Sunday, May 18, 2014

Miller Canyon: The High Life

Mid to later May in Arizona is Miller time. This preeminent of the Huachuca canyons holds constant attractions, both migratory and residential. The southeastern specialties found here often rub shoulders with seasonal rarities and plenty of other generally cool birds. The canyon is, of course, most famous for its Spotted Owls and its hummingbird station on the Beatty Guest Ranch. It's not particularly well known for its Spotted Towhees, but they are there too. 

After some quick forays in Huachuca Canyon and Sierra Vista with foul-mouthed birdwatching machine Nate McGowan, we headed south to Miller Canyon for the largest chunk of the day's birding. Although we were arriving a bit after peak hours, the canyon was still noisy with residential and migratory bird activity. The lower reaches held Hermit and Swainson's Thrushes, Vireos, Titmice, and about a thousand pounds of Dusky-capped Flycatchers. 

There were plenty of ABA/AZ specialty lifers on the hike and along the way to our larger targets. With some complicated directions from the ever helpful and loquacious Beatty fellas, we located the Spotted Owl nest, from which the female's head was visible (not photographed). The Northern Pygmy Owl nest didn't produce anything for us but we picked up some montane Warbler species, including Painted Redstart and Grace's, as well as several attempts at my still-photo-nemesis Red-faced Warbler, perhaps Arizona's best warbler despite these unjust shots.

We didn't turn up Olive Warbler, which I've actually never seen in Miller Canyon anyway, nor Hermit Warbler, which is a migrant that's very good at not showing up as soon as you try to find one. I'll go ahead and further posit that those plane-faced, bug-eyed Hermit Warblers are one of the dorkiest looking of the bunch. I know that simplicity is the way of the hermit there, warbler, but still, a mask, a cool scar, supercilia, a tribal tattoo, something. So no, I won't apologize for not having a single decent photo of the species. Sorry.

The main prize up canyon was one that's even grown in value since our departure, where apparently two Northern Goshawks have since hatched. When we made it up the bird was still incubating the eggs and was thus barely visible. With the recent hatchings, presumably it is now more conspicuous, as may be the Goshawk chicks--not at all a common bird or a common sighting.
It was pretty crazy to see this large, intimidating, and rare bird just sitting pretty. The sighting was all the more interesting because bird activity in the area was very high. Tanagers, Pewees, and warblers were all very active in the sycamores and pines nearby, mercifully thankful that their smaller size and thinner frames, perhaps, would keep these top predators from developing much of an interest.

The muted sighting and photo of the Goshawk was actually better than we got of the Spotted Owl, so these canyon highlights were a bit unsatisfying. There is no better cure for the nascent birding desire at soul-satisfying views than a hummingbird station.
The feeders themselves detract from sightings with their overpowering plastic redness, but the general buzz they create and sustain in the surrounding trees is more than compensatory, and the Beatty hummingbird station was also the recent site of our last major target for Miller Canyon.

At the Beatty hummingbird arena, some birds bide their time and plot violence, or sugar consumption, in the shadows, while others perch in open, broad (tailed) daylight with a devil-may-care attitude. 

The sugar water is about the only sweet thing shared between the different hummingbird species. In fact, they're often so busy not sharing that they don't get any for themselves. The Hummingbird hierarchy is beautiful, intriguing, and totally lacking in virtue. Being among the largest hummers present, Magnificents usually reign supreme. They're like the Great White Sharks of the Hummingbird world, for obvious and apparent reasons that need no further elaboration.

The White-eared Hummingbird often breeds in Miller Canyon, though in small numbers, and a pair arrived back in town early enough for us to try for them while in the area. They're not as physically intimidating as the Magnificent or Blue-throated Hummingbirds, nor as colorful as the Broad-billed, but the rarity and limited U.S.--range factors make this a highly coveted bird, plus that ear stripe is just awesome. You could land a plane on that thing at midnight.

The male White-eareds are actually pretty gorgeous but it's difficult to capture the colors on the head and gorget with this bird, especially when its predominantly backlit, a frequent trouble with the Beatty station any time after 9:00am or so. This was my first lifer of the trip, leaving Berylline and Buff-breasted as the only two ABA hummers I've yet to see, plus stupid Allen's, which everyone knows is just a greener-backed subspecies of Rufous anyway...

