ARIZONA – APRIL 2012   

by Phil Pope

 

This trip had its origins on a Colorado Grouse trip in 2011 where Phil Hyde and I met up with a couple of guys from Calgary, Canada. Cleve and Ray Werschler (they are Uncle and nephew but are close in age and behave more like brothers) are a formidable birding team, both professional biologists who enjoy all aspects of nature and notably, don’t keep lists! We discovered we had a similar sense of humour and enjoyed much of the same food, music etc and it was tentatively suggested we do another trip together. They visit south-east Arizona most years and were very familiar with the birds and the best sites to see them. I had visited Arizona on a whirlwind 1˝ days in 1994 and had wanted to return and spend a bit more time looking around as well as to get the birds I had missed. So after a few email exchanges when we got back Arizona it was.

Cleve and Ray kindly agreed to plan an itinerary and booked all our accommodation ahead as well as reserving the hire car from Budget. All we had to do was turn up and meet them at the Budget desk.

So, on April 12th we headed off on a British Airways flight to Phoenix. It’s much better to pay a bit more and get a direct flight, changing flights in the States can be a pain and can add a lot of time to the trip. We left Heathrow at 14:30 and were arriving into Phoenix at around 17:30 after a 10 hour flight.

We’d decided to stay near the airport the first night so we duly met up at the appointed place and were off for the first of our many Mexican meals to talk about our itinerary and the birds we were hoping to see.

 

DAY 1 - PHOENIX TO TUCSON

 

As is usual on the first night in a new country both Phil and I were awake at the crack of dawn and ventured outside to see what was around. It was quite lively for an airport hotel garden. The very first bird was a tick as I identified a singing ABERT’S TOWHEE in the first tree opposite. House Finches were also singing and a Cactus Wren rattled out its, for me, evocative call. A tiny yellow headed mite was my second tick, a VERDIN. These were common in many places on our trip and I can’t understand why I didn’t pick one up on my previous visit to Arizona eighteen years before. Ravens and Great-tailed Grackles abounded while Mourning, White-winged and Inca Doves were all around. A Gila Woodpecker appeared on the side of the hotel and a Hummingbird was eventually identified as Anna’s.

By this time the other two had surfaced and we decided to pack up quickly and head for breakfast at the nearest Denny’s (or Lenny’s as Ray and Cleve insist on calling it). These restaurants can be widely found in US cities and towns and are open 24 hours a day. Whilst perhaps not being haute cuisine they do form a higher quality alternative to the Macdonalds/Dairy Queen style chains and were well used on this trip, particularly for breakfast.

We were soon heading towards Tucson and left the interstate to trawl some of the back-roads between the two cities. My first objective for this trip was to get out into a patch of decent desert and take in the plants and birds that are common there.

Cleve pointed out the main cacti species that grew there. The Giant Saguaros of course were the most prominent and there were also the Barrel cactus, various sorts of Cholla (pronounced Choya), Hedgehog Cactus and Prickly Pear. There were also Side-blotched Lizard and Lesser-earless Lizards seen.

There seemed to be many Sparrows on migration, most of which were identified as Brewer's, Chipping and White-crowned Sparrows were also seen and this continued over the course of the next two weeks. Turkey Vultures were almost constantly overhead with their rocking motion and dark plumage leaving little doubt as to their id. A Lucy’s Warbler was heard a little way away and we soon had good views of this tiny bird, it was surprisingly difficult to see the rufous rump though.

An Ash-throated Flycatcher was conspicuous. There are several other members of the same family (Myiarchus flycatchers) which can be tricky to tell apart but the call and pale colouring gave this one away.

Several Phainopepla were seen and a Harris’s Hawk was perched on a roadside pylon. Continuing along the road to Tucson we saw numerous Gambel’s Quail and Lesser Goldfinch as well as a Ladder-backed Woodpecker.

Harris’s Hawk (Phil Hyde)

We quickly checked into our first Tucson hotel, the Flamingo suites, fairly basic but generally OK, and set out for the nearby Catalina State Park. It was now late afternoon and the heat of the day was dispersing, the birds becoming more active. A dazzling Vermillion Flycatcher greeted us at the parking lot. It is difficult to imagine a brighter shade of red than this bird’s head.

Walking the trails we encountered another Hummer, this time COSTA’S HUMMINGBIRD. It took a little while to get really close to the bird and appreciate its distinctive head and breast pattern and colours. This was my third new bird of the day. We also saw Canyon Towhees. White-throated Swifts and Violet-Green Swallows overhead, Wilson’s Warbler and Green-tailed Towhees (another bird surprisingly abundant during the trip) as well as both Cardinals and Pyrrhuloxias.

We stayed near the top of the trail until it got dark and were rewarded by two calling Common Poorwills flying right over us. Back near to the car park we listened to a calling Elf Owl but couldn’t get a glimpse of the bird.

