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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Arizona: A Winter Week in the Southeast

2022 Narrative

IN BRIEF: We just wrapped up another Winter Week in Arizona tour filled with beautiful scenery and abundant wildlife. This year 158 species of birds were encountered as we traversed just over 1,000 miles of mostly paved roads. Every day of our tour visited a very unique area of southeast Arizona, each worthy of a day’s exploration. Hepatic Tanagers, Arizona Woodpeckers, and Painted Redstarts met us in the mid-elevation canyons. Sparrows abound in the grasslands as we spent several days enjoying Grasshopper, Vesper, Brewer’s and fleeting flocks of Lark Buntings. We saw several local specialties as well including Greater Pewee, Mexican Chickadee, and even perhaps the only Rose-throated Becard in the state. Hummingbirds were in good supply with both of the giants Rivoli’s and Blue-throated Mountain-gem seen well, as well as an eye-catching Violet-crowned in Patagonia. Spending 5 nights in one place meant less time packing and moving, and more time enjoying a place we could call our home away from home for the entire week.

IN DETAIL: As the sun was rising, we headed south along Interstate 19 to the art community of Tubac nestled aside the north-flowing Santa Cruz River. Heading north along the Anza Trail quickly revealed some good birds. An Abert’s Towhee sat up at eye level for a lengthy amount of time showing black face and burnt undertail nicely. Other sparrows were present here as we watched a Song Sparrow and, quite rare for here White-throated Sparrow, settling up next to the much larger towhee. Further along the trail mixed flocks started revealing common species like ‘Audubon’s’ Yellow-rumped, Orange-crowned, and infrequent Black-and-white Warbler, as well as numerous Ruby-crowned Kinglets and Bridled Titmouse. A Hermit Thrush was in view briefly, as well as fleeting Bewick’s Wren. Woodpeckers became apparent with scores of Red-shafted Northern Flickers in constant motion and numbers of Gila Woodpeckers jockeying for position on the towering cottonwood trees. Finally getting to a location with some surface water we quickly spotted a Bullock’s Oriole directly overhead and spoke of the finer details of oriole identification. Not long after this, the ultimate prize we were hoping for hopped into sight. Even though we had been sifting through all the birds in the canopy, somehow it wasn’t until this point that we saw a female Rose-throated Becard methodically working through the foliage for unsuspecting prey. Conveniently, she was in close proximity to an old becard nest that had been used in the previous nesting season. A bonus bird came in with its high-pitched whistle while there. We enjoyed watching a Northern Beardless Tyrannulet shoot from branch to branch catching the crested look and pale base to lower mandible.

A couple of parks were visited in the town of Green Valley, which provides an oasis of green trees and lush lawns amongst a landscape of dry desert. A male Broad-billed Hummingbird was seen immediately upon leaving the van. The amazing shining blue throat and emerald green body shone in the perfect light as it fed on the plump honeysuckle flowers. A male Anna’s Hummingbird was also tallied, replete with its head looking like it was lit on fire with so much reflective rose coloration. Our main target though, was the less common male Costa’s Hummingbird that revealed its location with its unique swooping song. The showy purple flared gorget was noted, as well as the diminutive size of this desert denizen. During this observation a Curve-billed Thrasher scurried within feet of us into a lycium bush for fervor of berry feeding.

Heading into the famed Madera Canyon gave us more exciting sightings, and a delicious picnic lunch set amidst the snow-capped Mount Wrightson and its towering cliffs. Some opportune visitors carefully observing lunch were a flock of Mexican Jays waiting for scraps, and some tapping that turned out to be a confiding male Arizona Woodpecker leaving no hole unchecked. At the nearby Santa Rita Lodge a flock of Wild Turkey demolished any remnants of seeds, and were joined by foraging ‘Gray-headed’ Dark-eyed and Yellow-eyed Juncos for nice comparisons of these similarly plumaged ground pokers. Several Hepatic Tanagers came in for a visit, noting the liver-colored males and yellow laden females. A male Rivoli’s Hummingbird made repeated visits to the numerous feeders set up. Good views of White-breasted Nuthatch were unavoidable, as were the antics of the ridiculous Acorn Woodpeckers in constant attention. A brief walk through the canyon revealed a flock with more prizes. A single Hutton’s Vireo gave lengthy looks, as well as a nice study of the differences between it and the more common Ruby-crowned Kinglets. Some chipping alerted us to a roving Townsend’s Warbler, here at the northern limit of its wintering range. At this point we headed east through the panoramic Box Canyon, through the high elevation grasslands around Sonoita, and eventually to our lovely lodge on the banks of the San Pedro River.

