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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Arizona: Owls and Warblers

2021 Narrative

In Brief:  The spring of 2021 was an especially dry one in Arizona, with virtually no winter rains in much of the state and a poor monsoon the prior year. Signs of the drought were evident everywhere, from the nearly bare ground across much of the upland grasslands to poorly leafed out and browning oaks in the mid-elevation. A lot of our local desert breeders were remarkably quiet (or even absent altogether), perhaps opting to not breed until conditions improve. Paradoxically though, the dry conditions proved good for migrants, with birds concentrating anywhere that held water or lusher vegetation.  On the tour we sampled the wide variety of the habitats available in Southeastern Arizona, from cottonwood/willow riparian corridors to Sonoran Desert and the Mexican drainages south of the Atascosa Mountains, and from Madrean Pine-oak Woodland to petran Conifer Forest at the top of Mount Lemmon.  The birds were as diverse as the habitats, and we tallied a respectable 7 species of owls (with 6 seen), and 208 species overall.  As always, hummingbirds are a favored group during a visit to AZ, and this year we had a simply amazing run of luck, with 12 species this year including a vagrant Plain-capped Starthroat, male White-eared and Lucifer, Violet-crowned, and a female Calliope. Other highlights included excellent (if hard fought) views of Five-striped Sparrow, 20 species of Flycatchers, 13 species of warblers including the incredible Red-faced, a surprise Short-tailed Hawk in Aravaipa Canyon, and a single write-in: the long-staying but spectacular Northern Jacana on the Santa Cruz River in Tucson.  Perhaps the most memorable wildlife encounters though involved more than birds.  We witnessed a large Western Diamondback Rattlesnake catch and devour a Pine Siskin under a feeder setup in Portal. Also in the Chiricahuas, we enjoyed a bit of drama when a family group of Acorn Woodpeckers attempted to harass and chase off an Apache Fox Squirrel that had discovered their large cache of acorns embedded in a tall pine.  The diversity of landscapes and birdlife in Arizona is staggering, and I look forward to showing it off to the next group of participants in 2022!

In Detail:  We met in the mid-afternoon this year, for a short visit to one of Tucson’s better wetland areas.  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 serve as a tertiary treatment facility linked to the city’s main sewage works, where the already treated water is filtered through the vegetated ponds before it is allowed to percolate back into the groundwater or be discharged into the river.  The park ponds have extensive cattail beds and are surrounded by settling basins and an ever-growing patch of tall riparian trees 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.  House Finches, Yellow Warblers and Common Yellowthroat, Song and oriantha White-crowned Sparrows and a few Lesser Goldfinches were admired in turn. The parking area held our first (of many) Gila Woodpeckers, a somewhat surprising migrant Swainson’s Thrush and both Abert’s and Green-tailed Towhee. A walk around the ponds revealed a few lingering waterfowl including Northern Shoveler and Wigeon, as well as our only Common Gallinules of the trip and a seemingly inexhaustible supply of Red-winged Blackbirds. Gambel’s Quail and more Abert’s Towhees scuttled across the paths in front of us, and in the skies overhead we admired the local breeding race of Red-tailed Hawk, and a few hawking Northern Rough-winged and Barn Swallows.  Around the back of the ponds, we admired perched Vermilion Flycatchers glowing in the afternoon sun and several perched Western Kingbirds.  Migrants seemed to be quite scarce, but we did drum up a couple of Western Wood-Pewees, several Lark Sparrows and a few Audubon’s Yellow-rumped and Wilson’s Warblers.  Our attentions were not completely focused on just birds though, with some brightly coloured odonates such as Mexican Amberwing and butterflies including Monarch, Mourning Cloak and Queen diverting us briefly.  Our mammal list started with several seemingly tame Desert Cottontails foraging along the path, and we opened our reptile and amphibian tally with several Red-eared Sliders (one digging a nest along the edge of the path) and some quite large American Bullfrogs.

It was an excellent introduction to Tucson’s birdlife, and we toasted our success over dinner at a Peruvian restaurant in the north part of the city.  After dinner we made a couple of brief stops en route to the hotel.  At Himmel Park just a bit to the east of the University of Arizona we quickly located a large fledgling Great Horned Owl perched up in the open in a pine. It sat placidly staring down at us, perhaps disappointed that we were not mum and dad carrying a tasty morsel for its early night snack.  It’s always good to start off the owls trip with an owl! 

Our plan for the second day of the trip was to travel north into Pinal and Gila counties. We made a fairly quick stop along the Santa Cruz River in north Tucson, where a local celebrity bird was crying out to be counted.  Late in September 2020 a birder found an adult Northern Jacana foraging along a reedbed in the river just upstream from the Ina Road Bridge. This is where the city of Tucson’s treated sewage water is being pumped into the riverbed, providing permanent water flow and a quite lush patch of riverine vegetation. Incredibly the bird overwintered, making it through some sub-zero temperatures and avoiding all the hunting Cooper’s Hawks.  We initially scanned from the pedestrian walkway over the bridge, but the thick reeds made seeing the open channel difficult.  We walked around a bit and were thrilled to find the Jacana, an overtly tropical looking bird clad in burgundy and copper with incredibly long toes and a bright yellow bill.  We watched it for a bit, but when we attempted to get a bit closer it scooted upriver and out of sight.  The stop was quite rich in birds, with our first Great Blue Heron, Great and Snowy Egrets, perched Cooper’s Hawk, Cliff Swallows and a calling Gray Hawk among the more common riparian birds.  Our tour cumulative list spans 19 years of trips around Arizona in May, and this Jacana marked our first ever for the trip; not only a write-in species but a write-in family!

Leaving Tucson behind we soon found ourselves amidst fantastic carved canyons, and an amazingly complex geologic history for 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 quick stop at the petrol station was extended slightly when we discovered that the patch of desert scrub adjacent to the building was full of birds. Here we found our first Cactus Wren singing from a transmission wire, perched Curve-billed Thrasher, some cooperative Lucy’s and several displaying Eurasian Collared-Doves, a species that has truly become a fixture throughout the southern part of the state. Raptors showed well too, with a pair of perched Harris’s Hawk sitting on a roadside 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.  One bird had its back to us and the other its front, allowing us to see all 360 degrees of field marks. Two Swainson’s Hawks, no doubt en route to its prairie breeding grounds from the windswept Argentinian pampas, were spotted flying over the parking lot just before we loaded back into the van; it was quite a good birding spot!  A small sewage pond near the San Pedro River was hosting a Spotted Sandpiper, hordes of Phainopepla flycatching along the fence, and in the surrounding shrubs we teased out a surprisingly cooperative Bell’s Vireo that actually perched up in the open for a bit.

