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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Arizona: A Winter Week in the Southeast

2018 Narrative

In Brief:

We just wrapped up another Winter Week in Arizona tour filled with beautiful scenery and abundant wildlife. This year 156 species of birds were encountered, as well as 10 mammal species. Every day of our tour visited a very unique area of southeast Arizona, each worthy of day’s exploration. Hepatic Tanagers, Arizona Woodpeckers, and Townsend’s Warblers met is in the mid-elevation canyons. Sparrows abound in the grasslands as we spent several days enjoying Grasshopper, Cassin’s, Baird’s and both Chestnut-collared and McCown’s Longspurs. We saw several Mexican rarities as well including Green Kingfisher, Black-capped Gnatcatchers, and even perhaps the only Sinaloa Wren in the country. Hummingbirds were in good supply with both of the giants Rivoli’s and Blue-throated seen well, and an out-of-place Broad-billed that greeted us every morning at the slightly frozen feeder outside the window while we devoured our delicious homemade breakfasts. Spending 5 nights in once 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:

 The Santa Cruz River Valley flows south to north with its lush riparian zone and surface water hosting a bunch of remarkable bird species. A streaky Sage Thrasher devoured berries, Mountain Bluebirds sat on fences, Red-naped Sapsuckers drilled their holes and perhaps most surprising of all a very furtive Sinaloa Wren only occasionally picked its head up and out of the leaf littler. This was also where we had our first, but certainly not last, encounter with the fiery Vermilion Flycatcher. It amazes me how this bright bird can be so blatant as it sits atop the mesquite trees giving the impression the branch tips are on fire.  Madera Canyon’s feeders were hopping with activity and both Dark-eyed and Yellow-eyed Juncos sifted through the dirt, Arizona and Acorn Woodpeckers downed gobs of suet, and a nice female Hepatic Tanager made infrequent visits. En route to our home on the banks of the San Pedro River we happened to spot a Greater Roadrunner, crossing the road of course, as it searched high and low for any unsuspecting pretty.

The gently rolling hills and sweeping grasslands of Las Cienegas National Conservation area protects a unique habitat that hosted several interesting birds. The very local Baird’s Sparrow was discovered one windy morning, only slightly outnumbered by the more innumerable Vesper and Savanah sparrows. Eastern “Lilian’s” Meadowlarks flapped and glided repeatedly along the roadsides and there were more Loggerhead Shrikes perched up nicely than we could have asked for. With so much great habitat it’s no surprise this murderous passerine is so successful in this area. Patagonia is an iconic birding destination complete with a variety of habitats packed into a small area. 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. Although numbers of birds were not staggering at Patagonia Lake, the species quality and diversity more than satisfied our desires.  While standing at the mud-fringed water of the lake we had the opportunity to compare nicely the differences between Song and Swamp Sparrows. The willow-lined Sonoita Creek is usually good for wintering empidonax flycatchers that can be difficult to differentiate unless seen in quick succession. As luck would have it we managed to find Gray, Hammond’s, and Dusky Flycatchers with relative ease and enjoyed the lessons of how to tell them apart. The mesquite bosques (forests) here often host specialties and we did a good job sifting through the commoner species to find both Hutton’s and Plumbeous Vireos, as well as the southeastern specialty Black-capped Gnatcatcher with it’s call sounding just like a cat meowing.

Over 12,000 Sandhill Cranes were seen as they came in to Whitewater Draw Wildlife Management Area by waves. Several other species of interest were in the wetlands here including several American Pipits, Marsh Wren, and an initially reluctant Virginia’s Rail that eventually walked into the open. A flock of nearly 100 Snow Geese had 3 Ross’s in the mix for nice comparative views and Northern Pintail, Green-winged Teal, and Northern Shoveler were downright plentiful. The bushy side roads of this region also hosted Sagebrush Sparrow for some, and the regional Bendire’s Thrasher perched up nicely for all. The Sulphur Springs Valley’s raptor show did not disappoint and we were excited to find both the regal Ferruginous and communal Harris’s Hawks in close succession.

