After a night in the small town of Willcox, we were on the road early, heading east on I-10 towards the Chiricahua Mountains, arguably THE premier birding location in Southeast Arizona. Although these fantastic mountains are better known for their late spring and summer avifauna, our visit was specifically in search for year round residents of the area, and thus our seasonal timing was unimportant.
These year round resident targets included Mexican Chickadee and Juniper Titmouse, as well as more difficult species such as Montezuma Quail and Black-chinned Sparrow. Finding the former two, especially the chickadee, was our top priority, and was something I had been yearning to do ever since my last visit to the Chiricahuas a year and a half before. On that trip, fires and the resulting floods had made the upper pine forests of the mountains, the only areas the chickadees are present in during the summer, inaccessible. I was crushed by this, as Mexican Chickadee had been a bird I had been dreaming about seeing ever since I knew of the birding mecca that was Southeastern Arizona. I was determined to reach the chickadees on this trip, and had been religiously checking the road condition updates from the Coronado National Forest (of which the Chiris are a part of) website, which showed the upper mountain roads to be in good condition and open, as recently as the night before.
Arriving in the small town of Portal, the gateway to Chiricahuas, early, we decided to spend a little time birding the town and environs while waiting for the upper mountains to warm up and the birds up there to get active.
We ended up spending over an hour birding this extremely birdy and picturesque little town, covering the length of South Rock House Road, starting at the Portal Peak Lodge. Our best bird of the morning would’ve certainly delighted us if we had been from a more westerly portion of the country, but the rare White-throated Sparrow we happened across didn’t have the same resonance with us, thanks to their status as common winter residents throughout our home turf.
Nevertheless, it was definitely a cool find, and my first White-throat west of the Rockies. Our time in Portal yielded nearly thirty species, including the following highlights: Gambel’s Quail (one of my dad’s favorites), Inca Dove, Black-chinned Hummingbird, Rufous Hummingbird, Acorn Woodpecker, Bridled Titmouse, Cactus Wren, Hermit Thrush, Phainopepla, Painted Redstart, Spotted and Canyon Towhees, Chipping, Lincoln’s and White-crowned Sparrows, the distinctive Southwestern Northern Cardinal (superbus), Pyrrhuloxia and around sixty Pine Siskins.
After some terrific birding in Portal, we headed into the well-known Cave Creek Canyon, a summer birding mecca. It was here a couple of years back that I notched a number of firsts, and it was fun returning to areas that held so much excitement for me in the past. The scenery and landscapes were also stunning, as they are throughout these beautiful mountains.
We found the area to be ominously quiet, although we added Mexican Jay to our day light as we drove along slowly, looking and listening for the quail.
We soon reached the American Museum of Natural History’s Southwest Research Station, where I got to participate in some hummingbird banding on my last visit. It was a lot more quiet on this visit, with just a few researchers milling about. We didn’t linger long, although we noted Say’s Phoebe, American Robin and others during our short vigil.
With the sun getting higher in the sky and the temperature beginning to rise, we knew it was high time to begin our ascent, and head for the upper reaches of the Chiricahuas and our quarry, the Mexican Chickadee.
Along the way, we stopped at the gate that had barred my entrance into this area a couple of summers before. Memories of frustration and sadness at not being able to reach the terrific spots in the upper mountains came pouring back, as I stood and looked at the now open gate, and the calmed river and well-conditioned road behind us.
With that, we took off, heading ever upwards over the winding mountain roads, admiring the spectacular beauty of these regal mountains.
Our first stop in the highlands was Barfoot Junction, a location often frequented by our quarry. Although we didn’t see any chickadees here, Hairy Woodpecker, Steller’s Jay, White-breasted and Pygmy Nuthatches, Yellow-eyed Junco and a singing Olive Warbler, were all exciting to connect with.
We then moved onto Rustler Park, and it was there, among the pines and patches of snow, that I heard the wheezy and buzzy call notes of the Mexican Chickadee for the first time. We were soon on two of these awesome birds, restricted in the United States to only two mountain ranges, the Chiricahuas and nearby Animas Mountains in Southwest New Mexico.
Their grayish underparts, tail, mantle and wings, coupled with their white face, and extensive black bib, make these birds one of the most striking and unique members of the Paridae family’s North American representatives. The Mexican Chickadee instantly become one of my favorite members of this awesome family.
