Thursday, June 4, 2015

Ramsey Canyon Seizure-Inducing Rarities

Also known as another installment of that the most bittersweet (mostly sweet) series: "Awful Photos of Amazing Birds; Not Brought to You by National Geographic."
As you may or may not have heard, there's been some crazy stuff happening in Ramsey Canyon of the Huachucas Mountains. Now the Huachucas are probably the best birding destination in the whole state, but usually it's Miller Canyon stealing the show with its panoply of Hummingbirds and Owls, or Huachuca Canyon itself with wayward tropical Wrens and Redstarts. This spring/summer it seems to be Ramsey Canyon's turn to shine, as some very impressive vagrants were not only seen well in the canyon, but confirmed to be nesting. Of course, when one rarity is found, that draws in more birders, who find more birds. The Patagonia Picnic Table Effect, as it's been called, has been rocking the SE AZ birding scene (again).  

After several tense non-birding days, brought on by the necessities of moving and continued work, I was at last able to chase after the Ramsey Canyon rarities. The birds were good enough that even Pops Butler had to get in on the action. This necessitated stopping first, of course, at Ft. Huachuca to check in on the Sinaloa Wren. The Wren was a no-show, as it has been for the last week or so, but there were lots of Montezuma Quail in the surrounding grassy slopes, and plenty else as well. *Remember the description of this post; here is one such Quail. Probably four or five times, one or two would take off from mere feet away, scaring the expletives out of me and making me look and feel the fool.

The dally in Huachuca Canyon was also a stalling tactic, since the Ramsey Canyon preserve doesn't open until 8am. This gateway can be circumvented by hiking Carr Canyon next door and then looping down into Ramsey Canyon, allowing for an earlier start but a longer hike. There are many options, and all of them are good. This time of year, the oak, pine, and sycamore canyon slopes are bursting at the seems with Tanagers and Flycatchers, as well as croaking Trogons. Those are the normal breeders. 

After hanging in the mild and birdy Huachuca Canyon until 8am, the steep and scree-ridden trail up Ramsey was a comparative challenge. One of the Ramsey rarities can be seen on the Bledsoe Loop fairly near the visitor center, but we elected to bypass it in pursuit of the rarer bird up canyon. 

In addition to a Scarlet Kingsnake (also less cooly called a Milk Snake), we enjoyed nifty birds up the trail. Red-faced Warblers were buddy-buddy with Painted Redstarts. Three species of Vireo chimed with two species of Nuthatch (it was a definite cacophony). Cordilleran Flycatchers were gathering nesting material and they weren't the only ones, but more on that later.

Along the way we came across an intriguing Hummingbird. Black-chinned would be the statistical bet in Ramsey, but this bird has some dark cheek patches and some buffy flanks, as well as the elongated and decurved bill. Kinda maybe sorta good for female Lucifer's eh? Like the number of licks required to get to the center of a tootsie pop, we may never know (although apparently it's 364).

After hiking 2 miles and gaining 1000 feet we came upon a group of excited nerds patting backs and shaking heads, gaping and chirping like hungry Robin chicks. It was a big enough deal that even Neil Hayward of recent Big Year fame was hanging out with the bunch. Rightly so:

Indeed, the small cinnamon-flavored thing is a code 5 Tufted Flycatcher, only the 7th or 8th confirmed member of the species to visit North America. The odd turtle-shell thing on the branch below? Yes indeed, that is the Tufted Flycatcher's stately nest, quite possibly the first ever recorded in North America.

The hike up the mountain was a satisfactory travail and the birds along the way were hella splendid, but it all just sort of melted away when we saw this little buggar, rarest of buggars, quite possibly the rarest buggar currently in the ABA area right now, setting up his homestead.

 For the hour or so we lingered the TUFL stayed pretty high in its pine or gathered lichen from the nearby oak trees. It didn't allow for much by way of photos but it was pretty dynamic stuff. We figured with the group of birders being the size it was, the bird wasn't going to come much closer and this proved true for the afternoon.

It would have been a good time to dawdle with the TUFl. A male Trogon even flew up the canyon and overhead head as we watched, but the desire to remain could not countermand the desire to see another vagrant, half as rare (which is still pretty damn rare) and twice as gorgeous (which is very doubly damn gorgeous). Also, it stayed even doubly higher, which was very aggravatingly damn high.

A pair of Flame-colored Tanagers has been nesting in the Bledsoe Loop for the last 3 or so weeks. The male, at least, is a clean specimen with none of that icky, quotidian Western Tanager mixed in. These lovebirds were the original draw to Ramsey Canyon, and by coincidence or causality someone hiking casually farther up canyon soon afterwards found the nesting TUFL. 

It was then revealed, though 10 days after the fact, that someone also found and photographed a friggin' Blue Mockingbird at the Ramsey Canyon Folklore Center just farther down the canyon. Yeah yeah with a bird like that provenance comes into questions, but just consider all those rarities and be at peace. 

Normally a crazy or not-crazy person would make a trip down to the Huachucas just for Sulphur-bellied Flycatchers and Trogons. On a trip when those are only the 4th or 5th coolest birds, something is egregiously unbalanced in the universe. Somewhere in tropical Mexico there is a 2 mile patch without any cool birds at all.

No one in the entire world knows that a SBFL nest looks like, though this is not so much due to great secrecy on their part but more so their exclusive proclivity for nesting in cavities. It's the only place that's safe from marauding, dive-bombing Black-chinned Hummingbirds.

It isn't Tufted or Flame-colored, but its belly is noxious and its call is one of the best to echo in the canyons. There will not be any of these birds in the mountains of Tennessee and North Carolina to which I soon depart, nor will there be Black-headed and Little Gulls nor Spruce Grouse. We who are the rest of the bird blogosphere do the best we can, dammit!