Arizona Photo Tour: Monsoon Wings of Southeast Arizona

This is a Photo Tour. The goal of the tour is to get great photos of certain species. A majority of our targets are Arizona specialties that are best seen and photographed during the monsoon season. A lot of time will be spent with each individual species, and the size of the trip list is not a priority. If you are a birder more than you are a photographer, then our Southeast Arizona: Hopping the Sky Islands Tour. would be a better option.

For details of how Tropical Birding will be operating this tour, here are our guidelines and tour practices: Safety Tour Regulations and Policy.

Southeast Arizona is one of those birding destinations that can be good at any time of year, although is arguably at its best during the monsoon season, when usually at its wettest and greenest. At this time of year a burst of new life occurs, and many bird species are best photographed at this time. This is especially true of the hummingbirds, one of the key groups visiting photographers wish to spend time with, and there is no better area for this on the continent. On this tour we will visit feeder set ups where Broad-tailed, Rivoli’s, Lucifer, Berryline Hummingbirds are all possible, in addition to North America’s largest species, the bold Blue-throated Mountain-Gem.

Among the hallowed mountain destinations that will feature are Ramsey Canyon in the Huachuca’s, Cave Creek Canyon in the Chiricahua’s, and Madera Canyon in the Santa Rita’s, which all have high value birds to photograph both at feeders and in the field. The forests in these sky islands are home to vibrant species like Elegant Trogon, Red-faced Warbler, and Painted Redstart, while the desert areas below host Gambel’s Quail, Greater Roadrunner, Gila Woodpeckers, Varied Bunting and the difficult to pronounce, Pyrrhuloxia. This part of Arizona provides plenty of stunning landscapes in which to photograph too, an often missed feature of this destination. This tour should appeal to those from the east, wanting to experience the vastly different western birds, but also those who have visited Arizona in a different season, or in a different year. There is so much to offer in Arizona it justifies multiple visits for no two single seasons are the same.



Day 1: Arrival in Tucson. Following afternoon arrival in Tucson, you will be transferred to a local hotel for the night. No photography is scheduled for this day where acclimatisation to the altitude is suggested. Tucson lies at 2000ft (610m), although some of the later sites will reach 4500ft (1370m).

The tour will begin in earnest with a group dinner in the evening, where the Tropical Birding guide will also introduce some photography concepts like light, composition and camera settings in preparation for the next day’s photography. A single night will be spent near the airport in Tucson.

We will seek roadrunners at some of the desert photo sites
We will seek roadrunners at some of the desert photo sites (Ben Knoot)

Day 2: Tucson to Portal. An early start will see us on the road east towards Portal, located beside the Chiricahua Mountains, close to the border with New Mexico. Before we reach the mountains, we will traverse desert, where impromptu stops may produce birds like sharp Black-throated Sparrows, comical Greater Roadrunners, the hard to spell Pyrrhuloxia, and vibrant red-and-yellow Western Tanagers. By late morning, we will have arrived in Portal, and will begin by visiting one of the local feeders, where southwest specialties like Scott’s Oriole, Gambel’s Quail, and Ladder-backed Woodpecker may turn up, along with hummingbirds like Lucifer’s and Broad-tailed.

Blue-throated Hummingbird heads up more than ten species of hummingbird possible on this tour
Blue-throated Hummingbird heads up more than ten species of hummingbird possible on this tour (Ben Knoot)

Following lunch, we will turn our attentions to another feeder set up at the Southwestern Research Station, with a particularly large target bird in mind, North America’s largest hummingbird species, the exotically named Blue-throated Mountain-Gem. Aside from this targeted photography, roadside species may offer opportunities too, like Rufous-crowned Sparrow, Black-headed Grosbeak, or if we are really fortunate, Montezuma Quail! Late in the afternoon we will try and photograph a local specialty, the Crissal Thrasher. Two nights will be spent in Portal, right at the epicenter of local birding sites and feeding stations.

