Arizona and the Salton Sea - 13th - 22nd April 2013

Published by Noah Gaines (skater_ako1 AT

Participants: Noah Gaines, Danielle Cvitanovich


This April, Danielle and I took a long week to drive a loop through Arizona. Hummingbirds and Owls were our main targets but we also took time to enjoy some non-avian highlights in the area: The Grand Canyon, massages in Sedona, the Muleshoe hot springs, the Kartchner Caverns, the Oasis Date Gardens, and some geothermal mudpots. Although April was a bit on the early side for many of the specialties in the area (Elegant Trogon), we found the cooler weather to be an adequate trade off. My website has the same trip reports with tons of interesting photos to go with it. summitbirding


Saturday, we drove in to the Grand Canyon. Earlier, we had reserved site 232 in Mather Campground. The area around us offered some secluded birding and tame ELK viewing. After setting up our tent, we walked down to the rim trail via the Shine of the Ages. We kept trending north, assuming that we would hit the canyon sooner or later, and eventually a small clearing in the junipers turned into a grand vista.

The Grand Canyon is indeed that. Its scale is so suprahuman that one’s mind thinks that it must be a trick, a fancy backdrop, or some sort of green screen special effects. It is only by using the binoculars to look at individual trees, that I could begin to comprehend the scale of this massive chasm.

As we neared the visitors’ center, we were entertained by our first of many RED CROSSBILLS. Male and female were present. These birds were very common along the rim. Flocks would be feet away from us one second and then miles away the next as they launched off the canyon’s edge and down slope. We anticipated seeing California Condors here but were disappointed.


Wind was strong throughout our visit at the Grand Canyon. However, as we made our way east along the viewpoints we enjoyed a perfect, secluded lunch break in a windbreak near Grandview.

We attempted a drive up to Marble Bridge for another shot at the condors but a detour forced us back on our planned route. From here we drive to a friend’s house in Flagstaff (where I went to Graduate school). At her backyard pond the ridiculous ABERT’S SQUIRREL entertained us. A late night effort at owling along the flank of Mt Eldon failed to turn up ANY owls. The wind was just too heavy.


This morning we got an early start down the 89A to Sedona. I think that this section of highway through Oak Creek Canyon one of the most gorgeous anywhere. Danielle noted a COMMON BLACK-HAWK from the car and a quick stop at Cave Springs turned up singing YELLOW WARBLERS.

In Sedona, we both received massages. While waiting for Danielle, I short walk turned up ASH-THROATED FLYCATCHER, GAMBEL’S QUAIL, and COSTA’S HUMMINGBIRD. Lunch at the Coffee Pot Diner was delicious as usual.

The drive down to Madera Canyon through Phoenix and Tucson was relatively unremarkable (thankfully). ROUND-TAILED GROUND-SQUIRREL was easy to see at the rest stop just north of Tucson.

In Madera Canyon, we found the Santa Rita Lodge to be an excellent base for birding. Be advised that there is no food available here. If you plan on eating anything, you have to bring it. Although we got in late and the wind was gusting, we still went out for a bit of owling. Although we saw a glimpse of a RINGTAIL under the feeders no owls were calling. The wind was just keeping everything down. At this point, the wind had blown heavily and steadily for our entire trip and it was beginning to wear us down a bit.


One of the great luxuries of staying at the Santa Rita Lodge is that one can walk out to their extensive feeding areas with a cup of tea before the crowds of birders descend. As was expected, the birding here was fabulous.

The BROAD-BILLED, ANNA’S, BLACK-CHINNED, and RUFOUS HUMMINGBIRDS vied for nectar just feet from us while gangs of MEXICAN JAYS roamed the feeders. MEXICAN GRAY SQUIRRELS sat in the large hopper feeders and intimidating even the jays. Hoards of PINE SISKIN swarmed the nyger feeders while 25 CHIPPING SPARROWS gleaned waste from below. LAZULI BUNTINGS and BLACK-HEADED GROSBEAKS provided colorful highlights.

