Wild West Birding in Arizona – Part 1

After a successful tour in Texas, I flew from Houston to Phoenix on April 20. I think the pilot of the United Airlines flight was either in training or completing his first official landing as it was one of the roughest landings I’ve had in my life. For the next two days as I awaited the arrival of my next group, I lived the hard life, mostly relaxing by the pool in the 30+ degree Celsius weather.

The group arrived from London-Heathrow at around 5 PM on April 22, and I whisked them off the hotel so they could get to bed. It was 4 in the morning U.K. time so they were rightfully tired.

The next morning we left Phoenix and headed slightly east to Gilbert where we spent a couple of hours at the Riparian Preserve at the Water Ranch. Birding here was great as usual, and being that we are a couple of weeks earlier than in previous years, the shorebird migration was in full swing. One doesn’t normally associate shorebirds with Arizona, but at a couple of places the shorebirds, or waders, as the ‘Brits’ call them, were numerous. The pools at Gilbert were alive with over a hundred lovely breeding plumage Long-billed Dowitchers, as well as dozens of Least Sandpipers, some Western Sandpipers, Spotted Sandpiper, Black-necked Stilts and lovely American Avocets. Great Blue Heron, Great Egret, Neotropic Cormorant and a few ducks were also added to the trip list.

Over a hundred Long-billed Dowitchers were at Gilbert Water Ranch today, April 23, 2014. Chris Charlesworth.

The mesquite trees and Palo Verde trees ringing the ponds had some migrant activity with Wilson’s, Yellow-rumped, and Black-throated Gray warblers, White-crowned Sparrows and a single White-throated Sparrow pointed out by a local birder. The White-throated Sparrow has apparently spent the winter at this location, and is otherwise a rare winter visitor. In the Saguaro Cactus were nesting Gila Woodpeckers, while Curve-billed Thrasher, Abert’s Towhee and Verdin were tallied as well. First mammals of the trip came in the form of several Desert Cottontails hopping about.

We had a long travel day today as we made our way from Phoenix to Portal, via Interstate 10. We paused in Tucson for some lunch, then  carried on to the town of Willcox with its famous sewage pond. I-10 is obviously not the road to speed on, as I counted 20 people pulled over by the cops between Phoenix and the New Mexico border. At Willcox the lake was covered in birds, again with many Long-billed Dowitchers, Semipalmated Plover, Least Sandpipers and a big hit with the ‘Brits’, about 100 Wilson’s Phalaropes. Side by side we had two Greater and two Lesser yellowlegs, excellent for comparison.

American Avocets showed off nicely at Willcox Lake, Arizona. April 2014. Chris Charlesworth

A lone adult White-faced Ibis was a good ‘tick’ for the trip list, and in the waterfowl department we had Blue-winged Teal, Gadwall, American Wigeon, Ruddy Duck, Mallard and Northern Shoveler. Several Horned Larks showed off nicely around the lake. Overhead a Swainson’s Hawk and a Peregrine Falcon competed for our attention, while the shorebirds scattered each time the Peregrine flew by. Say’s Phoebe, Western Kingbird and Barn Swallows by the dozen were in attendance as well. I had to angle the van just right at Willcox because the wind was so strong we had to use the vehicle as a windbreak so the scopes didn’t fly away.

On the way to Portal we saw several Chihuahuan Ravens, one of which showed off its white neck feathers nicely. When I was a kid, the field guides called this species the White-necked Raven, and it was obvious why when we saw this bird with his neck feathers ruffled by the wind. This evening, after dinner we strolled the lone street in Portal, tracking down the soft call of an Elf Owl. We had great views of this, North America’s tiniest owl, sitting in a giant sycamore tree. A great finish to our first day.

April 24 – Our day began at 6 AM as we made our way out to Cave Creek Canyon. It was chilly early in the morning down in the depths of the shady canyon. We decided it was 5 degrees Celsius at most. Birding was a little slow, but we picked up some goodies nonetheless. A pair of Dusky-capped Flycatchers squabbled in the mixed oak / pine forest, while a Hermit Thrush sat obligingly for all to see through the scope. A Northern Flicker wailed away from the top of a snag, while little groups of Mexican Jays crossed the road periodically. Now and then a little mixed flock of migrants would move through, and we picked up Black-throated Gray, Yellow-rumped, Wilson’s, Orange-crowned, and a lovely Virginia’s Warbler. Add to the mix Bridled Titmouse, Bushtit and Bewick’s Wren and we had ourselves a pretty decent morning. One fellow, Tony, really expressed he wanted to see American Robin and he was rather ecstatic when he finally saw one. Funny which birds people from overseas really want to see. Best bird of the morning though were two Montezuma Quail, male and female, that crossed the road right in front of us!  On our way back to Portal, a Collared Peccary slowly ambled across the road in front of us!

Chiricahua Mountain scenery. AZ. April 2014. Chris Charlesworth.

After breakfast we made our way up into the Chiricahua Mountains, stopping first at the Paradise Cemetery. It was getting warm and things were a little quiet here, but we still added a nice Gray Flycatcher here, as well as Black-throated Sparrows.

Black-throated Sparrow, Portal, AZ. April 2014. Chris Charlesworth.

Up at Rustler Park the birding was sensational. Just as we arrived several Hairy Woodpeckers and a female Williamson’s Sapsucker appeared, though the sapsucker didn’t hang around long enough for most of the group to see. There were Grace’s and Olive warblers dancing about in the pines, along with Pygmy Nuthatches, Brown Creepers and numbers of Yellow-eyed Juncos. Steller’s Jays were a bit hit with the crew. I tracked down a calling Northern Pygmy-Owl and we enjoyed extensive scope views of it, while Mexican Chickadees mobbed it.

pincushion cactus
Numerous wildflowers seen in the mountains today, with these lovely flowering Pincushion Cactus perhaps the star attraction. Chiricahua Mountains, AZ. April 2014. Chris Charlesworth

We bumped our way back down to Portal and spent a couple of hours exploring the one main street in town. We saw a surprising number of birds, including such gems as Pyrrhuloxia, Acorn Woodpecker, Green-tailed Towhee, Lazuli Bunting and Band-tailed Pigeons. We watched hummingbird feeders where Blue-throated, Magnificent, Black-chinned and Broad-billed hummers competed for top spot. At the seed feeders were White-crowned and a single somewhat lost White-throated Sparrow, Black-headed Grosbeak, Northern Cardinal and Inca Dove. At the drip we had great looks at a male Townsend’s Warbler. A group of Western Scrub-Jays passed through the sycamores, pausing briefly to scold a roosting Great Horned Owl, one of 5 owl species we had today!

Great Horned Owl, one of 5 owl species we had around Portal, AZ today. April 2014. Chris Charlesworth

After dinner we went back out to an area 5 minutes from Portal where we heard a Western Screech-Owl and had crippling views of a Whiskered Screech-Owl. Elf Owls were calling as well. A fine end to a great day.

Chris Charlesworth


2 thoughts on “Wild West Birding in Arizona – Part 1”

  1. It’s amazing the difference a few days makes for a location like Portal. When we were there there were far fewer birds but a Gray Hawk was present.

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