SE Arizona Birding, Day 1: Sweetwater Wetlands and Madera Canyon

Drew WeberBirding4 Comments

On July 28th after work, Alex and I headed west to pick up our friends Chris and Mark (from Pennsylvania) from the Tucson Airport.  A few months ago, Mark joined us on a 4 day birding trip in Idaho, and we were glad Chris was able to make this trip.  Chris and Mark hadn’t spent much time birding in the south west, so this trip had the possibility of getting them a huge number of lifers.  Alex and I were hoping for a few too.  We missed a few species on our last trip to Arizona, like Buff-breasted Flycather and Northern Beardless Tyrannulet, to name a few. But more than the possibility of lifers, I was looking forward to visiting the numerous hummingbird “havens” that you can find all around south eastern Arizona.

Before we picked up Chris and Mark, we made a quick stop in Phoenix to pick up Peach-faced Lovebirds.  Yes, these are the little lovebirds you can buy in pet stores, but because there are so many that have escaped, they have a well established breeding population at Gilbert Water Ranch in Phoenix, and are countable (I wasn’t really mad that we couldn’t find any).  The pond here had a few different shorebirds on it, inlcluding Black-necked Stilts and a few American Avocets, in addition to a few small flocks of resting Long-billed Dowitcher.  We also picked up a great year bird…Neotropical Cormorant…a species we wouldn’t see anywhere on the rest of our trip, unfortunately for Chris and Mark.

Black-necked Stilt

Long-billed Dowitchers

Great Egret with Neotropic Cormorants

After picking up Chris and Mark in Tucson, we quickly added a few urban birds of the desert, like White-winged Doves and Great-tailed Grackles.  Our first major stop was Sweetwater Wetlands.  This place can be pretty stinky (literally-since it is part of a wastewater treatment system) on a hot day, but luckily there was a breeze.  It was mid-afternoon, which is the time of day when birds hate their lives, seeking refuge in the shady mesquite trees. We picked up more common desert birds including Ladder-backed and Gila Woodpeckers, Lesser Goldfinch, Gambel’s Quail, and Abert’s Towhee.  Not much waterfowl was around, but we did manage to pick out a few Cinnamon Teal and Ruddy Ducks amongst the Mexican Mallards.  A good species that is reliably found here is Tropical Kingbird.  On our way in, I heard a pair calling, and we caught a glimpse of them as we were leaving.  They look fairly similar to Western Kingbirds, but have a noticeably thicker bill.

Ladder-backed Woodpecker

Ruddy Duck - male

Great-tailed Grackle - females

Gila Woodpecker

Desert Cottontail

Tropical Kingbird

After stopping for dinner in Green Valley, we headed towards Madera Canyon, picking up a few Chihuahuan Ravens on the way.  They are extrememly similar to Common Ravens, but can be picked out by their higher pitched crow-like calls.

Chihuahuan Raven

After checking in at Madea-Kubo B&B (a great place to stay for easy/early access in the canyon), we headed over to Chuparosa Inn where Elf Owls were being seen or heard regularly each night between 8:00 and 8:30. A few critters flew by in the darkness, including large beetles, hummingbirds, and bats, but eventually we heard/saw something fly in and land nearby. Alex shined the light on a branch, and amazingly this tiny little Elf Owl was sitting there, staring at us. A few minutes later, another flew in, and both disappeared into the darkness.  A lifer for everyone!!!

Elf Owl - Chuparosa Inn, Madera Canyon AZ

Next, we headed up to Carrie Nation Mine Trail to find some Mexican Whip-poor-wills.  After fighting bugs off our head lamps for a few minutes, we got responses from at least 2 individuals, and were about 20 feet away from one of them.  We couldn’t get close enough to see them, but it was great to add another nightjar species to all of our lists, even if we didn’t officially “count” it (since we didn’t see it).  We missed out on a few other owl species, but we went to bed that night with thoughts of seeing Elegant Trogons on the same trail in the morning.