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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Arizona: Owls and Warblers

2019 Narrative

In Brief

The spring of 2019 was a mild one in Arizona, and during the week of the tour the temperatures were often well below average, with comfortable (or even cold) conditions.  The generally green nature of the desert likely resulted in a lack of a concentrating effect for migrants, and the odd weather seemed to affect the breeding birds as well, as in many places that we birded the dawn choruses were minimal.  Nevertheless, the 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 an impressive 9 species of owls, and 206 species overall.  As always, hummingbirds are a favored group on a visit to AZ, and we enjoyed close views of 8 species this year, including a stunning male Lucifer and lots of close up Rivoli’s and Blue-throated.  Other highlights included our views of the tropical and gaudy Elegant Trogon, 20 species of Flycatchers and a wealth of mammals, reptiles and butterflies.  The mammals this year we particularly diverse, and included excellent studies of Abert’s Tassel-eared Squirrel, Raccoon, Javelina and a surprising number of rabbits and jackrabbits which seem to be having a bumper year.  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 Black-capped Gnatcatcher, two different Spotted Owls and some cooperative Five-striped Sparrows.  Some true rarities were enjoyed this year as well, highlighted by the great showing of Buff-collared Nightjars in the Atascosa Highlands, a perched male Black-capped Gnatcatcher that sat up for us for several minutes in Florida Canyon and a nesting pair of Rose-throated Becards along the Santa Cruz River. 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 2020!

In Full

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 Sparrows and even a Greater Roadrunner were admired in turn. 

The parking area held our first (of many) Gila Woodpeckers, a flock of Phainopepla and a couple of sprightly Verdin. A walk around the ponds revealed a few lingering waterfall including Gadwall 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 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, a pair of displaying Cooper’s Hawks and a few hawking Northern Rough-winged and Cliff Swallows.  Perhaps the prize of the trip though was the family of Great Horned Owls on a nest just outside of the park.  Two large but still fuzzy chicks were standing in the large platform nest, with one of the parent birds quietly sitting a few feet away and keeping a close eye on its brood.   Around the back of the ponds we admired perched Vermilion Flycatchers feeding young just overhead, with the luminous male glowing against the bright blue sky.   Migrants seemed to be quite scarce but we did drum up a single flyby Western Tanager, several Lark Sparrows and some quite attractive Audubon’s Yellow-rumped Warblers.  Our attentions were not completely focused on just birds though, with some brightly coloured odonates and butterflies and several bold Western Whiptails crossed our path during the walk, and we started our trip mammal list with tame Desert Cottontails foraging in the saltbushes, Arizona Cotton Rat in the reedbeds and several Round-tailed Ground-Squirrels around the carpark.  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.  On the northern edge of Tucson we screeched to a halt to admire a 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.  The bird obligingly turned around and showed off its striking white tail bands before it flight.  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 the patch of desert scrub adjacent to the building.  Here we found our first Cactus Wren, Rufous-winged Sparrow and Cassin’s Kingbirds 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 two pairs of Mexican Mallards and a pair of Blue-winged Teal, as well as our first Spottted Sandpipers, hordes of Phainopepla, a group of White-throated Swifts that swept over the ponds for a quick drink before zipping over our heads.  In the shrubbery adjacent to the ponds we picked out Bell’s Vireo and Lucy’s Warblers both in full song and eventually quite cooperative.  A passing Osprey was quite a surprise and marked only the 4th sighting in 17 years of the tour.  Also a bit of a surprise was a young Peregrine that coursed overhead, scattering the ducks and doves in a hundred directions as it followed the San Pedro River to the north. 

We stopped at the nearby San Pedro bridge to admire a sitting Say’s Phoebe and 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. 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 creek bed 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 Grey Hawk was sitting on a roadside pole, 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 Hummingbirds, singing and up-close Canyon Wrens, brightly coloured male Lazuli Buntings and jewel-like Greater Earless Lizards displaying on the roadside the day seems scintillating.  As we drove back out we paused to watch a soaring Swainson’s Hawk, no doubt enroute to its prairie breeding grounds from the windswept Argentinian pampas. 

