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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Arizona: Owls and Warblers

2022 Narrative

In Brief: The 2022 WINGS Spring Arizona tour combined a wealth of the namesake owls and warblers as well as several truly rare species among some of the best scenery on offer in the country. The spring of 2022 was warm, and a lot of our lingering wintering birds and earlier migrant species had long since headed north before our tour dates. Despite the rather light presence of migrants, we very much enjoyed the week, tallying an impressive 208 species. Our avian highlights were many. Resident birds such Cactus Wrens, Acorn Woodpecker, Broad-billed Hummingbird, and Steller’s Jay all showed very well. Summer migrants were in excellent form too, with particularly good views of Elegant Trogon, Blue-throated Mountain-Gem and Red-faced Warbler. This tour focuses on night-birding too, and among the three nightjars and seven species of owls we enjoyed a day-roosting Spotted Owl and a nocturnal encounter with Whiskered Screech-Owl. Perhaps the most unique thing this year was our very good luck with vagrant flycatchers. We started the trip with a successful journey into Happy Valley for a Nutting’s Flycatcher, caught up with a cute Tufted Flycatcher in Rucker Canyon mid-tour, and then capped the trip off with a newly discovered Pine Flycatcher high up in the Catalinas. Not all the vagrants were Mexican in origin though, as we found an adult Laughing Gull in Willcox. As is always the case we found a host of non-birds as well including odonates and lizards. All in all, just a fantastic week in the field!

In Detail: We met in the mid-afternoon this year, but rather than follow the script with a short visit to the nearby Sweetwater Wetlands we opted to head a little farther afield in pursuit of a recently reported Nutting’s Flycatcher. A few weeks prior to our tour a local birder with a penchant for remote hiking found an odd sounding Myiarchus flycatcher along a forested creek in Happy Valley, a picturesque area on the east flank of the Rincon Mountains. He was able to document the call and photographed the bird extensively, and it didn’t take long for the experts to weigh in that he had, in fact, located Pima County’s first documented Nutting’s Flycatcher. Amazingly the bird lingered in the area, and about two weeks later it was seen repeatedly checking out a nesting cavity in a large creekside Sycamore tree. This flycatcher species is exceedingly rare in the United States, with fewer than five accepted records along the borderlands of the southwest and a small, seemingly ephemeral, breeding population of a handful of birds along a remote stretch of the Colorado River. We made the roughly 70-minute drive in good time, and within just a quarter of an hour or so of waiting, were treated to excellent views of the bird as it poked its head out of the cavity and then perched on a nearby sunlit branch. In the scopes we could make out the broken tip to the bird’s upper mandible (an ID feature unique to this individual). The creek was alive with birds, and in the short time that we tarried after the flycatcher flew off to forage, we tallied our first Yellow and Lucy’s Warblers, Acorn Woodpecker, Bell’s Vireo, Summer Tanager and Lesser Goldfinches, all without really moving an inch. We didn’t want dinner to be too late, so we started the drive back towards Tucson, stopping a few times when we noticed something of interest. A cooperative Olive-sided Flycatcher was sitting atop a prominent snag, and in nearby tree we admired a nesting pair of Gray Hawks that took off once we stopped the van but showed their banded black and white tails and silvery bodies well as they circled around the nesting tree. One bird even perched for a time, allowing us to scope it for even better views. Vermilion, Ash-throated and Brown-crested Flycatchers, American Kestrels and a migrant Swainson’s Hawk distracted us as well, but we eventually reached the highway and made the quick drive back to the hotel. Our usual restaurant was closed due to a water leak, so we made do with another location just down the road, toasting ourselves on an excellent start to the tour!

On the second day, we traveled north into Pinal County. Leaving Tucson behind we soon found ourselves amidst fantastic carved canyons, and an amazingly complex geologic history in search of a few species that are very rare, or not findable in Southeastern Arizona. On the northern edge of Tucson, we screeched to a halt to admire a perched Harris’s Hawk sitting on a roadside pole. This beautiful raptor is a study of chocolate brown, reddish and white, and is unique in that it hunts cooperatively in extended family groups like a pack of aeolian wolves. The bird obligingly turned around and showed off its striking white tail bands and rusty shoulders. About an hour into our journey, we dropped down into the San Pedro River Valley and into the little town of Mammoth. Our planned stop at the petrol station was protracted slightly when we discovered our first Curve-billed Thrashers, Black-throated Sparrows, Cooper’s Hawk, White-throated Swifts and a few Eurasian Collared-Doves (a species that has truly become a fixture throughout the southern part of the state) that were all hanging out around a well vegetated desert wash behind the building. A small sewage pond near the San Pedro River was hosting a pair of Mexican Mallards, a mixed group of herons that included three Snowy Egrets two Great Egrets and one Great Blue Heron. Here too were our first Spotted Sandpipers, a group of White-throated Swifts and Northern Rough-winged Swallows that were occasionally swooping over the ponds for a quick drink before zipping over our heads. At one point a Red-tailed Hawk carrying a chunky lizard flew across the ponds, stirring up a few White-faced Ibis that had been lurking around the grassy edges of one of the ponds.

We then continued just a little farther north into the very beautiful Aravaipa Canyon, our primary birding location for the morning. This cottonwood and willow filled canyon provides a permanent water source in an otherwise parched landscape and is a reliable location for nesting Common Black-Hawks. As we neared the mouth of the canyon, we stopped along a Saguaro covered desert ridge and were successful at locating a nesting pair of Gilded Flickers that were seemingly bringing in food to their nestlings. This handsome desert woodpecker can be elusive and relatively thin on the ground even in prime habitat. They specialize in using Saguaro cavities as nesting sites and are seldom found away from areas that lack good numbers of older Saguaros. We enjoyed some scope views of the male near its likely nest cavity, and were able to see the darker cap, smaller black bib and golden underwings that separate this Saguaro loving species from the widespread Northern Flicker as it peered around from the back of the trunk.

