Tag Archive | Portal

Naturalist Journeys Southeast Arizona Birding Guides Run 32nd Portal Arizona Breeding Bird Survey

Olive Warbler, Southeast Arizona at Rustler's Park

Olive Warbler, Southeast Arizona at Rustler’s Park

Because it provides long-term data, one of the tools potentially useful to assessing the effect of severe fires (2010, 2011) in the Chiricahua Mountains is data from a Breeding Bird Survey run on a 25-mile route within the range, over a span of 38 years.  Prior to 2013, thirty-one U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) Breeding Bird Survey counts have been conducted on a route that starts near the road junction to Whitetail Canyon, continuing over to Paradise, then Portal, and on up to Rustler and Long Parks at higher elevation. These official USFWS counts began in 1975.  Dr. Walter Spofford, a retired ornithologist from Cornell University living in the canyon, designed and conducted the route in its early years.  Counts were run every year with the exception of 1988, 1989, 1991, and 1994 (likely due to the Rattlesnake Fire).  The three years prior to 2013, that would have provided quite valuable data in 2010, 2011 (year of the Horseshoe II fire), and 2012 were also not run.

Peg Abbott, a professional birding guide for Naturalist Journeys, LLC, who lives in Portal, agreed to pick up the route and keep it active. She was familiar with the count protocol, having run a route in northwest Wyoming for many years. Abbott is on the board of the Friends of Cave Creek Canyon, a non-profit group interested in supporting long-term monitoring on Coronado National Forest.  Another board member, Wynne Brown, agreed to assist in the task that required much of a day and an 0443 (sunrise) rendezvous.

Over the 38-year span, 131 bird species have been recorded along the Portal Breeding Bird Survey route 06133.  The highest number of species in any one year was 86 (1993) and the lowest was 54 (1975).  This year’s count will come in second when tallied, with 83 species having been detected.  Over the years, four counts had totals in the 50-59 species range (1975, ’76, ’77, ’78); six counts had totals in the 60-69 species range (’79, ’81, ’87, ’90, ’97, ’99); nine counts had totals in the 70-79 species range (’80,’82, ’83, ’84, ’85, ‘86, 95, ’96, ’98) and two counts previously noted over 80 species (‘92, ‘93).

Count observers receive maps and instructions from the USFWS ahead of the count. They drive a designated 25-mile route, stopping every half-mile to listen for a 3-minute period.  Every attempt is made to keep the stops consistent year to year. This year, Abbott and Brown added GPS coordinates to the route, a great technological tool for this type of work.  One person (Abbott) recorded bird data, counting all individual bird calls and sightings, and noting their species. The other person (Brown) took monitored the timer, recorded weather data, marked GPS waypoints, and navigated the route.

Over the years the number of individual birds has ranged considerably, from 206 (1975) to 929 (1992). This year’s total of 505 individuals was just under the average for the 31 counts of 530 individuals.

Chiricahua view webOn June 11, 2013, Abbott and Brown met at the start point just ahead of the 0443 start time. They said to each other, “On your mark, get set, GO”.  A sense of participating in a historical conservation effort, pioneered by esteemed local Portal residents, helped inspire them. The 25-mile route for Portal (BBS 06133) starts on the Galeyville Road, close to the junction with the road to Whitetail Canyon. The route ends at the lower end of the big meadow at Long Park. Clues on the official tally sheet at times were less than helpful: “cairn on left side of road” (long since gone), “Red-tailed Hawk nest in sycamore tree” (many sycamores, no nest), and “cattle guard” (no longer there). At stop 16 Brown said, “Oh my,” recognizing the scope of their task. Powered by snacks, friendship, and a fascination with the remarkable diversity and beauty of the area, they finished the count, walking the last four points (2 miles) due to the closure of the road for the Rustler Park Campground rehabilitation.

A few notes on the 2013 count:  All species that have been seen on nearly all (29-31) of the 31 counts were found again this year.  Of 23 species regularly encountered (seen on 20-28 counts), only Greater Roadrunner was missed. Seven species detected on 10-19 (less than half) of the counts were not recorded: Great-Horned Owl, Elegant Trogon, Juniper Titmouse (though this species was heard at one of the points, it was not noted in a 3-minute observation block), Red-breasted Nuthatch, Hooded Oriole, Bullock’s Oriole, and House Sparrow. Within the category of those detected on less than 10 of the 31 counts, observers had no expectations of finding them, but Abbott noted several of this 2-9 count category including: Scaled Quail, Montezuma Quail, Cooper’s Hawk, Northern Pygmy Owl, Magnificent Hummingbird, Rock Wren, and Eastern Meadowlark. Two species were noted that had only been on one count within the 38-year span, though both are considered to be regular breeders in the Chiricahuas in Rick Taylor’s Location Checklist to the Birds of the Chiricahuas: Black-tailed Gnatcatcher (recorded at one stop), and Blue-gray Gnatcatcher (recorded at six stops).

