Arizona Trip – March 2019

I rarely post anything here that’s not about the local area (specifically Duval County), but I just got back from another wonderful trip to Arizona and wanted to share. This work trip was somewhere around my 35th visit to Arizona over the last twelve years and when I go, I really look forward to padding an extra day or two on so I can hit the outdoors and get some birding in.

When I go, I usually try to target a rarity or new life bird to seek out. These “lifer” targets are pretty scarce for me at this point, so I decided to try (again, for probably the 5th time) for the Rose-throated Becards in Tubac. Tubac is about an hour and fifteen minutes south of Tucson, and just south of the infamous Green Valley area by about 20 minutes. Although Tubac is still some 60 km or so north of the Nogales/Mexico border, there is a border patrol checkpoint heading north back along I-19 after visiting that area; don’t be alarmed, they are quick and efficient, and I’ve never even been asked to show ID.

The Becards have been reported sporadically over the years and I’ve dipped on them a number of times, but was hopeful since they’ve nested along the De Anza trail the last few springs. Birding the De Anza trail is wonderful, but can be frustrating since it’s a) so long, and b) a little confusing in terms of geography….the sections of the trail where the Becards and the Sinaloa Wren have nested are in distinctly different parts, and I’ve come to find that there actually isn’t just “one” trail. You get onto the trail, and it quickly becomes a spiderweb of unmarked trails on both sides of the river, extending for miles.

De Anza Trail. Tubac, Arizona. March 2019. Trail to Rose-throated Becard nesting spot.
De Anza Trail. Bridge Road. Tubac, AZ

The picture above is the mesquite “tunnel” at this particular trail head near bridge road, and it quickly dips down into the wooded ravine. After getting disoriented and crossing a flooded stream back and forth four times, I fortunately ran into a very nice lady along the way and she pointed me in the direction of the nest where two Becards had been reported in the weeks leading to my visit. (She also tipped me off to Canoa Ranch which was hosting Lawrence’s Goldfinches, more on that later). I arrived at the nest spot, which is in a wonderfully thick riparian area, dense with mesquite, willow, cottonwoods, and I believe some sort of sycamores.

I found the nest, along with several other birders, but alas I never saw the Becards despite hanging out for a couple of hours. I’m now calling them Rose-throated Bastards until I finally see one. It wasn’t a waste of time though, as I always enjoy seeing species we don’t see here on the east coast of Florida; birds I observed at this location include Hepatic Tanager, Bullock’s Oriole, Black Phoebe, Phainopepla, Inca Dove, Red-naped Sapsucker,Gila and Ladder-backed Woodpeckers, Bridled Titmouse, and more.

Rose-throated Becard nest. De Anza trail, Tubac, Arizona. 2 Mar 2019.

It was dark by the time I got to my room back in Tucson, and I started out before sunrise again the next morning (Sunday). My destination was Florida Canyon’s parking area, followed by stops back along Box Canyon Road and then Madera Canyon.

Florida wash leading to Florida Canyon. Arizona. March 2019.
Box Canyon Road leading to Florida Wash. Green Valley, AZ.

Box Canyon Road leading to Florida Canyon (pronounced “Flor-EEE-da”, pictured above) is not only gorgeous just after dawn, but is usually rife with western sparrows, meadowlarks, and other small passerines like Verdin. I stopped for a few minutes and photographed Black-chinned and Black-throated Sparrows, Vesper Sparrows, and a smattering of other birds (my checklist).

Black-throated Sparrow. Box Canyon Road. Arizona. 3 Mar 2019.

Black-throated Sparrows (above) are common and conspicuous in this area and are often the easiest species to find. I’ve found them to be cooperative, perching in the open for extended views.

Black-chinned Sparrow. Box Canyon Road. AZ. 3 Mar 2019.

Black-chinned Sparrows, however, I’ve found to be much more difficult to see. Based on eBird data, they’re fairly common and widespread, but I will tell you it took me a very long time to find one. I feel like I must have been overlooking them or something for years.

Dark-eyed Junco (Gray-headed). 3 Mar 2019.

Dark-eyed Junco is fairly abundant, and I have found several of the various sub-species over the years around the area. The only Yellow-eyed Junco I’ve seen out this way was up the mountain in Madera several years ago.

Florida Canyon. Trail head, uncrossable without getting wet!  Arizona. March 2019.
Florida Canyon parking area and Trailhead.

I made it to the parking lot of Florida Canyon (home to the infamous Rufous-capped Warblers and Black-capped Gnatcatchers), and found the stream (above) to be full and as wide as I’ve ever seen it. I couldn’t cross it without getting wet or taking off my shoes, and I didn’t need the warblers anymore (got ’em in 2014 here), so I turned around and headed to Madera.

The drive into Madera Canyon is a little longer than you’d expect, and you subtlety gain elevation driving to Proctor Road (my first stop).

Road leading to Madera Canyon. Arizona. March 2019.
Heading into Madera Canyon. This is about 1 mile short of Proctor Road.

Proctor Road is a good place to use the bathroom, pay for your day’s pass to the canyon ($5, self pay, cash only, no change given). I missed the White-throated Thrush here by a couple weeks, but was able to enjoy several other species like Say’s Phoebe and Lincoln’s Sparrow

Say’s Phoebe. Proctor Road parking lot. Madera Canyon, AZ. 3 Mar 2019.

I neglected to take any scenic shots this time, so will include the image of me below, from a visit in December 2009. The vast overlook of the valley behind me is from the parking area; it is in this area where you would find the Buff-collared Nightjars, Montezuma Quail, etc. a little later in the spring or early summer.

