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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Arizona: Second Spring

2023 Narrative


This year’s tour began with a delayed monsoon season, and temperatures were still high. During our days the rain was sporadic. We tallied some 175 species which was a little under what we normally see, but we saw 15 species of hummingbirds which was a record count for this tour. These included rare Mexican species like Plain-capped Starthroat and Berrylline and White-eared, along with uncommon to rare migrants like Calliope and Allen’s. Other highlights included a male Elegant Trogon, multiple Zone-tailed Hawks, Five-striped Sparrow, well-seen Virginia’s and Red-faced warblers and a Rufous-capped Warbler. We also had excellent views of Montezuma Quail and a single Texas Horned Lizard.


Our tour started with a wonderful Mexican dinner in downtown Tucson. The next morning we headed up into the Santa Catalina Mountains where we stopped at the hummingbird feeders at Forest Service visitors’ center. Here, Broad-tailed Hummingbirds were numerous along with a few Rivoli’s. From here we headed up the Bear Wallow road where near the end we found a good-sized passerine flock which included a number of Red-faced and Virginia’s warblers. During the day we found a number of interesting other species which included Band-tailed Pigeon, Western Flycatcher, Zone-tailed Hawk (four birds!), Arizona Woodpecker, Plumbeous, Hutton’s and Warbling Vireo, Steller’s Jay (the long-crested subspecies with white streaks on the forehead and around the eye), Mountain Chickadee, Brown Creeper (Rocky Mt. subspecies, montana) Violet-green Swallow, Western Bluebird, Pygmy Nuthatch, Yellow-eyed Junco, and our only Audubon’s and Virginia’s warblers. We had multiples of this often-elusive species and saw them very well. A few immature Orange-crowned Warblers (gray headed orestra subspecies) were seen too along with three Blue-gray Gnatcatchers (duller and different sounding western obscura subspecies). Olive Warbler eluded us. Later in the day we headed back through Tucson and had dinner in Green Valley then headed up to Madera Canyon stopping to see Rufous-winged Sparrow near Continental. Checking into our rooms at the Santa Rita Lodge we noted several Broad-billed Hummingbirds and a Hepatic Tanager. At dusk we heard two Mexican Whip-poor-wills and later got good views of a Whiskered Screech-Owl along with a Black-tailed Rattlesnake.

The next morning we watched the feeders at the lodge and saw a nice variety of species. These included a female Hepatic Tanager, a male Bronzed Cowbird, numerous Mexican Jays, Bridled Titmouse, and ten Wild Turkeys. Hummingbirds were abundant and we tallied some 100 Broad-billed Hummingbirds. An adult male Calliope Hummingbird was well seen. This fall migrant was one of many on the tour and this is about the time that their migration starts, particularly for the adult males. In other years we fail to record this species even though it is roughly at the same time of year. Two adult male Rufous Hummingbirds and an immature male Costa’s Hummingbird were also seen. Our short hike up to the Carrie Nation Trail failed to find Elegant Trogon, but two Sulphur-bellied Flycatchers were well seen along with several Painted Redstarts. From here we went over to Box Canyon, a very different environment in a steep canyon with blooming agaves and ocotillos. On the way we stopped in the grasslands below Madera Canyon and noted a Botteri’s Sparrow and farther along noted a Swainson’s Hawk, a Common Ground-Dove and a Greater Roadrunner. In Box Canyon, we had a close view of a Five-striped Sparrow but it flew off before extended study. We also saw an adult male Varied Bunting along with the accompanying female. An immature male Scott’s Oriole was the only one we saw on the tour. Canyon Towhees were also seen. Two Bell’s Vireos were noted in Florida Canyon. That evening Sara Pike, our Tour Manager from the WINGS office, brought us a catered dinner of pizza and salad which we dined on a large table outside our room as dusk approached, while listening to the night sounds and stream babbling below us.

On day 3 we watched the feeders for a while in the morning again, and then again headed up Box Canyon where we saw two Five-striped Sparrows well, along with the pair of Varied Buntings from the previous day. A little farther up the road at the “waterfall” stop we had excellent views of a Rufous-crowned Sparrow. Along the road we noted three Greater Roadrunners, two Loggerhead Shrikes, a pair of Pyrrhuloxias, and a dozen or so Blue Grosbeaks, an indication of how common this species is in Southeast Arizona in summer. From here we headed to Green Valley stopping to study a pair of Rufous-winged Sparrows. We stopped at Desert Meadows Park in Green Valley where we found several Costa’s Hummingbirds, two Curve-billed Thrashers (tanner and less patterned palmeri subspecies), Abert’s Towhee, and an Inca Dove. Several large Desert Spiny Lizards and Western Whiptails were also seen. From here we headed down to Amado and our home for the next two nights, the Amado Territory Inn. After checking in we headed south to Rio Rico to a private home of friends, where a Plain-capped Starthroat had been visiting their feeders. Sadly, it departed that morning but we hope to see this species later in the tour as well. On the return we stopped for a wonderful Italian dinner in the small artsy town of Tubac.

