A Quick Summer Trip to the Sky Islands of Southeast Arizona

2020 truly has been a year for the books, it’s hard to believe it’s actually almost over. Back in January, I was happily exploring Florida, running around for rarities and soaking up the sun. But soon the Coronavirus reared its ugly head and we headed for a global shut-down to try and curb the pandemic. We’ve been living socially-distanced from one another for longer than anyone can remember, and I really do wonder when there will be an end in sight.

Coronavirus has had an odd impact on me personally, in that I still am able to get out birdwatching, but have had to adjust my days to minimize contact and interaction with as many people as possible. Being a true extrovert, I’ve had to get outside during all of this to keep my mental sanity. That unfortunately became hard for me in June after spring migration came to a close here in Chicago, and I began dreaming of birding elsewhere…

Traveling during Coronavirus was an iffy subject for me, but after taking all the necessary precautions and prepared as good as I knew how to, I decided to run out to Arizona in late June for a long weekend of birding. While this blog post would have been more sensible to share in the summertime immediately following my trip, I hope you all enjoy it – even in its very delayed state.

I’d been eyeing an Arizona trip since early spring, as there were a pair of Crescent-chested Warblers breeding in Morse Canyon on the western side of the Chiricahua’s – a mega rarity which honestly would have been enough for me to make the trip alone. But when I saw a June 9th post on Facebook that there was an Eared Quetzal in the Chiricahua’s, I knew I had to expedite the plans and make a run to Arizona as soon as possible.

This quetzal represented the first sighting in the US since 2013 and potentially the first chaseable one in years. The bird apparently had been in the area for at least 7 days, but the evening of June 9th was the first point in time the formal birding community had received the news and people were able to successfully run over to Portal to connect with it. Unfortunately, the bird disappeared the next day, leaving a lot of disappointed birders and many unanswered questions as to where it had gone.

After quickly confirming I could take some time off work, I called American Airlines and booked my ticket Thursday morning – June 11th – for a 5 PM departure that same day. An impulsive decision, yes, but the potential life birds were going to be worth it. Following an overnight layover in Dallas, I arrived in Tucson midday on Friday – ready to get out birding.

My plan for this short trip was to first focus on the major rarity of the trip – the Crescent-chested Warblers – and then work my remaining targets into the schedule afterwards. Given that the Eared Quetzal had disappeared upon my arrival; I knew I had to be ready to run to Portal at any moment during my time in Arizona.

After a quick discussion with the rental company, they decided to upgrade me to a compact SUV given the terrain I told them I’d be covering. Probably smart, as I planned to drive some seriously precarious roads.

After stocking up on food at a local grocery store in order to minimize social contact on the trip, I headed east from Tucson along I-10 towards the famed Chiricahua’s – specifically Morse Canyon. The plan was to bird the area the Crescent-chested Warblers had been seen once I arrived for the remainder of the day. If I was unlucky, I planned to try again in the morning when they likely would be more active and hopefully singing.

My first stop though was just east of Sunizona, right where the road becomes unpaved and begins heading into the mountains. During Camp Chiricahua, the only other time I’d been to SE Arizona, I got a huge number of lifers and most of the hard to find species in the area. However, there were some noticeable gaps in my life list – Botteri’s Sparrow likely the worst (Greater Pewee is a close contender though).

After some research on eBird, I learned that these sparrows were common in the dry scrub/grassy habitat along the road leading into the mountains. Upon arrival, I pulled over expecting to have to search a bit. To my amazement though, the moment I opened my door I began to hear the diagnostic Botteri’s Sparrow song. My first lifer of the trip and quite an easy one at that!

Botteri’s Sparrow – Photo by Nathan Goldberg

Having taken care of the sparrow, I continued into the mountains (accessing them via the west side, an angle many visiting birders don’t take since the well known town of Portal and highly visited Cave Creek Canyon are both on the east side). Stopping intermittently, I began to take in sounds of the resident birdlife, adjusting my ears (and eyes) from an Illinois-focus. The resident Hairy Woodpeckers as well as an Arizona Woodpecker were present, and a small group of Hutton’s Vireos were a welcome addition.

