Saturday, May 10, 2008

How We Spent International Migratory Bird Day

This article is my contibution to I and the Bird #75 hosted by Gallisica in Sri Lanka. Please visit to view other interesting articles about birding.

April 26, 2008 marked the one year anniversary of us moving to Sycamore Canyon. Since that day I have been waiting to take Gus out into the big wash of the canyon. This morning I woke up so excited for it was finally going to happen.

We headed up the street around 8 a.m. under the perpetual sunny skies of May in Arizona. Already the sun felt warm, but I didn’t really care, we are hiking to the canyon! We hiked up through the neighborhood to the newly developed section south of our house. I have been avoiding this section as heavy machinery tore up the desert and laid down the asphalt of new roads. This section of the development will be a gated community with acre lots and huge homes. From the future entrance we can see the former Helvetia mine shining white on the rocky slopes of the Santa Rita Mountains. We hike up the new roads until we reached the point where we access the trail that will take us down into the wash.

Here on the dirt trail we walk among blooming staghorn cholla and prickly pear cacti.

Ash-throated flycatchers cling to an ocotillo searching the sky for insects to dine on. A gilded flicker calls from atop a towering saguaro which looks like a giant prickly pickle thrust into the azure blue sky. Gus is captivated with the beauty of the desert and stops to photograph the spines of a teddy bear cholla. White-winged doves are thick as fleas this time of year and I see them perched on the blooming saguaros and flying overhead from one rim of the canyon to the other. Then, to my surprise, a lesser nighthawk flutters overhead and disappears in the distance in its final search for insects before bedding down for the day.

We finally reach the steep path that cuts down the canyon rim into the wash below. Loose stones and gravel are underfoot with the thorny shrubs of the desert alongside the trail. We descend slowly taking care not to grab the brush to steady ourselves. I feel the loose gravel slip beneath my feet at one point on the path but I am able to regain my balance and continue down the slope. I have brought Gus this way so that when we are in the canyon the sun will be at our backs, which will make photographing and viewing wildlife much easier.

(Looking south)

Finally we are down on the canyon bottom and we head for the sandy open area of the wash in order to enhance our chances of seeing any rattlesnakes before we step on them. As I stand in the thick, dry sand of the wash I try to imagine this canyon full of a rush of water powerful enough to carve out these steep banks and cliffs. The evidence is all around me, but in the year I have lived here I have never seen the wash full of water. Of course, that’s partly due to the fact that when the monsoon comes and it rains, it is also lightening and I prefer not to be a target for the lightning strikes. Perhaps this year I will be brave enough to venture out and see the torrent flow.
(Looking North towards home)

For today, however, it is peaceful and warm here in the canyon and we start the mile or more hike back towards our house. Saguaros tower over us on the canyon rims, but here in the wash I mostly see mesquite scrub, acacia, desert hackberry, wolf berry bushes, wild cotton, and prickly pear cacti. A few cholla cacti are scattered about as well as a few ocotillo, but most of them are up on higher ground. The first bird I see and hear is a single sparrow species hiding in the brush but I am unable to identify it, so we press onward. I glance upwards and see a turkey vulture tilting in the cloudless desert sky. I hear the cackle of a cactus wren and the laughing call of a Gila woodpecker. We see yet another flicker and another ash-throated flycatcher in a mesquite tree.

Gus is snapping pictures of whatever captures his fancy, including this Empress Leilia butterfly.

( Empress Leilia Butterfly ID courtesy of Doug Tauron at Gossemer Tapestry)

We hike past towering red clay cliffs with the huge twisted roots of mesquite trees exposed by erosion. I ask Gus how he likes it and he responds that it is so peaceful and quiet here. And it is. Down here between the canyon rims the civilized world seems ages away and I get a sense of a more primitive time.

