Arizona, USA - April 2008
Arizona: 23 April - 1 May 2008
Jan Bless, Erik Heymann and I spent about 7 days birding in Southeast Arizona in the Spring of 2008. Jan and I flew to Phoenix and rented a car; we drove to Tucson Airport and picked up Erik there. Although we did not cover the entire area, we saw a lot: Madera Canyon, Ruby Road/California Gulch/Arevaca, the Huachucas, the Chiricahuas, including the National Monument, Whitewater Draw and Patagonia.
A couple of general observations about birding SE Arizona:
(1) Get up early and bird the morning hours. Unless you are looking for hummers which are at the feeders all day, you need to catch the earlier hours, especially if you are driving somewhere. The best way is to bird the lower grasslands first, and move up the canyons as the sunlight starts to hit. The activity drops off around 10:30 and really dies around 1:00, although there are exceptions, like the trogons. We saw them in full active mode at 12:00.
(2) Be patient. Ash Canyon, for example, produced calliope and lucifer's hummingbirds, but you have to wait. We saw both of them in the early morning hours and late afternoon. Olive warbler and Mexican chickadee require a lot of patience and straining to see them at the tops of pine trees.
(3) Study your flycatchers. We saw at least 15 species. Ash-throated is the most common and is fairly ubiquitous. Also learn its call because you will hear it a lot.
(4) Hire a guide. Ours (Mark Pretti) was extremely knowledgeable and helpful, especially with flycatchers and hummers. He is also a wealth of info on plants and insects, and the area in general.
(5) Time of year: the end of April is really good because many of the best birds are establishing territory. Although the first week of May is the earliest some birds like sulphur-bellied flycatcher come in, you run the risk that others have stopped singing, like the flame-colored tanager or the red-faced warblers. Ideally, you would have three weeks straddling May 1st.
Accommodation: We stayed at Chuparosa Inn in Madera Canyon. Best place in the canyon, walking distance to the end of the road and the best place to see trogons and northern pygmy owl. Definitely use it as your base for Madera and Ruby Road / Arevaca. Elf owls live there and sometimes trogons come down to the sycamores. Four species of hummers, plus black-headed grosbeak, pine siskin, house and cassin's finches and lesser goldfinch use the feeders. Hepatic tanager and Scott's oriole come to visit as well. The porches are just excellent to sit in the late afternoon and watch all the activity. Note: Buy groceries before going up the canyon.
We then stayed at the Gasthaus in Sierra Vista for the remaining time, mostly because of availability. There are fancier places like Ash Canyon B&B and San Pedro which border open areas, but they are "all birds all the time". If we were to do it again, we would stay a night or 2 in Portal, in the Chiricahuas. These need more time and we did not get there soon enough to bird the early morning on Cave Creek. Many local birders prefer the Chiricahuas over all other places, but for us Madera and the Huachucas were fantastic.
Driving: definitely consider renting a 4-wheel drive, high clearance car. We made it in a passenger car but it was touch and go at times, depending on where you go. To properly explore the Chiricahuas without worrying, you're better off with a bigger vehicle.
1. Madera Canyon: In a word, awesome. Small but with great variety of habitat. You can easily walk from the grasslands at Procter Road up to mid-canyon (Santa Rita) and back along the creek and ride up to Madera Kubo to see tanagers and on up to Chuparosa and above. We used every bit of two full days here. You can see all 4 tanagers here (western, hepatic, summer and flame-colored), plus the grassland birds like botteri's sparrow and black-capped gnatcatcher. We got townsend's and hermit warblers at Santa Rita, and lazuli bunting. Painted redstart is so common you will start to ignore it, as well as the acorn woodpecker. This was the best place for Arizona (Strickland's) woodpecker and where Jan and Erik were lucky to find a red-naped sapsucker.
Wilson's warbler is everywhere. Wild turkey roam around. Elf owls are at Santa Rita and Chuparosa. Whiskered screech owl may be at one of the rest stops. We encountered Montezuma quail at Procter Road and saw one almost get taken by a Cooper's hawk. Lark and chipping sparrow are common. Bridled titmouse is easy to find. You should see the 3 orioles as well: Scott's, hooded and Bullock's. The flame-colored tanager is loud and easily found at Madera Kubo. Up to 5 different hummers may come to the feeders at Chuparosa, including the blue-throated.