Arriving near Morse Canyon around 4:30 PM, I decided to quickly set up my campsite for the evening so I could have plenty of time to not only look for the warblers, but also then look for another target that evening – Flammulated Owl. Given that Morse Canyon is in the Coronado National Forest, I was pleased to find a free dispersed campsite only two minutes away from the trailhead (and the area the warblers were found).

After getting my tent set up, I headed up to the trailhead and shortly after arrival, was joined by another birder who had been looking unsuccessfully for the warbler over the course of the afternoon. Thanks to some detailed instructions from my friend Ethan Gyllenhaal – a Chicago-native who now is in grad school at the University of New Mexico – I came prepared with knowledge of the warblers’ favorite haunts. They tended to be found in a stretch of the canyon roughly .1 mile from the parking lot where the trail splits into two, up to a huge boulder in the stream-bed another .1 mile further up canyon. Sightings beyond these two markers were few and far between, so I knew if I focused here long enough I hopefully would run into one of the birds.

Given the time of day, the warblers proved difficult to locate. However, the Chiricahua’s have plenty of other local species one can enjoy while searching, and I was happy to find a singing Buff-breasted Flycatcher, a pair of Mexican Chickadees, nesting Cordilleran Flycatchers, (Mexican) Brown Creepers, a Painted Redstart, numerous Grace’s Warblers, and plenty of Yellow-eyed Juncos.

Yellow-eyed Junco – Photo by Nathan Goldberg

Around 6:30 PM, I somehow picked out a faint chip note coming from the top of a huge ponderosa right where the trails split. Craning my head up with my binoculars, I could just make out (distantly) that the bird in question had a yellow breast, a grayish head and back, a white eyebrow, and what appeared to be a chestnut patch on the chest – an adult male Crescent-chested Warbler!! Snapping some horrible shots confirmed the sighting, and before I knew it, both it and another bird (possibly another warbler) flew out and in the dying light I was unable to track them further. The whole experience lasted only a few seconds, but I was thrilled in that I had connected with my main target.

Distant Crescent-chested Warbler – Photo by Nathan Goldberg

Elated, I headed back to the parking lot to wait until dark to begin the search for Flammulated Owl. The plan soon changed though when two birders, Mike and Jeremy Overway from Michigan, arrived with the same intentions. We decided to search for Flammulateds together, but with the strong wind gusts that came in throughout the evening, things were not looking good. We did have singing Mexican Whip-Poor-Wills at the parking lot, always a fun addition and a species I don’t get to hear living in the Midwest.

Working down the trail, we continued listening for Flams but heard nothing. We also kept our eyes peeled for a Black Bear that Jeremy had seen yesterday wandering through my campsite for the night, a story I was not expecting nor thrilled to hear…

After much searching, we eventually heard the deep resonant hoot of a Flam nearby. After some serious maneuvering, we got great looks at it perched in a tree – a lifer for all! I’ve heard Flammulated Owls before a few times throughout the west, which made this a highly desirable target for the trip and one I was glad to connect with. After this experience, I do stand by my claim that they are likely one of (if not the) hardest owl species in the lower 48 states to see.

Flammulated Owl – Photo by Nathan Goldberg

Parting ways for the evening, Mike provided me with some welcome tips for my targets the next few days, and I wished them luck on their remaining targets. Fortunately, I had no run-ins with any Black Bear throughout the night, aiding in a good nights sleep after a long first day.

The following morning, I was up pre-dawn in order to get to the trailhead once again to search for the warblers. While I was happy to have seen them yesterday, I really did want a better look and to get some better photographs. After much searching for over 2 hours, there was no sign of the pair… Hiking up trail beyond the traditional warbler area, I did run into an incredible mixed flock – full of passerines including Mexican Chickadees, Olive Warblers, a Red-faced Warbler, Painted Redstarts, Grace’s Warblers, Western Tanagers, a Red-breasted Nuthatch, and numerous Pygmy Nuthatches.

