Camp Chiricahua Jul 28—Aug 08, 2015

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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This year’s young birder camp was packed with excitement, great birds, and amazing wildlife sightings. The Chiri2015 crew of campers will forever be known as the snake group. They were particularly good at finding snakes and turned up an amazing seven rattlesnakes of three species (all viewed from safe distances)! As in the past few years, it was another strong monsoon season, which meant lots of birdsong in the grasslands and high breeding success for a number of species. In particular, Montezuma Quail had another great season, and we saw or heard them on an amazing six days in a row! Despite the strong monsoons, our activities were hardly impacted at all due to weather. The biggest hardships we endured were a picnic dinner in the rain (under a shelter!) at Rose Canyon Lake and a brief road closure at Cave Creek Canyon.

Red-faced Warbler

Red-faced Warbler— Photo: Michael O’Brien

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. Some camper favorites included the whole camping experience at Rose Canyon Lake. This is always a great way to start off camp, and it’s especially nice to wake up on that first morning to such Arizona specialties as Greater Pewee, Buff-breasted Flycatcher, and Yellow-eyed Junco right at our campsite. And a little exploration of this delightful area produced another highlight—ten warbler species in one day, including Olive, Grace’s, and Red-faced! The Red-faced Warblers gave especially close views as they gleaned box elder leaves to feed on a hatch of aphids. At nearby Willow Canyon, we visited some private bird feeders (thanks Jo!) and witnessed a feeding frenzy of hummingbirds, some of them landing on our fingers! When we weren’t distracted by hummers, these feeders allowed close study of many other birds, and we were able to appreciate subtle distinctions between male and female Acorn Woodpeckers and adult and juvenile Pygmy Nuthatch and Hairy Woodpecker.

In the Chiricahuas, the pleasure of staying at one birdy spot (Cave Creek Ranch) for four nights was another camp highlight. Here, campers had down time to explore on their own, sometimes rescuing fledgling Acorn Woodpeckers from the bird bath, sometimes discovering interesting dragonflies or frogs, and sometimes turning up unusual birds like Violet-crowned Hummingbird and Gray Flycatcher. The whole Portal area is particularly good for herps (reptiles & amphibians), and we found a great diversity in the region, both day and night.

Gray Flycatcher

Gray Flycatcher— Photo: Michael O’Brien

Our explorations at night were a highlight for many campers. Various toads, snakes, tarantulas, kangaroo rats, and other critters highlighted our night excursions. And none of us will forget that Whiskered Screech-Owl magically appearing in a little cave of branches in Harshaw Canyon—we could not have had better views!

This camp features several hikes, one of which was in Florida Canyon. This year’s strong monsoon season resulted in particularly lush vegetation, which meant a little bushwhacking for Camp Chiricahua. But the effort was well worth it. This marvelous hike produced some wonderful butterflies and a fabulous diversity of birds. Bell’s Vireos and Varied Buntings were everywhere, and a few migrants like Pacific-slope Flycatcher and Wilson’s Warbler made it interesting to check out any passerine flock. But the real highlights were an amazing NINE Black-capped Gnatcatchers (one of which was visiting a nest!), and two Rufous-capped Warblers! Both of these species are very rare, recently established residents in Southeast Arizona.

Black-capped Gnatcatcher

Black-capped Gnatcatcher— Photo: Michael O’Brien




No doubt the pinnacle of this camp was our epic hike to search for the Tufted Flycatcher in Upper Ramsey Canyon. With Lower Ramsey closed, we opted to hike in from Carr Canyon, a nearly 3-mile trek each way. At this point, we thought we had left the highlands behind us, so it was a treat to reconnect with the likes of Olive, Grace’s, and Red-faced warblers, and Yellow-eyed Juncos, while enjoying a magnificent vista. We also had our best views of Greater Pewee, and found our only Red-breasted Nuthatches. As we scrutinized the area where the Tufted Flycatchers had been seen, our sharp-eyed campers turned up a Sonoran Mountain Kingsnake and Banded Rock Rattlesnake, two local specialties! And with a little patience, we located the Tufted Flycatcher by its distinctive call and happily enjoyed prolonged studies of this very rare visitor from Mexico. To really cap off this adventure, on the way back we had incredible looks at two screaming juvenile Northern Goshawks!

Chiri2015 at Carr Canyon after epic hike

Chiri2015 at Carr Canyon after epic hike— Photo: Michael O’Brien

Although it would be hard to top our epic Tufted Flycatcher hike, we gave it a shot on our last afternoon. For the second year in a row, Elegant Trogon eluded us in the early days of camp, so it was a bit of a déjà vu (for the leaders) to spend our last outing on a hike in Madera Canyon in search of this iconic Southeast Arizona specialty. Thanks to a tip from a friend about a possibly active nest site, we parked ourselves in a shady spot next to a sycamore-lined ravine and watched a stunning male Elegant Trogon magically appear before our eyes, carrying a huge insect in its bill! We watched this incredible bird come and go a few times, and could even hear the peeps of nestling trogons as the bird entered its nest cavity. What an amazing experience, and what a perfect way to end camp!

Elegant Trogon

Elegant Trogon— Photo: Michael O’Brien

As is always the case, one of the top highlights of Camp Chiricahua is watching young birders meet, and, as one camper put it so eloquently, “seeing faces change from strangers to friends.” For the leaders, it was a privilege to spend time with another talented group of young naturalists. The future of conservation looks bright with this crew at the helm!

A big thank you goes out to Leica Sport Optics and the American Birding Association for co-sponsoring this camp.