This sublime Spotted Owl was found on our final
afternoon, sitting by it's nest in Miller Canyon, although
could not quite beat Montezuma Quail to the title of top trip bird.
Special thanks to Pete for letting me use his far better photos than I got in many, many places!
Arizona is often touted by American birders as offering some of the best birding in the US, and after working the shaded wooded canyons, cactus-dominated desert scapes, and thick northern pine forests over the past few weeks we found out for ourselves that Arizona does indeed offer phenomenal birding, along with spectacular landscapes to do it in. In short, Arizona surpassed our expectations as both a birding venue and all round tourist destination. This was most definitely a birding trip, with our time spent primarily in the rocky canyons of the southeast, where there is a mouthwatering mix of US birds with Mexican species that provides an exciting blend of birds. Although the star birds like Montezuma Quail, Elegant Trogon and a horde of scarce hummers are typically found around the small 'sky island' mountain ranges of the southeast, we could not resist a side trip up to the Flagstaff area of northern Arizona to add a few woodpeckers, great scenery and take in the indescribable setting of the Grand Canyon. All up the trip brought us over 200 species which, with few waterbird sites visited, seemed like a good deal for our money!
Personal highlights included Montezuma Quail and Five-striped Sparrow at California Gulch; nesting Spotted Owl in Miller Canyon; comical Greater Roadrunners in the Portal area; Elegant Trogon, White-eared Hummingbird and Flame-colored Tanager in Madera Canyon; and California Condor, Lewis's Woodpecker, and Red-naped Sapsucker in northern Arizona. Along with an assortment of stunning warblers, including the incomparable, 'bloodied' Red-faced Warbler at a number of sites in the southeast , and our personal favorite, a cracking male Black-throated Gray Warbler singing from a dead snag with the Grand Canyon sprawling out behind him as a spectacular backdrop.
BIRDING INFORMATION: For the southeast area we used the Tucson Audubon bird finding guide: Finding Birds in SE Arizona 7th Edition (2007), which was excellent. Some people say that this could be combined with the other main guide for the region, A Birder's Guide to Southeastern Arizona by Richard Taylor, although we never used the latter guide so cannot comment on it personally. It seems they are both good and can be used to compliment each other well. Certainly any visiting birder would be crazy not to use at least one of these guides as the directions are clear, maps are good and so definitely help get you the birds. For the Flagstaff area of northern Arizona we used the Northern Arizona Audubon's guide: Birding the Flagstaff Area by Frank and Linda Brandt. These books can all be purchased from the American Birding Association (ABA Sales) or from Tucson Audubon online(Tucson Audubon Online Store), and directly at the excellent Tucson Audubon Nature Shop in Tucson:
Audubon Nature Shop on University Boulevard
300 E. University Blvd, #120
(corner of University & 5th Ave.)
Tucson, AZ 85705
If you are interested in a guided tour to this fascinating birding region please contact Birding America, a sister company of Tropical Birding (the company I work for).
DAILY BIRDING DIARY
5th May: Tucson arrival
On arrival (at night) in Tucson, the first striking feature were the giant Saguaro cacti dotted around the airport. Having just spent several months in the scenically bland Upper Texas Coast this was a stark change indeed. We had just touched down in the Wild West. Tucson is set in the 'sea' of the Sonoran desert, which is interspersed here and there with small forested mountains, or 'sky islands' that jut out from the flat plains and provide a haven for both resident birds that nest in the rocky, tree-lined canyons, and migrant birds that find these oases of habitat within the inhospitable surrounding desert a vital stop over point during their spring migrations north. However, that is not to say the deserts are barren. They hold a discrete set of birds all of their own, specialized dry country birds that are worth a look too.
Straight out of the Wild West: Saguaro cacti are dotted around Tucson and outlying areas such as here at Catalina
State Park. These habitats are important for Sonoran desert species, like Gilded Flickers, Gila Woodpeckers, Verdin,
Elf Owl and the impressive Arizona state bird, Cactus Wren. Many of these species use these cacti as nesting sites.
6th May: Mount Lemmon, SANTA CATALINA Mts.
We began on our first afternoon by birding one of the most accessible of these 'sky islands', Mount Lemmon, a mere 40 minute drive from downtown Tucson. Lemmon is the highest mountain in the Santa Catalina range that marks the northern boundary of the Tucson Valley. This readily accessible mountain is a place of striking contrasts, by traveling from the bottom to the top (around 25 miles) you cover the full range of habitats that would be experienced by driving all the way from the US to Canada! Down on the lower flanks the mighty Saguaro cacti dominate the vistas in the saguaro verde desert scrub zone, which is where the Sonoran desert species can be found (Gilded Flickers, Gila Woodpeckers and Black-throated Sparrows), while just a short drive further you move into the wetter, cooler mixed coniferous forests that hold a more diverse set of woodland species. The contrasts of birding southeast Arizona feel like they are all visible right here on one mountain close to downtown Tucson, a great place to start. As the scented ponderosa pines hold some of the sexiest residents of the southeast we headed straight there with our limited time on our first afternoon, passing straight through the saguaro-dominated landscapes at the mountain base and heading straight for the Rose Canyon Lake road, around mile 17.1. Birding pine forests is always strange I feel, almost anywhere in the world. At first sight they can feel cold, dark and lifeless. Then suddenly a little chipping call or short burst of song can draw you into a particular grove of pines that holds all the action. This is how it was for us, little going on for the first 15 minutes or so until we focused our bins on a singing warbler foraging low, and got hit straight in the face with one of Arizona's most beautiful birds, a spiffing male Red-faced Warbler. As if that was not enough moments later a masked male Olive Warbler homed into view also in the same low tree. This 'warbler', with its distinctly non-warbler like vocalizations, now sits within its own monotypic family, a new family for the both of us. The same area held other conifer specialists like a pair of Pygmy Nuthatches, to add to the much more common White-breasted Nuthatches also seen on Lemmon that day. Fantastic start to say the least. Western Bluebirds, American Robins, and Hermit Thrushes were found feeding beneath the pines, and a vocal Greater Pewee was also seen perched bolt upright on a dead snag in the same area, while a noisy group of Mexican Jays moved through the ponderosa pines around us. The warbler run continued with a male Grace's Warbler in the same area, and a little lower down around the Middle Bear Canyon car park we also picked up our first Black-throated Gray Warbler, exquisite Painted Redstart and a female Hermit Warbler (a migrant that was just passing through) which made for a great start for our southwestern US warbler list. We ended the day around the car park just down from Middle Bear Canyon (after a brief stop in the arid area around Windy Point Vista for a Costa's Hummingbird), at around mile 11, especially on the look out for any of the many night birds that this part of the US has to offer. While waiting for dusk, as the pine woods fell silent and the air temperature dropped rapidly, a very confiding Yellow-eyed Junco dropped down from the pines and fed within inches of us as we huddled in the car for warmth. As darkness crept in Whip-poor-wills began calling in earnest and we got great views of one flying around beneath the ponderosa pines in the car park area. Distantly we could also hear a Common Poorwill calling from an open area upslope (these birds tend to prefer less wooded, more open areas compared to the Whips), although not a sniff of the hoped for Flammulated Owl (that Middle Bear Canyon is reportedly a hotspot for). We were very happy with the warbler feast here as a good start, and then returned back to our Motel 6 on Congress St, by way of a good Mexican restaurant en-route back.
All on its own - Olive Warbler sits within its own monotypic family.
This fine male was photographed by Pete on our first afternoon's birding on
Mt. Lemmon, just after seeing our first Red-faced Warbler at the very same spot!
7th May: Catalina State Park and Madera Canyon, SANTA RITA Mts.
