Arizona 2009

 

I was able to get away for a  few days  in late August (22-24th) to my one of my favorite locations in the US and visit several of the “sky islands” of Arizona.  This has become a more-or-less annual pilgrimage for me and I have posted a few other trip reports in the past but as you will see, each time is a little different and you never know what to expect.  I try to time this trip around the annual “monsoon” season in SE Arizona and this year was no different.  Unfortunately, the season was extremely dry as they go and there was little in the way of rainfall prior to my visit there.  In fact, the entire season was substantially below average this year however I was lucky enough to be there for one of the wetter periods and we had thunderstorms and at least brief periods of rain each day I was there.    My trip would take me through Tucson on my way to my first nights stay in Green Valley then on to the Huachuca mountains on day two followed by a stop at Madera Canyon in the Santa Rita mountains and a drive down Ruby Road to California Gulch near the Mexican border and then finally to the top of Mt. Lemon in the Santa Catalina Mountains on day three.  Here are the general areas I visited (below).

I left San Diego around noon on 8/22 and was in Green Valley a little after 6:30, delayed by a large dust storm that rolled through the area near Picacho Peak on the leading edge of a large thunderstorm.  As mentioned earlier, the year has been very dry in Arizona so wind, which is often associated with thunder cells as they move across the area, kicks up loads of dust and you can have literally zero visibility conditions as these dust storms roll through.  Usually they are short lived as was this one but it literally stopped traffic along state route 10 heading toward Tucson for a short while. 

After checking in to the local hotel I made my way up toward Madera Canyon for some night driving.  A small thunder storm had just rolled through the area at least dampening the surroundings and stirring the local amphibians to life.  As I drove up in elevation toward Madera the amphibians were quite numerous, in particular Mexican Spadefoot Toads and Sonoran Desert Toads but also seemed to stimulate the snake life into action as well.  Over the next couple hours I tallied over a dozen snakes on three passes up and down the road, mostly Western Diamondback Rattlesnakes but also a beautiful (and first for me) Desert Kingsnake (Lampropeltis getula splendida) which is a highly sought-after snake in this area.  Here are some highlights from my first night drive of the trip:

Western Diamondback Rattlesnake

 

Great Plains Toad

Couch's Spadefoot Toad

Desert Kingsnake 

Desert Kingsnake 

Couch's Spadefoot

Western Diamondback Rattlesnake

Sonoran Desert Toad

Sonoran Desert Toad

Western Diamondback Rattlesnake

Couch's Spadefoot Toad

I departed Green Valley early in the morning on 8/23 on my way to the Huachuca Mountains, about an hour and a half drive from where I was spending the night.  If you are a birder, there are a couple of reasons that you come to SE Arizona in the middle of the summer, the first is to pick up the “rarities” that arrive every year from Sonora Mexico, species like Flame Colored Tanager, Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher, Aztec Thrush, Sinaloa Wren, etc. and the second is the Hummingbirds!  It is very possible in a day to see twelve to fourteen different species of Hummingbirds and in my humble opinion, there is no better place to do this than the Huachuca Mountains.  Today was my “hummingbird day” and it turned out to be a great one, seeing 13 species in a span of a few hours.

My first stop was Miller Canyon and Tom Beatty’s Guest Ranch, a world-famous location with a hummingbird observation area second to none.  This year was particularly spectacular, due in at least part to the drying than normal conditions.  A side effect from the lack of rain was the lack of flowers from plants that normally bloom in the summer and provide sources of nectar from the numerous hummingbirds that visit the canyons.  So, since there were far fewer flowers than normal, the hummingbird feeders were in extremely high demand!  I have never seen the sort of action I saw that morning actually, where every feeder had a half dozen or more hummingbirds at it pretty much the entire time and boy what a show, we are not talking about just your run-of-the-mill Anna’s and Black-chinned Hummingbirds but White-eared, Berylline, Magnificent, Broad-tailed, Rufous, Violet-crowned, Blue-throated and Broad-billed as well!  Here are a few highlights from Beatty’s feeders:

 

Anna's Hummingbird

Berylline Hummingbird

Blue-throated Hummingbird

White-eared Hummingbird

Magnificent Hummingbird

Broad-tailed Hummingbird

Anna's Hummingbird

 

White-eared Hummingbird

White-eared Hummingbird

Black-chinned Hummingbird

Black-chinned Hummingbird

Broad-tailed Hummingbird

White-eared Hummingbird

White-eared Hummingbird

Berylline Hummingbird

Berylline Hummingbird (with White-eared looking on)

