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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Arizona: Second Spring

2017 Narrative

In Brief

Our tour took place during the height of monsoon season.  In fact record rains had fallen over the region in July which caused numerous logistical issues, including rescues, for many.  But, everything was green, and many species, especially the grassland sparrows were in full song and courtship.  Probably because of the abundance of rain, flowers were in abundance, and as a result we saw somewhat fewer species (ten) than in drier years.  Highlights included at least one adult male Lucifer, and several Violet-crowned.  We had five species of owls including Whiskered Screech and Elf, and three species of nightjars, including Mexican Whip-poor-will.  We found all of the expected warblers.  These included migrant Hermit and a single Townsend’s, and a rare pair of Rufous-capped Warblers up Hunter Canyon.  Other highlights included three species of thrashers, including perched scope views of Crissal, and Bendire’s, a pair of Montezuma Quail, Five-striped Sparrow (in flooded California Gulch), Buff-breasted Flycatchers, Black-capped Gnatcatcher and a single rare Tufted Flycatcher.  Two juvenile Semipalmated Sandpipers were well-studied at Willcox. Perhaps most notable was the Rose-throated Becard along the Santa Cruz River.  They nested here this year, and we can hope that they will again be an established nesting species in southeast Arizona.  Non-avian highlights included Pronghorn and three Antelope Jackrabbits, a Greater Short-horned Lizard, and a large spectacular Western Diamondback that raised itself slowly to its full height and saddled slowly off the road.

 Full Summary

Our tour began with a trip up Mount Lemmon in the Santa Catalina Mountains.  We gradually worked up the mountain listening to Bell’s Vireos and seeing a nice adult male Hooded Orioles on the lower slopes and then working up higher.  We found our largest feeding flock on Incinerator Ridge where we saw many warblers, including a half dozen Hermit Warblers and a Townsend’s Warbler, both migrants from well to the north.  Other species included Greater Pewee, Plumbeous Vireo, Mountain Chickadee, Bushtit, some 30 Pygmy Nuthatches, Olive Warbler and Painted Redstart, and many Yellow-eyed Juncos.  At the town of Summerhaven we got excellent looks at several Red-faced Warblers and eventually some half dozen Virginia’s Warblers.  A single “Audubon’s Warbler” was our only one on the trip. A Warbling Vireo, perhaps a breeder, and a Brown Creeper (Rocky Mountain subspecies montana) were also present.  Steller’s Jays, the distinctive (both on appearance and genetically) “Long-crested” subspecies (macrolopha) with white streaks on the forehead and above the eye were numerous. Several Cordilleran Flycatchers were around the buildings and Pine Siskins were at a feeder.  Later at a picnic lunch we had nice leisurely views of a pair of Zone-tailed Hawks and an adult Golden Eagle was briefly seen.  A Tassel-eared Squirrel was quite cooperative too.

After a brief afternoon break back at the hotel, we headed down to Green Valley for a Mexican dinner and then went up Madera Canyon.  At the feeders near dusk we looked at many Broad-billed Hummingbirds and at the end of the road as darkness approached we had brief views (and audible) of a Mexican Whip-poor-will and had good views of a Whiskered Screech-Owl.  Lower down in Florida Canyon we heard two Western Screech-Owls calling. 

The following morning we stopped first in west Tucson where we located the stakeout Burrowing Owls behind the Circle K.  Here we also saw a female Costa’s Hummingbird.  Then we stopped just east of the San Xavier Mission where we watched a handful of Purple Martins (endemic and smaller hesperia subspecies).  Returning back to Green Valley we stopped just east of Continental where we had fine views of both Black-throated and Rufous-winged Sparrows.  A pair of Black-tailed Gnatcatchers were most cooperative as were two Lucy’s Warblers (common breeder, but they migrate early).  We continued on up to Florida Canyon stopping along the way to admire an Antelope Jackrabbit.  At Florida Canyon we encountered our only Northern Beardless-Tyrannulets, a pair, and glimpsed a Yellow-billed Cuckoo.  An adult male Varied Bunting was perched up, but the light was not ideal.  Clearly the highlight was a single calling female or immature Black-capped Gnatcatcher.  We saw it well enough to carefully study the tail pattern.  Bell’s Vireos were numerous and we even saw one on a nest.  These western subspecies (arizonae and pusillus from California) are thought perhaps to be a separate species from the more easterly subspecies (medius  and belli). A singing Canyon Wren was most cooperative and a single fall migrant Pacific-slope Flycatcher (identified from Cordilleran by probability). A family group of Sulphur-bellied Flycatchers were present across the street.  From Florida we headed up to Madera Canyon, stopping for singing Cassin’s Sparrows along the way.  At the Santa Rita Lodge we watched the hummingbirds, mostly Broad-billed, but several Rivoli’s (the new, rather, an older name, for Magnificent Hummingbird) were present too.  A pair of Hepatic Tanagers visited the feeders as did a male Arizona Woodpecker and a handful of Bridled Titmice. After a break back in Green Valley we went back to Madera Canyon near dusk, stopping to watch more than a dozen Lesser Nighthawks along the way.  Back at the Santa Rita Lodge we were most fortunate to see a single Elf Owl.  This species is fairly common but by this time of the year they have left nest cavities, and are largely silent. 

