[Better late than never, no? I’m hoping to produce the remainder of posts from this awesome trip this past March, so stay tuned.]
Having boarded an early flight from San Diego, CA to Phoenix, AZ, my dad and I now found ourselves in the heart of the desert southwest, en route to our base of operations for the night: Willcox, Arizona.
Arriving in Willcox in the early afternoon, our plan for the remainder of the day was to bird the town and Willcox and environs, including the nearby Sulphur Springs Valley, the premier site for raptors in Southeast Arizona.
Our first stop in stop in Willcox was the fabled Twin Lakes Golf Course and Lake Cochise Area, where our main target was McCown’s Longspur, as well as any of the two specific raptor species we were targeting (Ferruginous Hawk and Prairie Falcon) that might have wandered up from the valley.
This was the first of two stops on this day at this fantastic location, both of which proved extremely successful in terms of sheer volume of species. Although we were unable to pin down McCown’s Longspur in the flocks of 50+ Chestnut-collared Longspurs, we nevertheless enjoyed a great showing of birds. Highlights included waterfowl such as Snow Goose, Gadwall, American Wigeon, Cinnamon Teal, Northern Shoveler, Northern Pintail, Green-winged Teal, Canvasback, Ring-necked Duck, Lesser Scaup, Bufflehead and Ruddy Duck as well as Northern Harrier, American Coot, American Avocet, Least Sandpiper, Long-billed Dowitcher, Horned Lark, Vesper, Savannah and White-crowned Sparrows and Western Meadowlark.
After spending an hour at the twin lakes, we made our way south into the Sulphur Springs Valley, with plans to make our way as far south as possible with the available daylight remaining. As noted in A Birder’s Guide to Southeastern Arizona, the Sulphur Springs Valley stretches “100 miles on a north-south axis and [ranges] from 15 to 25 miles in width.” As I noted above, this location is the premier site for wintering raptors in Southeast Arizona. Birding the area consists of driving along the main road (in this case Kansas Settlement Road, which later turns Az-191), and taking side roads to bird the surrounding farmland at one’s choosing. Whitewater Draw NWR is also a major birding aspect of this region, although we were unable to make it there on this trip.
Our birding began along Kansas Settlement Road straight out of Willcox, where we noted birds like Red-tailed Hawk, Ladder-backed Woodpecker, American Kestrel, Chihuahuan Raven, White-crowned Sparrow and Pyrrhuloxia.
Making our way to Courtland Road, we noted more of the same, as well as a single Brewer’s Sparrow among the Vespers.
It was then onto Gleeson Road, where my dad made the most unbelievable pull of the trip, which is very likely one of the greatest spots ever by a birder. While driving quickly down the road at around 50 mph, scanning for raptors, my dad spotted a bird sitting on the power line. Turning around, we quickly identified the bird as a Bendire’s Thrasher, one that I had missed entirely, so focussed on nailing either the hawk or the falcon. We soon discovered a second Bendire’s with this one, making it likely that these birds were a pair.
The Bendire’s was certainly the bird of the day. It was the first time I’d seen one of these awesome birds since my initial sighting in July of 2011, and had it not been for the sharp eyes of my dad, we might’ve very well missed seeing these beautiful birds.
Despite the Bendire’s, we still hadn’t caught up with our main targets in the valley: Ferruginous Hawk and Prairie Falcon. With daylight receding, we decided to ditch heading to the famous Whitewater Draw National Wildlife Refuge in favor our giving Kansas Settlement Road another go, and then taking a last stab for the longspur at the twin lakes.
Despite another half hour along the road, we were unable to come up with either the hawk or the falcon, which gave us the slip in an area that usually produces multiple individuals of both species. We noted a Loggerhead Shrike and a number of Red-tailed Hawks, which made the miss even more painful, as the sight of each distant hawk sitting on a utility pole or farm equipment got the adrenaline pumping, only to turn out to be a common and widespread species.
We then returned to the Willcox Golf Course, where we again struck out on McCown’s Longspur, making this day’s target birding a complete bust, with an 0-3 record. Better looks and photos at the abundant waterfowl and shorebirds at the lake were nice consolation prizes, but couldn’t make up for a second day in a row of harrowing misses.
Our night was spent in Willcox, ahead of the most anticipated days of the trip, which significantly lifted our spirits after two frustrating days.