Sunday, August 23, 2015

Elevation Addiction: It's the Birding that Suffers

Butler's Birds has been just limping along for the last month or so, but let me tell you it's not correlative with a lack of walking. Given the oppressive heat and general dearth of stimulating variety in way of avifauna right now, my weekend birding time has been largely abrogated by weekend hiking time. Of course, ideally a lovely hike and lovely birds go hand-in-hand, but recent destinations and paces have had the unfortunate side-effect of limited birding. The most recent target was Humphrey's peak, about 20 miles north of Flagstaff in the San Francisco Peaks of the Kachina Wilderness. 

With a summit at 12,633 feet, Humphrey's is the tallest peak in Arizona. Humphrey's and the neighboring Agassiz Peak, 300 feet shorter, are the southernmost mountains in the contiguous U.S. above 12,000 feet, and estimates put them at 16,000 feet before their stratovolcano base blew up about 200,000 years ago. The hike from the Snowbowl trailhead totals a bit over 10 miles roundtrip and gains about of 3,000 feet in elevation. It makes for a pretty grueling and enjoyable trek passing through several ecozones, but even if one is willing to haul all the photography gear that is no guarantee of birds--at least, not half-way through August. 

As one might expect, a fair portion of the hike climbs through thick spruce, pine, and fir forest. Jays, Nuthatches, Chickadees, and Creepers maintain a constant chorus, and the occasional caterwauling of a Clark's Nutcracker belting by overhead adds excitement, but for the most part the birds are sooner heard than seen.

One of the most exciting ecological attractions on Humphrey's Peak is the bristlecone pines, some of nature's hardiest and longevous organisms. Up the volcanic slopes, where the spruce and fir evergreens dare not go, the scattered bristlecones still cling to the mountainside. 

In some areas, nearer 12,000 feet, there seem to be more skeletons than living trees. Mountains of this size are capricious masters, seemingly creating their own weather and always engaging in sweet and violent love with the forces of erosion. 

The bristlecones in this area are not nearly as old, massive, nor majestic as some of those farther north on the Colorado Plateau, but they'll have the last laugh a few thousands years from now when the little bits and pieces of us contemporaries are blowing in the air around them.

Although they're the most dominant life form at that altitude, to the extent any life form can be dominant at that altitude, the bristlecones are not alone. In addition to soaring Ravens, Hawks, and Eagles, American Pipits frequent these rocky slopes in summer time, where conspicuously young birds cut their teeth on the igneous slopes of Humphrey before descending to the warmer Sonoran plain in a few months' time.

There were even some leps up there doing...something. They're probably sipping sweet nectar out of the very rocks themselves. You've got to be hardcore to live up there. 

Even though it's about 190 miles away, the north rim of the Grand Canyon is also just barely visible in the great blue yonder from Humphrey's summit. It's not postcard pretty, but I will say that standing atop AZ's highest point and gazing into AZ's biggest crack is...a very superlative experience.