Wednesday, June 11, 2014

An Epic Triple by Miller Canyon

I haven't been to southeastern Arizona very much this year at all!  Extreme southeastern Arizona that is.  Mark Ochs and I took a trip to Mount Lemmon about a month ago, and we saw a handful of southeastern Arizona birds.  I usually like to go to the Huachuca and Santa Rita Mountains a few times during spring and summer every year, and I didn't want to let the chance pass itself up.  After some pondering and feeling that the birds that I was wanting to see weren't going to wait around for me their whole summer lives, I made the decision to take one day out of Mazatzal Mountain Maricopa Birding and head to southeastern Arizona, extreme southeastern Arizona.  I was joined by my friend Magill Weber, and we had an awesome day of birding together as usual.  Magill and I have been on several epic birding trips and rarity chases together this year, and this trip was bound to add another awesome birding outing.  Our destination was....Miller Canyon in the Huachuca Mountains.

Miller Canyon is probably my favorite birding location in southeastern Arizona.  I say probably because I haven't birded in the Chiricahuas enough, which are mind-blowingly awesome too.  Miller Canyon has this magic and awesomeness about it.  It's almost like waking up as a little kid on Christmas Day and walking down to the Christmas tree to unwrap a plethora of gifts.  In all similarity for birders, Miller Canyon is really no different.  There are amazing birds here that are very hard to see in Arizona elsewhere, and these amazing birds are cooperative, showy, and super-freaky friendly at Miller.  A walk up Miller Canyon is almost like taking a walk up the wild side as an invisible being and looking into the avian environment.  It's truly remarkable.  The birds almost seem to not even notice the birders.  Not even the birds who hate people and don't want them around.  As Magill and I headed up to Miller Canyon, we had three main targets.  One has a reputation of being mean and never wanting to be seen, the other is elusive and non-moving during the day, and the other one is basically a gift from Mexico.  We knew that Miller was bound to produce an epic triple!

Magill and I left Phoenix super early, and started our travel to Miller Canyon at 2 A.M.  Early huh?!  We arrived at the base of the canyon before 5:30 and started the day off by hearing a few Montezuma Quail.  These quail are elusive and they weren't very close to the road, so we passed off the chase.  We wanted to get to our first target, who was well up in the forested Miller Canyon.  We ran into two birders, George Gammbeski and his son Andre.  They were from New Jersey and were on a father and son birding trip, which was very awesome.  George is very into birding photography and Andre is only 12 years old, and is one heck of a birder for his young age.  Magill and I felt like we were talking to someone our own age about birds, and this 7th grader really knew his stuff.  George and Andre joined us for our birding adventure at Miller Canyon, the the four of us had a great time.  They also had the same first target that we had.  This first target is one that I haven't seen much of in my life, only a few times in my 14 years of birding.  This first target bird of ours is also my very favorite bird on earth.  I was really hoping by the end of our attempt at this bird that it wouldn't be a NO GO.  

This is a Northern Goshawk female sitting with her unseen chicks in Miller Canyon.  She is peeking over the edge of her nest nestled in a sycamore tree along the canyon.  This is an example of how Miller Canyon makes life very easy for birders.  Along this trail, this active Northern Goshawk nest can be seen well from the trail.  It is place a considerable distance away from the trail as well, but it is far enough away from the trail that the Northern Goshawks who reside in this nest don't show their usual and highly aggressive nature to humans.  During the nesting season, this female Goshawk usually sits on the nest and the best views are usually similar to the picture above.  The male will bring her meals throughout the day, but it is very hit-or-miss to see it take place.  Magill and I even got a glimpse of the male flying over the canyon, starting off his long day of hunting for his mate.  As Magill, Andre, George and I walked up to the area of the nest after a steep climb, the female Goshawk was in the nest, but wasn't showing very well.  And for her not to be a NOGO, she needed to stand on the side of the nest, which I also read that she was starting to do.  Things started off very slow, and she didn't move much.  George did have a nice scope with him, and that resulted in killer head views of the Northern Goshawk.  I even climbed up from the trail a little bit to see if I could get a more elevated view of the nest, but that didn't work out so well either.

We waited for a good two hours, and it was starting to get crazy.  She at least moved her head around some.

The Northern Goshawk has been my favorite bird since I started my birding career at age 13.  I was one year older than Andre when I first started, and Andre is already an experienced ABA birder.  It took me 8 years to find my first Goshawk until I finally found one.  With a miracle from God, I had a miraculous and lucky encounter with an adult Goshawk in Greer, Arizona, on July 20th, 2008.  I was following a young Great Horned Owl through the forest, and the owl apparently crossed over his territory and into a Northern Goshawk's territory.  The Goshawk was angry at the owl, and didn't care that I was there.  Long story short, I had point blank views of my highly wanted bird for over ten minutes at 20-30 feet away.  The fierce Goshawk wasn't concerned by my presence, and it was so mad at the owl.  And I guess that's why it's my favorite bird.  It's a challenge to find, it's brave and has no fear, and it has a well named reputation and nickname to it called "Gray Ghost".  And on that day, I was one satisfied birder.  But since then, I haven't seen an adult Goshawk well at all.  And I was hoping this sexy female would give me that chance.  As the four of us waited, we were treated to a show by other birds.  Greater Pewee.  Andre's first Buff-breasted Flycatchers.  Sulphur-bellied Flycatchers.  Dusky-capped Flycatchers.  Red-faced Warblers.  A great day to start out with, and it would be better if that female Goshawk would stretch out and stand up for those amazing views we wanted to see.  The Greater Pewee made sure to let us know his song, Jose Maria!

