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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Arizona: Owls and Warblers

2018 Narrative

In Brief

 Although much of the spring of 2018 was a mild one in Arizona, the week of our tour saw above average temperatures and the quick arrival of summer-like conditions.  Nevertheless the 2018 Arizona Owls and Warbler trip was a great success. On the tour we sampled the wide variety of the habitats available in Southeastern Arizona, from cottonwood/willow riparian strips to Sonoran Desert and Mexican drainages south of the Atascosa Mountains, and from Madrean Pine-oak Woodland to petran Conifer Forest.  The birds were as diverse as the habitats, as we tallying 7 species of owls, and 211 species overall.  As always, hummingbirds are a favored group on a visit to AZ, and we enjoyed close views of 9 species this year, including a stunning male Lucifer and a very cooperative Violet-crowned.  Other highlights included our views of a tropical and gaudy Elegant Trogons, 20 species of Flycatchers and a wealth of mammals, reptiles and butterflies.  The mammals this year we particularly diverse, and included excellent studies of Ringtail, Raccoon, Black-tailed Jackrabbits and a surprising number of both Mule and White-tailed Deer which seem to be having a bumper year in 2018.  Oh, and suppose I should also comment on the gorgeous Red-faced, Olive, Grace’s, Townsend’s, Lucy’s, and Black-throated Gray Warblers and such scarce species as Common Black-Hawk, and Black-chinned and Five-striped Sparrows.  Some true rarities were enjoyed this year as well, highlighted by the cooperative Slate-throated Redstart in the Chiricahuas, the Buff-collared Nightjar in the Atascosa Highlands, and a nesting pair of Rose-throated Becards and bathing Rufous-backed Robin along the Santa Cruz River.   The votes for bird of the trip were all over the map, with the inquisitive midday Northern Pygmy-Owl, gaudy Painted Redstarts, Slate-throated Redstart, and the diminutive Elf Owls being the top mentions.  The diversity of landscapes and birdlife in Arizona is staggering, and I look forward to showing it off to the next crop of participants in 2019!

In Full

We met in the mid-afternoon this year, for a short visit to one of Tucson’s better wetland areas.  Enroute to Sweetwater Wetlands we stopped at a rather unremarkable parking lot where a pair of Burrowing Owls have set up shop near a bank.  Although the owls were not sitting up on their customary pole we were able to see one bird peering out from its earthen hole along a drainage canal; quite an auspicious start to a trip billed as an owls and warbler tour!  We then made our way to what is perhaps the best single wetland area in the city.  Sweetwater Wetlands is a developed wetland adjacent to the Santa Cruz River and boasts about a half-dozen ponds lined with ever-growing stands of Fremont Cottonwood, Gooding’s Willow and Four-winged Saltbush.  The ponds have extensive cattail beds and are surrounded by settling basins and open land. The wetlands have attracted over 300 species of birds over the decade since their conception and the site serves as a really great introduction to the common riparian and desert birds of the region. 

We wandered around the park for an hour and a half, soaking up a nice cross-section of the more common local birds.  Along the short “river” at the entrance of the park we stopped to watch a host of birds coming in to drink or feed in the impressive flowering mesquite trees.  White-crowned, Lincoln’s and Song Sparrows and Abert’s Towhees were scratching around on the ground, while Yellow and Yellow-rumped Warblers, Common Yellowthroat and several Verdin were feeding overhead.  The parking area held our first (of many) Gila Woodpeckers, a flock of Phainopepla and a hunting Greater Roadrunner.  A nice assortment of swallows were hawking over the ponds, including a few Cliff and Bank Swallows among the hordes of Northern Rough-winged and Barn Swallows. Perhaps our most exciting find was a Tropical Kingbird that we found in the center of the reserve.  This generally uncommon species is expanding its range in the state and has bred in the park recently. The bird put on an excellent show, perching quite close to us and allowing us to clearly see its forked tail, bright yellow underparts, long and thin bill and medium gray head and upper breast.  Out in the settling basins we picked out a single quite splendidly spotted Spotted Sandpiper among the hordes of Mourning Doves, Great-tailed Grackles and Mallards.  We also were happy to detect a few migrant species like Lazuli Bunting and Western Wood-Pewee, and our only Common Gallinules of the trip.   Several bold Desert Spiny Lizards crossed our path during the walk, and we started our trip mammal list with tame Desert Cottontails foraging in the saltbushes.  It was an excellent introduction to Tucson’s birdlife, and we toasted our success over dinner at a restaurant near the hotel. 

On the second day, we traveled north into Pinal and Gila Counties. Leaving Tucson behind we soon found ourselves amidst fantastic carved canyons, and an amazingly complex geologic history are a few species that are very rare, or not findable in Southeastern Arizona.  About an hour into our journey we dropped down into the San Pedro River Valley and into the little town of Mammoth.  Our planned stop at the petrol station was delayed slightly when we discovered a soaring Zone-tailed Hawk over the highway.  Piling out of the car we were able to watch the bird circle overhead and then head out over the riparian vegetation along the river.  Once at the station we spent a bit of time birding the patch of desert scrub adjacent to the building.  Here we found our first Cactus Wren, Northern Cardinals and Western Kingbird and several displaying Eurasian Collared-Doves, a species that has truly become a fixture throughout the southern part of the state.  A small sewage pond near the San Pedro River was hosting several species of swallows that were seen hawking insects over the water, two pairs of Mexican Mallards and several Cinnamon Teal, and a few Brown-headed Cowbirds and Lark Sparrows.  Of particular note here was a hunting Peregrine Falcon that swept past us low and fast, diving into one of the dry basins and then striking a fleeing Mourning Dove which burst into a cloud of falling feathers as it was carried away by the triumphant falcon.

We then continued just a little farther north into the very beautiful Aravaipa Canyon.  This cottonwood and willow filled canyon provides a permanent water source in an otherwise parched landscape, and is a reliable location for nesting Common Black Hawks.  On the way into the canyon we stopped to admire a slope covered in Saguaro Cactus (many of which were blooming) and an array of prickly pair and cholla.  One of our tour participants managed to act as a perfect guinea pig, illustrating just how quickly one can be entangled in the desert’s spiky vegetation.

