ARIZONA AND CALIFORNIA
7–23 January 2018
In winter Arizona and California hold large numbers of birds of many species. Targets will include Scaled Quail, Ferruginous Hawk, Mountain Plover, Wandering Tattler, Surfbird, Yellow-footed Gull, Broad-billed and Allen’s Hummingbirds, Elegant Trogon, all four sapsuckers, Gilded Flicker, California Gnatcatcher, Wrentit, six thrashers, Sprague’s Pipit and Baird’s Sparrow plus some rarities and seabirds as well as Grey Whales.
Day 1 We will take a flight from London to Phoenix, where we will spend our first night in Tempe.
Day 2 In the Greater Phoenix area we will look out for Gila Woodpecker, Cactus Wren, Curve-billed Thrasher, Verdin, Abert’s Towhee, Say’s Phoebe and Yellow-rumped (Audubon’s) Warbler. Many species winter on the numerous artificial lakes and water treatment plants and we should encounter Eared and Pied-billed Grebes, Canvasback, Bufflehead and Neotropic Cormorant. The metropolitan area can be very good for rarities and we will follow the local bird news with great interest: Rufous-backed Robin, Rusty Blackbird and Smith’s Longspur have all been found in recent winters along with scarcer species such as Cackling Goose and Lewis’s Woodpecker. Boyce Thompson Arboretum near Superior is a beautifully-landscaped park exhibiting desert plant species from around the world, and wintering birds we may find here include Williamson’s, Yellow-bellied and Red-naped Sapsuckers, Phainopepla, Canyon and Rock Wrens and Broad-billed Hummingbird. Recent tours have also produced Plumbeous and Cassin’s Vireos and numerous warblers. Night in Casa Grande.
Day 3 Our main focus today will be the Santa Cruz Flats, where we hope to find Prairie Falcon, Burrowing Owl, Bendire’s Thrasher, and any rarities for which the area is justly renowned. Farther south, the forested hillsides of the Santa Rita Mountains can be extremely productive, with Wild Turkey, Mexican Jay, Bridled Titmouse and Lesser Goldfinch likely. In some years, Olive Warbler, Black-chinned Sparrow and Scott’s Oriole can be found here in winter. Rufous-capped Warblers and Black-capped Gnatcatchers may be present and, though exceptionally rare, we have found both of them regularly on recent tours. The grasslands below the canyon can be good for American Kestrel, Eastern Meadowlark (lilianae), Rufous-winged Sparrow and Black-tailed Gnatcatcher. Continuing our journey south, we will divert to the Tubac area for scarce species such as Wood Duck, Hepatic Tanager and perhaps Sinaloa Wren. Two nights in Nogales.
Day 4 Our first drive through the beautiful San Rafael grasslands will require an early start, and the main focus will be on sparrows. Amongst the many Savannah, Vesper and Lark Sparrows, we hope to find Grasshopper Sparrow and the super-skulking Baird’s Sparrow. Bald Eagle, White-tailed Kite and Short-eared Owl are all possible here too. In the afternoon we will visit Paton’s yard, Patagonia and Kino Springs where we may find Western Screech-owl, Black Phoebe, Lazuli Bunting, Botteri’s Sparrow and Green-tailed Towhee.
Day 5 This morning we head for Patagonia Lake State Park to look for Elegant Trogon and Ash-throated, Hammond’s, Dusky and Grey Flycatchers. We may also find Black-crowned Night-heron, Sora, Virginia Rail and Swamp Sparrow as well as the distinctive Mexican form of Mallard. Recent winter rarities have included Ruddy Ground-dove and Eastern Phoebe. We will then head north to spend the next two nights in Benson.
Day 6 The combination of wetlands, agricultural fields and lowland desert in the Sulphur Springs Valley attracts vast quantities of birds in winter, including up to 25,000 Sandhill Cranes. The whole area is extremely good for raptors and during today’s visit we could encounter Golden Eagle and ‘Harlan’s’ Red-tailed, Rough-legged and Ferruginous Hawks. Great Horned Owl can often be found, Scaled Quail inhabit the mesquite scrub and large numbers of Yellow-headed Blackbirds have roosted in the cattails. In the late afternoon we will visit the well-known birding spot of Willcox Twin Lakes, which is good at all times of year for waterfowl, waders and passerines. Large flocks of Chestnut-collared Longspurs may well contain McCown’s and perhaps the odd Lapland Longspur, while Loggerhead Shrike is often easy to see. Harris’s Hawks and Vermilion Flycatchers can be found nearby.
Day 7 This morning may be spent in the sleepy town of St David, where species found on recent tours include Greater White-fronted Goose, Gilded Flicker, Brown Thrasher, Eastern Bluebird and Lawrence’s Goldfinch. Gambel’s Quail is common, Western Meadowlarks winter in the fields and we usually have good views of Crissal Thrasher. We then head west towards Phoenix, perhaps picking up one or two of the Tucson winter rarities such as a Harris’s Sparrow, or the Greater Pewee seen on the 2014 tour. Night in Tempe.