The next morning we drove south to Tumacocori National Historic Park and met Will Russell and Matt Brooks of Wings and they led us into the area along the Santa Cruz River where Rose-throated Becards have been found nesting.  Here we met Dorian Anderson (bicycle big year) who was extremely helpful in locating the bird and eventually getting us on it.  It took us a few hours, but all eventually saw a single bird.  It appears that one or more pairs are nesting now along the Santa Cruz River.  They were formerly known as a nesting species from along Sonoita Creek near Patagonia, especially at the famous “Roadside Rest,” but haven’t been there for nearly a decade.  A few Brown-crested Flycatchers and Abert’s Towhees were seen too.  Late in the morning we headed to Nogales and then on to Kino Springs and eventually Patagonia.  Species of note included Gray Hawk, Common Ground-Doves, and Yellow-billed Cuckoo at Kino Springs, a family group of Thick-billed Kingbirds at the “Roadside Rest” southwest of Patagonia, and Black Vultures, Inca Doves and Violet-crowned Hummingbirds (Paton’s feeders) in Patagonia. 

We departed early the next morning for California Gulch approaching it from Arivaca and Warsaw Canyon.  Approaching Arivaca we stopped for a view and pictures of the Baboquivari Mountains.  Here we watched both Cassin’s and Botteri’s Sparrows singing side-by-side only a few feet in front of us.  Driving through Arivaca and then east on the West Ruby Road, we saw three Antelope Jackrabbits, one remaining for several minutes for excellent photos.  The size of those ears always amazes me!  When we reached Warsaw Canyon we turned south and almost immediately had decent views of a pair of Montezuma Quail, our only ones of the tour. Near here we saw a Greater Short-horned Lizard.  Seven miles later we reached California Gulch.  I was a bit startled by the volume of water flowing through, a result of a heavy monsoon season, and even more startled by the stuck and abandoned blue suburban  in the middle of what was now a river.  I later learned that two other parties got stuck in that crossing after we were there.  Needless to say we didn’t cross!  We were fortunate to find a Five-striped Sparrow right there and got excellent views of it.  A Yellow-billed Cuckoo was also seen as was a pair of Black-tailed Gnatcatchers.  From there we returned back on the Ruby Road and then headed east to Nogales.  Rufous-crowned Sparrows were common and we also saw two Rock Wrens.  After lunch we first headed north where we found a family group of Tropical Kingbirds at Rio Rico, and then headed east towards Sierra Vista stopping in the Sonoita Grasslands for eight Pronghorn and a single Grasshopper Sparrow.  We arrived in the late afternoon at beautiful Casa de San Pedro, our home for the next three nights.

Our first day was spent on Fort Huachuca.  We spent about 30 minutes getting passes for the group, looked at a pair of Curve-billed Thrasher (palmeri subspecies) and then went to Huachuca Canyon where we had fine views of several Elegant Trogons, including a pair at a nest.  If there was a special signature bird of Southeast Arizona, it would likely be this species, and this might be the best current location now to find this species.  A family group of Dusky-capped Flycatchers were studied here in the canyon.  On the way in we briefly noted a pair of Eastern Bluebirds (endemic fulva subspecies).  Late in the morning we headed to the opposite end of the Fort where we headed up Garden Canyon.  We stopped for a Western Diamondback (at least four feet long) that was stretched out full length across the road.  Eventually it raised its head and while raised gradually saddled off the road.  It was certainly a real highlight, as were the more than three hundred Bordered Patches at the water puddles.  Up in Sawmill Canyon we eventually located several Buff-breasted Flycatchers.  For the day we counted some 40 Lark Sparrows, most of which were likely fall migrants.  This species migrates early in the fall. After a short rest at Casa de San Pedro, we visited Mary Jo’s feeders in Ash Canyons where we estimated some 30 Anna’s Hummingbirds.  We saw a single adult male Lucifer Hummingbird here and watched it visit on several occasions. 