We decided to stay local for our first morning in the field, and visit Catalina State Park, a mere 30 minute drive (without donut stops), from our motel. The reason for choosing this site was simple - Greater Roadrunner, a top target for both of us (we watched too many cartoons as kids!), as this area was specifically mentioned in the bird-finding guide as being a particular hot spot for. (Although I should mention in hindsight that the lowland desert areas around the Portal area of the Chiricahuas seemed to be a really, really good place for it and with limited time I would drop Catalina as I am sure you would pick it up there instead, along with a whole load of other key birds in the process). We focused our efforts around the last car park before the group parking lot on the road to the Picnic Area well-described in the TAS site guide (although we did stop briefly at the entrance to pay our fee and watch our first comical group of Gambel's Quails shuffling off the dirt road. Soon after hopping out of the car we were picking up our first real desert birds, feeding in the low brush and around the huge Saguaro cacti on the dry arid banks. Gila Woodpecker was one of the first, that entertained us by drumming away against a metal sign, while Lucy's Warblers were fairly common in the low bushes surrounding the parking, frequently heard singing at this time. Migrant warblers were also in attendance including the first of many trip Wilson's Warblers, and our first fantastic Townsend's Warbler (another warbler we ran into a number of times during its northward migration). The Tucson Audubon's 'pin-up bird', the Vermillion Flycatcher, was also strikingly present in this area close to the parking lot. We then ventured up onto the rocky banks in pursuit of thrashers and our main target, roadrunner. As we approached the banks behind the lot we found a number of highly vocal and conspicuous Rufous-winged Sparrows, that to be honest even for a sparrow was pretty bland and unimpressive (unlike the dapper Black-throated Sparows in the same area). The easiest of the southeast thrashers, Curve-billed Thrasher, was seen a number of times perched right out on top of the Saguaros making it a highly visible and easy to see species. Not so the Crissal Thrasher that skulked in the same area, and required some tape-use to see, that even then always remained low and furtive. Arizona's cool state bird, the Cactus Wren, was fairly common and highly vocal in this area also, and by climbing up onto the top of some of the cactus-dominated banks for an elevated view of the surrounding area we soon found a few of these impressive large wrens, often also on the saguaro tops as well. With no sign of any roadrunners, (and clearly not realizing how easy they would be to see elsewhere in the Portal area!), we thought we would have a stab at seeing this this oddity by using our i-pod. Soon after one responded intermittently and then came running straight at us, although unfortunately I was completely blocked and just saw a large shape shuffling away into the brush. Various attempts to see it again ended in abject failure! Other birds we picked up in this fascinating desert area, included both the rufous-capped Canyon Towhee, and the more inconspicuous Abert's Towhee (the latter not far beyond the car park at the base of the hills that flank the lot). As we left, with me personally miffed by my poor uncountable views of the Greater Roadrunner, we found one running appropriately enough along the side of the road and got cracking looks at this odd american ground cuckoo.
With a trip out to Madera Canyon in the Santa Rita Mts. planned for the afternoon we headed back to Tucson to check out of the omnipresent Motel 6. Having not booked any accommodation we took our bags with us and headed towards Madera with a view to staying there if possible. The ride out there was nowhere near as far as we had expected (only around 45 minutes-1 hour from the Congress St. Motel 6), and so we ended up staying back there anyhow, as this is a good cheap option if you have no qualms about a 45 minute drive. After picking up a Taco Bell on the way in the Green Valley area (fast food is of course readily available throughout this trip, you will not starve in Arizona, but you may leave carrying extra pounds!), we headed straight to the Madera Kubo Cabins area of Madera Canyon. The lower reaches of the road before entering the canyon proper pass through flat open arid lands, that is dotted with low scrub, although we decided with our limited afternoon birding time to focus our efforts in the canyon itself and go after two of SE Arizona's star birds - Flame-colored Tanager and Elegant Trogon. The upper reaches of the canyon is dominated by mixed riparian woodland, that holds an abundance of Sycamore trees, a favored nesting tree for the trogon. This year's known spot for the tanager was the jelly in the Madera Kubo Cabins garden, which is open to all visitors. As there is no parking available for non-guests on site we parked in the Amphitheater parking lot, a few hundred meters downhill and walked up through the woodland from there. On arrival at the cabins, the owners quickly informed us the tanager was bound to return soon, as it had a an undeniable attraction to their jelly which it was said to be visiting every hour or so. So while we waited for the celebrity tanager to appear we took in the other common birds at the Kubo feeders and in the surrounding trees - glowing red Anna's Hummingbirds were outnumbered by the much commoner Broad-billed Hummingbirds, and Hepatic and Western Tanagers hopped around in the Sycamore canopies above, while Black-headed Grosbeaks were 'ever-presents', and a single showy Arizona Woodpecker visited the feeders below. Then a male Flame-colored Tanager began calling strongly from just up the street, where we quickly pursued and found this rich orange tanager, before it then descended to the favored jelly, and gave everyone assembled there killer looks. In some years this can be a tough bird, although this spring it seems it is almost a given there. Feeling lucky we then opted to head straight after Madera's other top drawcard - Elegant Trogon. However, just before we raced off there, we checked in on a Whiskered Screech-owl that was roosting behind the Amphitheater parking lot. From the parking lot we took the trail that leads from the back of the car park (I believe it is the only trail from there), and the bird was immediately above the small wooden bridge near the start of the trail in a largish hole in a Sycamore tree that overhangs this tiny bridge. The main area in recent years for the trogon (and indeed this year), at Madera is along the Vault Mine Trail, that later becomes the Carrie Nation Mine trail. Once you reach the fork of these two trails, the birds are often found around the 2nd crossing from this fork on the left trail, in the area where there is a huge boulder on the left, far side of the crossing. We spent a few hours that afternoon with no luck at all, not seeing or hearing a peep out of one. In fact apart from a Brown Creeper, the woods there were fairly quiet that afternoon.
SE Arizona has a whole swathe of owls and night birds on offer and for sure this was a big attraction for me on this trip (I am an owl addict). With this in mind we lingered after dark in the area around Santa Rita Lodge, at around mile 12.2. (NB. There is no parking for more than 30 minutes to non-guests on site, so again we chose to park downhill a few hundred meters in a public parking area and then walk up). The main target was America's smallest owl - Elf Owl, that nests in the poles outside the lodge. The main pole to focus on (that the birds will draw your attention to by their rapid calling just before they depart the hole well before full darkness), is the one immediately outside the Santa Rita Lodge Office/Shop. The owl was pretty easy to find as it called incessantly for around 5 minutes before leaving the excavated hole, well before dark, at which time its head was clearly visible peeking out of the hole facing the shop front. However, with the exception of another spotlighted Whiskered Screech-owl, we fell short on all the other hoped-for owls (Mountain Pygmy-Owl and Flammulated Owl).
Flame-colored Tanager, a regular 'rarity' these days in Madera Canyon,
courtesy of the jelly laid out by the Madera Kubo cabins! (Pete Alfrey)
8th May: Madera Canyon, SANTA RITA Mts.
With our abject failure to find the trogon in Madera the day before, we decided to return to the Santa Ritas this morning and give it another go. As we were going to be passing by good dry brushy habitat for Varied Bunting, Bell's Vireo, and sparrows in the Florida Wash area on the way in we opted to stop there and try for these first. The bunting did not respond at all and we later found out that very few came in during our entire stay in the southeast, so we were just a little early this year for this late migrant. Bell's Vireos however were easy enough and calling at a number of places around the wash. The sparrows we were after (Botteri's and Cassin's) can be tricky, my impression being that they are more vocal and easily found in July after the monsoon rains when the deserts burst into lush green life during Arizona's so-called 'second spring'. Having said that with a little tape use we bought up a Botteri's Sparrow with little effort at all, not sure if we were particularly luck on that one, although never found Cassin's the whole trip. Having decided the bunting may simply not be in yet, we then tried for Northern Beardless Tyrannulet and Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher around the Proctor Rd-Mount Whitehouse Picnic area trail, that is well described in the TAS guide. Once again, I think at this time we were a little early for the flycatcher (one of the latest of the US migrants that winters in Mexico to arrive), and just blew out on the tyrannulet, only picking up a Cordillearn Flycatcher down there, and our third trip Greater Roadrunner.
We then headed straight up for the trogon again. Up at the top parking lot (Mt. Wrightson picnic area) we ran into many people who had just seen the trogon, and mentioned that is was very vocal as well, strongly indicating from our experience that the mornings are a better bet for this bird. Again directions centered around the second crossing by the large boulder on the far shore and so we headed straight for that hot spot. En-route we saw our second Red-faced Warbler of the trip, and our first Hutton's Vireo, looking more like an oversized kinglet than a vireo! With everyone coming down remarking on how well they had seen and heard the trogon we were thinking it was going to be a breeze. An hour or so later and not a sight or sound of the bird soon had us wondering if we had left it a little late in the morning, and whether we should have come straight here rather than 'nancying' around further down the valley that morning. The canyon soon fell quiet with little bird song, and we searched up from the 'usual spot' up until the canyon becomes very narrow and steep and almost impassable, by which time we were a little tired and bored, so decided to dose in the late morning sun! This was easy to do and after a time I awoke to the soft sound of an Elegant Trogon calling above Pete who was busy working on his blog in the field. Quite a bit of maneuvering was required before we came face-to-face with the scarlet-and-blue male Elegant Trogon, that remained in the area for some time, although always seem to pick the worst position for getting a decent photo of him the whole time. In the afternoon (and after a break at the Santa Rita Lodge feeders, that brought us our first fantastic White-eared Hummingbird of the trip), we checked some dry areas for sparrows. Cassin's Sparrows again remained unseen, although we did pick up further Botteri's Sparrows, and also found a Rock Wren feeding right on the dirt road to Sonoita, along with our first Western Kingbirds of the trip. We then returned to Tucson for the night at our favored Motel 6.
