Sycamore Canyon 24-25 May 2009

There are about probably over 100 different drainages that are called "Sycamore Canyon" in Arizona alone, but my favorite is the rugged and wild Sycamore Canyon located due west of Nogales on Ruby Road. Despite its remote nature, or perhaps because of it, Jake Mohlmann and I make it a point to bird this area a minimum of 2-3 times a year.

We opted to backpack this time, which allowed us to move slower and observe more along the way. It also allowed us to go owling deep within the canyon, an opportunity most birders do not have the good fortune to experience. We were not disappointed!

Besides hearing numerous Whiskered Screech-Owls and Elf Owls, we were also awakened by a loudly squeaking Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher first thing on Monday morning. Elegant Trogons abounded, with at least 6 different vocalizing males. The hike also yielded at least ten singing Five-Striped Sparrows in a 2 mile stretch of the lower canyon, dozens of striking Varied Buntings, and we discovered a male BLACK-CAPPED GNATCATCHER about 1.5 miles north of the U.S./Mexico border! To top it all off, we were delighted by a most welcome reptilian surprise (pictures below).

The canyon is filled with lush vegetation, lots of sycamores (per its namesake), and loads of birds. It is known amongst birders for harboring rarities from south of the international border (which it crosses), and especially for its population of Five-striped Sparrows. Unlike neighboring California Gulch, these Sparrows can only be found by enduring a somewhat grueling 8-10 mile roundtrip hike. Not for the faint of heart or the out-of-shape, but a really cool way to see the birds!

Only about 0.5 mile into the canyon, you walk across a small area of slickrock that contains tiny fossil imprints. This one looks like a small seashell:

But the neatest discovery for us was a reptile that none of us had ever seen before: Brown Vine Snake (Oxybelis aeneus)! If it hadn't wiggled a bit, I probably wouldn't have seen it:

Looks just like a very thin vine. Incredible!

Jake captured a wonderful portrait of the little guy, on a sycamore leaf for size comparison:

The most captivating part of the experience was that when I initially spotted the snake, it had just captured an Ornate Tree Lizard (Urosaurus ornatus). We watched for something like an hour and a half while it struggled to orient its meal head-first, for proper consumption.

I thought "there's no way this pencil-thin snake can eat a lizard this big." Jake had full confidence that he could.

Jake going for the up-close and personal footage. The snake remained oblivious.

Apparently, Jake was right! I couldn't believe my eyes.


We also documented a very rare but increasingly regular resident, Black-capped Gnatcatcher:

Note the full black cap combined with clean white undertail - a diagnostic combination. Male Black-tailed Gnatcatchers also sport a black cap in the breeding season, but have a completely black undertail with only limited white spots. Blue-gray Gnatcatchers have a completely white undertail, but only a thin black streak above the eye during the breeding season.

Varied Buntings were downright common in the lower half of the canyon, but we only managed one identifiable picture from a good distance, since they remained primarily high above us at the top of the canyon walls.

Just another weekend in the wild and scenic Sycamore Canyon!

Good birding,
John Yerger


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birdman538 said...

you know I seem to remember being on that trip too John, even if I was puking for a good portion of it.