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Southeast Arizona - Part I
April 2012

    Chiricahua National Monument
    Cave Creek Canyon
    San Bernardino National Wildlife Refuge
    Rucker Canyon
    San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area
    Hauchuca Mountains
    Las Cienegas National Conservation Area
    Madera Canyon, Santa Rita Mountains
    Pena Blancha Lake
    Sycamore Canyon

| Synopsis | Pictures | Bird/Critter Lists | Information |


Southeast Arizona has always been on my list of places to visit. The intrigue of it being a birder hotspot in combination with it being desert always attracted me to the area. When Tor's parent's recently bought a place there, well, there was no real reason we couldn't go now.

Tuesday April 3rd

We flew into Tucson on a sunny afternoon. The flight was uneventful and we quickly scooped up our bags at the airport. At the car rental counter, I waited in the only line in the center at the Alamo desk. When it came my turn, I hoped to quickly pick up the truck that I had reserved. Instead the manager began looking in drawers and got on the phone. After a few minutes he informed me that their one truck was out for repair and they could give us an SUV or minivan at the same price. I tried to explain that I reserved a truck (and therefore expected a truck) - for the purpose of sleeping in the bed. The manager said I could fold the seats down in a minivan to sleep in the back. I said it wasn't the same. He gave me a blank stare. I was getting pissed. What any proper manager should have done was rented a truck from another company and given it to me at the price I was quoted (or at least have the decency to check with the other rental places to see if they had a truck). Instead I could see we were at a stand still. This would be the last time I dealt with Alamo Tucson.

We went down the line of rental car companies to see if they had a truck for rent. Avis had one, but at almost double what Alamo cost. We had already wasted 45 mins with Alamo and were happy enough to have the vehicle we expected. After the Avis worker managed to knock a few hundred off the bill, we filled out the paperwork and got the keys to the truck - a Chevy Ram that turned out not to be the worse truck I've driven, but it was definitely plenty of truck to handle.

After stopping in Tucson for camp fuel, stocking up on groceries, and grabbing some dinner, we pulled into the inlaw's house at night.

Wednesday April 4th

In the morning, after breakfast with Tor's folks, we headed out to the Chiricahua National Monument. It turned out to be a fairly short drive as we were pulling into the visitor center in less than an hour. After the stopping in at the visitor center, we went to Bonita Creek where campers were still packing up. Mexican Jays flew around the campsites checking for messy campers and handouts.

We waited for campers to leave before snatching up a fairly decent campsite. After staking our claim for the next two nights, we headed up the road and stopped at the Sugarloaf trailhead, which was closed because tiles with asbestos had fallen off the roof of the lookout tower. Still from the road, we enjoyed the view of the strange rock formations in the canyons stretched out below us. We went to the end of the road, where we geared up and set out for a hike. We didn’t really have a plan so ended up hiking toward Inspiration Point. In the canyon, we watching the creek surface and disappear below a healthy cover of fallen oak leaves. A female Williamson’s sapsucker tapped at the wells on a Ponderosa pine and many Black-throated Gray Warblers sang from the tree tops.

We continued up the trail through the ponderosa, juniper, and oaks. The trees provided good cover for an elusive Arizona Woodpecker that we could hear calling and tapping away. Mountain spiny lizards scuttled away from us as we walked on. The air was heavy with the smell of Ponderosa – both musty and sweet at the same time. A Yellow-eyed Junco was scratching under the manzanita. We watched its un-junco like behavior of walking instead of hopping. As we neared Inspiration Point, we came across a more heavily burned area that was the result of a man-caused wildfire in 2010. Among the heavily charred trunks were signs of hope – new sprouts near the base of the tree told us that the roots were still alive and the tree was going to start anew.

At Inspiration Point, we took in the view of Upper Rhyolite Canyon. The canyon was lined with pillars of rock. White-throated Swifts chattered and dove close to us. Across the canyon, we could clearly see Sugarloaf Mountain, where contractors were cleaning up the lookout tower. We turned around from Inspiration Point and headed down the Hailstone trail, which took us through the canyon we had viewed from the point. The pillars of rock were now towered above us. We noticed the strange hailstones or more accurately spherulite formations on the trail.

