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Wanstead Birder: Arizona in Winter


Logistics

  • A four day trip in late February (24th 27th) to catch up with as many wintering species as possible. The landscape was also a very large attraction, and indeed for the most part it felt like I was birding in a Western.
  • I won’t bother detailing quite how daft a route I took to get to there, but my final airport was Phoenix, which is an extremely efficient airport and has direct flights from London. Alternatively it is a short hop from either LA, Las Vegas, or any of the other major hubs in the south west.
  • Car hire via Avis was a Ford Escape, billed in North America as a small SUV, but of course is pretty big. This is what I normally hire and it suits me perfectly. Once again I spent a lot of time on unpaved roads, especially in the Santa Rita Mountains and the Santa Cruz Flats. I would think a normal car would be fine if you were careful, but I always felt comfortable pulling off the road wherever I wanted. Once again Avis had removed the parcel shelf thus leaving all my gear exposed the whole trip. I did 1000 miles and fuel was a mere $50. Thanks America!
  • I stayed in Tucson for all three nights, at the Comfort Suites hotel at Tuscon Mall. This was close to the freeway, and had lots of food options for the evening. In retrospect I should have stayed further south for my second night as I did 3 hours of unnecessary driving, but I had wanted to remain flexible in case of inclement weather. In the event the weather was perfect for the whole trip with not a cloud in sight.
  • The USA is wifi d to the max. Each evening I refreshed my phone with detailed maps of the areas I was visiting on the following day and off I went using just GPS. I didn’t use any data abroad at all.
  • Research was very detailed. As is becoming a bit of a habit, my main sources of information were the excellent trip reports on winter birding in Arizona published by VENT (Victor Emmanual Nature Tours) and uploaded onto the Cloudbirders website. They run regular tours in January, and the reports go back a number of years. As you know I am not a tour birder, especially at $2000, but it’s very easy to use these and similar reports to get a feel for the locations they visit and the times of day they arrive. The guided tours typically pick up 150 species, whereas solo I only managed around 130, albeit on a slightly shorter trip. Still, those additional species would cost $100 each, and I’d swap being completely free and not in a minibus full of retirees for 20 species any day!
  • Whereas these trip reports were used for general advanced planning, Ebird added the finer detail. By searching using the hotspots function you can see exactly what is being seen where. This led me to a great Thrasher site on my final day having been frustrated at my first locations, and also gave specific directions for some of the Mexican rarities that I chased.
  • I used the Sibley guide for the west, but didn’t on this trip really use the Audubon app which has the vocalisations as I found most species pretty easy to see and identify. Sparrows remain very challenging!

Itinerary

Day 1: Early morning arrival into Phoenix, and I was on the road and birding soon after. My journey took me south into the Santa Cruz Flats, an arid area with irrigated agriculture. Birded extensively here and then mid-afternoon I drove east to Catalina State Park. Final stop of the day Sweetwater Wetlands Preserve.
Day 2: A bit of a bird feeder day. 5am start for the drive south on I19 to be at Florida Canyon for dawn. Mid-morning moved to Madera Canyon, spending most time at the Santa Rita Lodge feeders which were teeming with birds even in the heat of the day. Mid afternoon I went west to Pena Blanca lake, and then back east for a couple of hours at Paton’s Hummingbird Sanctuary in Patagonia. This is excellent in the last hour of the day, as people leave and more and more birds arrive.
Day 3: An even earlier start, 4am, and a long drive south-east to the Sulphur Springs Valley, arriving at Whitewater Draw for dawn. Greeted by the spectacular sight of thousands of Sandhill Cranes departing from roost to feed in the surrounding fields. Birded until mid-morning here, then birded my way north up the valley to Kansas Settlement and finally Willcox. Some afternoon tourism at Tombstone, and then a final session at Fort Huachuca for Sinaloa Wren, a long-staying ABA mega. Note that this is a military base and that you need specific credentials to gain access.
Day 4: Morning birding at P Peak State Park north of Tuscon and just off the I10, and then west onto the Santa Cruz Flats again for another abortive attempt at Mountain Plover. Left here late morning and took the I8 west through the Sonora Desertl and the north to the famous Thrasher spot near Buckeye where I found all five expected species in a very hot flog around the sagebrush habitat. East back to Phoenix where I birded the Gilbert Riparian Preserve until dusk before meeting up with some of distant relations for dinner. Early to bed for the flight(s) home the next day.