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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Arizona: Owls and Warblers

2017 Narrative

In Brief

 

The spring of 2017 was a mild one in Arizona, and during the week of the tour the temperatures were often well below average, with comfortable (or even cold) conditions.  The generally green nature of the desert likely resulted in a lack of a concentrating effect for migrants, and the odd weather seemed to effect the breeding birds as well, as in many places that we birded the dawn choruses were minimal.  Nevertheless the 2017 Arizona Owls and Warbler trip was a great success. On the tour we sampled the wide variety of the habitats available in Southeastern Arizona, from cottonwood/ willow riparian strips to Sonoran Desert and Mexican drainages south of the Atascosa Mountains, and from Madrean Pine-oak Woodland to petran Conifer Forest.  The birds were as diverse as the habitats, as we tallying an amazing 10 species of owls, and 209 species overall.  As always, hummingbirds are a favored group on a visit to AZ, and we enjoyed close views of 9 species this year, including stunning male Lucifer and nestling Blue-throated.  Other highlights included our views of the tropical and gaudy Elegant Trogons, 20 species of Flycatchers and a wealth of mammals, reptiles and butterflies.  The mammals this year we particularly diverse, and included excellent studies of Gray Fox, Bobcat, Raccoon, Javelina and a surprising number of rabbits and jackrabbits which seem to be having a bumper year in 2017.  Oh, and suppose I should also comment on the gorgeous Red-faced, Olive, Grace’s, Townsend’s, Lucy’s, and Black-throated Gray Warblers and such scarce species as Common Black-Hawk, Spotted Owl and Five-striped Sparrow.  Some true rarities were enjoyed this year as well, highlighted by the cooperative Rufous-capped Warbler that we found singing in Florida Canyon, the Buff-collared Nightjar in the Atascosa Highlands, female Black-capped Gnatcatcher feeding young in lower Madera Canyon and lingering male Williamson’s Sapsucker high up in the Chiricahuas.  Of particular note this year was our luck with quail.  We found Montezuma Quail and Scaled Quail on three different days, with the much more common Gambel’s Quail being daily companions.  The votes for bird of the trip were all over the map, with the inquisitive midday Northern Pygmy-Owl, gaudy Painted Redstarts, soaring Golden Eagle, and the diminutive Elf Owls being the top mentions.  The diversity of landscapes and birdlife in Arizona is staggering, and I look forward to showing it off to the next crop of participants in 2018!

 

 

In Full

We met in the mid-afternoon this year, for a short visit to some of Tucson’s better wetland areas.  Our first stop was to perhaps the best single wetland area in the city; Sweetwater Wetlands.  A developed wetland adjacent to the Santa Cruz River this park boasts about a half dozen ponds lined with ever-growing stands of Cottonwood, Willow and Saltbush.  Lots of thick cattail beds, and surrounded by settling basins and open land the park has attracted over 300 species of birds in the decade or so that it has been opened.  It serves as a really great introduction to the common riparian and desert birds of the region.  We wandered around the park for a good two hours, soaking up a nice cross-section of the more common local birds.  Gila Woodpeckers were abundant (as usual), Verdins were actively flitting around in the flowering Palo Verde trees, Lark, White-crowned, and Song Sparrows joined Abert’s Towhees and Gambel’s Quail in the understory of the saltbushes.  A nice assortment of swallows were hawking over the ponds, including a few Cliff and Bank Swallows among the hordes of Northern Rough-winged and Barn Swallows. We also were happy to detect a few migrant species like Lazuli Bunting and Western Wood-Pewee.  Mammals were also plentiful, with lots of Desert Cottontail and Round-tailed Ground Squirrels, a quite cooperative Coyote that was lying down in the late afternoon sun, and a family group of Northern Raccoons that scooted across the trail in front of us.  Due to quite windy conditions we decided to skip a planned owling excursion and returned to the hotel where we feasted on a fine dinner under a beautiful red Arizona sunset.

 

On the second day we traveled north into Pinal and Gila Counties. Leaving Tucson behind we soon found ourselves amidst fantastic carved canyons, and an amazingly complex geologic history are a few species that are very rare, or not findable in Southeastern Arizona.  Along the increasingly developed road through Oro Valley and Saddlebroook we stopped to check in with a nesting pair of Harris’s Hawks.  We found a trio of birds sitting near the nest site in a roadside ornamental pine.  These beautiful chocolate brown, reddish, and white raptors are unique in that they hunt cooperatively in extended family groups, like a pack of aeolian wolves.  One of the birds obligingly took off and flew right past us, allowing us to view the striking white tail bands.  Here too we found our first Lucy’s Warblers, bouncing around just below us on some flowering mesquite trees.  We then continued north, eventually dropping down into the San Pedro River Valley and the little town of Mammoth.  The riparian scrub hosted a nice array of migrants and a few territorial species as well, with standouts including Rufous-winged and Black-throated Sparrows and Phainopepla. At a gas station stop for a restroom break we spent a few minutes looking around behind the building and were happy to spot a very cooperative Brown-crested Flycatcher perched in the adjacent desert wash.  A small sewage pond near the San Pedro River was hosting several species of swallows that were seen hawking insects over the water, our first Spotted Sandpipers, and a few Brown-headed Cowbirds.  Then we continued just a little farther north into the very beautiful Aravaipa Canyon.  This cottonwood and willow filled canyon provides a permanent water source in an otherwise parched landscape, and is a reliable location for nesting Common Black Hawks.  On the way into the canyon we stopped to admire a slope covered in Saguaro Cactus (many of which were blooming).  Here too was a frustratingly elusive Gilded Flicker, but the Cactus Wrens and Ash-throated Flycatchers were quite confiding.  We screeched to a halt several times to admire passing raptors, including a circling group of three Gray Hawks and a slowly soaring Zone-tailed Hawk that showed extremely well for us.  Along the canyon road we encountered an array of flycatchers including several dazzling male Vermilion Flycatchers, and Western Kingbirds.  A pair of Inca Doves (which seem to be slowly recovering from a recent population crash in Arizona) was a nice treat, and the three or four male Broad-billed Hummingbirds showed off their glittering blue and green plumage. Near the end of the road we spotted a soaring Common Black Hawk, and with our recent views of the somewhat similar Zone-tailed in mind were immediately struck by this birds broad wings, broad based but short tail, and large head.  To our delight the bird landed on a utility pole up the slope from us, allowing for extended scope views and then soared overhead a second time for more flight views.  While enjoying the hawk we were thrilled to detect a perched Thick-billed Kingbird, a truly rare (possibly previously unreported) species from this location sitting on a bare tree in the riparian zone below the road. Though the species is widespread in western Mexico down to the Guatemala border it is very local in the US, with an estimated 25-40 pairs scattered around mostly SE Arizona.

