Hellsgate Trail

Since its gotten rather warm in Tempe of late, I decided to escape and take a few trips to some beautiful places in Arizona’s Central Highlands. The Central Highlands is the transitional zone between the lower elevation deserts and the Colorado Plateau. It can vary greatly in elevation, as it is made up of several basins/valleys, such as the Verde Valley and Tonto Basin, along with several mountain ranges, including the Bradshaw Mountains, Mazatzal Mountains, and the Superstition Mountains. To escape the heat, I mainly stuck to the mountains found within this region.

The first hike I did was called Hellsgate Trail, which is a few miles east of Payson, and I was accompanied by a fellow grad student Eric Moody (check out his website!). This trail heads south of highway 260 and eventually ends up in the Hellsgate Wilderness area. In the Hellsgate Wilderness is the Hellsgate, which is the point where Tonto Creek and Haigler Creek meet. It is supposed to be a very steep and difficult hike once you hit the creeks, but we did not end up going that far. To get to that point, you really need to backpack in, as it is several miles away. We ended up hiking along the trail for a few miles, enjoying the cool weather and shady pine trees.


We also did a bit of birding along the way!


A dark-eyed junco we met along the way

Much of the trail we did was through a mixed coniferous forest, with ponderosa pines, alligator junipers, and pinyon pines being most common. There were also white and emory oaks scattered throughout.


Occasionally we would be on the sunny sides of some ridges, which would cut down on the forest vegetation, but then we could get some good views of the surrounding area.


Spring has not fully hit this area yet, so the bird diversity wasn’t incredibly high, but we saw many woodpeckers and nuthatches. We also saw juniper and bridled titmice and mountain chickadees. The most interesting bird we saw was the red crossbill, which I had never seen before!


Sorry for the super backlit image!

We also saw many bumblebees along the trail, and there was a stream that was somewhat continuous throughout as well.



All and all, it was a great hike, and it was very chill, as this squirrel we found demonstrates.


Whenever our lab brings in prospective graduate students, we take them on our traditional McGraw lab birding trip. We always set our goal to beat times year’s number, which was 68 for 2014. Our circuit starts at Coon Bluff, along the Salt River in Tonto National Forest at sunrise. At Coon Bluff, you get a nice mix of desert and riparian habitats, along with a canyon-esc rock-wall. This site gives us a great variety of species and generally jumpstarts our count to around 35-40 species. Then we transition to Granite Reef, also along the Salt River, but where it is deeper and wider. Here we can find many duck species, and occasionally some rarer water birds, like snipes. Next, we head to the Gilbert Riparian Preserve, where we get a few more desert birds and fill out our duck and waterbird numbers. At this point, we are typically in the 60s for our species count. We then head back to ASU’s campus, where we can usually get a few unique species, like lovebirds and acorn woodpeckers to close out our day. However, this year we added another location – the zoo! No, we did not count the zoo birds, but we did pick up a few extra native species at the zoo, which I was happy to add to our list. Here is an account of this year’s trip.


A view down the salt river from Coon Bluff

We set out with a crew of 6 and began at Coon Bluff. This year, we got there earlier than before and beat the phainopeplas up, which was a first for us (we found them eventually!). We got almost all of our traditional species, such as the vermillion flycatcher, northern cardinals, bald eagles, and many others. We ended up leaving this site with 43 species. The big find of this site was a vagrant rusty blackbird. This is a common bird in the east, but rarely found in the west. It had apparently been in this area for a while, but by a happy coincidence, we stumbled along it without prior knowledge!


A view over the riparian area of Coon Bluff as the morning mist settles along the landscape


A bald eagle catching the morning’s first light


A close up of a red-naped sapsucker


A bright red vermillion flycatcher male


The vagrant rusty blackbird (center) and a female great-tailed grackle (right)

Then at Granite Reef, we ended up getting many of the duck species that winter/year-round in Arizona, which was pretty awesome. No rare shore or other water birds this time though. We added 10 species here, bringing our count up to 53.


A group of male mallards basking in the sun

At the Gilbert Riparian Preserve, we started out by adding several city birds, like rock pigeons and house sparrows. Once we got into the preserve, we rounded out our duck numbers and added several shorebirds, such as American avocets and black-necked stilts and a few songbirds, such as the loggerheaded shrike and song sparrow. We found 14 new species at this site, bringing our total to 67.


