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.


  1. Thanks for sharing Jeff. Wow, what a amazing trip!

    1. You are welcome, Dickson. It was a fun trip for sure. I could have stayed longer. There are so many fun places to visit down there.