Spring Migration in SE Arizona

I had been awake since 5:30 when I heard an unusual clucking bird call outside the bedroom window of our cottage at Rail Oaks Ranch near Sierra Vista. I was afraid to open the blind for fear of scaring whatever it was, so I peered beneath six inch gap at the below the shade. All I could see were some frolicking White-winged Doves – not the source of the sound I heard.

“A Scott’s Oriole flew in behind you,” I signaled to Bonnie as we were eating breakfast.

Bullock’s Oriole

It was one of the 10 species that morning that visited the various feeders conveniently placed within view of the dining area.

“You just missed some Montezuma Quail,” Karl told us. He and his wife Mary, Bonnie’s friends from Alaska who had come to SE Arizona for spring migration, were staying in the adjacent cottage. “In fact,” Karl continued, “I thought they were going to jump into the back seat when I opened the door.”  Montezuma Quail was on my wish list for the trip.

As we drove towards Fort Huachucha, I clicked on my Sibley’s app and played the various calls for Montezuma Quail. The sound I heard at 5:30 a.m. was not a quail.

“A pair of Elegant Trogans looked as though they were exploring a nest hole in the large sycamore tree at the edge of the parking lot when I was here two days ago,” Karl told us. While Bonnie and I had both seen the trogon on prior trips, we both hoped to be able to photograph it.

There was no sign of the trogan, so we headed up the rocky trail. Before long we encountered two Brown-crested Flycatchers. We heard their whip calls in amongst the foliage before they came into view.  Before long we ran into Charles, another birder from Albuquerque, and he joined us for the rest of the morning.

Further up the canyon we entered a hub of bird activity – Plumbeous and Hutton’s Vireos, Painted Redstart and Black-throated Gray and Townsend’s Warblers.

“Have you seen a trogon?” we asked the leader of a group of birders heading back down the canyon.

“No, but we heard one a short distance up,” he responded.

We also heard the distinctive barking, but didn’t catch a glimpse.  It is notorious for sitting quietly unnoticed. Since we returned from Arizona, Bonnie heard from Karl and Mary. They tried finding the Elegant Trogon again.  Karl hiked up the trail further than when were there and Mary stayed down in the parking lot.  Karl heard the trogon but never saw one.  Mary saw the pair at the Sycamore tree after everyone left the parking lot!

That evening we drove to the Battiste Bed and Breakfast for the ‘Elf Owl Show,’ arriving shortly before dark.

We watched May’s ‘super moon’ rise while we waited for the owls to come out of their nesting hole in an abandoned power pole in the middle of their yard.

“Keep an eye on the top hole,” Tony told us as he shone a light just below the hole. “That is the male’s hole. You will see his head appear at the opening and then he will start calling to the female.”

As if on cue, the diminutive head of the Elf Owl filled its hole, barely protruding, and he began to call.

Elf Owl peeking from hole – photo by Bonnie Long

“That’s the sound I heard outside of my window this morning,” I exclaimed. “There must have been a couple of Elf Owls in the tree that I could not see through the window opening.

All of a sudden, an Acorn Woodpecker flew into one of the six holes, followed by its mate. The wire mesh was placed on the pole when it was used by the power company to prevent the woodpeckers from drilling any more holes in it.

Acorn Woodpecker – Photo by Bonnie Long

Elf Owls, like other owl species, do not build their own nests, but appropriate the nests of other species. The Elf Owl frequently moves into the hole of an Acorn Woodpecker, as it did at this location. The woodpecker, not about to give up its permanent roosting spot, flew into one of the other holes.

After the male had successfully roused the female, he flew out of his hole and landed on a nearby branch. Before long he took off to hunt.

The next morning we headed to Patagonia, a new location for me, arriving at Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve at 7:30. We didn’t stay to watch the hummingbird feeders and headed to the Creek Trail to look for riparian species. In the distance we could hear the whistle of the Gray Hawk; however, it was over-powered by the calls of Gila Woodpeckers that abounded at this location.

We spotted a few migrating Wilson’s and Yellow Warblers. Song Sparrows called from along the creek.

“Look, a Vermilion Flycatcher is feeding chicks,” Bonnie alerted us. The small cup-shaped nest was secured to a limb over the trail. We could see little mouths propped open above the rim of the nest. And, then one of the chicks flew out of the nest and to a limb in an adjacent tree. As we watched, it gathered itself together and flew back to the nest tree, while its sibling watched hesitantly. We quickly walked on so we wouldn’t disturb them.

Vermilion Flycatcher nest and chicks

As we walked along the trail, we had the opportunity to observe numerous Black-headed Grosbeaks, Summer Tanagers and Brown-crested Flycatchers. We encountered a pair of Abert’s Towhees.

