FLY LONDON TO PHOENIX
Our spring birdwatching tour to Arizona begins with a British Airways flight from London Heathrow nonstop to Phoenix (Arizona), where Chris will be waiting to welcome us. Late afternoon arrival and transfer to our nearby hotel, then dinner. Night Phoenix
GILBERT WATER RANCH & ARAVAIPA CANYON
Our first scheduled stop will be at the Gilbert Water Ranch just east of Pheonix, where a series of ponds provide excellent habitat for a range of shorebirds, waders, ducks and cormorants. Species to expect include Black-necked Stilts and American Avocets as well as possible lingering migrants. We should enjoy excellent views of Black-crowned Night Herons, Snowy and Great White Egrets, White-faced Ibis, Neotropic Cormorants and other waterbirds here as well. In the desert scrub surrounding the ponds the likes of Cactus Wren, Curve-billed Thrasher, Verdin and White-winged Dove will keep us occupied, and we could well encounter our first Greater Roadrunner.
We make our way towards Aravaipa Canyon. Raptor enthusiasts will appreciate the selection of birds of prey here, with the accipiter-like Grey Hawk, Common Black Hawk, Zone-tailed Hawk and Golden Eagle all possible. The town of Dudleyville is the most reliable spot for Mississippi Kite in Arizona. From here we continue south into Tucson for a two-night stay. Night Tucson
TUCSON AREA: SONORAN DESERT, BEAR CANYON & MOUNT LEMMON
From Tucson we ascend the Catalina Highway, which traverses five ‘biogeoclimatic’ zones: from the Sonoran Desert Zone up to the Canadian Zone. The diversity of wildlife we will experience along the way is the equivalent of journeying north from Mexico into Canada!
Our first stop, at the Molino Basin Campground, should produce the sociable Acorn Woodpecker, Mexican Jay, Bridled Titmouse, Canyon Towhee and the lovely Scott’s Oriole. We’ll search through the chaparral (dense, drought resistant scrub) near Molino for two desert specialties: Black-chinned Sparrow and Crissal Thrasher, the latter with its distinctive rusty undertail coverts. As we continue up the Catalina Highway, Agaves (or ‘century plants’) begin to appear amongst the open (partially burned) aspen forest.
At Milepost 10, the Catalina Highway enters Bear Canyon, a cool shady ravine that is simply outstanding for warblers. Grace’s, Olive, Virginia’s, Lucy’s, Red-faced and Hermit Warblers can all be found here, along with the dazzling Painted Redstart. Amongst the tall trees in Bear Canyon we could find Plumbeous Vireo, Hepatic Tanager and Arizona Woodpecker - North America’s only brown-backed woodpecker.
Once we climb above 2000m, Ponderosa Pines begin to dominate the scene - and the avifauna changes again, with Pygmy Nuthatch, Wild Turkey, Mountain Chickadee and Band-tailed Pigeon inhabiting the pine forest. We reach our maximum elevation near Mount Lemmon, where we’ll be birding at more than 2600m. Birds to watch for in this alpine zone include the difficult to identify Cordilleran Flycatcher, Hermit Thrush, Brown Creeper and Golden-crowned Kinglet.
After an exciting day birding in the mountains, we head back to Tucson for dinner. Night Tucson
SABINO CANYON & SONORAN DESERT MUSEUM
Early morning we will head for scenic Sabino Canyon, where comical Greater Roadrunners dash after lizards and snazzy Black-throated Sparrows adorn the bushes. We should see Gambel’s Quail with its wonderful drooping topknot, the sleek Phainopepla (easier to see than to say!) and other desert dwellers amidst one of the most scenic desert parks in southeast Arizona.
Once in the park, we’ll hop onto the ‘tram’ and ride up through the canyon. Our driver will give us an informative narration on the area as we toddle up into the desert. We’ll then take a stroll down the road, enjoying desert birds, plants and reptiles before hopping back on the tram once we’ve finished, for the ride back down again.
