The Great Arizona Encore: Ash Canyon and Miller Canyon

Let’s face it, this blog title is pretty plain.  But anyone familiar with these two SE AZ birding hotspots knows that the birds there are anything but. After our adventure in Hunter Canyon, we made the short trip to the next canyon to the south–Ash Canyon.

Evan Ash Canyon

Much to my relief, we weren’t going to take another hike up a mountain.  Instead, we were going to the Ash Canyon B&B for a little geri-birding–or feeder watching from comfortable chairs.

Ash Canyon B&BWe got some great views of some fun birds while we rested from our recent hike in Hunter Canyon.  It was nice to finally see a much nicer Canyon Towee than the haggard one I saw in Florida Canyon last spring.  This bird was a lifer for Evan.

Canyon TowheeWe also got to see another Scott’s Oriole (female), but this one did not show itself well either.

Scott's OrioleSeeing a lifer Dark-eyed Junco sub-species, like this Gray-headed variety, is always fun.

Gray-headed JuncoAcorn Woodpeckers were a common sight at all our stops in the Huachucas. At least at Mary Jo’s feeders, you can get a good photo while sitting down–a great combo.

Acorn Woodpecker

Of course, some of the main attractions at the Ash Canyon B&B are the Hummingbirds.  Mostly there were Anna’s Hummingbirds, and most of those are unimpressive-looking right now.

Anna's HummingbirdEvan also got his Magnificent Hummingbird lifer with the help of owner Mary Jo who seems to constantly monitor the bird activity in her yard. Tommy and Gordon were watching a different set of Hummingbird feeders and had seen one of the reported Lucifer Hummingbirds.  So Evan and I joined them and watched those feeders for a short time to see if we could get this rare Hummer too.  That said, Miller Canyon was beckoning, both for what it held and for the short amount of time we had left to bird.  Thankfully the Lucifer was understanding and showed up in short order.  Note the thick, decurved bill.

Lucifer Hummingbird

Lucifer HummingbirdThe rarity of this bird was really cool even if the plain looks of this juvenile bird were not impressive.  I regretfully later found out that an adult male Lucifer had been visiting these feeders on the very day we were there. Doh!

After a total of 20 minutes at the Ash Canyon B&B, it was time to shoot north passing by Hunter Canyon where we had been and then stopping at Miller Canyon.  When I first wanted to go to Hunter Canyon, I had no idea how close it was to Miller Canyon, a place I’d read about many times.  Miller Canyon is arguably most famous for reliable and cooperative Spotted Owls.  So the thought of getting another Owl lifer on this trip, and a federally threatened one at that, was almost intoxicating. Hopes were raised further by a fresh listserv report that a pair them had been seen in the upper parts of Miller Canyon near Split Rock. It, of course, would mean another good hike up a steeper canyon than Hunter.  With an Owl prize at the end, it was worth the exercise…if we could gain access.

Miller Canyon

Like the power lines that obstruct a perfect view of Miller Canyon in the photo above, so too the Beatty Guest Ranch’s land blocks the easiest access to Miller Canyon.  Convenience always comes at a price.  We were more than willing to pay the $5/person fee to cut across the Beatty land, but a sign on the gate said it was closed for the season and no one was at the house. 🙁 Then, however, we spied a gun-toting man with four coon hounds coming down the path toward us.  It was the owner’s son, and he said he’d take us up the canyon.

We paid the man and dutifully followed behind him.  As a hunter myself I’ve been around a number of people with guns, but following this quiet stranger holding a lever-action .30-30 gave me a certain unease.  This is now the second time this year that birding has put my son in the company of a gun-toting, plaid-clothed, non-hunting stranger.  Any hopes of that Father-of-the-Year award have long gone out the window, especially if you note my position relative to Evan’s:

Evan Tommy Gordon

As we walked along, thoughts kept flipping back-and-forth from ‘I bet he’s perfectly safe’ to ‘I bet he’s pretty quick with that lever-action’.  You can see which thought won out as there is more to this post.

Evan was oblivious to such concerns and thoroughly enjoyed the canine companionship of the four coon hounds that crashed the brush around us on this oddest of all bird hikes.  Two of the hounds were spitting images of Old Dan and Little Ann.  Our mysterious, quiet guide showed his soft spot for nature when he scooped up a chilly Alligator Lizard on the path and showed it to us all before depositing it off to the side. Of course, I was hoping for a photo of it in its more natural, original state, but this one’s fun too.

