Friday, November 30, 2012

Sierra Vista Rodeo

Dragoon Mountains
Our annual bird list was still wanting for more ticks. But our window of opportunity to find seasonal migrants like wood warblers, flycatchers, and hummingbirds in Southeastern Arizona was quickly closing. April through August are the prime months to catch most of the migrant species that inhabit Arizona. Now it was mid-September. We were anxious to move further south to try and salvage what seasonal species were left to see.
Two mountain ranges, the Huachucas and Chiricahuas attract many birders to Southeastern Arizona. This is where we were headed for the next few weeks, starting with the Huachuca Mountains near Sierra Vista.
The last time we had spent any quality birding in either area was in 2011 when friends Dave and Betty Dunsmore had flown from Wisconsin to join us on a ten day tour of Southeast Arizona. Since then the Monument Fire that started in June 2011 caused considerable damage around the Sierra Vista area. Several birding hot spots were temporarily closed. We had stopped for a brief time on our way through the Sierra Vista area in October 2011 but owing to the time of year and our rush to be elsewhere, we forewent surveying many of our favorite birding spots. Our 2012 schedule would now allow more time to explore what changes had occurred in spite of it being so late in the year.
275 miles after leaving Distant Drums RV we arrived at Tombstone Territories RV Resort. This put us in a comfortable position to visit area birding spots. It also allowed us to reconnect with good birding friend Erika Wilson. As soon as we arrived we made plans to meet Erika along with a small group of birders at the Sunday morning Sierra Vista EOP field trip lead by Erika.
First up, though, we had seen reports of a Rufous-crowned Warbler seen the day before at the Beattys Guest Ranch and Apiary/Orchard in Miller Canyon. This would be a life ABA tick for both of us and while the chances of re-finding such a small bird in the vastness of Miller Canyon were slim, Miller Canyon is also where Spotted Owls nest. Tom Beatty normally charges a small fee for access to the apiary and his more convenient access to Miller Canyon but due to recent flooding, Tom had waived the nominal fee for the weekend. Huzzah!

USGS photos showing Marshall Canyon (above Beatty Gulch and Miller Caynon). Note post-flood scouring

blue arrows indicate debris flow direction
We had read about flash flooding that had occurred in the Huachucas but had no idea of the full extent until we drove the gravel road up to the Beatty's. Under the best of circumstance the road is not a smooth ride but it was evident that the condition of the road and surrounding landscape had suffered. In fact we learned that parts of the road had been graded and repaired by bulldozer only the day before we had arrived.

Beatty orchard and pond before and after (water flowed right to left)
debris field below entrance to canyon trail
But, nothing had prepared us for the sight of devastation we found on the trail that lead up Miller Canyon and to the canyon itself. Due to extensive vegetation loss from the Monument Fire further up the mountain, flash flood waters had pushed post-fire debris from Monsoon rains with tremendous force. What was once a path was now a wide wash, strewn with sediment, large rocks, and boulders. We hardly recognized parts of the landscape. It also made for difficult canyon hiking. Alas, we didn’t find the warbler. Nor did we ferret out any Spotted Owls known to nest in the canyon. We wondered what other birding areas had also been similarly affected by recent monsoon rains.

birding the EOP
On Sunday morning we met Erika and a small band of birders for the EOP bird walk. We managed to pick up a few new annual birds but more importantly it was great to catch up with Erika and meet new birders. Both new to us and new to birding. We added Western Sandpiper and Bullock’s Oriole for the year.

Ash Canyon B&B hummingbird feeders
After we made plans to meet Erika for another bird outing for Tuesday, we headed over to the Ash Canyon Bed and Breakfast. Property owner Mary Jo Ballator maintained several bird feeding stations, most notably a series of hummingbird feeders that attracted some of the area's rarities. While we accrued the two hummer rarities, Lucifer and Plain-capped Starthroat, we also added Broad-billed, Violet-crowned, Blue-throated, and Magnificent Hummingbirds.
Tuesday morning we picked up Erika at a prearranged meeting site then proceeded on to Fort Huachuca, a large Army base. The base had a few canyons noted for birding opportunities: Garden and Huachuca. In the past, fort access meant having to stop at the guard house, sign in, show vehicle registration, show proof of insurance, and show a valid ID for everyone in the vehicle. This time we simply pulled up to one of the post gate houses and showed our picture IDs. Rules can change without warning so it's best to check ahead.
Out of all the fort's possible birding spots, today we focused on part of a paved road that lead toward Garden Canyon and birded the nearly totally dried up ponds at the “gravel pits”. We then shifted out attention to Huachuca Canyon. Along the way Erika had us stop at a birding area just off Allison Road on the main base we had previously not known existed - a pond next to a picnic area. Erika said that the spot was a pretty good site when she did her Christmas Bird Count. In Huachuca Canyon where the road ended, we hiked up Sawmill Canyon Trail. New birds for the year: Red-naped Sapsucker, Hepatic Tanager, and Arizona Woodpecker.
evening meal at Jim and Erika's home
After we dropped Erika off back at her vehicle we spent time picking up a few household supplies and groceries in town before returning to our RV. Erika and her husband, Jim, had kindly invited us to their home for an evening meal. They’re both excellent cooks and hosts who’s company we always treasure so it was quite a treat for us.

