Thursday, June 18, 2015

My First Young Birder's Camp-- The Chiricahua's (Part 1)

A few months ago I was informed that on the AZNM Listserve there was going to be a young birder's camp to the Chiricahua Mountains in SEAZ, of course I jumped at the opportunity and thanks to Mr. Tom Hildebrandt, Mr. Joe Ford, and my parents I was able to go! I haven't ever been to a young birder's camp or the to the Chiricahuas, so this was kinda like killing two birds with one stone (no birds were harmed in the making of this post). Well on June 12th I was headed up towards Wilcox with Mr. Ford, where we would meet up with the rest of the camp. The night before the trip we had plans to chase an Elegant Tern in Tucson before going to Wilcox but of course when we were almost to Tuscon I looked on the listserve to see that the tern had just left!!! After laughing about the report we had to make a quick change of plans, so we instead decided to bird around St. David which is just south of Benson. Our target bird for this area was the Mississippi Kite which can be seen in fairly good numbers in this area. Once Mr. Ford and I arrived at the St. David Holy Trinity we started birding and it wasn't long before Mr. Ford and I found a couple of Tropical Kingbirds.

Tropical Kingbird

While Mr. Ford watched some of his favorite birds like Northern Cardinals, Bullock's Orioles, Vermilion Flycatchers, Yellow Warblers, and Phainopeplas I kept my eyes in the skies for any kites. After birding the area for nearly forty-five minutes it was time to leave but just as we were getting into the car to leave I spied a super distant raptor and once I lifted my binocs onto the bird I was pumped to find that it was my buzzer-beating Mississippi Kite swooping down into the riparian forest! I was ecstatic to see a lifer before the camp even started! We then made our way over to Wilcox where we met up with the other birders before the camp I kept in touch with Walker Noe (who was my roommate during the camp), and before I even met him I knew that we were going to be what we called "A one-two punch of awesomeness"! Walker and I had six main target birds for the trip: Blue-throated Hummingbird, Scaled Quail, Mexican Whip-poor-will, Whiskered Screech-Owl, Buff-breasted Flycatcher, and our most sought after target of the trip, the Mexican Chickadee! Before we headed over to the Southwestern Research Station where we were staying, we made a quick stop by Rustler Park (an area known for getting MECHs at). The area had a few birds like these Yellow-eyed Juncos.
Yellow-eyed Junco

After the short stop by Rustler we made our way to the Station, where Walker and I walked down to the hummingbird feeders where we saw our first target of the trip, the Blue-throated Hummingbird.

Blue-throated Hummingbird--male

Blue-throated Hummingbird--female

Walker and I spent a lot of time during camp at the hummingbird feeders in search of the best photo opportunity or a Plain-capped Starthroat (guess which one we got). Magnificent Hummingbirds (like the Blue-throats) are quite numerous around the feeders.

Magnificent Hummingbird--male

Magnificent Hummingbird--female

After the hummingbirds, we explored some of the nearby drainages in search of any Buff-breasted Flycatchers. Spoiler-alert, we didn't find any BBFLs during the whole trip even after searching several drainages many times! After a little more birding we made our first owling trip to a nearby home. Even though we had a group of over twenty people we made it work, somehow. While we stood in the day  I looked up in the night sky and spotted an Elf Owl! Mr. John Yerger (the owl master) said that he didn't want us using flash photography, which is nearly impossibly at night time so this was the most that I could manage.

Elf Owl--In nesting cavity

The owling trip wasn't very long so Walker and I asked for permission to do a little owling afterwards and our permission was granted! So Walker and I owled around the Station for about forty-five minutes before we had to come back. We had two nocturnal targets for the trip, Whiskered Screech-Owl and Mexican Whip-poor-will. As we walked along the edge of a creek we were amazed to hear a Whiskered Screech-Owl give its descend "to to to to to to to to" call, Lifer #3 for the trip!!! We continued our owl excursion along the creek but the only other birds we could hear were a pair of Elf Owls laughing in the canopy of the tall sycamores. Before long it was time to go to sleep and then start a new day of birding. We started the next day early at 5:00 A.M. The first highlight was a calling Northern Pygmy-Owl that happened to be a lifer for Walker and only the second time for me. After hearing the owl it was time for breakfast. As soon as I was done eating I walked towards the feeders and was pumped to hear an Elegant Trogon calling from the creek! I quickly ran to get Walker and Dalton (Walker's younger brother) so we could possibly get a visual. While we were on our way to where I heard the trogon I spotted another lifer for Walker, a Northern Goshawk, flying low over the creek. After searching for the trogon without success we made our way to Cave Creek--South Fork, in hopes of seeing trogons. I don't know if you've noticed but it is hard enough trying to see a trogon by yourself but times that by 21 and you get stuck rubbing the belly of a rubber-chicken (you would have to be there to understand)! Of course the rubber-chicken didn't work and no trogons were seen, but while we were walking along the road I pointed out to an area that looked promising for a trogon to be nesting, and sure enough after walking past that area a trogon started calling from the exact patch of oaks I pointed to! There wasn't too much at the South Fork except for a brief glimpse of a Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher flying over. Our next stop was at Turkey Creek where Walker and I were hoping to get a Mexican Chickadee at but we of course came up empty. Our chances of getting the MECH started to thin out as we ran out of time but luckily our group's leaders decided to make one last stop at Rustler Park. The group said that we were only going to picnic at this area but Walker and I got permission from the leaders to go on birding hard while everyone ate lunch, we had one hour to find the Mexican Chickadee, one hour and that was it! So Walker and I hiked up the hillside (off trail) to a ridge where we listened for a while. While we were hiking along the ridge I heard a "chi chi" call that sounded good for MECH but it was so distant that it was hard to tell where it was coming from. We listened for about ten minutes without hearing the bird again until we decided to hike further along the ridge, then the bird called again only this time we both heard it! While we waited yet again for the bird to call I looked way out to where I had just seen a bird flitting around and once I put my binocs on it I saw that it was feeding and acting like a chickadee but it disappeared into the canopy of the firs. We walked over to where I saw it, I was frustrated to find no signs of any birds! But after about fifteen minutes of waiting I finally got a good look at that songster!

