Southeastern Arizona - August 2010 - Trip Report

For the third consecutive year I was able to get out to one of my favorite areas in the United States for the summer “monsoon” season in Southeastern Arizona.   The monsoon season or more correctly called the monsoon thunderstorm season, is a rainy period that occurs throughout the southwest portion of North America during the summer.  In the winter, the primary wind flow in Arizona is from the west or northwest—from California and Nevada.  As summer arrives, the winds shift to a southerly or southeasterly direction.  Moisture streams northward from the Pacific Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico. This shift produces a radical change in moisture conditions across Arizona and combined with the convective effects of heating, large thunderstorms form and the area is blessed with much needed summer rains.

The reason this is interesting to me, beyond the fact that you get to see some pretty spectacular lightning shows and intense downpours of rain is that the flora and fauna of the area reacts to this event and creates a unique environment for plants and animals to flourish.    The summer rains stimulate luxuriant (for a desert) plant growth which in turn provides food for the entire ecosystem, insects thrive, the things that eat plants and or insects thrive and breed and the things that eat them thrive, and so-on and so-on as is the beauty of the natural ecosystem.

Many animals such as the variety of frogs and toads that call this area home depend on the summer rains to breed and while remaining dormant for much of the year, come to life as soon as the first substantial downpours of the summer occur.   Areas that seemed devoid of life are now crawling with great variety, water becomes abundant, plants enjoy tremendous growth spurts and migrating animals, mainly birds, take advantage of the abundance and call the area home at least for the summer.

Lightning strike not too far away from the WalMart parking lot in Green Valley, very impressive squall line as well!

The area is also very interesting to me because of the variety of habitats that can be found in a relatively small area.   The mountains or “sky islands” as they are called raise dramatically from the desert floor and provide unique habitats unlike anywhere else in the U.S.

This year Lynn and I made the journey down to Green Valley (about 30 minutes south of Tucson and about 30 minutes from the Mexican border) which would be our base camp over the next several days.   The monsoon was in full swing when we arrived with thunderstorms racing across the valley like the one pictured above.    The lightning was quite vigorous so it was relatively easy to get a few pictures of bolts as the storm moved quickly through the area.

Sunset over Green Valley from the top of Madera Canyon

After checking into our hotel we made our way up Madera Canyon in the Santa Rita Mountains (one of the Sky islands mentioned above) and saw the sunset over Green Valley as pictured here.

Just after sunset I heard the faint call of a couple of screech owls and after a bit of searching was able to find two tiny Whiskered Screech-Owls sitting on a low branch in a pine tree, one of them dining on what appeared to be a large insect.  The one with the insect quickly departed but the second one sat quietly allowing close approach and Lynn and I were able to capture some images of this cool, tiny owl.

Whiskered Screech-owl wondering what's up?

Whiskered Screech-owl from near upper Madera Canyon parking lot

After some time with the owl we made our way back down the mountain stopping several times to check out the local nocturnal wildlife that was scampering around in the dark arriving back at the hotel shortly after 10:00 PM and turning in so we could get an early start on our first full day with our destination being the Huachuca Mountains.

I believe this is some sort of Longhorn Beetle, found on road in Madera Canyon

Ord's Kangaroo Rat, again taken from off of Madera Canyon Road - Rattlesnake food!!!

Couch's Spadefoot Toad - plentiful would not be the word to describe how common these were on this trip after evening rains!

Spadefoot toads have special hard "spades" on their back legs to assist them in digging their burrows, hence their name

We got an early start and made a couple of quick stops along the way before arriving at Beatty’s Guest Ranch in the Huachuca Mountains around 8:30 AM.   The flower bloom had been incredible and this was having an impact on the usually very crowded hummingbird feeders and after about an hour of observation and knocking off nine species (Anna’s, Blue-throated, Rufous, Broad-billed, Magnificent, Violet-crowned, White-eared, Black-chinned, Broad-tailed), we heard that there was a pair of Mexican Spotted Owls on the trail about a mile and a half or so up the canyon from his place so after grabbing some water from the car we took the steep hike up the canyon finding the Owls in their described location.   After taking numerous pictures, we made our way back to the car, the temperatures were heating up rapidly and it was getting boarder-line uncomfortable as we left there and headed to Carr Canyon.

