Camp Chiricahua Jun 29—Jul 10, 2016

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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The 2016 Camp Chiricahua was a very special one because it marked the 30th anniversary of VENT’s very popular youth birding camps. Kudos to Victor Emanuel for realizing the value of connecting young people to nature through birding and natural history study, and for making it happen through this program. 

A big change for this year’s camp is that we ran it earlier in the season, beginning in late June. One slight concern we had about the early dates is that if monsoon rains were late, we could encounter very hot weather. To balance that risk, we knew that night birding was likely to be better earlier in the season. As it turned out, not only did the monsoons arrive in full force, sparking the beginning of “second spring” in the deserts and grasslands (and dropping temperatures), but we also had some of the best night birding we’ve ever experienced on Camp Chiricahua! We recorded an amazing eight species of owls on this trip, and saw all but one of them (Great Horned)! It was equally exciting to record four species of nightjars, capped off by superb views of two perch-hunting Buff-collared Nightjars on our last nocturnal outing! Another memorable aspect of this year’s camp was finding nests of more than 20 species of birds, and recently fledged young of many more! As great as it is to see all of these special birds, it’s always particularly rewarding to have the more intimate experience of watching a bird at its nest. Some of the more memorable nests were of Northern Pygmy-Owl at Ramsey Canyon, Broad-billed Hummingbird and Hutton’s Vireo by one of our cabins at Cave Creek Ranch, Cordilleran Flycatcher under an old trailer at Rose Canyon Lake, Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher and Elegant Trogon in sycamore holes at Cave Creek Canyon, Bendire’s Thrasher near Rodeo, and lots of Barn Swallows above our rooms at the Stage Stop Inn. Yes, Chiri2016 will be known as the nest group!

Buff-collared Nightjar

Buff-collared Nightjar— Photo: Michael O’Brien


Our concerns about being early for monsoons were “put to rest” quickly on our first night of camping at Rose Canyon Lake. Looming thunderstorms grew closer and closer as we went to bed that night, with rain beginning around 10:30 pm. Loud thunder claps and close flashes of lightning kept many campers awake that first night, though a duetting pair of Great Horned Owls kept us company in the wee hours as the night sky calmed. The next day, monsoon rains developed much earlier, starting around 8 am, and the highlands were completely socked in. Fortunately, between our first afternoon and first early morning around camp, our sharp-eyed group had already spotted just about every high country bird we had hoped to see, including Zone-tailed Hawk; Greater Pewee; Olive, Grace’s, and Red-faced warblers; and Hepatic Tanager. So instead of hiking around in the rain, we decided to head downslope to the deserts around East Tucson and Saguaro National Park, where it was dry, surprisingly cool, and very birdy. On this excursion, we enjoyed sightings of Gambel’s Quail, Harris’s Hawk, Vermilion Flycatcher, Bell’s Vireo, Black-tailed Gnatcatcher, Phainopepla, Lucy’s Warbler, Black-throated and Rufous-crowned sparrows, and Scott’s Oriole. Most exciting of all, though, was an immature Common Black-Hawk, a surprise rarity at Saguaro National Park! That afternoon, a top camp highlight was a visit to Jo Musser-Kraus’s feeders in Willow Canyon, where swarms of hummingbirds (including Magnificent!), nuthatches, finches and other species provided amazing views and wonderful photographic opportunities. The delight of having such close views was matched only by Jo’s friendliness and hospitality.

