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Southeastern Arizona Bird Observatory

Field Trip Photo Album

Miller Canyon and Beatty's Guest Ranch & Orchard

Photos by Tom Wood & Sheri Williamson

The drive up Miller Canyon, on the southern end of the Huachuca Mountains, is a slow and often dusty one, but birders know that such journeys can lead to hidden treasure. Upper Miller Canyon is a great location for many of the "specialty" birds, amphibians, reptiles, and insects of the "sky islands" - including Red-faced and Grace's warblers, Hepatic Tanager, Greater Pewee, Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher, Ramsey Canyon Leopard Frog, Mountain Spiny Lizard, Chiricahua White, Orange-edged Roadside-Skipper, and LeConte's Shining Leaf-chafer Beetle - but rarities such as Eared Trogon, Aztec Thrush, and Flame-colored Tanager also make occasional appearances. Beginning in July 2002, Miller Canyon is the new location for SABO's Canyon Walks. For more information on visiting Miller Canyon, see the entry in SABO's on-line Guide to Birding Hot Spots: Huachuca Mountains and San Pedro Valley.

The jewel in Miller Canyon's birding crown has to be the hummingbird feeding station at Beatty's Guest Ranch and Orchard. In the first half of 2002, 15 species of hummingbirds were spotted at the orchard, including such rarities as White-eared, Berylline, Lucifer, and Plain-capped Starthroat (see photos below). The feeding station has also become famous for its hybrid hummingbirds; at least 7 combinations have been recorded there, 5 in just one day! With such diversity, Beatty's is the perfect outdoor classroom for SABO's Hummingbird ID Workshops. Water and seed feeders attract other birds as well, including specialties such as Mexican Jay and Yellow-eyed Junco and occasional "rarities" such as Lawrence's Goldfinch (see photos below). The view from Beatty's Miller Canyon Guest Ranch & Orchard
Though day visitors are welcome, the Beattys also offer lodging. For more information, call 520-378-2728 or visit the Beattys' Web site. For information on the Southeastern Arizona Bird Observatory's activities in Miller Canyon, please contact SABO.
Plain-capped Starthroat by Tom Wood

The Plain-capped Starthroat in the photos above and right, taken by SABO Director Tom Wood using a digital camera and spotting scope, appeared at the Public Viewing Area at Beatty's Guest Ranch around noon on Saturday, June 29, 2002. It visited the feeders at least 8 times the first afternoon, which is somewhat surprising since the species is highly insectivorous. It visited the feeders regularly, if infrequently, over the next two days before disappearing from Beatty's on the morning of Tuesday, July 2, after being banded by George West (an independent researcher not affiliated with SABO). A banded starthroat, almost certainly the same bird, appeared at Mary Jo Ballator's Ash Canyon Bed & Breakfast in mid-July and remained through at least mid-August. Amazingly, the bird returned to Ash Canyon in mid-June of 2003. Worn tail feathers typical of nesting females solved the mystery of the bird's sex, but the location of her nest will never be known. Thousands of birders enjoyed her through the summer of 2003, but she was not seen in 2004.

The Plain-capped Starthroat is a casual post-breeding visitor to Arizona from western Mexico. The species is distinguished by its large size (about as large in body as a female Magnificent or Blue-throated), broad white eye stripe and "moustache," dull bronze-green upperparts with a ragged white patch on the lower back and rump, extremely long bill, long wings, and short tail with an unusual pattern of white in the outer feathers. The sexes are virtually identical, but pale edges on some of the body feathers indicate that the individual illustrated at left is an immature (Williamson 2002). Its sex remained a mystery until the following summer (see below).

Plain-capped Starthroat by Tom Wood

Plain-capped Starthroat photos 2002 Tom Wood

Lawrence's Goldfinch by Tom Wood
Lawrence's Goldfinch photos 2002 Tom Wood
Lawrence's Goldfinch by Tom Wood
Though Lawrence's Goldfinch (adult male, above left and right) is an erratic and sometimes common winter visitor to the lowlands of southern Arizona from its breeding range in California, this adult male was discovered at Beatty's Guest Ranch in late June of 2002. Even more astonishing was a second adult male later spotted in the company of the first and two females that appeared later still! Many other unusual to unprecedented strays were recorded in Arizona in the summer of 2002, probably due to severe drought conditions stranding migrants that would otherwise have moved on to more appropriate summer homes. These photos were taken June 29, 2002 by SABO Director Tom Wood using a digital camera and spotting scope.
Upper Miller Canyon (right) falls within the Miller Peak Wilderness Area. Here the stream channel follows a steep course among boulders and through groves of conifers such as White Fir, Douglas-fir, Chihuahua Pine, and Alligator Juniper, broad-leafed evergreens such as Arizona Madrone, Silverleaf Oak and Netleaf Oak, and deciduous trees such as Gambel's Oak, Arizona Sycamore, Big-tooth Maple, Velvet Ash, Arizona Walnut, New Mexican Locust, and Black Cherry. For much of the year, the creek surfaces intermittently as it threads its way through its the rocky streambed. During the rainy season, the stream may become a raging torrent, scouring leaf litter and other detritus from its bed and banks and depositing them in eddies and side channels downstream.

