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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Arizona: Second Spring

2022 Narrative

IN BRIEF: Our tour this late summer occurred during a monsoon season that started a little late, but rains had arrived in force. Highlights on the tour included twelve species of hummingbirds, including Berylline and White-eared, extended views of a perched Mexican Whip-poor-will, both Zone-tailed and Short-tailed Hawk (a pair in the Santa Catalina Mts.), Elegant Trogon (male with accompanying juvenile), Buff-breasted Flycatcher, Greater Pewee, Bendire’s and Crissal Thrashers, an obliging adult male Olive Warbler, several Five-striped Sparrows, and eleven species of Wood Warblers including Virginia’s, Red-faced, Hermit and a very early fall migrant Townsend’s. A White-nosed Coati with a clinging young baby was also memorable.

IN DETAIL: Our tour began with a meeting and a meal in downtown at El Charro Café. The next morning we checked out and headed northeast into our first “sky island,” the Santa Catalina Mountains and Mt. Lemmon. Our first significant stop after a restroom stop, which also had a Grace’s Warbler, Painted Redstart, and Yellow-eyed Junco, was Rose Canyon where we looked for a Pine Flycatcher. Sadly, it had moved on, but we did have Red-faced Warbler and a stunning adult male Olive Warbler with a cinnamon head and black eye mask. A family group of Cooper’s Hawks were present as was a Hermit Thrush of the large and very pale Rockies/Great Basin subspecies, auduboni. Spotted Towhees of the distinctive sounding montanus subspecies were noted. From here we headed to higher elevations, stopping to admire numerous Broad-tailed Hummingbirds, including adult males, at the Palisades National Forest visitor center. Two adult Zone-tailed Hawks were noted along the road. We headed up the Bear Wallow Road where perhaps our best birds of the day were noted: two calling adult Short-tailed Hawks, a rather recent emigrant from Mexico and now a rare summer resident in the mountains of Southeast Arizona. Here we saw additional Red-faced Warblers along with Plumbeous Vireo, Mountain Chickadees, and three species of nuthatches, the White-breasted being from the distinctive sounding “interior West” lagunae subspecies group, in my opinion a distinct species.

After lunch, where we had nice views of Western Bluebirds, and noted Hairy Woodpecker and Steller’s Jay (the distinctive “Long-crested Jay” with white streaks and markings on the head), we headed on to Summerhaven at the base of Mt. Lemmon. Cordilleran Flycatchers were much in evidence as were a few Pine Siskins amongst many Lesser Goldfinches and  Warbling Vireo. Our main goal was Virginia’s Warbler and we obtained nice views of two of this seemingly always elusive species. A juvenile Orange-crowned Warbler of the Rockies/Great Basin orestra subspecies, here at the southern end of their breeding range, was our only one of the trip. During the day we also had multiple House Wrens and a Brown Creeper of the Rocky Mountain subspecies, montana. Memorable mammals noted included Cliff Chipmunk and several distinctive Tassel-eared Squirrels, introduced here, but now firmly established.

We then headed back to Tucson and eventually reached the Santa Rita Lodge in the Santa Rita Mountains, another “sky island.” We noted a few hummingbirds, including Broad-billed and Rivoli’s, and noted a small group of Mexican Jays. Three Wild Turkeys were noted just below the lodge, and Greg Greene from the WINGS office identified a Moon-marked Skipper that was near the office entrance. Erin and Stephanie from the WINGS office brought us a picnic dinner and we dined as dusk descended. A raccoon came out of a hole above our dinner table and cautiously descended the tree over our group.

The next morning after a picnic breakfast and watching birds at the feeders, we went up the canyon and took a short hike where we fortunate in locating two Elegant Trogons, perhaps the signature summer species of the “sky islands.” We obtained excellent views of the male plus an accompanying recently fledged juvenile. Back at the Santa Rita Lodge we studied many hummingbirds, Broad-billed being by far the most numerous, but noted other birds including Sulphur-bellied, Brown-crested and Dusky-capped Flycatchers, Bridled Titmice, Hepatic Tanagers, Bronzed Cowbirds (milleri subspecies in which the females are gray) and Arizona Woodpecker. Black-headed Grosbeaks were abundant. A White-nosed Coati visited, at one point carrying its baby, were present too. We then headed up Box Canyon to the north, a more arid location with desert vegetation, noting Loggerhead Shrike and several Common Ground-Doves along the way. In the canyon we noted Cactus Wren, Scott’s and Hooded Orioles, Summer Tanager, and Lucy’s Warbler. A Golden Eagle was over the adjacent ridge. Two Wilson’s Warblers were migrants. The two most notable species were two rare (and localized) Five-striped Sparrows and two Varied Buntings, the purplish and blue adult male being very colorful, if viewed in the right light. Butterflies noted included numerous Tiny Checkerspots, two Southern Dogfaces, and a Golden-headed Scallopwing. We had dinner at El Rodeo Mexican Restaurant and later that evening found a Whiskered Screech-Owl, which we saw well.