The beautiful Bridled Titmouse is one of many specialties offered here
The beautiful Bridled Titmouse is one of many specialties offered here (Ben Knoot)

Day 3: Chiricahua Mountains. Remaining in the Portal area, our focus on this day will be different, the day before will have featured multiple desert birds. However, this day will see us focus on the birds of the sky islands, or lush forested slopes, above the deserts. The photography is trickier here, but arguably the avian rewards are greater. The forests of ponderosa pines, oaks and junipers in Cave Creek Canyon are home to Elegant Trogon, Painted Redstart, and Arizona Woodpecker, among others. While, higher up in the mountains, other species become possible, like Mexican Chickadee, Juniper Titmouse, Yellow-eyed Junco, Olive Warbler, Pygmy Nuthatch, and the gorgeous Red-faced Warbler. In some years, daytime Spotted Owls are also around.

Elegant Trogon is one of the major specialties on this photo tour
Elegant Trogon is one of the major specialties on this photo tour (Ben Knoot)

Day 4: Portal to Sierra Vista. On this day we’ll head south along the Stateline Road that divides Arizona and New Mexico. Our primary target for the morning will be the local Bendire’s Thraser, which often sings out in the open during the early morning before retiring into desert thickets for the remainder of the day. Our journey along this desert highway may also yield other southwestern birds like Scaled Quail, Lark Bunting, Lark and Botteri’s Sparrows, and Swainson’s Hawk.

After lunch and checking into a hotel in Sierra Vista, we will stop in at another famous birding locale, Ash Canyon B&B, where feeders await with the exciting possibility of a visiting Montezuma Quail or Lucifer Hummingbird to peak our interests. This feeder visit will swiftly be followed by another in Miller Canyon, yet another iconic birding site in the region. This particular canyon is famous for hummingbirds, with feeders attracting a rich variety (up to 15 species have been recorded), and we will be on the lookout to photograph some of the scarcer species, more likely in this monsoon season, like White-eared and Berrylline Hummingbirds. The best variety and abundance of species occurs during good monsoon years, within this very season. Other hummingbirds on the agenda might be Anna’s, Rivoli’s, Costa’s and Rufous Hummingbirds to name a few. While we cannot be sure of the species mix present on any given day, there will be plenty of hummingbirds to keep us enraptured! Two nights will be spent in Sierra Vista, close to several canyons in the Huachuca Mountains.

The monsoon season is fantastic for hummingbirds
The monsoon season is fantastic for hummingbirds (Ben Knoot)

Day 5: Huachuca Mountains. From our base in Sierra Vista, we will be in easy reach of two excellent birding locations, Carr Canyon, and the legendary Ramsey Canyon, both in the Huachucas. Starting in Carr, a winding road will lead us into the cooler forest near the top, where some stunning vistas are available for fans of beautiful landscapes. Warblers will be on our minds, with Grace’s, Virginia, Red-faced, and Olive Warblers all possible, in addition to the dashing Painted Redstart from this same magnetic family. Western Bluebird, Greater Pewee, and the very scarce Buff-breasted Flycatcher are all regional specialties found there too with some luck.

Burrowing Owls always make for a great photoshoot!
Burrowing Owls always make for a great photoshoot! (Ben Knoot)

Southeast Arizona is so revered as a birding region that another epic site is never far away, and this day is no exception, as we visit Ramsey Canyon in the afternoon. This site offers a combination of open country photography on the way in (Gray Hawk, Canyon Towhee, Western Kingbird), leisurely photography at their feeders (Rivoli’s, Black-chinned, Broad-tailed, Rufous, Broad-billed and Anna’s Hummingbirds), and also trails, where Wild Turkey, Mexican Jay and Hepatic Tanager might be found.

