Date: 7/3/18 11:28 am
From: Tim Helentjaris <tnhelentjaris...>
Subject: [AZNMbirds] Chino Canyon
I set for my task this morning to go down to Chino Canyon in the Santa Rita Mts. and to try to push further up into its upper basin than I have previously been. Road down into there seems to have deteriorated a bit, or maybe it’s my memory, or a little of both. The rocks seems to weather out of the soil a little more each year making it a real chore to get into this area, not just crossing the wash but even before and after, you don’t want to try this without a capable vehicle.

To get further in, I decided to push past the usual parking spot near the big oak at the base of Elephant Hill and drive further in. Whew, quit after just another 0.4 miles, it was just too demanding having to push through on what little road remains and you basically can walk just as fast as you drive, not to mention the wear-and-tear on your car and nerves. Right out of the car, got my first interesting bird, a calling YELLOW-BILLED CUCKOO. Didn’t really expect them in here, but looking around, why not, they’re spreading everywhere else down here. One observation, there is an unnecessarily large number of NORTHERN MOCKINGBIRDS scattered evenly all along this canyon, all of them both noisy and imaginative. It’s pretty challenging for an ear-birder and I found myself having to change an entry a couple of times. Was that a Cassin’s Kingbird? Nope, just Mr. NoMo goofing on me again. A plethora of PHAINOPEPLA’S also scattered throughout the drainage as well.

A short while later, I picked up a nice male BLACK-CAPPED GNATCATCHER in the lower part of the canyon drainage, they’re pretty regular here. Later and further up-canyon where it widens out, its BLACK-TAILED cousins predominated.

I picked up FIVE-STRIPED SPARROWS in three different locations in the canyon this morning. The first was just under 1.5 miles from Elephant Hill, on a lush east-facing hillside. Singing away, it refused to show itself. I next picked up two birds singing a short distance from each other on my way out, just a bit further up-canyon, before the trail begins its switchbacks crossing the headwall just shy of the old mill site (in GPS-speak N31.70717 W110.94106). Again both birds were down and not visible. I tried playing a song fragment and one of the birds immediately came back with its “chatter call”, which is the third entry for this species in iBirdPro. Richard Fray first pointed this call out to me as being useful for luring in off-season birds. The description aptly reads as “chatter calls given after an aggressive encounter with another sparrow”. I’ve never heard them do this before but it certainly fit the situation and one of the birds who responded then flew right into view and began singing, so nice visual confirmation. I then picked up a third territory all the way back at my car, not 25 yds away (GPS N31.72194 W110.94833). This has proven to be probably the most reliable spot for finding these birds, myself and others picking them up multiple times over the years here, ~0.4 miles up-canyon from the usual parking spot at the base of Elephant Hill. Again, this bird was singing in cover, but I wanted a visual confirmation, so again, played a couple of song fragments. Wow, this bird also responded with the “chatter call”, so I am guessing as the description suggests, it might represent just a breeding season response. Something to keep in mind as you look for these birds, and to understand that you really need to know the songs before you go out.

I did get further up in the canyon than before and from there you can see that if you wanted to scramble out, you could go over the low ridge to the south and drop down into Agua Caliente Canyon. I’m not sure the extra effort was worth it, as I think I would recommend just sticking with the initial parking spot at Elephant Hill under the big oak there, most of the good birding was in the first ~1.5 miles from there and the upper basin was not all that productive over what I had already found lower down. If you haven’t been in here before, I highly recommend it. If all you want to do is tick off these species, there are probably easier places, such as Box Canyon again this summer. But Chino Canyon, much like Rock Corral Canyon just to the south, has not only some good bird finds, but spectacular scenery, lush vegetation due to the absence of cattle, and great solitude. They’re both among the nicest examples of this upland desert and foothill habitats in this part of the state, less disturbed than most others, and worth the trials of getting into them.

Tim Helentjaris
Tucson, AZ

"We don't devote enough scientific research to finding a cure for jerks.”
- Bill Watterson

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