Camp Chiricahua. So much to say. Wow. I don’t even know where to begin.
Skip to the Brown-backed Solitaire 😉
Camp Chiricahua 2009 (thank you Chris).
Well, to start off, Camp Chiricahua is Victor Emanuel Nature Tour’s main youth birding camp, which takes place in Southeast Arizona, arguably the best birding location in the United States.
Day 1, Tucson – Arrival, Hotel, Sweetwater Wetlands
The camp started on July 7th. I had arranged to fly in with another New York birder doing the camp, Vinny. After seven hours in the air (over two flights), we arrived in Tucson. We quickly met the leaders, Dave Jasper and Rob Day (who are polar opposites, I might add), and started regretting bringing so much stuff after lugging it outside to the shuttle in the 100+ degree air…
After we got to the hotel, we started birding immediately. Verdin, Hooded Oriole, Lesser Goldfinch, Anna’s and Black-chinned Hummingbirds, Cactus Wren, and many other lifers were all right in the courtyard. What a start!
After waiting a couple hours for everyone to arrive, we headed out to Sweetwater Wetlands, on the outskirts of Tucson, for some afternoon birding. On the way in, we spotted Burrowing Owls in a ditch on the side of the road, but had to wait for a passing shower to move away before we could get a good look. I pointed out a Peregrine overhead, and we saw a young Harris’ Hawk on the ground – not a common sight. At the wetlands, the most notable bird was a Tropical Kingbird, but I got many lifers (number 300 in there somewhere) including Common Moorhen, Cinnamon Teal, and Curve-billed Thrasher.
Rufous-winged Sparrow at the Clarion Hotel in Tucson.
Day 2, Tucson to Portal – Hotel, Desert Museum, Wilcox, Portal
Our second day started out extremely well. We had good looks at a male Vermillion Flycatcher and Lucy’s Warbler right outside our hotel. I also realized that a song coming from some brush outside was that of a Rufous-winged Sparrow, a species not common in Tucson, that Dave said that camp usually doesn’t see until the last day. We were able to call the sparrow in with a recording, and everyone got excellent looks. Well, we saw two more rufous-wings at our first stop, the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum – maybe it was a sign of what was to come. Also at the museum were Black-tailed Gnatcatchers, a close Greater Roadrunner, Phainopepla, Bronzed Cowbird, and an assortment of others. The hummingbird aviary was breathtaking. Several species of hummers buzzed close by. A male Costa’s was supposedly hanging around outside the aviary, but we never saw it. It was 10am, and time to hit the road!
A nice male Costa's in the hummingbird aviary at the Desert Museum.
Our first stop on the long trip from Tucson to Portal was the pizza hut in Wilcox for lunch. On the way there, we picked up Swainson’s Hawk hunting, and after everyone was full, we stopped by Wilcox Pond. There, there were many American Avocets, Wilson’s Phalaropes, and Long-billed Curlews. Black-necked Stilts were also present, along with Least and Western Sandpipers. This is where we met up with Chris West, who was on the camp last year, and this year was doing some bird guiding for Dave Jasper. He ID’d a lone California Gull sitting amongst the Curlews.
An Avocet at Wilcox.
As we continued on towards Portal, the sky darkened. Every July and August is monsoon season in SE AZ. Cool, moist air mixes with the warm, dry air to form almost daily rain storms. The storms begin over the mountains and eventually move into the valleys. We didn’t get hit very hard by the rain, fortunately. Portal is nestled at the mouth of Cave Creek Canyon in the Chiricahua Mountains. It was an amazing sight as we turned a corner and the canyon came into view. Portal, also, was nothing I had expected it to be. A small town of only 65 people, the only non-residential buildings are the store, the post office, and the library. For our four nights there, we were to pitch tents in someone’s backyard. Not exactly rugged camping, especially with unlimited access to a bathroom and kitchen inside the house, but still…
Our first view of Portal and Cave Creek Canyon.
Our first taste of Portal birding was Acorn Woodpecker, Canyon Towhee, Bullock’s Oriole, Brown-crested, Dusky-capped & Ash-throated Flycatchers, Western & Cassin’s Kingbirds, Summer Tanager, Gambel’s Quail, on and on. No wonder Dave, who is a bird guide, works out of Portal. Night birding produced a quick look at Western Screech Owl, but Elf Owl proved too elusive for Chris, who was leading the owling that night 😉
Acorn Woodpecker spying the hummingbird feeders.
