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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Arizona: A Winter Week in the Southeast

2024 Narrative

In Brief:

The WINGS birding tour through Southeast Arizona offered an unparalleled experience in diverse habitats teeming with avian life. Madera Canyon offered views of Rivoli’s Hummingbird, a multitude of juncos and roving Mexican Jays. Patagonia presented sightings of rare wintering birds like Rufous Hummingbirds and Rufous-backed Robin, while the Sulphur Springs Valley boasted flocks of Scaled Quail and drake Eurasian Wigeon, not to mention the thousands of Sandhill Cranes coming in to loaf for the day. The San Pedro Valley provided opportunities to spot raptors like a “dark morph” Northern Harrier, and regional rarities like Gilded Flicker. Portal, a must for any visiting birder, offered lengthy study of Blue-throated Mountain-gems and bird of the trip male Elegant Trogon. The tour concluded in Tucson, where after reveling in close views of Thick-billed Longspur, we ended the day at Sweetwater Wetlands studying various waterfowl species, and an array of warblers unmatched elsewhere in the state. Throughout, the tour showcased the region’s diverse habitats and abundant birdlife, making it a memorable escape from winter elsewhere.

In Detail:

Even before the sun came up, we headed south along Interstate-19, a major arterial road into the heart of some of the best birding in the country. In Amado we checked a pond that gave close views of an Eared Grebe trying to blend in with a raft of sleeping Ruddy Ducks. Several Ring-necked Ducks were sleeping on a floating aeration platform, and were nice to see close to the similarly designed Lesser Scaup. Bufflehead were diving along the shoreline, and a pair of America Wigeon picked through the floating vegetation. As we were leaving a Great Egret was spotted hunched over in a corner, not quite warm enough to start its feeding for the day. Then we were off to Green Valley where Desert Meadows Park awarded us with a cornucopia of bird life. Several maintained feeders amongst a host of flowering plants gave us quite a hummingbird show. Bright blue and green Broad-billed Hummingbirds were bold and sat very close to us while defending their food sources. At several points along our stroll purple-gorgeted male Costa’s Hummingbirds were heard singing their rising then falling songs. High overhead a kettle of Turkey Vultures was lifting off in the late-morning breeze. Mixed in with them were a couple Black Vultures, giving us a chance to study the similar-looking soarers. We took our time to appreciate some handsome Rufous-winged Sparrows. This sparrow is probably the bird with the smallest world range we encountered the entire trip. A couple of them sat up nicely on ocotillo stalks belting their bouncy song through the park. We moved over to Madera Canyon where the Santa Rita Lodge rewarded us with lengthy views of Rivoli’s Hummingbird, one of North America’s largest. Yellow-eyed Juncos foraged among the tame Wild Turkeys under the feeders, and were joined by several flavors of Dark-eyed Juncos including Pink-sided, Oregon, and Gray-headed. Numerous Mexican Jays raided all possible food sources. An Acorn Woodpecker’s antics are always fun to watch, and we were easily able to pick out an Arizona Woodpecker when it popped in, North American’s only brown candidate. After our picnic lunch a Hutton’s Vireo was a lesson in identification trying to differentiate it from the more numerous Ruby-crowned Kinglets. On our way east to Sierra Vista through the gently rolling grasslands Red-tailed Hawks and Common Ravens were numerous. Eventually we wound our way to our home away from home, only a few miles north of the Mexican border.

The next morning we headed west to the small town of Patagonia. We drove directly to Blue Heaven Road and parked. Almost immediately after leaving the van a short stroll yielded the distinctive call of a Rufous-backed Robin. It took time, but we eventually saw it perched high up in a cottonwood tree. Eventually it came down to feed on hackberries right over our heads. Not 1 but 2 robins joined the fun! Just down the road a previously scouted Western Screech-Owl was peacefully roosting at the entrance of its favorite cavity. We moved over to the Paton Center for Hummingbirds where immediately a stunning male Rufous Hummingbird was seen, and heard, feeding in the parking lot. Although common in migration, this bird’s presence in winter is very rare. Scads of Inca Doves were scratching in the dirt and a trio of towhees; Canyon, Abert’s and Green-tailed added to the numerous sparrow show comprised mostly of White-crowned and Song. A rare-for-here female Arizona Woodpecker came to drink and was a nice compliment to the numerous Ladder-backed and Gila Woodpeckers shooting around the pecan trees. In the backyard we were greeted by a pair of Violet-crowned Hummingbirds and watched as one dominant bird defended its feeder bounty from another equally as stunning bird of the same species. In addition to the young male Broad-billed Hummingbird, a flame-headed male Anna’s Hummingbird gave us all joy as we sat in the perfect light angle to see its impressive glowing red head. A male Ruddy Ground Dove was spotted up in the trees glowing with rufous tones. We watched it in the scope until a juvenile Cooper’s Hawk made a pass at the feeders, suggesting to us we may try somewhere else. At Patagonia Lake the birding trail was hopping, with nice comparisons of Northern Cardinal and Pyrrhuloxia sitting on the same branch, as well as a striking Black-throated aka 4-striped Sparrow. On the water a single Double-crested Cormorant gave a lesson in separating it from its Neotropic cousin. Many Common Mergansers dove repeatedly among the buoys, and Northern Shoveler, Pied-billed Grebe, and Gadwall added to the growing waterfowl list. The walk around the lake was quiet, but we were delighted to see a roosting Great Horned Owl with tufts in evidence sitting quietly amongst the dense willow trees. A quick stop in the grasslands of Las Cienegas National Conservation Area gave us eye level views of female Buffleheads at a cattle tank, as well as flock of yellow and black Horned Larks feeding around a cow carcass. This evening we tried some owling in the Huachucas and found a regional specialty Whiskered Screech-Owl that landed right above our heads for extended views. We had a bonus Great Horned Owl flying down the road in front of the van escorting us out for the night. An incredible 3 owl species day!

