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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Arizona: A Winter Week in the Southeast

2023 Narrative

In Brief:

We just finished up another WINGS tour through southeast Arizona in Winter. Just under 1,000 miles were driven, with many back roads walked exploring the regions various habitats. It was obviously an irruption year with species like Townsend’s Solitaire, Red Crossbill, and Evening Grosbeak, normally never seen on this tour, being encountered multiple days, sometimes even within feet of the group. We witnessed North America’s largest hummingbirds. The Rivoli’s male at Madera had a gleaming green gorget, and Blue-throated Mountain-gem in Portal left us awe-struck. Some of the country’s most wanted winter warblers like Townsend’s and Painted Redstart put on a show at point blank range, and we witnessed a staggering crane show that can only be described as magical. A total of 161 bird species were seen, not to mention the 10 varieties of mammals encountered. Spending 5 nights in one special 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:

Jan 27: Even before the sun came up, we headed south along Interstate-19, a major arterial road into the heart of some of the best birding in the country. In Tubac we walked along the Juan Bautista de Anza trail like so many others have before, and were greeted by a flurry of birds as soon as we got out of the van. A flock of Western Bluebirds was mingling in the towering cottonwood trees while an Abert’s Towhee was joined briefly by its smaller cousin Green-tailed Towhee. The southwestern resident subspecies of Song Sparrow fed in the mounds of dirt along the road. It wasn’t hard to notice why so many people love Vermilion Flycatchers as we sat in amazement while a bright male sat like a flame atop a mesquite tree. A repeated song led our gaze to a cute pied-faced Bridled Titmouse that was foraging right along a great looking Cassin’s Vireo. White-winged and Mourning Doves flew by at times and at least one Black-throated Gray Warbler joined the much more common Audubon’s Yellow-rumped Warblers scattered through the treetops. Bewick’s Wrens scratchy calls emanated from the tree trunks as they played hopscotch with White-breasted Nuthatches. With so many trees perhaps its no surprise that woodpeckers were in abundance. It was hard to decide whether to look at the yellow-bellied Gila Woodpeckers, or black and white pattern of the slightly less common Ladder-backed Woodpeckers. A ‘pip pip pip’ call alerted us to a rarity that eventually blurted out its unique ‘jose mariah’ song. A Greater Pewee methodically flew to the ground, then to the canopy, then to mid-strata with brief breaks on prominent perches working the shoreline of the Santa Cruz River.

Further south is the Tumacacori National Historic Park that protects precious historical landmarks, but also has a fountain in its courtyard that acts like a magnet for birds passing by. Soon after we arrived one of the best birding experiences I’ve had in Arizona occurred and luckily we were all there to experience it together. First was a flock of Black Vultures, with all features seen well, kettling right over the van. Second was a confiding Townsend’s Solitaire that came to the ground for sips from the fountain outflow and shortly after a pitch black Phainopepla came in to join it. Third some high tinkly bell calls revealed a flock of mostly male Lawrence’s Goldfinches with some Lessers mixed in that we waited patiently to come within feet of the group to get a drink from the bubbling fountain. Finally, just as we were getting ready to leave a flock of 8 Red Crossbills showed up out of nowhere and, thanks to sitting still and being very patient, the group came in for brief drinks and allowed a frenzy of photos to take place at eye level in perfect light. Not to be underrated, a dapper Lark Sparrow vowed for our attention perched in an elderberry, right along with a young White-crowned Sparrow.

