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By Rene Donaldson
Drought-stricken vegetation on approach to Cave Creek Canyon.
(Photo by Rene Donaldson)   
Or is it really as atypical as The National Integrated Drought Information System label implies? For centuries repeated droughts have shaped life in Cave Creek Canyon—as in all of Arizona. Think flora, fauna, and landscape. The Apaches who left rock paintings in caves here were affected by a multi-decade drought starting in the mid-1500s. Perhaps water in the creek no longer flowed year-round so they were forced higher in elevation or to other locales to seek basic necessities. Perhaps oaks and piñon pines died or didn’t produce fruit, thus stressing animals and delaying breeding. It was the most recent extended period of severe drought known for this region, but it wasn’t the first. Long before the Apaches entered Cave Creek Canyon, the Mogollon culture, also hunter-gatherers, were affected by a severe mega-drought that lasted a century. Going back even further, drought played a role in the Pleistocene extinction of many North American mammals and altered our flora and fauna.
------At present, our area has experienced drought for most of the last two decades. This is no longer just “a dry spell” but the likes of which nobody has experienced here, except perhaps Ted Troller. A local rancher, Troller has been around for almost 70 years and remembers the devastating drought in the early 1950s when wells went dry. The long-term projections for Arizona and the Southwest are for more heat, more drought, and more extreme weather events, including wildfires. So, just how unusual is our “exceptional” drought?
___It doesn’t take a biologist, an ecologist, or even a meteorologist to observe how this drought has affected Cave Creek Canyon. What follows is a non-scientific summary of local observances from community members to help us discern trends that we had not previously considered, or to validate others.
At our house on the mesquite flats of Silver Peak, we noticed a great decrease of insects on our screens in May and June this year compared to previous ones, but it didn’t seem to affect our bird population until the first of June when our resident Cactus Wrens became scarce. Nancy Hays who lives closer to the valley made the same observation about insects earlier and reflected on the low numbers of warblers, vireos, and flycatchers compared to previous years. Slightly above the riparian area, Bonnie Bowen mentions the persistence of Western Tanagers which normally just pass through on their way north and to higher elevations in the Chiricahuas (click here to read my June 2021 article on Western Tanagers). Cecil Williams has noted the same for our three species of orioles: Hooded, Bullock’s, and Scott’s which appreciate her buffet of oranges, hummingbird nectar, and water. The author suspects that during drought the birds may alter their habits to stay by a reliable food/water source as long as possible.
Cactus Wrens are curious and eat many types of insects, fruit, and seeds so it was surprising when most of our residents left in June. They usually get most of their water from the food they eat. (Photo by Tony Donaldson)

Rose Ann Rowlett, who lives in the riparian area, notices an “oasis effect” of the drought which is large numbers of birds visiting water features:

"As this lower section of Cave Creek has been drying up, the shrinking pools have receded up the creek with the largest remaining pool with a little trickle upstream from us. I’ve been watching who comes to drink from a makeshift blind across the creek. Mornings and evenings there is a constant procession, including species that rarely, if ever, come to the water features around the house. On June 12 a Thick-billed Kingbird and a Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher came to drink at 6:40 pm. Neither breeds right here.”
The Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher is one of the last nesting arrivals in Cave Creek Canyon. It is seen and heard on South Fork road and in and around Sunny Flat and Stewart Campgrounds. Its call sounds like a rubber-duckie toy. To hear its vocalizations, click here and follow the links. (Photo by Bob Rodrigues)

The Thick-billed Kingbird is a recent summer arrival to our area from Mexico. It occurs only in tall trees in riparian areas, with a preference for nesting in sycamores. It feeds almost entirely on insects. (Photo by Tony Donaldson)

__The kingbird has been known to nest down Canyon and the flycatcher up Canyon. Rose Ann said that migrants like the Swainson’s Thrush have been regular along the creek, drinking and foraging near the pools, but. . .
"We’ve never had them at my water features. And our Abert’s Towhees seem to prefer the wilder setting of the creek pools to drinking at the water features. All in all, I’ve seen many more species and individuals at the combined oasis of the creek pools and my water features during this winter/spring drought than in years when the creek was flowing beautifully." 
Usually difficult to see, a Yellow-billed Cuckoo drinks from a birdbath, illustrating the "oasis effect” of ample water in a dry environment. Its stuttering, croaking calls have given it the misnomer of "rain crow," imagining that it is calling for rain (perhaps the author should be less skeptical). To listen to its call, click here and follow the links. (Photo by Rose Ann Rowlett)