The world-famous Sulphur Springs Valley was furnished with abundant Sandhill Cranes and teemed with raptors. En route to our first destination we noted a couple of Phainopepla perched above the mistletoe bushes they undoubtedly deposited. Along Coffman Road someone shouted quail, and lucky for us this time they were of the Scaled variety. We watched the cottony white head tops scurry through the bunchgrass while trying to grab photos of the fleeting blobs. Whitewater Draw had a great crane show with wave after wave coming into land in the managed water levels. A few American Pipits walked slowly along the water’s edge picking at insects. Green-winged Teal tried to hide amongst the Northern Pintails, and Northern Shovelers sifted muddy water through their ideally designed bills. A flock of Least Sandpipers screeched by a couple of times and a Killdeer rang out its familiar call. We picked out a roosting Great Horned Owl in the dense willow thicket, and a Swamp Sparrow called from the marshes. We were successful in watching several Marsh Wrens hop from reed to reed. Shortly after leaving we stumbled into a pair of Bendire’s Thrasher that allowed close photographic approach. Along the Central Highway Red-tailed Hawks were numerous and we ended the day with 50 in total. At the old Faria Dairy Ponds we scored big time with a drake Eurasian Wigeon and minute Cackling Goose trying to disappear in flocks of hundreds of more common waterfowl. At Sunsites we crept up to a perched Ferruginous Hawk unbothered by our beast of a white van. A total of 4 of these huge buteos were seen in the productive fields here. A grain silo might have been leaking, or perhaps it was the pig slop, that attracted hundreds of blackbirds including bright Yellow-headed and glossy Brewer’s. The size difference alone was enough to be able to pick out many Brown-headed Cowbirds in the mix. At the edge of one field, a Burrowing Owl sat like a sentinel on a mound, but only peered over the boulder it was next to in order to keep its beady yellow eyes on us while we watched it through a scope.

This morning we scoured the north-flowing San Pedro River picking through flocks of sparrows and glassing every raptor we saw perched. Before we even left the Casa a Cactus Wren family called from the safety of a yucca, a daily occurrence from this highly entertaining species. We slowly walked the grounds looking at the numerous and colorful Pyrrhuloxias. The resident subspecies of Song Sparrow was studied including an individual with a shiny leg band, undoubtedly ringed right here at some point. A Canyon Towhee was perched on top of a truck, as they do, checking itself out in the reflection and indicating it was not liking what it saw. The House Sparrow flock was calling loudly and hunkered deep in a shrub. This behavior usually indicates a predator nearby. We were right, as a Greater Roadrunner came in looking for an easy meal at the ‘feeders’. On our way north to the San Pedro House a raptor was spotted sitting on a HAM radio tower. After close scrutiny we ID’d it as a Sharp-shinned Hawk, a nice lesson in perched raptor identification. At the San Pedro House a huge wintering flock of White-winged Doves were hunkered together as the sun slowly rose. The feeders here were hoppin’ with White-crowned Sparrows of both light and dark-lored individuals. One of the local Red-tailed Hawk came in to perch and in doing so flushed a flicker nearby. After finding where it landed, we were delighted to see the golden shafts and brown nape of a regionally rare Gilded Flicker, a lifer for most. From here we went over to the Sierra Vista EOP to search for a very interesting bird that had been hanging here for a while this winter. It didn’t take long for the ‘dark ghost’ to appear. A dark morph (melanistic) Northern Harrier coursed back and forth over the marshes much to our delight. This morph is rarely seen anywhere, let alone this far south. Included in the raptor show was a nice Peregrine Falcon that darted by surveying the duck buffet as it went. After lunch the van gained elevation as we slowly drove through some of the canyons along the east side of the snow-laden Huachuca Mountains. Carr Canyon’s sinuous traverse took us to mid-elevations where we got great looks at a flock of Bushtits, including a couple Bridled Titmice in the mix. The view of southeast Arizona from here was amazing and we took time to go over all the physical features laid out before our eyes. While slowly cruising the roads near the border wall a covey of Scaled Quail were seen hunkering down behind clumps of grass in the windy landscape. Just before heading home a Great Horned Owl was observed doing a skilled balancing act on a transmission line, waiting for darkness to set in for a night of hunting.