Here too was a frustratingly elusive nesting pair of Gilded Flickers that kept coming in to feed their young in a roadside cactus but then rocketed away in a flurry of yellow wings and white rumps.  A nearby pair of Gila Woodpeckers were much more confiding as they poked their heads out of a hole and fed on the flowering saguaros along the road edge.  We screeched to a halt a few miles down the road to admire a perched Harris’s Hawk sitting on a nearby pole.  This beautiful raptor is a study of chocolate brown, reddish, and white and is unique in that it hunts cooperatively in extended family groups, like a pack of aeolian wolves.  The bird obligingly took off and flew right to an adjacent pole, allowing us to view the striking white tail bands.

A bit further down the road we entered the canyon proper, with lush riparian vegetation lining the water-filled creek bed against a backdrop of soaring rocky cliffs.  Unlike in previous years we had nearly instant success with our main quarry for the site.  Within the first mile or so of vegetated riverbed we stopped to look at some old Great Blue Heron nests in a row of large cottonwoods.  An adult Common Black Hawk swept in carrying a large stick and we watched as it rummaged around in its platform nest and then flew up to sit in the shade of a small bush on the hillside.  With our recent views of the somewhat similar Zone-tailed in mind we were immediately struck by this bird’s broad wings, broad based but short tail, and large head.  As it sat placidly in the scope we could also see the large yellow lores and cere that further help to separate it from Zone-tailed Hawks.  We spent a bit of time walking along some hedgerows in the canyon bottom, where we teased out a Bell’s Vireo, and enjoyed views of Hooded Oriole, Ash-throated Flycatcher, Broad-billed Hummingbird and a beautiful Vermilion Flycatcher that was performing its amazing flight display (hovering with a fully puffed out chest). 

After our success in Arivaipa we went further north in search of Gray Vireo and Black-chinned Sparrows. In the dense chaparral-like habitat that cloaks the rolling Hills south of Globe we had great success with attractively colored Black-chinned Sparrow, with several individuals popping into view and coming in to our tape.  The Gray Vireos were uncharacteristically unresponsive (although we did hear one a bit after our lunch at Globe).  The chaparral held a lot of interesting species for us though, with active Juniper Titmice, vocal Spotted Towhees, a few Western Scrub-Jays Ladder-backed Woodpecker and a beautiful male Black-throated Gray Warbler all admired in turn.  As it was mid-afternoon by that point we started the drive back to Tucson, arriving with time for a bit of a break before we headed off to dinner.  We departed the hotel a bit early so that we could swing through Reid Park to see the very tame Black-crowned Night-Herons that frequent the main pond.  These birds have learned that passersby often feed the local ducks bread, and that the fish come up for the scraps.  By sitting on the edge of the rocks near people feeding the ducks the birds can grab the fish.  Sometimes the herons actually dive into the water, splashing back to shore – a behavior that I have not seen this widespread species do anywhere else in its nearly global range.  We also stopped in a quiet mid-town neighborhood where a nesting pair of Great Horned Owls and their three quite large chicks were on display in a tall pine tree.  The female was panting in the early evening heat, with drooped wings, but the young birds seemed to be unaffected by the temperatures as they clambered about in the limbs of the tree.  While watching the family of owls we were happy to share them with quite a few curious locals who were all thrilled to see the birds through our telescope.  A Lesser Nighthawk flew overhead just before we packed ourselves back into the van to head off to dinner.

On day three we explored the various life zones available by taking the highway up to the top of the Catalina Mountains.  This 25-mile drive starts in upland Sonoran Desert and ends in Spruce-Fir forest similar in feel to Washington State!  We stopped regularly, each time accessing a slightly different avifauna. We began the morning with a visit to Agua Caliente Park, a small, well-maintained patch of desert near the base of Mount Lemmon.  Here we made a pleasant hour-long stroll around the grounds, becoming familiar with birds such as Lucy’s Warbler, Bell’s Vireo, Phainopepla, Abert’s Towhee and Cactus Wren.  I suspect the highlight for most was the incredibly cooperative Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet that appeared over the trail near the main pond.  The bird even came close enough that we could verify its lack of rictal bristles!  On the walk back around to the car we stopped to admire a large Regal Horned Lizard that froze at our approach.  These handsome (if rotund) lizards are experiencing a rapid population decrease within the Tucson Valley as their natural inclination is to freeze when danger approaches.  This technique has served them well for thousands of years, but with the advent of traffic and the pressures of domestic cats and dogs it seems a poor strategy for longterm survival.  A cooperative Rufous-winged Sparrow was scratching along the edge of the parking lot, offering excellent views of its double malar stripes, rufous wing patch and rusty supercilium. 

After our short visit to Agua Caliente we began our exploration of Mount Lemmon.  We drove well up the road to reach the pine forest, where our first stop was in Willow Canyon.  It is truly remarkable how different the top of the mountain feels from the baking desert floor; just a few miles down the road.  With a slight breeze and temperatures in the 60’s and 70’s for the morning it was a welcome relief (it’s no wonder that the small village on the top of Mount Lemmon is called Summerhaven).  We began by birding around a private cabin perched on a small knoll and surrounded by large Ponderosa Pines.  Standing on their deck we were soon awash with new birds.  A Green-tailed Towhee was scratching along the cabin’s south wall, Pygmy Nuthatches, Acorn Woodpeckers and Yellow-eyed Juncos were seemingly everywhere, often approaching to within feet of us as they hoped that we would be filling the bird feeders.  In the trees (and thankfully near eye level due to our elevated platform) we found a cooperative pair of Olive Warblers.  This is perhaps the most poorly named bird in the United States, as they lack any olive coloured feathers in any of their plumages, and they are not actually warblers (but rather are in their own monotypic family).  Also here we found several dapper migrant Hermit Warblers, including one brilliantly hued male that lingered for several minutes above our heads, a calling and responsive Cordilleran Flycatcher, and a hulking Rivoli’s Hummingbird that perched up in a distant pine glinting green and purple in the morning sun. 

