Spotted Owl, one of 10 owl species possible in Southeastern Arizona. Photo: Anthony Collerton
Southeastern Arizona is one of North America’s great birdwatching destinations, particularly during mid-May when birdsong and breeding activity are at their peak. From the rich Sonoran Desert around Tucson to the lush cottonwood riparian habitat near Patagonia, the cool sycamore-lined canyons of the Huachuca Mountains, and the high-elevation forests of the Chiricahua Mountains, the region has remarkable natural beauty. Equally remarkable is the natural diversity one finds in this transition between the Rocky Mountains to the north and the Cordillera Occidental of Mexico to the south. We’ll visit virtually all the major birding locations and could encounter as many as 10 species of owl and 11 species of hummingbird, as well as most of the specialities restricted to this part of the Southwest. Although owls and nightjars will be a major emphasis of the tour, very late nights will seldom be necessary, as our accommodation is close to excellent nightbirding.
Day 1: Our trip begins with a meeting at 6pm in the lobby of our hotel in Tucson. *For those arriving early, there will be a pre-meeting trip to Tucson’s Sweetwater Preserve departing our hotel at 3pm. Night in Tucson.
Day 2: We’ll travel northeast of Tucson to the lower San Pedro River and Aravaipa Canyon. Passing through surprisingly lush Sonoran Desert we’ll search for Harris’s Hawk, Gilded Flicker, Black-tailed Gnatcatcher, Rufous-winged Sparrow, and Pyrrhuloxia on our way to the shady cottonwood-willow riparian habitat around Dudleyville, summer home to the southernmost reliable Common Black-Hawks in Arizona. At this season riparian corridors are alive with bird activity, including large numbers of Lucy’s Warblers, Yellow-breasted Chats, and Hooded Orioles. We’ll also look for Mississippi Kite, which has an isolated breeding population in this area, and Zone-tailed Hawk. If weather conditions permit, we’ll travel slightly farther north for Gray Vireo, here at the southern limit of its breeding range in Arizona, and the sprightly and attractive Black-chinned Sparrow. We’re also likely to see riparian-favouring species such as Brown-crested and Ash-throated Flycatchers and Bell’s Vireo. In the afternoon we’ll return to Tucson, have an early dinner, and watch the sunset from the lovely desert landscapes of the Santa Catalina Mountains. In the waning moments of daylight we’ll scan for Lesser Nighthawks and listen for Elf Owls as they begin calling from the tall saguaros - the quintessential Sonoran Desert experience. Depending on the weather (and our energy level), we may drive further up the Mount Lemmon Highway for our first attempt to hear and hopefully see Western and Whiskered Screech-Owls, Flammulated Owl, and perhaps Northern Saw-whet Owl, which are occasional breeders in the highest part of the mountain. Night in Tucson.
Day 3: We’ll return to Mount Lemmon, where we should be greeted by a cacophony of birdsong emanating from the lower oak-dominated canyons; the voices may include Acorn Woodpecker, Greater Pewee, Olive Warbler, Painted Redstart, and Black-headed Grosbeak. A bit higher up the mountain we’ll enter pine forest, where we’ll search for Western Bluebird, Pygmy Nuthatch, Mountain Chickadee, Buff-breasted Flycatcher, and possibly a migrant Townsend’s or Hermit Warbler. Higher still, we’ll arrive at a green canyon dominated by firs and maples where Red-faced Warbler is almost common. This is also a good area for such higher-elevation species as Cordilleran Flycatcher, Mountain Chickadee, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Brown Creeper, and Orange-crowned Warbler. After lunch we’ll travel to Madera Canyon, where the pine-oak forests and arrays of feeders should be filled with birds. We’ll take our time birding the lower and middle canyon, searching for Arizona Woodpecker, migrant flycatchers and warblers, and a host of glittering hummingbirds, including Rivoli’s and Broad-billed. Night in Green Valley.
Day 4: We’ll explore the remote border ranges of the Atascosa Highlands. We’ll stop at Pena Blanca Lake, looking for nesting Canyon Wrens, Vermilion Flycatchers, and perhaps a surprise migrant or two tucked into the willows that line this picturesque lake before driving west into the Atascosa wilderness, not far from the Mexican border. A single dirt road skirts the south side of the Atascosa Highlands, passing several south-draining canyons that are the best place in North America to observe certain Mexican species. We may encounter Montezuma Quail along the drive, as well as the Southwest form of Eastern Bluebird, a candidate for species status, but our main focus will be California Gulch, a small steep-sided valley that empties into Mexico and is covered in short thornscrub. Here we’ll spend a few hours wandering along a dirt road, seeking border species like Black-capped Gnatcatcher, Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet, Varied Bunting, and the star of the show - Five-striped Sparrow, one of the most range-restricted bird species in the United States. After a picnic lunch we’ll finish the loop around Ruby Road, stopping at Arivaca Lake and the Amado Sewage Ponds to check for wayward waterbirds. In the late afternoon we’ll visit the agricultural fields and ponds east of Rio Rico, where we should have excellent comparison views of Western, Cassin’s, and Tropical Kingbirds and perhaps will see comical Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks or glimmering White-faced Ibis feeding in the shallow ponds. Night in Green Valley.