While many variables play into the patterns observed from the Breeding Bird Survey, the patterns can be informative, and they alert wildlife managers and observers to further monitor species of concern. Two species of those that occur in 20 or more counts, Summer Tanager and Hooded Oriole, do not occur in the last eight counts, absent since 2002.  One of these, Summer Tanager, was recorded this year.

Summary data as background for the 2013 Portal Breeding Bird Survey

(17) AZ 12 Spring 094Species that have been detected on all 31 counts

Gambel’s Quail, White-winged Dove, Acorn Woodpecker, Northern (Red-shafted) Flicker, Western Wood Pewee, Cassin’s Kingbird, Mexican Jay, White-breasted Nuthatch, Cactus Wren, Bewick’s Wren, Black-throated Gray Warbler, Spotted Towhee, Black-throated Sparrow, Yellow-eyed Junco, Western Tanager, Black-headed Grosbeak, and Brown-headed Cowbird.

(12) Species that have been detected on most counts, all but 1-2 years (29 or 30 counts):

Mourning Dove, Dusky-capped Flycatcher, Ash-throated Flycatcher, Brown-crested Flycatcher, Plumbeous Vireo, Steller’s Jay, Bridled Titmouse, American Robin, Northern Mockingbird, Hepatic Tanager, Scott’s Oriole, and House Finch.

(23) Species that have been detected on 20-28 counts:

Turkey Vulture, Red-tailed Hawk, Greater Roadrunner, White-throated Swift, Black-chinned Hummingbird, Ladder-backed Woodpecker, Cordilleran Flycatcher, Western Kingbird, Hutton’s Vireo, Warbling Vireo, Western Scrub Jay, Common Raven, Violet-green Swallow, Pygmy Nuthatch, Canyon Wren, Hermit Thrush, Curve-billed Thrasher, Lucy’s Warbler, Audubon’s Warbler, Grace’s Warbler, Canyon Towhee, Northern Cardinal, Blue Grosbeak

(30) Species detected on 10-19 counts:

Band-tailed Pigeon, Great-Horned Owl, Common Poorwill, Blue-throated Hummingbird, Broad-tailed Hummingbird, Elegant Trogon, Hairy Woodpecker, Arizona Woodpecker, Greater Pewee, Black Phoebe, Say’s Phoebe, Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher, Mexican Chickadee, Juniper Titmouse, Verdin, Bushtit, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Brown Creeper, House Wren, Olive Warbler, Virginia’s Warbler, Red-faced Warbler, Painted Redstart, Rufous-crowned Sparrow, Chipping Sparrow, Summer Tanager, Hooded Oriole, Bullock’s Oriole, Lesser Goldfinch, and House Sparrow.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA(32) Species detected on 2-9 counts (# = # of counts):

Scaled Quail (8), Montezuma Quail (3), Sharp-shinned Hawk (3), Cooper’s Hawk (6), Northern Goshawk (3), Zone-tailed Hawk (2), Golden Eagle (4), American Kestrel (5), Peregrine Falcon (3), Prairie Falcon (3), Northern Pygmy Owl (4), Lesser Nighthawk (5), Magnificent Hummingbird (9), Bell’s Vireo (2), Chihuahuan Raven (2), Purple Martin (2), Barn Swallow (2), Rock Wren (8), Eastern Bluebird (2), Western Bluebird (6), Crissal Thrasher (6), European Starling (5), Phainopepla (6), Yellow-breasted Chat (3), Black-chinned Sparrow (9), Lark Sparrow (7), Pyrrhuloxia (6), Indigo Bunting (4), Eastern Meadowlark (6), Bronzed Cowbird (6), Red Crossbill (3), and Pine Siskin (6).

(17) Species detected on only one of 31 counts in a 38 year period.