With a similar though less good-natured dynamic to a mixed flock, all the hummingbird commotion attracts the attention of other birds as well. Bushtits and Titmice and Titless Bushmouses were all chittering in the surrounding oak scrub. Also of interest was a violently ill Acorn Woodpecker. It was Sunday morning, after all, so needless to say it had been partying too hard with its other head-banging buddies the night before.

We've all been there, when the fun of Saturday night sucks away the happiness of Sunday (which is why the day after feels so terrible). It's terrible, the world is spinning, you regret the late night texts you sent to the jock Arizona Woodpecker even if it is a lying bastard, and then you puke. Then you feel amazing again and are ready to have your picture taken. FANTASTIC!

After racking 'em up in the Huachucas, we took a detoured drive through Patagonia and then north on the I-19 to the Santa Ritas, where several more potential lifers awaited. The greatest perversity about Miller Canyon is the driving need one feels to go back as soon as one has left. Early July I'll be wiping out on its rocky trails (which I've managed to do every single time I've hiked it) and trying for the Berylline Hummingbird, if the Goshawks don't take me first.


  1. Great post Laurence!

    Wonderful shot of that White-eared Hummingbird on a stick. It is hard to get that guy in natural settings, but you did it very well.

    I wanna see a Titless Bushmouse! Where did you see that at?

    1. Cheers Tommy thanks. Of course, I would've been very happy with a White-eared feeder shot, especially if it better revealed the gorget colors, but I can't complain (or rather, shouldn't).

      The Titless Bushmice are tough to pick out unless you get a good view at the breast, or lack there of. They're very habitat specific, only existing next too, but never in the line of sight of, hummingbird stations in the Huachucas.

  2. Good times and good stuff, dude. I did notice that although I had pretty stellar looks at Red-faced Warbler, especially later in the trip, I could never get a good shot off. I don't know why, but I'm thinking that, like with Vermilion Flycatcher, my camera sensor cannot comprehend the vibrancy being forced down its throat. Fuck!

    1. hehe it's true. I have trouble enough exposing Tanagers and even Cardinals. Throw in the warbler behavior and its a real devil to capture.
      It makes one pretty red in the face.

      I like your explanation, and the idea that Red-fac ed warbler and similarly hued birds are basically violating us--and our cameras--with their vibrant saturation of color.

  3. Great shots of the hummers and the Acorn Woodpecker recovering from Miller time. Sorry you didn't get the shot you wanted of the Red-faced Warbler. Warblers are tough. I've had to learn to appreciate a really good sighting even if I don't get the shot - E.g. your first bird pictured. Tempted to call you a name McGowan might use for posting that one. ;) The worst, though, is a "sighting" of a nesting bird. Got my Red-shouldered Hawk lifer by seeing a single eyeball in between some oak leaves while it sat on a nest.

    1. Ha! Single eyeball.
      Yeah it's a mixed blessing I guess in the sense that a nesting bird is about the most reliable bird one can hope for, but in the cae of raptors nesting in a canyon that means that you're otherwise out of luck.

      We'll keep plugging away at those Warblers. They can't defy the odds forever, can they??

  4. Spotted Owl AND Northern Goshawk nests??? Damn, that is sick. I hope the photogs behave.

    1. No chance!

      But I am hoping to get a nice shot of a Goshawk scalping somebody in the near future.

  5. Ditto: spotted owl and northern goshawk. Your post reminds me how much I want to hug an owl. I'm developing the strangest natural world bucket list:
    * hug an owl
    * also, hug a jaguar.
    * land an airplane on a hummingbird stripe.....

    1. Cheers Kathleen, that's an ambitious list, but also very doable with the right connections, some careful planning, flight lessons, and a bottle of chloroform.

    2. Might just settle for photos. Though I did come incredibly close with the jaguar. In fact, you can find people who can attest to my efforts.

    3. Hardcore Kathleen. I've never made it to first base even with a Jaguar.

  6. Well, I have 1-2 piss-poor shots of an acorn woodie taken in Calif. a few years ago…your 2 pics are fantastic! It's a good thing green's my favorite color, yeesh! Drat that face-hiding, red-faced warbler! How exciting to get to see them, anyway. Very striking. Great shots of the hummers too!