After our delicious homemade breakfast, the group had its sights set on the Patagonia Area for the day. At Patagonia Lake State Park we erected our scopes up and scanned the water from a rocky hillside. Ducks were in abundance here and we quickly noted a few Northern Shovelers filter feeding on the shoreline, not far from some diving Bufflehead, and a grebe show of both Eared and Pied-billed. Some sleeping Canvasback weren’t able to hide amongst the reeds very well, nor were the several Black-crowned Night Herons snoozing on bending branches. Some emerged stumps gave rest to several Double-crested Cormorants, and small flocks of huge Common Mergansers slowly floated by before plopping down in the shallows of the lake. The muddy verges of the marsh gave us great looks at a male Common Yellowthroat weaving through the reeds and a sprite Marsh Wren doing the same. We heard Virginia Rail here but it would not leave the darkness of the marsh for us to see, however we did have a Sora pop out and swim across the open water. This lake is also known as a good location to study the difficult to identify group of birds known as Empidonax flycatchers. We were happy to be able to get good views of both Dusky and Gray Flycatchers in quick succession noting the finer details in the IDs. One more scope of the lake was a worthy endeavor as we were able to pick up a sleeping male Redhead not seen on the first try, and the best comparison views one could ask for of males of both Lesser and Greater Scaup floating mere feet from each other in the scope. With perfect light the contrasting head colors and shapes, as well as bill tip differences, were noted.

The hummingbird center at Paton’s is filled with birding history and well known as the spot where many, maybe even thousands, of birders acquired their lifer Violet-crowned Hummingbird. In keeping with tradition, it only took us about 10 minutes before one of these clean-fronted purple-crowned beauties graced our binocular views and proved why once again this is a highlight hummer for the trip. Here flocks of White-winged Doves devoured the plentiful feed, and Northern Cardinals of both sexes were enjoyed, especially for those on the tour that aren’t graced with this bird’s presence where they’re from. Stunning male and drabber female Lazuli Buntings made repeated visits and a sleeky Green-tailed Towhee found us interesting as it perched up on a weedy mass showing its rusty cap and bright white throat exceedingly well. On the way back home, we made a quick stop to pick up a family group of Harris’s Hawks and watched as they worked in unison to hunt the unsuspecting prey they undoubtedly were pursuing. It was hard not to stop and stare at the covey of Gambel’s Quail right next to the road either. The top knots were bobbling around as they shot back and forth from bush to bush and narrowly avoided a passing car. 

The world-famous Sulphur Springs Valley was furnished with abundant Sandhill Cranes and teemed with raptors. Thousands of cranes began flying in mid-day as wave after wave of gray lines filled the sky. Whitewater Draw had perfect light for photographs as the group enjoyed several duck species whose males were particularly zesty, including Green-winged Teal, Northern Pintail, and Cinnamon Teal. A shimmering white flock of Snow Geese, with a couple Ross’s thrown in, were a surprise to see and not what people expect in the hot and dry desert this region epitomizes. Shorebird diversity was good today. We picked out two Western Sandpipers in with a flock of Least giving a great lesson in peep identification. Tail-bobbing Spotted Sandpipers worked the shoreline close by, and a distant rufous blob eventually revealed the largest shorebird in North America as we watched a Long-billed Curlew look around for any of its relatives and with a whistle, take flight never to be seen again. A group of probing Long-billed Dowitchers was a welcome sight, as were the pair of foraging Greater Yellowlegs parading through the mud. While driving some of the farm roads in this area a very confiding Bendire’s Thrasher teed up allowing participants to get pictures of this hard to find prize. At this same location a Greater Roadrunner was spotted sitting up in a tree with feathers fluffed up soaking in the first rays of the day. While flocks of Lark Buntings flitted from the roadsides numbers of American Kestrels, Loggerhead Shrikes, and Western Meadowlarks were noted perched on roadside stands. The van came to a halt near Elfrida when a likely candidate for a Ferruginous Hawk was spotted floating down atop a dirt mount. With its ID revealed we rejoiced in our first of this species, a particularly confiding individual that refused to move while we gawked in the scope. It was hard to miss the fact that more, and more Ferruginous Hawks started appearing in the field. A total of 10 of these regal beasts were tallied gorging on the gophers, undoubtedly the reason they were concentrated in this field. Sparrow flocks abound along shrubby verges, with good views of plain looking Brewer’s mixed in with bunches of White-crowned, and extended looks of both Savannah and Vesper in the same shrub. In one of the recently cut corn fields a flock of Mountain Bluebirds flitted about with one stunning male perching at length on a short stalk.

This morning we scoured the north-flowing San Pedro River picking through flocks of sparrows and glassing every raptor we saw perched. A huge wintering flock of White-winged Doves were sunning as the sun slowly rose. Droves of White-crowned Sparrows harbored a trio of towhees and we saw Abert’s, Green-tailed, and Canyon in quick succession. Female and bright male Pyrrhuloxia frequented feeders, and even sat at-length atop mesquite trees for photos. We added a crisp male Black-throated Sparrow whose song rang like little bells through the bosques. A pair of Crissal Thrashers was heard chortling from the bushes and eventually these tough to see birds actually perched up for a few minutes for all to enjoy, un unusual feat for these shy denizens of the desert southwest. Where surface water existed, there were clearly insects around. Numerous flycatchers were utilizing this ephemeral resource including excellent views of Say’s and Black Phoebe, Vermilion Flycatchers, and a hawking Dusky Flycatcher. We added a Northern Waterthrush to the overall trip list. In typical waterthrush fashion it weaved in and out of the roots of a cottonwood tree with its rear end in constant motion. After lunch we gained elevation as we slowly drove through some of the canyons along the east side of the snow-laden Huachuca Mountains. Carr Canyon’s sinuous traverse harbored a very skulky Woodhouse’s Scrub-Jay that refused to sit out in the open longer than a few seconds at a time. It was interesting to note the difference between the scrub-jay and the much more aggressive flock of Mexican Jays that all showed up at once and came to investigate the intruders being broadcasted from their home territory. Right along the border we took time to study the infamous border wall that is constantly in the news, and thought it was quite a contrast with the beautiful Eastern Meadowlark sitting in front of it belting out its whistled song. The flowing grasslands near our casa also hosted numerous Northern Harriers in constant motion low over the tierra, as well as a confiding Grasshopper Sparrow that came in to playback and perched in one of the few shrubs dotting the bunchgrass landscape.