one of the "smooth" sections going up Carr Canyon
overlook from Reef Townsite
trail to Clark Spring
Based on the time of year, we skipped a few other birding areas known to be hopping in the spring and summer. We took one full day for a drive up Carr Canyon in the Coronado National Forest. It offered access to higher elevation birds but again, due to the time of year, many species we would expect to see had already departed. The road had also suffered from monsoon damage. Usually a non 4WD vehicle would not have much difficulty but this year, a 4WD vehicle was a must to comfortably get to the top. We stopped to hike at a couple of campgrounds: an interpretive trail at Reef Townsite and the Clark Spring Trail found at the topmost campground, Ramsey Vista. Speaking of vistas, Carr Canyon Road is known for its sweeping views of the valley floor stretching from Fort Huachuca and Sierra Vista out to the San Pedro Riparian District.
We opted to spend our last morning birding once more in Fort Huachuca where we managed to find not one but three Elegant Trogons on Sawmill Canyon Trail! Then it was time to begin to saddle up for Rodeo.

site at Rusty's RV Ranch
great place for morning coffee
Our intention was to wind up in Tucson to our west for a few months, so what might have seemed to some to be a counter intuitive decision, we picked up and moved east, over to Rusty’s RV Ranch and the Chiricahuas on the border with New Mexico and Arizona near the towns of Rodeo (NM) and Portal (AZ). Again, birds played a central role. Naturally, people that know us realize by now that traveling in a straight line is seldom our way.
Our relatively short route east took us through Bisbee, AZ where we stopped for a tasty breakfast at our favorite eating establishment, the Bisbee Breakfast Club. Then we worked our way down to Douglas near the U.S. Mexico border before jogging north into the familiar “Sky Islands” and the San Simon Valley.

Portal birding
picnic with Dave and Betty Coronado National Memorial May 2011
Our last visit to the area had ended abruptly on May 8 when we, along with the Dunsmores, were rousted from the Portal Peak Lodge around midnight. Shifting winds had turned the Horseshoe II Fire (started late that morning) and threatened Portal. This visit would be our first closeup inspection to observe what impact the fire had on the region.
On a side note, In June 2011 a month after a  picnic with the Dunmores in Coronado National Monument, Monsoon rains in the mountains flooded the same dry creek bed which was captured on film by the USGS. Pretty dramatic footage that shows why it's important to heed flash flood warnings.
Rusty’s RV Ranch has been our go to place for larger rigs wanting full hookups. We parked and within minutes of putting out our hummingbird feeder, Black-chinned hummers jousted for ownership.

road to Rustler Park
burned forest and blazing fall wildflowers
We liked Rusty’s for its site elbow room and spectacular views, especially around sunrise and sunset. But the main benefit of Rusty’s was that it put us in a centrally convenient position to reach favorite birding hot spots. The downside was that it’s was good 45-50 miles in any direction for groceries or fuel so planning ahead was a must.
On Sunday, our first full day, we briefly cruised State Line Road for Scaled Quail and Cassin’s Kingbirds. Check. Then we drove up the long gravel road to Rustler Park Campground only to find the campground still closed from the fire from May 2011. The fir-pine trees had clearly sustained a lot of fire damage but it also had opened up the canopy which afforded an explosion of fall wildflowers. Nearby Barfoot Park (down a bumpy, narrow dirt road) netted us Williamson’s Sapsucker, Mexican Chickadee and excellent looks at Olive Warblers. As foreseen, we were too late for a few of the other western warbler species. Drat. Oh - one added note: Barfoot Park was one of six recently designated as National Landmarks!

road to Cave Creek Canyon
Southwestern Research Station
On our return from Rustler we stopped at the Southwestern Research Station where we bumped into birding friend, guide, and Wisconsin native Dave Jasper. Dave shared his latest info on where we might find a few target birds plus we made plans to meet Dave in a couple of days for some one-on-one birding. Our last stop of the day was in Portal for a short walk-about. Again, pretty quiet.