Our main stop for the morning was 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 at a small hillside covered in Saguaro cactus (many crowned with a healthy crop of cup shaped white flowers).  Perched atop one of the taller cacti was a Greater Roadrunner that quickly dropped down to the desert floor.  A second cactus a bit further back from the road hosted an eventually cooperative Gilded Flicker.  These handsome woodpeckers can be elusive in their desert haunts and are often a bit difficult to pin down on demand.  We enjoyed some scope views of the male near its likely nest cavity, and were able to see the darker cap, smaller black bib and golden underwings that separate this Saguaro loving species from the widespread Northern Flicker.

This year for some reason we did not encounter the Black Hawks along the road but with a host of new birds and some really attractive scenery we hardly noticed. While slowly driving along the dirt road that winds into the canyon, with lush riparian vegetation lining the water-filled creekbed against a backdrop of soaring rocky cliffs we stopped repeatedly to study a heady mix of birds.  During the morning, we were introduced to our first Myiarchus flycatchers, with repeated views of Brown-crested and Ash-throated.  A bit more easily identified were the several Vermilion Flycatchers perched along the road in the small fruit orchards.  A stunning adult Gray Hawk was sitting on a roadside tree, no doubt surveying the open areas along the road for any lackadaisical lizards that might not be paying close enough attention to the skies.  As it was our first day it was hardly surprising that new birds were popping up at every stop, but when those new birds include species such as prismatic male Broad-billed Hummingbird and Western Tanager, Zone-tailed Hawk, glistening male Purple Martin and Hooded Oriole it can make for a particularly memorable morning!   Before leaving the area, we made a short walk along the road where we found a few migrant Brewer’s Sparrows, some female Lazuli Buntings and a perched Western Wood-Pewee. A passing dark hawk grabbed our attention here as well, and when we hastened a bit further down to get a clear view of the sky we were stunned to see that the bird was an adult Short-tailed Hawk!  Completely unexpected in Aravaipa, this pretty Buteo put on a show as it lazily circled overhead for several minutes. It’s a very scarce breeder in the upper elevations of a few of the southernmost sky islands, with years going between sightings in most of the mountain ranges, and likely at most 10 pairs in the state.  This sighting marked only the third time in 19 years that WINGS has recorded Short-tailed on the May Arizona tour; a most excellent consolation for missing the Common Black-Hawk. 

After our success in Arivaipa, we went further north in search of Gray Vireo and Black-chinned Sparrows.  A lunch stop in Winkelman near the confluence of the Gila and San Pedro Rivers was fairly productive for birds too, with a nest full of young Ravens on a cliff along the river, a pair of Zone-tailed Hawks that made repeated low passes over our picnic table, a foraging flock of Lark and White-crowned Sparrows and a migrating flock of White-faced Ibis.  I’d hazard a guess that the birding was better than the lunch! Once we reached the dense chaparral-like habitat that cloaks the rolling hills south of Globe we had great success with attractively colored Black-chinned Sparrow, with an individual popping into view and perching (eventually) in some photogenic poses atop a bare branch. We had even better luck with Gray Vireo, a species that is often devilishly difficult to pin down.  We heard one distant bird singing below the road, and with some patience were rewarded with lengthy and excellent (even in the scope) close views of this admittedly drab vireo with its jaunty song.  Also here were several Woodhouse’s Scrub-Jays, and a Gray Flycatcher that aptly demonstrated its characteristic tail bob for us.  At another short road off the highway, we spent a bit of time walking around a dry pond bed ringed with flowering willows.  Here we found a Dusky Flycatcher, a very cooperative Hutton’s Vireo, and a tightly woven House Finch nest laid in a dense cholla cactus that was occupied by several very young finches.  Near where we parked the van, a full water tank was attracting the attentions of several birds, and we paused to look at Pine Siskin, Lazuli Bunting and Ash-throated Flycatchers as they came down to drink. 

As the afternoon birding doldrums had set in by that point, we started the drive back to Tucson, arriving with time for a short break before we ate an early dinner around the pool of the hotel. The group was still eager to continue, so after we finished our day’s checklist we drove the half-hour or so down to Madera Canyon, spotting over a dozen Lesser Nighthawks and a scuttling Bobcat along the way.  Probably the most memorable sighting that we had while in the canyon proper was a seemingly tame Gray Fox that was trotting around the Whitehouse Picnic Area like he owned the place, seemingly oblivious to our lights and presence.  We heard about a half-dozen Elf Owls and two distant Whiskered Screech-Owls but were able to only track one bird down.  We were able to watch a tiny Elf Owl at length as it sat on a high bare branch, seemingly oblivious to our presence and to the torchlight.  For much of the time it remained stubbornly facing away, but occasionally it twirled its head around to look towards us.  This is the smallest species of owl in the world, a tiny feathered sprite barely larger than a House Sparrow.  We usually see them by staking out a known nest cavity, so finding one in the “wild” was a nice treat. It capped off a great first day in the field, although I imagine that our beds were most appreciated by the time we returned to the hotel near the airport.

On day three we started a bit later than usual due to our late evening, heading up into the Santa Catalina Mountains to explore the various life zones available along the winding road that leads up to the 9160-foot-high Mount Lemmon. 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.  Our first stop was just a tad over the magic 5000-ft marker, where the desert slopes clad in thick stands of Saguaros give way to the first Arizona Sycamores, oaks and pines.  Here we found our first Black-throated Gray Warblers, Blue-gray Gnatcatchers and Violet-green Swallows as well as a female Broad-billed Hummingbirds sitting up in the morning sun.  We then drove well up the road to reach the pine forest, where our first real birding stop was along Incinerator Ridge.  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 60s and 70s 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).  Here, amidst the open pines we walked along a small dirt road with clusters of thick oak in the understory.  The raging fires of 2020 left their mark along the ridge (and much of the mountain) with several trees showing some burnt needles along their lower limbs, and much of the oak scrub being burnt out entirely (though with fresh green leaves visible at their bases). 

