Monday, February 15, 2016

Under-birded Areas of SE Arizona: Holden Canyon, near California Gulch & Warsaw Canyon

Guest Post by Tim Helentjaris
February 3, 2016 

One would hardly classify California Gulch as “under-birded” but I came across a study from GS Mills (1977) that covered areas with Five-striped Sparrows in our state that mentioned Holden Canyon as having this species, confirmed in a follow-up study from the 90’s. In eBird, I found just a couple of entries for this location, both from the Atascosa CBC. Looked to see where this was and figured I could combine an investigation into it with a trip to CA Gulch.

My compatriots for the day were Jean Siesner and Gary Prosch. Started first this chilly morning in California Gulch, descending into the north end. Mostly saw the usual species for this habitat and time of year: RUFOUS-CROWNED SPARROWS, some beautiful CANYON WRENS, RUBY-CROWNED KINGLETS, etc. We then started running into small family groups of active, and seemingly oblivious to us, gnatcatchers; got good looks at the underside of their tails which were mostly black, confirming them as BLACK-TAILED GNATCATCHERS. Also got a good look at an Empid, tail but no wing flick and no contrast on the nape of the neck, keying out as DUSKY FLYCATCHER. Picked up a singing and then visual CRISSAL THRASHER and on our way back out, spied a female ELEGANT TROGON, which we tracked for a while, perhaps the same one I saw here late last year.

Climbing back out, we then drove to the nearby confluence of Warsaw Canyon and the south end of California Gulch and worked this area. We had hoped to pick up Five-striped Sparrows this day, although my own track record for this species in winter is not good. Besides being silent and not really responsive to playback this time of year, I suspect the added difficulty of these birds not being tied to territories further complicates their detection. A number of sparrows, CHIPPING and DARK-EYED JUNCOS in particular, were found along with probably six YELLOW-RUMPED WARBLERS all feeding as a group on the ground. This time the Empid that we found was clearly a GRAY FLYCATCHER with that characteristic downward tail flick. Probably the biggest surprise here was another female ELEGANT TROGON, again great views as we watched and listened to a little bit of chatter. Doubt that either of these areas support this species in the breeding season, but they seem to find something they like here in the winter? Did find another gnatcatcher here, this time with extensive white underneath its tail but no black caps this time of year, uh oh, so this one will be trickier? Not sure that we got a good identification on this one? Heard the call, and while I think I know these, I am not that confident. Have found that listening to the few examples with the apps, one gets over-confident when compared to listening to many more examples in Xeno-Canto, where the overlaps are more evident.

Female Elegant Trogon by Susan Beebe

After lunch, we drove a little farther south on FR217 and then took the turn-off on FR4167 (clearly signed) that runs down to Boundary Tank, the border, and over towards Holden Canyon. Was just hoping to get a look at this area to see what the habitat looked like. I have been intrigued by how some species are found in one area and not nearby and what they might be keying in on, Five-striped Sparrows being an excellent example. Whoa, can also understand the reluctance for folks to bird more often here, the road was a bit dicey on the way in for a couple of stretches, definitely a high clearance 4WD road, although it then smoothed out and was pretty drivable. Boy, a very striking area as we crested some ridges and got expansive views in almost all directions. Can’t believe how far one can see, especially to the south where there is not one evidence of human habitation. We made it to the tank, which was unproductive, and a little way over towards Holden Canyon. Seeing on the GPS that we were very close to the border, it took some searching to discover a thin barb wire fence stretching over the ridge right in front of us, characteristic of the border along this section. Walking over to the bottom of Holden Canyon right at the border fence in just a few hundred yards, there was a lot of surface water flowing along here. Habitat surrounding this shallow drainage consisted of rolling hills of grass with widely scatter mesquites and ocotillos but also with a nice large sycamore with an obvious but unoccupied raptor nest (GrHa?). Birds were more of the same as the other areas, but here our Empid turned out to be a HAMMOND’S FLYCATCHER. On the positive side, we did note a couple of hill sides which appeared to represent putative Five-striped Sparrow habitat in this general area, north-facing slopes with diverse vegetation. I think it will be interesting to come back here in the summer season and do some investigation up into Holden Canyon. There is a lot more interesting habitat down here that warrants birding to see what might be around during the breeding season.

On the way, out, clearly due to the fervent prayers of one of our group, we stopped the car for a pair of MONTEZUMA QUAIL feeding in the road directly in front of us and providing outstanding views. A nice way to end the day.

Montezuma Quail by Alan Schmierer