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 two individuals popping into view and coming in to our tape.  The Gray Vireos were uncharacteristically unresponsive but the chaparral held a lot of interesting species for us though, with active Juniper Titmice, Spotted Towhees, and a soaring Zone-tailed Hawk that obligingly passed right overhead in lazy arcing spirals each admired in turn.  As it was latish-afternoon by that point we started the drive back to Tucson, arriving with time for a short break before we headed off to dinner in town.  After dinner, we decided to take advantage of the windless evening and try our luck with nocturnal birds up on nearby Mount Lemmon.  We found the sky to be very dark despite the proximity of the city, and filled with clear and bright stars (a bit of a surprise to the more urban members of the tour this year).  Owls were stubbornly reticent, with just a brief bout of song from a distant Whiskered Screech-Owl.  But we had much better luck with a very vocal and responsive Mexican Whip-poor-Will.  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.  The bird flew overhead and circled us several times, showing its broad white undertail as it slowly drifted by.  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 4000 ft marker, where the desert slopes clad in thick stands of Saguaros give way to an open grassland with scrub and small oaks.  Here we found our first Canyon Towhees and a few bright 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 in Rose 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).  Here, amidst the open pines we walked along a small drainage with clusters of thick willow and maple.  The riparian corridor was attracting quite a few birds, keeping our binoculars quite busy as we strolled down the short trail.  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 a single male Olive Warbler that came down from its customary lofty perch in the canopy to give us a good show.  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). I suspect that our views of Pygmy Nuthatches that came so close to us that we could have pocketed them, the Greater Pewee belting out its characteristic Jose Maria song from the top of a tall pine, and the short view of a dazzling Red-faced warbler near the lakeshore 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 perched Cordilleran Flycatchers were close contenders.  It wasn’t all about birds here either as we encountered an active herd of handsome Abert’s Tassel-eared Squirrels bouncing around the understory along the creek.  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.  As this species is generally solitary it was a bit surprising to see almost a dozen individuals scampering around in a long train (perhaps males chasing after the squirrel version of a paris fashion model). 

We then headed further uphill, stopping on the north flank of Mount among the spruce and fir forests 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 among the towering fir trees.  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.  Several individuals of this crimson, black, grey and white beauty were dancing along the creek, coming to within just a few feet of us as they flitted around the budding out maples.  Here too was our first Orange-crowned Warbler, here part of a small breeding population atop the Catalinas, dozens of Steller’s Jays and Black-headed Grosbeaks and (eventually) a single male Virginia’s Warbler in a more open stretch of the creek where thicker willow shrubs dotted the hillside.  Some feeders across the street from our lunch stop were very busy, with hordes of Black-headed Grosbeak, Pine Siskins, Hairy Woodpeckers, Yellow-eyed Juncos and tiny Cliff Chipmunks descending upon the seed feeders.   The hummingbird feeders were attracting a steady parade of Broad-tailed Hummingbirds as well as a couple of Anna’s and Rivoli’s and a surprise Blue-throated Hummingbird (a quite irregular species in the Catalinas). 

Our last stop on the mountain was around a private cabin owned by a friend in Willow Canyon that is perched on a small knoll and surrounded by large Ponderosa Pines.  Standing on their deck feels a bit like being in a canopy tower, with many of the nearby trees at eye-level.  Here we admired tame Yellow-eyed Juncos and House Wrens as they bounced around under the deck and called in a  remarkably cooperative Grace’s Warbler that uncharacteristically dropped down to eye level in front of us and lingered for nearly 5 minutes as it occasionally gave its descending buzzy song.  This left us with just one higher elevation warbler to find, and as luck would have it a Painted Redstart appeared on cue, showing off its black, white and scarlet feathers to great effect as it flicked along the tree trunks just off the edge of the deck.  Once back in the desert lowlands we stopped in at Agua Caliente Park, a small city park with a hot spring, small wetland, open parkland and groves of dense mesquites.  We spent a pleasant half hour here looking at a suite of more desert adapted birds, including Abert’s Towhee, Vermilion Flycatcher, Rufous-winged Sparrow, Black-tailed Gnatcatcher, Bell’s Vireo and Hooded Oriole.  Since the afternoon was getting long, we set off 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.

