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The Hobbit Summer – Part 2

October 2, 2011

Cave Creek Canyon

“The Hobbit Summer” Part 2.

Phil and I had birded in Southeast Arizona several times in “previous lives”, but this would be the first of many trips there together. It was one of three places in North America where we could see the most “lifers” – birds we had never seen before.   And the first of a lifetime of birding adventures together. Also, it was very special to be sharing all this with my new daughter,Jenny.

Most visitors to this area – especially if they’re birders – spend time in the Chiricahua Mountains, southeast of Tucson.  Many of the places we would visit were  nestled at the bottom of high craggy peaks, canyons that sheltered trickling creeks during the dry season and gushing torrents during the Arizona monsoon season. Many of these areas not only support wildlife that lives there year round, but attracts birds that migrate through the area or spend the winter there, or expand their range there by wandering north from Mexico. The diversity of ecosystems is another factor at play – from the Chihuahuan desert at 3,800 feet to spruce covered forests at over 9,000 feet. The entire area encompasses about 1,000 square miles.

Our first campsite that year was at South Fork,  one of the trailheads up Cave Creek Canyon, near the village of Portal. This campground, a part of Coronado National Forest, was so popular and so close to sensitive habitats, camping was eventually eliminated there to reduce the impact. (The trail is still one of the most popular birding sites in the Chiricahuas.) One lowlight of that campsite was the privy. It really was private, set back in the oak woods, affording one a lovely view of the surroundings if you propped the door open with a big rock. Which is what I was doing early one morning when a pack of coatis wandered by. I managed to run and wake up Jenny and Phil so they could come see these furry, long-tailed, pointy-nosed relatives of raccoons. Phil proceeded to tell us the story of a zoology professor he had taken courses from at the University of Florida when he was working on his Wildlife Ecology degree. It seems the Professor kept a few coatis as pets and Phil had the opportunity to meet some of them up close and personal. Later that day as we walked around the area, we ran into that same Professor in Cave Creek. This will be the first of “Ann’s Laws”: If you hang around in places where there is wildlife, especially birds, you will eventually run into someone you know!

Later, we visited the nearby Southwest Research Station, a facility of the American Museum of Natural History, where field research has been carried on for many years. We watched Blue-throated, Black-chinned, Rivoli’s Hummingbirds coming in and out to the feeders. One of our favorite birds, the Acorn Woodpeckers, entertained us by poking acorns into holes in the sides of the trees – saving them for later eating.

The next day we drove up into the surrounding mountains, with several peaks in excess of 9,000 feet and occasional spectacular views 3,000 feet down into Cave Creek Canyon. Along the way we got quick looks at a Northern Goshawk, a new bird for us. We were working our way along the narrow, winding, unpaved road to Rustler Park, another popular birding spot, especially good for higher elevation birds, located in a beautiful meadow among huge tall conifers. We erected our 3-man tent at my favorite site that came complete with Stellar’s Jays and Yellow-eyed Juncos. Having been warned about bears in the area (black bears – not grizzly),  we were prepared to stow our food in the car overnight or when we were away from our campsite. Later, as we made ready for bed, we carefully put everything away and left only our gallon jug of water on the table. In the morning, after a quiet night, we found a large damp spot on the table and our water jug on the ground with very large teeth marks in it. Jennifer insisted we keep that souvenir jug forever, and I think it’s still up in our attic!

Much of that area is part of the Coronado National Forest, and we had read that you could get a key from the ranger at the office in Cave Creek that would open a gate that protected a “Crystal Cave”. How could we not do that? Icing on the cake of our “Hobbit Summer”. We got the key, gathered up several flashlights, and hiked in to the cave entrance. Since we were rank beginners to spelunking, we just went a short distance into the cave – cool and dark. The thing I remember most about that cave adventure was that on the way back, hiking to the car, perched quietly on a branch along the trail watching us move silently through the oaks, was an Elegant Trogon (then known as Coppery-tailed Trogon) – a very special bird of that area – and one of the many reasons birders go to the Chiricahuas.

We spent another week exploring other canyons full of birds – in the Huachuca Mountains to the west, and the Santa Rita Mountains, west of them, and along Sonoita Creek near the small town of Patagonia. And we added more birds to our life list – the Anna’s Hummingbird at Ramsey Canyon, near Sierra Vista, the famous Spotted Owls after a long hike up Scheelite Canyon on Fort Huachuca, Abert’s Towhee near the town of Hereford, nesting Whiskered Screech-Owls in Madera Canyon, and down the rocky, dry streambed in the isolated Sycamore Canyon where we found the rare White-eared Hummingbird. And eventually we finished reading The Hobbit, and our “Hobbit Summer” came to a close. The first of many trips together.

In fact, this past summer we traveled “Out West” again – only this time it was with Jenny, her husband, Steve, and their two children Elizabeth and Joseph – all of them birders – the first of many trips.

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