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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Arizona: A Winter Week in the Southeast

2017 Narrative

Winter Week #1 with Evan Obercian


Our first of two, back-to-back, week-long tours of Southeast Arizona in Winter 2017, saw crisp, chilly mornings, days of gently-warming sun, and a bountiful selection of the birds to be found in the region during the cooler months. Based at our exceptional lodgings at Casa de San Pedro, on the San Pedro River riparian corridor in Hereford, we devoted each day to exploring a unique area of the region roughly south and east of Tucson, famous among birdwatchers, comprised of wide valleys, river systems, and numerous isolated mountain ranges, often called the “sky islands” of Southeast Arizona. Perhaps the most exceptional aspect of winter birding here is the abundance of seasonal visitors from farther north. Numbers of sparrows, meadowlarks, longspurs, blackbirds, as well as raptors, can be at times staggering. At the same time, a handful of the sought-after species of the region, including some of the hummingbirds, woodpeckers, thrashers, Rufous-winged Sparrow, Yellow-eyed Junco, Painted Redstart, Hepatic Tanager, and others, are still present in winter, some of them at least as findable if not more so than in other seasons. Added to this is a plethora of rare strays possible at this time of year, as exemplified by our sighting of a Streak-backed Oriole in Portal. It’s no wonder Southeast Arizona is generally regarded as a premier birding destination no matter the month.


DAY 1 – We met at our group hotel in Tucson for an introductory meeting and dinner.

DAY 2 - Our birding began on the morning following our arrival and first night in Tucson. After an early stop at Quail Creek Park to admire a group of Mountain Bluebirds that had set up there for the winter, as well as a scan of Amado Lake, filled with Ruddy and Ring-necked Ducks, we headed to the Santa Cruz River. Here, the de Anza trail meanders through the riparian habitat, and several locations offer good access to the trail, popular with birds, including Tumacacori and Tubac. While we saw no sign of the Rose-throated Becards which had been recently spotted moving widely through the large swath of cottonwood and mesquite habitat, our casual stroll offered an introduction to some of the region’s birds, such as Gila and Ladder-backed Woodpeckers, Verdin, Bridled Titmouse, Abert’s Towhee, and Phainopepla. From here we headed north and then east towards Madera Canyon in the Santa Rita Mountains, where we lunched by the bustling feeders at the Santa Rita Lodge, studying several forms of Dark-eyed Junco, as well as Yellow-eyed Junco, and had great looks at Arizona Woodpecker, along with the rowdy and very visible Acorn Woodpeckers, and a gorgeous male Hepatic Tanager. In the beautiful oak forest here we found some birds not associated with the feeders, including Painted Redstart and Townsend’s Warbler, and a nearby hummingbird feeder hosted a lingering Magnificent Hummingbird. Our route then took us out through the very scenic Box Canyon, and out into the Las Cienagas grasslands near Sonoita. Here we had our first big sparrow flocks, with impressive numbers of White-crowned, Vesper, and Brewer’s Sparrows scattering along the roadsides. In the warmth of the afternoon, a small group of White-throated Swifts put on an aerial show in the blue. We arrived at our destination and home base in the early evening and enjoyed a home-cooked meal.

DAY 3 - This day we departed after breakfast for the San Pedro House, just to the north of our bed and breakfast on the same corridor of habitat. Here, a network of trails meanders through the fields, down to the towering cottonwoods, intersecting stretches of the river and circling a pond with marshy borders. The day was glorious, sunny and cool, and the birdlife impressive, so much so that we spent all morning taking it in. The feeders at the house hosted many White-winged Doves, Inca Doves, Pyrrhuloxias, Green-tailed Towhee, Curve-billed Thrashers, and others.  A Western Screech-Owl was spotted sunning itself in a hole in one of the great cottonwoods beside the house.  As we walked slowly down the trail towards the river, we stopped frequently to study the many sparrows wintering here, including Lincoln’s Sparrow and even a beautiful red Fox Sparrow.  The abundance of small songbirds attracted the attention of a Merlin, seen several times during the morning, and we also witnessed an American Kestrel breakfasting on an unidentified sparrow atop a yucca, much to the perturbation of a Loggerhead Shrike who made several bold dives at the falcon.  Down by the river, we were treated to quite a show of rails, as both Sora and Virginia Rail appeared out in the open more than once, and were both intermittently vocal at close range.  After a digestive visit to a bird-feeding station in Ash Canyon, where we leisurely studied Audubon’s Warblers, Anna’s Hummingbirds, Canyon Towhees, Spotted Towhees, Lincoln’s Sparrows, Chipping Sparrows, and more, we stopped for a hearty lunch of Mexican in Sierra Vista, fueling up for an afternoon hike up Hunter Canyon.  Our hike in Hunter Canyon was overcast, blustery, and cool, but nonetheless dramatic and beautiful, even if the weather kept bird activity low.  We returned to our lodgings and ended the day at an excellent local restaurant.

