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December 26th, 2013
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Custom Winter Arizona Birding Tour

I’ve just finished leading an excellent custom winter birding tour here in Arizona, with top UK birders Paul Harvey, Steve Piotrowski and Rob Fray.


They wanted to see everything, so that’s what we attempted to do. With one or two exceptions, we did see just about every species possible at this time of year, and ended the tour on a highly satisfying 200 species (194 ABA species seen, 4 heard and two subspecies that are recognized as splits by the IOC, Mexican Duck and Myrtle Warbler).

We covered 2,646 miles over 12 days. Here are the highlights (bird photos © Rob Fray, other photos © Richard Fray)…

Tuesday Dec 10:

Arizona Snowbowl Ski Area

Arizona Snowbowl Ski Area, Flagstaff
A pair of CLARK’S NUTCRACKERS were found about half way along N Snowbowl Road.

Clark's Nutcracker

We enjoyed great views of a variety of high elevation species.

Brown Creeper

Red-breasted Nuthatch

Walnut Canyon NM

Juniper Titmouse

Old Walnut Canyon Road, Flagstaff
Eight or so PINYON JAYS about a mile southeast of the ponds. A pair of BALD EAGLES were perched in a snag near the ponds.

Bald Eagle

Wednesday Dec 11:

CRISSAL THRASHER showing well and singing at the southern end of the Bell Rock Trail, just north of Oak Creek Village.

Crissal Thrasher

Gilbert Water Ranch
YELLOW WARBLER in cottonwoods on the west side of Pond #1, SNOW GOOSE on Pond #7. Also present, ORSPREY, two GREATER YELLOWLEGS, a bunch of LEAST SANDPIPERS, a small flock of LONG-BILLED DOWITCHERS, a WILSON’S SNIPE, several INCA DOVES and a couple of NORTHERN ROUGH-WINGED SWALLOWS.


Thursday Dec 12:

The Thrasher Spot, west of Buckeye

Bendire's Thrasher

Sagebrush Sparrow

A couple of flocks of WHITE-FACED IBIS in the fields along the road.

Encanto Park, Phoenix
Three ROSY-FACED LOVEBIRDS found easily near the parking lot, heard before we stopped the car. Two HARRIS’S HAWKS in the neighborhood to the north.

South Mountain Park
We couldn’t find a Gray Vireo but did have close encounters with many typical desert species.

South Mountain Park, Phoenix

Cactus Wren

Santa Cruz Flats
At least 19 MOUNTAIN PLOVERS at Evergreen Sod Farm.
Three FERRUGINOUS HAWKS along Baumgartner Rd, east of Picacho Highway.
A SAGEBRUSH SPARROW south of Pretzer Rd, west of Toltec Rd.

Mountain Plover

Friday Dec 13:

Rio Rico Northeast
RUFOUS-WINGED SPARROWS and other common desert species such as CACTUS WREN and CURVE-BILLED THRASHER.

Rufous-winged Sparrow

Tubac Golf Resort

Anza Trail, Tubac
Male BROAD-BILLED HUMMINGBIRD by the bridge on Bridge Road, several WHITE-WINGED DOVES.

Amado Pond

Santa Gertrudis Lane
One of the WHITE-CROWNED SPARROWS was of the dark-lored Mountain (orianthus) subspecies.

Saturday Dec 14:

Madera Canyon
Two male and one female MONTEZUMA QUAIL calling on the hillside west of Madera Picnic Area, but typically remained hidden from view.
GOLDEN EAGLE seen overhead twice, from Whitehouse and later Proctor Road.
At least half a dozen PAINTED REDSTARTS, several HAMMOND’S FLYCATCHERS and ARIZONA WOODPECKERS, and a few each of TOWNSEND’S SOLITAIRE, HEPATIC TANAGER, YELLOW-EYED JUNCO, BLACK-THROATED GRAY and TOWNSEND’S WARBLERS scattered throughout the canyon between Proctor Road and Amphitheater.
MERLIN perched by the roadside just north of Proctor Road.

