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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Arizona: Second Spring

2021 Narrative

IN BRIEF: The heavy monsoon rains this summer resulted in a very lush and moist landscape, the heaviest monsoon in years. Surprising were the rather spectacular waterfalls in the Santa Catalina and Santa Rita Mountains. Temperatures were below normal.  We had a nice variety of birds including Zone-tailed, Short-tailed, and an unexpected Common Black-Hawk, Lucifer Hummingbird, a nesting Rose-throated Becard, Thick-billed and Tropical Kingbirds, Elegant Trogons, Bendire’s Thrasher, and a Five-striped Sparrow. A stunning male Berylline Hummingbird in Madera Canyon was our rarest species. A Ferruginous Hawk in the Alter Valley was heard well and glimpsed. Non-avian highlights included an Antelope Jackrabbit, Ringtail, Mountain Treefrog, and a Tiger Rattlesnake. 

IN DETAIL: Our evening began with dinner at nearby restaurant. The next morning, we headed up into the Santa Catalina Mountains. One of our goals was to find a feeding flock of passerines, particularly montane warblers. While we found scattered small groups of birds, we didn’t come across a large flock. Notable was a lovely male Red-faced Warbler, along with two Grace’s and two migrant Hermit Warblers. We also saw a pair of Hepatic Tanagers, White-breasted (interior West subspecies group) and Pygmy Nuthatches, Hutton’s and Plumbeous Vireos, a Mountain Chickadee, Western Bluebirds, and a several Cordilleran Flycatchers. Yellow-eyed Junco was probably the most numerous species. The most memorable part of the morning were the raptors, an adult female Zone-tailed Hawk along with a light morph adult Short-tailed Hawk, the latter a rather recent arrival to southeast Arizona. We also had an adult Common Black Hawk at Rose Canyon Lake, our first one with this tour itinerary. Later that day we headed south to Madera Canyon where we overnighted at the Santa Rita Lodge. Stephanie and Erin brought us pizza for dinner. While eating we noted a white-nosed Coati, and even better, closer to dusk, a Ringtail looked down at our table.

The next morning, we started up at the end of the road up Madera Canyon. We heard, but did not see, an Elegant Trogon and also a Northern (“Mountain”) Pygmy-Owl. Groups of noisy Mexican Jays moved through the canyon. Later we went to Box Canyon where we had outstanding views of a territorial Five-striped Sparrow, now placed in its own monotypic genus, Amphispizopsis. Other species noted here or elsewhere in the lowlands included an adult Golden Eagle, a Gray Hawk, Botteri’s Sparrows, Canyon Towhee, a migrant male Western Tanager, and an adult male Varied Bunting. A rushing waterfall up Box Canyon indicated just how heavy the monsoon was this year. Good news indeed. We also had excellent views of a Desert Spiny Lizard. We could tell that the heavy rains were hitting Madera, so we chose to drive down to Green Valley for an early dinner.  Late in the afternoon we returned to Madera to observe the hummingbirds. We had good looks at many hummingbirds. Broad-billed was the most numerous, but we had a number of Black-chinned and Rivoli’s too. A pair of Hepatic Tanagers visited the feeders. Then, at 6:00 p.m., the evasive male Berylline Hummingbird appeared and we all got superb views. It made several visits before it got dark. That evening we went up the canyon and got good views of a Whiskered Screech-Owl.

The next morning, we looked again for the Elegant Trogon without success. We did see an Arizona Woodpecker and a Dusky-capped Flycatcher well.  At Florida Canyon we had excellent views of a Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet as well as Brown-crested Flycatcher, Cactus Wren, Black-throated Sparrow, and a Bell’s Vireo. Near Continental we had good views of a Rufous-winged Sparrow, a species with a very limited range in the U.S.  After lunch we headed south to the Amado Inn where we watched the feeders. Family groups of Gambel’s Quail visited the feeders as well as two Bronzed Cowbirds and the several Northern Cardinals of the distinctive Southwestern superbus subspecies. This subspecies has a longer crest, and males are more intensely red with more limited black on the forehead. An adult male Summer Tanager sang in the trees over the Amado Territorial Inn.