Day 3, Portal – Rodeo, Cave Creek Canyon
This was our first morning in Portal. I woke up at 4 (jet lag), but it was all right because I was able to hear the beautiful dawn chorus. I thought I heard Montezuma Quail in there somewhere, but I wasn’t certain. In hindsight, it was probably the trill of a Dusky-capped Flycatcher. Oh well. Most of the camp saw a Rose-breasted Grosbeak, well out of range, at the Portal feeders, but I was not among them.
We took a hike in the main Canyon of Cave Creek and picked up Painted Redstart, Western Wood-Pewee, Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher, all three Mayarchus flycatchers (Dusky-capped, Ash-throated, Brown-crested), Hepatic Tanager, Hutton’s Vireo, Bridled Titmouse, Black-throated Gray Warbler, and many others.
Hutton's Vireo in Cave Creek Canyon.
The portal feeders had Broad-billed, Violet-crowned, Blue-throated, Black-chinned, and Rufous Hummingbirds. A trip into the desert area yielded Scaled Quail, Phainopepla, Bendire’s Thrasher, Lark Sparrow, Botteri’s & Cassin’s Sparrows, “Lilian’s” Eastern Meadowlark, and some other species. I believe I had close to 30 lifers that day! Wow!
Swainson's Hawk over Portal
Day 4, Portal – South Fork Cave Creek, SW Research Station
Day 4 – Trogon Day. Or, it was supposed to be. Elegant Trogon is a bird everyone wants to see. Somehow, we managed to walk past over a dozen nest sites without detecting a single bird on South Fork. Dave said he had never done a hike up the SouthFork of Cave Creek with the camp without seeing or hearing a Trogon. What luck we had!
This Redstart was going back and forth to a nest on the ground.
We did get excellent looks at Painted Redstart, Bridled Titmouse, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Grace’s Warbler, Canyon Wren, Cordilleran Flycatcher, and our first Mexican Jays. Hermit Thrushes serenaded us at many points in the hike, and I had a brief look at a low-altitude Yellow-eyed Junco.
Blue-throated Hummingbird at the Research Station.
After South Fork, we headed to the Southwestern Research Station, also in Cave Creek Canyon. There, we saw a female Flame-colored Tanager that Chris West had kindly staked out for us. Not much was visible besides the head and neck — but hey, I’d take Flame-colored Tanager any time. We also watched the hummingbird feeders for a while, but no luck for Magnificents. Bluethroats put on quite a show, however!
After a fulfilling day of birding (besides not seeing a Trogon), we headed out for night birds. The past couple nights had been somewhat of a disappointment for Owls, and, sorry to say, this was not much different. We heard Western, and maybe Whiskered Screech-Owls, but they didn’t feel like cooperating for the flashlights.
No Trogons, but we did find this rattlesnake.
Day 5, Portal – Paradise Rd, South Fork, Portal
The morning of our fifth day found us trying for some desert specialties. We headed out, and pretty soon picked up Rufous-crowned Sparrow, a gorgeous Scott’s Oriole, a pair of somewhat elusive Black-chinned Sparrows, some bonus Virginia’s Warblers, and even a Crissal Thrasher. Try as we might, Juniper Titmouse did not show itself. Still, 5 out of 6 ain’t bad.
We found this beautiful male Scott's Oriole.
We then drove back to Cave Creek for some upper-canyon birds, past the Research Station. We saw Northern Goshawk (the “Apache” subspecies – the largest of North American Goshawks), and Buff-breasted Flycatcher, which had us going back and forth following its minute late-morning vocalizations in an attempt to see it, which we eventually did.
Due to the unprecedented Trogon-less hike the previous day, the leaders elected to try once again on South Fork. This time, we got a tipoff from someone who had seen one fly across the road that very morning. After creeping through the woods, Dave picked up the faint, omnidirectional begging note of a young Elegant Trogon. After much listening, I spotted the juvi high in a conifer. We then spent the next hour waiting, and waiting, and waiting, for an adult Trogon to come and feed the little one. Although some saw the brightly colored adult male when he made a brief appearance, all I saw was some movement. Pretty disappointing. Not everyone wanted to stick around for another few hours to see the male again, and I didn’t blame them, so we returned to Portal.
