USA - Colorado & Arizona 2014

...with Mark Finn

24th August - 5th September

Late summer in Colorado and Arizona proved to be an exciting time for migrant and breeding birds passing through these two diverse states. In Colorado we witnessed some amazing spectacles with hunting Prairie Falcon over the highest point of the Rocky Mountains. Other mountain specialties included Clarke’s Nutcracker, Grey Jay, Mountain Chickadee, Red Crossbill and lingering Hammond’s and Willow Flycatchers. The plains of Colorado still had a few McCown’s Longspurs and forming flocks of Lark Buntings. Further south and east within the state of Arizona we visited the southeast around Tucson. Our main interest was the hummingbird migration with ten species being seen including scarcer birds; Plain-capped Starthroat, Berylline and Violet-crowned Hummingbirds. A wide range of sparrows and warblers were also observed including the delightful Painted Redstart and the elusive Olive Warbler. High in the mountains we connected with the rare Mexican Chickadee and Arizona Woodpecker.

August 24th/25th: Heathrow, Denver, Cherry Creek Reservoir, Castlewood Canyon, Greeley

Weather: Sunny followed by afternoon thunderstorms 25 C

Our flight from London to Denver left on time and arrived slightly ahead of schedule. On arrival we passed through US formalities and set off down I-25 to our base in south Denver. As usual with the time zone little sleep was attained as we met up for breakfast at 0700 hours. Cherry Creek Reservoir was the first destination a large park close to the city with a variety of habitats. The first of several walks was near the active Prairie Dog colony towards the stands of cottonwood trees. In the colony several Killdeer were seen along with Northern Flickers. The walk towards the reservoir was quiet to start with until Downy Woodpecker, White-breasted Nuthatch and American Goldfinch were seen in the mature trees. Further walks added Mourning Dove, Black-capped Chickadee and red-tailed Hawks. Before leaving a visit to the marina was productive for Cedar Waxwing, and on the jetty a mix of Double-crested Cormorant, American White Pelican. Ring-billed and California Gulls. In the distance a few Western Grebes and Black
Terns perched on buoys. Picked up supplies and headed to Castlewood Canyon a scenic place of conifer trees and rock outcrops. The first stop added Western Scrub and Steller’s Jays and calling Ravens. A walk was taken at the last parking lot with roaming groups of Lesser Goldfinch, Western Wood-peewee and Brown Creeper. It was getting hot as the journey to Greeley began with spectacular thunderstorms en route.

August 26th: Greeley, Latham Reservoir (CR46), Crow Creek, Pawnee National Grassland, Estes Park

Weather: Sunny then increasing cloud and shower 29 C, southeast wind

Checked out of Greeley and headed towards Lasalle and onto the seasonal wetlands and reservoirs at Latham. The whole area is under pressure from oil extraction and agriculture which means a constantly changing landscape. CR- 46 was the first stop which has a small, compact pond with surrounding reeds and maize crops. The open waters of the pond attracted Pied-billed Grebe, Northern Pintail, Northern Shoveler, Green-winged Teal, Redhead, Gadwall and Ruddy Duck. Fallen logs held a few Great Blue Herons whilst White-faced Ibis fed in the boggy areas. Other species included large numbers of migrant Franklin’s Gulls and Yellow-headed Blackbirds. Further along the road another pool was found with waders present including Lesser Yellowlegs, Black-crowned Night Heron, Black-necked Stilt and high numbers of Blue-winged Teal. On the fence-line a Savannah Sparrow and Western Meadowlarks plus a Ferruginous Hawk perched in a dead tree and a bonus in an adult Bald Eagle. We headed north to Ault and then to Briggsdale which is close to Crow Creek a good area of woodland set among the huge grassland habitats. The recently mown grass attracted American Robins. A walk along one of the trails added American Kestrel, Belted Kingfisher, Cedar Waxwing and Western Kingbird. Lunch was taken in the shade and watching parties of Blue Jays, Hammond’s and Willow Flycatchers, Western Wood Peewee and a Downy Woodpecker. After lunch we joined country roads searching for the specialties of the Colorado grasslands. Flocks of Lark Buntings and Lark Sparrows were numerous plus the addition of Horned Larks, Vesper, Brewer’s and Grasshopper Sparrows and a few McCown's Longspurs. Near the end of the trail a bonus came in the form of a Prairie Falcon and a late Loggerhead Shrike. The drive to Estes Park went through spectacular vistas and eventually to our base for the next three nights.