Sunrise over Green Valley Arizona


Interesting grasshopper found in grassland area near Sonoita Arizona

Lesser Goldfinch's were present in Miller Canyon

Everything was blooming, making the hummingbirds very happy but not nearly as interested in the feeder stations like those at Beaty's in Miller Canyon!

Hummingbirds were very plentiful as usual, however, they were very much dispursed

Butterflies were also enjoying the exceptional bloom as well!

This White-eared Hummingbird was at least minimally interested in the feeders providing brief views before heading on.  One of my favorites and usually present in Miller Canyon during the summer months.

Unlike their nectar feeding cousins, the Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher could care less about the flowers but was particularly interested in the multitude of insects flying around!  This is a tropical species that barely makes it in to the US in summer, most easily seen in the Arizona Sky Islands where they can be quite common and at least easily heard with their distinct call!

Mountain Spiny Lizards are quite common in the higher elevations where they replace the Clark's Spiny Lizard in the ecosystem.

Painted Redstarts are also usually easy to find in the mountain areas of Arizona in the summer, we saw several on our hike up Miller Canyon searching for the Spotted Owls!

Painted Redstart

Juvenile Mountain Spiny - from Miller Canyon

Mexican Spotted Owl roosting along the creek bed in Miller Canyon

These Owls were so close to the trail that it was quite challenging to take a photograph considering our long lenses.  I had to remove my 2x extender and shoot at 300mm and even then, it was hard to get an entire bird in the image!

The Mexican Spotted Owl is a sub-species of the Spotted Owl

I don't think they were too concerned by our presence and the constant clicking of the camera shutter!

Here was another Arizona specialty that we found feeding on some beautiful Agave flowers.  This is a Blue-throated Hummingbird, a large hummingbird as hummingbirds go and typically quite agressive with other species. 

We saw several Arizona Woodpeckers including this one

I spotted this Cassin's Vireo eating small butterflies as they flittered around in the trees.

Anywhere there is even the slightest hint of moisture on the ground you will often see sights like this one with dozens of butterflies taking a drink.

Carr Canyon held the usual suspects and we stayed up at the cooler elevations most of the afternoon before heading back down into Fort Huachuca and back toward Green Valley where we grabbed a quick dinner and then did a little night driving around the Madera Canyon area finding a few more of the nocturnal denizens that prowl the area after dark including a very nice adult Desert Kingsnake,  only the second one I have seen.

Yellow-eyed Junco

Grace's Warbler

Grace's Warbler

Western Wood-Peewe

American Robin

American Robin with a mouthful of worms

Western Diamondbacked Rattlesnake

Desert Kingsnake

Desert Kingsnake

Desert Kingsnake

The next morning we spent back at Madera Canyon stopping at the usual spots such as Proctor Wash, the lower, mid and upper campgrounds and feeders but nothing special or of note was sighted.

Ground Doves

Cassin's Kingbird

Hooded Oriole

The Barrel Cactus were just starting to bloom

Many nice wildflowers were blooming at lower elevations

There were a lot of these blooming in sandy areas

Another Barrel Cactus getting ready to bloom

This Cactus Wren was busily building a nest

Phainopepla, they were quite common near Proctor Wash in Madera Canyon, large numbers of them seemed to be moving through

Varied Buntings were also quite common

Female Oriole, I believe it's a Hooded Oriole

These are always cool to see!  This Pyrrhuloxia was also found foraging around the Proctor Wash area of lower Madera Canyon

Ornate Tree Lizard

Blue Grosbeak

Black-throated Sparrows were also common

Warbling Vireo I believe

Plumbeous Vireo


More Barrel Cactus

Hummingbird food...