Can you see the young female Trogon? Well, many of us couldn't, which is why there's a green laser pointed at it...
After lunch, the group split up. Half of us went to Cave Creek Ranch, and the other half (me included) visited South Fork for a third time to try and see a Trogon. We hiked all the way up and down. No Trogon. Actually, I think the only bird I saw was an Arizona Woodpecker. Coming back down the trail, we heard Pygmy-Owl calling nearby. Everyone was excited, and Chris even exclaimed, “Let’s find this bird!”. Well, the excitement lasted until the “Pygmy-Owl” started yelling “BORK! BORK! BORK! BORK!” It was Dave. Naturally, he and the other half of the group had spent all of 15 minutes in South Fork and already seen a Trogon, while we had spent over an hour looking and had no Trogons to show for it!
Night birds were excellent, for the first time. We had a terrific 3-owl night. Western Screech, Whiskered Screech, and Spotted Owls all gave extraordinary looks. I slept well…
Another specialty - the Whiskered Screech-Owl.
Day 6, Portal to Rustler Park
On our last morning in Portal, we were treated to an excellent breakfast at the Portal Store – eggs, toast, bacon, potatoes, and orange juice. Afterwards, we headed to South Fork, yet again, to try and get a better look at a Trogon. On the way up South Fork, I was only slightly optimistic. It was late morning, and our last reasonable chance for Trogon. About two-thirds of the way up the road, someone jumped out from the trees on the side of the road, waving and pointing excitedly towards the woods. It was Chris West! And better yet, he had followed a Trogon all the way down from the parking lot. We all got great scope looks at the stunning adult male. Our luck had officially turned! Thanks Chris!
Finally! An adult male Elegant Trogon!
Ecstatic after the Trogon, we headed to our high altitude camp at Rustler Park. There was a break in the monsoon that day, so with no rain we had plenty of time to set up tents and walk around. We picked up Mexican Chickadee, Pygmy Nuthatch, Cordilleran Flycatcher, and the “Brown-throated” subspecies of House Wren. After walking around the campground, we headed up to an overlook nearby. On the way, we saw Western Bluebird, and once we got there, a Zone-tailed Hawk was seen coursing over the trees as we looked out over the Chiricahuas. White-throated Swifts were visible over Barfoot Peak, as was a buteo that looked suspiciously like a Short-tailed Hawk, but no conclusive ID could be reached. That night, we tried for Flammulated Owl, but all we got were a few singing Whip-poor-wills. Dave ALMOST stepped on a rattlesnake. but luckily no one was hurt.
A close-up look at a Cordilleran Flycatcher.
Day 7, Rustler Park
We hiked up the Barfoot Lookout loop on the mountain, to an altitude of 8826 feet, our highest on the trip. On the hike up, Olive Warbler, Grace’s Warbler, all three Nuthatches, Mexican Chickadee, a colorful male Magnificent Hummingbird, Broad-tailed Hummingbird, and Western Tanager made an appearance. Once at Barfoot Peak, we had stunning views of the surrounding mountains and desert as well as a close Zone-tailed. On the way down, we had brief looks at a Short-tailed Hawk.
We got buzzed by this low Zone-tailed Hawk on Barfoot Peak.
That night brought one of the many exciting points in the Camp. Our second (and most likely last) chance for Flam, Dave brought us to a road bordered by a steep drop-off on one side, and a steep incline (maybe 60 degrees) on the other. After playing the recording, we heard a Flammulated Owl call back farther up the road. Once there, we played again, and it flew across the road, unseen. However, we couldn’t manage to locate it in the few trees on that side of the road, and before long it returned to the other side, still close. Dave decided to go after it and gazelled up the incline like it was nothing. He promptly found the bird, and a mad scramble up the hill ensued. Ted and I reached the top first and got to see the owl, while most others were still slipping and sliding. After only ten seconds or so, it flew, and we couldn’t relocate it. On the way down, there was more tripping and falling (I luckily emerged unscathed). Some even got bloody legs. After everyone had made it down, Dave nonchalantly slid down the hill on his feet without so much as a loss of balance. Needless to say, we were all very impressed.