Arizona is a haven for sparrows, with this Black-throated being abundant in the desert
Arizona is a haven for sparrows, with this Black-throated being abundant in the desert (Ben Knoot)

Day 6: Sierra Vista to Madera Canyon via Patagonia. We will begin by departing west for Patagonia, visiting the famous Paton’s Center for the morning. This small reserve is yet another good one for hummingbirds, with Violet-crowned Hummingbird being their particular specialty. Other feeder birds may include Bewick’s Wren, Gila Woodpecker, and Lesser Goldfinch. Away from the feeders a local stream can draw in birds like Gambel’s Quail, Phainopepla, and Blue Grosbeak. Nearby, we shall try the only reliable site in the US for Thick-billed Kingbird, although they have been quite unpredictable in recent years. Near this area we also have a fantastic chance for Black-capped Gnatcatcher and Common Black Hawk.

After an exciting morning at one of Arizona’s premier reserves, we shall depart north for the Santa Rita Mountains, just south of Tucson. In the afternoon, we shall drop into another canyon, Madera Canyon, where birds like Elegant Trogon, Bridled Titmouse, Dusky-capped and Sulphur-bellied Flycatchers, and White-breasted Nuthatch are often photographable. A single night will be spent in Madera Canyon.

Gilded Flicker is a southwestern desert specialty
Gilded Flicker is a southwestern desert specialty (Ben Knoot)

Day 7: Green Valley. Within the Green Valley, just south of Tucson, (and only a short drive from Madera Canyon), lies Elephant Head Pond. This small, private reserve has been constructed by the local property owner specifically with desert wildlife photography in mind, so is peppered with well thought out perches and dug-out blinds, which make it an irresistible place to photograph desert birds and other animals at close quarters. Canyon Towhee, Cactus Wren, and Hooded Oriole are all possible, along with rabbits, squirrels and lizards that regularly drop in to this well-watered area. Staying in Green Valley will allow those who wish to do so, to return to the location after dinner for something quite different, bat photography!

The handsome Pyrrhuloxia is a target at some of the photo blinds we will be visiting
The handsome Pyrrhuloxia is a target at some of the photo blinds we will be visiting (Ben Knoot)

Day 8: Santa Ritas to Tucson. The day’s destination will be another in the Santa Ritas, Box Canyon, just north of Madera Canyon. However, even on the short journey to it, there is likely to be plentiful photo opps. Sage, mesquite, ocotillo and palo verde fields offer us great chances at another Arizona specialty, the Varied Bunting, while Gray Hawk regularly nests on the way up to the canyon, both worthy stops! Other species that could very well delay us getting there, include Black-throated Sparrow, Pyrrhuloxia, Northern Cardinal and Phainopepla. Once at Box Canyon, birds like Scott’s and Hooded Orioles, Blue Grosbeak, and Canyon and Rock Wrens are all possible, and the top end of the canyon hosts one of Arizona’s rarest nesting birds, the handsome Five-striped Sparrow and if we’re lucky a Rufous-capped Warbler.

After lunch we shall travel back to Tucson (perhaps via a pair of Burrowing Owls if they are around), spending the afternoon at the wonderful Arizona Sonoran Desert Museum, photographing desert species among the huge saguaro cactus that litter the grounds. Among these could be Verdin, Cactus Wren (Arizona’s state bird), and Curve-billed Thrasher. The night will be spent in the Oro Valley, just north of Tucson.

Cactus Wren is Arizona's state bird
Cactus Wren is Arizona's state bird (Ben Knoot)

Day 9: Arizona Desert Photo Retreat. This retreat is owned and designed by a professional photographer, with wildlife and bird photography in mind. A series of blinds and perches make desert photography easy. This ranges from stunning landscape shots of the cactus studded property, to a range of birds and animals, which may include American Kestrel, Gilded Flicker, Bullock’s Oriole, roadrunner, Northern Cardinal, and a series of towhees and sparrows that come in regularly. This will provide a dramatic end to the tour, surrounded by tame desert birds and dazzling “desertscapes”. At the end of the day, we will retire to our original Tucson airport hotel for a final night.

Day 10: Departure from Tucson. You will be transferred from the hotel to the airport for morning, midday flights out. There are no activities planned for this day, so you can leave whenever you wish to.

