Monsoon Madness: Southeast Arizona Birding Festival

27 08 2018
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Young Birders Walk – Luke Tiller

Mid-August you will find me winging my way to Tucson for the excellent Southeast Arizona Birding Festival. The event run by Tucson Audubon captures what must rate as some of the premier birding at some of the premier birding locations to be found in the US.

With a base in Tucson, the festival hosts an amazing selection of tours including multi-day events to further afield sites as well as day trips to some of what must be the most famous birding sites in the US: Madera Canyon, Ramsey Canyon, Mt Lemmon etc. As well as usual early morning day trips there are events aimed at nocturnal denizens of The Copper State including insects, arachnids, mammals as well as birds. There are also lectures, live critters and all the other things you might wish for at a birding festival.

I arrived a day or so early to set up the festival, do a little scouting for my trips and just enjoy some great birding. Birding Arizona in August means early starts and early finishes, at least if you don’t want to spend your day hiking around in temperatures that seems to swing between hot, very hot and boiling. Siestas were invented for this kind of weather, so when in Rome…

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Lucifer Hummingbird – Luke Tiller

I started my Arizona adventures down around the town of Sierra Vista. With a few targets on my list, I started my day driving up Carr Canyon. The nice thing about Carr is that it allows you to drive up to relatively high elevations rather than taking what can be quite strenuous hikes. Driving the road up, the rise in elevation sees a corresponding change in the makeup of bird species encountered from Phainopepla at the bottom, through Hepatic Tanager and Greater Pewee midway to Band-tailed Pigeons toward the top. The road up was as rough as promised (passable slowly in a sedan) but thankfully a little less hair-raising than some had suggested (being terrified of heights I was thankful for that)!

Half way up I ran into Brian and Rob from the Sabrewing Tour crew and we joined forces for some birding focused around the Reef Campsite area. Highlights included Zone-tailed Hawk and Plumbeous Vireo and my main target for the morning Buff-breasted Flycatcher: a particularly localized and charming member of the empidonax flycatcher family.

With temperatures rising I said good by to the Sabrewing crew and headed for some leisurely birding among the feeders of Sierra Vista. First stop was the Ash Canyon B&B. After paying my $10 sugar fund entrance fee I was welcomed to an incredible array of hummingbird feeders. Taking a pew in a nicely shaded section of the garden I quickly racked up a healthy collection of attractive hummingbirds. The feeders here are dominated by numbers of Broad-billed and Anna’s Hummingbirds but in among the throng a couple of local specialties lurk including my main target here: Lucifer Hummingbird. These must rank as one of the more spectacular species to be found in the US though I prefer the slightly more romantic and descriptive alternate common name for the bird: Lucifer Sheartail. Ash Canyon doesn’t just claim hummingbirds aplenty, and other feeders on site attract everything from Mexican Jays to Lesser Goldfinches.

After an hour or so soaking up all that Ash Canyon has to offer I decided to head for a little more relaxing mid-morning birding and photography at Beatty’s Guest Ranch in Miller Canyon. After laying down my $5 for the sugar fund I hiked up to enjoy the hummingbird feeders on site. Here among good numbers of newly christened Rivoli’s Hummingbird (previously Magnificent) I managed to eventually dig out great views of a much desired Violet-crowned Hummingbird. A little exploring up canyon from Beatty’s lead me to uncover an almost wholly unexpected Rufous-capped Warbler, that hadn’t been reported in over a month. An ABA area bird I had only previously encountered in Panama.

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Rufous-capped Warbler – Luke Tiller

Day two of my Southeast Arizona adventures I decided to head up to Mount Lemmon mainly in search of warbler action. Though the west doesn’t promise the variety of warblers one can find in the east it does perhaps boast some of the more outstanding species. I essentially limited most of my birding to the Rose Canyon Lake area (fee area). It always appears to me that the best places to bird in the mountains are those with camp sites and picnic areas. Finding my first Painted Redstart by the bathroom block (see!) I then followed a roving flock of warblers and other passerines for over an hour, picking through to eventually uncover a wealth of great species: Olive, Grace’s, Townsend’s, Hermit, Black-throated Gray and eventually the star prize of Red faced Warbler. Beyond the warblers there was much more to enjoy here including Greater Pewees, Broad-tailed Hummingbirds and Bridled Titmice. Even better was that the temperature barely creeped into the high 60’s the whole time I was there, a wonderful relief from the summer sun of CA and AZ.

Heading back towards Tucson I stopped in some likely looking Saguaro rich habitat to pick off a couple of Gilded Flickers and ended my morning’s adventures at Agua Caliente Park. This park boasts a mix of manicured lawns, ponds and palm trees as well as some nice native habitat too. The mix of environments provided for a nice mix of birds which included Harris’s Hawk, Hooded Oriole, Purple Martin, Lucy’s Warbler as well as a huge covey of Gambel’s Quail and a couple of cool lizards.

