Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Sierra Vista

site at Tombstone Territory RV

sunset at Tombstone Territory

Tombstone Territory RV Resort was in our sights. We had visited the park in October '09 when we caught up with Jerry and Karen Smith, fellow WI full-time RVers and birders who were staying in the park at the time. The park offered spacious sites with unobstructed views of surrounding desert, plus, reasonable driving distances to several popular birding areas in and around the Huachuca Mountains.
Within minutes of setting up our hummingbird feeder, Black-chinned and Anna's Hummingbirds began battling for ownership. In the surrounding desert scrub, Blue Grosbeaks and Lazuli Buntings were seen feeding. Carol took off to replenish our larder while I kicked back and enjoyed the scenery.

Ash Canyon B&B feeding area

We wasted little time on our first full day by visiting some favorite birding haunts. First up was the Ash Canyon Bed and Breakfast, which had grown in notoriety for its multitude of feeding stations. While guests have priority at observation areas, the general public, for a small fee, is welcome. Fees are used to help offset the tremendous costs involved maintaining feeding stations and well worth the price of admission.
Our target bird at Ash Canyon was a Lucifer Hummingbird, which we picked up almost immediately upon our arrival. As we sat and chatted with Mary Jo, the owner and hostess, another couple arrived to join in the viewing. It turned out to be Rick Romea and his wife Cindy, both locals. Rick is active in local birding and environmental issues but was most notably known to us for his article in ABA's Birding Magazine (Vol 41, No 5, Sept 2009), "Full-Contact Birding in the Tropics: Notes from a Crabby Birder", a tongue-in-cheek take on birding trip group dynamics. Cindy had chosen to keep her maiden name, a name anyone from Wisconsin and Milwaukee in particular should recognize: Sprecher.

Praying Mantis at Ramsey Canyon Visitor Center

the Grand View at Ramsey Canyon

After lunch at a local eatery, The Outside Inn, we headed to Ramsey Canyon, a Nature Conservancy property. Birding turned out to be pretty slow but there were loads of butterflies. We had forgotten that it was this time last year when so many different species of butterflies had begun to appear. An interesting aspect of butterfly watching is that the same butterfly can look entirely different with its wings closed or open. Trying to photograph butterflies can also be, well, trying, as they fly and fold or unfold their wings quickly.

Arizona Sister - closed and open

Prior to our arrival to Sierra Vista, Bettie Harriman, co-owner and "mother hen" on the Wisconsin Birding Network, had given us the name of a dear friend living in the area, Erika Wilson. We had arranged to meet Erika at a pre-determined location and carpool to Miller Canyon. Erika is active with ABA and currently serves on its board. If anyone knew where to find a Spotted Owl, one of our target birds for the day, it would be Erika. A pair of Spotted Owls has been seen regularly in the canyon all summer.
Access to Miller Canyon was through the Beatty property (Beatty's Guest Ranch). The Beatty's have an apiary (collection of hummingbird feeders) that are world renowned. We were here for White-eared Hummingbirds, another of our target birds. As with Ash Canyon, a small per-person fee is required to access both the canyon trails and the apiary. As for the Beattys, well, let's just say they are colorful and eccentric and leave it at that.
The trail up the canyon paralleled a rocky stream lined with maple trees which gave way to pine trees at higher elevation. The trail was stone-covered and fairly steep in places thus slow going. Just as well since we spent a lot of time stopping frequently to scan the dense foliage for owls and Carol's knee was giving her fits. Both up and back down the trail, covering over 4 miles, we searched and searched but in vain. They were no doubt around but probably had chosen to roost a bit deeper into the inaccessible recesses of the canyon.

native Coral Bells with cactus

We found the apiary arranged in front of a set of bleachers equipped with portable padded seats (not unlike those used at sporting events) beneath an open-walled tent that blocked direct sunlight from hitting us. Viewing with others present we quickly picked up White-eared Hummingbirds, another life bird ABA sighting for Tom. This now brought us to fourteen hummingbird species on the year, just three species shy of the seventeen possible in the lower forty-eight states. Beryllline, Costa's and Plain-capped Starthroat remained to be found. We could have picked up Berylline's at Beatty's as they had been seen recently but not today. And how unusual would a Plain-capped Starthroat be? How about once in a Blue Moon. Maybe less.