Hepatic Tanager

Painted Redstart

Townsend's Solitaire

Florida Canyon
Arriving late, we saw almost no birds but did manage to find a NORTHERN PYGMY-OWL by the ‘east bend’ favored by Rufous-capped Warblers.

Northern (Mountain) Pygmy-Owl

Sunday Dec 15:

Florida Canyon
Pair of RUFOUS-CAPPED WARBLERS encountered lower than I’ve seen them lately, on the slope to the east of the currently orange-leaved Arizona sycamores about 150 yards beyond the dam. They were later seen by more birders further down canyon, about 70 yards above the dam.

Rufous-capped Warbler

Black-chinned Sparrow

Madera Canyon
Female OLIVE WARBLER showing nicely along the trail below (west of) the Whitehouse Picnic Area. This is just downslope of the Red-breasted Sapsucker tree, but we failed to find the sapsucker in several prolonged attempts over two days. It may still be there, but has maybe found a new tree?

Olive Warbler

A GREATER ROADRUNNER gave us amazing looks.

Greater Roadrunner

Montosa Canyon
Pair of BLACK-CAPPED GNATCATCHERS seen at close range by the footings/remains of an old building, along the trail which goes southeast of the big culvert (250 yards after the pavement restarts) and heads towards the sweat lodge.

Black-capped Gnatcatcher

Black-capped Gnatcatcher

Montosa Canyon

Montosa Canyon

Monday Dec 16:

Tohono Chul Park
“Slate” FOX SPARROW showing well by the Geology Wall for a few minutes, then went to ground.

Fox Sparrow

Evergreen Cemetery
GREATER PEWEE moved along the trees lining the ditch just north of the maintenance yard. A MYRTLE WARBLER was with AUDUBON’S YELLOW-RUMPED WARBLERS and a PRAIRIE FALCON soared low overhead.

Myrtle Warbler

Reid Park area, Tucson
Male YELLOW-BELLIED SAPSUCKER moving along the trees where the Lewis’s Woodpecker has been coming, just east of the pink pipes.
LEWIS’S WOODPECKER busily taking nuts or fruits from the trees on the grassy knoll and apparently caching them in a palm tree just north of E Camino Campestre.
Female BLACK SCOTER continues on the pond behind the Hardesty building, with a SNOWY EGRET.
Photo opportunities at the ponds included CANVASBACK and LESSER SCAUP.
We didn’t find the Pine Warbler in the afternoon. There were several small flocks of Yellow-rumped Warblers and House Finches roaming around, but we came up empty.

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

Lewis's Woodpecker

Western Bluebird

Black Scoter


Ring-necked Duck

Lesser Scaup

Reid Park, Tucson

Tuesday Dec 17:


San Rafael Valley
We struggled to find any sparrows of interest. Very quiet in general.

Patagonia Lake Rd
A wintering BOTTERI’S SPARROW showed very well on Mayas Ct.

Botteri's Sparrow

Patagonia Lake
We failed to locate the wintering Elegant Trogon, but did find MEXICAN MALLARD, HAMMOND’S, GRAY and VERMILION FLYCATCHERS and TOWNSEND’S SOLITAIRE.

Vermilion Flycatcher

Paton’s House, Patagonia
LAZULI BUNTING was the big prize here, but we also found WHITE-WINGED DOVE, BROAD-BILLED HUMMINGBIRD and a wintering BULLOCK’S ORIOLE.

Wednesday Dec 18:

Ash Canyon B&B, Hereford
The usual fabulous assortment at Mary Jo’s feeders included on this occasion a MYRTLE WARBLER, but no hoped-for Scott’s Oriole.

Myrtle Warbler

Willcox Twin Lakes
Lots of ducks but little variety. The cranes were elsewhere and we couldn’t rustle up a Scaled Quail.

Good views of a FERRUGINOUS HAWK perched by the roadside.

