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.