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offshorebirder

May 10 - Paradise Road, Paradise, East Turkey Creek, Pinery Canyon, Portal.  Possibly our best day.


We started May 10 early.  The skies were overcast, so light was dim a little before 6am as we drove up Paradise Road from Portal.  We were essentially climbing an alluvial slope that runs down from higher ground to the plateau below.  


As usual, the scenery was gorgeous.  A real distraction when driving!


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Not far after the settler's graveyard, the road headed uphill, hugging the steep slope of a tall hill.  Then I spotted a pair of Montezuma Quail on the left, perched at the roadside and kind of hissed a request for Roger to stop.  I eased out of the vehicle on the opposite side from them, but all I had was a brief back shot before they flushed in an explosive flutter of wings.


Cock Montezuma Quail (his back was turned unfortunately)


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Our first planned stop was to try and see Juniper Titmouse and some other goodies in the old mining town of Paradise.  To quote from Rick Taylor's classic Birders Guide to Southeastern Arizona:  "Founded in 1901 and once boasting a population of 1,500, Paradise was a classic boom-and-burst silver mining camp.  By 1910 the population had dwindled to fewer than 50, and in 1970 there were only three families in the settlement."


Today Paradise has grown, but not much - around three dozen occupied properties I would estimate.  Paradise and a small surrounding area is an "inholding" within the Coronado National Forest - land that was not willingly sold by landowners when the National Forest was being created (and have declined to sell thus far).  A few of the original buildings are still intact, including the George Walker House - named for the first settlers, George and Lula Walker.  It is now a bed and breakfast with wildlife-friendly habitat improvements and feeders on the grounds.  Owner Jackie Lewis also has a house next door that she rents on a short and medium term basis.  Mammal watchers are a large part of the customer base - the current occupants enjoyed a Ringtail (by red filtered light) the night before.  The grounds are another of Arizona's open-to-the-public birding attractions, with a voluntary donation jar to contribute towards sugar, seeds, and maintenance.  


Jackie welcomed Roger and me in the parking area and was a fount of information and advice.  We got introduced to the house dog and then settled in on the porch to watch for Juniper Titmouse.  It was a cloudy morning thus far; in the tree-shaded area around the George Walker House, it was dim light for photography.  We enjoyed watching Scott's Oriole, Black-headed Grosbeaks, a lingering Dark-eyed Junco, Pine Siskins, Bridled Titmouse, Rivoli's and Black-chinned Hummingbirds, Arizona and Acorn Woodpeckers, Mexican Jays, White-breasted Nuthatches and Broad-billed Hummingbirds in the first five minutes.  Then here comes a Juniper Titmouse, in low - stealthy as usual.  Thinks about a mossy rock in the small 'recirculating stream' water source but instead goes for a sunflower seed from a feeder, which it takes to a brushy area. Holds the seed between its feet and proceeds to peck it open. Gobbles the kernel, hits the feeder for another and flies off.  Not exactly a pure wild behavioral lesson, but fun to see such a rare and declining species at close range.  


As we waited for it to reappear, I got up and walked along the edge of the house to the right, to see the garden and hillside as well as to watch the Chiricahua Fox Squirrel that was looking things over from a tree up the hill.  In the meantime, I tried (in vain) to photograph a male Black-chinned Hummingbird feeding in flowers at my feet.


Male Black-chinned Hummingbird

 

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Then the Fox Squirrel moved from tree to tree on its approach.  

 

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It eventually ended up visiting a feeder stocked with dried peanuts (in their shells).   So these were photos of a feeder-approaching critter.


After watching Cliff Chipmunks and failing to get a photo of the fast-moving furtive little mammals, we decided to press on for our next goal:  Mexican Chickadees.  I think they were a needed 'lifer' for Roger and I wanted to get a good photo (a goal that eventually eluded me).


As we rode out of Paradise, we re-entered Coronado National Forest lands.  They say a photo is worth 1,000 words:


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Here is an oak grassland 


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We had struck out on the Chickadees in the high country the day before, so we were going to try a coniferous forest a little lower and wetter.  We parked at a pullout and surveyed the forested slope above East Turkey Creek, not long before the intersection of the Paradise Road and Forest Road 42.  


