Saturday, May 24, 2014

Hello Slate Creek!

Hi Everyone,

This past Wednesday and Thursday on May 21st and 22nd, 2014, I decided to bird the Slate Creek Divide area, something that I love to do during this time frame annually.  I was joined by Tim Marquardt for nearly the entire trip.  Slate Creek Divide is one of my favorite birding areas and has a lot of good potential, despite the fact that this area has been hit hard by two fires. On a positive note, its still a very pleasant area to bird, and is very birdy also.  While Slate Creek Divide sits in both Maricopa and Gila counties, I tend to focus my direction entirely on the Maricopa County side.  What is good about Slate Creek is the fact that dominant tree is Douglas fir.  There are several key species here because of that that one won't get at this time of year or at all at Mount Ord.

Slate Creek Divide was once home to a lush and large stand of Douglas fir.  This stand covered both Maricopa and Gila Counties extensively.  With one careless act, most of it is gone.  Historically, Spotted Owl and Red-faced Warbler were quite easy to see or hear at this location.

Despite the tragically burned areas, there are still plenty of pockets in the area that have the old feel of the area.  And the birds still thrive to say the least. 

I arrived at the end of Slate Creek Divide at 5:45 P.M. on the 21st after driving over nine miles on the twisty and winding Forest Road 201.  It's quite a trek up to the end of Forest Road 201, which ends at the Mount Peeley Trailhead, which is part of the Arizona Trail.  I birded until it got dark out, and I had a few neat highlights.  Fir loving species such as RED-BREASTED NUTHATCH and BROWN CREEPER were found, two birds that favor Slate Creek because of the fir forest.  A HERMIT THRUSH was also in full song near the trailhead, a song that isn't heard in Maricopa County very often.  I'll add it's one of my very favorite songs, I could listen to it all day!  A flock of MEXICAN JAYS cruised along the road, noisily making their way through the forest in a family group.  The Mexican Jay is a very local species in Maricopa County, and is only reliably found at Slate Creek out of the other locations in Maricopa.  As I was looking down into a forested slope that is in Gila County, I heard a NORTHERN PYGMY-OWL calling for several minutes straight.  I wanted to look for the bird, but the terrain was too steep to climb down into.  Tim arrived close to midnight, and we decided to ditch our owling plans as we were both too tired to look for owls and we also weren't feeling that great.  We love to look for these birds, so it took a lot for us to change our minds.

One of many Bushtits that were in a tight feeding flock.

A Red-breasted Nuthatch singing up high.  Out of Arizona's three nuthatch species, this is by far my favorite.  I like it's song, which really sounds like a trumpet.  In the early morning at Slate Creek, be prepared to hear the Red-breasted Nuthatch "sounding the trumpet".  This was one of three of these birds that I encountered during my time up here.

The Mexican Jay is very reliably found in the Slate Creek Divide area, and are pretty rare elsewhere in the higher elevations of Maricopa County.  These jays are gregarious, noisy, and very annoying.  It's good to have some in the county, but it is awesome they are scarce other than here.  Cause they are a little annoying, but yet a little cool at the same time.  I'm sure plenty of birds hate the Mexican Jay.

As the 22nd rolled in, I had my first highlight of the day, or night.  It was a massive struggle to completely fall asleep in my small truck cab, but the cool air of the mountains was great.  As I was half asleep and was leaning towards falling completely asleep, I was awakened by the call of a female SPOTTED OWL.  This call sounds like a fierce, loud, and high pitched whistle, probably one that isn't heard too often.  Since it was a Spotted Owl, I didn't mind being awakened up completely again for awhile before officially falling asleep.  Anything else I probably would've gotten mad at.  I didn't hear anything else after waiting and listening for awhile.

When I woke up, I walked 50 feet over to Tim's car to meet Tim and we birded the rough drainages of Slate Creek for over 5 hours.  These drainages are some of the best habitat that Maricopa County has, and they are highly reminiscent of the canyons of southeastern Arizona.  The Slate Creek drainages consist of Douglas fir, oak, pine, and good stands of Arizona sycamore.  The habitat here is great, and I like to cover these remote drainages a few times every year.  Hiking in the drainage involves very treacherous hiking in several areas throughout the loop that I do, it is best to not hike alone in this area.  There are many hazards here.  One can trip easily on slippery rocks in places, and there are also plenty of rattlesnakes in the area.  Tim and I also encountered a beehive.  If one comes here and hikes, most of the hike isn't too bad as long as you are careful.  All it takes is one slip, and I actually slipped and feel once.  While I didn't get hurt, I did hit my camera lense.  I damaged my lense, and I bought a new one on the way home.  Don't carry valuables down here unless you have a case for it.  And I was carrying my case but I didn't think in time.  I had to learn a $300 lesson.