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.  For much of the winter and happily (for us) well into the spring of 2018 a suite of special 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 Cedar Waxwings and Western Tanagers were feeding among fruiting Mulberries in the horse pasture, Brown-crested Flycatchers and Cassin’s Kingbirds showed well 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, Yellow Warblers, our first Bridled Titmice, Gila and Ladder-backed Woodpeckers and a few more vocal pairs of Brown-crested Flycatchers.   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, a few independent birders were already on site but the birds were off foraging.  Soon after we sat down to wait though 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 perched on a nearby dead tree just a few feet to the left of their nest.  We watched them for a while before the birds took off foraging, and then walked back towards the parked van.  Just before leaving the riparian corridor though our attentions turned to a calling Yellow-breasted Chat that seemed to be just a few feet off the trail.  We imitated a calling owl and soon were surrounded with birds, including lots of irate Broad-billed Hummingbirds, the aforementioned Chat, a Pacific-Slope Flycatcher and Warbling and Plumbeous Vireos. 

At the nearby Santa Gertrudis Lane, we walked down the private road leading down to the river, and were almost instantly successful in locating a pair of Thick-billed Kingbirds that were patrolling the hedgerows along the road.  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.  Our short stop here was lengthened a bit when we heard a calling Northern Beardless Tyrannulet nearby.  It turned out to be a family group of these small but distinctive flycatchers, with an adult and at least two nearly fledged youngsters.  The birds were close enough to us that we were able to verify their beardlessness (they lack the rictal bristles found on most other tyrant flycatchers).  After we had fully appreciated this pair of range restricted flycatchers we continued south, with a short stop at the Palo Duro Golf Course Ponds in Nogales.  Here we found a nice selection of waterbirds including several quite approachable Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks, a Great Egret, and our only Black Vultures of the tour.  We then continued east, pausing to look at the border wall that divides the American and Mexican sides of Nogales and is the source of a current battle between the city officials and the feds over the proper extent and construction of the barricade. 

Just before lunch we stopped in to visit the Tucson Audubon operated Paton’s Hummingbird Center 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, White-breasted Nuthatch, Broad-billed, Anna’s and Black-chinned Hummingbird all coming into the yard feeders.  The brush piles in the backyard were attracting a stream of boisterous Song Sparrows, as well as the occasional Canyon or Abert’s Towhee, migrant White-crowned Sparrow or Northern Cardinal.  We were surprised to find a handsome White-throated Sparrow here too; a species that is scarce in Arizona in winter, and generally gone by May.  Within the flock of Lesser Goldfinches that were swarming around the proffered niger seeds we located an even more unexpected species in the form of a fully plumaged male American Goldfinch, whose incandescent yellow plumage stood out like a beacon amongst the suddenly dull looking Lesser Goldfinches.  We then headed to a nearby café to enjoy locally grass-fed beef hamburgers and some overly scrumptious chocolate chip cookies before returning to our hotel in Green Valley for a mid-day siesta. 

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 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 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 bed.  We walked along the road towards the confluence of the gulch and adjacent Warsaw Canyon 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. On the exposed rocky cliffs above the road we picked out a family group of Rock Wrens bounding around on the rock ledges, and also enjoyed our first Rufous-crowned Sparrows singing their jumbled song as they sat up on the tops of boulders.  We then headed back to the car to enjoy a 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 near 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.  Three birds were present and were calling strongly, uttering a lot of interesting grunts and cackles along with their regular song and occasionally chasing each other around the lower slope, even passing to within a few feet of us at one point as they sailed over the short mesquite trees.  Nearby we heard a singing Common Poorwill that unfortunately stubbornly refused to come down from its chosen ridge. Elated with our view and the whole experience we walked a bit down the road, enjoying the celestial show of a field of stars against a nearly jet-black sky.  We stopped to check a nest cavity occasionally used by Elf Owls and were amazed to find one of the birds perched in some bare branches near the cavity.  We were able to watch the tiny owl at length as it sat there, seemingly oblivious to our presence and to the torchlight.  This is the smallest species of owl in the world, a tiny feathered sprite barely larger than a House Sparrow.  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 admiring the sliver of an orange moon that was slowing climbing in the western sky.  It is normally a quiet drive back out but this time our trip was punctuated by several interesting mammals, including an inquisitive Raccoon, a few White-tailed Deer and a couple of Black-tailed Jackrabbits.

