Cave Creek Canyon

Planning Birding Vacations

When I was a boy, just about every summer we’d take a vacation. And you know, in 18 years, we never had any fun.–Clark Griswold, National Lampoon’s Summer Vacation.

Acorn Woodpecker with Acorn, Cave Creek Ranch, Portal, Arizona
Acorn Woodpecker with Canyon Live Oak (Quercus chrysolepis) Acorn, Cave Creek Canyon, Portal, Arizona. The Acorn Woodpecker is perhaps the most spectacular of the U.S. woodpeckers . . . after the Pileated Woodpecker, of course! Cave Creek Canyon is among our favorite destinations for birding vacations, and we’re always up for the 12-hour road trip there, regardless of the season. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

It’s that time of year again, the time to start planning for summer birding vacations. The time for idle daydreaming has come and gone, and the time to start picking out particular spots and places to stay has arrived!

The impulse to see new species is, perhaps, the main impetus behind birding travel. But seeing new habitats and familiar birds in their full breeding plumage is also exciting, especially given that we see so many species only during migration along the Texas Gulf Coast. Road trips are usually my favorites, mainly because I don’t have to deal with the horror that airline travel has become. I keep waiting for the inevitable row that ensues when I finally encounter a security screener who hasn’t seen a big super telephoto lens before and wants me to check the bag containing it.

I also dread the five hours crammed into a seat “designed” for a 5′ 1,” 95-pound child. I do, though, force myself to submit to airline travel at least every other year or so. The prospect of driving to the Pacific Northwest or Wisconsin, say, is just too daunting. I friend recently described a summer vacation driving trip from Houston to Winnipeg: He said “I don’t know what I was thinking.”

Mallard Hen with Ducklings, Olympic National Park, Washington
Mallard Hen with Ducklings, Olympic National Park, Washington. We found this charming scene near a pond in the middle of a temperate rainforest on a summer birding vacation a few years ago. Is there anything on this planet cuter than a wild duckling? Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

The birding vacation question is always: do we go somewhere familiar or go somewhere completely new? During any given summer, we will usually strike a balance between the familiar and the novel. For novelty, it’s starting to look like southwest Oregon will be the major new get-away destination this summer. I’ve never been to Oregon, but some of the descriptions of birding sites in southwest Oregon, especially near the Rogue River sound quite appealing. The close proximity of riparian, estuarine, and beach habitats seem promising for a diversity of birds. Likewise, the “Mediterranean” climate that I’ve read about (I’ll believe it when I see it!) will be a nice change of pace from Houston’s summertime “Calcutta” climate. Research continues with John Rakestraw’s Birding Oregon (2007).

Until we can get away for a big trip, we’ll bird locally, or in Central Texas for the Golden-cheeked Warblers that have just returned for the breeding season. We’ve seen and heard the Golden-cheeks several times before, but have never captured any good images. Maybe this time. We continue to wait anxiously for the the spring songbird and shorebird migrations to really get rolling.

Double-crested Cormorant, Pilant Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas
In Our Own Backyard: Double-crested Cormorant, Pilant Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas. I’ve seen this cormorant fishing in Pilant Lake at least three times. Each time I ran after it trying to get a shot. Last week, I finally got close enough. What a spectacular animal . . . eyes like jewels, powerful, and sleek. The fish don’t stand a chance. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

Reference

Rakestraw, John. 2007. Birding Oregon. The Globe Pequot Press, Guilford, Connecticut. 209 p.

©2016 Christopher R. Cunningham. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.

Bird Photography without Birds

Anything can happen in life, especially nothing.–Michel Houellebecq, Platform

Sapsucker holes, Stephen F. Austin State Park, Texas
Sapsucker Holes in Vine, Stephen F. Austin State Park (SFASP), Texas. Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers are common in the bottomland forests of SFASP. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

Lately interesting bird sightings have been as rare as intelligent discourse during a presidential election or quality programing on network TV. The last few weeks of iffy weather and striking out on scouting expeditions to places we’ve never visited before (or perhaps only visited a time or two years ago) and seeing little in the way of birds got me thinking: Hey! I don’t need any birds to do bird photography! I can just take pictures of where birds have been! It also got me reminiscing about the all the other times out birding when we saw nothing!

