Madera Canyon, Santa Rita Mountains, Arizona - April 11-12 & May 15-16, 2007


Since I have been so remiss in posting my trip reports I thought I’d try to get caught up by combining two separate trips to the Santa Rita mountains in Arizona.  These trips occurred in April and May of 2007 and are similar enough that I think posting them as one account still gives you a good idea.  So, in more-or-less chronological order, here we go…


Madera Canyon, Santa Rita Mountains, Arizona, April 11-12, 2007


I had some business in the Phoenix area on April 11th and Tucson on the 12th so what better way to spend some “spare time” then a quick trip to Madera Canyon in the Santa Rita mountains!


I arrived in Green Valley late in the day on the 11th, I checked into my hotel and took off for the Santa Rita’s.  I arrived at the Proctor staging area around 4:30 PM, unfortunately the wind was howling!  In fact, the theme of this entire trip would end up being finding ways to stay out of or avoid the wind!  I spent the afternoon casing the place, seeing what was around and pretty much planning my next morning.  I had a dinner appointment in the evening so there wasn’t a lot of time to photograph.  I did manage to add a lifer as a Montezuma Quail decided to cross the road right in front of me, joined a moment later by it’s mate…  The weather was warm despite the wind, still in the high 70’s as sunset approached.  I hurried back to Tucson for dinner and then decided to take one stab of night-driving before sacking in for the night.  I drove up the road toward Madera Canyon, first finding a DOR Sonora Whipsnake then a Tucson Banded Gecko.  Near the top of the road I spotted a very faint object in the middle of the road, I almost passed it but decided to stop and back up… snake! I thought  to myself as I pulled off onto the shoulder.  When I got out of the car I momentarily lost sight of the snake and then spent a couple of minutes trying to find it again, finally did and was quite excited with the results, another lifer for  me, a Sonora Lyre Snake.  At first I thought it was a Saddled Leaf-nosed snake due to the color pattern but soon realized that it wasn’t!  An unusually marked one at least, I am not sure if this is the common pattern for them here but this is not what a Sonoran Lyre Snake looks like in most of the field guides.  It reminded me quite a bit of a cat-eye snake or even a slug-eater from Central America.  That was it for the evening, I went back to Green Valley and got a few hours sleep with the anticipation of an early start in the canyon tomorrow!  Here are the highlights from the 11th:


A pair of Montezuma Quail ran across the road as I was driving up the canyon, they had no intention of pausing for a photo shoot and I was luck to get one good shot off before they fled into the undergrowth.  Pretty cool looking bird!


There were many deer in the canyon, they appear to be fairly approachable and apparently used to people gawking at them.  I believe this is a mule deer.


Sonoran Lyre Snake, checking out my arm.  They are actually mildly venomous, in the class of snakes that have rear fangs set far in the back of their mouth.  Their venom is strong enough to subdue a small lizard such as a gecko which makes up a large percentage of their diet (they like to eat bats as well).  The few specimens I have encountered however have been extremely docile and I've never had one even attempt to bite.  A large specimen is said to be capable or causing some local discomfort should you allow him to bite you and hold on.


This guy was a little unusually marked, I at first mistook it for a Saddled Leaf-nosed Snake while it was on the ground.


The other somewhat unusual circumstance around this particular snake was that it was found in relatively open ground, they tend to prefer areas with large rock outcroppings although they are occasionally found in areas such as where I found this one.


And here is one of the Lyre Snake's menu items (as well as many other snakes), this is a Tucson Banded Gecko


They were quite common on the road, I saw at least a couple every mile.


I woke up around 5:00 AM, got showered, packed, etc., checked out of the hotel and walked outside into a full force gale wind!  Turned out that as the day would go on the wind would only get stronger, certainly didn’t bode well for the planned morning activities but I didn’t have any choice so off to Madera Canyon I went.  The wind subsided a bit as I entered the canyon and was more coming in gusty bursts than the steady 40-50mph wind which was the case in the valley below, this at least made birding possible although a little challenging.  My first stop was the lower picnic area where a female Hepatic Tanager was scrounging for food, also caught a brief glimpse of an Arizona Woodpecker and the ubiquitous White-breasted Nuthatch’s were in abundance.  I got some good shots of a Bridled Titmouse that was sitting on a low branch, steadying itself against the strong winds that would slam the trees again and again.


Bridled Titmouse


You can't see it here but the wind was blowing so hard that he could barely keep his perch, he was quite determined however to finish off this meal that someone left for him in the campground!