Abert’s Towhee is aptly colored to blend in with its desert environment. Its habitat is brushy riparian areas where it mostly feeds on insects and seeds. (Photo by Tony Donaldson)
Richard Webster regularly monitors San Bernardino National Wildlife Refuge on the US-Mexican border and lives in the Portal riparian area, observes this about the birds in Rucker Canyon: 
"I just compared the more numerous species (uncommon or better) that occur in the section of Rucker Canyon that I covered for the trogon census in 2020 and 2021. I tallied the species that were notably more or less common in 2021, ‘notably’ defined as more than 25% different. My numbers are not scientific (no protocol), just my fairly careful notations over the morning that went into my field notes. In 2021, five species were notably more common than in 2020 (e.g., Mexican Jay and Scott’s Oriole), and 14 were notably less common (e.g., House Wren, Hermit Thrush, Yellow-eyed Junco, and Painted Redstart). This probably fits well my general impression: bad but not bleak. I believe overall bird numbers are rather low, and I suspect reproduction is going to be low."
Hermit Thrushes hop and scrape in leaf litter while foraging in forest understories near edges or openings. This nest is in a juniper tree. Their enthralling, clear calls may be heard along Cave Creek Canyon road in the summer. To hear it, click here and follow the links. (Photo by Tony Donaldson)
Mexican Jays, residents of oak-pine forests, depend heavily on acorns for survival. Drought will harm their food supplies and water and consequently breeding success in drought-stricken areas. (Photo by Tony Donaldson)
___"Nonetheless, I am seeing young birds regularly (especially in our yard, where we treat them like they are attending the G7 summit). Many of us preferentially birdwatch in places that have natural sources of water or human-provided water and food, and this skews our impressions. When I bird at a natural place without water, I often see remarkably little. This is especially true at lower elevations (a low percentage of the lesser lowland average rainfall may be devastating, whereas the same percentage of the higher mountain average rainfall may be marginal but not devastating). There are dry, natural areas that I have regularly walked for years in the foothills that seem to be missing common species that we regard as resident.
___As a complicated example: At San Bernardino NWR Cactus Wrens and Curve-billed Thrashers are typically rather scarce species. For several months during the winter of 2020-2021, I consistently saw many more of these species than I had ever encountered over the prior 15 years, individuals and small groups that I suspected of being émigrés from drought-hit habitats on the alluvial fans on either side of the refuge. Those numbers are gone; did the individuals return home (but if so, to what did they return: areas yet drier still?), die there on the refuge (evidently never the best habitat for those species), or move on seeking something better (and probably did not find it)?"
Painted Redstarts nest on the ground on hillsides in our Canyon’s pine-oak forests. They forage from the forest floor to mid levels in the trees and are one of Arizona’s widely recognized species that Audubon classifies as being affected by climate change. (Photo by Tony Donaldson)
Elegant Trogon Survey
Another tool we have to evaluate drought effects on our avian friends are our annual volunteer counts such as the Elegant Trogon Count, Christmas Bird Count, and the Breeding Bird Survey. An annual May/June Elegant Trogon count is conducted by the Arizona Important Bird Area Program, Jennie MacFarland, coordinator for the Tucson Audubon Society, and started by Rick Taylor, a local resident.
___The Chiricahua results for 2021, 2020, and 2019 trogon surveys are: a total of 4 birds (three males and one female) in 2021; 29 birds (10 pairs, plus 6 males and 3 females) in 2020; 18 birds (6 pairs, plus 5 males and 1 female) in 2019. The grand totals for the border mountains of Southeastern Arizona surveys in 2021-2019 are 68, 201, and 166 respectively. Going back further for comparison, there was a grand total of 86 Elegant Trogons in 2013, just two years after the devastating 2011 Horseshoe 2 wildfire that burned 223,000 acres within the Chiricahua Mountains. These numbers suggest that Elegant Trogon population density has been low before and may bounce back.

Male Elegant Trogons usually arrive in South Fork in late April or May where their croaking call and bright colors announce their appearance. To hear their call, click here and follow the links. (Photo by Tony Donaldson)
Drought-stricken trees and shrubs are a regular sight on the approach to Cave Creek Canyon. Several local residents in and outside the riparian area have commented on the prolific mesquite bloom this spring, even trees flowering that now are leafless. This display is most likely an example of putting what energy is left into reproduction, a scenario we may become more familiar with as the climate warms and changes. The effect of drought is not as obvious as one enters the Canyon; however, do not be misled. While the brown, dying shrubs and trees outside the Canyon are highly visible signs of dry, hot years, drought has lasting effects on living plants. Signs are everywhere in the Canyon, in the depletion of manzanita stands and especially the condition of our oaks. Dinah Davidson who lives in the Canyon with 7-10 dying oaks and has observed them for longer than a decade wrote this: 