It would be hard to top the flurry of birds from our first stop, but we continued uphill and stopped in at Rose Canyon Lake.  Here, amidst the open pines we walked along a small drainage with clusters of thick willow and maple.  The warbler show continued for us here, with several Grace’s, Wilson’s, Yellow-rumped and Townsend’s Warblers flitting overhead or in the dense riparian vegetation.  I suspect that our views of Pygmy Nuthatches that came so close to us that we could have pocketed them, and the surprising female Williamson’s Sapsucker that was actively foraging around one of the campsites were the highlights for the group.  But pairs of the balefully countenanced Yellow-eyed Juncos, bubbly loquacious House Wrens, singing Hermit Thrushes, inquisitive Plumbeous Vireos and bold Mexican Jays were close contenders.  The sapsucker is an uncommon wintering bird in the mountains for us, and casual at best by May.  It took a bit of patience but we were eventually able to get scope views of a singing Greater Pewee that seemed to be using the entire canyon as it moved around uttering its plaintive Jose Maria song from the treetops.  It wasn’t all about birds here either as we encountered a very handsome Abert’s Tassel-eared Squirrel near the Pewee site.  This blocky squirrel sports huge ear tufts, a bushy white tail and an attractive coat of silver-gray fur with a chestnut stripe along its back.

Our next stop as we continued up the road was among the spruce and fir coated Mount Bigelow Road where we found a small flock of Mountain Chickadees (The Catalinas are the only southeastern Arizona mountain range that hosts this handsome species) and several nasal Red-breasted Nuthatches, completing our sweep of the available Nuthatches.  A stop along the road above Summerhaven allowed us to walk along a small but running creek that is lined by small maples and towering open mixed forest with douglas fir and Engleman Spruce as well as some pine and aspen.  It was against this verdant background that we encountered perhaps the most beautiful of all of the American Wood Warblers, the princely Red-faced.  Multiple pairs of this crimson, black, grey and white beauty were dancing along the creek, coming to within just feet of us at eye level and even dropping down onto the rocky creekbed to drink.  Here too were a few Orange-crowned Warblers, Townsend’s and Yellow-rumped Warblers aplenty, another Cordilleran Flycatcher and our first Steller’s Jays.  At some feeders nearby we were able to watch a dozen or so Broad-tailed Hummingbirds vie for the proffered nectar, and hordes of Black-headed Grosbeak, Pine Siskins, Yellow-eyed Juncos and tiny Cliff Chipmunks descending upon the seed feeders.  Despite our huge success with warblers we were still missing one of the trickier species in the region, so we walked back down towards Summerhaven along the more open stretch of the creek where thicker willow shrubs dot the hillside.  Here we tracked down a singing Virginia’s Warbler that was seemingly oblivious to our presence as it sang loudly and continuously from the top of various roadside shrubs, lingering long enough for some depixellization by Canon.

After lunch at the delightful café up in Summerhaven we drove down the mountain and through the sprawl of Tucson.  We picked a route that allowed us to see the military airfield graveyard; a remarkably large set of fields with seemingly endless rows of decommissioned aircraft (from jets to huge transports) parked in the desert sun. We arrived in Green Valley in time for a bit of a rest and then headed to nearby Madera Canyon where a stop at the Santa Rita lodge feeders revealed several habituated Wild Turkeys, some very close views of Broad-billed Hummingbirds and a beautiful male Blue Grosbeak.  We ate a picnic dinner of tamales while we waited for a Northern Pygmy-Owl to poke its head out of a known nest hole.  Somewhat to our dismay the birds did not appear for us on cue, although a bit later in the night we heard one bird calling near the nest tree.  A local conjectured that the Cinco de Mayo festivities two nights before might have traumatized the owls (who had picked a nest tree right in one of the busier picnic areas in the canyon).  We had much better luck with the nearby

pair of diminutive Elf Owls (the smallest species of owl in the world) at a known nest site in a roadside pole.  One bird stuck its head out of a nest cavity and looked around for about 5 minutes before flying out, whereupon its partner stuck its head out of the same cavity.  As the skies turned to black we were also treated to an excellent auditory show from a close Whiskered Screech-Owl and multiple pairs of Elf Owls before we headed back to Green Valley for the night.

For much of the winter and happily (for us) well into the spring of 2018 a suite of mainly Mexican birds was frequenting the Santa Cruz River’s de Anza trail well to the south of Green Valley.  We decided to take advantage of this fact by spending the next morning walking along the sandy trail that winds parallel to the river.  Tall riparian vegetation here consists of Fremont Cottonwood, willows and mesquites with a mixed and often almost verdant understory.  Our first stop was at the Tubac bridge, where we parked under some towering cottonwoods and spent almost fifteen minutes birding around the parking lot.  Bright Vermilion Flycatcher males were perched on the adjacent fencing, flocks of Lark Sparrows were feeding among the horse pasture, Brown-crested Flycatchers and Cassin’s Kingbirds showed well and the bright and happy tones of Yellow Warbler and Lesser Goldfinch echoed from the forest above us.  Eventually we started walking north, stopping to admire Abert’s Towhees, Yellow Warblers, Gila and Ladder-backed Woodpeckers and a few more vocal pairs of Brown-crested Flycatchers (as well as some truly huge American Bullfrogs in a shallow pond).   After a slow-paced 20-minute walk we arrived at the impressively large nest of a pair of Rose-throated Becards.  After nearly a decade with no known nesting pair a couple of pairs of this portly but attractive tropical bird have set up shop along the Santa Cruz.  They build a globular nest of leaves and branches that hangs high in the canopy.  When we arrived another birding group was already on site but the birds were off foraging.  Soon after the somewhat noisy group of birders headed off we were treated to lengthy views of the male (a soft grey coloured bird with bright pink throat patch) and female (a sandy brown with dark cap and rufous tail) as they returned to the nest and then sat on some exposed nearby branches.  On the walk back we found a pair of Dusky-capped Flycatchers which showed off well, albeit fairly high in the canopy.  Before moving down to another section of the river near the Tumacacori Mission we made a stop in at a local coffee shop and restroom which was a welcome short break from the heat. 

