distant shrub (lifer for Jennie!). Or all of our night drives, which were wetter than ideal for snakes and mammals, but great for frogs and toads, and apparently good for scorpions too (it was fun having that black light!). Or the hike up Miller Canyon which ended in amazing and prolonged studies of a roosting Spotted Owl. Or the hike up Ramsey Canyon where we saw our first Violet-crowned Hummingbird, finally had good views of Canyon Wren, took selfies with several Arizona Sisters perched on our fingertips, and had a close encounter with a Sonoran Mountain Kingsnake! And then there was our entire last day. It started with a breathtaking early morning drive through Box Canyon, followed by a wonderful hike up Florida Canyon where we were successful in finding both Black-capped Gnatcatcher and Rufous-capped Warbler, plus a wonderful array of butterflies. Then to Madera Canyon, where a quick stop at Santa Rita Lodge got us our second and third Plain-capped Starthroats, followed by a long hike up Carrie Nation Trail where we finally managed to track down an Elegant Trogon.

From the leaders’ perspective, it was a privilege to spend time with this amazingly talented group of young naturalists. We were wowed by a high level of knowledge and field skills, some amazing artwork, the incredibly creative and skilled “Pish & Twitch” performances, and an outstandingly considerate, friendly, and good-natured group. We ended camp with smiles, hugs, a few tears, and memories to last a lifetime.

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 Bob Behrstock and Karen LeMay for hosting us at their home, and Heather Swanson and Jack Whetstone for providing us with a songbird banding demonstration. Their generosity is greatly appreciated.