Mexican Chickadee!!!!!

After screaming "There it is!!!!!" Walker got on the bird and we nervously followed the bird hoping that it wouldn't fly away into the forest. As Walker and I observed the bird, it strangely hopped onto an odd perch, on a dead tree.

The Mexican Chickadees in the United States can only be found in two mountain ranges, the Chiricahua Mountains in southeastern Arizona and the Animas Mountains in Southwestern New Mexico. With the Chiris being the only place in AZ where you can find Mexican Chickadee a lot of birders come out to this mountain range just for that one bird! It was a huge relief for Walker and I to find this bird, and we definitely didn't hold out on the fist-bumps! It only got better when we found that there wasn't just one but two MECHs!

Walker then decided to go back to the group and tell them about our discovery while I stayed and watched the bird to make sure that it didn't go anywhere. While I watched the chickadee it strangely returned to the same dead tree that it came to earlier, that was when I noticed that it was bringing food to its nest that was in a cavity!!!

Mexican Chickadee--Bringing food to its fledglings!!!

Once Walker returned with the whole group I told them the good news and we had a memorable time of watching the chickadees go back-and-forth bringing food to their fledglings.

Waiting for the chickadee...   Photo by Ms. Jennie MacFarland

 To add onto the chickadee's awesomeness it was my 300th bird for the year! Even though it was hard to leave the chickadees, we had to go back to camp. Walker and I did even more birding while at camp, the only time that we weren't birding was when we were sleeping and sometimes when we were eating, but other than that we were birding HARD!!!! After birding, eating, and giving a short presentation we went on our second night of owling, only this time the only bird we heard was a Whiskered Screech-Owl that called once. So again we went out to do a little owling afterwards only this time it was Walker, Dalton, and I. A huge thanks to Ms. Jennie MacFarland for letting us borrow her speaker for bird calls! As we started owling we could hear the Whiskered still calling and soon after that we heard a pair of Elf Owls calling from close by and we even got a few photos!

Elf Owl

The Elf Owl is the smallest owl in the world and is only about the size of a chunky sparrow! This was only the second time I have seen the Elf so getting to photograph them on my second try was pretty cool. After heading back from the Elf Owl I decided to whistle the call of the Whiskered Screech-Owl out of my window and I had one react and several people got glimpses of it flying back-and-forth. I had an amazing first two days of the trip and the next day only got better! Stay Tuned to find out what I might see next.


  1. Awesome post man! We really crushed those Blue-throats. It was a great weekend and you were on a roll the whole time. My fist still hurts from the MECH fist bumps.

    1. Thanks Walker!!! Those Blue-throats were definitely photogenic. That Mexican Chickadee was an experience that I don't think either of us will ever forget!

  2. Great post and discoveries and lifers and trip Caleb! Well done. The Mexican Chickadee story was very exciting. What a neat little bird that is. And killer crushes on Blue-throated Hummingbird. I don't have very good shots of that bird. And plus you got killer shots away from a feeder, that is not easy to do. The Chiris are the best place to see the Blue-throats in Arizona, they are pretty hard elsewhere.

    1. Thanks Mr. Tommy!!! Strange thing is that I went to Madera Canyon afterwards and had a Blue-throat flyby near the Santa Rita Lodge! The MECH is, indeed, an awesome bird!

  3. Nice work, especially because it's summer time and you're supposed to be vacationing!

    1. Thanks Mr. Laurence!!! Vacation? I am unfamiliar with that word, haha!