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“Arizona – why do you want to come here? Surely it’s all desert and no birds?”
This was one of the more memorable quotes from a local, who obviously doesn’t appreciate the birdlife he has at his doorstep. To be sure, after a week here I couldn’t disagree with the chap more.
So, why Arizona? After having done a fair amount of birding on the East coast of North America, I felt it was time to sample some of the delicacies that the West has to offer. The decision narrowed itself down quite quickly to South-east Arizona, based on the variety of birds that can be seen there, due mainly to a variety of habitats in such a (relatively) small area. So, the plans had to include timing and a specific area to bird.
As with choosing South-east Arizona as a destination, the specific itinerary more or less chose itself. We had seven full days for birding, and even the South-east corner of the state is quite large. Weekends see the exodus of many Tucson residents (and believe me, it’s a big city) to the surrounding mountains. The consequence was that prime birding sites such as the Santa Catalina mountains (including Sabino Canyon), and Madera Canyon, which is one of the birding hotspots, can be crawling with merry picnic folk. Another select destination is Sonoita / Patagonia Creek Preserve, and this is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays. I do like the reason for this – it’s to give the wildlife time to recover from the rigours of visitors. Such a delightful and considerate thought!
The tour thus started in the Saguaro Preserve (West) / Desert Museum area on the Friday. An inspired choice, since this was both quiet and we had an superb introduction to the local species. The weekend was spent in the Huachuca Mountains, which were far enough away from the cities to remain quiet (although not for birds) apart from a handful of birders. The closure of the Sonoita / Patagonia Creek Preserve meant that the Patagonia hotspots would have to wait until the end of the week. So we sandwiched the Santa Catalina mountains and Madera Canyon in between, at the start of the week. The Chiricahua Mountains are also a target for birding, but we decided to leave this area until another time, due to a combination of distance, stretching the balance of variety and enjoyment of the birds we saw, and the difficulties with accommodation.
We were by default birding the whole week in a rough triangle bordered by Tucson, Nogales, and Sierra Vista. As mentioned, there are a variety of habitats within this small area:
Mountains – the Santa Catalina mountains,
of which Mount Lemmon is the highest peak, are probably the southern most
extent of the rockies, and have a peak of over 9000 feet. The fleeces and long
trousers that we carried to the peak were an irrelevance in the 80+ degrees at
the top, but certain times of the day and perhaps poorer conditions could bring
them into action!;
It is difficult to appreciate while there, but South-east Arizona as a whole is at a high altitude (around 4000 feet). However, even small climbs upwards in elevation can again result in different mixes of species. This can be illustrated by the 4 or so species of Hummingbird seen at the Pattons home in Patagonia, to the much more diverse range found at the Beatty’s in Miller Canyon, which is much higher. Further up still will be the first Red-faced Warblers, Cordilleran Flycatchers, Stellers Jays, and other high altitude specialists.
Timing is not as easy as you would expect in Arizona, since any time of the year can be good – Winter for sparrows and other Northern breeders spending a few months in warmer latitudes, July and August for return migration of hummers not seen here as breeders, and March, April and May for migrants. March and April must be the choice for many migrants, as well as some of the wintering species that would be just about to depart for the North. May still has many migrants going through, but is also good for additional breeding species that arrive late in the Spring. We had set our sights on the Spring, and work commitments meant that mid May would be the time to go. Experience proved that this was as good a time as any. We saw 9 hummers, a selection of sparrows, and many more besides. Plus the fact that, even though we had a brilliant week with plenty of good birds, it leaves further trips open at different times of the year and a new mix of species.
It has to be mentioned at this point that Arizona is hot. No surprise there then! Temperatures each day were up to 100 degrees. This meant that we had to be protected from the sun, full day birding can be cumulatively very exhausting, and the peak birding time is usually first light (around 5:15 am) till mid to late morning (10 to 11 am). Evenings are also supposed to be good, since the temperature is dropping, but we found that this does not actually happen till after 5:00 (light disappears just after 7:30 pm), and by this time, the walking and heat can take its toll on energy levels!
Travel and accommodation
The whole trip was arranged piecemeal. Flights and car were booked from the UK. When you live in the North of England, the most convenient flights seem to be from Manchester, where Phoenix is the preferred destination. We had a connecting flight in Philadelphia. Tucson does have an airport, but further connecting flights to here are much more expensive, and the drive from Phoenix to Tucson only takes about 1½ hours, which is probably less than a connecting flight (including boarding and waiting times) anyway.
The car was booked through Dollar, one of the most well known and respected hire firms in the States. Even so, don’t take the booking for granted, since mistakes can be made. Our contract included all taxes (including the necessary Supplementary Liability Insurance – or SLI), yet they still tried to add the already paid local taxes on to this (around $35). They then had the gall to suggest that refunds could not be done there and then.
Picking up the car was novel. We were led out to a batch of cars to the rear of the office and told to take our pick. The booking was for an Intermediate size, but the choice also seemed to include 4 wheel drives. We chose a saloon, due mainly to the safety factor – belongings could be kept more safely in the boot of the car. The downside of this is that a lot of the tracks in the area need a high clearance, which we found in places like Garden Canyon, where the drive between Sheelite and Sawmill Canyons often scraped our chassis, despite the 2 passengers leaving the car and guiding it over the many dips in the road. Probably the best compromise is a 4 wheel drive with a package tray over the boot area.
Accommodation was picked up as we travelled. The Chiricahuas are supposed to have limited places to stay, although we didn’t travel that far, so haven’t any experience of the situation. We did find the odd hotel to be full, but there was usually an alternative to be had. Three chains that we stumbled across between them seem to be well distributed and fit the pocket:
Since there were 3 of us, the price for each averaged out at between £10-15 per night. The standard was more than acceptable, with some even having a fridge and a swimming pool. The bases we used were:
Tucson – Santa Catalina mountains (also
good for Saguaro Reserves);
There are many good birding sites in the South-east Arizona area, and the site guide by Lane is absolutely invaluable (ABA / Lane Birdfinding Guide “A Birder’s Guide to South-eastern Arizona”, Richard Taylor, published by the American Birding Association, Inc). As with other Lane guides, this book contains a mass of information on where to find the birds, including generally precise directions, although it is useful to be aware of the fact that the odd distance given is incorrect.
Additional information is also available on the internet. One of the best web sites is that by Stuart Healy ( www.aztrogon.com/index.htm ), who leads small group tours into the area. There is a vast amount of information on his pages, with particularly useful bird lists for each month, and a journal which is updated almost daily. He has spent a lot of time on this with a very organised catalogue of information as the result.
The National Audubon Society also has some very useful information on their local site ( www.tucsonaudubon.org/index.htm ). One of their reasons to visit is an up to date list of access and visiting tips to many of the locations within the region.
For identification, we took the tried and tested National Geographic guide to the birds of North America. The more recently published Sibley guide was also invaluable, since it has much more information on differing plumages than the former guide and the quality of the paintings is generally much better. The main drawback of this book is its size – not the most portable one available. However, salvation is to hand in the form of two new guides: “The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Western (Eastern is the second) North America”, by David Sibley, published by Knopf. These are basically just cut down versions of the larger book, and have very similar contents in smaller, more practical, size. I bought a copy of both for $19.95 while there.
