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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Arizona: A Winter Week in the Southeast

2020 Narrative

In Brief:

We just wrapped up another Winter Week in Arizona tour filled with beautiful scenery and abundant wildlife. This year 143 species of birds were encountered, as well as 10 types of mammals, 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 day’s exploration. Hepatic Tanagers, Arizona Woodpeckers, and Black-throated Gray Warblers met us in the mid-elevation canyons. Sparrows abound in the grasslands as we spent several days enjoying flocks of Lark Buntings, as well as Brewer’s, Cassin’s, Vesper and Rufous-winged Sparrows throughout the week. We saw several Mexican species barely within range such as Black-capped Gnatcatchers at Patagonia Lake State Park, and even a few of the only publicly accessible Mexican Chickadees in the country. Hummingbirds were in good supply with both of the giants Rivoli’s Hummingbird and Blue-throated Mountain-gem seen well, and no less than 3 of the stunning Violet-crowned. The astounding number of Sandhill Cranes that came pouring in to loaf mid-day at Whitewater Draw was the only thing that could dwarf the raptor show in the Sulphur Springs Valley. There were 132 Red-tailed Hawks counted of every flavor one could as for, and a record-breaking 10 Ferruginous Hawks successfully hunting in one field. Spending 5 nights in once place meant less time packing and moving, and more time enjoying a wonderful bed and breakfast we were all happy call our home away from home for the entire week.

In Detail:

We spent our first morning setting off to the south in order to check out the banks of the Santa Cruz River. This river valley flows south to north with its lush riparian zone and surface water hosting a bunch of remarkable bird species.

A slow stroll through the mesquite and cottonwood gallery forest introduced us to some regional specialities for the first time, some of which we would encounter almost daily from here on out. Minute Verdin chirped intensely at our presence and made us wonder which of its many nests it was so upset about. Bewick’s Wren’s raucous calls were noted, and nice to compare with the several Ruby-crowned Kinglets, Bridled Titmouse, and Lesser Goldfinches we also heard here. The woodpecker show was good, with Gila and Ladder-backed showing nicely in the morning sun, but the star of the outing went to the male Red-naped Sapsucker that was quietly drilling wells into a tree in hopes the sap might attract some insect morsels. It was interesting to watch the Audubon’s Yellow-rumped Warblers also keep coming back to check for any unsuspecting prey brought in by the sticky traps. A distant chip note finally revealed a prized male Black-throated Gray Warbler, only seen a few times on this tour, revealing its lesser-seen yellow supraloral field mark. Another noise that caught our attention was coming from the bird that has perhaps the smallest world range of any species we would see on our trip, the Rufous-winged Sparrow. This songster was warming up for springtime practicing its bouncy ball song softly from the depths of the thicket. It was easily coaxed out to be admired, and we even noted the small ‘rufous-winged’ spot the species is named for. At a local park in Green Valley we searched for hummingbirds and were lucky to see superb males of Broad-billed, Anna’s, and stoic Costa’s with gorget flared in fury. Nearby it should be noted spring was in the air as we watched a male Vermilion Flycatcher in full butterfly-like display mode trying his best to lure any available females. We then made our way to Madera Canyon for lunch and after we cleaned up a family of Mexican Jays were sure to come in and finish anything we may have forgotten. Nearby a short walk yielded a much-wanted female Arizona Woodpecker lightly tapping on a tree branch amongst the similarly colored dead leaves. At the Santa Rita Lodge feeder birds were aplenty with nice comparisons of both Pink-sided and Gray-headed Dark-eyed Juncos feeding alongside some Yellow-eyed Juncos. We waited here until the bird we were hoping for showed up when all of a sudden a male Hepatic Tanager flew in for his suet lunch. As we meandered our way east 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. At last we were bound for the San Pedro River Valley, and our much anticipated home away from home for the week. Just before arriving at our final destination we happened to spot a Greater Roadrunner, crossing the road of course, as it searched high and low for any last minute prey items.

After our delicious homemade breakfast the group had its sights set on the Patagonia Area for the day. At Patagonia Lake State Park there weren’t lots of birds to pick through, but what were lacking in numbers were added in quality. A quick stop to scan the water yielded a pair of, rare for southeast Arizona, Greater Scaup, a sizeable flock of Common Mergansers, and several rafts of Eared Grebes bobbing in the waves. The feeding station on the birding trail was hopping with activity and added buffy Lincoln’s Sparrow, long-tailed Chipping and electric blue male Lazuli Bunting to our growing emberizidae list. Even Great-tailed Grackles of both sexes couldn’t resist the seed buffet. In about a 5 second window our only swallows of the tour, these of the Tree variety, shot by at a high rate of speed. On the downed logs at the edge of the lake it was nice to see Double-crested and Neotropic Cormorants sitting next to each other, dispelling any mystery of the identifications. At the wet edges some action was taking place and soon we were studying the finer details of the southwestern subspecies of Song Sparrow as well as what made the empidonax flycatcher we encountered a Gray. In one of the mesquite bosques we lucked into a family group of Black-capped Gnatcatchers, a really rare bird that’s only gettable north of Mexico in southeast Arizona. We noted the long bill, graduated white undertail, but especially the unique mewing call of this rarity. As if to attempt to steal our attention from finding such a rare bird, a male Black-throated Sparrow sat up at attention in an ocotillo on the hill and gave his best rendition of its tinkly bell song we could hope for. The feeders at the Paton Center for Hummingbirds harbored lots of desert residents and most of us were able to view the Abert’s Towhee that came in quickly, grabbed some seed, and flew right back to the brush pile from where it came. Inca Doves eventually came in to sift through the dirt for any dropped seeds, and we noted a pair of Black Vultures sitting high in a tree. With a flurry the birds shot away as a juvenile Sharp-shinned Hawk was in hot pursuit of a male Northern Cardinal, which lucky for 1 of them it never succeeded in catching. 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 graces our binocular views and proved why once again this was a highlight of the trip for some of us.