An American avocet (front), black-necked stilt (center), and a pair of northern shovelers (back-right)


A ring-necked duck quacking away


A cattle egret perched along the side of a pond


On our very brief run through campus, we were disappointed because we could not find the acorn woodpecker, but we did pick up the peach-faced lovebird. We then headed for the zoo, mostly to actually visit the zoo with our recruits, but also to do a bit of birding. At the zoo, we got three more species: common gallinule, green heron, and inca dove, which brought our final total to 71! It was a great birding day overall and we beat our previous year’s number.


The common gallinule we found at the zoo

Here is our complete list of species if you are interested.

Started at Coon Bluff

  • Verdin
  • Gila woodpecker
  • Curve-billed thrasher
  • European starling
  • Common raven
  • House finch
  • Vermillion flycatcher
  • Cactus wren
  • Ruby-crowned kinglet
  • Lesser goldfinch
  • Belted kingfisher
  • Phainopepla
  • Dark-eyed Junco
  • Great egret
  • Black phoebe
  • Snowy egret
  • Rock wren
  • Lesser yellowlegs
  • Spotted sandpiper
  • Red-winged blackbird
  • Red-naped sapsucker
  • Rough-winged swallow
  • Hairy/downy woodpecker
  • Pied-billed grebe
  • Anna’s hummingbird
  • Lark sparrow
  • Killdeer
  • Northern Cardinal
  • Abert’s towhee
  • Gambel’s quail
  • Ladder-backed woodpecker
  • Great-tailed grackle
  • Mallard
  • Least sandpiper
  • Long-billed dowitcher
  • Rusty blackbird*
  • Double-crested cormorant
  • Neotropical cormorant
  • Black-tailed gnatcatcher
  • Yellow-rumped warbler (and Myrtle subspecies)
  • Northern mockingbird
  • Brown-headed cowbird

Moved to Granite Reef

  • Common goldeneye
  • Great-blue heron
  • Canvasback
  • Bufflehead
  • American widgeon
  • Lesser scaup
  • Common merganser
  • Northern pintail
  • Gadwall
  • Ruddy duck

Moved to Gilbert Riparian Preserve

  • American coot
  • Mourning dove
  • Rock pigeon
  • House sparrow
  • Ring-necked duck
  • Canada goose
  • Eurasian collared dove
  • Northern shoveler
  • Black-necked stilt
  • Green-winged teal
  • Song sparrow
  • White-crowned sparrow
  • American avocet
  • Loggerheaded shrike

Moved to Campus

  • Peach-faced lovebird

Moved to Zoo

  • Common gallinule
  • Green heron
  • Inca dove

When I used to think of the Superstition Mountains, I would picture a desert landscape with rocky, bare mountains, like this:


Photo credit: Meghan Duell

However, I recently learned that there is much much more to these wonderful mountains than that. For example, I would have never thought I could see this in the Superstitions:


Now, I do not think I am alone in this skewed view of these mountains. It turns out between 80-90% of the visitors to these mountains only go to 1-2 trails: Peralta and First Water, which are both very desert-like and close to Phoenix. To get to the other parts of the Superstition mountains, you not only have to drive further, but you often find yourself on long tracks of 4×4 roads, which makes them inaccessible to most people. It is worth the trouble though!

Meghan and I hiked an amazing trail called Reavis Ranch trail, which can be accessed from Hwys 88 or 60 and leads to its namesake from both directions. We accessed this trail from the southern route, on Hwy 60. It was a beautiful trail, but also quite a work out with all of its ups and downs.


The trail starts out in a more sagebrush-manzanita habitat, with some desert riparian areas. It reminded me of the Mazatzal Mountains in many ways.


We also found many places with snow still on the ground!


After many ups and downs and several switchbacks, we made it to the saddle of the first wave of taller mountains. Once we hit this point, the habitat dramatically changed. We were now entering the heart of the mountain range, and it was full of water and had a great diversity of trees and plants.


We would hike through groves of ponderosa pine forests,


Pinyon-juniper forests,


And several areas that had many emory and Arizona-white oaks mixed in.


And like I said, there was water everywhere. Most of this was probably snow melt, but it also made this hike ideal for backpacking.


