Thursday, September 16, 2010

Arizona for an Owl on Mount Lemmon

Monday Sep 20, 2010

I got up early enough to be waiting at the door for McDonald's to open, then drove to Lordsburg where I finally solved the computer power supply problem with a simple unit for $30. That was a real increase in freedom since I could keep things charged and running. For the first time in years on this trip I didn't have a detailed record of the roads taken since I couldn't run the GPS software continuously. Guess it really doesn't matter, but it had become traditional, and could be useful someday for re-finding particularly sweet spots.

I made a stop at the Lordsburg Playa, which had a few birds, but nothing notable. The Wilcox Playa was great. There were about thirty Long-billed Curlews as well as a good variety of ducks and other shorbies. At the Benson Sewage ponds I found a Greater White-fronted Goose, which had been notable on the Arizona listserv, though I only found that out later when I got my revitalized computer on-line for mail. From there I drove on into Tucson to find Sweetwater Wetlands. This was really hard, even with a pretty good idea where it was. First I poked around in a city park until I figured out that the sewage plant that fed the wetlands was on the other side of the river. I finally found one human, a gardener, in the 104F heat who was able to tell me how to find the access to the road that led there. Even then I took a couple of wrong turns until I tried asking in a little building on a dead-end parking lot. They sent me back to the obscure lot that was parking for the wetlands. I couldn't even bear to get out of the car, but at least I knew exactly where it was and the exact, and only(!) route to get there. The trick is getting on the access road along the interstate, which can only be done from the north end since it's one-way. About a mile down there's a road back to the treatment plant, and the wetlands parking is about a quarter mile down that road on the south side. Make a note of that.

I wanted to get up Mount Lemmon, as much for birds as to get above some of the heat. My goal was the General Hitchcock Campground in the Bear Canyon area. There had been repeated reports of Flammulated Owl from there when I was out earlier in the year, but a long evening there and in several other picnic areas nearby, playing tapes, and going from one to the other walking in the woods by headlamp had failed completely. Fortunately, I'm a model of idiot persistence. I settled into the campground well before dark, the temp had dropped 20+ degrees, I met a guy named Justin, who had a Harley but seemed un-biker-ish. He had been camping for almost two weeks and had seen and heard owls, but wasn't a birder.

He shared cold water and talk, then I set out up the trail above the campground, the typical parallel along a creek-bed. There were good birds, and great butterflies including a Fritillary that simply blew me away. I also found a lot of bear sign, scats in the trail, normal, a stump seriously torn apart fairly recently, and then a scrape showing four clear claws where he/she had dragged her paw in the middle of the trail. The distance across the claws was four or five inches, and the scape was nearly two feet long. That made me think, especially when I got back to my chosen site and found more fresh scat there. There were bear-proof food storage lockers but I didn't see any way to sleep in them. So I ended up sleeping on the picnic table, which is an approach I've used a lot, no tent, just pad and bag with a water bottle and light at hand.

As it was getting dusk I started hearing some owl-like sounds, but not the Flam's double hoot, so I was reading up on the local owls. Apparently there were three small varieties and one I was able to make out as the southern Rocky mountain version of the Northern Saw-whet, which has different sounding call, the individual notes aren't toots as normal, but more like "cuck"s as in the prep notes for Yellow-billed Cuckoo's call. It's at least a sub-species, called Mountain Pygmy Owl, and there's some talk of full species status though I read somewhere that the DNA doesn't support a wide split between the types. More disheartening was the info that the Flam's only call on the breeding grounds, and that was way past. I pretty much gave up and was just sitting there in the new dark when I heard something coming down the canyon from up the trail that resolved into double hoots. I jumped up and walked over to Justin's site as the bird flew by, tree to tree, calling irregularly as it passed down the canyon. Not all the calls were doubled, maybe a little more than half, but it was distinctive. I didn't hear it again after it passed. It was my last sought owl species and I'd been looking for it for several years. Two people I talked to the next day said I'd been very lucky to hear it in the fall.

I slept pretty well, only a little of the normal scurrying noises, and no bears in the night.

Tuesday, Sep 21

Got into Tucson at first light and went directly to Sweetwater with some C-store grub in hand. It was great, the flowing water in the ditch by the parking was really attractive to passerines, and I found new warblers for the AZ list. Back further in there were nice ponds surrounded by vegetation and all the way to the back were large open settling pools with a lot of duck and shorebird activity and at least one Peregrine Falcon. I spent a couple of hours walking and re-walking the trails, it's not very extensive, and added a half dozen AZ tics, including neat little surprises like a Common Moorhen.

I had noted on the maps a BLM National Monument not too far north called Ironwood Forest, and since it involved driving by the Red Rock cattle yards, a possible location for Ruddy Ground-Dove, it was the next goal. The road makes a loop around some dessert hills, or maybe small mountains, but as I got further down the road it got worse quickly, and I didn't want to bang up the low riding Roo going the full distance, so I drove back and this time really studied the yards and wires and fences, but nothing dove-like showed.

Back In the city I tracked down the Tucson Audubon Society (TAS) bookstore. It was well hidden by the fact that the house numbering and the Avenue numbering run in opposite directions. The staff didn't seem to realize how confusing that could be to someone who was only familiar with every other city in the US. The book selection was good, pricey, and the staff aloof. They seemed troubled that someone had actually walked in, so I didn't stay long, but was disappointed since such places are usually hotbeds of late breaking news and insider tips. Not this one, not for me, I guess I should have been wearing expensive binocs.

I could have stayed in Tucson some relatives, but had become grossed out by the aggravation of street numbers and the rising heat. They wouldn't be home for hours and I could be back in Silver City if I just made a run for it. Which I did, back by dusk, met up with my friend Laura and agreed to house-sit her cat while she went off to visit her daughter for a few days. Got to sleep in her woman smelling bed, take a hot bath, and do laundry, but not 'til the next day.


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