 

After our success in Arivaipa we went further north in search of Gray Vireo and Black-chinned Sparrows. In the dense chaparral-like habitat that cloaks the rolling Hills south of Globe we had great success with attractively colored Black-chinned Sparrow, with several individuals popping into view and coming in to our tape.  The Gray Vireos were uncharacteristically silent, but a very active Juniper Titmouse, very vocal Spotted Towhees and a few Western Scrub-Jays kept us entertained.  As it was mid afternoon by that point we started the drive back to Tucson, arriving with time for a bit of a break before an early dinner at a nearby restaurant.  With a drop in the winds we elected to drive up Mount Lemmon to try our hand out with owls.  The night was unseasonably cold and the moon was nearly full, with the light almost drowning out the hundreds of stars.  We followed up on a recent tip from one of the WINGS office managers and began our evening near Palisades, the forestry service visitor’s center.  The center is nestled in pine forest and just a bit shy of 8000ft, and with a bit of patience we were eventually successful in coaxing out a Northern Saw-whet Owl.  Although this species is only irregularly present on the mountain, and generally prefers the fir/spruce forests found even higher up this individual seemed to be on territory around the center’s grounds.  He played hide and seek with us for quite a while, but with perseverance we managed a couple of quick views in the torchlight.  I suspect that the very bright moon was making him more active than usual, but as this is the most rarely encountered owl of the 10 species found over the tour itinerary we were quite pleased with the experience.  We stopped a few times on the way down the 25-mile road back to Tucson.  Near Rose Canyon a very responsive Mexican Whip-poor-will soared overhead in a dramatic full song bout. A bit further down we found a perched Whiskered Screech-Owl sitting in a high pine above our heads, uttering its slow nearly single pitched trill.  Once back on the floor of the Tucson Valley we added one more nightbird in the form of three Lesser Nighthawks that were hawking insects attracted to the traffic lights at an isolated interchange in the desert.  It was a long day, but one filled with a fantastic array of birds and an amazingly diverse suite of habitats. 

 

On day three we explored the various life zones available by taking the highway up to the top of the Catalina Mountains.  This 25-mile drive starts in upland Sonoran Desert and ends in Spruce-Fir forest similar in feel to Washington State!  We stopped regularly, each time accessing a slightly different avifauna. We began the morning with a visit to Agua Caliente Park, a small, well-maintained patch of desert near the base of Mount Lemmon.  Here we made a pleasant hour-long stroll around the grounds, becoming familiar with birds such as Western Kingbird, Cooper’s Hawk, Vermilion Flycatcher, Bell’s Vireo and Bewick’s Wren.  There were a few migrants about such as Yellow-rumped and Wilson’s Warblers and Western Tanager but I suspect the highlight for most was the incredibly cooperative Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet that appeared over the trail near the main pond.  The bird even came close enough that we could verify its lack of rictal bristles!  Here too we found Green-tailed and Abert’s Towhees scratching on the ground along the path, and enjoyed lengthy views of some handsome White-crowned Sparrows of the Rocky Mountain breeding oriantha subspecies, a form characterized by a bright pink bill and unusually well marked head striping.  Once up on the mountain we made a quick stop in to the Molino Basin overlook.  This grassland/desert scrub region sits a bit above 4000 feet, with scrubby oaks and a few scattered sycamores in the drainage below the parking lot.  A handsome Zone-tailed Hawk soared overhead shortly after we exited the van, and around the margin of the parking lot we found a couple of Lazuli Buntings and a vocal pair of Blue-gray Gnatcatchers working the flowering mesquites.  We walked down to the drainage, where several clear pools of water still sat in amongst the boulders and spent a bit of time watching as birds came in to take a drink.  Chief among the visitors was a handsome Rufous-crowned Sparrow that lingered in view for quite some time, but the active pair of Bushtits, several Canyon Towhees and a male Ladder-backed Woodpecker made for an enjoyable visit. 