A little further along we entered the canyon proper. It’s an incredibly scenic spot, with a permanently flowing creek with patches of thick and tall Fremont Cottonwoods and Mountain Ash, stands of Mesquite and Willow, scattered fields and houses and lush Sonoran Desert on the slopes below towering cliffs. We drove out to the terminus of the road, where the Aravaipa Wilderness Trail takes off and heads east into the heart of the canyon. Along the way we stopped a few times, to admire our first Purple Martins that were investigating a cavity in a roadside Saguaro cactus. These desert martins are quite different in their migration timing and breeding habits to the eastern population of Purple Martins. Perhaps some bright grad student will someday publish some genetic and behavioral study on the complex. We also spotted some cooperatively soaring Gray Hawks, several Phainopepla, Black-chinned and Broad-billed Hummingbirds, Say’s Phoebe, and a little troupe of Javelina crossing the road. We spotted a distant Common Black-Hawk briefly soaring over a large patch of trees, but it quickly sank behind them and did not reappear. While we waited for it to pop back up though we did note a passing Zone-tailed Hawk among a group of Turkey Vultures and were able to see Brown-crested and Ash-throated Flycatchers in quick succession. While scanning for the Black-Hawk we noticed a very distant raptor sitting on a utility pole upslope from the road. In the scope we could make out a slaty back, long yellow legs and a yellow cere. We were fairly certain that we had our bird, but we navigated closer for a better look. Soon enough we were just below the pole and were thrilled to see the Common Black-Hawk take off and circle overhead several times; showing off the wide and short tail with a wide white subterminal band, and broad bulging wings that help to separate this species with the more common Zone-tailed. It had taken a bit of time to track down, but in the end our views were excellent!  Before leaving the canyon, we stopped a few more times, picking up a nice mix of birds including “western” Warbling Vireo, Bewick’s Wren, Yellow and Wilson’s Warblers, Bell’s Vireo and Ladder-backed Woodpecker.

Due to the catastrophic fires during the summer of 2021 that scorched huge tracts of land to the south of Globe we decided to not head further north in search of Gray Vireo and Black-chinned Sparrows. Most of the scrub that the birds used to inhabit near the road was virtually leveled and it will take a decade or more for the manzanita and oak to recover from the burn. We instead headed back south, stopping back in Mammoth for a delicious lunch and then driving westwards and out to the agricultural fields that surround the small (but rapidly growing) town of Marana. On the way we were distracted by a large nest in an isolated Saguaro cactus. We stopped and were thrilled to find an adult Great Horned Owl with a quite large chick. The adult flew off as we stopped, but the chick stared at us with a curious eye as we studied it in our scopes. Once in Marana we stopped in to a site where Pima County has been reintroducing Burrowing Owls. Despite the heat and the time of day we were able to spot two birds sitting out near their burrows. These portly little owls are always a treat to see, looking for all the world like slightly overweight country gentlemen in tweed suits. Here too were several Horned Larks, and in the irrigated yard of a nearby farmhouse we picked out two male Yellow-headed Blackbirds foraging on the lawn. A quick check of a hidden lake near the highway revealed a group of four Blue-winged Teal and a few American Coots. Back in Tucson we stopped in and found a pair of staked out Barn Owls that have recently been using a drainage pipe under one of the bridges that cross the Santa Cruz River. On this day the birds (at least three) were well tucked into the pipe, but with some judicious scope placement it was possible to see them fairly well as they snoozed several feet down the entrance to the pipe. Starting a birding trip with three daytime owl species is always a good choice! 

Our last stop for the day was to one of Tucson’s better wetland areas. Sweetwater Wetlands is a developed wetland adjacent to the Santa Cruz River and boasts about a half-dozen ponds lined with ever-growing stands of Fremont Cottonwood, Gooding’s Willow and Four-winged Saltbush. The ponds serve as a tertiary treatment facility linked to the city’s main sewage works, where the already treated water is filtered through the vegetated ponds before it is allowed to percolate back into the groundwater or be discharged into the river. The park ponds have extensive cattail beds and are surrounded by settling basins and an ever-growing patch of tall riparian trees and open land. The wetlands have attracted over 300 species of birds over the decades since their conception and the site serves as a really great introduction to the common riparian and desert birds of the region. We wandered around the park for about an hour, soaking up a nice cross-section of the more common local birds. Along the short “river” at the entrance of the park we stopped to watch a host of birds coming in to drink or feed in the impressive flowering mesquite trees. House Finches, Yellow Warblers a female Common Yellowthroat, Song and White-crowned Sparrows and a few Lesser Goldfinches were admired in turn. The city managers have been struggling with controlling the cattail beds and some exotic aquatic plants and their winter strategy of repeatedly drying out the entire facility and burning the cattail patches resulted in a bit of an ecological mess from the local birdlife perspective. Nevertheless, we did find a single Common Gallinule (an oddly local species in the state), two Western Kingbirds, some nestbuilding Verdin, and a pair of eventually cooperative Abert’s Towhees that were lurking in the depths of a large quailbush. It wasn’t all about the birds though, as we also found a bouncing Arizona Cotton Rat, a hulking male Desert Spiny Lizard doing push-ups on the trail, lots of introduced Red-eared Sliders and Eastern Mosquitofish and a host of colourful odonates including Mexican Amberwing, Blue Dasher and Flame Skimmer. We headed back to the hotel for a brief rest and then enjoyed a lovely dinner on the patio of a downtown courtyard restaurant.

On day three we began with a short visit to Agua Caliente Park, a comparatively lush oasis tucked into the desert in the northeast part of the city. Here we were quickly successful at tracking down singing Pyrrhuloxia and Rufous-winged Sparrow around the carpark and a stunning male Hooded Oriole in the palm trees around the main lake. It’s a scenic and birdy spot, but after a bit of a walk around we started up the winding road that snakes its way up into the high reaches of the Santa Catalina Mountains. This 25-mile drive starts in upland Sonoran Desert and ends in spruce-fir forest similar in feel to Washington State! We stopped regularly, each time accessing a slightly different avifauna. Our first stop was just a tad over the magic 5000 ft marker, where the desert slopes clad in thick stands of Saguaros give way to the first Arizona Sycamores, oaks and pines. Here we found our first Black-throated Gray and Virginia’s Warblers, a pair of Hepatic Tanagers and circling Violet-green Swallows sitting up in the morning sun. Probably the highlight species of the stop though was the very cooperative pair of Painted Redstarts that came in to check us out. This is, yet another fancy montane warbler, black and scarlet with huge white patches in the wing and lots of white in the tail. They forage acrobatically, almost dancing along trunks and branches with flared tails and drooped wings. This foraging style and the pattered tail reminded ornithologists of the American Redstart, but this species is more tropical in origin belonging to a group better referred to as Whitestarts.