Despite the two fires that have been in this area, they haven't touched the two drainages that I love to bird.  The "southeastern Arizona Maricopa drainages".  The lush and thick habitat attracts an abundance of migrant and breeding birdlife.  Because it is so thick, it is very hard to get photographs of birds.  Tim said, "Red-faced Warblers are bound to show up down here again someday".  And I agree with him.  All it takes is two migrants randomly meeting each other and sleeping on the same branch at night.

In similar ways to the canyons of Southeastern Arizona, Slate Creek's drainages in Maricopa County have a mix of sycamore, oak, ponderosa pine, and Douglas fir.  You gotta love that if your a serious Maricoper like me!

Other wildlife is commonly present here as well.  I've seen bear, deer, and some other mammals in the past.  This Swallowtail was pretty neat to see on this hike.

This is the very eastern side of the drainage hikes.  The canyon/drainage bottom is very shady, lush, and thick.  Tim and I searched carefully for Spotted Owl in daylight without success.   Since we had a male singing last week in the vicinity and I heard a female giving her contact whistle this time, there has to be a pair or two of them in this drainage.  The habitat is perfect, and I've been saying it since 2010.  Spotty, where is your roost!!!???

Birdwise, there were many highlights as usual.  One of the main draws to birding in the drainages here at Slate Creek Divide since 2010 has been a breeding population of DUSKY-CAPPED FLYCATCHERS.  In 2010, I found close to 10 birds and the numbers increased since then in other previous years.  Last year, I had about 18 birds.  This time, we found at least 8 birds, which was at least half of what was here last year (at least by what we detected yesterday).   Interestingly, I found most of the Dusky-capped Flycatchers last year east of the fork and of the two drainages that I hike.  They were well spread out along this east stretch of the hike.  Yesterday, they were only limited to the drainage we hike down into and in the immediate vicinity of the fork of the two drainages.  It's always fun to detect them, and weird that such a mournful tune can make my day.

Hello, Dusky-capped Flycatchers!  Cheers to another year!

We had plenty of other highlights during the expedition.  A ZONE-TAILED HAWK flew near the treeline of one of the canyons and then kicked up higher into the air.  When we started our hike and started to walk down the drainage, we heard our first Maricopa NORTHERN PYGMY-OWL of the year.  And near the end of the hike, a GREAT HORNED OWL was seen, which gave me a three owl day at Slate Creek.  BROAD-TAILED HUMMINGBIRDS were very numerous throughout.  ACORN and HAIRY WOODPECKERS were present, as well as NORTHERN FLICKER.  Migrant flycatchers included HAMMOND'S and CORDILLERAN FLYCATCHERS.  We also heard four different HUTTON'S VIREOS, this place is very good for observing that species.  A migrant WARBLING VIREO was also noteworthy.  Throughout the hike, we encountered noisy groups of roudy MEXICAN JAYS.  RED and WHITE-BREASTED NUTHATCHES were present, as well as 5 BROWN CREEPERS.  HOUSE WRENS are also here in high numbers, a local Maricopa breeder.  The warbler highlight came when Tim found a PAINTED REDSTART nest tucked in under branches along one of the drainage banks.  It was neat to see, and it didn't take long before the adult came back and didn't want us around.  We quickly took the hint too.  A migrant GREEN-TAILED TOWHEE was also found.  BLACK-HEADED GROSBEAKS and WESTERN TANAGERS were numerous, and we also had about 5 HEPATIC TANAGERS.  After a tiring hike, it was a rad trip other than the sad slip.

Male Broad-tailed Hummingbird.  Between Slate Creek Divide and Mount Ord, these guys are commonly heard flying overhead with their trilling tail feathers.  I don't see them perched like this in the county all too often, so this was neat!

Tim has good eyes.  He spied this Painted Redstart nest on the bank.  Cool huh?!  Both Painted Redstart and Red-faced Warbler utilize the ground for nesting in the forests that they breed in.

It didn't take long for Mrs.  Painted Redstart to show up and say, "Get the ___ out of here!!"

Black-headed Grosbeaks and Western Tanagers were everywhere.  Because of the habitat, they were heard to photograph.  This Black-headed Grosbeak was quite cooperative.

While we didn't encounter any rattlesnakes in the drainages, we did see a BLACK-TAILED RATTLESNAKE on the way down, who was crossing the road.

Thanks rattlesnakes for sticking to the road today, rather than the rocky drainages where I walked through.  Your cooperation is much appreciated!  The Black-tailed Rattlesnake is really pretty docile and "friendly" for a rattlesnake.  It rattles more out of terror and fear of anything big or small rather than aggression.  He just wants to be alone.

Slate Creek Divide is a very neat place Maricopa County is blessed to have.  Please be wise if birding here and use appropriate precautions if drainage hiking.  For directions to Slate Creek and an overview of the hike we did and maps of the area and information on the birds and location, click the link below to my website:

It was a great day to be exploring in the wilderness.  Thanks Tim for joining me and hiking through this crazy but awesome area!

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