Wednesday, May 8, 2013

A Chiricahuan Birding Tail and a Rare Gull Epilogue..

A few months ago, I made plans to take a five day vacation, primarily to go birding.  The original plan was to explore the higher elevations of the Superstition Mountains in the area of Reavis Ranch.  This area is in the extreme southeastern corner of Maricopa County, and it has a lot of promising habitat in the higher elevations, which are scarce in Maricopa County.  The species that could possibly be present there is what has always caught my attention.  But that plan didn't fall through as my cousin who is my only source of entering that part of the Superstition Mountains wasn't able to get the time of of work.  I got my requested time off for the vacation I needed and I was trying to decide where to go on vacation.  There was Prescott as the most probable vacation option for the four days I was wanting to take, or even possibly the White Mountains in northeastern Arizona.  I realized money was an issue, so that put the vacation on another negative hold.  And then David Vander Pluym emailed me.  The email was a good one, inviting me to go on a 4-day trip to southeastern Arizona for a birding trip with awesome friends.  I called David quickly after I got the email to find out more about the trip and what they were planning to do.  David's answer was also a good one:  "We don't have a real plan yet, where just gonna bird and go wherever we feel like going throughout the trip".  That answer alone persuaded me to go on the birding trip.  I decided to join David, Lauren Harter, and Bobby Wilcox for a fun four days of birding.  One thing that was a for sure go on the Southeastern Arizona trip was spending a good amount of time in the Chiricahua Mountains.  Prior to this trip, I've never been to this mountain range, and it's a location I've always wanted to visit.  It's in the very southeastern part of Arizona, and it is the only place in Arizona (and basically the United States) where the Mexican Chickadee is found.  I was looking forward to exploring the Chiricahuas and looking for the chickadees, and of course birding with my awesome friends.  Instead of being in the extreme southeastern part of Maricopa County for my vacation, I ended up being in the extreme part of southeastern Arizona for my vacation.

On Thursday, May 2nd, 2013, Lauren Harter, David Vander Pluym, Bobby Wilcox and I headed for southeastern Arizona in the direction of the Chiricahuas.  Because we are crazy birders, we made plenty of stops along the way.  One of those stops was Willcox.  Willcox is a very good birding destination, and it is known for attracting shorebirds like no other location in the state of Arizona.  Some of Arizona's rarest shorebirds have been found at Willcox:  White-rumped Sandpipers, Black Turnstone, and Hudsonian Godwit to name a few.  This is at Twin Lakes in Willcox, where a single wide and shallow body of water gets most of the action from the shorebirds.  On this stop we didn't have anything on the rare side much, but stopping here is always worth it.  We did have a Marbled Godwit, high numbers of Lesser Yellowlegs, Wilson's Phalaropes, and a late Northern Harrier and Vesper Sparrow.  A few Swainson's Hawks were also in the area.

Marbled Godwit

A scene from Willcox

After Willcox, we continued to head southeast to the Chiricahuas.  After awhile, we crossed from Arizona into New Mexico.  We car birded during this stretch in New Mexico, and added 7 birds to our trip list that were in New Mexico.  These birds were new birds for the state of New Mexico for me, bringing my New Mexico state list to a whole 10 birds.  We stopped at a sketchy town and gas station, called "Shady Grove".  Lauren said it reminded her of a horror movie, and we didn't stick around long in the shade.  The gas station did hold a cool bird though, a Chihuahuan Raven.

Chihuahuan Raven

We then headed straight for Portal, the small town located in the Chiricahuas.  Before we crossed back into Arizona, we got our first Zone-tailed Hawk in New Mexico.  Once in the Portal area, we made stops at Willow Tank and the Quailway Cottage, both good birding locations just before getting to Portal.  We met up with Morgan Jackson in Portal, and she kindly showed us a lot of the awesome area.  

Scaled Quail at Quailway Cottage

The eastern end views of the Chiricahuas

Between Willow Tank, Quailway Cottage, and the town of Portal, we had highlights of a few Elf Owl pairs at night, Mexican Mallards, White-faced Ibis, Sora, Vermilion Flycatcher, Lark Buntings, a surprising Swamp Sparrow at a private yard, Lazuli Buntings, Pyrrholoxias, Cassin's Kingbirds, Scott's Orioles, and many more.