DAY 4 – On this day we ventured out to the Chiricahua Mountains, arguably the most beautiful and bird-rich of southern Arizona’s sky islands.  Approaching the mountains from the south and east, our drive was endlessly scenic, and we made several impromptu stops, including one for a large flock of Chestnut-collared Longspurs at the edge of the San Bernardino Valley.  After crossing the border into New Mexico at Rodeo, and visiting the Chiricahua Desert Museum for bathrooms, gifts, and our first great views of Cactus Wren and Black-throated Sparrows, we headed up to Portal, one of the more famous birding destinations in the country, located at the foot of Cave Creek Canyon.  Our first stop was a house just outside of town to try for a rare Streak-backed Oriole that had been coming to orange halves set out for it by the home owner.  The bird was there when we arrived, and we lingered here awhile enjoying continued views of it, as well as a crowd of other birds, including many Gambel’s Quail, and our only Broad-billed Hummingbird of the tour.    We ordered sandwiches from the general store in Portal and had a picnic at the Cave Creek Ranch, where more feeders attracted numbers of juncos, Lesser Goldfinches, and a single Blue-throated Hummingbird, among others.  After lunch, we attempted the dirt road up to the turn-off for Paradise, but road conditions deteriorated from recent snowfall, and we were forced to turn back.  We took a walk at the Sunny Flat Campground, where some of the most stunning views of Cave Creek Canyon’s towering rock walls can be had.  Birds here included a confiding Hammond’s Flycatcher.    After a stroll through the peaceful village (really just a cluster of homes in a breathtakingly beautiful arena of rocks and spreading sycamores), we started on our long journey home, as showers settled in over the mountains, breaking up the drive with a stop here and there, and arriving in time for another home-cooked meal.

DAY 5 - A change in the weather seemed complete by this morning.  It was cold, but perfectly clear and calm.  As we set out in the morning for Patagonia, distractions along the way included a group of Scaled Quail near the town of Sonoita.  We spent a beautiful, almost spring-like morning at Patagonia Lake, where the birding was excellent.  In the mesquite woods along the lakeshore we had studies of both Gray and Dusky Flycatcher, while ducks on the lake included several gorgeous Cinnamon Teal among the numerous Green-winged Teal, all vigorously displaying in the by-now balmy day.  A flurry of White-throated Swifts, joined by both Barn and Northern Rough-winged Swallows, certainly did nothing to detract from the vernal atmosphere.  A rare Winter Wren appeared in the wrack along the shore, and we had our best looks at the not-so-common Swamp Sparrow.  Pied-billed Grebes and American Coots were vocal among the cattails, where Marsh Wrens could be heard giving subtle but persistent call notes.  Perhaps noisiest of all were the Great-tailed Grackles scattered among the trees beside the lake.  Black Phoebes were here and there, finding insects on the ground.  Most exciting perhaps was the presence of a very recent Mountain Lion kill, a Whitetail Deer, indicated by yellow tape at the head of a trail into the mesquites.  After our walk we went into the town of Patagonia, where we picked up lunches to enjoy at the famous Paton Center for Hummingbirds, along Sonoita Creek at the edge of town. While certainly not the busiest time of year hummingbird-wise, we watched a number of wintering Anna’s Hummingbirds during lunch, as well as a gorgeous male Lazuli Bunting.  In the afternoon we decided to visit the nearby San Rafael Grasslands, in my opinion one of the most beautiful spots anywhere, and, when approached from the Harshaw Creek Road, offers an element of discovery as its vistas unfold in dramatic fashion as one crests the final hill out of the oaky ravine and into the oceanic expanse of grass.  The trance-like weather, calm and clear and perfectly benign, greatly enhanced our experience of the place, as we took a walk and wondered at the nearly complete silence.  Birds living here included kestrels and several Say’s Phoebes.  We made this the last stop for the day, and returned home with a bit of daylight to spare, resting up before dinner.