We then drove well up the road to reach the pine forest, where our first lengthy birding stop was along the shady and towering trees that line Bear Wallow Road. It is truly remarkable how different the top of the mountain feels from the baking desert floor just a few miles down the road. With a slight breeze and temperatures in the upper 60s for the morning it was a welcome relief (it’s no wonder that the small village on the top of Mount Lemmon is called Summerhaven). Here, amidst the small-toothed maple, trembling aspen and huge Douglas firs we walked along a trail with clusters of thick oak in the understory. Just as we exited the van, we could hear Mountain Chickadees and Cordilleran Flycatchers calling from along the road, and we were soon successful at obtaining excellent looks at both species.

Here too were our first of many Red-faced Warblers, arguably the most attractive of the U.S. wood warblers. Clad in crimson, silver, black and gray they cut a striking figure against the green backdrop of the high elevation forests. As is often the case around upper Mount Lemmon we found the species to be common with several dozen individuals seen over the morning, many down at near ground level, and all spectacular.

Some handsome Spotted Towhees bouncing around on the ground along the edge of the road elicited more excitement from the group than the adjacent American Robins. Yellow-eyed Juncos showed well here too, with several pairs darting around in the understory, flaring their namesake golden irises at us as we walked past. 

Migrants seemed underrepresented, but we enjoyed looks at a lot of high elevation birds such as Pygmy and Red-breasted Nuthatch, Orange-crowned Warbler, House Wren, Black-headed Grosbeak and a passing Sharp-shinned Hawk. As it was Mother’s Day we found the areas around Summerhaven to be particularly busy, so we decided that we should take lunch back near the base of the mountain. Before heading down though we checked out one of the sets of bird feeders around town. The seed feeders were attracting dozens of Black-headed Grosbeaks as well as a few Yellow-eyed Juncos and some lingering Pine Siskins. At one point we were also treated to comparison views of a male Hairy and a male Acorn Woodpecker vying for the same set of feeders. The larger Acorn pushed out the Hairy without much effort, leaving the loser sulking on a nearby trunk as it gorged itself on peanuts.

Hummingbirds were around as well, occasionally buzzing in and feeding on a feeder hanging from the edge of the roof. Most were Broad-tailed Hummingbirds, which is the expected species at such a high elevation. While waiting though we also saw a male Rivoli’s Hummingbird and (quite a surprise) a female Blue-throated Mountain-Gem. During the previous summer a female Mountain-Gem was seen sporadically at these same feeders but this was the first sighting for 2022!  Our chosen lunch spot near the base of the mountain was superlative, providing us with excellent coffees and epically sized and delicious salads. As we began the drive southwards towards Green Valley we stopped briefly at the main pond in Reid Park and quickly located our hoped for Neotropic Cormorant, as well as a few lingering American Wigeon. This particular cormorant, named Stumpy by the Reid Park regulars, has only one wing. It has been living at the park for years and seems quite healthy otherwise. An additional advantage is that he is quite tame, so we were able to stand just a few feet away and really study the finer plumage details that separate this smaller species from the generally more familiar Double-crested Cormorant.

In the latter afternoon we visited Madera Canyon, on the north flank of the Santa Rita Mountains. Long a favored spot by birders, this oak-filled canyon has permanent water (in patches) in its small rocky creek. We started out at the Santa Rita Lodge feeders, where we were entertained by the antics of the local “Wild” Turkey flock that seems to have permanently moved in under the feeders. A male Arizona Woodpecker showed well here, as did lots of garrulous Mexican Jays, Black-chinned and Broad-billed Hummingbirds, and some quite rotund Arizona Gray Squirrels. A short walk along the creek revealed Brown-crested Flycatcher, a close study of a migrant Dusky Flycatcher, our first Western Wood-Pewee, White-breasted Nuthatch and Bridled Titmouse and a few more Painted Redstarts. Along the actual creek we also tracked down a singing Canyon Treefrog and found a few odonates including Red Rock Skimmer and Apache Dancer. We then headed down to Green Valley to check in to our hotel for the next two nights, and where dinner chatter partially centered on how many diverse habitats we had experienced over the course of the day.

We started the next day spending the morning walking north of the Tubac Bridge along the Anza Trail. Tall riparian vegetation here consists of Fremont Cottonwood, willows and mesquites with a mixed and often almost verdant understory. This vibrant landscape is only possible due to the free-flowing waters of the Santa Cruz. Water is pumped into the riverbed from the international sewage treatment plant in Nogales, and for nearly 25 miles flows almost continuously downstream.  We parked under some towering cottonwoods and spent almost fifteen minutes just birding around the parking lot, and the adjacent public restroom. A pair of Tropical Kingbirds were twittering away in a nearby tree, occasionally perching up on some bare limbs for us to study. A pair of squeaking Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks were flying back and forth along the edge of the treeline, and a young Gray Hawk was sitting on a roadside pole. Eventually we pulled ourselves away from the parking area and started walking down the trail. It was a bit of slow going, as we kept stopping to admire birds every few feet. The forest was quite active with local breeders in good song. The sweet tones of Yellow and Lucy’s Warblers, Gila and Ladder-backed Woodpeckers, Bewick’s Wren and Abert’s Towhee and Yellow-breasted Chats formed a near constant background din. Along with these more common species we also tracked down a cooperative Bridled Titmouse, several pairs of Ash-throated and Brown-crested Flycatchers and some soaring Gray Hawks and Black Vultures. Perhaps the most interesting find was a vocal and responsive Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet that was perched just over the trail. After a slow-paced 30-minute walk we arrived at the impressively large active nest of a Rose-throated Becard. After nearly a decade with no known nesting pair a couple of pairs of this attractive tropical bird have set up shop along the Santa Cruz. They build a globular nest of leaves and branches that hangs high in the canopy. We sat down to wait and after about a half-hour the bird dropped out of the nest and disappeared to the west. Presumably she went off foraging, but within a few minutes was back at the nest, this time perching on the top of the structure with some thin strips of bark that she started to weave into the roof. We decided that none of us could build such a structure ourselves, even with opposable thumbs and tools.