Berylline Hummingbird

Berylline Hummingbird

White-eared Hummingbird

Broad-tailed Hummingbird

 

Magnificent Hummingbird

Violet-crowned Hummingbird

Anna's Hummingbird

 

White-eared Hummingbird

Berylline Hummingbird

Next stop was over to Betty-jo’s Ash Canyon B&B, another excellent observation area lower down the mountain in the foothills of the Huachuca’s.  Here you typically get a different mix of Hummingbird species including the elusive Lucifer Hummingbird, Calliope, Costa’s and other occasional surprises such as Plain-capped Starthroat.  Today was another great day there as well with Anna’s, Costa’s, Rufous, Lucifer, Broad-billed, Black-chinned, Broad-tailed, and even a rare-for-this-location Blue-throated all readily observed.  Along with the usual cast of Hummingbirds other species were also seen or heard such as Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher, Mexican Jay, Lesser and American Goldfinch, Red-shafted Flicker and more.  Here are some highlights from Ash Canyon:

Calliope Hummingbird

Calliope Hummingbird

Calliope Hummingbird

Calliope Hummingbird

Calliope Hummingbird

Calliope Hummingbird

Calliope Hummingbird

 

Lucifer Hummingbird

  

Lucifer Hummingbird

Mule Deer

Arizona Gray Squirrel

Black-chinned Hummingbird

Broad-tailed Hummingbird

Broad-billed Hummingbird

Broad-billed Hummingbird

Broad-billed Hummingbird

Female Lucifer Hummingbird with a Rufous coming in...

Female Lucifer Hummingbird

Female Lucifer Hummingbird

Costa Hummingbird (possible hybrid)

Male Lucifer Hummingbird

Male Lucifer Hummingbird

 

Female Lucifer Hummingbird

My next stop was Ramsey Canyon preserve where I hiked the main trail to the top, trying to spot an Elegant Trogon as well as trying my luck for one of the other rarities that had recently been spotted in the canyon including Aztec Thrush.  Alas, I was only able to see some of the more common species but it was a nice hike non-the-less with the highlight probably being a beautiful male Painted Redstart that teased and danced its way down the canyon with me.

Arizona Gray Squirrel

Sonoran Spotted Whiptail (Juvenile)

Mountain Spiny

Black-throated Gray Warbler - Taking a quick bath in Ramsey Canyon

Dragonfly from Ramsey Canyon

Ramsey Canyon (Chiricahua) Leopard Frog

American Robin

Painted Redstart

Acorn Woodpecker

After my hike up Ramsey Canyon I drove to the top of Carr Canyon.  Carr Canyon road is a winding, steep, gravel switchback road that climbs about 5,000 feet straight up the side of a mountain.  It’s not for the faint of heart but the views are spectacular.  While I didn’t see anything of note, the drive is always worthwhile and you cross through many interesting habitats for both herps and birds.  This day was not to be anything but a sight-seeing journey but here are some shots from the road up Carr Canyon:

Looking down at Sierra Vista and Fort Huachuca

Another look down the canyon

Carr Canyon from near the summit

This is the road, in good condition

 

Near the summit now

Looking out toward Fort Huachuca

You can see the road down below as it starts to raise in elevation

After my drive up Carr Canyon I started my drive back to Green Valley where I would again spend the night.  I stopped in the grassland area that is between the Huachuca’s and the Santa Rita mountains.  The area is near Sonoita and is a sprawling grassland community with a large wildlife and hunting refuge.  Here you can see many grassland species that are not as readily seen in the mountain areas.  Thunderstorms were rolling through the area and I was on a road that I really didn’t want to be on should I get caught in a downpour so I took a few shots and then headed on my way back toward the Santa Rita’s and Madera Canyon, taking the “back way” to Green Valley through Box Canyon road.

Grassland area near Sonoita with a rain shower moving toward me, lots of rainbows due to the moving nature of these storms and the afternoon sun

Another shot looking out over the grassland, the Huachuca Mountains are in the background

Local denizen of the grassland...

 

There were several large flocks of Lark Buntings, one numbering in the hundreds...

Tropical Kingbirds were extremely numerous

An occasional Cassin's Kingbird was also present

While I didn't see the diversity of raptors that I had seen on previous trips, they were still numerous, including many Red-tailed Hawks...