To get to the area where northern pygmy owl and trogons are seen, walk up from Chuparosa to the end of the paved road. Go to the top of the pavement and find the beginning of the trail to Baldy. Go up a short distance until the Baldy trail goes off to the left. Continue straight on the Vault Mine trail until you get to a bench. Look to the trees on the right for the pygmy owl. Listen for trogons. If you don't hear them, go on up for another half mile, listening for them along the way.
Flycatchers are everywhere. We got northern beardless tyrannulet in the lower area near the grasslands. Dusky and dusky-capped are in the Canyon. Cordilleran is on the trail where the trogons are. Pacific slope flycatcher is possible but later in the spring.
2. Ruby Road / Arevaca. This is a dry area very near the Mexican border. Leave Madera early as the drive will take about 30 minutes to the Ruby Road exit. The area is great for grassland birding, with sparrows, kingbirds (western and Cassin's, both very common), flycatchers and hawks. After a time we came to a lower area with trees and found Eastern bluebirds, Montezuma quail, plumbeous vireos, lucy's warbler and grey hawk.
We then drove down to Sycamore canyon. I am intrigued by this place, but apparently it is a tough walk, and at one point involves swimming across a pool to continue down. The problem is that you go down the canyon first, leaving a tough climb out for the hot part of the day. It is remote and you need a lot of water, but apparently you can get trogons, varied bunting and 5-striped sparrows among others. We saw Costa's hummingbird here and rock wren. But we got there far too late in the day to see much more.
California Gulch is apparently the easiest place to find 5-striped sparrow. A 4-wheeler is a good idea. The walk into the gulch is short, but not easy to find. You need to be there early to find the bird.
From here you go on towards Arevaca. Lake Arevaca has a nice little birding spot right off the parking area. We saw hooded merganser and some other strange stuff. The willows on the right have warblers and the grassland behind them has kingbirds and vermillion flycatcher. Arevaca itself has 2 spots: the riparian area east of town and the creek bed west of town. We were there in late afternoon so saw little but nevertheless saw Grey hawk again, several warblers, and flycatchers. If you are doing Sycamore, then I would avoid going here as it would be too much. If you are doing California Gulch just for the 5-striped, then these other areas would be reachable. If you were to eliminate an area from consideration, this would be it. That might mean missing the grey hawk, but you'd save a day.
3. The Huachucas: This is a great area and you should plan on spending several days here. The canyons – Miller, Ramsey, Carr, Ash, Scheelite (Garden) Canyons – are excellent and each one is different. The town of Sierra Vista is nearby with good restaurants and groceries. Definitely visit Ash Canyon B&B for the hummers. This is where we found Lucifer's and calliope, as well as black-chinned, broad-billed, magnificent and Anna's.
4. Miller Canyon: This is where we found many flycatchers, including greater pewee, cordilleran, Hammond's and buff-breasted flycatcher. This was also a great trail for juncos (yellow-eyed), Virginia's warbler and the fantastic red-faced warbler. They are only at certain elevations but once you are there, you find them easily, especially if they are singing, as they were when we hiked the trail.
5. Ramsey Road / Ramsey Canyon: This road is where we heard common poorwill and whippoorwill. A little further up, there are western screech owls, although we did not find these either. A little further up, elf owls, which we saw feeding at the nest. A little further up, whiskered screech owls, which we saw right at the nature center entrance to Ramsey Canyon.
Ramsey Canyon itself is truly marvelous, with a few caveats. You need to purchase a pass because the numbers of visitors are restricted. Go during the week. Just beyond the center are hummingbird feeders where blue-throated is easily seen, and tanagers. Take the main trail up. You may see Grace's warbler, but there will be lots of confusing yellow-rumps. They are darker and more striking here, with bright yellow throat patches. You will see more painted redstarts than you care to see. White and red-breasted nuthatch are here, and brown creeper. At Bledsoe Loop, we went right on the loop. Soon we passed a pond with the rare local leopard frog. Near here we saw warbling, Cassin's and Hutton's vireos, and hermit thrush. At a very small footbridge, there is a small trail to the right. This trail goes along the creek and soon we encountered small waterfalls. This area is unique because it was not disturbed by mining and logging in the 19th century. There are plants here that are very rare and you will see a mixture of plants that is truly astonishing. Canyon wren is resident here.
