Arizona - Chiricahua

Updated: Jan 28

8/12/2021 - 8/21/2021


My brother and I finally got another guy's trip pulled together. We basically made a loop of the southeastern portion of the state; beginning and ending our trip in Phoenix. You can catch-up on that in my post about birding around Phoenix.


From there, we pick up in Wilcox. A strong storm blew in across the Chiricahuas as we arrived in Wilcox. Our original plan was to look for a place in the Chiricahua National Monument for some astrophotography. The next day, we were going to drive up through the Chiricahuas, over the Onion Saddle, and into Portal. In Portal, we would be spending the next couple of nights at Cave Creek Ranch. With the storms, I was a bit hesitant to pick my way across the mountain roads. We drove over to San Simon and caught Portal Rd south, instead. The road is a dirt/rock road with little traffic. We would take our time and bird along the way. We just wanted to be on the road at sunrise. We almost made that. Somehow, we forgot what time sunrise was and did not leave the hotel until sunrise. No big deal.


The key statements above is that there was a lot of rain and that this is a dirt/rock road. We soon got a taste of what monsoon season means. Parts of the road were washed out. Luckily, nothing was so bad that we had to turn back. Water was still actively running in spots. Other spots were dry but heavily rutted. Even if we were in a hurry, we would not have gotten anywhere quickly. We were not in a hurry, though. It was a beautiful, if cloudy, morning.

While driving down this road, I spotted something in the middle of it and pulled to a stop. I backed up a little to take a look and could not believe what we had found.

He was not moving, at first, and he was coated in bits of sand. It looked like he had a hard night with the rain. When we laid down to take his photo, he showed us what kind of mood he was in. No worries, a few distant photos and back in the car to leave him be. Our next surprise guest kept us in the car. We had stopped to take some shots of the prickly pear. They looked beautiful in the light.

Jeff said he saw something move in the brush, and we pulled forward a bit more to see what it was. That's when the badger stuck his head out of the bush to look at us.

He looked like he had a rough night, too. He checked us out for a few minutes and then moved on. We moved on as well, but we did not get far. Calling out in the fields around us were Cassin's Sparrows. This was one of Jeff's target birds. It took a little bit, but we found one close to the road; flying up in display calls and then landing in various bushes.

We had several along the road. We also had Black-throated Sparrow, a large flock of Chipping Sparrow, and an even larger flock of Lark Sparrow. Birding ebbed and waned along the road. Mostly, it was a beautiful morning with the occasional rut or stream that had to be maneuvered. Western Kingbirds were everywhere but stubbornly shy.

Just as we arrived on the outskirts of Portal, I was pretty sure we were going to have to turn back. We hit a large flow of water over the road. Granted, it was concrete where the water crossed, but it looked a bit deep and was moving a bit fast. We looked to see if there was another road, and there was not. There were a couple of birders along the road there, and we stopped to ask them about an alternate route. They, somehow(?), convinced us it was safe. I am not sure why, but I believed them. I really did not want to have to drive all the way back up to San Simon and back down through New Mexico. The key here is to not stop the car. I know this. Once you start to cross, do not stop. If the car dies, you are done. If the water is over the tailpipe, do not try to restart the car. I got the car in, and it started to bog a bit; so, I pushed on the gas. The car picked up speed, and we got across the stretch of water. It was about 15 feet across; so, it was not a simple crossing. I was pretty sure it was going to die on me at one point. The birders watched us cross, and I am not sure if they were rooting for us or if we spoiled their entertainment. I made a mental note not to cross it again.


In Portal, we stopped at the cafe and checked the feeders. No birds. We did have some peccary! They even had babies. They pretty much kept the young ones sheltered from any photos.

We hopped back in the car and pulled into Cave Creek Canyon. This was Jeff's first look at Cathedral Rock since we were kids. It has lost none of its impressiveness.

We also spotted a Hooded Oriole here, which is an impressive bird in its own right. It did not stick for photos, but we got some shots of Blue Grosbeak and Canyon Towhee.

Here is where I temporarily lost my mind. By the time I recovered it, it was too late in the day. What could have happened? I broke the cardinal rule of birding. Get to your target early and first. Our target? A Berylline Hummingbird that had been showing in the area for a while. It is a lifer for both Jeff and I. Instead, I suggested we go check the ranch. It was only 9:00 AM, and no one is in the office until 10:00; so, I do not know what I was going to accomplish. We hung out at the feeders for a bit before moving on. We did have an incredibly close encounter with a Striped Skunk. By all accounts, we just missed the Bobcat.

