#86 - Up or Down? Live from the Swim Spa ...

Herpers look down. We cruise roads in darkness or twilight with our eyes scanning and darting, hypersensitive to serpentine shadows and slinky shapes. We hike trails with our heads on swivels, surveying the landscape and fixing our gaze on likely crevices, protective tree bases and favorable basking spots. Hunting tarantulas is much of the same. Especially when you're a herper. My early years of seeking tarantulas were all in the desert. We have no tree-dwelling American species. Even in the rainforest, with my field trip mates looking for pink-toed tarantulas in Suriname or ornamental 'tiger spiders' in Sri Lanka, I battled my conditioning to look down.

Birders look up. It's much harder on the neck, which is why all of their binocs - or 'bins' as birders like to say - are on elastic harnesses distributing the weight to the back and holding the bins to the chest. My neck is sore. After countless hours of holding my head back as I look for flittering flashes of color in Arizona cypress and sycamore, Alligator juniper, Apache pine and silverleaf oak.  I am a 'budding birder', which is a term applied to me by a Cave Creek Canyon Visitor Information Center [VIC] volunteer colleague not my own words. Yeah, I'm learning trees too. They tend to make you look up as well. The neck strain is real.

And here I am soaking my aches. Blogging from the rejuvenating water of Rusty's swim spa. You can set it to produce current that allows you to swim 'laps' treadmill style. That's too much like work. There also is the jacuzzi setting. With the water set to 93ºF and the outside air currently a couple of degrees above that, it a 'mildly hot tub' and soothes my birding neck and my twisted back. My volunteer work at the VIC has included some landscaping duties and today I tried to compact the path to our restrooms and the center itself by wrestling a ditch tamper to no avail.

But back to the budding, nay ASPIRING, birder ... One of our VIC staff couples, Laura and Steve, who are very avid and accomplished birders mingle with the flocks of bin-clutching aviphiles (or do you say ornithophile?) along South Fork Road and South Fork Trail, which I probably have mentioned is in the top 5 places to bird in America, and engage them in discussions and do anything they can to enhance their Cave Creek Canyon birding experience. It's what we do everyday at the VIC as we talk about what has been seen where and detail hotspots throughout the San Simon Valley and Chiricahua Mountains, but it's more fun when you can say 'hey, did you see that Painted Redstart carrying nesting material to the base of that tree (whether you know what tree it is or not!)?' and 'they're ground nesters, you know'. So I have been meeting Laura and Steve each Saturday morning and learning the species, quickly compiling lists of 30 or 40 or more seen before lunch. Laura is an 'ear birder' and identified each by song while Steve searches for the bird where the sound came from. This past Saturday they were joined by a woman for some time and slowed down a bit so I decided to move up trail alone listening for the song of the Elegant Trogon. This distinctive sound (click here) is like nothing else and reverberates in the canyon. Most birders visiting the trail are seeking this bird above all and many have traveled thousands and thousands of miles just for the chance to see one. I hiked up South Fork Trail, which follows Cave Creek and crosses it back and forth numerous times. At this time of the year, between the melt of winter's mountain snow and the monsoons that will begin at the end of June, the first two creek crossings are dry and the third has shallow water easily transversed by rock-stepping. Just above the third crossing I heard a male Trogon and quickened my pace up canyon. After the fourth creek crossing there is a pool of water known as the 'Bathtub' and here the dramatic barking of his song was just above me.

The Bathtub, South Fork Trail, Cave Creek Canyon, Chiricahua Mountains, Arizona

The Bathtub, South Fork Trail, Cave Creek Canyon, Chiricahua Mountains, Arizona

The possibility of seeing an Elegant Trogon has undoubtedly drawn more birders to southern Arizona than anything else that flies. Whether it is here in the Chiricahua Mountains or in the Santa Ritas south of Tucson, this gorgeous - some might say gaudy - bird comes north from Mexico to breed in wooded canyons such as along the South Fork Trail of Cave Creek where it favors sycamores that offer nesting sites created by not one, but two, species of woodpecker. The Trogon is dazzling in its metallic brilliance of green, red and copper. It has a large head, stocky build and long square-tipped tail, and is fairly 'sluggish', often perching in one spot for an extended period only to fly in short bursts to neighboring trees where it rests once again. Birders who are fortunate to have an encounter can often sit on a large rock, rehydrate or have a quick picnic and watch a stunning male for quite some time while listening to its distinctive croaking song.

