Arizona – Desert and the Grand Canyon Trip Report May 2017

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21 MAY – 01 JUNE 2017

By Bob Schutsky

 Day 1, Sunday, 21 May 2017. Arrival in Phoenix

Our tour of Arizona was finally ready to begin. All six of us arrived at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport and then transferred to our nearby hotel. There were folks from Britain, Belgium, and Tennessee, and I hale from Pennsylvania. After our welcome dinner we settled in for the night, ready to begin tomorrow’s adventure.


Day 2, Monday, 22 May 2017. Southeast to the Chiricahua Mountains

Today was mainly a travel day to our first destination in the extreme southeast corner of the state. En route we birded Cochise Lake, a treated wastewater containment pond adjacent to a golf course in the town of Willcox. This acts as a magnet for numerous aquatic species, since it provides the only standing water for many, many miles. There were handsome Northern Shovelers, and a female Ruddy Duck. Feeding in the shallows were several White-faced Ibis and Ring-billed Gulls, the only ones that we would see on the entire tour. Black-necked Stilts and American Avocets put on a good show, as did the Wilson’s Phalaropes that spun in circles to stir up food. Horned Larks were numerous, feeding on the mudflats, as Swainson’s Hawk soared overhead. We saw our first of many Gambel’s Quails, which would be quite common for the next five days.

As we approached our destination we stopped to check the feeding station at Quailway Cottage. There are many feeding stations on this tour route, good for both hummingbirds and songbirds. We had comparative views of Bullock’s and Scott’s Orioles and nice looks at Blue Grosbeak, Pyrrhuloxia, and the handsome Black-throated Sparrow. Our first of many hummingbirds included Rivoli’s and Anna’s. Everyone enjoyed Greater Roadrunner, a star of the Arizona desert. A lone javelina (collared peccary) fed upon seed that was spilled beneath the feeders. It would be our only javelina of the 12-day tour.

We ended our day along the quiet main street through the town of Portal near the New Mexico border, population less than 100. A diminutive Elf Owl was perched in a woodpecker cavity in an Arizona sycamore, as Lesser Nighthawks swooped low for insects and a Common Poorwill called nearby and gave us a brief look. A porch light created a handy nest site for a pair of Say’s Phoebes. Our next two nights were spent in Portal Peak Lodge.


Day 3, Tuesday, 23 May 2017. Portal, Stateline Road to South Fork Trail

We began our day before breakfast in the flatlands along Stateline Road. Curve-billed Thrasher, Turkey Vulture, Red-tailed Hawk, and Bell’s Vireo were some of the common species that we found. Canyon and Spotted Towhees showed themselves well, as they would at other locations later in the tour. We added nice looks at Broad-billed, Broad-tailed, and numerous Black-chinned Hummingbirds. Elegant Trogon vocalized very well along South Fork Trail, but we were unable to see one. Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher, Hutton’s Vireo, Western and Hepatic Tanagers, Hermit Thrush, and Black-headed Grosbeak were readily observed. Warblers included two Grace’s, a Wilson’s, and lively Painted Whitestarts. The very small Coue’s white-tailed deer fed along the creek. It is the second smallest race in North America, with only the Key Deer of the Florida Keys being smaller. We made an afternoon visit to the George Walker House in Paradise, where a woman named Vickie maintains an excellent feeding station. There were good looks at Ladder-backed and Arizona Woodpeckers, along with the ever-present Acorn Woodpecker. Woodhouse’s Scrub Jay put on a good show, as did several Bridled Titmice. We added Hooded Oriole to our growing list of colorful species. Late in the day a visit to Idlewilde Campground yielded a Black Phoebe, then at dusk we had superb looks at a calling Whiskered Screech Owl. Some researchers who were banding and studying the local owls along Cave Creek shared lots of interesting information with us. They continued their work as we returned for the night to Portal.


Day 4, Wednesday, 24 May 2017. Portal and the Chiricahua Mountains

Bob and Dave’s feeding stations just outside of Portal yielded a very cooperative and vocal Yellow-breasted Chat plus numerous fly-by Band-tailed Pigeons and several close views at Bridled Titmouse and Verdin. The White-crowned Sparrows were most attractive. In the town of Portal the only Blue-throated Mountaingem of the tour made a brief appearance at a feeder, while an Orange-crowned Warbler drank at a nearby water bath. Zone-tailed Hawk passed overhead. It must be carefully studied and separated from the numerous Turkey Vultures that it resembles quite closely. There was a Vermilion Flycatcher in a quiet Portal front yard.