This male Elegant Trogon's call woke me up during
a quiet late morning lull in Madera Canyon (Santa Rita Mts.)
9th May: Patagonia (Roadside Rest & Paton's feeders), and California Gulch
For this morning we headed south, via Nogales on the Mexican border, for the Patagonia area, a known hot spot for rarities and rare Mexican breeders. Our first stop was the Patagonia Roadside Rest, known for the 'roadside rest effect', whereby this area has had a number of rarities found by birders looking for the original one. Our main targets here were Rose-throated Becard, and Thick-billed Kingbird. We had received mixed news on the becard, some people having claimed the bird was there, with others indicating it was way, way too early for this Mexican bird to be in yet. It turned out unfortunately that we were too early for the becard (if you are seriously interested in this bird, Varied Bunting and Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher timing the trip later in May would be best or even June as the becard may not arrive until that late month in many years). News was not all bad though as we bumped straight into some birders at this small rest stop who had just enjoyed the kingbird immediately above the picnic area on the same side of the road as parking lot. A short walk up there and there it was - a striking, hulking Thick-billed Kingbird lined up for us on dead snag. In the same area were our first Phainopeplas, a strange bird from the central American Silky-flycatcher family, a new family for both us due to having spent almost no time in that region. Also in this area was a songful Canyon Wren working the red boulders right by the parking area, a male Blue Grosbeak perched on the far side of the road from the rest stop, and our first nondescript Warbling Vireos of the trip. We were surprised not to find Cassin's Kingbirds quickly as they had been mentioned as being within the large Sycamore on the left side of the entrance to the parking area. A little playback later and two agitated Cassin's Kingbirds w ere found perched up in the very same large Sycamore. No birder that visits the Patagonia area can resist a stop at Paton's feeders in town for a crack at some rare hummers difficult elsewhere in Arizona. At this time the key one was Violet-crowned Hummingbird, that we had been informed was reliable at this time. On arrival at the feeders we were shown a Gray Hawk perched up out the back, a localized US bird, and then we settled in for the feeder action. House Finches vied with Pine Siskins, Lesser Goldfinches and Lazuli Buntings for seed, while the hummers feeders were dominated by Broad-billed Hummingbirds, with a few gaudy Anna's thrown in, and a single Violet-crowned Hummingbird male that was coming in every 5 minutes or so. Dead easy! The Northern Beardless-tyrannulet that called while we were there was less co-operative and failed to show or call again. Patagonia town has a few nice restaurants and cafes, if you need a good feed, which is just what we needed before our border adventure for a certain Mexican sparrow...
My original plan was to go after the Five-striped Sparrow next at California Gulch close to the Mexican border. However, after talking to a number of birders about it that morning it was becoming clearer and clearer that our compact Pontiac car may be seriously messed up by the dodgy roads heading down to the gulch. As the information was not first hand we decided to scout the area that afternoon, with a view to going after the sparrow for real the following morning. We followed the directions in the TAS guide (almost running over a sunbathing male Wild Turkey sat brazenly on a paved road on the way there), heading toward Sycamore Canyon, with few problems. The road is rough and high clearance is rightly the best option, although until the final turn in towards the gulch it is doable in a compact car, it is simply the final 4-5 miles along this last entrance road that is a real problem. Hitting some very alarming sections, where we were running a high risk of cracking the underside of the car, we decided on our only option, dump the car and walk in the last 4 miles (each way). With the sun beating down on us and carrying a bunch of gear (for fear of leaving it vulnerable in the car so close to 'illegal immigrant central'), we headed out for the 9 mile round trip. Having gorged on so much fast food lately we were happy for the exercise and a break from fast-food birding in the US. This whole area is said to be good for one of Arizona's top birds, Montezuma Quail, which was a further motivation for us in going to the gulch. The walk down to the gulch was completely uneventful, hot sweaty, and almost completely birdless, except for a few further smart Black-throated Sparrows. An hour and half later, from the spot we had abandoned the car (around 1 mile from the start of the road), we reached the gulch, and quickly bumped into a small tour group and a lone birder, also after this rare Mexican sparrow. Not sure whether we were permitted to use tape here we refrained, and soon after the tour guide whacked the tape on, a Five-striped Sparrow responded and he quickly located it singing away from the top of an open bush upslope on the left as you walk down (along exactly the 0.2 mile stretch between the two crossings mentioned for the sparrow in the TAS guide). We didn't think it was meant to be that easy. With evening drawing closer and knowing we had abandoned our Pontiac (with all our luggage inside), so close to this potentially volatile border area, we opted to miss trying for the Buff-collared Nightjar that had been heard around the Oro Blanco old mine site the night before, and head back to the car and try for quails around Sycamore Canyon. Secretly I hoped we'd hear a nightjar on our return journey, although that simply didn't happen. The return journey was superb though, as the sun dropped and the air cooled, about 2-3 miles down the gulch road from the start of the road Pete found a stunning male Montezuma Quail, the best bird of the trip for both of us by a long stretch. The bird was walking along a dry wash and soon settled down by a large cactus where it obviously considered itself invisible, as it remained there for well over 10 minutes (even being joined by another male in the same area a short time later), before we simply tired of its fancy colors and left (joke!). Excellent prolonged views of this fantastic Mexican quail, good stuff. The afternoon was capped off well with repeated, inches away, views of Common Poorwills in the Pontiac headlights along the Ruby Road as we headed out, and an excellent Western Screech-owl that was taped in by the roadside on the same deserted dirt road. We then found another well-placed, cheap and clean Motel 6 for the night in the border town of Nogales.
10th May: Patagonia Lake State Park and Montosa Canyon
Flushed with our success from the afternoon before we decided to have a lazy morning and lie in, seeing as we had already got the main area target, the sparrow. Late in the morning we headed over to Patagonia Lake State Park, that traditionally has been one of the more reliable spots for Black-capped Gnatcatcher in recent years, although news had reached us they had not been seen for well over a week and a half at the time of our visit. Aware that all three Arizonan gnatcatchers can be here all at the same time we headed out on the trail from the far end of the camping area (the Sonoita Creek Trail, that comes complete with an information board for birders, that includes regular spots for the gnatcacher). Birding the dry mesquite-hackberry bosque and the lake itself brought us a number of new birds (essentially waterbirds as we had not done any wetland areas yet), but not a single gnatcatcher. New additions included a Song Sparrow feeding on the marshy lake edge that also held an approachable adult Sora. The lake itself held Eared and Pied-billed Grebes, Ruddy Ducks, Spotted Sandpipers, and a Least Bittern calling from the reeds, while the scrubby surrounds to the lake brought us a group of Wild Turkeys, Summer Tanagers, more Bell's Vireos, Bewick's Wrens, Rufous-winged Sparrows, striking Vermilion Flycatchers, and a swathe of migrating Wilson's Warblers. Best new passerine though was the Northern Beardless-tyrannulet that was found just 100 meters or so along the trail from the car park (near the first bench), that we had previously missed at the Patagonia Roadside Rest, Paton's Feeders (Patagonia), and around the base of Madera Canyon.
As we missed the gnatcatchers at Patagonia we tried another spot, Montosa Canyon in the late afternoon where they had been reported over the past few days according to online bird news. Checking this area closely we found a male Costa's Hummingbird, but little else until we checked on the far side of the concrete dip (when coming from the planetarium, where a pair of Black-capped Gnatcatchers were heard calling and then pinned down by the roadside only 20 yards or so up from the dip. Bright Hooded Orioles were also in the same area, as were a few Curve-billed Thrashers in the arid lands alongside the road in, although we drew a blank on the Gray Vireo that had also been reported there. The rest of the afternoon was spent making our way to the small city of Sierra Vista (yes, another Motel 6), our base for exploring the Huachucas over the following days, with little seen on the way there except a Great Horned Owl that we surprised in the car headlights in the middle of nowhere.
11th May: Carr Canyon, Ash Canyon, and Miller Canyon, HUACHUCA Mts.