It is also worth mentioning the nature shops that are present. We didn’t visit the Tucson Audubon Society Nature Shop (300 E. University Boulevard, Tucson), but the Lane guide espouses its vast stock of birdy articles. Two shops that we did visit were at San Pedro house, just East of Sierra Vista, and the Nature Centre on the main street in Patagonia ( www.kazzam.com ). Both have a nice selection of books, and the former is owned by a very friendly and helpful chap who also knew the whereabouts of local birds.
For directions, the road maps given by the car hire firms are very basic, so we bought the widely available “Benchmark Map: Arizona Regional Series” for $4.95. This covers South-east Arizona. An additional map that may be of use is the “South-eastern Birding Trail”. It also seemed to be easily available from shops (although we had ours sent free some months before from one of the many web sites on the area), and has all the main bird sites marked. One of the sites bizaarly missed off is at Fort Huachuca, which includes the must visit sites in Garden Canyon, due to the whims of the commanding general in post at the time of publication.
Usefuls and essentials
Water – available at all garages and stores. Once the bottles are bought, they can be refilled with the more than palatable tap water
Bug spray – we only came across the odd mosquito, but there were also some irritating midges and flies. Later in the monsoon season (July to September), chiggers are an even bigger pest. “Off” insect repellent contains Deet, and is available at stores in Arizona
Warm clothes – even at a height of 9000 feet on Mount Lemmon, the sun still shone and kept the temperature high. However, one or two mornings in the more shaded canyons and woods began chilly, and some may find a fleece and long trousers more appropriate at this time of day
Food – if you bird continuously through the day as we did, there are sandwiches available at most petrol stations and some stores
Site information and maps – covered above, but essential
Sunglasses and / or peaked cap – is this getting predictable or what? The light is particularly bright in open desert areas
Paracetamol – for those Brits who are prone to headaches and paracetamol is the best antidote, take some with you, since this particular analgesic isn’t available in the States
Waterproofs – okay, our admission is that we took these and, surprise, didn’t have to use them. The most we had were a few high clouds at the end of the week. However, the monsoon season mentioned above does see heavy bursts of rain, usually for a short time in the afternoon. The www.weather.com website is useful for current and predicted weather patterns for Tuscon before you leave
Telescope and camera – this is always the big question. Do you carry the camera / video or telescope? The photographic opportunities are endless, with plentiful close birds. However, a telescope is also necessary at times (Western Bluebird wouldn’t have been ID’d without it, for instance)
Rucsac – the answer to the above problem, and also an essential for carrying enough water for longer walks. It is a good idea to keep the telescope with you for the odd important time it will be needed
Shannon Road (Day 1)
After a journey which was about 20+ hours long (can’t remember the exact timing, but it was long), we stayed at a Super 8 motel about half an hour out of Phoenix, at Casa Grande (junction of the Interstates 8 & 10). Taking into account the time difference and jet lag, the plan was to set the alarm for 5:30am and reach the outskirts of Tucson and the first birding sites a sedate hour or two after first light. However, the predictable happened – we had very little sleep, woke up at 4:30, and were at Shannon Road by 6:00.
This site is a great introduction to South-east Arizona birds. The road is little more than half a mile long, and is on the very edge of Tucson suburbia, on the fringe of the thorn scrub and low hills of the desert. The problem in leaving the car was which was to turn – so many birds of so many new species, many of which were quite approachable. This was definitely a foretaste of the superb birding ahead of us. Greater Roadrunner, one of the species that we most wanted to see, fell very early on, following many Gambel’s Quail trundling across the roads, seemingly in all directions. Unbelievably, it appeared just behind our car, in front of the houses, before striding the length of the block in front of us. This was to be one of only 3 Roadrunners seen on the trip. Other birds seen at first turned out to be common here, such as Gila Woodpecker, Cactus Wrens, and White-winged Doves (interspersed by the odd Inca Dove). We meandered along to the end of this road, which led us to the base of the thornbush covered hills, and enjoyed some excellent views of Phainopepla, Pyrrhuloxia, Verdin, House Finch, and Gilded Flicker. Birds really were everywhere in this small road, and despite all species being seen at some time later in the week, it was hugely enjoyable.
We also saw the first of our many hummers around here, with 1-2 male Magnificent Hummingbirds feeding on the flowering trees. An earlier Sparrow had been hastily called as Rufous-winged, but we hadn’t realised how similar they are to Rufous-crowned. Video evidence in strong light revealed the double malar stripes and white area between, making it the latter species. The first of the Flycatchers to show was Ash-throated, which was very approachable. At this stage, we were still using wing patterns to separate from Dusky-capped, but they were quite obviously larger in body and bill. One of the most common sounds, apart from Mockingbird, was that of Curve-billed Thrasher.
Saguaro National Park (West)
I wasn’t sure if it was because we had such a superb start to the morning’s birding at Shannon Road, or because the severe heat was beginning to kick in over this exposed hilly desert, but there were definitely fewer birds, both of species and numbers. This couldn’t detract from the significance of being in such a typical Arizona desert environment, with literally a forest of tall saguaro cactus canvassing the open hills. The temperature was climbing quite rapidly, with clear blue skies and dry heat. We were greeted at the visitor centre by rising Turkey Vultures, and further around on the circular loop, a Red-tailed Hawk with a snake in its talons.
We left the car to hike up part of one of the hill trails a short way around Hohokam Road. A family party of Black-tailed Gnatcatchers were feeding through the bushes almost as we started the walk. The walk was hard going for energy and birds, punctuated by the regular House Finches and Gila Woodpeckers, the latter of which must have been in their element amongst the field of saguaro cactus. There was a suggestion that they had taken the easy way out, since carving out a hole in cactus must be much easier on the head than wood (apart from the psychotic Gila Woodpecker earlier on at Shannon Road which was trying to tap its way through a metal signpost!). Black birds on top of the flowering Suguaro Cactus turned out to be Brown-headed Cowbirds. The first of many! It has to be said, despite these birds usually having the unfortunate position of being looked over, the sun on them at the top of the cacti showed them at their best.
After returning to the car, we continued round the rest of the loop, finding more Red-tailed Hawks high up with Ravens, as well as a female Hooded Oriole across the road.
The next part of the plan was to go straight to the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum, but we stopped to admire a Red-tailed Hawk perched on a telegraph post at the junction of Sandario and Mile Wide Roads, which then led us to a smart Western Kingbird.
Arizona Sonora Desert Museum
We didn’t arrive at the museum at the best of times, as testified by hordes of kids and sightseers lurking around the grounds. Yet this is not such a massive problem here (most of the time), until they pop up behind you muttering “ooh, what are you looking at?” at the top of their voices. The grounds cover quite an area, and this tends to swallow most of the other visitors up – a majority hover around the restaurant and gift shop in any case! Temperatures were even hotter now, but there were some birds to be seen. Most of the gardens are reasonably manicured, and divided into differing desert sub habitats, with zoological exhibits (aviaries and caged animals) dotted around. There is a desert loop of about half a mile at the northern end of the trails. This loop was particularly hot, but was provided with plenty of water fountains to drink from, and some birds to keep us company.
Most of the species were becoming familiar from earlier in the day – more copious Cactus Wrens, Gila Woodpeckers, and White-winged Doves. Pick of the crop had to be the hummingbirds, with one small feeder in a shaded culvert being very busy with birds, but slightly off the visitor trail. The hummers here laid on an excellent display, with a handful of individuals trooping in and out regularly. Two of these enjoyed chasing each other through the bushes and high into the air, with a suicide dive downwards to follow. One of these was a smart male Costa’s Hummingbird, with a second male possibly being a subadult, with dark throat and purple sheen. Another bird was found on a favoured perch nearby while on the trail of a Wilson’s Warbler. The visit was finished with a slow ramble around the desert loop, and was worthwhile for the family of Black-tailed Gnatcatchers and a prominent Verdin, both watched from the comfort of a trailside canopy.