DAY 6 - Our sixth day was devoted to sites within the Sulphur Springs Valley.  Taking the Double Adobe Road from Bisbee to the Central Highway en route to Whitewater Draw put us in a lot of good bird habitat, and we counted off Greater Roadrunners and Loggerhead Shrikes as we went.  As we approached Whitewater, we spotted a large hawk up ahead that proved to be a Ferruginous Hawk, a declining species that winters in very small numbers in the valley.  The “draw” at Whitewater is a massive wintering population of Sandhill Cranes which come to rest in the wetlands here between feeding forays elsewhere in the valley.  Just a few cranes were visible when we arrived, so we took a position on a platform overlooking the habitat, observing numerous Northern Shovelers, American Pipits, a flock of Least Sandpipers, several Greater Yellowlegs, and others.  Close to noon, huge masses of cranes were becoming visible in the distance, and it was evident they were headed our way.  Perhaps thirty minutes after the first plumes were spotted, the huge birds began arriving in a continual, noisy influx that filled the sky.  It took about an hour for the entire horde, ten thousand or more, to settle in.  After a picnic of luke-warm pizza out in the sun (better than it sounds!), our route took us northward towards the town of Willcox, passing through the staggeringly massive cattle operation at Faria Dairy, attractive to many birds including numbers of American Wigeons, Horned Larks, blackbirds, as well as another Ferruginous Hawk.  We reached Willcox in time for milkshakes, and at the ponds near the golf course quickly located the large flock of wintering wigeon known to contain a single male Eurasian Wigeon.  After several minutes of scanning the flock, the handsome bird was located and viewed by all, a long way from home!  A drive around the water treatment ponds here, which hosted a number of ducks, concluded the day’s birding, and we headed south, stopping for a confiding Bendire’s Thrasher near the town of Elfrida along the way.   

Day 7 - After our final night and breakfast at Casa de San Pedro we took a stroll around the grounds and along the river  before packing it in and heading towards Tucson.  We picked up sandwiches along the way and went straight to Gates Pass in Tucson Mountain Park.  Just to the west of town, this is an area of pure, iconic Sonoran desert, right in the heart of Saguaro Cactus country.  The great cacti cover the hills like some foreign forest shorn of its canopy.  We had our picnic at the Pass itself.  By lingering here, in prime habitat for the local and uncommon Gilded Flicker, a Saguaro specialist, it was my hope that we might locate one.  Sure enough, sometime during lunch one sounded from a hillside not far where we sat.  With a little maneuvering, we enjoyed scope views of both the male and the female.  Other desert birds were here as well, including Black-tailed Gnatcatcher, and the iconic Cactus Wren, whose ponderous, murmuring song is heard in many a Western film.  After this experience we headed into town and to Reid Park, a city park whose many plantings and ponds host numbers of birds in winter.  Wild ducks here mix with a host of genetically messy avian flotsam and seem to take on the habits of the domesticated animals during their seasonal stay, which makes for unparalleled views of Ring-necked Ducks, Canvasbacks, Redheads, American Wigeons, and others, as they huddle together in anticipation of being fed.  There is also a small population of Neotropic Cormorants which use the ponds and roost in the trees.  Other birds around the grounds included several Vermilion Flycatchers, numbers of Audubon’s Warblers, a Summer Tanager, and a Cassin’s Kingbird.  With our tour coming to a close, we checked into our hotel, and readied ourselves for a final dinner at a local Mexican restaurant, after which we said our goodbyes.


I hope you all enjoyed our week in the Arizona winter.  It was fun and illuminating for me, and a true pleasure to spend time with all of you. 


Evan Obercian


Winter Week #2 with Jake Mohlmann


 This year our winter week in Arizona tour was full of exciting birds and great participants! While the rest of the United States was struggling with cold temperatures and snow storms we were met each day with lows in the 40s, and gradually highs comfortably sitting in the mid-70s awash with the ample sunshine this part of the country is known for. Basing out of one lovely bed and breakfast for the entire trip allowed us to cherish our home away from home after our days filled with amazing scenery and leisurely drives. Some days were inundated with shrubs full of sparrows to study, while others were spent picking through scads of raptors for any oddity that revealed itself. Desert grasslands gave way to magnificent mountains while we successfully searched for several southeast Arizona specialties like Rufous-winged Sparrow and Montezuma Quail. In just 6 days nearly 140 species of birds were seen remarkably well. Capping off the week at Tucson’s best restaurant was a great way to share stories and reminisce about the adventure we had just experienced.