I got back to the hotel around dusk, grabbed a quick bite to eat and a quick shower and then headed back up Madera Canyon for a little more night driving.  There was a large thunderstorm looming with brilliant lightning flashes constantly lighting up the night sky, I knew my time was going to be limited that evening but I decided to take one quick pass all the way to the top of the canyon and also see if I could find any owls.  The drive up the canyon was fairly uneventful with a couple of juvenile Western Diamondback Rattlesnakes and the usual plethora of Spadefoot and Sonoran Desert toads.  I was just passing the first campground area in Madera Canyon when a large snake slithered across the road and off into the bushes.  I knew it was not a Rattlesnake by the shape and quick movement but it was so large that I was not sure what I had just seen.  I slammed on the brakes, hit the blinkers and grabbed my headlamp, didn’t even bother with the camera because I knew I’d have to catch it if I wanted to get any pictures of it.  There was a steep incline to the left of the road and I saw the snake slithering toward a large group of boulders as I partially slid down the embankment and lunged for the snake, grabbing it firmly by the tail.  It never even seemed phased as I lifted it up and stared with amazement at my first Green Ratsnake!  There are a couple of really prized species of reptiles found in this area.  Last year, I was lucky enough to get my first Mexican Vine Snake, this year, it was to be a Green Ratsnake.  Another sub-tropical species that barely makes it into the US in a few select areas and this was a real beauty!  A full sized one, that had recently had a meal which was quite conspicuous as it had a very fat and full mid-belly section.  The snake was totally un-phased despite my taking it back to the truck, driving to a turn off and conducting a 10 minute impromptu photo shoot.  Here are some shots:

Green Ratsnake - you can see it's extended belly, right above my forearm.

The snake was totally docile and seemed curious about what I was doing...

Green Ratsnake

After I was satisfied that I had enough shots of the ratsnake I returned him to where I so unceremoniously had capture him and then drove the rest of the way up the canyon.  A light rain was already starting to fall as I reached to upper parking lot.  Thunder made it very difficult to listen for owls so I started to drive back down, knowing that a deluge was probably only moments away.  As I left the parking lot a tiny owl flew right in front of my truck and landed in an oak tree.  I slammed on the brakes and as quietly as possible got out of the car.  A beautiful Whiskered Screech-Owl stayed put just long enough for me to take a few shots of it before it disappeared into the night.

Whiskered Screech-Owl

Right after I got the shots of the Screech-Owl the skies opened up and it started to pour, it didn’t let up until I got back to Green Valley, a little after midnight.  I hit the sack with a plan to cover Madera Canyon and Ruby Road during the next day. 

I was on the road back to Madera Canyon at day break and made several stops on my way up the canyon including several washes along the lower elevations where many of the low elevation species were busy in the early morning light.  Highlight was a Crissal Thrasher, looking a little more reddish than one would expect but mostly due to the early morning light filtering through the remnants of last night's thunderstorms.

European Starling trying to imitate a Gila Woodpecker...

Phainopeplas were very common at the lower elevations

Crissal Thrasher in the early morning light near Proctor Wash

 

Crissal Thrasher

Canyon Towhee

Bushtit

Another SE Arizona specialty - Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet

Varied Buntings were quite numerous at the lower elevations

This Warbling Vireo made a quick appearance flying through the area around Proctor Wash

Botteri's Sparrows were also numerous in the grassland areas where you could hear them singing their early morning songs...

'

American Kestrels were also common, looking for early morning insect snacks.

Another, closer look at a Botteri's Sparrow

 

I took a couple of hikes in Madera Canyon in the morning hours.  The first was from the Proctor parking lot area up to the Madera Inn, this is about a 2 mile hike in each direction and it runs pretty much along the path of the streambed so you cross in and out of Riparian habitat the entire way.  You never know what you are going to come across here, anything from Trogons to Zone-tailed Hawks and everything in between so you have to keep your eyes and ears open.  This morning, which was Sunday morning, there were quite a few people on the trail and I stopped a couple of times just to look and listen which is always a very good thing to do as you let the animals settle down and come to you instead of you trying to find them.  In any event, while I didn’t find/see anything of particular note, it was still a fine way to start the morning.

A couple of young Black-headed Grosbeaks squabbling over breakfast...

Bridled Titmice were abundant

Canyon Towhees such as this one could be heard foraging in the leaf litter just about everywhere.

Clark's Spiny Lizards replace the Mountain Spiny Lizard at lower elevations, such as this one.  Diagnostic marks are the fine stripes on the forelimbs...

Another Clark's Spiny

Not quite sure what we have here yet, a Flycatcher, probably a Hammond's...

