SIB Travels: Arizona in August

Bob Mercer recently shared the information below about their birding trip to Arizona in August.

Who in their right mind would go to Arizona in August? A birder. I have birded in Arizona on three other occasions. Years ago, my first trip was in mid-September. My second trip happened in March. In 2017, Eileen and I spent 5 weeks exploring the birds in Arizona from mid-September to mid-October. Even after spending that much time, there were still a lot of birds we missed. Apparently, by mid-September many of the birds leave Arizona or go quiet and are difficult to find and March is too early.

So, when a young friend of ours, Rachel, said she was going to go to Arizona at the time the Arizona Audubon Society has their birding festival, Eileen and I decided to spend nine days with her on a birding adventure the second week of August. Several surprises awaited us. First, August is monsoon season in Arizona. Expecting a dog biscuit dry desert, we could see rain and hear thunder every day. Fortunately, we only got caught a couple times. To our amazement, the desert was green!

Being familiar with many of the birding hot spots in Arizona, we decided to forgo the expense of joining the festival groups and set off on our own. For those of you who know me, you may know I keep two life lists. One is the accumulation of over 40 years of birding. The other is the birds I have reported on ebird, something I did not start until I retired and then not seriously until late in 2017 (after our 5-weeks in Arizona).

Our itinerary included Saguaro National Park and Wilcox Lake (our best chance for water birds) the first day. Then we spent 2 nights at Cave Creek Canyon at the base of the Chiricahua Mountains. From there we visited the East Fork of Cave Creek, The George Walker House, and Rustler Park. From there (after a short stop at the Portal Impoundment), we swung down to Sierra Vista Arizona where we visited several locations with hummingbird feeders (Ash Canyon B&B and Ramsey Canyon Inn) and took a few short trails. That night we settled into an Airbnb in Green Valley Arizona. That became our base of action for the rest of the trip. From Green Valley visited the Tubac area, the Patagonia area, Madera Canyon, Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge, and Mount Lemmon. During this whirlwind trip, we created 45 ebird lists and recorded 146 species of which 31 were ebird lifers and 12 were totally new life birds for me. It is getting really hard to add life birds in North America, so this was outstanding!

The following are some of either my better pictures from the various locations or some of my lifers.

Day 1 – Saguaro National Park

Day 2 – East Cave Creek

George Walker House – This private resident put out a lot of hummingbird feeders and opened their house to visitors. The White-eared Hummingbird was one of only three in the continental United States this year. While at the farthest feeder, we did get a good view of this rare lifer.

Chiricahua Mountains

Juvenile Red-tailed Hawk

Up towards the top of the Chiricahua Mountains, we were able to locate a number of high mountain species, though I did not get any decent pictures. The mountains in Arizona are called Sky Islands. Jumping up out of the harsh desert, the mountains provide a special habitat for specially adapted birds. These mountains attract Mexican species like the White-eared Hummingbird and the Elegant Trogon. An immature Red-tailed Hawk put on a show for us at Rustler Park.

Day Three – Sierra Vista for hummingbirds
Ash Creek Canyon

Lucifer Hummingbird was the target bird. There were only ten being reported in North America and seven of these were in SE Arizona.

Ramsey Canyon – Here the target bird was the Berylline Hummingbird which was being reported in just 4 locations in North America, all of them in an Arizona Sky Island.

Day 4
Tubac Area – We birded the De Anza Trail in the morning and Santa Gertrudis Lane after a delightful lunch and a little shopping in town.

Day 5
The early morning was spent in Box Canyon the most dependable sport for the Five-Striped Sparrow, a bird found only in four locations in North America this season. We then went to Madera Canyon where we would hike and stay well after dark in hopes of finding the Mexican Whip-poor-will and some owls. We did hear the whip and the Whiskered Screech-Owl. No pictures though. In Box Canyon, we also found the Varied Bunting, which is almost as pretty as the Painted Bunting. During our visit in 2017, we hunted often for this species with no luck. This year, once we found our fist, they popped up often. The Varied Bunting and the Five-striped Sparrow while not the best pictures were both life birds for me.

Box Canyon

Santa Rita Lodge in Madera Canyon

Day 6
We went to the Patagonia area. Here we stopped at the infamous Patagonia Roadside Rest Area famous for the number of rare birds found here. The big target was a nesting Rose-throated Becard, another rare Mexican Species. We searched to a level of complete frustration. Hot and bothered we moved on to Paton Center for Hummingbird. The target being the Violet-crowned Hummingbird.

Who could resist a baby Broad-billed Hummingbird and an adult male?

While there, we learned the trick for the Rose-throated Becard. All the descriptions made it sound like it was in the rest stop. Not so. We had to cross the street, climb down a hill and walk along a fence until we reached the place where a pair of glasses was hanging from the fence. From that location, one could see the nest. Thank goodness a group came along where someone knew where the nest was exactly and pointed it out or we would have never found it! While we could hear the birds, our “looks” consisted of the female dropping out of the nest and flying directly into the nest without stopping. A very unsatisfying lifer!

From there we stopped at Patagonia Lake for lunch and a hike.

Day 7
Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge
Deep in the Sonoran Desert, this huge (117,464 acres) wildlife refuge is a haven for lots of wildlife. We stopped in two locations. In the first we took a hike and I got our group lost—oops. By the time we got to the main refuge, it was afternoon and hot. We took their eight-mile wildlife loop, but we should have been there either early in the day or closer to sunset. Most of the birds and animals were hiding with the exception of Western Kingbirds, Cassin’s Sparrows, and Botteri’s Sparrows which were abundant.

At the first spot, we did find my life Gilded Woodpecker, a golden winged flicker.

Day 8
Back to Madera Canyon Area

Day 9
Our final day of birding we drove back to the Tucson area and Mount Lemmon area, another one of the Sky Islands. We drove up to the top, about 8,000 feet, where the high altitude birds can be found and we hit paydirt. Mountain Chickadee and Hermit Warbler

When we compared our list to the list of species found by the Bird Festival, we could see we managed to find almost all of the specialties. What we missed (deliberately) were the eastern bird species we have all seen many times but would be considered rare in Arizona. Once home, we learned that the American Ornithological Union was splitting the Mexican Meadowlark from the Eastern Meadowlark. Once that happens it will be my 700th life bird. To gain 12 lifers made this a special trip!

Article and photos by Bob Mercer

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