Friday, September 30, 2016

Under-birded Areas of SE Arizona - Agua Caliente Canyon

Guest post by Tim Helentjaris
September 28, 2016 

Trailhead sign and looking up-canyon with
Mt. Hopkins Observatory on the right
This morning, I wanted to explore a new area, so I headed down to Agua Caliente Canyon on the west side of the Santa Rita Mts. More people are familiar with the Agua Caliente Trail in Madera Canyon that leads up to the Agua Caliente Saddle, this particular trail also extends up to the saddle but from the west. To access the trailhead, take the Elephant Head Road east off of the frontage road for I19, off of and south from the Canoa exit. On EHR, you’re heading towards Montosa Canyon and eventually to the Mt. Hopkins observatory, but just before reaching the observatory headquarters, you will turn off on the well-marked side road to the northeast leading to Agua Caliente Canyon and the visible radio towers. This graded dirt/gravel road is in excellent shape, passable by any sedan, including my Prius if I had taken it instead. A few miles up, you will come to the trailhead, which is marked by a prominent sign right on the roadside, one of those larger rusting metal ones used by the Forest Service. Park here or just a short ways back down the road at an obvious pull-through.

I have an older, out-of-print book, Hiking Guide to the Santa Rita Mountains of Arizona that describes this and many other trails. It seems to describe another start to this trail further back along the road. I picked an obvious pull-out/camping spot with the start of a trail to begin this day, not being aware of the actual, newer trailhead further up. Mistake, the trail dies out, and I was left bushwhacking through a section along the flowing creek. Not many birds through here, it was a bit more of a high desert habitat, ocotillo’s with only smaller oaks and thorny shrubs (Gila Woodpecker, Cactus Wren). Did see some interesting plants along here, Wild Cotton, Coral Bean seed pods, Hummingbird Trumpet in bright, red bloom. Eventually refound the road further up and pressed on to the actual trailhead. In my (usual) defense, it seemed like a good idea at the time.

The other mistake I confess to this morning was starting too early, just prior to sun-up. Seems like this time of year, I still begin as in the summer, as early as I can get there, but I have noted the last few weeks, that the birds don’t really become active for another hour or so, even though it’s not really that cool just yet? Since they are off their territories, the young are gone, they just don’t seem to have the same early drive. From the trailhead, you have great views, up-canyon, you can see the ridgeline, with its saddle, leading up to the obvious observatory atop Mt. Hopkins. Back down-canyon, you can see out across the valley to the freeway and beyond, with Baboquivari in the distance. The trail climbs pretty gently for more than a mile before beginning its steep ascent to the saddle. It’s also pretty obvious in most places, although a bit overgrown with vegetation from the sides, so long pants or gaiters are recommended. The canyon bottom has a lot of larger oaks along its drainage, but also some sycamores and junipers. At this point, I spied some madrone’s loaded with not-yet-ripe berries, perhaps a portent for interesting vagrants from the south this winter? It’s not very far up that smaller pines also begin to intrude. What is most striking about this area is the lush understory, very complex with a number of different shrubs and wildflowers, several I could not identify but some striking red Bouvardia blooms were still in evidence. Always a good marker for a diverse and healthy bird population.

Looking up-canyon towards Agua Caliente Saddle

Looking down-canyon.

Morning birding started out kind of slower, I heard a lot of chips in the underbrush but had a hard time getting them to pop up and identify themselves. Instead I had my usual, raucous escort of Mexican Jays both up and down trail. Also heard some other expected residents for this habitat, Blue Grosbeak, Northern Flicker, Rufous-crowned Sparrow. Grew impatient and wanting to get a better handle on what was residing here, I worked a little harder. Got an Arizona Woodpecker to respond. Then heard a Rock Wren working up in the steeper sides of the drainage.

Blue Grosbeak, Martin Molina. Arizona Woodpecker, Tom Ryan.

At one point then, heard a few more birds in the dense brush to the sides and set off an “owl bomb” (N. Pygmy Owl recording) and waited to see what came in. First a surprising Painted Redstart, then joined by the more expected Bridled Titmice (a small but noisy and aggressive flock), followed by an exciting progression of Vireo’s, a bright Cassin’s, then Hutton’s and Plumbeous. Also noted a Western Wood-Pewee and Black-throated Gray Warbler off to the side as well. That’s more like it. I can see that during the breeding season, this could be an exciting place, with a lot more species than I was able to draw in today. The lush understory seems to reflect the fact that I saw no evidence for any extensive grazing up here, always a good sign in any western location, and bodes well for a healthy ecosystem. On my walk back down, the cicada’s were really firing up, seems like the cuckoo’s left too soon.

Painted Redstart, Frank Retes. Black-throated Gray Warbler, Jackie Bowman.

I will definitely come back here, the area has a lot of pro’s: relatively close to Tucson, easy access along a good road, nice scenery, a level trail leading into a complex habitat for some distance, solitude away from the crowds, and so the promise of some interesting birds. I think many folks might enjoy a visit down here and I encourage folks to give it a try.

Bonus Mystery Question: on the way back down the side road towards Elephant Hill Road, you will see an odd structure up ahead and off the road. Not visible on the drive up-canyon, I can only describe it as looking like some large prop structure from Mad Max Thunderdome. If anyone knows what this is, I would greatly appreciate hearing, or at least their own theories.