Arizona is the sixth largest of the United States behind Alaska, Texas, California, Montana and New Mexico and covers an area of 295,254 square kilometres. That makes it substantially bigger than the UK but with a population of only 6½ million people! In terms of the number of bird species recorded, it ranks third, behind only California and Texas, two states that have the obvious advantage of a coast line providing lots of seabirds and shorebirds.
We restricted ourselves to the southern portion of the state where we visited many of the well known birding sites that are familiar to us from multiple previous visits (this was Peter’s 19th time in Arizona). Some of this was part of an Avian Adventures tour but we spent a week on our own after the tour which included a few days spent with friends in Tucson when we even had some time off from birding.
Without doubt, Tucson is one of our favourite cities, not least because of its location close to such good birding areas. Sweetwater Wetlands, a wastewater treatment facility on the edge of the city is just the sort of place you would like to have on your doorstep. The nearby Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum is another must-visit attraction and then there are the Santa Catalina Mountains, notably Mt Lemmon. The city itself has several small parks that regularly turn up interesting birds and within easy reach there are countless other places to find birds.
Ruddy Duck - common on most lakes and not causing any problems!
Yellow-rumped Warbler - birds of the Audubon's variety were common.
There was plenty of snow left on Mt Lemmon.
In winter, the Sulphur Springs Valley, located between the towns of Willcox and Douglas is a great place to be birding. It’s a huge area and we made a couple of trips down there. It’s famous for its raptors and Sandhill Cranes. More than 16,000 Sandhill Cranes were counted while we were there – quite a spectacle!
Thousands of Sandhill Cranes
Red-tailed Hawk in its natural habitat, a power pole.
The San Rafael Valley is another area that is probably best in winter. The attractions here are again birds of prey but also sparrows, lots of sparrows and longspurs. It’s an area of extensive grassland with limited access but where a surprising number and variety of birds can be seen from the narrow road. We looked hard for Baird’s Sparrows but without success on this occasion. As it was, Chestnut-collared Longspur was probably our highlight here.
Horned Lark - a regular species in grassland areas.
The San Rafael grasslands are best approached from the small town of Patagonia where Patons’ Birders Haven is always on the itinerary. Wally and Marion Paton unfortunately passed away some time ago but for the past couple of years the feeders in their yard have been maintained by Michael Marsden and have continued to attract birds all year round.
Another must-visit site in this area is Patagonia Lake State Park. Always trying to avoid the crowds that result from its recreational uses, particularly at weekends, we always expect to see a few species that we don’t find elsewhere. In the past we have seen a wintering Elegant Trogon here and we were fortunate this time to find what may well be the same bird somehow making a living along the Sonoita Creek that feeds the lake from its eastern end. This was probably the bird of the trip for the Avian Adventures group.
The swellegant, Elegant Trogon.
We also spent a couple of nights in the Chiricahua Mountains in the extreme south-east of the state, even crossing briefly into New Mexico. Everyone we’ve ever taken to Arizona has loved the ‘towns’ of Portal and Paradise and nearby Cave Creek Canyon and although they're not at their best in winter we couldn’t resist going for a rare chance to be there on our own.
White-breasted Nuthatch - this one at the George Walker House in Paradise.
Out to the west of Gila Bend we had a good look at part of the 68,000-acre Paloma Ranch where we found a remarkable number of Burrowing Owls as well as plenty of Mountain Bluebirds, Western Meadowlarks, American Pipits, Horned Larks and a variety of sparrows. These and flocks of Red-winged Blackbirds and doves at the cattle feedlots were a ready food supply for the Northern Harriers, Red-tailed Hawks, Ferruginous Hawk and Merlin that we saw but it was less clear what an Osprey was doing there.
Burrowing Owl - always a favourite.
We also took a look at Madera Canyon and Florida Canyon (now a regular site for Rufous-capped Warblers); we had a walk along the San Pedro River and puzzled over empidonax flycatchers; we took a drive out to the famous ‘Thrasher Spot’ near Buckeye where we managed to see Sage and Bendire’s Thrashers as well as the main feature, Le Conte’s Thrasher; in the Community Park at Anthem (north of Phoenix and the furthest north we went), we were successful in finding the long-staying Rufous-backed Robin, one of several of this species present in Arizona this winter. Unfortunately, on a Saturday afternoon when the park was, to say the least, rather crowded with people, we failed to locate a Rusty Blackbird that has also been a long-stayer there.
Sage Sparrow - a sideshow when looking for Le Conte's Thrasher and much easier to photograph.
Rufous-backed Robin - braving the crowds at Anthem.
The Santa Cruz Flats, west of I-10 was where we went to find what we regard as one of the must-see species of a winter trip to Arizona – Mountain Plover. We managed to find a few and, in fact went back for a second look on our last morning before heading for the airport. We do like our plovers and sandpipers! Crested Caracaras were also notable birds in an area where, as in several places we went, the cultivation of cotton seems to have taken over, probably to the detriment of wintering bird populations.
Not snow, but cotton.
Eastern (Lilian's) Meadowlark
Vermilion Flycatcher - this one out on the Santa Cruz Flats.
All in all it was a great trip – great birding, beautiful weather and good company! What’s not to like about Arizona?