Summer Arizona Jul 21—28, 2008
Posted by Kim Eckert
It had been a few years since I had led a late-summer tour in Southeast Arizona, seven to be exact, so I wasn't quite sure how this tour would go. Unique birding sites, distracting scenery, monsoons greening up the countryside and tricking birds into song, a dozen hummingbird species swarming about feeders, trogons and all the rest—would they all still be there as I remembered them?
Why I ever had any initial doubts I'll never know. This turned out to be just about the most enjoyable tour I had done all year: it seems you just can't go wrong in late July in Southeast Arizona! There was greenery and water in abundance, thanks to an especially generous monsoon season, and consequently the temperatures were refreshingly moderate. Yet, there was only one afternoon when the rains slowed us down, and no flash-floods precluded any roads we wanted to follow. And just about all the birds and birding places—and all the scenery—were still where I had left them seven years ago.
Some might prefer to be here in May, when owls and warblers and others are more vocal and easier to find. But late summer is more like a second spring, when sparrows (especially Cassin's, Botteri's, and Rufous-winged) and other grasslands birds break into song, and when spring's paltry hummingbird species potential doubles into a dozen or more late-summer possibilities. Indeed, this tour used to be aptly named "Arizona Hummingbirds." Where else can you go and "only" list 10 species of hummers, as we did this year (lots of rain = more natural food = less reliance on feeders), and call it a below-average total?
One of the most enjoyable aspects of this trip was the opportunity for exploring new birding sites. Normally, folks going to the Santa Rita Mountains stop at renowned Madera Canyon and leave it at that. But this time around we went to Montosa Canyon just south of Madera, a first for me, where invisible Montezuma Quail were calling from a far hillside, and Cordilleran Flycatcher, Varied Bunting, and Scott's Oriole all appeared close at hand. Another "lifer" birding site, Rio Rico, came later the same morning, where the distinctive trill of a Tropical Kingbird confirmed its ID and Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks loafed on the edge of a wet pasture.
Huachuca Canyon, within the Fort of the same name, also became a new addition to my birding itinerary the next day. In a way, it's just like Madera Canyon of the Santa Ritas, in that birders in Fort Huachuca limit their efforts to Garden Canyon (and adjacent Scheelite and Sawmill canyons). But this summer birders seemed to be having better luck at relatively unknown Huachuca Canyon, and our brief stop here yielded nice looks and listens at Dusky-capped and Sulphur-bellied flycatchers, Painted Redstart, Black-throated Gray Warbler, and others.
Of course, the old, familiar, and reliable sites came through for us as well. On our first full day in Madera Canyon, a vigil at the feeders at Madera Kubo B & B got us off to a "flying" start with our only Arizona Woodpecker, Berylline Hummingbird, and Flame-colored Tanager, not to mention a Magnificent Hummingbird and Hepatic Tanager, along with a nearby juvenile Painted Redstart which, understandably, failed to attract much of our attention.
Fast-forward a few days to the Chiricahua Mountains and its foothills. Even though the road just below the T-intersection (a.k.a. Barfoot Junction) between Rustler and Barfoot parks looks no different than other places at this altitude, it seems consistently attractive to birdlife. This time was certainly no different, with our only Hairy Woodpecker, Mexican Chickadees, Pygmy Nuthatches, Olive Warbler (our second), Grace's Warbler, our only Red-faced Warbler, and Red Crossbill all essentially together in the same wave!
Then, the next day at a lower elevation along Silver Creek Road, my long-favorite hillside hosted an exceptionally cooperative family of Black-chinned Sparrows, as a migrant Gray Flycatcher happened by, and an assortment of other birds around like Western Scrub-Jay (our only ones), Violet-green Swallows, Black-tailed Gnatcatcher, Crissal Thrasher, and Rufous-crowned Sparrow all made it difficult to decide which way to look.
Gray and Zone-tailed hawks at Kino Springs, both Western and Whiskered screech-owls posing in the spotlight in Miller Canyon, Violet-crowned Hummingbirds at three different sites, Elegant Trogons perched overhead at Sawmill Canyon, a total of no fewer than 17 flycatcher species, Varied Buntings posing in the sun below Madera Canyon, a Bendire's Thrasher on Stateline Road…I could go on. Somehow, none of these deserved mention in this tour's highlights! But that's how good it is here—when trogons and the like are relegated to a postscript.