May 21 – Before breakfast we made our way to Agua Caliente Park, a lovely park situated in suburban Tucson, with water features, palm trees and desert scrub habitat. Birding was good here, as usual, and we picked up several goodies during the hour and a half we explored the area. Just before we reached the park we pulled off to the side of the road to view several Purple Martins along the telephone wires. Interestingly, this desert S.W. population of Purple Martins breed in cavities in saguaro cactus! At Agua Caliente, just as we got out of the car, a family group of Lucy’s Warblers were showing off nicely. Another real highlight here was an up close and personal look at a Northern Beardless Tyrannulet.
We returned to our hotel, had breakfast, and then headed off on another great adventure, the trip up to the top of Mount Lemmon in the Santa Catalina Mountains. The twisty drive up the road took us from about 3500 feet to over 9000 feet at the top of the mountain. Along the way, we stopped several times, finding some spectacular birds. Our first stop at Cypress Picnic Area was very good, and we had a cameo appearance of a stunning Painted Redstart here, as well as good looks at Grace’s Warbler, Hepatic Tanager, Bridled Titmouse and several other species. Second stop, at Chiricahua Pine Picnic Area, was equally good, with Dusky-capped Flycatcher, Spotted Towhee, Black-throated Gray Warblers and some very confiding Yellow-eyed Juncos.
We had lunch at Rose Canyon, where the highlight for many was seeing a pair of Cooper’s Hawks near their nest. The male of the pair flew in and sat on a branch right in front of us, seemingly oblivious to our presence, and carried on to pluck its prey, a Pygmy Nuthatch. In Bear Wallow, the cool shady confines of the draw made for very comfortable birding. An abundance of Red-faced Warblers was certainly welcomed by tour participants, all of which who had great looks at this stunning species. We also had several Olive Warblers, as well as more usual species such as Yellow-rumped and Orange-crowned warblers. Birds of a decidedly ‘Canadian’ flavour included American Robin, Steller’s Jay, Hairy Woodpecker, Common Raven, and Brown Creeper. Up at the top of Mount Lemmon, at the Iron Door restaurant, even though the feeders appeared empty and a vicious wind blew, we still saw Magnificent and Broad-tailed hummingbirds. Near the mountains 9100 foot summit we had good looks at a pair of Western Bluebirds. As we drove back down the mountain we gazed in awe at the stunning scenery.
May 22 – Our morning began at Sabino Canyon where we took the tram up to stop 9 at the top of the paved road, and were serenaded by the narration of a very chatty fellow who blared over the loud speaker. He pointed out various trees and cactus species, as well as prominent landmark features in the canyon such as Thimble Peak, Eagle Rock and the Acropolis Wall. We got off the tram at stop 6 and walked down to stop 2, finding some excellent birds along the way. Perhaps the best sighting was a male Varied Bunting, spotted by leader Russell Cannings. We all had very good looks at this uncommon, and beautiful bird of the arid S.W. Several Black-tailed Gnatcatchers also put on a good show for us, displaying all the key field marks.
Another fantastic find in the canyon, Russ spotted a Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher, a bird not typically found in the Santa Catalina Mountains. Black-throated Sparrows showed off very well as we waited for the tram to take us back to the visitor’s center. A plethora of lizards were noted as we strolled down the canyon, with Ornate Tree Lizard, Clark’s Spiny Lizard and Sonoran Spotted Whiptail tallied. Around the visitor’s center we had lunch and then I found a Greater Roadrunner strutting alongside the edge of the parking lot! Phew, roadrunner pressure off finally as the group had fantastic views of this iconic desert species.
We spent the afternoon strolling the grounds of the Sonoran Desert Museum near Tucson. Each person went their own way to explore what they wanted at the museum, but we all saw several bird species. There were Gila Woodpeckers, Black-headed Grosbeaks, Black-tailed Gnatcatcher, Red-tailed Hawk and Hooded Oriole about to name a few, as well as many Cactus Wrens.
The drive to Green Valley took about 30 minutes and we settled into our comfortable rooms before dinner. After dinner we met once again and made our way to the Santa Rita Mountains and Madera Canyon to do some nocturnal birding. On the way we saw several Lesser Nighthawks sitting on the paved road and occasionally fluttering about in search of insect prey. In Madera Canyon we had great success, first with seeing North America’s smallest owl, the Elf Owl. This tiny desert denizen was perched high in an Alligator Juniper and was seen well by all, illuminated in the flashlight’s beam. Moments later we were staring at a gorgeous Whiskered Screech-Owl, while a second bird called nearby.
As we watched the screech owl, a Mexican Whip-Poor-Will called up the canyon several times. Next stop was along Proctor Road where we heard the distinctive call of a rare Mexican nocturnal bird, the Buff-collared Nightjar! Several Common Poorwills called here as well to top if off. What a splendid evening of nocturnal birding!