Friday, September 2, 2016

Arizona Feathers, Scales, Tails, Shells, and More (Part 2)

Spotted Owl, Miller Canyon, Arizona
Day 3 (Wrapping Up Miller Canyon and Starting in Portal, AZ)

So I shared some of the highlights from the first two days of my recent trip to southeast Arizona in my last blog post. I'll limit the content of this post to our third day in the field to share highlights from our last few hours in Miller Canyon and our first hours in Portal and the Chiricahua Mountains.

After slipping in and out of sleep while a thunderstorm blew, rumbled, popped, and cracked throughout the night I awoke to a beautiful sunrise. I used my phone to capture the image and realized it would have been better to use the Nikon instead. Many of the colors were lost in this image. The sun was rising from below the mouth of Miller canyon, down hill from our lodge. The line diagonally through he right, upper corner of the image is a power line running between the roof of our lodge and a power pole.

Sunrise From Beatty's Guest Ranch Miller Canyon, Arizona
Moments later I got dressed and stepped outside to the porch and beheld an awesome rainbow at the top of the canyon. A sunrise and a rainbow made for a beautiful start to a peaceful morning.

Rainbow Over Miller Canyon, Arizona
Rainbow Over Miller Canyon, Arizona
Eric was going to sleep in a bit so I decided to take a walk up the canyon for some private religious devotion.  I personally find my experiences in the outdoors more meaningful when I privately express gratitude to the creator of the people, creatures, and landscapes I so often enjoy in my adventures. I had much to be grateful for that morning as I enjoyed full functionality of all my senses, considered my blessings, and took in the beauty of the canyon. I believe it is a divine attribute to find and acknowledge meaning in our lives and the world around us.

At one point along my walk a bird suddenly appeared and flew across the trail in front of me.  I took in the shape, flight pattern, plumage, and behavior in the brief moment I was able to watch it fly and land down the hillside. It was about thirty yards away, but I immediately recognized the bird as a nightjar (a nocturnal group of birds). I had unknowingly flushed it from its daytime roost. The question then became which of the nightjars it might be. I ruled out Common and Lesser Nighthawks and Common Poorwill quickly and wondered if it might actually be a Mexican Whip-poor-will.  I moved forward until I found a perspective along the trail that provided a fortuitous, window-like view of the bird on its new perch. I was able to snap a few images for documentation purposes. I cropped the image below quite a bit to show enough detail to identify it as a Mexican Whip-poor-will. I'd be fine if a nightjar expert convinced me it was a Buff-collared Nightjar because both would have been a new observation for me. Miller Canyon falls within the range of both, but Mexican prefers higher elevation and forests. Buff-collared prefers dry desert washes. The collar on my bird doesn't seem to complete itself on the nape of the neck and the tail projection seems longer, relative to the primary wing tips, than what is depicted for Buff-collared in my field guides. One of my expert birding friends in Mexico felt more comfortable calling this one a Mexican Whip-poor-will based on the photo I shared and the habitat of Miller Canyon.

Mexican Whip-poor-will Miller Canyon, Arizona
After walking a little further up the trail I turned around so I could make it back to the lodge to hook up with Eric by 7 a.m. Our plan was to go farther up the canyon to search for Spotted Owls. I noticed an odd-looking lizard on one of the window screens of our lodge so I captured an image to study later. I wasn't able to find an easy match in my field guides for lizards so I checked with two individuals who are good with lizard IDs and was informed that it was an Ornate Tree Lizard with unusual longitudinal stripes rather than the typical irregular blotches or crossbars on the back. They noted that enlarged mid-dorsal scales running along each side of the spine are diagnostic for this species of lizard.

Ornate Tree Lizard Showing Unusual Longitudinal Striping Miller Canyon, Arizona
Ornate Tree Lizard Catalina State Park Oro Valley, AZ
The small image to the right shows the more typical appearance of an Ornate Tree Lizard. I captured this image a couple of days later at Catalina State Park in Oro Valley, Arizona.