Woodpecker ravaged tree, Minnesota
Hope you didn’t need this tree for anything: Woodpecker-ravaged conifer tree, Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, Wisconsin. Theoretically eight species of woodpeckers inhabit this woods in summer, but we saw exactly zero. This woods seemed sparsely populated with birds in general. There were plenty of mosquitos, though! Canon EOS 7D/100mm f/2.8L Macro. High-speed synchronized fill-flash.
Acorn Woodpecker Larder, Portal, Arizona
Acorn Woodpecker Larder in Oak Tree, Portal, Arizona. Acorn Woodpeckers stash acorns in little niches that they chisel into oak trees. It’s all about planning for an uncertain future! It’s neat to watch Acorn Woodpeckers insert the acorn into its niche and hammer it into place. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

Of course, other than abandoned nests and footprints in the mud (or droppings on a post), if you’re looking for signs of past avian activity you’re pretty much looking for woodpecker handiwork. Woodpeckers are among my all time favorite birds and have been chiseling holes in trees for at least the past 25 million years, since the late Oligocene Epoch. I used to think that petrified wood was a pretty mundane fossil until I started reading about ancient woodpecker holes—now I’ll be checking those hunks of fossil wood and hoping! Incidentally, there is lots of petrified wood around the Texas Gulf Coast, but being mostly Eocene (56-34 mya) it’s way too old for evidence of woodpecker activity, though. Pity.

Bark peeled by American Three-toed Woodpecker, Beaver Meadows, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
Conifer Bark Peeled by American Three-toed Woodpecker, Beaver Meadows, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado. Seeing a Three-toed Woodpecker actually flaking off some bark would have made my day. These shy, rare birds are looking for bark beetle larvae. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

Finally, while watching a Hairy Woodpecker chisel holes in the side of some guy’s house in Colorado last summer, I just had to admire the panache and devil-may-care attitude. Never mind that the hapless owner probably toiled thirty years to pay off the mortgage: let’s blast some holes! There may be tasty grubs inside those 2×4’s! Like City of Houston road crews, hammering away and leaving a lunar landscape behind, woodpeckers work their magic and are on their way!

Female Pileated Woodpecker, Olympic Peninsula, Washington
It’s Like They Just Don’t Care: Female Pileated Woodpecker, Olympic National Park, Washington. This bird showed little remorse for knocking gaping holes in a wooden retaining wall at Kalaloch Beach while looking for carpenter ants and beetle larvae. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

©2016 Christopher R. Cunningham. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.

Birding from Lodges

Laugh? I though I’d never start . . .

Northern Flicker (Red-shafted), MacGregor Mountain Lodge, Colorado
Female Northern Flicker (Red-shafted Form), MacGregor Mountain Lodge, Colorado. Elisa has visited this wonderful lodge before, but this was my first stay. The surrounding grounds are a wonderland of cavity-nesting. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

For me, birding has been a refuge and salvation from the trials and tribulations of life. In today’s world, though, a simple commercial flight to a birding destination can be a trial, too. On the return flight from our last birding trip to Colorado, for example, United Airlines temporarily lost one of our big suitcases . . . .

Now, normally a lost suitcase would not be a big deal, but in this particular case the bag contained two carbon fiber tripods and gimbal mounts, and pair of binoculars–about $3500 worth of equipment that we use all the time and couldn’t just replace at Walmart. The quest to retrieve the bag started out ominously: The United Airlines guy who is in charge of finding lost suitcases at the Houston International Airport told me it was “pointless” to look for our suitcase! Pointless! 

Getting the suitcase back turned out to be even more of a headache that one would imagine because United Airlines handed the recovery of the bag over to another company (WheresMySuitcase.com), that in turn handed it over to yet another company!

Neither of these other two companies had working telephone numbers, or (apparently) any employees who could read, write, tell time, or operate a telephone or computer. One of the people we had to talk to in the course of this adventure was in India! One of the phone numbers we were given by United to reach one of the other companies (who can remember which?) turned out to belong to a scooter store! I couldn’t make this stuff up!