Back in Tucson I was given a real treat. The other guys are Mexican food fanatics but tonight we went to a really good Indian Restaurant (the Shere Punjab) where I declared the Lamb Rogan Josh to be one of the best I’ve had.

 

DAY 2 - SANTA RITA MOUNTAINS

 

Today we headed for the Santa Rita Mountains. We had seen on the rare bird alert that a pair of Rufous-capped Warblers had been hanging out in Florida Canyon so we thought we’d have a bit of a twitch. Unfortunately my weather jinx had started to kick in. In the last couple of years everywhere I went on holiday turned to extreme weather, last year I managed heavy snow in Colorado in April and hurricanes in Scotland and the Lake District, now it was Arizona’s turn! The previous few days had been in the high 20’s but now it plummeted to around 5C and vicious little ice pellet storms kept forcing us back into the car all morning. Just a little higher we could see snow settling, this was not good for the birds!

On arrival at the car park, however, we discovered that it was a natural haven for hummingbirds and, in between the said showers, we managed good looks at Broad-billed, Rufous and Magnificent Hummers. There was also a Painted Redstart and a Hermit Thrush around so all was not lost.

We decided to retreat to slightly lower levels and the weather eased a little. Passing one of the lower ‘washes’, we became aware of a mixed flock of birds moving through and quickly disembarked. There were a Black-throated Grey Warbler, Scott’s Oriole, a GREATER PEWEE (his "Jose Maria" call had been heard earlier), Black-throated Sparrows and a Summer Tanager. The nest of a Broad-billed Hummingbird was found and photos were duly taken.

Broad-billed hummer on nest (Cleve Wershler)

Moving back towards Tucson at the town of Continental we saw our first GREY HAWK, a beautiful raptor and the first of many for the trip. We also picked up Eastern Meadowlark in the nearby fields.

With the weather clearing a little we returned to Florida Canyon and this time set off up the trail. We met a birder coming down who had been unable to trace the warblers which did not bode well. A Golden Eagle soared at the head of the valley. We had good views of a HEPATIC TANAGER, several GREY FLYCATCHERS, a Lazuli Bunting, a Blue-Grey Gnatcatcher and more Hermit Thrushes but the warblers did not appear to be in residence at the prescribed location so we started back down.

Near the bottom of the canyon we ran into another flock of birds and suddenly there were warblers everywhere: Yellow-rumped, Black throated Grey, Wilson’s, Lucy’s, a lovely Townsend’s, Nashville, Hermit, Orange-crowned, a Northern Parula and another Painted Redstart. These were accompanied by a Bridled Titmouse and some Mexican Jays.

What a finish to the day’s birding! We went back and checked into a new hotel, the Best Western Green Valley Inn at Green Valley for 3 nights. We celebrated with yet another Mexican, El Charro.

 

DAY 3 - SANTA RITA MOUNTAINS

 

We drove back up to the Santa Rita Mountains, this time with the famous Madera Canyon in mind. This place is said to be the most visited birding spot in Arizona and has a considerable reputation for Mexican vagrants.

But first we decided to have another quick walk up Florida Canyon now that the weather was improving. We saw many of the same birds as the day before with Cleve claiming a Crissal Thrasher that quickly vanished when the rest of us arrived. A Black-chinned Hummingbird was seen along with Hooded and Scott’s Orioles and Nashville, Townsend’s, Black-throated Grey and Orange-crowned Warblers and Hutton’s Vireo but again no trace of the Rufous-capped warblers could be found. Giving up on this we returned to the day’s main objective, Madera Canyon. A Roadrunner was seen close to the road.

Part way up the road to the trail head we stopped at a bed and breakfast which Ray and Cleve had previously stayed at, the Chuparosa (which means ‘hummingbird’). The garden has some excellent feeders and we saw Magnificent and Black-chinned Hummingbirds there. An ARIZONA WOODPECKER was seen in a tree while Acorn Woodpeckers, Mexican Jays and White-breasted Nuthatches seemed to be everywhere. Also coming to the feeders were Black-headed Grosbeaks and Pine Siskins. Another Painted Redstart was around and a House Wren sang nearby.

It was getting pretty hot by this time despite the fact that we were now at around 5000ft and climbing. We parked the car, put on our walking boots and set off up the canyon trail. A pretty Arizona Grey Squirrel provided a brief distraction from the birds but as we climbed it was evident that the area was quite quiet today, probably something to do with the snow and low temperatures of the previous day.

