Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Three SE Arizona Christmas Bird Counts

How time is getting away from me! I got home December 4 from my Yucatan tour and dug myself in to get the post-tour materials done while at the same time preparing for the Tucson Valley Christmas Bird Count, for which I’m the compiler. This year I had some help from local birder Luke Safford, and next year he will be the compiler. I’ve had fun organizing this for the past five years, and I’m very lucky to have already found someone to pass it on to.

As I have for the past years, I made tons of home made chili from scratch (no chili powder – real toasted dried chilies ground in the food processor with other ingredients such as cumin and cocoa powder) and baked several loaves of breads for the CBC countdown potluck. The six batches of chili took all day Monday the 12th, and the bread took much of the next day. The CBC was on this past Wednesday, December 14, the first day of the CBC season.

Two loaves each of a traditional French sourdough (30% whole wheat), and a hearth rye seigle (60% rye).

I chose to cover the area that involves a very strenuous hike up Finger Rock Canyon to Mount Kimball with my friend Max Li. It’s a total of about 13 miles round trip as we did it (going a bit beyond Mount Kimball into upper Pima Canyon and back), and elevation gain of 4860 feet over 5.7 miles.

I last did  this four years ago in the snow, but this time we had record high temperatures, and in only a few very shady slopes were there tiny patches of snow from a front that came through over two weeks ago. This area has the highest elevations in the circle with lots of oak-pinyon forest and even a few stands of Arizona Pine.

Here’s a view looking south over Tucson towards the Santa Rita Mountains.

Here is looking southwest at the back side of the rocky peak that has Finger Rock (the tiny, slightly left-leaning spire to the left of the highest ridge).

The slopes to the north and west of Mount Kimball are even steeper, if that’s imaginable, and views that direction have no intervening ridges. This is Picacho Peak right along the I-10 corridor towards Phoenix.

Many species occur in these woods and nowhere else in the circle. The pinyons had a good crop of cones this year, and we had plenty of all three species of jay, including this Woodhouse's Scrub-Jay (the others being Steller’s and Mexican).

It was so warm, we had four species of butterfly, such as this Red Admiral.

We had two Coues's White-tailed Deer at this viewpoint called Linda Vista.

This Cooper's Hawk, with a molting tail, almost giving it a Sharp-shinned shape, provided a bit of an ID challenge.

Other good high-elevation birds we had included Acorn Woodpecker, White-breasted Nuthatch, Bushtit, Bridled Titmouse, and a rare Juniper Titmouse. This Rufous-crowned Sparrow sat on the trail on our way back down the mountain, but this species was found by one or two other groups covering other foothill canyons that get into grassy slopes above the desert scrub.

Our last new bird of the day and yet another scoop for our area was this Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet, only about 1 ¼ miles from the car. It’s rare in the Tucson area in the winter; this is only the 8th year out of 45 that it has been found.

With my legs in excruciating pain from the ridiculous hike, I then proceeded to hike a total of about 6 miles the very next day for the Patagonia Christmas Bird Count. I birded with Malcolm Chesworth (left) and Josh Stewart (right, tooting into his pygmy-owl whistle). This was the same area I covered last year, called Sycamore Canyon and Finley and Adams Canyon, both off of Duquesne Road between Nogales and Patagonia. We were about 3 ½ miles from the border with Sonora Mexico.

Here’s a view of the San Rafael Grasslands and Huachuca Mountains, looking to the southeast.

As last year, we had a stakeout Spotted Owl in a known territory.

We had at least four Hepatic Tanagers, a scarce winter bird in Arizona.

My best find was this Golden-crowned Sparrow, chirping loudly on a weedy hillside with two White-crowned Sparrows and about a dozen Lincoln’s Sparrows accompanying it.

We had lots of Western Bluebirds but only one small group of Eastern Bluebirds of the resident subspecies. Note the white belly, the brighter orange tone to the breast, and the pale cheek contrasting with the top of the head.

It was another record warm day (up to 84°F in Tucson, probably about 5 degrees cooler here), so it wasn’t surprising to see seven species of butterfly and even a few grasshoppers. I think one is Melanoplus lakinus, the Lakin Grasshopper.

Finally, on Saturday the 17th I did my third and final CBC before I have to leave for my Oaxaca at Christmastime tour, which starts on December 22. This was the Santa Catalina Mountains CBC, which borders the Tucson Valley circle to the east. And as last year I did it with my friend Andrew Broan.

This time we were assigned a portion of the Arizona Trail starting at Molino Basin, in the lower oak zone, a much easier route than the treacherous cross-country trek we did last year starting higher and ending at this location. Our route today was only 8 miles, though my legs weren’t quite back to normal and pain free yet. I figured the activity (pain relieved a bit with some ibuprofen) was better for recovery than sitting at the computer all day.

We went over a small ridge and then had gradual downhill multiple use trail (horseback riding and mountain biking too), turning off toward La Milagrosa Canyon to drop down into the NE Tucson basin. Much of the hike was in mid-elevation desert grassland, and northern slopes had Red-berry Juniper woodland.

In this zone we had the count's only Sage Thrasher, and I got this very distant photo of it.

I’m pretty sure this is Mammillaria macdougalii, MacDougal's Nipple Cactus, formerly known as pancake cactus, but a young, well-watered, and swollen individual.

Our hike eventually took us down through the “thermal belt,” the cold-drained lower slopes of the Santa Catalinas covered in Saguaro forest. Here we had the count's only Gilded Flickers.

Andrew spotted this Saguaro in full bloom, exactly 6 months out of sync.

With the passage of a cold front the night before (including lots of wind, ¼” rain, and high temperatures nearly 30 degrees lower than two days earlier, bird activity was still high in mid-afternoon when we got back to the car at the Horsehead Road trailhead.

Female Northern Cardinal

Male Pyrrhuloxia

A very photogenic Black-throated Sparrow right next to the car.