Patagonia area, Santa Cruz County, Arizona

Wednesday through Sunday; April 26-30, 2017.

Birding buddies, Marilyn Reiling, Claudia Kirscher and Jen Ottinger  (L-R)
Although I often bird alone, there’s a definite advantage to team effort and on this trip to southeastern Arizona, Claudia, Marilyn, Jen and I discovered we made a great team.

Day #1 - Wednesday, April 26th.
After meeting at Marilyn Reiling’s, we departed at 6:30 a.m. in two cars since Jen was joining us on her off days from work as an eagle-nest watcher and would need to return to the Phoenix Valley area on Friday.

An hour later, Claudia pulled into the northeast corner of Santa Cruz Flats (Pinal County) to be sure we were awake and ready to bird. With Gambel’s Quail providing background sound, we found one species after the other. Driving with open windows, the call of a YELLOW-BREASTED CHAT brought the car to a quick stop. Always difficult to locate behind leaves, this one surprised us by working on the ground and jumping up every now and again on a horizontal low-lying limb. Too dark for photos, we enjoyed the great looks the Chat gave us before flying into more dense foliage and chatting up the air waves.

The best sighting for me were the SWAINSON’S HAWKS migrating through. It’s white face helps make the ID on this dark-chested, white bellied hawk. In just that one small area, I counted six (6) of these long slender buteos soaring or perched. It’s one of the few raptors to perch on the ground foraging for prey and we spotted one doing just that…possibly sitting next to a hole waiting for a vole or other varmint to wake up!

SWAINSON'S HAWK (above and below)

Close to the Mexican border at Pena Blanca Lake, we spotted four flycatchers with the OLIVE-SIDED being my favorite. Thanks to Jen for picking up on the DUSKY FLYCATCHER, we were able to add that empidonax (“empid” for short) to our list.
Here again, the most exiciting bird we viewed were the several GRAY HAWKS that flew overhead. The trails around the lake provide excellent habitat for migrating and resident flocks of songbirds. BELL’S and WARBLING VIREOs were the plain-janes of the group. The well-named YELLOW WARBLER (2) brightened up a tree limb with its full yellow-feathered body; WILSON’S WARBLER (3), another very yellow bird with a black cap (male), and TOWNSEND’S WARBLER (2) with its contrasting black/gray/yellow pattern were also a delight to find and observe.

Continuing on toward Patagonia, Claudia pulled into a road unfamiliar to me. What a treat we found at Santa Fe Ranch. (She had requested permission to visit.)

Gate to Bird Santuary

Within its compact and dense birding area, I found one bird after the other that I rarely see in the Phoenix area. While two (2) GRAY HAWKs circled overhead, our team picked out flycatchers (VERMILION, DUSKY-CAPPED, and CASSIN’S KINGBIRD), a BLACK-THROATED GRAY WARBLER, LARK SPARROWs, CANYON TOWHEE and a BLACK-HEADED GROSBEAK.

A couple SWAINSON'S HAWKS flew overhead:

A NORTHERN BEARDLESS-TYRANNULET called repeatedly during our stay and as we were leaving, it flew onto a branch and perched just above my eye-level. Just as quickly it was gone. Quite a thrill.

We still had time for a visit to Tucson Audubon’s Paton Center for Hummingbirds where many changes are underway to provide visitors from around the world with  their usual good looks at a great variety of hummingbirds coming to multiple feeders. Patons’ Yard became well-known for the VIOLET-CROWNED HUMMINGBIRD that shows up each year…and is still doing so during the many bird-friendly changes underway.

Some stunning LAZULI BUNTINGs were coming to a feeder near me so I managed a few photos.

Male (left, dark head) and possible young male (right) LAZULI BUNTING

Taking turns

Black-headed Grosbeak

Don't hog the feeder!

And, although I definitely saw a MAGNIFICENT HUMMINGBIRD at a feeder in the front garden/pond area, it wasn’t on the eBird list so I added it and let Jon Lutz, caretaker, know that it had come in. He mentioned having not seen it since January, so was glad to know of its visit.

Day #2 — Thursday, April 27th
Claudia and Jen at gate to our cottage (set among cottonwoods and mesquite grassland)

We birded a few locations in Patagonia before heading out to see what might be found on Harshaw Creek Road, arriving there at 10:40 a.m.

Marilyn had turned out to be our “SUMMER TANAGER” spotter at every stop and she continued at this location with three (3) sightings.


Not a common bird, we located two (2) THICK-BILLED KINGBIRDs in the sycamores and cottonwoods set back from the road. The road itself is an easement through Private Property so it’s important to stay on the road to bird. 

WESTERN TANAGERs were also out and about in this area.

I thought a HOODED ORIOLE was going to be taken off its perch by a BROWN-HEADED COWBIRD, but it was content to settle on a lower branch.

By far, the most difficult bird to come upon was the THICK-BILLED KINGBIRD. Two of them!!

