Monday, July 8, 2013

Slate Creek Divide-Maricopa County's version of Southeastern Arizona's high elevations

Hi everyone,

Today on July 8th, 2013, Norman Dong and I explored high elevations of the Slate Creek Divide area in the northeastern part of Maricopa County.  I've been meaning to explore this area again for quite some time now.  As a quick recap for those who haven't known about this area, there was a horrible fire last year (Sunflower Fire) and it looked like it had wiped out most of the good areas where I loved to bird at within the Slate Creek area.  A few months ago for the North American Migration Count, I came up here with Kurt and Cindy Radamaker and we were surprised that the habitat still looked decent through much of the area.  My main interest was seeing what a few drainage areas that I have explored that run south into Maricopa County are like since the fire.  On the migration count and by looking at overview maps, they looked to be fine and untouched by the fire.  But I needed to get away from my lazy summer and find out about the area, and I returned today to explore the drainage areas with Norman, who is avidly into herps such as Arizona Black Rattlesnakes.

By the end of our hike, I found out that both of the productive drainages turned out to be fine and untouched by the devastating Sunflower Fire!  What is great about these drainages is the fact that they are very similar to canyons that are found in southeastern Arizona.  At Slate Creek, these drainages are dominated by Douglas Fir, and also have plenty of ponderosa pine, oak, and sycamores in the habitat mix.  There are even pools of water and small slow-moving streams in the habitat seasonally, and today was the case.  I think this is the best habitat in Maricopa County in my opinion, and it's hard to believe the location is so close to Phoenix!  We are lucky this section of Slate Creek survived and still holds the promising habitat.  Because these drainages are similar to southeastern Arizona, I figured when I first birded them in 2010 interesting species would show up.  I ended up finding several Dusky-capped Flycatchers on a day trip to the area, and Jim Kopitzke later returned with me to spy a young bird being fed by a parent to confirm breeding.  In 2011, I came back to Slate Creek with Norman in a bird/snake hunt and there were even more Dusky-capped Flycatchers than in 2010.  When the Sunflower Fire hit and it looked bad, we assumed the population would likely be gone.  But it turns out that just as the fire didn't touch the drainages, it also didn't touch the Dusky-capped Flycatcher population!

The beauty of this area!

When Norman and I got to the fork of the two drainages, I immediately heard a DUSKY-CAPPED FLYCATCHER.  However, we then walked west past the fork of the drainage we came down (a north/south drainage) and went along the second drainage that runs west and east of the one we came down.  West of the fork has been the Dusky-capped story for previous years.  As I was expecting to find them here in good numbers, we came up with only one pair.  I thought that perhaps the population decreased at first, but was still very glad some of them were still around.  Once we hiked the past the fork to the eastern side of the second drainage, I started to hear them again, and the Dusky-capped Flycatchers became more numerous as we went.  I was surprised, because they were barely past this point in past years when I've observed them closely.  But it seemed today that they moved to this section of the area, which is actually my favorite section of the hike.  They stayed high in the Douglas firs for most of the time and didn't come low like they usually tend to do more often.  I figured they were likely feeding young or hanging near nesting holes in the firs, which there are plenty of Hairy Woodpeckers in the area.  I didn't see the flycatchers east of the fork associating with sycamores much at all, like the ones west of the fork have done in the past.  When Norman and I reached the eastern limit of this drainage and our hike, the flycatchers still weren't finished.  I found another pair, and saw one of the adults return to a cavity in a tall ponderosa pine several times, appearing to be feeding young.  At the end of the hike, I counted at least 16 Dusky-capped Flycatchers, which were found in roughly a 1.5 mile stretch.  It was a great relief to know that this great habitat hasn't been lost as well as Maricopa County's only breeding population of Dusky-capped Flycatcher.

Dusky-capped Flycatchers (up high in the firs)

Dusky-capped Flycatcher nest (I swear!)

Because Slate Creek is beyond awesome, there were other awesome birds during the hike.  Another limited bird on the Maricopa County scale is the MEXICAN JAY.  We found a group of about 10 noisy individuals in the drainage today, which were giving a GREAT HORNED OWL quite the hard time.  Slate Creek has been a reliable location to find this jay in the County also.  BROAD-TAILED and ANNA'S HUMMINGBIRDS were the hummingbirds present, and woodpeckers were represented by ACORN and HAIRY WOODPECKERS, as well as a few NORTHERN FLICKERS.  Flycatchers who weren't dusky-capped were ASH-THROATED FLYCATCHER and 5 WESTERN WOOD-PEWEES.  HUTTON'S VIREOS were rather numerous here, as I had a count of 6 birds.  The PLUMBEOUS VIREO count was 8.  All three NUTHATCHES were present:  the regular WHITE-BREATED, 3 RED-BREASTED, and the uncommon in Maricopa PYGMY NUTATCH.  I was also pleased at the amount of BROWN CREEPERS in the drainages, which numbered close to 10 individuals.  While Mount Ord doesn't have good breeding habitat for Red-breasted Nuthatch and Brown Creeper, Slate Creek sure does.  There were also a good number of HOUSE WRENS in the area, who breed in this area also.  A single HERMIT THRUSH also made an appearance, I usually hear them singing here, but not today.  Warblers were represented by a single GRACE'S WARBLER, about 5 BLACK-THROATED GRAY WARBLER, and 8 PAINTED REDSTARTS.  HEPATIC and WESTERN TANAGERS also put in good appearances, and BLACK-HEADED GROSBEAKS were singing in many places.

Plumbeous Vireo

Brown Creeper

Mexican Jay

As I was looking up for birds, Norman was looking down for snakes.  His primary target was Arizona Black Rattlesnake, which are found in this area in good numbers.  We didn't find a Black, but did get lucky and found a nice-looking BLACK-TAILED RATTLESNAKE.  The snake rattled at us when we encountered it at close distances and we then enjoyed it for awhile.

Norman and the Black-tailed Rattlesnake

Slate Creek is a great birding area in Maricopa County.  On the down side, the drainages are a very tough hike and require careful hiking in an area that has plenty of potential of being very hazardous.  When heading up the main road into Slate Creek, most of the forest is in Gila County roadside, leaving the drainages as the only place in Maricopa County with these habitat sequences.  The other places that did have easier hiking unfortunately have burned.  Hiking on the road (in Gila County) is still productive where there are good stands of forest here and there.  These drainages are located by taking Forest Road 201 until the Arizona Trailhead is reached.  The first one runs south for a mile before reaching the second, that runs southwest to northeast.  I usually take it southwest before completing it to the northeast at the fork of the two drainages.  When I reach the eastern limit of the second drainage, I bushwhack a short distance through chaparral to the main road, which makes this "route" a three mile loop.  I have written better directions on my website with map overviews for those interested in the area.  I do ask though, please do not explore this area alone.  It is remote, rugged, hazardous, has limited cell phone reception in the drainages, and plenty of things may go wrong.  It's a beautiful area and has wonderful potential, but please be careful if you want to bird/herp where Norman and I have today.  A link to the Slate Creek page on my website is found by clicking on the link below:


  1. Hey Tommy, neat post about a seldom reported or birded area. It's very cool to hear about breeding DCFLs and Mexican Jays in Maricopa.

    Keep at it!

  2. Great post and thank you for checking out this area since the burn. Every time I go to Mt Ord, I think about this place and wondered what it is like since the fire. Thank you for the update! Loved your photos as well.