After pausing at the Bathtub and not hearing the male's song for five minutes or so, I heard it just further up canyon. With the massive rhyolite rock faces of the Chiricahuas reflecting sound, the Trogon's loud croak or bark can be misleading. Many birders comment on how it can sound farther away than the bird is, and also how a song heard farther up trail can disappear only to come from behind you. They sing and then they don't and the silence can be due to relocation, especially as they now compete for the arriving females. I headed up creek to the fifth crossing and his call was right upon me. With my head tilted back scanning the trees it took me a moment to notice the tell-tale presence of other birders. There sitting upon large flat boulders in the creek with their bins glued to their eyes and necks strained rearward were three birders and it only takes observing the direction of their optics to locate their prize. I joined them for what was perhaps fifteen minutes and then after they headed back down the trail I stayed for an hour. I pointed the majestic male out to some other passerbys and stayed until a family group with small children ruined the party. They were ignorant of the bird of a lifetime above and when I asked they keep it down and pointed out both the unusual song and the amazingly colorful bird I got only a disinterested 'pretty bird'. This male didn't perch in an optimal location for the reach of my 400 mm lens, but I'll share here the two best images I was able to capture.

Trogon elegans , South Fork Trail, Cave Creek Canyon, Chiricahua Mountains, Arizona

Trogon elegans, South Fork Trail, Cave Creek Canyon, Chiricahua Mountains, Arizona

Trogon elegans , South Fork Trail, Cave Creek Canyon, Chiricahua Mountains, Arizona

Trogon elegans, South Fork Trail, Cave Creek Canyon, Chiricahua Mountains, Arizona

I returned in the past few days and had encounters with two males and also got to see a Blue-fronted Hummingbird on a nest. I look up. I look down. I'm an equal opportunity naturalist these days, I suppose. This morning I am off to look for Burrowing Owls in a location another VIC colleague shared with me. I'll leave you now with an image of a Scaled Quail taken right here at camp. They run on the ground for the most part so they allow you to look up or down.

Scaled Quail, Rusty's RV Ranch, Rodeo, Hidalgo County, New Mexico

Scaled Quail, Rusty's RV Ranch, Rodeo, Hidalgo County, New Mexico

#72 - "The Chiris" - Portal, Arizona

The Trans-Mountain Road is rugged and narrow. With four-wheel drive engaged, my truck left a cloud of dust as it followed the serpentine path climbing toward Barfoot and Rustler Park. I had driven this rocky dirt road all the way up to an elevation of 9000’ and these montane camps a few weeks ago, and documented my white-knuckle drive in an earlier blog entry. In many places the edge of the narrow road falls into steep canyons and no guardrails or even a rocky shoulder exist to assuage the fears of this height-phobic driver. But today I wouldn’t be traveling that far beyond the turn off for the Southwestern Research Station and Herb Martyr Road. I had been hiking segments of the Basin Trail and the connecting trails that wind around Herb Martyr campground. The trails here can be very difficult to follow and signage is minimal. Flash floods rearrange the terrain and forest fires alter the landscape. Years after a fire the torched trees continue to fall and block the paths. The best map is disappointing, but I consult it and the several GPS apps on my iPhone often, as well as an app called AllTrails that allows you to download some maps to your phone for offline use. Trailblazers sometimes create new side trails that confuse me, especially when the path becomes obscured at stream crossings. Many of these crossings are dry creek beds and it can take some trial and error to finally find your path. I don’t mind stopping to rehydrate and double-check my direction. My hiking style is very much “stop and smell the roses”. I am looking for creatures that can be overlooked by the driven hikers who are after a workout or an endurance test. My pace is deliberate with many long pauses to absorb the breathtaking scenery.

Yesterday I had decided to follow the Trans-Mountain road to the northern terminus of the Basin Trail and hike south toward Welch Seep. The drive from Rusty’s RV Ranch to Portal, Arizona takes maybe 30 minutes, mostly because my driving style matches my hiking. In the early morning the road in is alive. Mule Deer forage at the roadside as do the ubiquitous Black-tailed Jackrabbits and cottontails. A couple mornings ago I came across a gorgeous pale Western Diamond-backed Rattlesnake. Horned Lizards come out of their roadside burrows to catch some morning rays. Vultures are everywhere, feasting on the carcasses of vehicle-trampled jackrabbits and rabbits from the night before. Occasionally I have glimpsed Javelina, although they seem much more secretive here than they had been in Texas. The occasional Greater Roadrunner darts across the pavement. I drive slow taking it all in.

Early morning Western Diamond-backed Rattlesnake on the Portal Road

Early morning Western Diamond-backed Rattlesnake on the Portal Road

Past Portal the Portal Road continues into the Chiricahua Mountains and Cave Creek Canyon. The paved road continues past Cave Creek Ranch and Birder’s B&B and the visitor center. Farther on are little side roads that lead to primitive campgrounds and eventually the road takes a hard right turn with an the unpaved South Fork road heading to birder’s paradise. This road and the rocky stream bed trail that is found at its terminus are the birding hotspot of the Chiris. As you continue deeper into the northeastern Chiricahuas the pavement finally ends and you re-enter private land. The Chiricahuas are part of Arizona’s Coronado National Forest, but there is much private property and scattered residences. The unpaved road continues to the turn-off for American Museum of National History’s Southwestern Research Station, which lies at the junction with Herb Martyr Road. I have visited the Research Station and its Chiricahua Nature Shop several times, but usually pass it as I climb two miles on the increasingly rocky road to the Herb Martyr Campground and the trailheads of Snowshed Basin Trail, Ash Spring Trail, Greenhouse Trail and the aforementioned connections with the Basin Trail.

