#89 - Life at the Corral

A home with wheels. Parked at a corral where the forest service has held horses used in ranging cattle wandering the wilderness. Where I have fed the remaining hay to the Coue’s White-tailed Deer that come to drink from the trough at dusk each day. Hummingbirds, Acorn Woodpeckers, Mexican Jays and Black-headed Grosbeaks empty my feeders. Western Tanagers dart through camp, their crimson heads and black and yellow bodies creating vivid streaks of color.

 Acorn Woodpecker at The Corral

Acorn Woodpecker at The Corral

Early to bed, early to rise. Neither wealthy nor wise. At dawn I replenish the nectar in the hummingbird feeders at camp before taking the minute stroll down to the VIC to put the feeders there back outside. This morning I was there before 5 a.m. By dusk I return to the ViC to leave one hummingbird feeder at the VIC out for the bats, but put the five others in the refrigerator overnight so as to not attract bears. As darkness envelops the rock faces, I sit beneath the feeders as the Mexican Long-tongued Bats come in to feed. The sound and air movement as they deftly fly around and above me increases as more are drawn to the sugar water, and occasionally I light up my flashlight to see flocks of them dine and dash. They do not perch like hummers, nor even pause. They lap up nectar with an instant tap of the feeder and just as rapidly turn away to bank and prepare for another approach. When I return the next morning the feeder will be empty and the concrete porch below will have a shiny sugar stain.

Last night I had some landscaping to do. I went down to the VIC earlier than usual to plant six Salvia in a flower bed. The heat of the day was fading but I still worked up a bit of a sweat, or at least a thirst. I returned to camp to wash up and grab a beer, but decided to return to the VIC as it my reliable source of Wi-Fi and I thought I’d catch up while I enjoyed the drink in the fading light of the peaceful canyon. 

Walking my path back up to the corral I noticed a wild turkey behind my Wheelhouse. The Mexican subspecies called ‘Gould’s Wild Turkey’ is found here and has benefited from reintroduction efforts. I had seen a lone hen a couple times over the past couple weeks in the vicinity of the VIC and the single female at my camp may have been the same. I set down what I was carrying and tried to approach with as much stealth as possible. As I approached she headed away from me towards my bird feeder area, which is on the far or ‘up canyon’ side of my camp. There I have a chair and small table positioned so I can sit and enjoy the birds and I was able to slide into my seat while watching her peck about the feeding area. To my surprise when she decided to move on she came directly toward me and walked three feet away from my camp chair as if I wasn’t even there.

This morning after doing my chores here at the corral and at the VIC I headed up South Fork Road to do some birding. The manager of the VIC, Mike Williams, has a houseguest from Denver who would be meeting one of my fellow volunteers who lives here in Portal and is well-known in these parts as a bird photographer. I’m an early riser so I had a head start on them and finally met up with them an hour and a half after I began. The three of us headed up South Fork Trail and the highlight of the day for all of us became seeing a White-nosed Coati. We noticed a large group of Mexican Jays were riled up about something and their cacophony drew us to the area. After some time I showed the other two guys the reason. A single Coati was up a tree and the jays were less than pleased. I have had the pleasure of seeing Coatis in Costa Rica, and I know my family has enjoyed the ‘resort tame’ Coatis that are human-habituated in Cabo San Lucas and the Dominican Republic, but this was my first observation of a Coati within the United States. For Scott, the gentleman from Denver who Mike met when they both owned Wild Birds Unlimited franchises (Scott still has his), it was his first Coati experience ever. Interestingly, while Coatis are normally seen in groups, here in the Chiricahuas I am told that they are typically loners. I knew it was only a matter of time before I’d finally see one in America, especially since the best place to encounter one is at Cave Creek Ranch just below the VIC where I will now be doing my laundry and receiving mail and packages, but it was a special treat to see one away from bird feeders and other humans.

 White-nosed Coati, South Fork Canyon, Chiricahua Mountains

White-nosed Coati, South Fork Canyon, Chiricahua Mountains

A Gould’s turkey in camp last night and a Coati this morning? How can you top that? How about a mountain lion going through your campsite in broad daylight? At 1 pm? In 94ºF heat? Yes, that happened. 

Tomorrow morning is the VIC’s annual event - a garden party with exhibitors displaying reptiles or bugs or selling plants or explaining the local rescue service and more. I have been doing a lot of work to prepare for it and today I had to go to Portal Rescue to pick up tables so after my morning birding, which was followed by making myself a guacamole-bacon-tomato omelette brunch, I backed up my truck to unload three large coolers that I had picked up for the event. I looked toward my feeding area and saw a cat. It was walking casually as if a midday mountain lion is a normal occurrence and it owned the bloody place. In a way, I guess it sort of does. It takes time for a brain to process seeing something like this. I may have been slack-jawed, but I certainly froze. Its long lean form was unmistakable but the computations inside my head first yielded a response of ‘bobcat’. It took a few seconds for my mind to rework the equation and realize that bobcats weigh 15 pounds and this animal was probably about 75. Adult male mountain lions can exceed 200 pounds, whereas females are usually closer to 100, so this may have been a small female or a youngster of either sex, but it was a hell of a lot larger than a bobcat, which - of course - is named for its bobbed tail and this one had a long tail. The cat was perhaps 40 yards from me and never once did anything to let me know it was even aware I was there. It was moving perpendicular to my position, crossing the open grass behind the agaves and cane cholla and trees that surround my camp. I walk everywhere with my camera slung over my shoulder just because of chances like this, but since I was unloading my truck and getting ready to pull out, my camera was in my truck. I went to grab it but that was the last I saw of the cougar. 

We have mountain lion sightings in this area at least once a week. My colleague Joan said she saw the rear end and tail of one below the VIC where the two primary RV sites where she is camped lie just a few days ago. Two days ago someone saw one by the campgrounds that are walking distance up the road from me. We’ve had a few recent bear sightings as well including a mother and cubs up the road a few blocks from here. I previously told the story of the dog-hunting bobcat that was reported a month ago at Herb Martyr Campground, which is about five miles up canyon from here. Yet people and dogs are here every day and conflict is rare.