Our next morning, we started out a little later, heading over to the north flank of the nearby Santa Rita Mountains; a landscape feature that dominates the Green Valley Horizon.  We began the day with a short walk up the trail in Florida Canyon where thanks to a tip from a friend we were soon in place near an active Black-capped Gnatcatcher nest.  The nest was well hidden up the small slope, but within a few minutes of our arrival the female came through with some food in her bill before disappearing back into the dense vegetation behind the tree.  Most participants managed at least a quick view, but we decided to wait a bit for another visit by one of the parents. It took about fifteen minutes, but our patience was amply rewarded when we heard the kitten like mewing of the male emanating from back on the main trail.  We hurried over and located the male perched high up in a large mesquite, where it happily remained for several minutes.  We were able to discern the graduated tail feathers, extensive black cap and long bill that set these tropical gnatcatchers from the two more widespread species in Arizona.  Along with our main target species here we also enjoyed quick views of a singing male Scott’s Oriole and several handsome Western Tanagers foraging in the flowering ocotillos on the dry slopes around the parking area.  The oaks hosted a few migrant Wilson’s and Orange-crowned Warblers, and our first Hutton’s Vireos, endlessly repeating their monotonous song. 

After our brief walk we decided to head over towards Madera Canyon, with a stop in the grasslands below the canyon mouth to look for 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 two in for a closer look, and they lingered for quite some time in various nearby bushes, showing off their 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.  Continuing up the road that winds into the canyon we were struck by the sudden shift from open golden grasslands to closed canopy oak forest.  WE pulled in to the always busy feeder array at the Santa Rita lodge 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 including one amorous male that was showing off its bronze, green, red and blue feather sheen to great effect in the late morning sun (gaining our admiration if not the attention of the nearby female turkeys).  Little groups of Pine Siskins, House Finches and Lesser Goldfinches buzzed in and out of the feeders, while Mexican Jays, White-breasted Nuthatch, Bridled Titmouse and Yellow-eyed Juncos grabbed sunflower seeds from the platform feeders.  The hummingbird feeders were alive as well, with Broad-billed, Black-chinned, Anna’s and Rivoli’s Hummingbirds repeatedly visiting the feeders just a few feet from our waiting lenses.  There’s even a gift shop here, where several participants carried through on a bit of retail therapy, or grabbed a late morning snack.  For the afternoon we decided on a more northerly route to Sierra Vista than usual, stopping in first at the gravel lined Benson sewage ponds.  Buffeting winds were providing good lift for migrant swallows, with hundreds of individuals (mostly Northern Rough-winged, but with many Bank and Barn as well) hawking insects over the ponds.  We picked out a smattering of waterbirds, including several dapper Eared Grebes, a few Mexican Mallards and a pair of lingering Canvasback (a write-in species for the triplist) as well, and enjoyed a particularly close study of a perched Cassin’s Kingbird on the fenceline. 

Leaving Benson behind we headed southeast, bound for the idyllic nature trail at the small monastery in the agrarian town of Saint David. It’s a quiet spot, just off of the San Pedro River, with towering Fremont Cottonwoods, small and willow lined ponds, open farmland and fruit orchards.  For some reason, the Tropical Kingbirds seemed to be late in arriving into the state this year, and we had not encountered any along the spots that we generally see them south of Tucson.  Happily for us though a pair was on territory at the monastery, and we located them fairly quickly, admiring their bright yellow chests and bellies, long and thin bills and forked tails.  Here too were our first Bullock’s Orioles, and at a grove of fruiting mulberry trees we watched as dozens of Western Tanagers and Cedar Waxwings and a few White-crowned Sparrows and House Finches zipped in and out to devour the quite tasty (we tried a few too) berries.  As is often the case along the riparian corridors in spring, the air was full of the sounds of singing Yellow Warblers, Bell’s Vireos, Song Sparrows and the occasional Yellow-breasted Chat, making for quite a pleasant short walk around the trail.  We then continued further south, making a tourist stop in the nearby town of Tombstone.  Dubbed “the town too tough to die” Tombstone now serves as a somewhat kitschy spot with live gun fight reenactments, people wandering around in period costume, horse drawn buggies and a row of small shops peddling “western” curios, 10-gallon hats and “old-timey” paraphernalia.  There’s some reality there too, with many of the buildings still looking much like one remembers from old western movies, and the fresh made ice cream was certainly delicious.  We wandered around for about a half-hour taking in the sights and then high-tailed it out onto the desert plains, heading for a stop at the San Pedro Nature House near Sierra Vista.  Here we located a very cooperative Western Screech-Owl on its customary day roost in a huge cottonwood, spent a few minutes watching Black-chinned Hummingbirds and Gila Woodpeckers coming in to feed at the feeders, and again managed to find a few bits and bobs to purchase at the conveniently located gift shop.