After lunch, we have an opportunity to visit to the Sonoran Desert Museum, in Tucson - a great way to increase one’s knowledge of desert plants and wildlife. Many wild birds can be found here as well, including Costa’s Hummingbird (one of North America’s tiniest birds), the cactus-loving Gila Woodpecker, the plush-capped Verdin and the restless Black-tailed Gnatcatcher.
Leaving Tucson, we then head south to Green Valley for a two-night stay. Night Green Valley
SANTA RITA MOUNTAINS: MADERA CANYON
We devote today to exploring one of south-eastern Arizona’s best-known birding locations: Madera Canyon, which lies to the east of Green Valley, in the Santa Rita Mountains.
We start with a visit to Florida Wash, at the entrance to Madera Canyon. Searching the desert scrub here for birds, we may find Crissal Thrasher, Rufous-winged and Botteri’s Sparrows, and the lovely Varied Bunting to name a few.
Continuing, we travel on up to Santa Rita Lodge, set at an elevation of some 1600m. Anticipated birds might include Zone-tailed Hawk, Arizona Woodpecker, White-winged Dove, White-throated Swift, Dusky-capped and Sulphur-bellied Flycatchers, Plumbeous Vireo, Yellow-eyed Junco and the black and yellow Scott’s Oriole. With luck, we may also come across the rare Montezuma Quail. Around the lodge itself we may be entertained by the likes of Painted Redstart, Bridled Titmouse and Mexican Jay - and perhaps even the very rare Flame-coloured Tanager, if we are lucky!
Hummingbirds are abundant, attracted to feeders around the lodge and we should see Blue-throated, Rivoli's, Broad-billed and Broad-tailed. If we are very fortunate, we could spot the rare White-eared and Violet-crowned Hummingbirds, too.
As the afternoon wears on, we’ll decide if we need a siesta or not. Madera Canyon also offers some first rate opportunities for ‘night-birding’ so after the sun sets this evening, we may decide to return to search for such treats as the tiny Elf Owl, Whiskered Screech Owl and Mexican Whip-poor-will. Night Green Valley
MADERA CANYON TO NOGALES / PATAGONIA VIA RIO RICO PONDS
After breakfast, we’ll take another look at the Santa Rita Mountains and Madera Canyon, checking feeders again to see if anything new has arrived. If luck is with us today, along trails through the tranquil forests of Madrean Oak, we might find the much-sought Elegant Trogon. Other denizens of this unique woodland habitat include Hermit Thrush, Greater Pewee and Painted Redstart.
For several years a pair of Rufous-capped Warblers have resided in Florida Canyon, adjacent to Madera Canyon. Although it's never easy to find this duo of Mexican vagrants (the trogon and warbler), we’ll enjoy a walk here searching for Costa’s Hummingbird, Rock Wren, Cassin’s Kingbird and the lovely Scott’s Oriole. With luck, we'll find the warblers, too!
Heading south towards the Mexican border, we will stop at the Amado Wastewater Treatment Pond. Like a little oasis for the birds in the desert, we could find Spotted Sandpiper, Black-necked Stilt, Ruddy Duck, Lesser Scaup and perhaps something even rarer here.
A stroll along the Santa Cruz River near Tubac is excellent for riparian habitat species such as Grey Hawk, Yellow-breasted Chat, Bridled Titmouse and, in some years (we were lucky in 2019!), nesting Rose-throated Becards. We continue on to our hotel for the next two nights, in Patagonia or at nearby Nogales (depending on availability). Night Patagonia or Nogales
PENA BLANCA LAKE, PATAGONIA LAKE STATE PARK & THE PATAGONIA PICNIC TABLE EFFECT
This morning we will pay a visit to Pena Blanca Lake, west of Nogales. Before things get too hot, we’ll search for species such as Rufous-crowned Sparrow, a rock-loving member of America’s long list of sparrows. Canyon Towhee is also often encountered here. Flycatchers abound at Pena Blanca Lake and we may see Vermilion, Olive-sided, Brown-crested and Ash-throated Flycatchers, Black Phoebe, Western Wood Pewee and Cassin’s Kingbird here to name but a few.
