Fan-tailed Warbler

Fan-tailed Warbler

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Slate Creek Divide: A Remote Wilderness

I have always been intrigued with a remote spot in Maricopa County; Slate Creek Divide.  It is on the opposite side of Hwy 87 from Mt Ord, but it is far more challenging to reach as the road is far from being considered a good road and is much more difficult to navigate than the road to Mt Ord.  Great friend Tommy D., has spent a lot of time in this area and he has done a lot of bushwacking and found some incredible birds at this location.  I had contacted Tommy recently to see if April would be a good time to head up to Slate Creek Divide to try for some nocturnal birds and well as a couple of others.  He had already made some plans with Joshua Smith, another young and enthusiastic birder to camp out at this location and Tommy was kind enough to invite me to join them.  (I was considering doing this on my own when I first inquired.)  This turned out to be an incredible adventure.

The plans were for me to meet them at the Mt Peeley Trailhead, which was also the end of the road to Slate Creek Divide.  I did some birding along Highway 87 on the way up on Thursday (see previous post) and I arrived at the destination long before they arrived and while waiting for them, I took some time to explore the area around the trailhead.

Anna's Hummingbird - Female

And as a reminder that this area is a bit remote where bad things can happen to those not prepared.

 A cross near the campsite.

Missing person poster up close, but on the previous photo as well.

Once Tommy and Josh arrived, we quickly set up our tents and created our own little "Tent City" so we would have a place to retire to later that night.  


After some snacks and the sun setting, we headed out to try and locate some nocturnal birds.  We had not even traveled up the road when Tommy was quick to point out a Common Poorwill that had landed on the road in front of us.  I have heard these birds in many places in the dark, but had only seen a brief view of one flying along a highway once and another brief view on Mt Ord just a few weeks before.  So this was pretty special.  Since none of us like to use a flash on nocturnal birds, I was experimenting with photos at night on this newer camera.  I had cranked up the ISO on it, but evidently not quite high enough for this bird.  But I at least got a photo of one, even though is is a bit blurred.  

 Common Poorwill

After observing this bird for some time, it finally flew away into the dark night sky, so we continued on the road and eventually heard a Flammulated Owl calling from down in a ravine on the Gila County side.  

Now is the time to put things into perspective because the chain of events of what happens next, has a reasoning behind it.  Tommy and Josh are a couple of young guys, and I am retired, so there is quite an age gap there.  When I was young, I would do a lot of things without much thought and because a young man's body is in its prime and the body is more flexible.  As I have gotten older, I have noticed the body is not as limber as when I was younger and now I have a tendency to think about the 'what ifs'.  It is hell getting old!

These 2 young men decided they were going to start bushwhacking down into the ravine to try locating the Flammulated Owl.  In my mind, I could just see myself trying to follow along and stumbling over a log or rock, or maybe getting tangled in some roots or a vine and take fall and break a leg in the darkness of the night.  It would not have been an easy place for a rescue team to help me if needed.  So, being a bit more cautious, I said I would stay on the road while they chased the owl down in the ravine.  Of course, I could see their flashlights and their voices from time to time, while I was waiting on the road.  But I was constantly scanning my flashlight back and forth and all around me, wondering from which direction a mountain lion was going to charge from!  The mind plays tricks when in a remote area with no one else close by!  Wasn't long and a pair of Great Horned Owls started serenading me to keep me company and finally after about 45 minutes Tommy yelled to me that they had the owl and I should get down there as it was being very cooperative.  I was skeptical about heading down in the dark with my flashlight, but he finally convinced me it was not that bad.  Slowly I headed down towards their voices and lights and found out it was not as bad as I feared.  

WOW!  So thankful that Tommy convinced me to make the trip down.  This Flammulated Owl is one of the hardest owls to see.  It is a small owl at only 6¾ inches and is strictly nocturnal.  It is a highly migratory owl in the western part of the United States, where is breeds.  It is one of only 4 dark-eyed owl species in the US and most people get to hear them and rarely get to see them.  This stunner was so cooperative and let us take a lot of photos.  None of us use flash for our photos, and relied on flashlight and high ISO settings.  Now you can also enjoy the views that we had of this incredible bird.  Can't believe that I got such great looks of it and some really great photos as well!

 Flammulated owl

What a fantastic opportunity to watch and listen to this bird.  However the excitement did not stop there.  Just a few short minutes later a Northern Saw-whet Owl called and came in for a visit.  It was a bit more cautious with us and did not allow any close approach, but it did land on a nearby branch where I was able to capture a couple photos of it as well.  It was calling and I attempted to imitate its call, and that is when it cocked its head to one side to stare at us.  I must have done something right for it to react the way it did.  Wish I could have gotten better photos of this one, but holding the camera and a flashlight and trying to stand still without moving, did make it a bit difficult.

 Northern Saw-whet Owl

This is what it did after I tried to imitate its call.

Finally around midnight I called it a night and crawled into my tent for some shut eye.  But early the next morning we headed down one of the drainage areas on the south side.  Down in this area was a known breeding area for Dusky-capped Flycatcher.  Probably the only place where they can be found in Maricopa County.  I had always wanted to visit this area, but it is not a spot to go bushwhacking around on your own until you know the area.  There are no trails here and the route has many obstacles including fallen logs and large boulders to navigate.  With Tommy's knowledge we worked our way around in the drainage areas and now that I have been there, I feel much more comfortable in returning some day.  Still not the best place to go alone and I will probably make sure someone accompanies me on my next visit.  

My target bird was heard before we saw it, but finally I got to add this species to my Maricopa County list.  

Dusky-capped Flycatcher

One of the highlights of this trip was adding a Spotted Owl to my Maricopa County list.  Since this bird is listed as a 'threatened' species, it is best to not reveal the location of this owl and I won't attempt to even describe where we discovered this bird.  This one was so unconcerned with us that it really spent most of its time with its eyes closed, but every once in a while it would open its eyes and look at us then look around and go back to sleep.  This was icing on the cake!

Spotted Owl


Around noon, I decided to head out and head home, but I had 1 more cool encounter on the road on the way out.  I discovered a Striped Whipsnake in the middle of the road.  It froze where it was, apparently thinking I could not see it.  It was approximately 4½ feet long; I was able to step off the length as it did not move.  Had to photograph it stages due to its length.  This was a new 'lifer' snake for me and a really cool one.  Once it decided to move, it was gone in a flash!

What a great adventure and I have to thank Tommy and Josh for putting up with me and accommodating me on this trip.  A great place to visit, but the drive is not one that I wish to make too often.



1 comment:

  1. Your photos are excellent as always! Loved the stories you shared. It's neat that you found a Striped Whipsnake, Caleb and I found our first Sonoran Whipsnake at Boyce Thompson recently also. Must be the prime time of the year for those.