Overall, the variety of birds here is not vast, and all were seen at other times through the week, but it was still an enjoyable diversion.
Garden Canyon (Day 2)
We arrived at the Huachuca Fort military checkpoint at first light, which was only a 2 minute drive along Fry Avenue from the cheap but comfortable Motel that we had chanced upon in Sierra Vista. After filling in the necessary red tape, showing passports and driving licenses, we accepted the prized token which proudly displayed allowed us entrance into the Canyon. Apparently, the commander who ran the fort 2 years earlier hadn’t allowed the Fort and canyon to be shown on the South-east Arizona Birding Trail map – it is worrying to think that he may have been only a step or two away from barring access to this superb and diverse birding site. The new commander is reported to be much more lenient in his views.
The first few miles of the paved road cut through mainly grassland with sparse mesquite bush, and despite our desire to get to the Upper picnic site as soon as possible, the temptation to keep stopping on the way when bird song was heard from open windows or shapes flitted in and out of the grass was too great. Most of these seemed to be sparrows, but were irritatingly distant or elusive. We did have a group of 4 Lark Sparrows which bucked the trend and landed at the edge of the road a short distance away, and a Botteri’s Sparrow singing in one place long enough to be scoped. Rufous-winged Sparrows, with a characteristic song reminiscent of European Wood Warbler, were heard regularly but not seen.
Headway towards the Upper picnic site was punctuated by Cassin’s Kingbirds and Loggerhead Shrikes, but we eventually arrived just behind an Icelandic trio who we had met along the grasslands, and the odd American birder wandering the clearing already. We spent quite a few hours walking the woods, although we probably went no further than 200 metres or so from the picnic site, and this time is necessary to turn up an impressive variety of birds. It is recommended that you arrive and leave early on a weekend, due to numerous picnickers, but even when we left after 9 (and when we passed by on the way down later), there were only a few birders to be seen.
The Upper picnic site is exactly as it sounds – the third of 3 picnic sites up Garden Canyon, with a few benches set in a small clearing in the woods. From the early Western Wood-pewees and Acorn Woodpeckers, we enjoyed a range of the commoner species early on, including a spattering of Warblers such as Orange-crowned, Townsend’s, and Black-throated Grey. We then walked downhill a short way, picking up the call of an Elegant Trogon as we descended. It was hidden at first, and the call seemed to be coming from much further than the actual location, but the bird was picked up on a dead branch over the small stream running alongside the road. We stayed here even after the trogon had flown, since other birds appeared as we watched, including Plumbeous Vireo, Swainson’s Thrush, Black-headed Grosbeak, and Western Tanager. The species added up as we continued down the road, such as Bridled Titmouse and Hepatic Tanagers. Swainson’s Hawk overhead was added as we returned towards the picnic area, as well as additional vireos and warblers. The Acorn Woodpeckers seen on arrival were still lingering around the same trees, and we were stood under a singing Bewick’s Wren, which has a much more impressive long tail and song than the books justify.
As we were about to leave to explore one of the higher canyons, a kindly ex Lancastrian appeared from his car and led us to a spot about half a mile further up the now rapidly deteriorating track, where we were treated to a very close Elegant Trogon, which was not only calling, but also perched for some time a few metres in front of us. We heard its muffled dog like mutterings for some time before it was located, and it is entirely probable that the hole in the broken tree branch that it sat next to was a nesting or roosting chamber. The bird was actually only about 10-15 metres from the road, over a dried up stream bed, but when listened to from the road, it appears as if it is some way up the hillside. We had seen other trogon species in Mexico, and this bird is every bit as stunning, and allows close approach while you decide on which is the best angle to view it.
When we had eventually torn ourselves away from the Trogon, we made our way up Garden Canyon to our next destination, which was Sawmill Canyon. It looked a nice and short journey in theory, but was complicated by the fact that the 0.6 miles from the Upper picnic site in Lane’s guide was misread as the distance to Sawmill Canyon, but it was in fact another mile further. A second and much more time consuming problem was that the road becomes a track of many holes and bumps, and our beautifully comfortable saloon car might have looked good cruising on the interstates, but had a woefully low road clearance, so we had to regularly get out and guide it over the stones and ramps. We did eventually arrive at the end of the road, which was gated at the entrance to Sawmill Canyon, and found a much more coniferous woodland at this higher altitude than the mix with deciduous down canyon. It was worth the harrowing journey up, although the beauty of sorting out the much more varied populations of Flycatchers up here is definitely in the eye of the beholder. I had heard that even the experts in the States can only achieve a percentage of positive ID’s of these birds, so enter a trio of bemused strangers. However, a little study, some obliging birds singing, and some good views helped us sort some of the birds out as Buff-breasted Flycatcher (the most common, and it varied in the depth of buff in the plumage, from deep to washed out), Cordilleran Flycatcher (the yellowish colour to the throat, seen in the books, is difficult to see), Ash-throated Flycatcher, Western Wood-pewee, and a single Greater Pewee. Warblers at this time of day were few and far between, but we did manage a couple of Red-faced Warblers, one feeding on the ground to the side of the trail, and at least 4 Grace’s Warblers. Vireos were located usually by song – both Plumbeous and Hutton’s were recorded.
The Beatty's Home, Miller Canyon
After stuffing ourselves with Mexican fast food at lunchtime, we passed a very close Swainson’s Hawk along one of the main Sierra Vista highways, and it stooped and tried to catch something in a nearby field as we watched. This was on the way to Miller Canyon, where the plan was to spend a little time admiring the hummingbirds on the feeders there, and spend the rest of the afternoon looking for other species further down the canyon. We ended up spending the rest of the day taking in the delights of the varied species of hummers that are a speciality of the higher altitudes in South-east Arizona. About 2 miles up the canyon, on another rough road (although not in the same league as upper Garden Canyon) reaches the end of the track after about 2½ miles, at a car park adjacent to the Beatty's property. Mr Beatty has very obligingly set up a row of hummingbird feeders along the southern fence of his property, and a canopy opposite so that the birds can be watched in comfort. We saw him in his garden as soon as we arrived, and, after some initial pleasantries, he told us of the better feeders at the rear of the property. On a hillside just above a small (and running) stream, he has erected two small areas with plentiful hummingbird feeders, as well as chairs and canopies. The first feeders, just a few metres above the stream, are good enough, and had an assortment of hummers to and fro as soon as we arrived (Blue-throated Hummingbird was at this set only). Other regulars were Black-chinned and Broad-tailed.
However, Mr Beatty recommended the upper set of feeders, set alongside a small cabin (which could be hired for $50 a night). The feeding area has less feeders than the lower site, hung from 3-4 small trees, as well as a couple of double chairs for comfort. Hummingbirds here are manic, even though Mr Beatty claimed that this year’s numbers were low, they were in and out constantly. Some tolerated the other birds less than others, resulting in some superb squabbles, aerial battles, and high speed chases, with some buzzing very close past our heads. Most of the Hummingbirds here were Black-tailed, Broad-billed, or Anna’s, but a male Magnificent had a favourite perch which he constantly visited. Towards the end of our stay, we noticed a female that seemed to be smaller than the rest, and with a little study, she was identified as a Calliope – a rare visitor here for this time of year. There were other species mingling in the area throughout the afternoon, with Arizona Woodpecker in a low bush nearby, as well as Western Kingbird, Black-headed Tanager, and Mexican Jay.