The show of higher elevation warblers was good; although numbers were low the diversity was high. Among the many Yellow-rumped Warblers we picked out several pairs of Grace’s Warblers, a small pine-loving sprite that sports a sunny yellow throat and eyeline.  Uncharacteristically for this species, which generally lingers in the canopy of the tallest pines, several birds were spotted at nearly eye level.  Here too were our first of many Red-faced Warblers, arguably the most attractive of the U.S. Wood Warblers.  Clad in crimson, silver, black and grey they cut a striking figure against the green backdrop of the high elevation forests.  As is often the case around upper Mount Lemmon we found the species to be common with several dozen individuals seen over the morning, many down at near ground level, and all spectacular. Some handsome Spotted Towhees bouncing around on the ground along the edge of the road elicited more excitement from the group than the adjacent American Robins.  Yellow-eyed Juncos showed well here too, with several pairs darting around in the understory, flaring their namesake golden irises at us as we walked past. 

A bit higher up the mountain we stopped for a comfort break at one of the many restrooms.  The stop quickly lengthened into a birding break, with a swarm of Steller’s Jays descending upon us (doubtless hoping that we were about to picnic).  Harlequin toned Acorn Woodpeckers were yelping their ratchet-like calls from the surrounding trees, and Pygmy Nuthatches came so close to us that we could have pocketed them.  Walking around the picnic ground we picked up a stunning male Western Bluebird that posed nicely for us in its deep royal blue and cinnamon dress. Likely the most exciting find here though was the pair of Painted Redstarts that were foraging down at eye level along the edge of the trees.  This is yet another fancy montane warbler, black and scarlet with huge white patches in the wing and lots of white in the tail.  They forage acrobatically, almost dancing along trunks and branches with flared tails and drooped wings.  This foraging style and the pattered tail reminded ornithologists of the American Redstart, but this species is more tropical in origin belonging to a group better referred to as Whitestarts. 

For the rest of the morning, we slowly walked up along the riparian corridor of upper Sabino Creek.  Here we walked along the small but running creek that is lined by small toothed maples and towering open mixed forest with Douglas Fir and Englemann Spruce as well as scattered pine and aspen.  Once again we enjoyed excellent views of Red-faced Warblers as they danced around in the understory.  Along with them though we found a single territorial Orange-crowned, here part of a small breeding population atop the Catalinas, our first perched Western Tanagers, dozens of Steller’s Jays and Black-headed Grosbeaks, and (eventually) a single male Virginia’s Warbler in a more open maple tree.   We were happy also to find a pair of courting Mountain Chickadees that copulated just outside their presumed nest cavity while we watched.  We took this as a good sign that at least some of our local birds were planning to go about business as usual despite the incredibly dry conditions.  Near the top of our walk a Red-breasted Nuthatch put in an appearance, clambering up and down a bare trunk and then remaining motionless near the top for several minutes.  A couple of migrant Townsend’s and Hermit Warblers were here as well, doubtless en route to their northern breeding grounds.  After lunch at one of the local cafés in Summerhaven we stopped for a bit to watch the feeders across the street.  The feeders were proving popular with hordes of Black-headed Grosbeaks, Pine Siskins, and Yellow-eyed Juncos and Pygmy Nuthatches descending upon the seed feeders while the hummingbird feeders on the side of the deck were attracting a steady parade of Broad-tailed Hummingbirds. 

In the early afternoon we set off downhill bound for Green Valley, picking 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 checked into our hotel and then opted to spend the end of the day along the north flank of the Santa Rita Mountains.  Our first stop was along the road that winds through the rocky and scenic Box Canyon. Here we failed to detect our hoped for Five-striped Sparrow, but our excellent views of a soaring Golden Eagle, and a female Costa’s Hummingbird that was foraging in some of the flowering Ocotillos that literally carpeted the hillside more than compensated.  We also stopped in at the Madera Picnic Area in nearby Madera Canyon.  Here we lingered until just after dark, staking out a hole that was supposed to contain an active Northern Pygmy-Owl nest. While we waited, we amused ourselves with close studies of several Swainson’s (and one Hermit) Thrushes that were picking the last few berries of the large Pyracantha bush below the road.  Here too was a small flock of migrants including several bright Townsend’s Warblers and at least two more Hermit Warblers. A couple of Wild Turkeys ambled across the road a few times, seemingly oblivious to the passing cars, and to our stares.  Just as dusk began to deepen a small head poked out of the tree cavity.  Its bold eyebrows and lightly flecked crown identified it as an Elf Owl, but as the views in the scope were excellent and a marked improvement over the previous night, I don’t think anyone minded. We headed back to the hotel for dinner, geared up for another visit to the Santa Ritas the following morning. 

