By Melanie Furr
“Southern Arizona in July? Why?” was the typical reaction I received from friends when I mentioned my excitement about leading Atlanta Audubon’s first guided birding trip to the Southwest this past summer. Granted, I had my own concerns about traveling to the desert during the hottest time of year, but our guide, Ken Blankenship (a Georgia native and former Atlanta Audubon field trip leader who relocated to Arizona a few years ago to pursue his dream of leading birding tours), assured me that we’d find ways to beat the heat. “We’ll follow the cooling monsoon rains and bird at higher elevations during the hottest parts of the day,” Ken promised. And with the promise of seeing not only several species of birds found nowhere else in the continental United States, including several species of hummingbirds, I was willing to sweat a little.
No one could have predicted that the day my fellow Atlanta Audubon adventurers and I arrived in Tucson would be the hottest day of the year (and the hottest day I’ve ever experienced)—109 degrees! But, eager to start adding birds to our life lists, we stopped for a quick, delicious lunch of authentic Mexican tamales, then headed to the Sonoran Desert Museum, where we could explore the outdoor exhibits of native plants and animals while looking for birds and staying close to air-conditioned buildings. I don’t think we had ventured more than a few hundred yards on the winding path leading through the museum grounds before a few folks retreated to the visitor center, while the rest of us continued on, seeking whatever small patches of shade the bushy cholla and ocotillo cactuses along the path would provide. Cactus Wrens, Phainopeplas, Gila Woodpeckers, and Costa’s Hummingbirds didn’t seem too bothered by the heat, however, and although we didn’t continue on much farther, all of us had added at least a few lifers to our lists before we called it quits.
No one objected to returning to the hotel earlier than planned to rest and clean up before dinner, but as soon as we arrived, we spotted Greater Roadrunners running through the parking lot and a pair of Vermillion Flycatchers in a large tree by the swimming pool. I dumped my stuff in my room, took a quick shower, and headed back outside to look for an interesting sparrow I had noticed earlier—a Rufous-winged Sparrow. Before long, everyone was out in the parking lot with binoculars, approaching monsoon clouds providing a cooling breeze as we watched fledgling roadrunners chase their parents around the hotel grounds.
The worst of the heat behind us, we got an early start the next morning to make the most of our time around Tucson during the cooler morning hours. Our first stop was Agua Caliente Park, situated around a perennial warm spring that provides habitat for an exceptionally rich mix of plants and animals. Jonathan Lutz, Executive Director of Tucson Audubon, met us for some birding and talked to us about some of the work being done by Tucson Audubon Society. Although we found lots of beautiful and interesting birds at the park, including species rarely seen outside of Mexico such as Broad-billed Hummingbirds and a Northern Bearded-Tyrannulet, what actually stands out most to me about our visit was learning, in passing, that Jonathan’s girlfriend works as a forensic anthropologist studying the belongings and remains of people who have tried to cross the United States border through the Arizona desert. Looking out across the rugged mountain landscape and remembering the punishing heat of the afternoon before, I can’t imagine the desperation that would drive someone to attempt the passage. Birds crossing the border, however, are another story, and soon we were back in our van driving to the top of Mount Lemmon and pointing out Mexican Jays.
The 27-mile Sky Islands Scenic Byway to the top of Mount Lemmon, the highest point in the Santa Catalina mountains and a Tucson summer retreat, winds through Sonoran Desert at the base and ascends to cool, shady Rocky Mountain forest near the top. As the landscape changes, so does the bird life. Acorn Woodpeckers, Mountain Chickadees, Pygmy Nuthatches, and Western Bluebirds were no less delightful to watch because they are common in the area, but finding more elusive species like Grace’s Warblers, Plumbeous Vireos, and Cordilleran Flycatchers was also fun. At some feeders across the street from our lunch spot in Summerhaven, near the summit, several of us added Black-throated Grosbeaks and Hepatic Tanagers to our life lists, with a bonus Cassin’s Kingbird on the power-line overhead. For me, though, the highlight of the day was at Rose Canyon when a small darting motion caught my eye just in time for me to witness a female Broad-tailed Hummingbird alighting on her nest. Having never seen a nesting hummingbird before, I could barely contain my excitement and quickly alerted the others. Everything else that day was just “gravy.”
