Thursday, June 9, 2016

Underbirded Areas of SE AZ: Canelo Hills area - Korn, Lyle, and Merritt Canyons

Guest post by Tim Helentjaris
June 6th, 2016

I hadn’t heard of any of these drainages until last summer during our Yellow-billed Cuckoo surveys and Jennie MacFarland assigned them to us. In fact, before our surveys last summer, I saw no eBird reports from these areas at all, despite their close proximity to Parker Canyon Lake. A very pleasant surprise as they turned out to be very productive for a number of species, given first impressions. I was back there this morning as part of an effort to help Ariana La Porte in her project on Gray Hawks, looking at nesting success in different habitats. In her first two seasons, she had analyzed a number of nests along the San Pedro and found some interesting differences in those that were flanked by mesquite bosques vs those flanked by grasslands. She was interested in adding nests in oak woodlands and I had previously seen a number of these in both the Patagonia Mts. and in the Canelo Hills drainages and agreed to help her add them to her study. Had been out previously and we had found one GrHa nest in each of these three drainages.

Adult Gray Hawk on the San Pedro River. Ariana La Porte

Gray Hawk nestlings on the San Pedro River. Ariana La Porte

All three of these drainages are easily reached from the drive to Parker Canyon Lake along SR83 and they share a number of similar characteristics. All are very shallow, belying their canyon status, and flanked by wide areas of rolling hills covered by oak, juniper, and grasslands. Within the canyons themselves, there are mostly larger oaks, but also some scattered sycamores. I was surprised last summer when our bird surveys in them turned out to be so productive, I guess because my prior understanding of oak habitats was naively informed by a small number of areas such as Madera and Cave Canyons which are more steep-sided and very narrow in nature compared to these much broader and drier drainages. Points up another advantage to these canyons, all offer almost completely flat hikes in for a couple of miles, so most folks will find them fairly easy walks, in spite of the lack of obvious trails.

Korn Canyon. Tim Helentjaris

Lyle Canyon with Huachucas in distance. Tim Helentjaris

Driving south along SR83 towards Parker Canyon Lake, I first reached Lyle Canyon Road, aka FS #201, as it splits off around 19 miles from Sonoita. This first section of this area is mostly a patchwork of private property, but luckily the best birding areas are farther along in Coronado Nat For areas. LCR is a very reasonable road and passable along its length by most cars, paralleling the drainage for most of its length, sometimes actually crossing it back and forth. Obvious species in this area are most of the usual oak denizens, CASSIN’S KINGBIRD, MORNING and WHITE-WINGED DOVES, LARK SPARROWS, MEXICAN JAYS, etc. The first area where I actually got out and prepared to bird this morning was up from the junction with Korn Canyon, just about 3 miles in. As soon as I got out of the car, I immediately heard WILD TURKEYS and the eerie call of the male MONTEZUMA QUAIL. In fact, last summer, all of us remarked on how many times we encountered this last species which can be a bit troublesome to find elsewhere, but not in this general area. I also heard a GRAY HAWK with its whining call and trudged in towards the nest site. As I approached the tree, its partner flew out. Despite a large sycamore not far away, these raptors had chosen to build their nest in a large oak. An inspection did not reveal any young as yet. While there, dogs were barking from a flanking property and the landowner came out. I had met Kathy last year during our cuckoo surveys here and we talked about the GrHa’s that were nesting here, as her and her husband were keenly interested in it and Ariana’s project. She also remarked on how common the quail were, having been on her front porch just the other day. She emphasized that birders were always welcome in this area - nice to hear! You don’t know what you might find in this type of area, during the cuckoo surveys last year, I also had a WHITE-EARED HUMMINGBIRD in here!

Walked back to my car and drove further south, re-crossing the boundary into National Forest land in another quarter mile. After a short ways, came to my second nesting area and got out and hiked over to the drainage, where here it is incised in a bit. On the walk in, I saw an interesting hybrid NORTHERN/GILDED FLICKER, reminiscent of another that I had seen just over in the Patagonia Mts, along Harshaw Creek Road on successive years. They seem to predominantly like these intermediate elevations, although I also saw several non-hybrid NORTHERN FLICKERS here as well, along with several WESTERN WOOD-PEWEES and DUSKY-CAPPED FLYCATCHERS. Again heard a GrHa whining during the walk over but also a barking male ELEGANT TROGON. This whole area was not only productive for cuckoos and gray hawks but also trogons, although the one in Korn Canyon was a bit farther up than my hike today. This GrHa nest here in Lyle Canyon was built in a the upper canopy of a large pine, again despite the presence of a large sycamore lower in the bottom of this drainage, a seemingly unique location for this species usually associated with lower riparian habitats. A few white tufts of down decorated this nest, indicating its current usage, despite the fact that today I never saw an adult in this tree. I watched the GRAY HAWK for some time in a perch higher up the slope until it flew off a bit.