Next stop was the feeders at the main lodge, luckily the wind again was cooperative for a period of time and there was quite a frenzy of activity.  Dozens of Chipping Sparrows interspersed with House Finches, Lesser Goldfinches and several Lazuli Buntings made up the majority of the seed eaters with an occasional glimpse of a Black-headed Grosbeak that stayed on the edges of the feeding area.  A large colony of Acorn Woodpeckers lives in the oak trees at the lodge and they would occasionally swoop down, seeming to laugh and chase away the mixed flock to briefly gorge themselves at the feeders.  Several Mexican Jays were also present, occasionally stirring things up at the feeders as well.  The hummingbird feeders were quite active with many Black-chinned and Broad-billed hummers and a few Magnificent Hummingbirds thrown in for good measure.  Also had a female Anna’s and a Rufous briefly at the feeders.  I took many photos, highlights below:



There were dozens of Chipping Sparrows such as these at the feeders at the Madera Lodge


I was pleasantly surprised to see at least 20 Lazuli Buntings at the feeders as well.  I had only seen this beautiful bird from afar in the past, this time I was able to see him close up, very spectacular bird.


As stated above, the feeders were very busy with a mixture of Anna's, Black-chinned and Broad-billed Hummingbirds with an occasional Magnificent and Rufous thrown in the mix.


A good close-up view of a female Broad-billed Hummingbird.  Their red, wide based bill is indicative.


Quite a surprise was this Cassin's Finch that was spotted mixed in with the other birds.


Lazuli Bunting... Who's watching who?


More Lazuli Buntings...


 One of my favorite subjects, the always photogenic Acorn Woodpecker!


Unlike most other woodpeckers, the Acorn Woodpecker hangs out in a family group, there were at least a dozen of them at the lodge.  They would occasionally swoop down on the feeders and scare the other birds away.


Acorn Woodpeckers stash their favorite food, you guessed it, Acorns in trees where they literally drill hundreds of holes with their beaks.  They store the acorns for later use.


It was then on to the Kubos lodges where the main target of my brief foray was supposed to be hanging out… The famed Flame-colored Tanager!  The activity was also very brisk here as well, seemingly all of the birds were trying to get in some morning meals knowing that the wind would be a challenge as the day went on.  The list here was extensive, I saw three oriole species, Scott’s, Hooded and Bullock’s, Bridled Titmice, White-breasted Nuthatch, Western Tanager, Hepatic Tanager, Mexican Jay, Magnificent Hummingbird, Broad-billed Hummingbird, Black-chinned Hummingbird and a myriad of Warblers including Nashville (lifer), Townsends, Wilson’s, Yellow-rumped and a very persistent Painted Redstart, Acorn Woodpeckers were here too along with a pair of Red-naped Sapsuckers.


I had met a couple of young boys and their father visiting from Washington state down at the lodge, they were struggling with a few bird ID’s and I helped them out, they followed me up to the area I was now birding and as we were standing there talking and ID’ing warblers one of the boys says, hey, what’s that?  I look up into an oak tree directly above my head to see a beautiful male Flame-colored Tanager staring right back at the three of us!  He was quite active and really wanted nothing to do with my camera over the next 15 minutes as I chased him from tree to tree, he finally came down to feed on some orange spears that were placed in a tree and I got a few good looks.  He called incessantly, I assume looking for his mate.  There has been one Flame-colored Tanager in the canyon each year for the past several years, one would assume the same one but I don’t know that for a fact.  I understand that it has bred here in years past, sometimes with a Western Tanager which should create some interesting offspring!


Obviously got it's name for a good reason, this Flame-colored Tanager is a rare visitor to the United States.  One or two pairs are seen each year in the mountains around the Mexican border in Arizona.


The bird almost glows in the right lighting conditions.


I liked this shot as you can compare the coloration to a familiar object, this naval orange on which it repeatedly fed.


Female Hepatic Tanager from around the same area (the Madera Kubos cabins)


Magnificent Hummingbird


A White-breasted Nuthatch, trying to be stealthy!


Scott's Oriole, the one most closely associated with the desert southwest.  I also saw a Hooded Oriole and a Bullock's Oriole in the canyon making it a 3 Oriole day!


The Mexican Jay replaces the Scrub Jay in Madera Canyon


A pair of House Finches and a Lazuli Bunting seem interested in something!


This nesting Painted Redstart just about drove me nuts, I could not get it to sit still for even a nanosecond which led to dozens of blurry photographs as it stayed in the shade as well!