We spent the majority of the next morning birding along several of the north facing canyons of the Santa Ritas.  A return visit to Box Canyon again failed to turn up the single Five-striped Sparrow that has been frequenting the area (although it was apparently vocalizing well before our arrival).  A pair of Scott’s Orioles were foraging in the flowering Ocotillos upslope though, providing a bright spot of colour against the largely dry hillside.  We didn’t tarry too long, deciding to head over to the nearby Florida Canyon.  Here a riparian corridor filled with sycamores, oaks and willows drains a large section of the northern face of Mount Wrightson.  It’s a wonderful place, with most of the birds seen at the well-traveled Madera, but more rugged trail conditions and fewer visitors.  For much of the last decade a couple of pairs of Black-capped Gnatcatchers have called this area home.  Doubtless due to the drought they had been very quiet and furtive for much of the last year, and we found that to be the case during our visit as well.  Some brief excitement occurred when we located a male Blue-gray Gnatcatcher that seemed to be paired with a bird that sounded more like a Black-capped, but she faded into the denser mesquites and didn’t reappear. Interspecific pairs have been reported in the area before, but without better views of the female we couldn’t be sure.  Our streak of excellent “bycatch” birds continued though, with amazingly good views of a calling Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet along the edge of the riparian corridor. The bird was close enough to us that we were able to verify their beardlessness (they lack the rictal bristles found on most other tyrant flycatchers).  Two Pacific-slope Flycatchers, a surprisingly late Dark-eyed Junco, a passing Zone-tailed Hawk and our first Summer Tanagers and Rufous-winged Sparrow rounded out the cast.  During our visit, a local birding guide was looking for the gnatcatchers further up the canyon, and when he too struck out, we decided to head over to Madera to spend a bit of time sitting in the shade and enjoying the show at the Santa Rita lodge feeders, with (since it was quite warm) ice creams in hand.  We pulled in to the lodge parking lot and before even reaching the benches began photographing and studying a host of new species.  Strutting Wild Turkeys have become almost a fixture here, with over a dozen birds showing off their bronze, green, red, and blue feathers’ iridescence to great effect in the late morning sun.  Little groups of Pine Siskins, House Finches and Lesser Goldfinches buzzed in and out of the feeders, while Mexican Jays, Acorn Woodpeckers, White-breasted Nuthatch, Bridled Titmouse and Yellow-eyed Juncos grabbed sunflower seeds from the platform feeders.  The fountain was attracting both Brown-headed and Bronzed Cowbirds, while a Green-tailed Towhee scratched hopefully at the back of the yard.  The hummingbird feeders were alive as well, with Broad-billed, Black-chinned, and Rivoli’s Hummingbirds repeatedly visiting the feeders just a few feet from our waiting lenses.  It was a hive of activity and colour and a relaxing way to spend the last hour of the morning.  We had lunch at a new coffee shop in Green Valley that was quite close to the hotel.  It was a new location for the tour, and although we went in expecting some basic sandwich options, we were quite amazed at the creative and complicated options on the menu. My bacon and pear bagel sandwich paired with a Tajin-enhanced berry smoothie was superlative! 

After our break, 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 U.S.-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.  On the way we made a brief stop at the Amado Sewage Pond (after all, who can resist a sewage pond?) Here we found some over-summering waterfowl, including a Lesser Scaup and some Ring-necked and Ruddy Ducks and a small swarm of swallows hawking insects over the pond.  Most were Barn Swallows, but we picked out a few Northern Rough-winged and Cliff, and one Bank Swallow as well.  Near the small town of Arivaca we stopped in at a small pond (although the 2021 version was dry) along Arivaca Creek.  Part of the sprawling Buenos Aires NWR, this site has some very dense vegetation around the usually deep pond basin and serves as a great migrant trap in the spring.  Atop some of the taller trees that ringed the pond we spotted perched a couple of Western Wood-Pewee and a single Olive-sided Flycatcher.  The real prize though was a pair of vocal and quite boisterous Thick-billed Kingbirds. With their huge bills, dark caps and barely yellow underparts these flycatchers are quite distinctive.  Though the species is widespread from western Mexico southwards to almost the Guatemala border it is very local in the US, with an estimated 100-120 pairs scattered around Southeastern Arizona. 

About an hour later we were 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 riverbed.  We were all surprised to see stretches of the newly constructed border wall visible in the rolling and remote terrain.  Although construction has halted here and elsewhere along the border, a significant amount of habitat destruction has already taken place and the outlook for remediation seems bleak. We arrived in plenty of time to look for the normally reliable Five-striped Sparrows that occur along the creek here.  Despite checking many spots that have proved successful in prior years we again came up empty handed. This species really seems to have gone to ground during the drought.  Likely some birds have simply delayed arrival, opting to stay in Mexico where (hopefully) the conditions are better.  Others are perhaps present in their normal U.S. haunts, but are concentrating on finding food and eschewing their typical May territoriality and responsiveness.  We had another stakeout in the back pocket for the following day, so we were determined to try again.  The search was fruitful for other birds, with a perched up Crissal Thrasher along one of the low hilltops, and a soaring Black Vulture overhead.  We then walked back to the car to enjoy our picnic dinner and drinks as we waited for darkness to fall.

Just as the skies began to really darken, we heard the telltale “cucucucucuchaweea” of our main quarry emanating from the adjacent brush covered slope south of the van. It was fairly high up the slope, and unlike in most previous years the bird soon quieted down.  We did hear a few more brief song bouts later in the night before we departed.  Although Buff-collared Nightjars are admittedly cute and distinctive if seen well, it is their call that is perhaps the most important field mark.  Even though the site is one of the more remote drivable areas along the Arizona-Mexico border the visitation by birders here is heavy and as there are only a tiny handful of known males in the country (and even fewer records of actual nests) I’m always happy to not push these birds around or use tape whenever I can avoid it.  Since the trail up that particular ridge was rather stony and everyone in the group was elated to just have heard the bird, we elected not to pursue it upslope. Instead we walked a bit along the road, enjoying the moonless inky black and star filled sky.  Numerous constellations were clear, and we could even pick out the hazy glow of the Milky Way etched across the horizon.  A Western Screech-Owl called for a while but did not want to respond to our imitations (continuing a bit of a trend for the day!)  The drive back was punctuated by several interesting mammals, including another Gray Fox, a few Mule Deer and a couple of Black-tailed Jackrabbits.

The next day was one of those simply wonderful days in the field, when all of the hoped-for birds cooperate wonderfully and without too much effort and the weather is perfect.  Since our first three attempts at connecting with a Five-striped Sparrow had ended in silent thornscrub we decided to tilt at the windmill one more time.  A visit to Montosa Canyon, a picturesque west facing canyon in the Santa Ritas proved infinitely more fruitful, as soon after we arrived we 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 as if it were on display at a Parisian fashion show.  It’s a handsome sparrow, 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 Southeastern Arizona and are thus perhaps the most localized regular breeding bird in the country.  Elated with our hard-won success we took a short walk through the dense mesquites that line the creek, finding our first good views of Canyon Towhee and Verdin and another calling Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet in the process.

