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Trip Report: Southeastern Arizona
Jojo saw some birds in Tucson, Arizona
Goslings are here! Swallows are here! Spring is here!! That’s what it feels like walking around Lake Merritt with songbirds singing and the state flower (the California golden poppy) blooming on every corner and on the side of every highway.
Before the seasons started changing, though, I took a trip to Tucson, Arizona to catch the tail end of migration and other winter birds that come to the desert for some cooler weather. I would love to visit in spring one day and see the desert in bloom like it is now, but winter brings plenty of great birding opportunities. For this trip, I booked three half days and a night of owling with Arizona Birding Tours. My two guides were fantastic— professional, enthusiastic, and skilled birders. As I have recently just entered my mid-30s, I had the still-new experience of being surprised by their youth and envious they found something they loved so much at a young age. If you decide to bird there, definitely look them up.
Tucson is Arizona’s second largest city after Phoenix, located in the southeastern part of the state just a few hours north of the Mexican border. It is located in the Sonoran Desert, surrounded by five minor mountain ranges and sandwiched between two parts of Saguaro National Park. Arizona, as a whole, contains a range of elevation, climates, and habitats that a wide variety of birds call home or visit during migration. Tucson and the broader (though still relatively small) southeastern region specifically boasts the Sonoran Desert, oak woodland, high-elevation conifer forests, and riparian areas. For that reason, it’s cited as many birders’ favorite region to visit.
In addition to being a birding hotspot, it’s recently gotten recognition for its food and general cool vibes. In 2015, it was named a UNESCO City of Gastronomy, and earlier this year, it was placed on the New York Times’ 52 Places to Travel in 2023. Between birding sessions, I had fantastic eats at Tito & Pep, Barrio Bread, Monsoon Chocolate, and Tumerico. But that is all the travel influencing I will attempt.
Birding can often be quite competitive—the desire to grow one’s life list and achieve Big Days or Big Years can make it a hectic sport and spur some extreme birding behavior. That said, as people have grown more mindful of mindfulness, folks have also been touting birding as a great activity to find peace. Rather than focus on identifying and “collecting” birds, birding can be a way to slow down and notice—to be more aware of the moment and intentionally turn our attention to birds and their behavior. I agree that birding has many mental health benefits and would also add that birding gives a sort of zen acceptance of our lack of control over our lives and the world (to be perhaps a bit hyperbolic about it). You can venture out to see birds, but they simply might not be there. Or the weather turns in an unpleasant way. Or you hear them but don’t see them. Or, as birds are often wont to do, they fly away.
The week of my visit (late February) was apparently one of the coldest weeks of the year, and one day, winds in some parts of the state reached up to 70mph—problematic conditions for birding. This resulted in a need to change my bird tour schedule (Arizona Birding Tours was great with this!) and also much fewer birds than one might hope to see in the region. I’m not so competitive and though huge numbers are nice, I accept smaller checklists and generally appreciate the time in the desert—on reflection, that might be another change in me with my newfound age. In the past, I probably would have been upset to miss out on birds because of unseasonable monsoon weather completely out of my (or anyone else's) control.
I booked my trip to Southeast Arizona after listening to Jer Thorp’s podcast episode on immense number of birds and seeing some checklists on eBird that counted 30,000 Sandhill Cranes in one site. Imagine a sky full of them and their companion Snow / Ross’s Geese with them in similar numbers! I left Tucson at 4AM to get to Whitewater Draw by around 6AM. As I got closer, the sun was coming up, and I saw some cranes flying overhead and hoped they weren’t leaving before I could get to them!
My crane and goose count ended up in the couple hundreds—short of the tens of thousands I hoped to see, and my guide apologized for that (of course, he had no control over that either). I assured him that number is still way more cranes and geese than I’ve ever seen in my life, and I was thrilled to see them move together overhead and cause a ruckus with an assortment of honks and rolling cries.