A nice distraction from the main search, I knew I had to refocus if I wanted to keep to my schedule. Heading back to the warbler “zone”, around 8:20 AM I heard the distinctive call note that I had learned the night before. Locating the warbler overhead, the views were not much better than the day prior. However, the bird then began to sing from a neighboring tree and after locating it, I was thrilled to be able to get some better shots of this awesome bird.

Crescent-chested Warbler – Photo by Nathan Goldberg

Singing Crescent-chested Warbler – Photo by Nathan Goldberg

The plan for the rest of the day was to go to the Tubac area for the nesting Rose-throated Becards, and then look for Rufous-capped Warbler and Black-capped Gnatcatcher nearby. I headed out of the Chiricahua’s late in the morning, stopping along the way for an obliging Greater Roadrunner:

Greater Roadrunner – Photo by Nathan Goldberg

After making the 2 hour drive to Tubac and being 10 minutes away from my destination, I got a text from my friend Sulli Gibson (who’s based in Alaska) – “Eared Quetzal relocated!”

Those three words threw me into an absolutely frantic panic, and I quickly turned around, essentially retracing the drive I’d just done to run back to Portal – and fast. Now a three-hour drive away, I coordinated with Ethan Gyllenhaal about where to meet as he was making the trip from SE New Mexico with some friends. Once I had the pin of where to go in Portal – I just had to make it there in time before the bird vanished.

The drive was efficient and without any hiccups, and I soon found myself entering the town of Portal on the eastern side of the Chiricahua’s. Seemed a bit funny to think I had just left the same mountains this morning, but birding sometimes is like that. Pulling into the Herb Martyr Campground area, I soon found the numerous cars parked indicating I was in the right area. Walking up to a group of attentive birders, Lori Conrad (a Portal resident) was generous enough to point out the quetzal to me. To my shock, the bird was actually perched right out in the open, only 20 feet off the road at eye-level. You couldn’t ask for an easier chase!

Eared Quetzal – Photo by Nathan Goldberg

I connected with Ethan, and we spent some time with this absolutely mega rarity. The bird itself was absolutely stunning. With the iridescent green/blue back, super odd humped back and body shape, ruby red belly, and whispy head feathers (the ears of the Eared Quetzal), I was in shock. To have it also be a drive-up bird only made the experience better, given the stories I’ve heard of birders looking for this species for days/weeks – and sometimes never finding it.

After soaking in the quetzal experience, we parted ways and I began heading back west towards Tucson. A quick stop at the Portal General Store added some fun species to the trip list, including Cassin’s Kingbirds, a Curve-billed Thrasher, Broad-billed Hummingbird, and a nice male (Southwestern) Northern Cardinal.

I stopped on the way out of Portal to take in the absolutely incredible landscape, and noted that I had to come back to spend more time exploring the area.

Leaving Portal and the Chiricahua’s – Photo by Nathan Goldberg

Arriving in the Tubac area now near dusk, I tried in vain to find the large nests of the local becards. Sadly, it was too late in the day to see the birds if they were even still awake, but it was valuable scouting for the following day. The stop did provide nice views of Vermilion Flycatchers, Phainopeplas, and some Gila Woodpeckers.

Male Vermilion Flycatcher – Photo by Nathan Goldberg

My plan was to hit Florida Canyon (about 20 minutes northeast of Tubac) in the morning for both Rufous-capped Warbler and Black-capped Gnatcatcher, so I headed up that direction. I found an extremely convenient dispersed campsite near the trailhead, and after setting up camp was treated to nice views of a local pair of Elf Owls as well as a distantly singing Common Poorwill.

A pair of Elf Owls – Photo by Nathan Goldberg

I began Day 3 of this whirlwind trip to SE Arizona at dawn in the parking lot to Florida Canyon, looking for the resident family of Black-capped Gnatcatchers that many birders find here. After walking the road to the parking lot, searching the lot itself, and additionally looking near the trailhead (all known haunts of these birds), I came up empty handed. If anything, I learned through this experience how common Bell’s Vireos were here, and that their raspy calls can be surprisingly similar to gnatcatchers.