After navigating a web of nuttiness we eventually got the bag back–with a TSA inspection tag inside . . . Now, what does any of this diatribe have to do with birding from lodges?

Curve-billed Thrasher, Cave Creek Ranch, Portal, Arizona
Curve-billed Thrasher, Cave Creek Ranch, Portal, Arizona. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

Simple. The lodges from which we bird tend to be owned and operated by individuals, mom and pop teams, or at worst, small companies. The owners/operators live in the area, and many of them really know the local birds and where to find them. They care if you come back! They care about what you say to your friends about the place! It’s nothing short of great and a huge break from corporate America and its legions of know-nothings.

Over the years we have found a few really neat, highly recommendable lodges. The three that spring to mind are Cave Creek Ranch (Arizona), Casa Santa Ana (Rio Grande Valley), and my new discovery, MacGregor Mountain Lodge. What they all have in common is extensive grounds to bird and proximity to fabulous parks. Sometimes you have to stay in the run-of-the-mill corporate-owned accommodations (unless the global economy collapses, my camping days are over!), but it’s usually really worth the extra effort to seek out a lodge from which to bird.

Although the whole missing bag thing really stressed me out, I’m trying hard to take something positive from the story. Perhaps a deeper consideration of the problem of supertelephoto lenses and airlines that continues to plague wildlife photographers will lead to a solution. One possibility I’ve been considering it shipping the tripods and mounts to the lodges. Statistically, UPS and Fedex are far more dependable than the airlines at handling packages. I know that many photo-birders have simply given up on airline travel with big glass, but If any readers have solved the airline problem, I and many others, would love to hear about it!

Hooded Oriole, Casa Santa Ana, Rio Grande Valley, South Texas
Hooded Oriole, Casa Santa Ana, Rio Grande Valley, South Texas. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

©2015 Christopher R. Cunningham. All rights reserved. No text or image may be duplicated or distributed without permission.

It’s a Wren Thing

Singing House Wren, Moose, Wyoming
Singing House Wren, Moose, Wyoming. Occurring from Canada to southern South America, House Wrens are one of the most widespread birds in the Americas. They are also one of the most aggressive small birds, vigorously defending their cavity nesting sites. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

Several weeks ago it seemed as if Marsh Wrens were everywhere we were along the Upper Texas Coast. One minute they were singing, and the next they were hiding. Then, just as mysteriously as they appeared, the Marsh Wrens disappeared completely. A week later, there were Carolina Wrens–also alternately singing and sneaking–where the Marsh Wrens had been before. House Wrens, too, should be around at this time of year, but where are they? Hiding, no doubt.

The name for the Wren Family, Troglodytidae, refers to a “creeper into holes, or cave dweller.” One can, of course, think of many examples to justify this name. The booming voices of Canyon Wrens can be heard up and down the arid canyons they inhabit. They are fun to watch as they climb up vertical cliff walls and poke around nooks, crannies, and caves. House Wrens nest in cavities, and we’ve seen Rock Wrens in the Gila National Forest (New Mexico) nesting in limestone caves.

While birding the rain forests of Olympic National Park, Washington, we were treated to the incredibly loud and penetrating songs of the Winter Wren. Finding and photographing the birds was a challenge, though. These birds favor the understory vegetation among the massive fallen logs of mighty conifers. This humid, gloomy, atmospheric environment is low on light, and the birds scurried and sneaked suspiciously among the shadows when not serenading.

Marsh Wren, Pilant Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas
You’ve already seen enough: A quick look over the shoulder, and then back into the marsh. Marsh Wren, Pilant Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4xTC). Natural light.

Be they House, Carolina, Canyon, Rock, Cactus, Marsh, or Winter, all wrens seem to have this now you-see-me, now-you-don’t personality. One minute they are singing their lungs out obliviously ten feet from the birder, the next they re scurrying and hiding.

Singing Cactus Wren, Cave Creek Canyon, Arizona
Singing Cactus Wren, Cave Creek Canyon, Arizona. This bird hid in a pile of brush when not singing. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.
Singing Carolina Wren, Pilant Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas
Singing Carolina Wren, Pilant Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

Of course, this contradictory behavior is the result of two competing impulses. Most of the time wrens are secretive and shy—like most birds as they try to remain inconspicuous to predators. Then the singing begins, for all the reasons songbirds sing. They have no secrets . . . from potential mates and pretenders to their kingdoms, that is.