Wild Turkey, Short-tailed Hawk, Swainson’s Hawk, Killdeer, Olive-sided Flycatcher, Buff-breasted Flycatcher, Vermilion Flycatcher, Loggerhead Shrike, Clark’s Nutcracker, Horned Lark, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Black-tailed Gnatcatcher, Golden-crowned Kinglet, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Townsend’s Solitaire, Varied Bunting, and Western Meadowlark.

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Post-Fire Report: Arizona’s Chiricahua Mountains, Horseshoe Two Fire, First Glimpses from the Field

Barfoot Park, National Natural Landmark, Chiricahua Mountains

28 June 2011

Assessing Birdwatching Ecotourism in the Chiricahua Mountains after the Horseshoe Two Fire:  Some Early Glimpses

From:  Richard Webster (writing), Peg Abbott, Reed Peters, and Rose Ann Rowlett (contact information at the end)

On 28 June 2011 we were able to spend five hours doing a rapid survey of some of the most popular birding areas in the Chiricahua Mountains.  This grew out of a concern that people were cancelling visits to the area on the assumption that the area is a lost cause, and that better knowledge of the birds and habitats would assist visitors.  Webster initiated an application to visit these areas, and when permission came, invited several to join, collectively representing business permittees of the forest for guiding (on a local basis and external tour groups) and a local business offering lodging (collectively also representing considerable birding expertise), and promised to report widely our results so that all can share as best as possible in our impressions. 

Thanks go to the District Ranger, Bill Edwards, for arranging access, and to Marilyn Krause and Duane Harp (Information Officer and Safety Officer, respectively, for the Incident Management Team) for making it happen.

Summary:  There is still enough to enjoy in the Chiricahua Mountains (whew!).

We would like to say “come on down” but obviously there are several caveats.  First, the Coronado National Forest is still closed, and lifting of closures depends on reduction in fire danger (primarily meaning the rains start).  Second, with sufficient rain, within the area of the Horseshoe Two Fire, opening will occur piece by piece, depending on many factors, particularly safety.  Third, with yet more rain, there will be new challenges to access in the form of flooding, and it will be a challenge (or impossible) to keep some areas open. 

Obviously, many of these decisions will be made by the Forest Service.  To stay informed, the Coronado N.F. website is http://www.fs.fed.us/r3/coronado/ (Douglas District).  Further, if you are planning to stay at a local establishment, the owners will doubtless stay very well informed about access.  Other road decisions may be made by Arizona’s Department of Transportation.

General Impressions:  There is no getting around the fact that 222,954 acres burned, including parts of all habitats and most of the mountain range.  This has had a major effect on the soil, flora, and fauna, and will have a major effect for a long time to come.  Some areas are ghastly, although the majority of areas are not.  Most areas are unattractive, which will start to change when the first rains come, and the lightly burned areas (probably a majority of the fire) will start to recover rapidly if we can have decent rains both this summer and the following winter (e.g., some parts of Horseshoe One, which burned last year, were already looking better in upper South Fork). 

            What has us encouraged is that the scale of “the good, the bad, and the ugly” was finer than we had realized.  For instance, as reported, Rustler and Barfoot Park areas had burned badly, but as it happens, the dividing line between intense and light/none went through both spots, and while both have been severely affected, there were nice patches of conifer forest in both that were good birding.  Standing in either meadow, the glass-is-half-full view is that one sees a good number of green, healthy trees.  In fire terminology, in these areas there is a mosaic (in this case simply the way the fire burned, rather than managed by the firefighters).  In most other areas we visited, the mosaic was less extreme in its variation, with areas of light to medium burn juxtaposed (some managed by firefighters).  Each turn of the road is different; we did not see huge areas of devastation.  The largest area (and it is large) of devastation we saw was in upper Pinery Canyon (which we did not bird, and only covered quickly by car from Onion Saddle down to the Campground, where there is a patch of green). 

Birds:  We saw most everything that we expected to see.  Our birding consisted of a number of quick stops from 1,900 to 2,500m in elevation (6,300′ to 8,300′).  It was already warm and windy, but we spread out a little and were focused in our searching.  Some areas may have more birds because of the fire (the islands of habitat are packed), but overall the birding seemed quite normal in the remaining areas of better habitat, including several nice mixed-species flocks. 