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. We sat down on the comfortable chairs provided by our gracious host Mary Joe, and enjoyed the show.  Our first Scott’s Orioles were regularly coming into the feeder array, with sometimes more than 4 or 5 individuals in view at once!  Ladder-backed, Gila, and Acorn Woodpeckers and a lone Northern Flicker came in too, often perching within feet of the group as they devoured grape jelly or suet 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, and admired a gleaming male Bronzed Cowbird with its baleful red eye as it picked seeds up from under one of the feeders.  Canyon Towhee, Mexican Jay, White-breasted Nuthatch, Curve-billed Thrasher, Bullock’s and Hooded Orioles and Lesser Goldfinch were frequent visitors too.  At one point our attentions were pulled from the birds when we spotted a portly Botta’s Pocket-Gopher actually out of its customary underground home and skittering around a small rock pile to grab some particularly tasty sprigs of grass. 

It took about 45 minutes or so, but eventually we were elated to have very lengthy views of a male and a female 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. 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 spent the morning of the following day hiking up in Miller Canyon, where we were happily able to eventually locate one of the resident Spotted Owls that often roost along the trail about ¾ of a mile up canyon from the Beatty’s Bed and Breakfast. Initially we hiked up to the old mine site without any luck, but as we slowly walked back down towards the split rock so often used as a marker we were thrilled to spot a Spotted Owl perched quietly in a nearby fir tree, seemingly completely oblivious to our presence.   We watched him for about 15 minutes, as he occasionally opened an eye or shuffled a few feathers around staying stubbornly facing away from the trail.  This pair of owls has been harder to locate in the canyon since the fire, and we actually missed them in 2018, so I think our steps downhill were buoyed by a bit of extra satisfaction this year.   The hike proved fruitful for other species too, with our first Arizona Woodpecker, a single Cassin’s Vireo, lots of calling Hammond’s Flycatchers and at least one Dusky Flycatcher for comparison as well as several mixed flocks containing our first close Townsend’s, Hermit and Black-throated Gray Warblers, Plumbeous and Hutton’s Vireos, Hepatic Tanagers and several more dapper Painted Redstarts and Red-faced Warblers.  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) to take a quick look around the hummingbird feeders.  Visiting the feeders was a steady trickle of birds, with multiple Rivoli’s, Broad-billed, Anna’s, Broad-tailed and Black-chinned Hummingbirds coming in to feed while we watched.