Another Hummer at the feeders


A small flock of Warblers passed through while I was taking pictures of the Flame-colored Tanager.  This Wilson's Warbler led the charge!


Female Hooded Oriole


With the Wilson's Warbler were are pair of Nashville Warblers, a new bird for me!


Also there were a few Townsend's Warblers like this one (and a couple of Yellow-rumped) making for a good mix of Warblers.


This is about the best shot of the Painted Redstart that I was able to get!


Broad-billed Hummingbird showing off it's colors.  Unfortunately the picture is a little blurry, he's quite spectacular in the right light!


Male Hooded Oriole


A behavior I have seen in my back yard, Oriole's sometimes will drink nectar from hummingbird feeders such as this Scott's Oriole getting a quick drink.


After getting my fill on the Tanager and taking some more hummingbird photos I walked the remaining grade up to the upper parking lot and trail staging area hoping that I may get lucky and stumble on an early Trogan.  No such luck but did scare up a few deer and some more common birds.


It was now approaching my planned departure time and the wind was starting to pick up as well.  I made a quick stop back at the feeders at the lodge and the wind was blowing pretty steadily now, and other than a few Chipping Sparrows and the Acorn Woodpecker family, the place was pretty empty.  Here are several more photographs from the morning hike up the canyon:


One of the local residents!


Painted Redstart with a mouthful for the nest!


The feeders were still quite busy!


Black-chinned Hummingbird coming in for a drink...


Painted Redstart again! I guess this is really the best shot I got, he was singing the entire time as well, making him quite easy to find!


Spiny Lizard trying to stay out of the wind and get some sun!


I had allotted enough time on the way down the canyon to take a quick side trip on Box Canyon road.  This dirt road goes about 16 miles and eventually connects up with highway 86, it goes through a multitude of eco systems from lower mesquite desert scrub all the way up to higher elevation mixed conifer woodland however today I was only going to have a half hour total, fifteen minutes in each direction.  The day was now getting warm despite the wind, I’d estimate that it was in the mid to upper eighties, my search had switched from birds to herps and I was hoping to luck out with something before heading home.  Well, luck was with me as I found not one, not two but three Sonoran Whipsnakes in the span of 15 minutes!  Apparently they are quite common here!  I was able to get some shots of one before he bolted, the other two were much too wary for me to even approach but it was a nice end to a quick but successful trip into one of my favorite places in the US!  It was then off to Tucson for more business and then home, the wind howled like I have never seen it before! 


Sonoran Whipsnake


Closer up on him, this was as close as he let me get, he was gone in a flash, I am still amazed at how quick they can move!



Madera Canyon, Santa Rita Mountains, Arizona, May 15 & 16, 2007


In between the time I went to Arizona in April and now, trying to finish the trip report, I had another occasion to visit Arizona so once again, making the best of my available time, I booked a room in Green Valley and drove down from Phoenix to spend the night and morning in the Madera Canyon area.  The weather was certainly more cooperative on this visit, substantially warmer, in the low 80’s,  and less windy then my visit in April however I did not have as much time on this visit arriving in Green Valley very late in the afternoon as the sun was nearing it’s junction with the mountains to the west.  I checked into my hotel, changed my clothes and was off to the canyon just before dusk.



Red-tailed Hawk standing guard near the entrance to Madera Canyon 


The first encounter for me was a pair of Lesser Earless Lizards that were soaking up some warmth on the asphalt on a side road just as the sun was setting, I took a few photos and then headed on up the canyon stopping briefly at the feeders at the Madera Lodge which only hosted a half dozen or so Black-headed Grosbeak’s and a few House Finches.  I drove to the head of the canyon where I was able to hear several owls calling, I believe they were Elf owls but I am not good enough on the audio ID portion of the whole bird watching thing yet and I was unable to locate them despite some searching around in the dark with my flashlight.


Lesser Earless Lizard getting some late-afternoon warmth from the road


Note the lack of ear openings on the side of the head, hence the name "earless lizard"


