The last time I visited Arizona was the first time I visited Arizona. During the summer of 2005, my family embarked on one of our most ambitious cross-country camping trips, driving through the Rockies from New York to California and returning by way of the desert southwest. Our time in the state was focused on visiting the National Parks: Grand Canyon, Petrified Forest, and Saguaro. Although my 13th birthday was still more than a month away, I’d been watching birds since before I could hold binoculars. At the time, I was just starting to keep track of my official life list. Most of the species I added to my scribbled journal entries were conspicuous, common birds like Cactus Wren and Gila Woodpecker. I was pretty happy with my limited introduction to the beautiful scenery and wildlife of the area, but as I grew older I came to realize just how much I had missed out on.
My records indicate that I tallied about half a dozen new species during my brief time in Arizona. A few years later, my buddy Brendan Fogarty returned from Camp Chiricahua with tales of nearly 100 amazing new birds seen over the course of a week and change exploring the mountainous sky islands. For the next decade or so, I was awestruck by photos and stories my fellow birders brought back from the region. I often thought about the passerines and hummingbirds I’d naively overlooked, dreaming of specialty birds like owls, warblers, and trogons that I should have gone searching for. This summer presented me with a chance to finally return and settle the score. Armed with 13 more years of experience, the magic of eBird, and the wisdom and counsel of my dear friend Ben Barkley (who has guided wildly successful tours in AZ), I felt well-prepared to take on southeast Arizona with a solo redemption road trip.
I arrived at Tucson International Airport around mid-morning on July 31st. After a brief visit to the rental car office, my first order of business was shopping for necessary supplies like water, sunscreen, and travel-friendly food. I finished stocking up relatively early, so I decided to head for the hills and revisit a few familiar locations from my last trip to Arizona. The most exciting bird observed on the drive out of town was a Zone-tailed Hawk, its talons clutching some recently captured creature. I birded the perimeter of the parking lot at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, marking Black-tailed Gnatcatcher as the trip’s first addition to my life list. A few more obvious desert species followed soon after, including a Rufous-winged Sparrow that I was able to record singing at close range. A brief tour of the Red Hills Visitor Center in Saguaro National Park was a nostalgic trip down memory lane, with the added bonus of encounters with Gilded Flicker and Canyon Towhee. Once I left the cactus-covered landscape of the desert behind me, I knew that I would be in all-new, personally uncharted territory for the remainder of the week.
Sweetwater Wetlands offered shade and a few vegetated ponds during the hottest part of the day, and avian activity was unsurprisingly livelier at this hotspot. I checked off a handful of lifers along with several more “long time, no see” species, such as Vermilion Flycatcher and Tropical Kingbird. Verdins were especially abundant, with lots of new fledglings fluttering through the foliage and chirping loudly. I took care to carefully inspect each of the gray fluffballs I saw, and I was rewarded with my first look at a Lucy’s Warbler. The sun was slowly starting to sink towards the horizon as I finished up on the trails at the wetlands, which I took as my cue to make my way towards higher elevation.
Early evening found me at the base of Madera Canyon, exploring the area around Proctor Road. Here, brushy grassland meets riparian woodland close to a convenient parking lot, making it a productive site for birding. Among the songs of Varied Buntings and Blue Grosbeaks, I heard the clacking vocalizations of two Yellow-billed Cuckoos calling from the trees. A nasal, mewling, double-harmonica call alerted me to the presence of Black-capped Gnatcatchers. I caught a glimpse of one hopping about in the shrubberies, my first “border specialty” of the trip and my 400th species in 2018. Although the original plan was to save my higher elevation targets for the following morning, I was encouraged by this prompt success and there was still plenty of light left. I continued up the canyon to get my first taste of birding in the sky islands.
It was just starting to get dusky when I reached Santa Rita Lodge, an effect that was enhanced by the vast shadows of the mountains during the final hour before sunset. This was my first opportunity to meet many of the characteristic inhabitants of Arizona’s wooded canyons. Hepatic Tanager, Bridled Titmouse, and Dusky-capped Flycatcher were all part of the sudden lifer influx at the inn’s feeders. I also heard my first Elegant Trogon, but the bird remained hidden in the canopy. The final act of the daily hummingbird show was a whirlwind of wings, with dozens of birds coming in to get one last hit of nectar before heading to roost. As I watched the Broad-bills and Black-chins battle for supremacy at the sugar stations, a much larger bird dashed in to take a position at the bar: my first Rivoli’s Hummingbird. I chatted with other nearby birders, asking if they wanted to join my nightbirding efforts once the lights went out. As soon as the sun had officially set, a Whiskered Screech-Owl began singing up the road by the amphitheater. It was followed by several Mexican Whip-poor-wills and a few Common Poorwills as the sky continued to darken, and we were treated to brief calls and a possible shadowy flyby from an Elf Owl. A family of Ringtails emerged from hiding and began feasting on insects attracted to the porch lights, providing great views of my first new mammal on the trip. Satisfied with my vacation’s preliminary outings, I drove out of the canyon to get some much-needed rest at the hotel.
