Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Chiricahuas in Winter, December 17

Special thanks to Neil Hayward, Big Year record holder and birding buddy, for pointing out the online photos of Baird’s Sparrow, which helped me resolve last minute concerns about my identification of Baird’s Sparrow discussed in my previous posting.
Today, December 17, I got up quite early to drive to Portal, a trip of 1 hour and 34 minutes from my motel in Wilcox, AZ, taking the paved highways—I-10 to NM 80 and then Portal Road.  By the time I picked up breakfast and some food and drink to carry for the day, there was some dim light in the east indicating the coming sunrise.  As I approached Portal Road on NM 80, I could see that there was snow on the peaks where I was headed.  Rustler Park, where one can find Mexican Chickadee, is 8400 or 8500 feet in elevation depending upon the source and one must cross Onion Saddle at 7600 feet.  Consequently, I was wondering if I could actually get high enough in elevation to find Mexican Chickadee if the road up was snow or ice covered.  My search for Juniper Titmouse, usually found in or near Paradise, will probably not be restricted by snow, due to the lower elevation, about 5500 ft.  The only way to find out if I could get to Rustler Park was to try.  There was no snow in the valley and through Portal.  I started up through Cave Creek Canyon and was surprised by a few places in Cave Creek Canyon at low altitude where the road was still snow covered in shady areas under thick trees or along north faces of the mountain.  As I got up higher, there was no snow, because most of the road got full sunshine, but I knew that there were some sharp turns and switch-backs that would not get full sun and these might be a problem.  As I continued up through the pine-oak woodlands, I kept an eye out for Montezuma Quail along the road, because it was early in the morning and I saw no other traffic on the road.  Back in August, I had met two women at Rustler Park who had seen Montezuma Quail along the road.  However, I was not successful in seeing a Montezuma Quail in August or this time.  I found continuing small flocks of Yellow-eyed Juncos and several Acorn Woodpeckers.  I stopped for a while at the wash just beyond where the road from Paradise joins the road from Cave Creek to look and listen for birds for a while.  Neil Hayward had told me that he found Mexican Chickadee at this location back earlier in the year; therefore, I decided to try my luck here.  I found a small flock of Yellow-rumped (Audubon’s) Warblers and several Red-breasted Nuthatches with a few Ruby-crowned Kinglets, but nothing unusual. 
Just before and beyond this intersection, I started encountering snow on the road in some shady locations and in sharp switch-backs.  However, these snowy and icy areas had deep ruts worn down through the snow and ice to the dirt road surface and these were not very deep, because the snow and ice layer was not very thick.  I concentrated on keeping my wheels in the ruts with exposed dirt and had good traction in the snowy sections of the road.  The worst place was after the wash and intersection for the road to Paradise at a north facing switch-back, because the road was completely covered with packed snow and ice and without any ruts to the dirt surface.  However, the surface of the packed snow and ice was coated with dirt from the traffic.  Fortunately, the dirt surface provided enough traction to negotiate the area.  After Onion Saddle, there was more snow on the road, but negotiable due to the ruts worn through the packed snow and ice on the road.  See photos below.

Snowy Road above Onion Saddle

Last curve and hill to the top to road to Rustler Park

I parked at the “T” intersection where Barfoot Park is to the right and Rustler Park is to the left and walked the road toward Rustler Park.  In my previous experience, the road to Rustler Park has been a good place to find Mexican Chickadee.  At first there was not much activity, but eventually I found a flock of 10 to 20 Pygmy Nuthatches, a Hairy Woodpecker, White-breasted Nuthatch and a few Yellow-eyed Juncos.  I also saw a relatively large bird fly into nearby trees and thought it was a either a Steller’s or Mexican Jay, but it was a male Sharp-shinned Hawk, apparently attracted by all the bird activity that I was causing.  A pick-up truck passed me as I walked toward Rustler Park and passed me again heading down the mountain with a load of logs for firewood.  I found out later that the forest service was allowing local people to take firewood from the downed trees that are a consequence of the recent Horseshoe 2 Fire of 2011.  The standing trunks left from the fire are dangerous, which is the reason that the campground is now closed.  The standing trunks are being cut down to eliminate the danger caused by them falling.  I was fortunate to be there when vehicles were driving up to the park in the winter, causing the road to be more passable for my rental vehicle.  Luck does play a role!     
As I approached Rustler Park, there was more bird activity with a lot of Pygmy Nuthatches calling in the trees and Yellow-eyed Juncos feeding on the seeds of the masses of wildflowers that were in bloom in August when I last visited this location.  There were also Yellow-rumped (Audubon’s) Warblers and one Townsend’s Warbler.  Suddenly, I heard the end of the buzzy “chick-a-dee-dee-dee” call of Mexican Chickadee on the downhill side of the road and just before the last rise in the road to the parking lot of Rustler Park.  A chickadee flew into a fir tree above my head, and while I was looking at the chickadee above my head, another called to the right.  I saw the extensive black bib and broad gray sides and flanks, which identified it as a Mexican Chickadee.  Mexican Chickadee is the only breeding chickadee in its range, but there may be some movement south of Mountain Chickadees in the winter.  Consequently, there is an outside chance of a chickadee not being a Mexican Chickadee.  Consequently, I took the time to see and photograph the chickadee.  I obtained two reasonable photographs out of about twenty attempted showing the extensive bib and broad gray sides and flanks of Mexican Chickadee and the lack of a white eyebrow of Mountain Chickadee as verification that I did indeed see and hear a Mexican Chickadee.  See photos below.
Mexican Chickadee
extensive bib