Cave Creek Canyon - South Fork
On our way up to Rustler we had passed quickly through the Cave Creek Canyon area. The next day, Monday, after breakfast at the Portal Peak Lodge Cafe, we parked at Cave Creek Canyon - South Fork to see what, if any, new birds for us might still be present. As it turned out, not much. Further exploration along South Fork access road didn’t produce anything new. We were encouraged to see that aside from the USFS setting a few backfires, South Fork had been relatively unscathed by fire. However, the creek was pretty dry - not surprising for the time of year.

Cave Creek - first you see it then you don't
Tom and Dave clowning about seeing a Crissal Thrasher
Crissal Thrasher through the scope
On Tuesday morning we met up with Dave in front of the Portal Peak Lodge Cafe for a walk-about in Portal where we were keenly interested to find Crissal Thrashers. Dave had assured us they were around and in fact, both Dave and Carol heard one calling. But with my poor hearing I didn’t, so, I would have to see one to be able to count it. Dave assured us that Crissals  were regular visitors to the water features at the house he was caretaking.

yes - fresh bear tracks (but never saw one)
On the way we stopped at property Dave used to own where for years he had maintained feeding stations. Written up in several bird finding guides, many birders included Jasper’s place as a “must see” on their itinerary. A handful of years ago Dave sold his property. Since then it had changed hands twice. We stopped to visit with the current new owner and check for the elusive Crissal Thrasher which of course Carol and Dave heard but not me. Drats again. The new owner had moved Dave’s old cabin to a different location and in its place constructed a modest modern home. The owner has continued to maintain the feeding stations. During a visit to Dave’s current digs, Dave and Carol heard a few Crissals but we didn’t get bins on any. Double drat.

Chiricahua Gallery
After dropping Dave at the cafe parking lot we stopped at the Chiricahua Desert Museum (lots of jewelry eye candy!) and then in Rodeo at the Chiricahua Gallery. The gallery, originally a saloon, then a church, had been transformed into a nonprofit gallery that offered original works by local and regional artisans and craftpersons. Designated by the state of New Mexico as an historic site, It’s been said that the gallery had progressed from booze, to the bible to the brush. The gallery is listed as an official stop on the New Mexico Fiber Arts Trail.
On Wednesday we went back to Cave Creek Canyon. We've never tired of the extraordinary view of the canyon’s entrance. A brief stop at a hiking trail along the road resulted in more of the same - no target birds. We reversed direction and headed up Paradise Road as far as the Paradise Cemetery. Along the way we stopped at a few pullouts to hike down to riparian areas along a dry creek bed. And once more, we were reminded of how different and slow the birding was in late September.

"Willow Tank" wetland
Curve-billed Thrasher
Bendire's Thrasher
On Thursday we revisited State Line Road and stopped at the “Willow Tank” wetland on Sulphur Canyon Road. By contrast to other stops, the place was hopping, probably due to the fact that there was water in the wetland. We saw over 30 species of birds in less than a half hour. What delighted us most were a couple of very cooperative Bendire’s Thrashers mixed in with several Curve-billed Thrashers. Even Jasper hadn’t been able to offer any reliable spots to see Bendire’s this year. One more visit to Cave Creek Canyon South Fork netted us zilch. Well, zilch for any new birds. Thursday evening we stopped at the Rodeo Tavern for some heart healthy bar burgers and beer.
On Friday we were invited once more to Dave’s digs where lo and behold, we managed to pull in not one but two Crissal Thrashers. Normally these skulkers are nye impossible to see but one in particular sat up in the open and called for several minutes. There was even time to retrieve our scope for an extended look. Success!
Friday was our last full day to bird the Portal area. One more pass through a section of Cave Creek then up to the Research Station to take the road to Herb Martyr. All this was for one more try to for Montezuma Quail but no luck. Dave had said that he couldn’t recall a year when the quail were so cooperate. Well, for Dave yes, just not for us.

when it rains in the desert you take advantage
When it started to rain we headed back to the RV. Rusty was having a Friday Happy Hour so we thought we would arrive fashionably late only to discover that we were way, way late - the blasted time zone difference between AZ and NM had struck again. A storm had knocked out power for a few hours so no there was no wifi or power to run the park well's water pump. However, with such dramatic views of the mountains, who cared? After the rain stopped Loggerhead Shrikes worked the desert scrub while Swainson's Hawks soared. Alas, another week in the Chiricahuas was up. Time to prepare for our drive back west to Tucson.

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