Arizona Series Post #4
Down in the borderlands birders flock for the unusual sightings are more likely here than elsewhere. A chance encounter at the Phoenix airport where I sat reviewing western flycatchers led to a discussion of birds with a Tucson-based birder. She recommended Miller Canyon. Miller Canyon. Miller Canyon. Where all the birders go, eventually. It’s rather like paradise for both birders and birds. My final destination.
The morning started off less than auspiciously. Carrying my gear, I caught my camera on the hotel exit. While the lens was retracted and the camera was off, it now makes a funny sound and stutters as I zoom in and out. (After note, camera generally has a fuzzy focus at maximum optical zoom, 35x).
I drove the 90 minutes south towards Mexico. Driving into the canyon, the GPS failed me and I was on my own. One wrong turn and I’d probably end up in Mexico. I pulled into the first lot, gazing around me. A solitary car was the only evidence that people might be about. Behind was a sandy-rocky, sun-baked slope, before me was a forest. With no additional knowledge to guide me, I waited, wondering which way to go. As Miller Canyon was a last minute change of plans, I hadn’t thoroughly researched it. (Research extended to I found it on a map, and remembered Laurence, of Butler’s Birds, has been here).
As I deliberated, a third car pulled into the lot. An older couple emerged. Noting their binoculars I sought some direction. Very kindly they suggested I follow them up to Beatty’s Guest Ranch. We visited with Tom Beatty, Jr. who described the locations of the most sought out species: The Spotted Owl(s), Northern Goshawk, and Northern Pygmy Owl.
We set out through the Guest Ranch, towards the canyon. Very quickly, the woman lagged behind before deciding to turn back. Knowing this to be my first trip to the area, the man decided to continue forward. Soon he decided to turn back as well, concerned for his partner. He promised to at least get me to the location of the Spotted Owl, before returning to his partner. Then, I was alone.
In the location of the owl, there was the remains of a building and a dried up creek. I wandered along the creekbed peering into the trees. When that didn’t pan out, I scrambled to the other side of the creek and began working my way along paths that quickly degraded into mouse paths.
I did find a reptile though. So that was something.
When I heard voices, I turned around, returning to the foundations. A family from Illinois staying at the guest ranch had arrived to seek the owl. The granddaughter was inclined to scramble over rocks while her grandparents rested on the foundation scanning boughs.
After chatting awhile, we were joined by a birder from Vermont. We compared notes as to who had heard which helpful hints for finding this owl. Eventually the Vermont birder decided to investigate the lower portion of the stream bed and I followed.
Back in the streambed, the Vermont birder elected to go north and I traveled south, coming across his fellow travelers. Quite soon they located white wash, and voila, there were the spotted owl babies! Both of them sitting in a tree, cute as can be.
We clicked and we clacked away and I’m sure the babies did as well, but we kept a safe enough distance away that we couldn’t hear any of their vocalizations.
Once we had our fill of baby spotted owls (is that even possible?) the others elected to return down the canyon while I proceeded upward.
As best as I could remember a quarter mile up the stream there was said to be a large rock in the stream with a tree growing from it where the Northern Goshawks lurked. A quarter mile beyond that there was a large tree with a hole in it where a Northern Pygmy Owl lived. These seemed admirable goals. And should I fail in this mission, there was always remarkable scenery and other birds (hopefully) to console myself with. And, baby Spotted Owls.
Being completely new and unfamiliar with Miller Canyon I had little sense of where these locations spent many segments of canyon double checking my surroundings. I did eventually find a tree that might have been the Northern Goshawk tree. However, the area was quiet. No tanagers, pewees, or warblers as consolation prizes.
I saw, contemplated, and slowly savored some of my water. Did I mention I had very limited water? This may have been the moment I realized that I hadn’t refilled my water bottle after the last excursion. (When I had arrived I noticed that the back up bottle in the car had sprung a leak and now longer could function as the back up.) Oops. I had less than a bottle with me.
This is where I became mixed up. Being overwhelmed, first by being here, and second by the complicated directions that referred to landmarks existed more in time than space, I mixed up the sequence for these target birds. I continued up the canyon path looking for the Pygmy Owl which was actually already well past me. Alas.
However, it was a beautiful, serene walk as the elevation became to climb more sharply. The canyon path separated from the canyon floor, bringing me up into the canopy.
Birds even graced the path, so major win. Arizona Woodpeckers (the most common woodpecker ever?), additional views of Plumaceous Vireo, Hermit Thrush, and the all-American Robin, plenty of Painted Redstarts (properly red ones!), and I even figured out a Canyon Wren by call. I also picked up towhee, tanagers, and grosbeaks, oh my! Spotted, Western, and Black-headed. Each a delight once I determined what I was looking at.
At one time I did hear a loud and continuing raucous on the far side of the creekbed. Every time of bird in the vicinity clamored in consternation at some sight beneath me. I stopped and peered endlessly, but the most I saw was something of a moderate size and gray in the shadow, slink between two bushes. I was very tempted to tumble down the canyonside to immediately get closer and investigate. The only thing that held me back was the realization I’d have to climb back up. Secondary, and only a bit later was the notion that perhaps one should not chase after predators unprepared.
As my heart rate calmed once more I had a visitor who was probably coming in to determine what the raucous was about. This particular feather friend landed so close that I almost couldn’t zoom back enough to get it into focus. But there you, Red-faced Warbler. One blurry photo (not shown) and this one below.
As my water ran low, I contemplated turning around with each step I took. I would set myself a destination as my turn around point, but keep going just a bit further. Eventually, such persistence paid off. I caught a flash of bold yellow, back down in the creekbed:
As best I can tell, this is a Sulfur-bellied Flycatcher. I don’t see any other flycatcher that looks this bold. A short while later (at this point it was sometime in the afternoon), I turned around and made my way more quickly back the canyon.
I searched in vain once more for the Northern Pygmy Owl… in vain because I was entirely on the wrong section of trail. I decided to swing by the Spotted Owls because they’d make a lovely consolation prize (not that one was needed!), but a sweet note to end my excursion and trip on.
The babies were nowhere to be found. Too well camouflaged perhaps. But I did find one of the adults. From my vantage point I could only catch a profile glimpse. But I wanted more. I scrambled around her, moving 90 degrees with her as the center of my circle, but from head on, I couldn’t locate her. The angle was too different. I retreated and tried my luck, stopping every few paces to reorient myself. I decided scrambling on a tree would be a smart idea to help me better view the owl. Scrambling off the tree I’m not entirely sure what happened, but there was a tumble. I did protect all my gear as I topped into the empty creekbed but I fear my pride was injured.
Now I was determined to press on and get a better view. Resolute, I pushed forward. Finding a better view in the creekbed (I had been looking in the wrong tree the first time!), I squatted down to set up the camera and. rrrrriiiiippppp….. there went my favorite hiking pants. They had embroidery and pockets, and they fit (the last one being harder to find than the embroidery)! A rip beyond salvation. Photos, must get photos. Must make the sacrifice of pants and pride worthwhile.
Please tell me it was.
After this, I said good bye to the owls, and made my way down the trail. Here I had an epiphany. Now, I am one of those people who tend to be *really* well prepared, except for the times I’m not at all. This fortunately was a really well prepared time. I happened to have a change of clothes in my pack. So I was about to swap out the ripped pants. Then, I continued down the trail to the Hummingbird feeders to end my day, and my trip.
So this is the tale of all the broken things, many months later. Hopefully the wait was worthwhile.