The birdlife here was different from other aspects of my trip thus far, largely due to the change in habitat. I was treated to flybys of White-winged Doves and a Band-tailed Pigeon, as well as Canyon Wrens, Rufous-crowned Sparrows, a Hooded Oriole, Bronzed Cowbirds, a Hepatic Tanager, Blue Grosbeaks, and more. After much searching for the gnatcatchers, I decided it was time to give it a rest and shift focus to my other target here.

After doing a lot of research online ahead of my trip – largely through eBird and the Tucson Audubon Society’s Rare Bird Alert page – I had come prepared for a complex search for the Rufous-capped Warblers that bred in the canyon this year. The trail (or what birders call a trail) winds through dense brush and in some places is nearly absent, creating a sometimes nerve-racking situation for a visiting solo birder. Fortunately, I had downloaded my GoogleMaps offline ahead of time, and had pins marking key features in the canyon in order to find my way.

I eventually made it to the area the warblers are often are found, and after some searching caught a glimpse of an adult bird. After a bit more waiting, it cooperated briefly for a quick but satisfactory view overhead (with food for its young) before diving back into the vegetation, never to be seen again. A wonderful experience, and another lifer down.

Rufous-capped Warbler with food for young – Photo by Nathan Goldberg

While in this section of oaks, I was also treated to a nice family of Bridled Titmice, a species I was happy to catch up with on this trip.

Bridled Titmouse – Photo by Nathan Goldberg

Heading out of the canyon, I decided it was too hot in the day at this point for the gnatcatchers so they would have to wait for another time. I made the quick drive up to neighboring Box Canyon to see if I could find the continuing Five-striped Sparrow that had been seen here recently, but all I could find was a Varied Bunting as well as singing Rock and Canyon Wrens. At least I got to enjoy my breakfast PB&J with a view!

PB&J with a view of Box Canyon

My next stop, in the heat of the day, was back to the De Anza Trail in Tubac where I planned to finally connect with the Rose-throated Becards. Fortunately, this visit was much more straightforward given the time of day, and after a bit of walking I found the nest (in part, thanks to coordinates of it on eBird). The female becard came in a few times to feed its young, offering distant but satisfactory views of her cinnamon plumage. A great rarity in normal years, it’s hard to believe this species wasn’t even in contention for the star bird of the trip.

Female Rose-throated Becard – Photo by Nathan Goldberg

Other fun birds along the river valley here were a pair of low-circling Zone-tailed Hawks, a locally uncommon heard-then-seen Yellow-billed Cuckoo, nesting Brown-crested Flycatchers, Lucy’s Warblers, and some Yellow-breasted Chats.

Yellow-billed Cuckoo – Photo by Nathan Goldberg

Following this successful stop, I headed back north up to the Santa Rita Lodge area of Madera Canyon, for another lifer – (Mountain) Northern Pygmy-Owl. I had learned through the grapevine that there was a nesting pair here close to the parking lot, and given the proximity to the area I knew I had to head over for a look.

Upon arrival, I began searching the area and soon ran into some birders/photographers who were actually already looking at the nest hole. To my surprise, a young owl was presently sticking its head out! Eventually, after some time, the adult birds came in to feed the young (as these owls are diurnal, hunting during the day rather than night) offering great views for all.

Immature (Mountain) Northern Pygmy-Owl – Photo by Nathan Goldberg

Adult (Mountain) Northern Pygmy-Owl – Photo by Nathan Goldberg

Heading up to the lodge itself, I learned that there were also both an active Elegant Trogon and Sulfur-bellied Flycatcher nest along the road nearby. Visiting birder Scott Reynolds helped point me in the right direction for the two nest sites, but given that it was 2 PM in the heat of the day, I didn’t expect much. I decided I would head back here in the morning (time-permitting), and marked the locations on my personal map. There was a very photogenic Mexican Jay that I did take a moment to snap some shots of, and then quickly glanced at the hummingbird feeders on the way out. My brief check did not reveal the Berylline Hummingbird that was present, but since it was not a lifer for me I had to keep moving.

