The colorful Elegant Trogon is easily southeast Arizona’s most admired bird. Photo: Jon Dunn
Southeastern Arizona invariably ranks high among favorite North American birdwatching destinations. In this varied region, where spectacular mountain ranges rise like islands above the surrounding deserts and grasslands, northern birds follow the coniferous zones of the peaks southward and overlap with subtropical species that reach their northernmost outposts in Arizona’s mountain canyons. As a consequence the diversity of breeding birds is remarkable. By early August, the summer monsoon rains are usually active and heavy but typically brief showers bring about notable changes. During this “second spring” the vegetation becomes green again, temperatures drop from early summer highs and there is a resurgence of birdsong and activity, especially in the grasslands. Birding in Arizona is excellent throughout the summer months but we favor early August as it offers excellent opportunities to study grassland sparrows and increased chances of seeing rarer hummingbirds (as well as maximum concentrations) and possibly early fall migrants and uncommon to rare species from Mexico’s Sierra Madre Occidental. With the monsoon in full swing, we should also see a wide variety of reptiles and amphibians, and butterflies should be near their peak abundance.
Apart from our time in Tucson, our tour takes place in the southeast Arizona highlands above 4,000 feet, where the days are cooler, the surroundings greener, and life in general more vibrant. A delightful feature of this tour is our three nights at Casa de San Pedro, an elegant small inn near Sierra Vista with a wonderful pool, busy feeders, and easy access to some of the best birding in southeast Arizona.
Day 1: Our trip begins at 6:00 pm in Tucson. Night in Tucson.
Day 2: The Santa Catalina Mountains form Tucson’s northern border. A road snakes its way to the the very top, around 9,000 ft. providing easy access to a wide range of habitats. At lower elevations among masses of huge Saguaro cacti and in oaks in the Upper Sonoran zone we’ll look for Gila Woodpecker, Black-throated Sparrow, and Scott’s Oriole. As we move higher we should have a good chance of encountering Greater Pewee, Mountain Chickadee, Pygmy Nuthatch, and a variety of warblers including Virginia’s, Grace’s, Red-faced and Olive (now in its own family). Hummingbird feeding stations attract Broad-tailed and Magnificent and we will be looking overhead for Zone-tailed Hawk. In the afternoon, we’ll drive south to Madera Canyon in the Santa Rita Mountains for very late afternoon birding, and possibly a picnic dinner, if we haven’t dined earlier, and some early night birding for Whiskered Screech-Owl, and possibly Mexican Whip-poor-will. Night in Tucson.
Day 3: We’ll return to Madera Canyon in the Santa Rita mountains. As we ascend from the lowlands, the songs of Rufous-winged Sparrows should be encountered from the cholla and prickly pear cacti, and as we gain elevation and these spiny plants are replaced by grasslands, the Rufous-wings drop out to be replaced by equally vocal Botteri’s and in some years Cassin’s Sparrows. We’ll pause in the grasslands and scrub at the canyon mouth, where we’ll look for Varied Bunting and Black-tailed Gnatcatcher (the latter hard to detect) before moving up the canyon and into the oaks. The road up Madera rises to about 6,000 feet, and along the way we should find Sulphur-bellied and Dusky-capped Flycatchers, Painted Redstart, and Hepatic Tanager among others. There are several places where hummingbirds gather, and if the year is a good one, we may encounter five or more species.
Depending on the day, we may stop at Montosa Canyon, a location for the scarce and local Black-capped Gnatcatcher and, at least in 2011, Five-striped Sparrows, or at ponds or wet areas near Nogales where Neotropic Cormorant and Black-bellied Whistling Duck often loiter. If there are any Black-capped Gnatcatchers being seen in Florida Canyon (near Madera Canyon) we’ll check for them in the morning before proceeding up into Madera Canyon. Night near Nogales.
The tour was terrific. It was my first birding travel tour, and due to the Jon’s fame, I had high expectations. Even these high expectations were exceeded. We saw a slew of birds, and we had great looks at them (which I didn’t anticipate would necessarily happen). Perhaps more importantly, I learned a ton about birds. For a first-time traveler to SE Arizona, the diversity of habitats was surprising and fascinating, too. The tour made me want to go back to SE Arizona – as well as to take more birding trips to other locations. A superb overall experience.
Thomas Miles, July 2013
Day 4: We’ll leave early for California Gulch, on the Mexican border west of Nogales. The approaches to this wild and beautiful canyon are good for Montezuma Quail and Varied Bunting. Five-striped Sparrow has nested here in recent years, and with luck birds will be vocal and visible. At this time of year, the gulch should have water (perhaps quite a lot of water!), and typical species such as Brown-crested Flycatcher, Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet, and Hooded Oriole should be in evidence. If we’ve seen Five-striped Sparrow in Montosa Canyon the previous day, we may visit Lake Patagonia or somewhere else birdy instead.
Later in the day we’ll continue on to Patagonia to look for Violet-crowned Hummingbird and Thick-billed Kingbird among others. Depending on our success in Madera Canyon we might choose to do night birding up Harshaw Canyon near Patagonia. Night near Nogales.