From the Hailstone Trail, we hiked on to Echo Canyon trail. It ascended the canyon wall taking us through the pillars and giving us close up views of the wonders of centuries of erosion and weathering. The loop we had taken was counter to what the park suggested, but in a way I’m glad we went the way we did. It provided us with a broad to close up view of the landscape. Either way is breathtaking.

We went back down to the campground. After nightfall, as we were tucking into our sleeping bags, I noticed some movement at eye level in a small tree that was no more than 10 feet from the bed of the truck. I turned on my headlamp to see a somewhat bewildered Whiskered Screech Owl staring back at me with its yellow eyes. After temporarily blinding it, in less than a few seconds later, it had flown off toward another owl that was calling in the distance. The close up view of this little owl was a nice way to end the day.

Thursday April 5th

We awoke to the rattle of Acorn Woodpeckers and the chatter of Bridled Titmice in the oaks. We hiked down to the visitor center and up the Lower Rhyolite Canyon trail. The sun was still low in the sky and we could tell the day was going to heat up quickly. The trail steadily climbed the side of the canyon. Our first pair of Painted Redstarts greeted us from the oak trees. We continued onward and upward on the Sarah Deming trail. The ponderosas here were considerable large and amazingly were untouched by the fire. A Blue-throated Hummingbird wowed us with its sheer size. Among the large Ponderosa pines, a pair of Mexican Chickadees flitted around with White-breasted Nuthatches and the numerous Ruby-crowned Kinglets.

The trail climbed more steeply up the canyon wall. As we rounded the corner, we saw an Arizona white-tailed Deer crossing the trail in front of us. It seemed slightly concerned about our presence but felt comfortable to take in a few mouthful of clay before crossing the trial again and heading down the canyon.

At the Heart of Rocks trail, we make the short climb up to the monoliths (polyoliths?) of rock. The short but sweet loop was ability named. It contained interesting and gravity defying pillars of stone balanced on top of more rocks. The odd formations of rocks allow the imagination to whip them into familiar shapes – a duck, a camel’s head, Thor’s hammer, Punch and Judy. Some need liberal amounts of imagination to see the how the name applies to the rock, but regardless of the names, the rock pillars and their backdrop were impressive.

We started back down the trail to the campground. The heat of the day was building, but not unbearable. We noted how well constructed all the trails in the monument were and how much work went into building the trails that hugged the canyon walls and traversed a somewhat steep landscape. This place was well maintained and preserved.

Back at the campground, we rested our feet and let the afternoon heat die down. The Mexican Jays came into to inquire about our activities. And a new family with their 2 or 3 loud and hyperactive children moved into the campground. There would be no peace tonight.

Later in the afternoon, we hiked back down to the Bonita Creek trail to the Faraway Ranch. It was a quiet walk, but for a flock of Chipping Sparrows and a few Mourning Doves.

We returned to camp to the sound of screaming children and I think the Whiskered Screech Owl who was drowned out by the primate competition.

Friday April 6th

We packed up early next morning and went to the Faraway Ranch. We followed the trail down the dry creek bed to slightly lower elevation. An Ash-throated Flycatcher called from the tree tops and a pair of Ladder-backed Woodpeckers worked a tree. The white trunks of the sycamores stood out among all the badly scorched oaks

From the Chiricahua National Monument, we drove through the national forest and up to the pass. We stopped at Rustler Park, which was closed due to the fire. The area was heavily burned, and there was a concern about falling trees and limbs. We didn’t stay long at Rustler Park. Despite the sun, it was cold at the pass.

We continued down the mountains on the windy narrow road to Cave Creek Canyon. We pulled into the first campground – Sunny Flat, which had one spot open. Knowing it was the weekend, we took the spot thinking that the other 2 campgrounds in the area would be just as full.

Sunny Flat campground offered a wonderful view of the canyon and the high rocky walls. Our campsite, though it was open, also provided us with the great opportunity to soak it all in.

After paying for one night, we hiked on the nature trail that followed the creek down the canyon. We hoped to get some information about hiking in the area and there was a ranger station down the road – so the sign said. The trail didn’t go to the ranger station. Instead it led to the other campgrounds and to the trailhead for Silver Peak. What we didn’t know at the time was that the ranger station was just a little further along the road and that it was actually closed until June or July. So we wouldn’t have gotten much information anyway. Later in the trip, we did pick up a birding/hiking schematic from the nearby small town’s (Portal) grocery store.

