“Look, there’s a raptor flying against the cliffs,” Donna motioned.
“There’s three, no four. They are Red-tailed Hawks,” Gail replied. “See the dark leading edges of the wings.”
The hawks flew higher as they circled over the tops of the mountains, attracting the attention of two Turkey Vultures who joined the surveillance.
I was in the Chiricahua Mountains in southeastern Arizona with two birding friends. The morning was cool and the soft colors of early fall accentuated the reddish hues of the cliffs and golden tones of the grasses. The water-carved sandstone cliffs and spires reminded me of southern Utah.
It was a great day to be outside. We parked Donna’s truck a short ways from the Southwestern Research Station where we were staying, and then walked along the road, hoping to rustle up a Montezuma Quail in the grasses.
Butterflies were everywhere. Tiny azure blue ones that flew in groups, small white ones, those in varying shades of yellow and orange, and dark ones with unique markings. I recognized the California Sister. One of the butterflies had had ragged-edged orange wings with dark splotches that looked as though they had been chewed. It is called a Satyr Comma because of its shape.
Our attention focused on some bare branches in the adjacent field. A female Hepatic Tanager and a Western Wood Peewee were perched in anticipation of insects. We watched as each periodically flew out over the meadow, nailed an insect, and then returned to its perch to savor it.
Behind us we heard the chatter of clown-faced Acorn Woodpeckers, probably the most prevalent bird in this part of the Chiricahuas. Their enthusiasm for acorn gathering was contagious. Their white wing patches made them instantly recognizable when they flew. Each family of woodpeckers appeared to have its own grainery, where they were busily stashing acorns for the winter. One family member sat as a sentinel atop the grainery tree, while others gathered the acorns and then flew in to carefully place them in an already drilled hole. The neatly hewn rows of holes in the grainery snags looked like cribbage boards.
Later in town we saw where the Acorn Woodpeckers had hewn holes in the side of a building.
At the entrance to the Sunny Flats Campground, a soft tapping caught Gail’s attention. When we caught up with her, she alerted us to an Arizona Woodpecker. Its chocolate brown back contrasted with the smooth whitish bark of the sycamore tree. Its back looked so soft that I wanted to reach up and stroke its feathers.
“There’s your junco,” Gail announced. Sure enough, Yellow-eyed Juncos, one of my target birds, scrounged underneath one of the picnic tables in the campground. They looked much like the Slate-colored sub-species of Dark-eyed Juncos we see in New Mexico – until I looked at their faces. Their bright yellow-orange eyes peering through a black ‘smudge’ made them appear as though they were wearing Halloween masks.
A buzz of activity alerted us to foraging Bridled Titmice, their ‘bridles’ clearly observable against their white faces and bodies.
At the South Fork Picnic Area, red and black Painted Redstarts flitted high in the trees. Mexican Jays zoomed in as soon as we sat down to eat our picnic lunch. We dug out some shelled peanuts and watched as the jays jockeyed for position. A few of them would stuff several peanuts in their bills before flying off to a nearby perch to scarf them down.
We headed up to Rustler and Barfoot Parks, high in the mountains. The pavement ended a short distance beyond the Southwest Research Station. While it was only nine miles to the top, driving on the dirt road was slow. Since the road was quite rutted, we parked where the road forks to Barfoot and Rustler and then walked most of the way to Barfoot Park. There were dense fir trees on both sides of the road and almost no bird sounds.
“Perhaps all of the birds decided to head to lower elevations when it rained so hard a couple of days ago,” Gail wondered. However, we decided to push on – to the bend in the road. All of a sudden, the trees came alive. There were kinglets, nuthatches, bushtits and chickadees. It was the Mexican Chickadee that we wanted to see. The high elevations of the Chiricahua Mountains are the only place in the U.S. where they can be seen. After a while, the frenetic activity settled down and only the chickadees remained. We were able to get good looks.
We enjoyed the mountain meadow in Rustler Park, even though there were few birds. We kept straining to look in the crowns of the conifers where Olive Warblers had been seen only a few days prior, but struck out.
On the way back to the research station, we were able to watch a Brown Bear as it scampered into the woods.
As we headed out of the mountains on the third day, we stopped in the grass and mesquite areas near Portal. Gambel’s Quail called and scooted in and out of the bushes.
Brash Cactus Wrens perched on cholla. Black-tailed Gnatcatchers fussed in the mesquite. A ‘chip’ signaled the presence of an occasional Cardinal, which would then pop into view.
As we headed south to Douglas, we stopped to watch a kettle of Swainson’s Hawks as they circled higher and higher and caught the thermals as they continued their migration.
The beauty of the Chiricahua Mountains and their wonderful birds will linger.