Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Miller Canyon: The High Life

Miller Canyon...with its perfect location, beautiful habitats, and relative accessibility, it is so often the object of birders' hopes and dreams, and so often the subject of many heartbreaks. The attractive qualities of Miller Canyon are superlative. The Beatty Guest Ranch in Miller Canyon is world-renowned for its variation in hummingbirds, with a North American record 14 species seen there in a single day. Additionally, it hosts an annual pair of breeding Spotted Owls, a majestic and endangered species that is not reliably found anywhere else in the state.
Despite the Owls being largely sedentary, I've made the drive down south and missed the Owls on three separate occasions, and once while joining forces with an outstanding birder ally. 
There enters the heartbreak, the spiraling depressions and benders, the broken commitments, the total total nadir of an Arizona birder's soul...a binge in Miller Canyon and leave one reeling for days. 

Heading into the belly of the beast. So naive

After the most recent miss on the Owls, I was back in the Canyon within a month. I knew that this time I would find the Owls, in addition to a great many great birds, and I knew that because this time they were not the main reason for the trip back to Miller Canyon. I returned with my birding buddy Tommy, at the expense even of doing a Maricopa County east side Big Day, because there was an almighty concatenation of birds in that Huachuca Mountain pass the weekend of April 27th.   

When Western Tanagers are some of the less remarkable bids seen on your trip, you know it's a good birding day.

Not only was Miller Canyon still hosting the Spotted Owls, and not only was it now receiving its normal influx of Blue-throated and Magnificent Hummingbirds, along with Dusky-capped and Buff-breasted Flycatchers, but the Canyon also had two reported Crescent-chested Warblers, a Flame-colored Tanager, Pygmy Owls, Goshawks...add in a Lucifer Hummingbird next door at Ash Canyon, and it was a feathered paradise.
A young Scott's Oriole perched on ocotillo? Not even a big deal...

Just to avoid any later disappointment, the Crescent-chested Warblers did not show that day, though we did hear some suspicious, Parula-like trilling on the trail. Thundering up and down Miller Canyon, even with dozens of other eager birders from around the southwest, including California, New Mexico, and Nevada, the odds were always heavily against finding those little birds, and we will likely hav eto wait a few more years to try again. 
But searching for Crescent-chested Warblers in Miller Canyon is like trying to find the perfect diamond in a jewelry store: there are plenty of other gems around. Also, you shouldn't eat the merchandise, nor put it in your pocket and try to leave. 

The stationary Hummingbird feeders are great attractions at the Beatty Ranch in Miller Canyon, but finding and photographing some of the Hummers away from the feeders, like this female Blue-throated below, presents an enjoyable challenge, especially when warblers are being all anti-social. 

Like the other southeastern Arizona mountain ranges, Miller Canyon and the Huachucas host the brown-backed Arizona Woodpecker. The Cactus Wren is a mighty mascot for state bird, but this fellow would've done well too, even if it is esoteric in its location. With an ability to climb, eat, and fight crime while upside down, these Woodpeckers, like Nuthatches, make Spiderman seem blasé. 

Every birding trip of 3+ hours driving needs to produce a rarity of some sort, and that rarity must have a grainy, backlit portrait taken. Miller Canyon is peculiar in that is hosts so many great birds, and so many birds that are not found much elsewhere in the country, but within the mountain range they're locally common. Luckily, or perhaps unluckily, this Flame-colored x Western Tanager applied for a job in the 'rarity' department. With the yellowish wingbar and weaker orange coloration (seems like a crime to say, doesn't it) disqualifying this bird as being a pure Flame-colored, it is in the odd position of being rarer than either a Western or regular Flame-colored, and yet, as far as the lister is concerned, more or less useless. This is the plight of the hybrid bird, but a plight that does not at all extend into the realm of aesthetic enjoyment.