Still the nature trail, though only 1 mile long, was a nice little trail through sycamores, oak, and cottonwoods. Poison ivy and Oregon grape also grew along the trail. A thick carpet of oak leaves littered the ground. Cave Creek Canyon is supposedly a good spot to look for Elegant Trogons (one of the reason we went there). We didn’t see the trogon, but we did see and hear a Grace’s Warbler that was actively feeding in the pines.

After failing to find the ranger’s station, we returned to the campground, where we relaxed for the afternoon. I hung up my hummingbird feeder that attracted a Black-chinned and a Blue-throated Hummingbird. They both seemed well trained at feeding at hummingbird feeders as traveling birders frequently hang them up.

Later in the afternoon, we hiked back down the nature trail to the Silver Peak trailhead. We walked up the first part of the Silver Peak trail. The trail went through an active horse pasture so the trail was soft and went in every direction. After it climbed up the hill a bit, the trail got a little better and more cohesive. We didn’t climb up the trail very far, but we got a good view of the canyon walls and surrounding mountains. A large flock of Chipping Sparrows was feeding in the grasses and a pair of Juniper Titmice was gleaning in the scrub.

We returned to the campground before sunset to the sounds of our camp neighbor playing the electric piano, or something very similar. It seemed sort like a cross between a church organ and carnival music. It was very upbeat. So we enjoyed our dinner with our canyon view and street music.

As night fell, a different tune took over and the many partying families/groups turned up their stereo systems and we rocked out to some R&B and pop.

Saturday April 7th

We decided to move on to another site. Cave Creek Canyon is a beautiful place, but there weren’t many trails within walking distance. Plus spring seemed to have just arrived at the canyon so many of the plants and creatures were only just starting to emerge.

Before going to our next camping destination, we decided to stop by the Slaughter House Ranch and San Bernardino National Wildlife Refuge outside of Douglas and is right on the border. We drove down to Douglas and worked our way to the refuge. The increasing number of border patrol cars told us we were getting close to the border. So close that on the dirt road out to the refuge, we could see the border, which was comprised of a fence of tank killers.

We arrived at the Slaughter House Ranch under the blazing sun. We were the only visitor that morning – aside from the border patrol guard who was chatting with the caretaker. We paid our $10 for the self-guided tour of the ranch and were given a brief history of the place. It was interesting, but honestly I was more anxious to check out the all birds that were flitting in and out of the tall cottonwoods.

There were mostly Yellow-rumped Warblers in the cottonwoods. A pair of Vermillion Flycatchers was tending to a nest next to the pond. A variety of ducks and coots were paddling around the pond, and a pair of Black Phoebes seemed to take advantage of all the aquatic meals flying about.

We walked the grounds of the ranch, but didn’t go inside the house. We walk over to the San Bernardino NWR to check out the many manmade ponds. They were good little oases for wildlife and birdlife in the desert scrub and grassland.

As we were checking out one of the ponds, a border patrol guard drove up and talked to us. He warned us about illegal immigrants and pointed out how close to the border we were standing (which was probably less than 100 meters). On the scale of border patrol assholism, this guy was pretty nice. He mentioned some birds he saw at the ponds and which ones to go to.

We took his suggestions and walked through the dried grassland and over baked soil in the pounding heat to the other ponds. It was a short walk, but the heat made it seem longer. At the ponds, there were many more of the same birds – Vermillion Flycatchers, Yellow Warblers, Chipping Sparrows, Bell’s Vireos etc. We could have spent more time there and seen more birds easily, but we were both hungry for lunch. So we headed back to the ranch and the car.

We ate lunch at the ranch while watching the waterfowl swim around. I was hoping the Ruddy Ducks would display, but no such luck.

In the afternoon, we headed out and stopped at Douglas to restock our provisions. It was a weird little border town with only a Walmart for a grocery store. The hollowed out Safeway told the story of which conglomerate claimed the town.

From Douglas we headed north and back up the Chiricahua Mountains. We approached the mountains from the west and headed to Rucker Canyon. At the road up to Rucker Canyon, we were greeted with the sight of many Latino families camping for the weekend. We proceeded with a little hesitant that we would find any camping ahead on this busy weekend. And our suspicions were confirmed with each campground full to the brim with as many people as possible cramped into each campsite.