Leaving the Santa Ritas behind we spent much of the rest of the morning walking north of the Tubac Bridge along the DeAnza Trail.  Tall riparian vegetation here consists of Fremont Cottonwood, willows, and mesquites with a mixed and often almost verdant understory.  This vibrant landscape is only possible due to the free-flowing waters of the Santa Cruz.  Water is pumped into the riverbed from the international sewage treatment plant in Nogales, and for nearly 25 miles flows almost continuously downstream.  We parked under some towering cottonwoods and spent almost fifteen minutes just birding around the parking lot.  Bright Vermilion Flycatcher males were perched on the adjacent fencing, some Black Vultures soared overhead, and the bright and happy tones of Yellow Warbler, Song Sparrow and Bewick’s Wrens echoed from the forest around us.  Eventually we started walking north, stopping to admire Abert’s Towhees, more Yellow and Wilson’s Warblers, Bridled Titmice, Gila and Ladder-backed Woodpeckers and a few more vocal pairs of Brown-crested Flycatchers and Dusky-capped Flycatchers. Near one of the golf course greens that abut the riparian corridor we heard a calling Tropical Kingbird. With a bit of clambering through some remarkably deep leaf litter we were soon able to see the bird as it sat in a small mesquite out on the fairway. It lingered long enough for us to admire its bright yellow chest with a greenish wash on the breast sides, long and thin bill and forked tail that separate this localized species from the more widespread Cassin’s and Western cousins. 

After a slow-paced 30-minute walk we arrived at the impressively large active nest of a Rose-throated Becard.  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.  As we neared the nest a small group of birders was leaving.  They informed us that the female had just been in, but when we arrived we couldn’t detect any sign of her. We sat down to wait and after about 10 minutes were treated to lengthy views of the female (a sandy brown bird with a dark cap and rufous tail) as she popped out of the nest and perched on a nearby dead tree just a few feet to the left.  She went off foraging, but within a few minutes was back at the nest, this time perching on the top of the structure with some thin strips of bark that she started to weave into the roof.  We decided that none of us could build such a structure ourselves, even with opposable thumbs and tools.  We walked back out to the car, stopping with surprise when we detected a second female becard high up in the canopy not too far from the previous year’s nest.  A little pond held some impressively large Bullfrogs (a non-native pest species in Arizona), and in the river we picked out small Mosquitofish and a little school of native Long-nosed Dace. 

Moving further south down the Santa Cruz corridor we navigated through the morass of big rig trucks passing through Nogales.  This border town is a major thoroughfare for produce and appliances coming up from western Mexico and into the U.S. Due to some road construction on the main highway a seemingly endless line of trucks were shunted onto the surface streets.  We made it through though and stopped in at the now mostly dry Palo Duro Golf Course Ponds.  Likely the most obvious thing here was the massive plume of dark smoke coming from a structure fire just a half-mile to our north.  From our vantage point we could see the streams of water coming from the assembled fire engines and were happy to see the smoke start to lessen and dissipate as we watched.  In the one remaining pond we were happy to see about a dozen Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks and two pairs of Mexican Ducks lounging along the muddy edge of the drying lake.  We then continued on to Patagonia, where after lunch at a local café we spent some time birding around the recently reopened (after over a year’s closure due to the pandemic) Paton Center for Hummingbirds. 

The Tucson Audubon 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 as a territorial Violet-crowned Hummingbird was soon spotted on one of the feeder arrays in the backyard.  We spent a bit of time watching the feeders as birds like Ladder-backed Woodpecker, Yellow-breasted Chat, Pine Siskins, Lesser Goldfinches, and Broad-billed, Anna’s and Black-chinned Hummingbird were coming into the yard feeders.  The brush piles in the backyard attracted a stream of boisterous Song Sparrows, as well as the occasional Abert’s Towhee, migrant White-crowned or Lark Sparrow or Northern Cardinal.  I suspect several of the participants was left thinking of some possible improvements that they could make at home that might give their yards a bit of the “Paton treatment.”

We carried on, bound for the San Pedro House, a nature center and trailhead adjacent to the San Pedro riparian corridor. The center was sadly closed due to COVID concerns, but the trails were open and the feeders were well stocked. Here we enjoyed lengthy views of a foraging Yellow-breasted Chat that was hopping around the edge of the trail.  In a small cholla cactus that was remarkably close to the path and out in the open a pair of Curve-billed Thrashers had constructed a well-made nest tucked in between the spiny branches of the cactus. The chief prize though was a Western Screech-Owl that was sitting with its head out of a cavity in one of the large cottonwoods behind the building. 

We didn’t linger too long though, as we wanted to make our way down to Ash Canyon for the late afternoon.  This wide canyon on the east flank of the Huachucas provides the backdrop for one of the more famous backyard birding spots in the state: the famous Ash Canyon Bed and Breakfast feeders. The original host and owner of the property had sadly passed away back in 2019 and the property management has been taken over by the Southeastern Arizona Bird Observatory, based in nearby Bisbee.  We sat down on the comfortable chairs and enjoyed the show.  Scott’s Orioles and Western Tanagers were regularly coming into the feeder array to sample some of the proffered grape jelly.   Ladder-backed, Gila, and Acorn Woodpeckers came in too, often perching within feet of the group as they devoured peanut butter from the nearby feeders.  While waiting for our hoped-for Lucifer Hummingbird to appear we picked out our first Bushtits coming in to drink from a small fountain.  It took about 45 minutes or so, but eventually we were elated to have excellent views of a male Lucifer Hummingbird perched in the oak tree above the feeder array.  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.  As we left the site our attentions were pulled from the birds when we spotted a portly Botta’s Pocket-Gopher poking its head out of a burrow and grabbing some particularly tasty sprigs of grass in the flowerbed.  

We capped the day off with a hearty dinner at a nearby Italian restaurant before making the short drive back north to our Sierra Vista hotel.

We elected to spend the majority of the next morning birding around the famous (in birders’ circles at least) Beatty’s Guest Ranch tucked in at the top of the Miller Canyon Rd.  When we arrived, the bench seating at the controlled access site were fairly full and there had not as yet been any sightings of the male White-eared Hummingbird, so we decided to walk a bit up canyon for some general birding. Although much of the hillsides around the creek bed suffered during the 2011 fires the riparian corridor is mostly intact and the slopes are beginning to regrow.  We stayed close to the creek, stopping frequently to check out bird activity up in the canopy of oaks, sycamores and pines. In talking to Tom Beatty, we realized that hiking all the way up to the Split Rock area in an attempt to find a Spotted Owl would likely be a fruitless effort. So instead we walked mainly along the creek, which had stretches of flowing water, looking for a few montane species that we missed around Mount Lemmon.  This worked out wonderfully, with excellent views of a pair of Arizona Woodpeckers and a perched Buff-breasted Flycatcher.  The Buff-breasted were particularly appreciated as the small population in the Catalina Mountains seems to have disappeared after the fires of 2020.  Little flocks of warblers contained breeding Black-throated Gray and Yellow-rumped Warblers, and Painted Redstarts as well as some lingering migrants such as Wilson’s and Townsend’s.  The flock diversity was bolstered with multiple Cordilleran and Dusky and Dusky-capped Flycatchers, Hutton’s and Warbling Vireos, our first Brown Creeper and lots of busy little Bridled Titmouse.

