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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Arizona: A Winter Week in the Southeast

2019 Narrative

In Brief:

In just 1 brief week we swept through 1,030 miles of southeast Arizona and as a result saw 157 species of birds! A showy male Elegant Trogon and first state record White-throated Thrush greeted us in the mid-elevation canyons of the Santa Rita Mountains.  The vast rolling grasslands supported an abundance of sparrows this year and as a result we saw 25 species including 2 races of Fox, Golden-crowed, Cassin’s, and both Rufous-winged and Rufous-crowned Sparrows.  We enjoyed the Patagonia area in warmer than average temperatures while successfully searching for 3 species of empidonax flycatchers including Dusky, Hammond’s, and Gray at the lake, as well as Violet-crowned Hummingbird at the famed Paton’s Hummingbird Center.  A couple of owl encounters were highlights including a pair of Great Horned Owls getting attacked by a family of Harris’s Hawks, and moth-like Short-eared Owls feeding within minutes of our lodge. No trip to southeast Arizona is complete without a visit to Portal in scenic Cave Creek Canyon where Crissal Thrashers and a charming Blue-throated Hummingbirds made our acquaintance.  Somehow we eluded all precipitation while savoring every moment in our home away from home at Casa de San Pedro, our premier accommodation in the middle of it all.

In Detail:

With a promising weather forecast for the coming week and ambitions of first state records and Elegant Trogons in our hopes we began heading south towards the birding locations around Green Valley. At Madera Highlands Park within 5 minutes of getting out of the van we spotted a Lewis’s Woodpecker with bright pink breast gleaming in the morning light atop one of the pecan trees in the grove where it was spending the winter. A slight distraction were the male Vermilion Flycatchers sitting ablaze on the tips of the tree branches and a early arrived Cassin’s Kingbird called loudly as we watched in the scope. A large flock of Brewer’s Blackbirds shined as they fed on the ground and brief looks for some of a passing Plumbeous Vireo was exciting, albeit brief. Another park in the area abound with sparrows and it was fun trying to pick out different species among the flock of at least 40 Brewer’s Sparrows. White-crowned and Rufous-winged Sparrows fed on the atriplex and a pair of Abert’s Towhees chased each other through the undergrowth. As is the case this time of year a male Costa’s Hummingbird revealed its location with its high zipping song. Finally we spotted this tiny songster and noted it’s vibrant purple gorget glistening in the sun.

We were then off to perhaps the most famous birding locale in southeast Arizona. Madera Canyon was harboring a first state record that we needed to track down. We were thrilled to have the White-throated Thrush fly in within a few minutes of arrival to feed on hackberries just over our heads! This was a huge relief considering I had spent 4 hours the day before scouting for this bird and was never able to track it down. Further up-canyon a pyracantha bush wash flush with red berries that, lucky for us, hosted a male Elegant Trogon immune to the throngs of people gawking at his display as he repeatedly plucked berries at eye level. Just across the street a Red-naped Sapsucker drilled its wells and a Painted Redstart insisted on checking the holes for any insects that might be attracted to the sticky source. The Santa Rita Lodge is always worth a stop and our timing was great as they refilled the feeders while we were there. The birds somehow know mid-day is time to refuel and scads of Pine Siskins, Gray-headed and Pink-sided Dark-eyed Juncos, Acorn Woodpeckers, and Mexican Jays came to the dinner bell. We managed to pick out some interesting birds like a couple Yellow-eyed Juncos in the mix, as well as a pair of Arizona Woodpeckers exploring bark crevices, and an opportune male Hepatic Tanager attending the suet cakes.

As we meandered our way west the road led through the scenic Box Canyon up and into the vast high elevation grasslands where a herd of Pronghorn, North America’s fastest land mammal, grazed on the verdant plains. Our last birding stop for the day was tracking down a family of Harris’s Hawks that resides in southern Sierra Vista. Not only did we eventually run into one of these unique raptors, but very close by a pair of copulating Great Horned Owls decided to show themselves in the daylight much to our delight. Perhaps it was the hooting of the male owl that stirred the emotions of the hawks but for some reason there was a tussle. It was astonishing to watch the group of hawks repeatedly attack the 2 owls, force them to the ground with talons entwined, and try there best to convince the pair to stick with their ritual of only coming out after dark!

The next day we got to explore the bird-rich Patagonia area. Patagonia Lake State Park produced many exciting species and began with a smattering of waterfowl species. Dozens of Common Mergansers, including some stark white males, pushed fish around in the shallows and the accompanying Double-crested Cormorants reaped the benefits. It was nice to compare plumages of Aythya duck species like Lesser Scaup, Ring-necked Duck, and Redhead. As we quietly stood by the water’s edge a large flock of electric blue Mountain Bluebirds, joined by several Cedar Waxwings, came in for quick drinks as close to the group as one could ask. The lake is known as the place for wintering empidonax flycatchers and in didn’t disappoint. Great views were had of long-tailed Dusky, short-tailed Hammond’s, and bob-tailed Gray Flycatchers as they foraged amongst the willow forest. A welcome visitor to the feeder assemblage here was a bright male Lazuli Bunting that posed for pictures, and a surprise Plumbeous Vireo that slowly crept through the mesquite branches. While we enjoyed another picturesque picnic lunch we scanned the deep water and spotted a Common Loon, new for the trip list! The nearby Paton Center for Hummingbirds continued to be the best place in the country for seeing Violet-crowned Hummingbird. As soon as we walked into the back yard a stunning individual insisted on defending its feeder, despite people being only about 5 feet away. A half dozen each of Ladder-backed and Gila Woodpeckers gorged on the suet cakes and a flock of about 40 White-winged Doves came in to push all the inferior species out of the way. At one point the birds froze still and we eventually saw why as a Merlin zipped through at mid-level through the cottonwoods.