Soon after Eric and I started our short hike up Miller Canyon from our lodge we heard Red-faced Warblers, one of our target birds for the canyon. I also took some time to photograph more lizards along the way since they were active during the morning hours. I was essentially being an opportunistic photographer and capturing images to study later for identification purposes. Adding the observation and photography of lizards and other reptiles was adding a new dimension to the outdoor experience for me.

Female Yarrow's Spiny Lizard Miller Canyon, Arizona
Female Yarrow's Spiny Lizard Miller Canyon, Arizona
Here's a male Yarrow's Spiny Lizard showing his tell-tale trait for identification, the dorsal scales that form a fishnet stocking pattern as a result of one spots centered on dark scales. That dark collar with a light posterior border is also characteristic of this species.

Male Yarrow's Spiny Lizard Miller Canyon, Arizona
We had some tips for where Spotted Owls had been hanging out in the canyon so we were keeping our eyes out for them as we increased our elevation. Sometimes when we are scouting for birds known to be in a location it still feels like looking for a needle in a haystack. I was beginning to feel that we were on such a search after scouring hundreds of possible roosting locations and realizing there were so many more. I was delighted, however, when my eyes fell upon a bulky silhouette in a conifer between our trail and the other side of the canyon. I moved up the trail for an angle the provided an unobstructed view. It was a roosting Spotted Owl. Eric and I enjoyed observing and photographing the Spotted Owl for a little while before moving along the trail. The owl remained pretty motionless for most of the time we observed it. For perspective, these owls are about 18 inches tall with a wingspan of about 40 inches.

Spotted Owl in Miller Canyon, Arizona
Occasionally the owl would open one eye, but it never really seemed interested in our presence.

Spotted Owl in Miller Canyon, Arizona
Other than a few minutes of preening and a glance here and there, the owl remained motionless.

Spotted Owl in Miller Canyon, Arizona
Spotted Owl in Miller Canyon, Arizona
We crossed paths with a birder and his paid guide after we finished photographing the Spotted Owl. As we were visiting with them I heard what I thought sounded like the Greater Pewee call I had listened to on my phone a day or two before as I was trying to familiarize myself with the songs and calls of birds I was hoping to locate in Miller Canyon. We listened closely and played a call from my phone to see if it would respond. And it did right on cue. Another life bird for the trip.

This Arizona Sister butterfly caught my attention on the way back to the lodge. I had no idea that the image was photo bombed by the fly/bee in the upper, right-hand corner at the time.

Arizona Sister Butterfly in Miller Canyon, Arizona
We soon made our way back to the lodge, packed up our gear and began our drive over to Portal, our third birding area planned for our six-day trip. The heat was on when we arrived Portal so we decided to do our initial birding in the higher elevations. We drove into Cave Creek Canyon to begin my first-ever birding experience in the Chiricahua Mountains.

Upon entering the canyon it gives a false sense of the mountains being few and not so tall. However, it soon became apparent that we'd approach and drive beyond numerous false peaks and eventually find ourselves viewing a range of mountains and peaks from higher and higher viewpoints along 42 Forest Road.

We saw lots of birds as we continued our drive up the mountain, but one species we rarely see in Utah, Band-tailed Pigeon, flushed and then landed quite a distance from us. One of the pigeons perched on a snag long enough for us to capture some images that turned out okay. The band of lighter feathers that usually shows on the end of the tail feathers is quite subtle on this particular bird.

Band-tailed Pigeon on Forest Road in Chiricahua Mountains, Arizona
We encountered another life bird for me along our drive, Dusky-capped Flycatcher. These dainty flycatchers were seen regularly in small groups. Here's one image showing the back or upper side and one showing the belly or underside.