Day 8, Rustler Park to San Pedro River Inn
On our last morning in Rustler Park, new birds were an “Audubon’s” Yellow-rumped Warbler and calling Red Crossbills.Then, off we went down the mountain. No Montezuma Quails. On our way southwest to the San Pedro River Inn, we stopped at Whitewater Draw, an artificial wetland used by Sandhill Cranes and other birds during migration. There, we saw two Great Horned Owls, Spotted Sandpipers, Long-billed Dowitcher, Greater Yellowlegs, Killdeer, Stilts, and Avocets. Many Swainson’s Hawks dotted the telephone poles on our way to San Pedro. After that, we drove through Bisbee and visited an old mining pit. Dave decided to play Rock Wren, and sure enough, one responded. Once we arrived at the Inn, we realized just how birdy it was.
Scaled Quail, Vermillion Flycatcher, Eastern Meadowlark, Cassin’s & Western Kingbirds, Summer Tanager, Red-winged Blackbird, N. Rough-winged, Cliff, and Violet-green Swallows, and many, many other birds were seen in our first afternoon there. There were hummingbird feeders as well, and we got looks at one of the only Rufous Hummingbirds of the camp.
Camp C's first Bank Swallow
In the downtime, I decided to walk around, and was rewarded when I stumbled upon the camp’s first Bank Swallow, most likely an early migrant. Nighttime brought lots of bats and Lesser Nighthawks. I tried going out with some campers to try and find Poorwill and Barn Owl, but, try as we might, none responded.
Day 9, San Pedro – SPRNCA, Ash Canyon
Only three days of birding left; boy, time flies! Someone noticed a Gilded Flicker on a telephone pole at the Inn, which was good because we missed them at the Desert Museum. After breakfast, we headed out to the San Pedro House, situated in the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area (SPRNCA). We searched high and low for Varied Bunting, but all we found were many Yellow-breasted Chats and Bell’s Vireo. At Kingfisher Pond, however, we found all three species of Kingbirds, Vermillion Flycatcher, Common Ground-Dove, Blue Grosbeak, swallows, and several other species. Down along the river, we saw Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Summer Tanager, and a BIG surprise – a Yellow-throated Vireo, an immature it looked like, and very far out of its normal range!
It's a Yellow-throated Vireo. In Arizona!
After returning to the Inn for lunch, we left for Ash Canyon. Possible target birds: Montezuma Quail, Gray Hawk, Lucifer Hummingbird. In the couple hours we spent sitting at feeders, no Lucifer Hummingbirds presented themselves (we did have a close Arizona Woodpecker), so we decided to take a walk around. We didn’t find any Quails (what a surprise…), but what we did see was an adult Gray Hawksitting on a telephone pole (what is it with good birds and telephone poles??) not twenty-five feet away! After we returned to the feeders for a last (unsuccessful) look, an immature Gray Hawk circled over us.
Gray Hawk perched on a telephone pole in Ash Canyon.
Dave decided to take matters into his own hands that night in an effort to secure Poorwill and Barn Owl. In a superb example of his master bird guide skills, we found not one, not two, but THREE Common Poorwills, without even playing any recording! Barn Owl was nearly as easy – after not even two seconds of playback, one screeched, and we easily located it hunting over the field. And that, folks, is the difference between Dave birding, and me birding (Dave would say it’s almost all luck though).
Day 10, San Pedro – Miller Canyon(!!!!), Ramsey Canyon
This was EASILY the best day of the camp. Easily. The day started out normally. Breakfast, then in the vans, and off to Miller Canyon. No one thought anything of it when Rob said, “Keep your eyes open, you never know what you might see here.” On the way up the Canyon, birding was good. We lucked out with a Berylline Hummingbird, and the Red-faced Warblers were very nice indeed. Sulphur-bellied Flycatchers did their sqeaky rubber-ducky-like calls, but a bigger surprise came when we walked right under two adult Spotted Owls! As you might imagine, we were startled when we realized they were silently sitting just out of arm’s reach!
Spotted Owls less than 5 feet away!
We continued up the trail. Cordilleran Flycatcher, Red-faced Warbler, House Wren . On the way back down, we paused. Partly in response to a comment by Megan, Dave remarks, “Something weird is going on here”.