After breakfast, we’ll head back east towards Patagonia, stopping in at Patagonia Lake State Park. This area is well known to birders as the most reliable location in America for the rare Black-capped Gnatcatcher. We are not guaranteed to see this tiny rarity - but if we do we won’t complain! Gnatcatcher or not, birding the park is always worthwhile, with the likes of Vermilion Flycatcher, Summer Tanager, Yellow-breasted Chat and Ladder-backed Woodpecker available on tap.
As we pass by, we’ll pause to visit the Patagonia Roadside Rest Stop - famous in North American birding circles as the birthplace of the ‘Patagonia picnic table effect’... This happens when somebody finds a rare bird here, and then other birders arrive and find other rare birds at the same location as they search for the initial rarity. We can’t promise the magic will work for us, but we’ll certainly be giving it a try! Patagonia’s riparian woods are also home to the rare and local Thick-billed Kingbird, as well as Lucy’s Warbler and Bewick’s Wren. Nearby cliffs hold nesting Peregrine, and Canyon Wren with its surprisingly Willow Warbler-like song.
In the afternoon, we hope to investigate the Paton family home in Patagonia, where great numbers of hummingbirds are drawn to feeders. This is the best spot in the USA to look for the rare Violet-crowned Hummingbird, an extremely localised species that has only the merest toehold in North America. As well as 'hummers', we should see Inca Dove and Thick-billed Kingbird, too. Night Patagonia or Nogales
PATAGONIA & SONOITA CREEK GRASSLANDS
We return to the Patagonia Roadside Rest Area to take advantage of early morning bird activity there. Maybe we will find the elusive Montezuma Quail... or who knows what. With luck, the ‘picnic table effect’ may work its special magic for us!
After breakfast we drive east towards Sierra Vista. Crossing the Sonoita Grasslands along the way, we will look out for Botteri’s, Grasshopper, Lark and Rufous-winged Sparrows as well as Eastern Meadowlark, Loggerhead Shrike and Chihuahuan Raven. Perhaps we’ll spot a Pronghorn, too; the sole member in its family, this antelope-like creature roams the grasslands singly or in small groups.
We’ll visit a grassland area near Elgin this afternoon, which can be excellent for Scaled Quail. The vast scenery here is breath-taking! Other birds to watch for include Mexican Jay, Lark Bunting, Say’s Phoebe and Horned Lark.
As we make our approach into Sierra Vista, our base for the next two nights, the Huachuca Mountains loom alluringly to the south. This is where we will have our birding adventures over the next couple of days!... Night Sierra Vista
THE HUACHUCA MOUNTAIN CANYONS
We start our exploration of the canyons and deserts in the Huachuca Mountains near Sierra Vista with a visit to Carr Canyon. As we wind our way up into the Huachucas through the cool coniferous forest above town, birds to hope for include North America’s tiniest and rarest Empidonax, the Buff-breasted Flycatcher, along with Greater Pewee, Yellow-eyed Junco and a selection of warblers. Woodhouse's Scrub Jays inhabit the shrubby Manzanita habitat common in upper Carr Canyon. In addition to some fantastic birding, this canyon offers one of the most stunning views in southeast Arizona.
Ramsey Canyon will be our main destination this afternoon. Zone-tailed Hawks rock and teeter in the skies above - looking just like Turkey Vultures. In the trees at Ramsey Canyon we’ll watch for Grace’s Warblers gleaning insects from the leaves, and rarities such as White-eared Hummingbird or perhaps even a Flame-coloured Tanager. We have also enjoyed good views of Elegant Trogon here.