Dusky-capped Flycatcher on Forest Road in Chiricahua Mountains, Arizona
Dusky-capped Flycatcher on Forest Road in Chiricahua Mountains, Arizona
While we were photographing the Dusky-capped Flycatchers on one side of the road I noticed a yellowish bird that flew to the hillside behind us. I was curious and tracked it down to discover its identity, a female Western Tanager. It was also feeding on insects and flying bugs. At one point it flew down to the trunk of a tree and fluttered about as it retrieved something from the bark. Once it had its object of desire it flew up to a perch and looked back at me. I snapped some images and realized that the tanager had retrieved a Walking Stick from the trunk and was preparing to consume it. That was a rare and memorable moment. I would have never seen the walking stick without the help of the bird.

Female Western Tanager Eating a Walking Stick on Forest Road in Chiricahua Mountains, Arizona
Female Western Tanager Eating a Walking Stick on Forest Road in Chiricahua Mountains, ArizonaAt a higher elevation along Forest Road, just as we had decided to turn around and head back down the mountain we located two more life birds for me, Mexican Chickadees and this young Hermit Warbler. The tiny warbler remained foraging in the shade, but the images still turned out okay.

Hermit Warbler on Forest Road in Chiricahua Mountains, Arizona
Hermit Warbler on Forest Road in Chiricahua Mountains, Arizona
On our way down from the mountains and out of the canyon we spent some time at the Southwestern Research Station. A family of Cassin's Kingbirds was making some noise as we exited our car. This image shows the white feathers at the base of the bill that is typical for this species but not for the Western Kingbirds we often see during the summer months in Utah.

Cassin's Kingbird at Southwestern Research Station in Cave Creek Canyon Portal, Arizona
The research station is a great place to observe Blue-throated Hummingbirds. We watched a number of them come and go around the nectar feeding stations. This was another life bird for the trip.

Blue-throated Hummingbird at Southwestern Research Station in Cave Creek Canyon Portal, Arizona
Just below the Southwestern Research Station along the main road we encountered a few Montezuma Quails. We had our first sighting of this species the day before, but these birds allowed some photos to be taken. The small covey consisted of males and females. Like most bird species, the males were the most decorated of the two sexes.

Male Montezuma Quail Cave Creek Canyon Portal, Arizona
Female Montezuma Quail Cave Creek Canyon Portal, Arizona
Male Montezuma Quail Cave Creek Canyon Portal, Arizona
We enjoyed dinner at the Portal Peak Lodge Cafe before heading over to our room for a little rest. The lowering sun was shining as a light rain was falling and we observed another rainbow for the day.  I started my day with a rainbow in Miller Canyon and was essentially finishing the day with a rainbow over Portal Peak Lodge.

Portal Peak Lodge Portal, Arizona
As Eric and I were just about to our room we had a chance meeting with one of our good birding and photography friends from back home in Utah. What a coincidence to run into him so far from home in such a remote location. We shared birding stories and images in our friend's room, which happened to be right across from us, as the rain continued to fall. Our plans to cruise the local roads that night for snakes was thwarted by the continuing storm. After losing power a number of times we decided to go to bed for the night. We were at the halfway point of our trip having completed three days with three more to go.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Arizona Feathers, Scales, Tails, Shells, and More (Part 1)

Male Greater Earless Lizard in Oro Valley, Arizona
My occasional encounters with snakes and lizards while chasing down birds ignited my interest in reptiles, or "scales and tails" as some might call them. Spending time in nature cultivating one interest naturally leads to interest in other forms of life inhabiting and adding variety to our earth. A recent trip to southeast Arizona with my adventurous friend Eric Peterson allowed both of us to enjoy a splendid mix of birds, reptiles, mammals, amphibians, landscapes, and healthy doses of Mexican food to keep our engines fueled.

The short flight from Salt Lake City to Tucson passed quickly. We picked up our rental car and drove to a Walmart to pick up a temporary cooler, ice, drinks, fruit, and some snack foods. From there we headed south toward our first destination, the Kubo Bed & Breakfast (B&B) in Madera Canyon. Whitehouse Canyon Road just below Madera Canyon is where we were able to locate one of my favorite bird species of the trip, a Varied Bunting. It was nice to get a colorful male for my first-ever sighting of this species.