How infinitely charming, though, when after an hour or so of playing hide-and-seek with the birder, a wren hops up onto stump or low branch and starts his aria, “L’amour est un oiseau rebelle” (Love is a rebellious bird)! Fortississimo, if you please!

Winter Wren, Olympic National Park, Washington
Singing in the Darkness: Winter Wren, Olympic National Park, Washington. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

Contradictions do not exist. Whenever you think you are facing a contradiction, check your premises. You will find that one of them is wrong.—Ayn Rand

 ©2014 Christopher R. Cunningham. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.

Photographing Cactus Flowers (Of All Things)

Mammillaria grahamii at Saguaro National Park, Arizona.
Mammillaria grahamii at Saguaro National Park, Arizona. This small cactus grows in the shadows cast by other, larger cacti and desert plants. All images Canon EOS 7D/100mm f/2.8L IS macro. Hand-held, high-speed synchronized ring flash.

In last week’s post, I noted that due to lousy weather we had been stuck indoors a lot lately contemplating future projects. One pet project I want to work on is building a collection of images of cactus flowers (and developing the skill to do it well). Currently I do shoot plants and animals other than birds when there are no birds around. Up to this point, I’ve been using our 100mm f/2.8L IS macro lens for this work, but I have purchased (after reading technical reports and moping around the house for a week or two) a used 90mm Canon tilt-shift f/2.8, primarily for botanical work. I can’t wait to use it!

Tilt-shift lenses employ the Scheimpflug Principle and convert a plane of sharp of focus into a wedge, thus increasing the apparent depth of field. Shallow depth of field in macro photography, frankly, has what has prevented me from becoming really interested in “macro” work. (Note: I put macro in quotes because much of this work is not true macro, i.e. 1: 1 or greater, but rather just fairly close up using a macro lens.) Depth of field is a function of three variables: aperture (f-stop), focal length, and object distance. Super telephoto work has its own idiosyncrasies and difficulties (like heavy, bulky and expensive lenses, inordinate susceptibility to vibration, etc.), but macro has always seemed especially fussy. Dazzlingly bright light (read bright light and flash) is usually required to capture a macro image that is close enough to present enough detail to be interesting with sufficient depth of field to not look like a child took the photo. Maybe the tilt-shift will help.

Cholla flower at Cave Creek Canyon, Arizona.
Stale Cane(?) Cholla Flower (Cylindropuntia sp.) at Cave Creek Canyon, Arizona. Looking for a fun time? Check out Cylinderopuntia taxonomy.

But why cactus flowers, of all things? I must confess a special affection for desert organisms, and deserts in general. The most spectacular places I’ve ever visited are in deserts. As a child, I studied the Arizona Highways magazines at the local library and by February often dreamed of moving away from the frozen wastes of Minnesota. Cactus flowers are especially beautiful–the hummingbirds of the plant world–and I have decided that I would travel just to see and photograph them. Like hummingbirds, they are native to the New World only, and I feel lucky to be able to see and photograph them in the wild.

Up to this point, I’ve only photographed the most common species encountered while chasing birds around, and I know very little about cacti other than that the flowers are pretty and the plants grow in exotic places that I love. Getting serious about cactus flower photography would mean, of course, learning the taxonomy, ecology, and biogeography of the plants. At present this seems a daunting task . . . but it would involve trips to places like Big Bend, the Painted Desert, and . . . dozens of really, really interesting places (i.e., not Houston). Are these just the fantasies of a Dog Days of Houston shut-in? We’ll see.

Prickly Pear flower with bee at Balcones
Prickly Pear (Opuntia robusta) Flower with Bee at Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge, Central Texas.

When I write “paradise” I mean not only apple trees and golden women but also scorpions and tarantulas and flies, rattlesnakes and Gila monsters, sandstorms, volcanoes and earthquakes, bacteria and bear, cactus, yucca, bladderweed, ocotillo and mesquite, flash floods and quicksand, and yes — disease and death and the rotting of flesh.—Edward Abbey, Down the River

©2014 Christopher R. Cunningham. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.