On day 4, we stopped first at the small Amado water treatment plant and noted Cliff Swallows, both the breeding Mexican subspecies, melanogaster, with a chestnut forehead, and migrant subspecies from the north with a white forehead. Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks were also seen. From here we headed down to Tubac where we walked the Anza Trail along the Santa Cruz River in search of Green Kingfisher and Rose-throated Becard. Sadly, we missed both species, but saw Lucy’s Warbler well, and got excellent views of a Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet, our only one of the trip. Most peculiar was a singing Brown Creeper of the distinctive Mexican albescens subspecies. This bird occurs in the Santa Rita, Huachuca and Chiricahua Mountains, but a territorial bird in riparian woodland at much lower elevation was really strange. We did see more in the Huachucas and the Chiricahuas. This subspecies is blacker above with distinctive white spotting. Whether it is a separate species, or not, awaits studies in the remote Rincon Mountains, southeast of the Santa Catalinas where it reportedly intergrades with the Rocky Mt. subspecies montana occur. From here we continued on the Patagonia Roadside Rest Stop, a famous birding spot dating back more than half a century. Along the way we had excellent views of several Gray Hawks. At the rest stop we had good views of our only Canyon Wren. Carrying on to Patagonia we visited the Paton’s feeders (owned and managed by Tucson Audubon Society) and saw several Violet-crowned Hummingbirds. Other birds were noted too, including Inca Dove, Phainopepla (many), Abert’s Towhee, Yellow-breasted Chat, Song Sparrow (the palest of all of the subspecies, fallax, of the Southwest), and Summer Tanagers. Here we saw a pair of Thick-billed Kingbirds, our only ones of the trip. An Elegant Earless Lizard was also one of the day’s highlights. On the way back we had a delicious dinner in the small town of Tumacacori.

The next day we headed south to Patagonia Lake where we hiked to the northeast end and then up a trail for about 1.3 miles where a Rufous-capped Warbler was on territory. There we met two young birders and they helped us get onto the bird. This primarily Mexican species is very rare in the U.S. where it has been recorded in Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. Many Bell’s Vireos were noted and we had good studies of a half dozen Yellow Warblers, the Southwestern subspecies, sonorana, in which the males have faint, or almost no, red streaking below. Dusky-capped Flycatcher was also seen well along with several Lucy’s Warblers. On the lake we counted seven Neotropic Cormorants. In the trees an Ornate Tree Lizard was seen and here and in the Patagonia area we tallied sixteen Black Vultures. Continuing on to Patagonia after lunch we continued on to Felipe’s house where we saw his adult male Allen’s Hummingbird. An adult Mississippi Kite soared overhead. Continuing on to Las Cienegas Grasslands we noted several of the newly split (from Eastern) Chihuahuan Meadowlarks and also had good views of two Cassin’s Sparrows. From here we headed on to Sierra Vista and then Hereford where in a small housing area we counted 25 Scaled Quail, present with even more Gambel’s Quail. We then headed to Casa de San Pedro and unpacked, our home for the next three nights. We checked the hummingbird feeders where two Calliopes were noted and then had a delicious dinner there with our fine hosts.

On day 6 we left at dawn for Coronado National Memorial to look for Montezuma Quail. We did well here, getting brief views of a male Montezuma Quail along the edge of the road in the morning near the park memorial entrance, and then returned in the late afternoon and saw three additional birds. This is always a hit and miss species, in recent years mostly a miss. A noisy family group of Cooper’s Hawks was also seen in the canyon. We returned back to Casa de San Pedro for a delicious breakfast. After breakfast we visited Ramsey Canyon where we had good views of a stakeout Berylline Hummingbird, another rarity from Mexico and continued above the headquarters and discovered an adult male White-eared Hummingbird, another Mexican specialty. A female Broad-tailed Hummingbird was also present. Continuing up canyon we were fortunate to connect and see a male Elegant Trogon, perhaps the signature species for summer in the “Sky Island” canyons in the mountains of Southeast Arizona. It is frequently elusive. Sulphur-bellied Flycatchers and Painted Redstarts were also present along with two striking butterflies, a Dull Firetip and a Golden-banded Skipper. The Dull Firetip is not at all “dull,” just duller than its relatives found in the Neotropics. After a picnic lunch in lower Carr Canyon we visited Ash Canyon and another set of feeders and here we had excellent views of a Plain-capped Starthroat, another very rare stray from Mexico, along with six Lucifer Hummingbirds. For the day we tallied eleven species of hummingbirds. As we left Violet-green Swallows were overhead and then we headed down and saw the Montezuma Quail well. We had a fun pizza dinner in the town of Hereford.

