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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Arizona: Second Spring

2018 Narrative

Our Arizona tour experienced a rather weak monsoon this year and as a result temperatures were warmer than normal.  Still we found over 200 species and we saw nearly all of the expected species. Highlights included a pair of Rose-throated Becards nesting along the Santa Cruz River near Tumacocori National Monument, a cooperative male Elegant Trogon in Madera Canyon, Five-striped Sparrow in Box Canyon, five Black-capped Gnatcatchers around the Santa Rita Mountains, eleven species of hummingbirds including a half dozen Lucifer Hummingbirds, a pair of Montezuma Quail, excellent views of both Crissal and Bendire’s Thrasher, Rufous-capped Warbler, and dozens (mostly adult males) of Lazuli Buntings.  A Fulvous Whistling-Duck (Green Valley) and a Groove-billed Ani (Whitewater Draw) were rarities for Arizona.  Non avian highlights included a family of Ringtails, a White-nosed Coati, a Black-tailed Rattlesnake, and a Western Diamondback. 

Our tour began with a meeting in the lobby of our first night hotel, then followed by our first group dinner.  We left early the next morning for Mt. Lemmon in the Santa Catalina Mountains.  We started low and birded up the mountain.  Our first significant stop was the hummingbird feeder at the forest service station.  Here there were dozens of Broad-tailed Hummingbirds along with several (or more) Rivoli’s Hummingbirds. Yellow-eyed Juncos were underfoot on the deck.  Continuing on to Summerhaven we found a variety of mountain species.  These included Cordilleran Flycatcher, Steller’s Jay (the central and southern Rockies subspecies macrolopha with white over the eye and white streaks on the forehead.  It also has a longer crest and a grayer back), Mountain Chickadee, White-breasted and Pygmy Nuthatches, Western Bluebird, Hermit Thrush and Pine Siskin.  We were here primarily for wood warblers and we were not disappointed.  Grace’s, Yellow-rumped, Orange-crowned (a dozen), Virginia’s (only one), Townsend’s, Hermit, Red-faced, and Painted Redstart were all seen.  We also saw Olive Warblers (not a wood warbler).  The Townsend’s and Hermit Warblers were fall migrants and the Orange-crowned Warblers (subspecies orestra of the Rockies/Great Basin) were local nesters, and the Santa Catalinas are the only range in southeast Arizona where they breed. Several Tassel-eared Squirrels were also seen.

Winding our way back through Tucson we stopped briefly for Purple Martin east of the San Xavier Mission, a local Saguaro nesting subspecies (hesperia).  We arrived in Madera Canyon just before WINGS office staff arrived with our delicious catered pizza and salad dinner. Wild Turkeys wandered by and we noted a Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher along with nearly two dozen Broad-billed Hummingbirds at the feeders.  As evening descended after dinner we heard a Mexican Whip-poor-will calling in the canyon and heard a few notes from an Elf Owl, a nester, but by August, they have become almost completely silent.  A Ringtail was briefly seen on the deck and several were noted again the next evening. 

The next morning we enjoyed birds around the lodge, notably Arizona Woodpecker (several), Bridled Titmouse, Hepatic and Summer Tanagers (pair of each), and most notably a male Elegant Trogon just down canyon in the early afternoon. A Montezuma Quail was singing close-by, but remained hidden.  In the grasslands below we noted Cassin’s, Botteri’s and Black-throated Sparrows.  We then made a trip to Box Canyon and there we eventually located a Five-striped Sparrow singing across the canyon.  This species is rare and very local in southeastern Arizona, and is usually most easily located in distant California Gulch.  Other species noted included an immature male Costa’s Hummingbird, Golden Eagle (adult), Rock Wren, Varied Bunting, and Scott’s Oriole.  Here and elsewhere we had views of Zone-tailed Hawks, a total of three for the day. We located a small Black-tailed Rattlesnake in the road.  Back near Green Valleywe visited the Green Valley water treatment plant where a Fulvous Whistling-Duck has been present.  We located it quickly with “Mexican Ducks” and had nice views.  This species is casual (not annual) in Arizona.  Other species noted included Spotted and Baird’s Sandpipers.  After dinner just east of Continental we had nice views of Rufous-winged and Black-throated Sparrows along with a Black-tailed Gnatcatcher.  While driving back to Madera Canyon we counted some fifteen Lesser Nighthawks all flying south across the highway.  The adults were in wing molt, a diagnostic field character from Common Nighthawk which does not molt until it reaches the winter grounds in South America.  That evening in Madera Canyon we had decent views of a calling Mexican Whip-poor-will and a Whiskered Screech-Owl.  The family of Ringtails was around the deck of the lodge.  This is only the second time in my life that I have seen this unique and striking nocturnal mammal. 