August 27th: Rocky Mountain National Park including Moraine Campground, Sprague Lake, Trail Ridge Road, Beaver Meadows and Estes Park

Weather: Early rains giving way to sunny spells on a southwest wind 3 C/17 C

Before leaving for breakfast an Osprey flew over the motel towards Lake Estes. The days birding started with a visit to Moraine Campground where thankfully the overnight rain had ceased. A walk around the camp which is dominated by mature pines proved to be productive for Northern Goshawk, Hairy Woodpecker, Tree Swallow, Steller’s Jay, Chipping Sparrow, Pine Siskin, Pygmy Nuthatch and a flock of Common Crossbills the latter being an irregular species within the park. Next on the agenda were the Glacier Campground and the trails to Sprague Lake. The best area was the camp grounds with high numbers of Mountain Bluebirds and Dark-eyed Juncos. Walking around the trail added Lincoln’s Sparrows in the damp meadow habitats. Our journey took us along the Trail Ridge Road a spectacular drive through the alpine habitats of Colorado and high towering peaks. The weather was rather windy and showery which was not good for birding. At the centre information was received and we duly observed several Clarke’s Nutcrackers by the road looking for food scraps. We ended the day at Beaver Meadows where a family of Wild Turkey were observed feeding in the grassland habitats. A short walk into the pine forest led to observations of American Robin and Green-tailed Towhee and the commoner woodland species.

August 28th: Estes Park, Baldpate Inn, Trail Ridge Road, Lake Irene, Adams Falls, Timber Creek Campground

Weather: Overcast with frequent rain showers on a southeast wind 3 C/8 C

Armed with some new information we set off to the Baldpate Inn a historic hostelry about 10km from Estes Park. On arrival the feeders attracted Broad-tailed Hummingbirds which were almost all female and immature birds. In the surrounding scrub passage Wilson’s Warblers and a few Common Grackles. Returned to Estes Park and ventured along the Trail Ridge Road with a stop beyond the visitor centre for White-tailed Ptarmigan, despite a lot of searching (and later in the day) the birds could not be located. Lake Irene provided us with a pair of Grey Jays which unusually did not stick around and promptly disappeared into the forest. Adams Falls provided us with views of an American Dipper before returning to Timber Creek. Mature trees and bushes along the river added Red-breasted Nuthatch, Golden-crowned Kinglet, Chipping Sparrow, Mountain Chickadee and Townsend’s Warblers. Another walk for the ptarmigan resulted in us locating an adult Golden Eagle, Prairie Falcon and White-crowned Sparrows.

August 29th: Estes Park, Legion Park, Walden Ponds, Union Reservoir, Barr Lake

Weather: Sunny spells with afternoon rain on a southeast wind 14 C/30 C

The usual birds were around Estes Park with an adult Bald Eagle being harassed an Osprey being the highlight. We were on the road to Boulder an attractive university town and Legion Park a reserve created by pools from the power station. From an elevated point we picked out Canada Geese, Great Blue Heron and roving groups of Red-winged Blackbirds. A check of several ponds nearby added high numbers of Killdeer, Spotted Sandpiper, Lesser Yellowlegs and an adult Cooper’s Hawk hunting small passerines. Our journey took us towards the Sawhill and Walden Ponds complex with the latter being the best area. Scanning of the shallow lagoons and islands revealed the presence of American White Pelican, Wood Duck, American Avocet and the commoner wetland species. At Union Reservoir the water levels were high leading to sightings of Wilson’s Snipe, Say’s Phoebe, Northern Rough-winged, Barn, Bank and Cliff Swallows and the telegraph wires Red-tailed and Swainson’s Hawks. We ended the day at Barr Lake with similar wetland species and the added bonus of Western Wood-Peewee, Wilson’s and Townsend’s Warblers, Yellow-breasted Chat and Ruby-crowned Kinglets catching insects in the willows and cottonwood trees. Tomorrow we head to Denver Airport and flight down to Tucson in Arizona for the final leg of the trip.

August 30th: Denver, Tucson, Sweetwater Wetlands, Columbus State Park

Weather: Hot in Arizona 38 C with a light southeast wind

Today we left Denver and made the two hour flight to Tucson which is on the border with Mexico in extreme southeast Arizona. The flight was on time and we quickly picked up the rental vehicle and set off to Sweetwater Wetlands a relatively new reserve. On the entrance to the car park we located Sharp-shinned Hawk and a Turkey Vulture and in the reserve itself at least three Cooper’s Hawks. A slow walk around produced several interesting species with sightings of Common Yellowthroat and Yellow Warblers in the reed stands plus a family of Verdin in the cool of a tree. Pools with emergent vegetation attracted Green Heron, Great and Snowy Egrets, Cinnamon Teal, Tropical Kingbird and Black Phoebe. A Gila Woodpecker was seen in flight and feeding on a dead stump whilst an Abert’s Towhee fed quietly under the shade of a large tree in the leaf litter. Near the end of the trail a Western Tanager was noted. The pools were quiet with small numbers of Mallards, Killdeer and migrant Spotted Sandpipers.
The final birding spot was Columbus State Park which is very close to Sweetwater. Open waters here held Pied-billed Grebe, Wood Duck and in the surrounding trees Vermillion Flycatcher and Lesser Goldfinch. On the pylons Purple Martins were congregating with Barn and Cliff Swallows a sure sign of southward migration.