Gray Hawk nest in oak tree

By this time, I had been listening to the continued barking of a male ELEGANT TROGON just a bit farther up-canyon and decided to try another replication of an experiment designed this year by Jennie MacFarland and Jonathon Horst. Last year during our cuckoo surveys, several teams reported agitation and aggression by ElTr’s when they played the cuckoo calls. To further investigate this, J&J designed a protocol where we play a random set including calls of these two species along with one “control” species, a White-breasted Nuthatch. I got to within ~50 yards of the barking male trogon and initiated the playlist of calls. First up this time was the YbCu and the ElTr hardly reacted, if at all. Next came the trogon and the reaction was immediate and electric, as the trogon continued its barking but flew into and all around the speaker. In our other repetitions, we used dolls of all three species that Jennie had constructed, but I didn’t have them with me today. Would have been interesting to see the reaction? The playlist concluded with the call of the White-breasted Nuthatch but before I could stop it, launched into the next playlist with YbCu. No reaction to these at all. My initial, and premature, conclusion is that the ElTr reacted to the trogon call, as there is another territory just down-canyon and within earshot, so he didn’t want that trogon infringing further on his territory, hence the response. No response to the cuckoo call, as he hadn’t yet seen/heard a cuckoo this season, they’re not here yet. We’ll see if their responses to cuckoos intensify later in the season, once the cuckoos arrive and the trogons will also be stressed by feeding their young.

Back at the GrHa nest, I was a bit concerned as I had not yet seen a second individual near this nest, despite being in the general area for over an hour. To insure the nest was really being used, I tried playback for this raptor and the response was pretty quick, as I saw and heard two individuals flying about the canyon, vocalizing quite a bit as they presumably looked for the intruder.

Got back to the car and continued to drive through Lyle Canyon, an area which is pretty natural and productive. Check out some of our Ebird lists from this area last year. At one point, I saw the following four species from a single point: BAND-TAILED PIGEON, CURVE-BILLED THRASHER, YELLOW-BILLED CUCKOO, and GREATER ROADRUNNER, a surprising mix of Sonoran and Oak-Juniper habitats that occurs here. After another few miles, LCR/FR201 rejoins SR83 near mile marker #7. A short ways towards Parker Canyon Lake, you pass some old corrals and the turn-off to FR#5600 and there is a gynormus raptor nest in the top of a huge pine tree. I have never noted a raptor near this nest but would love to know who constructed it and if any of you find out, let me know.

SR83 begins a series of switchbacks just after mile marker #4 before the lake as it drops into another drainage, which is Merritt Canyon. Here one can walk up-canyon, which is dry and open but still productive for Montezuma Quail and other oak birds. Walking down-canyon, the canopy is more developed with larger trees as candidates for a GrHa nest. I headed for the other GrHa nest we had seen last year. No evidence of it being used this year and I couldn’t detect activity even with playback here. Back at the car, I continued on this road, past the marina and towards Lakeview where the road again crosses Merritt Canyon and a huge culvert. Again, no evidence of GrHa’s here, so my thought was that this territory was not being used this year. However, when I relayed this information to Ariana, she told me I must have the wrong coordinates for the nest, that she had found another and that the female was sitting on eggs there! Wow, these guys can be really sneaky during this phase of nesting! One thought both of us developed this year is that GrHa nests are much harder in general to find up in these oak areas, because the candidate trees are spread beyond even the obvious drainages and out in those rolling hills. Along the San Pedro, the candidate cottonwood and sycamore trees are always in the wet zone itself, are usually the taller trees along the stretch, which themselves are much more open in their canopies than these oaks and pines, so in general are much easier to find. Neither Ariana nor myself were ever able to pin down the nest tree itself in the Scotia/Sunnyside canyons at ~6000 ft elev despite a lot of searching, because this area too has a sprawling area of larger trees and the pair of hawks up there just didn’t reveal their preferred site.

Ariana La Porte

Wow, pretty dang hot today, supposed to hit 113 in Tucson, so I quit a bit early in the morning, given that my primary tasks were completed. But, a very interesting and productive area without a lot of bird reports. I suggest that if you find yourself in this area, say camping or fishing at nearby Parker Canyon Lake, the most interesting area to investigate would be to take Lyle Canyon Road and either walk a mile or so up Korn Canyon or farther south, drop into the Lyle Canyon itself and see what you can find. I suspect you won’t be disappointed.

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