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The cranes I saw overhead while driving were flying to forage, but they came back later in the morning for many of the shots above. While they were away, we walked on some very muddy ground, to catch assorted waterfowl and songbirds. I added the Northern Shoveler and more elegant Northern Pintail to my life list and learned a couple new favorites: the Vermillion Flycatcher and the Pyrrhuloxia (which I failed to capture well on camera).
Winds died down enough that I could still go owling the next evening. Our first stop was to see some Burrowing Owls. They made their home just off the road in some agricultural fields, but the fields were recently tilled! We worried they had moved away because of all the activity, but my guide soon spotted a couple little potato heads sticking up above ground. They are very cute birds, and two popped up to check out what was going on outside their burrow. (As an aside, one of my first intro to the species was a 2014 TechCrunch article about how the city of Mountain View blamed Burrowing Owls for not being able to expand housing, contributing to the Bay Area’s astronomical housing costs.)
The rest of the evening’s search for owls was relatively unsuccessful. We tried a dozen different sites around Saguaro National Park, and all we got were the nearby hoots of a Western Screech Owl (which probably didn’t want to come closer because of the nearby calls of a Great Horned Owl). That said, standing in the desert at night, stars slowly coming out overhead behind the silhouette of cactus-topped mountains—a strange kind of forest to me!—with coyotes calling somewhere in the distance, gave me a sense of wonder. It was a similar feeling to being out on the ocean near Haida Gwaii.
Wind and weather cooperated on my last day for some birding in the Patagonia region of the state. Arriving at Patagonia Lake State Park around 6AM after another 2 hour drive in the dark from Tucson, the air was filled with the ringing songs of the red-winged blackbirds gathered in the reeds.
Perhaps the most exciting sighting of the day was a VERY cooperative Virginia Rail. They are often seen, not heard, and this one emerged from the reeds and crept quite close before swimming away back into hiding.
We also had good luck with songbirds. Some of these came to the feeders set up for those wanting more relaxed birding, but there were plenty hopping around the trees as we walked by the creek. I am continuously amazed by the number of sparrows in the world, and in Arizona, I think I added at least 5 new ones to my life list. I got good sightings of the White-Throated Sparrow and the Rufous-Winged Sparrow, a bird with very limited range in the US and which eBird describes as a “subtly marked sparrow with a poor name.” I have a pretty hard time IDing sparrows… but I do appreciate them.
More birds were at the feeders on the way back, giving clearer, up-close views of the Verdin, the broad-billed Hummingbird, Curve-billed Thrasher, Northern Cardinal, and others. Arizona actually has its own subspecies of the famous red bird, and those found in the state are the largest of the cardinal subspecies and have stouter bills, taller crests, and less black masking than the others you might see around the country or on Christmas cards.
I still don’t maintain much of a bird target list, but the Greater Roadrunner was undoubtedly the one I wanted to see the most. We tried to get a closer view down in Patagonia Lake State Park, but only heard its calls, which disappointingly sound more similar to a Mourning dove than to its cartoon counterpart’s “beep beep.” I didn’t catch one that day, but my first day I saw one running across a road in Saguaro National Park, as it does, and it was pretty thrilling. That was all I wanted to see, and I was satisfied with that even though I didn’t get a picture.
Some Mexican species winter in southeast Arizona as well. No luck with Trogons or other more migratory species but I did get some Mexican Ducks and Mexican Jays. There is a longer reflection on nature's transcendence of human borders… but that’s perhaps for another time. (As another aside, The Beatles’ “Get Back” which opens with a line about Tucson started out as a song satirizing anti-immigration attitudes in the UK and US.)
A few posts back I lamented not being able to go back to places I’d like to get back to. Arizona is close enough that it feels easy enough to do so. Maybe one day to try for tens of thousands of cranes, maybe one day for the superbloom, or maybe for another try at owling. My guides said herping would be fun to do… but I’m not sure I’m ready to start looking for snakes under rocks.
If you are interested in checklists, I've put together a trip report here.
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