Evan Alligator LizardAfter hiking nearly a mile uphill, we finally reached Split Rock.  Here there were two elderly women had been brought to this location earlier to look for the Spotted Owls.  Our guide checked out the usual perches for the Owls, a family group of four birds, but none of them held anything.  Then, real casually, he points to a different tree and says, “Oh, here’s one.” Sweet!

Spotted Owl

It was a relief, physically and mentally, to pause and enjoy this rare bird.  It also seemed to lighten the mood considerably as our silent guide unleashed a wealth of information on the owls and describing them and their habits and occurrences in the canyon with great delight.  It would have been the perfect moment for a beer.  Too bad no one thought to pack some along.

Spotted OwlThis Owl was a pretty mellow fellow, which I understand is typical for this species.  It could not have cared less that we were ooing and awwing over it.

Spotted Owl

Here is a contextual photo for you.  Can you spot Spotty?

Spotted OwlTommy and I went a little further up the canyon hoping to spot one of the other Spotted Owls on our own which is half the fun of owling.  But without any more luck, it was finally time to head back down the canyon. What a thrill it was, though, to get this prized lifer:

Spotted Owl

As we got closer to the parking area, a Canyon Wren decided to play nice for some photos.  This was a lifer for Evan as well.

Canyon Wren

Canyon WrenThen there was one last big gift for our big day in the Huachucas.  We were nearly to the car when Tommy thought he heard a Black-throated Gray Warbler.  I saw one last spring, but only briefly.  I was hoping for a better photo.  However, I’m just going to have to wait for that because the bird turned out to be a lifer Townsend’s Warbler instead! Now I need a redemptive photo of two western Warblers.

Townsend's WarblerWhat an incredible day it was at our three stops in the Huachuca Mountains.  It was finally time to hit the road to join my family back at Green Valley.  Once again, Tommy and Gordon outdid themselves and provided another fun set of SE AZ memories.  We said our goodbyes and vowed to meet up again this winter back in Minnesota where it’s not as warm, definitely not as scenic, but with just as cool (if not cooler) Owls.  Hopefully Evan and I can repay these guys with some awesome lifers of their own.

Coming up is still one more day in SE AZ…but without Tommy and Gordon’s help, how would we fare?  Check back and see.  Next stop: Patagonia.

Arizona 2015: The Hunt for Elegant Trogons and Rufous-capped Warblers at Florida Canyon

The post title inspires shivers. For me too, but not for the obvious reasons. Unbeknownst to my birding escorts, Tommy DeBardeleben and Gordon Karre, I had been battling a bad stomach bug for the past 24 hours. One only gets so many chances at SE AZ in life, so I wasn’t going to let a little misery hold me back from birding glory.  Still, at this point in the day, after Mt. Lemmon’s winding roads, never-ending stop-and-go traffic across Tucson, and the sweltering heat, my condition was becoming increasingly distracting. I say this not to win your pity or admiration for gutting it out (thankfully not literally), but to let you know that my enjoyment from Florida Canyon would have to come after-the-fact as in the writing of this post.  So let’s enjoy these great birds together!

Gordon and Tommy were obsessed with the number 4.  They got me four lifers at Cypress and four lifers at Rose Canyon.  Anything less at Florida Canyon would have greatly disappointed them.  They needn’t worry because the lifering was fast and furious in the parking area.  The birds were generally uncooperative for photos, but in minutes I had Broad-billed Hummingbird, Ladder-backed Woodpecker, and Hooded Oriole.  Also, to my delight was a bird I’ve been on good terms with–the Rufous Hummingbird.  This was now my 4th RUHU sighting from three different states in a one-year period. Here’s a shot of the Rufous and my lifer Broad-billed.

Rufous Hummingbird Broad-billed HummingbirdThere was too much going on–internally and externally–to worry about good photos, and we had to keep the main objective in front of us–finding an Elegant Trogon that had been reported in recent days in the shady, lower regions of Florida Canyon.  Things eventually slowed down as we scanned carefully for the Trogon.  The secondary lifering now came at a nice, steady pace.  Lucy’s Warbler clinched the coveted #4 spot for this third stop of the day.

