owls, hummingbirds and more in Arizona’s ‘sky islands’



"Thanks again for a great trip to Arizona."......  Mr and Mrs J, Redditch, May 2008


''Thanks for all the good birding and your patience to the group. We enjoyed the picnics too.'' Mr and Mrs G, Newcastle.





click here for a pdf version of this destination write-up  -  easier to print  -  no photos



Arizona is regarded by many American birdwatchers as the most exciting state in the Union. The south-east is the most popular region, as this is the area where many Mexican species have a toehold in the USA. It is also good for many typical North American species. This is due partly to the wide range of altitude from the desert floor to mountains with a much cooler climate. Species you might expect to find much further north reside here in little pockets in the mountains. The higher altitudes are great for people too as they provide a very pleasant climate and picturesque environment in which to birdwatch. By spending almost two weeks in a relatively small area we will cut travelling to a minimum, but we will still be exploring an area about the size of Wales.


Arizona conjures up images of saguaro-covered desert hills, and we will be spending enough time in this habitat to see its special flora and fauna. Much of our time will also be spent in what are known as the ‘sky islands’ – mountain ranges that rise dramatically out of a largely flat landscape. They are part of the American national park system and have excellent facilities and trails.






Having arrived on a direct flight to Phoenix we will drive down to Tucson, a journey of 1½ hours. We will spend our first three nights here, exploring the mountains, canyons and desert areas that are surprisingly close to the city.


On our first full day we will visit Mount Lemmon in the Santa Catalina Mountains. Only a few miles out of Tucson, the road begins to climb dramatically as we start from below a thousand metres and reach nearly three thousand after just thirty miles. Naturally this provides some spectacular views over the desert below and some dramatic changes in habitat. The drive up Mount Lemmon has been likened to passing through the different life zones between Mexico and Canada. We will stop at various points for short walks and should pick up a varied list of birds such as Gambel’s Quail, Verdin, Rock Wren, Acorn Woodpecker, Western Scrub Jay, Crissal Thrasher, Olive Warbler and Mountain Chickadee. On one trip the highlight was the sighting of a Bobcat.


The next day we will head to Madera Canyon in the Santa Rita Mountains. There is an excellent trail through attractive woodland where Arizona Woodpecker, Northern Flicker, Northern Beardless Tyrannulet, Phainopepla, Bushtit and Bridled Titmouse can be found. Mexican Jay, White-breasted Nuthatch, Lesser Goldfinch and several ‘hummers’ such as Broad-billed, Black-chinned, Broad-tailed and Magnificent Hummingbird all come to the feeders. Mountain Pygmy Owl and Elf Owl are both possible, whilst Flame-coloured Tanager, a rarity from Mexico, occasionally takes up residence.


On our last morning at Tucson we will visit the Saguaro National Park. The Saguaro is the archetypal huge cactus and though featured in many cowboy films their range is quite limited. This is a good place to see the many desert species found in the region such as Gilded Flicker, Gila Woodpecker, Greater Roadrunner, Pyrrhuloxia, Cactus Wren, Black-throated Sparrow, Canyon Towhee, Curve-billed Thrasher, Hooded Oriole and Rufous-winged Sparrow. The spectacular Yellow-headed Blackbird can be found at a nearby marsh.


Other wildlife in the Tucson area includes Short-horned Lizard, Coyote, Arizona Grey Squirrel, Ground Squirrel, Rock Squirrel, Collared Peccary, Desert Cottontail, several species of skunk and Coue’s White-tailed Deer. Less easy to see but adding a certain frisson to any walk in the mountains are Black Bear, Mountain Lion and Gila Monster.



On day four we will transfer to our hotel in Sierra Vista, in the San Pedro Valley, for a stay of four nights.


The San Pedro Valley is a long corridor of greenery in an otherwise dry area and is thus attractive to birds. Regular species include Swainson’s Hawk, American Kestrel, Great Horned Owl, Green Kingfisher, Vermilion Flycatcher, Say’s Phoebe, Cassin’s Kingbird, Lucy’s Warbler, Yellow Warbler and Common Yellowthroat.


