Birding Tour USA: Comprehensive Southeast Arizona – The Desert and Sky Islands
Dates and Costs
16 – 25 August 2021
Spaces Available: 2
Price: $3,155 / £2,373 / €2,751 per person sharing.
Single Supplement: $560 / £421 / €488.
* Please note that these currency conversions are calculated in real-time, therefore are subject to slight change. Please refer back to the base prices when making final payments.
14 – 23 August 2022
Price: $3,313 / £2,493 / €2,889 per person sharing.
Single Supplement: $580 / £437 / €506.
14 – 23 August 2023
Price: $3,390 / £2,550 / €2,956 per person sharing.
Single Supplement: $590 / £444 / €515.
Duration: 10 days
Group Size: 4 – 8
Tour Start: Tucson
Tour End: Tucson
Gratuities (please see our tipping guidelines blog)
Personal expenses such as gifts
Featured Guide:Jacob Roalef
Comprehensive Southeast Arizona – The Desert and Sky Islands
Southeast Arizona is a land of stark contrasts and spectacular scenery. In the lowlands, granite outcrops, towering Saguaro cacti, and sandy washes typify the Sonoran Desert, a landscape featured in so many ‘Western’ movies. The fabled Sonoran Desert is the home of such iconic species as Greater Roadrunner and Gambel’s Quail. Rising from the desert, isolated mountain ranges, clad in beautiful Madrean pine-oak woodland, provide a habitat found nowhere else in the United States. At remarkably cool (compared to the very hot desert plains below) higher elevations on these sky islands, pine forests can also sometimes be found. These forested mountain islands, with provocative names such as the Huachucas and Chiricahuas, are the northernmost outposts for a long list of primarily Mexican species such as Elegant Trogon and Mexican Chickadee. The canyons surrounding these mountains carry ephemeral streams to the parched lowlands below, creating ribbon-like groves of cottonwood that act as a conduit for even more tropical birds to enter south-eastern Arizona, such as Thick-billed Kingbird and Violet-crowned Hummingbird. Together, these contrasting habitats make southeast Arizona one of the most exciting regions to bird in North America, with more bird species than any other land-locked area of comparable size in the United States. With incredible birding areas like Cave Creek Canyon and the Ramsey Canyon Preserve and Nature Conservancy, it is no wonder why only California, Texas, and Florida have state lists longer than this relatively small region! The Arizona bird list boasts over 570 species! Of these species, 36 are only occasional anywhere else within the United States, making Arizona a must for North American birders.
The striking Five-striped Sparrow is one of many specialties of southeast Arizona.
We begin this tour in the city of Tucson, where we explore the Sonoran Desert via Saguaro National Park, as well as travel up the impressive peak of Mt. Lemmon. In the southeast corner of the state, the Santa Ritas will provide us with our first true taste of birding the Madrean sky islands, with specialties such as Elegant Trogon. Further east we will punctuate our time spent in the upper elevation of the Huachucas with vigils at lowland hummingbird feeders for Violet-crowned Hummingbird and Lucifer Sheartail (Hummingbird). Heading even further east, we straddle the border with New Mexico and explore the Chiricahuas, which hosts more specialties like Mexican Chickadee and Olive Warbler.
If you combine this tour with our northern Arizona and Grand Canyon tour, you’ll be able to have the most comprehensive Arizona birding tour on offer and you’ll also be able to see a host of typical western species. It should also be noted that we run our southeast Arizona birding tour dates so you can combine it with the famous Southeast Arizona Birding Festival operated by the Tucson Audubon Society.
Broad-billed Hummingbird is only one of the many hummingbirds on display.
Itinerary (10 days/9 nights)
Day 1. Arrival in Tucson and initial birding
After arrival at the Tucson International Airport, participants will transfer to the hotel to get checked in. From here, we will head out for our first dinner and a chance to get to know each other better. Following dinner, those who choose to, can go out exploring for several nocturnal species like Lesser Nighthawk, Elf Owl and maybe even a Common Poorwill. Then it is back to the hotel for the night.
