Southeast Arizona: Hopping the Sky Islands

Arizona is well and truly on the beaten track; out-of-state and foreign birders have been streaming into the state for decades. For good reason! A surfeit of habitat diversity, combined with its privileged location on the Mexican border has given Arizona a list of more than 550 species. The southeastern corner of the state offers a delectable set of enticing birds, many of which are rarely seen north of here. For ABA listers, treats like Elegant Trogon, Spotted and Elf Owls, Montezuma Quail, Red-faced Warbler, and Five-striped Sparrow are hard to resist. On top of that, there are some of Arizona’s signature birds, from their well-chosen state bird, the Cactus Wren, to their “highway specialist”, the Greater Roadrunner. And, for family listers, Phainopepla and Olive Warbler are likely to provide entirely new families for many.


One of the attractions of Arizona is that it delivers top quality birding all year round. However, arguably the advent of the “second spring”, with the onset of monsoon rains in July and August, offers the very best time of all. All the celebrity species are still present, and they are supported by a luscious cast of hummingbirds. This is THE time to get the highest diversity of hummingbird species, not only in the state, but all of North America. The monsoon season can also be a good time to look for some of the rarities for which SE Arizona is famous – species such as Plain-capped Starthroat, Sinaloa Wren, Rufous-capped Warbler, Flame-colored Tanager, and a host of others have all been recorded in recent years.

Madera Canyon is a good place to track down Scott's Oriole
Madera Canyon is a good place to track down Scott's Oriole (Cameron Cox)

Day 1: Tucson. The tour starts with an afternoon meeting at Tucson airport (1:30PM). Sitting on a plain in the Sonoran Desert, we’ll be in good position to head right out as the afternoon starts to cool off, and start picking off desert species right off the bat. That is the beauty of Tucson – it is surrounded by excellent birding sites. Targets will include species such as Costa’s Hummingbird, Gila Woodpecker, Gilded Flicker, Verdin, Canyon Towhee, and Rufous-winged Sparrow. Night in Tucson.

Day 2: Mount Lemmon to the Santa Rita Mountains.Less than 15 miles away from Tuscon, this mountain and its extraordinary range of habitats illustrates why many birders choose to base themselves in the city. Leaving the city early, we not only avoid traffic, we get to experience the mountain waking up. We’ll head straight for the top of this sky island, and then work our way down through the habitats and birds through the morning. Lemmon is the highest of the Santa Catalina Mountains, reaching an elevation of 9157ft (2790m) at its highest point. The forest-covered summit area is usually 20-30°F cooler than the deserts below, which will make for a welcome break of the heat of the desert visible at its base. In the ponderosa pine forest at the summit we’ll be tracking down breeding Olive Warbler (in their own family, separate from all the other American wood warblers), Band-tailed Pigeon, and Cordilleran Flycatcher. We’ll also check the hummingbird feeders at a local restaurant, where Magnificent Hummingbirds are often present.

Arizona's
Arizona's "most wanted": Elegant Trogon (Sam Woods)

Working our way down the mountain, we’ll be birding within mixed forests of both open Pine-Oak and denser fir forests, at around 7,000ft (2130m). One of Arizona’s finest birds occurs within the cooler, shadier areas; the mouthwatering Red-faced Warbler. The same areas are also likely to yield Greater Pewee, Pygmy Nuthatch, and both Grace’s and Virginia’s Warblers. Moving lower still there will be areas of alders, cypresses and sycamores, which could produce different species again, including Arizona Woodpecker, Mexican Jay, or even the pretty Painted Redstart. Woodland and chaparral in this area are also good for Black-chinned Sparrow and Bridled Titmouse.

Once we reach the base, we’ll have returned into desert once more. Here we will search for anything missed the afternoon before, which may include Cactus Wren, Hooded Oriole, Black-tailed Gnatcatcher, and Curve-billed Thrasher. In the afternoon we’ll make our way south, out of the Catalina Mountains, and into the Santa Ritas. The night will be spent close to Madera Canyon. On this evening there will be the opportunity to search for some of Southeast Arizona’s famous nightbirds, as both Elf Owl and Whiskered Screech-Owl occur in this area.