Road Trip! Desert Southwest Birding in Summer (Part 3: Cave Creek Canyon)

Acorn Woodpecker Feeding Young at Cave Creek Ranch, Arizona
Acorn Woodpecker Feeding Youngster at Cave Creek Ranch, Portal, Arizona. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

Visiting Cave Creek Ranch in Portal, Arizona, and environs in Cave Creek Canyon for a few days each year has become a Two Shutterbirds birding tradition. We arrive each time hoping to discover or photograph something new or obtain better shots of species we have photographed before. Usually we do see or document things new to us. This July’s visit was no exception.

White-breasted Nuthatch at Cave Creek Ranch, southeast Arizona
White-breasted Nuthatch with Sunflower Seed at Cave Creek Ranch, southeast Arizona. To get this shot, I filled a small cavity with seed in the exposed roots of a tree just outside our cabin. It was less than an hour before a jar of nuthatches found the cache. I happily sat still as they flew in, hopped down the trunk, and grabbed a sunflower seed before posing briefly for a picture! Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

At Cave Creek, we spend days exploring places like Barfoot Park, South Fork, and the Vista trail—trying to include a mix of new and familiar locales. Because the terrain can often be steep, these are typically pure birding trips (binoculars or, at most, small glass only). This July, Hermit Thrushes, Western Wood-Pewees, and Sulphur-bellied Flycatchers were the most commonly encountered birds at lower elevations, and Yellow-eyed Juncos predominated at higher ones. In the evenings, once we were beat, and upon return to the ranch, we sometimes spent a few hours hanging around shooting the numerous birds that visit the seed and nectar feeders.

Blue-throated Hummingbird at Cave Creek Ranch, Arizona.
Blue-throated Hummingbird at Cave Creek Ranch, Portal, Arizona. These are the largest hummingbirds you’re likely to see at Cave Creek, or anywhere in North America—unless you’re lucky enough to see a Magnificent or Plain-capped Starthroat! Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

Seed feeders at Cave Creek Ranch attract large numbers of House Finches, Lesser Goldfinches, Mexican Jays, and Acorn Woodpeckers. Occasionally a White-Breasted Nuthatch, Ladder-backed Woodpecker, Arizona Cardinal, Hepatic or Summer Tanager, or Curve-billed Thrasher showed up as we watched. In the thickets along the road behind the office we saw Cassin’s Kingbirds, Black Phoebes, and Canyon and Bewick’s Wrens. At the nectar feeders, Black-chinned and Broad-billed Hummingbirds predominated. We saw a few Blue-throated and a single Anna’s Hummingbird. Another birder saw a single Violet-crowned Hummingbird, but Chris was looking the other way. A lifer missed by a fraction of a second! A Plain-capped Starthroat was reported in the area (we saw one a few days earlier in Madera Canyon). Without exaggeration, Cave Creek Canyon is a magical place, and place not to be missed by anyone interested in birds or nature.

Cave Creek Canyon at Dusk
South Wall of the Entrance to Cave Creek Canyon at Dusk. The mouth of the canyon opens into the Chihuahuan Desert. Canon 7D/Tokina 11-16mm. Natural light.

Tradition is a guide and not a jailer.—W. Somerset Maugham

©2014 Christopher R. Cunningham and Elisa D. Lewis. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.

The Most Spectacular Northern Cardinal Subspecies?

Male Arizona Cardinal at Cave Creek, Arizona
Portrait in Red: Male Arizona Cardinal at Cave Creek, Arizona. There are nineteen subspecies of Northern Cardinal in North and Central America. The “Arizona Cardinal,” Cardinalis cardinals superbus, may be the most spectacular cardinal in the U.S. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash. All images in this post were saturated 3%.

During our recent road trip to southeast Arizona we once again encountered Cardinalis cardinals superbus, a bird sometimes referred to as the “Arizona Cardinal.” I paused for a closer look and made a few comparisons with our own Cardinalis cardinals magnirostris, the Northern Cardinal subspecies that occurs throughout the eastern third of Texas.

