Before COVID-19 changed all of our lives, Cindy and I had plans for a number of trips in 2020. The first would be to visit friends in Arizona and then other trips would be to Florida, Cuba and maybe Africa. These trips would give us a chance to see how we traveled together both on our own and as part of a group. They would be trips that included birds and birding but would also have other activities as well – good first steps to see how Cindy would react to my birding travel and to see how I might change previous travel patterns to include birds but with my foot somewhat off the accelerator in terms of pace and concentration. None of those trips happened so those questions remained a mystery but the ensuing year allowed us to get to know each much better and to strengthen our bonds and familiarity. There had been a few successful fun local car trips and we felt pretty good about expanding our travel horizons. When we were able to both get our vaccines, we returned to the previous plan of a visit to Southeast Arizona. It worked out very well.
I had visited Arizona in November last year chasing some rarities and new ABA life birds or photos. It was pre-vaccination, but with the airports relatively empty and the flights no more than half full and everyone fully masked, I had felt safe. Despite a significant number of vaccinations, the pandemic infections continue, albeit at a decreased pace, and jets and airports are relatively full again. Without our vaccinations, we would not have felt good about travel, but those vaccinations gave us a sense of freedom and safety – a good thing as all our flights were completely full and there were crowds at the airports. Thankfully everyone was wearing masked, although there continue to be some folks who do not fully comply with the need to cover both mouths and noses – aarrgh!!
Our trip would start with a visit to a friend of Cindy’s who lives in the community of Marana, a bit north of Tucson. The weather was great and a visit at the clubhouse was to be a nice catchup in person after what had previously been by Zoom meetings only. In our talks about birds in Arizona before departure, Cindy expressed her excitement about two possibilities: a Vermilion Flycatcher and a Greater Roadrunner and I promised her we would see both. It does not always work out this way, but immediately as we got out of our car at the Marana Clubhouse, a male and female Vermilion Flycatcher flew out from a nearby tree to grab some insects unseen by us. A great start to the birding part of the trip and the visit with our friend was wonderful as well.
Our next scheduled stop was to be with friends in Green Valley, south of Tucson. On the way up to Marana, I had noticed a sign for an exit to Ina Road and I remembered that that was where I had turned off last November to look for a Northern Jacana that had been seen regularly from the bridge over the Santa Cruz River. It was only a five minute diversion, so on our way to Green Valley we stopped to see if we could locate it. Two other birders were on the bridge with cameras and binoculars but the Jacana was not visible. A couple of minutes later, it flew out from what must have been almost directly under the bridge and disappeared upriver. It was some distance away, but I spied it on the edge of the cattails just barely out of the water. Not the best of views, but given its rarity, certainly a great bird for Cindy’s growing life list.
“Green” conjures up “lush” and “valley” is generally defined as a low area of land between mountains or hills with a watercourse running through it. I don’t think I missed it but the only mountains were many miles away, few and isolated, and there was no river or stream to be seen in the desert scrub. There was green but only in the golf courses and plantings that were scattered among the housing developments. Perhaps Green Valley is more an emotional declaration as it is a pleasant creation in the otherwise drab continuum of browns and tans repeated in the colors of the desert and the houses people have built there. There is plenty of blue sky, sun, and dry air that was merely hot in early April would soon be replaced by hotter and even hotter as the summer arrives. Many of the inhabitants will return north to cooler climes which they had departed when the rains and snow and grey had threatened in the winter preceding. It might appear from my description that I dislike the area. A better statement would be that I liked it very much in a small dose but would tire of it quickly in longer stretches – even with the many birding attractions close at hand. I am not a sun person and neither golf or tennis, or the tennis substitute of pickleball are part of my life. But they are for many of the Green Valley inhabitants and that is a positive thing as all, well most, passions are contributors to an enjoyable life. More importantly good people are such contributors and our hosts were certainly that. Good food, good drink and good conversation with great company in a lovely home that was our abode for two nights.