We ended up hiking along this trail for about 6 miles, and then turned around. This hike is now one of my favorite hikes in Arizona, and I hope to do it again soon – most likely backpacking! I really encourage everyone to try and seek out this completely different part of the Superstition Mountains! There are many trails that criss-cross this wilderness area, so you can also try something different!


Over winter break we decided to go on several hikes, one of which was to a new wilderness area for me! We decided to visit the Red-Rock Secret Mountain Wilderness area near Sedona, AZ.


This is a wilderness area that boarders the famous Oak Creek Canyon, and encompasses a large portion of the red-rock country and canyons along the Mogollon Rim. There are many trails throughout this wilderness, and we decided to try the Secret Canyon Trail. While there is a poorly maintained 4×4 dirt/rock road that goes to the trailhead, there were unfortunately a bunch of people using the road as a path, making driving all the way to the trailhead impossible. However, once we passed the crowds, which were all going to Devil’s Bridge Trail, we enjoyed solitude for the most part. Many of the Sedona jeep tours come down this road, so we did have to step aside several times for them. From this road, we were able to see some spectacular views of the red-rock country that we had never seen before.


After hiking around 4 miles, we finally got to the trailhead, and were able to do a 4 mile out-and-back trip before it started getting dark. The trail goes much further than that, and meets up with several other trails that criss-cross this wilderness. We were mostly in a mixed, low-evelvation coniferous forest, and there was still a fair bit of wildlife out and about, despite the cold.


One of the fun findings of the trip was the frozen streams. Sedona had recently had a bout of snow, and many of the streets and creeks were still frozen over (some just barely so).


Overall, we hiked around 12 miles, which was a great workout and full of many wonderful landscapes. I definitely want to further explore this wilderness area though, as there are many, many other trails that go deeper into the heart of the wilderness.


Sweet Creek Falls in Oregon


After SICB, we decided to take a trip to visit Meghan’s brother in Eugene. While we were there, we went on a hike to Sweet Creek Falls in the costal mountains, in the Siuslaw National Forest.


This was a beautiful hike in a temperate rainforest. Yes, not all rainforests are tropical. The rainforests of the US and Canadian Northwest can get up to 10 feet of rain a year! The forests where we hiked get around 80 inches of rainfall a year. Because of all the rain, these forests are rich in moss and lichen, which covered so many trees, especially the deciduous trees.


And, all the rain creates a myriad of streams and waterfalls throughout the area, which was quite spectacular to see.


There was not much in terms of wildlife, but we were there during the middle of the winter, and it was quite cold out. We also were hiking in a time where all the broad-leaf trees had dropped all of their leaves. I definitely want to re-visit these places in the spring and see how green, colorful, and full of life they are!


I am currently at the annual meeting for the Society for Integrative and Comparative biology in Portland, Oregon. This has been a great meeting so far, where I have met potential collaborators and future post-doc advisors (fingers crossed!). I’ll blog more about the meeting later, but I’ll briefly cover what I came here to talk about.

I gave a talk today on the evolution of hummingbird coloration across 250+ species. I used images from Handbook of Birds of the World to gather the color data and did a variety of analyses. Here are a few of the results I presented (remember these are still very preliminary!) I reconstructed the evolution of different color patches such as the gorget, crown, or back.


This is a circular phylogeny of hummingbirds, with the evolution of their gorget (throat patch) coloration mapped onto it. A phylogeny is a reconstruction of the evolutionary relationships between species across time. The middle of the image represents the most common ancestor of all hummingbirds and each of the tips of the tree represent the exact species. The lines connecting all of the species are showing not only the relationships between them, but also how long it was before different species diverged from each other. The color of the lines represent the estimated throat color of the ancestor at that given time, and the colored circles (which are pie-charts) represent the probability of the ancestor at a connection/split between two lines being a given color.

I reconstructed the evolution of sexual dichromatism (differences in coloration between males and females).


Here is another circular phylogeny, which is based on the same principles of the previous image, but with a different trait mapped onto it. Here I have mapped on the evolution of sexual differences in coloration (sexual dichromatism). Cooler colors mean greater differences between the coloration of males and females, while warmer colors mean less differences between male and female coloration. Red means that there are no differences in sexual dichromatism (both sexes look the same). The bars at the end of each tip represent the sexual dichromatism value for each extant species, with larger bars showing greater differences in sexual dichromatism.