            The most range-restricted species for the U.S. is Mexican Chickadee, and after we saw them at four of our first five stops, we relaxed!  (We are not providing specific spots because we think that that will be too much focus on those chickadees when there are probably many more around; in general, while there are some chickadees below Onion Saddle, when Onion Saddle to Barfoot Junction becomes available, there will be plenty of chickadees).

            We also saw Olive Warbler (four spots), Red-faced Warbler (three spots), and Greater Pewee (one spot; never common here anyway).  Yellow-eyed Juncos were throughout, and at most stops we found Magnificent Hummingbird, Cordilleran Flycatcher, Plumbeous Vireo, House Wren, Hermit Thrush, Grace’s Warbler, and Hepatic and Western Tanagers, along with a few Warbling Vireos and Yellow-rumped Warblers.  Widespread montane species such as three nuthatches, Brown Creeper, and Steller’s Jay were also encountered.  It was a truly representative birdlist that we would not ordinarily report, except that this time it is good news that one can still have an “ordinary” birdlist in the Chiricahua Mountains, the kind of “ordinary” that draws visitors from afar.

            In conjunction with the results from the Trogon Census on 26 June organized by Rick Taylor and reported to the AZ-NM birding listserv on 28 June, while numbers of Trogons are very low, and perhaps some other species as well (Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher?), the diversity of species we have seen the last three days is excellent.   Narca Moore-Craig’s Blog provides the account and photographs of her participation in the trogon survey.  As access to the habitats is gained, it should be possible to see a typical range of species, although you will have to pick your way past the bad and the ugly to get to the good!  (222,954 acres burned!).   And if you are interested in fire ecology, and comparing past and present, it is fascinating (we VERY much hope that one result of this fire will be serious long-term study of fire in the full range of Madrean habitats).

            A few notes about specific areas:  Along E Turkey Creek, we made only one stop, but drove from FR 42 (the main Trans-Mountain road) down FR 42B to Paradise, and found the riparian lightly touched, or not touched at all, and Paradise looking normal at first glance, which doesn’t mean that some backyards above the left bank aren’t scorched!  Along FR 42B from Paradise to Portal, it is entirely normal (the fire did not reach this area).  Life in lower Cave Creek Canyon [Portal and the Southwestern Research Station (SWRS)] is illusory, without fire damage in the backyard  (dwellings south of Portal toward Sulphur Draw, Rodeo, and lower Horseshoe Canyon face some of the more intense fire damage from the very beginning of the fire, and also face some of the greater potential flood damage).  In South Fork, most of the canyon floor has burned, although much of it lightly to medium, especially from control burns.  The South Fork trail has already been rehabilitated for almost two miles, and the road is in good condition (indeed, all roads we have traversed were OK, but in some areas falling trees will remain a danger for months to come, and heavy rains will cause problems).   The riparian of the main canyon of Cave Creek is its normal lush green, including the three popular campgrounds (Idlewilde, Stewart, and Sunny Flat), although the slope above Sunny Flat has had a controlled burn.  

In Conclusion:  You doubtless realize that reports about difficult subjects like fires are emotionally tinged, and that is true here, and that impressions are greatly influenced in relation to expectations.  As people living here (and with some vested interests and conflicts of interest), we have been on an emotional roller coaster, and went out this week with some lingering doubts about how living here would be in the future.  Hence we were relieved to find on our two recent trips into the burn areas sufficient areas of habitat and enough birds to feel better about the future, while not being comfortable with what has happened.  As guides and lodge owners, we can imagine still having excellent days afield.  For us and many others there will be plenty of pain (there are places that will not recover in our lifetimes), but we are feeling good enough about the habitat to be entirely comfortable saying to our readers that you, too, should be able to find many birds and much pleasure here.  

Photographs from our trip can already be found at the Facebook page for the Friends of Cave Creek Canyon (FOCCC) under the album entitled “Chiricahua Post Fire Assessment”.   Especially for those without Facebook access, in the near future there will also be similar photographs on the Portal/Rodeo website  (along with some lovely photographs of the fire itself). 

Richard Webster webster.re@gmail.com  

Rose Ann Rowlett  grebe@vtc.net 

Peg Abbott pabbott@vtc.net 

Reed Peters cavecreek@vtc.net

Horseshoe Fire Hangs Above Cave Creek Canyon; biodiversity burns…

Chiricahua Mountains, Views Above Cave Creek Canyon

In our quiet village of 300 (Portal, Arizona), the loudest sound of spring is usually the bark of an Elegant Trogon. Today their sounds were drowned out by the drone of helicopters. These pass overhead relentlessly in support of 450 firefighters working non-stop to keep the escalating Horseshoe Fire at bay. The road up lush, verdant Cave Creek Canyon, so vibrant with life this spring, is blocked to all but (nervous) residents.

