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?