Magnificent Hummingbird, juvenile

Magnificent Hummingbird, juvenile— Photo: Michael O’Brien


With a wonderful Mt. Lemmon experience behind us, we began our trek east toward the core phase of our trip, the Chiricahua Mountains. Another round of heavy monsoon rains thwarted a couple of planned stops along the way, but by the time we arrived in Portal, the rains had subsided and it would remain dry for our time in the Chiricahuas. Our home base, Cave Creek Ranch, was as delightful and birdy as ever, with such yard birds as Blue-throated Hummingbird, Acorn and Arizona woodpeckers, Dusky-capped and Brown-crested flycatchers, Mexican Jay, Bridled Titmouse, Cactus Wren, Curve-billed Thrasher, and Hooded Oriole keeping campers entertained during down time. And at night, Elf Owls prowled the grounds of the ranch, and were frequently visible around lights, hunting moths and other insects. Indeed, we could have restricted our field time to Cave Creek Ranch and had a wonderul stay! But of course, we explored many other areas. In Portal, just a stone’s throw from Cave Creek Ranch, we had wonderful views of a noisy pair of Thick-billed Kingbirds, as well as a very cooperative Crissal Thrasher perched up and calling. A bit farther up Cave Creek Canyon, we had close views of a pair of Montezuma Quail just off the roadside near Southwest Research Station (great spotting, Adelynn!), and had a wonderful encounter with the iconic Elegant Trogon along the famed South Fork Trail. In the highlands, we were able to reconnect with many species we had seen at Mt. Lemmon, plus the much-sought Mexican Chickadee and a spectacular duetting pair of Spotted Owls. In the San Simon Valley around the New Mexico border, we found a very different array of desert and grassland species, including Scaled Quail, Greater Roadrunner, Loggerhead Shrike, Bendire’s Thrasher, Cassin’s and Botteri’s sparrows, and “Lilian’s” Eastern Meadowlark. 

Cave Creek Ranch

Cave Creek Ranch— Photo: Michael O’Brien


After leaving the Chiricahuas, we headed back west to explore the Huachuca and Santa Rita Mountains. In addition to two new mountain ranges, this phase of the camp gave us our first exposure to riparian habitats, particularly along the San Pedro River and Sonoita Creek. This meant a whole suite of species that were either new for the trip or that we hadn’t seen well yet, including Black-bellied Whistling-Duck, Gray Hawk, Common Ground-Dove, Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Violet-crowned Hummingbird, Tropical Kingbird, Yellow-breasted Chat, Abert’s Towhee, Summer Tanager, and Varied Bunting. We took two wonderful hikes in the Huachuca Mountains. The first was up Hunter Canyon, where we were rewarded with nice views of the very rare resident Rufous-capped Warbler and several Buff-breasted Flycatchers, along with a nice mix of species in this transition zone between arid hillsides and montane forest. The other hike was a delightful 5-mile round-trip to Upper Ramsey Canyon, where a pair of Tufted Flycatchers had taken up residence for the second year in a row. Although the flycatchers didn’t show that day, there were many rewards on this hike, including prolonged views of Northern Pygmy-Owl at the nest, adult and begging juvenile Spotted Owls, echoing calls of dueling Canyon Wrens from either side of us, fledgling Red-faced Warbler and Hepatic Tanager, and a wonderful assortment of butterflies, including the spectacular Arizona Sister. At Patagonia, we visited two of the most famous birding spots in all of Arizona, the Paton Center for Hummingbirds and the Patagonia Roadside Rest Stop. Both sites were very birdy and offered good views of riparian specialties. But the Patagonia Rest Stop offered the most exciting find of this year’s camp–a Five-striped Sparrow singing on the hillside above the famous roadside picnic table! This species was regular at this location in the 1970s, but has not been seen there since 1981, five years prior to VENT’s first Camp Chiricahua!

Chiri2016 at the Patagonia Rest Stop

Chiri2016 at the Patagonia Rest Stop— Photo: Michael O’Brien


Of course, Camp Chiricahua is about much more than just birds. Throughout camp, we looked at all forms of wildlife, from birds to plants, to lizards and snakes, to mammals, to butterflies, dragonflies, beetles, and more. Our “critter list” was limited only by our resources to identify them! 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. And beyond wildlife observation, Camp Chiricahua is also about bringing young naturalists together, and watching strangers become lifelong friends.

A big thank you goes out to Leica Sport Optics, the American Birding Association, and Black Swamp Bird Observatory for co-sponsoring this camp. Also, thanks to Jo Musser-Kraus and Brian Gibbons for allowing us to visit their homes and enjoy their private sanctuaries.