Thursday, September 22, 2011

SE Arizona - Day 1 and 2

Due to work commitments, we were forced to take our fall vacation in late September. In past years, it would have been a no brainer to plan a trip to Yellowstone, but the past few fall seasons there haven't been great. So, instead we decided to head back to SE Arizona. We had unfinished business there from our trip 18 months ago that was somewhat interrupted by weather.

So, after an uneventful flight to Phoenix and a surprisingly nice experience with Enterprise Rent-a-Car, we climbed into our Ford Escape and took off south hoping for lower temperatures and lots of critters. As we approached Tucson we could see some dramatic lightning in the distance. But, as we got even closer our "oohs and aahs" quickly turned into "holy craps" and worse as we realized that we were going to be driving into a black wall of rain and hail. The temperature had gone from 98 degrees to 66 degrees in an instant and even though we slowed down to 5-10 MPH, we could barely see the road. We passed dozens of cars that had just given up and pulled off the freeway onto the shoulder or took an exit off the freeway entirely. While it seemed longer, the white-knuckled zero visibility conditions probably just lasted a minute or two and then we were through it. We continued to pass more cars pulled off the freeway and we could see lots of underpasses were flooded so it was a good thing that we didn't exit the freeway. Luckily, that was the extent of the bad weather for the rest of the trip. Looking back, it would have been fitting to have Pink Floyd on the radio singing an Arizona inspired altered version of "Welcome to The Monsoon".

Our first destination was Madera Canyon for two nights which is primarily noted for birding but we were planning to do some "mammaling" and "herping" as well. After settling in our cabin at the Santa Rita Lodge which we nicknamed "slanty" due to the pretty dramatic slope of the floor, we unpacked, grabbed the camera gear, and took off to look for critters. The Santa Rita Lodge has lots of feeders up so we didn't have to go very far before seeing life and not all of it feathered.

Acorn Woodpecker Acorn:
Acorn Woodpecker

Lesser Goldfinch:
Lesser Goldfinch

Bordered Patch:
Bordered Patch

Juvenile Rock Squirrel:
Juvenile Rock Squirrel

One thing we didn't do during our last Arizona trip was take night walks so we quickly remedied that our first night by walking the roads. Unfortunately, besides this spider, we came up empty on the walk.


However, we hit the goldmine back at the cabin because a grouping of hummingbird feeders was left out all night and the bats quickly took advantage of this. They darted in and out so quickly in real time that I doubted I would be able to get a decent picture but after a few adjustments I was able to get good enough shots to identify these bats as Lesser Long-nosed bats.

Lesser Long-nosed Bat

Lesser Long-nosed Bat

We didn't get a great night's sleep the first night because we had some sort of critters rustling around on our cabin. We got up numerous times with flashlights in hand trying to find them, secretly hoping that it might be a Ringtail, but we never saw a thing. In the light of day we did see a rather large poop on the roof so who knows what was up there.

Our goal this morning was to look for an Elegant Trogon so we headed out early and up the trail where they are known to hang out. Unfortunately, we never saw nor heard a Trogon and the most prevalent critter was the mosquito. But, we did manage to find a few more welcomed critters as well

Clark's and Yarrow's Spiny Lizards:
A Pair of Spiny Lizards (Clark's and Yarrow's)

Yarrow's Spiny Lizard:
Yarrow's Spiny Lizard

Pleasing Fungus Beetles having a 'Shroom:
Beetle Feeding Frenzy - Pleasing Fungus Beetle

We didn't make it to the top of the canyon because the skeeters were just too ferocious and we didn't pack decent bug spray. But, the view from about 3/4 of the way up was pretty nice:

View from Madera Canyon

After sort of striking out deep in the canyon, we decided to head to the mouth of the canyon next hoping that we would see more pretty critters and less bitey ones. Unfortunately, our luck wasn't much better, but the area was pretty.

Proctor Road, Madera Canyon

We rested a bit in the afternoon by taking a drive along the roads leading to the canyon and stopping by the Proctor Rd area again. This yielded some good pictures.

