ARIZONA SKY ISLANDS AUGUST 10-14, 2011 – TRIP REPORT
I made my annual pilgrimage during “monsoon season” to the “Sky Islands” of SE Arizona August 10th through the 14th of this year. As I have learned over the years, each trip is different, areas never stay the same, certain things can be expected and the unexpected is certain to happen. This trip was certainly a text book case of the above and also, I must admit, my most grueling jaunt into the field in quite some time. I had several goals and targets in mind, some I accomplished and some I failed to accomplish which is OK because it means that I will have to come back for more!
The following is a summary of the trip with enough detail to hopefully make the pictures more interesting and to explain a bit about the area, it’s nature and what the heck I was doing out there.
As I mentioned above, I had some specific goals this trip and I really worked this hard! My goals were: 1) Get decent pictures of a male Elegant Trogon, 2) See and get pictures of the Aztec Thrush that showed up in Madera Canyon (more on that later), 3) Add Five-striped Sparrow to my life list (and photograph), 4) Find and photograph one of the four mountain species of reptiles that Arizona is famous for – Banded Rock Rattlesnake, Twin-spotted Rattlesnake, Arizona Ridge-nosed Rattlesnake and/or Arizona Mountain Kingsnake.
My plan was to hit the Santa Rita, Huachuca, Patagonia and Pajarito Mountain ranges over the four days and nights I would be in Arizona and spend as many hours in the appropriate habitats as possible. I accomplished that goal due to lack of sleep and plenty of energy drinks! I got an average of 3 hours sleep a night over the four days and was pretty well spent at the end of the fourth day! I think old age is creeping up on me as well and a couple of the hikes were a bit more strenuous that a few years ago, more on that later as well. So, with that as a pre-amble, here’s what I did and what happened…
I departed San Diego at 2:30 PM on Wednesday, August 10th and arrived at Green Valley, Arizona a little after 9:30 PM. I would have made better time but I didn’t quite make it out of California without paying my dues. I received a speeding ticket from the CHP about 2 miles from the Arizona border. I was apparently traveling at around 90 MPH when the CHP officer, traveling the other direction used radar to attempt to shore up the budgetary deficit the state is in currently. Of course, I will opt for traffic school and to be honest, the traffic stop was quite effective as I didn’t hit 90 again the rest of the trip, opting instead for cruise control at 82 (the speed limit in Arizona is actually 5 MPH faster than the exact same road in California, go figure that…).
After a quick check-in and a splash of water on my face I headed up Madera Canyon road for a quick round of night driving. The roads had standing water so I assumed there had been some recent rainfall, there were thunderstorms in the general vicinity and it became evident this was the case as toads were well represented driving up the canyon. The lone snake of the night was a young Western Diamondback Rattlesnake. I stopped at the top of the canyon to listen for owls but had no luck however I did see two large Horned Owls lower down the canyon on the road apparently grabbing quick meals of recent road kill and Lesser Nighthawks were also quite common with the usual proliferation of nocturnal insects flying about. Here are some pictures from the evening.
Couch's Spadefoot Toad
Tarantula from Madera Canyon
Sonoran Desert Toad
Western Diamondback Rattlesnake
I arrived back at the hotel shortly after 1 AM and hit the sack, getting as much rest as I would any night of the trip.
The next morning, Thursday, August 11th, I was up and going at 4:30 AM and drove back up Madera Canyon to get an early start on my hike up the mountain to look for the elusive Aztec Thrush. I made a stop at the lower elevation washes to check out the dawn chorus of birds and look for anything unusual. Nothing spectacular but the usual desert sparrows (Cassin’s, Botteri’s and Black-throated) which were out in numbers along with a few other desert species, highlights below.
I parked at the upper Madera parking area and started my trek up the Carrie Nation trail to the area where the Aztec Thrush had been seen. Don’t know if it’s old age creeping up on me, I am more out of shape that I thought or it’s just that 8,000 feet of elevation and a trail that seems to be at a 45 degree angle the entire way isn’t my cup of tea… I have no problem doing 10 even 15 mile hikes and with a pack, but I really huffed and puffed up to the area where the bird was being seen in recent days.