After finishing my morning jaunt and with the day starting to heat up a bit I decided to try my luck in finding an Elegant Trogon to photograph.  My understanding was that at this time of year they had moved higher up the canyon which meant a hike for me up the Carrie Nation mine trail, probably up into the 7-9,000 foot elevations.   So, I drove up to the top parking area and headed up the hill to see what I could see.  I am not a huge fan of high-elevation, steep mountain trails so I took my time making my way the 2 miles or so up the trail to the Carrie Nation Mine trail where I was told a pair of Elegant Trogons had been seen earlier in the day.  I have seen Elegant Trogons on several occasions, mostly in the Chiricahua Mountains but I have never yet photographed one.  I was hoping that today would be the day!  Well, not everything always goes as planned and I struck out on the Trogons but I did have another nice hike and did see a few interesting species, highlights follow:

Black-throated Gray Warbler

Bridled Titmouse

Painted Redstart

Hermit Warbler

Looking down the Carrie Nation Trail back toward the upper Madera Canyon parking lot

And looking ahead...

Hermit Thrush

A nicely colored Mountain Spiny Lizard (used to be called Yarrow's Spiny Lizard)

A lone Brown Creeper

After getting my fill at Madera Canyon and striking out on the elusive Elegant Trogon I made my way south on I-19 toward Pena Blanca Lake and Ruby Road.  Ruby Road is a well graded dirt/gavel road that winds its way along the Mexican border for many miles, going past the tiny town of Ruby Arizona (hence the name) before coming out near Lake Arivaca many miles later.  Today’s plan was to head to California Gulch and see if I could photograph another Arizona specialty, the Five-striped Sparrow which is only found regularly in a few select areas right next to the border, including, you guessed it, California Gulch.  Also there was a chance, if I stayed late enough, to see the elusive Buff-collared Nightjar not to mention the numerous other species of birds and reptiles that are found in this unique area.  Last year was a great success as I was able to catch and photograph my first Mexican Vine Snake.  So with much anticipation I made my way down to Ruby Road, arriving there in the mid-afternoon with temperatures in the high 80’s and threatening clouds starting to move northward from Mexico.  Here are some of the highlights from the afternoon on Ruby Road:

Near Pena Blanca Springs

 

Looking over toward the Mexican border on Ruby Road

A small group of Black-bellied Whistling Ducks and White-faced Ibis were in a flooded field

Chipping Sparrow

California Gulch Area

I guess this is why they call it "Ruby Road..."

The sprawling metropolis of Ruby Arizona... It doesn't get much more desolate than this...

Botteri's Sparrow 

 

Another view of California Gulch, one of the few places in the US you can see Five-striped Sparrows... unfortunately, I didn't.

Another tropical specialty that enters the US here is the Gray Hawk, this is a young one, that was calling on a regular basis and posed for several minutes

 

Gray Hawk

There is really just too much to see here, between the birds, the reptiles, the mammals, the insects and the plants... Lots of interesting Cacti

And other plants....

This Nashville Warbler was a surprise for me in California Gulch

Thunderstorm starting to roll in over Pena Blanca area

Dragonfly from California Gulch

Double rainbow from near Pena Blanca Springs

The thunderstorms finally caught up with me after I dodged them most of the afternoon and a sudden deluge quickly made up my mind that it was time to retreat back to more hospitable areas where there was some pavement.  While the road was in great condition, it was dirt with a lot of low washes that would not be favorable to torrential rain, not to mention the fact that in three hours out here I had not seen a single individual other than a “hitchhiker” of unknown origin but probably not legally in the country.  On my way out I nearly killed myself trying to catch a snake that was on the side of the road.  I am pretty sure it was a young Green Ratsnake however I’ll never know for sure.  It slithered off the shoulder and into some grass and I went after it.  Unfortunately for me, the grass was disguising a 5 foot drop into a ditch that I did not see until it was too late.  I went down, my camera went flying and I landed face down, luckily in sand, as opposed to rocks which were just to the right of my landing point…  After making sure I was still more or less intact and gathering back my camera (gotta love the durability of Canon, despite a long fall not a problem!) I limped back to the car and headed back toward Green Valley with rain steadily increasing as I went.

I cleaned myself off and had a quick bite to eat and them made my way up Madera Canyon road one last time.  There were heavy showers closing in and I only made it part way up the canyon before it started to pour.  I did get a nice Mojave Rattlesnake, another Western Diamondback and the usual amphibian subjects were out in force but the rain started, I was tired and tomorrow I had a long day so I decided to call it a night and went back to the hotel.

Mojave Rattlesnake

Mojave Rattlesnakes are one of our deadliest species, often having a mixture of both hemotoxin and neurotoxin, a potent combination!