At Santa Gertrudis Lane we walked south, again along the sandy de Anza trail.  Here we were soon successful in locating a pair of Thick-billed Kingbirds that were patrolling the hedgerows near the trail entrance.  With their huge bills, dark caps and barely yellow underparts these flycatchers are quite distinctive.  Though the species is widespread in western Mexico down to the Guatemala border it is very local in the US, with an estimated 25-40 pairs scattered around mostly SE Arizona.  We then walked further south in a quixotic quest for the long-staying Sinaloa Wren that generally frustrates its pursuers by calling infrequently, staying in dense vegetation and popping into view for only a split second at a time.  Although we did hear the quick ratchet-like callnotes emanating from a dense riverside bush the wren remained stubbornly out of sight.   The longer walk did enable us to study a couple of perched Pacific-Slope Flycatchers (a migrant species here that is generally identified solely on elevational status as it is nigh impossible to reliably separate from our more montane breeding Cordilleran Flycatchers) as well as a few Western Wood-Pewees, our first good views of perky little Bridled Titmice, and several Yellow-breasted Chats and Song Sparrows.  As it was quite warm we decided to head in to the nearby town of Tubac for lunch and some cold drinks and then continued on north to our hotel for a short afternoon siesta in preparation for our late afternoon and evening excursion to California Gulch and Ruby Road.

After our mid-day siesta we set off on our long and bumpy ride into California Gulch, nestled on the Mexican border in the southern Atascosa Mountains. This drive is scenic, and passes through some of the most remote country along the US-Mexico border.  The southern half of the Atascosas act as the headwaters for a southerly flowing drainage called the Rio Sonoyta, which empties into the northeastern corner of the Gulf of California.  This stands in stark contrast to the majority of the watersheds in southern Arizona which flow northerly and then into the Colorado River watershed.  This more southerly aspect to the region means that many “Mexican” species cross the border into the watershed, including many species of plants, insects, fish and reptiles that can only be found in this tiny corner of the state within the United States.  About an hour and a half after we set off from the hotel we parked near the bottom of California Gulch, a pretty (if rather unremarkable) steep walled canyon with remnant thornscrub and scattered Saguaros on the slopes and a thick riparian corridor along its mostly dry bed. 

We walked along the drainage and within just a few minutes encountered a cooperative Five-striped Sparrow calling from the rocky slope above us.  The bird popped up nicely in view in a nearby mesquite tree, lingering for several minutes as if it were on display at a Parisian fashion show.  These handsome sparrows, clad in slate-gray, brown, white and black are quite intricately patterned.  Within the United States Five-striped Sparrows breed in only a handful of canyons around SE Arizona, and are thus perhaps the most localized regular breeding bird in the country.

We then headed back to the car to enjoy a picnic dinner and drinks as we waited for darkness to fall.  Over the daily log we saw the first Lesser Nighthawks flying over the road, and spent a bit of time discussing the differences between Vermilion Flycatcher and Buff-collared Nightjar vocalizations.  Just after dark we heard the first Elf Owls calling out in the mesquites around us, and soon afterwards the telltale cucucucucuchaweea of our main quarry sounded off quite close to the van.  We hurried over and after a few minutes of waiting were able to pin down its location, and get the bird in our torchlight.  Our views were close and excellent, and we were even able to discern the namesake whitish collar.  Two birds were present and were interacting strongly, uttering a lot of interesting grunts and cackles along with their regular song and often chasing each other around the lower slope.  Nearby we heard a singing Common Poorwill that unfortunately stubbornly refused to come down from its chosen ridge.  A pair of Western Screech-Owls were much more obliging though, showing extremely well at close range for several minutes.

With all of our target species “in the bag” so to speak we drove back out to Ruby Road and then on to our hotel under an inky black and star-filled sky.  It is normally a quiet drive back out but this time our trip was punctuated by no less than eight border patrol trucks that each stopped us for a short inquiry, one even staying with us until we turned onto the interstate before turning back to its patrol duties.  I suspect this was a training exercise, as the other two trips that I took down to the Gulch in may involved many fewer agents. 

The next morning, we visited a wide selection of birding hotspots along the Santa Cruz River and the town of Patagonia.  We started off by revisiting the de Anza trail south of Santa Gertrudis Lane.  On this visit, we again enjoyed views of the pair of Thick-billed Kingbirds near the trailhead, this time joined by a single Tropical Kingbird (as well as several Cassin’s).  This was a welcome sighting for the two participants who were not with us on the optional first day outing to Sweetwater Wetlands, and completed our set of Kingbirds for the tour.  We spent some time lingering around the fruiting mulberry trees where a couple of Rufous-backed Robins had been foraging for several weeks.  Plenty of fruit remained on the trees, and we enjoyed watching a parade of Black-headed Grosbeaks, Summer Tanagers, Pine Siskins, Northern Cardinals and various warblers coming in to feast on the juicy berries.  As we started to head back to the trailhead one participant who was lingering behind to cast an eye along the creek yelled that he had spotted a thrush.  We hurried back and were soon able to watch the Rufous-backed Robin as it sat up above the creek edge and preened (evidently having just finished a morning bath).  This species is annual in the state, but primarily occurs from the monsoon season through the winter.  Late spring and summer records are few and far between.   Other observers have reported two or possibly even more individuals around the area this May, with at least one report mentioning seeing a bird carrying sticks across the river.  Perhaps this will be the year that someone confirms the first breeding record for the species in the United States.