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 or beans.    Our journey over to Whitewater Draw was punctuated by a quick stop to view a perched Chihuahuan Raven (showing the customary shorter bill and more feathered nares of this desert adapted corvid) and also by some excitement generated by the radio broadcast of the end of the Champions League semi-final match between Tottenham and Ajax, won by “the good guys – according to our leader” in the dying seconds of extra time in very dramatic fashion. 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.  As we pulled up to the parking area near the old hay loft another van pulled in beside us.  This proved to be some fortuitous timing, as the occupants of the other vehicle proved to be nonother than Sheri Williamson and Tom Wood, the founders of the Southeastern Arizona Bird Observatory.  They had recently installed some nest boxes around the reserve and were heading out to check on the inhabitants using a telescopic camera linked to their phones.  After we admired a still fuzzy young Great Horned Owl perched under the eaves of the loft we walked over and were soon looking at the image of five small Barn Owl chicks staring back at us on Tom’s phone.  It was a little hard to believe that the box, which was just over our heads was big enough to fit so many owls in.  This sighting led to a somewhat existential dilemma for some participants as to the countability of a camera assisted identification.  Clearly if one climbed up on a ladder and looked in one could count the birds, but one would also be disturbing them; what then to do about a camera ID, and where does one draw the line?  After pondering that for a bit we took a short walk around the impoundment cell that was still retaining some water and patches of reedbeds.  During the walk, we found a family group of Killdeer with some remarkably cute youngsters scattering along the trail in front of us, a large flock of migrant White-crowned Sparrows, a couple of migrant Long-billed Dowitchers and a couple of Swainson’s Hawks circling over the fields.  Along the larger grove of willows we picked out two more young Great Horned Owls and both parents sitting in the dense trees.  Perhaps this high density of Great Horneds was precluding the resident pair of Barn Owls (clearly nearby given the five hungry chicks in the box) from roosting in their customary grove. 

Leaving the Sulphur Springs Valley behind we traveled a bit further east along the Mexican border, stopping in the small city of Douglas to stock up on groceries and fuel for our two days in the beautiful Chiricahua Mountains.  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 rewarded with a calling Whiskered Screech-Owl along the road that we quickly tracked down for a view in our torchlight.  We also employed a plug-in bat detector which records the high frequency echolocating calls of nearby bats allowing for an identification in many cases.  The bat fauna around the Chiricahuas is impressive, with nearly 20 species recorded in Cave Creek Canyon.  We picked out a few calling bats overhead, but around the lights in the parking lot were able to discern Long-legged Myotis and Western Small-footed Myotis as they swept back and forth over the lights. 

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. 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 detected a Bendire’s Thrasher perched on a roadside juniper on the New Mexican side of the road. We stopped and were soon able to watch the Bendire’s for a long time, allowing us to really see that the flatter and shorter bill, paler eye, and more discrete breast spotting that set this scarce species apart from its more common Curve-billed cousin. 

Leaving the thrasher behind we drove a bit further south to make 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 a few nicely spotted Spotted Sandpipers bobbed around the margins of the wetland.   Here too were several more groups of Scaled and Gambel’s Quail, some instructive views of Ash-throated Flycatcher and what proved to be (oddly) our only Blue Grosbeak of the trip.  We then elected to drive back towards Portal by going through 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 hordes of migrant Western Tanagers, Black-headed Grosbeaks, Bullock’s and Hooded Orioles, Pine Siskins and Cedar Waxwings.  The small yards around the houses in town hosted Inca, Collared, White-winged and Mourning Doves, and a single Common Ground Dove (also oddly our only sighting of the trip), and we found bird feeders that were hosting Bronzed and Brown-headed Cowbirds, and a few Lark and White-crowned Sparrows.  Our grumbling stomachs pulled us back into Arizona, where we enjoyed a hearty breakfast back at the Portal Peak Lodge. 

For the balance of the morning we turned our attentions to the main drainage of Cave Creek. Just as we left the lodge and entered the drainage we picked out a small flock of Band-tailed Pigeons perched on some roadside Sycamore trees.  These handsome pigeons are a migrant here, as they spend the winter months in the mountains of western Mexico, and their return signals the arrival of early summer to the canyonlands and pines of Arizona.  After appropriately ogling the pigeons we drove slowly into the forests around Cave Creek Canyon.  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 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 end of the mile-long gravel road and slowly walked back down the road, 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 came in to drink from the rocky creek and active little groups of Bridled Titmice and warblers including many pairs of Painted Redstarts certainly livened up the walk.  Western Wood-Pewees perched along the creekbed as well, and we were occasionally visited by a curious House Wren that seemed to be following us down the road.  Just a bit past the bridge we found a horde of birders all standing around and generally looking in one direction; surely a good sign.  Sure enough we soon found the trogon, perhaps the most iconic of all of the Southeastern Arizona specialties, perched in the midstory of a large pine tree about 10m 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 our first Brown Creepers, and a very vocal Northern Pygmy Owl that remained stubbornly too far upslope for us to spot, and just to top it off another male trogon a few hundred meters further down the road!

