Tuesday, July 17, 2012

It's Miller Time!

One of the most well known and well loved birding and hiking destinations in the Huachuca Mountains, Miller really is the champagne of Canyons. In addition to Sulphur-bellied Flycatchers and rare Tanagers, Miller's Canyon is one of the best places in Arizona, and perhaps North America, to see a Spotted Owl. Naturally I didn't see one, but along the way I did stop by the Beatty Ranch at the base of the upper canyon. The Beattys maintain a small bed and breakfast operation in the canyon and, best of all, a fully stocked Hummingbird station that draws in all kinds of southeast Arizona specialties.

The drive up to the Beatty Ranch is dry and dusty haul, but along the way you can expect to see Spotted Towhees, Mexican Jays, and Canyon Towhees all rustling about in the sparse undergrowth. Though their North American range is limited to the southern points of Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas, Mexican Jays are among the most sociable and vocal birds one might encounter in the sky island chain. This doesn't mean they're exceptionally fond of people, or at least of me, but through very careful and super scientific observation I discovered that these Jays like to eat nuts. This Jay was going mano-a-mano with a scrub-oak acorn.

The acorn proved to be a very stubborn adversary, and after a minute of squeezing and smashing, the Jay withdrew to a more private setting where he could eat in peace.

Perhaps his retreat was brought on by the annoying curiosity of this Canyon Towhee, a bird which the mellow blue Jays must regard as a stumpy and ugly neighbor. It occurred to me that Jays are, in many ways, like the stereotype New England WASPs. They're pretty on the outside and strain to keep their complicated social networks in order, but they can also be very snooty and cruel to anyone who doesn't meet their standards. The Canyon Towhee, by contrast, is less to look at, but I'm sure he leads a rich inner life...

This female Woodpecker, unlike the noisier Towhees and Jays, did not want to be seen at all. Tough luck! People say that if you want someone to look at you, you just have to stare at them and soon, for some supernatural reason, their gaze will gravitate towards you. That doesn't work with birds, probably because they have better things to do then sit around gawking all day. This realization, in turn, made me feel a little bit sad about myself...

Unless you're staying overnight at the Beatty lodge, you have to park before the complex and do a bit of walking to access the Hummingbird site and kick in a few bucks towards the sugar fund, but the jaunt is worth it. Over a half dozen feeders and cotton wads draw in the Hummingbirds while visitors sit on shaded bleachers and photograph, oogle, ogle, and let the mind be boggled by all the color.

Anna's Hummingbirds and Broad-tailed Hummingbirds are the most common species during the Arizona summer and they overrun Miller Canyon too. But if you're looking for a spot to consistently see some of the less common Arizona specialities, it's hard to beat Beatty's. So well maintained are the feeders that even Black-chinned Hummingbirds, the mostly mildly colored and mild-mannered of the bunch, have time to sit, drink, and show off their immaculate posture (I wish I stood up this straight after a binge of drinking).

Of all the migrant/summer Hummers whose North American range is exclusively in Arizona, the Broad-billed is perhaps the most common. These stunning birds are somewhere in between the Costa's, Black-chinned, and Broad-tailed Hummers, which are fairly common throughout the state, and the other rarer, more selective migrants that tend to stay in the southeast corner. The first time I saw one of these Hummingbirds I was stunned, and didn't imagine anything could be more shimmering. Amazingly, after twenty minutes at Beatty's you'll start to pass them over in favor of other, rarer birds--a true testament to the quality on display.

This immature Broad-billed still has some gorget to grow, but at least his pops, perhaps pictured above, has shown him where the best hangout is, the best place to pick up chicks.

All the same, this female Magnificent Humming is definitely out of the young Broad-bill's league. Not only is she Magnificent, she could totally crush him if he tried any funny business. At five-and-a-half inches, she's one of the larger Hummingbirds in the area, and it takes something extra special to get her attention.

Enter the Magnificent male...

It was a thrill to see this aptly named bird, but I'm pretty bummed with my inadequate photography. Cameras should come with a label on them that says something like, "Warning: This device will cease to operate properly if photographing wildlife that is above this camera's pay grade." Maybe it's just as well that the male Magnificent Hummingbird is a blurred bird; proper exposure of this hunk is known to cause paralysis in female Magnificent Hummingbirds and some humans.

Amazingly, the highlight hummer of the day was not the Magnificent. Lucifer, Berylline, and Plain-capped Starthroat could all be show-stoppers at the Beatty theatre, but they were not on stage that day. In a sense, this contemplative male Blue-throated Hummingbird wasn't either, but he brought a standing ovation out of me nonetheless.

I found this handsome fellow while striking-out on the Spotted Owls. An intriguing peeping sound drew my attention to a large Arizona sycamore where this clement critter was seeking some respite from the noontime sun. These large Hummingbirds have an appeal similar to the Black-chinned Hummers--a comparably conservative coloration with just the right accents. Hummingbirds are not known for their economy of style, but the Blue-throated pulls it off pretty well. Most of all, I was just glad to find a new bird--a new Hummer especially--that wasn't at a feeder. The feeders at Beatty's are terrific, but the one thing they don't provide is the full satisfaction of seeing a new bird out in the ruff.

I haven't birded Miller Canyon as much as I should, but even in my limited capacities it is a wonderful spot fully deserving of its sterling reputation. April through September; it's Miller time!