Swamp Sparrow

Lazuli Bunting

After eating at a small nice restaurant in Portal, we found Stewart Campground, which was to be our sleeping grounds for the next few nights.  This area was located along Cave Creek, which is said to be the most diverse wildlife area in the United States.  A very rare in the United States/Arizona Crescent-chested Warbler was discovered here a few weeks prior to our arrival, and we were hoping to luckily relocate it somehow, which was last seen at South Fork along Cave Creek.  We walked up Cave Creek at night hoping to turn up an owl species or two.  We didn't hear or see any owls, but David did see eyes in the woods, and it turned out to be the nocturnal Ringtail!  We seldom see this small critter, and it was Bobby's first time of seeing it, and only my second.  

On May 3rd, the four of us woke up and had plans of birding along Cave Creek in the morning followed by a search in the higher elevations of the Chiricahuas in search of the Mexican Chickadee as well as any other high elevation goodies.  Cave Creek was full of birdlife in the morning.  Two calling Montezuma Quails on the surrounding hillsides started off David and Lauren's day.  From here we walking up Cave Creek in search of goodies.  There were plenty of birds around, and it was nice to see the Blue-throated Hummingbird in very common numbers.  A few Magnificent Hummingbirds were also around.  Arizona Woodpeckers were also very numerous here, as were Dusky-capped Flycatchers.  Four species of vireos were in the woods, we found a Mexican Jay nest, and colorful Wood Warblers were everywhere.  Scott's Orioles sang in the surrounding hillsides, and some of them came down close to where we were.

Blue-throated Hummingbird

Dusky-capped Flycatcher

Black-throated Gray Warbler

Red-faced Warbler

Scott's Oriole

Mexican Jay nest

Lauren, David, and Bobby searching and searching and searching

Chiricahua Fox Squirrel

Cave Creek Canyon scenes

After birding Cave Creek for a few hours, we decided to head up into the high elevations of the Chiricahuas.  We went and picked up Morgan Jackson, and she showed us more awesome birding areas and birds in the area to start off our high country exploring.  Before we picked up Morgan, we found a large flock of Band-tailed Pigeons which was neat to see.  Morgan first took us to a place near the Southwestern Research Station that is excellent for finding and viewing Buff-breasted Flycatchers.  Shortly after searching, we didn't have any problem at all locating a few Buff-breasted Flycatchers.  This was a big highlight for me, and this was only the third time I've been able to observe this awesome and distinct empid in my birding time.

Buff-breasted Flycatcher

Buff-breasted Flycatcher Country

Lauren, Bobby, David, and Morgan in Buff-breasted Flycatcher Country

Once we got finished searching for the flycatchers, we then began searching for the Mexican Chickadee much higher up, where the scenery got even more beautiful.  This was my most wanted bird for the trip (besides the Crescent-chested Warbler), and I was anxious to see it.  As I forgot to mention earlier, the Chiricahaus suffered a horrible fire in 2011, and much of the higher elevation habitat is lost.   However, there are still many good patches thankfully in the wonderful area.  Back to the chickadees, well, I heard one once on this search, and never saw one.  David and I entered a grove of fir and pines and searched a mix flock of birds.  As I left, two Mexican Chickadees found David.  David screamed, "TOMMY!!!", and I never heard him screaming, so I had to painfully look at two amazing Mexican Chickadee pictures taken by David.  We spent a long time searching for the birds without luck.  David soon got word over his phone that the Crescent-chested Warbler was re-found at Cave Creek close to where we were birding in the morning!  We were shocked and all wanted to leave the high country early to get back down and attempt to relocate the rare mexican warbler.  In the remaining time we spent up in the high country, I was looking for the chickadees in vain hoping to see one.  In some ways I felt stupid how obsessed I was with seeing a chickadee.  Sometimes birding luck can be twisted, and I spied two great raptors that are usually very hard to see in place of finding a chickadee.  And on most days I'm sure I would choose to see these two raptors, it's just I've never seen the Mexican Chickadee.  One raptor came from Barfoot Park.  It was a Short-tailed Hawk.  This small buteo is rare in Arizona, but has increased it's range into southeastern Arizona in recent years.  It has even nested in the Barfoot Park vicinity.  Either way, it is still rare and is a great to find the first of the year in Arizona to confirm it's presence for another year.  The five of us were amazed, and weren't expecting to find this rare raptor.  Lauren was so amazed she jumped into my shoulder thanking me for spying the raptor, which was a state bird for her and Bobby.  Too bad the Short-tailed celebration wasn't photographed, it was amazing as well.  The Short-tailed Hawk remained in our view for long enough looks for pictures and diagnostic views.  The next raptor I spied was a Mountain Pygmy Owl.  This came as another result of trying to locate the chickadee.  David whistled to imitate the owl, and a plethora of mobbing birds came into the whistled imitations.  But no chickadees decided to come, and a few Mountain Pygmy Owls themselves then decided to call back.  I decided to climb up into the mountainside that the Mountain Pygmy Owl was on and I quickly found the bird.  The five of us then enjoyed another awesome raptor.  The upper elevations of the Chiricahuas were pleasant.  We also encountered a displaying male Wild Turkey, a possible Northern Goshawk, Greater Pewee, Yellow-eyed Juncos, Red-faced Warbler, Olive Warbler, Pygmy Nuthatches, and many more!