After our walk along the river we moved south for a quick stop at the old Palo Duro Ponds in Nogales.  Here we found a nice selection of waterbirds including several family groups of Pied-billed Grebe, lingering Gadwall and American Wigeon, several quite approachable Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks and our first American Kestrel and Great Blue Herons.  After leaving Nogales, with a quick look at the border wall we decided to visit the main pond at Kino Springs, where the willow thickets around the pond margin have finally grown up enough to support a nice array of birds.  While we found the pond basins completely dry this year there were still some birds to look at.  Several pairs of Common Ground-Doves, a migrant Gray Flycatcher, and a soaring Gray Hawk were around the main pond basin.  And out on the nearby golf greens were dozens of Lark, White-crowned and Song Sparrows, a very tame Curve-billed Thrasher and some quite cooperative Vermilion Flycatchers.  A few miles down the road we stopped in at the Patagonia Roadside Reststop, a site made famous in the birding world by its (now long-gone) pair of Rose-throated Becards that used to nest along the creek.  Our main goal for the stop was quickly achieved when we found a flock of White-throated Swifts coursing back and forth over the creek, showing off quite nicely in the midday light.  A Canyon Wren showed well on the hillside above the road, and we were also happy to spot a soaring Sharp-shinned Hawk (a species which is generally quite scarce in the region by May). 

Lunch at a small local café in Patagonia followed, and then we made our way to the nearby Tucson Audubon operated Paton’s Hummingbird Haven feeders.  The society has been busily improving the habitat around the property with extensive native plantings, a new viewing gazebo and two small ponds, as well as a better connection to the adjacent Sonoita Creek Nature Conservancy property.  Unlike the last few years we did not have to wait at all for the star attraction; a territorial Violet-crowned Hummingbird was perched on the very first feeder and was aggressively defending it against all comers before perching again just above the feeder.  We spent a bit of time watching as birds like Ladder-backed Woodpecker, Inca Dove, Broad-billed, Anna’s and Black-chinned Hummingbird all coming into the yard feeders before we departed for the grasslands of Las Cienagas National Conservation Area.  Here we stopped in first at the treed Las Cienagas ranch trail, where we found running water in the creek but a lot of visible damage due to last year’s intense fires.  We spent a pleasant hour or so walking under the canopy of the cottonwoods along the shallow creek, watching hordes of Common Yellowthroat, Summer Tanager, Lincoln’s and Song Sparrows and Wilson’s Warblers as they came in for a midday drink.  Here too we located a somewhat early migrant Willow Flycatcher as well as several Western Wood-Pewees and a couple of presumed Pacific-Slope Flycatchers for close comparison. 

We then turned south through the open grasslands, yet another habitat crammed into this diverse corner of the state.  Here we found several pairs of the southwestern Lillian’s form of Eastern Meadowlark, several Horned Larks, a few perched up Loggerhead Shrikes, and some Chihuahuan Ravens that flew over at close range.  Some distant Pronghorn added to the excitement, and we further increased our burgeoning mammal list with the addition of quite a few portly Black-tailed Prairie Dogs at a recent release site.  We were happy to watch the antics of these remarkable animals (with many young in evidence) as they scampered around the colony.  Also here was our hoped-for Burrowing Owl, a welcome for the two participants who were not with us on the first afternoon of the tour.  As we drove south back to the highway through the remarkably expansive grasslands we stopped at a watertank where we flushed a truly wild Wild Turkey and spent a bit of time watching Western Tanagers in the bushes and Northern Rough-winged, Violet-green and Barn Swallows hawking insects over the pond.  At a random bend in the road we stopped to check on a Black-throated Sparrow that dove into a bush at our approach.  Although we glimpsed it a bit later we soon realized that we had accidentally stopped next to a calling Botteri’s Sparrow.  A monsoonal breeder, these attractive but generally furtive birds spend most of the year silently on the ground in good-quality grasslands.  We enticed one in for a closer look, and it lingered for quite some time in various nearby bushes, showing off its rufous tones and buffy flanks and occasionally giving a short burst of song.  Within the United States this species occurs only in a few patches of grassland in SE Arizona and SW New Mexico, and a small section of extreme south coastal Texas so sightings are always special for visiting birders. 

A quick stop at our Green Valley hotel allowed us to check in and freshen up a bit and then we decided to take advantage of the cooling temperatures to make a last stop for the day at the famous Ash Canyon Bed and Breakfast feeders. We sat down on the comfortable chairs provided by our gracious host Mary Joe, and enjoyed the show.  Our first Bronzed Cowbird was regularly coming into the feeder array, providing one lucky participant with her official 500th ABA bird.  Canyon Towhee, Black-headed Grosbeak, Bullock’s Orioles and Lesser Goldfinch were frequent visitors too.  It took about 45 minutes or so, but eventually we were elated to have very lengthy views of at least two separate male Lucifer Hummingbirds.  Arguably the most colorful of our normal Arizona hummingbirds the small and sharp tailed males sport large and glittering magenta throats, almost too intensely coloured to be natural.  Just as it began to really cool off and the sun went behind the nearby ridge we were thrilled to see a pair of Montezuma Quail slowly walk into the yard.  Always a top target for visiting birders these beautiful but very secretive Quail are very hard to predict.  Their numbers fluctuate widely from year to year, and although they tend to be quite vocal in May sightings are never guaranteed.  Seeing a pair at such close range coming into a feeder is a truly rare sighting, and the male in particular seemed eager to show off its amazingly intricate plumage to us as it scratched around under one of the feeders, always staying fairly close to cover.  We capped the day off with a hearty dinner at a German restaurant before returning to the hotel.