Male Varied Bunting Santa Cruz County, Arizona
I captured several images of the male Varied Bunting perching on the hillside below us. The image below shows a little more of the coloring on the chest and offers a little more perspective on the relative size of the bird (about 5.5") since it wasn't cropped as much as the image above.

Male Varied Bunting Santa Cruz County, Arizona
Blue Grosbeaks are much more common in southeast Arizona than they are in Utah. We encountered several brightly colored males along Whitehouse Canyon Road.

Male Blue Grosbeak Santa Cruz County, Arizona
Eric spotted a neonate Western Diamondback Rattlesnake basking in the middle of the road as we drove along Whitehouse Canyon Road. Being new to the world it had just a single button for its rattle. It's difficult to see in this image, but it is just beyond the black and white banding of the tail.

Neonate Western Diamondback Rattlesnake Santa Cruz County, Arizona
I captured video of the small snake as it moved away from us and into the grass on the side of the road, all the while keeping a close eye on us. Some ants and insects crawling near the snake give a relative indication of the young snake's size. The quality of the video will be best when viewed at 720p or 1080p HD

Seeing Jack Rabbits in the deserts of the western states is still fun for this Kentucky boy even after living in Utah now for several decades. I captured this image to share the harsh reality of living in the wild. I've hosted a tick or two, for a day or two, as a result of playing in the woods, but this rabbit is hosting a colony of ticks and some of the blood-thirsty beasts look like they should have popped by now.

Tick-infested Black-tailed Jack Rabbit Santa Cruz County, Arizona
We saw over 30 species of birds without much effort as we spent some time around the Kubo B&B and drove up and down the canyon our first afternoon and evening. Magnificent and Broad-billed Hummingbirds, Bronzed Cowbirds, Sulpher-bellied Flycatchers, Hepatic Tanagers, Mexican Jays, Bridled Titmice, Painted Redstarts, and Yellow-eyed Junco were a few we do not see in northern Utah.

Here are two sides of a male Broad-billed Hummingbird frequenting the nectar feeders at the Santa Rita Lodge in Madera Canyon.

Male Broad-billed Hummingbird Madera Canyon, Arizona
Male Broad-billed Hummingbird Madera Canyon, Arizona
This Yellow-eyed Junco was going up and down the roadsides near our B&B collecting insects. I figured it was collecting those insects to take them back to a nest to feed young birds. Otherwise it would have consumed the bugs posthaste.

Yellow-eyed Junco Madera Canyon, Arizona
Nocturnal birding did not disappoint us after enjoying a nice dinner in Green Valley. We were able to hear Mexican Whip-poor-will calling at the top of Madera Canyon. We heard, saw, and photographed Whiskered Screech-Owls and then finished our nocturnal birding efforts with the world's smallest owl, the Elf Owl. This tiny owl is between 5 and 6 inches tall. They breed during the spring and summer months in Arizona and then head back to Mexico for the fall and winter.

Elf Owl Madera Canyon, Arizona
After we finished owling we visited with some gentlemen across the road from our B&B who were collecting insects that were drawn from the darkness of the night to bright lights suspended next to draped white sheets.  Here's an image from my phone in case my explanation of their setup failed to create an appropriate image in your mind's eye.

As we were talking we caught a glimpse of a Ringtail (aka Ring-tailed Cat) that was climbing over a wood pile next to one of the lodges. It was my first time ever seeing one of those racoon-related mammals because they are elusive nocturnal critters. I was not prepared for the brief encounter so I have only the image in my head to remember that sighting.

After visiting with our temporary neighbors and before going to bed we had one last activity planned for our first day in southeast Arizona. We did some cruising along remote roads to look for snakes that were absorbing heat from the asphalt as the desert air was cooling. We found another Western Diamondback and captured some photos and video of the snake before safely removing it from the road.