The next morning our hosts took us first to a small lake at Encanto Park where I saw most of the very few waterfowl of our visit and then it was off to the Sonoran Desert Museum. The Museum is a wonderful collection of all things desert including especially many native plants and especially many cacti. There is an aviary and a number of animal exhibits but perhaps related to this past year of Covid changes everywhere, the numbers of animals in the exhibits and birds in the aviary seemed low and disappointing. There were some wild birds though with our first Cactus Wren and Phainopepla being the best.
The cacti were spectacular with far more species and varieties than I could have imagined. I did not want to imagine having to travel through the desert and getting pricked by any of them. On the way back to our hosts’ beautifully furnished and decorated home, we again detoured to the Ina Road bridge over the Santa Cruz River. They are not birders so getting to see the Northern Jacana was experienced by them differently than adding it to a list, but in many ways that was a better way to see this rarity, appreciating its uniqueness, rarity and mystery.
At home eating is mostly on a schedule and especially for my breakfast, pretty routine – tea, fruit and a flakes/granola mix about the same time each day. Lunch is generally light around noon and dinner varies but is also within a fairly set time range. On vacation, calories mount and routines disappear. A leisurely and larger and later than usual breakfast with our friends on their patio in already warm temperatures and bright sunny blue skies was the welcomed pattern of both our mornings with them. Each time we were accompanied by numerous bird visitors: House Finches, Lesser Goldfinches, Gambel’s Quail, Gila Woodpeckers, Curve Billed Thrashers, Canyon Towhees, both Mourning and White Winged Doves and Anna’s and Black Chinned Hummingbirds regularly and a few other species on occasion including Northern Cardinal, a species I always forget is in Arizona and I hope one day will make an appearance in Washington.
After breakfast on our last day with our friends, we went together to Madera Canyon, a famous birding area that is less than 30 minutes from their home. If I lived there, I expect I would visit it everyday. I first visited Madera Canyon in June 1977. I was not a “lister” at that time although I roughly kept track of new species seen. In 1977 I am sure there were many more species seen there, but the one that jumps out of my old record is a Varied Bunting. Forty years later I returned to Madera Canyon on a marvelous Wings Birding tour in early August 2017. Special species seen were Mexican Whippoorwill, Whiskered Screech Owl, and Arizona Woodpecker. It was not real birdy when our foursome visited this month, but it was the first real Arizona birding experience for Cindy with many observers and birds coming in to strategically placed feeders. The first time anyone sees a Broad Billed Hummingbird, there is likely to be an “omigosh” exclamation. When three are on the same feeder and then a Rivoli’s Hummingbird joins in, it is a memorable moment for sure.
As usual the Wild Turkeys put on a show and we were able to see an Arizona Woodpecker among many Acorn Woodpeckers and I also found a Red Naped Sapsucker when the rest of the group drove up canyon and I remained near the feeders hoping for some rarity to appear. Mexican Jays were numerous and loud and other specialties included Bridled Titmouse, Yellow Eyed Junco and a Scott’s Oriole.
After another enjoyable lunch on the patio, it was time to thank our hosts and head south. We would be spending the next three nights at the Casa de San Pedro near Hereford and would have plenty of time to explore the surrounding area including the Canyons of the Huachuca mountains. Our first exploration would be at Battiste’s Bird Garden. I had not been there before but had been given a head’s up about it from Ken Blankinship, a superb bird guide in the area who unfortunately was booked up solid during our stay. Tony Battiste has been running this B and B for 20 years and has had nesting Elf Owls there every year. We stopped by to see what was there then and to get the skinny on the best way to see the owls. A $10 donation per person gets you access and includes coming back in the evening for the owl show. Tony was in the yard when we arrived and we enjoyed talking with him. The only new birds for the trip were a Cassin’s Finch and a Cassin’s Kingbird. More importantly we got some recommendations for restaurants nearby (there are very few in the area without going in to Sierra Vista – not the prettiest town). We also learned that we could count on the owls appearing at the nest hole around 6:45 p.m. Our plan was set. Check in at Casa de San Pedro; have dinner at the Mexican restaurant at the intersection of Highway 92 and Hereford Road and be back at Battiste’s around 6:30 that evening.