 

We spent the bulk of the morning wandering around the forested campground around Bear Canyon, where seemingly every possible bird popped into view for us.  From a stupendous warbler show that included Olive, Grace’s, Wilson’s, Yellow-rumped and Painted Redstart, to perched and vocal Greater Pewees there seemed to be new birds at every turn.  I suspect that our views of a Pygmy Nuthatches that came so close to us that we could have pocketed him, and the repeated and very close-range views of foraging Acorn and Hairy Woodpeckers

were the highlights for the group.  But pairs of the balefully countenanced Yellow-eyed Juncos, bubbly loquacious House Wrens, singing Hermit Thrushes, inquisitive Plumbeous Vireos and bold Mexican Jays were close contenders.  We ate lunch at the tasty little restaurant in the town of Summerhaven, placing our order and then running across the street to watch as hordes of Steller’s Jays, Yellow-eyed Juncos, and Pine Siskins descended upon some bird feeders.  Male Broad-tailed and Magnificent Hummingbirds, and a handsome pair of Western Bluebirds livened up the scene as well, and just before we decided to head back for lunch we heard the bouncing song of Virginia’s Warblers emanating from the thick willow brush along a roadside creek.  In very short order we located a cooperative individual that was seemingly oblivious to our presence, lingering long enough for some depixellization by Canon.  On the way back downslope we stopped among the spruce and fir bordered Mount Bigelow Road where we found Mountain Chickadees and several nasal Red-breasted Nuthatches (one of which sounded like it had a head cold), completing our sweep of the available Nuthatches.  Some Brown Creepers and additional views of Olive and Red-faced Warblers were appreciated here too, as was an unexpected but responsive Red-naped Sapsucker, representing either a lingering migrant or perhaps a male attempting to set up a nesting territory.  In the late afternoon we drove down to our hotel for the next two nights in Green Valley, arriving in time for a bit of a rest and then an early dinner at a nearby restaurant.  An optional post-dinner outing to Madera Canyon, where we found the owling conditions to be nearly perfect.  After a few minutes of waiting we enjoyed incredibly good looks at a pair of diminutive Elf Owls (the smallest species of owl in the world) at a known nest site in a roadside pole.  One bird stuck its head out of a nest cavity and looked around for about 5 minutes before its partner flew in to give the waiting bird some tasty insect.  We were able to see the birds sitting in a nearby juniper tree and as the skies turned to black we were also treated to an excellent auditory show from Mexican Whip-poor-wills, a distant Whiskered Screech-Owl and multiple pairs of Elf Owls.  On the drive out of the canyon a beautifully colored Gray Fox walked across the road in front of us and then lingered along the roadside perched on a large rock providing exceptionally good views of what is normally a fairly retiring canid.

 

We began the next day with a trip to the rocky trail up Florida Canyon.  Although the trail up the canyon is rougher than our usual walks the potential rewards for hiking up the rocky tract are great.  We found the hike up to a few hundred meters above the dam to be quite bird rich, especially for flycatchers.  All three of the normal Myiarchus flycatchers were prevalent companions, with repeated comparison views of Dusky-capped and Brown-crested and several Ash-throated working the drier slopes above the riparian zone.  As we reached the dense oak trees that line the main creek we were shocked to hear a singing Black-and-White Warbler below the trail.  Although rare in Arizona this species is one of the more regular “eastern” warblers, although a singing male is certainly noteworthy.  Nearby the Black-and-White was a pair of very inquisitive Northern Beardless-Tyrannulets, which came to within just a few feet of us as they perched in an open Ocotillo.  A Golden Eagle greeted our arrival into the more narrow stretch of the canyon, as it flew along the ridgetops heading to its nest site on a nearby cliff.  As we neared the area where reports of breeding Rufous-capped Warblers had been trickling in over the previous few weeks we found several fruiting mulberry bushes, which provided a culinary distraction for us, and a lot of food for an impressive number of American Robins, Black-headed Grosbeak and Western Tanagers.  We waited around for about twenty minutes but didn’t hear any calls from the warblers.  Just a bit further up canyon though one bird was delightfully teed up right over the trail, providing excellent views and even some photographic opportunities before it jumped back down into the scrubby oaks that lined the creek.  Rufous-capped Warblers are a Central and South American species that seem to possibly be gaining a toehold as breeders in southern Arizona.  Using only canyons with some remnant thornscrub habitat and a permanent water source they have an extremely limited distribution in the state, but are persisting in very small numbers.  It is conceivable that they may follow the lead of similar species such as Black-capped Gnatcatcher, Buff-breasted Flycatcher and Thick-billed Kingbird; all of whom have been steadily expanding their presence in the state over the last decade.  Flush with success we descended the trail, stopping to admire several perched Pacific-Slope Flycatchers, a flyby Zone-tailed Hawk, and some calls from a Montezuma Quail that was frustratingly behind the research station fence.  In the mid-morning we drove over to nearby Madera Canyon, where we started off with a short walk at Proctor Road. Just a few meters down the trail we heard the distinctive kitten-like mews of a Black-capped Gnatcatcher, and with a bit of digging we tracked down a recently fledged bird begging for food from its attendant mother.  These Gnatcatchers are really spreading into SE Arizona, as the first record for the species was in the late 1970’s and now there are perhaps dozens of known pairs sprinkled around Santa Cruz and southern Pima Counties.  A 30-minute visit to the feeders at Santa Rita Lodge followed, adding a whirlwind of new species.  A herd of over a dozen Wild Turkeys was scratching around under the feeders, which were well attended by a flock of Mexican Jays, Acorn Woodpeckers, a few Bridled Titmouse (which look amazingly like the European Crested Tit).  The hummingbird show at the feeders was quite busy, with Broad-billed and Black-chinned being nearly constant companions at very close range, and several hulking Magnificent Hummingbirds putting repeat appearances at the feeders.  Just up canyon we also visited the feeders at the Kubo B&B, where we added a few handsome Blue Grosbeaks and Lazuli Buntings, and close range views of Magnificent and Broad-tailed Hummingbirds in excellent light.