Day three of my Arizona adventure took me south towards Tubac and Amado. First was a quick jaunt along the De Anza National Historic trail as it meanders down the San Pedro River. Here a myriad of localized flycatchers took advantage of insect hatch outs along the river. Highlights included: impressive and aptly named Thick-billed Kingbird, and mournfully calling Dusky-capped Flycatcher. Even the Tropical Kingbirds, so ubiquitous in points south of the US, take on a more exciting hue north of the Mexican border. Other highpoints included a family of Cooper’s Hawks, a couple of showy Yellow-billed Cuckoos and a couple of Bell’s Vireos that made for interesting comparison with the California “Least” version that I am used to living in Los Angeles.

With the monsoon now providing nice overcast conditions I decided to head to Montosa Canyon to see if I could try my luck at some bird photography. Target species, soon acquired, included a seemingly lonely Five-striped Sparrow and multiple stunning Varied Buntings. As well as the birds the other denizens of the canyon catching my eye included a rarely encountered White-nosed Coati (at least away from a couple of known feeders), several cryptically colored skipper butterflies and a rather stunningly iridescent Western Tiger Beetle!

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Varied Bunting – Luke Tiller

On my fourth day I was in actual work mode, leading a tour for the festival at the world-renowned Madera Canyon, with excellent local guide Robert Mesa. First stop of the tour was along the entrance road to the canyon for a couple of special sparrow species Cassin’s and Botteri’s. Though somewhat featureless in plumage both birds make up for their drabness with their jaunty songs and in the case of the Cassin’s their beautiful skylarking display flights.

Next stop on the canyon tour was at the renowned Proctor Road. Here we uncovered another selection of fantastic birds including Rufous-crowned and Rufous-winged Sparrows, both male and female Varied Buntings and most excitingly killer views of a Northern Beardless Tyrannulet, one of those species where the name is bigger than the bird itself!

As we ascended into the canyon we began to run into more exciting specialties including a couple of highly prized locals like Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher and Arizona Woodpecker. With Roberts expertise we soon found ourselves first hearing and then seeing our main target for the day: Elegant Trogon. Though neither individuals were particularly obliging we eventually managed to garner decent looks at both a young bird and then a dazzling adult male bird for the group.

The Zeiss crew returned to Madera that evening to join local guide extraordinaire Ken Blakenship and Bill Thompson III for a nocturnal bird prowl. We kicked off the trip with views of Mexican Whip-poor-will before encountering a couple of heard only species (the bark of an Elf Owl and the distinctive double toots of a “Mountain” Northern Pygmy Owl). We then had incredible views of a Whiskered Screech-Owl with prey item and a pair of Western Screech Owls (all while my camera was safely tucked away in the trunk of my car!!!) August isn’t the easiest time to see nocturnal owls in Arizona, so it was a very successful night. Almost as excitingly we’d managed to run across a huge Arizona Blond Tarantula on our way to meeting the group.

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Arizona Blond Tarantula – Luke Tiller

Day five I was lucky to join Bill Thompson III again for a Zeiss sponsored walk at Sweetwater Wetlands with a bunch of young birders from the Tucson area. Zeiss always like to do what we can to support the next generation of birders and as part of our promotion for the festival we had promised to donate a pair of our awesome Terra binoculars to a young birder for every Victory SF that we sold.

The young birders were excellent and knowledgeable about local birds and much more: dragonflies, butterflies etc. so they were really keeping us on our toes. Bill did a great job entertaining the crowd and even enticed a Brazilian family to tag along with us for the morning. I think we managed to give them a nice introduction to birding with highlights including a brilliant Vermilion Flycatcher,  a flyby Peregrine Falcon, which came in and practically strafed our group, and a very cooperative Barn Owl that allowed us incredible close views and digiscoped photos. All the kids were very respectful of the sleepy nocturnal predator, making sure we didn’t disturb him from his mid-morning snooze. A fun walk and nice to see such an informed and, more importantly, enthusiastic group of young birders.

The banquet that evening boasted more hilarious entertainment from Bill. As part of the Zeiss Team that sponsored the event I got to share the table with the Mayor of Tucson. It was really great to see local officials recognizing the importance of birding and nature observation to the local economy.

Though not my seventh day, I did find myself resting on Sunday. I was finally exhausted by all the incredible birds and birding opportunities here. As I swung out of town after the show I had time for one last birding stop just outside of Phoenix to add a handful of introduced but incredibly beautiful Rosy-faced Lovebirds to my ABA list. A hot end to a great trip!

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Rosy-faced Lovebirds – Luke Tiller

If you haven’t been before I’d highly recommend the festival. Great trips, great local leaders all at some of the countries most exciting birding hotspots. The dates are already up for the 2019 Festival: August 7-11, put them in your diary now and make sure to pop over to say hello to me on the Zeiss Booth. The festival website can be found (here) and a collection of photos from my time in AZ can be found on my Flickr page (click link here).


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