We were about to leave for Sierra Vista and nourishment, when Mr Beatty informed us of a regular Lucifer Hummingbird a little further South. Thus after travelling another 2½ miles along the main highway, we turned on to Turkey Creek Road, and found ourselves at the end of a short and tortuous track seated rather comfortably, courtesy of Mary Jo Cox and her array of feeders, waiting for the aforementioned star to put in an appearance. However, it didn’t bother to turn up – not a big problem due to the action presented by the other hummers utilising the garden. They were again mainly Broad-tailed, Black-chinned and Anna’s, with regular cameos from Broad-billed and Magnificent. A pair of Acorn Woodpeckers also found the feeders to their taste (built specifically for hummingbirds, adapted especially by Acorns!), which meant that they were perched only about 3-5 metres in front of us. A most hospitable way to spend the final part of the day!
San Pedro House (Day 3)
We arrived at San Pedro House at around 5:30, and it was a little chilly, with the sun just beginning to rise. It is set in a large open area, apart from two large cottonwood trees at the end of a 200m drive from the main road, a visitors hut, and plenty of feeders for the birds (hummingbirds at the front, and finches to the rear). Even at this time of the morning, Black-chinned Hummingbirds had started their day, and our first Vermilion Flycatcher was nearby. A Gilded Flicker was even trying its luck at one of the feeders.
The trail begins with a 200m walk across open grassland to the wooded hollow containing Kingfisher Pond, and there were numerous Flycatchers in the form of Vermilion and Cassin’s Kingbirds, with through flying Summer Tanagers in the open. As we glanced back, a Swainson’s Hawk had alighted on a perching post at the edge of the trail. The trail then followed the edge of the trees, and we entered the area containing the (so called) Kingfisher Pond, where there was a constant noise from the Bullfrogs (heard, but generally not seen). The trees were buzzing with birds in the form of Warblers (Wilson’s and Common Yellowthroat), and yet more Vermilion Flycatchers. This was our first site with a profusion of noisy Red-winged Blackbirds. Rough-winged Swallows overflew the pond, which was devoid of kingfishers, but we continued the circuit, and found Yellow-breasted Chat characteristically skulking, and what we decided were probably numerous Lucy’s Warblers, since they were the size, shape and background colour that we expected, but didn’t have the clinching rufous showing on crown and rump.
There is also a second, smaller and usually drier, pond off the southern boundary of the park, but this was relatively birdless when we found it. Returning to the trail, heading back on the return leg to the House, and the temperatures were beginning to climb rapidly, with a rising wind which was warm and offered little cooling effect. This again seemed very quiet, until about half way along, when a noisy Ash-throated Flycatcher preceded a Black-throated Sparrow and Wilson’s Warbler. A few metres further, and a male Lazuli Bunting was calling at the top of the bushes. The remainder of the walk was quiet, but we did stumble across a Gopher Snake, making its way towards either shade or sanctuary from us under the a small thorn bush.
After a reasonably long and hot ramble, the intention in arriving at the visitors centre was to relax for some time and watch the hummingbird feeders. Green-tailed Towhee was the first of a group of birds, feeding just in front of the porch, to persuade us to change our plans. It was followed by White-crowned Sparrow, Canyon Towhee, and Vermilion & Brown-crested Flycatchers. As we spent more time shunning the relaxation and wandering the grounds, more and more birds appeared and most were ultimately quite approachable. We added Curve-billed Thrasher, Abert’s Towhee and Bewick’s Wren to the already impressive list. Another case of putting in the time to turn up the birds!
Sierra Vista Wastewater Ponds
This was only 2.9 miles from San Pedro House (towards Sierra Vista), and has changed since the Lane guide was published. A great deal of money seems to have been spent to accommodate visiting birders, and a new track straight through the entrance leads to a rather pleasant raised viewing platform with canopy. This overlooks the very manicured yet inviting water treatment beds, the closest four of which can be seen easily, and are overgrown with mainly reeded vegetation. The main downside is that, although Red-winged Blackbird enthusiasts would be in seventh heaven, a lot of birds probably hide out in this cover, or frequent the more open and exposed mud on the lagoons further to the rear of the plant. This was evident when 8 White-faced Ibis flew in and disappeared on landing behind the raised banks. Patience was rewarded – sitting and watching chalked up Eastern Meadowlark on the fences behind us and on the sewage tracks, passing flocks of Swallows also contained Sand Martin and Cliff Swallow, small groups of White-throated Swifts, and a circling Prairie Falcon.
Standing on the benches of the viewing platform, we could just see inside the adjacent dryish lagoon, and the odd patch of water hosted “Mexican” Mallards, a Shorelark on the bank, and a Swainson’s Hawk landing for a drink.
We later chanced upon reports for the birds seen at the works, and these included a note from some birders who had walked out to the lagoons at the rear, and had no problems from workers present. We visited these ourselves, and found 2 lower and much more open lagoons, with mud edgings. They had many more birds to see. These included the earlier White-faced Ibis, as well as Mexican Mallards, Cinnamon Teal, Green Heron in one corner, and a collection of waders in the opposite corner, with 8 Wilson’s Phalarope feeding as a group, and 4 Spotted Sandpipers
Rancho del Rio pond, San Pedro valley
We intended popping into this pond and one two other places in the upper San Pedro valley by taking Hereford Bridge, but this was under repair, and hence closed to traffic. A re-routing of about 15 miles was in order: bi-product of this was a Roadrunner (strangely, running over the road in front of us) on this journey, and the third and last of the trip on the way back from San Pedro River Inn (neither would have been seen but for this diversion). We headed up as far as the Hereford Bridge from the other direction, which was indeed closed, and backed up a mile or so to this small pond. It is surrounded by a single row of trees, and barbed wire, on all sides, and birdwise wasn’t very inspiring, apart from at least 3 Ash-throated Flycatchers, and lone Abert’s Towhee and Green Heron. Apart from this, it wasn’t really worth peeking through the trees.
San Pedro River Inn
A mile to the South, in the opposite direction to the bridge, was a much better place for birds. The Inn consists of 6 or so self contained units, which are open for hire, but they also welcome birders, to the extent that they have a sign up directing us to parking, and asking to register before exploring the area. We parked up in marked bays outside the cabins, and a very helpful lady, who possibly owned or worked on the premises (staying in the “Eagle Nest” cabin), took us down to the river, and pointed out a roosting Great Horned Owl and its chick sitting on branches in a large cottonwood tree. After taking in the Owls for some time, we walked some way along the still flowing river / stream. It was now mid-afternoon, hot, and very windy, but as usual a little patience did turn up some birds. First were 3 of the local race of Song Sparrow, singing and displaying the characteristic dark breast spot, with Abert’s Towhee on the opposite side of the river. Continuing the walk found Wilson’s Warbler, which was by now becoming a regular, White-breasted Nuthatch, and a close Greater Pewee. Walking back and comparing a Western Wood-pewee, the second of the adult Great Horned Owls was found, only around 100 metres from the nesting tree. Before leaving the woods, we found second helpings of Gila Woodpecker and Vermillion Flycatcher, as well as our first Ladder-backed Woodpecker of the trip.