I found the trailhead by using the GPS coordinates I had found online and found a little side road that led to a dispersed camping site where I could park off the main road and in some shade. The trail began as a two-track and after a short distance narrowed and descended to the north fork of Cave Creek. A faint path tricked me into first following the edge of the creek, but then I recalled reading that trailblazers would follow this for an especially rugged two miles to reach North Fork Falls, where during spring snowmelt a fifty or sixty foot waterfall can be viewed. I had taken screenshots of the website chiricahuatrails.com so I would have access to trail notes without cell signal or wifi. I reviewed these images and walked back to cross Cave Creek and find where the trail continued sharply to the left and ascended. For another mile or so the Basin Trail climbed via switchbacks that led to a spectacular view of Silver Peak, the Cave Creek Basin and the red cliffs of Cave Creek Canyon and Reed Mountain behind. Silver Peak seemed so far in the distance and so high, but I had climbed that trail earlier in my stay from its trailhead back near the visitor center.

The Chiricahua Mountains have a base elevation of about 3500’ above sea level and climb to the 9,759’ (2,975 m) Chiricahua Peak. The grasslands and deserts in the lowlands give way to Ponderosa Pine and Douglas Fir forests at high elevation and five of the nine life zones are found in the Chiris (Lower Sonoran, Upper Sonoran, Transition, Canadian, and Hudsonian). Cave Creek Canyon is perhaps the jewel of the entire mountain range and having it twenty minutes from camp is part of the reason for my extended stay here in Rodeo, New Mexico. 

From the Friends of Cave Creek Canyon website:

Wrapped around the always-flowing Cave Creek, Cave Creek Canyon is considered by many to be the crown jewel of this magnificent mountain range. It is the largest and most biologically diverse canyon in the Chiricahua Mountains. It is a favorite haunt of bird watchers and nature lovers, and is the home of the American Museum of Natural History’s Southwestern Research Station and the small communities of Portal and Paradise.

Cave Creek Canyon is one of Conservation International’s 34 Global Biodiversity Hotspots. It provides habitat for approximately 370 species of birds, 170 species of butterflies, hundreds of plant species and over 70 species of mammals including ocelots, collared peccaries, mountain lions, coatis, black bears, ringtails, and white-tailed deer.

The animal’s mentioned above are what my old friend Dr. Fred Sherberger would refer to as “charismatic megafauna”. These are the sexy beasts that your average nature lover cares about. But for those of us in pursuit of “creepy crawlies”, the Southwestern Research Station lists include 32 species of snake including seven rattlesnakes and the Arizona Coral Snake and 26 species of lizard including the Gila Monster. The invertebrate fauna is incredibly rich and diverse. I have seen amazing butterflies and dragonflies. Arachnids are abundant but secretive. You won’t see big orbweaver webs in the blazing sun. Come monsoon season other secretive creatures like spadefoot toads will emerge from their aestivation.

From the American Museum of Natural History website:

Bio-geographically, the Chiricahua Mountains are located at a crossroads between distinct desert and mountain biotas. At lower elevations, species are influenced by both the Sonoran Desert to the west and the Chihuahuan Desert to the south and east. At higher elevations, there is a mixing of plants and animals from the Rocky Mountains, to the north and the Sierra Madre Occidental Mountains of Mexico. The uniqueness and diversity of the biota is well recognized by ornithologists, herpetologists, and entomologists. Cave Creek Canyon is also recognized as one of the top birding localities in the United States.

I am looking forward to my return in mid-July and stay through August. The Southwest Monsoon rains fall from July through August into early September. The landscape will be transformed and wildlife activity will increase. I now will be attending both the 40th International Herpetological Symposium (July 19-22) and the 1st Biology of Snakes Conference (July 27-29), both of which will be held at the Chiricahua Desert Museum's Geronimo Event Center. Herpers from all over will take advantage of the monsoon season's affect on reptile and amphibian behavior. I can't wait.

I stopped by to see Bob Ashley at the Chiricahua Desert Museum after my morning hike yesterday. He graciously gave me a behind-the-scenes tour of his off exhibit reptile collection. He has at least three snake rooms dedicated to rattlesnakes, mountain kingsnakes and other species with an emphasis on desert herpetofauna. One air-conditioned room is for montane species. Another room houses primarily lizards, but contained some invertebrates, amphibians and turtles. Bob promised that we would all have a more thorough tour of his collection during the symposium, but I appreciated the quick personal tour especially the opportunity to see just about every species, subspecies and locality of rattlesnake imaginable.

All the best, MJ