The next morning, we arose early for San Juan Wash in the Alter Valley. We were joined by a fellow leader of WINGS, Susan Myers.  Recently, news of a small population of Ferruginous Pygmy-Owls became known. We hit some rain along the way, and after a brief detour, where we saw an Antelope Jackrabbit, we arrived under cloudy skies. We were in the midst of saguaros along a wash. On our way on foot to the owl location on, we spotted a Tiger Rattlesnake, a beautiful snake with a small head for a rattlesnake, and a new snake for me. This area and habitat is in the middle of its range. The cloudy skies and damp conditions probably resulted in it being active. Other species noted included Purple Martins (heperis subspecies nesting in the saguaros) and heard and briefly seen Gilded Flickers.  The Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl was heard well, but stayed low and was only glimpsed in flight by some, except Susan. Later we went south to Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge. It is here they are trying to re-establish the distinctive ridgwayi subspecies of Northern Bobwhite, the “Masked Bobwhite.” It was resident here some 130 years ago and is just about extinct in the wild, even from adjacent Sonora, Mexico.  We heard the captive birds, their song sounding much like other subspecies. In appearance it is very different having a black throat and cinnamon underparts. A pair of Mexican Ducks were on a pond and singing lilianae Eastern Meadowlarks were singing in the grasslands. Four Harris’s Antelope Squirrels were noted and Cloudless Sulphurs were seemingly everywhere.  On the return, just west of Arivaca, we had nice views of a pair of Thick-billed Kingbirds.

We birded around the Amado Territorial Inn in the morning. Here we saw a pair of Tropical Kingbirds and two Lucy’s Warblers, our only ones of the trip. This is an early fall migrant, and although a common breeder, most had already migrated south.  A Clark’s Spiny Lizard was also noted. From here we went to the Roadside Rest southwest of Patagonia. Over the rock formations we noted our only White-throated Swifts of the tour and a pair of Black Vultures (very local in Arizona) was noted.  Rufous-crowned Sparrow was seen well, and we also saw our only Canyon Wren.  A small number of Phainopeplas were noted. Our main target was the Rose-throated Becard, nesting here for the first time in many years. We eventually spotted the huge hanging nest and had scope views of the male bringing in food. Perhaps the female was incubating eggs? Only a few pairs of this tropical species nest in the United States, all in this region. At the Patons’s Hummingbird Reserve (Tucson Audubon) we had nice views of several Violet-crowned Hummingbirds along with a pair of Inca Doves and several Song Sparrows of the very pale resident fallax subspecies. From Patagonia we headed east and south to Sierra Vista and on to beautiful Casa de San Pedro, our home with hosts Patrick and Karl. After a nice dinner there we noted Lesser Nighthawks coming to the lights in the parking lot.

After breakfast the next morning we went to a private neighborhood where several families of Scaled Quail were present in a yard. A Greater Roadrunner and several Pyrrhuloxias were well seen too. From here we went up to Reef Townsite at the top of Carr Canyon in the Huachuca Mountains. We found the campground very quiet, but saw a few birds, notably a Woodhouse’s Scrub-Jay, Bridled Titmouse, two albescens Brown Creepers (mainly found in Mexico, this subspecies is visually and genetically distinctive), a male Eastern Bluebird (fulva subspecies, found mainly in western Mexico) and single Grace’s and Black-throated Gray Warblers. Late in the afternoon we heard a singing male Montezuma Quail in Chris Harbard’s yard, but despite it being close, we were unable to locate it. Late in the day we watched the hummingbird feeders noting a female Costa’s, along with many Anna’s, and then near dusk, a stunning adult male Lucifer Hummingbird.

The next morning, we entered Fort Huachuca where we first birded Huachuca Canyon. We hiked up the canyon and eventually located several calling Elegant Trogons, perhaps the signature species of southeast Arizona. Here we finally located two singing Painted Redstarts. From here we went up through Garden Canyon and up Sawmill Canyon where we located a pair of Buff-breasted Flycatchers, two Violet-green Swallows, and had lovely views of a bright green Mountain Tree Frog. There is a small and very isolated population of this species here in the Huachuca Mountains. Most are found in the Sierra Madre Occidental in Mexico. Late in the day we went to the Beattys’ hummingbird feeders where we noted many Rivoli’s, a Violet-crowned and two adult male Broad-tailed Hummingbirds. White-eared eluded us.

