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!
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.
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