Spring Grand Arizona May 10—20, 2015

Posted by Barry Zimmer


Barry Zimmer

Barry Zimmer has been birding since the age of eight. His main areas of expertise lie in North and Central America, but his travels have taken him throughout much of the wo...

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An argument can be made that this was the most successful spring Arizona tour that VENT has ever run! We tallied virtually every southeastern Arizona specialty, along the way netting 9 species of owls, 9 species of hummingbirds, a very robust 15 species of raptors (not including owls), and a dizzying 19 species of flycatchers! In addition we had the good fortune of seeing 3 Mexican visitors: Plain-capped Starthroat, Black-capped Gnatcatcher, and Flame-colored Tanager. Toss in some rarities like Pinyon Jay, American Redstart, Cassin’s Finch, and Red Crossbill, and you have the makings of an amazing bird list. But birds weren’t the only story. We also had stellar luck with mammals (18 species), reptiles and amphibians (22 species), and butterflies (41 species). Combine all of that with the mildest weather ever for May (we reached 80 degrees only twice during the trip) and you have basically hit the Arizona jackpot!

While we were eating lunch, we received word of the discovery of a pair of Flame-colored Tanagers (a rare visitor from Mexico) in Ramsey Canyon. We quickly headed over there and in short time had scope views of the male.

Flame-colored Tanager— Photo: Barry Zimmer


We began in the Tucson area, ranging as far north as Aravaipa Canyon. Ten species of raptors the first day (including Common Black-Hawk, Zone-tailed Hawk, Gray Hawk, and Prairie Falcon among others) were largely overshadowed by a big Gila Monster on the road. This rarely seen reptile put on a great show and was only the fourth I have ever seen in 40 years of birding the state! Other highlights included Burrowing Owl, Costa’s Hummingbird, Vermilion Flycatcher, Tropical Kingbird, Black-tailed Gnatcatcher, and Abert’s Towhee.

From there we headed south to Green Valley and the Santa Rita Mountains (home of famed Madera Canyon). A host of new birds greeted us including the likes of Gilded Flicker, Arizona Woodpecker, Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet, Bridled Titmouse, Painted Redstart, Hepatic Tanager, Indigo Bunting, Rufous-winged and Botteri’s sparrows, Yellow-eyed Junco, Scott’s Oriole and more. Evening owling yielded Western-Screech, Whiskered–Screech, and the tiny Elf Owl—all spectacularly close and cooperative!

All of the great birds that morning were completely overshadowed by this fantastic Gila Monster!

Gila Monster— Photo: Barry Zimmer


Further south around Nogales and Patagonia, we had some very specific targets. An expedition to remote California Gulch produced not only the highly localized Five-striped Sparrow (we saw 6 total, including one no more than ten feet away!), but also two stunning male Montezuma Quail (one of the Holy Grails of southwest birding), a family group of Black-capped Gnatcatchers, Canyon and Rock wrens, and briefly two male Varied Buntings. A very rare Blackened Bluewing (butterfly) was an additional bonus! Black-bellied Whistling-Duck, Violet-crowned Hummingbird, Thick-billed Kingbird, and Yellow-breasted Chat were all memorable Patagonia area highlights.

The following day we headed out through the Pajarito Mountains along Ruby Road. After some effort, we had superb views of this Montezuma Quail - one of the Holy Grail birds of the southwest!

Montezuma Quail – Photo: Barry Zimmer


Traveling eastward to Sierra Vista and the Huachuca Mountains, our luck continued. The first afternoon there produced prolonged views of a roosting Spotted Owl along with many Magnificent Hummingbirds, Greater Pewee, Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher, and the incomparable Red-faced Warbler. The next morning, the sycamore-lined canyons of Fort Huachuca yielded slam dunk views of Elegant Trogon (the premier bird of southeastern Arizona), a White-nosed Coatimundi, Buff-breasted Flycatcher, Black-throated Gray Warbler, and an adorable fledged baby Painted Redstart that posed for photos. In the afternoon we chased a pair of just discovered Flame-colored Tanagers in Ramsey Canyon, and in short time we had wonderful scope views of these Mexican vagrants. Carr Canyon followed, and here our list continued to grow. A Northern Pygmy-Owl from twenty feet for over fifteen minutes topped the list, but we also found Northern Goshawk, many Buff-breasted Flycatchers, more Greater Pewees, Pygmy Nuthatch, Virginia’s, Olive, and Grace’s warblers, and a flock of unexpected Red Crossbills. Point-blank views of a perched Common Poorwill on an evening excursion and roosting Great Horned Owls in a garden center (!) rounded out the Sierra Vista area.

After breakfast we headed up to the high country. The incomparable Red-faced Warbler was waiting for us!

Red-faced Warbler— Photo: Barry Zimmer


Our final region was the Chiricahua Mountains tucked into the very southeastern corner of the state. (En route, we had the best views ever of the generally elusive Crissal Thrasher and had an in-hand inspection of a Regal Horned Lizard.) In this fabulous range we found Scaled Quail, Golden Eagle, Mexican Whip-poor-will,  Blue-throated Hummingbird, Mexican Chickadee, Juniper Titmouse, Western Bluebird, Bendire’s Thrasher, Lazuli Bunting, Black-chinned Sparrow, and a late and rare Cassin’s Finch among others. A side trip into the Silver City area of New Mexico gave us a tour first Pinyon Jay and a calling Flammulated Owl that was tantalizingly close, but remained out of sight.

Crissal Thrasher is normally a shy, skulking species that often provides only marginal views at best. Someone forgot to tell this individual that came in almost to our laps in the Sulphur Springs Valley.

Crissal Thrasher— Photo: Barry Zimmer


On our final day we enjoyed the shorebirds of Willcox (including 32 Long-billed Curlews, Black-necked Stilt, American Avocet, and Wilson’s and Red-necked phalaropes); lucked onto a Barn Owl (owl species #9); and enjoyed superb views of Mississippi Kites near Saint David before heading to Madera Canyon to chase a just arrived Plain-capped Starthroat. The very rare Mexican visitor had been seen infrequently at the Santa Rita Lodge feeders over the previous two days. We arrived shortly after lunch, and our luck continued, as within five minutes the bird appeared right in front of us!

Incredible views of nearly every southeast Arizona specialty; Mexican rarities; unexpected bonuses; great mammals, reptiles, and butterflies; and even superb weather—this trip had it all!