BC LONG WEEKEND RARITY TRIP TO ARIZONA

Sub adult male White-eared Hummingbird in Portal - Photo: Melissa Hafting

I decided to use 20,000 aeroplan points to fly down to Arizona for the BC Day long weekend. It was a late bday present to myself. I love birding Arizona and have written about previous visits HERE, HERE, HERE, HERE and HERE. It was the last international trip I had taken with my mom too before she died (we went twice together) so I remembered her a lot during my visit in several places. I like birding in AZ because the diversity and beautiful birds that are in your face, especially the hummers. When I saw there was a handful of megas I needed for life birds I took the opportunity. A Pine Flycatcher, Nutting's Flycatcher, Short-tailed Hawk and White-eared Hummingbird were all birds I needed. 

I flew into Phoenix and then after exchanging an electric car they tried to give me (which would never fly in back country roads in AZ) I drove to my airbnb in Tucson. It was nice with a pool which is needed in hot Southeastern AZ. You will be surprised to know that although it is hot in July/Aug in Arizona it is not that bad because it is the Monsoon season which gives respite from the heat. Monsoon season can be sketchy though because flash floods can make some of the dirt roads impassable and most of those roads have no service and have the best rarities. You may think it is strange to leave Vancouver in a heat wave for Arizona but with the AC in the rooms it was more comfy especially sleeping at night.

The next morning I got up and drove to Paige Creek to look for the Nutting's Flycatcher. Here a group of birders (6 of us) gathered and spread out looking for the bird. The birders in place said they had been there since 5 am (it was now 8:30 am) with no sightings. A fellow from Texas named Jeff had come yesterday and spent 6 hours with no bird. He also told us about a cougar he had seen five mins after I pulled up (he arrived after I got there). He had a beautiful photo of it and I wish I had seen it! I didn't realize Cougars would be in that desert cacti habitat because of lack of food guess it was passing through or chasing some hares.

The area for the Nutting's was hot hot hot but very birdy. 2 birders left within an hour and there was just 4 of us left including a Californian and the Texan. We decided to spread out and holler if we found it. A few Zone-tailed and Gray Hawks flew over. A Brown-crested Flycatcher fooled a few of us a couple times and we found a cool Indigo x Lazuli Hybrid and watched Bridled Titmice, Cassin's and Western Kingbirds Vermillion Fly, Acorn Woodpeckers, Cardinals, White-breasted Nuthatches, Bell's Vireos, Mexican Jays, and Summer Tanagers. We even had a strange Rock Wren perch on top of a tall tree which I'd never seen them do before. After 4.5 hours and being stung by a wasp Jeff from Texas called out that he had found the bird. We ran through the scrub dodging cow patties till we found him in a riverbed. He said he had the bird in front of him but none of us could see it. He told us to wait for movement and after a few minutes of staring into a thick bush I saw a flicker of a red tail. No one else saw anything but then we saw a bit of movement and after a good ten minutes the bird appeared. This bird is an ABA Code 4 and extremely rare. They are also very hard to tell apart from Ash-throated Flycatcher (ATFL) unless you see the underside of the tail or hear the bird. They sound very different from ATFL because they do a "weep" call. This bird did not vocalize at all. However, it did have a chipped upper mandible. This helped to know what we were looking at and yes we did get some nice views of the under-tail as well.  It was such a relief to get this bird after so long in the heat and working so hard. We all thanked Jeff profusely. I never saw birders retreat so fast to their cars and out of there. The road was a long drive about an hour on the dirt road and you had to cross a few little soft streams. On the road we had many Greater Roadrunners, Scaled and Gambel's Quails, Blue Grosbeaks and an Eastern Meadowlark (this species here has now been split read about it here and is a full species called Chihuahuan Meadowlark!). I had seen this species before in 2019 when I went to Elgin so it's cool to get a new bird to my life list. The Scaled Quail were a nice surprise as they were staying on the road long enough for photos.

We were the last people to have seen the Nutting's to date. Birders tried after us for 5 hours unfortunately and did not see it and several have tried since with no luck. I am guessing it is no longer vocalizing and hiding deep in bush or has indeed left headed south back into Mexico. It was a very tough bird and we were so lucky to have seen it! This is presumably a female bird who built a nest and sadly didn't find a mate. She is in heavy moult and has a deformed bill but we sure all loved her all the same.