We had also heard about a family of Elegant Trogon with a nest near the road. We went to look for them next. It appears that the young fledged that morning, and we had nothing at the location. Here, I finally remembered what was important. Cursing myself a bit, we drove over to look for the Berylline Hummingbird. It took a little bit to find the location. The trailhead is not marked. Jeff finally spotted some birders as we were getting ready to go look elsewhere. We got over there to find out that the bird had just left. So, we waited. Then we waited some more. Violet-crowned, Black-chinned, and a Blue-throated Mountain-Gem all made appearances.

An hour and a half later, we called it and went back to the car. I mean - who says let's check out the feeders when there is a lifer a couple miles down the road? Kicking myself, we headed back to the car and tried to figure out our next stop.


The rest of the day was spent hopping around to various locations. We headed out to Willow Tanks to look for a report of Bendire's Thrasher. We stopped at the feeders at Quailway Cottage to see what was there. Pretty much White-winged Dove and a Rufous Hummingbird.

We drove up Paradise Rd to Bob Chapman's place.

The view from Paradise Rd

A biologist from California is watching the place and has quite the feeder setup in place. It was raining when we arrived, and it appears that is when the hummingbirds really come out. I have only seen more hummingbirds in one location in Costa Rica. There were that many. Anna's, Black-chinned, Broad-billed, Rivoli's, Broad-tailed (and their metallic Jetson's-like whir when they fly), Rufous, and my brother's lifer Lucifer's Hummingbird were all there in good numbers. There were probably 5 Lucifer's. I should have got my camera out of the car sooner, but we really just spent a lot of time watching the spectacle.


As the rains subsided, we drove back around to Portal and up the road toward Turkey Creek. We wanted to get a look further up the mountain. What we found was a closed road. Forest Service closed the road at the creek crossing. Our Ford Edge was not cut out for this anyway.

We turned around and birded our way back down the road. We ran across a pack of Mountain Chickadee (my brother's last lifer for the day) along with some Grace's Warblers and a Hutton's Vireo. A family of Western Wood-Pewee were hanging out on a limb. I caught the two young ones right before they flew off to chase one of the parents for food.

We stopped along South Fork on the way down to check the nesting site one more time. As we were driving, an Elegant Trogon flew up along the car and over it. We quickly pulled over and were treated to the site of the mother feeding a recently fledged youngster. He initially rejected his meal. She flew off and returned shortly with the same thing. He gulped it down and then begged for more. Kids.... I wish we had more light, but it was cloudy and getting late.



We tried our hand at night birding after a quick dinner. No luck. Everything was very quiet.


The next morning, there was no playing around. We got up early and went to the Berylline spot, first. We got there at sunrise, which does not mean much in a canyon. It did mean we were successful, though. We did not have to wait long; although it felt long. Within 40 minutes or so, the bird put in two extended appearances. I could not have been more relieved. Lifer number 3 for me and a lifer for Jeff, too. I could not resist a Violet-crowned shot, again, while waiting.

We waited another 40 minutes and did not have the bird, again. We headed back to the car and drove down the road a little ways. There, we found a huge waterfall cascading off the cliff face. Distant but impressive.

We really only had a couple of targets (other than the night birds) left on our list for the area. One of them will require getting to the other side of Turkey Creek. With no pressure, we decided to check some of the other locations around before heading up to check the crossing, again. In Portal, there was a thick layer of fog with the sun hitting it. We had a Blue Grosbeak and a Curve-billed Thrasher perched up down there. The grosbeak made for some interesting pictures.

We drove back out to Paradise Rd and birded it on the way to the Walker House. Along the way, we had a nice flock of migrants: Nashville Warbler, Black-throated Gray Warbler, Townsend's Warbler, Western Wood-Pewee, Olive-sided Flycatcher, and Black-tailed Gnatcatchers were all working their way up and down the sides of the ravine.

At the Walker House, Jeff scored his last lifer here in the Chiricahuas. As we pulled up, we spotted some Juniper Titmice coming into the feeders. We hung out a little bit and tried to do some shooting. Things were a little cramped with the large lenses, and the lighting was a bit tough. We managed anyway.

While there, something odd happened. I do not know if the bats were disturbed by something or if they were just coming back after being out all night. All I know is that there were suddenly a lot of bats flying around the bat houses and crawling up into them. A cool but slightly creepy sight.


We left and drove up Paradise Rd to the creek crossing. Along the way a SF officer flagged us down and warned us against crossing. He indicated that the crossing was open but that it was recommended only for high-clearance vehicles. We got up there, and I decided the Ford Edge was not qualified. So, we went back to feeder hopping. Down to Cave Creek, over to the Jasper feeders, and then the Portal Cafe feeders.