Day 5: This morning is flexible depending on ornithological objectives. We might choose to bird the riparian and mesquite laden washes of Patagonia Lake, where Black-capped Gnatcatchers have sometimes been present and the birding is always good for species such as Yellow-billed Cuckoo and Lucy’s and the near endemic and distinctive sonorana subspecies of Yellow Warblers. Sometimes Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet can be seen here too. Or perhaps we’ll return to Montosa or even Madera Canyon, if we are still searching for a particular species. Later in the day we’ll continue on to Sonoita and the grasslands there where the endemic ammolegus subspecies of the Grasshopper Sparrow breeds and Botteri’s Sparrow is common before reaching lovely Casa de San Pedro, near Hereford where we might have time for a swim before dinner. Night at Casa de San Pedro.
Days 6-7: We’ll spend one morning in the Huachuca Mountains’ famous Sawmill and Garden Canyons, areas that support a diverse avifauna including Greater Pewee, Buff-breasted Flycatcher, and Grace’s Warbler. A pair of Spotted Owls lives nearby, and if they’re still in residence we’ll look for them. We also have an excellent chance of encountering the spectacular Elegant Trogon in either canyon or in recent years Huachuca Canyon. Miller Canyon, also in the Huachucas, is famous for its hummingbirds, and we’ll sit within a few feet of an array of sugarwater feeders and watch the hummers perform. Broad-tailed is regular here, and we sometimes see from one to three White-eared and occasionally a Berylline. Nearby Ash Canyon also harbors many hummingbirds, usually including one or more Lucifers. And world famous Ramsey Canyon may also be visited. The variety possible in the Sierra Vista area is unequaled in the United States; we could see as many as 12 to 14 hummingbird species.
On one day we may drive to the top of Carr Canyon and hike a mile to Comfort Springs—or, if time permits, beyond. The presence of water in most years ensures an abundance of birds, and we should encounter Band-tailed Pigeon, Western Tanager, and with good luck Virginia’s Warbler. This is perhaps our best chance for the distinctive-sounding nominate race, “Mountain Pygmy-Owl,” of Northern Pygmy-Owl, here near the northern end of its range. Alternatively we might visit Hunters Canyon in the Huachucas, or French Joe Canyon in the Whetstone Mountains. Rufous-capped Warblers has been found in both locations over the last decade. Nights at Casa de San Pedro.
Day 8: Depending on birding priorities, and if road conditions permit, we may drive the Geronimo Trail from Douglas to Animas. It will take us through one of the most remote sections of the Lower 48. We don’t expect many new species for the trip, other than perhaps Juniper Titmouse, but the scenery is spectacular and we often get our best views of Zone-tailed Hawk along the way. If there has been a good rain, this road can be tricky, and we may choose instead to spend another early morning around Sierra Vista, visiting riparian areas in the San Pedro River Riparian National Conservation Area, one of the Nature Conservancy’s “Last Great Places.” Gray Hawk breeds here, and Abert’s Towhees are fairly numerous.
Later we’ll drive to the west side of the Chiricahua Mountains, stopping to look for Swainson’s Hawk, Scaled Quail, and Bendire’s and Crissal Thrashers in the grasslands and mesquites of the Sulphur Springs Valley near Whitewater Draw or in the yucca grasslands east of Portal before driving into magnificent Cave Creek Canyon. Night in Portal.
Day 9: The Chiricahuas are famed for their beautiful landforms and for the many habitats, accessible by a road system running from low desert to fir forest at 9,000 feet. Mexican Chickadee is the only species here that we definitely won’t see elsewhere, but this is the best area on our route for such mountain birds as Olive Warbler, and the Elegant Trogon population in Cave Creek Canyon is the largest in the US. A pair of Short-tailed Hawks has bred a couple of times in the high Chiricahuas; if they are reported to be present, we’ll look for them. Birds are numerous in the Portal area, and while the species mix will be much the same as earlier, the desert below is now the Chihuahuan rather than Sonoran. This leads to some important changes in subspecific diversity. In particular, the Curve-billed Thrashers (oberholseri subspecies) will look and, especially, sound somewhat different from birds we will have seen earlier to the west (palmeri), and recent studies have determined that they are also genetically quite different. Though often hard to find, the always secretive and elusive Crissal Thrasher is found in this area along with a very few Bendire’s Thrashers. There is the possibility of seeing Scaled Quail as well. We’ll spend at least one evening listening and looking for nightbirds. Common Poorwill is not uncommon just north of Portal, and depending on our success in the Santa Rita Mountains or near Patagonia, we may explore the canyon in search of owls. Night in Portal.
Day 10: After a last morning in the Chiricahuas, perhaps including a visit to Pinery Canyon on the west side of the divide, we’ll descend the west slope and continue toward Tucson. We’ll stop at the ponds at Willcox, where in most years we expect a variety of migrant shorebirds including Baird’s Sandpiper and Wilson’s Phalarope, and perhaps at St. David, where in recent years Mississippi Kites have bred. Night in Tucson.
Day 11: The trip concludes this morning in Tucson.
Updated: 18 September 2014
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Maximum group size seven with one leader.