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Arizona - Tucson

Updated: Jan 28, 2022

8/12/2021 - 8/21/2021

My brother and I finally got another guy's trip pulled together. We basically made a loop of the southeastern portion of the state; beginning and ending our trip in Phoenix and then heading out to the Chiricahua Mountains. Here, I cover our time in the Tucson area. Buckle-up, it is a long read.

We were entering the final steps of the trip as we headed off to Tucson. We found most of our targets out in the Chiricahuas, and we had found our primary target in the Sierra Vistas. What we were largely missing was night birds. We did not have any Screech-Owls, Elf Owl, nor whips in the Cave Creek area. By all reports, they had been silent for nearly a week. The only owl we did have was a Great Horned Owl hunting early one morning. The owl highest on our list was the Spotted Owl. Unfortunately, it was not to be this trip. As we headed out of the Sierra Vistas, we scratched that one off the list of potentials.

The date was the 16th, and we had 4 and a half days of birding ahead of us. Jeff had a number of targets ahead of him still. With the lack of sightings (heard-only reports) for Buff-collared Nightjar and a pretty much unreachable (by us) Chestnut-capped Warbler, I was out of targets. No worries. I can always use some photos.

First up on our list was Mexican Duck. It was over a 100 and middle of the day when we got into Green Valley. We stopped by the Green Valley Water Reclamation Facility (it is a waste water plant) and got signed in. Honestly, I hate birding these locations. They stink. I always feel weird. On the other hand, large areas of water in a desert attract birds; including Jeff's lifer Mexican Duck. Mexican Duck is a recent split from the whole Mottled/Black/Mallard family and helps to further that species vs. hybrid debate this group always brings. We had about 15 Mexican Duck mixed with a few Mallards and some Blue-winged Teal. Other birds included Black-necked Stilt, White-faced Ibis, loads of Wilson's Phalarope, and a few shorebirds.

We left there and headed over to Montosa Canyon to look for some Black-capped Gnatcatcher that had been reported in the area. With its distinctive call, we had hoped it would be an easy find. Unfortunately, no joy. We did get an easy consolation Five-striped Sparrow, though. This was Jeff's third lifer of the day and a bit unexpected. It was still hot and the sun was high; so, we did not even try to track it down for pics. We settled for binoc views. This would be the last good birding of the day. We headed to the hotel to cool off and clean up and had our first real meal in days (ie. not a peanut butter sandwich). We drove around to famous Patagonia Rest Stop to look for the Rose-throated Becard that had been hanging out there. We found the location, but the birds were noticeably absent. The rain rolled in, and we called it a day.

The next morning, we were up and out the door a bit later than planned. It was still raining. We did not have far to go. On the other hand, getting there was a challenge. We were headed out to Box Canyon. The road had taken some major damage from the recent storms. There was a lot of inspecting things before crossing a few ruts. Luckily, they were all dry. Some were a bit deep. We eventually made it to the area and began scouting around for our two targets: Five-striped Sparrow and Varied Bunting. Five-striped was foraging for food along the steep cliffs. Some pishing popped it out for some shots before it retreated back across the canyon.

We hopped in the car and drove up canyon a little further to our big surprise of the day. The waterfall was in full force.

After a boatload of pictures, we noticed a flycatcher working the area. It turned out to be our first Cassin's Kingbird of the trip. He proudly perched in a treetop (that was actually not far off of eye level) with a dragonfly in his mouth for a while. If only he could have been a little closer.

We were not having much luck further up canyon and turned around to head back. Along the way, we parked the car again and walked down canyon this time. Here is where we found our next target. Perching and singing in the tops of bushes on both sides of the road was a Varied Bunting. Beautiful birds. And a lifer for Jeff. It was also probably the best look I have had at one of these birds.

Since we were in the area, we headed over to Madera Canyon to check things out. We stopped at Proctor Rd first to bird the parking lot there and the road. Well, that was the plan. The road was flooded over in some pretty deep water. We had another Varied Bunting here and the usual suspects: Blue Grosbeak and Black-throated Sparrow. I mean, who jokes about these being "trash birds"?

Heading up mountain, we stopped in various places along the way. The most productive was the feeders at the Santa Rita Lodge. I have never failed to find Wild Turkey there. It amuses me every time. We were just getting ready to leave when a pair of Hepatic Tanager changed our mind for a bit. I will have to admit that I am pretty disappointed that my best Gila Woodpecker shot of the trip was on a pole, here. Sometimes, you just take what you can get.

Leaving here, we tried to head over to Florida Wash to look for Black-capped Gnatcatcher in its more traditional spot. There, we finally met our match. We got over one ravine by throwing some stones in it. We got to the next one and decided we needed to turn around. I am pretty sure I heard the Ford Edge breath a sigh of relief.