Another Juvenile Western Diamondback Rattlesnake.  I saw over a dozen of them in three nights.

Western Diamondback

Mexican Spadefoot Toad

The next morning I left very early for a drive up to the Mt. Lemon area to chase after early fall migrants that I had heard were starting to move through the high mountain areas.  I left around 4:30 AM and was above 9,000 feet, high over Tucson by 7:00 AM.  I made several stops along the way but the final destination was a parking area by the University of Arizona observatory at the top of the Santa Catalina mountains.   This was to be my last stop of the trip and I was not disappointed, added two new life birds to my list with a beautiful Red-faced Warbler as well as an Olive Warbler among others…  Here are the highlights:

White-breasted Nuthatch

Chipmunk

Western Bluebird

Red-shafted Flicker

Western Wood-Pewee

Hairy Woodpecker

Olive Warbler

Female Olive Warbler, easily mistaken (by me) for a Hermit Warbler.  Note the white edges to the feathers, a diagnostic key...

Orange-crowned Warbler

And my favorite of the trip...  A Red-faced Warbler.

 

Red-faced Warbler

Red-faced Warbler

 

Red-faced Warbler

'

Hermit Warbler

Well, another great trip to SE Arizona and another monsoon season under the belt.  Can’t wait until next year to see what this wonderful area has in store for me!  Hope to see you “out there”!  Following is a species list from my three days in August in Arizona.

Best regards,

Brad

BIRDS OBSERVED:

White-faced Ibis                     
Black-bellied Whistling-Duck         
Black Vulture                        
Turkey Vulture                       
Gray Hawk                            
Swainson's Hawk                      
Red-tailed Hawk                      
American Kestrel                     
Peregrine Falcon                     
Wild Turkey                          
Rock Pigeon                          
Mourning Dove                        
White-winged Dove                    
Greater Roadrunner                   
Whiskered Screech-Owl                
Great Horned Owl                     
Lesser Nighthawk                     
Broad-billed Hummingbird             
White-eared Hummingbird              
Violet-crowned Hummingbird           
Berylline Hummingbird                
Blue-throated Hummingbird            
Magnificent Hummingbird                           
Lucifer Hummingbird                  
Black-chinned Hummingbird            
Anna's Hummingbird                   
Costa's Hummingbird                  
Calliope Hummingbird                 
Broad-tailed Hummingbird             
Rufous Hummingbird                   
Acorn Woodpecker                     
Gila Woodpecker                      
Hairy Woodpecker                     
Northern Flicker                     
Western Wood-Pewee                   
Black Phoebe                         
Vermilion Flycatcher                 
Tropical Kingbird                    
Cassin's Kingbird                    
Western Kingbird                     
Purple Martin                        
Barn Swallow                         
Phainopepla                          
House Wren                           
Northern Mockingbird                 
Crissal Thrasher                     
Western Bluebird                     
Hermit Thrush                        
American Robin                       
Bushtit                              
Bridled Titmouse                     
White-breasted Nuthatch              
Brown Creeper                        
Verdin                               
Loggerhead Shrike                    
Steller's Jay                        
Mexican Jay                          
American Crow                        
Chihuahuan Raven                     
Common Raven                         
European Starling                    
Warbling Vireo                       
House Finch                          
Lesser Goldfinch                     
American Goldfinch                   
Olive Warbler                        
Orange-crowned Warbler               
Nashville Warbler                    
Black-throated Gray Warbler          
Townsend's Warbler                   
Hermit Warbler                       
Wilson's Warbler                     
Red-faced Warbler                    
Painted Redstart                     
Summer Tanager                       
Canyon Towhee                        
Botteri's Sparrow                    
Cassin's Sparrow                     
Rufous-crowned Sparrow               
Rufous-winged Sparrow                
Lark Sparrow                         
Lark Bunting                         
Grasshopper Sparrow                  
Yellow-eyed Junco                    
Black-headed Grosbeak                
Blue Grosbeak                        
Lazuli Bunting                       
Varied Bunting                       
Eastern Meadowlark                   
Great-tailed Grackle

HERPS OBSERVED:

Couch's Spadefoot Toad
Mexican Spadefoot Toad
Great Plains Toad
Sonoran Desert Toad
Clark's Spiny Lizard
Mountain Spiny Lizard
Sonoran Spotted Whiptail
Western Diamondback Rattlesnake
Mojave Rattlesnake
Green Ratsnake
Desert Kingsnake

TO SEE OTHER TRIP REPORTS CLICK HERE!

 

 

 



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