As we watched these birds foraging and calling in the tall pines above the parking lot, an enormous sense of accomplishment and relief came over me, as two years of frustration and sadness were washed away.
After a while, the chickadees drifted further away from the Rustler Park parking lot, and we decided to head out and try another location for the chickadees, as well as for Montezuma Quail.
While leaving the park, we couldn’t help but stop for a minute and admire the scene ahead of us, one of many gorgeous vistas in these majestic mountains.
Our next stop was Pinery Canyon, on the western side of the mountains, past Onion Saddle. We spent a while walking the nearby pine forest and road at this location, enjoying the birds and taking in the scenery. Another awesome Mexican Chickadee was present, and we were able to obtain even better looks and photos of this stunner.
Other highlights here included Hairy Woodpecker, Hutton’s Vireo, Common Raven, Bushtit, White-breasted Nuthatch, Ruby-crowned Kinglet as well as my first ever “Gray-headed” Juncos among the Yellow-eyeds.
After the canyon, we headed back over the mountains and then descended once again, heading for the tiny outpost of Paradise, the best location for Juniper Titmouse in all of Southeastern Arizona.
At this point in my birding career, Juniper Titmouse was the last titmouse I had yet to see, and another one of the birds I had missed a couple of years before. Our plan was to hit the George Walker House, owned by the very kind and hospitable Jackie Lewis, and watch the seed trays for the titmouse, which is a regular visitor to the yard.
After waiting a good while and with no titmouse to show for it, we took up a neighbor on their offer to visit their yard, as their feeders are also regularly visited by the titmice, which were coming in quite often that day.
It only took about five minutes for a Juniper Titmouse to come in, followed by a second bird. We enjoyed great looks and photos of these subtly beautiful birds as they visited a feeder only a few feet away and moved about in the nearby junipers.
Around fifty Pine Siskins were also present in the area, both at the George Walker House and on the neighbors property, where we photographed them visiting the feeders while waiting for the titmice to return.
We soon returned to Jackie’s property, and as luck would have it, noted two more Juniper Titmice visiting the feeders almost as soon as we had sat down. We thoroughly enjoyed these birds, and took in the sight of my last new titmouse, which certainly left me with mixed feelings. On one hand, I was psyched to catch up with these awesome birds, but was also bummed by another sign that my days of endless new species in North America were just about over.
Many other birds were visiting Jackie’s property at the time, including a couple of Bridled Titmice, which provided a nice comparison with the less-strikingly plumaged Junipers.
Other highlights in the yard included Broad-tailed Hummingbird, Mexican Jay, White-breasted Nuthatch, Spotted Towhee, my first “Pink-sided” Junco, Scott’s Oriole and more Pine Siskins.
The Scott’s Oriole was a newly arrived male, which we heard singing a few times, heralding a change in seasons that was becoming noticeable across all of Southeastern Arizona.
Thanking Jackie and leaving Paradise behind, we made our way back to Portal, completing a loop (Portal to Cave Creek Canyon to the highlands to Paradise and back to Portal) that we had started a few hours before. It was definitely a lot warmer in the lower mountains than when we started, and the roadsides between the two small towns seemed fairly quiet, although we kept our eyes out for Black-chinned Sparrow nonetheless, as this is one of the best areas in the region to connect with these birds.
At one point we noticed a sparrow flying across the road. Jumping out of the car, we chased it down, and confirmed it as a Rufous-crowned Sparrow. Nearby, we nailed our fifth and sixth Juniper Titmice of the day, in the form of a pair of these birds moving about and vocalizing in a nearby juniper.
Once back in Portal, we enjoyed a nice lunch at the Portal Peak Lodge, where I had stayed on that faithful trip, before making our way to our last stop of the day: Dave Jasper’s Yard and Feeders in Big Thicket, just outside of Portal.
Here, we relaxed watched the birds visiting the feeders while reveling in the day’s success. We had overcome the restrictions and failures of our visit a couple of summers before to claim victory, and connect with two charismatic and fun species in the process: Mexican Chickadee and Juniper Titmouse.
Our return trip to the Chiricahuas had been a complete and overwhelming success, and went down as my favorite day of the trip. After a couple of frustrating days with little to show for our efforts, we had turned the tide of the trip, and never looked back.