Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Breeding Birds in the Chiricahua Sky Islands and Surrounding Valleys

Last year we found June to be a wonderful time to bird the Chiricahuas because many critters are fledging babies and busily feeding, so there is lots of calling, singing and wing flapping....this June did not disappoint:-)

The Tucson Audubon's Guide to Finding Birds in Southeast Arizona provides an excellent description of why there is such a diversity of breeding birds. "The Chiricahua Mountains are a massive forested "sky island" mountain range with moist habitats, surrounded by a "sea" of arid lands ... The Chiricahuas are a region in themselves, with habitats ranging from semi-desert grassland and arid Chihuahuan desert scrub ... to forests of Engelmann spruce and alpine fir at the summits .... The great size of the range (nearly 40 miles long and 20 miles wide) and its nearness to the Sierra Madre ranges in Mexico means that a wide variety of bird, animal and plant life found nowhere else in the U.S. can be seen here."

Nesting time is very stressful for birds. There are lots of predators watching for nests and young fledglings, so we are always careful not draw attention to nests. Any of the photos of nests below were taken quickly and from a distance so as not to disrupt the parents and draw attention from nearby predators.

Western Kingbird at Rodriquez feeders on valley floor- these kingbirds are one of the first to fledge their young
Female Western Tanager at Cave Creek Ranch---they will typically be nesting at higher altitudes
We witnessed these Greater Roadrunners performing a mating dance right out the window of our trailer...magic!

We caught glimpses of this immature Gray Hawk while participating in the Global Birding Day... historical data indicates it is rare for Gray Hawks to nest in the Chiricahuas. 

This Peregrine Falcon was probably bringing this bird back to the nest to feed young...they nest in the  cliffs along the canyon walls 
We were lucky to come upon a family of Mexican Chickadees that appeared to be fledging young. These birds are usually very difficult to see and we had them sitting in the road right in front of us! The Chiricahuas are one of the only places that these birds can be seen reliably in the U.S.

Red-faced Warblers were nesting at Pinery Campground at higher altitudes along Pinery Creek
Painted Redstarts can be found through out the forest... they are easily identified by their  distinctive song and flashing white tail feathers
This Painted Redstart was about to go in the creek for a bath
Western Wood-Pewees are one of the most common flycatchers of the riparian area
Western Wood-Pewee on the nest near Ash Springs

Plumbeous Vireos can be heard calling from almost every other tree during breeding season!
Plumbeous Vireo on the nest- see its tail feathers peaking out
Sulfur-bellied Flycatchers breed here...they arrive a bit later to the riparian areas...you can hear their distinctive call that sounds like a squeaky toy. They are cavity nesters.
We had an amazing Owling experience!
This is an Elf Owl on the nest...we were fortunate to go out with a local raptor expert who knows where many of the nests in the Cave Creek Canyon are located. We went out owling with him a few days before the owls were expected to fledge their young. Once they leave the nest they are not as predictable to locate. This Elf Owl was very cooperative and peered around for a good 5 minutes before retreating back into its cavity. This little owl is only about 6"!

We had amazing views of this Whiskered Screech-Owl- we went back a few days later and they had left the nest!

Ladder-backed Woodpeckers are a woodpecker of the desert

Brown Creepers make a nest in the space between split layers of bark found on tree trunks in the riparian areas.

Bridled Titmouse are fairly common. We were lucky to catch this Bridled Titmouse family with the young begging for food

This is the cavity the Bridled Titmice nested in...
This male Black-throated Gray Warbler was on the nest.... we had never seen a male warbler on the nest!
Greater Pewee were nesting in Hunter Canyon in the Huachuca Mountains west of the Chiricahuas.
The Greater Pewee on the nest
We love to visit Slaughter Ranch on a cool day to see all of the bird activities. They have a large pond  near a riparian area that attracts many rare birds.
We were fortunate to get great views of this immature Great Horned Owl
Same owl about a week later
Blue Grosbeaks are grosbeaks of the desert. We can hear them singing on the valley floor setting up their territories and looking for mates.
There were quite a few Cassin's Kingbirds nesting at Slaughter Ranch
Vermillion Flycatchers can be found on every tree! This male has caught something to take back to the nest.
This male Varied Bunting looks like he just took a bath

Montezuma Quail breed in the canyon riparian areas.
We saw this male Montezuma Quail with its female partner coming to the stream to drink along Greenhouse Creek.
We can hear the unique song of the Lillian's Eastern Meadowlark on the valley floor. They are ground nesters and very secretive during their nesting and fledging time.
We found Killdeer breeding at Willow Tank located on the valley floor. Their little ones are about the size of a quarter.
This male Grace's Warbler was feeding in an Oak tree near the Herb Martyr campground. It was nice to get a great look at them because they are usually feeding high up in the pines along riparian canyons.