We are not seeing as many birds as I thought we would. On my last hike into the wash with my IBA team we saw sparrows, warblers and towhees. Now I am seeing flycatchers, nighthawks and white-winged doves. I really want to see at least one new species today. Gus wants to see a snake. We hike farther down the canyon and as we round a corner I see a flash of color on the limb of a dead tree. A quick glance through my bins reveals a western tanager! This is a new species for Sycamore Canyon, and my first time seeing it in Arizona also. However, I have seen this bird in Colorado and Utah before. Then, I spot a second bird in the same tree. We are quite far away but Gus tries to get a shot anyway. The birds fly farther off to the next tree and we try to creep quietly closer but the sandy gravel beneath our feet crunches and gives us away. While we both get a good view of the birds we never get close enough for a detailed shot though, with cropping and enlarging you can see the red head, yellow body and black wings.

We continue to see nighthawks as we travel, as well as Gambel’s quail. I finally spot two canyon towhees skulking through the underbrush. Then we spot a pair of Pyrrhuloxias in a tree. I see the roof tops of our neighborhood before me, and the final red cliff we pass before we exit the wash. Here the wash breaks up into grassy banks, boulder piles and scrub.
We head through a narrow sandy channel still looking for birds. Suddenly I hear a buzzy rattle and instinctively leap backwards. There on the open sand before me a rattlesnake is coiled in a striking posture. About 3 feet long its thick tan body is patterned with diamond-shaped spots leading me to susspect it is most likely a Western Diamondback Rattlesnake. The tail is banded black and white and the tongue flicks in and out sensing our presence. The head is pulled back and elevated while the tail continues to rattle so rapidly it sounds more like a buzz until the end when it slows enough to sound like a rattle.
I walk backwards, heart pounding to a safe distance. Gus gets in front of me and starts snapping. He keeps his distance also and the rattler slithers off to the shade and safety of a nearby bush. Gus is disappointed because he wants a better shot. I want to head home because my bladder, which was already wanting relief, is now about to burst from the encounter. I walk up another small bank and around the area where the snake is. Gus finally follows me, but he is still searching for a better shot. As we come down on the other side of the snake, he tries again. I know that home is only a short distance away but I am reluctant to leave this crazy photographer alone in the wash with this snake. I urge him onwards and we hike out the last few steps to home.
My final count of birds is 24 species but 4 are unidentified. I heard the high buzzy whistling flight of a hummer species but never saw the bird to positively identify it. We have 3 hummer species here whose wings produce that sound. I heard and saw a gnatcatcher but once again, it eluded my attempts to positively identify it. A chunky short-tailed blackbird flew overhead that I suspect was a bronzed cowbird, but, once again, I wasn't confident enough to call it. And though I saw the one sparrow at the beginning of the hike, I never saw another on the rest of the hike. My one mystery bird is this little brown job that I think is a female brown-headed cowbird, but it could be a female indigo bunting as well.

I am going with the brown-headed cowbird as a flock of 5 showed up at my feeders for the first time this year this morning before we left. All in all, I would say it was a great way to celebrate International Migratory Bird Day. I was able to add a new species to my Sycamore Canyon list, and Gus got his rattlesnake photo. I hope we will be doing this again for there is so much more to explore here in Sycamore Canyon.

(Today's photgraphy courtesy of Gus)

Final Count: 1.Gilded flicker, 2.Ash-throated flycatcher, 3.Cactus wren, 4.Curved-billed thrasher, 5.Gambel's quail, 6.gila woodpecker, 7. White-winged dove, 8. Mourning dove, 9.Turkey Vulture, 10. verdin, 11.Lesser Nighthawk, 12. Western Tanager, 13.Common raven, 14. Chihuahuan Raven, 15. Wison's warbler, 16.brown-headed cowbird, 17.Pyrrhuloxia, 18.Canyon towhee, 19.House finch, 20. Phainopepla, 21.Hummer species, 22. gnatcatcher sp. 23. sparrow sp., 24.blackbird sp.


bobbie said...

I really enjoyed walking with you!
And I love the little guy in the last picture.

Beth said...

oh what fun! I felt like I was right there with you and my heart thumped at the snake. It's very beautiful and Gus' photography is excellent. You are certainly a long way from Maine!

Texas Travelers said...

That was a great walk.
Thanks for letting us come along.
Terrific photograph.
Wonderful writing.

We have posted:
Alaska's Haul Road - The Dalton Highway.
A 414 mile gravel road,
to the Arctic Ocean

Come join us for the trip,
Troy and Martha

Ruth said...