This is a good base for exploring other sites such as Patagonia Lake, a beautiful spot which is a magnet for migrants. Nearby is a small, private garden, open to birdwatchers, where there is an array of hummingbird feeders. Here we can see Violet-crowned, Broad-billed, Black-chinned and Costa’s Hummingbirds. Other species we can expect include Grey Hawk, Inca Dove, White-throated Swift, Vermilion Flycatcher, Bewick’s Wren, Canyon Wren, Bell’s Vireo, Northern Cardinal and Bullock’s Oriole.


The name Sierra Vista refers to the wonderful views of the Huachuca mountains from the town. We will explore various canyons in the mountains noted for their wildlife. Miller Canyon and Carr Canyon are our favourites. At Miller, regular feeding has led to a wealth of hummingbirds. Lucifer and Calliope Hummingbirds have provided highlights on past visits. Higher up, we will search for a roosting ‘Mexican’ Spotted Owl during the day, but finding one in the dense stands of pines can be difficult. Carr Canyon is good for Zone-tailed Hawk, Buff-breasted Flycatcher, Hutton’s Vireo, Painted Redstart and Black-throated Grey Warbler, whilst an evening visit may yield a Whiskered Screech Owl.



The last area we visit before returning to Phoenix is perhaps the most picturesque of the ‘sky islands’. Chiricahua National Monument is an amazing array of natural rock formations set against wooded hillsides. There are superb trails through the woods and terrific viewpoints. The little hamlet of Portal, where we will be staying for four nights, is able to boast four or five species of owl. We will hope to add Western Screech and Flammulated here, as well as Whip-poor-will and Common Poorwill.


There are wonderful walks during which we can look for Elegant Trogons and Red-faced Warblers, and the Chiricahuas are the only place in the US where Mexican Chickadee can be seen. Feeders next to the lodge attract Blue-throated Hummingbirds, and it is sometimes possible to get great views of Montezuma Quail. Prairie Falcon, Scaled Quail, Bendire’s Thrasher and Western Scrub-Jay can be seen in nearby scrub and semi-desert.


On day 12 we will head back towards Phoenix, calling in at several wetlands en route. At Wilcox Playa we should see good numbers of ducks and waders, including migrant Wilson’s Phalaropes in beautiful summer plumage. Further north at San Carlos Reservoir there are thousands of Western Grebes, plus smaller numbers of Clark’s Grebes, as well as the chance of something unusual. Our recent visits have yielded American White Pelican, Franklin’s Gull, Forster’s Tern, Black-crowned Night-heron, Long-billed Curlew, Marbled Godwit and Buff-bellied Pipit amongst the commoner species.



Our last night is near the town of Globe, just east of Phoenix. Our flight home is not until the evening, and the perfect way to spend our final day is strolling along the shaded trails of the outstanding Boyce Thompson Arboretum. Deserts from around the world are featured here; there is an excellent display of plants from the Sonoran desert which we have become familiar with over the past two weeks. Of course, there are birds too. Plumbeous Vireo, Juniper Titmouse, Black-chinned Sparrow, Common Black-hawk and Golden Eagle may be amongst the highlights.



Breakfast will be at around 7.30am most mornings, with optional pre-breakfast walks. Basic fitness is all that is required. The Spotted Owl site requires an uphill walk of one mile on a rough track. The temperatures are pleasant in April and we will often spend the heat of the day sitting in the shade by hummingbird feeders.



Full-board accommodation is provided. Three nights at the Riverpark Inn in Tucson, four nights at the Quality Inn in Sierra Vista, four nights at Portal Peak Lodge, Portal and the last night at the Travelodge near Globe. All rooms are spacious and have en suite facilities. Packed lunches will be taken most days.



All birdwatching excursions with expert leader, full-board accommodation (starting with dinner on 13th, ending with lunch on 25th), soft drinks at meal times, local transport by mini-bus, entrance fees, international flights and airport taxes.



Travel insurance. Personal items, alcoholic drinks, laundry. US ESTA visa waiver fee (approx. £9).



Return flight from London Heathrow to Phoenix using the scheduled services of British Airways. Outbound flight departs early afternoon, the return arrives back mid-day. Domestic flights from Manchester and other UK airports are available on this tour. See booking form for details.






13 nights including

one overnight flight:


Principal leaders:


Maximum group size:


Cost with discount

(if you book before

29th December 2012):


Full Cost:





Single supplement:






13th to 26th April 2013


Paul J. Willoughby


9 clients with one leader




£2970 per person sharing


£3120 per person sharing


A ground only price is available. Please contact our office














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