Wild Turkey:
Wild Turkey

Black Bear (We have now seen bears 6 years in a row during our various trips):
Black Bear

Monarch Butterfly:
Monarch Butterfly

Coyote in the Cactus:
Coyote in the Cactus

Another Cool Praying Mantis:
Praying Mantis

Instead of a night walk tonight, we decided to do a night drive after getting a tip that snakes like to warm up on the roads after dusk. So, we drove up to the top of the canyon and then back out almost to Green Valley. This turned out to be a great choice since it yielded some interesting animals and our first sightings of rattlesnakes in the wild.

Our first Rattler, a juvenile Western Diamond-backed Rattlesnake:
Juvenile Western Diamond-backed Rattlesnake

A few hundred yards further down the road was this large Rattler:
Western Diamond-backed Rattlesnake

We also had this creepy spider outside our cabin:
Creepy Spider Part 2

All in all, it was a great first couple of days for us.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

SE Arizona - Day 3, 4 & 5

The plan for Day 3 was to spend a few hours at Madera Canyon and then head out on the 3+ hour drive to Portal with a few stops along the way. We once again choose to spend our last hours at the Proctor Rd area since that seemed to have the most early morning action and we had some good luck.

Black-headed Grosbeak:
Black-headed Grosbeak


This Acorn Woodpecker spent all day flying back and forth between trees and our cabin. Our cabin looked like swiss cheese with all the holes. This sequence of shots illustrates the pattern that occurred all day long:

"Oh, a hole"
Acorn Woodpecker - Hiding Acorn

Acorn Woodpecker - Pounding Acorn

Acorn Woodpecker - Job Done

For lunch, we hit a Safeway in Benson for some sandwiches and then headed to Kartchner Caverns State Park to eat them and look for wildlife. We decided to save the cave exploration for a future trip and instead had our picnic lunch and then hiked the loop trail that they have. Besides the millions of multi-colored grasshoppers that we saw on the hike we saw some other cool critters as well.

Elegant Earless Lizard:
Elegant Earless Lizard

Black-chinned Hummingbird:
Black-chinned Hummingbird

Ash-throated Flycatcher:
Ash-throated Flycatcher

Great Earless Lizard:
Greater Earless Lizard

Unknown Beetle:

Is it just me, or does this lizard look guilty?
Greater Earless Lizard

White-face Ibis near Willcox:
White-faced Ibis

The rest of the road trip through Arizona and into, and quickly out of, New Mexico was uneventful until we reached the outskirts of Portal where we encountered another rattlesnake crossing the road. This time Karen hopped out after me to get a closer look but this prompted the snake to dart into the bushes and give us a taste of it's rattle. We were surprised at how quick the snake was and how loud the rattle was.

Soon after, we arrived at Quailway Cottage in Portal. We have stayed here before and knew that this was the place to be to see wildlife in the area and it didn't take long for Quailway to deliver. Over the course of the next few hours we hung out at the cottage grounds and saw lots of critters.

Blue Grosbeak:
Blue Grosbeak

Vermilion Flycatcher:
Vermilion Flycatcher

That evening we took a night drive into the Cave Creek Canyon hoping to spot a ringtail but we saw absolutely nothing until we returned to the cottage and walked around the grounds a bit. At least that turned up a couple toads and a really cute Kangaroo Rat.

Couch's Spadefoot:
Couch's Spadefoot

Ord's Kangaroo Rat:
Ord's Kangaroo Rat

The most excitement all day happened before bed when Karen found a small scorpion strutting its stuff on the hallway floor. After a quick picture, I was able to capture it in a glass and release it. We hadn't expected to encounter scorpions in our room and really hadn't been looking for them but we quickly concluded that this must have been an anomaly. After all, what were the odds that there would be another scorpion in our room?... Those were almost my famous last words. Not 10 minutes later Karen spotted something moving on the floor near me. Upon closer inspection it was another scorpion that was even smaller than the first. Unfortunately, this one decided to tuck itself into the corner of the room under some furniture which made it impossible to relocate. So, with much guilt, I had to take care of it via more terminal means.