For some reason, I had set my heart on closing out kingbirds for the trip. This meant we needed to find a Tropical. We set course for the Tubac area. We were also going to give the Rose-throated Becard a try; although, we did not really know where to look for the becard. Asking a birder that we ran into, we were told that we had to walk up the river a ways to look for it. Since the river was currently flooded, we decided we would stick to kingbirds. A local park was nearby with some reports of Tropical in eBird. We pulled in and found some Vermillion Flycatchers and a family of Cassin's Kingbird instead. We had time to look for Tropical again. In the meantime, Jeff had more lifers to chase.

The next lifer on the target list was the bland-looking Northern Beardless Tyrannulet. I had found my lifer bird a few years ago at the Patagonia Rest Stop. We did not have one there the day before. Jeff said that the birding trail at Patagonia Lake was the place to go and off we went. It was approaching the middle of the day when we arrived at the lake. At $20 to get in, this was going to be an expensive lifer; assuming we found one. I was thankful for the clouds. It was hot enough without having to deal with the sun. We stepped out of the car and immediately heard a bird we did not recognize. After a lot of walking (it sounded much closer) and a lot of debate (it was a juvenile bird), we decided we had a Lucy's Warbler. That excitement out of the way, we finally got onto trail. The trail seemed pretty nice. We walked a small concrete path down toward the edge of the lake and then transitioned on to a dirt path with park benches named for bird species. We immediately found our second puzzle bird. One of the nice grayish Empidonax varieties. It had the teardrop like the old "Western" Flycatcher. It was really pale overall. It took some investigation, but we finally figured out we had a Hammond's Flycatcher. A nice bird that I had not seen in a long time. Winding along the trail, we eventually hit a large open area where the trail split. In this area, we had Vermillion Flycatcher (you can never get tired of this bird), Yellow Warbler, Common Yellowthroat, lots of Yellow-breasted Chat, a couple Inca Dove, and even a calling Yellow-billed Cuckoo. What we did not have was a tryannulet. The upper loop trail was overgrown with weeds. The lower loop trail quickly disappeared into mud and flood water. Turning back, we were resigned to not finding the bird. We walked back across the open area and back along the path. Just as we were stepping onto the path, I heard the distinctive peer-peer-peer call behind me. I froze and whipped around. Jeff is used to this and immediately turned, too. As usual, I heard the bird. Jeff located it.

We hiked back to the car (after resting on the Common Yellowthroat bench) and drove around the area a little bit. We had a few hummingbirds and Brown-headed Cowbirds at the visitors' center, but not much else. By this point, we were sitting in a pocket between rain clouds. The sun had come out, but you could see rain all around us. I also have to say that this area was one of the most beautiful areas we visited. The hills were covered in orange poppy, and there was so much ocotillo growing up in huge green tufts everywhere. It was quite the sight.

We discussed heading to the Patton Center, but I was more interested in some birding than feeder watching. One of my favorite places to visit in the area is Las Cienegas. It is always filled with this beautiful golden-brown grass when I am there. I was curious about what it looked like when it was green. Running through rainstorms, we headed up and pulled in not long after a storm blew through. Shortly after arriving, we had a flock of Lesser Nighthawk out and flying during the day. Try as we might, we could not get a flight shot. They are quick! Calling from the grasses were Grasshopper Sparrows and some Botteri's Sparrows. We found a Botteri's perched in a bush near the road and stopped for pictures. I got out to try and sneak around the car for a shot. He got one look at me and quickly disappeared. This bird was immune to pishing.

A little further up the road, we found something I have never seen in this area. Another car. They were stopped to look at something. That something turned out to be 4 Pronghorn. The second-fastest land animal in the world. There were also some Western Kingbird in the area and a beautiful flowering Fishhook Barrel Cactus.

We wound our way though the grasslands and over to the willow tanks. Just down the road from there, we met the end of our road. There was a large fast-running creek. Jeff said we could make it. I said no. He tossed in a large (bigger than a grapefruit) rock, and it disappeared without even leaving a ripple in the water. That settled it. We turned around and got to the tanks again when we spotted a migrant flock. A lot (a great deal of it, really) of pishing coaxed most of them out into the open. I was looking at a wren (later figured out it was a Rock Wren) when Jeff suddenly called out a MacGillivray's. Unfortunately for him, it was on my side of the car. That was good news for me, though. Wilson's, MacGillivray's, Yellow, Nashville, and Black-throated Gray were all bopping around in the trees. A pair of Hepatic Tanager stopped by briefly to see what the noise was about. Of course, there were also some Black-throated Sparrow that popped-up, too.