After breakfast the next morning we headed east to Whitewater Draw in the Sulphur Springs Valley. This wetland can have many water birds and is an important site for wintering Sandhill Cranes. We noted an adult Black-crowned Night-Herons and heard two Soras, fall arrivals from farther north. Two Great Horned Owls were roosting under a structure. The breeding Common Yellowthroats were of a very yellow subspecies, chryseola. Migratory Lazuli Buntings were numerous (some 20) as were Western Kingbirds. Some seven Lark Sparrows were fall migrants as were the two Bank and ten Tree Swallows.  Dozens of young Red-spotted Toads were about on the wet mud of the parking area and four Desert Grassland Whiptails were noted.  From here we headed to Douglas and the Chiricahua Mountains, stopping at a café to pick up breakfast. A Greater Roadrunner was noted on a nest here.

We arose early the next morning to try for Bendire’s and Crissal Thrashers, but missed both species. We did have distant views of two singing Cassin’s Sparrows, our only ones of the trip. Two Chihuahuan Ravens were noted too along with several Scaled Quail and the celsum subspecies of Curve-billed Thrasher, a potential species split (curvirostre group) from the palmeri group we had seen previously during the trip. They differ genetically and on plumage and calls. From here we went up the Paradise Road stopping at a site where we saw a scattering of birds, including a briefly seen Virginia’s Warbler, sadly, our only one of the trip.  Several migratory Chipping Sparrows were here and Cliff Chipmunks were about. We then headed up higher in the mountains to look for feeding flocks of passerines. We found a scattering of birds that included a single Greater Pewee, several Mexican Chickadees, Pygmy Nuthatches and Brown Creepers, a single Red-faced and six Hermit Warblers, plus our only Olive Warbler, a species in its own family, Peucedramidae. The Steller’s Jay subspecies here, known sometimes as the “Long-crested Jay” has a long crest and white markings about the face. It is genetically highly distinctive. Later in the afternoon up South Fork Canyon we had very nice views of a nesting pair of Elegant Trogons along with an Arizona Woodpecker, and at Maya Decker’s home we saw our last new hummingbird species of the tour, two Blue-throated Mountain-gems. That evening at dusk we heard Common Poorwill and a single Elf Owl.

On our final morning we again looked unsuccessfully for thrashers on State Line Road. A Collared Peccary shot across the road near Portal. We then tried the Paradise Road at the place we had the Virginia’s Warbler the day before. We were unsuccessful, but did have good views of atypically high elevation Black-tailed Gnatcatchers, and single adult male Scott’s and Bullock’s orioles. A migrant Black-throated Gray Warbler was noted. We spotted a Green-tailed Towhee, previously found by Jake Mohlmann. This was well to the south of where this species breeds (closest location are the White Mountains to the north) and was at an abnormally low elevation. Later, on our way over the Chiricahua Mountains, we noted a single Mexican Fox Squirrel in Cave Creek Canyon. The Chiricahua Mountains are the only place where this species occurs in the U.S. On the west side of the mountains we stopped at Pinery Canyon where a Mexican Whip-poor-will was seen in flight. Here we also saw a Cordilleran Flycatcher on a nest. Our last major stop was at the lake and ponds south of Wilcox. It was our main wetlands stop of the tour. Cinnamon Teal and Mexican Ducks were noted along with some 70 White-faced Ibis, 50 Wilson’s Phalaropes and 18 adult Baird’s Sandpiper, along with Least, Western and a single Spotted Sandpiper, and a Long-billed Curlew. Most notable, and surprising, was a single well-seen Bendire’s Thrasher on the way out. This species is declining throughout its range. From here we headed back to Tucson and the Hampton Inn where after a break we had our final group dinner at a Mexican restaurant. We were joined by Will Russell, the founder of WINGS, and the managing director of WINGS, Matt Brooks.


                                                                                                                                                                     - Jon Dunn, 2021

Created: 03 December 2021