Very uncommon (comes up from Mexico) and, in the U.S., breeds only in SE Arizona and SW corner of New Mexico. So, here we are looking at this big bulky bird with a very thick, but not extra long, bill, and short wide tail.  There's a sharp break between the dark face and the white throat and chest. There may be a yellowish wash on the belly of immature birds; otherwise, it's white. It's black mask stands out on its dingy-gray face bordered by the white throat.

THICK-BILLED KINGBIRD in a cottonwood tree
Returning on Harshaw Creek Road, we stopped to eat lunch on some rocks at a curve in the road. Since we were serenaded by a CANYON WREN while eating, we named the place, Canyon Wren Curve. I could find it again.

Although I had visited the place Claudia proposed as our next stop, I had never experienced our good ? fortune here. For those of you familiar with the area, we stopped at the cemetery area along Harshaw Road where we found many song birds: BRIDLED TITMOUSE, AMERICAN ROBIN, HOODED ORIOLE, LUCY'S WARBLER, DUSKY-CAPPED FLYCATCHER as well as CASSIN'S KINGBIRD and CASSIN'S VIREO. 

It was while we were walking through some grass that it happened - oh, so suddenly - the hard flapping of wings right up from the path beside us.  MONTEZUMA QUAIL!  Our view could be measured in seconds- maybe one, maybe two. But we saw it go! [Not exactly a Life Bird view] I had already come to terms with that bird with very successful views thanks to some other birding friends. So, for today, we had the sound of its popping wings echoing in our heads.

Knowing we were not likely to top that experience, we continued on toward the San Rafael Valley grasslands. Claudia knew a piece of interesting trivia: these very grasslands had been used as such in the movie "Oklahoma". 

Back to the grasslands:

Coues' White-tailed Deer (smaller subspecies of White-tailed Deer)

When I researched the movie connection, I discovered nine other sites in Arizona had been selected for specific reasons. I smiled at this one:  Amado was chosen as a site and that is where "O, What a Beautiful Morning" was sung.

Before leaving this area, we went to a location favored by GOLDEN EAGLEs and were fortunate enough to find one - thanks, Jen!

Jen, Babs, Marilyn, Claudia (at Velvet Elvis Pizza)  Ate out this one evening since Jen would be returning to the Phoenix area after early birding with us. Wanted to celebrate our good time!
Photo: from Marilyn

Day # 3 - Friday, April 28th
Jen needed to leave by mid-morning, so we got an early start for a return to Harshaw Creek Road to see if we would come upon any Montezuma Quail out early. Jen was probably with us for two of our three hours there where we again had lots and lots of bird activity.

We spotted two (2) RED-TAILED HAWKs, one being the very light one, fuertesi.  A GRAY HAWK also flew a few circles above us.

ACORN WOODPECKERs and NORTHERN FLICKERs called out and drummed on what sounded like hollow tree trunks.

Marilyn took up the challenge of discerning the WESTERN KINGBIRD from the CASSIN'S and got a good handle on that ID.

Chasing some COMMON RAVENS, two CASSIN'S KINGBIRDs must have felt satisfied with their success.

Mostly, I find BRONZED COWBIRDs on or close to the ground. Not today. It was perched up:

It's red eye helps ID this BRONZED COWBIRD [Darth Vader of birds]

We saw many of the same songbirds we observed yesterday by the time Jen needed to leave. Oh, how she wanted to stay! There must be a MOQU out here somewhere!

Claudia, Marilyn and I continued birding there and soon spotted an EASTERN BLUEBIRD. Formerly called an Azure Bluebird for its southwestern location, it's now known on eBird as a Mexican subspecies of Eastern Bluebird since it comes up from Mexico.

Male EASTERN BLUEBIRD, Mexican subspecies

As we continued driving, I suggested that Claudia stop when I spotted a feeding flock of CHIPPING SPARROWS, thinking we might find something else among them.

Boy, did we!  Claudia's jaw dropped when she looked at the birds on the ground. She just sat behind the wheel with binoculars trained on a rock near the base of a mesquite. "I'm looking at a rock with a face," is all she said. Immediately, we knew that little round bird with a striking face was the male MONTEZUMA QUAIL. When it moved, the female appeared and followed it through the grasses toward a wash. Out of our line of sight, we quietly got out of the car and checked the wash. The male had started to return through the tall grass; the female followed but came out on a rise for a few seconds before following him again.

Montezuma Quail photo taken when I saw one in 2014

All we could do was think of Jen on her way back to Phoenix.

2014 photo I took of MOQU in Sierra Vista

After a mid-morning visit to the Gathering Grounds coffee shop (to celebrate our find) and birding the City Park, we headed to Patagonia Lake State Park's birding trail. We would tally over 41 species there that included many of the colorful tanagers, orioles and warblers. But, it also included two rarities for which we hiked around the end cove in an attempt to get decent photos. Not too decent, but certainly identifiable: RED-NECKED PHALAROPE-- two of them.

