Slate Creek has impressive peaks that overshadow the area and forested valleys that are filled with unlimited birding potential. In 2010, Jim Kopitzke and I gave a few drainages in this area their first known birding coverage. Most of the birders won't think to walk down drainages that are intimidating. But Jim and I found it exciting. While the main road at Slate Creek is in Gila County and every thing that is easy to access is in Gila County, the drainage areas are in Maricopa County heading south. Exploring these dense areas resulted in us finding many cool things, such as habitats reminiscent of our southeastern Arizona canyons. Such habitat at Slate Creek is dominated by Douglas fir but also has ponderosa pine, oak, and Arizona sycamore in good quantities. The birding gem we began to explore has given me reason after reason to explore here every year. A few days ago, I returned to Slate Creek Divide with my buddy Sean Fitzgerald. We went down a drainage in Maricopa County and started birding. A huge problem arose as an unexpected pourdown of rain occurred after seeing in the weather forecast that rain wouldn't even be much of an issue. We had a huge bushwhacking exploration planned in the area, one that would take us on a 3.3 mile loop route. Because of the 4 inches of rain we got up there, we were not only drenched, but were also forced to cut back for much of our planned route. Instead of 3.3 miles, we only went about 1.3. It was still a great outing, and I looked up at one point in the drenching hike to see this Spotted Owl perched in an oak tree right along the drainage. Seeing a Spotted Owl perched in the day is something I've wanted in Maricopa County for a very long time!
Rewarding things come when you put years and years of study into one region, and this was certainly one of those things for me. Maricopa County has very few Spotted Owls that we really know of. But when one is in front of you, that is a very neat experience. Last year, also at Slate Creek, I had my very first Spotted Owl at night for the County. I saw the owl at night on top of a snag, and it called for several minutes. I'll never forget the sight of it for as long as I live. Despite walking up and down these dense canyons in appropriate habitat, the Spotted Owl had always eluded me. This time was different.
The location of this Spotted Owl is undisclosed. It's not something that can be shared at all. I'm not trying to be a "bird hog", but this species is federally threatened and I don't want any potential issues or extensive attention being brought to this owl. With me being as big of a fan as I am with Maricopa County's birding region and the Spotted Owl being one of my favorite birds, why would I do anything to jeopardize the County's TINY population? It's not like people would want to even chase this bird. Think about it. The drive up to Slate Creek Divide is on a rough dirt road ten miles up into rugged wilderness. All Maricopa County sections in the area require bushwhacking in hazardous areas full of bears and rattlesnakes. To most, it isn't worth it. These are like cuss words to birders. The "B" word: bushwhacking, the "H" word: hazardous, and the dreaded "F" word: freaky. Spotted Owls can be seen easily at Miller Canyon in southeastern Arizona. Heck, it's only a small step down from the zoo for a variety of birds at Miller Canyon. With that being said, be careful when looking at Spotted Owls, reporting them, or being in their home. Sometimes keeping the owl a complete secret from the public is a wise choice. Because of the species threatened status, officials can fine folks for harassing birds by using playback, flash photography, or being too close. It is best to exercise a respectable distance when looking at this bird, even though it is very tame most of the time. Many of my Spotted Owl observations during my life have come from me not even knowing an owl is there only to look up and having it be only feet above my head! Some things you can't help. Click on the Spotted Owl link on my photographic life list for a few examples. I don't think the Spotted Owl really cares too much about people, and it has no reason to. To see one in my home county right along the drainage I was walking down certainly made my day.
The Spotted Owl was Sean's first ever look at this species after hearing it only once. Despite the miserable rain, seeing the Spotted Owl really made up for us not being able to complete the long route that we wanted to partake in. It was really cool to see Sean get his life look at a bird like this. I never thought I'd see a Spotted Owl while walking in the dense Slate Creek area under pouring rain.
Whether or not I see another Spotted Owl in the day or not for the rest of my life in Maricopa County, I am sure content and thankful for this one. And hey, one was just found at Mount Ord recently too!
The Slate Creek trip was a good one. Read below for my full report. I want to give a very special thanks to Caleb Strand sparking an interest in me to return to Slate Creek Divide and as Caleb would say, to bird hard!
Other report to birding listserv:
Today on June 5, 2015 Sean Fitzgerald and I explored Slate Creek Divide. It was very rainy. This was unexpected prior to our planning as of yesterday, and rain like this wasn't in the forecast. And I really do check my forecast. We got up to Slate Creek Divide and were either rained on most of the time or had to sit back for two hours of our time due to the rain. I wanted to complete the drainage loop hike that I usually do in this amazing area, but the rain killed that idea. However, we did manage to get some good rain birding in.
For those who don't know Slate Creek, it is a higher elevation area that is in the northeastern corner of Maricopa County and a lot of the area is also in Gila County. We stuck to the Maricopa County drainages. I will include a link to Slate Creek Divide from my website at the end of this post, which has directions and information on the area. The road up to this area was in very good condition last year, but now....not so good in many areas. Drive this road wisely and use a vehicle with clearance. Otherwise, not a good idea to attempt birding up here. Coming back I had to drive over a scary stretch of muddy mud. Nothing happened though...thankfully.
We did make it down one of the drainages in Maricopa County, as well as half of one of the others. By the end of it, we were drenched. These drainages look like southeastern Arizona and have a fine mix of Douglas fir, ponderosa pine, oak, and sycamore. Sean and I said more than once that it's hard to believe that this location is in Maricopa County.
In the drainages and a few other stops in the area, bird highlights included GREAT HORNED OWL, an epic SPOTTED OWL, BROAD-TAILED HUMMINGBIRDS, ACORN and HAIRY WOODPECKERS, 8 of the continuing population of DUSKY-CAPPED FLYCATCHERS, GRAY, PLUMBEOUS, and HUTTON'S VIREOS; 2 MEXICAN JAYS, 2 RED-BREASTED NUTHATCH, 5 BROWN CREEPERS, singing HERMIT THRUSH, VIRGINIA'S, BLACK-THROATED GRAY, and GRACE'S WARBLERS, PAINTED REDSTART, BLACK-CHINNED SPARROW, HEPATIC and WESTERN TANAGERS, SCOTT'S ORIOLES, and more. Full list on ebird.
It was a fun birding excursion despite rains most of the morning. Try birding and bushwhacking during the rain sometime, it's a neat challenge and it's now off my bucket list. For directions and more information on Slate Creek Divide, visit the link to the page at my website here:
Tommy DeBardeleben (Glendale Arizona)