The Western Yellow-billed Cuckoo survey season ended with an epic journey into the wild and remote Canyon del Oro on the northwest face of the Santa Catalina mountains. With rumors of long lost gold and magical habitat that could harbor cuckoos, Rodd Lancaster and I set out to explore this canyon two weeks prior in Tucson Audubon's Polaris Ranger all-terrain vehicle. That trip was cut short by a faulty starter switch, luckily before we headed out into the forest!
Returning with a tuned up Ranger and a full tank of gas, we hit the road to Charouleau Gap and soon discovered why this is a favorite route for hardcore 4x4 enthusiasts. We were immediately thrown down into a steep, boulder-strewn wash then up and down again and again on a narrow track. I had never driven anything like this, but the Ranger was certainly up to the task! It was probably very happy to be out in the real wilds for the first time and proved why it's labeled "Hardest working, smoothest riding."
Our first major obstacle of the day was this steep rock face. We scouted it out and soon found that yes, the Ranger can easily drive up something like this!
As we got higher up toward the Gap we entered possible cuckoo habitat with larger oaks and some cottonwood along the drainage. A few survey points turned up no birds though.
The view from the top of Charouleau Gap looking back toward Catalina and the Tortolita mountains in the distance (above). We had made it over the Gap and then realized the road was not going to get any easier! (below)
The view down into Canyon del Oro (below)
We finally made it down to the trailhead we were going to survey and found a nice parking spot for the Ranger under an oak tree.
We found a wonderland of flowing water and beautiful vistas in this very hard to reach corner of the usually-crowded Catalinas. It was great to discover and know that a seemingly-wild set of canyons so close to Tucson still exists. We saw there were loads of birds, just no cuckoos. It was obvious that one of the fires of the last 10--15 years had come through here and drastically changed the landscape. There weren't a lot of the larger trees that cuckoos seem to key in on. Of course, we didn't make it all the way to the end of the suitable habitat, there could be birds farther up the trail!
Before we knew it, it was time to head back over the Gap. With experience now under my belt, the return trip was much easier. Don't get me wrong, there were still a couple of hair-raising problems to solve! Here is the same steep rock face mentioned earlier, this time going down:
This was a great adventure into territory both Rodd and I had never explored before. It was too bad we found no Yellow-billed Cuckoos, but I'm not entirely convinced that there's not at least one pair up there!
We (including the Ranger) made it back to civilization in one piece but severely rattled from the rough road. In the lower photo below you can see the Charouleau Gap in the upper left.
Cheers to the cuckoos!!