Southeastern Arizona - August 2010 - Trip Report
For the third consecutive year I was able to get out to one of my favorite areas in the United States for the summer “monsoon” season in Southeastern Arizona. The monsoon season or more correctly called the monsoon thunderstorm season, is a rainy period that occurs throughout the southwest portion of North America during the summer. In the winter, the primary wind flow in Arizona is from the west or northwest—from California and Nevada. As summer arrives, the winds shift to a southerly or southeasterly direction. Moisture streams northward from the Pacific Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico. This shift produces a radical change in moisture conditions across Arizona and combined with the convective effects of heating, large thunderstorms form and the area is blessed with much needed summer rains.
The reason this is interesting to me, beyond the fact that you get to see some pretty spectacular lightning shows and intense downpours of rain is that the flora and fauna of the area reacts to this event and creates a unique environment for plants and animals to flourish. The summer rains stimulate luxuriant (for a desert) plant growth which in turn provides food for the entire ecosystem, insects thrive, the things that eat plants and or insects thrive and breed and the things that eat them thrive, and so-on and so-on as is the beauty of the natural ecosystem.
Many animals such as the variety of frogs and toads that call this area home depend on the summer rains to breed and while remaining dormant for much of the year, come to life as soon as the first substantial downpours of the summer occur. Areas that seemed devoid of life are now crawling with great variety, water becomes abundant, plants enjoy tremendous growth spurts and migrating animals, mainly birds, take advantage of the abundance and call the area home at least for the summer.
Lightning strike not too far away from the WalMart parking lot in Green Valley, very impressive squall line as well!
The area is also very interesting to me because of the variety of habitats that can be found in a relatively small area. The mountains or “sky islands” as they are called raise dramatically from the desert floor and provide unique habitats unlike anywhere else in the U.S.
This year Lynn and I made the journey down to Green Valley (about 30 minutes south of Tucson and about 30 minutes from the Mexican border) which would be our base camp over the next several days. The monsoon was in full swing when we arrived with thunderstorms racing across the valley like the one pictured above. The lightning was quite vigorous so it was relatively easy to get a few pictures of bolts as the storm moved quickly through the area.
Sunset over Green Valley from the top of Madera Canyon
After checking into our hotel we made our way up Madera Canyon in the Santa Rita Mountains (one of the Sky islands mentioned above) and saw the sunset over Green Valley as pictured here.
Just after sunset I heard the faint call of a couple of screech owls and after a bit of searching was able to find two tiny Whiskered Screech-Owls sitting on a low branch in a pine tree, one of them dining on what appeared to be a large insect. The one with the insect quickly departed but the second one sat quietly allowing close approach and Lynn and I were able to capture some images of this cool, tiny owl.
Whiskered Screech-owl wondering what's up?
Whiskered Screech-owl from near upper Madera Canyon parking lot
After some time with the owl we made our way back down the mountain stopping several times to check out the local nocturnal wildlife that was scampering around in the dark arriving back at the hotel shortly after 10:00 PM and turning in so we could get an early start on our first full day with our destination being the Huachuca Mountains.
I believe this is some sort of Longhorn Beetle, found on road in Madera Canyon
Ord's Kangaroo Rat, again taken from off of Madera Canyon Road - Rattlesnake food!!!
Couch's Spadefoot Toad - plentiful would not be the word to describe how common these were on this trip after evening rains!
Spadefoot toads have special hard "spades" on their back legs to assist them in digging their burrows, hence their name
We got an early start and made a couple of quick stops along the way before arriving at Beatty’s Guest Ranch in the Huachuca Mountains around 8:30 AM. The flower bloom had been incredible and this was having an impact on the usually very crowded hummingbird feeders and after about an hour of observation and knocking off nine species (Anna’s, Blue-throated, Rufous, Broad-billed, Magnificent, Violet-crowned, White-eared, Black-chinned, Broad-tailed), we heard that there was a pair of Mexican Spotted Owls on the trail about a mile and a half or so up the canyon from his place so after grabbing some water from the car we took the steep hike up the canyon finding the Owls in their described location. After taking numerous pictures, we made our way back to the car, the temperatures were heating up rapidly and it was getting boarder-line uncomfortable as we left there and headed to Carr Canyon.
Sunrise over Green Valley Arizona
Interesting grasshopper found in grassland area near Sonoita Arizona
Lesser Goldfinch's were present in Miller Canyon
Everything was blooming, making the hummingbirds very happy but not nearly as interested in the feeder stations like those at Beaty's in Miller Canyon!