Further on the trail goes literally up the creek, between the very narrow walls of the canyon. Erik and I returned the next day to navigate this. We scrambled up the canyon walls to the top of the cliffs and then found the trail leading up the mountain along the upper part of the creek. It isn't a great trail, but we soon realized why it was a good idea to take it. We were basically alone, and encountered deer and other animals. But this is also a trail that migrating illegal aliens take up from Mexico into Arizona, and there was plenty of evidence – discarded clothes and water bottles. After a time we ran into the main trail again, which came down from the left to cross the creek. As we took the main trail back to the bottom of the canyon, we realized that by taking the smaller creek trail, we bypassed several uninteresting switchbacks on the main trail. We went up towards higher elevation for a short while and found Grace's and red-faced warblers with ease. We also heard elegant trogons (see the photo end video, they bark like a dog). Apparently, if you go up to the top of the saddle, this is one of the better places to find northern goshawk.
Some other places in and near the Huachucas:
(1) On the dirt roads off Ramsey Road at night, we encountered whip snake and lyre snake.
(2) Carr Canyon: We did not really hike here, but the road up has spectacular views of the valley. We did find common poorwill lying on the road at dusk.
(3) San Pedro Riparian area: This area is accessed through the garden of a B&B. It is great for towhees, particularly canyon and Abert's. We saw plenty of flycatchers here, including willow and olive-sided. This is where we found a MacGillivray's warbler among the hundreds of Wilson's warblers.
(4) Keeling Road: This is the road that our guide, Mark Pretti, lives on. His feeder and yard have Gambel's and scaled quail, Say's phoebe, pyrrhuloxia, green-tailed towhees, black-throated sparrows, cassin's and western kingbirds, broad-tailed hummers and others. Nearby is a place to easily spot rufous-crowned sparrows.
(5) Whitewater Draw: This is a flood plain about an hour east of Sierra Vista. We went there after the required tourist visit toTombstone. Here we found great horned owl (see the video) , barn owl, long-eared owl, plus shorebirds, ducks, nighthawks and several grassland sparrows. But be sure to ask around if anything interesting has been spotted. We got there a day late and missed Wilson's phalarope.
(6) The Chiricahuas: This is where Portal is and the famous Cave Creek. The area looks just great for grassland and woodland birding, and the views of the mountains are spectacular. We drove there from Sierra Vista and it took too long, even if we did spot burrowing owl along the way. Cave Creek is an easy walk, very nice, though crowded. A good mix of warblers here, including Grace's and red-faced. Lots of yellow-rumps. Possible red crossbills. Going further up the mountain by car, the landscape gets dry fast. We bypassed several intermediate areas and went straight for Rustler Park, which is way up in the pine forest. A 4-wheel drive car would have been nice. Very beautiful spot, obviously bear country. Stellar's jays are easy to find. This is where we found olive warbler and Mexican chickadee, after quite a bit of work. Also pygmy nuthatch.
From Rustler Park, we went over Onion Saddle looking for zone-tails, but never found them. But on the road back towards Sierra Vista, we encountered flocks of black-throated sparrow and a gopher snake in the road, and a coyote. We then stopped at Chiricahua National Monument. Spectacular place, although we got there late in the afternoon, and on a very windy day. Not much in the way of birds, but we did see a family of coatimundi. The monument is a lot like Bryce Canyon, but much smaller and easily accessible.
(7) Patagonia: This is a small town on the road towards the Mexican border at Nogales. We first stopped in at the Paton's house, right off 4th Street. This is where we picked up violet-crowned hummingbird. Zone-tailed hawk and thick-billed kingbird were reported but we missed them. The entrance to Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve is just down the street, but we did not have the time to check it out as it was time to go back home.
The total number of species on our list was 155. I got over 65 lifers, and we could probably have seen a few more. Erik, who is quite an experienced birder in the US, got 39 lifers. Jan, who gets better at birding all the time, got over 80 lifers.
Bird list for Arizona – 23 April - 1 May 2008: