Sunday, May 6, 2018

Slate Creek Divide: Hearing is Believing

With full relocation to North Carolina now imminent (29 days to departure), there are many lists of things to be attended. Most of this pertains to property management--cleaning, fixing, renting, selling, and fondly reminiscing before trashing, etc.
But there is also unfinished business with the AZ birding scene, a bucket list of birding to-dos before getting trans-continental.

Some of the items are general: birding hard in the Huachucas and/or Santa Ritas again--while some are more specific. I have not yet made attempt at Five-striped Sparrow in AZ, the only resident/breeder lifer yet to pick up here. Most recently I tried to check off the 3rd and last item: get visuals (and a photo) of Flammulated Owl. This little western owl has manifested as 'heard only' for me several times, but always alluded the visual confirmation. Especially considering this species will not be in NC (unlike the similarly evasive Saw-whet), this makes it a near-lifer search while AZ time remains.

Finding Poorwills on the road is not a bucket list item, but always welcome nonetheless, even if they won't make eye contact.

The Flamms can be pretty common above the Mogollon rim and near Flagstaff, but being ever impatient and short-sighted (very bad traits for a birder, btw), I made an attempt for the local, sparse, but potential glorious Maricopa population in the Mazatzal mountains near Slate Creek Divide. The elevation and water drainage here allows multiple species of pine to mingle with Douglas Fir, creating a special mini habitat not found anywhere else in the county, nor anywhere closer to home.

You access SCD via 10 miles of rugged road opposite the Mt. Ord exit from Hwy 87, gaining elevation up through oak scrub to fir and pines. Birder buddy Three Sticks Will and I logged great Sparrows as we ascended the washed out road--Lark to Rufus-crowned to Black-chinned, along with FOY breeders like BH Grosbeak and Cassin's Kingbird. Being behind the wheel amidst treacherous grades and gravel, the camera stayed firmly tucked away.
The habitat around the FR 201 terminus at Mt. Peeley trailhead area also hosts the only known populations of Mexican Jay and Dusky-capped Flycatcher, as well as Red-faced Warbler, in the county, though all was pretty quiet by time we reached the top. With our remaining daylight we headed back downhill to explore some of the washes, always good for turning up cool dead stuff if not birds. In this regard, they did not disappoint.

My guess is the stag broke a leg and/or got stuck in the wash and then drowned. Or a cougar got it and the carcass was washed into the main gully. Or it was brought there as part of a druidic ritual. Or it is the totemic marking of mystic burial ground. Or the deer just nestled down upon its fetlocks and passed on. One of those things. Gnarly.

The wash descent made for a pretty rugged, somewhat bush-crashing hike, and by time we got down to the flatter spillway area it was dark. Although this was not an area we were anticipating our little Owls, we figured it'd be better to poke around here instead of twiddling our thumbs up along the ridge. This proved to be a fortuitous decision, as we soon heard the alarm call of a female Spotted Owl. Not wanting to spook her, we consolidated under on of the larger pines just up the banks of the wash, and almost immediately heard a male SPOW contact call. The call was close...very was coming from inside the house!
The male SPOW was directly above us. Behold, endangered Spotted Owl butt.

The owls proceeded to cavort all around the wash, giving us great visuals at times though I did not get any further photos. I did almost lose my binoculars while trying to balance camera and flashlight on the loose rock in the dark.

After the quality SPOW time we spent the next few hours patrolling the ridge along FR 201 and some of its scion game trails. Near the Mt. Peeley trailhead we had clear audio of Northern Saw-whet Owl, and a few miles down the road logged steady Flammulated calls, but we could never get visuals on either species. The best bird of the night was another heard-only, a Mexican Whip-poor-will calling for a couple of minutes down one of the ravines about half a mile east of the Mt. Peeley trailhead. Although this is good habitat for them, last I heard (years ago) this species had not been recorded in Maricopa County before.

So a bulk of our best birds were heard only, which is bittersweet--much more bitter than sweet really--but by the numbers it was a tremendously successful nocturnal foray, and we were still home by midnight. The most numerous bird after sundown was Common Poorwill, with one bird kind enough to perch on a burned stump instead of the dusty road or out of sight in the manzanita scrub.

I feel like people, myself included, do not spend enough time thinking about how fantastic nightjars are. They are gigantic camouflaged flying mouths, nocturnal avian pac-men and ghosts as well...which actually doesn't make them sound as awesome and hyper-specialized as they really are. With fair flair, it's all about the Warblers and shore birding out east, but I am disproportionately looking forward to getting acquainted with new Nightjars in NC.