Tag Archive | Southeast Arizona

Arizona Monsoon Madness: Naturalist Journeys Ranks This Essential for Bucket List Birding Tour and Travel

TODO Elegant trogon

Elegant Trogon, Portal Arizona, image by Tom Dove

August in Arizona – It Must Be Madness!

Why would anyone go to Arizona in August?  It’s hot there, a visit would be Madness!  According to the guides of Naturalist Journeys, a top birding and nature tour company based in Portal, Arizona, a visit in August is a must do on a savvy natural history traveler’s agenda, part of that bucket list one might never have thought of.   Why the fervor for this season?  Monsoon Madness.

Arizona in August is extreme. Summer rains, called monsoons, power extreme biodiversity, and produce off-the-chart, unreal numbers of species.  Naturalist Journeys owner Peg Abbott recalls her first visit to Portal at that time of year, over twenty years ago. “I was making a call from the phone booth outside the Portal Café. I started looking around and realized I had company – over 17 species of insects, large, colorful katydids, praying mantis, and a wild Rhinoceros-looking beetle.  I hung up and quickly called my entomology friend, a professor at Colorado College, telling her she had to see this.  She did, later that fall with a field class.  It’s wild, in summer the whole region gets green.  In fact, in Southeast Arizona August is the greenest month of the year.  Landscapes are transformed. Grass grows thigh-high. Wildflowers explode. One has to see it to believe it.

A sense of adventure beckons naturalists in the know to Arizona each August. Even the local Border Patrol agents train to recognize the odd behaviors of August visitors.  Birders gather in groups at night, passing silently under ghost-like sycamore trees, scanning limbs for small owls. Wilder than birders at night are those in cars on the road – sometimes very remote roads – that swerve, and stop suddenly. From them people jump out of all sides, carrying sticks. Border agents learn these are “herpers”, the local name for professional and amateur snake and reptile enthusiasts. This is their time. August brings out peak numbers of numerous species. Bob Ashley,  a reptile enthusiast and owner of the Chiricahua Desert Museum, describes a good “herper” night as warm, with no moon. August is the peak month, when nights are warm and humid. In a couple hours of driving one might see 30 snakes of more than a dozen species.  Antelope Pass, in neighboring New Mexico, reports the highest number of lizard species in the United States. The region has 8 species of toads. Insect diversity abounds. In the natural history realm, it’s madness.

All through August, for those going out,  need for precaution prevails.  Weather is extreme.  Lightning extraveganzas happen almost daily as clouds gather.  This signals cool, shaded afternoons – until electricity sends residents (human and other) to shelter.  People find a place with an open view, and watch with fireworks-style fascination. Strong rains follow the show, at times causing flash floods.

A simple dinner invitation in Portal can turn into a slumber party, as guests have no way to cross raging Cave Creek to get home.  Resident Susanne Apitz, active with the local Emergency Response team, says, “We take it in stride. Like northern states have to be ready for ice on the roads, freezing temperatures, and high levels of snowfall, we get ready for stranded cars, spot-fires from lightning strikes, and hikers with hypothermia on mountain trails where it may even hail”.  So much for it being too hot in August in Arizona!

Ten Reasons Not to Miss Arizona’s August Monsoons:

 1. Extreme Biodiversity.  Find fourteen species of hummingbirds, observe butterflies that stray north from Mexico, tally a list of lizards – Ashley says, “nearby Antelope Pass, just over the state line in New Mexico, has the highest number of species in the US, with almost 30 species”!  Hire a guide from small companies such as Naturalist Journeys in Portal to help you learn and observe.

2. Stunning Photography:  Find a rare Elegant Trogon pair with chicks. Try some timed exposures for lightning shows, or star trails. Portal, Arizona sports Sky Village, a subdivision home to serious amateur astronomers, some willing to share their expertise.

 3. Time to Get Dirty.  Poke and probe on forest trails of Coronado National Forest, abundant in each of the Sky Island Mountain Ranges.  Portal, Arizona has a Visitor Center staffed on weekends to help you find your way.  Work up a sweat going for gusto to one of the finest lookouts in the Southwest, Silver Peak in the Chiricahua Mountains. Stand and let powerful monsoons rains wash you clean.

4. Redefine Adventure.  In the Chiricahuas you don’t need bungee cords, canopy towers, zip lines, or boats.  Weather and the wild world combine to keep your adrenaline pumping.  Those with curious minds can dig for a honeypot ant, follow a troop of coatimundis, or join a rattlesnake count each August in Barfoot Park, recently (2011) declared by the Park Service as one of the country’s first official National Natural Landmarks.