I have watched the pulse of migration surge this spring as songbirds come to this canyon. They come in droves, to feed on insects attracted to feed on new oak leaves, a veritable salad bar that is available for weeks on end,  across the Chiricahua Mountain’s range of elevation.  I noted arrival days for each species, watched the progress as courting trogons finally settle into nests. This road block stops the story. I wonder if the male Elegant Trogon I found today, in an unlikely spot on the bypass road up Turkey Creek, is one wandering, unable to cope with smoke and flame and the 450 firefighters we are so grateful for.

From an open viewpoint close to Rustler’s Park, I can see the full scope of the fire’s fury and, as fellow Naturalist Journeys’ guide Narca Moore-Craig laments, I want to weep.  But I find my tears seem drained for such a loss from past experience with the fires of 1988 in Yellowstone, my treasured home of that time. So much of what I knew of Yellowstone seemed forever gone. “Again”, my heart screamed, then “why South Fork, why here?” We know only that this fire was human caused, under investigation as there has been no lightning. It comes from terrain too rugged for average campers. Likely the campfire or small stove of illegal’s, their paths so regular now in our mountains that we only notice when numbers are high, or when they line up tightly, wear black and carry bales to parts unknown.

I prefer to watch avian immigrants. I often go to Turkey Creek, a spot where the bounty of our region’s biodiversity boggles the mind. I watched in April as the mixed flock here grew to over 400 birds. I watched  for hours as they fed in fast-paced synchrony, traversing some of the most complex forests I know. The warblers and attendant kinglets and vireos were so urgent and focused in their feeding mission, it was like watching army ants swarm over a log in the tropics. Mexican Chickadee’s metallic call helped me trace the flock’s route. In the US, this species is found only in the Chiricahuas and a neighboring range of New Mexico. Their occurrence demonstrates that these mountains measure higher on a scale that marks the Madrean contribution to diversity. The chickadee’s stronghold in their limited range here is the mixed conifer forest; much of their habitat is on fire today.

In our mountains, species from Mexico mix with those of the Rockies. Through intimacy with one flock and its dynamics this spring, I learned to cherish our mountains, clad so fine with a multi-layered canopy. I watched birds thrive on the mountain’s garments of oak, myriad species of pine, Douglas Fir, White Fir, juniper, Arizona Cypress, ash, locust and more. Resident Red-faced Warblers feed next to migrant Townsend’s and Hermit Warblers, which stop in to refuel before flying north. One day there was a huge influx of Orange-crowned Warblers, the next day, only two. Pine Siskins and Hepatic Tanagers mix calls with Blue-throated Hummingbirds. When a late-season snow caused the banquet of caterpillars to fall to refuge on the forest floor, the flock split – Red-faced Warblers diving down in elevation and northern warblers surprisingly going UP, to dine on insects tucked snug in the new branch tips of Douglas Fir trees which stood knee-deep in snow.

Our canyons provide refuge to migrant songbirds, tropical looking trogons and human souls. Today held perfect weather and, as we watched a hunting Short-tailed Hawk, I wished that I could stave off sobering sadness. To the northeast, I could see over 70 miles, up to the Gila Wilderness, the Mogollon Rim, the edge of the vast Colorado Plateau. The Gila is Aldo Leopold country, a man who tried to enlighten land managers on nature’s ways – fires, predators. I shudder in knowing that the fires I see to the south did not start from natural causes. They occur as a twisted consequence of our Society’s addictions and greed that fuel the drug trade and our inability of a culture to counter it, control it, or carve out a healthier path.

Turning back to the South Fork of Cave Creek Canyon, my view is of smoke. Soft smoke, for as of this moment, winds have given up for a day. They tell us these fires may burn a month, or more. Ridge after ridge, above some of the temperate world’s most diverse forests, is on fire. And this is not Yellowstone. Not vast, not wet, not as likely to heal. Our mixed conifer forest hangs on here as a relict, assembled during a cooler, wetter time. Hermit Thrushes emit flute-like tones to reverberate from the patch of forest I sit in. I begin to cry.

Read Narca Moore-Craig’s May 30 entry about the fires on her Blog.