This following morning we explored the vast grasslands that abut the lengthy San Pedro River in the protected National Conservation Area. En route to our first destination a Merlin was spotted in the driveway of our B&B that we took time to inspect. The bird-rich area around Casa de San Pedro also hosted the only Lazuli Buntings of the tour, all bright blue males with neon accents. The feeders at the San Pedro House were thriving with birds including White-winged, Mourning, and Inca Doves enjoying the free meal. A trio of Towhees was spotted. Black-faced Abert’s were seen scurrying up and down the huge cottonwood branches, more than just ‘Green-tailed’ Towhees eventually sat up low in the mesquites, and agitated Canyon Towhees sounded off upon our close approach. For the third year in a row a rare “Red” Fox Sparrow, although common in the east, was a nice sighting around the sinuous trail system. The most exciting bird of all was silently perched low above the San Pedro River awaiting an opportunity to skewer its unsuspecting prey. An opportunistic Green Kingfisher sat silently allowing us to rotate through as many scope views as we wanted and gave us all a thrill to have witnessed such a rare for Arizona species.

Portal is a must-see for anyone visiting this region of Arizona and can be quite productive any time of year. A pair of Crissal Thrashers perched up nicely for us to enjoy in the scope, plus Woodhouse’s Scrub-Jay ‘yanked’ from a dead snag announcing its presence. The hummingbird show was top notch and we got to enjoy both male and female Rivoli’s and Blue-throated Hummingbirds coming to feeders. Several seed setups along Main Street in Portal also had some eruptive Cassin’s Finches, which are more numerous in the lowlands than usual this year. The lichen-covered pink rocks of Cave Creek Canyon began to show themselves as we climbed up above the 7000’ mark searching for montane species such as Brown Creeper, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Bushtit, and Steller’s Jay. In the upper reaches of the Chiricahua Mountains we crept along with windows down listening intently for any peeps coming from the roadsides. Our persistence paid off and eventually we were successful in tracking down a few Mexican Chickadees, this being the only publicly accessible location to see them north of the Mexican border! Just before hitting the road to head back to the casa we tried one last time, and were successful, in spotting a wonderful Canyon Wren. This bird is very memorable in the fact that it usually occurs in some of the most beautiful areas of the western United States, this being no exception in the stunning Sunny Flat Campground.

As we were finishing up our breakfast the last morning one last look at the thistle feeders at Casa de San Pedro had a complete surprise. A trio of American Goldfinches were stuffing their beaks with niger and added yet another write-in to our growing list this year. The road back to Tucson led us through the high elevation grasslands to a cattle tank that hosted some exciting bird species. Swirling flocks of Horned Larks kept zipping by reacting to even the slightest movements and on occasion at least 50 Chestnut-collared Longspurs would stop in for a quick sip of water before once again disappearing in the abysmal grass. Even a couple rare McCown’s Longspurs made an appearance. We eventually realized the reason that all these birds were so cautious when out of nowhere a Prairie Falcon appeared and blasted by right in front of us. Lucky for most no small passerines were taken in the process. Even up to the last moments of the tour more species kept jumping on the list. At the memorable Sweetwater Wetlands, arguable the best birding spot in Tucson, several water loving birds were ending their day. Green Herons, Great and Snowy Egrets, and Black-crowned Night Herons all lazily drifted about searching for the perfect place to rest for the night. In the aptly named ‘keyhole’ pond three male Wood Ducks, each painted with amazing breeding colors, were all courting a lucky female as they all swam in their dizzying circles. On the very last stretch of trail before getting in the van an American Bittern, though trying it’s best to blend into the reeds, was spotted standing tall with neck erect!

Many people were surprised by the varied habitat and bird diversity offered on this tour.  While the rest of the country is being blanketed in snow, sunny southeast Arizona provides 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 eleven 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 2018 

Created: 26 February 2018