Venture to Southeast Arizona

July 22 – 31, 2022

Narrative and Photos by Kevin Burke

We had a wonderful trip to Southeast Arizona this year!  The beginning of the monsoon season is an awesome time to bird this diverse area.  We start out in the Sonoran Desert around Tucson with the towering Saguaro cactus dotting the hillsides.  Our week takes us through several mountain ranges known as the “Sky Islands” and over into the Chihuahuan Desert as well.  Monsoons bring life to the deserts, triggering birds to nest again due to the richness of life brought on by these summer rains.  Cacti start to flower, birds sing again, and life abounds.  I always enjoy exploring the rugged terrain of these remote mountain chains.  You truly never know what you are going to find. 

We started our tour with an introductory dinner in Tucson.  It was great to get to know everyone and start out with a great meal. 

The next morning, we left early and headed up to Mt. Lemmon right outside of Tucson.  We climbed through the mountains gaining over five thousand feet in elevation.  Our target was the long staying Pine Flycatcher, but alas it had moved on.  We did have some great other birds.  Our first looks at Red-faced Warbler, Painted Redstart, and an abundance of Cordilleran Flycatchers.  This was our chase day, so we left Mt. Lemmon and headed to find another long staying flycatcher, a Nutting’s Flycatcher.  This time we were more successful and located the bird after about thirty minutes of searching.  We also had great looks at Brown-crested Flycatcher, Black Phoebe, and Bell’s Vireo. 

With a long drive ahead of us, we headed down the mountain and made our way east to the Portal area.  It was a nice drive and the transition from the Sonoran to Chihuahuan desert was interesting to see.  We settled into our accommodations at the Painted Pony Resort in Rodeo, New Mexico, and wondered what our next couple days exploring the Chiricahua Mountains would bring. 

The next morning started out with a walk around the resort grounds.  Curve-billed Thrashers noisily scurried about the property.  A migrating flock of swallows streamed by which included Violet-green, Bank, and Cliff.  The resident pair of Great-horned Owls were present as well. 

We piled into the van and headed out to the area to see what we could find.  A quick visit to Willow Tank netted us good looks at Blue Grosbeak, Western Kingbird, and Swainson’s Hawk.  We had a lot of ground to cover so off we went. 

We spent the morning winding our way into the mountains.  We stopped at a couple of the local feeders to see what we could find.  Great looks at Pyrrhuloxia, Broad-billed Hummingbird, and Gambel’s Quail were had by all.  At the Onion Saddle area we got our first look at Steller’s Jays.  Lunch was at Rustler Park where we had Western Bluebirds and Pygmy Nuthatches to observe while we ate.  Post lunch we dropped down the other side of the mountain and had fabulous views of Mexican Spotted Owl.  It was an awe-inspiring experience to be in the presence of this magnificent creature. It was time to start heading back to the lowlands, little did we know that we would find a Montezuma Quail on the way out.  We had brief, but diagnostic looks at this bird as it scurried off the road onto the hillside.  A brief stop at the Southwest Research Center and off to the resort and dinner we went. 

The next day was filled with more Chiricahua mountains fun!  We started in the desert looking for thrashers.  We quickly located Bendire’s Thrasher close the road.  Loggerhead Shrike’s were visible, and an American Kestrel was on the hunt.  We wanted to get to high elevations quickly today so we headed up the mountains.  On the way we came upon a car on the road, and they were looking off to the side.  They quickly pointed out an adult male Montezuma Quail!  This was a much more satisfying look than the previous day, but to see a Montezuma Quai two days in a row, was absolutely astounding. 

A quick stop at the Sunny Flats campground rewarded us with great looks at a family of Sulpher-bellied Flycatchers.  Next we headed up to Rustler and Barfoot Parks to search for high elevation species.  Greater Pewee’s were calling nicely at Rustler Park.  Mexican Chickadee, our main target of the high elevations, had eluded us so far, so we decided to search for them in Barfoot Park and were not disappointed.  Almost as soon as we got out of the van, we heard Mexican Chickadee in the trees not far away at all.  Soon we were on a huge mixed flock of birds that we watched for almost the next hour.  Olive Warbler, Pygmy Nuthatch, Hepatic Tanager, and Red-faced Warblers entertained us as they foraged for a mid-morning snack.  It was a nice relief to get the Chickadees with such great looks.  Satisfied we headed back down the mountain. 

Our last major stop of the day was to find a family of Thick-billed Kingbirds near downtown Portal.  They perched up on the telephone wire for all to admire.

It was a great couple days in the Chiricahua mountains, but we had much more to see.  The next morning, we transferred to the Sierra Vista area and the Huachuca Mountain range.  On the way we stopped at the locally famous Wilcox Lake Cochise.  The lake was dry, but we did get our main target, which was Scaled Quail, when a family ran by us.  It was fun to see two adults and eight chicks.  Since the lake was dry, we decided to check the Benson Water Treatment Plant.  We were immediately rewarded with Mexican Ducks, Ruddy Ducks, and White-faced Ibis.