Our exploration of the wooded canyons of the Huachucas began at Carr Canyon, where we were essentially after Buff-breasted Flycatcher and the recently split Mountain Pygmy-Owl (split from Northern). We found this uncharacteristically distinctive empidonax flycatcher near the top of the Carr Canyon road, very close to the first big wooden signboard with a map on showing the location of the trails on the top of the mountain. As described in the site guide this is one of the first areas of very open pines, with little or no understorey. On the way up the mountain we also found further migrating Townsend's Warblers. We then hit the Comfort Springs Trail that runs down from the far side of the car park at the top. The camping area at the top held our first Steller's Jays, and a singing male Spotted Towhee. As we descended the trail to the dry streambed that is spoken of in the TAS site guide we picked up our first 'grotty' Bushtits, and several more Hutton's Vireos. On the far side of the streambed as you climb up we found the hoped-for Mountain Pygmy-Owl, that signaled our turning back point, as this was the main target we were looking for there. We then took a trip up Ash Canyon, to the famed hummer spot of Ash Canyon B & B. We paid our $5USD entrance fee and settled into the well-placed chairs overlooking a bewildering array of feeders for hummingbirds, and fruit and seed-eaters to come into. We lucked almost straight into the single female Lucifer Hummingbird that visited just twice in around an hour and a half there. Anna's Hummingbirds and Broad-billed Hummingbirds were the most numerous there though. The place was a hive of activity with Scott's Orioles and Western Tanagers also regularly dropping onto the orang es in this birdy yard.
After a lunch stop between Ash and Miller Canyons, at a prominent Mexican restaurant, where the waitresses were more fun than the food, we pushed on to Miller Canyon. Beatty's legendary hummingbird feeders are a must see birding attraction in the Huachucas, often holding rare species, and simply offering up a good dose of hummer action. The star bird there at this time was at at least 2 White-eared Hummingbirds (that was also being seen in Madera Canyon during our visit), along with numerous Anna's Hummingbirds, and the extremely common Broad-tailed Hummingbird (a trip first at the time though). Broad-billed Hummingbirds were also in attendance, and we also picked up our first Blue-throated Hummingbirds, and got our first decent looks at Magnificent Hummingbird (that we had merely glimpsed fleeing a feeder in Madera before). A single Costa's Hummingbird was also found at the top feeders. Tom Beatty was very helpful and very chatty, and put us on the right track for going after Spotted Owl in 'his' canyon. As we were both non US citizens this was especially important as there is no access to Fort Huachuca (and the legendary Spotted Owl site of Scheelite Canyon), for foreigners. The basic directions are that the Spotted Owls regularly roost (generally apparently in Maples), around 45 minutes walk from the lodge (through their back gate, that you need the combination for from Tom), around the second stream crossing (the stream was only wet in very few places while we were there). The spot has a sign right beside it for the peak and other things on it. The spot is easy to find and Tom would help with directions on site, although the owls are not so easy and helpful! We missed them during the day and only got poor flight views when we chased calling birds in darkness. Disgruntled we returned to the car in silent darkness and vowed to return the next morning and search every available maple limb. Tom was extremely helpful although had told us the Berryline Hummingbird was no longer in Ramsey Canyon (around the corner from Miller), and so we opted not to go there with nothing on offer (only to find out later that the Berryline continued there for the next week or so, only to disappear again when we finally got there at the end of the trip!)
This southeast Arizona trip is a cracker for tanagers, with four species possible on the one trip - we picked up many
Western Tanagers (this one was photographed by Pete at the George Walker Hse in Paradise), Hepatic Tanagers were seen in
Madera Canyon, along with their 'regular' male Flame-colored Tanager, and we also saw Summer Tanagers in the Patagonia area.
12th May: Sierra Vista/Miller Canyon, HUACHUCA Mts. and Rustler Park, CHIRICAHUA Mts.
We began the day before our owl search at the Sierra Vista Environmental Operations Park , on the edge of the city. This is a pretty barren place to bird, that feels distinctly birdless, although has an impressive, intriguing bird list on site. Seeing as we both grew up birding the likes of Beddington Sewage Farm in London it was no great hardship birding this kind of habitat, it felt like a desert version of the same thing (more or less). As is often the case with birding in London, the birding around this sewage plant was slow also, but we did pick up our first Red-winged Blackbirds, Chichuahuan Ravens, and Blue-winged Teals. We then packed up, made another desperate, failed attempt at the Spotted Owl in Miller Canyon, and then headed for the Chiricahuas around the legendary birding 'town' of Portal (more like a one shop deal really).
This is where we made one of the biggest mistakes of the trip. Having been advised by a local Tucson birder that we did not need to book into any lodges in Portal, and been further wrongly advised we could easily access these areas from Douglas, we checked into a Motel 6 in Douglas. In the afternoon we did a scouting trip up to the Rustler Park area of the Chiricahuas, (seeing four separate Greater Roadrunners along the way in the Rodeo area alone, and a panicked covey of Scaled Quail that crossed the paved highway in the dry country before there). Our main goal was to get up into the pines at this, one of the furthest points in the Chiricahuas from Douglas, with a view to getting the Mexican Chickadee there so that we would not have to go quite so far the following day. The poor roads in the mountains, coupled with the fact that Douglas really is a long way away, and the poor clearance of our low-lying Pontiac made for a long-troubled trip, and us beginning to wonder quite how we were going to be able to do the Chiricahuas from Douglas now that almost certainly all the local accommodation would have been booked by other birders. With a little under an hours light left we approached Rustler Park, got out of the car at the first sign of a flock and quickly picked up our only Mexican Chickadee of the trip-the afternoon slog to there had at least been worth it for this alone. We then had another failed attempt at trying to locate a Flammulated Owl around Herb Martyr, where we met John Coons and his group having similar lack of success with this tricky owl in simply awful, strong windy conditions.
Lazuli Bunting, Portal
13th May: State line Rd., Paradise, Herb Martyr and Portal area, CHIRICAHUA Mts.
With the frustrations of traveling so far the afternoon before and having to go through it all again today we decided to try and pick up most of the birds quickly in case we could not find any local accommodations around Portal. So once again we traveled up from Douglas passing through expansive Chichuahuan grasslands that held a few further Greater Roadrunners, a few Swainson's Hawks, and appropriately, flocks of roadside Chihuahuan Ravens. Our first stop was an early morning visit to the start of the Gin Rd. on the Stateline Road that divides Arizona and New Mexico. We focused our efforts on the Arizona side where a stand of yuccas is a known hang out for Bendire's Thrasher. From our experience the bird is straightforward as long as you are there early in the morning, soon popping up onto the top of a yucca where it remained in our 'scope for sometime (local birders backed up this theory too, saying it was easy as long as it is looked for in the morning). Black-throated Sparrows and our first inconspicuous Brewer's Sparrow were also found along the same dirt road. We then decided to try for Black-chinned Sparrow and Juniper Titmouse in the Paradise area near Portal. On the way there we had great views in the early morning sun of the stunning Cave Creek Canyon that dominates the skyline on this eastern side of the Chiricahuas.The site guide had mentioned the Paradise Road as good for the sparrow, although with around 5 miles of road to choose from it was hard to know where to begin our search. Ultimately, we bumped into a birder who advised checking dry roadside gullies that can be viewed from or near the various pullouts alongside the Paradise Road from Portal. Within half hour of this choice bit of advice we picked up a s inging Black-chinned Sparrow that even in the strong gusty weather chose to perch up momentarily on the top of a roadside juniper. The advice on the Juniper Titmouse was a little more straightforward, go and hang out at the George Walker House and wait for the bird to come to you, (or more accurately the peanut butter).
Sam battles with his 'lifer' tumbleweed on the state
border of New Mexico and Arizona
Having got the sparrow and with the wind picking up at a rate of knots we opted to head to the George Walker House in Paradise, and enjoy some easy birding overlooking great feeders packed with birds. On arrival we met up with the owner, Jackie, who informed us the regular Juniper Titmouse was expected anytime soon at its favored peanut butter feeder, and that she also had some lingering wintering Cassin's Finches amongst the decidedly more common House Finches, a good bonus bird for May. Within the next half hour we were being mesmerized by these amazing feeders - the Juniper Titmouse repeatedly visited his chosen feeder (as did a White-breasted Nuthatch or two, and a Bridled Titmouse too), a pair of Cassin's Finches scrapped with House Finches for seed, while Lark Sparrows, Lazuli Buntings and a single Indigo Bunting shuffled in the dirt below, a male Blue Grosbeak lurked on the fringes of the action, and Scott's Orioles came in and feasted on oranges in this extremely active yard. Frankly some of the best feeding stations anywhere in the world are right here in the Portal area. The hummingbirds there included Black-chinned, Magnificent and Blue-throated Hummingbirds once again.