We spent the morning of the following day hiking up in Miller Canyon, where (unlike the previous six or so years) we were sadly unable to locate the resident pair of Spotted Owls that often roost along the trail about ¾ of a mile up canyon from the Beatty’s Bed and Breakfast.  For some reason, the birds have been picking more remote and variable day roosts for much of this spring.  This vegetated canyon on the East slope of the Huachuca Mountains was badly affected by the fires a few years ago, but the vegetation on the slopes is recovering, and the largely barren upper slopes seem to help congregate some species of birds closer to the stream bottom and trail system. Though we missed the hoped-for owls the hike proved fruitful for a host of other species, with our first Arizona Woodpeckers, Hepatic Tanagers, sprightly Painted Redstarts and a perky and quite responsive Buff-breasted Flycatcher.  Mixed flocks punctuated the walk as well, and we enjoyed excellent close views of Red-faced, Grace’s, Olive and Townsend’s Warblers as well as Plumbeous, Cassin’s and Hutton’s Vireos and several calling Cordilleran Flycatchers.  Near the base of the hike we heard the distant calls of a Northern Pygmy-Owl. The Pygmy-Owls here give a fast paced, often double noted toot, characteristic of birds to the south and wholly distinctive from that of the birds in the Rocky Mountains.  Most authorities have recognized them as a distinct species; the Mountain Pygmy-Owl.   Whatever you want to call it though this bird was calling quite vigorously in the late morning but refused to come down from its chosen perch somewhere high above us on the slope.  We returned to the Beatty’s property at the trailhead and walked past their second frog pond (which houses a globally important population of Chiricahua Leopard Frogs) soon arriving underneath a bulky stick nest that was occupied by a large (likely female) Northern Goshawk.  From below the tree it was impossible to see much of the sitting bird, but by navigating up to one of the cabins and around on a small trail upslope we were soon able to look down on the nest.  From this vantage the sitting birds broad white eyestripe, gray face, dark crown and somewhat fierce looking orange-red eye were clearly visible as she sat deep in the impressively large nest.  In southern Arizona, this species is quite scarce, and, in fact, we have encountered the species on roughly only twenty percent of the trips.  Being able to study one through a telescope at fairly close range was a real treat, and made up for the lack of owls to some degree.  Once back around the hummingbird feeders at the Beatty’s Bed and Breakfast we spent a bit of time watching as Rivoli’s, Broad-billed, Broad-tailed and Black-chinned Hummingbirds came in to feed before we left the canyon and stopped back in Sierra Vista for a quick lunch. 

The afternoon was designated largely for travel, as we were bound for the idyllic little town of Portal which is nestled in the northeast corner of the vast Chiricahua Mountains.  Rather than spending the entire afternoon driving we decided to stop in at a couple of well-known waterbird stopover sites.  The first of these was the rather uninspiring looking gravel-lined pond near the Benson golf course.  A rather surprisingly good array of lingering waterfowl were plying the edges of the pond.  All three species of north American Teal including handsome male Cinnamon and Blue-winged, a pair of Northern Shoveler, several Ring-necked and Ruddy Ducks and a single American Wigeon were admired in turn.  Also here were our first White-faced Ibis, spinning Wilson’s Phalaropes, two Long-billed Dowitchers and our only Yellow-headed Blackbird of the trip. 

We continued on to the larger and more attractive (to waterbirds) Wilcox Twin Lakes, perhaps the best single waterbird location in all of Southern Arizona.  Using the car as a blind we slowly drove around the main lake, picking out Lesser and Greater Yellowlegs, many more Wilson’s Phalarope and Long-billed Dowitcher, a small flock of Least Sandpipers, and many pairs of Black-necked Stilt and American Avocets.  The views of White-faced Ibis foraging were particularly fine, with their bright burgundy, copper and green feathers gleaming in the afternoon sun.  Along the golf course fence we found our first Scaled Quail, a pretty species of grassland quail with an intricate breast pattern and short fluffy tuft of a crest. A scan of the greens revealed a pair of Canada Geese (quite a rare species for Southern Arizona), the previously reported Tropical Kingbird, and some lingering Savannah Sparrows that were foraging in a mixed flock with Lark, White-crowned and Song Sparrows in the shade of the golf course trees.

We then stocked up on groceries and fuel for our two days in the beautiful Chiricahua Mountains.  This year we took the shortest route possible, along the recently graded San Sebastian Road, which enabled us to check out a good stretch of habitat for Crissal Thrasher.  A pair of these often maddeningly elusive birds showed briefly for us once we were quite close to Portal, but the views for many were admittedly not wholly satisfactory.  We had a bit of time to play with upon our arrival so we elected to check on a reported Lewis’s Woodpecker that had recently been found frequenting a utility pole just upcanyon from the town.  Happily for us the bird was present, furnishing only the second record of this stunning and quite unique woodpecker on the spring Wings tours.  We checked into the famous (in birding circles at any rate) Portal Peak Lodge and then enjoyed a simple but hearty meal before taking advantage of the calm winds by going out after dark for a slow road cruise up canyon from the town.  Our owling efforts were curtailed shortly after our departure as we encountered an active bat banding project.  The researchers were extremely accommodating and repeatedly carried their furry charges up to the road to us before releasing them.  Being able to see and learn about the ecology of four different species of bats (including a quite attractive Western Yellow Bat) at such an extraordinary close range was a special treat.  Eventually we pulled ourselves away from the bat project and went a bit further up canyon where we were quickly successful at spotlighting a calling Whiskered Screech-Owl along the road.  And a quick jaunt out towards the grasslands near Rodeo produced high winds and very close views of a Western Diamond-backed Rattlesnake that curled up in a nice pose for us after we ushered it off the paved road. 

For our full day in the stunningly scenic Chiricahua Mountains we started with an optional pre-breakfast outing to the sparsely vegetated but still somehow scenic Rodeo Valley.  On the way out to the New Mexico border we stopped to admire a perched Band-tailed Pigeon that was sitting in the sycamore-lined drainage winding out of the canyon.  This handsome pigeon is a migrant here, as it spends the winter months in the mountains of western Mexico, and its return signals the arrival of early summer to the canyonlands and pines of Arizona.  Driving down State Line Road, which marks the border between Arizona and New Mexico we spent much of our time looking for Bendire’s and Crissal Thrashers. In the patches of Chihuahuan desert that remain in the agricultural valley we found nice stands of dense golden bunch grasses and tall Soaptree Yuccas, many of which were in full bloom. Chihuahuan Ravens and Swainson’s Hawks were regularly spotted along the road as we drove slowly south, and we detected both Gambel’s and Scaled Quail scurrying about in the grasses and several very well behaved Black-throated Sparrows perched in roadside bushes.  Near a large hay shed we stopped to admire an adult Great Horned Owl with three large chicks huddled around her presenting a portrait of familial bliss.  While watching the owls we detected a Bendire’s Thrasher flying across the road. We followed it around the corner and were able to watch an adult and a juvenile Bendire’s for a long time, allowing us to really see that the flatter and shorter bill, paler eye, and more discrete breast spotting really are all distinctive.  We made a short detour through the small and somewhat dilapidated town of Rodeo, where we added a few species to our nascent New Mexico list but were saddened to find that the grove of mulberry trees which typically are in full fruit in May were devoid of fruit this year.  A nearby isolated Mulberry along the main highway just south of town did have some fruit, and we spent a bit of time watching hordes of Western Tanagers and Black-headed Grosbeaks stuffing their bulls with the juicy berries. 