Two RED-NECKED PHALAROPES at opposite sides of frame

If I hadn't walked around the end of that cove, I would never have seen the Drake HOODED MERGANSER emerge from the reeds beyond the phalaropes. It, too, is a rarity there but it moved before I could get a photo.

An EARED GREBE in breeding plumage was a great find by Marilyn. Also in breeding plumage were brightly colored RUDDY DUCKs in all their ruddiness with blue bill emerging.
A SPOTTED SANDPIPER and four (4) WHITE-FACED IBIS rounded out most of our waterfowl. A CINNAMON TEAL (Drake) was in the general vicinity of the phalaropes.


No matter how often I see this bird, it always calls for the camera. We saw many of these VERMILION FLYCATCHERs at various locations. Here at Patagonia Lake State Park was the only place we got views of the females, too.

Our birding day, not yet complete, we stopped by the Sonoita Creek State Natural Area adjacent to the SP, but winds had become so strong, no decent bird was going to give us a good look.

Babs and Marilyn, hats tied tightly, in the ocotillo forest on the way down to Sonoita Creek.
 Photo by Claudia Kirscher

Instead of continuing there, Claudia took us to Kino Springs, an area I recognized from earlier years. Here on a pond, behind tall reeds, we had a surprise little group of ducks.


With a full day of birding under our belts, we were ready to wind down for the evening. Except for the early dinner on Thursday evening with Jen at Velvet Elvis, we had all our meals at the cottage or packed lunches to go with us.

Day #4 - April 29th
Up early as usual, I enjoyed the sound of the GRAY HAWK calling from its nearby nest. Closer to us was the busy SAY'S PHOEBE flying in and out from its nest below the eaves of our screened porch. It appeared that she had three young to feed. We had watched one try to fledge but it looked like the parents coaxed it back to the nest. 

Due to the Sawmill Fire in another area of Southeastern Arizona that issued an emergency closure of the Las Cienega Grasslands along SR 83 & 82, we needed to find another place to bird today.

Opting for a run up I-19, we birded for over four (4) hours on the de Anza Trail-Tubac with its tall cottonwoods and willows along the Santa Cruz River. Lush habitat provided many flowering plants for a variety of birds and butterflies.

Prickly Poppy [commonly known as Cowboy Fried Eggs]

Again, a Gray Hawk flew overhead. This is one of my favorite hawks that I tend to watch and enjoy. Didn't realize I hadn't lifted my camera on any of the many we saw until I got home and looked at my photos.

LARK SPARROWs, with their highly contrasting facial pattern (dark brown/white) were striking in the morning light.

Marilyn spotted Ground Doves on the path ahead of us. One was a RUDDY GROUND-DOVE that lacked the scaliness of the Common Ground-Dove on its upper body. And, looking at the spots/streaks on its sides, I noted they were on the scapular and above the wings. Mostly, it was just very ruddy brown overall in contrast to the lighter gray/tan Common Ground-Doves. (one of which I had observed at the cottage where we stayed)

Claudia picked up on a flock of CEDAR WAXWINGS flying overhead; PHAINOPEPLA were abundant (12) and Marilyn found five (5) SUMMER TANAGERs for us.

The only hummingbird along the trail was the lovely BROAD-BILLED (4) with its red/black slightly decurved bill and brilliant blue throat/chest.

Claudia and Marilyn on deAnza Trail-Tubac (3 miles)

Close up of Arizona Bird of Paradise flowers where Claudia & Marilyn were standing (above)

Before leaving the trail, a posing VERMILION FLYCATCHER had me lifting my camera once again.

After checking out several other known birding locations in the area, we spent another good hour at Santa Gertrudis Lane where we spotted the only ZONE-TAILED HAWK of our trip. 

Day #5 - Sunday, April 30th

After checking out of our funky and colorful cottage, we headed toward home with a birding stop planned for Madera Canyon.

Much as I would have loved touching base with the Black-capped Gnatcatchers there, about ten (10) or more birders arrived at the parking lot the same time we did and were quickly on the trail. We hung back. The fledglings had fledged but that first noisy group did see the adults. We did not. 

But Proctor Road trail gave us a BROWN-CRESTED and DUSKY-CAPPED FLYCATCHER as well as two (2) male WESTERN TANAGERS.

A beautiful bird, I zoomed a bit on the farthest tanager:


At Santa Rita Lodge, we enjoyed WILD TURKEY feasting on seeds on the ground before chasing each other out and across the street; and ARIZONA WOODPECKER.
A bit farther up the road, we stopped at Madera Kubo B&B's wonderful riparian set up with many feeders.  New birds observed here included PAINTED REDSTART and HEPATIC TANAGER.

On the drive home, we tallied our overall list for the five days indicating we had interacted with 120 species of birds.

Mammals were mostly Coues Deer and Javelina.

And, to Jeanne who couldn't make this pre-arranged trip due to unforeseen circumstances, I  appreciated the opportunity to take your place with Claudia, Marilyn and Jen. 

* * *

24 eBird lists have been posted for this trip. Most places we stopped are italicized above.

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