We then visited Cave Creek Canyon Guesthouse feeders to try for their Golden-crowned Sparrow, another late lingering wintering species, that we only then found out had frustratingly moved on just a few days earlier. The extremely helpful owner of the George Walker House had tried to come to our rescue with our desperate lack of anywhere local to sleep that night and frantically phoned around all the known spots for us to no avail. Either they were fully booked (as expected), or they were charging $240USD to stay there, that we we all balked at together in total shock. At this point we were struggling with hunger and a slight worry that once again we would have to either stay in Douglas (2 hours south), or Wilcox (2 hours northwest), so we decided to try and kill two birds with one stone, and eat and stay at the Southwestern Research Station on the road to Herb Martyr near Portal. (It should be noted there is now the option of a fairly basic guesthouse in Rodeo, that we knew nothing of until we got there). Along the way I bumped into a group I had guided the previous year in Australia, and their leader, Bob Quinn informed us that the Tufted Flycatcher that had been in the Herb Martyr area the last few days had just been relocated after a days absence. This for anyone else in town was hot, hot news. This Tufted Flycatcher was only the fourth US record so people were more than a little panicked at this big news. Therefore we did what any non US lister would do at such a time, we sauntered off to lunch instead, (and to try and find a bed for the night)! On arrival at the research station we bummed out on food (we had only missed it by half hour), but lucked into a room for the night at the price of $75USD each with three meals included (a little more expensive than our favored $45USD a night Motel 6, but hey we wer e now on site and ready for owls!) So we hit the Portal store and restaurant for some good food and then casually wandered down to the Tufted Fly spot, only to find we were the only people there and not totally sure we were even in the right place for this mega-rarity! A few side walks later we realized we were sitting beside the wrong cairn of rocks when I found one with a business card stuck in it for our attention (thanks Bob). Despite this our relaxed and shamefully laid back attitude to this extreme rarity cost us that day, as strong gusty winds laid the bird low for the remainder of the afternoon. All was not lost though as we enjoyed some choice looks at some cool southwestern warblers - Audubon's (Yellow-rumped) Warblers flitted excitedly in the trees alongside Grace's Warblers, Painted Redstart and the odd Red-faced Warbler. The same wet valley also held our first Hammond's Flycatchers, Violet-green Swallows and a singing Cassin's Vireo. Around our good accommodations at the Southwestern Research Station we picked up our first Say's Phoebe sallying from the roped garden between the rooms and the canteen, and also found a late lingering Dark-eyed Junco (a wintering species) to add to the few more expected Yellow-eyed Juncos seen previously that day at Herb Martyr. My obsession with 'Flammy' continued and I spent a windy, cold and completely fruitless few hours combing the road between Stewart Campground upto beyond the Herb Martyr turnoff for several miles with no sight nor sound of this annoying Mexican owl. I did pick up another couple of Whip-poor-wills that decided to rest in my car headlights though, and a Whiskered Screech-Owl in the Stewart Campground parking lot (eastern end). That night we enjoyed some great accommodations at the research station, good value fo r money at $75USD per person per night with hot showers, heating and three large buffet-style meals thrown in. Highly recommended. Unlike we did though, it would be far better not to just turn up as you risk finding no available accommodations during this busy bird season.
One of many Gambel's Quail at an amazing set of feeders in Portal, that also pulled in
Crissal & Curve-billed Thrashers, Pyrrhuloxias, Brewer's Sparrow, Cassin's Finches,
Scott's and Bullock's Orioles, and a Collared Peccary!
14th May: Herb Martyr, Pinery Canyon and Portal area, CHIRICAHUA Mts.
Having played it cool, and failed, on the Tufted Flycatcher around Herb Martyr the day before we awoke determined to get it this time (seeing as we were staying a 15 minute drive from the bird and all). Once again we found ourselves pacing the gully looking for this Mexican vagrant with the same guys we had met the evening before who had flown in from New Jersey especially. With only limited time before our 07.30am breakfast at the research station (they will do specially arranged 05.30am breakfasts if arranged the night before, and can also make sack lunches too), we did not fare too good, Pete getting a good but short look and all I got was a brief vision of a bright orange flycatcher flying right over my head. It was enough to get the New Jersey guys pumped, but they still managed to miss it by minutes, only for the bird to go to ground once again, despite the weather being markedly calmer than in previous days. After breakfast we headed back to the same spot, where we soon found out that it had been showing and not long later got short but good views of this distinctively crested, orange-chested flycatcher. The same spot held a few low-flying White-throated Swifts, and a few warblers again lingered in this area, including Grace's, Audubon's, Wilson's and Black-throated Gray Warblers, and Painted Redstart. In need of gas we ventured lower down into the dry country around Rodeo, where we picked up our only Bronzed Cowbird hanging about the gas station, and also found another Bendire's Thrasher in some roadside yuccas near Rodeo. We ended the day at Dave Jasper's amazing feeding station in Portal, where Gambel's Quails scuffled in the dirt for grain, Black-headed Grosbeaks, Western Tanagers, Band-tailed Pigeons, Scott's and Bullock's O rioles, and Curve-billed Thrashers visited the bird tables, and both Northern Cardinals and Pyrrhuloxias fed side by side. A magnificent feeder set up with non-stop action. A few more late wintering Cassin's Finches were also noted there, although not the hoped for Crissal Thrasher that these particular feeders are famed for (the neighbor quickly informed is though that the thrasher is best found in the mornings when it comes in every 20 minutes or so). I then spent a long and frustrating evening chasing calling Flammulated Owls up steep slopes around Pinery Canyon, having the bird pinned to specific pine trees on several occasions when it remained elusive and unseen within the top of the canopy, a nemesis bird that will continue to haunt me for a long time yet I am sure! I did pick up another Whiskered Screech Owl and several more Whip-poor-wills in the process though! We also tried for Northern Saw-whet Owl around the Rustler Park/Barfoot Park Junction indicated in the book (and backed up by local gen), although failed to even hear one.
Sometimes finding your way to a birding site in Arizona is tough! This sign points the way towards
Phalaropes, American Avocets and others in the desert scape around the town of Willcox.
A female Red-necked Phalarope and a Cow, Willcox.
15th May: Portal area, CHIRICAHUA Mts., Willcox (Cochise Lake and Twin Lakes Golf Course), and Mount Lemmon, SANTA CATALINA Mts.
Our final stop around Portal was again at Dave Jasper's frenzied feeders, principally to have another crack at the Crissal Thrasher, that duly showed up on the top of a bush about 5 minutes after we arrived early in the day. We were more fascinated originally though by the Collared Peccary feeding in the same yard, that held essentially the same birds as the afternoon before, plus another Brewer's Sparrow for our trip.
The landlocked state of Arizona is surprisingly good for migrants, although being a desert environment is lacking in waterbird habitats for the most part. However, where there is water this can provide a rich oasis for migrating and resident birds. For this reason we passed through the Sulphur Springs Valley and stopped in at Willcox Twin Lakes Golf Course, (seemingly one of the few courses in the world that welcomes birders - see photo above), to see if any migrant waders or ducks were around, right in the heart of the dry sunbaked desert and expansive surrounding agricultural lands. It was definitely a strange experience to be watching summer plumage Red-necked and Wilson's Phalaropes feeding side by side on a relatively small desert-bound pool, while American Avocets, Long-billed Dowitchers and a lone Pectoral Sandpiper were found on the same wetland. We stood watching the spinning Phalaropes for some time within feet of us on occasion, when all of a sudden the whole group of them took to the air simultaneously in fright. Immediately Pete and I flashed our eyes skyward, being familiar with this Peregrine like reaction from shorebirds back home and on the sandflats of Bolivar on the Upper Texas Coast. However, here in the desert of Arizona it was not a Peregrine that caused the drastic Phalarope flight but a soaring adult Prairie Falcon gliding over the pool. The lake also held a lingering male Redhead and a few Eared Grebes, while the dry dirt around the side of the pool played host to a small group of Horned Larks, and the odd Scaled Quail came into drink at the pool. We then tried the water treatment plant at Benson although found little apart from a few extra Ruddy Ducks and Killdeers. (After we left Willcox that day an online report noted a flock of 16 Franklin's Gulls had dropped onto the same pool, illustrating the dynamic nature of this important spot for transients).
We then wound our way back north to Mount Lemmon once more, beginning in the lower reaches in the saguaro-palo verde desertscrub zone along the main road just beyond Babad Do'ag, where we searched the Saguaros for Gilded Flickers, one of which perched up in company with a few further Gila Woodpeckers. The backdrop to this however was perhaps more impressive as fires raged on the hillside behind, putting Pete immediately into roving reported mode, where his camera went into overtime. Fortunately though, this was not the unmitigated disaster that it first appeared and was in fact a well-controlled (and fully, going to plan) burn, organized by the park service with a hundred strong team monitoring and controlling the spread! With our main desert target nailed (the flicker), we then went right up Lemmon to into the tall mixed conifer forests along the Ski Run Road, parked beside the (closed) Iron Door Restaurant there and soon after ran into our other main target bird, Mountain Chickadee sporting a bright white super, feeding in the Quaking Aspen that flanked the car park. A brief late afternoon stroll in the Ski Valley area produced another Red-faced Warbler working the Ponderosa pines, a few more Steller's Jays, and Magnificent and Broad-tailed Hummingbirds visiting the Iron Door Restaurant's feeders . Once again I finished with another final failed attempt at Flammulated Owl, which I never even heard in the Middle Bear Canyon area despite two concerted efforts in this traditional area for them (Common Poorwills, Whip-poor-wills and Whiskered Screech-owls were heard from this area though. We did however enjoy some superb Japanese food, Tepan style, just a short drive from the mountain alongside t he Wilmot Road to make up for it a little, (in a restaurant that boasted both Bush junior and senior as its former customers).