We were then off to Madera Canyon where we ate our picnic lunch and enjoyed watching even more Townsend’s Solitaires, joined by numerous American Robins and Hermit Thrushes devouring pyracantha berries. Nearby a coatimundi was seen lurking through the streambed and we all enjoyed observing a very confiding Painted Redstart that insisted on foraging on the ground at eye level, flashing its colors trying to make its unique prey reveal itself. The Santa Rita Lodge rewarded us with lengthy views of Rivoli’s Hummingbird, one of North America’s largest. Hutton’s Vireo was a lesson in identification trying to differentiate it from the more numerous Ruby-crowned Kinglets, and Yellow-eyed Juncos foraged among the tame Wild Turkeys under the feeders. An Inca Dove, rare for this location, picked through the short grass and numerous Mexican Jays raided all possible food sources. An Acorn Woodpecker’s antics are always fun to watch, and we were easily able to pick out an Arizona Woodpecker when it popped in, North American’s only brown candidate. While walking back to the van a bright streaky male Townsend’s Warbler gleaned bugs from a patch of juniper berries, adding a nice send off to our time in this stunning canyon. On our way east to Sierra Vista through the gently rolling grasslands Red-tailed Hawks and Common Ravens were numerous. A light-colored raptor was spotted dueling with a raven and we pulled over to check out. A surprise Ferruginous Hawk flew overhead with its dihedral flight and white tail in detail. A bonus bird while stopped was a flock of Mountain Bluebirds that seemed to be watching us watching them, their colors matching the blue sky overhead.

Jan 28: 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 and scanned the water from a rocky hillside. Ducks were utilizing the shallow east end, and we quickly noted a few American Coots feeding on the shoreline, not far from some diving Bufflehead, and a Pied-billed Grebe show, both visual and audio. Across the lake a couple Black-crowned Night Herons snoozed on bending branches. Some emerged stumps gave rest to several Double-crested and Neotropic Cormorants, giving us a great lesson in how to differentiate this similar looking pair. A small flock of both bright green and rufous-headed Common Mergansers slowly came into view. The muddy verges of the marsh gave us great looks at a couple Song Sparrows feeding in the brushy verges 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 work its way along the willow-fringed edge. Down by Sonoita Creek a kind observer pointed out a group of 13 Inca Doves all sitting together on 1 branch. In walking through one of the mesquite bosques scattered throughout the park, the presence of lots of American Robins feeding on dropped hackberries was no surprise given our luck with this species up to this point. One more scope of the lake was a worthy endeavor as we were able to pick up a male Greater Scaup actively diving just beyond the reeds. Some people had a stately Osprey fly over, an odd thing to see in this predominantly desert landscape.

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 30 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. In the Patagonia Town Park, it took much less time to find the wintering male Williamson’s Sapsucker working on his sap wells in some of the towering pine trees. It was amazing to me how quickly we found this bird, having spent many hours over the years unsuccessfully searching for this species on other tours. On the way back ‘home’ we made a stop in Las Cienega National Conservation Area to check a watering hole for any grassland birds coming in for one last drink. When opening the gate to enter the area Adam made a new friend. A young Red-tailed Hawk refused to move from the fence post right next to him during the entire process. Northern Harriers of both sexes floated by low with wings held in dihedral formation and unidentified meadowlarks flushed from the roadsides. We pulled up to our planned stop and a pair of Killdeer were walking through a wet spot, but never made a peep…a tough thing for any Killdeer to do. Several Horned Larks were strolling through the cow patty maze and eventually a swirling flock of sparrows came wheeling in and landed nearby. We got amazing views of Chestnut-collared Longspurs with various degrees of rufous collars and black bellies, and a couple highly sought after Thick-billed Longspurs in the mix. These birds exhibited their plain expressions well, however did sport black chest bands, big pink bill, and rusty wing line to everyone’s liking.