I had stayed at the Casa de San Pedro during my Wings Tour in 2017. It was perfect. It has been run by Carl and Patrick for two decades and caters to birding guests and others. The rooms are comfortable and the setting superb with many bird feeders, a pond, trees, shrubs and brush and adjacent to trails along the San Pedro River. The breakfasts are world famous as are the pies that are set out in the dining room every afternoon. After checking in, grabbing a piece of pecan pie was our first order of business.
There were many birds and some birders at the Casa when we arrived, but after the pie, our attention was on a brief rest and then off for our dinner at Ricardo’s. The food was good and we were easily able to get to Battiste’s by 6:30. The Elf Owls nest in a telephone pole that is front and center in the yard and viewing chairs were lined up and partially filled when we arrived. Tony told us the history of the owls on the property and that there had been quite a show the previous evening with the pair actually copulating for several seconds (a long time for bird copulation) in the open. There were no guarantees of anything other than at least an appearance in the nest hole before the owls flew off. A Rufous Hummingbird was zipping around the area and a Curve Billed Thrasher was “whooting” and I am sure there were some other birds, but we were there for the owl show. I had not promised Cindy that we would see owls, but did include a probability of that in my sales pitch to pique her interest in the trip.
We learned that the female had poked her head out of the nest hole briefly before we arrived. Thankfully it would not be the last time as maybe ten minutes after we arrived the tiny owl face appeared in hole #4. Would she return back in, fly off, perch, disappear? She went back in for only a second and then poked her head out again. It was show time.
The Elf Owl is the smallest owl in the world – less than 6 inches and weighing less than 1.5 ounces – astonishingly small. After another 5-10 minutes the owl flew out of the hole and perched on a branch on a tree in the open. One of the people there was a birder/photographer with a giant telephoto lens on a top of the line tripod with an also top of the line flash attachment. This was his fifth year trying to get a photo of the Elf Owl perched in the open. This was his day – or rather his evening – as it was for all of us, as the diminutive owl remained in plain view for several minutes. Tony held the owl in his flashlight giving it a somewhat yellow tone but increasing the visibility. My camera does not have a flash but I got some okay photos in the decreasing light and others with that yellowish cast.
As it perched on the branch above us, it began to communicate with the second owl still in the nest with soft calls and then the second owl came out of the nest hole. The first owl moved back out of the open and it was joined briefly by the second and then they both flew over us and perched in branches on the tree behind the nest pole. There was a split second copulation, some more communication and then they were off. The show was over, but it had been quite a show with a very pleased audience. This was the 9th species of owl that Cindy has seen or heard in the U.S. – not bad for a non-birder.
The next morning we had the first of our three incredible breakfasts at the Casa de San Pedro, prepared a little early for us since we were going out with a guide at 8:00. There is always some baked good specialty in addition to juice, fresh fruit and usually eggs with some meaty addition or creation. On vacation we were not counting calories. I birded a bit around the Casa before joining our guide, Matt Brown. It is a very bird rich environment and in less than 30 minutes I had seen more than 30 species with my favorites being Black Throated Sparrow, Green Tailed Towhee, Summer Tanager, Pyrrhuloxia, Verdin and both Calliope and Costa’s Hummingbirds.
There was no set plan to bird with our guide but we let him know we would be particularly pleased to see a Roadrunner and a good look at a Pyrrhuloxia would be great. We found no Roadrunner in this really good habitat for them but we did find a photo friendly Pyrrhuloxia. Otherwise it was just an opportunity for Cindy to get a taste of birding in Southeast Arizona. We birded in separate cars as a nod to safety while COVID 19 still accompanies us, starting with the roads leading back to Highway 92 with our first planned stop being at Ramsey Canyon.
I had visited Ramsey Canyon in November last year and had brief views of my lifer White Eared Hummingbird. It was too early for this hummer, but other species were around and easy to see. No special hummingbirds (or maybe all hummingbirds are special) but we had good looks at Broad Billed, Broad Tailed and Rivoli’s Hummingbirds, Mexican Jays, Wild Turkeys, Bridled Titmouse, Arizona, Acorn and Gila Woodpeckers, Canyon Towhee, Yellow Eyed Junco among other birds we had already seen. Of special interest were Scott’s Oriole and Painted Redstart.