Looking up at the  Santa Rita Mountains from lower picnic area

The feeders at the various lodges were mostly attracting Lesser Goldfinch

Nice Spiny Lizard sunning himself on a telephone pole

After finishing up there it was off to Pena Blanca springs and Ruby road however I managed to get a flat tire and had to double back into town and take care of that before heading on.   There were ominous clouds quickly building as we made our way to Pena Blanca lake where were we were able to photograph the Least Grebe (a new “lifer” for me) as well as some other birds and herps and then drove down to California Gulch off or Ruby Road to search for Five-striped Sparrows among other things.   A stop at Sycamore Canyon yielded a nice Yellow-billed Cuckoo which I have heard there many times on past trips but never seen until this stop.   Just past Sycamore Canyon on our way toward the town of Ruby and then California Gulch Lynn was able to scare up a beautiful Black-tailed Rattlesnake!   She had gotten out of the car to take a look at some plants along the side of the road.   I was sitting in the car with the window rolled down when I heard the snake start rattling vigorously at about the same time that Lynn jumped backwards away from the side of the road.   I am not sure how close she came to getting tagged by the snake but it certainly saw her before she saw it!   As is usually the case however, it’s first thought was to escape under cover and I had to find a long, dead Yucca branch to pull it out from underneath some dead plant material where it was seeking asylum.    Also as usual with this species, it was extremely docile, albeit aggravated by my “wrangling” as I tried to photograph it.   All it wanted to do was escape which we finally let it do as it gracefully went down the side of a hill and quickly out of sight.   Thunder was echoing across the valleys and distant lightning was quite evident as we made our way down to California Gulch.  

Canyon Towhee

Pena Blanca Lake always has a myriad of dragonfly and damselfly species

A bird in molt, a tricky identification challenge...

Summer Tanager

Another dragonfly


Chihuahuan Raven

Acorn Woodpecker

This Bewick's Wren was busily coating himself in dust, rolling around in the dirt by the lake, didn't mind my presence in the least bit...

Bewick's Wren

This Least Grebe was a great find, one  of the few records from Arizona prior to this year

Least Grebe

Juvenile Vermilion Flycatcher

Sonoran Spotted Whiptail

Another Canyon Towhee

Cactus Wren nest

View from near Pena Blanca Springs

My quest for the elusive Five-striped Sparrow (which is only found in the U.S. in a couple of small areas including this one) again proved fruitless and the rain started as we started to head back toward Green Valley.   The skies really opened up on us as it grew very dark and windy and I was a bit worried because of the dirt road conditions but was glad I had decided to drive my 4x4 truck here this time instead of flying and renting a car.   The storm actually moved past us and the skies began to clear before we made it safely back to pavement with an added bonus of finding a Lowland’s Leopard Frog (another new “lifer” for me) in a small pool that had formed from the rain near Pena Blanca Lake.   Back on the road, torrential downpour followed us all the way back to Green Valley where we grabbed dinner and then made a quick pass up Madera Canyon road again, the usual assortment of toads clogging the road.   At the top of Madera Canyon I again heard the call of the tiny Whiskered Screech-owls but decided not to disturb them as we had already gotten sufficient pictures of them a couple of nights earlier.

Female Blue Grosbeak

Yellow-billed Cuckoo with a nice snack...

Yellow-billed Cuckoo from Sycamore Canyon

Yellow-billed Cuckoo

Looking north from hear the border on Ruby Road

Cassin's Kingbirds were very common (as were Tropical Kingbirds)

This is a Lowland Lepoard Frog found in a running stream near Ruby Road

Many of the cacti and succulent species were blooming from the recent heavy rains

Good snake habitat!

Rock Wren

Thunderstorms loomed just south of the border, Mexico would be about where the low clounds were on the horizon...

This Black-tailed Rattlesnake startled Lynn who walked right by it as it hid under a fallen agave stalk

Despite it's looks and very loud rattle, the snake was extremely docile, it's entire interaction with us was strictly one of tryting to retreat, it never struck and was very intent on just getting away.