Once back in Arizona we made a quick stop in at an isolated pond with a fringe of small trees.  Dubbed “Willow Tank” this tiny reserve is the only open water that is publically accessible in the valley.  Several American Coots were nibbling on the emergent aquatic vegetation in the lake, and we found a very cooperative Swainson’s Hawk and several flighty Spotted Sandpipers around the wetland.  Just before returning to Portal for breakfast we visited the feeder array of Bob Hernandez, just a mile or so out of town and in the beginning of the open grasslands. The feeders here are always busy, and offer excellent comparison views of Pyrrhuloxia and Northern Cardinal, the eastern form of Curve-billed Thrasher, a small flock of oriantha White-crowned Sparrows, many dapper Black-throated Sparrows, Western Tanagers, Green-tailed and Canyon Towhees and an endless procession of doves and Gambel’s Quail.  The hummingbird feeders were swarmed with Black-chinned, Broad-billed, and one male Magnificent, and with all the action just a few feet from us as we sat in the comfortable chairs. 

After a delicious breakfast, we turned our attentions to the main drainage of Cave Creek. This beautiful canyon, lined with large sycamores, dense oaks and scattered pines and flanked on both sides by dramatic and towering red cliffs is one of the most special birding locations in the country.  Perhaps the easiest place in the United States to encounter numbers of Elegant Trogons, and nearly the full suite of Arizona specialties.  The flood damage in the area has now largely been fixed and unlike in the previous few years it was possible to drive most of the way in to the end of the road.  We parked at about the midpoint of the gravel road and slowly walked out to the end, stopping wherever bird activity dictated.  Very vocal pairs of Dusky-capped and Brown-crested Flycatchers, several pairs of Hepatic Tanagers, American Robins and Hermit Thrushes coming in to drink from the rocky creek and active little groups of Bridled Titmice and warblers certainly livened up the walk.  Along the small creek that flows through the central part of the canyon we watched a Canyon Wren work its way down a rock face, investigating the cracks for tasty prey, and a beautiful Painted Redstart taking a short but obviously enjoyable bath.  Grace’s and Black-throated Grey Warblers and Plumbeous and Hutton’s Vireos were in good song all along the road, and just below the small bridge that crosses the creek we were thrilled to find a male Scott’s Oriole coming for a drink (oddly our first sighting of this electrically coloured black and yellow oriole).  Near the end of the gravel road we heard the unmistakable resonant quarks of a male Elegant Trogon emanating from just a bit upstream.  We walked down to the creekbed and picked our way a bit uphill to get closer to the singer.  We found the trogon, perhaps the most iconic of all of the Southeastern Arizona specialties, perched in the midstory of a large pine tree about 50m away from the road.  It was quite active, moving from large tree to large tree and occasionally giving a song bout.  I suspect the bird was checking out potential nest cavities and had not yet established a territory.  Dappled sunlight played across its brilliant emerald green and scarlet plumage, and the views in the telescopes were simply stunning.  Some years the bulk of the Trogon population doesn’t return from their wintering grounds until mid-May, but this year birds had been popping up on territory starting in mid-April.  Quite pleased with our view of this quintessentially tropical species we spent a bit more time wandering along the very birdy, and pretty South Fork Rd, where we found a female Blue-throated Hummingbird gathering spider webs for her nest construction along the edge of the road. 

It was late into the morning by this point, so we decided to head uphill for a picnic lunch at Barfoot Park.  Although a large percentage of the road accessible pine forest in the Chiricahuas was badly affected by the disastrous Horshoe 2 fire that ripped through the mountains in the summer of 2011 the Barfoot Park section was spared, and we ate a nice picnic lunch surrounded by a remnant stand of largely unburnt Pines, busy American Robins and Hermit Thrushes, and very vocal Hairy Woodpeckers and Northern Flickers.  After lunch, we turned our attentions towards the other remnant patches of intact coniferous forest along the Onion Saddle Road that winds up to the largely destroyed Rustler Park.  It was a bit windy on much of the ridge, but with some patience we turned up a Brown Creeper, a calling Hammond’s Flycatcher, several Steller’s Jays, and a nice mixed flock of warblers that included Black-throated Gray, Townsend’s, Yellow-rumped and Wilson’s Warblers.  On the way back down towards Portal we stopped at a scenic overlook with a stunning view of the Rodeo Valley and well into New Mexico.  A perched Olive-sided Flycatcher was sitting at the very top of a standing dead tree just below the road, seemingly also enjoying the views.  Once off the mountain we stopped to look at a staked out Whiskered Screech Owl on a day roost in a large sycamore right over the road.  Despite our milling around underneath the large cavity just a few feet above our heads the owl seemed perfectly at ease with our presence, barely opening its eyes to give us a quick glance before it yawned and returned to its nap. 

Acting on a tip from a local birder we stopped in at Dave Jasper’s yard before returning to our lodge.  Here it took only 15 minutes or so of waiting before a female Red Crossbill popped into view at one of the bird baths.  The winter of 2017/18 proved to be quite an irruption year for Red Crossbills all across southern Arizona, with multiple call types being reported widely in the lowlands.  This bird had been lingering with a small flock for several weeks, and sonographs of its call notes determined that it belonged to the Type 2 calltype (a large billed form that specializes in large hard-coned Pines especially Ponderosa) rather than the local breeding type (Type 6).  It was an enjoyable sit for other reasons though, as our point-blank views of bright orange Bullock’s Orioles, a male Lazuli Bunting, a bold Hooded Oriole that nearly climbed into the jelly jar to get the last scraps of grape jam and a plague of Pine Siskins that seemed to cover up every available feeder perch made for a great supporting cast.