 

After lunch and a mid-day siesta we set off on our long and bumpy ride into California Gulch, nestled on the Mexican border in the southern Atascosa Mountains. As we drove down through the town of Arivaca we stopped in at the Amado Sewage Pond to admire the hordes of swallows that were feverishly hawking insects over the pond in the unseasonably cold weather.  Also on the pond were our first Black-bellied Whistling-Duck, American Wigeon and Ring-necked and Ruddy Ducks.  Far from the normal mid to upper 80’s the mid-afternoon was in the upper 50’s with noticeable cloud cover and patchy rain, leading to some concern that our evening plans might be scuppered.  Those fears were remarkably unfounded however, as we reached the confluence of California Gulch and Warsaw Canyon as a break in the clouds revealed sunny and very pleasant (if still cold) conditions.  We walked along the drainage and within just a few minutes encountered a cooperative Five-striped Sparrow calling from a rocky slope above us.  With some patience we eventually tracked it down and were able to watch as it foraged around on the steep slope, picking at the seeding grasses and low bushes.  These handsome sparrows, clad in slate-gray, brown, white and black are quite intricately patterned.  Within the United States Five-striped Sparrows breed in only a handful of canyons around SE Arizona, and are thus perhaps the most localized regular breeding bird in the country. We then headed back to the car to enjoy a picnic dinner and drinks as we waited for darkness to fall.  Over the daily log we saw the first Lesser Nighthawks flying over the road, and spent a bit of time discussing the differences between Vermilion Flycatcher and Buff-collared Nightjar vocalizations.  Just after dark we heard the first Elf Owls calling out in the mesquites around us, and soon afterwards the telltale cucucucucuchaweea of our main quarry sounded off quite close to the van.  We hurried over and after a few minutes of waiting were able to pin down its location, and get the bird in our torchlight.  Although distant we could make out the general features that separate this rarest of US nightjars from the more common Common Poorwills that also occur here.  With all of our target species “in the bag” so to speak we drove back out to Ruby Road and then on to our hotel.  The temperature was steadily dropping and under the unseasonably cool conditions mammals seemed quite active.  We saw Javelina, several Antelope Jackrabbits, a furtive Gray Fox and countless Desert Cottontails on the drive out.  A brief look at a hunting Poorwill was probably the last highlight of a quality filled day in the field.  Any day with Buff-collared Nightjar, Rufous-capped Warbler, Black-capped Gnatcatcher and Five-striped Sparrow is truly a great day!

 

The next morning we visited a wide selection of birding hotspots along the Santa Cruz River and the town of Patagonia.  We started off in a neighborhood on the south side of Green Valley, where we made up for the lack of our hoped-for Gilded Flicker with a roosting Great Horned Owl that we found sitting in a large palm tree.  Leaving Green Valley behind we visited the densely forested riparian corridor of the Santa Cruz River, where towering Cottonwoods, dense willow thickets and a band of old mesquite trees provide shelter and food for migrant birds and a suite of local breeding species.  Walking down to the creek allowed us to see the transition from mesquite forest to cottonwood/willow, with a corresponding shift from Rufous-winged Sparrows, Lucy’s Warblers and Bell’s Vireos to Song Sparrows, Yellow Warblers and Bridled Titmice.  A substantial amount of surface water was flowing in the creekbed, and we spent an enjoyable hour or so walking along the de Anza trail (a public walking and horse trail that spans the length of the river).  The trail was quite rich in birds, and we especially enjoyed our repeated views of migrant Pacific-slope Flycatchers, Ladder-backed Woodpeckers, Bridled Titmice, Bewick’s Wrens and Yellow-breasted Chats.  An excellent surprise in the form of a dazzlingly bright male American Redstart kept us entertained for about 10 minutes as it flashed around in the midstory of a large hackberry, glowing in the early morning sun.  This (our second eastern warbler of the trip) species is annual in small (single digit) numbers in Arizona but never expected!  We then drove a bit south along the frontage road and out to the Rio Rico fields, encountering a couple of pairs of Tropical Kingbirds, along with large numbers of Cassin’s.   As this was our fourth (and final) Kingbird of the tour, we were able to put our various field-lessons to the test, cinching the identification by narrowing in on their forked tail, bright yellow underparts, long and thin bill and medium gray head and upper breast.  The fields also held impressive numbers of White-faced Ibis which were really showing off the iridescence in their plumage, and several more pairs of the comical Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks.  A quick stop at the old Palo Duro Ponds in Nogales revealed a nice selection of waterbirds including several family groups of Pied-billed Grebe (with their stripe-headed young in tow), a Northern Waterthrush (our third species of eastern warbler for the tour!), a pair of lingering Northern Shoveler and a nice array of swallows.  After leaving Nogales, with a quick look at the border wall we decided to visit the main pond at Kino Springs, where the willow thickets around the pond margin have finally grown up enough to support a nice array of birds.  While walking around the willows we picked up another Northern Waterthrush, two roosting Barn Owls, our first MacGillvray’s Warbler, a perched and singing Common Ground-Dove (oddly the only one that we encountered all week), and an amazingly cooperative Peregrine Falcon that made repeated passes over the willow grove, much to the chagrin of the local Gray Hawk pair.  Just before lunch we stopped in at the Paton’s feeders, which are now managed by Tucson Audubon who are busily improving the habitat around the property and better connecting it to the Sonoita Creek Nature Conservancy property.  Here we had to wait a bit but our hoped for Violet-crowned Hummingbird eventually appeared perfectly on cue.  We spent a bit of time watching as birds like Ladder-backed Woodpecker, Yellow-breasted Chat, Inca Dove and Broad-billed Hummingbird all coming into the yard feeders, and working through the female plumages of Black-chinned, Broad-billed and Broad-tailed Hummingbirds.  A nice find here for us was an adult White-throated Sparrow that was frequenting one of the provided brush piles in the back yard. 