Hanging around the cabins for some time also encouraged more species to appear. A pair of Vermillion Flycatchers popped up regularly, and were possibly the most confiding that we had encountered. Eastern Meadowlark was with Red-winged Blackbirds around the pools, and a Red-shafted Northern Flicker fed in the open on the lawns. As we steeled ourselves to leave the scene, we found a pair of Scaled Quail. They apparently like to feed under the bird feeders here, but turned out to be the only ones of the whole trip. At one point, one of the Scaled Quails and 2 Curve-billed Thrashers were perched within 5 posts of each other on the same stretch of fencing.
The Santa Catalina Highway to Mount Lemmon (Day 4)
Today was the day for the mountains, and we decided to bypass Sabino Canyon, and head straight for the Mount Lemmon highway. Our reasoning was that the birds in the canyon would probably be mainly present in the mountain canyons, and it meant that we could get to the best warbler areas at a reasonably early hour.
Molino Basin campground
This is about 5 miles up from the Tanque Verde road. It was not only the first birding site of the day, but also where we paid the $5 entrance fee to the park in the self pay envelopes at the car park. The elevation here is around 4500 feet, and we expected temperatures to be on the low side at this time in the morning, but at little after 6am, the air was very still, the sun peered over the mountain tops, and it warmed up very quickly. Small groups of birds were evident as we left the car, the first being noisy Mexican Jays, with an additional Western Scrub Jay further along the path, as well as flighty Phainopeplas and numerous Cassin’s Kingbirds.
From the tree enclosed camping area, the tarmac road opened up into a sunny and sparsely vegetated (tree wise) valley, with birds waking up and appearing as we progressed along it. Hooded Orioles became regulars, only outnumbered by the common Phainopeplas, supported by less evident Black-throated Grosbeak, Ash-throated Flycatchers. Male Blue Grosbeak and perched Broad-billed Hummingbird added extra colour. One of the pairs of Hooded Orioles was apparently building a nest somewhere nearby, with the female in particular flying to and fro with nesting material. At one point, the male of the pair displaced a Loggerhead Shrike from an open perch right in front of us.
This was the next stop on the mountain trail, and is about 6000 feet above sea level. Even so, the temperature mid morning was still very warm and pleasant, helped by the shade of the coniferous forest surrounds. We found the car park for the canyon trails very easily, about ¼ mile on from mile marker 11 on the right hand side of the road. As would be expected, the parking area was very sanitised, with 10 or so spaces for cars, and toilet facilities.
Only about 200m walk from this stop was a second car park, which was roughly the same size as the first, with similar facilities. Lane recommends beginning the walk here, but I don’t really think it makes a great deal of difference. On the contrary, the short walk between the two found sporadic song and calls from wood-warblers and vireos – Warbling Vireo and White-breasted Nuthatch were seen, the latter a pair nesting in a smallish tree next to the track in a hole about 2 metres from the ground. Chickadees were also here, which were likely to be Mountain, but it took some time before the diagnostic head pattern could be seen.
We had to work quite hard for the birds at this site, due to a combination of only sporadic song and the density of the trees, with most of the birds towards the canopy. The majority of the song came from vireos – Warbling and Plumbeous in more or less every case. A Red-faced Warbler was eventually found, and it was seen to chase off a Black-throated Grey Warbler. A pair of Dusky-capped Flycatchers frequented the dry stream bed. Overall, the walk around here was pleasant, with some nice birds present, but not in the numbers and variety that we had expected.
Rose Canyon Lake
We had now climbed to above 7000 feet, and the heat continued to increase, with a cooling mild breeze across the mountain. Again, the site was easily found, despite the disappearance of mile markers by the road some distance back, due to the excellent signposting of the lake. There was another $5 entry fee here, and it was well worth driving the 1¼ mile down to the car park at the end. We were greeted with Violet-green Swallows overhead as we left the car.
We initially took the track to the right of the small lake, which led upwards and eventually overlooked the small dam at the head of the open water. This view in itself would have made the trip worthwhile, but there were also a handful of Red-faced Warblers singing along the gradual ascent, many of which could be seen at close quarters. Apart from the sound of the odd angler and day tripper around the lake, this was a very peaceful and still spot. The open rocks above the dam were also a good vantage point for the Violet-green Swallows, which until now has been at neck-breaking height above the canopy. As we sat and watched from these bare white rocks, the reason for the name of the swallows became evident, with the sun revealing an iridescent green sheen on their backs.
We walked back down the track and crossed over a few stagnant ponds that passed for a stream filtering into the lake, and scanned the opposite shore from which we had just been sitting to find a male Western Bluebird, perched at the top of one of a pair of high bare trees. While it was there, a Violet-green Swallow landed on to the top branches of the second tree very briefly. An Acorn Woodpecker was followed, after which what appeared to be a female Hepatic Tanager remained mainly hidden in a tree up the slope. Trying to get better glimpses of this bird to confirm its identification unearthed a Pygmy Nuthatch feeding alongside. We climbed up the hill to gain eye level views of this bird.
Lunch was scoffed about half a mile further up the mountain road from the Rose Canyon Lake junction, at a vista overlooking the San Pedro River valley. While we sat on the wall, a male Magnificent Hummingbird rested on a horizontal branch, with a male Hepatic Tanager in the same area. Birds that got away were a couple of large hawks, which were picked up late. They looked to have different shapes in the air, the second of which had flat wings (possibly Red-tailed Hawk), the first held the wings in a very slight “V”, with very dark brown to blackish back (possibly Zone-tailed Hawk).
Mount Lemmon Summit / Irongate Lodge restaurant
As we approached the restaurant, we came across some roadwork(s) American style. We were required to stop for what was described as a “whole pile of traffic coming down”, wait for 10 minutes, and then follow a pilot car once clear. The “whole pile of traffic” turned out to be half a dozen cars. We parked outside the Irongate Lodge, which is a restaurant in the Mount Lemmon ski valley bowl. This is magnificent for scenery, with ski lifts over the winter runs on one side, and a view of the valley below on the opposite side. First bird seen was a Greater Pewee at the apex of a dead tree about 100m down in the valley (showing the crest on the nape even at this distance), with Violet-green Swallows over the top. There are only four hummingbird feeders on the terrace outside of the lodge, and apart from a single Magnificent Hummingbird, all the others seemed to be Broad-tailed, with at least 3 males and 2 females, but these birds put together an eye-catching show, chasing each other off the feeders, quite often almost brushing us as they motored past, and producing the whistling noise made by the wings of the males (a characteristic of this genus). Although Broad-tailed and Black-chinned Hummingbirds are somewhat different in the field guides, it would appear that the most reliable way of telling them apart, in addition to the tail flicking of the latter when hovering, is to spot the crimson or purple throat sheen respectively in reflected light, both of which appear black at other times. The bill of the Black-chinned is also noticeably longer.
I thought I’d done well when I found a trio of Band-tailed Pigeons and single Steller’s Jay perched on the same tree in the valley below. That was until minutes later, when a return to the bird feeders revealed 4 or more Steller’s Jays feeding just beneath the balcony on food put out by the owner. Such a gracious act had to be rewarded, so we bought a portion each of blueberry pie and ice cream – sometimes sacrifices such as this just have to be made! While carrying out this difficult chore, Broad-tailed Hummingbirds were themselves feeding only a few feet away.
