After the Fire: Cave Creek Canyon, Trogon Census

On June 26, 2011, I was one of the lucky few to participate in the 34th annual Chiricahua Mountain Elegant Trogon Census.  The National Forest here has been off limits to the public since the Horseshoe 2 fire started on May 8, so I was eager to get back into any part of my beloved home range!  The forest is still closed, but our small crew of surveyors received special permission to conduct this count.  I snapped a few photos to give everyone else a small window into the fire's effects in a portion of the South Fork of Cave Creek.

A bit of background on this piece of the fire: South Fork remained one of the few patches of green on the fire map until May 25, when the fire line on the ridge was breached and flames raced down into the drainage.  That initial push of the fire burned very hot.  To prevent this extra-destructive type of fire from continuing down South Fork to the main body of Cave Creek (and possibly on to Portal), firefighters lit a backburn.  They started from the main paved road in Cave Creek Canyon, literally walking low flames back to meet the oncoming larger flames.  The goal of a backburn is to reduce brush and leaf litter on the ground with controlled, low-intensity fire, so that an uncontrolled higher intensity fire doesn't have the fuel needed to rip through the same area.  If successful, the forest floor gets a much needed cleaning, which is how the natural process historically worked in a fire-evolved ecosystem like this one.

Streambed in South Fork, charred ground to the left

Exposed rock, formerly hidden by grasses and brush.  White ash marks where fallen logs burned in place, demonstrating the low intensity of this controlled back burn (logs burned very slowly, not spreading flame to other areas).  Large trees and some saplings are still alive!  Even the hottest fire burns no more than the top three centimeters of soil, so much of the undergrowth should regenerate within a few seasons - with normal rainfall - from the seed bank stored in the soil.

For the Trogon Census, I was stationed roughly between the 2nd and 5th stream crossings (for those of you intimately familiar with South Fork).  From my perspective, this stretch looked really good!  Even without any rain, in a severe drought and post-fire, seedlings were already sprouting through the charred soil.  Sitting in one spot for 3 hours, I detected 33 bird species.  It was truly encouraging to experience the old familiar South Fork diversity firsthand.  Besides spotting a male Elegant Trogon, the focal species of the survey, I also found a Painted Redstart nest, and even watched a coatimundi come in for a drink!

Elegant Trogon in motion

Painted Redstart, working hard to feed hungry babies!  Nestlings were about 8-9 days old, indicating that the nest was built no more than 2 weeks after the backburn passed through the area.  Painted Redstarts are a ground-nesting species, but this nest was perched about 5 feet high in a grassy patch on top of a boulder.  While the substrate could still be classified as "ground," it was interesting to see that the nest was built in one of the few grassy patches remaining - above the level of the flames!
Coatimundi, heading back from whence it came after enjoying a cool drink from the stream.

Of course not everything is as rosy a picture as this.  9 residences and 14 outbuildings were destroyed in this fire, which burned almost 223,000 acres - the majority of the Chiricahuas.  We lost the historic Barfoot Lookout and a lot of good high country forest around prime birding areas like Rustler Park.  Narca Moore-Craig was stationed in a somewhat bleaker landscape than I for the Trogon Census, in the Maple Camp area of South Fork.  To see that area through her eyes, you can read Narca's blog entry at:

Still, in one of the driest years on record, it could have been MUCH worse.  Preliminary estimates say that about 20% of Horseshoe 2 was destructive crown fire, killing all of the trees in those areas and sterilizing the soil.  But, that means that 80% of the acreage was low- to moderate-intensity, building the kind of mosaic that keeps our area a hotbed of biodiversity.  It will be interesting to watch the regeneration over the coming years, and learn from the experience.

Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, I look forward to seeing the Chiricahua Mountains ultimately rebound in all their splendid glory!

Good birding,
John Yerger
Portal, AZ
Adventure Birding Company
Specializing in flexible, personalized guiding in SE Arizona


Lauren said...

Thanks for posting John! I find the bit about the adaptive redstarts really interesting. It made me wonder what the more southerly Myioborus species do for a nest, since leaf litter can be pretty scanty in the tropics...a quick perusal of Stiles and Skutch reveals that they mostly nest in cut banks and steep slopes (which PARE will do as well), though Slate-throated Redstart has been found nesting amid epiphytes on fallen logs in CR.

Ellen said...

great article/commentary. thanks for the post.