Trying to stay on schedule, I realized I had a bit of time to bird before heading to the famed California Gulch for two additional evening targets. After speaking with Scott, I learned he had been looking for the Black-capped Gnacatchers as well during his time in Arizona (unsuccessfully). We decided to team up and give them another valiant search effort in the remaining time I had, but sadly we struck out. At least in this visit we were treated to views of an absolutely gorgeous adult Hooded Oriole, a great bird for us out-of-towners.

My final stop for the day was California Gulch, a famed location in American birding. The “spot” to go to is at the confluence of California and Warsaw Canyons down south of the ghost town of Ruby, AZ. These canyons meet less than 10 miles from the US/Mexico border, and the area is largely uninhabited. The road in is quite dangerous for low-clearance vehicles, and any accident you may have here would not be good as there really is no cell service for miles in any direction.

With that in mind, this spot is also the traditional location for Five-striped Sparrows in the US, and is additionally one of the best and only sites to find Buff-collared Nightjar as well. My goal was to get to the canyon with enough time for the sparrow, and then wait until dark for the Nightjar. After about 30 minutes of tough driving into the canyon (in some places, driving over boulders larger than grapefruits), I arrived at “the spot.” Ethan Gyllenhaal had also been here recently, and provided me with a few pointers on where to find the Five-striped Sparrows so it didn’t take long before a very cooperative bird began singing and eventually teed up in a shrub offering incredible views.

Five-striped Sparrow – Photo by Nathan Goldberg

Five-striped Sparrow showing all 5 stripes- Photo by Nathan Goldberg

I really do think this species if one of the most under-rated sparrows in the US, with its bold black-and-white facial markings combined with its maroon-colored back.

With about two hours left before sundown, I spent my time birding the nearby arroyos. These areas provided new species once again for the trip list, including Rufous-winged Sparrow, Ash-throated Flycatcher, Verdin, Cactus Wrens, Bell’s Vireos, Summer Tanager, Black-throated Sparrows, and more.

Rufous-winged Sparrow – Photo by Nathan Goldberg

As the sun finally dipped below the horizon, I could soon hear a distant Buff-collared Nightjar singing. While distant, the call was unmistakable. It was neat to simultaneously have some Common Poorwills singing as well.

Unfortunately, even after much searching, the nightjar never did come out to the road (to be seen) throughout the evening and remained silent for long periods throughout the following two hours. Around 9:30 PM, I decided it was time to head out and begin the drive back to civilization. I figured it was finally time to get a hotel room for the evening (after two nights of camping), and stayed in the town of Green Valley at the local Best Western.

Day 4 – my final day of the trip – was once again an early start. I made a plan to run into Madera Canyon/Santa Rita Lodge again to see if I could connect with the nesting Trogons and Sulfur-bellied Flycatchers. Green Valley was well positioned for this being only 20 minutes away from the nest sites.

Driving in, I stopped to have a look at the Pygmy-Owl nest – and could see a young bird sticking its head out. As I rolled my windows down, I was a bit stunned to hear a nearby Elegant Trogon barking actively. I quickly pulled into the campground and located the bird – and if afforded incredible views for a while before heading a bit deeper into the canyon to continue its foraging/calling. This bird was extra special for this trip, as it represented the only other trogon/quetzal species that can be found in the US. To see both an Eared Quetzal and Elegant Trogon in the same weekend was a truly welcome opportunity.

Elegant Trogon – Photo by Nathan Goldberg

Heading deeper into the canyon from the campground just north of the Lodge’s hummingbird feeders, I was soon able to locate a couple of calling Sulfur-bellied Flycatchers. A specialty in the region, they represented yet another species I was not expecting to see on my brief trip given my time constraints. These birds ended up providing eye-level views, offering a great study of these fascinating flycatchers and my second lifetime observation following a 2010 sighting while on Camp Chiricahua.

I decided to stop at the hummingbird feeders as I had a bit of time before aiming to run back to Florida Canyon once more, and soaked in views of numerous Broad-billed and Rivoli’s Hummingbirds. I also had a keen eye out for the vagrant Berylline Hummingbird that was present, but after scanning its favorite bush for 20-30 minutes, I decided to call it and head out.

