A trip to South-East Arizona

With Giles Daubeney

Balwyn meeting report, 24 May 2016

This evening we were taken to an unfamiliar birding hotspot, the South-East corner of Arizona, USA. Giles Daubeney has been lucky to bird widely in Australia and also make overseas trips. Before going to North America to visit family, Giles did much research to find an area which would reward him with rich birdlife; and the result was South-East Arizona. He spent two weeks there with his son in July 2015, guided solely by two recommended guidebooks: Finding Birds in Southeast Arizona from the Tucson Audubon Society, and A Birders Guide to South Eastern Arizona by Richard Taylor.

Tucson, Arizona
Tucson, Arizona. Source: Wikipedia

The main city in the south-east is Tucson. Tucson is on the valley floor, hot and dry, and all around the city is scrubland dominated by Mesquite, a shrub. But in the distance are mountains, rising to 8-9,00ft, and once you climb up the temperature cools and the vegetation becomes more lush. In this corner of Arizona are about 40 bird species that occur nowhere else in the US, plus approximately 15 species of hummingbird.

In a hire car they headed south towards the Madera Canyon within the Santa Rita Mts. They stayed a few nights in a cabin at the Santa Rita Lodge, and were delighted by watching the hummingbird feeders. From here they visited Arivaca Wildlife Refuge with creek and pond, where Giles saw nine new birds in about 60 minutes; and the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge near the border with Mexico – watch out for patrol vehicles! At this scenic refuge were Antelope Jackrabbit, about the size of a hare but with bigger ears, and Pronghorn, a small antelope. In the air were birds including Anna’s Hummingbird, Horned Lark and Grey Hawk. Back in Tucson at the Arizona Desert Museum, they enjoyed the aviary and snake exhibits. The Saguaro Cacti were spectacular, attracting the Cactus Wren. And it was good lizard country.

Cactus Wren on a Saguaro Cactus
Cactus Wren on a Saguaro Cactus. Source: Wikipedia

They spent time birding in Madera Canyon, and were rewarded with Acorn Woodpecker, Western Wood Pewee, Rufous-winged Sparrow, Northern Cardinal, Cooper’s Hawk, Painted Redstart and Costa’s Hummingbird. A rare spot with water in July was Rio Rico Ponds where they saw Black-bellied Whistling Duck; and at Sanoita Grassland Reserve they ticked House Finch and Grey Hawk.

A move east to the small city of Sierra Vista took them to Ash Canyon B&B, to be greeted by Broad-tailed Hummingbird. At the water-treatment plant they got Lesser Night Hawk. Nearby in Miller Canyon they found Mexican Spotted Owl. At the historic township of Tombstone they saw the site of the famous Gunfight at the OK Corral. Next day at Ramsey Canyon they were rewarded after a big hike with the rare (8th US record) Tufted Flycatcher, and also Cooper’s Hawk. There was good birding too, three new ticks, in neighbouring Carr Canyon.

The next stop was further east, the Chiricahua Mountains. They are a Mecca for bird watchers. On the way they saw a Roadrunner, and then a Great Horned Owl at Whitewater Draw. On this wetland were Cinnamon Teal, Ruddy Duck and White-faced Ibis. Giles put up at the Cave Creek Ranch in the small community of Portal, and found people very helpful – 50% of the locals are birders! One such took Giles and his son to see a rare Thick-billed Kingbird. The scenery was stunning. A walk after dark turned up a Pygmy Owl, a Black-tailed Rattlesnake and a scorpion. Daylight in Portal revealed a tarantula, a Hog-nosed Skunk, a Turkey Vulture, Pyrrhuloxia (a desert cardinal), a Canyon Towhee and Javelinas or wild pig. Within 2-3km of Portal is a property, Jasper’s, where bird feeders are maintained for a small price, and this site is the hotspot to see Crissal Thrasher in USA, known far and wide.

Elegant Trogan at South Fork Canyon in the Chiricahua Mountains
Elegant Trojan at the  South Fork Canyon in the Chiricahua Mountains. Photo by Giles Daubeney

Their next stop, still in the Chiricahua’s, was South Fork Canyon. Birders come here for Elegant Trogan, and this was the bird Giles most wanted to see. Just about to give up, he was tipped off which trail to take, and there it was, with a posse of onlookers. On their way to the mountain peak at 8,000ft they saw their second top tick, Montezuma Quail, the size of a Brown Quail but the male has striking facial markings.

Montezuma Quail
Montezuma Quail. Source: Wikipedia

On the last day they visited Chiricahua National Monument, the national park in this area. Known for its scenery as opposed to birds it did not disappoint. On the drive back to Tucson a black bear appeared on the road, and Giles was surprised to see one so far south. They stopped at Lake Cochise at Willcox and saw Marbled Godwit, American Avocet, Snowy Egret and Wilson’s Phalarope. Lastly, right beside the airport, they saw five Burrowing Owls. What a note to end on. We thanked Giles for taking us on a remarkable birding journey.

Contributor: Daphne Hards

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