Online map here:   https://www.google.com/maps/place/31°54'40.6"N+109°14'38.6"W/@31.9112928,-109.2453905,581m/data=!3m2!1e3!4b1!4m6!3m5!1s0x0:0x0!7e2!8m2!3d31.9112896!4d-109.2440641!5m1!1e4


We started registering good birds before we were fully out of the vehicle.  Townsend's Warbler, Cassin's Vireo, Hermit Warbler close at hand, feeding and vocalizing.   Then a male Painted Redstart that we stopped tracking when we heard a Red-faced Warbler.   He was downhill in decent light but would not give  clear shot - lots of pine branches in the way.


Female Townsend's Warbler

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Male Townsend's Warbler

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Then we heard one, two and then three Mexican Chicadees, uphill from us with some Spotted Towhees - a little apart from the warbler/vireo/nuthatch/flycatcher/woodpecker/etc mixed species flock foraging level and downhill from us.  We had to choose between Mexican Chickadees and a flock with Hermit Warblers, Painted Redstart, Red-faced Warbler, Warbling and Hutton's Vireos and more.  We chose the Chickadees because they had been so hard to find thus far and we hoped the flock would hold together and stick around a little while.  


The Chickadees were foraging actively and staying high in the canopy - they would be expected to have young to feed at that date.  They did not preen, examine things out of curiosity, or otherwise pause - they were nearly in constant motion searching for food.  This made studying them difficult - much less photographing them.


Mexican Chickadee

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We were eventually rewarded with good views of the Mexican Chickadees and then the remnants of the mixed species foraging assemblage.


At that point we felt we should press on for Pinery Canyon.  Jackie Lewis had mentioned to us that she had about a 50% success rate on finding Mexican Spotted Owls on visits there.   Spotted Owls are an endangered species, and declining precipitously as Barred Owls invade their Pacific Northwest forests and displace the slightly smaller cousins.    But for now the desert subspecies is unaffected, which is good because they are limited by very finite available habitat - forested canyons in the deserts of Arizona, New Mexico and northern Mexico.  


We had no idea when we visited the day before that Strix occidentalis was even a possibility but the high winds would not have helped.  Fortunately there was little to no wind the morning of the 10th.   The thing that struck both of us as we idled into the parking area was the chorus of Hermit Thush songs.  Then we heard some American Robins and then a male Olive Warbler singing.  They can be ventriloquists sometimes - he led us around the southern end of the dense pine forest, giving us glimpses but never a very good look.  We kept moving slowly and staying quiet, while scanning trees as we looked for the Olive Warbler.  It would have been a shame to stumble too close to a Spotted Owl and disturb and flush it.  


We split up to look for the owl over double the area per unit time and I enjoyed a Greater Pewee, a small flock of Yellow-eyed Juncos, some Acorn Woodpeckers and a bright male Audubon's Warbler when I came upon a group of four Cordilleran Flycatchers.   They appeared to be males vying for a territory around the small stream that was flowing above the ground's surface in this stretch.  Normally one has to call a Cordilleran or Pacific-Slope Flycatcher a "Western" Flkycatcher because these Empidonax Flycatchers are indistinguishable in the field due to morphological overlap and identical plumage.  But when they are singing or vocalizing one can tell them apart.  These were singing and calling to beat the band.  


Normally "Empids" are very shy and difficult to approach, but these guys were so pumped up and focused on each other that they allowed me to nonchalantly sidle right up beside them.  In effect, their hormone-addled minds were my photographic "hide".


Cordilleran Flycatcher

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Then I heard a thin insect-like trill and turned to look for the Brown Creeper that must be nearby.  It was scooting up the trunk of an oak tree in short spurts, searching and probing and coming up with morsels.  This trip was really being productive for Brown Creeper encounters.


Brown Creeper

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Then we worked our way back together and started working uphill from the area around Pinery Canyon campground to Upper Pinery Canyon campground.  


We got very still and quiet when we spotted a Wild Turkey (Gould's subspecies) approaching the grassy clearing from a distance.  It veered around the sunny area, sticking to the shade as it foraged downhill.  