Yeah, okay Dave.
We had no idea Dave’s subconscious had actually notified him of the arrival of something special.
On our way back down, suddenly, a weird and beautiful bird song wafts out from off the right side of the trail. No one had any idea what it was. Ted exclaimed, “That’s one messed up Canyon Wren!”, referring to the descending nature of the flute-like song. At first we speculated it might be an Aztec Thrush, a rarity known for showing up in Miller Canyon. That was soon ruled out when a look through Sibley revealed that the Aztec Thrush’s song was “unknown”. We were either some of the very few to ever hear an Aztec Thrush’s song, or it was a very, very rare thrush.
On a hunch, I whipped out my iPhone and flicked through to the Sonora, Mexico section of the SE AZ collection I had luckily imported before I left New York. Scrolling down to the thrushes, the first one was Brown-backed Solitaire. I played it, and, low and behold, it was a perfect match! We had a Brown-backed Solitaire mere yards from us, in the United States. Many of us hadn’t even heard of a Brown-backed Solitiare before – even more the reason to be excited. Dave quickly gave me his speakers, and we played the song to the still unseen bird. It flew closer, but still obscured by several layers of trees. In our eagerness to see the Solitaire, no one paid any attention to a male Berylline, which decided to perch 6 inches from our faces, almost begging for attention. The wait paid off, and pretty soon everyone had good looks at the Solitaire. I got some pretty good pictures as well (though I scraped up my leg scrambling for a good vantage point). Using my iPhone, I was also able to record the magnificent bird song, as well as record GPS coordinates so others could easily find the bird. Pretty soon, we were full of ourselves, having witnessed and documented a Code 5 bird, not even on the American Birding Association checklist for North America! I called the bird in to the AZ RBA, and pretty soon it was all over the internet.
We found the first US record of Brown-backed Solitaire in the US! (Assuming it's accepted by the ABC)
Even though we couldn’t wait to tell everyone about the bird, we made a stop at the hummingbird feeders, where we saw just about every species we had already seen on the trip. Broad-billed, Blue-throated, Magnificent, Black-chinned, Anna’s, Broad-tailed, Berylline, and a new one – White-eared. As you might imagine, we took a break from night birds that night 😉
White-eared Hummingbird at Miller Canyon.
Day 11, SPR Inn to Tucson (and everywhere in between)
It had come to the last day in the field. We were pretty sure it would be hard to match the excitement from the day before, but the last day was designed to be packed with new species. We left San Pedro early, bound for Patagonia.
Our first stop was a nondescript spot alongside the highway. Actually, several feet into the understory resided another first US record – a Sinaloa Wren. Chris set up the scope right on the nest (hard to see otherwise), and everyone either saw or heard the wren. Nothern Beardless-Tyrranulet was spotted across the road, as was another rare bird for the region – a Northern Parula. We soon moved on to the famous Patagonia Rest Area. The star bird(s) there was a pair of Thick-billed Kingbirds, which we spotted very quickly. Also there were almost a dozen Black Vultures, and Yellow-billed Cuckoo. A search for Varied Bunting once again proved fruitless. On to the next stop – Patagonia Lake. We saw Neotropic and Double-crested Cormorants, Green Heron, Pied-billed Grebe, American Coot, and Summer Tanager. On our way out, we made a last effort for Varied Bunting, which we actually saw! We ate lunch on the go, and headed to our last stop – Florida Canyon. The possible birds there were very good – Black-capped Gnatcatcher, Five-striped Sparrow, and Rufous-capped Warbler. A long walk up the Canyon wasn’t successful, but on the way down I spotted a Golden Eagle, and when we were almost at the bottom, Black-capped Gnatcatcher made an appearance. Although we didn’t see the other two target species, no one was complaining. We arrived back in Tucson around 3pm.
A female Black-capped Gnatcatcher at Florida Canyon.
Day 12, Tucson and Departure
And so, we had finished the tour. I had an amazing time – by far the best camp ever! We ended the trip with 186 species, and I had gotten 118 lifers. Woohoo! That brought me to 399. The highlight of the trip was definitely the Solitaire, but the whole experience was packed with fun, and I will never forget it. Thanks Dave and Rob (and Chris, for the Trogon)!
Read Full Post »