When I was there last November, I stayed at the Ramsey Canyon Inn B&B which was for sale at the time. There are now new owners and Cindy had a tour and was favorably impressed. She really liked the Casa de San Pedro, so I am encouraged that we will be returning. After Ramsey Canyon we drove through nearby residential areas heading towards the “Harris’s Hawk Stakeout Spot”. At one spot Matt heard a Rufous Winged Sparrow. We stopped and easily located it singing from atop a close by tree. These sparrows are regular in many parts of Southeast Arizona but were rare in this particular area. Nice to get a photo. Not too much further along, Matt called out “Roadrunners” and we saw two on a big open field behind a No Trespassing sign. Not the greatest of views, but Cindy was happy to see them and now I had delivered on all of my promises.
Harris’s Hawks are regular but uncommon in Arizona where I had not seen one and far more common in Texas where I have seen them on several occasions. I have also seen them in Peru. Matt said to look on every post, building and tree because a pair was definitely in the area. We finally found one perched atop a radio tower. Not a great view but unmistakably a Harris’s Hawk. I have included a picture of that bird and a much better picture from Texas. They are very striking birds. I once met a falconer on the Waterville Plateau in Washington who had a pair that he used in his commercial pest control business. He put them on a par with many of his falcons in their successful hunting. This was one of four species I added to my Arizona state list on tis trip.
Unfortunately we had to change plans with Matt as an unexpected personal matter for him came up, and we cut the day short just after noon. Matt was a fun person, great birder and good guy. He was as much into natural history in all forms as he was into birds and we would have learned a lot more and seen more birds if we had been able to spend more time together. After we parted ways, we decided to head over to the Coronado National Monument (which was disappointing) and then continue up to Montezuma Pass. There were not a lot of birds and the road was definitely one you would not want to do with a big trailer. At the top we could see quite far in all directions including into Mexico and we definitely had a view of that atrocity called “the Wall” – an expensive eyesore that extended for many miles. Also at the Pass, there were several White Throated Swifts – another new state bird for me.
Earlier we had heard that some Montezuma Quail had been seen by birders on Turkey Tract Road which leads up to the Ash Canyon Bird Sanctuary. We were not successful finding the Quail but we had a nice visit to the Sanctuary. I had been there in 2017 on the Wings trip including a fun visit with Mary Jo Ballator who had started a Bed and Breakfast at her home at the base of Ash Canyon in 2002. On our visit we were successful in finding our target, a Lucifer Hummingbird, the only one I have ever seen. Mary Jo’s place was the best place in North America to find this species. Sadly Mary Jo passed away in 2019 and the fate of the property, a favorite of thousands of birders, was unknown. A GoFundMe effort covered temporary costs but the future looked bleak – until a major benefactor donated the funds necessary to purchase and preserve this birding gem. Now we would reap the benefits of this generosity and purpose.
Rather than catalog the birds seen on this visit, I will add them to a further discussion from a second visit later. After an hour at the peaceful garden of the sanctuary we returned to Casa de San Pedro for another piece of that yummy Pecan Pie and then some other activities which will go undetailed here. No owling this night, we dined at the Pizzeria Mimosa, the other restaurant at the junction of Hwy 92 and Hereford Road. The food was much better than the name would suggest.
The following morning was the best of our breakfasts with a pastry that rivalled my favorite Kouign Amann from The Breadfarm in Edison, Washington and a ham filled empanada for which scrumptious is not sufficient to describe its marvelous taste. Before breakfast I had walked and birded the grounds at just after dawn and found 24 species with little effort. The Vermilion Flycatcher is the logo bird of the Casa and a flycatching pair were my first species of the morning.
To the red of the Flycatcher, I soon added the subtler red of a Summer Tanager, the orange, yellow and black of two male Western Tanagers, rare for the time and area, the orange and black of two Hooded Orioles, the browns and tans of Say’s Phoebes and Canyon Towhees, and the black and white patterns of the multitude of White Crowned Sparrows as I was continuously buzzed by the Broad Billed, Black Chinned and Anna’s Hummingbirds and distracted by flights of the many Yellow Rumped Warblers and Mourning and White Winged Doves, sometimes catching the pale blue around the doves’ eyes. A feast before the feast.
