Southeastern Arizona, especially from late spring through the summer, 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 and the Santa Cruz Valley, 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, homemade pies (!), 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: Departing early after breakfast we’ll first check on a location very near the hotel where Burrowing Owls are often found. From there we’ll head south stopping briefly near San Xavier Mission where over the saguaro cactus we have a good chance of finding the endemic small subspecies (hesperis) of Purple Martin. Just east of Continental we can usually find Rufous-winged Sparrow along with the more numerous Black-throated Sparrow and Lucy’s Warblers are usually findable along with other low desert species, including Black-tailed Gnatcatcher. From Continental we will head east through the cholla grasslands looking carefully for the striking Antelope Jackrabbit. We’ll stop at Florida Canyon where Bell’s Vireo, Varied Bunting and Northern Beardless Tyrannulets are usually present and sometimes the rare and localized Black-capped Gnatcatchers are too. Next we’ll return to Madera Canyon in the Santa Rita Mountains. As we ascend from the lowlands, the songs of Botteri’s and in some years Cassin’s Sparrows should be emanating from the grasslands. The road up Madera rises to about 6,000 feet, and along the way we should find Arizona Woodpecker, 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. In some years a Mexican rarity such as a Berylline or a Plain-capped Starthroat is present.
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 wet areas near Nogales where Black-bellied Whistling Duck often loiter and Tropical Kingbird can often be found on the wires. If Buff-collared Nightjars are still calling in California Gulch, we may choose to take an early dinner and drive out there in the late afternoon. In addition to that possibility we might see Elf and Western Screech-Owls and on the return we will be looking carefully for Common Poorwill on the road. Night near Nogales.
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 , 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.
Depending on our success in Madera Canyon we might choose to do night birding up Harshaw Canyon near Patagonia. If so we’ll arrive to look for Violet-crowned Hummingbird and Thick-billed Kingbird among others in the Patagonia area. If we have been successful in Madera we’ll hold off birding Patagonia until the next morning. 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; sometimes we see Scaled Quail too. From there it’s only an hour or so to the 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 two full days in the Huachuca Mountains which host a varied avifauna including a selection of hummingbirds unrivaled anywhere in the United States. We are likely to see ten or more species (we have seen up to 14) in Miller Canyon and at feeders in Ash Canyon and elsewhere, probably including Violet-crowned, Lucifer, Broad-tailed and possibly White-eared. In recent years both Berylline and Plain-capped Starthroat have occurred and we’ll look for them if they’re around.
Our birding schedule is highly flexible depending on what birds, including rarities, are about.We’ll likely spend our other day in Miller Canyon carefully studying hummingbirds and walking up the trail for usually reliable Red-faced Warbler and Hepatic Tanager. In some years a pair of Spotted Owls is present here. At nearby Hunter Canyon one or two pairs of Rufous-capped Warblers have been present the last few years. We may also visit world famous Ramsey Canyon which also hosts hummingbirds.. In 2015 and 2016 Tufted Flycatchers nested two miles up this trail and if they return, we’ll offer the option of making the four mile round trip to see these charming little wanderers from northern Mexico. In 2016 an adult male Flame-colored Tanager also held territory near the Tufted Flycatchers. If Fort Huachuca is open and accessible we are likely to visit Huachuca Canyon, the one location where Elegant Trogon is rather numerous. From there we will head up Garden and Sawmill Canyon where we can find Buff-breasted Flycatcher as well as a selection of other mountain species. One afternoon we will likely visit the feeders in Ash Canyon where Lucifer Hummingbirds usually appear. The grounds at Casa de San Pedro offer excellent birding with numerous feeders. Yellow-billed Cuckoos and Abert’s Towhees can often be seen on the grounds. 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 in the Huachuca Mountains chasing a rarity that might be around.
Later we’ll drive to the Chiricahua Mountains, stopping to look for Swainson’s Hawk, Scaled Quail, and Bendire’s and Crissal Thrashers near Rodeo inear 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 and Chihuahuan Ravens are fairly common. Our friends in the canyon feed hummingbirds and in some years we see our largest numbers here. These will include Blue-throated and sometimes Lucifer or Violet-crowned and southbound Calliopes can almost be numerous. 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: 04 November 2016
- 2017 Tour Price : $3,100
- Single Occupancy Supplement : $640
* Tour invoices paid by check carry a 4% discount. Details here.
Maximum group size seven with one leader.