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. In amongst the reeds here we managed to pick out 2 Swamp Sparrows utilizing the isolated water spot. Several wheeling flocks of Yellow-headed Blackbirds were fun to watch. We were surprised to pick out an interesting bright white leucistic individual, which was bleach white except for its bright yellow chest. While driving some of the farm roads in this area a very confiding Bendire’s Thrasher teed up allowing everyone to get pictures of this hard to find prize. Fleeting flocks of Lark Buntings flitted from the roadsides and dozens of American Kestrels, Loggerhead Shrikes, and every flavor of Red-tailed Hawk one could want perched atop nearly every structure that allowed it. Further north along Kansas Settlement Road we were finally rewarded with excellent views of the regal Ferruginous Hawk perched on a telephone pole quite close to the van. At Willcox mixed in with the hundreds of American Wigeons was a single male Eurasian Wigeon, adding yet another duck species to the tour’s ever-growing list of waterfowl.

The following morning we explored the vast grasslands that abut the flowing San Pedro River in the protected National Conservation Area. The feeders at the San Pedro House were thriving with birds including White-winged, Mourning, and Common Ground-Doves enjoying the free meal. Particularly good views of Green-tailed Towhee excited us as we tracked down their cat-like calls. Heaps of sparrows flitted along the trail system here with great views of Lincoln’s, Vesper, Savannah, and a rare White-throated Sparrow bathing in the river. Slowly walking along the river’s edge produced a bobbing Louisiana Waterthrush, a nemesis bird for some, flipping over leaves on the cobble in search of prey. The snow-capped Huachuca Mountains provided a beautiful setting to search for a few birds in the afternoon. A short hike at mid-elevation was rewarded with scope views of Woodhouse’s Scrub Jay resting on an agave stalk, and a pair of skulky Rufous-crowned Sparrows that allowed close approach. An isolated patch of native grassland near our lodge hosted a pair of Short-eared Owls. As the mountains turned purple during yet another memorable sunset these small mammal specialists coursed low with moth-like flight as we watched for over 30 minutes!

No trip to southeast Arizona would be complete without a visit to Portal at the mouth of the scenic Cave Creek Canyon. A brief visit to a private residence in the Big Thicket allowed close looks of a pair of Black-tailed Gnatcatchers, and the (normally) skulky Crissal Thrasher that sat up for several minutes allowing ample viewing pleasure for all through the spotting scope. The feeder array at Cave Creek Ranch further ‘upcanyon’ also harbored several specialties including several huge Blue-throated Hummingbirds, White-throated Sparrow, both Red and Slate-colored subspecies of Fox Sparrow, and new for the list Golden-crowned Sparrow. The activity here was hopping and scads of Pine Siskins fed beside Lesser Goldfinches at the thistle feeders. Our time here came to an abrupt end when a Sharp-shinned Hawk came in with a flurry and insisted on waiting patiently for its breakfast. Another subspecies of Curve-billed Thrasher oberholseri that meets the western edge of its range here was encountered and we all were thrilled to have such a confiding Canyon Wren utilizing a man-made rock wall shouting its memorable descending song several times. Despite snow-covered mountains the road through the mountain was in good condition so we decided to push high into the hills in search of the absolute reward for visiting this range. We persevered to the highest reaches and eventually ran into a flock of Mexican Chickadees to the groups delight. No less than 5 of these range-restricted birds fed through the pine trees, some at eye level, topping off our amazing day in the Chiricahua Mountains. This chickadee can only be seen by the public in this mountain range north of Mexico, so we were all elated at finding such a rare bird, especially in winter when they roam around and are very hard to pin down.

Our last day in Tucson found us rushing around the city ticking off some long-staying winter visitors including Greater Pewee and Summer Tanager. Reid Park nestled in the middle of the city provided a suite of VERY close views of waterfowl normally seen at a great distance including Redhead, Canvasback, Ring-necked Duck, Lesser Scaup, and at lest 36 Neotropic Cormorants posing for pictures drying out with wings spread. A must when in Tucson is a visit to Sweetwater Wetlands where MaryAnn was successful in finding a rare American Bittern blending in perfectly with the vertical dead reeds. Perhaps even more exciting was when she used her spotting skills yet again and somehow found a Least Bittern perched at the top of another set of reeds, adding this cute marsh skulker to the cumulative tour’s swelling list.

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 and in some areas even suffering from -53 degree wind chills, sunny southeast Arizona provided its usual warm temperatures, clear skies, and abundant bird life. Photographers were especially pleased with the up close views of many species obtained from my years of experience studying the fauna of this region. The group this year was extremely jovial and got along as if they’d know each other for years. It’s amazing how much effect this has on making a tour a success, which this year’s definitely was!

Jake Mohlmann


Created: 07 February 2019