Male Northern Cardinal at Brazos Bend State Park, Texas
East Texas Bird: Male Northern Cardinal (C. c. magnirostris) at Pilant Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

The Arizona race of cardinals occurs in southern California, Arizona, New Mexico and northern Mexico and is generally larger, taller-crested, longer-tailed, and more brightly colored (less gray on the back) than Texas Gulf Coast cardinals, or any of the other races of cardinals in the U.S. The Arizona Cardinal’s face mask also tends toward lighter shades and is smaller, often not meeting across the top of the bill. In general behavior, the Arizona subspecies was indistinguishable from our familiar Texas birds. Their songs, however, varied by a note or two here and there.

Female Arizona Cardinal at Cave Creek, Arizona.
Female Arizona Cardinal (C. c. superbus) on Century Plant at Cave Creek, Arizona. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

C. c. magnirostris is a beautiful bird and common bird—a bird so common that we tend to ignore it, despite its beauty. Sometimes in our travels, too, we are so taken with the new species encountered that we overlook the close relatives of familiar animals that cross our paths.

Female Northern Cardinal at the Houston Arboretum
Female Northern Cardinal (C.C. magnirostris) at the Houston Arboretum. In portrait, t’s easy to see why Northern Cardinals were referred to as “Cardinal Grosbeaks” in previous centuries. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

The Arizona Cardinal is a spectacular bird, and not easy to miss. But how many other close relatives of our less showy backyard birds are we overlooking during our far-flung birding adventures? Learning about (and keeping straight) these minor geographic variations in our native birds is yet another aspect of this incredible hobby we call birdwatching.

Why hurry over beautiful things? Why not linger and enjoy them?—Clara Schumann

©2014 Christopher R. Cunningham. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.

Summer Birding in Portal, Arizona and Environs

Broad-billed Hummingbird at Cave Creek Ranch, Arizona
Male Broad-billed Hummingbird at Cave Creek Ranch, Arizona. The feeders around the main office were swarmed with Broad-billed, Black-chinned, Blue-throated, and Broad-tailed Hummingbirds. The Broad-billed Hummingbird is primarily a Mexican species, its range barely extending into the Southwest U.S. during summer. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

Portal, Cave Creek Canyon, and the South Fork of Cave Creek of southeast Arizona are magic words to birders. Southeast Arizona provides habitats for about one-half the species of birds present in North America north of the Mexican border. A variety of biological, geological and topographic factors have conspired to make this so. Most important, perhaps, is that this area lies at the northern extremity of the ranges of what are essentially Mexican species, so birds of the Southwest U.S. can be seen alongside more exotic subtropical ones.

Topography is also an important part of the story. Approaching Portal, Arizona from Rodeo, New Mexico you travel through the rocky Chihuahuan Desert, slowly climbing in elevation. Cactus, agave, and mesquite are scattered around. Near Portal, Arizona you start to encounter cottonwoods and other tall trees, and by the time you are driving Forest Road 42 toward South Fork Cave Creek you are in a stunningly diverse riparian forest with pine, sycamore, oak, maple and others: this is a Madrean pine-oak forest. The topographic map above gives some sense of the changes encountered while traversing the Portal area.

Vista Point, near Cave Creek, Arizona
A View from the Vista Trail, Coronado National Forest, Arizona showing a pine-oak forest extending up to the bare volcanic rock of an arid canyon. The distribution of plants and animals varies dramatically by elevation and distance from water. Canon EOS 7D/Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8. Natural light.

Scattered around the forest floor in summer are trumpet-shaped pink to coral to red flowers–hummingbird food plants. At one point, I turned and came face-to-face with a Magnificent Hummingbird. The bird hovered in front of my face for a full second, looked me over, and shot off into the forest, perhaps in search of nectar. At lower elevations I noticed Scarlet Bouvardia (Bouvardia ternifolia) and Scarlet Sage (Salvia coccinea), giving way to unfamiliar flowers at higher elevations. The botany of this area will take years to comprehend . . .

