One of Phoenix's main attractions, in addition to the excellent dining scene and cheap, plentiful alcohol, is that there are mountains right in the middle of the city. Sandwiched in between the SR 51 highway and Tatum Boulevard, the Phoenix Mountain Preserve showcases the marvelous combination of urban life and nature-scapes that Phoenix brings together so well. Just a few miles to the east, Camelback Mountain just east is one of the most hiked peaks in America. True enough, it's harder to enjoy these scenes when it's 104 °F in late April (come on!), but when I swung by the Phoenix Mountain Preserve in early April, it was an all round' gorgeous scene.
This is a nice place for hiking and mountain biking, but it's not normally on my rotation of local birding hotspots. It features great scenery and good birding, but an average day at Papago or the Desert Botanical Gardens will yield more species of the same genre.
However, in late March and early April, just for a few weeks, the washes in the Phoenix mountains provide temporary housing for migrating Long-eared Owls, a coveted bird anywhere in the U.S., and all the more so in the Sonoran desert. With these Owls in mind, I made several trips into the Preserve, one with fellow birders Tommy D. (who had more success than I) and Dominic Sherony, and another with a great birder, naturalist, and field guide author Duncan Butchart, from South Africa.
As far as the secretive Long-eared Owls go, below is my only sighting and only shot of the beasts. Yes, it's the dark, hazy shape in the lower center of the photo, ruining an otherwise lovely shot of some mesquite trees. If you came here for sweet Owl shots, you're in the wrong neighborhood!
The visuals I had on the Owl were better than the photo, enough to ID the bird by its size and flight, but it wasn't the most satisfying of sightings. The treks through the Phoenix Mountain Preserve, on the other hand, were absolutely beautiful, both for the birds and the general desert wildlife.
The Long-eared Owls prefer the dense mesquite and palo verde trees in the many jutting washes of the Phoenix Mountains, and so into these shady, rattlesnake-infested gullies the daring birder must go. The explorer must have a nerve, and socks, of steel, for the cactus spines and dry grass prickers, along with non-stop flash mob rattlesnake attacks, can leave one worse for the wear.
Luckily there are enough feathery gems, like this shady Anna's Hummingbird, to make the misses very, very palatable. I bet if I'd gone searching deliberately for Anna's, I would've found Owls instead.
In between the sandy, brushy declivities preferred by the Owls, flat expanses of scrub grass, cholla cactus, and creosote span all through the mountain range. These desert-specialist plants serve as nifty perches for late migrant Sage Thrashers, as well as Black-throated Sparrows just starting to settle in.
The very thick tangles of brush form impenetrable webs of stickers and misery for any creature that comes to close. Any creature, that is, that's not tiny. Roving clans of Brewer's Sparrows find these bristling brush piles to be irresistible, and in fact they even seem to inspire song.
In the dull color vs. great vocalization ratio, Brewer's Sparrows are tops. Their lengthy song, a combination of chips, whistles, and buzzing vibratos is both recognizable and delightful, even if their preferred habitat must be enjoyed from a distance.
With their prickly perches, the Brewer's Sparrows bring some sting to the Sonoran birding flavor. Ash-throated Flycatchers, needless to say, bring some smoke, and the Say's Phoebe's, with their beautiful cinnamon wash and acrobatic, unabashed fly-catching, bring some spicy flavor. Like a nice pork chili verde, these desert birds, seen in their respective microhabitats, produce a dish that's not particularly rare or difficult, but one that is nonetheless a salivating feast, especially when one is starved of Owls!
Speaking of feasts, the Phoenix Mountain Washes did produce some interesting signs of Long-eared interest. This Western Fence Lizard (correct me if I'm wrong) would make a nice little snack in the twilight hour, and for the main course...
How about a nice, plump ground squirrel? This was left in the middle of one of the washes, no doubt as an intentional warning, from the Owls, against any paparazzi intruders.
Though they tended to dominate the Sonoran soundtrack, the Brewer's Sparrows didn't have a total lockdown on the little brown bird symphony. Rock Wrens and Curve-billed Thrashers chimed their pretty notes too, sometimes even from the same rocky perches, though in this case the Trasher was busy with nesting material. Two's company, but I made it three and that's a crowd.
The birds will always be of primary interest, but there are many other aspects of the Mountain Preserve to enjoy. Especially with the evening lighting, the blooming cactus are absolutely stunning. After more than twenty years of desert romping and roaming, I can (un)safely say that I've been pricked by every possible Arizona cactus in every possible place. Despite them making many tracts of landscape somewhat hostile, and making some yards totally inhospitable to soccer balls for unlucky boys, I wouldn't trade them for the world.
They can grow for months without water and even, apparently, grow out of solid rocks walls (or out of the tiny dirt margins in between the rocks. Like a fine zinfandel or malbec, the hardship that these plants endure does nothing to vitiate their color (or flavor), and actually seems to maximize their aesthetic.
The cactus also provide homes to legions of desert fauna, and not just the Brewer's Sparrows. Curve-billed Thrashers and Cactus Wrens make their massive, messy nests in the bosom of cholla bunches, while the massive Saguaro cacti house Gila Woodpeckers and Western Screech Owls in their cavities. The hinges of saguaro arms provide solid domestic foundations as well, not only for Mourning Doves but also, as I discovered, for Roadrunners, keeping the young safe and high off the ground, until they are grown and ready to terrorize everything that's smaller than they are.
As April has worn on, the sun set of my Long-eared Owl opportunities. They will be back again, and so will I. It is comforting that, while it will dry out and brown in the next several months, the rugged beauty of the Phoenix Mountain Preserve will stay a constant.