No trip to southeast Arizona would be complete without a visit to Portal at the mouth of the mighty Cave Creek Canyon. En route we stopped at a museum that hosts a riparian exhibit and a particularly confiding Cactus Wren that sat for 10 minutes caroling its repeated song in the morning light. A brief visit to a private residence in the Big Thicket allowed close looks of the (normally) skulky Crissal Thrasher that sat up for several minutes allowing ample viewing pleasure for all. In downtown Portal it took quite a bit of searching in order to spot the calling Inca Dove that was perfectly concealed on what appeared to be a small pile of sticks. Perhaps it’s warming up for an early spring nesting attempt. Nearby we also had good views of a Hammond’s Flycatcher, as we watched it repeatedly hunt from its perches from low in the trees. The largest hummingbird in the country, the mighty Blue-throated Mountain-gem, was seen exceedingly well along Cave Creek, as was a confiding Painted Redstart coming to jelly, scads of Pine Siskins, and both Cedar Waxwings and American Robin feeding on pyracantha berries. A melodious Bewick’s Wren sitting atop a solo tree shouting to the world that this was clearly his territory was a treat to behold. The lichen-covered pink rocks began to show themselves as we climbed up above the 8000’ mark searching for some of the montane species. The views from this vantage are beyond belief staring down the heart of this massive craggy mountain range. Just before reaching the top of the Chiricahua Mountains a few calls were heard while driving around with the window down. We stopped and much to our delight were eye level with a group of 4 Mexican Chickadees, a huge prize for any North American birder! Also in this area was a flock of peeping and awfully cute Pygmy Nuthatches, as well as fleeting flocks of both Dark-eyed and Yellow-eyed Juncos. Some particularly zesty long-crested Steller’s Jays worked the downed logs looking for seeds amongst the debris.

Our last day is always exciting as we meander through the various habitats back to Tucson, as we go trying to fill in the checklist with species we haven’t seen up to this point. We first checked out Las Cienegas National Conservation area and its gently rolling grasslands bookmarked by several scenic mountain ranges. A Prairie Falcon shot by across the road, so we stopped to enjoy watching this master of the wind weave in and out of the hills avoiding the Common Ravens that were trying to harass it. The van was sure to stop to compare the numerous Savannah and Vesper Sparrows frequenting the barbed wire fences, as well as the close American Kestrels and Loggerhead Shrikes sitting in the leeward side of the bushes staying safe from the pelting wind. We were on the lookout for any white trash bags in the treetops and eventually found one that morphed into a bird. A pair of White-tailed Kites were an awesome find and let us stare in wonder at this ghostly raptor adorned with black shoulders. The multitude of re-introduced Black-tailed Prairie Dogs were highly entertaining and a reminder of just how much conservation work has gone on in this area. Our sights were then set on some of the parks around Tucson for some other target species. At Reid Park right in the middle of the city a wintering Greater Pewee was found by giving its recurring ‘pip pip pip’ calls. Nearby a Common Goldeneye was added to our growing list, and a bunch of other ducks including Canvasback, Ring-necked, and Redhead were all seen at point blank range and insisted on up-close pictures. A horde of Neotropic Cormorants didn’t mind how close we got as we admired their unbelievably beautiful emerald eyes. At another park we tracked down a pair of Barn Owls and made out the faint scene as they sat motionless while sleeping close to each other’s sides. A final stroll was enjoyed around the scenic Sweetwater Wetlands in the afternoon and added another owl species. A Western Screech Owl sat at the entrance hole of its perfectly placed nest box while we admired this fluffy ball in the scope. A Belted Kingfisher sat above one of the ponds filled with Pied-billed Grebes and a Northern Rough-winged Swallow slowly floated by overhead. 

Many people were surprised by the varied habitat and bird diversity offered on this tour. While the rest of the country was being blanketed in snow, especially the nor’easter ripping through New England, sunny southeast Arizona provided its usual warm temperatures, clear skies, and abundant bird life. Throughout the week there was a nice mix of regional southeast Arizona specialties, lots of expected wintering wanderers, and even a few write-in species. All this proved once again why this tour is so much fun and a must for anyone looking for a break from the winter doldrums experienced elsewhere in the country this time of year.

                                                                                                                                                                          - Jake Mohlmann

Created: 28 February 2022