Early the next morning one in our group spotted a White-nosed Coati near the lodge.  After breakfast we returned to Florida Canyon.  It had lots of birds, most notably two pairs of Black-capped Gnatcatchers, a rare and local species that is found very locally in southeast Arizona.  We also had a pair of Yellow-billed Cuckoos along with a Gray Hawk and a single immature Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet, our only one of the trip.  Driving back down to the Madera road, we glimpsed a pair of Scaled Quail.  At the stream crossing on the Proctor Ranch road we found another Black-capped Gnatcatcher.  A “Western Flycatcher” here, was likely a fall migrant Pacific-slope on probability. A Clark’s Spiny Lizard was well seen.  After checking out and admiring again the male Elegant Trogon, we drove south to Amado where we would spend the next two nights at the Amado Territory Inn.  We saw a few birds at the feeders, notably Abert’s Towhee and several Bronzed Cowbirds (subspecies milleri where the females are gray) and an Ornate Tree Lizard.  We chose to try late that afternoon for the nesting Rose-throated Becards, but rains had pretty well obliterated the trail up the river and in addition there was lots of debris.  We did see two Tropical Kingbirds and one in our group spotted an adult male Painted Bunting that quickly disappeared before the group could get on it.  A few of us noted a single Black Vulture amongst the Turkey Vultures.

We left the next morning and drove south for the more southerly becard near Tamacocori National Monument.  The trail here was shorter and much easier to follow and we quickly located the huge nest across the Santa Cruz River and had good scope views of both the male and female bringing in food.  The entrance was near the bottom of the nest.  This species has been found recently along the Santa Cruz River.  It was formerly only known from along Sonoita Creek, principally the famous “Roadside Rest”, but they disappeared here well over a decade ago.  These becards represent the pale west Mexican subspecies, albiventris.  Nearby we listened to a stake-out singing male Hooded Warbler, but were unable to see it.  From here we drove to Nogales and then northeast to Patagonia Lake State Park.  Our primary goal was a pair of Green Kingfishers, but they eluded us.  We did see a juvenile Black-crowned Night-Heron and an Osprey and both Neotropic and Double-crested Cormorants. A single Black Vulture was also seen. We also located a curled up Western Diamondback in the stream. An Elegant Earless Lizard was also well-seen. At the Patagonia Roadside Rest we saw our first Thick-billed Kingbird of the trip. 

The next morning on the grounds of the Amado Territory Inn, we had our best views of a Lucy’s Warbler.  We also had two Zebra-tailed Lizards and a magnificent Desert Spiny Lizard. This was mainly a driving day with stops at Kino Springs, the Patagonia Roadside Rest and the Paton’s feeders in Patagonia (a reserve of Tucson Audubon).  Highlights included Inca and Common Ground-Doves, Violet-crowned Hummingbirds and a Bell’s Vireo nest.  A singing male Varied Bunting at the Roadside Rest was a 2nd year male without a single colorful feather on it.  Painted Bunting (2nd year males also dull) is the closest relative.  Late in the afternoon we arrived at Casa de San Pedro.  The Southern Arizona Bird Observatory was conducting a banding operation of hummingbirds and many got to hold hummingbirds in the hand after banding before they flew off.  Casa de San Pedro provided a superb catered dinner. 