Day 5: We’ll begin the day with roadside birding around Patagonia and along Sonoita Creek, searching for Gray Hawk, Thick-billed Kingbird, Bridled Titmouse, and with luck an assortment of migrants. We’ll stop at the now-famous hummingbird feeders in Patagonia, where we’re likely to see a variety of species including Violet-crowned Hummingbird and large numbers of Broad-billed and Black-chinned Hummingbirds. We’ll almost certainly visit Lake Patagonia too, a backup location for Black-capped Gnatcatcher. After lunch in a local café in Patagonia we’ll continue east, stopping in the Sonoita Grasslands to look for Scaled Quail, Grasshopper Sparrow, the Lillian’s form of Eastern Meadowlark, and Chihuahuan Raven. We’ll reach Sierra Vista and the delightful Huachuca Mountains in mid-afternoon. After a brief break at our hotel we’ll begin our investigation of the canyons on the eastern flank of the Huachucas, possibly including Ramsey and Ash Canyons, where feeders sometimes support Lucifer Hummingbird among the more common species.
Day 6: We’ll begin in Miller Canyon, which supports a diverse avifauna, including Grace’s Warbler and Spotted Owl, and a famous set of hummingbird feeders where up to seven species are regular in early May, often including the scarce White-eared Hummingbird. A hike up the Miller Canyon trail should reveal Red-faced Warblers, Painted Redstarts, and Arizona Woodpeckers, as well as a good number of migrant birds. Our chief prize, though, will be a chance to see Mexican Spotted Owls on a day roost, often quite close to the trail. We often hear or see Northern Pygmy-Owl on the hike, as well as an interesting assortment of mid-elevation reptiles and butterflies. Once we’re done with the hike we’ll watch the feeders for a bit before driving to the quirky mining town of Bisbee, where we’ll have lunch at a small café.
In the afternoon we’ll drive to Portal, with stops at Whitewater Draw and Willcox Twin Lakes, where we hope to encounter a broad array of migrating shorebirds and waders. Birds such as Wilson’s Phalarope, Black-necked Grebe, and American Avocet (all in full breeding plumage) should be common. Around the lakes we may encounter Bendire’s Thrasher or Scaled Quail, and every visit to Willcox during migration seems to produce a surprise or two. We’ll arrive in Cave Creek Canyon in time for dinner, followed by a short evening owling excursion to look for Western Screech and Elf Owls and perhaps Common Poorwill or Mexican Whip-poor-Will. Night in Portal.
Day 7: Our full day in the Chiricahuas is always special. A wide array of habitat types converge near Portal, including the sycamore-lined creek bed of South Fork, mid-elevation pine forests along Turkey Creek, juniper woodland near Paradise, and open Chihuahuan Desert around Rodeo NM. Our early morning (pre-breakfast) outing to Rodeo should reveal skulky Crissal and Bendire’s Thrashers and perhaps singing Botteri’s Sparrows or migrating Lazuli Buntings. After a sit-down breakfast we’ll spend the morning walking along South Fork, where bird diversity can be staggering. Some of the specialities here include Blue-throated Hummingbird, Elegant Trogon, and Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher, but the sheer beauty of the location can overshadow even such an exotic trio. We’ll have a mid-afternoon rest and an early dinner before we head uphill, looking for Mexican Chickadees near Turkey Creek. As the sun sets and nightbirds begin to take over, we’ll seek out Flammulated Owls among the higher-elevation pines. Night in Portal.
Day 8: An optional early-morning trip will be offered to the tiny town of Paradise, where we should be able to find Juniper Titmouse, Western Scrub-Jay, and perhaps Black-chinned Sparrow in the juniper forest. We’ll spend the rest of the morning and early afternoon driving up and over Onion Saddle, seeking out Mexican Chickadee and any other high-elevation species of interest. After a picnic lunch we’ll stop again at the ponds at Willcox, where a good variety of lingering ducks and migrant waders can be expected. We’ll arrive at our hotel at a reasonable hour and then enjoy a leisurely farewell dinner at an excellent Mexican restaurant. Night in Tucson.
Day 9: The trip concludes this morning in Tucson.
Updated: 17 November 2020