As good as the birding is in Tucson proper, the best birds are found in the mountain ranges and valleys which surround the city. Kate and Nick’s neighbor, Dirk, who is an expert birder, took us to Florida (flo-REE-da) Wash in the Santa Rita Mountains, south of Tucson. Florida Wash held the promise of a rare Black-capped Gnatcatcher, an even rarer Rufous-capped Warbler, and the Elegant Trogon. We saw the Elegant Trogon on our trip to Arizona in April 2014 and it inspired us to buy a camera, so that we could take better pictures than this one taken with an iPhone:
We began hiking the rocky trail, which was lined with cactus and cottonwood trees. As luck would have it, the Black-capped Gnatcatcher (LL) was the second bird we spotted as we climbed. This bird’s historic range does not include the United States, but climate change as well as a severe drought in the Sierra Madre Occidental seems to be helping to expand their range northward.
We likely would not have been able to ID this bird without Dirk’s help, but he pointed out the extensive white on the underside of the tail and the dark “eyebrow” that distinguishes this bird from the Black-tailed Gnatcater and the Blue-gray Gnatcatcher.
Our next bird was the Painted Redstart (LL), a strikingly-colored warbler of the southwest.
Not long after that, we got a good look at one of our familiar birds from the Northeast, the White-breasted Nuthatch.
We hiked about half a mile up the wash to where the Rufous-capped Warbler had been recently seen and saw movement in the brush which matched the behavior of our target bird, but we never saw anything emerge. I like to imagine it was a Rufous-capped Warbler in there, but we will never know.
Our number-one target bird for this Arizona trip was the Sandhill Crane, who winter at some select spots in the region, so we decided to head out to try to find them. On the way back down to the car, we saw several more interesting birds, such as the Ladder-backed Woodpecker, Lesser Goldfinch and our southwestern friend, the Verdin.
After Florida Wash, our next stop was the Sulphur Springs Valley, which is know to have Sandhill Cranes in the winter. As we drove through the mountains to the Sulphur Springs Valley, Dirk pulled off the road suddenly to and pointed out a tree full of Brewer’s Blackbirds (LL) as well as this Loggerhead Shrike perched atop a dead branch. We had seen this bird in South Dakota a few years earlier, but we were excited to see it again because it looks like a tiny raptor. Shrikes eat insects, lizards and even other birds, but they lack talons to hold their prey still, so they often impale their meal on thorns. We didn’t see one eating, but we did get this shot.
When we finally arrived at Sulphur Springs Valley, only a couple of hours of daylight remained. Unfortunately, no Sandhill Cranes were to be found. We spoke with some friendly birders who knew a place to see them about 1.5 hours away, but we knew we wouldn’t make it in time. Instead we drove to another spot on Cochise Lake in Willcox, where we found a great variety of waterfowl. There we took this nice shot of an American Avocet, before returning to Tucson for the night, where we were consoled by Nick’s mole chicken and tamales.
Determined to find Sandhill Cranes, we returned to the Sulphur Springs Valley the next day to visit Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area, near McNeal. Whitewater Draw was formerly a cattle ranch, but was purchased by the state in 1997 and is flooded each winter to provide wetland habitats. It is now a major wintering ground for Sandhill Cranes. We began walking the trails and boardwalks through the marsh, but did not find cranes, but we did see several Northern Harriers patrolling the area for prey.
Luckily, some fellow birders pointed out a Great Horned Owl and we were able to get this shot of it asleep in a tree. We are always excited to find an owl, and we got many great views of this sleepy guy.
Just as we found the owl, Nick pointed to a group of large birds in the sky – we finally saw the Sandhill Cranes!
While we never saw huge groups of the cranes wading, they did fly overhead throughout the day, and we saw many other interesting birds, like the Meadowlark and the Black Phoebe. There are two species of Meadowlark in the US, the Eastern and the Western. One would think that the Western Meadowlark would be found in Arizona, but there is a subspecies of the Eastern Meadowlark, known as the Lilian’s Meadowlark, that inhabits the desert southwest. The two species can only be reliably differentiated by their calls, and these birds were silent, so we’ll just have to enjoy this photo and wonder.
It was another great visit to Arizona, and we can’t wait to return in April for Kate and Nick’s wedding. We will surely schedule some quality birding between the festivities.
Florida Wash – November 29, 2015 – 10:58 AM – 12:42 PM
Black-capped Gnatcatcher (LL)
Painted Redstart (LL)
Black-chinned Sparrow (LL)
Whitewater Draw – November 29, 2015 – 1:26 PM – 3:15 PM
Great Blue Heron
Great Horned Owl
Sandhill Crane (LL)
Yellow-headed Blackbird (LL)
2 thoughts on “Nerds in the Desert, Part II: The Santa Rita Mountains and Sulphur Springs Valley”
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