Thursday, June 5, 2014

Sparking the Flam at Slate Creek Divide

I've been in crazy form lately, and it all started on the North American Migration Count Day for Maricopa County.  When Kurt Radamaker found a Saw-whet Owl fledgling at Mount Ord and found out that Spotted Owls were still present at Slate Creek Divide, it turned things around for me in a very positive direction as a Maricopa County birder.  Before then, I had never had Spotted, Saw-whet, and Flammulated Owls in Maricopa County, as well as Mexican Whip-poor-will.  I had tried for these rare-in-Maricopa birds in prior years many times without success, but every drought has an ending.  As I teamed up with Tim Marquardt and Kurt Radamaker after the count a few nights later, we had highlights of Northern Saw-Whet Owl at Mount Ord and Spotted Owl at Slate Creek in a short span of three nights!  Both in Maricopa County and both with great visuals.  Tim and I have continued our searches for the other two remaining night targets of Flammulated Owl and Mexican Whip-poor-will.  I've probably camped overnight five times now in pursuit and attempts at these birds altogether this year.  We've thought of different routes and many possible areas to search.  Although we found another Saw-whet Owl in the Pine Mountain and Four Peaks area last week, we missed Flam and Whip there, in an area where we thought we would have success with at least one of these two species.  On this most recent outing on June 4th and 5th, Tim and I were at it again, and were covering a different section of Slate Creek than previous outings.  While I planned to spend the night and next morning at Slate Creek, Tim was available for owling and poor-willing from 9 P.M. to 4 A.M.  And we would utilize every minute of those seven hours of walking, waiting, and listening in darkness.  Before Tim arrived, I had an hour to kill.  I listened for Spotted Owl, and I also enjoyed a show from Common Poorwills in the road.  Prior to this night, I had never photographed a Common Poorwill, but on June 4th that all changed.  And this cooperative bird is to thank!

Common Poorwills are awesome to see and watch.  They aren't the smartest birds either.  Like this individual, they commonly sit out in the road and don't fly until a vehicle is inches away.  Last month, I had one sitting in the road at Mount Ord, and it didn't fly up until I stopped a foot in front of it.  It hovered in front of my car for a few seconds, and was quite the sight.  These birds will get hit quite often by vehicles, because they probably don't really understand what cars are in remote areas like this where vehicle traffic is rarely more than a few cars at night.  I could live with these types of sightings though for any bird!

And this Common Poorwill was indeed my photo lifer of this species.  As my buddy Laurence Butler would say, this photo is a crushing photo for sure!  After photographing this bird, I sat in my truck bed and listened for Spotted Owl and any other owls on the Douglas fir slopes of Slate Creek Divide.  The Common Poorwills continued calling.  I was getting a little bored so I decided to play a Poorwill call from my iPod.  I had two Poorwills fly in.  One almost landed within feet of my truck, and the other was attracted to the call as well as the light of my flashlight.  It flew within a few feet of me and directly into the vicinity of my truck bed.  I thought the bird was going to hit me, but it kicked up at the last second to avoid a Tommy smack down.  Tim then arrived as the Poorwills were still singing strongly during the night at 9 P.M.

After yick-yacking about birds and life for 30 minutes, Tim and I started on our owl and whip quest, which would last for seven hours in epic Slate Creek darkness.  Our first stretch to cover was a better than average trail I noticed on overview maps of the area.  Slate Creek has a nice trail system throughout the area, with a variety of different hiking trails.  This trail Tim and I took went above and was a ridge above and in the middle of the two drainages we walk down to explore that are completely in Maricopa County.  We felt like this was a good bet to hear nightbirds due to the fact it was above the drainages and sound was likely to echo.  Two hours later after listening, we weren't having any luck.  I thought the habitat would be especially good for Whip, darn you Whip!  Tim and I then went back to a few other overlooks to continue searching.  We were hearing Great Horned Owls and the continuous community of Common Poorwills.  Things then got a little more fun when we heard a singing Spotted Owl up on a Douglas fir slope, probably the same bird that we had a few weeks ago.  We kept listening for Flam and Whip without success.  As it was getting close to being 2 A.M., we had one more spot we were wanting to go that's in Maricopa County.