At this point, we had a ways to get back to Madera and try for owls. We trucked it across county highways until we got back to the parking lot at Proctor Rd. We had a little bit before dark; so, we re-birded the parking lot. The highlight was a Hooded Oriole that came down and worked through the bushes for a little bit before retreating to its spot atop a telephone pole. We saw the bird fly down and immediately disappear. How does a bright yellow bird do that? We scoured the area from one end of the lot to another. We heard another birder call out a sighting, but it disappeared again. In end, I turned around in time to see it fly into the top of a bush right behind another birder; giving us great views.

We still had a little time; so, we went to check on Florida, again. We had seen a grader heading down the road earlier in the day, and we were curious if they had done any repair work out there. Nope! Consolation and obligatory shot of a Red-tailed Hawk on a telephone pole. Also, a perched White-winged Dove and our second tarantula of the trip! A nice Desert Blonde Tarantula.

We headed back to Madera and up the mountain from there. At the top, you can get phone signal, and I made a quick call home to say hi to Carmen. Darkness set in, and we took a slow drive down and through the various pullouts and campgrounds along the way. The closest we got was a group of birders playing the Elf Owl call at an obviously empty telephone pole outside the Santa Rita Lodge.... We headed back to Green Valley for our final night.

In the morning, we were up early and headed back down to Montosa Canyon. While there had not been any recent reports, we wanted to check on the Black-capped Gnatcatcher again. If we could work out photos of Five-striped Sparrow, that would be great, too. Well, we were a bit over-eager on our timing. It was still pretty dark when we arrived. We were on the western side of the mountains, there. It was also a bit cloudy; a bit of the mountain making its own weather thing. With nothing to do, we went exploring. We drove way up the road; winding our way up the edge of the canyon. As we got to an area that looked a bit light-ish, we found a pair of Rock Wren hunting along the edge of the road. We hopped out and some pishing pulled them towards us. From there, it was just a matter of waiting as they slowly hopped closer. The whole road was actually pretty birdy. We found another flock of migrant warblers (the usual suspects) and a Cactus Wren family as well (not nearly as cooperative as the other wrens).

By this point, a bit more time had gone by than we planned. The clouds were holding out and keeping us in pretty good lighting. We got back to the the area with the sparrow and started hiking up the steep gravel road there. Up there, we found the Five-striped Sparrow perched on a bare branch an singing away. On the way back down, was had seen a Varied Bunting singing along the road; so, we backtracked to it. The bird was a bit distant, but it was perched on lovely ocotillo branch. We also had a Canyon Towhee perched up in a bush and singing. This was shaping up to be a really good morning.

Determined to close out kingbirds, we headed back south, again. We had done some research the night before and determined that Ron Morris Park was our best shot. We had a good laugh when we realized it was the park we had visited the day before. This time, we had exceptional luck. Not so much at first. All we really had was some old people sitting in the shade while their dogs played in the dog park. We pulled around behind the ball diamond and then out along the edge where the weeds grew high behind a fence. We were discussing options when we looked out the window and had a Tropical Kingbird staring back at us. We actually had a whole family. They were coming by to feed the young bird. The lighting was great, and we were overjoyed when a Vermillion Flycatcher joined in the mix. We only took a break from shooting them when a Swainson's Hawk flew over.

We were on a roll and not ready to say goodbye to the Green Valley area, yet. We rolled up to Canoa Ranch and had some amazing luck. I guess that depends on how you feel about snakes. A large Western Diamondback was crossing the road as we pulled in. It is difficult to take good snake shots with a 600mm, but I was happy to have some distance between us.

The ranch itself had some decent birding. A pair of Redhead was probably the second surprise here. The sun was getting a bit high, by now. We snapped some pics, walked the loop around the pond, and called it a great morning.

We grabbed out luggage and made the short haul up to Tucson proper. Of course, we immediately had our standard issues. It was the middle of the day. It was hot. We had our luggage in the car. The last one had an easy solution. We found a place that would let us check-in early. We headed over to Sweetwater (another treatment facility) to check it out. Not much. It was hot. The lighting was bad. They had Round-tailed Ground-Squirrel in the parking lot.

We headed over to Saguaro East and drove around in the heat. We had a very distant Gilded Flicker and lots of Rufous-winged Sparrow singing everywhere. The lighting was too bad to take any serious photos. That did not stop me from trying. In the park, there were literally hundreds of caterpillars crawling across the pavement. I did my best to dodge them, but I am positive I smooshed more than a few. They are White-lined Sphinx Moth, and they are out in numbers this year. The rains have been good for them.

