Sunday, December 4, 2016

Kartchner Caverns II: 2015 - 2016

Our Texas misadventure delayed our planned arrival at Kartchner Caverns State Park a little over two weeks. But as this was our second season volunteering at KCSP, it didn’t take us long to get back into the swing of things. Within a week of trailing cave tours, we were ready to resume our lead guide duties.

where we gathered people to do the intro prior to the Rotunda-Throne Room tours
Toward the end of last season at KCSP, Carol had graduated to lead Big Room tours so Tom had a little catching up to do; within three weeks of our return, he too graduated to lead Big Room tours and we settled into our guiding routines.

Melissa and her best pal Bogey
after last tour of the day, coming back down from the cave entrance; Melissa driving
We were parked once again in the Upper Volunteer Village but since our spot next to the water tank had already been taken, we took the next site just below. Our old site was occupied by a new volunteer, Melissa McGrath, a single woman who had recently retired from the Austin Police Department. She and her dog, Bogey, turned out to be fantastic neighbors.
Several volunteers from the previous season had returned including our friend Mike Doyle in his new fifth wheel and truck. And there were several new faces including a handful of seasonal park rangers.

always happy to dine with Jim and Erika Wilson!
Back on our three day work schedule, it left ample opportunity to get reacquainted with friends living in the Sierra Vista area as well as explore some new birding hot spots. The extra time also allowed Tom to work on getting a replacement wheel for the RV, order a new tire, and tire sensor. This took a bit longer than expected as the wheel that was initially shipped was the wrong model (fault of the shipper), and the sensor was the wrong sensor (fault of the shipper). Eventually it was all sorted out and a new tire fitted to the replacement wheel.

Don and Anne at the Bisbee Breakfast Club then sampling expresso
Dave, Mary, Houdi, Carol
Within a week of our return to Kartchner, Canadian RV friends, Anne and Don Aitchison, stopped at the park for several days. They toured the cavern and we spent a day driving through Tombstone and Bisbee. Then not long after Don and Anne departed, another Canadian couple, Mary Russell and Dave Stoker, who were parked at a nearby RV park, stopped by for an afternoon visit.

Diane and Glenn - where else but at the Bisbee Breakfast club!
Still more friends. Glenn and Diane Chambliss, from Madison, had rented a house for a month in Sierra Vista. Unfortunately, this coincided with our birding trip to Columbia so we were gone for most of their time in Sierra Vista. However, after we returned, we managed to spend a day hiking at Ramsey Canyon followed by drinks at their rental before they too left the area.

hiking with Delia, Chuck and Spree
Delia Unson and Chuck Heikkinen, another Wisconsin connection, on a birding tour of the southwest, stopped at Kartchner for a few days. We took them on a hike on BLM property adjacent to KCSP followed by a meal at a Culver’s restaurant in Sierra Vista on the very day of the restaurant's grand opening. So happy to have a Culver’s nearby!

lunch with Nancy
Dick and Sally
Ron, Tom, Julie, Mike, Renell
More lunch meetings. Nancy Novak in Tucson. RVer friends Dick and Sally Werling (our paths cross quite frequently!). And lunch with Ron Stewart (a volunteer at KCSP), his wife Renell, Mike Doyle, and his friend from Tucson, Julie. It’s a wonder we ever found time to work!

road to, and hiking to, Chico Canyon
California Gulch crew
Birding for new ABA ticks found us exploring  few new places: Patagonia State Park, Chico Canyon (near Madera Canyon), and a foray into California Gulch. At Patagonia we were accompanied by Erika Wilson, in search of black-capped gnatcatchers. Alas, we whiffed on the gnatcatcher but were introduced to our now new favorite Patagonia coffee cafe: The Gathering Grounds. Our day at Chico Canyon with Erika, and birding pal Bill Brown, proved more successful where we finally added the gnatcatcher. The third trip was to California Gulch, accompanied again by Bill, Erika and Peggy, friend of Erika's. Our target bird at the gulch was the elusive five-striped sparrow. It remains elusive - best to go when the birds are on territory and singing.