Onion Saddle and Rustler Park provided high-altitude habitats in the rugged Chiricahuas, the first of several sky islands on the itinerary. Northern Flickers put on a good show, both feeding on the ground and drumming high in the ponderosa pines. American Robins and handsomely-crested Steller’s Jays often joined them. Scattered among the ponderosas were Western Wood Pewees and a singing Olive-sided Flycatcher. One of us had fine looks at a Brown Creeper. Yellow-eyed Junco was the common species on the forest floor. Finally we departed Portal and made the late-afternoon drive to Sierra Vista, where we would spend the night.


Day 5, Thursday, 25 May 2017. Sierra Vista and Huachuca Mountains

Our day began at the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area. American Yellow Warbler, Summer Tanager, and Abert’s Towhee were all relatively easy to find here. An adult male Vermilion Flycatcher provided stunning views and photo opportunities. We found our way to the feeding stations at the Ash Canyon B&B, where a flock of Wild Turkeys put on a good show. Several males (Toms) did impressive displays. We also were able to study Bewick’s Wren at close range. We saw Lesser Goldfinches on five consecutive days, with exceptionally good views today. A couple of Bronzed Cowbirds were a nice change from the usual Brown-headed Cowbirds.

It was a hot afternoon at the Paton Center for Hummingbirds in Patagonia. Here we found our first and only Scaled Quail, a nice addition to all of the Gambel’s Quails of the past days. Inca Doves were relatively common. In addition to a couple of Violet-crowned Hummingbirds at the feeders we were blessed with repeated looks at a male Calliope Hummingbird, always a good find. A few miscellaneous Patagonia sightings included Great Blue Heron, which can easily seem out of place here. After seeing Turkey Vultures on a daily basis, our first Black Vultures stood out, with their white wings tips and squared-off tails. Good comparative views of Ash-throated and Brown-crested Flycatchers were obtained. It was a relatively short drive to Nogales, where we spent the night near the Mexican border.


Day 6, Friday, 26 May 2017. Rio Rico and Madera Canyon

We made a productive early-morning stop at Rio Rico along the Santa Cruz River, where two Mexican Ducks put on a good show. A Cooper’s Hawk gave us a brief look as it flew along the riparian area. There were Song Sparrows along the Santa Cruz today and the San Pedro yesterday. After missing several earlier Greater Roadrunners, we found one that did not want to leave us. It resulted in spectacular views. Rio Rico is a prime location for Tropical Kingbird, and we were able to put one in the spotting scope and hear its distinctive call. We spotted a Northern Rough-winged Swallow diving for insects at a highway overpass. This species nests in the drainage pipes of bridges and similar structures. We explored Madera Canyon and environs for the remainder of the day, in the foothills and lower reaches of the Santa Rita Mountains. After ten Wild Turkeys yesterday at Ashe Canyon, we saw about 25 today. A Plumbeous Vireo looked good on its nest on the trail into Madera Canyon; we had learned their song well by then. This was a good day for Mexican Jay, with numerous sightings. The brush piles at the Santa Rita Lodge feeding station provided perfect habitat for Varied Buntings and Blue Grosbeak. We had very nice views of both species.


Day 7, Saturday, 27 May 2017. Madera Canyon

We returned to Madera Canyon for much of the day. This was yet another location where we saw Eurasian Collared Dove, Mourning Dove, and White-winged Dove on a regular basis. Northern Ravens were also quite common and widespread. Along Proctor Road we were all quite happy to find a rare Black-capped Gnatcatcher. A Rufous-crowned Sparrow was nearby. On one of the canyon trails we saw our second Arizona Woodpecker, which is always a good find. Higher up the canyon along the wooded trails we found Swainson’s Thrush, Black-throated Grey Warbler, and Red-faced Warbler and heard a Townsend’s Warbler. The Red-faced Warbler was especially popular with the tour group. A check at yesterday’s brush piles showed that the Varied Buntings were still present.

Our final stop today was in Tucson, where a very confiding Burrowing Owl was at an unlikely location, perched on the bridge abutment adjacent to a busy city street. We spent the next two nights in Tucson.