August 31st: Tucson, Green Valley, Florida Wash, Madela Canyon including White House and Santa Rita

Weather: Hot and sunny with light southeast winds, 36 C

Today we travelled south down I-19 towards Nogales on the border with Mexico. Our first birding stop was the water treatment works at Green Valley. A short visit resulted in observations of swallows, Vermillion Flycatcher, Western Kingbird, Chihuahuan Raven and an immature Red-tailed Hawk. The day was warming up as we went on a walk into Florida Wash a bird rich area. In the bushes we found Black-throated and Rufous-winged Sparrows, Canyon Towhee, Varied Bunting, Verdin and an unexpected bonus in a male Berylline Hummingbird. Back on the main entrance road a Greater Roadrunner put in an appearance and down a forest road a singing Botteri’s Sparrow. I decided to visit the White House and its oak habitats which are accessed by a good trail. By the parking area a single tree had Cactus Wren, Bridled Titmouse and at least three Nashville Warblers. A slow walk around the trail proved to be excellent for sightings with views of Painted Redstart, Black-throated Grey and Wilson’s Warblers, Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Hutton’s Vireo, Blue-grey Gnatcatcher and Rufous-crowned Sparrows. It was getting hot as we arrived at Santa Rita Lodge. The next few hours were spent studying the various hummingbirds and other species using the feeders. The rarest hummer was a Plain-capped Starthroat which showed well at times. In addition to this Blue-throated, Magnificent, Black-chinned, Broad-billed and Broad-tailed all put in an appearance. Lesser Goldfinches were numerous along with sightings of Acorn Woodpecker, Black-headed Grosbeak and House Finch. Another walk around the trails at White House added nothing of note so a return to base was made.

September 1st: Tucson, Kino Springs, Patagonia, Paton’s, Sierra Vista

Weather: Hot and sunny with light southwest winds, 36 C

After breakfast we headed south towards the border with Mexico and tried to access a wetland site which was unfortunately blocked by a goods train. We decided to head towards the golf club and woodlands near Kino Springs. A walk towards the dried up Santa Cruz river produced sightings of wintering Lark Sparrows, Blue Grosbeak and a Bewick’s Wren feeding in the tangles underneath a large tree. Over the rocky hillside our first American Black Vultures of the tour were noted. A short distance down the road and another foray added a rather noisy Grey Hawk, American Kestrel, Western Tanager, Nashville Warbler and unidentified buntings. On entering the golf club permission was granted to walk around the course (parts of) searching for birds. Around the club house Common Ground Doves, Say’s Phoebe and a plethora of swallows mainly Barn and Cliff. The fences allowed us to study Western and Cassin’s Kingbirds, Vermillion Flycatchers and in the thick scrub Yellow-breasted Chat, Wilson’s and Nashville Warblers. A Yellow-billed Cuckoo was an added bonus complete with a huge caterpillar which it recently caught. We left the golf club and headed towards the small community of Patagonia. Lunch was taken in the pull off just before the houses. A slow walk up and down this road produced sightings of the scarce Thick-billed Kingbird, Bell’s Vireo and the commoner warblers. The famous garden of the Paton’s was next on the agenda a truly wonderful place to study birds. All the regular hummingbirds were around with the addition of the scarce Violet-crowned and Anna’s. Trees and fat feeders attracted Acorn, Ladder-backed and Gila Woodpeckers, White-breasted Nuthatch, Curve-billed Thrasher, Northern Cardinal and a pair of Gambel’s Quails. At 1630 we made the journey to Sierra Vista an ideal place to visit the surrounding mountains and wetlands.