We turned around near the end of the road and contemplated what we should do. On the way back down we tested a small side road and decided to camp at the end of it. It was in a heavily grazed area with cows and many cow patties, but it would do for the night.

After settling in, we hiked up the nearby hill to have a look around at the scenery. The view was pretty spectacular with the surrounding rolling hills and the rocky mountain peaks. The evidence of the fire that ravaged the forest was obvious, with the many blackened trees and bare ground blanketing the mountain tops.

We scrambled back down the hill to camp where we settled in for dinner, horchata, and the evening serenade of Common Poorwills.

Sunday April 8th
In the morning, we set out to explore a close by road that had the sign “forest trail” at the entrance. As we were hiking up the short road, movement caught my eye and I noticed a crouching bird with a clown like face in the dried grass. Just as I was about to point it out to Tor, there was an explosion of wings in the air as a covey of Montezuma’s Quails flushed from only 10 feet away from us. I didn’t even get a chance to look at the male with my binoculars, but the identification is unmistakable. One of the quails however, was comfortable to simply walk away from us. I felt pretty privileged to have a chance close encounter with this hard to see species.

At the end of the road, we continued up a narrow trail to Sycamore Springs and Canyon. We didn’t have to go far to reach the springs, which was dammed and heavily trodden by cows. We didn’t see much life in the water, but it might have been because it was still early in the season. We continued pass the springs and through an old corral up toward Turtle Mountain.

The trail lead through oak and followed the creek, which would sometime run dry in places. The trail was not well kept or cared for in a while. Erosion and cow use ate channels into the trails, and the trails would be confusing in places where other cow trails intersected the trail. As we ascending the mountain our travels became even more difficult with a small thorny plant that grew in the trail. It seemed designed to catch our cuffs and scratch our thighs and calves.

Nonetheless, we continued onward. Eventually, we reached the burned area. The only things that thrived were purple geraniums and the butterflies that fed on the bounty of nectar. The trail got a little lost in the damage, but we managed to find it and continue on. The purple flowers gave way to lupine and the trail became even harder to follow because of the greater amount of erosion.

As our clothes became soiled with soot, we finally decided to turn around at a viewpoint of the Monte Vista peak. So it was back down the unkempt trail and through the oak and the corral. As we passed through the corral, I thought I heard an owl calling. After a few moments of contemplation, I turned around and looked for the source of the tooting.

It didn’t take me long to see a Northern Pygmy Owl fly into a tree and kindly sit for us to study it. As it was sitting there another owl called from beyond. So there were at least two owls present. The little owl finally flew off and we continued our way back to camp.

While eating lunch we contemplated checking out the campgrounds to see if they cleared or to go back to Tor’s folks to recharge before our next leg of the trip. We decided to head back to the house. As we were driving back down the canyon, several cars came racing up the dirt road, barely slowing at the sight of us coming down. I thought we made the right decision to head back to the house.

Back at the house we washed up and enjoyed a meal - good way to recharge after a short stint of camping in the desert.

Monday April 9th

We headed out early and pass through Bisbee, an old mining town with a split personality. There’s the historic Bisbee with charming little colorful houses that were built into steep rocky hillsides. And there’s the modern Bisbee complete with strip mall and rubber stamp houses.

Outside of Bisbee, we stopped at the San Pedro House on the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area. It was considerably warmer by now, so I didn’t think the birds would be very active. Still there were a good amount of birds that were attracted to the water features and feeders at the house. There were also a good amount of birders attracted to this action.

We got information about camping in the area from the helpful woman working in the house and walked around the grounds of the house. It was busy with White-crowned Sparrows, Yellow-headed Blackbirds, White-winged Doves, and Gila Woodpeckers. Over in the riparian area, there were Abert’s Towhees, Lincoln’s Sparrows, Lesser Goldfinches, many Yellow-rumped and Lucy’s Warblers, and a Virginia Warbler among many other birds.

We ate lunch at the San Pedro House, while planning out where to camp. We could camp in the conservation area as long as we were 1 mile from the parking area. We decided the Hereford Bridge trail would offer us access to the riparian area and water.