Scaled Quail approaches one of the feeders
Scaled Quail approaches one of the feeders (Ben Knoot)

Southeast Arizona boasts more hummingbirds than anywhere else in North America
Southeast Arizona boasts more hummingbirds than anywhere else in North America (Ben Knoot)

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TRIP CONSIDERATIONS

PACE: Easy – Moderate. There are some early starts to be out before the heat of the day. The days are long, but we usually have a nice break midday to get out of the heat. The birds do the same, so we aren’t missing much by doing this. There are some small hikes up canyons needed for some of the target birds that do not come to feeding areas. Some of these hikes are done on rocky, uneven trails.

PHYSICAL DIFFICULTY:Easy – Moderate. Most of our photography is going to be along a road, at feeding stations or up a small trail that requires a bit of walking. Elevations on this tour are generally between 4000-5000 feet (1200-1500m). Most of our time will be spent standing, sitting or short walking periods. There are not many long drives on this tour because we hop from one area to the other. The longest drive is 3hrs or so from Tucson to Portal.

CLIMATE: Days will be warm to hot and nights cool. At this time of year daytime highs in the 90s Fahrenheit (low 30s Celsius), and nighttime temperatures in the low 60s Fahrenheit (16 Celsius) are expected. This tour is timed for the second spring/monsoon season, and therefore some rainfall is expected.

ACCOMMODATION: Good to excellent throughout, with full-time electricity, hot water and en-suite facilities at the standard motels used everywhere. All places used have Wi-Fi Internet.

WHEN TO GO:Arizona makes for a good destination year round, although hummingbird diversity and a more comfortable, cooler climate comes in July-August, when this tour is scheduled.

PHOTO PHILOSOPHY: This is a photography focused tour. We will be visiting feeding stations, and going to places where opportunistic photography is abundant but not necessarily easy. The guide will be using playback where permitted, and necessary to provide the best photo opportunities. Playback and the speaker will not be used if the bird is actively nesting and where deemed prohibited.

GEAR: For bird photography, generally a lens set-up of at least 300mm is recommended. Something similar to a 100-400mm is recommended. The optimum camera set-up is a DSLR or equivalent mirrorless. Bridge cameras are welcome, but there will likely be more opportunities with a DSLR or mirrorless camera.

A tripod is not necessary on this tour, but will be useful in some places if you choose to bring one. In general, for bird photography, tripods can often delay getting shots (when away from feeders), and so a monopod can often be a better option.

OTHER INFO:

TRAVEL REQUIREMENTS: For US citizens, there are no special travel requirements. Citizens of Canada may enter the US with a valid passport, and do not need to obtain a visa. For citizens of the 38 countries on the visa waiver list (including the UK, Western Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Chile, and Japan), you can enter the US with a valid passport and a completed Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA), which can be applied for online. For all passports, the passport must be valid for at least six months past your intended stay. Citizens of all other countries will need to apply for a US visa. Travel requirements are subject to change; please double check with the nearest embassy or consulate, or ask our office staff if you are unsure. Those who need to apply for an ESTA or Visa should do so long in advance of the tour, as these can take days weeks to be issued.

WHAT’S INCLUDED?: Accommodation from the night of day 1 to the night of day 9; meals from dinner on day 1 to breakfast on day 10; spare drinking water in the vehicle when required; Tropical Birding tour leader (who is also the tour driver) with audio gear from the afternoon of day 1 to the morning of day 10; airport shuttle to the hotel in Tucson for arrival; one group airport drop off on day 10; ground transport for the group to all sites in the itinerary from the afternoon of day 1 to the morning of day 10 in a rental vehicle; entrance fees to birding sites mentioned in the itinerary.

WHAT’S NOT INCLUDED?:Optional tips to the Tropical Birding tour leader (who is also the driver on this tour); tips for any luggage porters used; international flights; alcoholic beverages; travel insurance; excursions not included in the tour itinerary; extras in hotels such as laundry service, minibar, room service, telephone calls, and personal items; medical fees; other items or services not specifically mentioned as being included.