As we were blabbing off and watching a family group of Buff-breasted Flycatchers flying through the canyon and trees, I noticed that big and motionless blob in the nest moved straight up.  I thought I was seeing things.

And there she was, in awesome form, standing out on the nest for us birders to enjoy.  It was worth the trip already, and was very worth the wait!

While no words can ever due this magnificent beauty any justice, I'll leave it as that!  During the 20 minutes that the Northern Goshawk stood on her nest, George was able to get some incredible views for all of us through his scope as well as calender and field guide quality images from his camera.  The sighting was remarkable, and spending nearly three hours with my favorite bird with killer views has really made my week.  I can't wait to see my next Goshawk in the field, whenever the Gray Ghost decides to fly my way again someday.  On a funny note, my buddy Laurence Butler called this bird, the "Northern Awesomehawk".  I think that name also goes along with Gray Ghost or any other nickname this epic avian raptor may have.  And this Goshawk sighting proves my point that I made about Miller Canyon.  It's a place that is gift-wrapped for birders.  This goshawk nest is a rare sight, especially from somewhere like a well used and famous birding trail.  And once the Goshawk settled back down, the four of us went down canyon for more epic targets on our list.  Thanks again Gos, for proving your banding code wrong.  It's not always a NOGO...

Our next target was another bird that is hard to find in Arizona, but is yet very easy to see at Miller Canyon.  Before I get to that, I'll talk about my awesome birding party.  Here is Magill, Andre, and George.  They were the best of company during the birding time at Miller Canyon!  Andre, at age 12, is on a pace to become one of the best birders of all time.  Magill and I were very impressed.  Birder Extraordinaire Jr. really does exist!!  He would fit right in with Sibley, Peterson, Kaufmann......

We then went down canyon a short distance for the next awesome target.  Like I mentioned above, this bird is another tough one to see in Arizona, outside of Miller Canyon.  Miller likes to work things in favor of birders of course, like an everlasting Christmas tree.  This second target I've seen recently on a lucky find elsewhere in central Arizona, but it's always a huge highlight.  It sits motionless during the day, and is very tame and approachable.  Finding the awesome Spotted Owl (one of my latest Maricopers) quickly has us all going nuts again.  

There are a family of Spotted Owls at Miller Canyon, and this one appeared to be the adult male.  He wasn't as bulky looking as a female would look.  But he sure did give us some strange but yet awesome looks.  It's not too often an owl decides to wink at you..

Andre was also trying to find a Hutton's Vireo.  While we were helping him look, he looked up and spied our second Spotted Owl, which was a little creepy looking fledgling Spotted Owl.  Many owls do look strange during their first life stages, but then they turn into good looking hooters.  This guy looks like he has a long way to go.  But he does take after his dad with the eye winking: like father, like son.

He did eventually get a little more curious.  It's really neat to see owls in different plumages like this.  This was my first fledgling Spotted Owl.

Because of the nature of daytime behavior of the Spotted Owl, these tame birds who rarely move during the day will often take one by surprise!  As I looked behind us, the adult female Spotted Owl was right above us.  And we walked right by her without noticing!  This resulted in the best of views that I have ever had of a Spotted Owl.  Binoculars weren't needed, just my naked eye and camera!

Having three Spotted Owls in a day is nothing short of amazing too.  The adult female was preening and moving around a bit on her perch.  She had a young one to watch!  It's crazy how these birds can just perch there motionless and many will walk be them without noticing.  This series of photos will show the awesome female Spotted Owl.

After the epic Spotted Owls, the four of us headed for the hummingbird feeders at the awesome Beatty's Guest Ranch for our final target of the day.  Before our target, we were seeing plenty of other hummingbirds.  The male Broad-tailed Hummingbird was one of them.

After twenty minutes of waiting, we had our final and third epic target of the day come in for a landing, the White-eared Hummingbird.  This Mexican hummingbird is rare but annual in southeastern Arizona on an annual basis.  The hummingbird feeders at Beatty's Guest Ranch have been a good place to observe this species in Arizona.  We all got great looks at the bird, and George and I had both of our cameras snapping away.  And the hummingbird perched on natural perches most of the time, which makes for much better snapshots than a bird coming to a feeder.  Here's a selection of shots I was able to get of Mr. White-eared Hummingbird.

After we got all three of our targets, we realized it was already time to go!  When your having fun, seven hours can fly right by.  George and Andre continued on their trip.  George and Andre it was great to meet you, a real pleasure!  After Miller, Magill and I went to St. David to successfully pick up Tropical Kingbird and Mississippi Kite for the year.  It was a great day to be birding and hiking.  Thanks Magill for the fun and awesome trips!!


  1. Why isn't the odd hummingbird a normal male Costa's Hummingbird? Am I missing something that you saw in the field that doesn't show up in the photos?

    1. It was pretty weird in the field, the gorget seemed to consistently be that bright pink color and the bird seemed big for a Costa's. I should've noticed better by my photos when I got home that there's nothing weird about it. It was a ripping brainfart on my part, and it still stinks.

  2. I once saw a photo of a hummingbird showing a very pinkish gorget, labeled a Costa's Hummingbird. I commented to the photographer that it was actually an Anna's Hummingbird, and he showed me several more photos of it from different angles that showed the gorget was a dark purple, and it was clearly a Costa's Hummingbird, and I had to eat my words! Sometimes, their gorget can look odd colors depending on the angle, that's for sure.

  3. Awesome looks Tommy! TheOwlets and return of the White-eared are copious icing on the cake; the NOGO is TOPS!

    1. Hey Laurence thanks!! It was a heck of a fun day! What's your lifer count in Texas and on your long trip so far?