Leaving South Fork behind we then visited 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 adjacent gift shop (which sells coffee now!) we then took a short walk along the trail system behind the station, where we found our hoped-for Buff-breasted Flycatcher and Black Phoebe and also were surprised to locate a large raptor nest just above one of the trails.  It took a bit of a climb up a grassy slope to get an angle on the nest, but soon enough we were staring at the baleful orange eye of a female nesting Northern Goshawk who was keeping a close watch on our progress.  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! 

As it was early afternoon by this point, so we decided to head uphill for a picnic lunch at the Turkey Creek 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.  We parked a bit down the side road and while setting up the picnic lunch were thrilled to find a busy mixed flock of birds working the treetops just above the van.  The best find in the flock was undoubtedly the vocal pair of Mexican Chickadees that we picked out within minutes of exiting the car.  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.  Other birds in the group included our first Ruby-crowned Kinglets, a couple of Red-faced and Grace’s Warblers, a Hutton’s Vireo and a quite cooperative pair of Hepatic Tanagers. 

After lunch, we took the back road to Portal, through the small but rather grandiosely named town of Paradise.  This smaller road passes through some extensive patches of juniper scrub before entering chihuahuan desert scrub near Portal.  We stopped a few times on the way, spotting a pair of Crissal Thrashers that refused to show well as they scurried upslope, a couple of perched Woodhouse’s Scrub-Jays and a particularly attractive pair of Cactus Wrens before arriving back at the lodge in the late afternoon.  We then had some scheduled time off, where most participants elected to walk around town and view some of the many bird feeders scattered around in people’s yards, finding a lingering Lincoln’s Sparrow and a perched Broad-winged Hawk in the process.  We met a bit before dinner which allowed us to make a group visit to Dave Jasper’s yard.  Sitting in some comfortable chairs we spent an enjoyable hour just watching the show, as the feeders were visited by a steady stream of birds.  All three regular Orioles were present, as was a family group of very cooperative Black-throated Sparrows, both Northern Cardinal and Pyrrhuloxia, Gambel’s Quail (including several ping-pong ball sized young) and a nice selection of hummingbirds. 

After dinner, we set off along the Herb Martyr Road in search of owls.  Although conditions seemed perfect, with little wind and mostly dark skies we found the night to be generally quiet until, at our last planned stop, we heard the unmistakable low hoots of a Flammulated Owl coming from just a bit off the road.  For North American birders in pursuit of owl visuals it doesn’t get much harder than Flammulated Owl, a tiny owl with a perchance for perching high up in dense trees near the main trunk, and with a ventriloquial call that is surprisingly quiet.  We walked off the road and soon zeroed in on the tree that the owl was sitting in.  Despite some serious effort we couldn’t spot the little guy who seemed to be close to the top of the tree, but the experience was fantastic nonetheless, with prolonged and excellent audio and a nearby Whiskered Screech-Owl sounding off to boot.  We eventually decided to content ourselves with the audio (our only heard only owl out of the nine species detected for this years’ tour) and headed back to the lodge for the night.