Day 2. Birding Mt. Lemmon to Madera Canyon
We will start the morning heading up to the tallest peak in the Santa Catalina Mountains, Mt. Lemmon, which stands at an impressive 9,159 feet (2,792 m). We have several stops planned along the way as we reach different habitat types with the ascending elevation. First stop, a quick scan through a huge Saguaro forest looking for Gilded Flicker, Black-tailed Gnatcatcher and Brown-crested Flycatcher. Further up, we will reach Rose Canyon Lake to search for several great birds including Common Black Hawk, Yellow-eyed Junco, and Pygmy Nuthatch. Higher and higher we go until we reach the pines near the top for high altitude species such as Broad-tailed Hummingbird, Hermit Warbler, Cordilleran Flycatcher, and the special Red-faced Warbler. After lunch and a bit more birding, we will start our descent of the mountains and continue south for our next session of birding in the sky islands.
We will stop in the town of Green Valley for dinner before heading back out for a relaxing evening watching the feeders at the Santa Rita Lodge in Madera Canyon. They regularly attract fantastic birds including Hepatic Tanager, Arizona Woodpecker, and Rivoli’s Hummingbird. In the past, the feeders have hosted several amazing rarities and perhaps one might be hanging around! As the sun sets, we will travel up to the top of the canyon and try for Mexican Whip-poor-will, Northern Pygmy Owl, and Whiskered Screech Owl. Then it is back to the hotel and time for bed.
Overnight: Green Valley
Day 3. Santa Rita Mountains birding
Today we will explore the canyons of the Santa Rita Mountains. Recent reports may dictate where we visit first, however there are loads of amazing birding areas here such as Box, Florida, and Madera Canyons. The past several years Box Canyon has hosted one or two breeding pairs of the rare Five-striped Sparrow. With any luck we will be able to score at least one of these along with Varied Bunting and Golden Eagle. Then we will visit Florida Canyon, the most reliable location for the special Black-capped Gnatcatcher, plus other great species like Northern Beardless Tyrannulet. Of course, we cannot forget about exploring Madera Canyon itself where we will spend more time searching the riparian areas for Elegant Trogon, Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher, Painted Redstart and more! Another evening brings another chance at nocturnal species if we were unsuccessful the previous night.
Overnight: Green Valley
The Arizona Woodpecker is one of the many specialty birds of the region.
Day 4. California Gulch and more Santa Rita Mountains
Today starts off with some more morning birding in the Santa Rita Mountains targeting any species or locations we may have missed the previous day. Around midmorning, we are scheduled to make the journey to California Gulch. Until recently, this area was the only reliable and known spot to see the rare Five-striped Sparrow, of which it is estimated only 50 territorial males come to the US each year. Recently, a few more pairs have been discovered in easier-to-access locations, as the growing trend of southern breeding specialties shifting northwards continues. The other main attraction of California Gulch is the chance for Buff-collared Nightjar in the evening, as darkness engulfs the landscape. Our drive back out of this area will be a long one, but if the skies are clear we will be in for an amazing cosmic display as well as the chance for Common Poorwill on the roadsides. If we manage to get lucky and locate these species elsewhere, we will spend the day exploring the canyons of the Santa Ritas and save ourselves the long journey to the gulch.
