Monday, May 25, 2015

Organ Pipe National Monument (More like Organ Grinder)

It's a beautiful site, hosting some of the most pristine Sonoran Desert habitat and rock formations in Arizona. Being two hours away from Phoenix, it's also not quite as demanding a trek as some other natural destinations for those originating in the middle of the state. 

Organ Pipe is reputed to be one of the better spots in AZ to find Ferruginous Pygmy Owl. I had a few friends head here two years back and have one such endangered owl calling from near a campsite restroom as soon as they got out of the car. In the five different visits I have made to this site, I have had no such luck. I've come in before sun-up and birded through the morning, in the afternoon, and in the evening without one little 'peep' or 'toot' for a small rusty owl. 
To be fair, this bird is endangered and sparsely distributed, so this it may not be of fair 'nemesis' status yet, but these annual searches throughout Organ Pipe each spring and summer have become pretty beleaguering. These attempts are additionally taxing because there's not a lot of bird diversity otherwise, so dipping on the owls also comes with few consolation prizes. So, without further adieu, let's look at what those consolation prizes are!

When driving around Arizona, I'm always on the lookout for the perfect saguaro. The Perfect Saguaro is the paradigm of pulchritudinous cactus. It has two arms, unevenly staggered, with a full trunk. Many saguaros have more than two arms, or none at all, or the arms are of uncouth length, or there are other growths atop the main trunk. This candidate at Organ Pipe is the closest I've come to finding The Perfect Saguaro. It's not there yet--it needs to fill out a bit more--but maybe in 10 years (when I finally find that stupid Owl) it'll be ready. I shall pin a bio-degradable blue ribbon on it. 

The saguaro and organ-pipe cacti are the most dominant and imposing lifeforms in the area, but there is plenty of dimunative-but-tough salt-brush, creosote, and cholla as well. This scrub provides the equivalent of a deciduous forest canopy, sort of inverted, and holds most of the avian life. Sado-masochistic Cactus Wrens and spherical Black-tailed Gnatcatchers are among the most audible and noticeable.

Organ Pipe's cup also doth overfloweth with myiarchus Flycatchers, with the numerous Ash-throated Flycatchers ceding the vocalization contest to their bigger, yellower, Brown-crested cousins.

The flowering saguaros sustain their own small ecosystems with many species of bee and other insects, as well as birds and bats all revolving around these dainty flowers. Scott's Orioles are big fans of the flowering saguaro, though they eschew the Woodpecker preference for living (and doing other things) in the same place they eat, so instead nest in the palo verde and mesquite, especially the trees have a nice mistletoe infestation.  

On the most recent return home from Organ Pipe, I made a quick stop at Base Meridian WMA in west Phoenix, still trying for that nifty Ridgway's Rail shot. This trip was also a bust, respective of the objective, even if there were hundreds of nesting Cliff Swallows and a weirdly active Lesser Nighthawk.

The B&M Meridian is great for Cuckoos later in the summer, as well as Least Bittern, and it also is/was one of the better areas in Phoenix to see Barn Owls. And Barn Owls are cooler than Ridgway's Rails anyway right? Well, that argument is moot if the Owl is dead, and the only bird I could find at B&M had caught such a case. This brings the tally of dead Barn Owls I have seen to 5, more than twice as many as I've seen alive.

And yet, despite these recent disappointments, I am not depressed. Despite the knowledge that bird-blog-culture-defining people are currently galavanting through the Maine forests and coastland, racking up lifers and tails most glorious, I am not disturbed with envy nor pangs of inadequacy. Why not? Because there are breeding Flame-colored Tanagers AND Tufted Flycatchers, to say little of Elegant Trogons and what not, in Ramsey Canyon right now, and I will be cutting loose to that feather-friendly Mecca on Thursday. How's that for consolation?


  1. Sick Scott's Oriole. For the record, maine is terrible. No lifers, no warblers, no whiskey.

    1. Excellent Excellent...

      And the mosquitos? Are they biting too?

    2. Jen does not lie. This trip is terrible. Definitely no Black-headed and Little Gulls. And we are covered in ticks.

    3. Glad to hear it.
      I hope the tick stickle way a lot and keep you all up at night, as well as the thought of all those great birds that just got away.


  2. Dang man, nice shots! Don't worry before long you will crush those owls and rails. Good luck on the Ramsey Canyon hike :)

    1. Cheers Caleb,

      I am part of a club of people who do not see Rails well. You don't get to be a part of this club.
      I'm getting realll good with dead Owls.

  3. Phew...this post was making me depressed until I got to that Scott's Oriole pic and read the final paragraph.

    RE: Tufted Flycatcher--I swear you Arizona birders invent brand-new birds like at least every other month. Slap a Code 5 on it, provide a grainy pic, and presto--instant credibility...and jealousy everywhere. Nevertheless, I'm looking forward to reading about your upcoming adventure and being filled with mad envy!

    1. Damn!'re onto us.

      Have the time we just go along with it: "What'd you see? Small flycatcher? Oh yeah I saw that too I'll add it to my list. First nesting record you say? Well even better."

      If it doesn't pop up on the Cornell website first when Googled, it's a Code 5.

  4. While these are all damn fine birds (or, DFBs) I have to single out that sweet, sweet saguaro action (or, 3SA) one more time: that's one cartoon-looking cactus, well deserving of a blue ribbon. And how much more gratifying is that pygmy-owl gonna be when it finally reveals itself?!

    1. You're so optimistic and encouraging.
      Alright then. I shall persevere!

  5. As a resident of the last known human habitation before reaching Organ Pipe (Ajo, please stop by!), I wander around not only at the monument but in the literally 100's square miles in this empty and utterly stunning area. Haven't ever been lost, but to quote Daniel Boone there's been "a few times I was a mite bit confused."

    Just a couple of personal thoughts. "The perfect saguaro?" Two arms? Really? I've got pix of dozens of wildly armed people. There's one on the north side of SR 86 just before Quijotoa that has a dozen arms. Talk about wild perfection.

    One of the things we've noted over the years is how many birds that aren't supposed to be here show up ever so often. It's mostly spring and fall. I have a pix of a painted bunting splashing in a spring rain puddle. Only once, but one can only wonder how he could get so far off track.

    As for bugs, as in all true deserts, we don't have a lot. (Of course house flies are inseparable from humans.) Really the only time that mosquitoes are a problem is during the Monsoon. If you love solitude, utter quiet, 7th order stars, other amazingly beautiful things, this is the place. Ah, yah it gets hot on occasion. A smart remark around here is that it "burns the riffraff off."

    Summer is the time of great raptors, vultures, screaming cactus wrens, verdins, and the few weeks of the amazing desert toad.

    Nice site. Nice pictures.

    Robert (confirmed desert rat)