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Arizona Days 3 & 4- New Places, New Faces

posted by Kenny Frisch at
on Friday, June 27, 2014 

On the 3rd day of my birding trip, I woke up right next to where I would be birding once again. My starting point on Saturday would be Lake Cochise in Willcox and then lead me south to Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area, then east to Portal and Cave Creek then up and over the Chiricahua Mountains.

My view when I woke up Saturday morning

Even before sunrise I could see a Snow Goose on Lake Cochise. I slept well overnight because right next to the lake and golf course was a major station for the US Border Patrol. Once the sun rose a Curve-billed Thrasher begin singing and didn't stop for over an hour despite shifting perches a few times. All around, Sandhill Cranes joined in the chorus. The lake also held large numbers of Northern Shovelers.

 A lone Snow Goose stuck out

 Ducks on Lake Cochise

Northern Shovelers feeding on the lake

The golf course held several small ponds that held the expected dabbler.  There were many American Wigeon there but a careful search didn't reveal any Eurasian Wigeon but there was an American Wigeon with an all-white face.  Also on the pond were a pair of Cinnamon Teal, a bird I would be seeing in Utah in a month.  On the golf course grounds were some Killdeer, Black and Say's Phoebe,  and several Vermilion Flycatchers.

 White-faced American Wigeon

 My first Cinnamon Teal of the year

There were a few male Vermilion Flycatchers on the golf course

 A great Arizona sunrise

Back at the lake I heard a familiar whistle in the air and watched as two Long-billed Curlews floated down to an island on the lake.  They were barely on the ground for a minute before a Northern Harrier buzzed them and they took off and left.  At this time the Sandhill Cranes started their morning flight to their feeding grounds. In the nearby grasses, Savannah and Vesper Sparrows sang and fed,  I finally located the Curve-billed Thrasher, who ended up being quite conspicuous while singing. Earlier I had viewed a distant raptor and I took a side road to get closer.  The hawk let me drive right under it and the amazing views clearly showed it to be a light morph Ferruginous Hawk.

 Sandhill Cranes take off to their feeding grounds

 All these cranes made quite the racquet

 Vesper and Savannah Sparrows on a fence

 Vesper Sparrow

A beautiful Ferruginous Hawk

On my way down to Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area, I took the back roads through the Sulfur Springs Valley, an agricultural area in the middle of the desert that attracts birds in winter.  The area is famous for raptors and I saw plenty in my short drive including another Ferruginous Hawk and more harriers and Red-tailed Hawks.  Loggerhead Shrikes were abundant as were Chihuahuan Ravens and the farmlands even held a Cactus Wren.  But the sighting I was hoping for ending up materializing when I was cruising down the highway at 65 mph. I saw some plump birds on the ruins of a building and quickly pulled over and turned awound to see them better. I feared they would end up being just doves but as they turned away the birds confirmed their identity with their "cotton tops"- they were Scaled Quail- a species I had never seen before. 

Another lifer- a Scaled Quail aka Cottontop

A few miles before Whitewater Draw, I started seeing small flocks of Sandhill Cranes which boded well for Whitewater which was a well known afternoon roost for Sandhill Cranes in the Sulfur Springs Valley which would come from miles around to relax after a morning of feeding.  The cranes in the fields were often close to the road and were obliging and let me get some good pictures. 

 Sandhill Cranes became increasingly common

Adult and juvenile Sandhill Cranes

The main attraction that I was headed to Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area for wasn't only the rare birds hanging around  but also the spectacular flight of Sandill Cranes to the refuge to rest after feeding in the morning.  Up to 20,000 cranes could be seen.  Driving up the parking lot, I found it packed full of cars and even cars lining the road on the way in!  I didn't realize how popular this spectacle was to the general public since I found very few birders as I walked around.

Walking around the north pond, I spotted many species of ducks including Green-winged and Cinnamon Teal, Northern Shoveler, Northern Pintail and Ruddy Duck.  A flock of Least Sandpipers also fed in the pond with Killdeer and Greater Yellowlegs.  Rounding a bend, I saw my first Sandhill Cranes, just hanging out on a mudflar.  I knew they would be there since I saw the crowd of people looking at the birds even before I saw the birds themselves. 

My first look at Sandhill Cranes at Whitewater Draw WA

 This crane flew in to join the flock

As I continued I saw some closer Northern Shovelers and had some songbirds with a flock of White-crowned Sparrows and a Vermilion Flycatcher hanging out along the trailer.  Overhead Chihuahua Ravens soared and called.