tufted flycatcher
white-nosed coatimundi in Ramsey
A report of a flamed-colored tanager at Ramsey Canyon caused quite a stir. Our first attempt to see it failed but we connected on our second try. Another ABA tick under our belt! However, the next day we learned that unbeknown to us at the time we found the tanager, a tufted flycatcher had also been seen. The next day we returned…and apparently everyone else in Arizona decided to show up as well. We arrived to find Ramsey’s small parking area full. Lesson learned. We stalled for time having breakfast at a nearby restaurant for breakfast. It must really have been our lucky day because when we returned, a parking spot had just opened up. Our luck continued when we overheard the non-birding spouse of a birder say, “What’s that little bird way over there?”. It turned out to be the tufted flycatcher! Sharing our scope, we helped another twenty plus people to get on the bird.
This wasn’t the first report of tufted flycatchers at Ramsey. But they are a rare in the ABA area. A pair has been found in other years but it required a hours long slog up a steep trail - having one so low was a blessing! Typically one has to go to northwestern Mexico, Central America, Panama and Ecuador to see one. Another ABA tick!
When we learned of a streak-backed oriole being seen in a small park in Yuma, we again teamed up with Bill Brown and Erika Wilson for an overnight trip to Yuma. Arriving late in the afternoon we failed to locate the bird. But no matter. We had made plans for an overnight in Yuma in order to make a bid for the bird early in the next morning when chances of seeing the oriole were far better. After about an hour of searching along with several other birders the next morning, the oriole finally made an appearance. Wow! Another ABA tick! And in addition to the oriole making an appearance, we happened upon more birding friends, Claire and Bob Romanak! And, we still had plenty of time to get back to Sierra Vista that included another stop at Dateland, a small date grove known for their date milk shakes, followed by lunch on Erika at an incredible restaurant (Feast) in Tucson. Good birds, friends and food - it's what keeps us going!

searching and finding the oriole; Claire and Bob
Other bird outings included more familiar places. The San Pedro House (Riparian Area), Sunday morning field trips at the EOP,  a drive to Madera Canyon via the unpaved 11-mile Box Canyon-Greaterville Road, Miller Canyon (keeping our not finding a spotted owl streak alive), Fairbanks Historic Town Site, Las Cienegas National Conservation Area, and Fort Huachuca. The latter now required a background check. Obtaining an ID card (good for one month) to enter the fort took about fifteen minutes. Annoying. But we didn’t want to miss out birding the fort. Always a good place for elegant trogon and the only local place for a recurring Sinaloa wren.

Carol's watercolor
Carol had signed up for a watercolor class at the Arizona-Sonoran Desert Museum which was one day a week for six weeks. This required several early morning drives to Tucson. While Carol was in class, Tom walked the museum grounds. Taking a class allowed us close parking access to the museum entrance to the park before the park opened to the public. Early morning was also when many of the animals were the most active. Ongoing I-10 road construction forced us at times to take a more circuitous (but scenic) route through Sonoita. And due to I-10 construction congestion, our first early morning trip to the museum found us driving the alternate route. As we approached Sonoita, we hit a patch of fog cutting road visibility to zero. Frost accumulated on the windshield. And then black ice. It was only reading the GPS that alerted in time to make the correct turn off. Shades of Wisconsin driving. However, dropping down in elevation on the other, and we were just as quickly back in sunny skies.
Coulmbia, SA was our 2016 annual out of country birding destination so in March we took a break from our lead guide duties at Kartchner in exchange for tropical birding (the subject of an upcoming blog).
Upon our return, we had one month remaining on our commitment at Kartchner and the much anticipated arrival of Wisconsin birding friends.
Vicki and Lynn have gone on several of our tropical birding trips. Vicki had birded AZ a few years earlier with friends from the NEW Birding Club, but this was a first time AZ visit for Lynn. Lynn, her partner Laurel, and Vicki flew out in late April, just as we were moving our RV from Kartchner to Tombstone Territory RV.