We completed the drive up to the radio mast clad summit. On the last leg of the road, we unbelievably passed a couple of small mounds of snow on the roadside, even though the temperature was still high (probably around 65-70 degrees+). We followed one of the trails, supposedly to the outlook, but of course chose the wrong one. We still saw a few birds along the way, however, including another couple of Pygmy Nuthatches, Yellow-eyed Juncos, Western Tanager, and a small yet frustrating flock of calling wood-warblers, which remained elsusive.
Madera Canyon (Day 5)
The morning started well on the drive from Continental to the Box Canyon road junction, where we had a pair of Red-tailed Hawks on overhead wires, 2 Black-throated Sparrows (one sharing a bush with a Botteri’s Sparrow), American Kestrel on the wires, and Western Kingbird.
The minute we set foot out of the car, we found a pair of Lucy’s Warblers, which were feeding young in a nearby bush. They showed the very obvious rufous crown, which was nice because it confirmed the first definite Lucy’s that we had seen. We had been chasing a few small grey warblers earlier in the week, but had nothing clinching seen. We crossed the barbed wire fence via a small metal "style" to the East of the road, and wandered down into the Wash itself, which was not in the least bit aptly named at this time, since the river bed was completely dry. We thus “waded” along a rock strewn path, bordered by thorn bush woodland on the left, and single row of bushes to the right. This was immediately productive for singing Black-throated Sparrows, and perching (briefly) Broad-billed Hummingbirds. A little further down was an unexpected male MacGilvray’s Warbler, which was feeding its way through the denser part of the bushes. After following a Northern Beardless-tyrannulet from the wash into the adjacent bushes, we stumbled on a Verdin’s nest under construction. The birds themselves added to the nest only a couple of times before we left them to their chores. Putting in an appearance while waiting here were another Beardless-tyrannulet, Wilson’s and Grey Warblers, and singing Black-throated Sparrow.
Madera picnic site
Only about 4 miles further up the Canyon from Florida Wash, we parked the car at the Madera picnic site, and paid the $5 fee. A small gathering of Mexican Jays were pecking up titbits around the picnic tables, and these were accompanied in the surrounding trees by Summer Tanagers, Townsend’s Warbler, Acorn Woodpeckers, and Bridled Titmouse. We were taken aback a little when we found running water in the stream, so we set off to look for birds downstream. First to be seen were Flycatchers, in the form of Dusky-capped and Western Wood-pewee, which were both very vocal. We covered a distance of about ½ to ¾ of a mile, criss-crossing the water a couple of times via bridges along the way. Most of this was under the cover of trees, with the occasional open views to the West. Birds were picked off along the way, and it was a particularly good stretch for Hepatic Tanagers (with one Western Tanager male singing) and Mexican Jays (2 parties, one of which almost fed at our feet). A couple of small flocks of Bushtits were nurturing newly fledged young, including one happily resting and begging on a branch which seemed to take an age to locate. The parents eventually saw to its needs before it moved on. Of the 2 species of Woodpecker here, 1 of the 3 Acorns was almost immobile at the top of a telegraph pole, while an Arizona was more difficult to pin down feeding lower in the denser bushes. A couple of Rufous-crowned Sparrows also preferred to forage in the shade at ground level. We disturbed a pair of Cooper’s Hawks when we returned to the car park, which then flew downstream. We had hoped to find Black Phoebes here, but the only Flycatchers here were Dusky-capped and a single Western Wood-pewee.
Santa Rita Lodge
This is a very pleasant small collection of rentable cabins, consisting of about 8-12 properties, a gift shop (closed on our visit), a restaurant and site office. A small wildlife attraction area had kindly been provided, which is a small enclosed section of the premises, with both hummingbird and seed feeders. On first pass, it seems to be overrun by House Finches and Goldfinches, but these can be seen to be augmented by Black-headed Grosbeaks and Black-chinned Hummingbirds. 15-20 minutes into this small spectacle, the first convoy of 3 birders minibuses that we had encountered on the whole trip pulled up and ejected their contents on the surrounds – they did seem to have a habit of sticking together like glue, and were in fact the only group we were to meet. Apart from these, the sites we visited were fairly quiet, with never more than a few people milling around. The most impressive site around the lodge were at least half a dozen Acorn Woodpeckers plying to and fro, with 3 at the top of one telegraph pole at one time. Another first here were clouds – covering most of the sky, and together with a brisk wind, providing a little bit of cool (making it hot, as opposed to very hot). This also seemed to coincide with a few more birds passing through. A couple of Broad-billed Hummingbirds were followed by a female Lazuli Bunting (quite a boring little individual, with a buffy coloured breast and barely discernible blue tinge to the tail). The more outstanding birds returning to the feeders were the Black-headed Grosbeaks, with at least 3 females and 2 males.
The trail from the lodge to the amphitheatre, about 400 metres long, was quiet and relatively birdless, apart from Bridled Titmouse and White-breasted Nuthatch, with Acorn Woodpecker seen and Arizona heard. We did find a pair of Bell’s Vireos at the amphitheatre car park. They are a very pale vireo, overall quite grey, with barely demarcated spectacles, contrasting starkly with the deeper grey, more obviously patterned Plumbeous. Distant Swainson’s Thrushes were on the trail and in the car park.
About half a mile up from the Santa Rita Lodge is a rather attractive wooden lodge on the right hand side of the road, which we had thought was another gift shop harbouring more feeders. The latter was true, but the owner told us of a Flame-coloured Tanager which was to be found at times in the Madera Kubo surrounds. This is a collection of 4 holiday cabins set in the woods, and the Madera Kubo gift shop. The lady in the gift shop pointed us to the blue cabin next to a large boulder some metres along the road, which we found very easily. The first quarter of an hour there was lively, with 3 types of Vireos singing and calling (Warbling, Plumbeous, and Bell’s), Swainson’s Thrush and White-breasted Nuthatch. While we sat on the wall in front of the blue chalet, we spotted a dark Flycatcher on the opposite side of road and behind a fence, which turned out to be a Black Phoebe. The unsuccessful search earlier around the Madera picnic site would have fitted the description of the site it was frequenting here, with a bridge over running water – the bird preferred the open perches just down from the bridge.
As we continued our pilgrimage between the blue chalet and the gift shop, birds of varying species kept appearing. The 3 previous Vireos were upped to 4, with the addition of a very unexpected Red-eyed, a species which is seen with difficulty in the western states. Plumbeous Vireo proved very common, with more singing birds, and even one on a nest overhanging the road. We thought for a brief moment that we had found the Flame-coloured Tanager, but it proved to be a male Western Tanager, sporting the much paler yellow underparts, as compared with bright orange of the rarer species. In the same tree outside of the gift shop were Hooded Orioles and a lone Painted Redstart. For some reason, this location improved as the afternoon progressed, despite the clouds dispersing, the wind dropping, and the temperature rising. The Painted Redstart became bolder, and fed right in front of us, down to about 3 metres distant. A sortie back to the blue cabin finally pinpointed the Flame-coloured Tanager. Once seen, it isn’t hard to miss, with bright orange head and breast, spotted double white stripes in the wings, greyish ear coverts, and dark thick set bill. Returning yet again to the gift shop, we heard Canyon Wren singing, and thought that a long hike up the hill was needed to find it. Instead, we decided to try to improve on our Black Phoebe photos, which was still returning to the stream behind cabin #3. While there, we were pleasantly surprised when a pair of Canyon Wrens appeared in the cabin yard, initially on the back of a truck and apex of a shed roof. They were taking food to a nest in the adjacent cabin #4. They returned repeatedly, singing and perching on the shed, veranda, and truck in front of us for around 10-15 minutes before their silence set in. It was then that the lady who was hiring cabin #4 entered the scene and pointed out the nests of Cooper’s Hawk over cabin #3, which was vacant at the time, and Western Wood-peewee, sitting on the nest. A female Lazuli Bunting put in a brief appearance in the surrounding trees. The one job outstanding was to return to look for the Flame-coloured Tanager, since one of our party was yet to see it. Returning to the vicinity of the blue cabin and our earlier success, it was only a matter of about 5-10 minutes before it was relocated, this time with much more prolonged periods out in the open.