 

Gould's Turkey hen

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We felt privileged to get such a good look at a hunted game species.

 

As we worked uphill, we saw and heard two male Buff-breasted Flycatchers disputing a territorial boundary.  Buffies are a good find in the Chiricahuas - they mostly are found in the Huachuca mountains north of Mexico.  

 

Moving along, we saw some Puma scat that was not there the day before!

 

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I imagine he or she might have been watching us at some point during our visit.  


In an open sunny area, the butterflies were becoming active.

 

Mournful Duskywing (Erynnis tristis - one of the Hesperiidae or 'Skippers') 

 

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Silver Spotted Skipper.   I made the mistake of trying to focus on the moving butterfly as it landed, rather than the tip of the flower it was approaching.  

 

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But I did better with a stationary target:

 

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Despite scanning the trees from different angles up and down the small canyon for close to three hours, we never saw a Spotted Owl.  But we saw and heard some wonderful things in the process.

 

Evantually hunger forced us back to Cave Creek Ranch for a very late lunch - more like "lupper".   We saw a Coues' White-tailed Deer as we drove near the Southwest Research Station.

 

Coues White-tailed Deer.   Why is it that the scruffy critters always pose the best?   Notice how she is listening to something behind her and to me at the same time.  If I had been the only "contact" on her sonar, both ears would have been pointed at me.

 

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When we got "home" we learned we had just missed a Coati in the tree outside the office at Cave Creek Ranch.   So it goes.

 

We had to interrupt lunch when I noticed a Collared Peccary out the window!   We hatched a plan as to how we could sneak outside and shoot some photos without spooking them.  Little did we know.  

 

Apparently these Peccaries come around during the daytime, as nighttime is too dangerous.  The week before we checked in, some late-arriving guests saw a Puma in the driveway in the middle of the night.  

 

The Peccaries foraged and rooted around the grassy roadside then checked under the trees and probed the fence around the seed feeders.  Now we knew why the fence was there.

 

Collared Peccaries - locally called Javelinas.

 

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By the time we were finished with "lupper" it was pushing 4pm.  We sat on the benches on the veranda outside the office, beers in hand, and chatted with other birders as hummingbirds buzzed and chased around us.  Quails, Doves, Tanagers, Orioles, Grosbeaks, Woodpeckers and Doves went about their business in the background.


Two gentlemen from Australia were particularly interested in the details of our searches for Mexican Chickadees the past couple of days.  Red-faced Warblers and Olive Warblers as well.  We happily obliged them with details and hand-drawn maps.  They returned the favor by telling us about a Bendire's Thrasher stakeout on Stateline Road, as well as a roosting Whiskered Screech-Owl in a hole in a Sycamore tree near the southwest Research Station.  

 

Nationalities represented on the bench at that point included the USA, Japan, United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia.  

 

Roger had gotten to know a volunteer at the Paton Center in Patagonia, and it turned out he and his wife were staying in one of the cabins along Cave Creek.  It had a good-sized Mulberry Tree in full fruit outside.  We enjoyed sitting at a picnic table chatting and birding and listening to the sounds of birds and insects.

 

After dark we tried for Elf Owls and other nocturnal goodies but pretty much struck out.   It also started to rain 30 minutes after dark, so we gave up in favor of supper and bed.
 

What a day!
 

Edited by offshorebirder
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offshorebirder

I forgot to comment on the huge and lengthy toes of the Apache Fox Squirrel.  The subspecies in the area is called Chiricahua Fox Squirrel from what Jackie told us.  

 

I suppose the long toes (almost finger-like) are better for gripping tree trunks.

 

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offshorebirder

We saw these mammal-looking burrows under a large rock beneath an oak tree at Cave Creek Ranch.   My guess would be Rock Squirrel burrows - but I would welcome other people's input.    Any idea, @Atdahl?

 

 

Rock_Squirrel_burrows-CaveCreeRanch.jpg.ec82bdd4ee8f833dc6ab7a171396207d.jpg

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Atdahl

Hi Nate.  We have a book called "A Field Guide to Desert Holes" for just such an occasion.  :)

 

Do you remember the diameter of the holes?  1.5 to 2.5 inches or maybe 3 to 6 inches?  