 In Detail:

Our first morning started off with a bang when we arrived at Quail Creek Memorial Park and were successful in finding a continuing Palm Warbler, new for the tour. Also here we scoped a bright red Vermilion Flycatcher sharing the grassy fields with a small flock of electric blue Mountain Bluebirds. The sparrow show here was a great lesson in identification as we scanned thoroughly through flocks of White-crowned, Vesper, Savanah, Lark and Brewer’s Sparrows. A large seemingly out of place Lark Bunting also joined the Emberizidae party. We then headed south along I-19 and the Santa Cruz River corridor to Tumacacori’s Santa Gertrudis Lane. Here we added another species to the overall tour’s checklist when a Brown Thrasher was seen thrashing about under a fruiting pyracantha shrub, one of the few plants producing berries this time of year. This area was ripe with frugivores also including Northern Cardinals, American Robin, and Hermit Thrush. Near the river we had our first experience with a family of Bridled Titmouses, one of the most beautiful members of this family. On the walk out a very confiding and range-restricted Rufous-winged Sparrow allowed close inspection of all its features as it sat in close view of the scope. We made our way to Madera Canyon for lunch and after we cleaned up a family of Mexican Jays were sure to come in and finish anything we may have forgotten. Nearby a short walk yielded a stunning male Townsend’s Warbler in perfect light. At the Santa Rita Lodge feeders birds were aplenty with nice comparisons of both Pink-sided and Gray-headed Dark-eyed Juncos feeding alongside some Yellow-eyed Juncos. We waited here until the bird we were hoping for showed up when all of a sudden a male Arizona Woodpecker flew in for his suet lunch. We began our journey east through the scenic Box Canyon towards the San Pedro River Valley. Soon upon entering the grassy oak studded slopes a pair of Greater Roadrunners graced our presence as we watched them scoot across the open ground for 10 minutes. Just east of Sonoita a huge Prairie Falcon shot across the road right in front of the van long enough for all to see, and then disappeared in the wind across the vast grasslands. What an amazing first day of the tour!

            After our delicious homemade breakfast the group had its sights set on the Patagonia Area for the day. En route we stopped at an area where I’d found Golden Eagles nesting in previous years and sure enough an adult was seen staking out the territory high above the cliffs. We all hurriedly got out of the van and watched in awe as 2 of these majestic birds came into a recently decorated nest and worked on the final shape getting ready for another breeding season. At Patagonia Lake State park there were lots of birds to pick through. The feeding station on the birding trail was hopping with activity and added Lincoln’s Sparrow to our growing list. Even several male Great-tailed Grackles couldn’t resist the buffet. At the wet edges of the lake most of the action took place and soon we were studying the finer details of a Swamp Sparrow next to its larger Song Sparrow cousin. A fellow birder alerted us that he’d just seen a Virginia Rail pop into the reeds so we waited and were treated to an amazing scene when one of these reclusive creatures walked out into the open and probed through the mud at length for us to enjoy. Many flycatchers were utilizing the many insects out due to the unusually warm weather so we enjoyed many Black Phoebes sallying for prey, as well as an empidonax lesson with both Gray and Hammond’s Flycatchers. On the open water a nice-sized raft of Common Mergansers was loafing interspersed with Ruddy Ducks and Pied-billed Grebes. On the downed logs at the edge of the lake it was nice to see Double-crested and Neotropic Cormorants sitting next to each other, dispelling any mystery of the identifications. In exploring the several mesquite bosques we ran into a nice flock at a dry waterfall and watched a Rock Wren bounce about the canyon walls, several Western Bluebirds perched atop a fruiting juniper tree, and Rufous-crowned Sparrow teed up on an ocotillo for extended views. Our lunch overlooking the lake was delicious, and a surprise Ash-throated Flycatcher flew in to join us all for a few minutes. We were also serenaded while dining by a pitch black male Phainopepla which sang the entire time we ate. The feeders at the Paton Center for Hummingbirds harbored lots of desert residents and most of us were able to view the Green-tailed Towhee that came in quickly, grabbed some seed, and flew right back to the brush pile from where it came. Curve-billed Thrashers also enjoyed the seed tray, as well as both Northern Cardinals and Pyrrhuloxias. It was nice to be able to compare these 2 species which can be difficult to identify if seen individually. Just before we left a small covey of Gambel’s Quail sat up in perfect light as we took portrait shots of a male and female catching some sun.