I then started back down the canyon and back into the desert for some night driving.  There was a substantial amount of life out, including a myriad of insects, some deer and a variety of rodents, scampering across the road in front of me but other than a handful of Tucson Banded Gecko’s the desert seemed pretty devoid of herp life.  My first pass down to the bottom of Whitehorse Canyon Road was a wash but on the way back up I was about to experience not only the highlight of the trip but probably the highlight of the year so far for me!  I saw a small shape on the side of the road that just didn’t look right, it was sort of odd colored and chunky, certainly not a snake but, could it be?  YES, a baby Gila Monster!  Reticulate Gila Monster to be exact!  It had been almost 30 years since my last encounter with one, at a campground outside of Yuma, in a laundry room!  This was much more exciting to be honest and he really gave me a show!  Immediately upon seeing that I was interested in approaching him he started to gape his mouth WIDE open and hiss.  He stood his ground, amazingly so, as I approached him and started taking pictures and more pictures and more pictures!  After I was satisfied that I had enough I tried to get him off the road by nudging him with a stick and he wanted nothing to do with that, again gaping his mouth and hissing wildly.  Finally, I was able to slip the stick underneath his belly and he grabbed on to it with the claws of his front legs and I was able to lift him to safety, well off the road – which gives me the opportunity to editorialize now… What I did, moving him off the road to safety was totally illegal!  According to my understanding of Arizona Game & Fish laws, that would have been considered “harassment” and I would have been subject to a $1,000 fine and/or jail time if I had been caught.  So here is my written confession and I would have done it right in front of a warden if need be, sometimes laws have the right intent but are implemented without much foresight…  In any event, hopefully he will grow up to full size and never get near the road again! 


Reticulate Gila Monster


They are very slow moving generally, this one was no exception


 Now he is starting to get irritated that I am taking so many pictures!


Note the all-black mouth, nice effect!



I think they are quite prehistoric looking!


After I moved him off the road


Finally deciding to go on his way.


I spent another hour night driving but other than the occasional gecko there was nothing to be seen that night and I was back in my hotel room at a relatively reasonable hour (around 11:00 PM) with a plan of getting up at dawn and hitting the canyon for some bird watching before having to head back up to Phoenix.


I was up and at the lower parking lot in Madera Canyon by 6:30 AM, there were already several groups of people hiking around the area, probably looking for the Black-capped Gnatcatcher family that had been reported in the area.  A fairly rare breeder in the US, a couple had decided to start a family in Madera Canyon and there they were, not 25 feet off the parking lot, a make and female bringing an assortment of insects back to their recently fledged offspring.  I was able to get a few good shots of the male as he made his way back to the youngsters with a tasty caterpillar!


Black-capped Gnatcatcher getting some food for the babies!


The male and female were feeding their young who where hiding in some bushes just off the trail, already out of their nest.




There were a lot of people in the canyon this morning, I think it had an impact on some of the bird life.  I also noted that the feeders at the Madera Lodge were devoid of food and there were no Hummingbird’s around the feeders.  I parked and hiked up and down the canyon being able to get a few good shots at some interesting birds.  Unfortunately, the Flame-colored Tanager was not to be seen this morning however I had heard that he had taken a Western Tanager as a mate which will probably create some interesting and confusing hybrids down the road!  I also heard a Trogan calling about 2/3 of the way up the canyon but was unable to locate it either.  Here are some highlights:



A Black-throated Sparrow with a early-morning snack!


Gila Woodpecker


House Finch


A trio of Cowbirds


Canyon Towhee


Mule Deer


After exhausting my search of the canyon I decided to take what time was left and try a less well-traveled spot further down in the desert, stopping to take pictures along the way.   I was able to get another life bird in the mesquite-grassland area, a Botteri’s Sparrow, calling from the top of an Ocotillo and then other tall plants along the way.


Western Kingbird


Botteri's Sparrow, singing in the early morning hours


Botteri's Sparrow




I came across a very large Sonoran Whipsnake getting some morning sun, in the middle of the road but I was unable to approach him close enough to bother with pictures.  Also was able to get a few shots of some other desert inhabitants such as the Black-throated Sparrow and Desert Spiny.  Soon, the sun was getting higher in the sky, it was getting hotter and I had to flee back to Phoenix for one more meeting before flying home.  Here are some additional shots from trip #2 this year to Madera Canyon.  I’ll be back again soon and I am sure I’ll have more to share. 




Plumbeous Vireo from the Madera Kubos area


 Same Vireo


A Cordilleran Flycatcher


Black-headed Grosbeak were EVERYWHERE!


 Mountain Spiny Lizard



Desert Spiny Lizard


Loggerhead Shrike


Black-throated Sparrow's were extremely common in the lower areas of the canyon



Lesser Earless Lizard looking on.


A young Red-tailed Hawk


White-winged Doves were everywhere as well


This was interesting, a young Curve-billed thrasher watched one of it's parents feeding on the insects on this grass.  Occasionally the parent would throw the kid a bug but for the most part it was just a watch and learn exercise!




Curve-billed Thrasher




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