We started the second full day of our trip with a rare Five-striped Sparrow in Box Canyon. The morning was breezy and cool—I even needed a sweatshirt! Although we only got fleeting glimpses of the sparrow as it foraged in the low vegetation, seeing the rarest breeding sparrow in the continental United States was exciting. With a small range in Western Mexico that extends only into far southern Arizona, Five-striped Sparrows wait to nest until mid to late summer, after the onset of the monsoon rains. After a couple more stops in scenic Madera Canyon, including a stop at the hummingbird feeders at the Santa Rita Lodge, and a refreshing lunch stop in the artsy town of Tubac, our next target was a family of rare Rose-throated Becards.
Aside from the miserable heat on the first day, the only other time on the trip that I was really bothered by the heat was on that short trek to find the becards. As we tramped down a brushy dry riverbed, monsoon clouds looming, I mused at the odd, out-of-the-way, and sometimes uncomfortable places that birders find themselves. (Landfill? Protein plant, anyone?) I’m sure we didn’t walk as far as it seemed when we came upon the becards’ huge globular nest suspended from a high tree limb. A scan around the area yielded no birds, however, and only insects were calling. Wilting, we assured Ken that we wouldn’t be too disappointed if we didn’t see the becards, even though they can only be found only along a few streams in southern Arizona and Texas outside of their range in Central America. Certainly, the branchling Gray Hawks we’d seen moments earlier were worth the trek. Before long, however, Ken heard the call, and soon a beautiful male flew into view carrying food. Everyone was elated, and somehow, our walk back to the van seemed shorter and cooler. We wrapped up the afternoon with a relaxing stop in Patagonia to see several species of hummingbirds at the Paton Center, where Wally and Marion Paton began inviting birders to sit at the feeders outside their home in 1973. Tucson Audubon took over the care of the property in 2009 after their deaths, and it is still open to visitors free of charge. (Donations to the “sugar fund” are appreciated.)
After spending the night in Sierra Vista, our third full day was spent exploring Fort Huachuca, home of the United States Army Intelligence Center. After getting our passes at the checkpoint, we drove up narrow canyons where prehistoric pictographs adorn rock walls and Painted Redstarts and Red-faced Warblers flit through the pines. The most exciting birds of the day, perhaps, were a pair of Elegant Trogons, another rare specialty bird along the fringes of the southwest. Although we heard their calls regularly as we walked along the path, the female stayed obscured in the trees and only once did the male come into clear view. (Unfortunately, I missed the getting the shot while pausing to take a cute photo of Ken pointing out the bird with his characteristic enthusiasm and excitement.) After a full day exploring around the Fort, we winded down at the hummingbird feeders at Ash Canyon Lodge, where we had five species of hummingbirds including dazzling Lucifer’s and Rivoli’s Hummingbirds. We didn’t get to see the Montezuma’s Quail that had been frequenting the spot, perhaps because of the Northern Goshawk that flew over us three times.
With one final day to explore the Sierra Vista area before heading back to Tucson for our departure the next morning, we did some more birding around the canyons, adding the striking Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher and Bridled Titmouse to our trip list, among others, and on our drive back to Tucson, we stopped in some grassland habitats where we saw some familiar species like kestrels and shrikes in addition to new species like Botteri’s and Cassin’s Sparrows. During a quick detour to a Prairie Dog colony (where a few folks also had a glimpse of a coyote), we were fortunate to see Cassin’s Sparrows doing their display flights, flying straight up and floating down while singing, a behavior called “skylarking.”
On the final morning, eager to enjoy some final desert birding and scenery, a few of us headed to Saguaro National Park for a quick outing before our noon flight. No trip to Arizona would be complete without taking time to appreciate the saguaro cactus. Growing as tall as 60 feet and living up to 200 years, the saguaro is one of the defining plants of the Sonoran Desert, providing food and shelter to a great diversity of life. Hummingbirds, bats, and insects feed on nectar from the blossoms, and ripening fruit provides moisture and an energy-rich food for birds, bats, mammals, reptiles, and insects. Gila Woodpeckers and Gilded Flickers excavate nesting cavities that later become homes for other birds, and birds of prey use them as hunting platforms and build stick nests among their branches. Looking out across the landscape dotted with these remarkable towering cactuses, I felt reverence and a bit of magic.
We returned to the van to drive to the airport just as the temperature started to get uncomfortable. It seems fitting that we should end our amazing trip in a sweat, just as we began--but every last bird was worth it. And as another wet, cold winter in Georgia approaches, a little hot desert sunshine doesn’t sound half bad.
Atlanta Audubon will return to Southeast Arizona to host a guided birding tour led by local guide Ken Blankenship from August 6 to 11, 2019. Registration is now open. For a full itinerary and registration information, please click here.