At the Hereford Bridge parking, we packed our gear into our backpacks and found the trail that paralleled the river. The trail was a good distance away from the river and led through dry desert scrub and grass. After a mile, we began looking for a trail toward the river and made our way over to the river.

The riparian area here wasn’t as dense as it was near the San Pedro House, but there were still large willows and cottonwoods along the river. We set up camp and sat by the river, which unfortunately was populated by carp. The carp would splash and make a ruckus throughout our stay. Most likely they were spawning to produce more invasive creatures.

But the river had a good amount of native avian life. Lucy’s Warblers, Yellow-rumped Warblers, and Cassin’s Kingbirds were present. A single Painted Redstart even stopped in. As we were relaxing by the river, a helicopter passed overhead. I had the time to think it wouldn’t be too surprising if came back around to check on us. Sure enough, it double back and checked us out. Tor waved and after a moment or two it flew off. It wasn’t a black helicopter like the one we encountered at Buenos Aires several years ago, but it was a border patrol helicopter.

Soon night set in. Unlike our other camping sites, the air remained warmer making it more pleasant to sit out and watch the stars. As we were sitting on a fallen log, we could hear the rustle of mice. There was much louder rustling from the grass and to our surprise a striped skunk emerged from the grass. We made it known we were present and the skunk changed course. The skunk made its way through the tall grass, leaving with it a trail of its odor. We were glad the encounter didn’t end badly.

We continued watching the stars. A silhouette of an owl sailed by without a sound. And the sound of a border patrol helicopter crossed the sky in the distance without doubling back.

Tuesday April 10th

In the morning, we walked around the area, but not far. It was difficult to navigate the tall grass that yield hidden thorny bushes. I took a few pictures of birds in the area before we packed up and headed back to the car.

We drove back to Bisbee to eat at the Bisbee Breakfast Club, a place that I found on the Road Food web site. It was a funky little café that looked run down on the outside, but was pretty nice in an upbeat warehouse kind of way. We both had a version of the huevo rancheros, which was pretty good and a lot of food.

Full and content, we continued westward past the San Pedro River again and toward the Huachuca Mountains. We struggled our way through the very sprawling Sierra Vista and made our way up to Carr Canyon. The road up the mountain wasn’t very far from the sprawling city below. At one point, I’m sure it was at least a 15 minute drive from the city, but with the spread and the 4 lane road below, access became all too easy.

We drove up the switchbacks and entered the recently burned area. The first campground was pretty well charred with plenty of firewood at each campsite. We continued on to the end of the road to Ramsey Vista. The empty campground was not burned; the tall ponderosas and shrubby manzanita were all intact. We chose a campsite and decided to try one of the trails that started from the campground. We hiked on the trail past Comfort Springs.

The manzanita was in bloom providing a bounty of nectar for the bees. The poison ivy had begun to leaf out and the Oregon grape was in full bloom. We hiked along the mountain side through oak and many agaves. The trail was pretty quiet except for the occasional chatter of the Bewick’s Wren or chip of the Yellow-eyed Junco. The oak leaves crunched under our boots and bees buzzed as they flew from flower to flower.

Comfort Springs wasn’t very comforting. The redirected spring was dry and there was no sign of water around. After a short hike, we decided to turn around and head back to the campground. On the way, back to camp, we heard an unfamiliar call coming from the slopes above us. We could tell it was a ways off, but couldn’t find who was making the noise. It eventually fell silent and we continued on. Close to the campground, we heard the call again. This time it was much closer and we tracked it through the trees at it approached. I saw something through the trees and after more searching found the culprit – a Steller’s Jay. I had never heard a jay make that noise, but know they are capable of a great repertoire.

While we were hiking, another camper had shown up. As we were preparing dinner, a car with some young kids came tearing through the campground and seeming to look for a good place to break their axels. Later a father and his kid came to the campground simply to eat dinner. We could tell that in the warmer months this campground would be a busy place and finding it empty would be nearly impossible.

We tucked into our bags in the bed of the truck. A large white cloud blanketed the lower part of the mountain and hung there, not seeming to want to budge. We could see the other half of the sky clearly and we watched a seemingly high amount of space junk slide across the sky. The winds started to howl down from the mountain top until it reached the campground. It sounded like a train starting from afar and blasting down the mountain until it ran us over with a gust of wind. Throughout the night the wind rushed down on us. I could feel it through my sleeping bag with every gust.