After an enjoyable hour-and-a-half or so we returned to the Beatty’s property and were startled to spot a young male Northern Goshawk circling above the trees at the top end of the property.  In southern Arizona, this species is quite scarce, and in fact, we have encountered the species on roughly only twenty percent of the trips.  At the hummingbird feeders we sat down on the provided benches and were soon surrounded by birds buzzing around our heads as they zipped between the feeders or out into the surrounding forest. Broad-tailed, Black-chinned, Rivoli’s and Broad-billed Hummingbirds were in view almost constantly, offering an excellent opportunity to work on female plumages. Among the busy throngs we were surprised to find a diminutive female Calliope Hummingbird (a scarce spring migrant in Southeastern Arizona, and only our second sighting in 19 years of spring tours in the region).  After about a forty-minute vigil the male White-eared Hummingbird swept into the feeder array with a flurry of sharp chips. He lingered for several minutes, dropping down to feed multiple times and often sitting at a good angle for us to appreciate its rich colours. It’s an added bonus when your hoped-for rare bird appears and is absolutely stunning.  White-eareds are metallic all over, with a rich purple headdress and strikingly bold white neck line.  Tom’s red bone coonhounds seemed every bit as excited as we were, and when we had had our fill of the hummingbird show we walked back down to the car with a spring in our step and a canine escort brigade.

We spent the rest of the day slowly making our way out east, bound for the the idyllic little town of Portal which is nestled in the northeast corner of the vast Chiricahua Mountains.  A lunch stop in the historic mining town of Bisbee allowed us to see into the main copper mine pit (an impressive polychromatic tiered pit just outside of town), and to do a bit of exploration around the surprisingly funky and upscale downtown.  After lunch, we headed into the very arid Sulphur Springs Valley, whose sparse residents are mainly investing in agriculture through groundwater extraction, using ever-deeper wells to pump water over their crops of alfalfa, beans or (amazingly enough) sapling pecan trees.  Whitewater Draw is a large impoundment that 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. We were surprised to see a large expanse of shallow water on the north side of the draw but when we walked over to scan it, we realized that the water was only just being pumped up, and that there had not been enough time for shorebirds or ducks to find the new resource. A few Horned Larks were enjoying the surface water though, and the local Song Sparrows that were foraging along the recently flooded edge looked quite content as well.  The mesquite trees ringing the dikes were in flower and although it was a tad tricky with the breeze, we picked out some migrant Orange-crowned, Yellow and Wilson’s Warblers, a Common Ground Dove and a couple of Warbling Vireos lurking in the foliage.  Along the larger grove of willow trees, we picked out a roosting Barn Owl tucked into a densely leafed tree.  A little herd of Javelinas were a bit surprised to see us along the edge of the thicket, and they hurried off in huff at our approach.

Leaving the Sulphur Springs Valley behind, we traveled a bit further east along the Mexican border, passing by the small city of Douglas before angling northwards towards our base in the Chiricahua Mountains: the tiny but character- rich town of Portal.  Along the way we made a brief stop out in some pastureland and were able to spot a pair of Burrowing Owls that were standing out in the open despite the heat of the afternoon. These portly little owls are always a treat to see, looking for all the world like slightly overweight country gentlemen in tweed suits.  They were quite active given the time of day, with one bird actually making a short flight along the berm, and the other hopping along after it before nestling down in some light shade under some tall dead forbs.  We also stopped in at Willow Tank, a small private pond set up for wildlife viewing just west of the New Mexico border. There were only a few water birds about, including a single American Coot, a pair of Mexican Ducks that flew in during our visit and three quite vocal Spotted Sandpipers. However the water was attracting Violet-green and Barn Swallows and an elegant White-throated Swift which were all dipping down for drinks in the late afternoon heat. The surrounding fields and brush held a pair of Cactus Wrens, our first Black-throated Sparrows and female Bullock’s Oriole, and an impressive number of Gambel’s Quail.

Just as we neared Portal, we stopped again to admire some Scaled Quail that were sitting along the road edge, with their white head tufts shining in the sun. Scaled Quail are much less widespread than Gambel’s, preferring higher and grassier deserts and more open country.  The Rodeo valley is a good spot for both species, with the relative numbers fluctuating from year to year based largely on rainfall conditions.  A bit before dinner we checked into the 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 rewarded with a calling Whiskered Screech-Owl along the road that we quickly tracked down for a view in our torchlight.  We also were successful in spotting a calling Mexican Whip-poor-Will just a bit past the Sunny Flat Campground. 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. 

For our full day in the stunningly scenic Chiricahua Mountains, we started with an early morning outing to the sparsely vegetated but still somehow scenic Rodeo Valley. We drove down State Line Road, a somewhat entertaining dirt road that straddles the border between New Mexico and Arizona.  This makes it possible to work on state lists for two states at the same time!  Our primary target for the morning looking for Bendire’s 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. On a side road back into Arizona, we stopped and were soon watching a pair of Bendire’s for a long time, allowing us to really see that the flatter, shorter bill, paler eye, and more discrete breast spotting that set this generally scarce species apart from its more common Curve-billed cousin.  After our fill with the thrasher, we took a little detour into New Mexico, taking in some dirt roads in the center of the valley and then into the small and somewhat dilapidated town of Rodeo, where we added a few species to our nascent New Mexico list. A grove of fruiting Mulberry trees was attracting impressively large hordes of migrant Pine Siskins (literally hundreds of birds), as well as a few Western Tanagers, Black-headed Grosbeaks, White-crowned Sparrows and Western Kingbirds.  The small yards around the houses in town hosted our first diminutive Inca Doves, as well as numbers of Collared, White-winged and Mourning Doves.  We managed to record 35 species during our little jaunt into New Mexico, not a bad result for an area lacking any apparent surface water!

