After vacating the Great Basin Desert a second time, due to unseasonably cold weather, we spent four nights on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land in the Pahrump Valley in Nevada, just a hundred yards from the California border. We had visited the California part of the valley several times before retirement, looking for uncommon desert plant genera. With a cell signal brought in via our booster, from the city of Pahrump, NV, twenty miles away, I was able to write and publish the last blog post. We found three new plants in the area, and also learned a new Burrowing Owl call, a hollow coo-cooah.
We next headed for the Mojave National Preserve, a favorite area of ours from long before it was protected. I led a field trip here for the Los Angeles Audubon Society in 1985, with some principal targets being Bendire’s Thrasher and Gray Vireo. We took a meandering back way to the preserve, through Desert Emigrant Pass and via the Excelsior Mine Road. The pass is the only place we have ever seen the sweet-scented shrub Mortonia utahensis, and when we stopped to explore the area, we were shocked to find over twenty cacti of the rare species Echinomastus johnsonii, several of which were in flower – the first time we had seen it in bloom!
Excelsior Mine Road had outstanding displays of wildflowers at 3400 feet elevation, and farther south we saw another outstanding display near Ivanpah, at exactly the same elevation. Entering the Mojave National Preserve, we first camped at Keystone Canyon, on the east side of the New York Mountains. This is a favorite mountain range. It is mostly granite but has some limestone sections with interesting plants. It also has a small grove of White Firs (Abies concolor) on the north side of its highest peak, one of only four known relictual populations of this conifer in the Mojave Desert. The birding here was surprisingly good, with some wintering species still present (Evening Grosbeak, Lewis’ Woodpecker) and some newly arrived spring migrants as well (Scott’s Oriole, Gray Vireo).
We subsequently camped at Caruthers Canyon, on the south side of the New York Mountains, and then at the Bonanza King Mine in the next mountain range to the south, the Providence Mountains. There is a limestone canyon about half a mile NNW of the mine, where a number of species uncommon in California occur. One of these, Astrolepis cochisensis, is an elegant fern we have seen nowhere else in the state, and it was exciting to refind it exactly where we saw it in 2012. In a week in the Mojave National Preserve, we found only one new plant, not surprising given our 600+ records from the preserve in past years.
At this point we were running out of beverages because of the unseasonal heat – it certainly was a strange year with the Great Basin Desert colder than usual and the Mojave and Sonoran Deserts hotter. I spent a lot of time trying to figure out where we could go for a month while waiting for the snow at higher elevations in the Great Basin to melt. We were constrained by COVID-19 closures, weather, and available reference books. I finally decided that we should try heading for the southeast corner of Arizona. The mountains of this area (principally south and east of Tucson) are essentially an extension of the Mexican cordillera, and a number of species reach their northwesternmost occurrence in this small area. This is one of the favorite birding areas in the continental U.S. and Canada, and many birders retire here. Though it was experiencing some very hot weather, I hoped we could find dispersed campsites at mid- and higher elevations within Coronado National Forest (though some key roads were closed). I knew the birding would be good, and we had done relatively little botanizing in the region, so there seemed to be good potential.
Our fridge could not keep up with the 105°F temperatures on the two days we drove across Arizona, its temperature rising into the high 40s, while running continuously and using a lot of power. I spliced a resistor into the wiring following instructions in the manual, which sped up the compressor and brought the temps back down – but at the cost of even higher power consumption.
Our first destination was Mt. Lemmon in the Santa Catalina Mountains just northeast of Tucson. We were able to boondock at about 8000 feet elevation here, and find a variety of nice birds such as Olive Warbler (now placed in its own family), Red-faced Warbler, Painted Redstart, Hermit Warbler, Greater Pewee, Plumbeous Vireo (on a nest), and Zone-tailed Hawk. For the first time since February, in Saguaro National Park, we were finding several new plant species per day.
Ready to brave the heat again, we visited Florida Canyon in the Santa Rita Mountain, south of Tucson. We lucked out and secured the only shady campsite for many miles, and so spent a couple of days here. Eileen strained her knee hiking up the west fork of the canyon the first day, and it took about two weeks for it to return to normal. Highlights in the canyon were two new plant genera (Anisacanthus and Tetramerium) in the interesting family Acanthaceae, and pair of Black-capped Gnatcatchers, a rare species we had seen only once before. We also had Northern Beardless Tyrannulet, Rufous-winged Sparrow, Elf Owl, and Brown-crested Flycatcher.
We next headed east, for the west side of the Chiricahua Mountains, where two or three Crescent-chested Warblers were being observed in Morse Canyon. This Mexican species is very rare in the U.S., and would be a world lifer for us. We scoped out the area the afternoon we arrived and then searched for the bird the next morning, along with another dozen birders. It took about two hours, but we finally saw the bird well, and heard it sing a couple of times. This was Eileen’s 700th native bird in the continental U.S. and Canada! I then hiked a couple miles up the Morse Trail (Eileen’s knee was still healing) and found Buff-breasted Flycatcher and Mexican Chickadee, two species that can be somewhat challenging to find.
