Friday, May 10, 2019

Western Wanderings

In spite of the variety and abundance of birds on our own Skidaway Island, at least once a year I get the urge to go to Arizona's Chiricahua desert in search of new species, particularly to photograph and record them.  It is not always just birds, and inevitably I end up sleep deprived. This year more than ever, and I brought home a raging head cold to prove it.  Of course being wide awake at 3:00 A.M. has its advantages as is evidenced by the shot below.

May 4 2019: Milky Way with a meteor shower
I didn't stumble on this shot.  In fact I knew last August that May 4 would be a new moon and there are a handful of places in the area where light pollution is not an issue.  However, I will admit to shock when I returned to my apartment to discover not only the Milky Way, but a meteor shower as well, all framed by the rugged walls of Cave Creek Canyon.  I still don't know for sure what planet is glowing brightly left of center. I think it is Venus.

In the past I have hoofed around on my own, but this year I opted for a guide for 1/2 day, and it paid off handsomely. She found me 3 'life' birds (birds the observer has never seen before) and finally a pleasant 45 minute visit with a pair of tropical Elegant Trogons house hunting in sycamores for the mating season (never easy to photograph.)  The female did not appear all that interested in this particular offering. This is the male exploring the prospective digs.

Elegant Trogon

Whiskered Screech-Owl
Although some of 'our' birds are also found elsewhere in North America, the West frequently has counterparts. Owls, woodpeckers, thrashers, orioles, and warblers to name a few. Our Eastern Screech-owl breeds as far west as Texas, then the Western Screech-owl takes over in lower elevations in the West, and the Whiskered Screech-owl in higher mountainous areas.

Western Screech-Owl

Where we get along with our breeding Orchard Oriole and the occasional wintering Baltimore Oriole, the border states in the West counter with more than five other species including the spectacular Bullocks Oriole and the Hooded Oriole. These throw many observers off because all that orange is actually plumage adornment on these members of the blackbird family!

Hooded Oriole

Bullock's Oriole

Southeastern Arizona for birders is not always just about birds.  It is as much about place:  the town of Portal, its people, the environment of the Chiricahua Mountains and the desert valley. Portal, the village, probably has 200 full time residents, some of them retired biologists who worked for a while at the nearby American Museum of Natural History Southwestern Research Station. Because of the incredible opportunities to observe the night sky, astronomers have their own village about 3 miles from the Portal store, and on the other side of a mountain which blocks any stray light from the village.  At least two homes sport turrets for sophisticated star-gazing telescopes, and I am told some discoveries have been made there.

For birders there is the incredible South Fork trail of Cave Creek Canyon, a well known migrant trap, and home to one of the few colonies of breeding Elegant Trogons in North America.  Butterfly enthusiasts move in during summer, and like birders, use the full range of desert floor to mountain peaks. These desert mountain ranges are called sky islands and feature flora and fauna which change dramatically with altitude.  On top of all this, it is quiet, quiet enough for me to record birdsong and soundscapes, which our island definitely is not.  

So, with more than enough yak now, I will shut up and let you see some of the images of this special place.

6200 ft

Cactus flower

The entrance to Cave Creek Canyon

Somewhere behind this outcrop a Golden Eagle pair has an eyrie

A lone Loggerhead Shrike scans the desert for a meal

Coatimundi is related to racoon

Urban center of Portal

The post office 
Morning sun on the Canyon wall

The imposing mountain behind which sits Portal.  The building on the bottom is a cafe which is finally open after the owner worked on it himself for seven years to build it. There is no Home Depot around the corner, and the nearest grocery store is 50 miles away
The beautiful Arizona Sister butterfly taking minerals from the rocks beside Turkey Creek, high in the Chiricahua Mountains

The ubiquitous Cactus Wren at his command post along Highway 146 to Hachita, New Mexico