Jan 29: The world-famous Sulphur Springs Valley was furnished with abundant Sandhill Cranes and teemed with raptors. En route to our first destination we noted sparrow flocks containing scads of White-crowned, groups of lovely Lark, singles of Vesper, and small groups of non-descript but still beautiful Brewer’s Sparrows. The holy grail of thrashers was also spotted while checking out a sparrow flock when all of a sudden, a curious Bendire’s Thrasher lit on top of a mesquite tree. Thousands of cranes began flying in mid-day as wave after wave of gray lines filled the sky at Whitewater Draw. We cherished 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. Some other species of ducks added to our growing waterfowl list here were a group of Ring-necked Ducks of both sexes, a pair of Mexican Ducks for analysis, and a single male Lesser Scaup actively diving in the deepest part of the small pond. A sizeable white flock of Snow Geese, with a bunch of Ross’s thrown in, were a surprise to see and not what people expect in the hot and dry desert this region epitomizes. We were able to observe some of the Least Sandpipers thoroughly giving a great lesson in peep identification. A group of probing Long-billed Dowitchers was a welcome sight, as was a solo White-faced Ibis revealing its bright red eye nicely sealing the ID deal. We trekked around the muddy banks in the company of an American Pipit with tail bobbing nature, and there was rarely a time when a Vermilion Flycatcher wasn’t in view. A very cryptic Barn Owl was eventually spotted in a grove of trees. It’s no wonder owls are so hard to find after seeing it blend in perfectly with the willow trunk it was parallel to. While driving some of the farm roads in this area a flock of Killdeer was scanned and revealed a complete surprise group of Mountain Plovers feeding amongst them! This species is very rare in the Sulphur Springs Valley in winter and the world population is shrinking drastically so we felt extremely fortunate to add this bird to most people’s life lists. As if this experience couldn’t be beat, a short distance away was a group of at least 20 Mountain Bluebirds in another field, sporting their amazing blue colors and propensity for wide open spaces. We traveled north along route 191 until a raptor sitting on the ground made us slam on the breaks. It turned out to be a light morph Ferruginous Hawk waiting patiently at the entrance hole of an unsuspecting small mammal of unknown kind. Flocks of blackbirds were constantly flying overhead and hundreds landed at a nearby puddle to get an opportune drink. Shiny Brewer’s Blackbirds were right along striking Yellow-headed, with some female Red-winged and Brown-headed Cowbirds in the mix. Not to be left out were a pair of Western Meadowlarks popping their heads up in the nearby grass stubble. Just before dinner we enjoyed a pair of Great Horned Owls emerge from the cottonwood grove near our lodge and fly close to us when heading out for a night of feeding. In the last rays of the day a Barn Owl emerged to do the same, showing white facial disks nicely in the waning light.

Jan 30: This morning we scoured the north-flowing San Pedro River picking through flocks of sparrows and glassing every raptor we saw perched. Before we even left the Casa a Cactus Wren family called from the safety of a yucca, a daily occurrence from this highly entertaining species. A distant meadowlark was scoped that turned out to be a Chihuahuan, a fairly recent split from Eastern Meadowlark. It took us a while to track it down after being flushed by a Sharp-shinned Hawk landing nearby. We managed to get up close views after it perched tightly on a barbed wire fence right next to our eager group who managed to get some amazing photos. Just before leaving a Townsend’s Solitaire came in to get a drink from the feeding area’s ornate water feature. At the San Pedro House huge wintering flock of White-winged Doves were sunning as the sun slowly rose. Bright male Pyrrhuloxia frequented feeders, and even sat at-length atop mesquite trees for photos. Seeing Brewer’s and Chipping Sparrows in quick succession was good for seeing the differences among these two similar looking species. We had a good study of Mexican Ducks in the San Pedro River. In a large log jam in the river, a tiny brown object was bouncing in and out of the dense cover. It revealed itself as a little Winter Wren, a very rare bird in this part of the country, but proving this is a good winter across the region for this variety of wren. Further upriver next to Kingfisher Pond a raptor flew in a perched across the flowing water. A male Gray Hawk, new for this tour, lit on a cottonwood branch and showed its namesake color, bright yellow bill and cere, and black and white banded tail flawlessly. In the parking lot a male American Kestrel sat prominently at the mouth of a hole in a cut off tree branch of one of the immense old cottonwood trees, peering out over his kingdom and making sure no marauding Starlings would take over this prime piece of real estate. After lunch we stopped by a country club to not find the previously reported Cassin’s Kingbird, but we did find it interesting the back 9 holes at the golf course had been closed due to active mountain lion sightings in the wash behind the tees. Cruising through the neighborhoods bagged us a covey of Gambel’s Quail in a brush pile, seeming to crawl out of the woodwork revealing many more than we initially thought were hiding there. The van 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 showed us well just how dangerous these roads into the mountains can be. A piece of orange flagging caught our attention so we peered over the side of the cliff to see an Audi car looking back up at us that had slid off the icy road and was still at the bottom of a ravine. We weren’t deterred in our quest to get to the mid-elevation and the birds that were awaiting us. The van was parked at the highest gate indicating the road was closed from there on up. Despite the continued windy conditions, a pair of towhee-like Rufous-crowned Sparrows came in to inspect us closely right near our feet at the roadside. Nearby a highly vocal flock of Bushtits announced their presence loudly, chattering about as they passed by on a foraging expedition. This evening we went back up into the Huachuca Mountains after dinner to track down and successfully find a Whiskered Screech Owl. We heard it initially distantly up the hillside, but then followed it as it worked down to the road right over our heads to stare at us in the torch light.