As we crossed over the Chiricahua Mountains to their east slope, we carefully scouted out potential places to dry camp, identifying several sites to which we would return later. But first we spent a night in Rusty’s RV Resort in Rodeo, NM – our first campground in 8 weeks – to recharge our batteries, which had been depleted by the fridge. (For those so inclined, an addendum at the end of this post gives a simplified accounting of our power sources and usage.) We were lucky enough to arrive just in time for a potluck dinner featuring pizza and ice cream, which we attended with great care regarding social distancing.
The next three days were spent visiting Cave Creek Canyon, on the east side of the Chiricahua Mountains, near Portal, AZ, one of the premier natural history destinations in North America. Home of the Southwest Research Institute, run by the American Museum of Natural History in New York, a great deal of arcane scientific field research has been conducted here. It boasts the highest bat list of any location in the country (21 species) and we’ve been told the ant species list is also the highest in the U.S. There is an excellent book on the natural history of the area, published by the Friends of Cave Creek Canyon, entitled “Cave Creek Canyon: Revealing the Heart of Arizona’s Chiricahua Mountains”. In our three days here we found three new butterflies, three new reptiles, and eight new plants. Some highlights were Montezuma Quail, Arizona Woodpecker, Spotted Ground Squirrel, and a gorgeous, colorful, Sonoran Mountain Kingsnake.
We headed up to the crest of the Chiricahua Mountains to sample higher elevations, camping near and hiking through Barfoot Park. The weather was actually pretty cool early in the morning and in the evening at 8000 feet elevation, especially given the gusty winds. We saw fresh, clear tracks of Black Bear on our hike, and found a few nice plants on north-facing slopes.
The weather forecast suggested we had a couple of days before even hotter weather arrived in the lowlands, so we headed west to the foothills of the Whetstone Mountains, where a rare Rufous-capped Warbler was reported. The 4.2-mile Guindani Loop Trail starts in Kartchner Caverns State Park and quickly enters Coronado National Forest. We did indeed see and hear Rufous-capped Warbler there very well; it was a new bird for our North American list, though we had previously seen it on several international birding trips to the neotropics. But what was most remarkable about this trail was the outstanding plant diversity, including many species in flower. It was our best day of botany this year by far, with a remarkable 13 new species, including four new genera!! Southeast Arizona had unusually good rains during winter and spring, and this likely contributed to the fine array of plants, in addition to being at the right elevation at the right time (4600 to 5500 feet elevation on May 14). We also hiked the Foothills Loop Trail in Kartchner, seeing Lucy’s Warbler.
The Huachuca Mountains have some of the best birding in southeast Arizona, but most locations were inaccessible because of COVID-19 restrictions. The one exception on the east side of the mountain range was Miller Canyon, where Flame-colored Tanager was being reported, so we headed there. We spent two mornings hiking up this rather steep, linear canyon. We did see the tanager, our second sighting ever, as well as Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher, a late migrant that probably had just arrived in the last few days. From there we took a scenic drive over Montezuma Pass to reach the remote and much less visited western slope of the Huachucas, where we set up camp in Sunnyside Canyon for three nights. Here and in nearby Scotia Canyon, we found a number of good birds, including at least 6 Elegant Trogons; a day-roosting Whiskered Screech-Owl; Montezuma Quail calling at dawn; at least 15 Buff-breasted Flycatchers; and a number of Grace’s Warblers! This is really an outstanding birding area, particularly if camping. We have stayed in about 50 different dispersed campsites so far this year, and this one ranks as one of the very best.
Addendum: Power budget — sources and usage. Our lithium battery capacity is about 200 amp-hours (one amp-hour of capacity will provide one ampere of current for one hour, or two amps for half an hour, etc.). Our fridge uses far more power than anything else; when set for about 34°F, it averages at least one amp of current draw at 65°F ambient temperature, two amps at 75°F, and a maximum current of 3.5 amps at 85°F and above. So in hot weather it can easily use 50 amp-hours or more in 24 hours, one-quarter of our battery capacity.
The batteries are replenished by solar power, which produces a peak current of about 8 amps when the sun is high, and over the course of a good day can yield about 50 amp-hours, roughly covering the fridge power usage. But if parked in a shady campsite for the day, it might generate less than ten amp-hours. In addition, while driving, the batteries are charged by the truck’s alternator, at about 20 amps when the batteries are low, but at less than 10 amps when they are nearly full. An average day has perhaps 1.5 hours of driving, thus, 20 amp-hours might be a typical contribution from the alternator.
So we generally don’t have any problems when the days are in the 70s, but if temperatures go well into the 80s, especially if camping in shade and not doing much driving, we can run a significant deficit. With days in the 90s, we might only be able to go four nights or so without a long drive or night in a campground, where twelve hours plugged in to 120V shore power would top off the system and give us a new lease on life. If we were to face conditions like this frequently, we could buy a generator, but they are quite a hassle and even the quietest ones spoil the camping experience for everyone within earshot.