Stripe-tailed Scorpion:

Needless to say, that nights sleep wasn't great since the thoughts of scorpions crawling around filled our minds. But, we needn't have worried because we didn't see another living thing in our cottage the rest of the trip.

Day 4 was an action packed day. We started by having breakfast outside the cottage watching all the birds flutter about. This is a very relaxing activity for us almost akin to watching a fish tank.

Curve-billed Thrasher:
Curve-billed Thrasher

After stalling long enough, we decided to go hiking in the canyon. Our first choice which was recommended by the managers of the cottage was closed due to the early summer fires so instead we hiking a trail called the Basin Trail. While it was a really nice hike, we didn't have a ton of wildlife encounters.

Cave Creek Canyon:
Cave Creek Canyon

Mountain Spiny Lizard:
Mountain Spiny Lizard

In the afternoon, we stopped by the Desert Museum on the highway based on a recommendation that we received from someone that we met in Madera Canyon. We were extremely impressed by this facility. Not only did they have a great collection of live snakes, but they also had a live Gila Monster which was FANTASTIC. The odds of finding one of these in the wild is slim (about the same as having two scorpions back to back in your room) so it was great to be able to see one up close. They also have an amazing selection of cool merchandise and books as well as an outdoor garden stocked with desert plants, lizards, and turtles. It is definitely worth a visit. Of course, the afternoon isn't a great time in the outdoor garden area so we don't have any pictures from this particular visit to the museum except for the captive Gila Monster

Gila Monster (Captive)

The rest of the day was spent at the cottage hoping that the Javelinas would return before dinner and they obliged us right on time. We also continued to marvel at the bird life around the cottage.

 Collared Peccary

Greater RoadRunner:
Greater Roadrunner

After dark, we tried our luck at another night drive into the canyon. While we didn't completely strike out, all we saw was a night hawk and a tarantula. Once again our luck was better right around the cottage.

Mexican Spadefoot:
Mexican Spadefoot

On day 5, we had arranged to take a morning bird watching tour with John who is the new manager of the Cottage. He is a professional guide and we had a great time. His services are highly recommended not only because he knows his birds but because he was also excited to point out mammals, reptiles and even the areas plant life. The whole trip was really fun and educational. More information can be found on his company's website Adventure Birding. During our morning trip was saw lots of interesting animals and some were even kind enough to stay still long enough for a picture.

Apache (Mexican) Fox Squirrel:
Apache Fox Squirrel

Townsend's Warbler:
Townsend's Warbler

Yellow-throated Vireo which is never seen west of the rockies:
Yellow-throated Vireo (A rare find West of the Mississippi)

Lesser Goldfinch:
Lesser Goldfinch

White-lined Sphinx Moth:
White-lined Sphinx Moth

After lunch, we decided to head back to one of the spots that John took us which was the South Fork of Cave Creek. That was apparently as good a place as any to take another stab at finding the Elegant Trogon. Unfortunately, no Trogon once again. But, we did have a pleasant walk up to the end of the road despite the gnats that insisted on buzzing around our heads.

South Fork:
Cave Creek Canyon

That afternoon we repeated our pattern of hanging out at the cabin waiting for the Javelinas. Once again, we weren't disappointed as we got really close views of them as the cruised through the grounds looking for food and water.

Look at those teeth!
Collared Peccary (Javelina)

Collared Peccary (Javelina)

Collared Peccary (Javelina)

For our last night in Portal, we decided to do our night drive later in hopes that we might see something and that turned out to be a good idea since we did encounter a Gray Fox trotting along the road. It was too dark for decent pictures but the experience was nice. Back at the cottage we did a wider sweep and managed to find some more toads and had brief encounters with Javelinas, a Desert Cottontail, and some bat that wouldn't stay still long enough for an id picture.

Great Plains Toad:
Great Plains Toad

Our stay at the Quailway Cottage in Portal was fantastic. We love this part of Arizona so it shouldn't be long until we return again.