At the Madera Kubo feeding station much of the same birds were present. However MAGNIFICENT and BROAD-TAILED HUMMINGBIRD where added to our growing hummingbird total. I was happy to spend some time with an obliging HEPATIC TANAGER while Danielle enjoyed her first looks at BRIDLED TITMOUSE.

The Chuparosa Inn is the fanciest lodging option in the canyon. The hummingbirds must have discriminating tastes because the feeders here were the busiest that we saw on our entire trip. It was here that we had our best looks at MAGNIFICENT HUMMINGBIRD. There were literally so many hummingbirds here that they were not fighting. Additionally, their flight pattern brought us to within inches from our faces. Spectacular!

Our walk turned into a hike as we stepped on to the Carrie Nation Trail. Sadly we did not find any trogons here. However we did find a huge BLACK-TAILED RATTLESNAKE that was sunning itself in the creek.

This rattlesnake was golden yellow color that perfectly matched the pine duff near its resting place. About 10 minutes later a HOUSE WREN found the snake as well and began scolding it from a dangerously low branch. This in turn attracted a small group of songbirds including: PAINTED REDSTART, BLACK-THROATED GRAY, and GRACE’S WARBLER. Further up the trail we enjoyed the big and bold YELLOW-EYED JUNCOS. For some reason, these birds seem so exotic and really make me feel like I am birding in another country.

After a nap and an early dinner, we again set out along the road in search of night birds. This started further toward the top of the canyon and we quickly heard an ELF OWL. However, just as quickly, the bird stopped calling and after fumbling around for a while we realized that we were not going to see this bird without it calling. Due to the high volume of birders in Madera Canyon, using playback for owls is illegal.

As we returned to the road, a loud chirpy bark started up from the shoulder. I immediately knew that I did not recognize this call but that it was interesting. Whereas owls are always nearer than they sound, this animal was further than it sounded. As we followed the sound deeper and deeper into the woods, the call never seemed to get louder. Eventually, our efforts were rewarded with eyeshine, which belonged to a RINGTAIL clinging to a branch about 12 feet up in a tree! As we walked back to the road a MEXICAN WHIP-POOR-WILL started piping up.

We heard a few more ELF OWLS but had no luck seeing them. However, as we were walking back to our room, one last ELF OWL starting calling. Luckily, this bird was consistent and persistent and we were eventually able to maneuver ourselves so that we could see this little beastie. Of course, the only place to see the bird was standing in a patch of poison oak. But at this point, we did not care.


After a quick morning check of the feeders, headed out of Madera Canyon. As we approached Continental, we spied our first of many SWAINSON’S HAWKS for the trip. Our first spot was at the Paton’s House where the VIOLET-CROWNED HUMMINGBIRD obliged us with a visit. PYRRULOXIA, GREEN-TAILED TOWHEE, and WHITE-THROATED SPARROW were also excellent additions to our lists. Birding does not get much easier than this. I did not even have to put shoes on!

After a few stops in Patagonia, we made our way to Ash Canyon B&B south of Sierra Vista. We were greeted by swarms of SCOTT’S ORIOLES and our first hummingbird was a female CALLIOPE HUMMINGBIRD. We eventually had great looks at two male LUCIFER HUMMINGBIRDS as well as a male CALLIOPE HUMMINGBIRD. A fat COTTON RAT was gorging below the seed feeders like he owned the place.

From here, we drove a short ways up to Beatty’s Guest Ranch where we stayed at Cabin A. I really enjoyed this place. It is a working apple orchard and the cabin is super funky and rustic. Upon seeing it, Danielle exclaimed, “It is like staying on a boat!” The night was a cold one and I was happy to warm the cabin with the wood stove.

Beatty’s is in Miller Canyon where a pair of SPOTTED OWLS is currently nesting. Luckily, the male is becoming very consistent in his roosting habits and locating him was just a 20 min hike from our cabin. He was placidly perched in a low cherry tree. He watched us through half-lidded eyes but seemed unconcerned with our presence.

A quick stop by the hummingbird feeders yielded CALLIOPE, BROAD-TAILED, MAGNIFICENT, BLACK-CHINNED, BROAD-BILLED, and RUFOUS. As we ate dinner, COMMON POORWILL serenaded us.