The day finished well. We checked into the Motel 6 in Nogales, which is just off junction 4 in Interstate 19 (definitely recommended at only $45 for a 4 person room). A quick dip in the swimming pool to shake out the Arizona dust also totted up an interesting pool list – the more interesting species included Phainopepla, House Finch, Cassin’s Kingbird, and Great-tailed Grackle seen from the water, and topping the bill single Barn and 3 Cliff Swallows drinking from the surface of the water on the wing while we were still half submerged (an even better reason to stay here). The hotel was used for two nights, and was not only cheap and cheerful, but also in a convenient location for the Patagonia sites.
Kino Springs (Day 6)
It only took us 10 minutes to arrive at Kino Springs from the Nogales motel, and we ticked off Say’s Phoebe as soon as we passed the entrance to the track leading to the golf club area. This was an immature bird, which was being attended by one of its parents. Not only was this predicted by the Lane guide (the species and not the family setup), but the other bird he made note of was also here – singing Varied Bunting on the other side of the dried up river bed, perched at the apex of one of the line of bushes. Scoping the bird revealed the expected – black overall, with slightly lighter edges to the wing feathers, not the more vivid colours which can be occasionally seen in better light. With Phainopepla and Lucy’s Warbler evident, we decided to park up and start our day’s birding here. Parking off track was a good idea, since some cars and vans were already out and about, and weren’t taking any prisoners with their speed. Most of the birds were on the bush covered hill side of the track to the West, with Phainopepla the predominant species by number and activity. We had the strange sight of an Ash-throated Flycatcher mobbing a female Lesser Goldfinch all the way down to the ground. The first Hummingbird of the day was a superb male Costa’s, at the top of a bare tree half way up the hillside, proudly displaying the rather ridiculous “Speedy Gonzales” moustache. Shortly after, a male Vermilion Flycatcher flew in from the dry river bed, displaying in flight all the way over to the hillside.
The first pond of Kino Springs is only about half a mile along this dirt track. The dry pond certainly didn’t stop some good birding at an interesting site. Even from the parked car we had singing Song Sparrow and Yellow-breasted Chat in the open, Cassin’s Kingbird overhead, and various types of bird song from all directions. The centre and rear of the pond, to the East, was even better. As we walked around here, there were numerous Brown-crested Flycatchers, Summer Tanagers, and Curve-billed Thrasher, with Yellow and Wilson’s Warblers overhead. Approaching the rear of the pond found “Yellow-breasted Chat city”, with 6 birds in view at one particular time. Warbling Vireos were setting up singing territories here, along with many Lucy’s Warblers, and busy Bewick’s Wrens foraging in and out of the basement vegetation. The mesquite and low thorn scrub that we found to the rear of the pond continued to be alive with birdlife, with more Lucy’s & Wilson’s Warblers, and Yellow-breasted Chats. We were easily fooled by the exotic drooping song of a Northern Cardinal, which sounded novel until the bird put in an appearance. Red-eyed Vireo is supposed to be very difficult to see on the this side of the States, but we found a second at this location. The track was followed to the dry river bed – it’s hard to imagine this ever containing water, never mind enough to form banks about 30 metres apart. Growing plants along the bed aid the dry argument, but there were one or two darker patches which may have indicated more recent water presence. Slightly different birds here were Canyon Towhees, and Ladder-backed Woodpecker over, which then landed briefly on a dead tree. The most abundant bird was Lucy’s Warbler, the vast majority of which seemed grey all over, with little if any distinguishing marks.
The purpose of the track was to lead to Kino Springs, which is a golf course, restaurant, and country club. As usual with this type of development in desert areas, it provides a more open and lush oasis for the wildlife, although we had apparently arrived during an unusually dry spell. A Gilded Flicker was the first bird seen, preceding the numerous Cassin’s Kingbirds, Starlings, Brown-headed Cowbirds, Barn and Cliff Swallows. The second pool is directly to the front of the restaurant, the nearest edge being dry, and stagnant water to the far end. The trees in the drier part were supporting a Grey Hawk’s nest, as well as Vermilion Flycatchers. The water was quiet for birds, apart from a single Great Blue Heron which flew in. More Brown-crested Flycatchers and Cassin’s Kingbirds were watched here, before we located the nest of Vermilion Flycatcher – the female incubating while the male watched on. The putting greens and lawns around the clubhouse were good for Sparrows, with small collections of White-crowned, single Rufous-crowned, and a pair of Lark Sparrows in conifers.
Patagonia Lake SP
We went here more in the hope of catching up with Empidonax Flycatchers than aquatic species. It was even something of a surprise to see a body of water – the lake stretches for 2-3 miles, and is fringed along most of the shore by trees, with reeds at the upper East end. A mix of 18 Double-crested and Neotropic Cormorants were perched towards the centre of the lake here. Only one of these – a Double-crested – was in full breeding plumage, although one of the Neotropics sported white ear tufts, and the difference in size was obvious. The car was parked at the beginning of the Trailhead Walk, which progressed for about half a mile towards the reeded East of the lake. It was here that we had the initial look at the Cormorants. The first 100 metres or so was through low thorn scrub – this was very hot and quiet. It then descended to shaded woodland. First find was our second Verdin nest, with the birds actively building, with singing Warbling Vireo nearby. Lucy’s Warblers were also here, naturally. We continued on through the trees, where the track opened slightly to horse pasture, and crossed a small stream. There proved to be many Flycatchers around, but all were a mix of adult and juvenile Vermilion. A single Woodpecker landing nearby was Ladder-backed. A Green Heron frequented the stream. Overhead, amongst the circling Turkey Vultures, was a lone Grey Hawk.
The edge of the reed beds were reached via a precarious arrangement of logs across acrid mud (thankfully mainly dry). It was a worthwhile balancing act, resulting in close White-faced Ibis, Spotted Sandpiper, pairs of Redhead & Ruddy Duck, and numerous American Coots. The Cormorant collection was very much closer. Hot and aching feet would have welcomed a dip in the cooling waters of the lake, but one look at the slime and smelly mud at the edges was more than a put off. It had to wait to later (and did!).
Patagonia and the Paton’s Home
On to Patagonia, where we drove straight past the 4th Avenue turn for The Patons garden, but ended right outside the Nature Shop after completing our U-turn. We just had to have a look inside! Not only were there good books, but the owner was also very helpful.
We again aimed for The Patons garden, but were stopped half way along California Avenue by a couple of birders, who kindly pointed out a Thick-billed Kingbird in the large bare tree opposite. This is quite an impressive Flycatcher, being much more thickset in the body and bill than the Kingird species already seen. It does have a hint of yellow on the belly, and the bill is reminiscent of Couch’s Kingbird of Central America, although it is even longer and thicker.