Leaving Tubac behind we traveled a bit to the south to access the de Anza trail a little east of Rio Rico. Here we settled down on the riverbank for what turned out to be a rather short vigil for one of the local Green Kingfishers that are nesting not too far from the trailhead. After about fifteen minutes the male bird zipped by heading upstream; a small glittering green-black rocket. In recent years a very small population of these tropical jewellike kingfishers has become established along this stretch of the Santa Cruz. Finding one is a matter of luck, as the birds are often wary, and each pair wander over a mile or more of river as they forage for small dace and mosquitofish, but it certainly helps if you know roughly where an active nest site is! 

As we still had a bit of time remaining on the morning, we decided to check out a couple of small water bodies that lie near the Santa Cruz River a bit to the south of Green Valley. Around the small sewage treatment pond in Amado, we found a host of swallows, including our first Bank, foraging over the water. Here too were our first Ring-necked and Ruddy Ducks, and several loafing Black-necked Stilts. The nearby lake at the historic Canoa Ranch (a newly minted and truly excellent birding location that has benefitted greatly by the extensive habitat restoration and plantings done by Pima County and the landowners) we tallied a lingering male Redhead, a couple of flighty female Costa’s Hummingbirds, and very close views of foraging Gambel’s Quail and Curve-billed Thrasher.  We then headed to Green Valley to enjoy an early lunch at a new coffee shop in Green Valley that was quite close to the hotel. The menu here is varied and quite interesting; my bacon and pear bagel sandwich paired with a Tajin-enhanced mango smoothie was superlative! 

After our break, we set off on our long and bumpy ride into California Gulch, nestled on the Mexican border in the southern Atascosa Mountains. This drive is scenic and passes through some of the most remote country along the U.S.-Mexico border. The southern half of the Atascosas act as the headwaters for a southerly flowing drainage called the Rio Sonoyta, which empties into the northeastern corner of the Gulf of California. This stands in stark contrast to the majority of the watersheds in southern Arizona which flow northerly and then into the Colorado River watershed. This more southerly aspect to the region means that many “Mexican” species cross the border into the watershed, including many species of plants, insects, fish and reptiles that can only be found in this tiny corner of the state within the United States. On the way we made a brief stop at a small pond (although the 2022 version was dry) along Arivaca Creek. Part of the sprawling Buenos Aires NWR this site has some very dense vegetation around the usually deep pond basin and serves as a great migrant trap in the spring. Atop some of the taller trees that ringed the pond we spotted a pair of vocal and quite boisterous Thick-billed Kingbird. With their huge bills, dark caps and barely yellow underparts these flycatchers are quite distinctive. Though the species is widespread from western Mexico southwards to almost the Guatemala border it is very local in the U.S., with an estimated 100-120 pairs scattered around Southeastern Arizona.

About an hour later we were parked near the bottom of California Gulch, a pretty (if rather unremarkable) steep walled canyon with remnant thornscrub and scattered Saguaros on the slopes and a thick riparian corridor along its mostly dry riverbed. We were all surprised to see stretches of the newly constructed border wall visible in the rolling and remote terrain. Although construction has halted here and elsewhere along the border a significant amount of habitat destruction has already taken place and the outlook for remediation seems bleak. We arrived in plenty of time to look for some of the Five-striped Sparrows that occur along the creek here. We had to check a couple of territories before we heard a response, but when we did the bird popped up nicely in view in a nearby mesquite tree, lingering as if it were on display at a Parisian fashion show. It’s a handsome sparrow, clad in slate-gray, brown, white and black, and quite intricately patterned. Within the United States Five-striped Sparrows breed in only a handful of canyons around SE Arizona and are thus perhaps the most localized regular breeding bird in the country. We then walked back to the car to enjoy our picnic dinner and drinks as we waited for darkness to fall, with circling Red-tailed and Cooper’s Hawks, slowly drifting Turkey Vultures and the seemingly everpresent Vermilion Flycatcatchers as companions.

Just as the skies began to really darken, we heard the telltale “cucucucucuchaweea” of our main quarry emanating from the adjacent brush covered slope south of the van. It was fairly high up the slope, and unlike in most previous years the bird soon quieted down. Although Buff-collared Nightjars are admittedly cute if seen well it is their call that is perhaps the most important and distinctive field mark. Even though the site is one of the more remote drivable areas along the Arizona-Mexico border the visitation by birders here is heavy and as there are only a tiny handful of known males in the country (and even fewer records of actual nests) I’m always happy to not push these birds around or use tape whenever I can avoid it. We did hear another bird on a nearby slope call a few times as well but elected not to go clambering up the loose stony hill in the dark. We turned our attentions to owls, and within just a few minutes of trying located an amazingly cooperative Elf Owl not too far from our parked van. The bird was sitting near a nest hole that has been in use for several years and it seemed completely nonplussed by our presence. While we were watching it by torchlight the bird flew up and grabbed a large insect from a nearby branch and then sat back and started eating it while we watched. Seeing owls acting normally and being able to witness some of their nocturnal behavior while in torchlight is a real treat!  Before we left the gulch, we stopped in on another slope that has been hosting nightjars for the last several years. To our surprise this bird was still in excellent song, singing repeatedly from the denser shrubs up the slope. We hurried over and were able to see the bird perched up in a distant treetop, sallying out to catch insects and repeatedly moving position. Although distant, the eyeshine was bright and obvious, and a couple of times when the bird flew up to chase some delectable moth, we could see flashes of white in the undertail. Our drive back to Green Valley took place under an inky black and star-filled sky, with a few Black-tailed Jackrabbits, a family of Northern Raccoons and the odd Mule Deer along the road.