September 2nd: Sierra Vista, San Pedro, Carr Canyon

Weather: Hot and sunny although cooler at higher elevations 28 C/32 C

The commoner species were around the motel as we headed towards two sites close to Sierra Vista. A Greater Roadrunner walking across a public park was a notable sighting along the route. A check of the ‘wetlands’ produced little of note apart from Northern Mockingbirds singing from telegraph wires. San Pedro is close by and a walk was taken towards to river with habitats of large trees and grassy fields. The fields attracted Lark Sparrow, Lazuli Bunting and Blue Grosbeak the latter giving its cheerful song from visual posts. Loggerhead Shrikes were also noted along with Nashville Warbler and a singing Yellow-breasted Chat. We decided to spend the remainder of the day birding up Carr Canyon with its habitats of ponderosa pines and oaks. At the lowest elevations a party of Mexican Jays were seen and nearby a female Rufous Hummingbird and singing Rufous-crowned Sparrows. A slow drive up the mountain road ended at a campground where we spent several hours searching for birds. The pines attracted the localised Band-tailed Pigeon, migrant American Robins and Pine Siskins. Common species included White-breasted Nuthatch, Yellow-eyed Junco and family parties of Acorn Woodpeckers. Further searches yielded a Plumbeous Vireo and Black-throated Grey Warblers. On the way down birding was quiet apart from a beautiful male Painted Redstart and a few Yellow-rumped Warblers.

September 3rd: Sierra Vista, Cave Creek, Barfoot Park

Weather: Sunny followed by overcast afternoon conditions on a northwest wind 30 C

From Sierra Vista our journey went eastwards towards New Mexico and then to Cave Creek a beautiful area of Arizona. On arrival at Cave Creek we sat down in the gardens and watched the feeders which were highly active with birds. All the common hummingbirds were present with many participating in aerial dogfights. A highlight for us was an Arizona Woodpecker feeding on the suet balls an uncommon and localised species. After lunch we headed up towards Barfoot Park a remote area of ponderosa pines. A covey of Gambel’s Quail was noted en route, it was quiet until stopping at an area of burnt pines. One particular tree appeared to attract nearly every bird in the area with sightings of Yellow-rumped, Black-throated Grey, Hermit and Townsend’s Warblers, Western Bluebird, Western Wood Peewee, Dusky-capped Flycatcher and Mexican Chickadee the latter a very rare bird in the USA. We proceeded to Barfoot Park where we located American Robins, Northern Flicker and Yellow-eyed Juncos. On the return journey a mixed feeding flock was found comprising of Hairy Woodpecker, Pygmy Nuthatch, Steller’s Jay, Hermit Thrush, Spotted Towhee, Olive Warbler and Greater Peewee. The weather started to close in as we arrived at Cave Creek.

September 4th: Cave Creek, Portal, Herb Martyr, South Fork

Weather: Sunny with overcast conditions later 29 C

The birds in the gardens at Cave Creek were the same as yesterday. After consuming breakfast we headed towards ‘The Thicket’ an area close to Portal with feeders and viewing areas. The feeders were active with many bird species visiting to feed. Among the more interesting species were Pyrrhuloxia, Curve-billed Thrasher, Lazuli Bunting, Blue Grosbeak and Virginia’s Warblers. Our next stop was the campground at Herb Martyr where we located Black-throated Grey Warblers, White-breasted Nuthatch, Painted Redstart and Yellow-eyed Junco. It was starting to get hot so a return to base was recommended. In the afternoon our first stop was South Fork an area of cliffs, oak and sycamore woodland. The first feeding flock we encountered included Bridled Titmouse and Warbling Vireo. Further up the track another flock contained Wilson’s, Hermit and Townsend’s Warblers, Brown Creeper, Hutton’s and Plumbeous Vireo’s and a female hairy Woodpecker feeding on a dead sycamore branch. High above us on the cliffs we could pick out flocks of White-throated Swifts. A return visit to the feeders near Portal added nothing of note apart from the aerial duals between Broad-tailed and Rufous Hummingbirds.

September 5th: Cave Creek, San Simon Road, Willcox including Cochise Lake

Final species total: 201

Weather: Hot and sunny with light west winds 30 C

The last full day of the tour started with visits to the feeders in and around the ranch. There appeared to be a build up in the number of hummingbirds visiting the sugar feeders outside the office. The only new bird was a Summer Tanager feeding on the jam feeder. At 0930 we set off towards the settlement of San Simon on back roads passing through the desert habitats. A couple of stops added Black-throated Sparrow and Cactus Wren flitting across the road. I joined I-10 towards Tucson and the rural town of Willcox which has seen better days and appears to be rather run down. Cochise Lake is just outside Willcox an important staging post for migrants. The shallow pools and islands hosted Long-billed Curlew, Black-necked Stilt, American Avocet, Willet, Least and Western Sandpipers, Wilson’s and Red-necked Phalaropes, Pectoral Sandpipers and a few Northern Shovelers. Passerines were few but included Barn and Cliff Swallows and Eastern Meadowlark. A pond by the golf course had a singing Loggerhead Shrike, Great Blue Heron and American Coot. An exploration of the vast agricultural fields south of Willcox provided little of note bird wise so we headed back to Tucson for the last night of the tour.

Blue-throated Hummingbird - Phil Beraet

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