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WINGS Birding Tours – Itinerary

Arizona: Second Spring

Sunday 29 July to Thursday 9 August 2018
with Jon Dunn as leader

Price: $3,300*

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  • Summer rains bring on a profusion of wildflowers, especially in the mountains.

    Summer rains bring on a profusion of wildflowers, especially in the mountains. Photo: Jon Dunn

  • Arizona is wonderfully scenic at any time of year.

    Arizona is wonderfully scenic at any time of year. Photo: Jon Dunn

  • The summer monsoon rains bring the Arizona hills and deserts to life.

    The summer monsoon rains bring the Arizona hills and deserts to life. Photo: Jon Dunn

  • Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher, one of most sought-after "Arizona specialties."

    Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher, one of most sought-after "Arizona specialties." Photo: Jon Dunn

  • Varied Buntings begin to sing in earnest with the onset of the summer monsoon rains.

    Varied Buntings begin to sing in earnest with the onset of the summer monsoon rains. Photo: Jon Dunn

  • All manner of creatures including Black-tailed Rattlesnake respond to the summer rains.

    All manner of creatures including Black-tailed Rattlesnake respond to the summer rains. Photo: Jon Dunn

  • Spotted Owls are regular in SE Arizona's high canyons and usually we know where one can be found

    Spotted Owls are regular in SE Arizona's high canyons and usually we know where one can be found Photo: Jon Dunn

  • Five-striped Sparrow invades the U.S. in a tiny bit of Southeastern Arizona.

    Five-striped Sparrow invades the U.S. in a tiny bit of Southeastern Arizona. Photo: Jon Dunn

Southeastern Arizona, especially from late spring through the summer, invariably ranks among the favorite North American birdwatching destinations. In this varied region, where spectacular mountain ranges rise like islands above the surrounding deserts and grasslands, northern birds follow the coniferous zones of the peaks southward and overlap with subtropical species that reach their northernmost outposts in Arizona’s mountain canyons. As a consequence the diversity of breeding birds is remarkable. By early August the summer monsoon rains have usually arrived, and these typically brief showers bring about notable changes. During this “second spring” the vegetation becomes green again, temperatures drop from early summer highs, and there is a resurgence of birdsong and activity, especially in the grasslands. Birding in Arizona is excellent throughout the summer months, but we favor early August because it offers ideal opportunities to study grassland sparrows ,increased chances of seeing rarer hummingbirds (as well as maximum concentrations), and the potential for early fall migrants and uncommon to rare species from Mexico’s Sierra Madre Occidental. With the monsoon in full swing, we should also see a wide variety of reptiles and amphibians, and butterflies should be near their peak abundance.

Apart from our time in Tucson and the Santa Cruz Valley, our tour takes place in the southeast Arizona highlands above 4,000 feet, where the days are cooler, the surroundings greener, and life in general more vibrant. A delightful feature of this tour is our three nights at an elegant small inn near Sierra Vista with a wonderful pool, busy feeders, homemade pies, and easy access to some of the best birding in southeast Arizona.

Day 1: Our trip begins at 6:00 pm in Tucson. If Burrowing Owls are present near the airport, we may try for these before dinner. Night in Tucson.

Day 2: The Santa Catalina Mountains form Tucson’s northern border. Along the road that snakes its way to the top, at around 9,000 ft., we’ll experience a wide range of habitats, each with a new set of birds. At lower elevations, among masses of huge Saguaro cacti and in the oaks of the Upper Sonoran zone, we’ll look for Gila Woodpecker, Black-throated Sparrow, and Scott’s Oriole. As we move higher we should have a good chance of encountering Greater Pewee, Mountain Chickadee, Pygmy Nuthatch, and a variety of warblers including Virginia’s, Grace’s, Red-faced, and Olive (now in its own family). Hummingbird feeding stations attract Broad-tailed and Magnificent, and we’ll be looking overhead for Zone-tailed Hawk. In the afternoon we’ll drive south to Madera Canyon, stopping near the San Xavier Mission to try to locate the endemic small subspecies of Purple Martin (hesperia) over the Saguaro cactus stands before continuing to the Santa Rita Mountains and the Santa Rita Lodge, where we’ll spend two nights. The first-rate feeders here attract many species, occasionally including even rare Mexican species such as Berylline Hummingbird or a Plain-capped Starthroat. Arizona Woodpecker, Mexican Jay, and Bridled Titmouse  also visit the feeders, and Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher is usually about the rooms or across the street. Owling farther up the canyon might produce Elf Owl, Whiskered Screech-Owl and possibly Mexican Whip-poor-will. Night at the Santa Rita Lodge, Madera Canyon.