After some way Cleve did his impersonation of the call of the Elegant Trogon and we were pleased to hear an answer from back down the trail below us. Eventually the call came closer but still elusive. Cleve left the trail and soon spotted the bird up in the trees on the canyon sides. Unfortunately I was too slow to catch him up and it flew in a flash of crimson before I could get my bins onto it. We tried again, this time two birds flew in, quite close but partly hidden by the foliage, I saw one with the naked eye but, once again, as I raised the bins it flew. I was getting frustrated, I’d clearly seen the birds but hadn’t been able to get a decent view with the binoculars. This time the birds had really gone. Would I count that view? Ray and Cleve assured me there would be more so I tried to put it from my mind.

We climbed a little higher until we were almost in the snow zone seeing a Winter Wren (same as our Wren but quite scarce here) and a Plumbeous Vireo.

We saw nothing different on the return and the Trogons were quiet. A Turkey was displaying near to one of the lodges and this had attracted a number of admirers.

On driving further down we saw an Antelope Jack Rabbit, showing its ridiculously long ears.

After finding some suitable refreshment we returned to the parking lot and listened carefully for Owls. Five Whiskered Screech Owls were heard and then, much closer to us an Elf Owl began to call. We all gathered beneath the tree and shone the flashlight up getting amazing views of this, the smallest of all the Owls.

 

DAY 4 - CALIFORNIA GULCH

 

In a remote corner of south east Arizona almost on the border with Mexico lives a bird that only breeds here and possibly a couple of other spots nearby, the Five-striped Sparrow. Today we were going to attempt to find it at California Gulch. It meant a long drive from Green Valley along some rough roads and it probably took us the best part of two hours to get there.

The only wildlife of note on the way was a large herd of Peccaries crossing the road. Once we had found the parking spot we headed down the steep track to the Gulch. It is unclear what the difference between a Canyon and a Gulch is but the latter conjures up somewhat more rugged images.

At the bottom we saw a Canyon Wren singing and a Rock Wren was nearby. A Rock Squirrel was seen and Broad-tailed Hummingbirds were around. We reached the spot where Ray had seen the Sparrows some years ago but no song was apparent. The guide says that they can only be found once they start singing in mid-April. It was now 16th, was this late enough? Scanning the rocky sides of the Gulch Ray and Phil spotted a bird sat some way up that looked promising. It was too far to see so we scrambled up the slope to get a closer view. The bird popped up again briefly and Ray was able to confirm that it was indeed a Five-striped Sparrow. It was slightly obscured to my view and I was unable to see the distinguishing marks. It then disappeared and never reappeared despite extensive searching. So, the birds are obviously still there but perhaps the erratic weather was causing them to be a little behind with their breeding.

Phil, Ray and yours truly at California Gulch (Cleve Werschler)

We headed back to the vehicle and followed the rough road back to Arivaca. We stopped at the Gitana Cantina which claims to be the oldest bar in the oldest continually inhabited town-site in Arizona. It did us a decent snack and a beer and was suitably atmospheric.

After lunch we went to investigate the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge not too far away. It was pretty hot here but we followed a short trail around some riparian habitat. There were Red-winged Blackbirds and Common Yellowthroats. A Grey Hawk was overhead and we then had a good view of one in a large tree. Barn, Rough winged and Cliff Swallows flew around. Several Song Sparrows were seen and a close view of a CLAY-COLOURED SPARROW was had. A Virginia Rail was heard to call but, typically, could not be seen and a Black Phoebe flew past.

On returning to the car park we saw a large shape fly low between the bushes and eventually we had excellent views of a Great Horned Owl. We returned up the Ruby Road to a site very close to the California Gulch that was known to be good for Buff–collared Nightjar. We sat it out until it was almost completely dark but only a Common Poorwill could be heard. A slightly disappointing day but we had experienced an interesting and little visited corner of the state.

By the time we got back to Tucson it was getting late and we decided to sample Denny’s evening fare, which was quite acceptable.

 

DAY 5 - SYCAMORE CANYON

 

Once again we were out in the wilderness today. We were going to try our bird luck on Sycamore Canyon. A wild, rugged trail which pretty much leads up to the Mexican Border. It was a hot day, each day now it seemed was hotter than the last and some of this was quite a tough walk. The canyon itself is famed for the rare birds that come over from Mexico and quite often nest here.

It’s actually located at the other end of the Ruby Road that we’d travelled on the day before and just as rough to get to. A few miles before we reached the trail head we stopped at a reservoir popular with local fishermen. Here we saw two Spotted Sandpipers, a Least Grebe and a Great Blue Heron.

Walking the trail we soon heard another of the Myiarchus flycatchers the DUSKY-CAPPED FLYCATCHER with its distinctive call and soon had good views of the bird to match the call. Things were fairly quiet and we saw a number of now familiar species, Hutton’s Vireo, Painted Redstart and Wilson’s Warbler. Grey Hawks and Turkey Vultures soared overhead and both Rock and Canyon Wrens were evident.

