Buff-collared Nightjars are obviously named if you see one in the field or take the more likely route of looking in a field guide or simply going to Google. These birds are at the very northern limit of their range in Arizona, and seeking them out in new places in places where they haven't been discovered yet is always of high interest. Even though the nighjars are found in a variety of habitats further south throughout their main Mexico distribution, they are tied into a much more limited habitat choice in southern Arizona. Most records come from dry canyon bottoms above 3000' and up to 4500' in midst of steep surrounding slopes within deserts or along drainage areas that feature some riparian habitats that have mesquite, hackberry, and oak trees nearby. Caleb set his eyes on a place that is called Ranch Creek. The creek is east of Globe and is on the western edge of the San Carlos Indian Reservation. Looking at maps, Caleb realized that the habitat and elevations were similar to the habitats where Buff-collared Nightjars are typically found in southeastern Arizona. While I had some places in mind south of Globe along State Highway 77, this place that Caleb had located seemed like a better option.
July 18th was an odd day. Caleb and I planned to trek over to Ranch Creek after I would get off of work in the afternoon. It was a Thursday, and for some odd reason I thought I had to work early in the morning that day. I went into work only to find out that I was off for the day and that I mis-read my schedule, and by the time I told Caleb I actually had the day off, he made plans for the first half of the day. That point in time was one of my dumbest, but in the early afternoon, we made our way towards Globe and Ranch Creek. After purchasing recreational permits for the Indian Reservation, we made our way south down a rough road that eventually paralleled Ranch Creek for most of it's entirety. Ranch Creek Road got rougher and rougher as we continued south. Caleb's Suburu has a lot of muscle to it and can endure a lot of rough terrain. Whenever we would cross a dry Ranch Creek, I was concerned for the vehicle. It got to a point where Caleb parked the car and we would decide to walk south for up to three miles to explore the creek. In the beginning stretches of the creek and it's riparian habitat of sycamore, cottonwood, and willow, we were greeted by a Zone-tailed Hawk.
Seeing Ranch Creek in person was better than it was on Google Maps, and Caleb was absolutely right that the habitat looked great for the potential in Buff-collared Nightjar. We thought it also looked great for Varied Bunting, a species that we would have have had a much better chance at finding in the early morning hours or in the middle of a good monsoon season. Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet was another bird that we thought would be present as we came up upon stands of healthy mesquite bosque with surrounding hackberry and desert vegetation along the sycamore and cottonwood riparian habitat in the creek. It didn't take long before we heard the distinctive call of the tiny flycatcher, and it was a Gila County lifer for Caleb. Ranch Creek was a fun place to bird during the remaining hours of daylight, and we had a variety of birds that included Cooper's Hawk, Vermilion Flycatcher, Cassin's Kingbird, Brown-crested Flycatcher, Bushtit, Woodhouse's Scrub-Jay, Bridled and Juniper Titmice, Crissal Thrasher, Canyon and Rock Wrens, Canyon Towhee, Hooded Oriole, Lucy's Warbler, Yellow Warbler, Summer Tanager, Blue Grosbeak, Rufous-crowned Sparrow and most of the common Sonoran desert birds. Caleb also flushed up a surprise in his first Barn Owl for Gila County.
Ranch Creek Scenes
After a good hike, we returned to the vehicle at dusk. Caleb planned it out perfectly (so did the rough road too, I guess) that we would go through what looked to be the best habitat for any potential Buff-collared Nightjars on our return drive north and out of Ranch Creek. Common Poorwills didn't hesitate to sound off immediately as it got dark. From the start, Caleb played the calls of Buff-collared Nightjar out loud by placing a speaker on his vehicle. The sound carried for distance aplenty, and we hoped it would be answered. We made stop after stop, and we weren't able to locate any Buff-collared Nightjars in close to two hours of nocturnal birding. Neither of us had hopes that went too high for the species, but at the same time, it was extremely awesome to try. It was also great to explore a new area that has probably rarely ever been birded. You can't win if you don't play, right? On the other hand, we did detect 12 Western Screech-Owls, 2 Great Horned Owls, an Elf Owl, and 4 Common Poorwills. The first former of those night birds had several individuals that wanted to chill with us and perhaps they had always wanted to see a Buff-collared Nightjar in Gila County too.
Elf Owls were present at our camp out along Highway 77, south of Globe and north of the small town of Winkelman. July 19th was the day, and we planned to venture south along the Gila River north of Winkelman before looking for Gila County rarities in Mississippi Kite, Black Vulture, and Varied Bunting and we would then visit the high elevations of the Pinal Mountains in the second half of the day. Before the temperatures in this lowland habitat would hit triple digits, we birded along the recreation sites and riparian habitat at the Gila River. Gray Hawks were a cool highlight, as was a heard-only Willow Flycatcher and Yellow-billed Cuckoo. We didn't detect any Varied Buntings, which I've only found once along this stretch in 2017.