I was up before dawn the following morning, kicking off my first full day in Arizona with a sunrise vigil at the Santa Rita Lodge. The Acorn Woodpeckers roving the property were joined by an Arizona Woodpecker, and a Violet-crowned Hummingbird put in a brief appearance at the feeders. I was pleasantly surprised to hear the distant hoots of a Spotted Owl vocalizing somewhere far away in the still dark canyon. An even bigger shock came when I was preparing for my hike at the Mount Wrightson Picnic Area up the road. I was still readying my gear in the parking lot when a series of harsh, screaming yowls echoed from the ridge above the trail: a Mountain Lion! Welcome to the wild! Birds aren’t the only cool critters in southeastern Arizona, and between the Ringtails and the heard-only Cougar I was off to a pretty great start on the mammalian front. The other new mammals tallied in the Madera area were Rock Squirrels, a Merriam’s Kangaroo Rat, Mexican Long-tongued Bats, and a White-nosed Coati, one of my most wanted targets for the trip. At Ben’s recommendation, I’d also purchased a butterfly guide and started taking notice of the insects I observed. Notable encounters at Madera included Dull Firetip, Zela Metalmark, Golden-banded Skipper, and Two-tailed Swallowtail, along with half a dozen other species. Spiny lizards and various whiptails were among the reptiles I managed to find. Of course, the birds were exceptional, too! Grace’s and Red-faced Warblers, Mexican Jays, Sulphur-bellied Flycatchers, Yellow-eyed Juncos, Greater Pewees, Plumbeous Vireos…the list just kept on growing.
After a very successful morning in the upper reaches of Madera Canyon, I began my journey east along Box Canyon Road. I passed through the territories of some interesting sparrows along the way: Cassin’s, Botteri’s, and the highly sought after Five-striped. I also got to meet the southwestern “Lillian’s” subspecies of Eastern Meadowlark, a possible future split candidate. The drive was mostly uneventful once I got onto the interstate, occasionally punctuated by sightings of roadrunners, ravens, and flycatchers. I turned off onto a gravel road just before the New Mexico border and headed south. A sudden storm, the trademark of the summer monsoon season in Arizona, rolled in out of the mountains, filling the dips and washes that crossed my path with rushing water. I chose to press on carefully but quickly, knowing that at any moment I could come across a stream too deep to ford and be forced to wait out the weather. Fortunately, I managed to make it back to the pavement without any serious trouble. I arrived at my destination just as the sun was setting, checking in for a three-night stay at the storied lodge in Portal.
The storm was long over when I awakened in the dark after my first night in Portal. I hadn’t realized that the town, being so close to the New Mexico border, received cell service from a state that was an hour ahead of Arizona. As a result, my phone alarm woke me up at 3:45 instead of 4:45. By the time I realized the mistake, I was already wide awake, so I decided to keep on going. There were no noteworthy nightbirds in Cave Creek Canyon, but a Hooded Skunk was a nice find. When daybreak slowly crept across the landscape, the birds of the lower canyon began calling out in chorus and waking up to hunt for breakfast. I finally got a good look at Elegant Trogons for the first time, watching a pair in the treetops at South Fork Road while the male aggressively barked at a rival on the edge of his territory. The Southwestern Research Station up the road was a rather lively place, teeming with wildlife and biologists alike. Approaching the hummingbird feeder area, I noticed familiar net-based contraptions hanging around each of the stations. Some of the local researchers were trapping and banding hummers, an activity I once got to assist with in Alaska’s Tongass National Forest. Up there, the only species we captured were Rufous Hummingbirds. During my brief time observing the operation in the Chiricahuas, I saw Broad-tailed, Black-chinned, Broad-billed, Rivoli’s, and Blue-throated Hummingbirds in addition to a few migrating Rufous. Not wanting to linger too long and miss all the action in the cooler morning temperatures, I left the banders to their work and continued to drive higher into the mountains.