A nice flock of Bushtits passed by and entertained us for a while. The canyon had been flooded in places, it was prone to flash floods after rain and I found myself watching the edges of the trail for a quick way out if it proved necessary but we were pretty safe at that time. We had to clamber over some steep rocks to avoid the water and we were aware that it all had to be done over again on the way back. After what was I guess a couple of miles it was decided to head back, it was nearly the middle of the day and it was still getting hotter and the rock scrambling wasn’t getting any easier. We would have probably had to have gone for more than another mile to have any chance of Five-striped Sparrow and the chances were they would be as elusive as they were down the road.

On the way back we scrutinised a dark looking Kingbird and Ray and Cleve eventually agreed that it was a Thick-billed Kingbird, a rare nester in these parts.

We were moving on to Patagonia that day and we arrived towards the end of the afternoon at Patagonian State Park with instructions as to how to find a pair of Black-capped Gnatcatchers which had been present earlier in the month.

We saw our first definite Black Vultures and the pools had Cinnamon Teal, Shoveler and Ruddy Ducks. The now familiar Vermillion Flycatchers were prominent and further round we saw Great White Egret, White-faced Ibis, Common Yellowthroat, Great Blue Heron and some Lark Sparrows. Nothing could be found of the Gnatcatchers however.

On returning to the car we immediately noticed a large puddle of fluid under the radiator which, on closer examination looked to be a large portion of our car’s coolant. By putting in a little water in the radiator and driving carefully we made it back to our hotel, the Stage Stop Inn. This was an interesting place, fairly new but designed with Cowboy film sets in mind, lots of pictures of Mr (‘The Duke’) Wayne who had apparently stayed there.

We rang the hire car company and without any fuss we had a new car arrive and the old one carted off before it was time for dinner. The Wagon Wheel Saloon did good burgers and had a good ‘wild west’ feel about it. 

 

DAY 6 - PATAGONIA

 

We decided on an early start today with the aim of coming back for a late breakfast. We got to the gates of Sonoita Creek Preserve a while before it was due to open so we set off along a nearby trail to see what we could find. It felt quite chilly until the sun came round and we were wearing our coats and woollies. Birds were few and far between in the shadow, we saw a Summer Tanager and a Black-headed Grosbeak but none of the hoped for Crissal Thrashers (again!).

We decided it was time to get back into the reserve proper and walked the marked trails, mainly the Creek Trail. We saw Chipping, Song and Lark Sparrows and a Say’s Phoebe near to the headquarters. Then a NORTHERN BEARDLESS TYRANNULET was heard above us and we soon got good views. I thought it was a nice little bird but it was soon being referred to rather unfairly as Northern featureless Tyrannulet.

More Dusky-capped Flycatchers were heard and seen and a Cooper’s Hawk flew over. A Yellow Breasted Chat was a nice find and this was shortly followed by a few other Warblers, Yellow (why did none of them seem to have any orange streaking?), Wilson’s and for a brief moment a skulking MacGillivray’s. Finally three Black-headed Grosbeaks showed well.

We went back into town to appease the now serious hunger pangs, checked out and headed for the Paton’s house with its famous Hummingbird feeders. I visited there in the 90’s but both the Patons have now sadly passed on. The feeding station was considered to be so important that it is now run by a caretaker dedicated to maintaining it. There was Costa’s, Broad-billed and Rufous but it wasn’t long before the star of the show, the Violet-crowned Hummingbird appeared at the feeders. There were also several Lazuli Buntings, many Lesser Goldfinches, Pine Siskins, White-crowned Sparrows with a few Lark Sparrows and both Bullock’s and Hooded Orioles.

Coming down from the relatively high level of Patagonia and working our way back to Tucson we passed through the San Rafael grasslands. This looked classic habitat for sparrows but it was difficult to connect with many, there were possibly just a few wintering birds left. We saw Vesper Sparrow and then stopped for great looks at a GRASSHOPPER SPARROW on the side of the road, all the relevant features could be easily ticked off. We also saw Horned larks, a Northern Harrier patrolling the fields and a pass by of a White-tailed Kite, the only one of the trip. On reaching Tucson we checked into La Quinta, Tucson East.

 

DAY 7 - TUCSON TO CAVE CREEK CANYON

 

Another early start saw us out in the heart of the desert at the Saguaro National Park. There was an excellent series of trails and we set off on one of them. We heard and saw many Cactus Wrens, Gila Woodpeckers, Curve-billed Thrashers and GILDED FLICKERS, many of these nesting in holes in the Saguaro cacti. Black-tailed Gnatcatchers, one of the specialities of the area were soon seen. We had to take a diversion around one of the dry river beds which was cordoned off with the sign ‘Danger Killer Bees!’