Upon walking to my car, I reversed my steps and figured I’d spend a few more minutes here to try and get a good photo of a male Rivoli’s Hummingbird. Just then, as if out of nowhere, the Berylline made an appearance on the feeder in front of me for a couple of seconds, chased a hummingbird off to the right, and then beelined into the trees along the backside of the feeders, disappearing once again. I was fortunate enough to snap a quick photo of the bird, and was sad to inform Scott (who had just pulled up) that he had unfortunately been a minute too late.

Berylline Hummingbird – Photo by Nathan Goldberg

My final stop before heading to the airport in Tucson was once again at Florida Canyon, my third and final try to see the Black-capped Gnatcatchers. Scott joined me here once again, and we cased the parking lot as well as did a thorough search of the trail nearby, the riverbed, and even headed back towards the main road where the birds are sometimes seen. I concluded that these gnatcatchers had recently nested or even were on the nest, so they were not actively calling unlike other times of the year.

After an hour of searching, we decided to throw in the towel (with only a Gray Hawk and Lucy’s Warbler as a consolation). I said goodbye to Scott who headed back to look for the Berylline, and decided I’d give the trail one more glance. As I walked in towards the metal gate, I heard an odd raspy call that I honestly expected to be another Bell’s Vireo. After pishing a bit, I was quite surprised to have a gnatcatcher pop out! The bird was quite drab overall, with no noticeable markings on the head – indicative of a female bird. It cooperated in horrible lighting for a bit, and allowed me to adjust my settings to get some shots before it dove back into the vegetation. The whole experience was quite brief, and honestly I told myself it was simply a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher that I would properly ID once back in Chicago with my photos on the computer.

I headed back to the car somewhat disappointed, but then reminded myself how fantastic the last 3.5 days had been and quickly snapped out of that mood. The drive to Tucson was quick, and after a necessary car wash following the incredibly dusty roads of the Chiricahua’s and California Gulch, I dropped the rental car back at the airport and began my journey home.

Upon arriving in Chicago late that evening, I posted my gnatcatcher photos on the Arizona Birding group on Facebook. To my surprise, the bird was quickly confirmed to be a female Black-capped Gnatcatcher, with notable birders pointing out the differences between Blue-gray and Black-capped Gnatcatchers to me. They noted the bird’s longer bill, overall drab appearance, and short R6 tail feather – features that solidified the ID and added my 9th and final lifer of the trip.

Female Black-capped Gnatcatcher – Photo by Nathan Goldberg

Female Black-capped Gnatcatcher – Photo by Nathan Goldberg

After three independent searches for the gnatcatchers, this was simply the cherry on top of an incredible journey. COVID has confined many of us to our local regions/patches, making this quick jaunt to Arizona all the more exciting. I do recognize the issues with traveling to a state that soon became a COVID-19 hotspot for the US, but was confident that my precautions, mask wearing, and social distancing in all cases would alleviate much of those fears. I was able to get tested as a precaution back in Chicago soon after my arrival and was negative for COVID, a welcome relief.

As an addendum, in the time since this trip, birders in Arizona revealed that there are actually TWO (possibly even three) Eared Quetzals in the Chiricahua’s, and that they likely are/were nesting. Sightings have been consistent albeit sporadic, and many additional birders with time and focus have been able to connect with these mega birds. Hard to find in their resident range, an accessible pair in the US is a welcome sighting even for the most serious of listers. Crazy enough, in early October, two more Eared Quetzals also showed up in the Gila National Forest in New Mexico, representing a first state record and adding to the continued saga of this species in 2020.

This trip was truly a whirlwind, and this blog had sadly had been sitting in draft form for over a few months. I figured it would be worth sharing regardless of the timeframe, and hope you enjoyed reading about my personal journey out of Illinois during a time where even a trip to the grocery store can be exciting and simultaneously anxiety-provoking. My desire is that this blog can serve as a resource for anyone aiming to go to SE Arizona in the future, and would like to thank all the friends that helped make this trip such a success for me. Thank you for reading.