I compared the evolution of some color patches other color patches.


These are phylogenetically controlled regressions between gorget color and forehead color. Basically, theses are normal regressions that take into account the evolutionary history between the species. Each point on the graphs has two colors – the top square is the color of the male’s forehead, while the bottom square is the color oft he male’s gorget. I compared the evolution of male gorget and forehead hue, saturation and brightness, which are three quantitative ways of describing color. Hue is what we traditionally think of when we say color (e.g. red, green, blue); saturation is how pure that color is (e.g. deep blue vs. washed out blue); and brightness is how light or dark the color is (e.g. white vs. grey vs. black). There is a significant relationship between the evolution of gorget hue and forehead hue, meaning that species with particular gorget hues (e.g. red) have similar forehead hues. There was also a significant relationship between gorget and forehead brightness, meaning that species with brighter gorgets have brighter foreheads. There was no relationship between gorget and forehead saturation.

And finally, I started comparing different color patches to some environmental variables (no relationships found yet). All of what I presented are preliminary results, because I am just starting to dive into this dataset, but it was a great opportunity for me to get my name out there, meet some awesome people, and get some good feedback. I hope everyone else at this meeting had a great time, and I look forward to the last day of talks!

Snow in Flagstaff

Recently Flagstaff Arizona received quite a bit of snow, and my fiancé and I decided to take advantage of it and visited. It was very beautiful, and I really enjoyed seeing all of my favorite places covered in fresh snow.



We first drove up to the ski resort, which was full of people looking to ski or snowboard. From there we got some amazing views of the surrounding landscape


as well as some nice views of the San Francisco peaks.


Then we drove around to a few places off of highway 180, north of the city. At one stop we found a small meadow with untouched snow fall.



From there, we drove to Lake Mary and Mormon Lake to see how they looked. Lower Lake Mary was pretty small, and mostly frozen over. Upper Lake Mary was partially frozen over, except where there was a current. Here are those to lakes.



Lake Mormon was completely frozen over, but like Lower Lake Mary, it too was very small.



One issue we encountered while having fun in the snow was that many of the forest roads were closed, so we were unable to visit some of our favorite hikes. If you plan to visit Flagstaff during the winter to hike, be sure to check if the roads are open! The roads we tried were FR 151 and 418. Despite the road closures, I highly recommend going up to Flagstaff right now. It was so beautiful and fun to explore!


The Giants of Muir Woods

Wow time flies! The end of the semester got a little hectic for me, so that is why I have not posted in a while. But I am back to talk about a trip I took during Thanksgiving. I went to San Francisco with my fiancé to visit some friends and while we were there, we took a trip to visit Muir Woods National Monument to see the giant costal redwood trees! Unfortunately, it was pretty late in the day when we visited, so many of my pictures did not turn out well or are very dark. I still have a few decent ones to show off though!

Muir Woods is a national monument that is north of San Francisco. To get there, we crossed the Golden Gate Bridge, which was pretty awesome. We stopped there to take some photos and then headed up to the monument. As I mentioned above, Muir Woods is home to the costal redwoods, which are massive trees growing up to 279 feet tall! And 29.2 feet wide! This forest is one of the last few strands of these special trees left in the Bay Area, so it was definitely a treat to see them! Upon arrival, we were greeted by one of the many giants in the forest right by the ranger station.


In the forest it was fairly dark, not only because of the time of day, but also because of the thick canopy shading most of the ground. The immense trees block out quite a bit of light, and this also prevents most non-shade tolerant plants from growing in the area. There were still quite a few shade-tolerant plants to be found, especially near stream beds like this one.


However, it was the giant redwoods that captivated us. Trying to capture their enormity was tough, though I think I did a pretty good job here:


And hopefully through the help of my fiancé you can see how large these trees are at the base.


Also, a fun fact about this national monument; part of Star Wars Episode VI: The Return of the Jedi was filmed here. Specifically some of the scenes from the forest moon of Endor, the moon that had the Ewoks living on it!


Seeing these trees was an amazing experience, and I definitely hope to return one day to spend more time among some of the largest living organisms on our planet!