Patagonia is the best place in North America for Violet-crowned Hummingbird
Patagonia is the best place in North America for Violet-crowned Hummingbird (Scott Olmstead)

Day 3: Madera Canyon to Rio Rico. Much of the day will be spent within this canyon, located within the Santa Rita Mountains south of Tucson. It is rightly regarded as one of the most famous birding areas in North America, with both a long list of vagrants and a star case of breeding species. Targeting this second group, we’ll spend some time in the lower canyon desert areas, looking for species like Scaled Quail, and Botteri’s, Cassin’s, Black-throated and Brewer’s Sparrows. In the canyon itself we’ll search for Northern Beardless Tyrannulet, Black-tailed Gnatcatcher, Varied Bunting, and Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher among others. Madera will also offer up our first shot at the “Star of Arizona”, Elegant Trogon, which occurs in the riparian woodlands here. Hummingbird feeders within the canyon are typically very productive, with a variety of attendants; regulars include Black-chinned, Broad-billed, and Magnificent Hummingbirds, while at other times, rarer species like Blue-throated, Berylline and White-eared Hummingbirds have been known to drop in. After much of the day in this beautiful canyon, we’ll hit the road and head south. Two nights will be spent in Rio Rico.

Day 4: California Gulch area. The morning will see us target two of the most wanted birds of the tour. Five-striped Sparrow, a Mexican species that barely makes it into the US at all, is best found on the scrubby hillsides here. This part of the state is also arguably the best for the stunning Montezuma Quail, a scarce and inconspicuous species at the best of times! Keeping a close eye for imposters among the overhead Turkey Vultures might also reveal their chief impressionist, the Zone-tailed Hawk among them. California Gulch is also an excellent place for the color smorgasbord that is Varied Bunting

One of the many
One of the many "Mexicans" we'll be chasing on this tour: Spotted Owl (Sam Woods)

In the afternoon we’ll visit the nearby Arivaca Cienega, a good spot to look for two local kingbird species – Thick-billed and Tropical – as well as Gray Hawk, and Rufous-winged Sparrow, (if we had missed it earlier in the trip). We may also make a visit to a nearby canyon for the rare Black-capped Gnatcatcher if they are in residence. A second night will be spent in Rio Rico.

Day 5: Patagonia to Sierra Vista. The tiny town of Patagonia is located within the Sonoita Creek Valley, and is one of the most revered rarity locations in all of North America. Wetlands close to town could yield Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks, while nearby partially wooded areas give us a shot at the weird and unique Phainopepla. Other local breeding species include Western Wood-Pewee, Band-tailed Pigeon, and Abert’s Towhee. It is also a good area for Tucson Audubon’s well chosen cover bird, the gaudy Vermilion Flycatcher. Another of our primary targets will take us on a visit to the famous Paton’s feeders, where we’ll keep a sharp eye out for the dapper Violet-crowned Hummingbird amid the more common (but no less good looking) Broad-billed. Switching habitats, we’ll also head south out of the valley and onto the San Rafael Grasslands, where we’ll look for the local race of Grasshopper Sparrow and “Lilian’s” Eastern Meadowlark (a potential future split). In the afternoon, we’ll make our way east to the city of Sierra Vista, an excellent base for exploring the Huachuca Mountains, which are clearly visible from within the city itself. Two nights will be spent in Sierra Vista.

Beautiful Painted Redstarts inhabit forests in the Sky Islands
Beautiful Painted Redstarts inhabit forests in the Sky Islands (Scott Olmstead)

Day 6: Huachuca Canyons. A full day will be spent birding the various canyons that cut the Huachuca Mountains. Carr Canyon, to the south of the city, will occupy much of our time. The pine-oak woodland here plays host to a number of high-value targets, including Buff-breasted Flycatcher, Greater Pewee, Red-faced Warbler, and Hepatic Tanager. Depending on the year, we may visit Ramsey Canyon, with its excellent birding and hummingbird feeders. Among the 14 species that have been reported here are regulars such as Blue-throated, Broad-tailed and Black-chinned, and the chance at rarities like Berylline, Lucifer, and White-eared Hummingbirds. As the hummingbird situation changes, both seasonally, and annually, the choice of which feeders to visit will be dictated by the latest news of sightings. There are also feeders and good birding offered at both Miller (which holds the single US day record for hummingbird species), and Ash Canyon (traditionally the best place to find Lucifer Hummingbird). Miller Canyon also gives us a shot at the iconic Spotted Owl. Another night will be spent in Sierra Vista.