American Avocet is not a bird that easily springs to mind for the desert state of Arizona, although
the pools at Willcox provide a superb oasis for wetland species. Many Wilson's & Red-necked Phalaropes,
and a few Long-billed Dowitchers were also present at this fascinating desert location.
16th May: To Flagstaff
Once again we took it easy this morning after yesterday's long day in the field, essentially to research where to go from there. We dropped into the Tucson Audubon Nature Shop on University Blvd , browsed a copy of the Flagstaff birding guide, and spoke to some very helpful people in the store who helped mould our decision to head to the scenic northern Arizonan 'city' of Flagstaff. This area is not only a great birding destination, but also located in a geographically stunning area. The Grand Canyon lies just to the north, while around Flagstaff itself vistas can provide spectacular views of volcanic cones and sweeping desert landscapes. Little birding was done on the way, as the interstate journey from Tucson to there took around 4 hours (local people advised strongly to avoid the Phoenix area after 14.30 when rush hour begins!) Reading the site guide en-route and having spoken to Tucson Audubon folks in the store we knew that it would be worth trying for Lewis's Woodpecker within the city of Flagstaff itself. The book described the area around the Flagstaff Medical Center on North San Francisco St. as being good for it, so we headed there on our late afternoon arrival. Shortly after passing the medical center we noticed an extensive area of pines, including a number of dead pines that the woodpeckers are said to favor. This was on the right side as we approached just a few minutes drive beyond the center. It looked like this must be the spot, as extensive areas of pines cannot be that common in a city, so we tried there and picked up first an Acorn Woodpecker quickly followed by a beautiful pair of Lewis's Woodpeckers, that even mated right there in front of us. Mountain Chickadee was also flicking around in the same stand of tall pines. It was all a little too easy! We then retired to a motel (yes, yet another Motel 6 - they are conveniently located everywhere in Arizona, although if you prefer some variation there were plenty of other motel options in Flagstaff).
Lewis's Woodpecker, found within the large pine stand
behind the San Francisco Street Medical Center right in Flagstaff.
17th May: Lockett Meadow (San Francisco Peaks), Cameron Trading Post and Vermilion Cliffs.
As there were 2 new sapsuckers for us listed for the Lockett Meadow area, along with Clark's Nutcracker we decided to head there for the morning. This 8600 ft. (2621 m) high meadow is located on the east side of the visually impressive San Francisco Peaks, just a short drive from Flagstaff. Along the main road (US89) not far north beyond the signed turnoff to Sunset Crater, we entered an area of pinyon juniper, that appropriately saw us run into a large flock of Pinyon Jays. The large number of these oddly short-tailed jays moving out of the same roadside trees gave us the impression that this may have been a roosting site for them. We also picked up another Lewis's Woodpecker before we turned off for the meadow. The signed turnoff for the meadow was only around a 30 minute drive from Flagstaff, although on arrival the final road up to the meadow was gated shut. So we opted to park in the lot at the bottom and walk up through the pines 3 miles or so to the meadow. With bright skies and beautiful pine forest all around this was no hardship at all. We were a little surprised to find a few sparsely distributed snow drifts as we got up close to the deserted meadow. The other bonus with the road being closed was that not too many people were around, although people advised us this area could get busy on weekend ordinarily, so perhaps this was fortunate for our birding opportunities. In fact there was just one car in the lot when we arrived, and we bumped into the local hunter that owned it a little later, who looked not that far off Grizzly Adams, and was on the lookout for Wild Turkey that he had a permit for. He also warned us of Black Bears in the area, and remarked that he had seen a Puma just that morning close to Sedona! This felt truly like Wild America. Unfortunately, mammal wise, we had no such luck but the birding was good all the same. On the walk up we picked up a few Steller's Jays, and our first good view of a Red-breasted Nuthatch that drew attention to himself with his funny nasal, toy trumpet call. Best of all though was a superb Clark's Nutcracker that noisily alighted on a dead snag by the path. An unmistakable and charismatic, bird. On arrival at the meadow (around 1 hours walk) Pete soon saw a woodpecker fly in, land in a dead tree and begin mating, that proved to be the first of our sapsucker targets - Williamson's Sapsucker, the scarcer of the two. A short walk further on, and with a little use of my i-pod, a pair of Red-naped Sapsuckers came screaming low into the tape and perched up at eye-level just a few meters away from us. Really gorgeous birds, these striking 'suckers remained in the area for some time perching up low down for excellent viewing opportunities. A small pool by the meadow attracted a few warblers, including a few yellow-throated Audubon's Wablers (Yellow-rumped), and a Grace's Warbler, while another Red-faced Warbler appeared in the taller pines on the edge of the meadow. Many woodpeckers were found in the surrounding pines and aspen, including many Northern Flickers, and a few Hairy Woodpeckers. However, we had no luck at all with American Three-toed Woodpecker that are also said to be in the area. We did see an adult Golden Eagle though glide over the edge of this alpine meadow. On the way down we saw further Clark's Nutcrackers, Western Bluebirds, Olive-sided Flycatcher and a strange oddly familiar Bullfinch-like call led us to a pair of Townsend's Solitaires. In addition to these avian distractions, the landscape was visibly littered with striking evidence of volcanic activity, including cinder cones that provided an impressive backdrop as we made our way down from Lockett Meadow.
The Condor sign at Vermilion Cliffs, just north of the Grand Canyon. We saw 9 different condors there
(including one immature) from the shelter beside this sign, while a herd of Pronghorns grazed in the fields across the way.
We then decided to head north toward the Grand Canyon, with a view to looking for Californian Condors north of there around the Vermilion Cliffs reintroduction site, before visiting the canyon itself. This drive took a little longer than expected and so we abandoned our canyon plan and decided to focus on birding and visit the canyon the next day. We drove up to Vermilion Cliffs, following the excellent directions in the Audubon site guide to the House Rock Valley condor release site. Gas and restaurant stops became thin on the ground as we headed north on the US89, and we were therefore forced to lunch at the Cameron Trading Post, which acts as both an oasis for people needing a feed, and migrant birds as it provides some of the only cover for miles in this otherwise barren desert scape . We checked the garden behind the art gallery for birds and located just a few Wilson's and Yellow Warblers and not a lot else, although Northern Waterthrushes were reported there within a few days of our visit. We then motored on for Vermilion Cliffs, that had a shelter and signs giving information on the condors plight. The California Condors themselves were straightforward, one glance up to the cliff and we homed in on 4 or more birds there (one of which was dwarfing a mobbing Red-tailed Hawk), some perched and some casting massive shadows across the red rock face as they gracefully surfed the thermal above. In the end we counted at least 9 different birds, including one immature. The same area also held some Meadowlarks that were giving strange calls, and a little use of the tape confirmed them as Western Meadowlarks, that perched and sung from the fence posts and grassy tussocks in the area. We also watched an impressive herd of grazing Pronghorns on the opposite side of the road to the condor shelter. This large, bicolored, tan and white 'antelope' is the only extant species from the endemic native American Antilocapridae family. Having gorged on the condors, that were much easier than stated in the 2001 site guide, (so presumably have had a good run in recent years), we decided to make one final birding stop on the way back. This was to look for Gray Vireo in some ravines alongside the AZ64 road that leads from Cameron to the Grand Canyon NP. This involved turning south off this road onto a 'Ghost Road', the old highway that has since the book was written become impassable beyond the first half mile or so, big earth mounds blocking this pot-holed, much deteriorated highway. So adjusting our plans again we simply walked south along this abandoned road that is now sprouting large clumps of vegetation and severely pot-holed, and checked a number of ravines on the west side of the road (i.e. right side, away from the new highway). Checking these ravines came up blank with our target bird, the vireo, although I did see my first MacGillvray's Warbler, a crippling male sporting bright white eye arcs, that was hopping around in the short brush in one of these arid scrubby gorges. Once we backtracked to the car we decided to check the first steep ravine after we turned onto this old highway, as this was the only one we had not checked thus far, and soon after a burst of tape got an instant reply from the vireo. We walked up the gully around 30 m or so to get closer to the calling bird, hit the vireo with another short burst, and immediately the Gray Vireo came racing over the scrub in front of us and alighted in a short stunted, bare bush a few meters in front of us. Nice. We then headed back into Flagstaff for the night, checking out a poor Indian restaurant close to our Motel 6.