Day 3: There are many superb birding areas in and near Madera Canyon. At nearby Florida Canyon, Bell’s Vireo and Varied Bunting are usually present, and sometimes the rare and localized Black-capped Gnatcatcher as well. We’ll return  to Madera Canyon through grassland usually full of singing Botteri’s Sparrows, and perhaps Cassin’s Sparrows will be present as well.

Madera Canyon itself is full of birds. The desert at the lower edge hosts Black-tailed Gnatcatcher, Lucy’s Warbler, and Rufous-winged Sparrow, and we’ll keep a watchful eye out for the extraordinary Antelope Jackrabbit. Higher up in the oaks we should see Dusky-capped Flycatcher and Hutton’s and Plumbeous Vireos, and sometimes a rarity is present in the canyon or up one of the trails, such as a Flame-colored Tanager or even an Aztec Thrush (most Arizona records are in August). Night at the Santa Rita Lodge, Madera Canyon.

Day 4: After a final morning of birding around Madera Canyon we’ll drive south to Tumacacori, birding along the Santa Cruz River, where among the many Summer Tanagers and Cassin’s Kingbirds, Rose-throated Becards have recently been found nesting. At present, this is their only known nesting locality in the United States. Other birds we might see here include Brown-crested Flycatcher and Abert’s Towhee. Farther south, at Rio Rico, we have an excellent chance of locating Tropical Kingbird, and here and elsewhere we should encounter Gray Hawk. Thick-billed Kingbird is likely in the Patagonia area, and a few Violet-crowned Hummingbirds are usually at feeders in town. Interestingly, we often see our only Black Vultures of the tour here. If there is time, we may stop at Patagonia Lake for Neotropic Cormorant and a variety of other species, including Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Vermilion Flycatcher, and sometimes Black-capped Gnatcatcher. Night in Amado.     

Day 5: We’ll leave early for California Gulch, on the Mexican border west of Nogales. The approaches to this wild and beautiful canyon are good spots for Montezuma Quail and Varied Bunting. Five-striped Sparrow nests here, and with luck the birds will be vocal and visible. At this time of year the Gulch should have water (perhaps quite a lot of water!), attracting species such as Northern Beardless Tyrannulet  and Hooded Oriole. Night in Amado.

Day 6: This morning is flexible, depending on our ornithological objectives. We may visit Patagonia Lake if we haven’t been there previously, or possibly return to Tumacacori. On our way east to the Huachuca Mountains, we’ll stop in the Sonoita Grasslands for Cassin’s and perhaps Grasshopper Sparrows. We sometimes see as well a few Pronghorn. As we approach Sierra Vista, we’ll watch for Swainson’s Hawk and we pass an active Golden Eagle eyrie although the birds are only occasionally present. We’ll arrive at our inn, our home for the next three nights, late in the afternoon. Night near Sierra Vista.

Days 7–8: We’ll spend two full days in the Huachuca Mountains, which host a varied avifauna including a selection of hummingbirds unrivaled anywhere in the United States. We are likely to see 10 or more species (we have seen up to 14) in Miller Canyon and at feeders in Ash Canyon and elsewhere, probably including Violet-crowned, Lucifer, Broad-tailed, and possibly White-eared. In some  years both Berylline and Plain-capped Starthroat have occurred, and we’ll look for them if they’re around. 