Day 7: Huachucas to the Chiricahuas. A final morning will be spent in one or more of the local canyons (Ramsey, Carr, Ash, or Miller), chasing whatever we still need, before forging on east to Portal, in the Chiricahua Mountains. As we make our way across the flat desertlands between the sky islands of the Huachucas and the Chiricahuas we’ll keep a keen eye on both the roads, and the surrounding desert, as we will be traversing prime roadrunner country. In the afternoon, as we pull into the tiny town of Portal, we’ll check out some local feeders where birds like Scaled and Gambel’s Quails, and Crissal and Curve-billed Trasher can sometimes be found. We’ll settle into Portal for a three-night stay.

Vermilion Flycatcher brings color to the deserts
Vermilion Flycatcher brings color to the deserts (Sam Woods)

Days 8-9: Chiricahua Mountains. We’ll have two full days to explore the diverse birding opportunities provided by the eastern Chiricahuas. While this is a tour of Arizona, we will make a brief foray over the state line into New Mexico, to the town of Rodeo, in search of the local Bendire’s Thrasher, as well as another shot at Scaled Quail. The area around the nearby hamlet of Paradise provides some different habitats, and we’ll check some well-placed feeders for Juniper Titmouse, and hummingbird feeders here give us our best shot at the diminutive Calliope Hummingbird.

The higher reaches of the eastern Chiricahuas, where we’ll spend a good deal of our time, provide both welcome relief from the heat of the lower elevations, and a different mix of birds. Nowhere else in the US offers as good a shot at Mexican Chickadee and Yellow-eyed Junco! We’ll also have another shot at several birds we’d looked for in the Huachucas, including Red-faced and Olive Warbler, Greater Pewee, and Hepatic Tanager.

The iconic Portal Peak
The iconic Portal Peak (Sam Woods)

And there is Cave Creek Canyon, one of the most illustrious birding sites in the country. Not only will this offer up an excellent chance at tracking down the iconic Elegant Trogon, a treasure trove of other birds occurs in this shaded canyon. Local and much-desired birds like Arizona Woodpecker, Painted Redstart, Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher, and both Plumbeous and Hutton’s Vireos all call this gorgeous spot home. The Chiricahuas, like most sites visited on this tour, also boast a healthy crop of extreme rarities over the years too, and we’ll keep an ear to the ground for anything that might have shown up! These two nights will be spent in comfortable lodging within Portal, within spitting distance of many of the surrounding birding hotspots.

Day 10: Portal to Tucson (departure). After a few final hours birding (possibly stopping at the Willcox Wetlands; one of the best wetland sites in AZ), we’ll depart for Tucson to connect with afternoon flights out. Flights should be booked for no earlier than 1PM.

Arizona has the best hummer feeders in the entire country
Arizona has the best hummer feeders in the entire country (Andrew Spencer)

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TRIP CONSIDERATIONS

PACE:Moderate. There are some early starts to be out before the heat of the day (we will typically leave the hotel at 5:30-6am); long days spent in the field; and there are some hikes up canyons, on uneven trails required. There are not many long drives on this tour; the longest being of around 3 hours on days 7 and 10. Some lunches may be taken in the field, from fast food sandwich stores or similar.

PHYSICAL DIFFICULTY:Moderate. Most of the walking will be along good trails, and along roads. There are likely to be a few optional uphill hikes into canyons, which could be up to around 2 miles (3km) in length. On average around 2 miles (3km) will be walked daily. Elevations on this tour are generally between 4000-5000 feet (1200-1500m), but will reach up to 9000 feet (2750m) on two days.

CLIMATE: Days will be warm to hot and nights cool. At this time of year daytime highs in the 90s Fahrenheit (early 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.

PHOTOGRAPHY:Although this is a birding focused tour, there will be good opportunities for the casual photographers, as there are many feeder sites on this tour (e.g. Madera Canyon, Sierra Vista area, Patagonia and Portal).

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 run.

OTHER INFO:

TRAVEL REQUIREMENTS:A valid passport is required for non-US citizens; the passport must be valid for at least six months past your intended stay. Most foreign visitors to the USA need to APPLY FOR AN ONLINE ESTA BEFORE LEAVING THEIR COUNTRY OF RESIDENCE. Travel requirements are subject to change; if you are unsure, please check with the nearest embassy or consulate, or ask our office staff for help.

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 scope and 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; a printed and bound checklist to keep track of your sightings (given to you at the start of the tour – only electronic copies can be provided in advance).

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.