Short-tailed Hawk-always a high flyer!

Mountain Pygmy Owl

The high Chiricahuas

We then went back down to the South Fork of Cave Creek and searched for the Crescent-chested Warbler, hoping we would be extremely lucky like the earlier birder was to relocate it.  We checked every small foraging songbird up in the tall trees.  The dense search came up empty.  Despite the warbler blues (and for me, the warbler and chickadee blues), this Elegant Trogon brightened things up.

Elegant Trogon

After the warbler search it was getting close to dark.  We decided to luckily make one more very quick run for the Chickadee in the following morning and then spend a lot of time Crescent-chested Warbler searching.  We went on another owl run at night.  Whiskered Screech Owls were calling where we stopped, as well as a few Mexican Whip-poor-wills.  We successfully found a Whiskered Screech, and for the first time in my life, I was given views of one after hearing them only.

Whiskered Screech-Owl

As May 4th came, it was time for our third consecutive and wonderful day of birding in a row.  Our first stop was a shorter attempt at the Mexican Chickadee that was only a seven mile drive from camp that was still high enough in elevation for the birds.  The area we birded at was at East Turkey Creek, where the road comes in contact with the stream crossing.  Mixed conifers lined the creek, and the habitat was perfect for the chickadees.  Luckily, it didn't take long at all until we quickly heard the Mexican Chickadees singing. We all eventually got great views of several of the chickadees, and the views were great views for a lifer from my standpoint.  Lauren is into sound recording, and she was sound recording on and off throughout the trip.  One of the chickadees sang a variety of different notes right above her.  Now the Mexican Chickadee is the only chickadee found in Mexico and south of the United States.  As mentioned earlier, they barely reach the United States.  They are only reliably accessed in the Chiricahua Mountains, which 99.9999% of birders have to get their chickadee that way.  They also reside in the Animas Mountains of New Mexico's extreme southwest corner, which is rarely granted access to birders.  If access is granted, it is then a 12 mile wilderness trek to attempt a try at the Chickadees.  So most of the chickadee chasers will enter the Chiricahuas for this awesome bird!

Mexican Chickadee (note the large black "bib")

Mexican Chickadee Country

We then headed down to Cave Creek Canyon once again to look for the Crescent-chested Warbler.  We spent over three hours looking for this warbler again.  Sadly again, there was no success.  The Crescent-chested Warbler will have to find our eyes another time it shows up again in another southeastern Arizona mountain range.  But we did have other very good highlights at Cave Creek.  One was when David detected a Northern Waterthrush along the creek who was obliging for a nice crowd of birders.  Another was when Lauren looked up and spied a female Rose-breasted Grosbeak in a sycamore.  This bird was formerly Lauren's nemesis, and it was awesome she was able to find it!  Other highlights also included Arizona Woodpeckers, as well as migrant and breeding mountain warblers.

Northern Waterthrush

Hermit Warbler

Grace's Warbler

Arizona Woodpecker

We concluded our time at the Chiricahuas after our stop at Cave Creek.  This place was amazing and I strongly hope to return to this mountain range again.  The breathtaking scenery and birding was beyond amazing, and is one I'll never forget.  For the trip, this area seemed as if it would be the main story from our trip.  But could the trip provide another amazing birding story?  An epilogue kind of thing?  Well with the four of us, that was definitely a big possibility.  And yes, I'm tooting our own horns.  

We made more visits on the way out, including another visit to Willow Tank and Willcox.  Willow Tank was full of sparrows.  It also included a breeding male Lark Bunting, which I have never seen a breeding male Lark Bunting prior to this one.  Cool cool!  At Willcox, there weren't many new shorebirds adding to the list from our first visit, but two Long-billed Curlews were nice.  At the golf course near the lake, we found two Northern Waterthrushes foraging around one of the ponds!  So we had ourselves a triple Waterthrush day!  