Lynn and Laurel at Laurel's booksigning
birding the feeders at George Walker House
Inca doves
Laurel, a non birder, stayed in Tucson to attend art classes, work on her next book and enjoy some good old relaxation. On their own while  in Tucson, they drove up to Mount Lemon (Catalina Highway) with a stop at Incinerator Ridge for western wood warblers. All three managed a must do visit to the Arizona-Sonoran Desert Museum. When we finally caught up with Lynn and Vicki they just settled into a motel in Sierra Vista for a few nights.
Wasting no time, we hit the highlights around the Huachuca Mountains area. A trip to Miller Canyon where we (Tom and Carol) finally broke our personal jinx of never seeing a spotted owl at Miller. We stopped at the San Pedro House for a staked out western screech-owl and covey of inca doves. We drove into Fort Huachuca for elegant trogon and as long as we were on that side of town, made a stop at the Ash Canyon B and B feeders (Lucifer hummingbird). We had talked about making the long drive up Carr Canyon but given the time, and realizing we wouldn’t have gotten much in the way of new birds, we instead opted for a drive to Patagonia and the Paton’s feeders (now operated by Tucson Audubon). A drive skirting the Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve Nature Conservancy property netted us great looks at a pair of thick-billed kingbirds followed by celebratory beers at the Wagon Wheel Saloon in Patagonia.

spotted owl, Miller Canyon
While we were busy moving our rig over to Rusty’s RV, Lynn and Vicki made tourist stops in Tombstone (they actually took a stage coach tour of the town!) and in our favorite town, Bisbee. After they settled into the Portal Peak Cafe, they stopped by our RV late afternoon to pick up some new birds and make plans for where to go during the few days they had left in AZ.

dinner at Lori and Mark's; elf owl
Our birding in the Chircahua Mountains area included an early morning drive for thrashers along State Line Road, a couple of private property bird feeding station stops (Bob Rodrigues’s and Dave Jasper’s), and a round trip drive up to the top of Rustler Park (pygmy nuthatches, Mexican chickadees) and a stop in the town of Paradise at the George Walker House feeders. No one can ever be in the Chircuahuas without visiting Cave Creek and South Fork and the Southwestern Research Station (blue-throated hummingbird). A highlight of our time in Portal included an invite to birding friends Mark and Lori Conrad's home for dinner followed by another invite to walk to a neighbor’s property that had a nesting pair of elf owls. At sunset, with coffee and desserts in hand, we marveled as the owls traded nesting duties. At one point both birds were pair bonding (vocalizing) on a branch less than ten feet away!

curve-billed thrasher
All in all, Lynn, Vicki, and Laurel had a great stay. Lynn in particular added over 50 life birds, far exceeding her expectations. As they prepared to fly back to Wisconsin, we too packed up and hit the road, also for Wisconsin. And since it had been far too long since we birded Texas, it was high time to revisit some of our favorite birding friends and and birds.
Before closing out this blog entry we need to make note of the passing of two dear friends. Late November we received the unexpected news that Tom's Army buddy friend, Cecil Pendleton died. Tom and Cecil had trained together as dog handlers at Fort Benning in 1967, then served together in Vietnam at the 48th Scout Dog Platoon in 1968. They stayed in touch over the years through thick and thin. Cecil had come to Wisconsin twice for visits and we managed to get together with him in California as well as at a Vietnam Dog Handler Association reunion in Washington, DC. Cecil was instrumental in providing background information for the 48th's web site.

Cecil and "Lady", LZ Baldy, 1968
Cecil in Wisconsin, Door County, 2007
 
In February we got word that long time friend and birding buddy Dave Dunsmore passed away after a lengthy illness while staying in Florida with family. Tom first met Dave during an Audubon chapter meeting in 1971 when dave brought photos of a heron rookery to display. They became fast friends and he and Tom spent many memoriable years birding together, including Mexico. Most recently, in spite of failing health, Betty and Dave managed a week long visit while we were in Costa Rica in 2014...so glad he finally got to see so many of the birds he had so long had wanted to see.


Dave and Betty in Costa Rica
Odds and ends photos: