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Southeast Arizona 2015

Part 9:  Mount Hopkins Road to Madera Canyon

Left right about on time the next morning and didn’t have to wait long for dawn at the foot of Mount Hopkins Road, but another monsoon was brewing, so I kept a wary eye on it!  But the sunrise colors were glorious!!  Rufous-winged Sparrows were the main chorus performers, and one actually came out and allowed prolonged looks, looking somewhat like a Chippy with a moustache! J  Heading up the mountain added the normal desert fare, including both Scaled and Gambel’s Quail.  Cars were whizzing by at 90 mph (along with a couple of Border Patrol guys going the same speed) , so I wondered what was going on; I figured the only people going up that road would be observatory employees!

Sunrise in the desert

Two Rufous-winged Sparrows battle it out - the almost Bewick's Wren-like song of the second bird fades into the background as the bird moves away!

The visitor’s center was certainly new since I had been here last, and since the Black-capped Gnatcatcher instructions said they could be found anywhere between here and the Elephant Head Trailhead, I stopped frequently to listen.  A very cooperative Black-tailed Gnatcatcher came in to investigate, and Bell’s Vireos were quite plentiful.  Got great looks at Varied Buntings in here, and somewhere a Crissal Thrasher did his chewy-chewy.  From the steep canyons (I was listening for Five-striped Sparrow, believe me…) came Canyon and Rock Wrens, Rufous-crowned Sparrows, and Phainopeplas here and there.  Another gnatcatcher came flying in to a stalk, but it turned out to be another Blacktail…

One of the side roads into Montosa Canyon, a Black-capped Gnatcatcher hotspot (just not today...)!

One of the "double mountains"


Gnatcatchers weren't cooperative, but Bell's Vireos certainly were!   

Agitation call of a Canyon Wren; you can hear a young hawk squealing in the background, along with another Bell's Vireo.

This is their normal "beep" call.



Up the mountain we went, adding Cassin’s Kingbird, Scott’s Oriole, Western Wood Pewee, and Mexican Jay as we ascended.  Around one corner the day’s only White-throated Swift flew overhead, and at another stop that was up in the trees by then, I hit the jackpot with a feeding flock:  Bridled Titmice came in very close, but also called in White-breasted Nuthatch, Plumbeous Vireo, and Hermit, Townsend’s, Black-throated Gray, and Wilson’s Warblers!  I even had another Pygmy Owl answering my toot!  At one point a Montezuma Quail was singing right outside the car (invisible of course) for a crippling recording!

Heading up the mountain...

The road as it comes out of Montosa Canyon


Cute Bridled Titmice

Montezuma Quail "song"

Near the top added Scrub Jay and Dusky-capped Flycatcher, in addition to some stupendous views!  No new trip birds (I was hoping for Band-tailed Pigeon), but on the way down I was musing about the Monties (had heard several going up) and how you just really had to hope that one was crossing the road in order to see one, and guess what—suddenly there was a whole family crossing the road in front of me!!  The pictures taken through the windshield were pure fuzz, but miraculously Mom stopped by the side long enough for me to jump halfway out of the car and snag a shot!  (Next goal: bag Daddy on "film"! ☺)

Another view of the road we came up...

"Diggory" outside the Whipple Observatory (as far as the public can go)

Momma Montezuma Quail making sure her brood got across the road okay!

Rolled back down, used the restroom (was very thankful for the VC for that alone), and really worked the canyon to try for those gnats.  Picked up Yellow-billed Cuckoo and a couple of Turkey Vultures for the route (plus more nice looks at Varied Buntings), but not a whine came from the bush, so headed on to Madera Canyon to check out Florida Canyon for the other Black-capped Gnats.  Found the road fine, and when I pulled into the parking lot, two other gals had just finished looking for them and confirmed that “this was the spot” and advised me on the trail, so I thanked them and headed up (if it was going to be any more than ten minutes I was going to let it go…).  Well, what seemed more like five minutes up was a little gate to the right, so I assumed this was “the gate”, went through, and checked out the trees for about ten minutes as there was a lot of activity:  mostly Bell’s Vireos (with a single Warbling), another Wilson’s Warbler, and other things that I can’t recall at the moment, but no gnatcatchers.

Varied Bunting back in Montosa Canyon

Headed back to the car and on to Madera Canyon, where a few stops along the road added what sounded like a Chihuahuan Raven, a Western Kingbird, a fly-in Pyrrhuloxia, and singing Botteri’s Sparrows.  After dumping some water on myself I hiked the Proctor Trail, and again, I wasn’t sure exactly where these gnatcatchers were supposed to be, but at the intersection with the Whitestone Ruin Trail, I ran into a lot of activity with both Summer and Western Tanager, Beardless Tyrannulet, Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher, and a brilliant Lazuli Bunting in addition to the Varieds (I can’t believe they were actually becoming ho-hum J)!  But I did have a group of three gnatcatchers that I would have called Blue-gray any other time, as they had plenty of white under the tail and nice bold eyerings, but one bird gave a very robust two-toned call, not exactly like the Blackcap recording but much more husky than I’ve ever heard a Blue-gray make!  I took a bunch of pictures, hoping that one might show the tail feather pattern, but I actually heard back from a knowledgeable local (wish I had kept the e-mail as I can't remember his name) who, after looking at the pictures, was convinced it was a Black-capped Gnatcatcher, based on the bill length alone (I confess that it did look rather long, but not really having paid that much attention to gnatcatcher bills, I didn't know...)!  So that along with the vocalization (more on that later), convinced me that I did indeed have one Blackcap (one of the other gnats also looked rather long-billed, but only had a couple of tail feathers...)!