Feeling a little hungry we decided to try our luck in the town of Tombstone for lunch.  We landed at Big Nose Kates on the main drag and had a nice meal.  It was fun to see this historical town and wander a bit.  Having lunch in Tombstone only put us roughly a half hour from Sierra Vista.  Our first stop in the area was at the Sierra Vista Environmental Operations Park (EOP).  Here we had great looks at Yellow-headed Blackbirds on the dikes.  Our final stop of the day was at the Ash Canyon Bird Observatory.  This hummingbird haven did not disappoint.  We had six species of hummingbirds here including Costa’s, Anna’s, and Lucifer

The next day was exciting.  We started early at Beatty’s Guest Ranch in Miller Canyon.  This had long been an excellent place for hummingbirds, warblers, and flycatchers.  The stadium seating of the hummingbird viewing area is unique in the area.  We watched Rivoli’s, Violet-crowned, and Rufous Hummingbirds mix with the other species.  No trip would be complete without a hike up Miller Canyon to Split Rock.  On our way up we had a bunch of great species such as Black-throated Gray Warbler, Sulpher-bellied Flycatcher, and a bunch of Red-faced Warblers.  The best bird of the hike was an adult male White-eared Hummingbird.  We waited on this bird for quite a while until right when we were about to leave, it appeared and perched to give us great views.  We were all really stoked!  A venture up to Carr Canyon in the afternoon provided good looks at Buff-breasted Flycatcher.  After dinner we headed back to Miller Canyon for some night birding.  Starting low we had great views at Common Poorwill, and a little further up canyon we heard Mexican Whip-poor-will.  It was a great day!

We packed up again this morning and headed south for the last leg of our trip.  Our first stop was Las Cienegas National Conservation Area, a large grassland habitat north of Patagonia.  The target here was Cassin’s Sparrow, of which we got stellar views.  An Ash-throated Flycatcher, Lark Sparrow, and American Kestrel were great additions to the stop. 

The next stop was the Patagonia area.  We headed to the famous rest stop for the breeding Rose-throated Becards

Success there meant we headed to Patton’s Hummingbird Sanctuary.   This is a great place to sit and observe birds.  We had good looks at Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Violet-crowned Hummingbird, and Inca DoveAbert’s Towhees were dotting the slough behind the sanctuary.  These were probably the most range restricted species we saw on the trip. 

In the afternoon we drove over to the Green Valley area.  A quick stop at the Amado Water Treatment Plant for some Black-bellied Whistling Ducks that had been hanging around.  In the evening we took a trip to California Gulch near the Mexican Border.  It was a great bumpy ride down to the gulch.  On the way we stopped and had Botteri’s Sparrows singing away.  The main target for the evening was Buff-collared Nightjar, which we got fleeting glimpses of and heard briefly.  

Madera Canyon is one of the most popular spots for birding in the state.  We spent most of the day birding around these mountains and had a ton of great birds.  The morning walk was spent on the Carrie Nation Trail headed up to Mt. Wrightson.  A short distance up the trail we heard the familiar bark of the Elegant Trogon. We eventually found a pair and had great views. 

After a successful Trogon chase we dropped down to the famous Santa Rita Lodge.  Here we had great views of Rivoli’s Hummingbird, Arizona Woodpecker, Gould’s Wild Turkey, and a ton of Black-headed Grosbeaks.

We headed over to Box Canyon next and found a few new trip birds. 

Beautiful looks at Five-striped Sparrow, Scott’s Oriole, and Hooded Oriole made the trip worth it.  We spent a relaxing rest of the afternoon at the Desert Meadows Park in Green Valley where we found the very range restricted Rufous-winged Sparrow.  After dinner we went back up to Madera Canyon and heard Whiskered-Screech Owl and Elf Owl.

The last full day of our trip was spent in and around the Tucson area.  We birded a bunch of popular spots including the Sweetwater Wetlands. 

Here we had great looks at Tropical Kingbirds, Bell’s Vireo’s, and Abert’s Towhee.  We wandered North of Tucson a bit and found several families of Burrowing Owls, and a Common-ground Dove. 

A stop at the Red Hills Visitor Center of Saguaro National Park is always a highlight, even more when a Gilded Flicker flies by giving great looks.  Afternoon visits to Christopher Columbus Park and Reid Park turned up Neotropical Cormorants, Snow Goose, Great-horned Owl, and Clark’s Grebe.  This was a fun way to spend the last full day of birding on the tour.  We ended with an awesome dinner and fond memories of all the good birds we had seen.  A few of us went out the next morning and had great luck with shorebirds and other migrants.  Highlights included Black-necked Stilt, Baird’s Sandpiper, Wilson’s Phalarope, and Western Tanager.

We had a total of 169 species for the trip. View our species list in eBird.

This trip to Southeastern Arizona is a must do for every birder.  You get to see so many birds that don’t occur in any other part of our country.  We had a ton of fun.  The non-bird wildlife is amazing too.  We saw two species of rattlesnake, an Arizona Blonde Tarantula, Scorpions, Pronghorn, Javelina, and to many Ground Squirrels to count.  The cacti alone are worth the trip.  It truly is a beautiful part of the country. 

Good Birding, Kevin

More bird photos:

2 thoughts on “Venture to Southeast Arizona

  1. FANTASTIC TRIP!! Kevin did an awesome job of curating a wonderful experience. The birding, logistics, and vibe was terrific. The trip was extremely well planned and executed. He worked his tail off to make sure we guests had an exceptional experience. He accommodated my dietary constraints without a hitch. Kevin is a great birder and put us on a lot of the target species, including 43 life birds for me. The Montezuma Quail was truly a highlight. We made the ABA Rare Bird Alert 3 times during this trip! Southern Arizona is a birder’s paradise during the rainy season and the scenery was spectacular. Beautiful sunrises and sunsets. We also got the Arizona Blond Tarantula after dark one night after creeping around the brush tracking down and seeing the Poor Will. We crossed paths with other bird tours that didn’t seem to be having as much luck or as much fun as we did. Well done.

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