For the balance of the morning, we turned our attentions to the main drainage of Cave Creek.  It’s a stunningly beautiful canyon, lined with large sycamores, dense oaks and scattered pines and flanked on both sides by dramatic and towering red cliffs. It 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 from 2014 in the area has now largely been fixed and apart from lingering piles of dead wood on the forest floor and creekbed the understory has recovered well.  We parked about halfway down the road and slowly walked upcanyon, stopping wherever bird activity dictated. Very vocal pairs of Dusky-capped and Brown-crested Flycatchers, several pairs of Hepatic Tanagers, singing Grace’s and Black-throated Grey Warblers, American Robins and Hermit Thrushes came in to drink from the rocky creek and active little groups of Bridled Titmice, glowing Western Tanagers, our first visible Plumbeous Vireos and Brown Creepers and perky Painted Redstarts certainly livened up the walk.  We had good looks at a pair of foraging Arizona Woodpeckers here, as well as our only Hairy Woodpecker of the trip (here of the dark winged Rocky Mountain subspecies that differs markedly from the more familiar eastern race).  Some years the bulk of the Trogon population doesn’t return from their wintering grounds until mid-May, and although some birds were back in the canyon during our trip they were not vocalizing or particularly showing well.  We found a single female bird, oddly perched just a foot off the ground in somewhat dense cover.  Unfortunately, she scooted off down the wash before many participants were able to see her, and despite some searching (and even rock climbing) we were not able to relocate her.  A bit further up canyon we stopped to admire a nesting Blue-throated Mountain-Gem that was sitting on a traditional nest site.  It’s a large and impressive hummingbird, just a tad smaller than a Rivoli’s and its newly minted name certainly adds a bit of pizzazz. Also near the end of the road we witnessed some exciting drama between a family group of Acorn Woodpeckers and a local Apache Fox Squirrel.  With the deepening drought and poor recent monsoons, the acorn crop in 2019 was not particularly good.  This food shortage likely precipitated our drama, with the squirrel discovering that the woodpeckers had stored an impressive number of acorns in their granery (a pine tree riddled with holes).  He was happily helping himself to the horde, with a half dozen woodpeckers looking on and yelling their displeasure. Several birds were actually divebombing the bandit, hitting him on his head repeatedly.  A wound on his side indicated that the battle had likely been ongoing for some time. 

Leaving South Fork behind we decided to head uphill bound for the pine forests at the Turkey Creek road junction.  At about 6000 feet above sea level this side road was largely spared the ravages of the fire that swept over the higher reaches of the mountains a few years ago.  Large pines still cloak the roadsides, and along the higher parts of the drainage one can still have a reasonable chance at finding higher elevation birds including the true avian specialty of the Chiricahuas: the Mexican Chickadee. Within a few minutes of parking, we heard the buzzy tones of a chickadee coming from upslope and were soon able to spot the bird near what may have been its nest hole. It’s a large chickadee, with a huge black bib and dark grey flanks, that has a wide range throughout the higher mountains of western Mexico.  In the United States though, the species is confined to the Chiricahuas and the Animas mountains in nearby New Mexico (which are not publically accessible). The 2011 fire really reduced the available habitat for the chickadees, and for several years they were quite scarce on the ground.  During the 2021 tour we found the species in three separate locations, so perhaps their populations have rebounded after a decade of regrowth.  A bit down the road towards the small but rather grandiosely named town of Paradise we stopped at a likely patch of One-seed Juniper and after a bit of patience were rewarded with excellent views of a calling Juniper Titmouse.  Once part of the rather well-named Plain Titmouse, this dull grey Titmouse lives up to both its old and new names.  Though not clad in bright or contrasting colours, the bushy crest and loud calls give it a certain je ne sais quoi.

Once in Paradise we visited a newly opened yard that caters to visiting birders. Run by homeowner Bob Chapman, it’s a sprawling property with multiple seed and hummingbird feeding stations, benches and picnic tables and a small water feature.  During our visit we found the shaded benches to be crammed full of eager birders, so we didn’t stay too long.  Just long enough to pick out an unexpected male American Goldfinch that came in with a roving flock of Pine Siskins, and to chat a bit with Bob, who indicated that we might have a good chance at seeing Montezuma Quail if we returned later in the day.  After lunch back in Rodeo we had some scheduled time off, where a few participants elected to walk around town and view some of the many bird feeders scattered around in people’s yards, and others counted a few sheep rather than more birds. 

Late in the afternoon the previous day a friend of mine found a Plain-capped Starthroat coming in to a hummingbird feeder in nearby Whitetail Canyon. Happily for us, she emailed saying that the bird was present on the 13th as well.  We had planned an afternoon visit back to Cave Creek for a second attempt at a cooperative Trogon but given the rarity of the hummingbird we changed plans.  We pulled into Rick Taylor’s yard near the end of the road, and after a bit of wandering around found Barbara’s house tucked under some amazingly large Sycamores.  She had the whole place set up for us, with comfy seats in the shade right next to the feeders.  We spent about an hour waiting, taking in point-blank views of a host of birds including Hooded and Scott’s Orioles, a male Costa’s Hummingbird, our only visible Rufous-crowned Sparrow of the trip and a female Bronzed Cowbird.  Just as we started to get a bit nervous the Starthroat arrived in a flash of white.  Although its body is basically beige, the white streaks across the face and down the sides of the rump, long bill, red gorget feathers and white tail corners make it quite a dramatic species. Starthroats are a scarce stray from Mexico (the last one in the Whitetail Canyon area was over thirty years ago), with one or two popping up annually in the country.  Generally, the species shows up in the mid to late summer coinciding with the monsoonal rains so the timing of this bird was quite unexpected and convenient for us!  We thanked Barbara for her time and company and turned the van back to Portal for a quick and well-timed dinner.  On the way we stopped in at another publicly open backyard run by Bob Rodriguez.  The star of the show here was supposed to be male Pyrrhuloxias (which we saw), but instead the crown had to be given to a large Western Diamond-backed Rattlesnake.  The enterprising reptile had set up shop in the rock pile underneath one of the birdbaths.  When a flock of unsuspecting Siskins landed on the ground to forage for fallen seeds the snake zipped out and grabbed dinner.  The rest of the flock swirled into the air, but the nearby Gambel’s Quail simply walked over to watch the snake slowly devour the little finch.  It might be just a tad anthropomorphic, but it really seemed like the quail were having a conversation.  “Hey, Harriet, I told you there was a snake over there!”  “OK Bob, you were right, hey! Did it just catch that Siskin?  Do you think he will get away?”  Nope I doubt it Harriet, it looks bad; good thing we are too big to eat!”