One of the things that I’d always thought I’d like to see in the desert was a Gila Monster, a very large orange and black lizard which is known to be quite venomous. I’d seen them on many wildlife programmes and they seem a quintessential part of this habitat. Ray and Cleve had been coming to this part of the world for many decades and had done hundreds of expeditions without seeing one. So when Cleve suddenly yelled ‘Gila Monster!!’ there was much excitement. We got very close to the beast and were able to take some good photos before it disappeared down a hole. This was voted ‘bird’ of the trip! 

Gila Monster (Cleve Werschler)

Very satisfied with our walk we headed back down the same trail to the car and were off towards the next destination, Cave Creek Canyon in the Chiricahua Mountains. In his pre-trip information Cleve had described this as ‘the most wonderful place in the world’ so expectations were high!

Coming off the main highway we took an excursion along the ‘State Line Road’ which forms the border between Arizona and New Mexico. This was supposed to be good for Bendire’s Thrasher but a careful drive along revealed no trace of his species, only lots of Cassin’s Kingbirds and Mockingbirds. A couple of Roadrunners performed nicely for us on the side of the road.

We therefore made our way up to Cave Creek Ranch near Portal where we were staying. Sitting at the head of the canyon it had fantastic views up the valley (imagine a smaller version of Yosemite) and its own Hummingbird feeders. After checking in we sat back and admired Black- chinned, Broad-tailed, Blue-throated and Magnificent Hummingbirds coming in to feed. The light was such that it was easy to get good glowing views of their throats of all the hummers. A Peregrine Falcon flew over the ranch and Curve-billed Thrashers and Cactus Wrens were never far away. Reed Peters, the owner, had plenty of local bird information and sightings.

Driving down into the village we saw some Scaled Quail and a Zone tailed Hawk flew over. We had an excellent dinner at the Portal Café sitting out in the garden where we could observe the birds in the trees around us.

With full stomachs again it was time to embark on the next owling adventure and test Cleve out on his calls. We drove up the South Fork road to the top of the canyon and Cleve did his Spotted Owl impersonation. It wasn’t long before another car drew up and a young lady informed us that she was doing a Spotted Owl survey and we were welcome to watch what happened when she called to them. She implied that we shouldn’t be trying to call them in, this being a very rare and sensitive Owl.

She did her call and an answer came from higher up the valley, she had confirmed another bird and she said she would be looking for the nest the following day. She mentioned another site where the Owls had been seen and we duly noted it.

A little further down the valley we stopped and Cleve did his FLAMMULATED OWL call. A bird quite quickly flew in the pines in front of us and, with the aid of flashlight we had astonishing views of this scarce Owl. Ray and Cleve had also heard several WHISKERED SCREECH OWL calls and that was the next one that Cleve tried. Again he was immediately successful and we were looking into the orange/yellow eyes of this species, just a little bigger than the last.

So, a fantastic end to the day!

 

DAY 8 - CAVE CREEK CANYON

 

We decided to have another go for the two species of Thrasher and set off early for the State Line road again. We drove up and down the road, investigating a small wetland which had some Shoveler and Cinnamon Teal. We met up with a couple who Phil and I had met on the plane doing their own tour. He said he’d been told that the orchard was a good area to find them so we concentrated on that for a while. There were some Mexican Ducks, Red-winged Blackbirds and a Northern Harrier was seen in the distance but still no Thrashers.

Moving onto yet another garden full of feeders, this time known as Jasper’s. We saw Curve-billed Thrashers, Gambel’s Quail, Brewer’s Sparrows, Lazuli Buntings and some Pyrrhuloxia. The scrub leading up to his house was described in the book as ‘Crissal Lane’ but not this morning!

We drove up into the canyon and took the South Fork road. There had been some interesting sightings reported from Reed at the bridge on this road. Walking alongside the dry riverbed we soon heard and then saw a Red-faced Warbler, possibly the most beautiful of the North American wood warblers. This was closely followed by a Grace’s Warbler although this one was more difficult to get good views of, preferring to stay right at the tops of the pines.

Back at the ranch we saw an Arizona Woodpecker and Broad-Tailed Hummingbird.

The hillside behind the ranch was supposed to be good for the aforementioned Crissal Thrashers but, you’ve guessed it, not today.

After a bit of a rest we moved on to the nearby Research Centre and had a good look at their feeders. Here we had the best views of Blue-throated Hummingbird as well as Magnificent and Black-Chinned. A Sharp-shinned Hawk did a good fly over.

We pressed on higher up the mountain road, stopping regularly to listen and search for birds. Mexican Chickadee was supposed to inhabit this area but all was extremely quiet. The forests had been devastated the previous autumn by a big forest fire and maybe this was discouraging birds from hanging around. One notable sighting was a huge Goshawk which swooped low over the road. We returned to base feeling a little disappointed with the area. This was continued with the evening’s owling which, although we heard Spotted Owl and later Elf Owl very close we failed to get any sightings.