The next day was one of those simply wonderful days in the field, when all of the hoped-for birds cooperate beautifully and the weather is perfect. We enjoyed a bit of a later start due to our long night and then drove down to the town of Patagonia, where spent some time birding around the Paton Center for Hummingbirds. The Tucson Audubon Society has been busily improving the habitat around the property with extensive native plantings, a new viewing gazebo and two small ponds, as well as a better connection to the adjacent Sonoita Creek Nature Conservancy property. We chatted a bit with the local docent and decided to start our visit with a slow walk down the creekbed behind the property. The town of Patagonia releases a bit of water from their wastewater treatment plant a few hundred feet downstream from the Paton property, and a small stretch of surface water along the bank was attracting a nice array of species in the morning sun. Song and White-crowned Sparrows and a Black Phoebe were busily foraging along the wet sand, and while we watched them a Western Tanager and a few Inca Doves came in for a drink as well. We also spotted a group of Common Ground Doves buried in a nearby bush and scoped a bright male Blue Grosbeak that was perched over the water. Sighting Hammond’s Flycatcher and Western Wood-Pewee fulfilled our cryptic flycatcher fix for the morning. It was a pleasant walk, but after forty minutes or so we headed back to the feeder arrays at the center. Here we spent a bit of time in the company of Ladder-backed Woodpecker, Yellow-breasted Chat, Northern Cardinals, Lesser Goldfinches, and Broad-billed, Anna’s and Black-chinned Hummingbird all coming into the yard feeders. The brush piles in the backyard were attracting a stream of boisterous Song Sparrows, as well as the occasional Abert’s Towhee, Bewick’s Wren or Black-headed Grosbeak. In the front yard we also found a male Indigo Bunting, a scarce migrant in Arizona. We moved into the back yard and had fun watching a parade of birds devouring suet and after fifteen minutes or so were thrilled to spot a Violet-crowned Hummingbird coming in to one of the feeders set on the back of the house. These flashy white and brown hummingbirds with cherry red bills and a bright purple crown are confined to just a few drainages along the Mexican border, and I would suppose that virtually all U.S. birders enjoyed their life bird in or very close to Patagonia. We waited around a bit longer hoping that the center’s Ruddy Ground Dove might appear for us but decided that it was time for lunch at a local café (before the other larger birding group filled all their tables). After lunch we stopped back in at the center and were informed that while we were away the dove had come in and perched in a low tree. To our delight the bird was still present, and we enjoyed views in the scope for several minutes. Despite our tour’s cumulative list stretching back twenty years this sighting marked the first occurrence for a spring WINGS trip! 

Leaving Patagonia behind we climbed up into the vast Sonoita grasslands, a wide valley with rolling hills covered in dried golden grasses. The valley is a remnant patch of tall grass prairie that connects to the expansive high elevation grasslands of central northern Mexico. While making our way to a well-known migrant trap out in the grasslands we paused to admire several pairs of the southwestern Lillian’s form of Eastern Meadowlark, a few Chihuahuan Ravens and several Horned Larks along the road edge. We walked down along a small cottonwood/willow filled drainage where the shade and short stretch of flowing water provides shelter and forage to a wealth of resident and migrant birds. Even in the heat of the afternoon we found a nice selection of birds, including our first Swainson’s Thrush and Pacific-slope Flycatcher, some flighty Northern Flickers, and some out of place American Robins. Also of interest here was a pair of Northern Bobwhite, a species that is not native to Arizona but that is often released by hunters. We drove a bit to the south to check out a small colony of Black-tailed Prairie Dogs where we were happy to watch the antics of these remarkable animals (with a few young in evidence) as they scampered around the colony site. By now the afternoon was beginning to wane, and as we wanted to bird a bit of the east flank of the Huachucas later in the day we drove out of the grasslands and over to Sierra Vista.

Our first stop in the mountains was the famous (in birding circles at least) Beatty’s Guest Ranch tucked in at the top of the Miller Canyon Road. Before entering the property, we took some time looking over the recently rebuilt frog pond in the center of the apple orchard. Back in 2011 a large fire burned much of the slopes above the Beatty’s ranch, and the subsequent rains washed so much sediment downhill that the old lake was filled completely in. This lake had been the best breeding location for Ramsey Canyon Leopard Frog left in the mountain range, and after the fire and flood, the frogs were confined to two very small ponds. The newly dug out lake already had several frogs paddling around, and we also spotted a Giant Darner (quite a rare dragonfly in the state) patrolling the edges of the water. After a bit of a chat with Tom Jr. we walked up to the controlled access site where a dozen or so hummingbird feeders are tucked under a canopy of oaks. We sat down on the comfortable and shaded bench seating and readied ourselves for a show. Hummingbirds were constantly buzzing around the feeders, often flying just over our heads as they came or went. Most were Broad-billeds, but there were good numbers of Black-chinned and Rivoli’s and a few Broad-tailed as well. Within about fifteen minutes of our arrival a male White-eared Hummingbird that fairly glowed in a fiery show of iridescence really stole the show. Over the last decade or so the Beatty’s feeders have been the spot for this stunning hummingbird, although even there only one or two individuals are present most years.

After our study of the White-eared we didn’t linger too long, as we wanted to make our way down to Ash Canyon for the end of the day. This wide canyon on the east flank of the Huachucas provides the backdrop for another of the more famous backyard birding spots in the state: the Ash Canyon Bed and Breakfast feeders. The original host and owner of the property sadly passed away back in 2019 but the property management has been taken over by the Southeastern Arizona Bird Observatory, based in nearby Bisbee. We sat down on the comfortable chairs and enjoyed the show. Around the newly constructed pond at the corner of the yard we spotted our first Bronzed Cowbird and diminutive Bushtit coming in for a drink. Busy Black-headed Grosbeaks, Western Tanagers, Ladder-backed Woodpeckers and Mexican Jays and a Bridled Titmouse were visiting the seed feeders and little pots of grape jelly that were sprinkled around the property. The yard is likely best known as a fairly consistent spot for Lucifer Hummingbird; arguably the most colorful of our hummingbirds, the small and sharp tailed males sport large and glittering magenta throats, almost too intensely-colored to be natural. While waiting for a Lucifer to appear we entertained ourselves studying Broad-tailed, Broad -billed, Anna’s (including several males with their dazzling pink helmets), and Black-chinned Hummers coming in to the feeders or foraging on some of the flowers in the garden. At one point a somewhat late female Rufous Hummingbird came in briefly to feed in a flowering Ocotillo. It took about 45 minutes or so, but eventually we were elated to have excellent views of a male Lucifer Hummingbird that came in to feed on some of the feeders just a few feet in front of our chairs. Happily, the bird was sitting at the perfect angle for us to see the full magenta sheen on the gorget. We capped the day off with a hearty dinner at a nearby Italian restaurant before making the short drive back north to our Sierra Vista hotel.

