Arizona Birding with Avocet Tours – The finale

May 29 – After an early breakfast we left Douglas and drove N.E. towards the tiny town of Portal. Along the way we were treated to excellent views of a pair of Chihuahuan Ravens at a nest atop a telephone pole. As one of the birds preened, we could see the telltale white bases to the neck feathers, indicative of this mostly Mexican corvid species. We had a tantalizingly brief view of a Burrowing Owl as it sat atop an agave along the roadside, then promptly flew to his burrow and disappeared. Swainson’s Hawk, Scaled Quail and other birds continued to delay our arrival in Portal, but that was ok! Before we headed into Portal proper, we birded the State Line Road area, with Arizona to the west of the road and New Mexico to the east of the road. Several Greater Roadrunners were noted this morning, and with a bit of effort we ended up with good views of one or maybe two Bendire’s Thrashers, on the New Mexico side. Black-tailed Jackrabbits dashed back and forth across the road, causing some excitement and Heather and Jane found another Gopher Snake!

We picked up our bagged lunches in Portal and made our way up towards Paradise, an area of arid juniper vegetation. Here, with some effort we added new species to the trip list; Juniper Titmouse and Gray Flycatcher at the Paradise Cemetery of all places. Climbing higher and higher into the Chiricahua Mountains, we stopped in an area of burned forest and tried repeatedly to get good views of a Black-chinned Sparrow. Some people, if they were lucky, got excellent views of this rather handsome bird, while others merely got an in-flight view as it skirted from bush to bush. In the distance we could the quivering whistle of Montezuma Quail!

Higher up the mountain yet, we had lunch at Rustler Park where cool temperatures and a brisk wind kept us grabbing for more layers. After lunch we walked through the pine forest, at elevation 8400 feet, searching for a few key target birds. Suddenly Russell yelled to me from the bottom of a ravine ‘I think I have a Montezuma Quail’, or something to that affect. We all plunged into the ravine in search of this most secretive quail in North America, and several people had various views of the birds flushing, but nobody got stunning views. Russ and clan guessed there were at least 3 present, with one being a male. As we searched for the quail, I stumbled upon our other big target for the day, a Mexican Chickadee! The bird was feeding in a little Douglas Fir about 5 feet off the ground. We had excellent views, noting the more extensive black bib and the raspy calls of this local and rare chickadee, not normally found farther north than the Mexican border. Our drive back down the mountain to Portal was scenic as usual with Cave Creek Canyon and its red rocks a dominant feature. In the canyon itself we paused for a little bit, tallying good day birds like Painted Redstart, Dusky-capped Flycatcher and Hutton’s Vireo, but that was about it. No trogons.

Back in Portal we explored the town, if you can even call it that, where we found some roosting Great Horned Owls, with the help of a local resident. She was watering her garden when I asked her if she ever saw the Great Horned Owls. She said, ‘There’s one roosting right there across the street’, and sure enough there it was. In the end we saw two adults and a fluffy fledgling Great Horned Owl.

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Great Horned Owl chick in Portal, AZ. Our 8th owl species for the tour! May 2014. Chris Charlesworth.

Another rather nice sighting, as the lady who told us about the Great Horned Owl was watering her garden, a female Blue-throated Hummingbird appeared and carried on flycatching from the low branches of a tree right in front of us!

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Female Blue-throated Hummingbird in Portal, AZ. May 2014. Chris Charlesworth.

We had an enjoyable dinner at the Portal Peak Cafe before beginning our drive back to Douglas. Not long after we left, we encountered an exciting reptile, an Ornate Box Turtle, as it crossed the paved road. Luckily neither mine nor Russ’s van hit the turtle.

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Ornate Box Turtle near Rodeo, NM. May 2014. Chris Charlesworth.

Our next ‘interruption’ came in the form of several Mule Deer along the side of the road in the desert. Surprisingly these were our first Mule Deer on the Arizona tour, and they were actually in New Mexico. As we looked at the deer, we suddenly noticed what a gorgeous sunset was playing out in front of us. Out came the cameras again and we snapped the pink sky over the mighty Chiricahua Mountains.

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Spectacular sunset over the Chiricahua Mountains, AZ. May 2014. Chris Charlesworth.

Were we ever going to make it back to Douglas? We stopped again at the Burrowing Owl site, where unfortunately it was getting awfully dark and hard to see. Russ and I angled our mini-vans so that the headlights pointed in the general direction of where the owl had been earlier in the day, and sure enough there he was! At least two Burrowing Owls put on a nice show for us, hovering as they hunted over a grassy field, then perching so we could look at them through the scopes.

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This was the scene along Hwy 80 between Portal and Douglas, after having great views of Burrowing Owls! Photo Russell Cannings.

May 30 – Leaving Douglas early in the morning we made the drive towards Portal where we birded the State Line Road once again. We couldn’t spot any Crissal Thrashers but we saw one more Bendire’s Thrasher. After a quick stop in Portal, we hopped into driving mode and began heading for Willcox. Once we arrived at Willcox, it was hot and sunny. The white alkali sands surrounding the water beamed bright white and almost hurt the eyes! There were a few birds around, with several species new for our trip. We got our only gulls of the trip here at Willcox, where Bonaparte’s, Ring-billed and California gulls were present. Our first and only Blue-winged Teal were seen here on the golf course pond, along with a Cinnamon Teal and Ruddy Duck. Numbers of White-faced Ibis fed along the muddy edges while Horned Larks patrolled everywhere else. I tallied about 20 of them. Two times we pulled up to hides and found a pair of Scaled Quail hiding from the hot sun inside them. This was our final birding stop of the trip, sadly. After lunch in Willcox, we headed for Tucson where we stopped to stretch our legs, then we finished the drive to Phoenix. Since all of us were staying at the same hotel we had dinner together and tallied up our bird lists to find that as a group we had seen 198 species of birds on the trip!  Add to that list an array of mammals, butterflies, reptiles and amphibians.  It was a real treat birding with this group, as we all got along nicely. Russell was great and kept us on our toes. I hope everyone else enjoyed this trip as much as I did!

Chris Charlesworth

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