Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Crazy Birding on Mount Lemmon

It was May 3rd, 2014.  For the North American birding world, it was a big day for the big days.  As many knew, Team Sapsucker was out in the field, attempting an insane Big Day in two states:  Arizona and California.  I had read about this expedition of insane greatness for quite some time on eBird, but I never payed attention to it too closely.  They did have an incredible record last year in Texas, as they recorded 294 species in a 24 hour time period.  I had forgotten about their Big Day and I never really read about it too closely about their specific whereabouts.  But I did know that it was going to take place very soon.

Meanwhile, I'm part of an epic birding group and team collectively known as the Phoenician Kingbirds.  Founded by my great friend Mark Ochs of Gold Canyon, Arizona, the Phoenician Kingbirds are truely an amazing group to be a part of.  There are very few of us and some of our Kingbirds were missing on this day of May 3rd, but all you really need is two.  To recognize a Phoenician Kingbird in the field, just look for someone with regular birding equipment plus a Burger King crown.  And Mark is the true Phoenician Kingbird.  I'm nowhere as cool as he is.

The two Phoenician Kingbirds, Mark Ochs and I, decided to go bird at Mount Lemmon.  We had a lot of birds that we wanted to see, especially an adult Short-tailed Hawk that had been sighted near the summit of Mount Lemmon in the town of Summerhaven.  Much of this area had sadly burned down from a devastating fire.  Good habitat still remains on Mount Lemmon.  The drive to Mount Lemmon results in passing through many different habitat zones, from sonoran desert all the way up to spruce and fir forests.  Mark and I originally had the thoughts of having sort of our own "Big Day" by covering the plethora of habitat zones at Mount Lemmon and seeing the outstanding variety of birds that are found in the varied habitats.  But once we got up to the firs and pines, we didn't really want to come back down from the heavenly heights.  Mount Lemmon is part of the Santa Catalina Mountains, and is the highest point at 9157 feet.  The Short-tailed Hawk certainly loves the heights, and Mark and I immediately began our search for the Arizona rarity.  I've seen two Shorties in Arizona so far, including one that I spied for my group in the Chiricahua Mountains last year.  It's one that has eluded Mark.  We were seeing plenty of hawks, just not Short-tailed Hawks.

We started to scan the ridges in Summerhaven for the Short-tailed Hawk.

The hawk was taking it's sweet time, but there were many other birds to enjoy.  We even found a different kind of Kingbird, which is known as the Cassin's Kingbird ;)

The high pitched trill-like noises from the male Broad-tailed Hummingbird seemed to be everywhere in Summerhaven.  And we got to see several of them at eye level too.

The Western Tanagers have arrived in Arizona for the breeding season through some of fall.  Gosh, they are cool!  At Lemmon, they were very common in numbers during the early hours.

Back to the Short-tailed Hawk search, Mark and I then stayed near the Mount Lemmon summit and scanned from several lookout vistas.  One of them had a great great view, and I had a brief glimpse of a medium-sized raptor flying about eye level in the distance.  It remained a mystery.  Mark and I decided to wait at this spot for awhile, with our Burger King crowns on.  All of a sudden, a vehicle full of birders pulled up.  They all ran out of the vehicle at high speeds and started calling out birds as if they were in a hurry.  Mark and I then realized who they were and said, "Hi, Team Sapsucker!!".  

Mark and I knew what they were doing, and knew they wouldn't be alongside us long.  But that didn't stop Mark from saying, "Well, were the Phoenician Kingbirds".  Some of Sapsucker knows who Mark is, and they did have smirks on their faces.

Team Sapsucker and the Phoenician Kingbirds, what a crazy combination.  And thirty seconds later, off the Sapsuckers went in the pursuit and the Kingbirds stayed in their pursuit.  The Sapsuckers had an entire day ahead of them, and were going to end up on the Pacific Ocean by the end of the day.

The Sapsucker Team but no Shorty yet.  Odd.  From many different viewpoints, the beautiful scenery of Mount Lemmon was shown.  Despite the fire, this is still a very awesome place.