Fuzzy shots of the first two of the three gnatcatchers seen; I would have called both of them Blue-gray (they were silent) did not their bills look a little long!


Here's the husky-sounding bird (didn't perform for the recorder, natch); clearly not a Black-tailed, but the head looked like it might have had some residual black in it, plus (as my "reviewer" mentioned) that bill is pretty long!  So I feel safe calling at least this one, one of the Black-capped Gnatcatchers that was hanging in the area.


Fuzzy, and I'm not sure if the tail gradation can be seen, but gnatcatchers also molt their tail feathers this time of year, so I'm not sure if that would be a reliable field mark.

Headed on up to Santa Rita Lodge and got checked in, then settled down to watch the hummingbird show!  A gentleman was sitting off to the side and asked me if I was Mary Beth, and it turned out to be Wayne, a guy who had been advising me via e-mail for some time!  So we got to chatting, and he told me the “gate” at Florida Canyon was well beyond where I was, and it was a big gate that was hard to miss (but also that the gnatcatchers had been seen right in the parking lot as well)!  He also said that Proctor Trail does loop around further up (I thought it did, but didn’t want to go too far), and that’s usually where those gnatcatchers were.  He was very encouraging about night birds; I had taken a look down Proctor Road and didn’t want to drive down it (especially with this monsoon threatening), so told him I would try listening from the parking lot, and he seemed to think the Whiskered Screech Owls would still be calling, so I made plans to try for that as well!

Heading up the road...


Broad-billed Hummingbirds dominate the feeders at Santa Rita Lodge!  This is a male...

...and here's a female with another male.


Male Broad-billed Hummingbird (a little beat-up - raising kids is hard work!)

A little fuzzy, but you can see the size difference between the Broadbill at left and a Magnificent Hummingbird at right.

Birds weren't the only things to use the feeders... ☺ (The sneaky thief is a Black Swallowtail...)

Enjoyed the show until the rain came: had Broad-billed, Broad-tailed, Anna’s, Black-chinned, and a Mag come in, but no Starthroat.  An Arizona Woodpecker on the PB feeder was a nice consolation prize, though!  Drove up to the top for a minute, but then decided to go ahead and come back here and get settled in, seeing as I was gonna be headed out again later that evening (and I took a risk plugging the computer in with a thunderstorm going, but the battery was almost dead…).

Arizona Woodpecker at the PB feeder; according to some this is the rarest woodpecker in North America!

Once I got everything caught up, the monsoon ended, so I decided to go back up and do feeder watch until it was time to head down to Proctor Road!  The proprietor was telling me that you could hear night birds right from the lodge at dusk, so I was sorely tempted to stay put and then go down and listen for the nightjar later, but two other guys (David and Kyle, both from California) who were also hoping for the Starthroat were talking about going down for the nightjar as well, and David offered to accompany me if I had concerns about hiking into that campground by myself (which I did – not because of recently sighted black jaguars but because of the two-legged type of baddies)!  Kyle also followed us, and since they both had flashlights I followed closely!

We got to the area quickly enough, and having walked through the “lakes”, Diggory would have made it fine, but I was just leery about trying it and being by myself back there in the dark.  I needn’t have been concerned, I don’t think, because the only people back there were three guys who were camping (they graciously let us listen for the nightjar from their campsite) and yet another California birder who had driven in!  No nightjar, but a distant Poorwill did call, and an added surprise: a pair of Western Screech Owls!  That gave me hope that maybe other owls would be calling the next morning!  But Kyle actually had a very strong police light and they found a pair of eye shines looking at us up on the hill (my crack about it being the black jaguar got a chuckle), which was probably a deer, and indeed David found another one in the parking lot later that he tried to photograph.  On the way back to the parking lot we found out that Kyle was a ranger at Joshua Tree!  That was really neat, but we also got to talking about the Black-capped Gnatcatchers, and Kyle had an app that had a little different recording of the bird than David’s (which was the same as what I had), and after hearing that, I’m pretty convinced that the bird I had earlier that day along the trail was indeed one of the Blackcaps:  what stumped me to begin with was that it had the right timbre, but not the right inflection, but Kyle’s recording included a flat call (not rising and falling) with the same timbre, which is what this bird was doing; I just wished I could have gotten the thing recorded! 

I stopped a few times on the way back to the lodge, and couldn’t get over the sky: it brought to mind that anthem (The Majesty and Glory of Your Name, I think it was) with the line, “When I gaze into the night sky and see the works of Your fingers – the moon and stars suspended in space – oh, what is man that You are mindful of him?”  It was absolutely incredible!  But I cut it short because a) it was getting late and I needed to be up at three-something, and b) my phone was dying rapidly, so it probably wouldn’t have been able to take many more timer countdowns!

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