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 dry desert reputation this region epitomizes. 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. While flocks of Lark Buntings flitted from the roadsides dozens of American Kestrels, Loggerhead Shrikes, and Western Meadowlarks were noted perched on anything that would allow. We were eager to tell the border patrol agent we had just tallied our 50th Red-tailed Hawk of the day next to his station. Little did we know we would end up tallying a lofty 132 Red-tails for the day, in every flavor one could want. The van came to a halt near Elfrida when a likely candidate for a Ferruginous Hawk was spotted sitting on the ground 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 concentrating on this field. Even further north along Kansas Settlement Road we were rewarded with excellent views of one of these birds perched extremely close on a telephone pole. At Willcox even more Sandhill Cranes were settled into the various ponds as some of them practiced their dance moves in anticipation of the upcoming breeding season.         

Birding around our lodge along the San Pedro River was productive in the excellent morning light. A towhee sweep of all expected species was had, comprised of single Green-tailed and Spotted, with small groups of Canyon and Abert’s jumping in. Nice comparative views of Pyrrhuloxia and Northern Cardinals sitting on the same branch was welcome of these at times tough to ID birds, as well as noting the size difference in White-winged and Mourning Doves. A Cactus Wren family sung us a song, if you want to call it that, while White-crowned and Lincoln’s Sparrows perched on fencelines near the dry pond. The reputable San Pedro House provided another raptor highlight when a Western Screech-Owl was spotted in the safety of its cottonwood crag exposing its entire body to the morning rays to heat up and get ready for a night full of hunting. Recent flooding was evident along the river here and in doing so took out much of the undergrowth along the waterway. When we trekked to an area that still had some remnant shrubbery the birds all seemed to be there. Some kind of insect hatch resulted in a bunch of birds seen well as they hawked for insects at eye-level. Several Audubon’s Yellow-rumped Warblers and Ruby-crowned Kinglets did their best flycatcher impressions and were joined by an individual Dusky Flycatcher, filling out our expected empidonax flycatcher list. All the features of this confusing flycatcher were noted and now we were all surely experts on differentiating this group of birds. Unusually good views of Marsh Wren and Song Sparrow were had as they picked through the floating logs for food bits. Near the actual San Pedro House a small group of Inca Doves was huddled close, all on the same branch, and showed exactly why they have their unique scaled pattern as they blended in perfectly with the leaf litter. Later in the day after another delicious picnic lunch we took time to check out the border wall that’s always in the news. As we were leaving I stopped to help a tarantula get across the road and when doing so flushed a flock of Montezuma Quail in close proximity. Several east-facing canyons were checked for several birds, but given the hour bird activity was low, that is until we got to an area of town that had a very nice raptor show waiting. We halted next to a Merlin sitting atop a tall evergreen and watched as it rocketed off several times chasing its bird prey. A Sharp-shinned Hawk and Cooper’s Hawk both had a similar agenda and were also utilizing the neighborhood’s seed feeders as places to get one last meal for the day. Brief views of fly-by Northern Harrier, American Kestrel, and zippy Peregrine Falcon were our final raptor sightings in this predator rich area.

No trip to southeast Arizona would be complete without a visit to Portal at the mouth of the mighty Cave Creek Canyon. 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. Also here some very responsive Black-tailed Gnatcatchers repeatedly voiced their opinions. The largest hummingbird in the country, the mighty Blue-throated Mountain-gem, was seen well in Portal, as were clown-faced Acorn Woodpeckers, scads of Pine Siskins, and a raffle of Wild Turkeys clucking across the road. Our picnic lunch in my favorite spot in the country was thoroughly enjoyed as we ate sandwiches below the towering cliffs of Cave Creek Canyon. We were lucky that a passing Painted Redstart decided to join us briefly for lunch, directly over our picnic table. 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 mountain 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 5 Mexican Chickadees, a huge prize for any North American birder! Also in this flock were all three possible nuthatch species; Pygmy, Red-breasted, and White-breasted.

Our last day is always exciting as we meander through the various habitats back to Tucson, trying to fill in the checklist with species we haven’t seen as we go. We first checked out Las Cienegas National Conservation area and its gently rolling grasslands bookmarked by several scenic mountain ranges. The van was sure to stop to compare the more common Western Meadowlark with the resident “Lilian’s” Eastern Meadowlark, a unique subspecies in the desert southwest. The multitude of re-introduced Black-tailed Prairie Dogs was highly entertaining and a reminder of just how much conservation work has gone on in this area. Horned Larks weren’t shy about foraging amongst the large rodents, and Loggerhead Shrikes were there to nab any insects that were scared up by the antics. A complete surprise here was eventually getting great views of a Cassin’s Sparrow, a species common when it breeds during the monsoon season, but quite rare in the winter months. 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 Cassin’s Kingbird perched at eye level and a bunch of ducks including Canvasback, Ring-necked, and recently split Mexican Duck were all seen at point blank range and insisted on posing for 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 confiding Plumbeous Vireo, another uncommon winter visitor to the city limits. A final stroll was enjoyed around the scenic Sweetwater Wetlands in the afternoon, where water levels were low, and maybe the reason we had such good views of a Sora walking around at the water’s edge just beyond our feet. We all had a lot to chat about over our final dinner at one of the best restaurants in Tucson as we reminisced about the amazing week of birding we just had together. There’s not much that can beat a full week of birding in southeast Arizona any time of the year, but there’s a reason why so many birds, and people, find this region irresistible in the depths of winter. Let’s do it again!

- Jake Mohlmann, 2020


Created: 27 February 2020