After breakfast we headed back to the Huachucas, more precisely to Miller Canyon and Beatty’s Guest Ranch. I had visited it in 2017 without much luck and this would be the status of this visit as well – at least in terms of the birds, but dogs, they were another question. The owner or perhaps he is the owner’s son joined us at the blind with at least 7 of his Redbone Coonhounds – beautiful strong dogs that are his hunting companions – and at least for 15 minutes this day were my buddies as they seemed to take a liking to me and were very friendly. Gorgeous animals that I can imagine tracking and cornering a cougar, as their owner said they had indeed done. A fun part of our visit but not for the birds, so we headed off to the next place on our list – the San Pedro House and Trails. We had heard great recent reports but found it rather quiet despite a long walk along the river. In the river, we found a pair of Mexican Ducks – recently split off from Mallards as a separate species. There was a fleeting glimpse of a Gray Hawk, a species which is known to breed there and a much better look at an Ash Throated Flycatcher.
A bit after noon, we returned to Ash Canyon where there were dozens of birds coming to feeders and to seeds on the ground. There had been a number of Cassin’s Finches the previous day but today it was only House Finches, Lesser Goldfinches and many Pine Siskins. A pale Lazuli Bunting had been seen the previous day and returned briefly this day as well. Generally the same birds we had been seeing elsewhere but in a very comfortable and amiable setting with friendly birders sitting around two feeder areas. A Cooper’s Hawk was around and without warning to the birders, all the birds would flush as one or the other would give an alarm call noting its presence. Two Ladder Backed Woodpeckers joined the always present Gila Woodpeckers – new for the trip. We heard Wild Turkeys but they never made an appearance. Like most other places we had visited, the place was abuzz with Yellow Rumped Warblers – their movement always giving hope that something new and special had arrived.
It was a very peaceful and pleasant time and our increased familiarity with the species was especially helpful to Cindy for whom this was all new. Then suddenly pleasant became extremely exciting as two Greater Roadrunners approached the area where we were sitting and then first one and then the other came into the sanctuary directly in front of us with sun behind us and directly on them. Photo ops everywhere. One of the Roadrunners remained on or near a rock for at least 10 minutes as if it was posing at a photo studio raising and lowering its crest and giving us great views of each feather and the colorful skin patch behind its eye. Cindy had been happy enough with the two distant Roadrunners we had seen with Matt Brown. This intersection was immensely better. It could only have been improved by an appearance by Wile E. Coyote. [An aside: Roadrunners do love to run and they are fast but they also can fly and they are not all that fast with a typical speed of 15 mph and a top speed of maybe 26 mph. The Ostrich is the fastest running bird and cannot fly. It has been clocked at 45 mph.]
The Roadrunner show lasted for at least 20 minutes, prolonging our stay and heightening our appreciation for the place which should be on everyone’s list who visits the area – even without the Lucifer Hummingbirds. Just as a reminder of my previous visit and further enticement for a future one, I am including the Lucifer Hummingbird seen there in 2017. It is not a great photo – the chance to improve it is another reason to return.
This was to be our last night at the Casa de San Pedro and we would be having an early dinner there, so we headed back to relax, shower and enjoy the food – this time preceded by cherry pie. This dinner was not prepared by Carl and although good was far surpassed by the breakfasts. The best part though was visiting with two other guests, Frank and Leslie Buck from Cleveland who we had also seen at Ash Canyon. They were very generous sharing wine they had brought and like most birders do, we traded stories including many from visits to Magee Marsh which is almost home territory for them and was one of the first places Cindy had birded with me when she joined me very early on in our relationship back in 2019 when I was in the middle of my 50/50/50 Birding Adventure.
At Ash Canyon, I had a chance to try Frank’s new camera setup – a Canon R5 full frame mirrorless camera with a100-500mm telephoto lens. The pictures were incredible and it got me to thinking about going that route rather than adding the newly released Olympus 150-400 mm Pro lens with a built in 1.4x extender that I have on order. Photo equipment envy is dangerous.