Western Diamondback Rattlesnake Santa Cruz County, Arizona
The snake didn't want to be removed from the road so it warned us with its rattle. Here's a short video of the snake just before we moved it into a nearby field.

Little did we realize that on our way back to our B&B we'd have one more surprise. It was July. It was the rainy season. And it was high time for America's largest toad to be out looking for love. It's always fun to run across Sonoran Desert Toads during the rainy season since they spend much of the rest of the year hidden below the surface of the desert to avoid the arid heat. We spotted our toad in our headlights as it was hopping down the road. These toads can get up to 8" long and can weigh close to two pounds when full grown. They can secrete toxins from their skin to deter predators.

Sonoran Desert Toad Santa Cruz County, Arizona
Day one was a complete success in terms of the variety and number of encounters we had with critters of the southeast Arizona desert.

Day 2

After a good night's sleep I awoke early and went over to where the gentlemen were attracting bugs the night before to see if birds were taking advantage of the man-made insect buffet. The curiosity paid off. Sulpher-bellied Flycatchers were on the scene making their squeaky baby toy noise between eating bugs and perching in surrounding trees. Acorn Woodpeckers, Black-headed Grosbeaks, nuthatches, juncos, and an assortment of other bird species were feeding and calling from nearby perches. I particularly enjoyed seeing a Hepatic Tanager with its multicolored plumage. I captured an image of the tanager eating one of the bugs.

Hepatic Tanager Madera Canyon, Arizona
Just down the road from our B&B was the Santa Rita Lodge where Magnificent, Broad-billed, and other hummingbird species were taking advantage of nectar feeders. Mexican Jays, Acorn Woodpeckers, and doves were just a few of the species gorging themselves at the seed feeders. I don't have many images of Bronzed Cowbirds so I captured a couple for future reference and to share here. One image shows the ruff (thick neck feathers) just as the bird was relaxing the ruff from a full display of those feathers.

Bronzed Cowbird Madera Canyon, Arizona

Bronzed Cowbird Madera Canyon, Arizona
One of the Brown-headed Cowbirds caught my attention as I watched is at a feeder. The upper bill was overgrown and twisted, but that did not prevent the bird getting sufficient food. It turned out that this was just the first of two Brown-headed Cowbirds with elongated bills that we'd encounter during out trip.

Brown-headed Cowbird Madera Canyon, Arizona

Madera Canyon, Arizona
I stopped to capture the image to the left with my phone as I was driving down Madera Canyon because my boss in Utah thought I was crazy to spend a vacation in the 100+ degree heat in an Arizona desert. I told him we'd be spending a fair amount of time in the mountains where it was cooler, but we wasn't buying it. This probably isn't an image he had in mind when he thought of my Arizona trip.

Our destination for the end of day two was Beatty's Guest Ranch in Miller Canyon in the Huachuca Mountains. We planned to stop at The Paton Center for Birds in Patagonia on our way over to Miller Canyon, just outside of Sierra Vista.

As we were driving to Patagonia I was watching for raptors, hoping to pick up a Gray or Zone-tailed Hawk. What a pleasant surprise we had when we spotted an adult Gray Hawk perched on a power line along South River Road, just before we connected with and made our turn onto Highway 82 (Patagonia Highway).  We had to drive past the hawk and do a u-turn to get back to it. This put the bird on the driver's side of the vehicle so Eric was able to get a few nice shots. The bird flew before I was able to capture an image, but I did manage a long-distance shot after the bird perched on the stump of a dead tree. The image has been deeply cropped to show a little more detail of the bird's field marks.

Adult Gray Hawk Santa Cruz County, Arizona
Gopher Snake Santa Cruz County, Arizona
We also came across a Gopher Snake that was crossing the road on our way to Patagonia. It put itself in a precarious position after we pulled over to take a look at it. We carefully pulled away without harming the snake and then watched it crawl to a safer place.

Some Black Vultures flew overhead just as we were about to continue our drive to Patagonia. I captured a couple of images for documentation purposes. Someday I'll get a closer shot of one of these vultures.