 Northern Shovelers feeding together

 This shoveler is showing how they strain out water while feeding like a whale

 A young Vermilion Flycatcher molting into its adult plumage

A group of feeding Green-winged Teal

This Chihuahuan Raven soared overhead

At this point, the Sandhill Cranes really started flying in. Large flocks were coming from the north to land and relax. Several very large groups were forming but the largest were farther away. I set up my scope and camera near one close mudflat and watched the action.  I got to watch some land and others jostle for the best feeding areas.  It was amazing seeing so many of these large birds flying and feeding so close and it such large numbers.

A Sandhill Crane flew right past me

These Sandhill Cranes foraged close to me

Sandhill Cranes streamed in from all parts of the sky

I tried recording the cranes and ended up getting video of a pair vocalizing and then fighting right in front of me.  I was glad I picked the spot I did to watch the cranes.

Sandhill Cranes battle it out at Whitewater Draw

In the distant haze I could make out the forms of both large and small white geese representing Snow and Ross's Geese. There were supposedly Greater White-fronted Geese hanging out too, but I couldn't located them. 

I headed back towards my car and got away from the crane-loving crowds.  The people in this section of the refuge were all birders since all of the regular people were watching the cranes.  Away from the crowds I finally located one of my targets, a pair of Ruddy Ground-Doves, a small secretive dove that mostly lives south of the border but will rarely show up in the United States.  This sighting made me a little mad though since these were my 3rd and 4th Ruddy Ground-Doves I had seen in my life, yet I have never seen a Common Ground-Dove (not well named).  I would have rather gotten the lifer Common Ground-Dove, but I "settled" on this colorful hard to see species.  I saw a pair of birders in the area and I helped get them on the doves even if they didn't get the looks they were hoping for.  In the area with the doves were a few Ladder-backed Woodpeckers, Vesper and Savannah Sparrows, and a bright female Vermilion Flycatcher.

 A female Ruddy Ground-Dove in a tree

 The pair of Ruddy Ground-Doves trying not to get seen

Ladder-backed Woodpeckers can feed on all parts of a tree

The pinks, whites and browns make the female Vermilion Flycatcher stand out

Back at the beginning of the loop, I made my way back around the original bend to see if anything had changed.  There now were many more Sandhill Cranes than before but there was a particular Sandhill Crane there that stood out.  Instead of the usual gray that Sandhills are, this bird was brown all over.  What is just melanistic?

An interesting brown Sandhill Crane

Having my fill of cranes, I got back into my car and started heading towards the highway and eventually Portal, but I stopped not soon after I started for a very obliging Prairie Falcon that actually didn't try to fly away when I drove near it.  It stuck around, giving me the best looks I have ever had before at this large brown falcon of the west.

 This Prairie Falcon put up with my presence

It let me view the subtle beauty of its individual feathers

I made my way first south towards the US border town of Douglas and then northeast towards the state border line with New Mexico, I basically circled the the Chiricahua Mountains. They dominated the landscape, rising to over 9000 feet but as I drove around them, I grew worried since they were crowned with clouds. I was hoping I would be able to make the slow trip over the top of them for my target birds rather than the slow trip around them but I would have to wait until I got there to find out.

 The Chiricahua Mountains viewed from the west, crowned with clouds

A view of the Chiricahuas from the south

I arrived at the small birdy town of Portal situated at the mouth of Cave Creek Canyon, the entrance to the east side of the Chiricahuas.  All the residents seem to have embraced birder ecotourism and there are many feeders on houses throughout the hamlet.  Add in stunning views of the entrance of Cave Creek Canyon and you have a complete birding destination.

The view of Portal and the mouth of Cave Creek Canyon

My main stop in Portal was Cave Creek Ranch which offers many bird feeders and lodging for birders and the general public to enjoy.  Upon driving up, I saw many decent sized animals on the grounds.  My brain was trying to work out what these were until it became obvious: Javelinas!  Javelinas (or Collared Peccaries) are the only native pig in the US.  Being a fan of pigs I have always wanted to see them but have always missed out on my life until now, but what a way to get my first views.  