While Shorty continued to be a no-show, plenty of other birds where high-shows and were on the go.  The forests were dripping with Red-faced Warblers.  This special bird is always worth a trip.

The Yellow-eyed Junco was a very numerous and abundant bird too.  Probably the most abundant bird on Mount Lemmon.

Summerhaven had plenty of their own Spotted Towhees.  There were many birds present, but I wasn't able to get photos of most of them.  Also present were a few Evening Grosbeaks, which I missed by a few seconds.

Mark and I enjoyed the higher elevations of Mount Lemmon a lot, so we decided to bird in the higher elevations for the remainder of the day rather than turn it into a Big Day of our own and visiting all of the different habitat zones.  From the summit, we did go down the mountain for a few, stopping at the pleasant Rose Canyon and Rose Canyon Lake to bird for a few hours.  

The Rose Canyon Lake Area is quite the draw for flycatchers and warblers, who seemed to be singing from every ponderosa pine tree.  This area has a ridiculously stupid day use fee, so Mark and I parked off of the Catalina Highway and simply walked in.  Ponderosa Pine makes up most of the habitat here along Rose Canyon Road, but there is also some oak and Douglas fir mixed in.  Shortly after walking on the road, we heard one of our favorite songs, "Jose Maria".  We tracked the song down and found the singer near the top of a pine tree.

The Greater Pewee is among my favorites of the southern Arizona birds, and it's song makes it a fun species.

 The Greater Pewee is usually a tree top lover and it really doesn't venture to the lower branches too often.  But when this guy got tired of singing and was wanting to eat, he came down much lower.  I was busy adjusting my camera when I took this shot.  It's better than nothing, but once I got it to where I wanted it, the Greater Pewee took the high flight once again.  I came close to having an excellent photo opportunity, maybe next time!

Rose Canyon also has a small population of the limited and very small southeastern Arizona Empidonax, the Buff-breasted Flycatcher.  This is the northern limit of this species breeding range, and Mark and I found two different singing birds during our time here.  One of them was extremely cooperative and easy to view.  These flycatchers are very small, but are also loud for a tiny fellow.  It is also a species Mark and I enjoy, and don't get to see very often.

Whether if I was in front of or in back of this bird, it was cooperative and fearless of me for a few minutes.  While most Empidonax flycatchers are very difficult to identify, the distinctive buffy breast make this smallest flycatcher in it's complicated genus one of the easiest to identify.

I don't really like to use the word "cute" to describe things, but that is what the Buff-breasted Flycatcher is, it's cute.  This tiny little flycatcher is 5 inches in length, and has a wingspan of an entire 7.5 inches.  Don't bother telling him this, cause he feels like he's is a wing-spreading giant in his world.

Rose Canyon is for sure very flycatchery.  We also had a few Dusky-capped Flycatchers as well as a migrant Olive-sided Flycatcher.  We also stumbled across this young Cooper's Hawk hunting and exploring by itself in the woods.

Mark then spied a Zone-tailed Hawk, a neat addition to the day.  We then headed back up to the summit area to look for the Short-tailed Hawk more.  Once again, we didn't have a Shortie, but we did once again have a few of these....

Once we reached Summerhaven, we were then stuck up there once we heard of a bad traffic accident further down on the highway.  The accident closed the highway down for a few hours.  After hearing several questionable stories of Short-tailed Hawk sightings that seemed to be light-morphed red tails from other birders, Mark and I struck out on Shortie for good.  But we did enjoy more forest birds up top, including those Red-faced Warblers while sitting in the car.  We also enjoyed a good bite of pizza in Summerhaven.  The birds of the day went out to the cool flycatchers, the Buff-breasted Flycatcher and the Greater Pewee.  It was once again another great Phoenician Kingbird classic expedition.  Thanks Mark!  And once again, another sighting of the day was Team Sapsucker.  The Phoenician Kingbird in a frame with Team Sapsucker members...freaking awesome.

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