Hummingbirds were very plentiful as usual, however, they were very much dispursed
Butterflies were also enjoying the exceptional bloom as well!
This White-eared Hummingbird was at least minimally interested in the feeders providing brief views before heading on. One of my favorites and usually present in Miller Canyon during the summer months.
Unlike their nectar feeding cousins, the Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher could care less about the flowers but was particularly interested in the multitude of insects flying around! This is a tropical species that barely makes it in to the US in summer, most easily seen in the Arizona Sky Islands where they can be quite common and at least easily heard with their distinct call!
Mountain Spiny Lizards are quite common in the higher elevations where they replace the Clark's Spiny Lizard in the ecosystem.
Painted Redstarts are also usually easy to find in the mountain areas of Arizona in the summer, we saw several on our hike up Miller Canyon searching for the Spotted Owls!
Juvenile Mountain Spiny - from Miller Canyon
Mexican Spotted Owl roosting along the creek bed in Miller Canyon
These Owls were so close to the trail that it was quite challenging to take a photograph considering our long lenses. I had to remove my 2x extender and shoot at 300mm and even then, it was hard to get an entire bird in the image!
The Mexican Spotted Owl is a sub-species of the Spotted Owl
I don't think they were too concerned by our presence and the constant clicking of the camera shutter!
Here was another Arizona specialty that we found feeding on some beautiful Agave flowers. This is a Blue-throated Hummingbird, a large hummingbird as hummingbirds go and typically quite agressive with other species.
We saw several Arizona Woodpeckers including this one
I spotted this Cassin's Vireo eating small butterflies as they flittered around in the trees.
Anywhere there is even the slightest hint of moisture on the ground you will often see sights like this one with dozens of butterflies taking a drink.
Carr Canyon held the usual suspects and we stayed up at the cooler elevations most of the afternoon before heading back down into Fort Huachuca and back toward Green Valley where we grabbed a quick dinner and then did a little night driving around the Madera Canyon area finding a few more of the nocturnal denizens that prowl the area after dark including a very nice adult Desert Kingsnake, only the second one I have seen.
American Robin with a mouthful of worms
Western Diamondbacked Rattlesnake
The next morning we spent back at Madera Canyon stopping at the usual spots such as Proctor Wash, the lower, mid and upper campgrounds and feeders but nothing special or of note was sighted.
The Barrel Cactus were just starting to bloom
Many nice wildflowers were blooming at lower elevations
There were a lot of these blooming in sandy areas
Another Barrel Cactus getting ready to bloom
This Cactus Wren was busily building a nest
Phainopepla, they were quite common near Proctor Wash in Madera Canyon, large numbers of them seemed to be moving through
Varied Buntings were also quite common
Female Oriole, I believe it's a Hooded Oriole
These are always cool to see! This Pyrrhuloxia was also found foraging around the Proctor Wash area of lower Madera Canyon
Ornate Tree Lizard
Black-throated Sparrows were also common
Warbling Vireo I believe
More Barrel Cactus
Looking up at the Santa Rita Mountains from lower picnic area
The feeders at the various lodges were mostly attracting Lesser Goldfinch
Nice Spiny Lizard sunning himself on a telephone pole
After finishing up there it was off to Pena Blanca springs and Ruby road however I managed to get a flat tire and had to double back into town and take care of that before heading on. There were ominous clouds quickly building as we made our way to Pena Blanca lake where were we were able to photograph the Least Grebe (a new “lifer” for me) as well as some other birds and herps and then drove down to California Gulch off or Ruby Road to search for Five-striped Sparrows among other things. A stop at Sycamore Canyon yielded a nice Yellow-billed Cuckoo which I have heard there many times on past trips but never seen until this stop. Just past Sycamore Canyon on our way toward the town of Ruby and then California Gulch Lynn was able to scare up a beautiful Black-tailed Rattlesnake! She had gotten out of the car to take a look at some plants along the side of the road. I was sitting in the car with the window rolled down when I heard the snake start rattling vigorously at about the same time that Lynn jumped backwards away from the side of the road. I am not sure how close she came to getting tagged by the snake but it certainly saw her before she saw it! As is usually the case however, it’s first thought was to escape under cover and I had to find a long, dead Yucca branch to pull it out from underneath some dead plant material where it was seeking asylum. Also as usual with this species, it was extremely docile, albeit aggravated by my “wrangling” as I tried to photograph it. All it wanted to do was escape which we finally let it do as it gracefully went down the side of a hill and quickly out of sight. Thunder was echoing across the valleys and distant lightning was quite evident as we made our way down to California Gulch.