You can tell why they were formally known as Collared Peccaries

 Pig pack

There were about a dozen of the javelinas feeding on the grounds, but my problem now was how to get to the porch to watch the rest of the feeders.  To get to them, I would have to basically wade through a group of the knee high pigs.  This seems easy in theory until you see their tusks and realize how aggressive they are to each other.  I could now see the irony of a newspaper article describing how a birder who loves pigs was mauled to death by a pack of knee high javelinas.  Luckily they held off their attack and I made it safely to the porch and got to watch me some birds. 
Man vs Pig

The greatness of Cave Creek Ranch doesn't come just from the birds that visit the feeders, but the odd birds that will come to the feeders here like Cactus Wrens and Curve-billed Thrashers.  I was in my element here as I watched dozens of birds feed for about a half hour with a dramatic mountain backdrop.  Within 5 minutes, one of my target species gave its Seep call and made its grand appearance: a Blue-throated Hummingbird, a lifer for me!  This is the second largest hummingbird in the US (only smaller than Magnificent) and it gave great views as it both fed and preened nearby.  In addition to just being large it has an equally big tail and a cool white facial stripes.  There's nothing like seeing a sparrow sized hummingbird.

My lifer Blue-throated Hummingbird

The second largest North American hummingbird

You can kind of see the blue throat

Other notable species included 3 types of woodpeckers (Ladder-backed, Acorn and Red-shafted Flicker), 3 species of towhee (Canyon, Green-tailed and Spotted) plus White-winged Doves, Mexican Jay, Bridled Titmouse, Painted Redstart and both species of cardinal.  Cave Creek Ranch is one of the most amazing placed I have birded in my life due to not only the uniqueness of the species present but for the close and intimate views.  I can't wait to visit it again (in peak hummingbird season) and I highly recommend it to other birder.

 Colorful Painted Redstarts were around

 I had close views of Bridled Titmice

 Some of my best views ever of these birds

 Northern Cardinals came in to feed

 Cardinals in the southwest have larger crests

 Many White-winged Doves came into the feeders

 This White-breasted Nuthatch is looking for its next meal

 Cactus Wrens came into the feeders

 Not many yards get Curve-billed Thrashers

Usually in January, the Chiricahuas are snow-covered and impassible but due to warm temperatures and light precipitation that winter, they were open this year.  Given my luck that they were open, I though maybe I could get lucky with finding my target bird at the top of the mountains: Mexican Chickadee. These are one of the hardest breeding species to find in the US, only occuring in a few spots in Arizona and New Mexico near the Mexican border. I would have to drive all the way to the top of the Chiricahuas (and southern Arizona for that matter) to find them.

 Cave Creek Canyon

 Another view of the canyon

I was hoping my rental car would be safe on these high mountain roads, but I figured if I could drive them in Utah, I could drive them down here.  It was slow going with some wet spots from melting snow at places but not a hard drive at all.  Birding was slow due to the overcast skies and somewhat high winds but I kept making my way to the very top, of course stopping to take in the breathtaking views and snap some pictures. 
The road to the Chiricahuas

As I neared Onion Saddle at the top of the mountains, I started finding some interesting mixed flocks of birds but Mexican Chickadees never appeared despite having been reported days earlier and days after my adventure up the mountains.  I did enjoy the mixed flocks with species like Yellow-headed and Dark-eyed Juncos, Red-breasted Nuthatch and Hairy Woodpecker foraging together.  I also got to see some areas being clear cut after a recent forest fire and burnt all the trees.  There were amazing views in every direction up here and some ice which made me pay extra attention to the roads but it only made me want to visit this area in the summer when the woods would be filled with many unique birds visiting from Mexico and hopefully next time, Mexican Chickadees.

 Some burnt trees up in the mountains

Great views from the top

After the slow descent back down the Chiricahuas, I had an hour to kill and no immediate target birds so I headed to nearby Chiricahua National Monument. I enjoyed the sunset views overlooking the rhyolite hoodoos while thinking about all the great birding that day.

 Grasslands on the west side of the Chiricahuas

 Grasslands sunset

 Rhyolite formations in Chiricahua National Monumen

 Chiricahua National Monument sunset
I headed south to Sierra Vista for my final day of birding and decided to splurge and get a hotel room for the first time of my trip. It was so nice finally getting clean, getting to watch some tv and check updates on the birds of the area.

My Sunday would be a mishmash of birding with many different locales as I worked my way up towards Phoenix and my eventual flight home.  My first stop would be the San Pedro House.  Located on a thin riparian strip along the San Pedro River, the San Pedro house has a mixture of huge cottonwoods, ponds and adjacent fields that birds love.  In fact, I don't I have ever seen a birding hotspot so concentrated with birds.  The feeders were loaded with birds, the fields were loaded with hundreds if not thousands of sparrows feeding on the seeds that had been dropped thanks to smart planting and obviously the riparian zone was filled to the brim with birds as well.  There was no way to take in all the birds I was seeing but I would see what I could see amid the swarm of species.

