Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Under-birded Areas of Southeast Arizona: Tonto Canyon

Guest Post by Tim Helentjaris
March 3, 2016

Today, I headed down to Tonto Canyon in the Pajarito Mts west of Nogales/Rio Rico, an area I had never been to before, along with my fellow explorers, Jim Gessaman and Pete Bengtson. I came across this area in a couple of papers reporting on surveys for Five-striped Sparrows in Southern Arizona, one from the 70’s and the other a follow-up from the 90’s. In both cases, they were able to find breeding FsSp’s during summer using playback. Interestingly, this area is an eBird hotspot, but it only has three checklists, all from Atascosa CBC’s and the last one from 2012.

Tim and Jim

Summit Motorway
To get there, take Ruby Road west from I19 and pass the turn-offs to Pena Blanca Lake and Canyon. A few miles west, you come to the turn-off to the south, clearly signed as FR39A but more commonly known as the Summit Motorway. Good name, it essentially skirts south, following ridge lines all the way to the border. Great road, essentially no different than Ruby Road in quality, so passable by any high clearance vehicle and even most sedans. Before reaching the border, we turned west onto a side road, signed as FR4189 (N31 22.114 W111 09.613), and after a short distance then southwest onto a short side spur, unmarked (N31 22.582 W111 09.865), that ended at a small parking area and the wilderness boundary. We parked here, which represents the head of Tonto Canyon, packed up, and headed out.

Wow, a very nice, walkable trail, and not one that I expected. Very well worn, both by cattle but as well by our international visitors heading north. Birds were already singing when we started out and we quickly got the two most common birds of the day, BEWICK’S WREN and RUFOUS-CROWNED SPARROW. The habitat here is richer than I expected, not as dry as many other drainages in this area. Northern slopes were primarily grasslands with Desert Spoon and other plants of arid highlands; south slopes were grassland with scattered but larger oaks. Trailside included a lot of surface seep water, with some richer vegetation, willows, junipers, even pines in protected areas. Some the draws draining into this canyon had some impressively dense copses of oak and other shrubs.

Consequently, we did a little better than I expected for this area for this time of year, mainly getting the expected residents for these habitat types: CHIPPING SPARROW, CANYON TOWHEE, ROCK and CANYON WREN, BRIDLED TITMOUSE, etc., even a couple of calling GREATER ROADRUNNERS. A little bit of owling in some of the more promising copses and draws drew out some other birds, including BLACK-THROATED GRAY and YELLOW-RUMPED WARBLERS, but also affording us a nice opportunity to again compare RUBY-CROWNED KINGLET with HUTTON’S VIREO. Perhaps our most interesting avian experience for the morning was when three MONTEZUMA’S QUAIL exploded under my feet and zoomed off. Jim and I both noted that all seemed to be females, instead of the mixed flocks that I tend to see. Asking Pete, he had never heard the call of the MoQu, so I played the unique UFO song of the male just for him. Surprisingly, the female quail immediately responded with their own distinctive call from far uphill. I wasn’t trying for a response and am not sure I have ever had that happen before? We wondered if they were indeed traveling without a male and were intrigued by the possibility of a local unattached bachelor?

After about a mile and three quarters, the trail became a little tougher, as the canyon narrowed and we had to pick our way through the rocks and dodging small but deep water holes, really slowing our progress. We decided to break for lunch after ~2.5 miles, as the way ahead looked to continue to be a bit rough and dropping even more in elevation. Looking in Google Earth at this point, we were less than 1000 ft from the border as the crow flies but the trail itself meanders on parallel to the border for another 3/4 to a mile before crossing it into Mexico. At that point, it is also less than 500 ft away from where Sycamore Canyon also crosses the border just to the west and the two merge shortly afterwards. The nice trail we had at the start really deteriorates where we stopped, and involves a lot of rock-hopping in the bottom of the narrow canyon, so we just headed back. Stopped and played for Five-striped Sparrows in a couple of promising areas (brushy north-facing slopes), but not surprisingly for this time of year, no response.

Getting back to the car, I then drove the rest of the way south to the border, a thin three wire fence coming down the hillside and stretching to the west over a far hill with one of the border obelisks beside it. If only Donald Trump could see what the actual border looked like in this area, he would go apoplectic. We were also treated to some great vistas on our way out, to the south far into Mexico with no evidence of any human disturbance of any kind visible. To the west we could see Baboquivari on the horizon and a small glimpse of Kitt Peak. Off to the north, there were some impressive heights and much further to the northeast, a good view of Mt. Wrightson in the Santa Rita Mts. Well worth the drive down just for these views. RED-TAILED HAWKS swooped and zoomed off to the sides in the flanking draws and we saw a small flock of meadowlarks that appeared to be EASTERN MEADOWLARKS. There were also a diverse selection of ducks in a few tanks on our way back as well.

Baboquivari peak in the distance
Backcountry Safety Tip: When you’re out with stronger hikers than yourself, always be the driver. It was pretty warm on the way back to the car and I was really lagging behind, having badly stubbed my toe while boulder-hopping in the canyon bottom. Now I would never suggest that Pete and Jim are the kind of guys who would have just left me behind, but I felt a lot more relaxed with that car key in my pocket.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent write up! I've birded near there before and appreciate the tip on alternative locations.


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