Moab’s National Parks


The North and South Windows from Arches National Park

The last stop on our national park tour was a small town in southeastern Utah named Moab. This town is located very close to two great and iconic national parks: Arches and Canyonlands National Parks. These two parks both have some of the most identifiable landscapes or features of the Southwest’s national parks, but they are very different! Starting with Arches National Park, we journeyed out of the valley that Moab is settled inside. Once we topped the eastern ridge, we were already in Arches, and were able to see the beautiful landscapes and rock features that this park contains.


The most famous arch in this park is the Delicate Arch, which is an amazing stand alone rock arch , seen below.


This arch, like many in the park were formed by the great force of erosion, both by wind and water. Many arches throughout the park have collapsed since the park was founded. One arch that seems close to collapsing is the Landscape Arch. People are no longer able to walk underneath this arch, because a major chunk of rock fell and the arch is somewhat unstable.


Other major landmarks include the following:


The Balanced Rock


The Double Arches


The Salt Domes

In addition to the amazing geological features that are scattered across the park, there are some outstanding views of the surrounding landscape, such as this view of the La Sal Mountains, which are south of Arches.


After leaving Arches, we headed on over to Canyonlands National Park, which is actually composed of three sections. The first section, the one we went to, is called Island in the Sky. Here is an epic view from one of the vistas in this section:


Another section, which is a slightly longer drive south from Moab, is called The Needles, which we saw way in the distance from Island in the Sky:


And the third part is called The Maze, which is difficult to access. The Island in the Sky was really awesome, because we were basically on a plateau or mesa and got epic views of the park. Here is an example from one of the vista points in the park.




Hiking in Canyonlands was also fairly intense, at least for me, because you can end up hiking alongside a 1000+ foot drop off for a long time. We hiked the Grand View Point Trail, which was awesome, and gave us some great sweeping views, like below.



We also found a tree that someone had put a Christmas ornament in, which was a fun little thing to find.




The last thing we did in the park was visit a feature called The Upheaval Dome. There are two theories about how this dome was formed. The first is that it is a salt dome formed by shifting rocks. The other, which now seems to have more support, is that the dome is a meteorite crater.


After visiting these two parks, we headed back home and concluded our national parks tour! I hope you enjoyed this virtual tour, and that it inspires you to visit these amazing places for yourself. I know that I plan to go back to all of these sites and spend more time at each one!

Bryce Canyon National Park


Bryce Canyon National Park was our next stop on our national park trip, and this park was definitely my favorite. From breath-taking views to beautiful high elevation conifer forests, I was completely enchanted. Bryce Canyon is a smaller park compared to the Grand Canyon and Zion, but it is also very unique. First, Bryce Canyon is quite high; the rim of the canyon is between 8,000 and 9,000 ft, and the lowest point at the bottom of a wash is still 6,500 ft. The road for this park, a wonderful scenic drive, travels along the rim, and there are various places to camp and hike along it. Along the rim, there are two different forest communities, depending on what your elevation is. At the lower elevations you will find ponderosa pine forests, while at the higher elevations there are spruce-fir forests. Below the rim, there is a mix of pinyon-juniper forests and ponderosa pine forests. Many parts of Bryce Canyon are heavily forested, while some parts in the canyon are mostly bare rock, like in this photo:


The amazing colors of the rocks at Bryce Canyon are due mainly to iron-based minerals (pinks and reds), but there are also some manganese minerals as well (purples). I found the colors of Bryce Canyon to really contrast well against the dark-green forests, which created a very beautiful landscape. I’ve also heard that Bryce Canyon looks gorgeous after snow, so I will have to make a winter trip one day, though it will be very cold!



The rock formations are Bryce are very interesting and unique. The primary form of erosion that shaped the towering rock pillars and sheets was ice. Rain was filtered down into the cracks of the rock and froze, which broke apart the rocks. There were other, less powerful forms of erosion that happened as well, such as chemical erosion from water mixing with various elements in the ground. These erosive forces created some amazing formations such as the natural bridge and Thor’s hammer.



Many of the hikes at Bryce Canyon involve going down into the amphitheaters and floors of the canyon, which allows for alternative views of the rock pillars and all the colors. The hikes were a lot of fun, and you can get backpacking permits to camp down in the canyon.


We camped at one of the established campsites along the rim, which was also very nice but quite cold, even in early October. It dropped below freezing while we were there. All-in-all, Bryce Canyon National Park is a spectacular place full of beautiful landscapes and forests. I would highly recommend this park to everyone!