"Our Madrean oaks are drought deciduous in spring, not winter/cold deciduous, and new leaves are produced as old leaves are shed (see accompanying box for a more detailed description). During our now very severe drought, new leaf production has been stifled, and both branches and whole trees have become leafless or almost so. Such branches may die because of irreversible cavitation (bubble formation) in water transport channels. Emory oaks, in the red oak group, have water transport channels that are more sensitive to cavitation than those of Arizona white oaks. Near the Canyon mouth, at the ecotone where trees of all kinds live at the edge of their tolerances for drought and cavitation, Emory oaks suffered earliest, with many having succumbed to the 2003 drought. Now though, Arizona oaks are in trouble too, and both major branches and entire trees are dying. Walnuts are experiencing a similar fate. Gradually our pine/oak/walnut/juniper woodlands are becoming juniper forests. 
A trio of dying oaks spaced too close to one another to survive a drought. There are a few leaves scattered around the canopies but likely not enough to save them. (Photo by Dinah Davidson)
Leaf Production in Madrean Oaks
by Dinah Davidson
Why do oaks flush new leaves in spring at the driest time of the year? As a group, oaks defend their leaves with tannins, which complex with proteins, make leaves less digestible/desirable to herbivorous insects. During leaf development, it takes time for tannins to be laid down, and new leaves are vulnerable in the interim. Thus, our Madrean oaks take advantage of naturally low insect abundances to flush new leaves in early spring. As a fascinating aside, oaks do have a specialized lepidopteran herbivore. If its caterpillars develop on oak flowers in spring, they cryptically resemble the flowers. Fall caterpillars of the same species (Nemoria arizonaria) resemble oak leaves, on which they feed during that season. Click here to read an article about the caterpillars.
___There are obvious perils to flushing leaves during seasonal drought, and maintenance of old leaves during new leaf production helps to address these perils. For branches (and trees) to survive, they must be serviced by continuous columns of water in their transport systems. The presence of old leaves, still pulling up water via transpiration as they photosynthesize, helps to maintain continuity of water columns until new leaves are in place and transpiring. Junipers use this same strategy, with new growth occurring at branch tips, just above where older growth is simultaneously browning and dying back.
Insects, Reptiles, and Wildlife

Lori Conrad who has been counting butterflies for years says that “Our butterfly count last year in August was abysmal. Most of the ones we found were in people's gardens.” 
In a wetter year, Two-tailed Swallowtails can be found "puddling" on any patch of wet soil. (Photo by Lori Conrad)
Several Dull Firetips, a type of skipper, all trying to nectar on one of the few flowering thistles in 2020. (Photo by Lori Conrad)
Anecdotally, Bob Rodrigues said that there seems to be fewer rodents in his yard this year compared to previous ones. For example, there has been less evidence of rodent activity near his vehicles than in the past. He has, however, recently had numerous rodent detections at night from trail cameras placed near water sources. This is likely another example of the “oasis effect” described earlier by Rose Ann Rowlett. Over the last two or three years his impression is that there have been fewer rattlesnake observations in his yard which would likely be a result if rodent numbers are down. 
___Reproduction and survivorship of wildlife fall as habitat quality declines during droughts. For species with specific needs, survival is usually more tenuous, but don’t be misled. All species suffer stress but some have evolved adaptations to handle drought better than others.
A thirsty adult bobcat will quench its thirst wherever it finds water. (Photo by Richard Webster)
Uncertain Future
Drought impacts everything. New challenges await all animals and plants. Nobody knows how long the drought will last. Richard Webster adds:
"Birds are resilient, and if we have a few average years in front of us, numbers of most will improve, often quickly. If the future provides marginal seasons or worse, we can expect still lower numbers of most species and probably a few local extinctions. It is drought that is slapping us in our faces right now, but resilience is less likely when there is not just one problem, but several [referring to wildfires]."
___Motivation for writing this article is my daily contact with stressed, suffering flora and fauna as a result of two of the driest years on record. I am not a scientist and I urge others to share what drought-related observations and data they have so the next article can eliminate some of the “perhaps, supposes, mays, and suspects” in this one. For example, are rodent levels down as Bob Rodrigues suspects? Or during drought do birds alter their habits to stay by a reliable food/water source as I suspect? How has the drought here and in Mexico affected our migratory species? What do we know about our Canyon’s black bear population and how they are adapting to drought? The same could be asked of our Chiricahua leopard frogs and bat species. Will this year be a baseline for what we can expect in the future? And on it goes. You get the idea, pay attention, record, and report.

[The author thanks all the contributors, photographers, and Kathleen Talbot.]
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