            The world-famous Sulphur Springs Valley was furnished with abundant Sandhill Cranes and teemed with raptors. Thousands of cranes began flying in mid-day as wave after wave of gray lines filled the sky. Whitewater Draw had perfect light for photographs as the group enjoyed several duck species whose males were particularly zesty including Green-winged Teal, Northern Pintail, and Cinnamon Teal. While driving some of the farm roads in this area a very confiding Bendire’s Thrasher teed up allowing everyone to get pictures of this hard to find prize. While flocks of Lark Buntings flitted from the roadsides dozens of American Kestrels, Loggerhead Shrikes, and every flavor of Red-tailed Hawk one could want perched atop nearly every structure that allowed it. Further north along Kansas Settlement Road we were finally rewarded with excellent views of the regal Ferruginous Hawk perched on a telephone pole. At Willcox even more Sandhill Cranes were settled into the various ponds as some of them practiced their dance moves in anticipation of the upcoming breeding season. Mixed in with the hundreds of American Wigeons was a single male Eurasian Wigeon, adding another duck species to the tour’s ever-growing list of waterfowl. Nearby among the several debris piles it was fun watching several Scaled Quail, or ‘Cotton-tops’ as they’re also known, foraging on the scattered seeds.

            This following morning we explored the vast grasslands that abut the flowing San Pedro River in the protected National Conservation Area. En route to our first destination a Merlin was spotted on a power pole that we took time to inspect. The feeders at the San Pedro House were thriving with birds including White-winged, Mourning, and Inca Doves enjoying the free meal. A trio of Towhees was spotted. Black-faced Abert’s were seen scurrying up and down the huge cottonwood branches, more than just ‘Green-tailed’ Towhees eventually sat up low in the mesquites for viewing, and an agitated Canyon Towhee stayed busy attacking its reflection in the side-view mirror of a parked pickup truck. In the afternoon most of us were ready for exploring a couple of the amazing canyons on the east side of the Huachuca Mountains. As we began our hike up through the mid-elevation manzanita scrub in Hunter Canyon we heard an owl tooting, but wait wasn’t this the middle of the afternoon? Sure enough a Northern Pygmy Owl of the Mountain race, an occasional diurnal predator, was keeping a constant beat while we slowly tried to track it down. Right near the top of a huge oak tree we found this gem and proceeded in snapping dozens of pictures. In nearby Carr Canyon we were able to get a little higher in elevation and as we were ascending an odd rock was spotted in the middle of the road. A male Montezuma Quail was very slowly making his way into the grass clumps an en route was nearly hit by 4 different vehicles as we sat in anxious anticipation. When the coast was clear we walked as close as we could to see it but could not spot it anywhere. Just then at least 7 of these birds exploded from just in front of our feet, giving us all quite an exhilarating experience!

            No trip to southeast Arizona would be complete without a visit to Portal at the mouth of the mighty Cave Creek Canyon. A brief visit to a private residence in the Big Thicket allowed close looks of the (normally) skulky Crissal Thrasher that sat up for several minutes allowing ample viewing pleasure for all. Another feeder array was hosting a very rare Streak-backed Oriole that, after about 30 minutes of waiting, showed nicely as it ate from one of the strategically placed orange halves. The largest hummingbird in the country, the mighty Blue-throated, was seen well along Main Street in Portal as well as a flock of perched Cedar Waxwings. Our lunch at the junction of South Fork and Main Fork of the canyon welcomed very close views of a pair of Canyon Wrens creeping amongst the flood debris. The lichen-covered pink rocks began to show themselves as we climbed up above the 6500’ mark searching for montane species such as Steller’s Jay and Brown Creeper. The views from this vantage are beyond belief staring down the heart of this massive craggy mountain range. It was no surprise that this was everyone’s favorite destination that we visited on the entire tour.

            Our last day is always exciting as we meander through the various habitats back to Tucson, trying to fill in the checklist with species we haven’t seen as we go. We first checked out Las Cienegas National Conservation area and its gently rolling grasslands bookmarked by several scenic mountain ranges. A surprise Sage Thrasher perched nicely as we passed by and the multitude of re-introduced Black-tailed Prairie Dogs were highly entertaining and a reminder of just how much conservation work has gone on in this area. Our sights were set for the saguaro-studded hillsides around Tucson for another target species. In the delightful Tucson Mountain Park we eventually discovered a confiding pair of Gilded Flickers coming to their cavity home. Next we spent time visiting several water spots in the big city that composed VERY close views of Canvasback, Redhead, Ring-necked Duck and Common Merganser. A final stroll through Sweetwater Wetlands gave us amazing views of hundreds of Red-winged and Brewer’s Blackbirds, Great-tailed Grackles, and our highly sought male Yellow-headed Blackbirds coming into roost. We all had a lot to chat about over our final dinner at one of the best restaurants in Tucson as we reminisced about the amazing week of birding we just had together. There’s not much that can beat a full week of birding in southeast Arizona any time of the year, but there’s a reason why so many birds, and people, find this region irresistible in the depths of winter. Let’s do it again!

 Jake Mohlmann

Created: 15 February 2017