The early dinner allowed us to return to Bob Chapman’s feeders in Paradise, where we again found a bit of a crowd.  Grudgingly we had to split the group, which rather predictably resulted in half the group seeing a pair of extremely cooperative Montezuma Quail that quietly crept in to the water feature right at dusk. The other half of the group had a male Rose-breasted Grosbeak as a bit of a consolation prize.  We tried to get the rest of the group onto the quail, but the commotion of moving all the people down to the other site resulted in the quail dematerializing into the grasses.  For such a bold and colourful quail, covered with bright colours and an intricate pattern they sure are adept at vanishing without a trace behind just a few sprigs of vegetation.  As dusk fell, we drove a bit down the road and were soon able to spotlight a Common Poorwill that was sitting on the side of the road under a remarkably dark and star-filled sky.

For our last day of the tour, we checked out of the lodge and made a short visit back along the South Fork of Cave Creek.  In a little under an hour, we found no sign of any Trogons (which on a normal year would be vocalizing at such an early hour, and perhaps be checking out possible nest sites in the larger trees along the creek).  Most of the creekbed was actually bone dry this year, but in the stretches that held some water we found a number of birds coming in to drink or bathe.  Being able to watch male Townsend’s Warblers splashing around in the shallow water was a real treat, and the pair of quarreling Blue-throated Mountaingems and perched Cordilleran Flycatchers added to the experience.

We then started up the dirt road towards Onion Saddle near the top of the mountain range.  The highest forests in the Chiricahuas were largely devastated in a huge fire in 2011, and we found the ridge to be fairly windy and quiet during our brief visit.  A lone Western Bluebird was a nice find here though, and the quite tame pairs of Yellow-eyed Juncos put on a good show as we used the restrooms at Rustler Park.  At the small spring across from the restroom block we watched Hammond’s and Dusky Flycatchers, Dark-eyed Junco, Robins and Hermit Thrushes coming in to drink.  Along the relatively flat saddle road we found some small warbler flocks which included a couple of Red-faced Warblers, another Mexican Chickadee and some vocal Pygmy and White-breasted Nuthatches.  It took a bit of effort, but we were eventually able to drum up interest from a Greater Pewee that perched with a quivering tail a bit below the road. 

From the ridge we continued heading west, descending into Pinery Canyon where again significant fire damage was still evident.  The forest around the road edge though is still patchily good, and we pulled in to the largest section of intact pines for a picnic lunch at the Pinery Campground.  A small but very important stand of pines and maples persists here along the creek, making for quite a pleasant spot with an excellent selection of higher elevation species (but sadly not the irregularly occurring Mexican Spotted Owls that have been frequenting the area for the last few years).  After a half hour or so of scouring the area for roosting owls we left the mountains behind, stopping near the base of the road where we had cell reception to get an update on the recently discovered Tufted Flycatcher in Rucker Canyon. Some friends of mine had been looking for the bird since the previous afternoon, with no luck.  A quick vote determined that the group wanted to head north to lunch in Willcox rather than opt for a quest for the flycatcher (this proved an excellent decision as the bird was not seen again).  We drove north through parched looking grassland and then across the sandy Willcox playa, where some impressive dust devils were kicking up plumes of sand out on the barren salt flats.  After lunch at the local barbeque restaurant (which incorporates an old train dining car into the structure of the building) we stopped in at the premier location for waterbirds in Southeastern Arizona, the famous Willcox Twin Lakes.  This large pond near the northern tip of the arid playa and adjacent to the city golf course has played host to an amazing assemblage of rarities over the years and nearly every visit during migration turns up a surprise or two.  We had heard from various birders who had recently visited that the ponds were rather quiet, but during our visit we found the area to be very diverse, with an impressive 50 species detected in about an hour of birding. 

At last, we were finally able to fill out a few birds on page five of our checklists, with pairs of American Avocets and a few Black-necked Stilts walking along the shore.  Shorebirds were a little thin, with most of the migration occurring in April, but we picked out a small group of Western Sandpipers, a few Long-billed Dowitchers, a single Least, quite a few Spotted Sandpipers and our first Wilson’s Phalaropes.  Also of note was an immature Ring-billed Gull, which here at the eleventh hour of the trip prevented us from having a gull-less tour.  Waterfowl were quite well represented, with Cinnamon Teal, Gadwall, American Wigeon, Ruddy Duck and Mexican Ducks all showing well.  We even found a lone female Canvasback sitting in the reedbeds.  Along the cattail laden pond near the golf course we picked out a glowing male Common Yellowthroat working the front edge of the reeds, and a well-hidden Black-crowned Night-Heron tucked into the vegetation.  The open grassy parts of the golf course were very active as well, with small flocks of migrant Lark Sparrows and Yellow-rumped Warblers and large numbers of Eastern Meadowlarks and Horned Larks hopping about on the greens.  Scaled and Gambel’s Quails were working the area as well, and while we were watching them run about we found a couple of several lingering Yellow-headed Blackbirds (including one incandescent male) and a somewhat lonely looking White-faced Ibis in its full breeding regalia.   

As we were a bit ahead of schedule we also stopped in at the Benson Sewage Ponds, which are located right along the San Pedro River channel.  The ponds here were quite low, with mats of floating aquatic vegetation and small open channels of water.  Once again there was an excellent showing of waterfowl, including a lingering Redhead, giving us a quite respectable (for May) 13 species of ducks on the tour.  Here too were a half-dozen Eared Grebes, happily diving in the open channels and then popping up clad in their bold black, mahogany and gold breeding plumage.  It was to be the final species for the 2021 trip, in which we tallied 207 species of birds – an impressive number given the relentlessly dry conditions.  I hope that this year’s participants enjoyed the trip as much as I did; it felt wonderful to return to birding tours after over a year off for the pandemic.

-          Gavin Bieber

 

Updated: May 2021