 

Lunch at a small local café in Patagonia followed, and then we made our to our main birding destination of the afternoon in Miller Canyon.  This vegetated canyon on the East slope of the Huachuca Mountains was badly affected by the fires a few years ago, but the vegetation on the slopes is beginning to recover, and the largely barren upper slopes seem to help congregate some species of birds closer to the stream bottom and trail system.  Taking advantage of the largely overcast and still remarkably cool conditions we hiked the mile or so up canyon in the late afternoon.  Bird activity was a bit depressed, perhaps by the unseasonable weather, but within a few minutes of arriving high enough on the trail we found our quarry.  A roosting Mexican Spotted Owl was perched in a trailside tree, napping the afternoon away.  We watched him for about 15 minutes, as he occasionally opened an eye or shuffled a few feathers around and then quietly headed downhill elated with our views.  The hike proved fruitful for other species too, with our first Arizona Woodpecker, a perched Buff-breasted Flycatcher, and a large mixed flock containing our first Townsend’s and Black-throated Gray Warblers and several more dapper Painted Redstarts.  Just before returning to the Beatty’s property at the trailhead we stopped to admire a perched Hammond’s Flycatcher sitting just over the trail and were startled to hear a distantly calling Northern Pygmy-Owl. The Pygmy-Owls here give a fast paced, often double noted toot, characteristic of birds to the south and wholly distinctive from that of the birds in the Rocky Mountains.  Most authorities have recognized them as a distinct species; the Mountain Pygmy-Owl.   Whatever you want to call it though this bird was wonderfully cooperative once we found it sitting in a small dead pine tree a ways upslope from the trail, and was voted very highly on the bird of the trip honour roll.

Around the hummingbird feeders at the Beatty’s Bed and Breakfast we watched Magnificent, Broad-billed, Broad-tailed and Black-chinned Hummingbirds coming in to feed.  Here too were several Chiricahua Leopard Frogs, hanging out in the small pond reserved for them to breed near the apple orchard.

 

Our last stop for the day was to the famous Ash Canyon Bed and Breakfast feeders where the local Lucifer Hummingbirds had recently been active during the last hours of light. We sat down on the comfortable chairs provided by our gracious host Mary Joe, and within about 15 minutes were elated to have very lengthy views of at least two separate male Lucifer Hummingbirds.  Arguably the most colorful of our normal Arizona hummingbirds the small and sharp tailed males sport large and glittering magenta throats, almost too intensely coloured to be natural.  The yard was also featuring several gorgeous Scott’s Orioles, a sharp looking bright yellow and black Oriole that is a bit of a specialty here, and we enjoyed repeated visits of multiple birds coming in to feed on the pots of grape jelly and ripe oranges at the feeding station.  We capped the day off with a hearty dinner at a German restaurant that replenished our dwindled reserves after the hike.

               

A few days prior to our evening in Sierra Vista the Huachuca Mountains and much of Cochise County was hit by a late-season snowstorm.  In the peaks above 7000 feet there was a mix of hail, sleet and accumulating snow that gave the area more of a February feel, although apparently the Olive and Grace’s Warblers, Plumbeous Vireos and Greater Pewees kept on stubbornly singing through the storm.  All of the evidence of that storm had melted away by the time we arrived in the area, but a few birds had definitely shifted their behaviour due to the unseasonable weather.  Chief among these species was a Tufted Flycatcher that had been reliable in upper Carr Canyon for several weeks (and indeed became so again a few days after our tour).  We decided to check the area anyway, as the road gives excellent access to patches of high elevation pine forest.  We started a little later in the morning, taking advantage of the breakfast buffet at our hotel before arriving in the oak-rich grassy forest at the base of the mountain. This encinal forest is good habitat for Montezuma Quail and we drove the first few miles of the road slowly, watching in the mostly open understory for any quail-like motion.  Amazingly, just a few minutes into our slow vigil we detected two Quail quietly feeding just a few feet off the road.  We quietly got out of the car and were able to approach the birds fairly closely, before they flushed uphill into the grasslands and disappeared.  Always a top target for visiting birders these beautiful but very secretive Quail are very hard to predict.  Their numbers fluctuate widely from year to year, and although they tend to be quite vocal in May sightings are never guaranteed.  Once up in the pines we spent a few hours communing with a wide array of high country birds.  We found Olive, Grace’s, Yellow-rumped, Townsend’s Warblers and Buff-breasted Flycatchers, Greater Pewees and Western Wood-Pewees to be common, and enjoyed excellent studies of multiple Yellow-eyed Juncos and our only Azure (Eastern) Bluebird of the trip.  In the late morning we drove back down to Sierra Vista and then across the San Pedro River Valley to the historic mining town of Bisbee.  Now a somewhat trendy town nestled in the basin of the Muleshoe Mountains, Bisbee has traded its mining jobs for art galleries, restaurants and an eclectic mix of residents.  WE took an early lunch at the Bisbee café and then continued eastward into the much drier Sulphur Springs Valley where we stopped in at the Whitewater Draw Wildlife Management Area. This large impoundment is managed for wintering Sandhill Cranes, with most of the water being allowed to dry up in the summer heat.  Nonetheless, a nice stand of willow trees provides welcome shade and food for migrant birds in an otherwise parched valley.  By walking around the trees we located yet another Northern Waterthrush, a more cooperative MacGillvray’s Warbler, a 5 member family of Great Horned Owls including several large almost fully fledged young and a very tame pair of Say’s Pheobes that followed us out to the parking lot.  It was a surprisingly productive midday stop!

