Four friends from Riverside, CA and I decided to take an extra long Memorial Day weekend trip to SE Arizona. Our itinerary included the Ruby Road area, Patagonia, the Huachucas, Chiricahuas, and the grasslands at the base of Madera Canyon. We camped every night of the trip, always in established Forest Service or State Park Campgrounds. Site fees were between $10 and $20 per night. We rented a 4-wheel drive pickup from Enterprise in Nogales for the Ruby Rd. portion of our trip which cost us $80 per day.
Locations and Birds
We arrived at Pena Blanca Lake State Recreation Area east of Nogales around 9pm and found a campsite at a small campground at the junction of the SR-289 and the Ruby Rd. We enjoyed the company of at least one ELF OWL and several COMMON POORWILLS right in the campground. In the morning we birded around the campground and Pena Blanca Lake itself before picking up the rental. Birds included VARIED BUNTING, BROWN-CRESTED FLYCATCHER, DUSKY-CAPPED FLYCATCHER, BRIDLED TITMOUSE, ZONE-TAILED HAWK, BRONZED COWBIRD, PURPLE MARTIN, VERMILION FLYCATCHER, SUMMER TANAGER and NORTHERN BEARDLESS-TYRANNULET. MONTEZUMA QUAIL were heard calling from the surrounding hills at dawn. The excellent ABA guide to SEAZ glosses over Pena Blanca as a birding destination, but we found it to be a great spot, especially considering its close proximity to other birding destinations farther down the Ruby Rd.
After picking up the rental we headed for California Gulch. Over the course of an entire afternoon in the canyon, we managed to see FIVE-STRIPED SPARROWS in a couple of locations. One bird before even reaching the first stream crossing was seen perched briefly, before we located a territorial pair in between the first and second stream crossings. Also seen in the Gulch were BLACK-THROATED SPARROW, HOODED ORIOLE, NORTHERN BEARDLESS-TYRANNULET and the personal highlight for me, a gorgeous SONORAN CORAL SNAKE (Micruroides euryxanthus)!
Dusk found us at the Oro Blanco mine site where we were treated to at least one singing BUFF-COLLARED NIGHTJAR.
We spent all morning hiking the first two miles of Sycamore Canyon. Highlights here were well seen MONTEZUMA QUAIL, brief looks at at least two ELEGANT TROGONS. Other birds seen along the trail were ARIZONA WOODPECKER, HEPATIC TANAGER and PAINTED REDSTART. This day too had a non-avian highlight, a small cave with 5-10 MEXICAN LONG-TONGUED BATS, one of which flushed only a couple feet from its original roost and posed for a close study and photos.
We de-camped and headed towards the Huachucas with a couple of quick stops in the Patagonia area. The Patagonia Roadside Rest had YELLOW-BREASTED CHAT and BELL’S VIREO but no Rose-throated Becards. A 15 minute stay at the Paton’s yard added VIOLET-CROWNED HUMMINGBIRD and THICK-BILLED KINGBIRD to the trip list.
There was just enough sunlight to stop in at Beatty’s Guest Ranch in Miller Canyon. We were informed that all the “good” hummers were being seen at the restricted access site (5$/person or 20$/group over 4) so we paid up and headed upslope to the feeders. We were a few minutes late for the White-eared but we did have tons of hummers including BLUE-THROATED, MAGNIFICENT, BLACK-CHINNED, BROAD-TAILED and ANNA’S. Tom Beatty graciously told us we were welcome to come back the next day for no extra charge to look for the White-eared.
That evening we stopped at a stream crossing before Carr Canyon road starts climbing for owling. We heard 2 WHISKERED SCREECH-OWLS and were able to get awesome looks at one individual. We then headed up to the Reef campground farther up Carr Canyon rd to camp for the night.
We woke up to good birding in the campground with BUFF-BREASTED FLYCATCHER, HERMIT WARBLER (late migrant), HEPATIC TANAGER, GRACE’S WARBLER, GREATER PEWEE, HERMIT THRUSH and YELLOW-EYED JUNCO in the immediate area.
The Comfort Springs trail from Ramsey Vista CG higher up had very little of interest later in the morning.
We decided to head back to Beatty’s to try for the White-eared again and this time had better luck, with great looks at a stunning male WHITE-EARED HUMMINGBIRD.
Next stop was the Ash Canyon B&B. The target bird, LUCIFER HUMMINGBIRD showed well in the company of several COSTA’S and BROAD-BILLED HUMMINGBIRDS. Also seen at the B&B were ARIZONA WOODPECKER, GILA WOODPECKER, and WHISKERED SCREECH-OWL in a nest box.
On our way to the Chiricahuas we had SCALED QUAIL and BURROWING OWL along the Portal Rd. We set up camp at Sunny Flat Campground (highly recommended) and headed to the South Fork of Cave Creek Canyon. Birding here was incredibly slow, but we did manage quick looks at both ELEGANT TROGON and SULPHUR-BELLIED FLYCATCHER, our two target birds for the afternoon. Sunny Flat CG had WHISKERED SCREECH-OWL, WHIP-POOR-WILL and ELF OWL all singing around dusk.
We birded South Fork again in the morning hoping for better results. It wasn’t to be. Birding was again very slow with only a pair of nesting MEXICAN CHICKADEES added to yesterdays list.
Higher up in the Chiricahuas we checked out Rustler and Barfoot Parks. Rustler had HOUSE WREN (brown-throated form), PYGMY NUTHATCH, RED-BREASTED NUTHATCH, YELLOW-EYED JUNCO, RED CROSSBILL and heard-only OLIVE WARBLER. Barfoot Park was a little less birdy but did add CLARK’S NUTCRACKER and a light morph SHORT-TAILED HAWK. We also had heard-only OLIVE WARBLER and RED-FACED WARBLER. For whatever reason, both of these birds proved way harder to see here then other areas I have seen them in Mexico. Whether this was coincidence, an artifact of a smaller population or bad seasonal timing…I don’t know.
On a tip from some other birders we went back down the road to Barfoot Junction (where the road splits to go to either Barfoot or Rustler Parks) for owling and were immediately rewarded with a calling SPOTTED OWL just uphill from the junction.
Heading home via the road through the Chiricahuas we made a brief stop near Pinery Campground and finally managed a look at RED-FACED WARBLER. A short distance farther down the road, I spotted a small raptor perched up in a pine, sure enough a gorgeous light-morph SHORT-TAILED HAWK.
Our very last stops on the way back to CA were Mcleary Wash and Proctor Rd along the road to Madera Canyon. Mcleary Wash failed to produce hoped-for Botteri’s Sparrows but we did manage one CASSIN’S SPARROW in the heat of mid-morning. Finally, a staked-out family of BLACK-CAPPED GNATCATCHERS was easily seen along the trail from the Proctor Rd. parking lot before heading west to CA.
For herp enthusiasts, our brief herp list:
Sonoran Coral Snake; 1, California Gulch
Lesser Earless Lizard; several, California Gulch
Desert Grassland Whiptail; common, many sites
Bunchgrass Lizard; 1, Carr Canyon Rd just below Ramset Vista CG
Plateau Striped Lizard; 1, Sunny Flat CG
Coachwhip; 1, SR-186 nr Wilcox
Clark’s Spiny Lizard; 2 Sunny Flat CG