Whitewater Draw
Lots of water this winter, and correspondingly lots of birds. SANDHILL CRANE numbers were impressive, with at least 20,000 arriving throughout the afternoon to roost. A distant flock of SNOW GEESE and four RING-BILLED GULLS were joined by an AMERICAN AVOCET, four GREATER YELLOWLEGS, three COMMON GROUND-DOVES (no sign of the Ruddies), a BARN OWL in the barn and, most unusual of all, a very late TREE SWALLOW.

Sandhill Cranes

Whitewater Draw

Whitewater Draw

Thursday Dec 19:


Cave Creek Ranch, Portal
The feeders were alive in the morning and produced three BLUE-THROATED and a surprise RUFOUS HUMMINGBIRD, great side-by-side views of WESTERN SCRUB-JAY and MEXICAN JAY, a MYRTLE form YELLOW-RUMPED WARBLER, a fine WHITE-THROATED SPARROW, our only PINE SISKIN of the trip, and more close views of ARIZONA WOODPECKER. Nearby, a TOWNSEND’S SOLITAIRE dropped in and CRISSAL THRASHER sang for a while without revealing itself.

Blue-throated Hummingbird

Blue-throated Hummingbird

Rufous Hummingbird

Myrtle Warbler

Northern Cardinal

Western Scrub-Jay

Arizona Woodpecker

South Fork of Cave Creek
Birds were few and far between but were good when they arrived, and included a splendid male WILLIAMSON’S SAPSUCKER, and more ARIZONA WOODPECKERS, HAMMOND’S and GRAY FLYCATCHERS, TOWNSEND’S SOLITAIRES and YELLOW-EYED JUNCOS.

Williamson's Sapsucker

Portal/Paradise Rd
After a thorough search we finally came up with three MEXICAN CHICKADEES hanging out with an excitable flock of BUSHTITS and YELLOW-EYED JUNCOS, about 1/4 mile along the Paradise Road, coming from the junction with the ‘main’ road heading from Portal over the mountains.

Mexican Chickadee

Willcox Twin Lakes
We finally dug out some SCALED QUAIL, and a large flock of SANDHILL CRANES were loafing by a seasonal pool.

Las Cienegas
Another try for Grasshopper Sparrow came up empty. Where have they gone?

Las Cienegas

Las Cienegas

Friday Dec 20:

San Rafael Valley in the snow

San Rafael Valley
A final attempt to land an ammodramus sparrow on our list failed, with another quiet morning in the San Rafael Valley, which before long was covered in snow. A WHITE-TAILED KITE was a welcome sideshow.

Patagonia Mountains

Patagonia Lake
The deep water towards the dam produced a couple of new birds for the tour, a female REDHEAD and a male COMMON GOLDENEYE. At the shallower eastern end, side-by-side views of perched NEOTROPIC and DOUBLE-CRESTED CORMORANT were instructive. A VIRGINIA RAIL called from the cattails but refused to show, unlike a SORA. An angry mob of wrens and kinglets led us to a roosting GREAT HORNED OWL. Yet more HAMMOND’S FLYCATCHERS were found, along with a GRAY FLYCATCHER and a wintering ASH-THROATED FLYCATCHER, but once again the trogon remained hidden.

Sonoita Creek at Patagonia Lake

A roost near the cemetery had numerous TURKEY and BLACK VULTURES.

Anza Trail, Tubac
A quick look for the Sinaloa Wren at dusk came up empty.

Saturday Dec 21:

Anza Trail, Tubac
We finally heard the SINALOA WREN give a few ratchet calls and a burst of song, but never got a visual.

Near Tucson Airport
A reliable BURROWING OWL spot came up with the goods.

Saguaro National Park East
It took some doing, but we finally got three GILDED FLICKERS in cold and windy conditions.

Saguaro National Park East

Sam Lena Park
A very quick visit produced exactly what we’d hoped for, four male and three female HOODED MERGANSERS.

Santa Cruz Flats
Our last birding in a hectic 12 days produced FERRUGINOUS HAWK, PRAIRIE FALCON, a late BARN SWALLOW and our target and 200th species, CRESTED CARACARA. It was time to head to the airport in Phoenix and say our goodbyes.

It was so refreshing to spend time with really sharp British birders who were a pleasure to be with. Great tour!


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