Willow Tank

Black-throated Sparrow at Willow Tank

Long-billed Curlews at Willcox

After Willcox, we were trying to decide what to do.  Lauren, Bobby, David and I were all wanting to go to either Patagonia or Montosa Canyon to bird, preferably Montosa Canyon.  David then checked the listserv and saw that a report of a Heermann's Gull had come through and the gull was found by John Higgins at Tucson's Kennedy Park.  This park in Tucson was on our way to Montosa Canyon, and we decided to chase the Heermann's Gull and then head to Montosa Canyon.  I was stoked that we were chasing a Heermann's Gull, something I didn't expect would happen at all on this trip.  Heermann's Gulls are rare in Arizona, and when they show up, they very rarely stay for more than a day.  They are notorious for being "one day wonders".  Many birders who have been birding in the state of Arizona for years still have yet to cross paths with a Heermann's Gull in the state due to the fact this species doesn't stay for more than a day most of the time.  The Heermann's Gull is a beautiful unique gull and is distinctive and easy to identify in all plumages of it's age cycles.  As we came up upon Tucson, we saw a few positive reports coming in about the gull still being present.  After 1.5 hours of driving, we arrived at Kennedy Park, which has a big fishing lake, which attracted the gull.  A Canada Goose was on the lake as was a Western Grebe.  David, Lauren, and Bobby then spied the Heermann's Gull on the opposite shoreline.  We looked at it from a distance and a fisherman on the gull's side of the lake spooked the gull and it then flew around the lake, giving us decent but distant views.  We didn't have a lot of time and I wanted great views, so I chased the bird around the lake literally for 10 minutes to get great views and great pictures.  This was my second life bird of the trip (first was the Mexican Chickadee of course!) and it was a great one.  I've been wanting to see this gull ever since I seriously got into birding, and it felt great to successfully chase it as well.  While this Chiricahuas were the main story of the trip, the Heermann's Gull provided a great "epilogue" story to go along with it.  This individual Heermann's Gull is a younger bird (2nd cycle I think?) and it takes four years to reach adulthood, which adults are even more striking than this bird.  Who knows if I'll ever see the Heermann's in Arizona again??!!

Heermann's Gull

Up next was Montosa Canyon, where we spent the night.  Due to the winds, birding was slow at Montosa Canyon at the evening and night we spent there, as well as the following morning.  We did find a female Calliope Hummingbird though, and a nice Olive-sided Flycatcher.  We even had a brief look at a large hummingbird that gave callnotes consistent with that of a Plain-capped Starthroat!  But we never got another look.  

Montosa Canyon

Olive-sided Flycatcher

After Montosa Canyon, we started to run out of time.  We made a few more stops, one to the birding mecca Pena Blanca Lake and the other stops at a few ponds, including the Rio Rico Ponds.  Pena Blanca Lake always has good birding.  This is the one place in Arizona where Least Grebe is reliably seen, and we found one on this day.  We were given rather distant looks.  Birds were active here, and highlights included Gray Hawk, Black Vulture, Cattle Egret, Yellow-breasted Chat, Dusky-capped Flycatchers, Rufous-winged Sparrows, and more.  The highlight of the Rio Rico Ponds were a nice flock of 63 Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks!  

A Least Grebe at Pena Blanca Lake with a Cinnamon Teal

Cattle Egret

Female Mexican Duck

Pena Blanca Lake

After the Rio Rico stop, we headed home.  David and Lauren really had a long trip, and after dropping me off in Glendale and Bobby off in Blythe, headed back to Lake Havasu City.  This trip was a great trip for birding and was one of the best I've ever head.  It was fun for county listing also, which we all like to do.  Cochise, Pima, and Santa Cruz Counties were the three counties we birded in.  For the entire trip, we tallied 191 species, an epic bird list.  Thank you David, Lauren, and Bobby for a fun and awesome trip!

And here is one more look at the Mexican Chickadee until my next trip to the Chiricahuas...


  1. Wow wow wow...what an awesome trip.

    191 species is massive, and you came away with so many awesome photos too! You crushed those Warblers and the Short-tailed Hawk sighting was stellar, better than the Mexican Chickadees in a sense, since it's a rarer occurrence. That being said, congratulations on the lifer Chickadees!

    I've got to say, one of the most impressive things here in this lengthy post is the birding stamina y'all showed. Getting that Whiskered Screech Owl at night, birding in New Mexico, Willcox, Tucson, and Montosa Canyon...what a marathon!

    Great write up and photos Tommy, really super stuff. Congrats on it all. This is one of the bestest biggest bird trips I've read about in Arizona in these last few years.

  2. P.S. Way to take #1 eBird spot in the state!!

  3. What an awesome trip and some awesome birds and photos as well!

  4. I really like your blogs. They give me so much great material for future trips to Phoenix.