Nutting's Flycatcher with bill deformity at Paige Creek a difficult scruffy bird - Photos: Melissa Hafting

Vermilion Flycatcher at Paige Creek - Photo: Melissa Hafting

Rock Wren at Paige Creek - Photo: Melissa Hafting

Bridled Titmouse at Paige Creek - Photo: Melissa Hafting

Indigo x Lazuli Hybrid at Paige Creek, AZ - Photo: Melissa Hafting

Next I went to Portal. I was planning to go to Sierra Vista to hike 3 miles up to split rock to see the 4 White-eared Hummingbirds at Beatty's in Miller Canyon but after 4 hours of standing in the beating sun I wanted to go sit and relax at Jacki's place at George Walker House. On the drive there had a singing Cassin's Sparrow, Chihuahuan Raven and Say's Phoebe. I have fond memories of George Walker House as I had seen a rare Ovenbird there and Juniper Titmouse and Coati there on our last visit. I was worried about White-eared Hummer. If you have read my blogs on Arizona you know I have dipped on this bird too many times at so called reliable spots. It is a beautiful Hummer and other than the very rare Plain-capped Starthroat it is the last regular NA (excluding Mexico) hummer I needed. Well after 10 mins and being greeted by Jacki and her husband the subadult male White-eared Hummer showed up. It has a distinctive metallic sound unlike any of the other beautiful hummers in Arizona. At the feeder I also had spectacular Rivoli's and Blue-throated Mountain-gems. The White-eared was loud and territorial of its feeder constantly fighting with Broad-billeds. It perched on the fence and I spent over an hour just watching this lovely lifer. There were also Wild Turkeys here which were good company. Last time I was here had a Coati but not this time. Since I was in Portal, next went over to Cave-creek to the Southwestern Research Station to see the Berylline Hummer visiting the site. It was nice to see the Berylline again. It is a beautiful hummer and the last rare hummer I saw on my previous visit. I also saw that bird in Portal in 2019 but got better photo ops then. This species seems to be increasing in the state as during this week there was one also at Madera and Ramsey Canyon.

Lesser Goldfinch in Portal - Photo: Melissa Hafting

Record photos of Blue-throated Mountain-gem - Photos: Melissa Hafting

Drove back to the Airbnb in Tucson in pouring rain. On the way out of Portal 3 Javelinas crossed out in front of us. The good thing about Arizona is it seems to like to rain at night so birding days are rarely affected. By 7 pm day birding is done in Arizona but night birding in AZ is great fun with multiple owl species and nightjars. I have them all and because I was tired didn't decide to do any owling during this short trip.

The next morning woke up to Cactus Wrens and Costa's and Black-chinned Hummers in the yard. There were also Verdin, Brown-crested Flycatchers, Gambel's Quails, White-winged Doves, Northern Mockingbirds, Curve-billed Thrashers, Lesser Goldfinches and Gila and Ladder-backed Woodpeckers as well. Even found a nest of White-winged Doves right in the driveway! I am always amazed at the high density of birds in residential areas in this part of the world. 

Decided to head up to Mt. Lemmon to look for the reported Short-tailed Hawks being seen as flyovers at the top of Mt. Lemmon. On the way up stopped at a stakeout to see Sulphur-bellied Flycatchers. It was only my second time seeing this species so it was nice to see this very unique looking flycatcher. There were several Plumbeous Vireos at the site as well. I continued up the mountain and went to do some hawk watching at the top of Bear Wallow. I visited several sites giving expansive views underneath radio towers and up at Summerhaven but could not locate anything but Red-tailed Hawks, Common Ravens and Turkey Vultures. I knew the Short-tailed Hawks would be a long shot with sporadic reports but had to try anyways. Up on the mountain I heard many Cordilleran Flycatchers and had some Broad-tailed Hummers. I planned to come back and try again not just for this species but also for the mega rare Pine Flycatcher so more on Mt. Lemmon later.

After a thorough search here headed down to Patagonia and on the road in Tucson saw a beautiful sub-adult Harris's Hawk. I love these hawks because of their unique colouring and the fact they hunt in packs like velociraptors.