Wednesday April 11th

I was a bit chilled by the strong gusts of wind that hailed down on us during the night. We packed up early and headed back down the mountain. We were going to stop at Ramsey Canyon, but it was closed on Tuesdays and Wednesdays so we’ll have to go back another time.

We got through the Sierra Vista and Fort Huachuca rush hour and headed over to Las Cienegas National Wildlife Refuge. I had read that there are some (now) rare environments preserved in the refuge so thought it would be a good place to check out. It might even be warmer than our other stays in the mountains.

Las Cienegas NWR is mostly grassland with other habitats mixed in. Some parts of the refuge are also working ranches. It was easy to discern which was which. The areas without cattle had tall grasses without a lot of bare ground showing. Places with cattle had short grasses, tracks every direction and a lot of bare ground and more mesquite.

We stopped at the Empire Ranch to walk around. The Empire Ranch was built adjacent to large cottonwoods and a creek that meandered through them. It was a great place for birds. Even at the somewhat late hour of the morning, we saw a good assortment of birds in a short period of time. On the drive into the ranch a flock of Horned Larks were feeding on the ground. There was also a large flock of mixed sparrows, including Lark, Brewer’s, and Lark Bunting. In the cottonwoods, there were many singing Yellow-rumped Warblers, Lucy’s Warblers, Gila Woodpeckers, a family of American Kestrels, and a calling Gray Hawk.

From the ranch we drove up to Oak Tree Canyon in search of a camping area. The camping areas were well used and slightly trashy in the sense of how wide and open they were. But they were spaced away from each other stretching almost the entire length of the shallow grassy canyon. At the end of the canyon there was a series of catch basins. We settled on one campground closest to the water, but decided to check out the other camping area south of the entrance.

We drove down through the cow fields and grassland and through a smaller wash with cottonwoods. The other dispersed camping area didn’t look as interesting at Oak Tree so we decided to camp at Oak Tree for the night. However, it was still early in the day and we didn’t think Oak Tree Canyon would offer much in the way of hiking. So we stopped at the small wash that had intersected the road and hiked down it. Ash-throated and Vermillion Flycatchers, Cassin’s Vireos, Canyon Towhees, Rufous-crowned Sparrows, and a MacGillivary’s Warbler seemed to relish life in this small wash. Further down the wash the cottonwoods grew few and farther between. We investigated a large willow isolated in the desert scrub. Below it we found fresh evidence of a former Red-tailed Hawk. A mound of feathers, two talons, and entrails were all that was left of this raptor. It was likely eaten by a Great Horned Owl. We found the crop of the Red-tailed Hawk and when we opened it up, found the remains of a ringneck snake – its last meal.

In a clump of willows, we also found evidence of illegal immigrants – a jacket, a blanket, and an empty bag. I always wonder if the person who left those things left them because they were going delusional from making the harsh trek through the desert or if they left them intentionally because they knew they were going to “make it.”

We turned around and went the other way up the wash. We had to crawl under some barbed wire, but the wash was much wider and the trees much larger on this side of the road. Under the shade of the cottonwoods and willow we walked on the soft gravel. An occasional Empidonax flycatcher would sally from the branches. And many tree lizards would scamper away through the leaf litter. Blue-gray Gnatcatchers mewed from the mesquite and Gambel’s Quail chucked from the scrub. In a large glade like section of cottonwoods and willows, we flushed a pair of Great Horned Owls. We turned back around shortly after when we didn’t see any more trees in the wash.

As we returned up the wash, we flushed a Barn Owl out of the trees. We drove back to Oak Tree Creek in the afternoon to set up camp. We walked around the shallow grassland canyon with a few scattered oaks, cactus, and mesquite before dusk set in.

Common Poorwills began to call as the sky darkened. Much to my surprise the temperatures dropped considerable during the night. There was no wind, but there was definitely no retained heat by the clear night sky.


Continue on to Part II of Southeast Arizona trip

Pictures (click on thumbnails to enlarge)

Continue on to Part II of Southeast Arizona trip


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