Red-naped Sapsucker, Lockett Meadow
18th May: The Grand Canyon (South Rim) to Tucson.
This was essentially a tourist day visiting Grand Canyon National Park. However, while 'Big Pete' slept in I decided to try early on for American Dippers in the West Fork - Slide Rock State Park area alongside the US89A south of Flagstaff. This was only around 30 minutes drive south from the town. As the area is extremely popular with tourists I timed my visit early to try and avoid crowds and up my chances of the dipper. Well, I missed the dipper despite combing various stretches of Oak Creek. The morning's jaunt thought was still good for birds, and almost devoid of people so was enjoyable all the same. A good new bird was a Common Black Hawk that took flight when I descended to the river to check for Dippers in an area between Indian Gardens and Slide Rock State Park. This huge black raptor passed straight overhead revealing his broadly white-banded tail as he did so, superb. Other notable birds included several gaudy male Bullock's Orioles around the bridge adjacent to Slide Rock State Park, and several Painted Redstarts and a Virginia's Warbler flitting in the riverside trees, and a Common Merganser feeding in the clear river waters itself. On the bridge by Slide Rock State Park a Canyon Wren sang heartily in the early hours before the Sunday siege of tourists came in. We then headed in earnest for the Grand Canyon, stopping briefly to hunt for American Three-toed Woodpecker along FR151 in the Kendrick area mentioned in the site guide. Many burnt areas were found but none of those woodpeckers, just a few Downy Woodpeckers and another pair of Williamson's Sapsuckers. Continuing north we made another short stop in Red Mountain Geologic Area, seeing as we were passing and both needed Gray Flycatcher. A quick burst of its song just inside the trail gate from the car park brought one of these scarce flickers right up on top of the juniper. Another easy one thanks to the great site guide, and a handy i-pod. We then visited the Grand Canyon, which of course is a must see attraction that is simply mind blowing. Although not exactly a birding excursion we did see a few goodies, including our trip first Zone-tailed Hawk that floated low past us at eye-level while we were walking the trail to Desert View. The same area also held a fantastic singing male Black-throated Gray Warbler, Mountain Chickadee, Juniper Titmouse, Western Scrub-Jay, while White-throated Swifts and Violet-green Swallows swooped low in front of us on many occasions, hawing insects right over the massive canyon. After a good feed (and fleecing for money) at the National Geographic Center, we headed back to Tucson, a 6 hour drive south. We whiled away the drive listening to the local country and western station (I mean we were in the middle of the Wild West), hearing songs about guys being guys, and treating their women a little rough, before we again overnighted in our now very familiar Motel 6 on Congress St.
There are not too many warblers in Arizona (compared to the eastern
US), but the ones they have are top notch - this Painted Redstart was
photographed by Pete in Ramsey Canyon in the Huachuca Mountains.
19th May: Wildcard Day - Miller and Ramsey Canyons, HUACHUCA Mts.
We had left this day open to try for any late migrants like Varied Bunting or Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher that may have arrived since the start of our trip or to go after any rarities that turned up. Having checked the local list serves, a couple of things stood out. Varied Buntings were decidedly sparse and were not yet in at many traditional sites (so we scratched that option), although Sulphur-bellied Flycatchers had now come in at a few traditional sites and would be possible around the Huachucas or at the base of Madera; the Berryline Hummingbird was still at Ramsey Canyon a few days before, and the Spotted Owl had been relocated 5 days or so before, after we had last tried for it. In short, the Huachucas were calling us back again. We began by visiting Ramsey Canyon, where the feeders were busy with Black-chinned Hummingbirds, Magnificent Hummingbirds, Blue-throated Hummingbirds, Broad-tailed Hummingbirds, Broad-billed Hummingbirds but no Berryline after a two week stay! Rotten luck and several prolonged sessions at the feeders led us to believe the bird had finally moved on (people remarked that there were decidedly less hummers on this day too, supporting our view). We were pointed to a Golden Eagle nest that was visible from the parking lot though. With this in mind I checked up the canyon for Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher that had been reported just that morning. These late migrants, nest in cavities within Sycamores along the stream, and are therefore best looked for around the trees that line the streambed. Eventually a bird was found checking cavities (presumably to nest in), within a Sycamore around three quarters of a mile up the canyon. This flycatcher is traditionally easy to detect by it vocal nature, however at this early time after arrival they were still largely silent. Ramsey Canyon was quite birdy with more Plumbeous and Hutton's Vireos, Mexican Jays, Bridled Titmice, Hermit Thrush, and a superb low-feeding Painted Redstart. People also reported Elegant Trogon up there that day too.
We then decided, despite no further reports over the last five days or so, (or from anyone in the area that day), to try again for the Spotted Owls in Miller Canyon. Surprisingly the 'canyon's marshall', Tom Beatty was not around on arrival, so we simply pushed on up the canyon for the owl, hearing and seeing our second male Elegant Trogon of the trip as we headed up there (around the split rock). An online posting had mentioned that when they had re-found the owl the week before they had built a rock cairn signifying where the bird was roosting. I felt that if we could at least find this it would help narrow the daunting search for this cryptic Mexican species. Well, we found the rock cairn, before the second crossing, and the stick pointing out of the top of the cairn towards a broken limb where the bird was roosting, but no Spotted Owl on the limb. No matter which way I looked at it, it was abundantly clear there was no damn owl there. Denied again! Anyway as they had previously been roosting on and off at the second stream crossing (dry of a stream at that point), we thought we should try there anyhow for our last desperate attempt. As we turned and walked in that direction a large clump caught my eye in the top of a pine, that turned out to be a large stick nest with a Spotted Owl sitting right beside it. A little maneuvering for a better angle revealed two large fluffy white owl chicks within this huge, highly visible nest. An incredible top notch last sighting for our trip, and certainly a close call for bird of the trip. However, the polka-dotted Montezuma Quail in California Gulch was just too good, and narrowly took the title for both of us in the end. We found Arizona to be a brilliant birding destination, easy to do and scenically spectacula r in addition to the hordes of good US birds on offer. Highly recommended.
This nesting Spotted Owl was found during our final afternoons birding,
a great end to our very enjoyable jaunt around 'The Grand Canyon State' of Arizona.
20th May: Departure.
Pete Alfrey ...
Pete on the state line road near Portal, slap bang on the border of New Mexico and Arizona, a
known hangout for Bendire's Thrasher, Greater Roadrunners, and a couple of dodgy birders!
and the BIRDS...