The next morning we departed for the drive up Carr Canyon.  We stopped at Reef Campground where almost immediately a pair of Montezuma Quail was underfoot.  A few in the group glimpsed them before they crawled off through the grass.  Our primary target here was Buff-breasted Flycatcher and one in the group eventually located a calling tailless bird.  Other species noted here included Eastern Bluebird (paler fulva subspecies of the Sierra Madre Occidental whose range extends into the Sky Islands), Woodhouse’s Scrub-Jay (two), Bushtit, Grace’s and Black-throated Gray Warblers, and Brown Creeper (distinctive appearing albescens subspecies found mainly in Mexico and genetically distinct from all other North American subspecies).  A pair of Hepatic Tanagers (the female was soliciting mating and was actually chasing the male around the territory) was seen well. A pair of Zone-tailed Hawks circled overhead nearby. Mountain Spiny Lizards were noted too.  Later at the home of friends, we watched numerous hummingbirds, including several Costa’s, a Violet-crowned, and a male and female Lucifer. We also viewed two Tailed Orange butterflies.

News of Rufous-capped Warblers from up Miller Canyon dictated our birding choice the next day.  We hiked over a mile up the canyon, stopping to admire a calling Northern Pygmy-Owl along the way (apparently a juvenile giving an unusual twittering begging call). This subspecies of the Sky Islands (nominate gnoma) is found mainly in Mexico and gives rapid paired notes, very unlike other subspecies found in western North America.  It is almost certainly a separate species.  We hiked well beyond Split Rock and although we listened to one Rufous-capped Warbler sing off and on for over an hour, we never saw it.  One in our group who stayed down below at Split Rock did see a Rufous-capped.  Species we did see included a pair of Cordilleran Flycatchers, over a dozen Sulphur-bellied Flycatchers, Steller’s Jays, albescens Brown Creepers, and an immature Greater Pewee.  A few also had two Red-faced Warblers. Interesting butterflies included a Desert Cloudywing and a Large Roadside Skipper. On the way back down we heard one of the fledgling Northern Goshawks.  We lingered down below at Beatty’s feeders, noting two Violet-crowned (some had earlier seen a Lucifer at a different set of feeders).  We had a short visit with another tour group.  They elected to go up the canyon too, but soon afterwards returned and hollered to us that they had located a singing Rufous-capped Warbler along the edge of the Beatty’s property. Fortunately it was still there when we got there and we had good views.  We thank this tour group (from Field Guides) for their kindness in alerting us. At Mary Jo’s feeders in Ash Canyon we had excellent views of several Lucifer Hummingbirds including striking adult males.  Wild Turkeys strolled by within feet of us.

At Casa de San Pedro the next morning we admired a roosting Great Horned Owl around the pool and after packing we stopped nearby at the east end of Three Canyons Road. Our friend had heard Grasshopper Sparrow here (endemic breeding subspecies, ammolegus) a day earlier.  We had nice views of it along with a Pyrrhuloxia and a Cassin’s Sparrow.  Continuing east and then north in the Sulphur Springs Valley we stopped at Whitewater Draw, stopping to study a few Chihuahuan Ravens along the way.  A Groove-billed Ani (casual in Arizona) has been present here for weeks, although it is often missed.  We were fortunate to see it, and some of us went aquatic to get better views of it hiding in a willow. Fortunately it eventually came out for all to see well.  A few shorebirds were present too including Solitary and Spotted Sandpipers and some sixty Wilson’s Phalaropes. Sora and Virginia Rail were heard.  The main highlight, other than the ani, was the number of Lazuli Buntings, totaling 40 or more birds, mostly adult males.  These were fall migrants, clearing out of their western North American breeding grounds in late July/early August.  Given the heat we elected to have a sit down restaurant meal at a Mexican restaurant in Douglas.  Afterwards we headed north to Portal stopping to admire a single Pronghorn south of Rodeo, New Mexico. That evening after dinner we heard a distant Common Poorwill, and had good views (another heard) of a Western Screech-Owl near the Portal post office.  A Giant Whip Scorpion (Mastigoproctus giganteus) was well seen on the road here too.