The next morning, we birded around the lodge, noting Hutton’s Vireo and several Black-throated Gray Warblers. We then returned to Box Canyon stopping to study several singing Botteri’s Sparrows in the mesquite grasslands below Madera Canyon. At Box Canyon we saw the Five-striped Sparrow again. Several Scott’s Orioles were present and a juvenile Golden Eagle was in flight overhead (must have been nesting nearby). Group members studying the agave blooms located two Costa’s Hummingbird and a single female Lucifer Hummingbird. On the return we stopped in Florida Canyon where we had nice studies of a Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet. Bell’s Vireos and Canyon Towhees were noted as was a singing male Northern Cardinal, a brighter and lighter red subspecies (superbus) with a longer crest and more limited black around the bill. A Pacific-slope Flycatcher was a fall migrant (identified by probability as Cordilleran Flycatchers are still on summer territory in the forested mountains). An adult Gray Hawk circling overhead was well seen. From here we headed back west, stopping near Continental where we saw Rufous-winged Sparrow well. At Desert Meadows Park in Green Valley we had nice views of Curve-billed Thrasher (palmeri subspecies) and two Inca Doves. We then headed down to the Amado Territorial Inn where we would spend the next two nights. Gambel’s Quail visited the feeders. That night we had dinner at Saigon Flavor back north of Green Valley.

The next morning, we birded the grounds of the Amado Territorial Inn, noting several Abert’s Towhees and some noted three Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks that flew by. We decided to head south to Nogales and then up to Patagonia. Near Nogales, a road killed Collared Peccary was admired by a good-sized group of Black Vultures, a very local species in Arizona. Across from the famous roadside rest, we noted a pair of Rose-throated Becards (paler West Mexican albiventris subspecies). Yellow-breasted Chats and Yellow Warblers (pale sonorana subspecies) were present too as were several fall migrant Western Tanagers. Phainopeplas were common and we had nice views of a singing Canyon Wren. A pair of Thick-billed Kingbirds was seen well nearby. Here and elsewhere we tallied five Gray Hawks during the day. At the Paton Hummingbird Center feeders (maintained by Tucson Audubon) we had nice studies of several Violet-crowned Hummingbirds. Inca Doves were present too, but we did not see the rare Ruddy Ground-Dove that was sometimes with them. Quite close by was a Mississippi Kite and we had good studies of an adult. A downy young was in the nest. On our way back, we stopped at Patagonia Lake State Park for lunch. Here we saw Mexican Ducks and a Black-crowned Night-Heron and also had Yellow-billed Cuckoo. A Double-crested was present with three Neotropic Cormorants. We also noted a single Red Satyr butterfly. We made a final stop along the Santa Cruz River at Rio Rico where we saw a Tropical Kingbird. That night we had dinner at the Longhorn Grill and Saloon in Amado.

The next morning was a travel day. We stopped at the Amado water treatment plant where we studied Mexican Ducks, including a brood. An unusual summering male Ring-necked Duck was present too as was a migrant female Lazuli Bunting. An adult Spotted Sandpiper was also present. At Mimosa Canyon we looked unsuccessfully for Black-capped Gnatcatcher, but did have nice studies of another Five-striped Sparrow. Varied Buntings were present too and a single Giant Swallowtail flew through. On the way back we stopped along the bridge over the Santa Cruz River and studied several Cliff Swallows of the Southwest subspecies, melanogaster, which has a chestnut, not a white forehead. We stopped for lunch in Patagonia in the park, and continued on to Las Cienegas National Conservation Area. Here we noted a dozen Pronghorn, and eventually located a singing Cassin’s Sparrow. Chihuahuan Meadowlark was also present and we had excellent studies of a colorful Elegant Earless Lizard. Not far away we observed a migrant adult male Bullock’s Oriole foraging in bushes along a barbed wire fence. Most adult males depart for Mexico by mid-July. From here we drove to Sierra Vista and then on to Casa de San Pedro where we spent our next three nights in a most relaxed atmosphere with our hosts Karl and Patrick. We had a delicious dinner there on the premises.