The next morning we drove up to Reef Campground at the top of Carr Canyon.  We stopped along the way for an adult female Scott’s Oriole.  At Reef we carefully searched for the Tufted Flycatcher that has been present since spring.  It took us about 45 minutes, but Blair eventually located it and eventually all saw it well.  Other species noted here included a pair of Hepatic Tanagers and family groups of Grace’s Warblers and Buff-breasted Flycatchers.  Several of the group saw three Brown Creepers, the distinctive Mexican albescens subspecies, that some have suggested represent a distinct species. A territorial male Zone-tailed Hawk was protesting our presence.  After heading down the mountain we then headed up Miller Canyon where we saw a selection of hummingbird species at Beatty’s feeders.  These included an adult male Broad-tailed and an immature male Costa’s.  That evening at Casa de San Pedro we saw a Barn Owl.  Two Great Horned Owls were roosting around the pool during the day.

On our last morning we were joined by Ron Beck who led us up Hunter Canyon where he located the pair of Rufous-capped Warblers.  We had excellent views of them. This distinctive Mexican species is found at only a few locations in Southeast Arizona. Other species noted included Buff-breasted Flycatcher, an albescens Brown Creeper, and a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher.  Near Ron’s we noted an adult male Scott’s Oriole. A female Bronzed Cowbird was visiting the feeders at Casa de San Pedro, our only one on the tour (thanks John!).  After lunch we drove east to the Sulphur Springs Valley, checking the wetlands at Whitewater Draw.  A variety of ducks were present including four Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks and some ten Cinnamon Teal.  Great, Snowy and Cattle Egrets were present as were migrant Soras and flocks of Lazuli Buntings, mostly adult males. A single adult male Lark Bunting in full breeding plumage was present too. During the day we estimated that some 100 Western Kingbirds.  After stopping in Douglas for gas and supplies, we headed up to the Chiricahua Mountains.  We stopped for a pair of Chihuahuan Ravens.  The wind was blowing the feathers so we could see the diagnostic white bases.  Its former English name was White-necked Raven.  That evening at Alan and Narca’s we had decent views of a Common Poorwill and heard several others. 

The next morning we left early for the grasslands in the valley.  Here we saw three species of thrashers well: Curve-billed (celsum subspecies of eastern group of subspecies, thought by some to be a separate species from the birds farther west in southeast Arizona), Bendire’s (single bird in New Mexico) and a Crissal (near Willow Tank).  Also at Willow Tank were a good number of adult male Lazuli Buntings and two Yellow-headed Blackbirds.  Here we heard Scaled Quail, but we never saw one.  After breakfast we headed up high into the Chiricahuas.  Fortunately a dozer had cleared the rocks from the Turkey Creek crossing so we passed over easily.  Just above Onion Saddle we located Mexican Chickadee along with Olive and Red-faced Warblers and Hepatic Tanagers.  Late in the afternoon at Maya’s we watched hummingbirds, including Blue-throated (plus one female on a nest).  A female Varied Bunting, scarce in the Chiricahuas, visited her bird bath. 

On our last morning we visited the grasslands below for a time, but were unsuccessful in finding Scaled Quail.  We did see another Bendire’s Thrasher, this one in Arizona, and had at least one flock of Lark Buntings. Along the Paradise Road we had several glimpses of Woodhouse’s Scrub-Jays.  At the Southwest Research Station we saw a Clark’s Spiny Lizard and a Mexican Fox Squirrel and three Band-tailed Pigeons flew overhead.  Blue-throated Hummingbirds were present here and down at the Forest Service visitor’s center.  On the west side of the Chiricahuas we watched a foraging flock of nine Wild Turkeys, and later at Willcox (Twin Lakes) we studied shorebirds. We were fortunate to get good comparative views of Baird’s, Western, Least and two scarce juvenile (for Arizona) Semipalmated Sandpipers.  South of Benson we visited St. David where we had brief views of two Mississippi Kites.  Blair eventually located one of the two adults perched and we had excellent close studies of them and watched them sally out for dragonflies. From here we returned to the Hampton Inn where we had a final dinner at Four Points of Sheraton.  

-Jonathan Dunn August 2017

Created: 15 August 2017