Me. Proctor Road area. December 2009.

The area had gotten quite a bit of rain and snow in the two weeks leading up to my visit, and the snow melt running off the mountain made the creeks run as full as I’ve ever seen them.

Madera Canyon. Proctor Road Area. Arizona. March 2019.
Proctor Road area. Snow melt / run off. Madera Canyon, AZ. 3 Mar 2019.

I headed on up the canyon, making brief stops at Whitehouse Picnic Area and the world famous Santa Rita Lodge. I watched the feeders for about a half hour, where there wasn’t much variety and zero hummingbirds. I picked up some nice trip birds though, like Acorn Woodpecker, Pine Siskin, Wild Turkey, Mexican Jay, and Lesser Goldfinch. (Checklist)

Mexican Jay. Santa Rita Lodge. Madera Canyon, AZ. 3 Mar 2019.

I spent another couple hours in the Canyon and decided to head just a little bit south to Canoa Ranch Conservation Park in Pima County; this is where the lady the previous day tipped me to for the “other” goldfinch. I’ve never birded this place, and it’s basically an artificial pond in the middle of nothing. I snapped a few images of ducks and birded the area just along the entrance to the park. I quickly found several Lark Sparrows and – bingo – the Lawrence’s Goldfinches! (Checklist)

Lawrence’s Goldfinch. Canoa Ranch. Green Valley, AZ. 3 Mar 2019.

It was mid-afternoon and I needed to start heading towards Phoenix as I had work the next day. I stopped at Sweetwater Wetlands Park in Tucson, which turned out to be one day before a prescribed burn. Nothing terribly exciting here this visit, but always a pleasant place to bird. (checklist)

Sweetwater wetlands park. Tucson, Arizona. March 2019. 2 days before prescribed burn.
Sweetwater Wetlands Park. Tucson, AZ. 3 Mar 2019.

Two Verdin were building a nest in the parking lot.

Verdin on the nest. Sweetwater Wetlands Park. Tucson, AZ. 3 Mar 2019.

The highlight was watching this Greater Roadrunner hunt and eat lunch in the parking lot.

Greater Roadrunner. Sweetwater Wetlands Park. Tucson, AZ. 3 Mar 2019.

I took the wide, long way back to Phoenix by visiting Baseline Road area. I couldn’t figure out how to look for the Ruddy Ground Doves without trespassing, so ended up at the “Thrasher Spot” for a few minutes. No Le Conte’s today, but I did see several Bendire’s Thrashers.

Bendire’s Thrasher. Salome Highway and Baseline Road. AZ. 3 Mar 2019.

The area is still mostly undeveloped, but there is a huge poultry farm nearby that is new since my last visit. It’s probably only a matter of time before this special spot is gone.

The infamous "Thrasher spot". Salome Highway and Baseline Road. Maricopa County, Arizona. West of Phoenix.  March 2019.
The “Thrasher Spot”. Salome Highway and Baseline Road. Az. 3 Mar 2019.

On my way back to the airport later in the week, I stopped at El Rio Open Space Preserve, which is in Marana just outside of Tucson. I’ve never birded here, but thanks to Andrew Core’s extensive eBirding of this area it caught my attention. I only had a little bit of time, but wow – what a great place. I’ll definitely be back. (Checklist)

El Rio Preserve. Town of Marana, outside of Tucson, Arizona. March 2019.
El Rio Open Space Preserve. Marana, AZ. 7 Mar 2019
El Rio Preserve. Town of Marana, outside of Tucson, Arizona. March 2019.
View from the backside of El Rio Open Space Preserve.

I managed a few decent shots here, one of the Lesser Goldfinch below –

Lesser Goldfinch. El Rio Open Space Preserve. Marana, AZ. 7 Mar 2019.
  • and of Northern Rough-winged Swallow.
Northern Rough-winged Swallow. El Rio Open Space Preserve. Marana, AZ. 7 Mar 2019.

Anna’s Hummingbirds were fairly cooperative…

Anna’s Hummingbird. El Rio Open Space Preserve. Marana, AZ. 7 Mar 2019.

…although this Lincoln’s Sparrow really wasn’t. He posed long enough for me to get this overexposed shot before I could adjust my settings.

Lincoln’s Sparrow. El Rio Open Space Preserve. Marana, AZ. 7 Mar 2019.

This Cooper’s Hawk was the most obliging raptor I’ve ever observed. It didn’t give a damn about me and actually seemed to follow me down the trail insisting I take more photos. I shot about 100 images.

Cooper’s Hawk. El Rio Open Space Preserve. Marana, AZ. 7 Mar 2019.

I had one more chance at Sweetwater Wetlands on the way to my flight, and wanted to see it after the burn.

Sweetwater Wetlands apark.  Tucson, Arizona. March 2019. 3 days after prescribed burn.
Sweetwater Wetlands Park. Tucson, AZ. After the prescribed burn. 7 Mar 2019.

The burn allowed for excellent viewing of some ducks and three Sora.

Sora. Sweetwater Wetlands Park. Tucson, AZ. 7 Mar 2019.

Green-winged Teal

Green-winged Teal. Sweetwater Wetlands Park. Tucson, AZ. 7 Mar 2019.

So that’s it – a whirlwind trip to Arizona. I’ve been fortunate to bird this area quite heavily, and have never needed to invest in a guide (although one could be very handy). I’m no expert, but if you would like any advice or perspective on planning a visit to this area of the country, I’m always happy to lend whatever knowledge I have.

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