Our next day was spent mostly looking at hummingbirds in Ramsey Canyon at the Nature Conservancy and the bed and breakfast next door and later at Mary Jo’s feeders in Ash Canyon. Mary Jo had sadly passed away a little more than a year earlier, but the feeders are still maintained and the public is welcome. Very close to Casa de San Pedro we had excellent studies of a Chihuahuan Meadowlark. At Ramsey Canyon we saw baby Violet-crowned and Broad-billed Hummingbirds on the nest a few feet away from each other. An adult male Rufous Hummingbird was present and eventually we saw the Berylline Hummingbird, a rare stray from Mexico at the bed and breakfast. We tallied some six Violet-crowned Hummingbirds during the day. A Zela Metalmark was feeding on a hummingbird feeder and a Clark’s Spiny Lizard was seen too. In Ash Canyon we had an adult male Lucifer Hummingbird along with some 25 Anna’s and two Costa’s Hummingbirds.  Bob Behrstock and Karen Lemay joined us for dinner at Mimosa’s, and later up Miller Canyon we had prolonged studies of a Mexican Whip-poor-will, the best views I’ve ever had of this species, a rather recent and fully justified split from the Eastern Whip-poor-will. Two Great Horned Owls were seen and a heard Barn Owl were also notable.

Ron joined us for a hike up Miller Canyon the next morning and we had a fine variety of species. We stopped near Ron’s house where a single Scaled Quail was present at the feeders, our only one of the trip. An adult male Bullock’s Oriole, several Botteri’s Sparrows and a male Pyrrhuloxia were also noted. Sadly the Scaled Quail is declining in Southeast Arizona and elsewhere in its range. On our hike up the canyon to Split Rock we heard a Greater Pewee vocalizing, but we did not see it. Other species noted included Cordilleran Flycatcher, Plumbeous and Hutton’s Vireos, Violet-green Swallow, Bridled Titmouse, Red-breasted Nuthatch (near the southern end of their breeding range), Spotted Towhee, Painted Redstart, and Red-faced and Virginia’s Warblers and Hepatic Tanagers. Probably our best bird was an adult male White-eared Hummingbird, the first time we have recorded this species in several years. Sadly, not everyone in the group saw it. A Buff-breasted Flycatcher, our only one, was well seen. Unusual for the location was a female Lucifer Hummingbird. Three Brown Creepers were of the distinctive Mexican albescens subspecies that are quite blackish dorsally with white spots. They are genetically distinct from other North American subspecies. A single Rufous-crowned Sparrow was heard singing, but we were unable to see it and we did not actually see this species on the tour. Non bird highlights included four Mountain Spiny Lizards along with a cluster of 25 Spring Azures, a Pacuvius Duskywing, and a Lichen Moth. We had an afternoon break at Casa de San Pedro, but several of us returned to Ramsey Canyon where we again relocated the Berylline Hummingbird and also saw a male Eastern Bluebird (paler Mexican fulva subspecies) nearby. At Mary Jo’s we saw the adult male Lucifer along with two Costa’s Hummingbirds. Ron and Janet joined us for dinner at Casa de San Pedro and during the meal we paused to study seven Lesser Nighthawks flying over their swimming pool.

After breakfast the next day we stopped at San Pedro House for a bit and then carried on to the nearby bridge over the San Pedro River (no luck finding an Indigo Bunting but we did see two Collared Peccaries) and to near Bisbee where I have seen Crissal Thrasher previously. We did hear a Crissal Thrasher, but did not see it. Notable though were our only Black-tailed Gnatcatchers, a pair. Cactus Wrens were seen here and elsewhere during the day. We continued on into the Sulphur Springs Valley to Whitewater Draw where we had some 15 Mexican Ducks along with a more unusual male Mallard. A half dozen Least Sandpipers were present. Migrant swallows were numerous, Tree and Cliff being the most numerous, but a single Bank Swallow was seen too. Other migrants there included a Pacific-slope Flycatcher, a Warbling Vireo and several Lazuli Buntings, including adult males. Our only Red-winged Blackbirds (two females) of the trip were noted too along with two Viceroy butterflies. After lunch in Douglas at Subway (eventually located) we headed northeast towards Cave Creek Canyon in the spectacular Chiricahua Mountains. We stopped along the way to study several Chihuahuan Ravens, one of which we noted the white basal feathering as the wind was blowing its neck feathers up. We noted the stubbier bill and shorter tail too (from Common Raven) as well as the seemingly smaller size. Our friends Narca and Jim joined us for dinner and later we visited their house where we had excellent views of a Common Poorwill at our feet at dusk and later had nice views of two Western Screech-Owls. Narca and Jim pointed out a lingering Western Diamondback Rattlesnake near their house.