We eventually pulled up at the renowned and much anticipated Patons home, and it was everything that we expected. It was typical of the birding hospitality that we had already received, that the Patons set up their own back yard with Hummingbird feeders at the rear of the property, and seed feeders at either end of the garden. They had erected “Birders Welcome” signs, and even a sun canopy with three rows of seats, and ID books provided. The garden is mainly famous as one of the best sites in the country for Violet-crowned Hummingbird, as well as the rarities that make occasional appearances, rather than the variety and numbers of birds (this tends to increase with altitude). The Beatty’s home was the place for the latter, yet this was again Hummingbird watching par excellence. The species we saw here were Violet-crowned, Broad-billed, and Black-chinned. The former was represented by at least 2 individuals, which show variation in plumage, one being more drab than the other, and they favoured one or two particular feeders. The garden was also good for many other birds: a bold, strutting Bronzed Cowbird was parading among the more common Brown-headed; Sparrows were White-crowned, Rufous-crowned and Lark; Inca and Common Ground-dove; Black-headed Grosbeak, and Bewick’s Wren, which may well have been nesting in one of the nest boxes. On the large tree between the feeders, we also had Gila Woodpecker and White-breasted Nuthatch. Unbelievably, our first Acorn Woodpecker of the day was at the far end of the garden. Another pleasant surprise was that we were the only birders here for most of the afternoon. We stayed until late in the afternoon, when the crowds started to appear.
The Patagonia Roadside rest was visited briefly on the way back to the hotel, more in hope than expectation at this time of the day. Yet we did find our first, and last, Cedar Waxwings of the trip, and one or two other species as we walked. We dug up male and female Broad-billed Hummingbird, and probably the brightest male Western Tanager so far. It’s surprising how such a colourful bird can disappear in small bushes. Other birds at this time were Lucy’s Warbler, Warbling Vireo, and American Kestrel overhead. As luck would have it, we were just about to get into the car to leave, when a Rock Wren appeared a little way down the lay-by. This was also to be the first and last of the trip!
Patagonia Roadside rest (Day 7)
After information from other birders, we crossed the road to the stream side this morning, which is reputed to be much better for birds. After a short walk through the trees, we came upon a couple of very interesting passerines, feeding in the canopy, and obtained good scope views from below for 5-10 minutes of birds that we failed to identify. Both seemed to be Vireos, with rounded shape and quite stout bills, greyish back tinged with olive, an eye ring which was barley obvious, dark to black upper tail, and two wing bars which were more or less just thin lines. Both had yellowish undertail coverts, one with beige underparts, the other with pale yellow continuous up to the throat. This trail through the woods was quite short – only about 100 metres – and quite cool this early in the morning, being in the shade of the cliffs and trees. More birds appeared as we covered this small location, the best spell being when we stopped for a Violet-crowned Hummingbird, which had a favourite perch that it returned to for very short periods of time. An absolutely pristine male Broad-billed Hummingbird fed on the flowers only about 2 metres from our lookout point, and showed off magnificent colours even in the shade. Aside from Yellow Warbler and Dusky-capped & Ash-throated Flycatchers, the most surprising find was as we about to leave – 2 Black-bellied Whistling-ducks flew presumably from the stream below us.
Back to the other side of the road where the car was parked, more birds responded to the increasing warmth of the morning. Amongst the usually ubiquitous Phainopepla were Summer Tanager, Lucy’s Warbler, and one or two other passerines which couldn’t be seen very well. However, our best find here was a pair of Thick-billed Kingbirds, which were building a nest in a tall tree directly above a “Camping Prohibited” sign. They visited regularly, often alighting on open branches, in the vicinity. The find of yet another species either on a nest or nest building just had to be celebrated, so we constructed an improv breakfast by making up ham and cheese sandwiches in the boot of the car. Delicious!
Sonoita Patagonia Creek Preserve
The first job here was to spray well with Deet insect repellent, since chiggers are apparently a major problem in this type of habitat. The wetter months between July to September turned out to be the crucial months for this, but better safe than sorry! We were also greeted at the visitor centre car park by a mass of parked cars – this location obviously becomes quite popular by mid morning. On the positive side, we were also greeted by Say’s Phoebe and single Black amongst Turkey Vultures circling overhead. Other Flycatchers in the open area surrounding the visitor centre were Vermilion, with at least a couple of males, and Cassin’s Kingbird. We decided to do a circuit of the preserve, starting on the Creek Trail, which consisted of pleasantly open woodland, with a centre of grassland. We had again been hoping for some frustrating Empidonax Flycatchers, but this was probably a little too late in the season for them. They were replaced by an abundance of other Flycatchers, the most common being Cassin’s Kingbirds, Western Kingbird, and Dusky-capped Flycatcher, but we also realised by now that Thick-billed Kingbird was a little easier to see in this part of the state than we had expected, with another 2 separate birds along the Creek Trail. On the paths we had some Sparrows, which mainly consisted of Song, and singles of Abert’s Towhee, White-crowned and Lark Sparrow. At the beginning of the trail, we had Grey Hawk which landed in one of the high trees to the rear, and Hermit Thrush closer to. A stop for a rest about half way along the Creek Trail unearthed Yellow-breasted Chat and plenty of Western Wood-pewees. Shortly after dragging our backsides from the comfort of the seat, we came across a pair of Grey Hawks, male Blue Grosbeak, Common Yellowthroat and White-breasted Nuthatch all in the same area. This was just above a small flowing stream. Predominant Woodpeckers along the trail were Gila, with only lone Acorn at the start, and a much smaller Ladder-backed at the end of the Creek Trail.
Returning back towards the visitor centre on the Railroad Trail, the first half was very much more enclosed than the Creek Trail, with not much more than a pair of Dusky-capped Flycatchers. This opened up somewhat after the half way mark, and we immediately found another male Summer Tanager, with a female in close attendance. The trail following this continued to be fairly quiet, apart from single of Wilson’s Warbler and Brown-crested Flycatcher.
After a lunch of pre-made cheese and ham sandwiches, which were big enough to fill a horse, we had two aborted attempts at different sites. We initially walked some way around the Roadside Trail, still at Sonoita Patagonia Creek Preserve, which lived up to its reputation as the dry area of the preserve, with a bit of a climb through open thorn scrub. The dryness and time of day most likely explained the lack of birds – we only saw 2 Black-throated Sparrows as we walked back to the car. Next, we tried for Nogales Sewage Works, which we found with little problem, but it was reported by security to be under construction. Dead loss here as well!
Santa Cruz Flats
The last stop of the day, and the trip, was the best of the afternoon. We left the Interstate just before Arizona City (at junction 212), and headed into some of the very, very, very flat farmland. This looks just as you would expect in Arizona – extremely flat with mountains dotted around in the background. Initial sparse low cactus and scrub gave way to miles of gravelled, and dusty, track. Along this track, we found a couple of Blue Grosbeaks, Eastern Meadowlarks, and 8-10 Shorelarks. We eventually arrived at cultivated turf fields, which were huge – about 800m wide by 1km, and are wide strips of very flat turfed soil, with a linked 16 part watering spray system standing at the entrance. Along the central channel for the motorised hub of the spray system, and 150 metres or so along, were 2 Burrowing Owls, perched characteristically out in the open. This was an excellent bird to end the birding on, being seen as the light started to fade, and was possibly even matched by a Coyote stood stock still in a ploughed field as we left Arizona City towards Phoenix.