In Gila County, Black Vulture and Mississippi Kite are two "you can't win if you don't play"-kind've-birds. There are several records of Black Vulture in Gila County, most of which are from the town limits of Winkelman or just barely north of Winkelman while birders have been traveling on Highway 77. I had tried for the bird a handful of times, and it managed to elude me. Mississippi Kite is one that used to be reliable in Gila County in the town of Winkelman, especially on the public golf course in town. From what I've heard, birders in the past used to be able to see the kites pretty easily, and often at times without having to get out of their vehicles. Since then, they have declined in the area, but have been recorded breeding just to the south along the San Pedro River adjacent to the town of Dudleyville. Looking at eBird, the last Gila County sighting of the kite was from Ed Dunn in June of 2015. I still think the Kites visit the area, but are a species one has to make regular visits for in order to obtain a sighting. Our stakes were definitely higher to see a Black Vulture out of the two, and as we got to Winkelman mid-morning, Winkelman Flats Park was our first visit. Immediately after turning onto the entrance road to the park, I saw that three vultures were perched up on a large tree. The left was a Turkey Vulture, and the other two were shaped differently, had gray heads that had bare skin that extended further down to the neck, and longer legs. I freaked out and knew that we had landed our Gila first Black Vultures!
|Black Vultures (Gila County #312)|
Most of the Turkey Vultures in the area had started to lift up and start their morning soaring, but the Black Vultures weren't in any rush to start their soaring. As Caleb and I observed them, they did fly away from us a few times to land on nearby perches. It's been awhile since I've been pumped up to see a Black Vulture, but a Gila County Black Vulture is a Gila County Black Vulture...
This Tropical Kingbird was also nearby.
Our next birding stop was in high and cool elevations of the Pinal Mountains. We started off in the Pioneer Pass half of the range, and we were impressed with the area. It was my first time visiting Pioneer Pass, and we had close to 40 different bird species in the places that we stopped at, and that included a handful of Yellow-eyed Juncos. We tried for a Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher that was found by Paul Wolterbeek while he was birding along Trail 200 a few weeks prior to our visit. The Flycatcher eluded us, but what we were really searching for in the Pinals was Short-tailed Hawk. Short-tailed Hawks are for sure "you can't win if you don't play-kind've-birds too, and Caleb and I climbed up Trail 196 in Pioneer Pass to get to an elevated viewpoint to scan the ridges for any raptors. This small buteo was one that had eluded Caleb prior to our July 19th visit to Gila County. We didn't find one at Pioneer Pass in our long shot attempt, but after Pioneer Pass we went over to the area of Pinal Peak, west of Pioneer Pass where the Short-tailed Hawk was more likely.
|Juv. Yellow-eyed Juncos|
Caleb and I were convinced we were searching for an active Shorty, especially since Dave Pearson and his birding group had seen an individual earlier in the season prior to our visit. Even though the hawk was one I chased and got to see in the Pinals last year after Jeff, Dara, and Laurie had discovered two remarkable individuals, I was extremely pumped for Caleb to have the chance at seeing one. I was rooting for Caleb, because it was a life bird to be for him. When we got close to Pinal Peak, Caleb got excited as he saw a raptor that had a great initial impression. But all it was was a Swainson's Hawk taunting Caleb.
The odds seemed to be against us after the Swainson's Hawk gave us a fool, and it's a raptor that usually sticks to lower elevations in mid-July. Caleb laughed it off, and said that it was a perfect way to start our Short-tailed Hawk search in this upper part of the Pinals. In the past, Caleb had looked many times in southeastern Arizona mountains and scanned ridges for Short-tailed Hawks without any success.
After we started scanning Pinal Peak for about ten minutes, Caleb spied two smaller raptors in the distance and further west of the towers of Pinal Peak. They were harassing a Red-tailed Hawk. Looking at their proportions, Caleb was convinced that they were a pair of Short-tailed Hawks. We rushed over to get closer to spot where the hawks were at, and luckily, Caleb was able to get on them again and confirm that they were Short-tailed Hawks. In all of the times that Caleb has scanned for this bird, it was freaking awesome to see him come away with not one, but the Pinal Mountain pair. The behavior of the Short-tailed Hawks resulted in the birds coming after other raptors when they would fly over a specific part of the mountain. It suggested nesting behavior, and there is probably a nest somewhere within that area where we observed them. After a patient wait, one of the Short-tailed Hawks flew over at a fairly close range.
|Caleb "The Boy" Strand right after getting his lifer STHA|
The Pinals came through big time, and it's pretty rare to see Caleb get a life bird in Arizona these days. Before leaving the Pinals, we made a last stop at a line of hummingbird feeders that are managed by a friendly couple who reside in a cabin near Pinal Peak. We got to see Rivoli's and Calliope Hummingbirds during our quick visit among numbers of Rufous and Broad-tailed Hummingbirds.
Searching for uncommon and rare birds as target birds is a fun way to bird, and it pays off when success is a conclusion. In the future of my Gila County birding, I hope to make continued reps to search for the possibility of Buff-collared Nightjars. There's also rare grassland birds one can expect in the winter, and those Mississippi Kites. And I still need a Northern Goshawk for Gila...