Our next day is usually spent back up in the canyons of the Huachucas, but on this year we decided to fit in Rucker Canyon; a remote and beautiful spot tucked into the southwestern corner of the Chiricahua Mountains. A short time before our tour a visiting birder found a territorial Tufted Flycatcher far up in the canyon but right along the road and happily for us the bird subsequently built a nest (without a partner) and set up a territory.

Given the perceived ease of seeing such a cute and rare species we simply had to give it a try. We started off with a brief stop at the San Pedro House, a nature center and trailhead adjacent to the San Pedro riparian corridor. The center was sadly still closed due to COVID concerns, but the trails were open and the feeders were well stocked. Here we enjoyed lengthy views of several bright male Blue Grosbeaks and our first Canyon Towhee scratching around under the feeders. The chief prize though was a Western Screech-Owl that was sitting with its head out of a cavity in one of the large cottonwoods behind the building.

Heading further east we skirted the historic town of Tombstone, and then crossed over into the Sulphur Springs Valley. We made a brief stop when we noticed a nesting Great Horned Owl up on a transmission tower. The chick was quite large, seemingly just as big as its parent despite its still downy state. Once we reached the valley it was easy to see the somewhat dire plight of the residents, who are mainly investing in agriculture through groundwater extraction, using ever-deeper wells to pump water over their crops of alfalfa, beans or (amazingly enough) sapling pecan trees. We stopped for a little while along the entrance road to Whitewater Draw, a large impoundment that is managed for wintering Sandhill Cranes. During our tour period the draw was basically dry, so we concentrated instead on the desert scrub along the entrance road. Here we enjoyed our first Scaled Quail, several migrant Bullock’s Orioles slumming in the low creosotes, a circling kettle of Swainson’s Hawks including one bird the crossed right overhead and a seriously impressive number of Western Kingbirds.

Leaving the arid valley behind we began the roughly hour-long drive up into the remote Rucker Canyon. This lovely drainage tucked into the southwest corner of the Chiricahuas is seriously underbirded, offering excellent habitat and permanent water and road access into the pine/sycamore habitat band. We reached the painted rock that marks the birds’ territory and before we even exited the car we could see a little orangey flycatcher with an understated punk-rock crest perching right over the road. If only all rare birds could be this easy!  We followed the flycatcher as it sallied out repeatedly, each time perching with a quivering tail, and sometimes coming to within just a few feet of us. It was a simply magical experience, making the somewhat bumpy drive in more than worthwhile. This species has been seen in the United States fewer than fifteen times, with most of the sightings in the Huachuca Mountains of Arizona.

We spent a bit of time just exploring the canyon too, finding our first Grace’s Warblers and Plumbeous Vireos, some tottering and actually wild Wild Turkeys and very close views of Hepatic Tanagers. After lunch at a local Mexican restaurant in Willcox we braved the remarkably strong and buffeting winds for what turned out to be a very productive visit to the famous Willcox Twin Lakes and Golf course. This large pond near the northern tip of the arid playa and adjacent to the city golf course has played host to an amazing assemblage of rarities over the years—nearly every visit during migration turns up a surprise or two—and is generally regarded as the premier location for waterbirds in southeastern Arizona. At last, we were finally able to fill out a few birds on page five of our checklists, with lots of American Avocets, Black-necked Stilts and White-faced Ibis foraging along the shore. By early May Shorebird migration in southern Arizona is generally tapering off, as most species pass through in April, but we picked out a small group of Western Sandpipers, surprising numbers of Long-billed Dowitcher, a couple of Leasts, quite a few Spotted Sandpipers and a single Baird’s Sandpiper and Greater Yellowlegs. Out on the lake we picked out a breeding plumaged Eared Grebe and a few dozen circling Wilson’s Phalarope with smaller Red-necked Phalaropes tucked in with them. Waterfowl were quite well represented, with Blue-winged and Green-winged Teal, Northern Shoveler, American Wigeon, Ruddy Duck and Mexican Ducks all showing well and a few lingering Lesser Scaup and Redhead. Without a doubt our best find on the main lake was an adult Laughing Gull that dropped in to hang out with an immature Ring-billed Gull. Although this is an abundant species in many parts of the country it is quite a rarity in the state, and within a few minutes of our report the local birders started pouring in.

Even in the high winds we found a nice selection of passerines, from dozens of swallows perching on low fencelines to Horned Larks flying sideways along the lakeshore. Scaled and Gambel’s Quails were working the area as well, and while we were watching them run about, we found a small flock of lingering Yellow-headed Blackbirds and some Eastern Meadowlarks out on the golf greens. As we started to head out of the area, we were surprised to spot a Bendire’s Thrasher running along the road edge. This is a scarce species here, although for the last several years a pair of birds have been frequenting the northern edge of the greens. It would appear that they successfully bred this year, as the bird was carrying food. When we tallied up our list for the area, we were shocked to find that we were at 48 species for just the lakes (not bad for such a hot and windy afternoon). Since we were so close to 50 species, we paused a bit and found a couple of European Starlings and House Sparrows tucked into the lee of one of the buildings (they all count, right?).

We did a bit of shopping for our time in the Chiricahuas and then finished the drive in to our base for the next two nights at the quaint and character-filled Portal Peak Lodge. Our post-dinner owling efforts were rewarded with a calling Whiskered Screech-Owl along the road that we quickly tracked down for a view in our torchlight. We also were successful in spotting a calling Mexican Whip-poor-Will. These Southwestern nightjars were long regarded as conspecific with the eastern Whip-poor-Will but they are vocally quite distinctive, with a lower pitched, burrier call that emphasizes the last syllable rather than the first.