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offshorebirder

Thanks @Atdahl.    Gosh I would say they were as wide as about the length of my palm.   Maybe a tad wider So about 3 inches+ I would very roughly estimate.   I could even see 4"

 

 

 

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Atdahl

Well, based on that my guess is kangaroo rats (likely Marriam's) since they tend to make multiple holes in one area.  The other option is rock squirrels but I haven't seen multiple holes from them but my knowledge only encompasses the rock squirrels we have on our property.

 

So, I think it's a good bet it's one or the other.

 

Nice to see that you had another great day.  We are still looking for our first montezuma quail they are hard to find and harder to photograph...:)

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offshorebirder

Wow - thanks @Atdahl.    If I had known they were Kangaroo Rat burrows, I would have staked them out a couple of evenings...

 

It took me multiple visits to Arizona to see my first Montezuma Quail.   They are one of those species where it seems the harder one looks for it, the harder it is to see.  Kind of have to let it happen and be ready when it does.

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offshorebirder

May 11 - State Line Road, South Fork Cave Creek, Cave Creek + Southwest Research Station.


Another early start, this time out in the desert southeast of Portal.   


What a grand view at the end of the Cave Creek Ranch driveway


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We chose to begin on State Line Road, a rural dirt road which runs along the border of Arizona and New Mexico for several miles.  This is a well-known route among both mammal watchers and birders.


Along the roadside and out in the scrubland, we saw several Black-tailed Jackrabbits and a couple of Desert Cottontails feeding, chasing and keeping watch.  


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I managed to get both species in one frame, but not very sharply:

 

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Here is a wider view that may convey some details of the habitat


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Here is the characteristic all-black tail of the Black-tailed Jackrabbit


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Nice birds included two Swainson's Hawks, two Western Kingbirds (attending to a nest in a distant bush top), Gambell's and Scaled Quail, Eastern Meadowlarks, Black-throated Sparrows, and Great-tailed Grackles.


We checked out a supposed Bendire's Thrasher stakeout but only saw an immature bird that looked like a Curve-billed Thrasher and one adult that perhaps had chevron or arrow-shaped breast markings like a Bendire's.  But we had trouble ruling out a Curve-billed.


Conscious of the time, we hastened to South Fork Cave Creek.  Terrible scenery along the way.


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Halfway down South Fork Road - ho hum, another male Trogon calling.  We enjoyed some really good birding as we slowly walked towards the bridge.   Then a Painted Redstart began hawking insects from a small tree on the northeast side of the bridge.  We were having fun watching such a rare and striking bird; I was slowly working closer and into a better light angle.  


Then suddenly it was like a switch was thrown - the Redstart went from feeding mode into feverish nest-building mode.  It flew down to the ground right in front of us, started picking up fine bits of grass and broken-down pine straw, and sorting through them.   Then it gathered a mouthful and took off towards the southwest corner of the bridge, dropping down just on the other side.  

 

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Roger walked over to look down to see if he could spot the nest.   I instinctively moved to a good setup with the cloud-reduced light at my back, and a reasonable distance from where the Redstart had been gathering nesting material.


Sure enough, the bird suddenly flew back in to the same spot and began sifting and gathering fine material.  

 

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It came back several times and I was given the amazing chance for repeat photo opportunities.   Roger by then had the nest pinpointed and he went down the road to tell a birding tour.   They like other tours were very discrete and ethically correct in their actions and behavior.  They were agog at the amazing secret show the Painted Redstart was putting on for admirers.

 

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In an interlude I told Roger 'good job for getting others onto the bird but that I wasn't bleeping budging from my front row seat to look for the nest or gather people.  That ended up being one of my most treasured wildlife encounters since Africa.


Eventually the spell was broken and the bird disappeared - perhaps to eat more, perhaps to look for another source of nesting material.  Either way, there were about 12 happy birders in the small and well-behaved crowd.  


We birded some more and a flock of Mexican Jays came through.   On the last day of the trip, I finally got a photo of one that was acceptable. 