This prompted a philosophical discussion about when to ‘count’ a bird. Ray and Cleve argued that hearing a Spotted Owl was just as valid as we had still experienced it. That may be so but both Phil and I still wanted badly to see one, however, with such a rare bird hearing may be the best we could ever hope for.

 

DAY 9 - CAVE CREEK CANYON

 

Another day to spend around Cave Creek, but how best to use it? We decided to have yet another go at the Thrashers first thing and, armed with some more specific information from Reed on Bendire’s, we headed for the town of Rodeo. We tried the specific location mentioned, namely the buildings on Ginn Road. There were Thrashers around everywhere but they all seemed to be Curve-billed, or were they? I think we would have identified a Bendire’s if we’d had a good view but we eventually gave it up as inconclusive. We did, however, see a nice lot of Lark Buntings, with many males in full plumage, around the town.

We had to pass Jasper’s on the way back so why not give ‘Crissal Lane’ another go! The feeders had all the same birds as yesterday but the scrub around was very quiet. Phil played his tape of the Crissal, he was unfortunately adjusting the tape when a stonking CRISSAL THRASHER popped up right in front of us, looked at us for 2 seconds and went straight down into the bushes. We tried the tape again but the bird had obviously got wise to this and stayed down.

A good bit of the morning had gone and it was time for breakfast at the Portal Café. From there we headed back up the South Fork road to the trailhead and set off up the trail. I was assured that I would get a decent view of a Trogon this time! We saw lots of Grace’s Warblers (again right at the tops of pines), another pair of Red-faced and lots of Black-throated Greys but not a whisper from a Trogon. We met a guy coming down the trail who, apart from telling us that we had gone past our target point on the trail (a few kicks at Cleve for taking us too far), explained that the combination of the fires and perhaps the weather meant that there were very few Trogons around this year. Oh dear!

On returning to the ranch we were advised to contact a lady who lived just down the road who was having Lucifer’s Hummingbird in to her feeders. She didn’t normally open her garden to visitors but she was very obliging in this case and invited us round for the late afternoon.

The first thing she did was show us a Blue-throated Hummingbird on a nest on the side of her house. Then she showed us some pictures of the Lucifer on her computer and explained what to look (and listen) for. Then she seated us down on her patio in front of the feeders and waited. It didn’t take too long before a lovely male Lucifer Hummingbird came into feed. There was also Black-chinned, Broad-billed, Broad-Tailed and another Violet-Crowned! An excellent selection! These were accompanied by a flock of White-crowned Sparrows with a single White-throated Sparrow with them.

We then had a failed attempt to hear a Whip-Poor-Will at one of the camp sites up the canyon. Were we too early? Or maybe they just weren’t at this site anymore.

Anyway, it was time for food but, disaster! The café closed early on a Saturday night and we’d missed it! The only solution seemed to be to drive back down to Rodeo over the New Mexico border. What we then realised was that New Mexico is an hour ahead of Arizona (which doesn’t change its clocks for the summer) and we’d also missed the Bar at Rodeo. Wondering what to do next we passed a take away Pizza joint which advertised itself as ‘The Lost Arcade’. It was just closing but the guy agreed to do us a Pizza for 4. It was one of the most bizarre places I’ve ever entered, like something from a Hitchcock movie. It was full of arcade amusement machines flashing away and there were creepy pictures around, an old lady whose eyes flashed red at you when you walked past, a young woman who turned into a hideous hag when viewed from another angle and many more. There were actually several bird magazines to read while waiting so I suspect he had more than his fair share of birding visitors.

We managed to make it back to the ranch before the pizza got cold and sat round in the lounge and ate it with a couple of bottles of wine to wash it down, not a bad meal in the end.

 

DAY 10 - CAVE CREEK CANYON TO SIERRA VISTA

 

We were moving on today so a quick conference was held as to what to start off with. I still hadn’t had good views of the Trogon and Phil had missed the Crissal Thrasher so we decided to split up. Ray and I headed up the canyon after first dropping Phil and Cleve down the road at ‘Crissal lane’.

We stopped at the South Fork bridge again which is where most sightings of the Trogon were taking place. First we walked up the road, listening hard for the distinctive call, Ray soon picked up the song of a BUFF-BREASTED FLYCATCHER and there it was, right at the very top of a pine tree. Quite a rare one this, a bird that just hops over from Mexico to breed. We walked down the road a bit but all was quiet. We were running out of time, getting back into the van, we drove slowly down the South Fork road, windows down and listening hard. Then Ray shouted ‘That’s it!’ and slewed to a halt. We dashed out and could hear the Trogon calling from just the other side of the river bed. A quick dash over and I finally had my proper view of an ELEGANT TROGON. What a relief! I thought I’d blown that one.