A lone Choke-cherry tree seemed to be the reason it was hanging out in the area (a favorite food of Thrushes for some reason). There were a few early morning birders there already when I arrived and I staked out a good vantage point a bit higher up the trail then a lot of my contemporaries, set up for what I thought would be a good angle at the tree and waited. And waited, and waited, and waited… Nothing but more birding enthusiasts showing up on occasion. I think at top count there were about 20 people up there. Finally, some excitement when a bird flew into the tree after 3 hours of waiting without any sign of life in the canyon. Much to everyone’s disappointment, it turned out to be a Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher, a good bird in its own right being a tropical species that barely makes it into the US but not what we were all hoping for. Another half an hour went by when we all heard a Trogon calling from down-canyon. The Elegant Trogon is another tropical species that actually breeds and nests in the mountains of SE Arizona, not very many of them and they are quite spectacular birds, not an Aztec Thrush but not a bad bird either. With anticipation we waited as we heard the bird getting closer and closer with it’s very distinct call, sort of sounding like a cross between a duck and a pig. All of a sudden a beautiful male Elegant Trogon flew into the Choke-cherry tree, plucked one fruit of a branch and proceeded to perch directly in front of me, eye level, about 25 feet away. One of my goals for the trip was completed as I was able to get off several great shots of this cool bird. Before this all I had was pictures of the more drab female of the species so this was definitely a good start!
The Trogon didn’t hang around for long, I had been up the canyon for over four hours and now the weather was starting to come into play. Distant thunder could be heard and the skies were darkening very quickly. One the first large raindrop hit my head, I decided to head downhill. I caught a couple of comments from some of the birders, one guy ask me why I was leaving so soon. I said, well, it’s going to pour in about a half hour and I don’t want to get my camera gear soaked on my first day, I’ll be back. With that I was gone. A half an hour later, with a steady, light rain pelting me, I was back at my car. It sure took a lot less time to go down the mountain, hmmm. The skies opened up a few minutes later and I saw several of the people that were up there with me running down the hill looking for cover. A deluge ensued and I decided to leave the canyon for the day as this storm looked like it was just settling in.
The rest of the day was not so productive. I drove down to the Pajarito Mountain area stopping at Pena Blanca Lake and driving Ruby Road all the way to Arivaca and back to Green Valley. Rain seemed to follow me the entire day, it was a soggy and unusually cold day, the temperature never went above 71 on Ruby Road and as the sun set, the temperatures quickly fell into the mid 60’s. A beautiful night if you are not searching for reptiles… I was and didn’t find any, one of the only times I have been completely shut out in August in Arizona. I tried quite hard, even went back up Madera Canyon where I was pulled over by the Arizona Department of Game and Fish wanting to know if I was collecting reptiles. The officer was nice enough after he was totally convinced I wasn’t one of “those guys here for the reptile show in Tucson”. Apparently there was some sort of reptile show going on there and the Game and Fish department had sent out extra details to patrol the roads looking for poachers. I let him search my truck which he did very thoroughly. After that he asked if he could see some of my photos so I showed him a few highlights wherein he proceeded to give me some good tips on where to go looking for reptiles. He actually told me about a location I didn’t know about which turned out to pay dividends the next evening! But that’s getting ahead of the story…
I was back at the hotel around 1:00 AM again and by the time I had everything reset for the next day, batteries charged, photos downloaded, etc. it was after 2:00 AM… Another short night’s sleep because I was off to the Huachuca Mountains the next morning.
Below are the few highlights from the rest of the afternoon around Pena Blanca Lake, Ruby Road and Arivaca...
View looking toward Pena Blanca Springs Area, Parajito Mountains
Juv. Black-headed Grosbeak
Ruby Road, heading toward Ruby, Arizona
The rain is coming!
These flowers were blooming everywhere along Ruby Road
A view back toward the Parajito Mountains from Madera Canyon at sunset
Friday, August 12th I was up and out the door at 4:30 AM once again. Stopping to fill up my tank on Sahuarita Road on my way over to highway 83 to Sonoita, then to highway 82 and on to highway 90. I really like this drive, I have done it many, many times and I never get tired of all of the different views of the mountains and plant community/eco-systems you drive through. I was at the gates of Fort Huachuca Army base at 6:45 AM, handed over my credentials, car registration and proof of insurance and I was on my way to Huachuca Canyon, getting there a tad after 7:00 AM.