 

We continued north to the larger and more attractive (to waterbirds) Wilcox Twin Lakes, perhaps the best single waterbird location in all of Southern Arizona.  Using the car as a blind we slowly drove around the main lake, picking out Red-necked and Wilson’s Phalaropes, a small flock of Least Sandpipers, pairs of Black-necked Stilt and American Avocets and a single Snowy Plover, quite a scarce species in Cochise County. Along the golf course fence we found our first Scaled Quail, a pretty species of grassland quail with an intricate breast pattern and short fluffy tuft of a crest.  Swallows abounded here too, with unusually high numbers of Bank Swallows hawking insects over the lake.  The recent winter-type storm seemed to have largely cleared out most of the lingering ducks and shorebirds, but we still enjoyed the visit, and the small haul of new species that it gave us.   We then stocked up on groceries and fuel for our two days in the beautiful Chiricahua Mountains.  This year we took the shortest route possible, along the recently graded San Sebastian Road, which enabled us to check out a good stretch of habitat for Crissal Thrasher.  Happily we located a somewhat responsive bird that called back for us repeatedly and gave multiple in-flight and briefly perched views.  Our views were admittedly not wholly satisfactory, but were infinitely better than our experience back on day 2 of the tour.  In the late afternoon sun we also found an active Western Patch-nosed Snake that was sunning itself on the gravel road and which allowed close approach.  This species of snake is a delicate pink-hue with longitudinal dark stripes and an odd leaf-shaped nose scale, and was a write-in species for the cumulative tour list (which now stretches over 15 years). We checked into the famous (in birding circles at any rate) Portal Peak Lodge and then enjoyed a simple but hearty meal and (for some) homemade fruit cobbler.  After dark we elected to take advantage of the continuing calm conditions by going on a slow road cruise around the foothills of the Chiricahuas, where we encountered vocal Elf Owls, a family of Great Horned Owls, and a large Solfugid (or Sun Spider), which is an impressively evil-looking and fast relative of the scorpion. 

 

For our full day in the stunningly scenic Chiricahua Mountains we started with an optional pre-breakfast outing to the sparsely vegetated but still somehow scenic Rodeo Valley.  Driving down State Line Road, which marks the border between Arizona and New Mexico we spent much of our time looking for Bendire’s and Crissal Thrashers. In the patches of Chihuahuan desert that remain in the agricultural valley we found nice stands of dense golden bunch grasses and tall Soaptree Yuccas, many of which were in full bloom.  At each stop as we drove through the valley we noted migrant birds slowly working their way north.  Western Tanagers, Wilson’s Warblers, Cassin’s and Western Kingbirds and Bullock’s Orioles were dominant but we picked out a few more rare species such as Gray Flycatcher, Western Wood-Pewees and a true vagrant in the form of a most unexpected White-eyed Vireo that was foraging in a small mesquite tree along one of the side roads.  We drove a little further south to check out an isolated pond with a fringe of small trees.  Dubbed “Willow Tank” this tiny reserve is the only open water that is publically accessible in the valley.  Several families of American Coots, with their stripey and orange-necked young in tow were nibbling on the emergent aquatic vegetation in the lake, and in the ring of trees we spent an enjoyable half-hour sifting through a mixed flock of migrant birds that included dazzling male Western Tanagers and Blue Grosbeaks and our only Dusky Flycatcher of the tour.  Nearby a Crissal Thrasher finally made a error in judgment and perched out in the open for us to fully enjoy, clearly showing its slim build, long bill and deeply curved bill.  A highly patterned and pale young Swainson’s Hawk had us guessing for a few minutes here as well.  On the drive back to Portal (and breakfast) we stopped to look at a Thrasher that was sitting on a roadside pole and were thrilled to see that it was a Bendire’s. .  It remained for a long time, allowing us to really see that the flatter and shorter bill, paler eye, and more discrete breast spotting really are all distinctive.  As we drove back towards Portal we spotted a distant mammal crossing the road and quickly drove up to the spot in which it had walked into the grasslands.  To our elation the animal was still present, and we were treated to an excellent close range view of a handsomely coloured and surprisingly large Bobcat.  This marked our second write-in mammal for the tour, and one that several participants had really hoped to see.  The local Bobcat population seems to be doing quite well, with several residents that we spoke to mentioning that they had been seeing them recently.  This can likely be ascribed to the population boom in Black-tailed Jackrabbits and Desert Cottontails, both of which seemed unusually abundant this year.