As I came up on a stretch of road with an open meadow on the upslope side, I spied a pair of rotund birds crouched along the shoulder. The male’s brightly spangled plumage and bold, monochrome face lit up the shadowy vegetation where he was foraging. Montezuma Quail! This species is one of the most desirable specialty birds in southeastern Arizona, as well as one of the most difficult to track down. I was grateful that I had the good fortune to stumble onto these tricky targets at such close range. I used my vehicle as a blind to avoid startling the quail, but the questionable lighting and grassy clutter made decent photos a challenging prospect despite the crippling viewing opportunities. The birds gradually worked their way down the slope together and disappeared over an embankment, and I resumed my journey towards the peak.
I came across small groups of Mexican Chickadees several times on my way up the mountain. They were always accompanied by mixed flocks of other species like Bridled Titmouse, Bushtit, and Black-throated Gray Warbler. There were still a few birds I wanted that I knew were most reliable at these higher elevations, so I kept on birding until I reached the end of the road at Rustler Park. At the parking lot, a robust gang of passerines swept through the treetops in search of insects. Mexican Chickadees led the charge, followed by Pygmy Nuthatches, Brown Creepers, Painted Redstart, Hermit, Townsend’s, and Red-faced Warblers, and, to my great relief, a pair of Olive Warblers. Despite the name, the Olive Warbler represents a distinct branch of the songbird family tree that diverged its own way long before the sparrow/blackbird/warbler clade evolved. Like the Yellow-breasted Chat, the species is now classified in its own monotypic family. I’m fascinated by taxonomically unusual birds, so I always love checking off another unique family. This one was fun to track down, too! Having found all of my anticipated targets for the day, I started back down the slopes in the direction of Portal. A brief pause at Turkey Creek brought additional goodies for my butterfly list, including Marine Blue, Silver-spotted Skipper, and a stunning Arizona Sister that fluttered past too quickly for a photograph. While I rested at the research station feeders to input my eBird data, I was entertained by the hummers and a passing Chiricahua Fox Squirrel. All in all, another fantastic morning!
Back in town, I met up with Lori and Mark Conrad, who’d been put in touch with me through our mutual friend Donna Schulman. They had been offering me some great advice over the past few days, telling me to look out for the Ringtails in Madera and giving tips on where Elegant Trogons could be easily seen in Cave Creek. Over dinner, we swapped stories and made plans to go birding together the following day. I informed them that I had cleaned up basically all of my canyon and forest targets in the Chiricahuas, and they suggested we check out the species in the desert flats nearby. When we finished eating, I went for a short stroll through town and discovered a family of Elf Owls softly chatting with one another as they left their roost hole in the gathering darkness. I couldn’t see the tiny predators among the shadowed limbs of the tree, but spending part of the evening in their company was a pretty magical moment.
After another dawn visit to Cave Creek and a quick breakfast, I headed to Casa de Conrad to check out their fantastic backyard. Many residents of Portal have impressive feeder setups on their property, and a number of them have opened their homes to visiting birders. Gambel’s Quail, Pyrrhuloxias, orioles, sparrows, doves, and a variety of hummingbirds bustled about the yard, and a confiding Greater Roadrunner put on quite a show. A young Crissal Thrasher showed up just as we were getting ready to leave for the flats, a last minute sighting of a bird that I would’ve otherwise missed! Lori and Mark gave me a grand tour of Stateline Road and the Willow Tank, where we managed to track down Bendire’s Thrashers and connect with a few additional year birds. We also spent a chunk of the day at the George Walker House watching more cooperative feeder birds. We’d hoped to spot Juniper Titmouse at this location and the Paradise Cemetery, but apparently they’ve been unreliable this year and remained so during our searches.
When I temporarily split off from the Conrads to bird a bit on my own in the afternoon, I wound up driving through a monster storm complete with flooded roads, great peals of thunder, dramatic bolts of lightning, and even a little bit of hail. I had to pull over due to the lack of visibility on the highway, but the downpour ended just as quickly as it began. Over another delicious dinner at the Portal Peak Lodge, Mark and Lori told me that their rain gauge measured nearly 1.5 inches of rain in just 40 minutes! Arizona is a truly wild, incredible place. I thanked my new friends profusely for their advice and company, and I paid their kindness forward by sharing the Elf Owls down the block with a few newly arrived birders staying at the inn. One of the best aspects of birding is sharing the excitement with others who we meet along the way. The tiny, unassuming town of Portal, surrounded the natural marvels of the Chiricahuas, has a special knack for bringing out that joy and camaraderie in all of the adventurers who visit. My time here was absolutely a highlight of my vacation, but I knew there was plenty of excitement yet to be had.