Before returning to our hotel this evening, we’ll pop into Ash Canyon. Feeders here lure dry country ‘hummers’ such as the purple-throated Costa’s and the gaudy male Anna’s, with its metallic pink ‘helmet’. However, the star attraction to hope for here is the rare Lucifer Hummingbird, another species restricted to only a handful of sites in the southernmost deserts of North America. Night Sierra Vista
MILLER CANYON & SAN PEDRO RIVER
This morning we visit Beatty’s Guest Ranch, in Miller Canyon. This delightful place is fantastic for hummingbirds and we will watch the busy feeders, enthralled as a procession of species including Blue-throated, Rivoli's, Broad-billed, Broad-tailed, Anna’s, Black-chinned and perhaps a White-eared keeps us entertained.
A walk into Miller Canyon, where the oak forest follows a trickling creek, is superb for birding. This strand of trees is home to a pair of ‘Mexican’ Spotted Owls, which can sometimes be found roosting in their favourite trees. If the owl doesn’t entice you, then there are Red-faced Warblers, Painted Redstarts, Sulphur-bellied Flycatchers and Hepatic Tanagers to watch for, too! On previous trips, our groups have also encountered a range of interesting butterflies and reptiles.
Just east of Sierra Vista, the San Pedro River slices through the desert. The riparian forests alongside the San Pedro River are home to an excellent variety of species. Birds are especially abundant around San Pedro House, where we may see such tantalizing treats as the delightful Lucy’s Warbler, Cassin’s Kingbird and Bullock’s Oriole. We’ll follow the trail beside the San Pedro River, watching the shore for Snowy Egrets and checking the overhanging branches for Green Kingfishers and Tropical Kingbirds. In May, Summer Tanagers and Yellow-breasted Chats sing their loud and conspicuous songs from the cottonwoods along the banks of the river.
Leaving San Pedro, we then make the drive into the Chiricahua Mountains and the tiny hamlet of Portal, which will be our base for the next two nights. Night Portal
CHIRICAHUA MOUNTAINS, INCLUDING PORTAL
We shall be up before breakfast this morning to explore an area of desert near Portal that is excellent for Black-chinned Sparrow and Juniper Titmouse.
After breakfast, we begin our ascent of the Chiricahua Mountains, making our way up to Rustler Peak at over 2600m. Specialities to look for include the curious Olive Warbler and the rare and local Mexican Chickadee. With a little luck, we’ll find the big and beautiful Abert’s Tassel-eared Squirrel, too.
On our way back down to Portal we’ll enter the South Fork of Cave Creek Canyon. This famous spot is perhaps the best place to find Elegant Trogon in the USA. With luck, we may hear this colourful and rare bird giving its barking call from within the towering sycamore trees lining the trickling Cave Creek. Many other birds are possible here, including noisy Mexican Jays, chattering White-throated Swifts and Bridled Titmouse.
We will also want to take some time today to explore the tiny hamlet of Portal itself. During the day, many birds are attracted to feeders lining the single street of this real life ‘one horse town’. We will hope for Harris’s Hawk along with Crissal and Bendire’s Thrashers, Burrowing Owl and Black-tailed Gnatcatcher, while yet more hummingbird feeders offer further opportunities to watch for the lovely Violet-crowned Hummingbird, a very rare resident in Arizona.
After dinner this evening we’ll have a look around town for night birds. Possibilities at Portal include Lesser Nighthawk and Western Screech Owl, as well as Elf Owl and Great Horned Owl - two enticing species at opposite ends of the scale in terms of size! Night Portal
CAVE CREEK & WILLCOX SEWAGE PONDS, DEPART PHOENIX
Leaving Portal this morning, we make a brief journey back to the South Fork of Cave Creek for one last time before heading north and east, back towards Phoenix.
Of course, no self-respecting bird tour would be complete without a visit to at least one ‘waste water treatment works’ and along the way today we will call in at Willcox Sewage Ponds. Various ducks and shorebirds are possible.
Our travels come full circle this afternoon, with our arrival back in Phoenix. We bid farewell to Chris and check-in for our evening departure to London.
Afternoon arrival into London Heathrow, where our spring birding tour to Arizona concludes.