    Harris's Hawk in Tucson - Photos: Melissa Hafting

I was off to Patagonia to look for the family of Mississippi Kites nesting there and to see Violet-crowned Hummers and the rare Ruddy Ground-Doves visiting Paton's. Paton's is a great spot for birding just to sit and watch all the great birds that come to the feeders. None of these birds were lifers but birds I don't see often. I had no photos of Mississippi Kites so was delighted to get some nice photos of the adult as it perched on the nest tree. Had fun watching it fly and see its lovely elegant silhouette in flight. They have a really fierce look with their red eyes. At Paton's saw many cool birds like a noisy Yellow-billed Cuckoo (carrying food!), Common Ground-Dove, Abert's Towhees, Bronzed Cowbirds which I rarely see and refused to pose for pics, Blue Grosbeak, Curve-billed Thrashers, Phainopeplas with babies, Yellow-breasted Chats eating suet!, Summer Tanagers, Gambel's Quail and the like. There were also many Inca and White-winged Doves and hummers including the rare but local Violet-crowned Hummers. Due to impending heavy rain my friend Thor was not there to meet me. The rain did come but seating there is covered and I just sat watching the birds who didn't seem to mind the rain at all. Waited almost two hours but no Ruddy Ground-Doves came in sadly. They were seen earlier that morning by Thor and others but until dark (according to further eBird reports) no one else spotted them that evening. They were refound Aug 3 and 4th so hopefully will be there on my next visit. There were Javelinas running around the property which to me is always cute to see.

Mississippi Kite at its nest in Patagonia - Photos: Melissa Hafting

Violet-crowned Hummingbird in Patagonia - Photo: Melissa Hafting

Yellow-billed Cuckoo in Patagonia - Photo: Melissa Hafting

Curve-billed Thrasher at Suet (YBCH and SUTA also visited it) at Patagonia - Photo: Melissa Hafting

Summer Tanager at Paton's in Patagonia - Photo: Melissa Hafting

Next was off to Box Canyon to look for Five-striped Sparrows. On the way there we had a large herd of Pronghorns in a field. Box Canyon is where I saw these Arizona specialty sparrows last in 2019 with Thor Manson. I pulled over the car at the stakeout spot and heard one singing almost immediately. They have increased in the area with some reporting 5 birds. I had 2 posing nicely. They are such spiffy looking unique sparrows! The area where they are is so great for birding but a heavy rainstorm interrupted spending any length of time there.

Five-striped Sparrow at Box Canyon - Photo: Melissa Hafting

Next went to nearby Madera Canyon to Santa Rita Lodge where the rain had stopped (it is very isolated down there) to sit and watch the feeders to see if the reported Berylline would come in and also just to relax at these cool feeders. Unfortunately did not see a Berylline here but did see many nice hummers like stunning Rivoli's, Broad-billeds and Black-chinneds. On the drive out saw a Lesser Nighthawk and then the thunder, lightning and heavy rain came on. It is quite beautiful to watch the lightning and hear the loud thunder. An Emergency Alert came on my phone warning me of flash floods and to not travel on the roads. Luckily had no issues getting back to the Airbnb safe and sound. 

That night I checked the eBird alerts and saw someone had reported the Pine Flycatcher again at Rose Canyon on Mt. Lemmon. There had been no confirmed reports since July 21st. I was going to head up there anyways the next day looking for the rare tropical Short-tailed Hawks so decided I'd check there too. I decided not to go searching for the Louisiana Waterthrush found the day before at Pena Blanca Lake even though a lifer and I'm glad I did because it wasn't refound. A Tufted Flycatcher was found up near Sedona (one of my fave places in AZ) even though I had seen it before I would of gone to see it if I had more time.