Day 7, after breakfast we headed up to Miller Canyon for a hike up the canyon. We did not find Flame-colored Tanager, but did see a Greater Pewee, two Brown Creepers (Mexican albescens), six Hutton’s Vireos and a Black-throated Gray Warbler along with two Mountain Spiny Lizards; an Acacia Skipper was present too. An adult male White-eared and several Violet-crowned hummingbirds visited the hummingbird feeders. Afterwards we visited Reef Campground high in the Huachuca Mountains where we located three Buff-breasted Flycatchers.

On our final morning at the Casa de San Pedro, after a final delicious breakfast and a bit of birding on the grounds, we departed for Bisbee and Airport Road, noting Lesser Nighthawks along the way. We eventually got good views of a pair of Black-tailed Gnatcatchers and Black-throated Sparrow on Airport Road and then headed east and north to Whitewater Draw in the Sulphur Springs Valley. Swallows were abundant, mostly Tree but many Cliff Swallows too, and a few Bank. Three White-faced Ibis, two Mexican Ducks, and a few shorebird species were present. These included four Spotted Sandpipers and a single Baird’s, along with five Lazuli Buntings (including adult males) and a Raccoon. Lark Sparrows were numerous (all being fall migrants) and in the valley we estimated some 100 Western Kingbirds. We continued on to Douglas for lunch and shopping and then headed to Portal where we checked in at the Cave Creek Ranch and had dinner at the Portal Store. We saw Blue-throated Mountain-gem at the feeders out front of where we staying, our 15th species of hummingbird for the trip. We also noted the celsum subspecies of Curve-billed Thrasher, in the curvirostre clade (not the palmeri clade we had been seeing earlier), perhaps a distinct species. Studies are now ongoing which may reveal the answer to whether there are one or two species.

The morning of day 9 we tried at dawn along State Line Road and at Willow Tank for Bendire’s and Crissal Thrasher. We missed both. We did see a few Scaled Quail and Lesser Nighthawks and Bullock’s Orioles. After breakfast we headed up Cave Creek Canyon and from the road noted an immature male (a year old) Indigo Bunting, a rare summer visitor in Arizona and the West. Reaching higher elevations we spotted a Woodhouse’s Scrub-Jay and upon reaching the pines found a variety of montane species which included Greater Pewee, Buff-breasted Flycatcher (rare and local in the Chiricahua Mountains), Steller’s Jay, Bushtit, Pygmy Nuthatch, Yellow-eyed Junco, Grace’s and Red-faced warblers, and Red Crossbills. The highlight of the day were two Mexican Chickadees, the only location where one can fairly easily find this species in the United States and their numbers seemingly have sharply declined from forest fires over the last two decades. Zone-tailed Hawk was also seen during the day as were several White-throated Swifts and two Rufous-crowned Sparrows. A local kindly allowed us to look at her feeders in the afternoon in Portal. We had a catered dinner that night and were joined by our friends Jim and Narca, and later that evening we visited their home where we saw a Common Poorwill and two Western Screech-Owls.

On our last day we tried again without success for Bendire’s and Crissal Thrasher along State Line Road. On the way back and near Portal, we spotted a Texas Horned Lizard and stopped to get superb views of this striking species. We then headed to the “George Walker House,” for breakfast and feeder watching noting Woodhouse’s Scrub-Jay in route. One participant saw a Juniper Titmouse while we were there and Calliope Hummingbird was present too. We then returned to high elevations and Barfoot and Rustler Parks where we finally located Olive Warbler (in its own family, Peucedramidae) along with Greater Pewee, two Mexican Chickadees and two fall migrant Hermit Warblers. Two Band-tailed Pigeons were well-studied. We then dropped down the west side of the Chiricahua Mountains for Wilcox and the lake there where we had a variety of shorebirds which included a single Semipalmated Plover, Long-billed Curlew, and a Lesser Yellowlegs, and multiple Greater Yellowlegs, Long-billed Dowitchers (10) and Wilson’s Phalaropes (300). Some ten Great Blue and three Black-crowned Night-Herons were noted. As we left Wilcox we noted our final new trip bird, one of which was carefully-studied, a Chihuahan Raven. In particular we noted its seemingly stockier and much shorter bill. Most ravens don’t allow such close inspection. After checking in back at our Tucson hotel, we headed up to the old Original El Charro Café for our final group dinner. 

-        Jon Dunn, 2023

Updated: n/a