Wednesday, August 25, 2010

A Bad Day in the Chiricahuas is Better Than... Well, Just About Anything Else

Kendall Kroesen

Last Saturday and Sunday my friends David Rife and Brian Nicholas went with me to Willcox and the Chiricahua Mountains. It was a quick trip, leaving about 2 p.m. Saturday and returning about 5 p.m. on Sunday. The idea was to find some migrating birds and test our ability to detect birds in August. It was also a chance for David to see an area he hadn't visited before.

One thing we noticed right away was that it was hot! Arriving at Willcox Twin Lakes about 4 p.m. we walked around in a hot, humid haze. The sun managed to shine on us fairly consistently in spite of the clouds and rain showers that surrounded us.

We had to settle for some fairly common birds--none of the migrating rarities for which this site is known. A Sora called from the cattails in the pond nearest the golf course. The usual Western and Cassin's Kingbirds chattered on and near the golf course. A beautiful alternate plumage male Ruddy Duck swam in the algal waters. A tantalizing bunting of some sort passed by but got away. An ephemeral pond to the west of the lake--usually interesting when there's water in it--was so full there was no shoreline on which to find shorebirds. I'm sure there was a Green Heron lurking around somewhere but we didn't find it.

On the shore of the big lake we puzzled over some peeps, finding most of them to be Least Sandpipers. There were lots of Wilson's Phalaropes probing shallow water or spinning their demented twirls. The lake was not overly exciting, though it was nice to see quite a few American Avocets. Black-necked Stilts, Spotted Sandpipers and a single Long-billed Curlew rounded out the group. The water level here was surprisingly low given recent rains and the level of the ephemeral ponds. Other small sandpipers foraged on a distant sand spit but we didn't have the scope power to bring them into clear view.

We hopped on Highway 186 and headed toward the Chiricahuas... and finally drove into the shade of big clouds. This is a delightful drive, rising from Willcox Playa grasslands, through high desert and into higher oak-studded grasslands. And it's even better in a cooling afternoon in monsoon season. Near the town of Dos Cabezas, over a nearby peak, we noticed a Red-tailed Hawk mixed in with a large kettle of Turkey Vultures that were circling, soaring and darting around in the mounting winds.

Stopping a bit before the turn east toward Chiricahua National Monument, we birded in some grasslands along the highway. Brian recognized a Botteri's Sparrow song, and we heard it sing several more times. Then it showed itself by perching on a support wire for a telephone pole. Male Blue Grosbeaks also were perching and singing out in a seasonally late-ish expression of desire.

Heading up into the mountains past the turnoff to Chiricahua National Monument, the grasslands intergraded with oak forest and junipers. Then we began to see the large, ponderous pines without which Western forests would seem daintier, and not so "Western."

We could have stopped every quarter mile to look and listen, but it rained off and on and we wanted to set up camp at Pinery Canyon campground before it go dark and wet. Still, we stopped once and saw quite a few Violet-green Swallows, with a few Barn Swallows mixed in. Brian saw an American Kestrel from the car window.

At Pinery Canyon (remote, no facilities--just the way I like it!) we set up camp on a flat off the entry road, just above a splashing creek. The now dense, lighting-sprouting clouds dripped on us, as if trying some kind of water torture. But it held off for the most part until our sleeping arrangements were ready. Later as we went to sleep it rained for two or three hours, but never hard. Some water ran under the tent on the tarp and got David and I a bit wet, but nothing too upsetting. I have to say I was about as comfy as I've ever been, having parted with a significant amount of cash at REI for a 3.5-inch thick, self-inflating pad! No more aching hips after the first half-hour in bed!

Ironically, Brian stayed the driest under his jerry-rigged plastic tarp, which was stretched over his sleeping bag by an elaborate set of ropes that were tied to trees and rocks. And it took him less time to set up than my antiquated tent, with the 25 or so pole segments that all fit together in some dome-algorithm that I still have some trouble figuring out.

Before going to sleep we walked up the forest road away from the ever-more-enthusiastically flowing creek to see if we could hear owls or other night birds. Apparently wet owls don't sing. All we heard was thunder grumbling up and down the canyons, and wind in the pines. Not owls, but not a bad chorus of nature sounds.

In the morning we made coffee and packed up wet gear. We headed up the road to Barfoot Overlook. None of us had ever been there, and we wanted to see the view from there, and pick up any birds that might be along the trail. We also hoped to get a glimpse of one of the Short-tailed Hawks that's been seen from the outlook.

This was the best part of the trip. The cool part of the morning was particularly pleasant at over 8,000 feet elevation, on a well-wooded trail up the mountain. The only bird abundant on the way up were Yellow-eyed Juncos, including several immatures, and one very, very recently fledged. We also saw a large flock of Pygmy Nuthatches with loosely affiliated Hermit and Grace's warblers. A Zone-tailed Hawk passed as we climbed, but no Short-tailed Hawk was ever to be seen.

At the top the view was splended. This was the best part of the day. Yellow-eyed Juncos, House Wrens and Yellow-rumped Warblers cavorted at the top of the mountain. We heard a Northern Pygmy-Owl in the forest below to the west, but there people down there too. They could have been birders using owl calls.

By the time we got down to the Southwest Research Station, Cave Creek and Portal, it was hot and bird activity was pretty minimal. And it was time to head home. I felt like I should go back to the mountain tops soonn and spend a week or two!

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