 

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Well satiated, we headed back to the ranch to pack our bags.  Reed graciously let us store them in a conference room near the back entrance after checkout time, so we could bird and explore later in the day before driving back to Tucson.


We decided to visit the Southwest Research Station again - such an idyllic setting and great habitat along Cave Creek, upstream of its confluence with the South Fork.  But on the way, we stopped at a set of Sycamore Trees where the Australian gentlemen told us to be on the lookout for a roosting Whiskered Screech-Owl.  This owl is another one of those 'highly sought by birders' species, as it only occurs north of Mexico only in extreme southeast Arizona and a tiny sliver of southwest New Mexico.  We were lucky and the owl was perched up in the entrance of the nest cavity it was occupying.

 

Whiskered Screech-Owl

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At the research station, a Say's Phoebe defied our attempts to get a good photo, by perching on the edge of rooftops, fences, and other man-made objects.   


While following a flock of warblers back across Cave Creek, we came upon the largest wasp I have ever seen walking on the ground.   I would not want to meet it in a dark alley!  It stuck to the ground, I think trying to scent something.  At first we were worried it was injured and could not fly but then it proved us wrong and then went back to trundling around, silently snuffling.


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I forgot to include this photo of Cave Creek behind and just uphill from the SWRS.  So I made an edit to include it:

 

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Then the time had come to start our journey home so we returned to Cave Creek Ranch.   After loading the vehicle, we took a last stroll around and savored the southwestern flora and fauna.  


On the way back to Tucson we stopped at 'Willow Tank'  a small wetland preserve off State Line Road.   A Spotted Sandpiper bobbed at the water's edge.   Then we stopped at Wilcox Lake and enjoyed several Wilson's Phalaropes, a drake Cinnamon Teal, Glossy Ibis and other birds.  We looked for Desert Bighorn Sheep at a rocky mountain pass beside the highway that Reed Peters had told us to scan carefully but alas we did not see any.


Roger and I enjoyed our Arizona safari very much and will both be back!

 

Edited by offshorebirder
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Atdahl

That's a very nice end to your trip Nate.  You saw a lot more of our state than we have.  Some day we need to rectify that. :)

 

We are jealous of your Whiskered Screech Owl sighting and the cooperative Painted Redstart was great.

 

That huge wasp is a Tarantula Hawk and what it does to tarantulas is quite morbid...  They are supposed to have an incredibly painful sting so it's good you kept your distance although we have never found one to be aggressive at all.  They are impressively large though as you said.

 

Thanks for sharing your trip with us and it was great to spend a morning together.  Hopefully, our paths will cross again in the future.

 

Alan

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Soukous

Some lovely birds Nate, almost all of which I've never seen before, and what wonderful landscapes too. It looks like a great place to spend a week or so.

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offshorebirder

Thanks for the kind words @Atdahl.   Thanks also for the wasp ID on the Tarantula Hawk.   Nice to know and be able to read about (now I know they have the 2nd most painful sting of any insect on earth - after Bullet Ant).   And I will definitely let you and Karen know when I am planning to return to AZ.

 

 

Thanks also @Soukous.  I have been to many great natural areas around North America and nothing quite gets under my skin like southeast Arizona.  

 

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  • 2 weeks later...

For having lived in Arizona for a good 1/2 of my life I wish I would have explored more. Being a Phoenician I stuck to the valley and northern Arizona where the desert meets juniper forest. I loved seeing all these places that I'd always heard about but hadn't ever gotten to see. Some of the areas you talked about made me really miss being home. Arizona is such a fantastic place to explore. We get so many animals that most do not expect to find. From the graceful mountain lion to the smallest of mice. The birds were just spectacular. Thank you for sharing. 

 

Edited by Lyss
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  • 3 months later...
Peter Connan

Late to this report, but I really enjoyed it!

 

You saw some really great birds and animals, and got some great photos too!

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  • 2 weeks later...

I am very late to this report @offshorebirder.

Excellent writing and superb photos.

You saw an incredible range of beautiful birds and a fine collection of mammals and reptiles.

I really enjoyed this, thank you for posting 

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