I got out early before our last breakfast at Casa de San Pedro to walk the grounds. Once again, it was bird rich. At least one of the Western Tanagers made another appearance and I saw a Greater Roadrunner run through the front area. I was able to see a bit of white on one of the Raven’s necks and was good with a Chihuahan Raven ID. I had not tried to ID the many ravens we had seen in previous days and expect there had been a mix of Common and Chihuahan. A Swainson’s Hawk flew past and shortly afterwards, I saw a dark raptor with a long tail and white at the back of the primaries fly low over the trees near the river. I got my bins on it but could not track it with my camera. It was a Zone Tailed Hawk – almost exactly where one had been seen the previous day. Before coming down on this trip I thought or at least hoped there was a chance for a Common Black Hawk. I have only seen this species once many years ago and it is one of relatively few species seen in the ABA Area without a photo. Unfortunately I had missed the prime time for this species which was late March and early April. If I had tried in another area, there would have been an outside chance. My heart had raced when I first saw the dark Zone Tail, hoping for a Black Hawk miracle – not to be, but a Zone Tailed Hawk is a great consolation prize.
When a I birded the street in front of the Casa I heard an unfamiliar call which I thought at first might be the bill rattles and coos of the Roadrunner but it did not match my app sounds. Later I spoke with Carl as he was preparing breakfast and he said he had heard a Yellow Billed Cuckoo that morning. I listened to the playback and that was it. I wish I had recognized it earlier as I probably could have found it perched somewhere. I had seen a Blue Gray Gnatcatcher there the previous morning and found two more this time. I also found two very nondescript birds that I thought at first were either female Verdin or Bushtits. Both were possible but a little better view and some clearer thinking told me they were Lucy’s Warblers, a species that was not but should have been on my radar screen of possibilities,
Our last breakfast had even more calories than earlier ones but somehow we managed to clean our plates. After a very lovely stay it was time to leave. We thanked our hosts and vowed to return. The Casa’s website is bedandbirds.com. Look them up and visit – the website if not the Casa itself. We had plenty of time to work our way back to Tucson where our flight would leave that evening. There was one more place that was on my go to list – the Paton Center for Hummingbirds in Patagonia. It was after 10:30 when we got there and like all of our other similar stops, there were lots of hummingbirds visiting the well kept feeders and other birds were there as well. The prime goal was to see a Violet Crowned Hummingbird. This is the go to spot for them and we had one visiting a feeder within moments of arriving. There may have been other species as well, but the only other hummers I noticed were Broad Billed – real beauties especially when nicely paired with the Violet Crowned.
We had three other new species for the trip at this location: Inca Dove, Black Phoebe and Black Headed Grosbeak. The latter is just now showing up in Washington and the first would be a new state bird and would draw large crowds. We also had a better look at a Lazuli Bunting (not yet in Washington) and some more Lucy’s Warblers.
Since we were in the area we also visited the famous Patagonia Roadside Rest Area first made famous by being the spot to see Thick Billed Kingbirds. They are not back there yet so not seen by us. We also visited Patagonia Lake which was overrun by campers and families escaping the heat. Not much of a lake to us but in this part of Arizona I guess it looks good. We heard a few birds but frankly wish we had not bothered to stop after our visit to Paton’s Center for Hummingbirds which was so lovely and friendly. We had not realized it at the time but the Paton Center had been closed due to Covid 19 restrictions until the day before we visited. Great timing.
We made a last stop on the way to the airport – the touristy town of Tubac with many shops and many shoppers. There was nothing we had to have but did buy a small memento – definitely not from the large shop that had gigantic pro-trump and pro Wall signs. We did not see anyone else going in either – hope they go out of business. We misremembered our departure time and thus were back at the airport another hour earlier than we had to be – guess that was better than being an hour later, although that still would have been time to make the flight. The flight home was smooth and uneventful. It had been a wonderful trip, but as usually is the case, we were glad to be home.
We had fun and Cindy wants to go back, so this was a successful trip and I am sure we will return. We saw just under 100 species including many Arizona specialties and some real beauties. Don’t think any of them beat the Greater Roadrunners at Ash Canyon unless it was the many Vermilion Flycatchers or maybe the Elf Owls… or …