While the main road up Slate Creek Divide is called Forest Road 201, Tim and I went down to a side road, called Forest Road 201-A.  This road starts off in Gila County for the first 140 feet before entering Maricopa County for the rest of the way.  It also heads to a place called Maple Springs.  Sadly, most of this area was charred in the 2012 Sunflower Fire.  Road 201-A parallels another drainage that's in Maricopa County, one that once ran for over a mile with impressive ponderosa pine and oak habitat that had some Douglas fir, much different than the Douglas fir dominated drainages further west down the road two miles.  This road was even better before when the 2004 Willow Fire occurred.  While this spot wasn't heavily effected in the 2004 scene, some of the bird species were.  This road and drainage was a reliable place for Red-faced Warbler in Maricopa County, and Spotted Owls were heard at night, as well as Mexican Whip-poor-will on several occasions.  Although most of the healthy pine forest is gone, there are a few nice patches hear-and there along Road 201-A, and we felt it was worth checking.  On the first 1/4th mile of the road, there is still a small and nice stand of ponderosa pine forest before the massive charring starts.  As Tim and I arrived after 1:30, we started to listen for Whip and Flam, just in case.  While I was convinced I was just wishful thinking as usual with these birds, I thought I did hear a hoot.  Tim then heard a hoot, and then another hoot.  Tim said, "you hear that!".  We both listened, and Tim said, "That's a Flam!".  The bird was clearly audible behind us, and it was a Flammulated Owl, a new Maricoper for both of us!!  I was stoked at the sound of this bird, and I was amazed that we actually had it.  The bird was giving it's single note "poop" call.  While it was west of the road at first in dense oak and chaparral habitat, it eventually flew into the ponderosa pine stand and was actively singing and moving around.  It gave both single note calls as well as it's classic double-note hoots.  I was amazed at the sound of the bird, and I was also amazed that species can thrive from very limited stands of good habitat like this.  We ran down into the drainage and followed the bird around until it stopped calling.  As with most Flams, we didn't get a visual of the bird despite being close to it four or five times.  This took place from 1:45 to 2:00 A.M.  Tim likes to record sounds a lot, and he forgot the equipment in the car.  We then went back to get the sound equipment, cause we knew it would be valuable to have recordings of this bird.  As we went back, I saw a small object kick up and fly through the woods and land on a branch.  I thought it was a big moth at first, but it struck me as a bird the closer I looked.  It turned out to be a House Wren!

After going back to the car and getting the sound equipment, Tim and I went back to listen for the Flam again.  Well, this time, Mr. Flam decided to go quiet.  We waited around for awhile without luck.  Knowing that Flams call throughout the night, we decided to walk further south down Road 201-A for awhile to check other patches of good habitat before returning back to the Flam's stand of ponderosa.  We didn't find anything else, and we went back to the pine stand and immediately had the Flammulated Owl calling.  Tim was then able to get awesome sound recordings.  I then went after the owl in hopes of getting a visual.  I was never able to find the bird perched, but three different times, I saw it fly from it's perch and had decent flight views of it in the light of my flashlight.  These owls are the kings of camouflage, and I even saw roughly where it landed.  Despite this, I still wasn't able to get my eyes on it until it flushed.  This took place from 3:15 through 3:30 A.M.  In this stand of pine, the pine stand is open and spread out between trees, and the understory is very open with medium-sized and scattered oaks.  I think this direct habitat sequence is probably what a Maricopa Flammulated Owl needs to thrive on.  The Owl was a great addition to my Maricopa County list, and it is my 363rd bird for the County, a nice Maricoper!  Below is a map illustrating where the bird was.

After owling, Tim went home and I camped out.  After getting a whole two hours of sleep in the back of my truck bed (which was oddly comfortable), I got up and birded Slate Creek Divide for the morning.  I had the entire area to myself, and I decided to hike in the areas where we owled last night.  As with most outings at Slate Creek, the area is peaceful and the bird sightings do not disappoint.  

Bridled Titmouse

 White-breasted Nuthatch

 Western Wood-Pewee


Zone-tailed Hawk

Here is the stand of ponderosa pine near the start of Road 201-A where we had the Flammulated Owl. 

At one point of the hike, I had cool views of both Mount Ord and Four Peaks from Road 201-A.

The non-avian highlight came from these two "Coues" White-tailed Deer, who were both very curious about who I was when I turned the corner.

And of course, I always have to take pictures from the hikes!  I enjoy this aspect of birding a lot too.

I've seen a lot of the Mazatzal Mountains over the last month.  I may have one more owling expedition in me next week in these mountains.  The birding is always fun at Slate Creek.  Hopefully I'll be able to bird it again very soon.  There is still much to explore here!


  1. That's so awesome you got the Flamm Tommy!!!

    Keep after that Mex. Whip! Although, what on earth will you chase in Maricopa afterwards??

  2. Thanks Laurence it was a big thrill! There is still potential for plenty more in Maricopa after Whip even.
    I still don't even have Greater Pewee yet for county and one I want to start searching for is the Wild Turkey, a very scarce and local bird in the Mazatzals.

    There's always potential for things like Sulphur bellied Flycatcher, Yellow-eyed Junco, and some crazy winter stuff. There's always something, even if I make up my own bird :) JK