Our birding schedule is highly flexible depending on what birds, including rarities, are about. We’ll likely spend part of one day in Miller Canyon, studying hummingbirds and walking the trails. In some years a pair of Spotted Owls has been present. At nearby Hunter Canyon one or two pairs of Rufous-capped Warblers have bred for the last few years and we’ll almost certainly hike the 1.5 miles to look for them. We may also visit Ramsey Canyon, world famous for hummingbirds. Tufted Flycatchers have nested up-Canyon, and if they return we’ll offer the option of making the four-mile round trip hike to see these charming little wanderers from northern Mexico…unless of course the road-accessible ones found in 2017 at Reef Campground at the top of Carr Canyon also return. If Fort Huachuca is open, we’ll visit Huachuca Canyon, the one location where Elegant Trogon is almost numerous. While on the Fort we’ll also bird in Garden and Sawmill Canyons, where we can find Buff-breasted Flycatcher as well as other mountain species. One afternoon we’ll likely visit feeders in Ash Canyon, known for attracting Lucifer Hummingbirds. In addition, the grounds of our inn offer excellent birding with numerous feeders. Yellow-billed Cuckoos can often be seen on the grounds, and in recent years our only Bronzed Cowbirds have been here. Nights near Sierra Vista.

Day 9: This morning’s itinerary is flexible, depending on what we may have missed in the Huachucas. After an early picnic lunch we’ll drive east to the wetlands at Whitetail Draw in the Sulphur Springs Valley. Depending on water levels, waterbirds can be numerous, and we should see migrant Lazuli Buntings and perhaps Lark Buntings.  Later we’ll drive to around the south end of the Chiricahua Mountains and into magnificent Cave Creek Canyon. Night in Portal, Arizona.

Day 10: The Chiricahuas are famed for their beautiful landforms and numerous habitats, accessible by a road system running from low desert to fir forest at 9,000 feet. Mexican Chickadee is the only species here that we definitely won’t see elsewhere, but this is an excellent back-up for higher elevation birds such as Olive and Hermit Warblers. If we’ve been unable to gain access to Fort Huachuca, then Cave Creek and South Fork Canyons will offer our best backup locations for Elegant Trogon. Birds are abundant in the Portal area, and while the species mix will be much the same as earlier, the desert below is now the Chihuahuan rather than Sonoran, which means some important changes in subspecific diversity. In particular, the Curve-billed Thrashers (celsum subspecies) will look and, especially, sound somewhat different from birds we will have seen earlier to the west (palmeri), and recent studies have determined that they are also genetically quite different. The always secretive and elusive Crissal Thrasher is found in this area along with a very few Bendire’s Thrashers. There is the possibility of seeing Scaled Quail as well, and Chihuahuan Ravens are fairly common. Our friends in Cave Creek Canyon feed hummingbirds, and in some years we see our largest numbers here. These should include Blue-throated and sometimes Lucifer or Violet-crowned, and southbound Calliopes can be almost numerous. We’ll spend at least one evening listening and looking for nightbirds. Common Poorwill is not uncommon near Portal, and depending on our success in the Santa Rita Mountains or near Patagonia, we may explore the canyon in search of owls. Night in Portal.

Day 11: After a last morning in the Chiricahuas, perhaps including a visit to Pinery Canyon on the west side of the divide, we’ll descend the west slope and continue toward Tucson. We’ll stop at the ponds at Willcox, where we expect a variety of migrant shorebirds including Baird’s Sandpiper and Wilson’s Phalarope, and perhaps also at St. David, where a few Mississippi Kites  breed. Night in Tucson.

Day 12: The trip concludes this morning in Tucson.

Updated: 29 August 2017

Prices

  • 2018 Tour Price : $3,300
  • Single Occupancy Supplement : $750
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Notes

* Tour invoices paid by check carry a 4% discount. Details here.

Maximum group size seven with one leader.