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The Dream of a Lifetime: Birding in Southern Arizona - Part 1

posted by Kenny Frisch at
on Thursday, February 7, 2013 

This past January, I finally had the chance to go birding in the one place I have been dreaming about my whole life: Southern Arizona.  For over 20 years, I have longingly looked at my field guides at exotic birds with intriguing names such as Elegant Trogon, Magnificent Hummingbird and Painted Redstart.  Mexican species basically found no where else in the United States thanks to how the borders of our country were drawn hundreds of years ago and the unique geography of the mountains there.  With an ultimate frisbee tournament down in Phoenix the weekend of January 26-27 and my 30th birthday happening the Wednesday before, I had to go down to Southern Arizona.  It was clearly destiny and would make for a memorable way to turn 30, fulfilling a lifetime goal.  I got two days off from work and was all set to go.

First though I needed to study the area and the birds in order to maximize my success.  In the weeks leading up to the trip, I bought the ABA/Lane's  A Birder's Guide to Southeastern Arizona, a book loaded full of the best birding spots with great descriptions and lists of the birds that can be found there.  I highly recommend this book if you are planning on birding down there.  I also used Ebird to put together a list of possible species I could find and to figure out the best areas to bird in the two days I had.  I ended up deciding to focus Thursday on 3 spots: Madera Canyon, Florida Canyon, and a few Tucson spots on the way down from Phoenix, with the majority of the birding taking place in Madera Canyon.  Friday would include going to famous spots in the Patagonia area with a trip to the San Rafael Grasslands in the late afternoon.  With this route I could probably get 10 life species with a chance for over 20 life species if everything went right.  I started monitoring the AZ-NM list-serve for rarities showing up in Southern Arizona and saw that there had been Rufous-capped Warblers, Ruddy Ground-Doves, and Pacific Loon among other rarities showing up along my route.  I then started studying the new birds that I could see down there.  I read Dunne's Field Guide Companion (a book every birder should own), studied field guides and made an Ipod playlist with the songs of the birds I could encounter. Yes, I realize this is really nerdy, but I wanted to have the best trip possible.  Joining me on this trip would be my friend John Neill who was also playing on my team at the ultimate tournament.

Finally the big day was here and we flew down to Phoenix with the only hitch having us drive back to my house so I could grab a rain jacket since the forecast had changed since when I last looked at it Wednesday morning and was now calling for rain in Phoenix over the next few days.  The rain jacket proved very useful as sun and 70s I was looking forward to ended up being pouring rain and 50s.  We got the rental car and started heading down towards Phoenix.  Our first stop was Christopher Columbus Park in Tucson, only 5 minutes off the highway, where a Pacific Loon seen there the last few days.  The park ended up being mostly dirt with a few patches of grass but we checked the two ponds, but couldn't find the loon.  Later we learned that it had died just before we got there.  Despite the not seeing the loon, we had other good birds such as Vermilion Flycatcher, Phainopepla, Belted Kingfisher and Gila Woodpecker which made up for it.

This Vermilion Flycatcher was a great consolation prize

We headed back south with our next destination being Florida (pronounced flo-REE-da) Canyon, with Rufous-capped Warblers as our main target.  Part of the drive down included US Route 19, the only highway in the United States that uses kilometers.  This made things a little confusing since I didn't know if the exit number corresponded with kilometers or miles and google map directions used miles.  We just stuck to exit numbers and soon found ourselves on the dirt roads leading out to Florida Canyon.  We approached the Santa Rita Mountains that seemingly rose like islands in a sea of desert.  Both Florida and Madera Canyon were found in the Santa Rita Mountains.  Cruising with the windows down, I heard a song I had learned from my Ipod- Rufous-winged Sparrow.  We parked the car and headed into the desert scrub and encountered a skittish flock of sparrows.  It took some work but we were able to locate my lifer Rufous-winged along with looks of striking Black-throated and Lark Sparrows and my tape study had already paid off.  

 Studying bird songs helped me get this Rufous-winged Sparrow

Taking this as a good sign, we headed to the Florida Canyon Trailhead which had more cars parked in it than expected.  At the parking lot I had my lifer Pyrrhuloxia, and a pair of ground scratchers in Green-tailed Towhee and Curve-billed Thrasher.

 Pyrrhuloxia, the desert cardinal, was a new species for me

Hiking up we passed several other birders who had been successful in finding the warbler and gave helpful directions for the otherwise confusing hike up.  We finally got to the location in the canyon where the birds had been sighted, a broad expanse of low willows and with an understory of dried out plants.  The birders present (from places like Seattle and Iowa) hadn't seen it, but a few minutes later a birder up a little higher on a slope called out that he had spotted one.  John and I and two other birders quickly clambered up the slope and soon found a Rufous-capped Warbler making its way through the dense willows.  Two others were then spotted following the first down the canyon.  These spectacularly colored warblers are considered rare vagrants from Mexico and behave like Bewick's Wrens and have a similarly long tail that's often raised and flicked sideways.

Unfortunately Rufous-capped Warblers don't like to give clear views

In the same area we found another rare skulker, a Winter Wren, a species I had seen 3 months earlier back home in Western New York.  Eastern rarities would soon become a theme of the trip.  On the way down the canyon, I heard Mexican Jays for the first time in my life and saw some other cool species like Acorn Woodpecker, Sharp-shinned Hawk and a Black-chinned Sparrow in basic plumage.