Overnight: Green Valley
Day 5. Tubac/Tumacacori and transfer to Sierra Vista
The morning will begin with some enjoyable birding in the lowland riparian areas along the Santa Cruz river in Tubac and Tumacacori, before it gets too hot. Many fantastic species can be found here including a few nesting pairs of Rose-throated Becard in recent years, as well as Summer Tanager, Grey Hawk and Cassin’s Kingbird. We will continue our journey towards Sierra Vista with a few more stops along the way like at the relaxing Paton Center for various hummingbirds and the world-famous Patagonia Rest Area to search for specialties including Violet-crowned Hummingbird and Thick-billed Kingbird. We will also stop at Patagonia Lake State Park and the Sonoita Creek State Natural Area for a few water birds like Neotropic Cormorant and Mexican Duck, uncommon in the standard arid habitats surrounding it. Finally, we will arrive in the Huachuca Mountains where we will spend the remainder of the evening at the Ash Canyon Bird Sanctuary feeders, a favorite hangout of the Lucifer Sheartail (Hummingbird).
Overnight: Sierra Vista
Days 6-7. Birding the Huachuca Mountains
Straddling the border with Mexico, the Huachuca Mountains are the second of the Madrean sky islands on our itinerary, offering a slightly different set of specialties from the Santa Ritas, such as the semi-colonial Buff-breasted Flycatcher and the charismatic Spotted Owl. A series of canyon outlets on the eastern flank of these mountains, such as Carr, Ramsey, Hunter, and Miller Canyons, provide access to the pine-oak woodlands where these species occur. Occasionally rarities such as White-eared Hummingbird or Rufous-capped Warbler appear and we will adjust our plans accordingly to target these birds. In addition to the amazing canyon birding, the Sierra Vista area hosts several fantastic grassland habitats for us to explore, like Las Cienegas National Conservation Area and the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area. As the scrublands begin to bloom with the rain, the fantastic Cassin’s and Botteri’s Sparrows begin singing and establishing territories. The grasslands are also full of other great wildlife such as Burrowing Owl, Pronghorn Antelope and Black-tailed Prairie Dog. We will have two amazing days to explore this region that are sure to be filled to the brim with birds and fun!
Overnight: Sierra Vista
Day 8. Birding Portal and the Chiricahua Mountains
We will be up early this morning as we leave the Huachucas behind and head towards the final range of the sky islands. The Chiricahua Mountains, which means “Big Mountain” in Opata, rise spectacularly out of the surrounding desert as the single-largest mountain mass south of the Gila River in Arizona, while also boasting the most diverse land-locked plant and animal community in the United States. Starting in the lower-elevation desert valley around dawn, we explore the area around Big Thicket while we straddle the border with New Mexico searching for the ridiculously curve-billed Crissal Thrasher. As the day heats up, we retreat to the cooler forests along the South Fork Cave Creek Trail – a trail renowned for its breeding population of Elegant Trogon, the star of any birding trip to Arizona. More common specialties such as Bridled Titmouse, Mexican Jay, and Painted Redstart also occur here. Near the top, the Chiricahua Mountains claim the only accessible population of Mexican Chickadee on public lands in the United States, so we make a special effort to see them on this itinerary. The higher elevations also give us a nice opportunity for other great species such as Olive Warbler, Red Crossbill and Steller’s Jay. In the afternoon, we will drive up to the Paradise Road junction around East Turkey Creek in search of the above species. A little further along this road the old mining town of Paradise hosts excellent feeders, which attract the localized Juniper Titmouse.
The charismatic Greater Roadrunner!
Day 9. Portal to Tucson
The next morning will be spent exploring the Chiricahuas a bit further in search of species missed the day before while also enjoying the incredibly scenic views these mountains have to offer. Driving the canyon roads early in the morning yields a good chance for a wandering Montezuma Quail to make an appearance. Another visit to local feeders is sure to produce the stellar Blue-throated Mountaingem, yet another hummingbird specialty of this region.
After a successful few days birding in the Chiricahua Mountains, we will say goodbye to the sky islands and start our journey back to Tucson, stopping at a few places along the way. First stop is Lake Cochise in Willcox, a true water oasis in the middle of the desert, stocked with plenty of thankful shorebirds and waterfowl. American Avocet, Wilson’s Phalarope and Cinnamon Teal are a few of the potential species here. After an enjoyable time scanning through these birds, we’ll continue on to St. David. This small town is known to host a few pairs of Mississippi Kite, the most westerly known population of this species. After dinner in Tucson, we will enjoy our final Sonoran Desert sunset as well as have a chance to track down any missing nocturnal species.
A classic Sonoran Desert sunset, a seemingly every-night occurance.
Day 10. Tour concludes
For some, the Desert and Sky Island Arizona tour concludes this morning after a successful run through the southeastern portion of the state. You will be dropped off at the Tucson International Airport for your flights home. For others, it may be the start of an exciting second itinerary, to northern Arizona. Participants joining the second tour will be transferred from Tucson to Phoenix for Day 1 of that itinerary.
Please note that the itinerary above cannot be guaranteed as it is only a rough guide and can be changed (usually slightly) due to factors such as availability of accommodation, updated information on the state of accommodation, roads, or birding sites, the discretion of the guides and other factors.Download Itinerary
Northern Pygmy Owl
Harris's Antelope Squirrel
Common Black Hawk
This is a sample trip report. Please email us ([email protected]) for more trip reports from this destination.
GENERAL INFORMATION ARIZONA
Thanks for considering or booking our Arizona tour! With any luck we may soon be looking at Grey Hawk, Thick-billed Kingbird, Violet-crowned Hummingbird, and many more new and exciting species. In addition we may find one or two real local rarities, such as Yellow Grosbeak, Rufous-capped Warbler, or Roseate Spoonbill. On a prior tour we found Purple Gallinule! Hummingbirds almost always put on a great show, and we will make every possible attempt to see California Condor at the Grand Canyon.
Please inform us if any of your flights, times, or arrangements change. During your air travel to Tucson you will need to have your flight schedule and valid passport (or photo ID for US citizens) readily accessible. Increased security measures have been implemented at all airports to insure safer travel. If you have not flown in recent months you may wish to contact your travel agent, airline, or departure airport for current requirements. Arrive at the airport in plenty of time, be patient and cooperative, and be prepared for you and your luggage to be thoroughly checked. Smile and say “thank you” when everyone is finished.
You should purchase travel insurance and trip cancellation insurance to protect your investment in case of injury or illness to you or your family prior to or during the tour. One supplier of this coverage that we suggest is Allianz Travel Insurance, The World Access Building, 2805 North Parham Road, Richmond, VA 23294, USA. Their toll-free phone numbers are 1-866-884-3556, 1-855-284-0331, and 1-800-284-8300.You can apply by phone or, for US residents, via the Internet here.
We will not cross the border into Mexico during the tour, but we may pass through one or more border patrol checkpoints within the US. Please bring proof of citizenship if you are not a US citizen. A passport is always acceptable.
WALKING AND CONDITIONS
There is a moderate amount of walking each day of the tour. These walks are not fast-paced and for the most part not terribly strenuous, although they may be a bit hilly and rocky. We try to do most of our walking early in the day before it gets too warm. A possible walk up Miller Canyon to look for Spotted Owl is one of the more strenuous walks, even though it is only about a two-mile round trip. We may also go into Florida Canyon and California Gulch. We will take our time and do a lot of birding along the way. These walks are always optional, but are planned to provide you with the best possible birding opportunities. We will do our best to make another arrangement if you do not wish to join a particular walk. A good regime of exercising and walking from now until the tour begins will help make things easier and more enjoyable for you on the tour.
You can expect temperatures to range from 60 °F (15 °C) to the low 90 ºF (33 °C) for much of the tour. There may be some cooler temperatures early and late in the day, especially in the mountains. On the other hand there may be a few days that are a bit warmer. We do our best to stay out of the really hot areas at midday and spend our time in the shady, cooler mountains and canyons. There is a daily chance of some desirable rain, so a raincoat can be handy and double as a jacket on a chilly evening when looking for Elf Owl or Common Poorwill. A little rain will cool the temperatures considerably and make the birds more active. A small umbrella can be very handy to keep you and your binoculars dry. It is always best to have your raingear in the van, just in case.
The step into our Ford Transit 12-passenger van is approximately 14 inches (35 centimeters) high, not much higher than on an average van. Please let us know if a small step stool would be useful for you.
We drink plenty of water every day. Please remember to bring a personal water bottle with you. There will be gallon jugs of water in the van from which to fill your personal bottle. Please let us know if you have any other favorite drinks, such as sodas or juice. Your guide will buy these at the grocery store and then have them in a cooler in the van. We need to know your exact preferences, especially caffeinated versus decaffeinated. There are probably ten different kinds of Coke, so please be as specific as possible. Upon your request your guide will purchase wine or beer for you, if you wish, for the end of the day. Again, please be specific with your request, and your guide will do his best to get just what you prefer. You can reimburse him for any wine or beer at a later time, as the cost of alcoholic drinks is not included in the tour fee.
Items that we suggest you bring, based upon years of experience in Arizona, include:
Loose, comfortable clothing.
Sweatshirt, sweater, or jacket
Raincoat and small umbrella. Your raincoat can also serve as a windbreaker.
Plastic bags to protect equipment and hold wet or dirty gear
A hat for sun protection and to reduce glare
Sunglasses will be useful.
Comfortable walking shoes and hiking boots. If you bring new ones be certain to break them in before the tour. Open-toed shoes (sandals, flip-flops) are okay around the lodge or going to dinner, but not while birding.
Sunscreen and insect repellent. Some people add a long-sleeved shirt for extra protection.
Alarm clock and flashlight, with extra batteries for both. Each person should have a flashlight.
Binoculars are a necessity. The better the quality and condition of your binoculars, the more you will enjoy the birds and wildlife that you observe.
The guide will have a high-quality spotting scope to share with the group. If you have a scope and are willing to bring it, please let us know. We would like to have at least one additional scope if possible.
Camera and chargers
Personal water bottle, so that you can carry water with you during our walks. This is not optional; it is an absolute necessity so that everyone remains healthy and hydrated. There will be gallon jugs of water in the van for you to fill your personal bottle.
You may want to bring a few of your favorite snacks. There will be fruit, crackers, cookies, and a variety of drinks in the van.
Daypack or fanny pack to carry personal items during our walks
Health insurance card
Any prescription medicines you will need for the length of the tour, which you should pack in your carry-on. Aspirin, hydrocortisone cream, and antibiotic cream may be useful. There will be a basic first aid kit in the van.
Tweezers can be extremely useful to remove an unwanted cactus spine. Put them in your checked luggage, not in your carry-on because they would be confiscated at the security gate.
Helpful field guides include National Geographic, Robbins, or Peterson’s Western Guide. Many people use the Sibley or Kaufman field guide. Identification apps on your phone are becoming increasingly popular and useful.
Mammal, reptile, wildflower, cactus, and other nature guides are always helpful.
Airline schedule, passport (or photo ID if you are a US citizen)
When you pack your suitcase keep in mind that there is no guarantee that it will arrive in Tucson when you do. Probably it will, usually it does, but it may not. Thus your carry-on luggage is very important. Pack in your carry-on everything that you absolutely must have for the first few days, including a change of clothes, binoculars, all medications for the entire tour, airline schedule, passport or photo ID, money, and other essential items. Either wear comfortable hiking shoes or put a pair in your carry-on. Open-toed shoes are not advised for birding. Sandals and cacti do not mix! Items such as scissors, nail clippers, tweezers, tools, anything sharp, or anything that could be construed as a weapon should be in your checked luggage, not in your carry-on.
Two small bags are much easier to handle when loading the van as opposed to one large one. You can do laundry at several of our motels. So if you want to pack light plan on enough clothes for five to six days and do a load of laundry along the way. You may want to bring a small container of laundry detergent.