Black Vulture Santa Cruz County, Arizona
We found our target Violet-crowned Hummingbird rather quickly after arriving at the Paton Center for Birds in Patagonia. The lighting wasn't great, but this image will suffice until a future encounter.

Adult Violet-crowned Hummingbird Santa Cruz County, Arizona
I spent a little time looking for reptiles around the Paton Center. I initially thought the lizard below was a Desert Grassland Whiptail, but upon closer look I'm calling it a Sonoran Spotted Whiptail. I can see light spotting between the stripes on the back of the lizard. Grassland Whiptails shouldn't show those spots between the dorsal stripes. The ranges for both species overlap so attention to detail becomes necessary, especially for a novice "herper" like me. What's unique about Sonoran Spotted Whiptails is that every individual is a female (parthenogenetic). The offspring, from unfertilized eggs, are clones of the mother. Let's hope this doesn't develop among humans or men will become redundant. I prefer to remain a necessary component of the human equation.

Sonoran Spotted Whiptail Santa Cruz County, Arizona

We didn't stay at the Paton Center for long after getting our target hummingbird because we wanted to get over to Miller Canyon, where we would spend the night a Beatty's Guest Ranch. As we made our way to Miller Canyon we spotted a Zone-tailed Hawk. I had been scrutinizing every vulture-like bird I saw flying as Eric was driving us to our destination. I caught a quick glimpse of black and white tail bands on a particular large, dark raptor that was flying over an agricultural field and called out, "Zone-tailed Hawk" so Eric would slow down for a look. We did a u-turn and relocated the hawk and watched it course over fields in search of prey for a few minutes before it disappeared behind a hill.

We arrived at Beatty's Guest Ranch in the early afternoon. We met the owners, paid our fee for the night, and packed our gear up to our quarters.  We stayed on the upper floor of the building to the far left of the phone image below.

Beatty's Guest Ranch Miller Canyon, Arizona
Here is a phone image I captured looking down the canyon from inside our lodge.

 After dropping off our bags we took a short walk up to a shady hillside where we sat on benches while watching lots of hummingbirds visit a number of well-supplied nectar feeders. This area has controlled access so it can only be enjoyed by those who pay a small fee or stay at the lodge. We saw at least six species of hummingbirds there, but my favorite were Broad-billed and Magnificent. 

Male Magnificent Hummingbird Cochise County, Arizona
Yarrow's Spiny Lizards were the lizard species of the hour during our lazy birding session at the nectar feeders.

Female Yarrow's Spiny Lizard Cochise County, Arizona
Male Yarrow's Spiny Lizard Cochise County, Arizona
We enjoyed our only Italian dinner of the trip in Sierra Vista with Eric's friend Jan. They became acquainted years ago as members of the Doberman Pinshcer Club of America. 

Always the birders, we did what we could to locate owls, poorwills, and whip-poor-wills as we made a slow drive up the dark canyon to our lodge. It's not much to look at, but below is an image I captured with my phone when a bio luminescent Glowing Click Beetle landed on Eric's shirt. The beetle has two spots from which it controls the intensity of its luminescence. Google that beetle name and you'll be able to see and learn more about the unique beetle. We saw a number of them flying along the road that night.

We heard an Elf Owl and got visuals of several Whiskered Screech-owls along the upper end of the canyon. We'll close out this post as we did that evening with a couple of images of a Whiskered Screech-Owl.

Whiskered Screech-Owl Cochise County, Arizona

Whiskered Screech-Owl Cochise County, Arizona
We finished Day 2 feeling like we'd had another successful day. As is often the case in the canyons of southeast Arizona during the monsoon season a clamorous and productive rain storm blew through during the evening. I rather enjoyed the storm knowing I was safe and dry for the night. I could only imagine what we'd experience during the remaining four days of our trip as I recalled the events of the first two days before drifting off to sleep. More to come in my next few posts.