After a late start, we decided to check out some petroglyphs. To get to the trailhead, follow Charleston Rd. past the San Pedro River and park in the first parking area on the left. Although the petroglyphs are fairly small, this area has a lot of cool ghost town detritus and is worth a quick stop.

Our next stop, Kartchner Caverns, is THE BEST CAVE I have ever visited. It was only discovered in 1974 and as a result, this warm and humid cave has been meticulously protected so that it can remain alive. This way the cave formations can continue to grow for years to come. In the past, when caves were opened to the public, they often permanently damaged the delicate atmosphere. Great lengths have been taken to keep this cave in pristine condition and it shows. The park naturalist was excellent and the group was respectful and quiet. Being underground, in such an otherworldly setting was so surreal. For me, it was one of the absolute highlights of the trip.

From here, we traveled due east on Highway 10 to Willcox. From here, 30 miles of dirt road brought us to Muleshoe Ranch. This is a Cooperative Management Area, which is owned by The Nature Conservatory for the expressed purpose of safeguarding native fish in seven permanently flowing springs. In the desert, permanently flowing springs are rare, and this area is a bona fide oasis. This water is not from yesterdays rain, or even last winters snow. It is old. Is percolates from deep aquifers below the ground. It is fossil water. Muleshoe Ranch offers a few Casitas in a Hacienda shaped structure. The rooms form an open “U” shape around a courtyard, which is stocked with bird feeders. BROAD-BILLED HUMMINGBIRDS, HOODED ORIOLES, and NORTHERN CARDINALS were common here. These rooms are spacious with full kitchens and bathrooms. The walls are feet thick and the fixtures are original. The place is straight out of an old western. Hot Springs gush out of the ground and are captured in two large feed tanks. We soaked in these twice once at night and again in the morning and both times felt refreshed and completely noodley. This place was our vacation from our vacation. We were quickly wishing that we had booked an extra night here.

Besides the afore mentioned features, the main mammalian attraction here is the COATI. Sadly, we did not see any. Or first effort took place at dusk, along the nature trail. SUMMER TANAGERS were the only bird we noted before darkness fell. However in the dark, we heard COMMON POORWILL and WESTERN SCREECH-OWL.


The Bass Canyon Loop is purported to be the best spot for Coati so we started early in search of our target. I found this hike to be one of my all time favorite birdwatching hikes. I was so deep in vacation mode at this point in the trip that I did not even bring my DSLR camera along on the hike. The loop consists of a rough triangle. Since we started in a counter-clockwise direction, the first leg brought us up along a high arid crest. We decided to climb to the top of the highest rocky outcropping here where stabby yucca and chartreuse lichen flourished. From here, we could really appreciate the topography of the area. The perennial streams contrast sharply with the dry landscape that stretches for miles in all directions.

As we descended into Bass Canyon, I became distracted by a massive flock of sparrows that included: CASSIN’S, BLACK-THROATED, CHIPPING, LINCOLN’S, and WHITE-CROWNED with GREEN-TAILED and CANYON TOWHEES as well. RUFOUS-CROWNED SPARROWS were heard from the rocks. The second leg of the triangle follows Bass Creek. As we hiked along the verdant oasis, YELLOW WARBLERS, SUMMER TANAGERS, BELL’S VIREOS, were conspicuous. Here I had the only VIRGINIA’S WARBLER of the trip. We flushed a ZONE-TAILED HAWK that circled directly overhead, calling incessantly. It eventually perched up and allowed for walk away views. A JAVELINA was noisily walking up the creek up ran away before we could see it.

Bass Canyon eventually meets Hot Springs Wash. Here VERMILLION FLYCATCHERS and WESTERN KINGBIRDS hawked for insects. Hot Springs Wash forms the final leg of the hike and is quite wide and dry in places. However where there is water, there is plenty animal sign. Javelina, Raccoon, and Coati tracks are plentiful here and if you visit, make sure to bring your tracking guide.