We arose at dawn the next morning to look for thrashers along and near State Line Road.  We did see a pair of Curve-billed Thrashers (subspecies celsum and aligned with the eastern curvirostre group; earlier we had seen palmeri of the western group; it has been suggested that these two groups deserve separate species status, their calls differ), and had superb views (from the van) of a perched Crissal Thrasher. Crissal Thrasher is one of the most secretive North American species. We missed Bendire’s Thrasher. We did note two Collared Peccaries sprinting north just east of State Line Road. After breakfast we headed to higher elevations in the Chiricahua Mountains.  Mountain species seen included Zone-tailed Hawk, Steller’s Jays, Western Bluebirds, an Olive Warbler, and our main target, Mexican Chickadee. We saw a half dozen, some well. We also had visuals of another Northern Pygmy-Owl (another heard nearby) at the Barfoot turnoff.  Four-spotted Skipperling, two Mylitta Crescents, and a Hackberry Emperor were also seen. While up high we ran into another local tour guide and he kindly told us about a Spotted Owl he found roosting earlier that day.  We eventually got down there and after a short and quiet search, we found it roosting.  That afternoon we spent two hours at local homeowner’s feeders in Portal.  There we had a nice variety of species, mostly hummingbirds, but also a juvenile Verdin, Bronzed Cowbird (juvenile), and Hooded Orioles.  We noted several Blue-throated Hummingbirds, and several adult male Rufous Hummingbirds along with presumed female/immature Rufous.  At least three Calliope Hummingbirds, including an adult male, were seen.  On the way out the homeowner showed us the pair of Thick-billed Kingbirds that had summered again. 

We left before sunrise the next morning, stopping to admire six Collared Peccaries feeding on the grass.  We stopped at another local homeowner location where they have hosted a pair of Montezuma Quail at their feeders and they appeared soon after our arrival for their 6:00 a.m. feeding.  We had excellent views of them and also noted several Woodhouse’s Scrub-Jays.  We had a bit of time to go down to State Line Road where numerous Lark Buntings were seen, the males still in their black-and-white breeding plumage.  And then on the way north up State Line Road, there was the Bendire’s Thrasher perched up on a yucca.  It remained for photos.  Not surprisingly we were a little late for breakfast.  After breakfast and check-out, our next destination was the George Walker House in Paradise.  We again had good studies of hummingbirds, notably several more Calliopes, including an adult male, and two Broad-tailed Hummingbirds.  We also viewed  Bridled Titmice and a pair of Juniper Titmice, a declining species here in the Chiricahua Mountains. Heading back to Cave Creek we stopped in at the forest service’s visitor center and gift store and then headed up over the Chiricahua Mountains, stopping to study one feeding flock where we again had Mexican Chickadee and a pair of Hepatic Tanagers.  Later we stopped at Wilcox at Twin Lakes.  It was full of shorebirds, mostly Wilson’s Phalaropes and Baird’s Sandpipers, but also ten Long-billed Curlews, ten juvenile Lesser Yellowlegs, a Willet and a Solitary Sandpiper, two adult Stilt Sandpipers and a variety of small peeps, including a single juvenile Semipalmated that was well-studied. A bedraggled immature (year old bird) California Gull was also present. A spectacular storm to the north was being carefully observed by other observers. From here it was an hour and a half to Tucson.  We checked in to the final night hotel then headed to a steakhouse for our last dinner.  A good sized storm came in and after our farewell dinner we had a spectacular show of lightning on our way back to the hotel where we said our good-byes. Our final trip list was 202 species.    

-          Jon Dunn, August 2018

Created: 27 August 2018