The last morning got up before dawn and drove an hour to Mount Lemmon. Usually you need to pay 10$ to enter but no one was at the gate. Inside you could see signs of a heavy rain storm on the road with logs and mud everywhere. I was surprised to see so many campers up at 6 am. This place is one of my fave places to bird in Arizona. Last time Ilya and I were here we had so many great warblers and birds and this time was no different. I had stunning Red-faced, Painted Redstarts, Hermit, Grace's and Olive Warblers. The Olive Warblers are in their own family and are so unique and the ones today were very tame. The trees were teeming with Pygmy and White-breasted Nuthatches. There were many Acorn and a single Hairy Woodpecker, a Greater Pewee and many Plumbeous Vireos and Western Bluebirds feeding their babies. There was also raucous Mexican Jays and Mountain Chickadees. I was surprised to see a Hepatic Tanager here too. After 3 hours and several other birders looking gave up on trying to find the Pine Flycatcher. It was disappointing not to find this ABA Code 5 but you can't see them all. This is now the second Pine Flycatcher they have had since 2016 so I am hopeful there will be another.

The unique Olive Warbler in Tucson - Photo: Melissa Hafting

Fledgling Western Bluebirds and adult male in Tucson - Photos: Melissa Hafting

Female Hepatic Tanager in Tucson - Photo: Melissa Hafting

Greater Pewee in Tucson - Photo: Melissa Hafting

Next I was off to search for the Short-tailed Hawks. I drove further up the mountain to the Bear Wallow area where there were multiple reports to search through the woods and looking up in the sky for the birds. After hiking through the woods and watching a Northern Pygmy-Owl being mobbed by Pygmy Nuthatches, Plumbeous Vireos, Cordilleran Flycatchers, White-breasted Nuthatches, Western Tanagers and a Broad-tailed Hummer I heard a young Short-tailed Hawk call. I made a recording of the hawk as it was right in front of me and so loud doing a begging call. You can listen to it below:

I sent the recording to Brian Sullivan (hawk expert) as well who confirmed it was indeed a juvenile Short-tailed Hawk. Then followed a tip of one eBird user who had said they had parked at the U of A observatory site and viewed an adult fly over there. I parked and walked to the top and was now right on top of the juvenile who was still screaming loudly. I spotted the adult almost immediately flying to the Northeast over the baby and it was carrying food (a bird)!.  The hawk then came down and dropped off food to the juvenile who almost immediately stopped begging. I then watched the adult fly off without food and go higher and higher and then out of sight. It gave several minutes of flyovers and circling before leaving the area and was surprised I was able to get some record photos showing the field marks of the helmeted look. It was a pale morph adult. Most Short-tailed Hawks in NA are usually dark morphs. These tropical Hawks are found in Mexico, Central and South America and an isolated tiny population is in FL. I have always wanted to see this lifer and Ilya and I had searched for one in 2018 near Rustler Park in Portal and dipped so this was particularly satisfying. I later learned from Thor and the AZ Rare Bird Alert that this was the first time there was confirmed breeding of this species in this part of Arizona. Previously they had only known of a couple of records from the Chiricahuas. So this was a great way to end the really fun and short but sweet successful trip! Others later on that same day followed our report and refound 2 adult birds chasing off a Zone-tailed Hawk in the same area near the nest. It was cool that others got to share in the magic! These hawks hunt in a very cool manner by doing vertical dives to sitting birds on tree tops you can imagine their success rate is not very high!

Adult Short-tailed Hawk carrying food for the juv at Mt. Lemmon, Tucson - Photos: Melissa Hafting

I really can't wait to go back to Arizona! During the pandemic when Canadians were barred from travelling to the USA there was a pair of long staying Eared Quetzals and Crescent-chested Warblers. I will be back when those guys return or when another Sinaloa Wren, Pine Flycatcher, White-throated Thrush, Fan-tailed Warbler or Aztec Thrush comes back. Even without all the fun rarities, AZ is just a birders dream any time of the year.

Comments

  1. After snippets from you earlier it is wonderful to get the full download. Tough on the misses but what great finds. Wish the timing had been better and I could have joined you. How about some rarities up your way. Fall miration should be starting. Another Curlew Sandpiper would be fu! Great report and congrats!!

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    Replies
    1. Thanks Blair I'm really happy with our results I honestly don't think the Pine Flycatcher was there anymore and at least the Ruddy wasn't a life bird. I am glad you got that bird last visit and the Jacana I want haha. Would of been great to have you join maybe next time! Enjoying your recent Ecuador blogs!

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  2. DAAMN GIRL!!! Your photos are top notch what a great whirlwind trip! CONGRATS

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  3. Congrats on finding so many rarities and great photos! Sounds like a great trip

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