For our last day of the tour we again opted for an optional pre-breakfast outing, this time just a bit out of town to the nearby feeder array of Bob Hernandez, just a mile or so out of town. The feeders here are always busy, and offer excellent comparison views of Pyrrhuloxia and Northern Cardinal, the eastern “olberholseri” form of Curve-billed Thrasher, “oriantha” White-crowned Sparrows, Black-throated Sparrows, Western Tanagers, Canyon Towhees and an endless procession of various doves and Gambel’s Quail.  The hummingbird feeders were swarmed with Black-chinned, Broad-billed, and one male Anna’s, and with all the action just a few feet from us as we sat in the comfortable chairs.  Among this backdrop of birds we also enjoyed a singing Yellow-breasted Chat perched up in the open just behind the feeding station, a distantly sitting Olive-sided Flycatcher atop a lone Sycamore tree, an uncharacteristically bold Crissal Thrasher that actually visited the open area under the feeders for a few seconds, and a dazzlingly bright male Indigo Bunting that came in with several female Lazuli Buntings in tow.  In all we tallied an impressive 37 species in the yard, a truly wonderful and relaxing start to our day.  After breakfast, we checked out of the lodge and made a short visit back along the South Fork of Cave Creek.  This time we walked a bit past the road, and were rewarded for our efforts when a Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher flew in and perched above our heads.  The view was not perfect given the neck stretching angle, and the bird soon shot off to a nearby tree.  Despite the efforts of 7 out of the 8 of us we couldn’t spot the bird on its new perch.  Luckily for us though our 8th member of the group found the bird sitting out in the open on an unobstructed branch.  He casually said “you all have the bird, right?” which prompted a quick shuffle around until all of us were able to admire the rusty tail, yellow belly and streaked breast that make this perhaps the most unique of the U.S. flycatchers.  This is a species that often eludes us on tour, as the first birds back typically appear sometime in the second week of May, just as the tour is wrapping up.  As we began to drive away from Cave Creek we stopped to look at a 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. 

We then started up the dirt road towards Onion Saddle near the top of the mountain range.  At this point we still had one more owl to look for and although it took a few stops (where we encountered things like our first Blue-gray Gnatcatchers of the trip or some very cooperative Bushtits) we soon had a responsive Northern Pygmy-Owl calling from a roadside tree.  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 after several close aural encounters with this species during the previous few days it was fantastic to finally see one.  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 quite a good show as we used the restrooms at Rustler Park.  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 for a picnic.  As we began to set up the picnic several participants started walking around the grove, and just as the lunch was completely laid out one sharp-eyed participant picked out a roosting Spotted Owl perched high above the road.  A pair of Spotted Owls has irregularly been found along this stretch of the canyon, although most years sightings are few and far between.  To our great delight this bird was sitting facing the road, providing a better subject for photography than the individual in Miller Canyon from a few days before.  The peregrinations of the group during picnicking proved valuable from a botanical perspective as well, with a rare lupine (identified later for us by Elaine Jasper from Portal) being found just upslope from the campground.  After celebrating the owl and devouring lunch we continued downslope, stopping at a small side drainage where we quickly struck gold; finding a pair of actively foraging Mexican Chickadees high in the trees amongst a large flock of warblers including many Red-faced and Grace’s.  

Once out of the mountains we made our way across the sandy Willcox playa, where some impressive dust devils were kicking up plumes of sand out on the barren salt flats.  Once we reached the town in 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 55 species detected in about an hour of birding.  In the shallow ponds along the back of the golf course we found a nice mix of waterfowl including Cinnamon, Blue-winged and Green-winged Teal and a few Ruddy Ducks, Gadwall and Northern Shoveler.  We were also 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.  Along the cattail laden pond we picked out a glowing male Commmon 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 White-crowned and Lark Sparrows, Yellow-rumped Warblers and a few Lazuli and Indigo Buntings 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 noticed a Tropical Kingbird amidst the numbers of Westerns and a mixed flock of blackbirds that contained several dozen lingering Yellow-headed Blackbirds and a single Brewer’s Blackbird.  The main lake was hosting an impressive number of White-faced Ibis, several of which were very close to the road and in excellent light, with waves of reflective colours evident in their mainly plum-colored plumage.  Handsome breeding plumaged Eared Grebes were well appreciated here as well, and in the back corner of the lake we found conditions for migrant shorebirds to be close to perfect.  A surprising number of American Wigeon for mid-May were dotted about the vegetated back corner as well.  It was perhaps the waders though that occupied the majority of our attention, with dozens of happily spinning Wilson’s Phalaropes and many more American Avocets and Black-necked Stilts being the most obvious.  Some careful scanning around the margins of the wetland also revealed a few foraging Long-billed Dowitcher, Western and Least Sandpipers and a pair of near breeding plumaged Stilt Sandpipers (a scarce migrant in Arizona).  As we drove back out towards the main road we stopped to scope a female Lark Bunting who was foraging on the driving range, flanked by a few Chipping Sparrows, and we admired a couple of circling Swainson’s Hawks patrolling the grasslands.  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 2019

Created: 03 June 2019