After dinner, we set off on another attempt at finding owls.  We drove a bit upslope, towards the Herb Martyr Road.  At our first stop we heard several Mexican Whip-poor-Wills close to the road.  Although it was still quite light out the birds were actively flying around at the base of a small hill, and we were able to see them quite well as they coursed back and forth just over the treeline.  These Southwestern nightjars were long regarded as conspecific with the eastern Whip-poor-Will but they are vocally quite distinctive, with a lower pitched, burrier call that emphasizes the last syllable rather than the first.  We heard several Whiskered Screech-Owls throughout the rest of the evening but were not able to detect any Flammulated Owls as the winds increased just as it became dark enough for these often-difficult owls to become active.  A couple of Northern Raccoons, one of which seemed intent on guiding us all the way back to Portal, an inordinate number of White-tailed Deer and an incredible encounter with a Ringtail (a delicate gray raccoon relative that is fairly common but very infrequently seen) kept us amply entertained as we made our way back to the lodge for the night.

On our last full day we decided to spend the majority of the day around the Chiricahuas.  An optional pre-breakfast trip up to the junction of the Turkey Creek Rd and the main cross-mountain road produced lengthy and excellent views of a calling Northern Pygmy-Owl.  The Pygmy-Owls here give a fast paced, often double noted toot, characteristic of birds to the south and wholly distinctive from that of the birds in the Rocky Mountains.  Most authorities have recognized them as a distinct species; the Mountain Pygmy-Owl.   Whatever you want to call it though this bird was wonderfully cooperative, and was voted very highly on the bird of the trip honour roll.  After several close aural encounters with this species during the previous few days it was fantastic to finally see one.  We also made a stop in back at Bob Rodriguez’s feeders, where we were somewhat surprised to see a flock of six Red Crossbills perched in a nearby Juniper.  In the adjacent yard we were successful in coaxing a pair of Crissal Thrashers into view, one of which remained perched up long enough for a good study of its thin and remarkably curved bill, dark malar stripe and red crissum (vent).  Breakfast then beckoned, and after packing up and checking out we headed to the American Museum of Natural History’s Southwestern Research Station.  Here we found about a half-dozen Blue-throated Hummingbirds attending the station’s feeders.  These attractive hummingbirds are basically the same size as the impressive Rivoli’s Hummingbird, but possess a steely blue throat patch and dramatic white tail tip.  They have become strangely scarce in the Santa Rita and Huachuca Mountains, but remain locally common in the Chiricahuas. 

Pulling ourselves away from the gift shop (which sells coffee now!) we pushed on uphill, this time bound for the other side of Onion Saddle and down into Pinery Canyon.  Although the majority of the upper reaches of this canyon were ravaged by the 2011 fires patches of large trees persist.  At one sheltered stop, we really struck gold; finding a pair of actively foraging Mexican Chickadees.   These large chickadees, with their huge black bibs and dark grey flanks have a wide range through the mountains of western Mexico, but in the United States are confined to the Chiricahuas and the Animas mountains in nearby New Mexico (which are not publically accessible). Due to the intensity of the 2011 fire the habitat for the chickadees is much more restricted, and perhaps not coincidentally they have become harder to find, so it was with some relief that we encountered them so easily this year.  Warblers and Flycatchers abounded in the canyon as well, and we spent quite a bit of time trying to locate a reported Spotted Owl that had occasionally been seen on a day roost along the road.  A bit further downhill we stopped at a rather unremarkable bend in the road where a generally uncooperative Slate-throated Redstart had returned to its haunts from the previous two summers.  A small seep flowed across the road here this year, with puddles attracting thrushes and butterflies.  We walked a couple of minutes uphill from the road and were shocked to almost immediately locate the Slate-throated Redstart (with some help from some photographers that were already onsite).  Perhaps not as flashy as the local Painted Redstarts, the Slate-throated is clad in dark slate-gray tones, with an orangey-red breast and plum coloured crown.  We watched it flitting about over a small rocky pool and among some short saplings for several minutes and then happily retreated back down the trail. 

Although it was nearing lunchtime we decided to head out of the scenic Chiricahua Mountains and south through the rather desolate Sulphur Springs Valley for a late picnic lunch at Whitewater Draw.  This large impoundment is managed for wintering Sandhill Cranes, with most of the water being allowed to dry up in the summer.  Nonetheless, a nice stand of willow trees provides welcome shade and food for migrant birds in an otherwise parched valley.  It was unfortunately very windy by the time we arrived (so much so that our picnic had to be contained within the van) but the resident family of Great Horned Owls were nicely tucked into the picnic shelter and provided excellent company for our repast.  A short walk around the impoundment revealed a calling Sora, several pairs of handsome Cinnamon Teal, a flock of Killdeer huddled under the lee of an embankment and excellent views of a roosting Barn Owl (our 7th species of owl for the trip).  We then drove north towards Willcox, where the heavy winds were kicking up substantial dust storms on the dry playa lakebed. The procession of largely ramshackle towns in this now very marginal agricultural valley, combined with the buffeting winds and dense drifting dust clouds that occasionally crossed the road engulfing the van in a brief dust bath made for a bit of a post-apocalyptic landscape.  Once back in Willcox we made a return visit to the Twin Lakes where we found the birdlife to be quite similar to our previous visit (although the whitecaps on the lake were certainly new).  A little group of Western Sandpipers and a lone Cattle Egret (quite a scarce species in Southern Arizona) capped off our trip list.  After making the return to Tucson we made a bit of a night out on the town for our final dinner at a wonderful downtown restaurant where we wrapped up a week in the field with an excellent, upbeat, and often riotously funny group of participants.  I trust everyone had as much fun as I this year!

- Gavin Bieber, May 2018


Created: 25 May 2018