It was at one of these watering holes that we had the most exciting sighting of the trip. As we walked around a bend in the wash, I noticed a large cinnamon colored cat slink up from along the creek just 100 feet in front of us. It hurried over a brush pile and into a hackberry thicket. I immediately thought it was a Mountain Lion but without a definitive look, I could not be sure. Luckily, a few second later, a yearling Mountain Lion half sauntered, half galloped up the creek away from us with his long tail flopping. We had disturbed a female Mountain Lion with her young! After we were sure that the cats were gone, we checked the streambed and sure enough, the cat’s massive prints were clearly imprinted in the mud. This sighting was just a little ways farther down than our wanderings had taken us the previous night!

After a midday siesta, we decided to walk the Bass Canyon loop in the other direction at dusk. On the way down we spotted a spectacular iridescent ground beetle called Calosoma scrutator. We also had the trifecta of southwest hawks: ZONE-TAILED, GRAY, and COMMON BLACK-HAWK. Walking along Bass Canyon in the dusk an ELF OWL began continuously calling. WESTERN SCREECH-OWL was also heard as near our room.


It was difficult to leave such an enchanting place, so we enjoyed one last morning soak before taking off. We stopped by Wilcox Lake and enjoyed 10 FRANKLIN’S GULLS circling overhead. Shorebird migration was evident with 5 MARBLED GODWITS and 2 LESSER YELLOWLEGS in breeding plumage. We arrived at Organ Pipe National Monument Campground in time to enjoy a fiery sunset.


Although we had wanted to get an early start to beat the desert heat, it was difficult to leave the campground. CURVE-BILLED THRASHERS, WHITE-WINGED DOVES, SCOTT’S ORIOLES, and CACTUS WREN were all teeing up on the saguaros for excellent views.

After asking Border Patrol for directions, we finally found the unmarked dirt road to Alamo Canyon. Here, we were lucky to hear a FERRUGINOUS PYGMY-OWL calling from the brush choked wash. Sadly, we were unable to find this bird and it is now on the dreaded heard only list. A male HERMIT WARBLER was obviously migrating through but it was getting too hot to bird the wash and we took off.

A quick stop at Chicken on the Run in Yuma filled us full of some fried chicken and ribs. There are a lot of pointless iPhone apps out there but I find YELP to be instrumental in finding good local food everywhere I travel and Yuma was no exception.

After a quick and successful BURROWING OWL stop, we checked in to the Calipatria Inn. This hotel is cheap, clean, and close to the best birding spots in the Salton Sea. I highly recommend it. Just before dusk, we drove up 111 and east on Sinclair Rd. looking for BURROWING OWLS. We found owls all along this route but found a large concentration near the corner of Garst and Sinclair. For me, this was a great experience because I had previously only seen the birds sitting sentry outside their holes. However at dusk, they were incredibly active. One even hovered like an American Kestrel before bombing down onto some unsuspecting prey.


This morning, we racked up as many BURROWING OWLS as possible and also visited some Mud Pots before heading home. We headed north on 111 and west on Pound Rd. From here, we just found owl after owl. The Salton Sea is their last stronghold in the western United States and it is great to see so many of them. You can literally just drive around at random and find owls. All and all, we tallied 32 BURROWING OWLS! The Mud Pots are awesome bubbling mini volcanoes mud. They are definitely worth checking out. Near the town of Thermal, we made sure to stop by the Oasis Date Gardens. This has got to be one of my favorite places for lunch. Why you ask? Free date samples!