No trip to southeast Arizona would be complete without a visit to Portal at the mouth of the mighty Cave Creek Canyon. En route we stopped at a museum that hosts a riparian exhibit and a particularly good souvenir shop with just about any animal from the region possible to get on a hat. A brief visit to a private residence in the Big Thicket allowed close looks of a couple (normally) skulky Crissal Thrasher that sat up singing for several minutes allowing ample scope viewing pleasure for all. The largest hummingbird in the country, the mighty Blue-throated Mountain-gem, was waiting to greet us at the fruitful Cave Creek Ranch. The pyracantha at the water feature was literally full of fruit, and undoubtedly the reason a male Elegant Trogon came in for a 5 minute visit. This is one of the most highly-sought after birds in the country so needless to say we were awe-struck as we observed this prize sallying for fruit, repeatedly showing off its long tail and yellow tooth-laden bill. Another long-awaited highlight here was an adult Painted Redstart that repeatedly visited the hanging grape jelly feeder, of all things. We also enjoyed getting such close looks at a Bewick’s Wren coming in to feed on a cup full of mealworms. The lichen-covered pink rocks began to show themselves as we climbed up above the 7000’ mark searching for some of the montane species. The views from this vantage are beyond belief staring down the heart of this massive craggy mountain range. In the pine zone a Steller’s Jay hopped from branch to branch above Turkey Creek, as well as a small flock consisting of Western Bluebirds and Spotted Towhees, an unlikely combo. At Turkey Creek Junction we were delighted to get amazing views of 2 Mexican Chickadees, a huge prize for any North American birder! Also in this area was a heard only Red-breasted Nuthatch and “Mexican” Brown Creeper slowly working the wilted snags.

Our last day is always exciting as we meander through the various habitats back to Tucson trying to fill in the checklist with species we haven’t seen up to this point. We first checked out Las Cienegas National Conservation area and its gently rolling grasslands bookmarked by several scenic mountain ranges. At Davis Pasture we tried our luck again at finding longspurs. A dry rattle call alerted us that there was at least one of them in with a roving flock of Horned Larks. We soon picked out a gorgeous Thick-billed Longspur feeding atop the dusty ground. This individual allowed close approach giving the chance to examine its black chest band and rusty shoulders nicely. Our sights were then set on some of the parks around Tucson which tend to hold a lot of birds this time of year. After a lunch at an excellent Argentinian empanada restaurant, we checked out Reid Park, a vibrant oasis in the middle of Tucson. A host of ducks here included a dapper male Wood Duck, as well as crisply plumaged Ring-necked Ducks actually showing their purplish namesakes. We couldn’t have asked for closer views of sunning Neotropic Cormorants and their emerald eyes. At Christopher Columbus we studied the differences between Redhead and Canvasback at close range. At one point a bold Green Heron flew in to within feet of the group, strategically camouflaged amongst the reeds. Raptors were using the windy conditions as we watched a seemingly out of place Northern Harrier dart past, as well as a speedy Peregrine Falcon that made a couple of fly-bys over the fowl buffet. It wasn’t a surprise with all this water to see a statuesque Belted Kingfisher sitting high above the water watching closely for any fish that might reveal itself. Then we headed over to Sweetwater Wetlands where we were hit with a super flock as soon as we got to the parking lot. Immediately we started soaking in the warbler show including a couple Wilson’s, “Myrte” Yellow-rumped, Orange-crowned and new for the tour Northern Parula. Later on we added stunning Black-throated Gray and Black-and-white Warblers, as well as 2 different Yellow Warblers. Seeing this many warbler species over an entire winter is tough to do in southeast Arizona, let alone all at one location. We appreciated gorgeous males of both Blue-winged and Cinnamon Teal feeding together in the shallow pools, with the constant chattering of Marsh Wrens and Common Yellowthroats emitted from the cover nearby. After a break we headed downtown for our final farewell dinner at one of the best Mexican restaurants in town where we laughed and reminisced about the week we’d just had.

Many people were surprised by the varied habitat and bird diversity offered on this tour. While the rest of the country was being blanketed in snow, sunny southeast Arizona provided its usual warm temperatures, clear skies, and abundant bird life. Throughout the week there was a nice mix of regional southeast Arizona specialties, lots of expected wintering wanderers, and even a few write-in species. The group got along amazing well this year, allowing for an easy pace and lots of delightful conversations throughout the day. All this proved once again why this tour is so much fun and a must for anyone looking for a break from the winter doldrums experienced elsewhere in the country this time of year.

Jake Mohlmann



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