On the drive down from Phoenix, Tommy and I stopped to do some owling on Mt. Lemmon in Tucson the night before. It cost a good night's sleep, but we heard Flammulated, Western-Screech, Mexican Whip-poor-will, Great-horned, and N. Saw-whet Owl (nice!) all on the mountain. This fortunate prelude of owling could've been interpreted two ways. Either it was going to be a very owl-y weekend, or we used up our Owl luck in Tucson.
It was the first possibility that proved true, and we made sure right away. Before hours of hiking up and down Miller Canyon, scouring every bush and analyzing every trilll for the CCWA, we spotted the Spotted nemesis sitting in a choke-cherry tree.

Knowing he could thwart us no longer, that we had his number, that his ticket was up, the Owl still did its best to frustrate, ducking away and pretending to scratch an itch on its back. I could just be bitter, since I too get itches on my back and cannot scratch them in this fashion, thus begging the question, what the heck good is our spinal chord anyway?

When the perch has been found, the hard part is done. though the morning light was behind the bird, we eventually had some great, overdue face-time, and I should also stress that the Owl was not stressed or harassed in any way beyond our unavoidable proximity, perched as it was fairly near the trail. For better or worse, we gawking birders were business as usual for this freckled hooter.

In our subsequent Warbler search, which did turn up just about every other possible warbler in the area, including Red-faced and Virginia's, we did a fair amount of exploring around a bend in the wash where another birder reported seeing a Northern Pygmy Owl being mobbed the day before. Exploring the pine trees around the trail, I found whitewash deposits but all the elevated staring in the world couldn't produce that little eight inch poof ball I was looking for.

Later in the afternoon, while quintouple-checking that same area for the elusive Warblers, we met up with fellow Arizonan and fantastic birder Kurt Radamaker, who spotted a small but well-worn hole in a nearby scrub oak. A little patience...and there it was.

"Who dares to disturb my slumber!?"
Our sixth owl species in 12 hours, this was a super find and one of the highlights of the day. On one hand, the bird's limited visibility kept it from being a perfect sighting, but on the other hand, actually getting the Owl-in-a-hole isn't as common a treat as common consensus and Halloween decorations would have us believe.

With Ash Canyon and Sierra Vista grasslands beckoning after Miller Canyon, there was no time nor desire to crack open a few of the High Life when we finally called it quits on the Warbler (nor time and desire for smokes after Ash Canyon, nor Sierra Nevadas after Sierra Vista, etc). No no, there were birds to see. We saved all the prodigious drinking for the drive home.
Water that is! Ha ha..ha...

Miller: it's the Champagne of Canyons.

Posted by Laurence Butler


  1. Wow, your patience certainly paid off very well! Beautiful songbirds and then...there they were, the Owls right there...very nice!

    1. Cheers Mary,

      Stationary birding, picking a spot and waiting, listening, usually brings a big yield, but seldom does it seem like waiting near tree hole will actually produce an owl. It was fortunate to have some additional, hinting info this time around, plus I might indignantly add that Miller Canyon totally owed me one... : )

  2. Replies
    1. Cheers Robert,

      I'll read that as a title: "I, Great Birding Laurence, do solemnly swear..."
      (Just kidding, arrogance doesn't become the birder community : )

  3. Amazing! What a birding trip you had. And thanks for sharing your fabulous photos with the rest of us!

  4. Laurence, hilarious as always. What an adventure. Glad you found all those owls. And I think I recognize Mark Ochs in there! He is one energetic birder! I'm sure you all got along great! Miller Canyon is awesome but you certainly have to put the work in to get there and to see the birds!

  5. Great read while enjoying my morning coffee, Lawrence. Made me ache that I'll never be able to visit Miller Canyon. Such wonderful and rare birds!

  6. My what a fun post! You saw some amazing birds, took some wonderful photos. :-)

  7. Sounds like you had a marvelous adventure at Miller Canyon. I would be thrilled to see each and every bird you mentioned in this entertaining post. I can't imagine seeing 14 different species of hummingbirds in a day, as we only spot Ruby-throated Hummingbirds in my neck of the woods. Terrific photographs, Laurence! Miller Canyon looks like I place I would definitely like to visit.

  8. Very cool Laurence!!! Owls make me smile. Miller Canyon is really a great place. Always fun to read your treks:)

  9. Prepping for tomorrow! Reading through whatever I can find on the net to finalize the itinerary!