February-March weather in NW Montana can be brutal, so when mr. giddy thing suggested a month-long trip to SE Arizona, we eagerly donned our snowbird wings (ok, we lugged our camp trailer) and headed south. We arrived in Tucson, AZ during a week of cold, blustery weather — temps in the 30-40s° F, winds 10-30 mph — even a dusting of snow on the valley floor (!) and heavier snowfall in the mountains. Despite cool temps and often relentless winds, birding was productive, exciting, and incredibly fun.
My last trip to SE Arizona was 5 years ago, so I was primed to hit the many birding hotspots the region is so famous for. SE Arizona’s world-class birding owes to a confluence of factors: a crossroads meeting of the Sonoran and Chihuahuan deserts; ~50 “sky island” mountain ranges connecting Mexico’s subtropical Sierra Madre with the temperate U.S. Rocky Mountains; variable topography and elevation creating a stack of life zones supporting astounding biodiversity; and a bi-seasonal rainfall pattern that creates a “second spring” and opportunities to see Mexican birds. The mix of endemic, migrant, breeding, and wintering birds means good birding in all 5 seasons.
We covered a lot of ground on our trip. For our collective sanity, I’ll limit Part 1 to a couple habitat types with birding hotspots noted and some photos of the birds seen. I’ll table the rest for a future DC or Daily Bucket.
In ~3 weeks of AZ birding, I tallied 159 species, 4 of which were life birds.
Riparian Corridors (Sweetwater Wetlands, Avra Valley Wastewater Treatment Plant, Canoa Ranch Conservation Park, Agua Caliente Park, Patagonia Lake State Park, De Anza Trail-Tubac, Sierra Vista Environmental Operations Park, Paton Center for Hummingbirds, Peña Blanca Lake)
These were among my favorite sites to bird, especially Sweetwater Wetlands for its beautiful ponds, towering cottonwoods, and overall avian diversity. I visited 3 times and always saw a different assemblage of birds. Patagonia Lake was another favorite for all the waterbirds and the chance to search for a couple species on eBird’s Rare Bird Alert (Snowy Egret, Clark’s Grebe).
Desert Scrub & Grasslands (Saguaro National Park, Tucson Mountain Park, Las Cienegas National Conservation Area, Tubac Presidio State Historic Park, Tucson Botanical Gardens, Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum)
This habitat category includes the iconic saguaro/ocotillo/cholla forests surrounding Tucson; scrubby-shrubby associations of palo verde, ironwood, catclaw acacia, mesquite, jojoba, and creosote bush; and the arid grasslands around Sonoita, AZ. These classic Sonoran Desert habitats were especially fun to bird due to openness, outright gorgeousness, and presence of unique birds.
My fourth lifer of the trip was a Thick-billed Longspur observed in a mixed flock of Chestnut-collared Longspur and Horned Larks at Las Cienegas National Conservation Area. They were a long distance away, so no photo, but plenty of thrills through the spotting scope. My nemesis birds of the trip were LeConte’s Thrasher and Olive Warbler, which I’ll try to catch next time.
In Part 2 I’ll report on the birds seen in SE Arizona’s pine-oak woodlands and mixed-conifer forests. Thanks for joining the trip on Part 1!
Dawn Chorus is now open for your birdy reports of the week!