A beautiful view of the San Pedro House

The feeders right around the house were loaded with birds that didn't seem to mind the human visitors.  There were probably around a dozen Gila Woodpeckers making a racket and visiting every type of feeder it seemed.  There were Green-tailed Towhees eating seeds from the ground with many doves visiting the feeders in addition to a large flock of Yellow-headed and Red-winged Blackbirds making a racket.  I dragged myself away from the feeders and headed through the fields as dozens of sparrows flew in front of me and on either side.  I ended up seeing a total of 14 species of sparrows with most of them in the fields.  They included 4 species of towhee (Abert's, Canyon, Spotted and Green-tailed) plus Chipping, Brewer's, Lark, Black-throated, Vesper, Lark, Savannah, Song and White-crowned.  It was the perfect place to work on my sparrow identification skills with large numbers of so many different varieties.

 A female Gila Woodpecker

 Green-tailed Towhees were abundant

 Trying to look for every last seed

 Another close view of a Green-tailed Towhee

A colorful male Gila Woodpecker

There were dozens of Lark Sparrows in the fields

Down at the ponds and the river itself, the atmosphere was more relaxed as opposed to the frenetic pace of the sparrow fields.  A Green Heron hung out on the side of a pond, seeming uninterested in moving from his spot.  A Black Phoebe and a House Wren seemed contented to relax and call around the ponds as well.  I did see my first ever Hog-nosed Skunk with its all white back, but I found it deceased, maybe the victim of a Great Horned Owl attack.  In the pond I found a pair of Mexican Mallards, some of the more pure ones I have seen since they didn't even have the curled tail of our usual 'Northern' Mallards.

 A Green Heron at Kingfisher Pond

 Mexican Mallards were found in the San Pedro River

Further upstream I found packs of sparrows that were going down to stream side to get a drink.  It was fun getting to watch species I usually associate with drier areas hanging out in a riparian zone.  I got great looks at Lark, Vesper, White-crowned and Lincoln's Sparrows when I spotted a sparrow I didn't expect to see drinking with the others: a stunning white-morph White-throated Sparrow.  As I got my camera ready for a shot, it skulked out of view, leaving me with an annoying non-documented rarity.

 A Lark Sparrow forages by the river

This Lincoln's Sparrow wanted a drink

I made my way back to the house when a small dove flew from the path ahead of me. It had a short tail, so that ruled out Inca Dove leaving the ground-doves, Common and Ruddy, as my only choices.  Would there really be rare Ruddys here or would my Common bad luck finally run out? I was about to find out.  The bird headed towards the house so I kept headed that way when I saw two small doves on a feeder.  They were both brownish with a scaled head and breast and no markings on the scapulars: Common Ground-Doves!  My nemesis bird had finally been located!  I took in the moment by watching these two adorable doves for almost 15 minutes as they fed and got water.  They were the 8th lifer of my trip. The San Pedro House was another southern Arizona gem, even if it doesn't get the attention of other sites.  It is loaded with birds and I also highly recommend this as an Arizona winter birding destination.

 My long awaited Nemesis Common Ground-Doves

 Until this year these ground-doves were hardly common

 A nice view of the scaly breast

 Ground-doves are known for their colorful wings

 A good view of the wing pattern of a Common Ground-Dove

I thoroughly enjoyed my lifer views

Gila Woodpeckers were everywhere

I headed back into town and made my way to a US military base, Fort Huachucha, home of another famous birding location- Huachucha Canyon.  This is an active military base so I had to check in in order to bird there.  A tethered blimp over the base showed how serious the government took illegal immigration and their efforts to control it.  After checking in, I headed up canyon to a staked out picnic area while passing soldiers on the way.  My target was one of the rare birds in the US at that time, Sinaloa Wren, with only a handful of US records ever with the first one just a few years prior. 

I wasn't at the picnic area long before I heard some scratching in the leaf litter.  I made my way to the sound and right in the open was the wren!  I counted myself lucky as I got incredible views of this rare skulky US visitor as it fed about 10 feet away from me.  I got to see all of the field marks that separate it from other US wrens included its black and white barred face and undertail coverts.  It was the 9th and final lifer of the trip- a pretty high number considering how many birds I have seen in the US already.