 

After a delicious breakfast we turned our attentions to the main drainage of Cave Creek. This beautiful canyon, lined with large sycamores, dense oaks and scattered pines and flanked on both sides by dramatic and towering red cliffs is one of the most special birding locations in the country.  Perhaps the easiest place in the United States to encounter numbers of Elegant Trogons, and nearly the full suite of Arizona specialties.  The flood damage in the area has now largely been fixed and unlike in the previous few years it was possible to drive most of the way in to the end of the road.  Before we proceeded to the end though we stopped at the base of the road where a mixed flock contained Bridled Titmice, Brown-crested and Dusky-capped Flycatchers, Painted Redstarts, Bushtits and a single Brown Creeper.  The breeding Brown Creepers in the Chiricahuas belong to the southern group of creepers that are genetically and phenotypically distinct from the widespread northern group so familiar to most American birders, and may soon be regarded as a separate species.  While watching this flock move along the road edge we heard the unmistakable resonant quarks of a male Elegant Trogon emanating from just a bit upslope.  Once out of the car at the roads end we immediately heard the distinctive quarking of a male Elegant Trogon.  The bird, perhaps the most iconic of all of the Southeastern Arizona specialties was perched in the midstory of a large sycamore tree about 50m away from the road.  It was quite active, moving from large tree to large tree and occasionally giving a song bout.  I suspect the bird was checking out potential nest cavities and had not yet established a territory.  We followed the bird across the road and eventually were able to pin it down in another large Sycamore tree.  Dappled sunlight played across its brilliant emerald green and scarlet plumage, and the views in the telescopes were simply stunning.  Some years the bulk of the Trogon population doesn’t return from their wintering grounds until mid-May, but this year birds had been popping up on territory starting in mid-April.  Quite pleased with our view of this quintessentially tropical species we spent a bit more time wandering along the very birdy, and pretty South Fork Rd. Along the small creek that flows through the central part of the canyon we watched a Canyon Wren work its way down a rock face, investigating the cracks for tasty prey, and a beautiful Painted Redstart taking a short but obviously enjoyable bath.  Grace’s and Black-throated Grey Warblers and Plumbeous and Hutton’s Vireos were in good song all along the road, and under the eaves of one of the Forest Service Cabins we found an active Blue-throated Hummingbird nest with two large young fairly bursting out of the immaculately constructed cup nest.  It was late into the morning by this point, so we decided to head uphill for a picnic lunch at Barfoot Park.  Although a large percentage of the road accessible pine forest in the Chiricahuas was badly affected by the disastrous Horshoe 2 fire that ripped through the mountains in the summer of 2011 the Barfoot Park section was spared, and we ate a nice picnic lunch surrounded by a remnant stand of largely unburnt Pines, busy American Robins and Hermit Thrushes, and very vocal Hairy Woodpeckers.  After lunch we turned our attentions towards the other remnant patches of intact coniferous forest along the Onion Saddle Road that winds up to the largely destroyed Rustler Park.  IT was a bit windy on much of the ridge, but at one sheltered stop we really struck gold; finding not only an active Mexican Chickadee nest, with a busy pair of adults making nearly constant trips back to the nest cavity to feed their insatiable youngsters but also a striking and very cooperative male Williamson’s Sapsucker! These large chickadees, with their huge black bibs and dark grey flanks have a wide range through the mountains of western Mexico, but in the United States are confined to the Chiricahuas and the Animas mountains in nearby New Mexico (which are not publically accessible). Due to the intensity of the 2011 fire the habitat for the chickadees is much more restricted, and perhaps not coincidentally they have become harder to find, so it was with some relief that we encountered them so easily this year.  The woodpecker, perhaps the most colourful species in the country is an uncommon wintering species that generally departs months before our visit, and was a most welcome write-in for the tour.  We were able to study it in great detail as the bird came to within just a few feet of the group, foraging on a sunny trunk just off the road before it flew downslope.  Our last stop for the main part of the day was down the west flank of the mountains into Pinery Canyon where a largely uncooperative Slate-throated Redstart had returned to its haunts from the previous year.

 

A small seep flowed across the road here this year, with puddles attracting thrushes and butterflies.  A brief burst of imitated Northern Pygmy-Owl tooting failed to produce a mobbing flock of birds (or the Redstart), but did produce a responsive Pygmy-Owl which flew over our heads a couple of times before losing interest. We waited for about an hour but did not hear or see any sign of a redstart, save for a perky Painted Redstart that was actively foraging on one of the slopes above the road.  Given that many of this years reports mentioned vigils of 3-4 hours this was not particularly suprising, and we decided to pack it in and head back to our lodge in Portal for a brief late-afternoon siesta. Just before we left to head back to the lodge we noticed a pair of Montezuma Quail scratching in the leaf litter just a few yards off the road.  We were able to watch this pair at length, eventually walking away from them as they quite unconcernedly returned to hunting for food.

 

In the late afternoon we visited the feeder array of Bob Hernandez, just a mile or so out of town and in the beginning of the open grasslands.  His feeders have produced a nice array of vagrants over the years, and this year we were happy to see a smartly plumaged male Rose-breasted Grosbeak attending his oranges.  The feeders here are always busy, and offer excellent comparison views of Pyrrhuloxia and Northern Cardinal, the eastern form of Curve-billed Thrasher, a small flock of oriantha White-crowned Sparrows, many dapper Black-throated Sparrows, Western Tanagers, Green-tailed and Canyon Towhees and an endless procession of doves and Gambel’s Quail.  The hummingbird feeders were swarmed with Black-chinned, Broad-billed, Broad-tailed and one male Magnificent, and with all the action just a few feet from us as we sat in the comfortable chairs it was a great and relaxing way to end the day.  After dinner we set off on another attempt at finding owls.  In the lodge parking lot we heard the tinny barking of an Elf Owl coming from the large Sycamore above the dining tables.  By walking around the tree we were able to pin the sound down to a central trunk and when we trained a flashlight on the trunk we were happy to find an adult bird sitting with its head out of a small hole.  As we watched it repeatedly called and then its partner flew in with a large moth that was delivered and promptly devoured.  We then drove a bit upslope, along the Herb Martyr Road, and at our first stop heard a Western Screech-Owl calling at close range.  It took a bit of time to track him down, but when we did the views were wonderfully close, with an eye-level bird perched only 15 feet away in a sparse tree.  Flush with success we decided to really try our luck and head further uphill to try for Flammulated Owl, traditionally the hardest of the regular small owls to detect.  Although the evening was warm, and incredibly calm we were only able to hear a few distant toots from these maddeningly unpredictable sprites of the pines.  A very cooperative Whiskered Screech Owl was a good consolation prize here though, as it came to within just a few feet of our van.  On the drive back we spotted a slowly walking Hooded Skunk crossing the road.  Very similar to the more familiar Striped Skunk, this southwestern species is smaller overall, with a markedly longer tail.  Taking into account the family group of Great Horned Owls that were active around the lodge during dinner, Western and Whiskered Screech Owls at close range and the excellent views of Elf Owls all in the space of an hour and a half I don’t think too many folks lamented the evening outing!