 5. Scream Back!   Cave Creek Canyon has one of the highest densities of breeding raptors and owls on the planet, on a par with the famous Snake River Birds of Prey area in Idaho. In August young are fledging, making demands on their parents. Feisty Apache Goshawks can split your skull if you wander too close.  Luckily their screams alert you to invasion of their territory.  From Golden Eagles, to tiny Elf Owls, the airways abound with clatters, clucks, chatter, calls, songs and screams.  Take off the headphones, and listen!

6. Dare to Unplug.  Portal, Arizona just got cell service in 2013, and it only reaches the mouth of Cave Creek Canyon.  WIFI locations, like the local library, the porches of local lodgings, or the Chiricahua Desert Museum, make for good social encounters.

7. Reap the Harvest.  The monsoon rains bring life to all things wild, including those who like Prickly Pear Margaritas. The cacti’s aubergine-colored fruits are called “tunas”.  Locals do the work to harvest them, remove small spines, and make a syrup good on pancakes, or mixed with lime. Buy some at the Sky Islands host farmer’s markets, weekly as agriculture kicks into high gear with the rains.  Bisbee’s Saturday market, in an historic mining town located between Portal and Sierra Vista, has flavor beyond its food vendors and is not to be missed.

8. Go Wild.   During Arizona’s August monsoons, local biology-types can be found with glazed over stares, not unlike those coming down from a long weekend party. Recognize sleep deprivation, as they’ve been up at dawn to look for Elegant Trogons, stared through scopes in search of shorebirds passing through from the arctic, and strained to see fine feather variation of hummingbirds at feeders.  They’ve hiked mountain trails, where after the 2011 Horsehoe II fires wildflowers appear in August in profusion.  They may have surveyed 150 ft. Douglas Fir trees in search of Mexican Chickadees that only live in the Chiricahuas, revealing their presence in a call too high-pitched for many to hear. And then there is “herping” to do long into the night…

9. Unwind.  If you can’t keep up with biodiversity-crazed locals and visitors, just enjoy yourself. There are no fancy accommodations here, but the area’s Inns, lodges and B and B’s all have in common splendid views, porches to sit on to appreciate them, and good old western hospitality.

10. Brag. Tell Your Friends – YOU Visited Arizona in August (weird?), and let them ask you WHY.  Smile and say – you know, it’s Monsoon Madness.

Naturalist Journeys, LLC has expert guides, and can help you plan your visit in July or August for Monsoon Madness through their Independent Ventures program. Participants can enjoy either 4 or 6 nights split between two great eco-lodges in a package that includes dinners at local restaurants, expert guides, and special discounts with local vendors.  Not ready yet?  August 4-10,  2014, join them for their popular week-long group tour, entitled –you guessed it – “Monsoon Madness”.

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.

ARIZONA: Week-old JAVELINAS

Week-old Javelinas catch up with the herd

Week-old Javelinas catch up with the herd

I wish I’d been home to watch week-old javelina babies experience their first rain. I write now from Florida having left Arizona just as a rare winter storm, bringing much needed moisture, came in. I wonder – did these impossibly cute and ruggedly tough little ‘piggies’ hide under one or more of the multiple females they’d nursed on for comfort and nutrition on the days I’d observed them? Did they frolic, hunker down or simply endure our badly-needed delivery of moisture? This past week I got a glimpse at seeing the world through javelina eyes in three observations sessions at the home of a patient friend who called to say “they’re here, I can hold them”. His scattering a little extra bird seed allowed me to photograph and observe herd dynamics that proved to be far more fluid than I imagined. I knew that, unlike many hoofed mammals, female javelinas do not synchronize births and that young can appear any month of the year. But as with so much of nature – to see is to believe! This herd had two one-week old youngsters, one about a month old, two adolescents of perhaps four to six months, and a bold, fat, almost adult-sized juvenile that still tried to nurse females that matched him in size. All of the young nursed at more than one female. The two youngest were particularly tolerated and I watched them range close to several members of the herd, sampling access to potential dairy bars. They left dry females quickly, but lingered at others to take a long draw. When the weather changed the morning before I was to leave, I watched as the ample-bodied teenager took charge as a babysitting commander. He corralled the three youngest to stay crouched in grass by the stream as all adults fed with intensity. Windows of opportunity to watch such behavior are rare. I want to turn to my library to compare these notes with others. I wonder how my friend, a scholar of birds, finds time to write with distraction so close at hand. From Florida I can imagine the herd today, returning to my friend’s bird feeders where they will suck down large quantities of seed intended to lure in sparrows, thrashers, quail and some of our Southwestern winter residents. I hope current economic trends don’t threaten his bird seed budget!