Such beauty and danger. I think I would be wearing higher boots if I were out there. My heart stops when I see a garter snake.

Mary C said...

Hi Kathie - I sure enjoyed your hike. That western tanager looks really good - you can certainly identify it. That sure would be a bird I would love to add to my life list.

Anonymous said...

Oh snap! The cactus was great and I liked the bird photos but me and that rattler would have had problems!

Aunt "B's" Backyard said...

Incredible walk in the desert!
So that's the western diamondback. I get the eastern variety. Never happy to see them at any time. Such beautiful birds there...WOW. The Western Tanager-TERRIFIC! Oh, I wish I could walk with you!

Doug Taron said...

Heh. In your tree list, you mentioned desert hackberry. My first thought was, "I'll bet empress Leilia butterflies are there." Desert hackberry is the caterpillar food plant. Continuing to read your post, I promptly encountered the posted photo. And a very nice photo, at that. Sounds like a wonderful walk.

Kathie Brown said...

Bobbie, thank you! I love the quail too. I never tire of seeing them.

Beth, you should have heard mine thumping! Gus enjoys his photography, and yes, we certainly are a long way from Maine! Thanks for coming to see me again. I'm still recuperating from 10 days of grandchildren! Lots to get caught up on!

Troy and Martha, thanks for stopping by. I'll be there soon. You know how I feel about Alaska!

Well, I like snakes, Ruth, but I don't want to experience a bite from a rattler, that's for sure. It has made me a bit jumpy but it won't keep me away from the desert. Life IS beauty and danger.

Mary C, do they not come to California? They are so pretty, aren't they. I had not seen one in a long time. It was nice to find them here.

forthepeople, that's how most people get bit! I gave him his space and he crept under some scrub and disappeared. He didn't want to bite me any more than I wanted to be bitten. However, I jump whenever I hear a lizard move in the grass now!

Aunt B, if you're ever out this way, I would love to take you on a walk. Just let me know. You have an open invitation.

Doug, I can't thank you enough for always identifying my insects for me. I am learning all kinds of insect info from you and paying more attention to this group of creatures since getting to know you. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed reading about and seeing the photos from your canyon walk. Nice blog! I shall return to read again.

Mike said...

What a walk, Kathie - great birds, great butterflies, great habitat, and a little danger! Your day list might not be very long, but I'd have picked up 10 lifers along the way. You live in a very special place.

Larry said...

Kathie-Sounds like you're getting a little spoiled out there- You saw some great birds! I didn't realize that you've only been at Sycamore Canyon for a year.-What a great place to live and go birding!-What made you move out there anyway? You might have said but I forgot.

Amila Salgado said...

Hi Kathie,
Thanks a lot for contributing this this fabulous report as your first IATB entry and for the plug. Great pictures and an excellent read!

Mary said...

Wow. Tell Gus the photo of the rattler is perfect. I would have high-tailed it out of there!

Kathie Brown said...

condaily, well thank you. I hope you do return again and enjoy yourself just as much the next time!

Mike, I do live in a special place and I have picked up probably over 50 to 100 lifers since moving here. I'll have to do the math and figure that one out!

Larry, Gus and I moved here because our son lives here and after visiting him so many times Gus decided he wanted to live here. Within 3 months of deciding he wanted to live here he had a job interview and a month after that we moved! We are both happy to not shovel snow or have to mow grass. What I love is being able to be outside almost every day. It's a great outdoor life here and I love sunshine!

Gallicissa, thank you for inviting me to participate.

Mary, Gus says thank you and I'm with you! I'm a little more jumpy now when I walk in the canyon.

Mary said...

I checked this post because of the rattlesnake label. Last March when we were in Tucson I almost stepped on 2 rattlesnakes in Sabino Canyon and this reminds me so much of my experience! Luckily they were entwined in a mating and ignored me because I was standing just inches from them when I saw them and jumped back 10 feet! Of course then I had to zoom in for photos from a safer distance :-) However, I'll be smarter this year when we visit and more careful!

Kathie Brown said...

Mary, what a sight to see. So glad you weren't bit!