Day 8 Our first stop today will be in Buckeye for Le Conte’s Thrasher. The same location may also hold Sage Thrasher and Bell’s and Sagebrush Sparrows. Later we will cross the Cactus Plain Wilderness before reaching Parker and the Lower Colorado River. Our first major stop will be just below Parker Dam, where Barrow’s Goldeneye and Greater and Lesser Scaup are possible. Above the dam, the huge river delta is a winter home to many species. We will search for grebes, including Horned and Red-necked Grebes, and up to three species of loon. Other birds of interest could include California Gull and Anna’s and Costa’s Hummingbirds. Night in Lake Havasu City.
Day 9 We will spend some time today birding around Lake Havasu, looking especially for rare loons and other winter rarities such as the Blue-footed Booby we saw in 2014 or the Nutting’s Flycatchers that we’ve now seen twice around Lake Havasu. Late in the morning we will head south, passing through Native American tribal lands which can be good for raptors including Northern Harrier as well as large flocks of White-faced Ibises. Overnight in North Palm Springs.
Day 10 We will begin the day by driving the winding mountain roads toward San Jacinto peak. California Thrashers and Wrentits may be heard singing from the scrub, while scarce sparrows have included Black-throated and Golden-crowned. In the upland wooded areas, Red-breasted Sapsucker and White-headed and Nuttall’s Woodpeckers are possible and we should certainly encounter American Robin, Oak Titmouse and Mountain Chickadee. Good birding opportunities exist throughout this range of mountains and we will be looking for Band-tailed Pigeon, Pygmy Nuthatch and Pine Siskin. Good birds seen en route to San Diego have included Glaucous-winged and Thayer’s Gulls. Three nights in San Ysidro.
Day 11 This morning we will take a whale-watching excursion from San Diego harbour in search of Grey Whales and other cetaceans. Though not a dedicated pelagic, being at sea on the Pacific Ocean will offer us the opportunity of seeing Black-vented Shearwater, Northern Fulmar, Scripps’s Murrelet, Rhinoceros and Cassin’s Auklets and Parasitic and Pomarine Jaegers along with other marine creatures such as the Green Turtle seen on our 2013 tour. We will have an open agenda in the afternoon and pay close attention to the local grapevine as San Diego can host excellent rarities in winter, such as the Thick-billed Kingbird and Painted Redstart seen on our 2013 tour, or the Grace’s Warbler seen on our 2014 trip.
Day 12 The Greater San Diego area is extremely bird-rich in winter and we will spend an entire day exploring many local habitats. California Gnatcatcher will be our first target, whilst more broadly occurring Pacific Coast species could include Pacific Loon, Brandt’s and Pelagic Cormorants, Black Turnstone, Surfbird, Wandering Tattler, Pacific Golden-plover and Western and Heermann’s Gulls. Scarce passerines such as Pacific-slope Flycatcher and Townsend’s Warbler may also be encountered and we should certainly see Cassin’s Kingbird. One particular valley in San Diego also supports a small, resident population of Scaly-breasted Munias, an ABA-countable exotic, and good numbers of California Towhees and Allen’s Hummingbirds also occur.
Day 13 We will have a final morning of birding around San Diego, with the goal of reaching the southern Salton Sea by late afternoon, where thousands of Snow and Ross’s Geese will greet us. We also hope to encounter some reedbed skulkers such as American Bittern, Marsh Wren and a selection of rails including Ridgway’s Rail. Barn Owls can often be seen quartering the marshes at dusk. Two nights in Brawley.
Day 14 We will spend the whole day birding around the southern Salton Sea. At times, the sheer volume of birds may be overwhelming and over one hundred species can be expected, including Western and Clark’s Grebes, American White and Brown Pelicans, Green Heron, Cinnamon and Blue-winged Teal, Snowy Plover, Long-billed Curlew, Marbled Godwit, Yellow-footed Gull, Caspian and Forster’s Terns, Sprague’s Pipit and perhaps ‘large-billed’ Savannah Sparrow. At least some portion of the day will be dedicated to searching for Mountain Plover and Mountain Bluebird which roam the vast agricultural fields.
Day 15 We should have time to visit more sites along the eastern shore of the Salton Sea before heading north towards Mecca, an area known for its extensive Date Palm plantations. The Salton Sea should give us opportunities to catch up on any missing gull species such as Bonaparte’s and Mew Gulls, and we even saw a Black-headed Gull near Mecca on the 2014 tour! After birding the northern Salton Sea we have a fairly long drive to Phoenix, but we can pass the time fruitfully by looking out for Greater Roadrunners, which can be expected anywhere along the drive. Night in Tempe.
Day 16 If time allows we will enjoy more birding in the Greater Phoenix area before we take an overnight flight back to London, arriving on Day 17.
General Information The climate can be extremely variable. It can be cold in the mountains and snow is possible at high elevations. It is usually warm, perhaps even hot, at the Salton Sea and the lower-lying desert areas. The pace of the tour is moderate, though with a few early starts. There are no special medical requirements although a moderate level of fitness is required for the higher canyon walks. Insects are not a major problem in January. Visas are required. Distances between locations can be quite long but the roads are good and driving is relaxed with plenty of opportunities to stop for refreshment. Food is excluded from the tour price but is relatively inexpensive; allow about £25 per day depending on your requirements.
Group size Minimum number for tour to go ahead: 6; maximum group size: 16 with 2 leaders.