July 23 – August 1, 2021
Narrative and Photos* by Kevin Burke.
*Special thanks to Keith Watson for some great photos too!
This year’s Arizona tour was awesome! It is always nice to be in Southeast Arizona during the Monsoon. You never know what you might find.
The confluence of the Sonoran and Chihuahuan deserts with large mountain ranges peppered in make for fantastic scenery. The “sky islands” as these mountains are referred to rise out of the desert floor and attract a unique assortment of birds that you cannot find anywhere else in the country.
We purposely visit this time of year during the monsoon. These annual rains bring new life to the desert and attract birds that are vagrants here from further South in Mexico. This year was interesting because there was heavier than normal rainfall. We encountered just over eight inches of rain while we were there. To put this in perspective the annual rainfall average for the Tucson area is twelve inches. We had seven participants this year making for a wonderful group of people. A second Ventures Guide, Keith Watson, also tagged along this year.
The Arizona Venture always starts out in the Tucson area. The hotel that we stay at near the airport has nesting Hooded Orioles, Black-throated Sparrows, and Verdin.
It is always a good warm-up to western birds to have a quick walk around the hotel. We tried to go to Saguaro National Park next, but the rain held us off, instead we stopped off at the beautiful Tucson Mountain Park. This Park has fantastic views and large Saguaro cacti.
We had our first looks at Pyrrhuloxia, a close relative of the Northern Cardinal with a stubbier bill and pointier crest.
Having washed out in Saguaro we headed to one of the most famous birding locations in Southeast Arizona, Sweetwater Wetlands. This water treatment facility is also managed or wildlife habitat. It is a very reliable spot for Tropical Kingbird, which we observed at least two individuals. Abert’s Towhee is also common here. We picked up Ash-throated Flycatcher, Bell’s Vireo, and Mexican Duck here as well. It is an awesome place to visit.
After Sweetwater Wetlands we headed down to Green Valley where we would stay the next two nights. The afternoon was spent in Madera Canyon and Santa Rita Lodge. This area is a must for any birder, although you can say that about a lot of places in Southeast Arizona! We walked through the picnic area at the base of the canyon and had Dusky-capped, Brown-crested, and Sulpher-bellied Flycatchers. Acorn Woodpeckers were raucously calling from their favorite stash trees.
The Santa Rita Lodge is just up the street and has an incredible feeding station. We had one of the birds of the trip here, the Berylline Hummingbird. This bird is not annual in the region, so it was special to get great looks.
The feeding station also entertained: Rivoli’s, Black-chinned, and Broad-billed Hummingbirds. Hepatic Tanagers sporadically made appearances, and Lesser Goldfinch were abundant. We would visit this special place again the following day.
The next day we made multiple stops in the Tubac area South of Green Valley. We observed a beautiful immature Grey Hawk, Vermillion Flycatchers, more Tropical Kingbirds, and Ladder-backed Woodpeckers.
We decided to have lunch at the base of Madera Canyon. We didn’t get to many bites in, when we spotted a Zone-tailed Hawk perched on a nearby tree. Lucy’s Warblers flitted around in the trees. A low elevation Grace’s Warbler was a nice surprise. Several beautiful Varied Buntings put on a nice show too.
After lunch we drove up to Box Canyon to look for the Five-striped Sparrow. On the way up we heard a Botteri’s Sparrow out the window. We pulled over and had great scope views of this handsome sparrow.
Moving further along we had nice looks at a Golden Eagle hunting the canyon. We stopped to observe some of the awesome plant life here too. Barrel Cactus, Ocotillo, and Prickly Pear are abundant here. We arrived at the Five-striped Sparrow stakeout location and had a brilliant look at Scott’s Oriole. A little while later we heard the Five-striped down the canyon. It eventually worked its way up to eye level views at thirty feet away! It was an amazing experience for everyone.
The shear beauty of Box Canyon is worth the bumpy ride. After a great experience we headed back to the Santa Rita lodge for some afternoon feeder watching. A large group of Wild Turkey came down from the hill and took over the feeders. A Coatimundi also joined the birds having a quick snack at the feeders. It was a great way to end the day.
The next day we packed our things and made our way over to Sierra Vista. On the way we visited a few iconic Southeast Arizona birding locations. Our first stop was the famous Patagonia Roadside Rest Stop. This small rest stop has held some ultra-rare birds over the years and continues to be a very reliable spot for Thick-billed Kingbird, which we got to see! The rest stop was the only place to find Rose-throated Becard with regularity this year. We took a small trail and found the nest, with two adults and two juveniles nearby. It was quite an awesome sight.
Moving a little bit down the road we went to Patagonia Lake State Park. The recent rains had washed out the trail, but we still managed to find a couple Neotropic Cormorant and Black-crowned Night-Heron.
We had a nice lunch in Patagonia and stopped off at the Patton’s Center for Hummingbirds. They were operating without feeders due to bear activity, but we did have great looks at Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet. The afternoon was spent at a few spots including Las Cienegas National Conservation Area. We had several Cassin’s Sparrows doing there interesting flight display. We finished up in Sierra Vista for the evening set for a great day of birding the next day.
Our first day in the Huachuca Mountain range was a great one! Today we climbed into the high reaches of Carr Canyon. The beautiful views on the way up the mountain were breathtaking. Stopping off at a few pull-offs we observed close looks at Hepatic Tanager and Plumbeous Vireo.
One of our destinations at the top was Reef townsite campground. The elevation here is 7200 feet. We quickly scored one of our main targets, the Buff-bellied Flycatcher. Arizona Woodpeckers showed nicely foraging in the trees. A very entertaining flock of Bushtits flitted in the trees around the campground.