Yellow-eyed Junco at Barfoot Park, Arizona
Yellow-eyed Junco at Barfoot Park, Coronado National Forest, Arizona. Yellow-eyed Juncos are another primarily Mexican species. This bird nests in coniferous (or Madrean pine-oak) forests at elevations of 5,900-8,200 ft and eats mostly seeds (in cool weather) and arthropods (in warm weather). Barfoot Park is at an elevation of 8169 ft and is dominated by lofty ponderosa pines. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

Likewise the incredible diversity of summer bird life, especially flycatchers, will take years to fully appreciate. With further study and (at least) annual pilgrimages to this area, I hope to become familiar enough with the natural history of the area to use season, elevation, and habitat to identify birds and help understand their activities. In any case, the Cave Creek area is certainly one of the crown jewels of American birding.

Fast is fine, but accuracy is everything.― Wyatt Earp

©2013 Christopher R. Cunningham. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.

Birding the Desert Southwest in Summer: Franklin Mountains, West Texas to Cave Creek Canyon, Arizona

Male Calliope Hummingbird at Franklin Mountains State Park, Texas
Male Calliope Hummingbird at Franklin Mountains State Park, West Texas. Canon EOS 7D 500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

We just returned from a fantastic road trip across West Texas, New Mexico, and southeastern Arizona. Along the way we stopped at four places, and each of these stops will serve as the basis for a dedicated post or two in the future. In the meantime, here are some highlights.

The first stop was the observation blind at the Tom Mays Unit of Franklin Mountains State Park, just north of El Paso, Texas. We have visited  this locale before during other seasons. Sparrows and finches dominate during the cooler months (take a look here at our sparrow collection), but during the summer, hummingbirds rule! The air was thick with Black-chinned, Rufous, and Calliope Hummingbirds. Oodles of Calliope Hummingbirds in the middle of summer in Texas? Yes–and that will be a future post!

Cactus Wren at Cave Creek Ranch, Arizona
Cactus Wren at Cave Creek Ranch, Arizona. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

After the Franklin Mountains came Cave Creek Canyon in the Chiricahua Mountains of extreme southeastern Arizona. This is the first time we visited Portal and environs in summer, and it was amazing. Just coming to grips with the botany and entomology in this arid Garden of Eden would take a lifetime. The birding was also phenomenal, and we added several species that can only be seen in southeast Arizona (or perhaps the southern extremities of New Mexico and/or Texas) within the U.S. including Blue-throated and Broad-billed Hummingbirds, Sulphur-bellied Flycatchers, Brown-backed (a.k.a. Strickland’s or Arizona) Woodpeckers, and Yellow-eyed Juncos, among others. We look forward to writing much more about Cave Creek in the future!

On the way back, we took a “minor” detour through Roswell, New Mexico to scope out Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge. On the way, we read about a colony of Burrowing Owls that live in a Black-tailed Prairie Dog town located in Roswell’s Spring River Park and Zoo. We couldn’t resist–even though we were bleary-eyed from seven hours in the car.

At this park, you could make the case that the prairie dogs are captive animals, although they routinely burrow under the park wall and could walk away if they wanted. The owls, however, are wild animals that stay in this prarie-dog town in close proximity to humans of their own volition–although their choices are limited. About 99% of prairie dogs have been exterminated in the U.S., and the owls rely on the burrows of these rodents. Another future post!

Burrowing Owl at Roswell, New Mexico
Burrowing Owl at Twilight, Roswell, New Mexico. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light: the huge eyes and tapetum lucidum (and resulting eyeshine) of these birds make flash photography problematic.

Finally, we stopped at Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge, a major wintering ground for waterfowl along the western extremity of the Central Flyway, and reportedly one of the best areas to see dragonflies in the U.S. during the hot months: just what we need to fuel our nascent interest in dragonfly photography. This sun-baked desert oasis, no doubt, will warrant future mention on Twoshutterbirds. We are already planning future visits to the desert Southwest while we eagerly await the fall cool down along the Texas Gulf Coast and the beginning of the fall migration.

Female Eight-spotted Skimmer Dragonfly at Bitter Lake NWR, New Mexico
Female Eight-spotted Skimmer Dragonfly at Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

“I was born on the prairies where the wind blew free and there was nothing to break the light of the sun. I was born where there were no enclosures.”–Geronimo

©2013 Christopher R. Cunningham and Elisa D. Lewis. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.