We went and picked up the other guys who weren’t looking over happy. They’d managed to tape out the bird but described it as ‘Grade B’ views, good enough though. So we could concentrate on breakfast before the next phase of the journey.

The Lucifer lady had given us some specific advice on where to stop on the Portal to Paradise road and we now set off up there, setting the counter to 2.5 miles. At that point we got out of the car and almost immediately heard a BLACK-CHINNED SPARROW singing before getting good views.

We stopped off at the Paradise Hummingbird feeders where they were doing some banding. I’m not a great lover of watching birds being handled so I just watched the feeders for a while. The highlight was a superb Western Tanager.

Onwards and upwards, the plan was to drive right over the mountains and down the other side. So we made our way up to the pass at Onion Saddle and then along the track to the meadows at Barfoot. Just above Onion Saddle we left the car and walked up the road a little, nothing much seemed to be around so Ray walked back to he vehicle and drove on up. He came up in a state of some excitement, having seen a flock of birds on the slopes below him. We dashed back down and, sure enough, there were lots of warblers and other birds flitting amongst the tops of the trees some way down. Climbing down the slope it took a bit of dashing about and clambering around to get a good position to see them. There was quite a flock of warblers moving through, Yellow-rumped, Hermit, Townsend’s, Black-throated Grey, Grace’s and eventually good views of the one I really wanted OLIVE WARBLER. There was also MEXICAN CHICKADEE and a female Williamson’s Sapsucker (a bird looking most unlike the male and easily confused with a Gila Woodpecker).

All this racing around at nearly 9000ft was making me feel a little the worse for wear so I slowed down a bit. We stopped again a little higher and had a more gentle walk, this time seeing several Pygmy Nuthatches. At the meadow at the top of the track we had our lunch and lounged around the vehicle. Someone spotted a raptor overhead and it was quickly identified as a SHORT-TAILED HAWK. This rare bird has been reported to have bred in these mountains but we didn’t expect to see one. The first bird was probably a young one but then an adult bird came over much lower giving excellent views. A few minutes late a possible third bird was seen very high up in the clouds, there was clearly a good presence here.

From there we went back to the Saddle and headed down the road the other side, making for the town of Sierra Vista. On the way we happened to pass through the town of Tombstone, of OK Corral fame. We actually took a wrong turn and ended up going down the main street. We saw the site of the corral which appeared to have a stadium attached to it, doubtless for regular re-enactments of the gunfight. A full stage coach and horses was encountered and everyone seemed to be wearing holsters, it was obviously a very popular theme town now.

Getting back on the right road we reached Sierra Vista in the late afternoon. For Ray and Cleve the town meant one thing, Barbecued Pork Ribs at the Mesquite Tree restaurant, so we checked into our Hotel (America’s Best Value Inn) and were soon off and enjoying the Ribs, very nice too!

 

DAY 11 - HUACHUCA MOUNTAINS

 

We were off early for breakfast followed by the San Pedro river. Following the trail alongside the band of trees (which seemed to be thriving despite the apparent lack of water in the river) it was apparent that there wasn’t any great passage of birds happening. We did pick up several species of Sparrow, some of which gave exceptionally good views, White-crowned obviously, but also a Vesper, a Savannah and most untypically, superb views of a Cassin’s Sparrow. These normally dive straight into the grass but this one stayed up and sang right in front of us.

A Vaux’s Swift overhead was notable but it was much of the same apart from that, Curve-billed Thrashers sang, Gila and Ladder-backed Woodpeckers were very evident, Green-tailed Towhees were again common and a pair of Red-tailed Hawks displayed for us. The day was warming up considerably, it was hitting 90F even at around 09:30! So we decided to head for the mountains. The nearby Huachucas held some interesting sites.

The first port of call were some Hummingbirds feeders (Beattie’s) at Miller Canyon. These had consistently turned up rarities such as White-eared or Berylline.

We paid our fees and sat comfortable in the shade to watch the feeders. We did have very good views of Magnificent, Blue-throated, Black-chinned, Rufous, Broad-billed and also a female Calliope which was the first for the trip. The water fountain was also visited by a Black-throated Grey Warbler and an Audubon’s Warbler.

In the heat watching these types of feeders seemed like a good idea as it was far too uncomfortable to go trekking so we moved onto Ash Canyon. This wasn’t as pleasurable or productive but we still managed to see Bushtits, Bridled Tit, Lazuli Bunting. Lark Sparrows and Scott’s Oriole.

We tried the visitor centre at Ramsey but a trek up the canyon there just seemed to be out of the question given the temperature so we threw in the towel and headed onto our night’s stop at the Days Inn Airport Hotel at Tucson.