For our full day in the stunningly scenic Chiricahua Mountains, we started with an early morning outing to the sparsely vegetated but still somehow scenic Rodeo Valley. Our first stop was just outside the town of Portal, in a patch of thicker desert scrub that is locally known as the big thicket. Here we teased up our first (and only) Black-tailed Gnatcatcher of the trip. These sprightly and generally quite common desert birds have experienced a sharp population decline with the ongoing drought. Our bird showed extremely well, and was in its full sharp breeding plumage with a glistening black cap. Here too we flirted with a Crissal Thrasher which kept perching up on prominent twigs only to dive back down into the brush before we could study it well in the scope. Black-throated Sparrows, Pyrrhuloxia, Verdin, Lucy’s Warblers and Cactus Wren all showed well, and while we were looking at the Pyrrhuloxia we noted some large pigeons alighting on a couple of tall sycamore trees along the wash to the north. Conveniently these trees are on the property of Bob Rodriguez, who allows visiting birders access to the expansive array of feeders in his desert scrub filled back yard. In addition to good views of the pigeons we also enjoyed a steady parade of birds (and some Javelinas) coming in to his proffered pots of seed, jam or peanut butter. It was a feast for the eyes with quite a few Bullock’s and Hooded Orioles were around providing a splash of orange, glowing red or pink Northern Cardinals and Pyrrhuloxias, bright yellow Western Tanagers and more subdued but still flashy Cactus Wrens, Black-throated Sparrows and Gambel’s Quail all scratching around on the ground.

Leaving the feeders behind we ventured out into the San Simon valley. The area received little rain during the last monsoon season and the valley looked even more parched than usual. We started along Stateline Road, an unpaved road that straddles the border, allowing the visiting birder to work on two state lists at the same time. Likely because of the thin grass cover we were not able to drum up any responsive Botteri’s Sparrows, but the Lucy’s Warblers were quite confiding. We then visited the small and somewhat dilapidated town of Rodeo. As we pulled in to the rather unassuming south end of town, we began to tally our first New Mexican birds. At first it was just a litany of introduced things like Collared Dove and House Sparrow but when we got out of the car to walk the grandiosely named (somewhat tongue in cheek to be sure) Rodeo Birding Trail we found Gambel’s Quail, Warbling Vireo and a local rarity in the form of a Northern Waterthrush which had located the tiny pond under the small grove of cottonwoods at the end of the trail. We then moved up to the north end of town where a grove of fruiting Mulberry trees was attracting impressively large hordes of migrants including dozens of Western Tanagers and Black-headed Grosbeaks, a seemingly out of place Black Phoebe, and a few White-crowned Sparrows and Western Kingbirds. While watching the show we were surprised to see a small flock of White-faced Ibis flying over the town and heading north. In all, we managed to record 34 species during our little jaunt into New Mexico, not a bad result for an area lacking any apparent surface water!  Back in Arizona we made a brief stop at the small Willow Tank Pond, a privately owned property managed by Arizona Game and Fish. Here we picked up some very good views of Blue-winged Teal, migrant Wilson’s and Orange-crowned Warblers, a nesting Common Raven and a prodigious number of American Bullfrogs.

For the balance of the morning, we turned our attentions to the main drainage of Cave Creek. It’s a stunningly beautiful canyon, lined with large sycamores, dense oaks and scattered pines and flanked on both sides by dramatic and towering red cliffs is one of the most special birding locations in the country. Perhaps the easiest place in the United States to encounter numbers of Elegant Trogons, and nearly the full suite of Arizona specialties. The flood damage from 2014 in the area has now largely been fixed and apart from lingering piles of dead wood on the forest floor and creekbed the understory has recovered well. We parked the car near where an active Trogon nest has been for the last several years.  When we checked the nest cavity, we could see tail feathers poking out of the hole, a sure sign that the birds were back in action. We waited a while, watching as the female bird occasionally shifted around, making her tail disappear and reappear at the cavity entrance.  She seemed content to stay inside, and we didn’t see her partner nearby, so we decided to do a bit of walking along the road. Here we located an active Mexican Jay nest that was on a large overhanging oak branch, spotted sprightly Painted Redstarts and garrulous Plumbeous Vireos, as well as a nice quadfecta of woodpeckers (Northern Flicker, Arizona, Hairy and Acorn).

During our wandering we also found the male Elegant Trogon, perhaps the most iconic of all of the Southeastern Arizona specialties. It was perched well above the road, but soon flew over our heads and sat in the midstory of a large pine tree about 10m away from the road. Dappled sunlight played across its brilliant emerald green and scarlet plumage, and the views in the telescopes were simply stunning. Some years the bulk of the trogon population doesn’t return from their wintering grounds until mid-May, but this year birds had been popping up on territory starting in mid-April. Quite pleased with our view of this quintessentially tropical species we headed out of South Fork with a short stop to track down a calling Brown Creeper of the resident breeding race that is quite gray overall in plumage. We then started up the dirt road towards Onion Saddle near the top of the mountain range. The highest forests in the Chiricahuas were largely devastated in a huge fire in 2011, and we found the ridge to be fairly windy during our visit. A few bright Western Bluebirds, our first Greater Pewee and Steller’s Jay, and quite tame Yellow-eyed Juncos kept us company during our picnic lunch at Rustler Park.

A walk amongst the stand of trees that survived the fire revealed lots of American Robins, a few Cordilleran Flycatchers and Pygmy Nuthatches and lots of Western Tanagers, Yellow-eyed Juncos and Yellow-rumped Warblers, here of the western Audubon’s subspecies.

After lunch we continued heading west, descending into Pinery Canyon where again significant fire damage was still evident. The forest around the road edge though is still patchily good, and we pulled in to the largest section of intact pines at the Pinery Campground. A small but very important stand of pines and maples persists here along the creek, making for quite a pleasant spot with an excellent selection of higher elevation species. Our chief goal here was to locate a pair of Spotted Owls that sometimes frequent the area, and, as luck would have it, we soon located the nest high up in a fir tree. We found a spot well upslope that we could have a better vantage point into the nest and enjoyed scope views of the female with at least one mostly grown chick nestled down into bulky nest. Even better, the male bird called randomly from a nearby tree, and we tracked him down as well, obtaining simply stunning views of the fluffy big owl as it dozed overhead and occasionally yawned or stretched with half-opened eyes.