Mexican Chickadee
 flying, landing
extensive bib, broad gray sides and flank
When I was walking back toward my car, I found the very cooperative male Sharp-shinned Hawk.  See photos below.
Sharp-shinned Hawk
very rounded head, size of jay

Sharp-shinned Hawk
dark crown, rounded head, squared end of tail
He's watching me!
I drove slowly and carefully down the mountain stopping to photograph the snowy road above Onion Saddle and to bird a few places and take photographs.  See photos at he end of this post.  However, I had completed my mission to see Mexican Chickadee, leaving only the Juniper Titmouse to try for in Paradise.  At the wash, I took the road toward Paradise and stopped at the George Walker House to see if Juniper Titmouse was coming to the feeders.  Jackie Lewis told me that Juniper Titmouse had been coming to her feeders, but switched to a feeder up-hill when a friend started feeding.  I waited for a while at the George Walker House feeders, but did not see a Juniper Titmouse.  A Bridled Titmouse, White-breasted Nuthatches, Dark-eyed Juncos (Oregon), House Finches and Acorn Woodpeckers were coming to the feeders in the yard.  There was one Inca Dove in the yard, somewhat unusual according to Jackie.  Outside the yard, there was feeder attracting one Steller’s Jay, an unusual occurrence at this low elevation, and a flock of Mexican Jays.   Jackie showed me the way to her neighbor’s house up the hill, where the Juniper Titmouse had been.  The neighbor was not home, and the feeders were empty.  I found very few birds at the neighbor’s feeder, except one Bridled Titmouse that at first got me excited, a Dark-eyed Junco and a small flock of Pine Siskins in the juniper tree where the feeder was hanging.  I left the neighbor’s house and returned to the George Walker House to watch the feeders again, but the only new birds found were a few Pine Siskins.  Jackie suggested that I try the cemetery and the cemetery wash outside of town, the roads in town and perhaps play a recording of Juniper Titmouse.  She also wondered if I was going to northern Arizona near Flagstaff, where Juniper Titmouse is likely to be more common. 
Because I was in Paradise, I decided to try the local strategies first and would consider the Flagstaff strategy later if I failed in Paradise.  I first went to the cemetery and the cemetery wash where there was very little bird activity until I started playing the raspy “tschick-adee” calls of Juniper Titmouse.  I attracted a large flock of birds but all Dark-eyed Juncos, Chipping Sparrows and a few White-crowned Sparrows and House Finches.  I returned to town and decided that I would walk the streets to see if I could find the Juniper Titmouse that was present according to Jackie Lewis’ reports.  I stopped in town along 428 Forest Road, the road from Portal, and not too far from the George Walker House.  There was nearby house with a feeder in the front yard.  The man of the house had been working at the George Walker House when I had arrived earlier.  He asked me what I was looking for, and I told him the Juniper Titmouse, the all gray one.  He said that they come to his feeder and put more seed out.  However, nothing seemed to be happening there.  There were a few American Robins, House Finches and a fly-by Acorn Woodpecker.  I walked north a short distance and up-hill on a poorly maintained lane called Sweeney Ave.  When I was up the hill the same distance from the main road as the Walker House, I started playing the “tschick-adee” call of Juniper Titmouse.  Soon I heard a call in reply and a Juniper Titmouse flew in.  It was all gray with lighter gray underparts.  I tried to get a photograph, but was unsuccessful.  The Juniper Titmouse was very active and difficult to photograph and seemed to be rather skittish in comparison to the local Bridled Titmice and the Tufted Titmice that I know from Ohio and the eastern part of the US.  I followed the Juniper Titmouse around for a short period of time until it disappeared.  It seemed to be feeding down low in the pines or near the ground with a flock of Dark-eyed Juncos, in this case both Oregon and Gray-headed races.  Perhaps, I was looking in the wrong places earlier.  I was happy that I got to see and hear this bird after a search of 3 to 4 hours.  I went back to George Walker House to tell Jackie of my success using her suggestion of play-back.  I noticed that she posted on Arizona Birds a day or so later that a Big Year birder did not find a Juniper Titmouse at her feeders but finally found a Juniper Titmouse by going out and searching for it!

I drove slowly to Portal enjoying the scenery, because I do not get there very often.  This year was unusual, because I was in Portal and Paradise twice!  I returned to Wilcox to stay the night.  Tomorrow, I will try for Ruddy Ground-Dove at Whitewater Draw.  Below are photos of the Chiricahua Mountains.
The Road Below
View from below Onion Saddle to the southeast down mountain toward Cave Creek
View to the east from below Onion Saddle
View from below Onion Saddle, extension of view to east
Cave Creek Canyon, late afternoon view from road to Paradise
Mexican Chickadee and Juniper Titmouse raise the total to 722 plus three provisional, White-cheeked Pintail, Common Redstart and Eurasian Sparrowhawk as of December 17.  (Note that this is a follow-up for a previously missing post.  The final total for the year is 733 + 2 provisionals reported on January 3, 2014.)    

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