This male Bronze Cowbird was hanging around looking for females. Cowbirds are parasitic nesters, meaning they lay their eggs in other birds nests.  The female cowbirds are constantly on the look out for active nests.
Swainson's Hawks breed on the valley floor
Steller's Jays nest up at higher altitudes. We heard and saw them at Rustler Park and on the Greenhouse Trail
Wow- the male Magnificent Hummingbird breeds here. Like all hummingbirds, the male has nothing to do with either nest building or raising young. The female takes care of all that...he just focuses on looking pretty!
While participating in a bird survey for Tucson Audubon, we heard some birds making a raucous, so we went and found a ... Northern Pygmy Owl!! We heard they were nesting at this location but had not seen one. Looks like this adult has a lizard in its claws to take to the nest.
A Cooper's Hawk on its nest along South Fork
This House Wren is feeding its babies in the cavity
This male Spotted Towhee is possibly declaring his territory with song

This is one of the only places  in the U.S. that Dusky-capped Flycatchers can be seen and heard so easily. We  typically hear them along the trails in the Chiricahuas. They have a very soft, mournful song.

Dusky-capped Flycatchers are cavity nesters
One of the adults leaving with a fecal sac
Elegant Trogons are a parrot-like multi-colored bird that typically live in forests and riparian woodlands from Mexico down through South America. We are very lucky that they make the southeastern Arizona sky islands part of their northern breeding range. They have a very unique call that sounds like a barking dog, which helps to locate them if they are calling.
We think the photo below is a nest of Elegant Trogons in an Arizona Sycamore cavity. Pictured is the female underside to the right of the cavity.
Female Elegant Trogon

Male Elegant Trogon outside of the nest cavity
Mexican Fox Squirrel is a local rarity. The Chiricahuas are the only place in the U.S. that they can be found.

White-breasted Nuthatches busy fledging their young

Mexican Jays are successful breeders in the Chiricahuas. They may live up to 20 years. They are typically be found in large, vocal groups.
Hepatic Tanagers breed in the open pine and pine-oak forests of the Chiricahuas.

We could hear the melodious song of the Hermit Thrushes along the creeks- amazing sounds. They typically nest on the ground or in a low bush in the forest.

A Slate-throated Redstart is not a typical breeder of the U.S. To this point, they are considered a rare visitor. This May produced the first known nesting Slate-throateds in the U.S. ; the result was 3 fledglings. Local ornithologists are still debating whether the male was a Painted Redstart, i.e. a hybrid pair. There are a number of passionate birders following the progress of the fledglings closely to see how their plumage appears. The last we heard, folks thought the fledglings had enough white in the wings to make them think they are hybrids. No matter what, it has been wonderful to witness the birds' progress and citizen science at work.

The day we visited the site this worn adult was working overtime to feed its 3 babies. We did not get looks at the young but it appeared that the adult bird was foraging for food and then would visit 1 of 3 locations where the young were well hidden. 

We came upon this Black Bear on the South Fork trail just past the wilderness sign...it is truly amazing to be able to see such wildlife! It was pretty big- so maybe it was last year's adolescent?
The World is Full of Beauty & Wonder,

Turtle & Hawk

PS- we will be remote for the next month or so....enjoy your summer!


  1. This is an absolutely fabulous post!! We've been without decent internet for the past two months, so I'm just now able to load and enjoy your photos. You captured so many wonderful images of nesting birds and fledglings! Even an Elf Owl—something I've wanted to see forever. After seeing your photos, we would love to spend June in the Chiricahuas. Thank you so much for sharing this beauty with us.

  2. Found you B&B! You can find me at 18-on-midway.blogspot.com

  3. Your photos are truly awesome! I found you at RVillage. I am presently a teacher, but looking to retire in a year or two. Then hubby and I will be out in our RV enjoying the world. Thank you for the inspiration that your blog provides.

  4. By the way, I love your blog. This something I hope to do when we are traveling to share our experiences with friends and family. I know I can't stop being the teacher. And sharing the world and our experiences is part teaching.

  5. By the way, I love your blog. This something I hope to do when we are traveling to share our experiences with friends and family. I know I can't stop being the teacher. And sharing the world and our experiences is part teaching.

  6. Your photos are truly awesome! I found you at RVillage. I am presently a teacher, but looking to retire in a year or two. Then hubby and I will be out in our RV enjoying the world. Thank you for the inspiration that your blog provides.