Trip report: Arizona: Hopping the Sky Islands (Aug 2018) by Tropical Birding

Guided by Phil Chaon. This was a set-departure birding tour.

The sun beats down on a silent, bleak landscape. A single tumbleweed rolls by on a dusty breeze. Nothing stirs – sorry, but that is NOT Southeast Arizona! The Arizona we experienced is a land of lush canyons, cool piney peaks, and rolling grasslands, all full of life after the monsoon rains. It is a place where Cactus Wrens sing from every mesquite and the only obstacle in the wide-open road is the occasional Greater Roadrunner. The Sky Islands that define this region are the doorstep of the tropics, a place where a new biological world reaches into the edges of the US and gives a tantalizing glimpse of what lies to the south. Naturalists of all walks make the pilgrimage here to experience a place with one of the highest diversities of plants, butterflies, reptiles, and mammals anywhere in the US. Desert denizens like Elf Owls and Crissal Thrashers overlap with Mexican specialties Violet-crowned Hummingbird, Hepatic Tanager, and the king of the canyons – Elegant Trogon. Whether observing the glittering hordes of hummingbirds, studying the avian microcosm of the Saguaro Cactus, or searching for rare vagrants that could lurk in the deep sycamore-lined valleys, Southeast Arizona is always an exhilarating and rewarding place to bird.

We began with a journey up Mount Lemmon where we tracked down a fiery-capped Olive Warbler, a cryptic Zone-tailed Hawk and a crimson-blushing Red-faced Warbler at the scenic pine capped summit.

From here we traveled to the famed Madera Canyon where we had an early morning encounter with a rare Five-striped Sparrow and Southeast Arizona specialties like Painted Redstart and Arizona Woodpecker.
In the towering cottonwoods of nearby Tubac we managed to track down a stray nesting bird from south of the border – the silver-and-pink Rose-throated Becard.

Our travels into the rugged and remote canyons of California Gulch were rewarded with spectacular views of scarlet, azure and tyrian phenomenon – the Varied Bunting. Hanging on after dark we enjoyed a spectacular night sky graced with diminutive Elf and Western Screech Owls as well as one of the US’s two known pairs of Buff-collared Nightjar!

In the hummingbird oasis of the Huachuca Mountains we were swarmed by nearly a dozen species of glittering hummingbird including the spectacular trio of Lucifer, Rivoli’s and Violet-crowned! Not only were we treated to an incredible display of hummingbirds but also caught up with an adorable Buff-breasted Flycatcher, a pair of fierce and impressive Northern Goshawks and another striking Mexican vagrant – Rufous-capped Warbler!

At our last major destination, the Chiricahua Mountains, we explored the spectacular canyons of the region from our home base at the unparalleled Cave Creek Ranch! With backyard birds like Blue-throated Hummingbird, Painted Bunting and Whiskered Screech Owl it was hard to venture to explore elsewhere. We were certainly glad we did as our visits to nearby locations yielded treasures like Scaled Quail, Mexican Chickadee, Hepatic Tanager and Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher. Our final afternoon was capped off with an incredible experience with a family of Elegant Trogons, including recently-fledged young!
A final drive through the iconic Saguaro National Park brought us face to face with the wolves of the sky – Harris’s Hawks and our 12th species of hummingbird, the plum hooded Costa’s Hummingbird.

It was a truly memorable 10 days in a place that keeps surprising year after year!

Arizona: Hopping the Sky Islands Trip Report August 2019 (10.9 MB, PDF file).