Pena Blanca Lake always has a myriad of dragonfly and damselfly species
A bird in molt, a tricky identification challenge...
This Bewick's Wren was busily coating himself in dust, rolling around in the dirt by the lake, didn't mind my presence in the least bit...
This Least Grebe was a great find, one of the few records from Arizona prior to this year
Juvenile Vermilion Flycatcher
Sonoran Spotted Whiptail
Another Canyon Towhee
Cactus Wren nest
View from near Pena Blanca Springs
My quest for the elusive Five-striped Sparrow (which is only found in the U.S. in a couple of small areas including this one) again proved fruitless and the rain started as we started to head back toward Green Valley. The skies really opened up on us as it grew very dark and windy and I was a bit worried because of the dirt road conditions but was glad I had decided to drive my 4x4 truck here this time instead of flying and renting a car. The storm actually moved past us and the skies began to clear before we made it safely back to pavement with an added bonus of finding a Lowland’s Leopard Frog (another new “lifer” for me) in a small pool that had formed from the rain near Pena Blanca Lake. Back on the road, torrential downpour followed us all the way back to Green Valley where we grabbed dinner and then made a quick pass up Madera Canyon road again, the usual assortment of toads clogging the road. At the top of Madera Canyon I again heard the call of the tiny Whiskered Screech-owls but decided not to disturb them as we had already gotten sufficient pictures of them a couple of nights earlier.
Female Blue Grosbeak
Yellow-billed Cuckoo with a nice snack...
Yellow-billed Cuckoo from Sycamore Canyon
Looking north from hear the border on Ruby Road
Cassin's Kingbirds were very common (as were Tropical Kingbirds)
This is a Lowland Lepoard Frog found in a running stream near Ruby Road
Many of the cacti and succulent species were blooming from the recent heavy rains
Good snake habitat!
Thunderstorms loomed just south of the border, Mexico would be about where the low clounds were on the horizon...
This Black-tailed Rattlesnake startled Lynn who walked right by it as it hid under a fallen agave stalk
Despite it's looks and very loud rattle, the snake was extremely docile, it's entire interaction with us was strictly one of tryting to retreat, it never struck and was very intent on just getting away.
Close up of the Black-tailed Rattlesnake from Ruby Road
Another shot in a classic defensive position - Black-tailed Rattlesnake.
Sunset on Ruby Road
Evening time in SE Arizona during monsoon season usually means rainbows, today was no exception...
Tomorrow was to be the last day of the trip with a drive back to Fort Huachuca and exploration of two new areas for me before heading for home. On the way back toward Green Valley there were numerous amphibians on the road. I stopped to take a few shots but we were both pretty tied after a long day so we headed back to the hotel and crashed...
The next morning we drove back to Fort Huachuca and on to the Army base. Fort Huachuca Army base is also a nature preserve and many of the canyons there have been permanently set aside for the preservation and conservation of the flora and fauna. We decided to first visit Huachuca Canyon to see if we could find one or two of the nesting Elegant Trogons that were being reported in that area. Trogons are one of my favorite bird species, they are beautifully colored and the males and females show different colorations. They are relatively large birds, about the size of a large pigeon and are very interesting to watch, they tend to sit very still for long periods of time also making them good subjects to photograph IF you can find them!
I was able to locate a pair by hearing the male calling and them just watching the area for quite some time waiting for movement. We finally spotted the male, a beautiful bird that was completely against me taking any photographs of it and after about an hour of frustration I was about to give up when low and behold, the female shows up from nowhere, flying almost directly over my head, calling to the male and then perching high up in a tree across the streambed just long enough for me to click off four or five quick shots! With the day quickly moving on we decided that it was time to move on for one more stop up to the higher elevations of the Huachuca’s up Garden Canyon.
Female Elegant Trogon from Huachuca Canyon, SE Arizona
Vireo with lunch...
Red-tailed Hawk from grassland area in Fort Huachuca
We had a nice hike at the top of Garden Canyon and I was able to add the last new bird for me of the trip with a Buff-breasted Flycatcher perching nicely while we photographed it. There were also plentiful butterflies in the area and Lynn chased several species around while I was chasing some of the birds.
Butterflies were seen anywhere there was standing water, often in large numbers!
Deer seem to be very common in Huachuca Canyon
We decided to make one more quick stop before heading home and I drove over to Betty Jo’s Ash Canyon B&B to check out the hummingbird feeders, took a few pictures and then started on the six hour drive back to San Diego.
The Arizona Ground-squirrels were raiding the feeders!
Here’s a list of bird species sighted during the trip:
Great Horned Owl
Black-throated Gray Warbler