We wandered around the high elevations until after lunch when we went down to Ash Canyon Bird Observatory. This sanctuary is a very reliable place for Lucifer Hummingbird. Upon arrival we were greeted by the resident Greater Roadrunner walking through the parking area. It was awesome to see this species so close.
We didn’t get the Lucifer on this trip, so we decided to have an early dinner and come back when the birds may be a little more active. This tactic worked as we arrived just before sundown and had great views of the male Lucifer Hummingbird. This was a great way to end the day!
The next morning, we started with a beautiful hike up Miller Canyon. This Canyon is on National Forest land, but a farm has an inholding near the top parking lot. Beatty’s Guest Ranch is a stunning farm with great views and a wonderful hummingbird feeding station.
We were able to observe seven species of hummingbird at the feeders this morning including a main target the Violet-crowned hummingbird.
We did a short hike up the canyon and found a fantastic mixed flock of birds including Greater Pewee, Painted Redstart, Red-faced Warbler, and Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher to name a few.
After an awesome morning up Miller Canyon, we headed west. A quick stop off in Tombstone, Arizona is always fun. We were not lured into any gunfights, and it was fun to explore this famous town. A stop at the Lake Cochise and Twin Lakes Golf Course is always a must. We were there at a hot time of day, so the birds were not quite as active, but we did manage to see Cinnamon Teal, Scaled Quail, Black-necked Stilt, and Wilson’s Phalarope. We would return here in a few days and have quite a few more birds.
We stocked up at the local grocery store before heading out of Wilcox, because for the next three nights we would be staying at a secluded resort. The Painted Pony resort was built by tech millionaire John McAfee as a retreat for himself and his family. It was a fabulous resort with beautiful views of the Chiricahua Mountains.
There were a pair of Great Horned Owls in the trees behind the main house we had nightly flybys of Lesser Nighthawk.
The following morning, we headed high up into the Chiricahua’s. There are so many places to bird in this remote area and we aimed to see as many birds as we could. We started out searching for one of the prized birds of the trips, the Elegant Trogon. We got a tip where a nest hole might be and decided to scout it out. After a good search we finally found the nest and watched a female bring food into the young. It was an impressive sight.
We popped over to Pinery Canyon to look for a resident pair of Spotted Owls. These birds are very hard to find. We searched for a good amount of time before giving up. We did find a Cordilleran Flycatcher nest with chicks.
As we were leaving, we ran into another birding group that was going to try for the owls too. We decided to give it one more shot. This time we were successful in finding a fledgling owl. It was found sitting directly over one of our participants heads as he walked by!
While looking for the owls I flushed two Mexican Whip-poor-wills and one landed on a dead log giving everyone great views. It was an amazing several minutes of birding.
Feeling lucky we headed out to Rustler Park. This day use park is at roughly 8500 feet. Mexican Chickadees were the biggest target here and we were able to locate several rather quickly. Pygmy Nuthatches also adorned the trees and Steller’s Jays were busily flying around the picnic area. We headed down the mountain to see if we could get another look at the Elegant Trogons. This time we were rewarded with stellar views of the male and female near the nest site.
Our second full day in the Chiricahua Mountains was also very rewarding. We started our day in the desert looking for Thrashers. Crissal, Bendire’s and Curve-billed all put on a show for us.
A stop by Willow Tank provided great looks at Chihuahuan Raven. A stay in Portal wouldn’t be complete without a stop at some of the feeding stations near town. The first one we stayed at was Bob Rodriguez’s yard. He has a comfortable seating area with a great assortment of birds. We had great looks at Black-throated Sparrow, Gambel’s Quail, and Pyrrhuloxia.
After leaving we headed to the George Walker house. This is one of the most reliable spots for Juniper Titmouse. We were able to get good looks at two of these plain looking little birds. A bonus for the feeders was great looks at Blue-throated Mountain Gem. Heading up the mountain we stopped of at Onion Saddle and had great views of the elusive, Black-chinned Sparrow.
Fighting bouts of rain, we headed up to Barfoot Park this park is way over 8,000 feet in elevation. We were on the look out for high elevation warblers. We were delighted to see Grace’s, Hermit, Red-faced, and Olive Warblers. On the way out we observed some cooperative Band-tailed Pigeons on a dead snag.
A surprise flyover Northern Goshawk on the way down was a bonus. We had dinner at a local restaurant where a Greater Roadrunner had made her nest. A great way to end the day!
The next morning was our last day on the tour. We started by heading back to Bob Rodriguez’s feeding station, but on our way, we were stopped on the road by a Prairie Falcon. It landed on a nearby power pole, and we got out to observe it. It took off grabbed a meal ad landed on another power pole. We got the scope on it, and everyone had a great view.
At Bob Rodriguez’s feeders we got to see a Rufous-winged Sparrow that we missed the day before.
It was time to head back toward Tucson. Stops at Twin Lakes Golf Course and the Benson Sewage Treatment Plant netted us Baird’s Sandpiper, Black Tern, Western Sandpiper, and White-faced Ibis.
We had lunch in Reid Park in Tucson were some very cooperative Neotropic Cormorants hang out. After lunch we swung back out to Saguaro National Park for some scenery and desert birds. We had brief looks at a Gilded Flicker. Satisfied with a great trip we headed back to the hotel for dinner and morning departures the next day.
I always love this trip. The birds are amazing, the food is great, and the scenery breathtaking. If you have not had a chance to visit Southeast Arizona as a birder it is well worth the visit! Please think about joining us on next years Venture.
A few more birds…