 A black chin-less Black-chinned Sparrow

We made the ten minute drive to the Proctor Road trailhead in Madera Canyon to hike up to Madera Kubo and hit the birding spots along the way: Whitehouse Picnic area, Santa Rita Lodge and Madera Kubo Bed and Breakfast.

The start of the trail up Madera Canyon

The hike up Madera Canyon started off uneventful with the first part of the hike being an interpretive trail the taught us about the local flora, fauna and natural history such as the Alligator Juniper, named for their bark which resembles alligator skin.  The best sighting was of non-avian fauna- Coue's White-tailed Deer which are distinctive for their smaller size than other White-tailed Deer subspecies. 

 John searches for a Red-breasted Sapsucker at the Whitehouse Picnic Area

However things picked up when we arrived at the Whitehouse Picnic area.  We missed a vagrant Red-breasted Sapsucker plus an expected Painted Redstart that had been seen there, but things turned around when we encountered a mixed flock of birds.  The primary species in this flock was Bridled Titmice, a lifer, but my attention was soon focused elsewhere as I saw a stunning male Townsend's Warbler mixed in with the flock, my first ever male Townsend's Warbler.  I also had a gorgeous male Hepatic Tanager, the first of three seen on the day, my first looks at Mexican Jays and a Fox Sparrow that I had assumed was Slate-colored but turned out to be a Red Fox Sparrow, the subspecies most commonly found in the East!

My second ever Hepatic Tanager, a species I would see three other times

 We next made our way up to the famed Santa Rita Lodge which is kind enough to allow people who aren't staying there to view the many feeders they have placed up.  The first thing I saw when approaching were the birders we gotten the Rufous-capped Warblers with and the second thing being a flock of Wild Turkeys pecking away at the ground under the feeders.  We soon met two women from Florida whom we would see multiple times during our time in Southern Arizona that wondered how we weren't cold in our jeans and t-shirts and we explained how the weather was balmy compared to freezing Salt Lake City.  The bird activity was also hot with flocks of Pine Siskins, Bridled Titmice, Mexican Jays and Dark-eyed Juncos joining the feeding turkeys.  Of special note was a single Yellow-eyed Junco joining the Oregon, Pink-sided and Gray-headed Dark-eyed Junco subspecies.  A Hepatic Tanager also added some color to the lodge.

The turkeys at Santa Rita Lodge were oblivious to our presence

A Mexican Jay waits his turn at the feeders

My lifer Yellow-eyed Junco

The hike up to our final destination, Madera Kubo Bed and Breakfast was a quick one.  Like the Santa Rita Lodge, Madera Kubo also puts out feeders and allows birders who aren't staying there to view them.  The first species we saw was another lifer, a female Magnificent Hummingbird which although may not have been magnificently plumaged was strikingly large, the second largest hummingbird found in the US.  This was the first of three we would see there, with the coolest one being an immature male who was growing in his gorget.

This molting Magnificent Hummingbird gave a hint of how colorful it would become

Other birds present included another Yellow-eyed Junco and a female Hepatic Tanager, but the birds that stole the show were the Acorn Woodpeckers and a very cooperative lifer Painted Redstart that would feed ten feet away oblivious to us.  The woodpeckers were quite a sight with their fun coloration and silly calls and the restart gave us the looks that we wish every bird would surrender.

Not included- the noisy calls of the Acorn Woodpeckers

There is no mistaking a Painted Redstart

After getting our fill of the sights and sounds of the feeders at Madera Kubo, we dragged ourselves away and headed back down the canyon.  Upon our arrival back at Santa Rita lodge, we found the area to be completely devoid of birds, however there was another treat there: a pair of Coatimundi!  This was my first time seeing wild Coatimundi, having seen a pet one years ago on spring break in Georgia (seriously) and they were fun to watch; basically a raccoon with a much longer tail.

A pair of Coatimundi at Santa Rita Lodge

We hiked back down to the trailhead without any major sightings and drove back up the canyon to Santa Rita Lodge again at dusk.  During the summer, visitors will wait there at dusk for a nesting Elf Owl to leave its cavity but our target this night was Whiskered Screech-Owl.  We met back up with the Florida ladies and after about five minutes a few owls started calling in the canyon; their morse code song being the perfect way to end the day.  Thanks to the Whiskered Screech-Owl, I ended the day with 9 life species, a remarkable number for me these days.  

Looking west from the Proctor Road Trailhead at dusk

John and I headed out of the canyon (and saw a Kit Fox run across the road on the way) and drove down to the Patagonia.  After searching out for somewhere to sleep, we soon found a sketchy dirt road that took us to Coronado National Forest where we would camp out the night less than 5 miles from the Mexican border.  My first day in Southern Arizona left me drained from all the amazing birds, animals, and sights I saw and I slept well that night. The next day would pick up right where the first left off.

Coming soon: A recap of my second day in Southern Arizona, plus a bonus day of birding around Phoenix.

For additional pictures, check out my facebook album from the first day.

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Blogger Dickson Smith said...

Sounds like you had a great fun trip! Im going to have to add it to my bucket list along with southern Texas for Green Jays.

February 8, 2013 at 9:37 AM  
Blogger Tim Avery said...

Nice recap dude. I haven't been in 15 years and really was to get back down there!

February 8, 2013 at 12:35 PM  
Blogger Kendall Watkins said...

Thanks for the report. My dad and I will be heading down there later this year in May and hope to see some of those birds. Glad you got to see the Rufous-capped Warbler.

February 9, 2013 at 10:07 AM  
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$695 WK $1895 Month $125.00 Nightly w/ 3 NT min
Call~ 520-265-3079

May 29, 2014 at 4:22 PM  

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