We headed back to the room and decided to hit Saguaro West in the evening. I thought I knew what I was doing. I would swear it was where I got my lifer Gilded Flicker a number of years ago. We got out there, and I was completely lost. A half hour later, and a lot of lost light, we finally found some proper birding area. We just did not have a lot of luck birding.

The key word there was "birding". If we were "tortoising", we did exceptional. We looked up the road and had a pair of Sonoran Desert Tortoise ambling up the road. We laughed as we hopped out of the car to shoot them; as we both felt pretty fortunate.

We headed over to the nature center but did not find anything. We checked a couple of other areas without luck, too. What we quickly realized was that every pullout and stop in the area was filling up with people. It appears that everyone comes out in the evenings to enjoy the cooler weather and watch the sun set. I cannot say that I blame them. I would, too.

I think we were on our third night of pizza by this point, but neither one of us were disappointed about that. We had had a great day, and pizza is a good way to celebrate. The next day was our final full day in Arizona. We would be heading up Mt. Lemmon to try and close out some gaps in our trip list.

The next day was pretty good. We were up early and into Rose Lake Campground at sunrise. This was too early. No birds. We headed over to Incinerator Ridge. High winds and fog - no birds. We checked one more area and had much of the same. Puzzled, we headed back to Rose Lake to regroup. The sun was hitting the trees in the area by this point, and it had come alive. We should have been a bit more patient. I do not know what it is about the human condition that you remember your failures more than your successes. Maybe it is just me, but I feel it is the majority of people. A Greater Pewee flew in and landed not far from us. Instead of just snapping a shot and then moving, I immediately went to move for better lighting. It did not give me a chance, and I walked away with zero shots. Somehow, that still irks me. The important thing is that we did have a good day. While we only found one Red-faced Warbler here, we did have a lot of other birds. One of the cooler things we experienced was a group of vireos. There were several adults and one younger bird. The adults were at least two Plumbeous (along with the imm. bird) and one Cassin's. It provided a bit of confusion. Anyway, at one point, the Plumbeous ended up right next to us and was attempting to tackle a huge moth. After quite a battle (really just the moth taking quite a beating), the moth flew off. Moths are tougher than I thought.

The other cool thing happened first thing in the morning. We found a young Broad-tailed Hummingbird chirping in a tree. While trying to photograph it (very low light), a female adult came in and fed it. We watch the whole thing, but all my pics were way too blurry. Still, it was a cool sight. The area looks like a really cool place to camp sometime. Funny-looking Abert's Squirrel were everywhere, and, of course, some beautiful flowers.

We left here and headed back over to Incinerator Ridge. I was not super excited. On our first trip up, we noticed a car that was pretty beat up. Literally - there was a baseball bat laying next to it. On our return trip, we ran into a SF employee and asked him about it. He said no one was there and that they were keeping an eye on it. With that in mind, we birded our way on up the road. We had some calling Mountain Chickadee and a Painted Redstart at the bottom of the road. Oddly, we had a Zone-tailed Hawk circling the road; apparently picking off lizards and eating them on the wing.

Further up, we ran into another birder, and she said she had Red-faced, Olive, and Hermit Warblers just up the road. Not to be deterred by crazy, baseball bat-wielding campers, we headed on up the road. Just around the corner from the car, we hit the flock. They were feeding low in the bushes near the campsite, and we did our best to keep up with them. There were 4-5 of them hopping around in the small bushes and pine trees. At one point, an Olive Warbler poked its head out for a few shots and then disappeared. Jeff had some luck with the Hermit; I had none. I do not know how long we spent here, but it seemed like quite a while. The birds would move back a bit and then come back through the same areas again. It was a fun, if photographically frustrating, experience. I was glad to find these birds here after we struck out in the Chiricahuas.

We spent the rest of the day birding about every place we could find. Nothing else matched the productivity of the morning. The place is beautiful though, and I wish we had something like it where I live.

We started to head down but decided it would put us back down in Tucson way too early. We did some touristy snapshooting and then headed back up to Rose Lake for a power nap.

Somewhat refreshed but a little groggy, we headed down to our final destination for Tucson. We headed back into Tucson East to hopefully find some Gilded Flicker in some good lighting. That did not work out. We heard at least two, but they were very distant. I was happy to get some consolation Rufous-winged Sparrow posing in some cholla.

We closed out our time here with some sunset shots before heading back to the hotel for some more pizza. Why ruin a streak?

We had three items left on our trip list: shots of Greater Roadrunner, shots of Gilded Flicker, and we still needed to find a Costa's Hummingbird. If you have been reading these posts in order, you already know how that turns out. If not, you can pick up the story in my Phoenix post.

As always.

Thanks for reading,