Also in the canyon we were thrilled to find a pair of Buff-breasted Flycatchers bouncing around in some shorter pines. It’s nice to find an easily identifiable Empidonax flycatcher one in a while, and these little guys with an orangey-buff wash across their chests are surely one of the most distinctive species in the genus.

By this point the afternoon was beginning to wane, so we drove back up to Onion Saddle and then took the side road that winds parallel to the Turkey Creek drainage through the little town of Paradise and then on to Portal. The road passes through some expansive stretches of juniper/oak, and here we located our first Woodhouse’s Scrub-Jay perched on a low shrub. These thin and long tailed jays are generally wary (quite unlike the often brash and boisterous Island, California and Florida Scrub-Jays) and are generally restricted to brushy foothill habitats in the mountains.  After dinner back at our lodge we waited a bit for darkness to fall and then drove back a little bit on the dirt road to Paradise. Our excellent luck with nightbirds continued, and within just a few minutes of looking we heard a Common Poorwill sounding off from a bit upslope of the road. A little rocky side road was perfectly placed, and with a short walk up we were soon level with the Poorwill, staring at its eyeshine, white throat and undertail as it called from a prominent rock.

We started the final day of the tour with a short excursion around the town of Portal and the first part of the South Fork Rd. In a patch of taller grassland quite close to the lodge we tried our luck with Botteri’s Sparrow and were shocked when a bird quickly popped up and lingered for several minutes just a few feet away from us. Botteri’s are generally a monsoonal breeder, and spend most of the year foraging silently on the ground in good-quality grasslands. Within the United States this species occurs only in a few patches of grassland in SE Arizona and SW New Mexico, and a small section of extreme south coastal Texas so sightings are always special for visiting birders. Our efforts to drum up interest from a Northern Pygmy-Owl were not as successful, but it was very nice to be surrounded by the oak-sycamore forest and soaring red cliffs of Cave Creek Canyon, and our views of a family group of Bewick’s Wrens and nearly side-by-side Brown-crested and Dusky-capped Flycatchers were excellent. We returned to the lodge and packed up to start our way back towards Tucson. We weren’t finished with birding the Chiricahuas though, and as we left Portal, we again took the dirt road to Paradise, this time stopping for our second Woodhouse’s Scrub-Jay and, after a few stops, a plucky Juniper Titmouse. Once part of the rather well-named Plain Titmouse, this dull gray titmouse lives up to both its old and new names. Though not clad in bright or contrasting colors, the bushy crest and loud calls give it a certain je ne sais quoi. We then stopped in at the George Walker House, a private Bed and bring-your-own Breakfast that has feeders and water features open to the general birding public. A quiet sit on their side porch was productive, with excellent and close-range views of a female Arizona Woodpecker, a pair of Juniper Titmice, White-breasted Nuthatch and a nice array of hummingbirds.

We reluctantly bade farewell to our gracious host Winston, who has lived in this tiny community for his entire life (current full-time population is 5) and headed uphill in pursuit of our main quarry of the morning; the Mexican Chickadee. It’s a large chickadee, with a huge black bib and dark gray flanks that has a wide range throughout the higher mountains of western Mexico. In the United States though the species is confined to the Chiricahuas and the Animas mountains in nearby New Mexico (which are not publicly accessible). The 2011 fire really reduced the available habitat for the chickadees, and for several years they were quite scarce on the ground. We heard a bird calling a few times along the Turkey Creek drainage but were not able to locate it. That stop wasn’t wasted though, as we did enjoy great views of a singing Black-throated-Gray Warbler, a dancing Painted Redstart and our only Hutton’s Vireo of the trip. Along Onion Saddle we found a small group of Red Crossbills perched in the crown of a pine. This species in a bit ephemeral in the area and has been quite scarce since the fire. We reached Rustler Park still in search of our chickadees, but happily we turned up a pair near the public restrooms in the main parking lot. We took an early lunch at the tables at Rustler and then drove out of the mountains and back to the Willcox Twin Lakes. A short circuit around the main lake revealed most of the same birds from our previous visit, plus a migrant Forster’s Tern.

We checked on the time and realized that if we made the effort, we could get back to Tucson in time to venture back up into the Catalina Mountains for a stop in at Rose Canyon Lake where a Pine Flycatcher, the ABA’s second ever, had recently been located. The story of its discovery is an amazing one. A local birding guide and flycatcher guru had been sifting through audio recordings posted to eBird and he was intrigued by a somewhat early recording of a “Cordilleran” Flycatcher from early April. He posted the clip to the local Facebook page commenting that the calls sounded better for Pine Flycatcher. A few days later (and now a full month after the initial recording) he and some other local birders successfully relocated the bird about a ¼ mile downstream from the initial location. The bird was singing and appeared to be territorial! This is surely one of the most amazing instances of avian detective work that has ever occurred, and kudos must be given to Chris Benesh for his keen ear and perseverance.

We reached the campground entrance around 4pm, and after navigating the friendly but not terribly speedy gatehouse guard we drove down to almost the end of the road. Since there was nowhere to park, I let the group out close to the bird and then continued on to the larger lot at the end of the road. Surprisingly the place was not swarming with birders, but when the group walked down to the base of the hill a single birder was upslope and already on the bird. We had to walk a bit upslope as well, but eventually we were right under the bird as it repeatedly sang from near the top of several large pines. It came down to eye-level a few times, and on a few occasions aggressively interacted with an adjacent Cordilleran Flycatcher. Pine Flycatchers are a touch less yellow, and definitely longer-winged and billed than the quite similar in appearance Cordilleran Flycatcher. The song is notably lower pitched and more three parted, but like most Empidonax flycatchers it is a subtle ID. It was to be the final species for the 2022 trip, in which we tallied 208 species of birds – an impressive number given the quite hot, dry and sometimes windy conditions.

I hope that this year’s participants enjoyed the trip as much as I did; it felt wonderful to show off the biological treasures of my home state to a group of outgoing and eager visiting birders!

-          Gavin Bieber


Created: 18 May 2022