Jan 31: 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 good souvenir shop with just about any animal from the region possible to get on a hat.  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, and a tiny but mighty Black-tailed Gnatcatcher showing us who was boss. The largest hummingbird in the country, the mighty Blue-throated Mountain-gem, was seen exceedingly well at Cave Creek Ranch. The other hummer coming to the feeders was a female Broad-billed, as was a confiding Painted Redstart tasting the jelly. A group of Lesser Goldfinches and a Hairy Woodpecker came briefly to the feeders. A pair of Evening Grosbeaks dropping in were new for the tour, and a lifer for many. A meal worm feeder within’ a few feet of some of us played vigil to an adult Townsend’s Warbler coming in for the provided buffet. A single Common Ground Dove joined the more numerous Inca Doves perched in a mesquite. The lichen-covered pink rocks began to show themselves as we climbed up above the 7000’ 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. In the pine zone a Steller’s Jay hopped from branch to branch above Turkey Creek. Snow prevented us from getting to the top of the Chiricahua Mountains so we turned around when we were forced to. Lucky for us, a few calls were heard while driving back down the mountains with the windows open. The van stopped and much to our delight were eye level with a group of 3 Mexican Chickadees, a huge prize for any North American birder! Also in this area was a pair of Cassin’s Finches, our second to last new species for the day. On the way out of town above the towering cliffs over Portal an adult Golden Eagle swooped in looking for a place to roost for the night.

Feb 1: Our last full 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 up to this point. We first checked out Las Cienegas National Conservation area and its gently rolling grasslands bookmarked by several scenic mountain ranges. Various flavors of Red-tailed Hawks were utilizing the windy conditions, and several groups of Mountain Bluebirds foraged in the short grass fields.  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.  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. We headed to La Posta Quemada Ranch in hopes of finding some of the birds recently reported here. Comparisons of both Hammond’s and Gray Flycatchers were noted, especially their preference for actively feeding in complete different habitats. A single Red-naped Sapsucker was photo’d while we were looking for and eventually finding our main quarry. A couple of Rufous-backed Robins were calling this park home for the winter feeding on the numerous fruiting hackberry trees, and we were happy to add this rare Mexican visitor to everyone’s life lists. After a lunch of the region’s famed Sonoran Hotdogs, we checked out Reid Park, a vibrant oasis in the middle of Tucson. A bunch of ducks here including Wood and Ring-necked, Canvasback, and Redhead were all seen at point blank range and insisted on up-close pictures. One large mesquite tree was harboring a horde of hunched Black-crowned Night Herons hiding in plain sight. A group of Neotropic Cormorants didn’t mind how close we got as we admired their unbelievably beautiful emerald eyes. Our final new species of the trip was found here when a wintering Lewis’s Woodpecker perched atop a snag at the north end of the park, allowing admiration of its pink chest and green sheen. After a break we headed downtown for our final farewell dinner at one of the best Mexican restaurants in town where we laughed and reminisced about the week we’d just had.

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, 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. The group got along amazing well this year, allowing for an easy pace and lots of delightful conversations throughout the day. 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, 2023

Created: 23 February 2023