On Saturday we stopped at Fort Huachuca military base. Birders are welcome on the extensive bird rich property through the main gate by showing proper ID (driver license) and proof of auto insurance. Today we concentrated on Hauchuca Canyon where we hoped to see an Elegant Trogon (reported to have been seen the day before) and the elusive Montezuma Quail. The road up the canyon dead-ended at a picnic area and a hiking trail head. Not surprisingly we whiffed on both birds. The year before we had nearly run over a covey of quail in a residential section of the fort on the way to this same canyon. You have to be in the right place at the right time for either species, specially quail.
Leaving the fort we proceeded to drive the Patagonia-Sonoita Loop. Our first stop was in Patagonia at Paton's feeders, another well-know apiary. Violet-crowned Hummingbirds were on our radar. These were easily found among dozens of Black-chinned, Anna's, Broad-tailed and Broad-billed Hummingbirds. Suddenly Mike Mausten, a local birder also on the scene exclaimed, "Plain-capped Starthroat on 9". Feeders at apiaries are conveniently numbered to facilitate drawing attention quickly to a feeder when something special shows. This was a totally out of the blue and unexpected find for us. This rare sighting of a Mexican species allowed us to finally wrap up our life ABA sightings of the 17 ABA hummingbirds possible. However, annually speaking, we were still short a Berylline's and a Costa's. Perhaps we would see them once we returned to Tucson. Our drive through the remainder of the loop netted us a few more species: Thick-billed and Cassin's Kingbirds.
On Sunday morning we again met Erika along with a small group of area birders to tour the water treatment settling ponds. Typically closed on the weekends, special dispensation was afforded the group for access. We added two more annual ticks, Baird's Sandpiper and Ash-throated Flycatcher among the 55 species seen during the two hour walk.
Afterward Carol and I drove to the nearby San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area. Managed by BLM this 56,000 acre preserve was designated a Globally Important Area in 1996 by the American Bird Conservancy (ABC). It's estimated that over 4 million birds annually depend on the area during migration. By the time we had arrived it was too hot in the day for any meaningful birding. We made use of our time by purchasing two T-shirts to replace a couple than had grown worn. Birders never seem to have enough T-shirts anyway.
On Monday we paid a return visit to Fort Huachuca and Huachuca Canyon, plus, Garden Canyon, for another shot at Montezuma Quail and a trogon. The road up Garden Canyon is rough and tumble but lead to two important birding trails. The first, Scheelite Canyon, a steep and rugged hiking trail built and maintained by the late "Smitty" Robert T. Smith, a local birder and conservationist whose years of selfless service protecting the area's resident Spotted Owls made him a local legend. There is a simple plaque honoring Smitty at the entrance to the canyon. Carol's life sighting of a Spotted Owl was with Smitty. Given Carol's troublesome knee, a hike for the owls this time was out of the question.

At the end of the road that lead up Garden Canyon is an upper picnic area and the trail head for the Sawmill Canyon Trail. The trail climbed more gradually at this point through classic pine-oak woodland, a good place for Buff-breasted Flycatcher or Greater Pewee. No luck seeing either but we enjoyed the scenery.

looking up Carr Canyon

Sierra Vista and San Pedro Valley view from atop Carr Canyon

On Tuesday, our last full day in the Sierra Vista area, we drove up Carr Canyon for another shot at Buff-breasted Flycatcher and Greater Pewee; both frequent high elevations. To reach the top (EL. 7,200 feet) one must drive a very narrow, twisting road originally built at the turn of the century to open the area up to gold and silver mining. It was reconstructed in the 1930's by the CCC. The road, while challenging to anyone who suffered from a fear of heights, offered spectacular - dare I say breathtaking - views of Sierra Vista and the San Pedro Valley. Primitive campsites are to be found at the top. We missed Buff-breasted Flycatchers that had no doubt begun migrating south but we manged distant views of Greater Pewees.
We returned to Tombstone Territory RV by late afternoon and while Carol went off to do laundry and collect a few needed food supplies, I settled in to search the surrounding area for birds and prepare the RV for our return to Tucson the next day. While we had not begun our annual bird list with the goal to see 500 ABA bird species this year, we were now starting to get tantalizingly close.

sunset in the west with a rainbow in the east

1 comment:

  1. Congrats on the Starthroat .. I love the rainbow pic