Other than a few military personnel jogging up the lower canyon road, I had the area completely to myself my entire time there. I slowly drove up the canyon road stopping at several areas and finally at the trail head parking area at mile 1.7 which is as far as you can drive up the canyon. After scoping out the area I started hiking up the trail. I didn’t make it too far when I heard the familiar “oroink”, “oroink”, “oroink” sound, like I said earlier, sounds to me like a cross between a classic duck quack and the oink of a pig. A Trogon was calling in the general area and close at that! I found the bird a short time later, another beautiful male, perched on the highest dead branch in the area and easily viewable! Unlike the Trogon from the day before however, this male had no intention of going anywhere and I watched him for almost exactly one hour, calling incessantly from his perch on the tree. Finally, another Trogon call was heard up canyon, probably his mate which he apparently was calling for. They exchanged calls for about five minutes and then he flew off, not to be seen again. Once again I was able to get some great shots, albeit at a slightly further distance than the previous day but today I got a bird in full, direct sunlight which allowed me to get some pretty decent shots form about 100 feet away.
Elegant Trogon from Huachuca Canyon
More Elegant Trogon shots...
Last Elegant Trogon shot.
After my Trogon experience I went looking for Rattlesnakes, in particular Banded Rock and Arizona Ridge Nosed Rattlesnakes. Also, Arizona Mountain Kingsnake are occasionally found in the canyon as well. However, much like the previous day, the temperatures were way below normal and when I left the canyon around 10:30 AM, the temperature was still in the mid 60’s. Oh, no luck on the snakes…
Here are the highlights from Huachuca Canyon.
Flowers were blooming well in the Huachuca's
Western Wood Pewee on her nest
What I assume was a male Western Wood Pewee in the same area as the nesting female above.
I then drove over to Garden Canyon and drove the five plus miles up to the summit which is pushing 9,000 feet above sea level. Again, the canyon was quite empty. I ran into one small group of birdwatchers that seemed to be with a guide or perhaps it was a bird club outing, there were about 8 people in that group, other than that, there was nobody in the canyon.
I was able to get a few more shots in Garden Canyon:
Common Ravens standing as sentinels near the entrance to Garden Canyon
Red-tailed Hawk right before I surprised him...
Another Western Wood Pewee (very common in this area on this trip)
Mule deer I believe
Lower Madrean woodland plant community
One thing I have not mentioned previously is that SE Arizona was DEVISTATED by wildfires earlier this year. The areas hardest hit were the Huachuca Mountains and the Chiricahua Mountains as well as some areas of the Parajito’s. The area I was birding in this morning was not burnt in the recent fires but all of the areas I normally visit on my trips here were closed, in particular Carr Canyon and Miller Canyon (where Tom Beatty’s B&B along with his world-famous hummingbird feeding stations) suffered considerable damage. As if one horrible issue with the fire wasn’t enough, the heavy rains almost did more damage than the fires. As the mountain hillsides were almost entirely denuded in some areas, there is absolutely nothing to slow down the water from a torrential downpour of a thunderstorm. The watershed in some areas is completely destroyed and huge volumes of water are left to cascade freely down the canyons, cutting new ravines, eroding top soil, and filling other areas with heavy doses of silt and muck. The beautiful pond with Ramsey Canyon Leopard Frogs at the Beatty’s house is now filled with six feet of silt! Luckily for the frogs, they were relocated before the floods as the end-result of these sort of devastating fires is quite predictable! Tom’s B&B guesthouses and his apple orchard also suffered considerable damage and he will probably take at least one year to reopen.
My final stop of the day in the Huachuca’s was at Mary Jo’s B&B in Ash Canyon. She fared better than Tom and while the fires burned completely around her property, the property remained intact other than some badly scorched oak trees that border her fence line. There I was able to get some great shots of some of my favorite hummingbirds, highlighted below.
Same one as he is taking off...
Another Broad-winged Hummer
Beautiful male Rufous Hummingbird at Mary Jo's feeders
More Broad-winged - I was looking for a Calliope which can look similar...
Broad-winged Hummingbird (male)
Lucifer Hummingbird (male)
Probably my favorite Hummingbird that is found in the Sky Islands - the male Lucifer
One more shot of a male Lucifer Hummingbird
Mexican Jays were quite abundant in the canyons
Sonoran Spotted Whiptail
After leaving Mary Jo and the Huachuca Mountains behind I headed back toward the Santa Rita’s stopping at the Sonoita grassland areas and then through Patagonia to Nogales where I connected back up with highway 19 and headed for Green Valley, despite several stops there was little out to photograph. I decided to scope out an area that I was planning on visiting the next day to search for the elusive Five-striped Sparrow. This was a new area for me, I had never heard of it before this trip which is amazing since I have been coming to SE Arizona for years!
There are two observatories along this road which is why the road exists to begin with I believe. One at the base of the mountains called Whipple observatory and one at the very peak of the mountain. I have yet to go all the way up the narrow, winding dirt mountain road but will do so in the future and report back here.
I arrived at the canyon late in the afternoon, the sun was quickly getting low on the horizon. I stopped at the area where Five-striped Sparrows had been reported (Montosa Canyon) but did not see or hear them and then decided to drive for a bit up the canyon. I went about three miles before deciding to turn around before it got dark and because I had other plans for the evening. On the way back down the canyon I saw a lone quail scurry across the road ahead of me. I stopped and the quail was cooperative enough for me to snap a few quick photos. A NEW bird for me, the Scaled Quail was on the edge of the roadway!
Mountain Spiny trying to shed his skin...
A new "lifer" for me! Scaled Quail
This is a view looking down at the lower elevations of Montosa Canyon. The gap between the two mountains below is where Five-stripped Sparrows were being found.
The road from Montosa Canyon is well maintained but very narrow! Looks like great snake habitat, I will be spending more time up here on future trips!
Looking toward the Patagonia/Huachuca Mountain areas from Montosa Canyon
After grabbing a quick dinner in Green Valley I headed up to the area that the Fish and Game warden had told me about. I turned on to the road and was almost immediately rewarded. Literally not more than 100 yards from the entrance to this canyon road was a large Gila Monster! Only the second live one I have encountered in my life. I stopped the car of course and started taking pictures. The lizard was not the least bit interested in anything I was doing and only wanted to continue his casual stroll through the desert night. With great determination he casually strolled across the road and lumbered out of sight into the still night. I made several passes on this road during the evening hours and besides a plethora of owls and nighthawks with a good smattering of toads thrown in, that was all for the evening, it was another cool Arizona night with the temperature dropping well below the 70 degree mark quite early.
Gila Monster - one of two lizards that are considered poisonous that live in North America
Interestingly, recent research seems to indicate that there may be other "poisonous" lizards in the world, for example, the famous Komodo Dragon was long thought to just have a vile amount of bacteria in its mouth causing the bite to be quite serious from an infection standpoint but recent research is indicating that there may be more to it than that...
The Gila Monster is endangered in Arizona, it is against the law to harm this animal in any way, you even should be careful photographing it. There are fines for even disturbing it or "molesting" it as the law states.
Saturday, August 13th was another early start for me, leaving at 5:00 AM my first stop was Montosa Canyon, as explained above, this is an area I had never been to before but it will be a regular stop for me from now on. I had gotten word through a birding user group the day before that Five-striped Sparrows were being seen in the canyon. I was not disappointed when I arrived as the sun was coming up and quickly had Five-stripped sparrow added to my list! I drove up the road that goes to the observatory for quite a ways but turned around before reaching the top, this will be left for another trip. After taking several photos there, I spent the rest of my daylight time in and around the Patagonia area, an area that I have neglected to spend more than a cursory stop exploring. The weather was much more seasonal today, warmer than it had been the past couple of days and the forecast was for normal monsoon season weather. I arrived at my first destination around 9:00 AM, the famous Patton’s B&B in Patagonia. There are several very productive Hummingbird feeders here and the area is known for an occasional rarity or two. I was able to get a few decent shots of hummingbirds before heading off to various other destinations. I also went to the Nature Conservancy site in Patagonia where I hiked a trail along Sonoita creek. Highlights below:
Five-striped Sparrow (another new "lifer" for me!)
Nature Conservancy Headquarters in Patagonia
Violet-crowned Hummingbird (another one of my favorites!)
Female Black-chinned Hummingbird I believe...
The famous "Patton's" B&B in Patagonia
Habitat from the Patagonia Mountains - great looking habitat for herps!
As you crest the peak of the foothills/mountains, the other side consists of vast areas of grassland, this is looking toward Sonoita from the top of the Patagonia Mountains
Flash flood zone
I couldn't quite determine whether someone was still living in this building or not. There appeared to be some fresh sheets in the windows. Was quite in the middle of nowhere in the Patagonia Mountain range
After a full day of exploring the areas around Patagonia I made my way back to Green Valley to recharge, grab a bite to eat and plan my final night drive. The weather was much more favorable as I checked the latest NOAA satellite maps and forecasts for the evening. Tonight there were scattered thunderstorms in the forecast with a bit of cloud cover and warmer temperatures with high humidity. PERFECT for what I wanted to do. I made the decision that I was going to night-drive Ruby road and then after a full pass down to California Gulch and back I would night-drive the Madera Canyon areas until I couldn’t go any more.
I tanked up the truck, checked everything out, put fresh batteries in everything and made my way down to Ruby Road arriving there just as the sun was setting behind the Pajarito Mountains.
Back in Parajito's looking out toward Mexico from near Pena Blanca Lake
While you can't really see it here due to the green grass growing but this entire area was burned this year as far as the eye can see in this photo.
Heading down Ruby Road one more time!
The evening was beautiful, temperature just at 80 degrees and a bit humid with flashes of lightning way off in the distance in Mexico. There was little life other than an abundance of insects until darkness fully settled in. First bit of excitement for the evening were a pair of Common Poorwills that were quite cooperative in allowing me close enough approach to photograph. I was hoping beyond home to find a Buff-collared Nightjar which has been known to be found in the area but I settled for these cool little nocturnal birds, distant relatives to the owls and also a new “lifer” for me.
I was on a time table because I wanted to cover a lot of ground, my plan was one hour out and one hour back and then on the Madera which would give me plenty of night driving time. I made it exactly to Ruby Arizona in one hour from Pena Blanca lake and turned around and started heading back, the time was now around 8:30 PM. Then the snakes started crawling! In a matter of five minutes I had two beautiful Arizona Black-tailed Rattlesnakes as seen below.
Another "lifer" for me - A Common Poorwill.
Arizona Black-tailed Rattlesnake - first one found
Right after the first one, a second one was just getting off the road. He started rattling as soon as my car got near him, giving him away even if I had not of seen his tail going into the brush as I drove up.
This was a very angry yet photographic-wise cooperative snake. He repeatedly struck at me during the photo shoot, mostly when I would move positions though, not at the camera. That gave me the sense that he was trigger his strikes off my heat signature as opposed to movement.
In full defensive posture now, Rattlesnakes will curl into a tight ball with an S shape in their neck, the better the backing behind them, the further they can thrust forward. He was pretty consistent with his strike distance but it is foolish to get too close because I have seen them lunge forward as well as just strike...
A beautiful snake I think!
One more shot of the Black-tailed Rattler
I was quite excited now, there was wildlife coming out, toads, skunks, coyotes, etc. my anticipation was building around what I may find on the road, there are some really cool things down here like the Sonoran Hook-nosed Snake, possibility of a Mountain Kingsnake, etc. I was jazzed! Then the unexpected happened. I came around a corner, saw a small toad in the road at about the same time I heard a “pop” and felt my truck pull very hard to the left. I jumped out to photograph the toad and then noted that my left front tire was completely flat… A blow out! I must have hit the edge of a sharp rock on the sidewall and here I was. Alone, in the middle of nowhere with a big, four wheel drive truck on a narrow dirt mountain road…
I drove on the rim for a little ways until I found a relatively flat area that was wide enough for someone to pass and pulled over. Just about that time two border patrol agents came cruising by and were kind enough to ask me if I had a spare and could change the tire because I shouldn’t leave the truck out there. Like where was I going to go I thought? It was at least 30 miles to the nearest service and it was Saturday night…
So, after they kind of chuckled and drove away I got to work, figured out where my tire changing gear was and got to work. Forty-five minutes later, full of sweat and mud I was bringing the truck down off the lousy scissor jack when a third border patrol agent stopped (a female agent at that) got out and asked me if I could use a hand… I explained to her that she was a little late but thanked her and she drove off to find the bad guys. I took an impromptu shower with a couple bottles of water, changed my clothes (I always have a spare set in the truck with me) and felt as good as new after chugging a half-gallon or so of water.
I was a bit on a downer now because I had spent nearly an hour changing a tire and now my schedule was off and I had probably missed the first “crawl” of the night. FYI, I have found over the years that the snakes in particular seem to move in waves. The all seem to come out more or less at once, usually over a half an hour to an hour time period and while there is still activity for the rest of the night, the major activity of the snakes moving out happens more or less at once. Since I had good indication that it was happening while I was changing my tire (due to the 2 snakes I had just found), I was a little bit disappointed.
Nevertheless, I started on again, albeit with caution as I now didn’t have a spare tire (by the way, I had very good tires which were almost new). The rest of the trip on Ruby road produced a few amphibians but no more snakes. I was on my way toward Madera Canyon area on Highway 19 around 10:30 PM.
I found several Red-spotted Toads in a short time period right after changing my flat tire...
I found a few calling Canyon Treefrogs where there was a stream crossing Ruby Road, there was a granite outcropping and they were all hanging out there calling to their hearts content!
I arrived at Madera Canyon shortly after 11:00 PM, the temperature was 81 degrees and it was quite pleasant. The snake gods were shining on me or taking pity on me, one or the other because I got right into the middle of another “crawl” if you will! It was almost 100% Western Diamondback Rattlesnakes but what the heck… They were coming out in droves! I stopped on one only to see another one crossing the road 100 yards ahead. Then another, and another. All in all, I saw 8 Western Diamondbacks my first pass up the canyon. A dead Longnose snake was disappointing but allowed me to meet another gentleman who was out looking for nocturnal creatures and we had a brief conversation in the middle of the road before both heading our separate ways. I drove the canyon until 1 AM finding two more Western Diamondbacks (for a total of 10) and a Tucson Banded Gecko to top off the night. All in all, despite my back luck with the tire, it was a good night and I will just have to come back and do it again until I get it right!
The first of many Western Diamondback Rattlesnakes
This DOR (dead on road) Western Longnose Snake was a bit disappointing. It was a real beauty!
Tucson Banded Gecko
Another Gecko shot
And one more for the road...
The next morning my plan was to head to the top of Mt. Lemmon in the Catalina Mountains and look for migratory warblers and other mountain species. Unfortunately, the end of the two hour trek to the ski area where the birding is best was quite disappointing when there were thirty to forty cars and twice that many people camped and parked in the area. It was some sort of group event and the place was pretty much bird-less. I made my way down the mountain and made a few stops but everywhere I went there were just tons and tons of people, more than I have ever seen up there!
As if to put an exclamation point to the journey. I decided that since I had a little time to spare due to my lack of success at the top of the mountain, I’d make a quick pass by Saguaro National Park and the Tucson Sonora Desert Museum. Unfortunately, I never got there… I stopped at a turn out near the entrance to the part to check out a bird I had seen fly across the street and I heard a loud hiss… coming from my rear driver side tire!!! There was a large, coppery colored piece of metal protruding from the center of my tire… With no spare, I had no choice but to high-tail it back into Tucson and find a tire shop.
FYI, try finding an open tire store on Sunday morning in Tucson… There is ONE, I found it after having to refill my tire twice at gas stations. The end result was quite satisfactory as the gentleman that owned the tire store happened to have one good used tire that was the right size, replacing my blown out tire, fixed the other flat, balanced my tires, put my spare back on the undercarriage of my truck and sent me on my way home all for $75…
Not the way I wanted to end the trip but as I said at the beginning, that’s part of the adventure! I’ll be back…
Thanks for looking! - Hope to see you out there…
Catalina Mountains above Tucson Arizona
Great Horned Owl
Western Diamondback Rattlesnake
Arizona Black-tailed Rattlesnake
Western Longnose Snake
Tucson Banded Gecko
Sonoran Spotted Whiptail
Elegant Earless Lizard
Mountain Spiny Lizard
Great Plains Toad