Day 8, Sunday, 28 May 2017. Mount Lemmon

The drive up Mount Lemmon leads to a wonderful variety of habitats, from the Saguaro desert outside of Tucson to the Canadian life zone and lots of ponderosa pines. There are almost always a few surprises. Phainopepla is the sole member of the Silky-flycatcher family that is found in North America. We were happy to see it at the lower slopes of the mountain. Today’s Greater Roadrunner was just a bit different from the few that we had seen earlier in the tour. This one was carrying a lizard, which would almost certainly be its lunch. Even though Bell’s Vireo is quite widespread, it seemed especially common today. As we climbed into the higher habitats, all of the swallows that we could identify were handsome Violet-green Swallows. Perhaps our biggest treat of the day was a family of Pygmy Nuthatches at a nesting cavity. Two adults were feeding their young in a ponderosa pine. We also saw Grace’s Warblers and Yellow-eyed Junco in the same habitat. An Abert’s squirrel with its elongated ear tassels was a treat to observe. We returned to Tucson for the night.


Day 9, Monday, 29 May 2017. Saguaro National Park, Kachina Wetlands

Our first stop of the day was the outstanding Saguaro National Park on the west side of Tucson. Saguaros are long-lived cacti, not growing their first arm until they are at least 75 years old. We saw most of the specialty breeders of this habitat, especially Cactus Wrens as they picked their way carefully through the cactus spines. There were Black-tailed Gnatcatchers, a male Bullock’s Oriole, Pyrrhuloxia, and both Black-throated and Rufous-crowned Sparrows. Two coyotes slowly moved through the campground where we were birding.

We had a long drive from Tucson to Flagstaff, where we would spend the night. As we neared Flagstaff we found a few new species in the Kachina Wetlands. Some of the local aquatic birds included Canada Goose, Pied-billed Grebe, Killdeer, and American Coots with newly-hatched young. We picked out a single American Crow, sounding very different than its larger, more numerous cousin, the Northern Raven. A Western Bluebird perched on a nearby utility wire. Red-winged Blackbirds were apparently breeding in the cattails, and we discovered a few Brewer’s Blackbirds nearby. A Black Phoebe hawked insects from several available perches. When we reached Flagstaff we drove directly to a municipal park, hoping to find the extremely attractive Lewis’s Woodpecker. As we opened then van doors, one was calling. We saw it well as it perched and flew from tree to tree, often fly-catching. It was obviously not disturbed by the ball games and picnics on this Memorial Day afternoon. Our next two nights were in Flagstaff.


Day 10, Tuesday, 30 May 2017. The Grand Canyon

We had a full day to experience the wonder which is the Grand Canyon. In fact, it is one of the Seven Wonders of the Natural World. Carved by the mighty Colorado River, it is visually almost overwhelming for its immense size and colorful rock formations. We explored all of the overlooks from the East Rim Drive along the South Rim of the canyon. An abundance of scenic photos were taken that day. This is one of the few locations in the world where it is possible to see a California Condor. We tried diligently, but no luck today. But we observed a large number of White-throated Swifts, some at almost every overlook. And there were hundreds of Violet-green Swallows. American Kestrel and Peregrine Falcon were fine additions to our trip list, and a Mountain Chickadee offered close looks. Several Loggerhead Shrikes were observed en route to our destination. It was a day that we will not soon forget.


Day 11, Wednesday, 31 May 2017. Arizona Snowbowl

Our final full day of the tour was high-altitude birding in the Snowbowl area of the San Francisco Peaks north of Flagstaff, where some snow was still in evidence on the last day of May. A Northern Flicker was coming and going from a nesting cavity, feeding young, and we watched as a Western Wood Pewee was building its nest. A Cordilleran Flycatcher put on a good show at close range, as did some Mountain Chickadees. A House Wren added to our nesting observations, and a few more Pygmy Nuthatches were, as always, a pleasure to see. This was our best area for Western Bluebird, with young being fed by their parents. Audubon’s Warbler was quite colorful and attractive. And what better way to end the day than with a male Western Tanager! We arrived in Phoenix for a big change in temperature and our final night of the tour.


Day 12, Thursday, 1 June 2017. Salome Highway near Buckeye

On our final morning we drove to the intersection of Salome Highway and Baseline Road, a desert scrub location well known for its thrashers. We were lucky enough to scope a Le Conte’s Thrasher, the most difficult thrasher species to find in the entire state.

But then it was time to return to Phoenix for our departure flights. We had time for one last park near the Sky Harbor International Airport, where we were happy to add Neotropic Cormorant, our final new species of the tour. It was a wonderful birding adventure in the exciting southwestern United States.


Please see the downloadable PDF above with the full species lists included.

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