A nice Beef Steak at El Parador finished off a slightly disappointing day nicely.

 

DAY 12 - MOUNT LEMMON

 

Today we decided to concentrate on Mount Lemmon, a 9157 foot mountain close to Tucson. It is said that driving up the mountain is like driving from Arizona to Canada in terms of the different habitats encountered, so we planned to stop at each level and explore.

First stop was Molino Basin where we walked along the road through the campsite seeing Lucy’s Warbler, Hooded Oriole and a Summer Tanager but amazingly no Crissal Thrashers!

Rose Canyon Lake was next where we discovered we would have to pay to take the car down so we parked up by the main road and walked down, just paying the on foot fee. There was good habitat all the way down and highlights here were Painted Redstart, Black-throated Grey Warbler, a migrant Hermit Warbler, Warbling Vireo, Hermit Thrush, Western Bluebird and three Buff-breasted Flycatchers.

A notable gap on the list was Virginia’s Warbler so we tried some spots that were supposed to be good for these, somewhere with plenty of Oak scrub.

At the Control Road we parked and walked down the track. We saw Red-faced Warblers, an Olive Warbler and another Western Bluebird but no Virginia’s

At Incinerator Road playing a tape brought up Black-throated Grey and Red-faced Warblers responded. It would seem that Virginia’s probably hadn’t arrived at this point, possibly due to the changeable weather earlier on.

A stop at the very top of the mountain gave good views but no additions to the list, it was getting really hot even up here so we decided to call it a day and head for our next hotel.

The Omni Tucson International Resort was basically a Golf venue and perhaps a little posh for us but we paid a very reasonable price for a little luxury. We unloaded and headed for the pool for a bit of relaxation for the rest of the day.

 

DAY 13 - DESERT NEAR TUCSON

 

Up early again and breakfast at Denny’s before heading off into the desert and the Saguaro State Park, a different bit this time. There were all the now familiar birds, Cactus Wrens, Gilded Flickers, Curve-billed Thrashers, Verdin, Costa’s Hummingbird but nothing new for the list.

Saguaro cactus in flower (Ray Werschler)

A debate ensued about whether it was worth going into the Sonora Desert Museum and eventually we did. It’s really a zoo, we saw all of the mammals that we might have hoped to see on the trip and a few we might not have. Mountain Lion, Mexican Wolf, Bobcats, Black Bears etc. All of the local hummingbirds were there and were very easy to photograph but of course seeing them in this environment isn’t quite the same. It’s quite an interesting place to visit though, perhaps better as an introduction to the area, better go there first! 

We were definitely winding down now, after a leisurely lunch at Coco’s, a bakery café which we had been to a few times the waitress asked if we’d be back next year! Who knows!

Back to the hotel and Cleve was quickly by the swimming pool again enhancing the tan. Phil and I decided there was some scope for birding around the golf complex.

We were starting to learn the songs now and could pick out Bell’s Vireo and Yellow Warbler. We saw some Curve-billed Thrashers, Great-tailed Grackles, Verdins, an American Wigeon and a family party of Gambel’s Quails. There was also a Clark’s Spiny Desert Lizard sat outside our back door.

Our final evening meal was at yet another El Charro's Mexican and we spotted a Lesser Nighthawk flying around the street lights outside in the distance.

On returning to the hotel and a final drink at the bar we saw yet another one, this time right above our heads!

 

DAY 14 - FINAL DAY

 

It was back to the airport today but there’d be time for a bit of birding on the way. Pre-breakfast Phil and I managed a visit to a small pond where Ray had seen a Green Heron fly the day before. We duly saw the Heron along with a Common Yellowthroat and were just in time to pack the bags on the van and take off.

We called at the Catalina State Park where a quick walk around the trail failed to add much new, a large flock of Lark Sparrows were of interest. Ray and Cleve went off totally focussed on Lizards, they actually had an amazing couple of hours finding yet another Gila Monster!

The weather was starting to get overcast and very wind making our way towards Phoenix there were many dust devils and a few prospective sand storms in the offing.

We headed off the interstate at an apparently new town called Red Rock. An increasingly rough track across farmland took us through suitable habitat for Bendire’s Thrasher but, of course, no trace could be found of the birds. A group of Black Vultures soaring overhead seemed to have something a bit different and on closer inspection it showed itself to be a Northern Caracara. Unfortunately it turned away and disappeared into the distance before really good views could be obtained.

The weather ahead of us seemed to be deteriorating so we made the decision to just go for the airport and abandon any further birding. This allowed us to drop the car off and have a leisurely meal together at the airport before we got our respective flights.

We even got asked our ages when we ordered some beers! Was the guy blind or just officious? A 19:30 flight saw us arriving back at a cold and dismal Heathrow Airport just after midday.

I had recorded 175 species of which 22 were new for me.