Pied-billed Grebe Podilymbus podiceps
Eared Grebe Podiceps nigricollis
Double-crested Cormorant Phalacrocorax auritus
HERONS, EGRETS AND BITTERNS: Ardeidae
Great Blue Heron Ardea herodias
Great Egret Ardea alba
Green Heron Butorides virescens
Least Bittern Ixobrychus exilis H
IBIS AND SPOONBILLS: Threskiornithidae
White-faced Ibis Plegadis chihi
DUCKS, GEESE AND SWANS: Anatidae
Mallard Anas platyrhynchos
Blue-winged Teal Anas discors
Cinnamon Teal Anas cyanoptera
Redhead Aythya americana
Common Merganser Mergus merganser
Ruddy Duck Oxyura jamaicensis
Black Vulture Coragyps atratus
Turkey Vulture Cathartes aura
California Condor Gymnogyps californianus
Osprey Pandion haliaetus
HAWKS, EAGLES AND KITES: Accipitridae
Northern Harrier Circus cyaneus
Sharp-shinned Hawk Accipiter striatus
Cooper's Hawk Accipiter cooperii
Common Black-Hawk Buteogallus anthracinus
Gray Hawk Buteo nitidus
Swainson's Hawk Buteo swainsoni
Zone-tailed Hawk Buteo albonotatus
Red-tailed Hawk Buteo jamaicensis
Golden Eagle Aquila chrysaetos
American Kestrel Falco sparverius
Prairie Falcon Falco mexicanus
Wild Turkey Meleagris gallopavo
NEW WORLD QUAIL: Odontophoridae
Scaled Quail Callipepla squamata
Gambel's Quail Callipepla gambelii
Montezuma Quail Cyrtonyx montezumae
RAILS, GALLINULES AND COOTS: Rallidae
Sora Porzana carolina
American Coot Fulica americana
AVOCETS AND STILTS: Recurvirostridae
Black-necked Stilt Himantopus mexicanus
American Avocet Recurvirostra americana
PLOVERS AND LAPWINGS: Charadriidae
Killdeer Charadrius vociferus
Long-billed Dowitcher Limnodromus scolopaceus
Spotted Sandpiper Actitis macularius
Pectoral Sandpiper Calidris melanotos
Wilson's Phalarope Phalaropus tricolor
Red-necked Phalarope Phalaropus lobatus
Ring-billed Gull Larus delawarensis
PIGEONS AND DOVES: Columbidae
Rock Pigeon Columba livia
Band-tailed Pigeon Patagioenas fasciata
Mourning Dove Zenaida macroura
White-winged Dove Zenaida asiatica
Common Ground-Dove Columbina passerina
Inca Dove Columbina inca
Greater Roadrunner Geococcyx californianus
Flammulated Owl Otus flammeolus H
Western Screech-Owl Megascops kennicottii
Whiskered Screech-Owl Megascops trichopsis
Great Horned Owl Bubo virginianus
Spotted Owl Strix occidentalis
Mountain Pygmy-Owl Glaucidium gnoma
Elf Owl Micrathene whitneyi
NIGHTJARS AND ALLIES: Caprimulgidae
Lesser Nighthawk Chordeiles acutipennis
Common Poorwill Phalaenoptilus nuttallii
Whip-poor-will Caprimulgus vociferus
Vaux's Swift Chaetura vauxi
White-throated Swift Aeronautes saxatalis
Broad-billed Hummingbird Cynanthus latirostris
White-eared Hummingbird Hylocharis leucotis
Violet-crowned Hummingbird Agyrtria violiceps
Blue-throated Hummingbird Lampornis clemenciae
Magnificent Hummingbird Eugenes fulgens
Lucifer Hummingbird Calothorax lucifer
Black-chinned Hummingbird Archilochus alexandri
Anna's Hummingbird Calypte anna
Costa's Hummingbird Calypte costae
Broad-tailed Hummingbird Selasphorus platycercus
Elegant Trogon Trogon elegans
Lewis' Woodpecker Melanerpes lewis
Acorn Woodpecker Melanerpes formicivorus
Gila Woodpecker Melanerpes uropygialis
Red-naped Sapsucker Sphyrapicus nuchalis
Williamson's Sapsucker Sphyrapicus thyroideus
Ladder-backed Woodpecker Picoides scalaris
Downy Woodpecker Picoides pubescens
Arizona Woodpecker Picoides arizonae
Hairy Woodpecker Picoides villosus
Northern Flicker Colaptes auratus
Gilded Flicker Colaptes chrysoides
Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet Camptostoma imberbe
Hammond's Flycatcher Empidonax hammondii
Gray Flycatcher Empidonax wrightii
Cordilleran Flycatcher Empidonax occidentalis
Buff-breasted Flycatcher Empidonax fulvifrons
Olive-sided Flycatcher Contopus cooperi
Greater Pewee Contopus pertinax
Western Wood-Pewee Contopus sordidulus
Black Phoebe Sayornis nigricans
Say's Phoebe Sayornis saya
Vermilion Flycatcher Pyrocephalus rubinus
Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher Myiodynastes luteiventris
Cassin's Kingbird Tyrannus vociferans
Thick-billed Kingbird Tyrannus crassirostris
Western Kingbird Tyrannus verticalis
Dusky-capped Flycatcher Myiarchus tuberculifer
Great Crested Flycatcher Myiarchus crinitus
Brown-crested Flycatcher Myiarchus tyrannulus
Horned Lark Eremophila alpestris
Tree Swallow Tachycineta bicolor
Violet-green Swallow Tachycineta thalassina
Purple Martin Progne subis
Northern Rough-winged Swallow Stelgidopteryx serripennis
Barn Swallow Hirundo rustica
Phainopepla Phainopepla nitens
Cactus Wren Campylorhynchus brunneicapillus
Rock Wren Salpinctes obsoletus
Canyon Wren Catherpes mexicanus
Bewick's Wren Thryomanes bewickii
House Wren Troglodytes aedon
MOCKINGBIRDS AND THRASHERS: Mimidae
Northern Mockingbird Mimus polyglottos
Bendire's Thrasher Toxostoma bendirei
Curve-billed Thrasher Toxostoma curvirostre
Crissal Thrasher Toxostoma crissale
Western Bluebird Sialia mexicana
Townsend's Solitaire Myadestes townsendi
Swainson's Thrush Catharus ustulatus
Hermit Thrush Catharus guttatus
American Robin Turdus migratorius
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher Polioptila caerulea
Black-tailed Gnatcatcher Polioptila melanura
Black-capped Gnatcatcher Polioptila nigriceps
LONG-TAILED TITS: Aegithalidae
Bushtit Psaltriparus minimus
CHICKADEES AND TITS: Paridae
Mountain Chickadee Poecile gambeli
Mexican Chickadee Poecile sclateri
Bridled Titmouse Baeolophus wollweberi
Juniper Titmouse Baeolophus ridgwayi
Pygmy Nuthatch Sitta pygmaea
Red-breasted Nuthatch Sitta canadensis
White-breasted Nuthatch Sitta carolinensis
Brown Creeper Certhia americana
Verdin Auriparus flaviceps
Loggerhead Shrike Lanius ludovicianus
CROWS AND JAYS: Corvidae
Steller's Jay Cyanocitta stelleri
Western Scrub-Jay Aphelocoma californica
Mexican Jay Aphelocoma ultramarina
Pinyon Jay Gymnorhinus cyanocephalus
Clark's Nutcracker Nucifraga columbiana
American Crow Corvus brachyrhynchos
Chihuahuan Raven Corvus cryptoleucus
Common Raven Corvus corax
European Starling Sturnus vulgaris
OLD WORLD SPARROWS: Passeridae
House Sparrow Passer domesticus
Bell's Vireo Vireo bellii
Gray Vireo Vireo vicinior
Plumbeous Vireo Vireo plumbeus
Cassin's Vireo Vireo cassinii
Hutton's Vireo Vireo huttoni
Warbling Vireo Vireo gilvus
SISKINS, CROSSBILLS AND ALLIES: Fringillidae
Cassin's Finch Carpodacus cassinii
House Finch Carpodacus mexicanus
Pine Siskin Carduelis pinus
Lesser Goldfinch Carduelis psaltria
OLIVE WARBLER: Peucedramidae
Olive Warbler Peucedramus taeniatus
NEW WORLD WARBLERS: Parulidae
Orange-crowned Warbler Vermivora celata
Virginia's Warbler Vermivora virginiae
Lucy's Warbler Vermivora luciae
Yellow Warbler Dendroica petechia
Yellow-rumped Warbler Dendroica coronata
Black-throated Gray Warbler Dendroica nigrescens
Townsend's Warbler Dendroica townsendi
Hermit Warbler Dendroica occidentalis
Grace's Warbler Dendroica graciae
MacGillivray's Warbler Oporornis tolmiei
Common Yellowthroat Geothlypis trichas
Wilson's Warbler Wilsonia pusilla
Red-faced Warbler Cardellina rubrifrons
Painted Redstart Myioborus pictus
Yellow-breasted Chat Icteria virens
Hepatic Tanager Piranga flava
Summer Tanager Piranga rubra
Western Tanager Piranga ludoviciana
Flame-colored Tanager Piranga bidentata
BUNTINGS, SPARROWS, SEEDEEATERS AND ALLIES: Emberizidae
Green-tailed Towhee Pipilo chlorurus
Spotted Towhee Pipilo maculatus
Canyon Towhee Pipilo fuscus
Abert's Towhee Pipilo aberti
Botteri's Sparrow Aimophila botterii
Rufous-crowned Sparrow Aimophila ruficeps
Rufous-winged Sparrow Aimophila carpalis
Five-striped Sparrow Aimophila quinquestriata
Chipping Sparrow Spizella passerina
Brewer's Sparrow Spizella breweri
Black-chinned Sparrow Spizella atrogularis
Lark Sparrow Chondestes grammacus
Black-throated Sparrow Amphispiza bilineata
Song Sparrow Melospiza melodia
White-crowned Sparrow Zonotrichia leucophrys
Dark-eyed Junco Junco hyemalis
Yellow-eyed Junco Junco phaeonotus
SALTATORS, CARDINALS AND ALLIES: Cardinalidae
Northern Cardinal Cardinalis cardinalis
Pyrrhuloxia Cardinalis sinuatus
Black-headed Grosbeak Pheucticus melanocephalus
Blue Grosbeak Passerina caerulea
Lazuli Bunting Passerina amoena
Indigo Bunting Passerina cyanea
TROUPIALS AND ALLIES: Icteridae
Red-winged Blackbird Agelaius phoeniceus
Eastern Meadowlark Sturnella magna
Western Meadowlark Sturnella neglecta
Great-tailed Grackle Quiscalus mexicanus
Bronzed Cowbird Molothrus aeneus
Brown-headed Cowbird Molothrus ater
Hooded Oriole Icterus cucullatus
Bullock's Oriole Icterus bullockii
Scott's Oriole Icterus parisorum