We attempted to hit the feeders at Bob Rodriguez's, next. It had rained again overnight, and the crossing on Foothills Rd was even worse than when we crossed it the morning before. We turned around and headed back up to the Walker House. Our intention was to get better shots of Juniper Titmouse now that the sun was behind the clouds. A giant male Coati had different ideas. He was not going to leave the feeder area.


That's okay, because word was that people were crossing Turkey Creek without issue. We grabbed our gear and piled into the car. The crossing did look better, but it did not look good. We lined up the car and made the crossing without issue. We were finally on our way up to the Onion Saddle. There are three main areas for birding out this way. The Pinery Campground, Rustler Park, and Barfoot Park. The views from up here are incredible, and I wish we could have spent more time in the area. Next time.... We did not have much in the Pinery. The area was burned a number of years ago. I am not sure how safe camping would be. While walking the area, a large tree suddenly snapped and fell not far from us. We birded a bit more and then headed back uphill. Yellow-eyed Junco being our only real species in the area.

We left the Pinery and hit Rustler Park and then Barfoot Park. Both very beautiful areas.

Rustler Park
Barfoot Park

The truth of the matter is that we are here (in Arizona) too late for some things. This really started to sink in about this time. Things are migrating and on the move. An area where I would have expected to find Red-faced and Olive Warblers was pretty much barren. We had American Robin and some imm. Yellow-eyed Junco. On the way over to Barfoot, we had a nice migrant flock with Hermit and Grace's Warblers. There were some Mexican Chickadee and a very cryptic Brown Creeper, too. At Barfoot, we had a single flock of Stellar's Jays poking around the area. On the drive back, we had a flock of Band-tailed Pigeon starting to roost up for the night. Not exactly what I was hoping for. At least the flowers are pretty.

We timed the drive down to get into the lower areas just after dark. As with the previous night, it was quiet. We ran across a guide and stopped to ask him about owls and whips. He said it had been quiet for a week. No joy. I was really counting on it being easy here. I did slip in a little post-sunset photography, but I really needed my tripod, which I had stubbornly left in my suitcase at the lodge.


After a quick dinner and some debate, we came up with a plan for the next day. It was largely driven by the contents of the gas tank. We could try to drive back out to Wilcox over the Chiricahuas. If we ran into issues, we would run out of gas. The safe options were to drive back up to San Simon and over to the Sierra Vista range. Or we could loop down to Douglas and back north from there. We played it safe and chose the route through Douglas. With the extra rain, driving Portal Rd did not seem feasible, and I did not want to spend a lot of time driving in New Mexico. We were still on-plan, but we had eliminated the need for any stops other then Beatty Ranch up in Miller Canyon. We had already picked up Lucifer Hummingbird. The Berylline Hummingbird meant that we did not have a reason so stop in Ramsey Canyon to see the one there. For some reason, I totally disregarded Carr Canyon and a chance a Buff-breasted Flycatcher. It was not a lifer for either one of us, but it would have been nice to see. Basically, we were going to hit Beatty Ranch and then head to Tucson. With this lined out, we set our alarms and then woke up an hour early, anyway. In the dark of night, we pulled out of Cave Creek and waved goodbye to the Chiricahuas. I hope to see them again, soon.


Out of the mountains and onto the canyons. We got to Beatty's Ranch about an hour after sunrise. We paid the fee to sit at the hummingbird feeders and then waited. White-eared Hummingbird is a lifer for Jeff. After some eager moments, the bird finally showed. It came around a few times, and then we decided to head on. A quick inquiry with Tom Jr. indicated that the Spotted Owls in the area were not being seen. Seems we are going to strike out on most the owls and whips this trip.

It was still early, and I thought Jeff might like some better shots at Lucifer Hummingbird; so, we headed over to Ash Canyon. They had just refilled all the feeders there. That seems to have put the birds off. We had a brief look at a female/imm Lucifer's, and then it disappeared. With no luck at the hummingbird feeders, we headed over to the seed feeders. It was pretty quiet back there, too.


Getting a bit bored, we got in the car and started heading toward Tucson. Putting the mountains and the canyons behind us, we headed west into the heat of the day. It was nearly 100 when we hit Tucson. We will spend the rest of our trip birding the area around Tucson and over into Patagonia. We have had to dodge a bit of rain and washed-out roads, but we are doing pretty good. Maybe we can pull some of our missing night birds over in the Madera area. Stay tuned!


Thanks for reading,

Mike





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