Tuesday, November 11, 2014

The Santa Catalina Mountains CBC

Guest Post by Brian Nicholas, count compiler
It’s 2:30 AM as you stand against the cover of trees on the banks of the wash, listening as Great Horned Owls give slow deep hoots, their calls easily heard against the backdrop of silence. The occasional car sounds like a freight train against the still night, but is easily forgotten. Your first meteor streaks across the sky, but many others will be witnessed this quiet night. You play a recording of the Western Screech Owl, hoping for a response. Nothing. You play it again, then a third time. A mesquite branch jounces ever so slightly on this windless night. You can feel a presence. You try the recording again and midway through the repertoire the recording seems to be repeating itself. You switch it off and the soft whistled hoots continue, followed by a melodic trill. It swoops silently past you like a tiny gray ghost, a shadow against the darkness, so subtle you have to wonder if your eyes actually saw this tiny wonder. Everything else in your life disappears as you relish this moment of an unforgettable night of discovery.


Approximate center of the Santa Catalina Mountains CBC circle as seen from the Santa Catalina Highway at the Thimble Peak Vista pulloff. Thimble Peak is catching the first morning sun on the left horizon and most of the foreground consists of the middle reaches of Bear Canyon and its tributaries.

The Santa Catalina Mountains (SCM) CBC was the first Christmas Count I experienced in Arizona, and I was lucky enough to go out birding with Bob Bates, the compiler. Bob has been a great mentor, and a steady, leading force for this particular circle. The SCM CBC has only had two compilers in its long 77 year history, Bob Bates and the late great Gale Monson. Now that’s a legacy!

We are lucky to have such a diversity of habitats within this circle. Mount Lemmon has many layers of diversity, with many birds typically found in northern climates such as jays, nuthatches, and a diverse population of woodpeckers. Redington Pass also holds specialties including Juniper Titmouse, Townsend’s Solitaire, and Mountain Bluebirds. The Tanque Verde and Agua Caliente washes are great sparrow magnets, and the lowland ponds provide wintering waterfowl habitat. In some lowland areas all four local falcon species have been seen on count day (Prairie, Peregrine, Merlin, and American Kestrel). Sabino Canyon is a unique migrant trap, especially for warblers, and is always good for a rare sighting. Any area in the circle could hold a rare specialty, and, more importantly, will add valuable information on species densities within the circle.


Abert's Towhee is a permanent resident of dense desert wash vegetation and its core range is southern Arizona. It's much more often heard than seen this well.

Mixed flocks of Western and Mountain bluebirds sometimes resemble Christmas ornaments as they flock to ocotillos or junipers in Redington Pass.

Diverse vegetation along Tanque Verde Wash makes excellent habitat for birds as well as Coyotes.

Long-eared Owl has been found on this count!

The SCM CBC is going to be held this year on Saturday, December 20th, the weekend following the Tucson Valley CBC. About 80% of the SCM CBC circle is in the foothills and mountains with much of the circle accessible only by trail although the Catalina Highway and Redington Road provide access to higher elevations in the circle. The circle also contains the Tanque Verde, Aqua Caliente, and Sabino/Bear Canyon washes which are very important to wintering (and breeding!) birds. Although bird diversity and numbers in the mountains and foothills are less than in the lowland washes, there are still a lot of birds which winter in these areas. Species totals for the SCM CBC for the last few years typically ranged from about 120 to 130 with the highest total species count being 144. With extensive coverage, there is little doubt that 150 species can be located in the circle – especially if a few nice rarities decide to overwinter!

Although any help would be appreciated, I would especially like to increase our knowledge of what birds are found in the mountains and foothills. If you have feeders in the southern half of Summerhaven (the northern part of Summerhaven is outside of the circle) or at other residences on Mt. Lemmon, it would be great to get counts from these feeders. Birding one of the many trails heading out into the mountains and foothills also would be greatly appreciated.

If you are willing to help out in these areas or by joining a group covering a portion of the circle or counting birds at your feeder located anywhere in the circle, please contact me at weehawker2@yahoo.com or by phone at 520-760-3583. I'll be trying to coordinate birding teams and effort by area in the weeks prior to the count so let me know how flexible you are in regard to area or time. Birders of all interests and skill levels are encouraged to help out, beginners will join up with more experienced leaders. 

See the full list of Arizona Counts

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