The next morning, we started early along State Line Road where we had excellent studies of Cassin’s and Black-throated Sparrows. Near the Willow Tank, we saw both Crissal and Bendire’s Thrasher (3, family group). I consider Crissal Thrasher one of the most difficult passerines in North America to see well. Bendire’s Thrasher is declining sharply in its limited range and we were fortunate to see them. Ten migrant Tree Swallows passed over the pond and an adult male Bullock’s Oriole was noted nearby as were two Ash-throated Flycatchers. On the return we had brief views of two male Lark Buntings that flew across the road. A Collared Peccary ran across the road near Portal. Our main goal today was to get up the forested high country in the Chiricahua Mountains. Sadly, intense fires in recent years had burned much of the habitat. Species noted up high included Band-tailed Pigeon, a half dozen White-throated Swifts, Broad-tailed Hummingbirds (female or immatures), Hairy Woodpeckers, Steller’s Jays (a dozen), Pygmy Nuthatches, Western Bluebirds and numerous Yellow-eyed Juncos. A migrant Hermit Warbler was noted too. Alarmingly we were unable to find any Mexican Chickadees or Olive Warblers. On the way down at Turkey Creek we admired numerous butterflies and these included both a Satyr Comma and a Nabokov’s Satyr. At the Southwest Research Station (administered by the American Museum in New York City) we had nice studies of a Blue-throated Mountain-gem and several saw the Berylline Hummingbird which had been visiting a flowering agave in front of one of the rooms. We continued on to Maya Decker’s home near Portal and observed the birds that came to her feeders – highlighted by another male Blue-throated Mountain-gem (this one a bully!). A pair of Thick-billed Kingbirds, nesting here for another year, were close to her home.

The next morning, we birded the Paradise Road. We noted a variety of passerines including Woodhouse’s Scrub-Jays, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Rock Wren, Chipping Sparrow, and Black-throated Gray and Virginia’s Warblers. An adult male Scott’s Oriole was seen well and Crissal Thrasher was heard. At the George Walker House we saw a variety of hummingbirds and a female Arizona Woodpecker. A Bridled Titmouse visited the feeder, but the Juniper Titmouse was a no-show. Higher up at Onion Saddle we noted a single Violet-green Swallow amongst the White-throated Swifts. We searched the one good sized feeding flock we found for Mexican Chickadees. We did find a single bird, but sadly the group members who had never seen one, missed it. It is hard not to believe that the population in the Chiricahua Mountains as well as in the Peloncillo and Animas Mountains of New Mexico (thus the entire range in the U.S.) has sharply declined, no doubt due to devastating fires. In the feeding flock we did note two Hepatic Tanagers, an adult male Hermit Warbler and an early fall migrant Townsend’s Warbler. We again noted Band-tailed Pigeon and near the junction of the Barfoot Park road we finally located two Greater Pewees. Returning to Onion Saddle we located an early fall migrant Olive-sided Flycatcher atop high dead snags. Later down Pinery Canyon on the west side of the Chiricahua Mountains, we located the roosting Spotted Owl  (pale lucida subspecies, the “Mexican Spotted Owl”). A Mexican Fox Squirrel was noted too. We stopped at the Wilcox pond and looked at various shorebirds, notably ten Least and six Baird’s Sandpipers as well as two Black-necked Stilts, a juvenile Lesser Yellowlegs, a juvenile Spotted Sandpiper and five Long-billed Dowitchers. Amongst the dowitchers were two rarer adult Stilt Sandpipers. Thirty White-faced Ibis were also present. Two Spotted Ground-Squirrels were also well seen. We continued on to Tucson and after a break the Hampton Inn, went out for a final group dinner back at El Charro Café in downtown Tucson.

                                                                                                                                                                            -          Jon Dunn

Created: 16 November 2022