An early winter’s morning in the San Rafael grasslands Photo: Beth Russell
This short winter tour covers a slice of southeastern Arizona at a time when bird populations are high—in some cases spectacularly high. We’ll visit imposing mountains, desolate canyons, vast grasslands, desert lakes and streams, and a few favored man-made sites. We’ll look for the area’s specialized avifauna, search for rarities along our route, and talk about what we’re seeing.
Other than our bookend nights in Tucson, we’ll stay at the charming Casa de San Pedro, a beautiful place with perfect night skies and birds just outside the door.
Day 1: The tour begins this evening in Tucson. Night in Tucson.
Day 2: We’ll depart to the south, stopping in Madera Canyon in the Santa Rita Mountains, where we’ll be met in the lower canyon’s oaks by Arizona Woodpecker, the gregarious Mexican Jay, Bridled Titmice, and perhaps a stunning Painted Redstart. We’ll pause in desert scrub along the way to look for Rufous-winged and tinkling Black-throated Sparrows, among other inhabitants. Continuing east through Box Canyon, we’ll emerge in rolling grasslands, where perhaps we’ll see Eastern Meadowlarks and Scaled Quail fleeing from roadside fences.
We’ll pass through Sonoita in the heart of Arizona’s wine country, where various sparrows and raptors exploit the vast open lands, and continue east toward the north-flowing San Pedro River and Casa de San Pedro, our very comfortable home for the next five nights and a superb place to come back to on a winter’s late afternoon. Night at Casa de San Pedro near Sierra Vista.
Days 3–6: From our base at Casa de San Pedro, we’ll fan out in all directions, letting weather and circumstances determine each day’s destination. In general we’ll work from the farthest spot west, in and around Patagonia, and continue a bit farther east every day until we end up in the celebrated Chiricahua Mountains.
We’ll certainly include a morning in the splendid rolling grasslands of the San Rafael Valley, where luck and some effort may reveal a skulking Sprague’s Pipit or Baird’s Sparrow, along with more readily visible Chestnut-collared Longspurs. We’ll visit Patagonia Lake State Park, where typical birds include Ash-throated, Gray, Hammond’s, and Dusky Flycatchers, and with luck an Elegant Trogon and Black-capped Gnatcatcher, species that have occurred here in very low numbers in recent years. We’ll also visit feeders in Patagonia proper, where a few striking Violet-crowned Hummingbirds often winter and Lazuli Buntings add electric blue to the color palette.
We’ll explore the Huachuca Mountains and the San Pedro River drainage. What we do here will depend to some extent on what we’ve seen during the tour’s first days. Several wonderful canyons, notably Garden and Huachuca, on the eastern slopes of the Huachucas can hold sleepy Spotted Owls or Montezuma Quail. In recent years Sinaloa Wren, a new addition to the ABA list, has been seen with some regularity. The San Pedro River sometimes has a Green Kingfisher in residence, often detected by its softly penetrating call, like two stones tapped together.
We’ll spend a day in the Sulphur Springs Valley, where given reasonable water levels we’ll witness the mass arrival at Whitewater Draw of thousands of Sandhill Cranes from their morning’s foraging. At its best, it’s a spectacular, occasionally deafening experience as multitudes of birds return from feeding on waste corn and other crops in the valley. In addition to the cranes, Whitewater holds a mix of other waterbirds, often including a shimmering cloud of Snow and Ross’s Geese.
The primitive appeal of large birds in such high numbers is undeniable, but for some the real attraction of the Sulphur Springs Valley is the mass of sparrows, buntings, and raptors that are drawn to all the food that this well-watered valley provides. It’s never quite the same from one year to the next, but regal Ferruginous Hawks are common and Red-tailed Hawks in all their bewildering variation are abundant. If it’s a good seed year, waves of White-crowned and Brewer’s Sparrows pour over the landscape and the soft, whistled “whew” of Lark Buntings is everywhere. Among the less common denizens we may encounter are Mountain Plover, buffy-faced Bendire’s and streaky Sage Thrashers, or perhaps McCown’s Longspur. Nights at Casa de San Pedro near Sierra Vista.
Day 7: After our last delicious breakfast at Casa de San Pedro, we’ll return to Tucson. This desert city is a magnet for wintering birds, usually including something rare. We’ll take time to visit parks and lakes scattered throughout the Tucson Valley, searching for stakeouts and resident species associated with the Sonoran Desert we may have missed. We’ll finish the day with an afternoon stroll around Tucson’s Sweetwater Wetlands, a wonderfully accessible collection of ponds and scrub that holds hundreds of ducks and wintering passerines. As the afternoon fades and dusk sets in, impressive numbers of blackbirds, including hundreds of male Yellow-heads, come in to overnight in the reed beds. Night in Tucson.
Day 8: The tour concludes this morning in Tucson.
Updated: 21 April 2014
- 2015 Tour Price : $2,300
- Single Occupancy Supplement : $570
* Tour invoices paid by check carry a modest discount. Details here.
Maximum group size seven with one leader.