 One of the rarer US birds- a Sinaloa Wren

 This shows the barred undertail coverts and cheeks

Foraging in the leaf litter

Eventually the bird realized it was a wren and went back to hiding out of view and I took in the other birds in the area.  There weren't many total birds but they were all interesting ones including Acorn Woodpecker, Mexican Jay, Hammond's Flycatcher and Painted Redstart.  I left the canyon and made my way to Tucson for some lazy birding since I had finished visiting all of my predetermined hotspots.

Mountains on the way back north

With the extra time for some birding around Tucson and the lack of a smartphone, I took a trip back to the 90s and called the Tucson Rare Bird Hotline.  I took some notes of places where rare birds had been spotted and headed to Sweetwater Wetlands.  An oasis on the outskirts of Tucson, the wetlands make a perfect spot for both winter and permanent residents alike.  Large ponds held ducks like Gadwall, Cinnamon and Green-winged Teal, and Ruddy Duck.  Large groups of Northern Shovelers were spinning in circles while they fed with one such circle being broken up by an American Coot.  Other waterbirds included Common Gallinule, Virgina Rail, Sora and Great and Snowy Egrets.

 A comparison shot of feeding Common Gallinules and American Coots

 Turtles basking at Sweetwater Wetlands

More remarkable though were the large numbers of songbirds attracted to the wetlands.  Desert species like Ladder-backed Woodpecker, Verdin, and Vermilion Flycatcher were present and wintering birds including Orange-crowned and Yellow-rumped Warblers, Ruby-crowned Kinglet and White-crowned Sparrow. 

My best sighting came when a turned the corner on the boardwalk onto a viewing platform.  A small striped bird flew past me into a nearby tree.  When I got my binoculars on it, I couldn't believe what I was seeing: a Black-and-white Warbler!  I was used to seeing these beautiful warblers back in New York, but never thought I would see one in the middle of Arizona.  I watched it for a long time noting the intricate striping and enjoying how it fed like a nuthatch, hopping on the side of the tree and on all sides of branches looking for food.  No other warbler in the US feeds this way.

 The nuthatch-like feeding behavior of the Black-and-white Warbler is distinctive

Eventually a photographer walked onto the viewing platform and I told him what I had seen and for some reason he refused to believe me.  Even after showing him pictures of the bird from my camera he would only acknowledge that "I guess that looks like one".  He ended up missing the bird in part to him refusing to believe one was there for a few minutes rather then just looking for the bird. 

The Black-and-white Warbler is also distinctive on its own

For my final stop I headed to a spot where there had been a Dickcissel reported.  I had only seen a Dickcissel one other time in my life so I was willing to look for this one.  When I got on the road where I thought the bird would be, I saw a pair of birders on a bridge looking intently on some trees.  I pulled over and made my way to them and asked them about the Dickcissel thinking that was what they were looking at.  My heart sank when they told me that I wasn't near the Dickcissel location and that it was hard to get to, but then they told me they were looking at a Northern Parula.  I felt a lot better since Northern Parulas are better looking birds then Dickcissels and parulas have a special place in my heart after I have seen so many on migration back east.  I thanks the couple and headed to the spot where I had initially seen them on the bridge.  Within a minute I located the colorful warbler and watched as it fed by flycatching.  I couldn't believe my luck to get two Eastern warblers in Arizona within an hour of each other.

 An unexpected Northern Parula

I would always choose to see a parula over a dickcissel

I headed north to Phoenix and passed up a side trip to look for Crested Caracaras since I wanted to get back to the airport with some extra time in case anything happened.  About 15 minutes after I passed the turnoff to the side trip, I got a text that my flight had been delayed an hour.  I faced a difficult decision, but I think I made the smart one and kept heading to Phoenix.  I didn't want to rush a side trip or miss my flight so I left the caracaras behind me. 

I ended my trip with 154 species seen.  I had an amazing time in my 4 days in Arizona and was glad I got to explore new regions and habitats.  My two new favorite locations were Cave Creek Ranch and the San Pedro House and I hope to get to visit them many more times.  My life species for the trip were in order: Blue-footed Booby, Nutting's Flycatcher, Bell's Sparrow, Greater Pewee, Arizona Woodpecker, Scaled Quail, Blue-throated Hummingbird, Common Ground-Dove and Sinaloa Wren.

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