As we looped back we heard the distinctive call of a Northern Cardinal and then saw it and its mate. We looked unsuccessfully for a Rufous-backed Robin that had been reported near a spring.

As we approached the Visitor Center, we saw people looking skyward with their binoculars. A Gray Hawk was circling for overhead – and then disappeared over the horizon.

I am always grateful to the Nature Conservancy for their efforts in acquiring and preserving wonderful wild areas such as this.

Our next stop was Patton’s Feeders, famous for its Violet-crowned Hummingbirds. While there were many other birds that visited their feeders, I was primarily interested in the opportunity to see the Violet-crowned Hummingbird, so I focused on the row of nectar feeders. In addition to the many hummers – primarily Broad-billed, Anna’s

Anna’s Hummingbird

and Black-chinned, I was amused by the persistent Gila Woodpecker that took over one of the feeders.

Gila Woodpecker

“There’s an Indigo Bunting at the feeder near the fence,” someone signaled. After sitting on the sidelines for a while, it finally came in and fed opposite a Lazuli Bunting.

Lazuli and Indigo Buntings

While I was watching the buntings, I missed a visit by my target hummingbird and vowed I would not be distracted again. After about 15 more minutes, I was rewarded with my life bird.

Violet-crowned Hummingbird

“We can go to lunch now,” I announced to my companions.

Before leaving the area, we visited the famous Patagonia Roadside Rest where a number of rare species have been spotted over the years. There had been recent reports of a Thick-billed Kingbird. While we didn’t see the kingbird, we were surprised to see a Townsend’s Solitaire.

On our last full day in the Sierra Vista area, we spent the morning trekking through the bosque adjacent to Casa de San Pedro.  The lush riparian habitat was in vast contrast to Chihuahuan desert scrub in other areas.

Many of the species were similar to those we had seen at Patagonia, with far more Vermilion Flycatchers.

Vermilion Flycatcher

“Gray Hawk,” Karl motioned. It was circling well within view – and then flew into a cottonwood along the trail where it became impossible to see. “We think they must have a nest near here, as we have seen them in this area often.”

At this location, each pair of Abert’s Towhees had a Green-tailed Towhee tagging along.

We watched as two male Summer Tanagers vied for the attention of a female. She didn’t seem pleased with either one and flew off.

That afternoon we went to Ash Canyon B & B, famous for its hummingbird feeders where we ran into Lefty, another birder from Albuquerque. Mary Jo Ballator, the owner joined us under the portal, with her companion cockatoo on her shoulder. Hers was one of the few residences that survived the wildfire a year ago, and signs of devastation were everywhere. While it has affected the number of hummingbirds that visit her yard there were plenty of other species of birds at and below the seed feeders.

Lazuli Bunting, Blue Grosbeak, Lark Sparrow

A Bullock’s Oriole took advantage of an empty hummingbird feeder,

Bullock’s Oriole

and a pair of Mexican Jays paid a visit.

Mexican Jay

That evening, we were glued to the windows at Karl and Mary’s cottage soaking in the many birds, including a pair of Pyrrhuloxia


And numerous Gambel’s Quail.

Gambel’s Quail

An Acorn Woodpecker was busy outside the window of the cottage as we made breakfast the last morning.

Acorn Woodpecker

Before heading back to Albuquerque the last morning, we visited the hummingbird feeders at Beatty’s Guest Ranch and Orchard located 5800 feet in a pine-oak woodland. They also suffered the results of the wildfire and subsequent flash flooding during the monsoon season.

We picked our way down through the boulders that had washed down the arroyo and up the steep trail to the viewing platform where we were rewarded with a multitude of hummingbirds buzzing in and out of the feeders.

“The Blue-throated Hummingbird will be perched strategically in the middle of all of the feeders,” Edith Beatty told us before we headed up the trail. “It seems determined to spend all of its time chasing off the maggies.”

Blue-throated Hummingbird – Photo by Bonnie Long

Sure enough, the Blue-throated hummer was easy to spot.

While it actively pursued any Magnificent Hummingbird that attempted to feed, and we mostly saw Magnificents sitting on the sidelines, few persistent ones were able to sneak in unnoticed.

Magnificent Hummingbird – Photo by Bonnie Long

Other hummingbird species included Broad-tailed, Black-chinned and Broad-billed. We spent a contented hour watching the action before we reluctantly had to leave. During our visit we also saw an Arizona Woodpecker, our only sighting of the trip.

Our whirl-wind trip had been a wonderful opportunity to enjoy not only migrating and summer nesting birds, but also Arizona endemics.

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