Species Lists

1. Pied-billed Grebe
2. Eared Grebe
3. American White Pelican
4. Double-crested Cormorant
5. Great Blue Heron
6. Great Egret
7. Snowy Egret
8. Cattle Egret
9. Green Heron
10. Black-crowned Night-Heron
11. White-faced Ibis
12. Northern Shoveler
13. Cinnamon Teal
14. Green-winged Teal
15. Ring-necked Duck
16. Ruddy Duck
17. Turkey Vulture
18. Cooper’s Hawk
19. Gray Hawk
20. Common Black-Hawk
21. Red-tailed Hawk
22. Zone-tailed Hawk
23. Swainson’s Hawk
24. American Kestrel
25. Gambel’s Quail
26. Wild Turkey
27. American Coot
28. Killdeer
29. Lesser Yellowlegs
30. Whimbrel
31. Spotted Sandpiper
32. Marbled Godwit
33. Western Sandpiper
34. Least Sandpiper
35. Long-billed Dowitcher
36. Wilson’s Phalarope
37. Franklin’s Gull
38. Gull-billed Tern
39. White-winged Dove
40. Mourning Dove
41. Eurasian Collared-Dove
42. Common Ground-Dove
43. Greater Roadrunner
44. Western Screech-Owl
45. Spotted Owl
46. Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl
47. Elf Owl
48. Burrowing Owl
49. Lesser Nighthawk
50. Common Poorwill
51. Mexican Whip-poor-will
52. Belted Kingfisher
53. Broad-billed Hummingbird
54. Violet-crowned Hummingbird
55. Magnificent Hummingbird
56. Lucifer Hummingbird
57. Black-chinned Hummingbird
58. Anna’s Hummingbird
59. Costa’s Hummingbird
60. Calliope Hummingbird
61. Broad-tailed Hummingbird
62. Rufous Hummingbird
63. White-throated Swift
64. Acorn Woodpecker
65. Gila Woodpecker
66. Ladder-backed Woodpecker
67. Northern Flicker
68. Dusky Flycatcher
69. Hammond’s Flycatcher
70. Gray Flycatcher
71. Cordilleran Flycatcher
72. Black Phoebe
73. Say’s Phoebe
74. Vermilion Flycatcher
75. Dusky-capped Flycatcher
76. Ash-throated Flycatcher
77. Western Kingbird
78. Plumbeous Vireo
79. Bell’s Vireo
80. Hutton’s Vireo
81. Steller’s Jay
82. Western Scrub-Jay
83. Mexican Jay
84. American Crow
85. Common Raven
86. Tree Swallow
87. Northern Rough-winged Swallow
88. Barn Swallow
89. Cliff Swallow
90. Bridled Titmouse
91. Mountain Chickadee
92. Verdin
93. Bushtit
94. White-breasted Nuthatch
95. Pygmy Nuthatch
96. House Wren
97. Bewick’s Wren
98. Rock Wren
99. Cactus Wren
100. Ruby-crowned Kinglet
101. Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
102. Western Bluebird
103. American Robin
104. Northern Mockingbird
105. Curve-billed Thrasher
106. Phainopepla
107. European Starling
108. Virginia’s Warbler
109. Lucy’s Warbler
110. Orange-crowned Warbler
111. Yellow Warbler
112. Black-throated Gray Warbler
113. Yellow-rumped Warbler
114. Grace’s Warbler
115. Wilson’s Warbler
116. Painted Redstart
117. Hepatic Tanager
118. Summer Tanager
119. Northern Cardinal
120. Pyrrhuloxia
121. Black-headed Grosbeak
122. Green-tailed Towhee
123. Abert’s Towhee
124. Canyon Towhee
125. Cassin’s Sparrow
126. Rufous-crowned Sparrow
127. Chipping Sparrow
128. Black-throated Sparrow
129. Lark Sparrow
130. Lincoln’s Sparrow
131. Dark-eyed Junco
132. Yellow-eyed Junco
133. White-crowned Sparrow
134. White-throated Sparrow
135. Hooded Oriole
136. Bullock’s Oriole
137. Scott’s Oriole
138. Western Meadowlark
139. Red-winged Blackbird
140. Brown-headed Cowbird
141. Great-tailed Grackle
142. Red Crossbill
143. House Finch
144. Lesser Goldfinch
145. Pine Siskin
146. Evening Grosbeak
147. House Sparrow


1. Mountain Lion
2. Ringtail
3. Rock Squirrel
4. Cliff Chipmunk
5. Mexican Gray Squirrel
6. Abert’s Squirrel
7. Round-tailed Ground Squirrel
8. Elk
9. White-tailed Deer
10. Arizona Cotton Rat
11. Merriam’s Kangaroo Rat