Lucy's Warbler

No longer a lifer, this male Broad-billed Hummer was still stop-and-look worthy as it offered up some better photo-ops.

Broad-billed Hummingbird

Here you can see why it is so named.

Broad-billed Hummingbird

A bland lifer that popped up next was the Dusky Flycatcher.  For this ID, I am totally relying on my birding companions. I have no pride when it comes to empid identification of either the eastern or western variety.

Dusky Flycatcher

As we ventured further up the canyon, the shady trees and our Trogon hopes were disappearing.  The only reason to push on through this now shrubby and hot valley was to look for the brush-loving, prized birds that have made Florida Canyon famous–the Rufous-capped Warblers.  Alas, it was not meant to be on this trip.  Tommy and Gordon shared how it often takes birders several attempts to get this prize.  I wasn’t disappointed; it’d already been a fantastic morning at Mt. Lemmon and now Florida Canyon.  Plus there were some more lifers and photo-ops to be had as we pursued the Warblers. The perky Ash-throated Flycatcher was surprisingly fun for being a bland-colored bird.

Ash-throated Flycatcher

The Canyon Towhee, on the other hand, was a bit haggard and answered the door in his 5 O’Clock shadow, tank-top, and boxing shorts.  At least it showed itself.  Thanks for nothing, Bell’s Vireos.

Canyon Towhee


A much more accommodating Hooded Oriole posed for some photos.

Hooded Oriole

Hooded Oriole

Eventually we turned around and began hiking back down Florida Canyon, a quicker leg of the trip since the birds were now old-hat.  Except for Broad-billed Hummingbirds.  They demand your attention and look different at every turn.

Broad-billed Hummingbird

Around this time I spotted a small, gray bird in a shrub.  Tommy quickly got on it right away and excitedly announced it was a bird whose name-length belies its size– the Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet. The Tyrannulet turned out to be two such birds and both gave fantastic views.  Tommy and Gordon were beside themselves with glee.  Though it’s small, though it’s gray, this bird is not often seen.  Their reaction made me appreciate this lifer and these views even more.  It was a neat, little bird for sure.

Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet

Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet

Venturing back through the taller trees we were now in Trogon-mode again.  Alas, it was not meant to be, but Gordon and Tommy found me another big target of mine for the trip, the Black-throated Gray Warbler!  In true warbler fashion, it did not offer up great views.  This was my only look and photo of this bird.

Black-throated Gray Warbler

I would have liked to try harder for a better look, but we had to keep our priorities straight.  Trogon-less at Florida, we had to make it over to Madera Canyon for another try.  I shall return for you Mr. Black-throated Gray!

Despite our to desire get back onto nausea-inducing roads and into more Trogon habitat, there was time for me to finally get a decent look at a Lesser Goldfinch, a bird I had seen briefly in Colorado last summer. Anyone who doesn’t enjoy LEGOs, whether that be the brick, waffle, or the bird, is crazy.  Greater Goldfinch sounds like a more appropriate name.

Lesser Goldfinch

As we were pulling out from Florida Canyon, Tommy heard another lifer out the car window–the Rufous-crowned Sparrow.  It wasn’t the red-headed bird we came for, but I’ll take it!

Rufous-crowned Sparrowwwww

Rufous-crowned Sparrow

We blew Tommy and Gordon’s hopes of four lifers out of the water as we left Florida Canyon with 10 new birds: Ladder-backed Woodpecker, Broad-billed Hummingbird, Hooded Oriole, Lucy’s Warbler, Dusky Flycatcher, Ash-throated Flycatcher, Canyon Towhee, Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet, Black-throated Gray Warbler, and Rufous-crowned Sparrow.  That brought the morning’s tally to 18 life birds.  Now it was on to Madera Canyon for an hour of birding before I would be joining my family at Green Valley.  And that wee little hour was enough for its own blog post–that’s how good Madera Canyon is.

The 2015 Arizona series has eight chapters: 1) Maricopa Birds, 2) Mt. Lemmon, 3) Florida Canyon, 4) Madera Canyon Part 1, 5) Madera Canyon Part 2, 6) Evan’s Big Discovery, 7) Owling at Coon Bluff on the Salt River, and 8) Evan’s Nemesis.