 

For our last day of the trip we began with an optional pre-breakfast return to the sparse but pretty Rodeo Valley.  On the way out to the New Mexico border we stopped to admire some perched Band-tailed Pigeons that were sitting in the sycamore-lined drainage winding out of the canyon.  These handsome pigeons are migrants here, spending the winter months in the mountains of western Mexico, and their arrival signals the arrival of late spring to the canyonlands and pines of Arizona.  Once out in the grassy Rodeo Valley we worked on our burgeoning New Mexico lists, finding nearly 40 species in about an hour.  A nesting Chihuahuan Raven allowed us to see the longer bristles along its upper mandible that give them a shorter billed appearance than their larger Common cousins.  We found a few more Bendire’s Thrashers out in the grasslands, several flocks of Gambel’s and Scaled Quail skittering about along the roads, and at least two separate Greater Roadrunners (marking the 8th day in a row for this often hard to pin down and quintessentially southwestern species; a new tour record).  Eventually we made it over to the tiny community of Rodeo, where we spent about 20 minutes watching a hedgerow of fruiting mulberry trees that were attracting a wide array of migrants. Bullock’s Orioles, Black-headed Grosbeaks and Western Tanagers were the most prevalent customers, but we also found a small flock of Cedar Waxwings, a female Bronzed Cowbird, several Lucy’s Warblers and a single Phainopepla.  As we drove back to Portal our attentions were diverted by a female Sharp-shinned Hawk that flew across our path and then turned to head north along with us at a most improble 40 miles an hour!  Breakfast time came all too soon, but once refreshed and filled with pancakes and/or coffee we elected to delay our departure with a return visit to South Fork Road.  We started the visit with a trip to the American Museum of Natural History’s Southwestern Research Station, where we were quickly able to locate and study about a half-dozen Blue-throated Hummingbirds attending the station’s feeders.  These attractive hummingbirds are basically the same size as Magnificent Hummingbird, with a steely blue throat patch and dramatically white tail tip.  They have become strangely scarce in the Santa Rita and Huachuca Mountains, but remain locally common in the Chiricahuas.  We then spent a relaxing hour or so slowly birding back along South Fork.  Although the species mix was very similar to the previous day it was quite nice to see the birds again, and our views of Black-throated Grey and especially Townsend’s were exquisite.  In the mid-morning we reluctantly packed up and checkedout, to begin our drive back to Tucson.  I think that all agreed that the Chiricahuas are a special place, full of incredible scenic beauty and lots of birds!  Once back in Willcox we ate a picnic lunch at the convenient ramada downtown location and then stopped in at Wilcox Twin Lakes to see if any appreciable turnover had occurred since our last visit.  Sadly we still found the lakes to be largely devoid of migrant shorebirds, although we did pick up our only Blue-winged and Green-winged Teal of the trip and enjoyed lengthy views of dozens of Horned Larks that were foraging around the muddy margins of the lake.

Several cooperative Scaled and Gambel’s Quails were admired as we drove around the ponds, with no evidence of the infrequently encountered hybrids that pop up occasionally here (dubbed Scrambled Quail by local birders).

 

Our last stop before Tuscon was the agricultural town of Saint David, along the banks of a stretch of the San Pedro River that has good surface water flow.  Our quarry here proved remarkably easy, as within twenty minutes or so of our arrival in their core area a Mississippi Kite flew over the van and then slowly circled above our heads for almost five minutes.  Beautifully colored, in slate gray, black and white these elegant kites are amazingly agile in flight, able to catch dragonflies on the wing.  Primarily a bird of Eastern lowland deciduous forest this tiny population along the San Pedro is a bit of an aberration.  We usually do not have the time to stop in here at Saint David on the last day, but with our excellent success in the mountains this year it was an easy stop to make.  We arrived back in Tucson in the late afternoon, stopping in to the Saguaro stuffed landscape of Tuscon Mountain Park and Gates Pass.  This near perfect example of foothill Sonoran Desert is a dramatic backdrop to bird in, and a draw for the many human immigrants to the Tucson region.  We spent the last hour of the day walking and driving through the desert, finding a family group of Black-tailed Gnatcatchers, a quite cooperative family of Costa’s Hummingbirds that were perched in a flowering Desert Willow, and, at the 11th hour, a responsive male Gilded Flicker.  A wonderful dinner at a downtown restaurant wrapped up a wonderful week in the field with an excellent, upbeat, and often riotously funny group of participants.  I trust everyone had as much fun as I this year!

 

 Gavin Bieber, 2017

 

Created: 23 May 2017