Along the trail are signs of past forest fires. Most of these were mild enough to thin out spindly young trees and recycle nutrients in fallen wood and leaves while doing little damage to healthy mature trees. The habitats created by fires of low to moderate intensity are important to many wildlife species, including some of Arizona's rarer birds. On July 27, 2002, a Rufous-capped Warbler was spotted singing in a steep shrubby meadow resulting from a low-intensity fire in 1995.

Though spring and summer are the best seasons for birding, fall draws locals and visitors to the canyon to enjoy the brilliant colors of the deciduous trees. Mid-October to mid-November is the best time to enjoy the spectacle of fall color in southeastern Arizona's "sky island" mountains.

Miller Creek 2002 Sheri Williamson

Flame-colored Tanager by Sheri Williamson

Flame-colored Tanager 2002 by Sheri Williamson

First discovered in the U.S. in 1985 by Bob Morse, the Flame-colored Tanager is a rare and erratic breeding bird in southeastern Arizona. Controversy has surrounded this species since the original male found in the Chiricahua Mountains paired with a female Western Tanager and produced presumed hybrid offspring (Morse & Monson 1985). Hybrids have also been recorded in the Santa Rita Mountains, where a beautiful male photographed at Bog Spring was eventually accepted as a hybrid despite hope/speculation that it fell within the range of variation of pure Flame-colored (Benesh1997, Sibley 2000). The controversy was renewed during a rash of sightings at several locations in the Huachuca Mountains in 2001, including apparent pure and hybrid birds.

The unambiguous adult (after second year) male at left, digiscoped in upper Miller Canyon on July 17, 2002 by SABO Director Sheri Williamson, shows the heavy, dark bill, prominent cheek patch, grayish flanks, and white tail corners of a pure Flame-colored Tanager (Sibley 2000). Unfortunately, he paired with a female Western Tanager. Also in Miller Canyon in 2002 were a probable adult male hybrid, a probable second-year male hybrid, and an apparently pure second year male. For more on the hybrid tanager issue, see SABO's Avian Oddities: A Hybrid Tanager in Miller Canyon.

Birds aren't the only wildlife of interest in Miller Canyon. A variety of reptiles make their homes here, including the rock-loving Mountain Spiny Lizard (Sceloporus jarrovii). Both sexes have black collars bordered in white, a netlike pattern formed by dark outlines to the diamond-shaped scales, and blue patches on the throat and sides of the belly. Males (right) are larger with brilliant blue throats and bellies and blue tails, especially during the rainy season and early fall. In May and June, the coppery brown females give birth to litters that may number more than a dozen (Stebbins 1985). Other reptiles found in the Huachuca Mountains include Clark's Spiny Lizard, Mountain Short-horned Lizard, Sonoran Spotted Whiptail, Banded Rock Rattlesnake, Black-tailed Rattlesnake, Sonoran Gopher Snake, and Arizona Mountain Kingsnake. Mountain Spiny Lizard (photo by Sheri Williamson)

Mountain Spiny Lizard 2002 by Sheri Williamson

Leconte's Shining Leaf-chafer (photo by Sheri Williamson)
LeConte's Shining Leaf-chafer Beetle
2002 by Sheri Williamson
The insects of Miller Canyon include three species of shining leaf-chafer beetles, among the gaudiest members of the scarab family. The least common of these is LeConte's Shining Leaf-chafer (Chrysina [Plusiotis] lecontei. left), identifiable by its shimmering iridescent golden green armor and metallic bronze legs. Its more common relatives are the Beyer's SLC, which has a smooth, pearlescent apple green carapace and purple and violet legs, and the aptly named Glorious SLC, whose iridescent green wing covers are decorated with broad stripes of shiny silver. Some of their tropical relatives are entirely metallic silver or gold, more like jewelry than living things.

The larvae of these beetles are white, fleshy grubs that feed on the roots of Alligator Juniper (Juniperus deppeana). The short-lived adults emerge for a few weeks of frantic breeding activity during the summer rainy season.

For more information on SABO's field trips, tours and workshops, please write, call or e-mail:
Southeastern Arizona Bird Observatory
P.O. Box 5521
Bisbee, AZ 85603-5521
(520) 432-1388
contact SABO


Benesh, Chris D. 1997. Photonote: Intraspecific variation in adult Flame-colored Tanagers. Birding 29(5):417-419.

Morse, Robert J. and Gale Monson. 1985. Flame-colored Tanager in Arizona. American Birds 39(5):843-844.

Sibley, David A. 2000. The Sibley Guide to Birds. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Stebbins, Robert C. 1985. A Field Guide to Western Reptiles and Amphibians (Peterson Field Guide Series). Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co.

Williamson, Sheri L. 2002. A Field Guide to Hummingbirds of North America (Peterson Field Guide Series). Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co.

Copyright 2002-2005 Southeastern Arizona Bird Observatory
All photos, graphics, and text on these pages are copyrighted and may not be used without permission.

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