Close up of the Black-tailed Rattlesnake from Ruby Road

Another shot in a classic defensive position - Black-tailed Rattlesnake.

Sunset on Ruby Road

Evening time in SE Arizona during monsoon season usually means rainbows, today was no exception...

Tomorrow was to be the last day of the trip with a drive back to Fort Huachuca and exploration of two new areas for me before heading for home.   On the way back toward Green Valley there were numerous amphibians on the road.  I stopped to take a few shots but we were both pretty tied after a long day so we headed back to the hotel and crashed...

Red-spotted Toad

Great PlainsToad

The next morning we drove back to Fort Huachuca and on to the Army base.   Fort Huachuca Army base is also a nature preserve and many of the canyons there have been permanently set aside for the preservation and conservation of the flora and fauna.   We decided to first visit Huachuca Canyon to see if we could find one or two of the nesting Elegant Trogons that were being reported in that area.   Trogons are one of my favorite bird species, they are beautifully colored and the males and females show different colorations.   They are relatively large birds, about the size of a large pigeon and are very interesting to watch, they tend to sit very still for long periods of time also making them good subjects to photograph IF you can find them! 

I was able to locate a pair by hearing the male calling and them just watching the area for quite some time waiting for movement.    We finally spotted the male, a beautiful bird that was completely against me taking any photographs of it and after about an hour of frustration I was about to give up when low and behold, the female shows up from nowhere, flying almost directly over my head, calling to the male and then perching high up in a tree across the streambed just long enough for me to click off four or five quick shots!   With the day quickly moving on we decided that it was time to move on for one more stop up to the higher elevations of the Huachuca’s up Garden Canyon.

Female Elegant Trogon from Huachuca Canyon, SE Arizona

Elegant Trogon

Hepatic Tanager

Vireo with lunch...

Red-tailed Hawk from grassland area in Fort Huachuca

Western Wood-Pewee


We had a nice hike at the top of Garden Canyon and I was able to add the last new bird for me of the trip with a Buff-breasted Flycatcher perching nicely while we photographed it.   There were also plentiful butterflies in the area and Lynn chased several species around while I was chasing some of the birds.

Buff-breasted Flycatcher

Butterflies were seen anywhere there was standing water, often in large numbers!

Deer seem to be very common in Huachuca Canyon


We decided to make one more quick stop before heading home and I drove over to Betty Jo’s Ash Canyon B&B to check out the hummingbird feeders, took a few pictures and then started on the six hour drive back to San Diego.

The Arizona Ground-squirrels were raiding the feeders!

Mexican Jay

Black-headed Grosbeak

Here’s a list of bird species sighted during the trip:


Least Grebe               

Black Vulture             

Turkey Vulture            

Gray Hawk                 

Swainson's Hawk           

Red-tailed Hawk            

American Kestrel          

Prairie Falcon            

Peregrine Falcon          

Gambel's Quail            

Band-tailed Pigeon        

Mourning Dove             

White-winged Dove         

Common Ground-Dove        

Yellow-billed Cuckoo      

Western Screech-Owl       

Whiskered Screech-Owl     

Great Horned Owl          

Spotted Owl                

Lesser Nighthawk          

Common Nighthawk          

Vaux's Swift              

Broad-billed Hummingbird  

White-eared Hummingbird   

Blue-throated Hummingbird 

Black-chinned Hummingbird 

Anna's Hummingbird        

Costa's Hummingbird       

Calliope Hummingbird      

Broad-tailed Hummingbird  

Rufous Hummingbird        

Elegant Trogon            

Acorn Woodpecker          

Gila Woodpecker           

Arizona Woodpecker        

Northern Flicker           

Willow Flycatcher         

Buff-breasted Flycatcher  

Greater Pewee             

Western Wood-Pewee        

Black Phoebe              

Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher

Tropical Kingbird         

Cassin's Kingbird         

Thick-billed Kingbird     


Cactus Wren               

Rock Wren                 

Bewick's Wren             

House Wren                

American Robin            


White-breasted Nuthatch   


Mexican Jay               

Chihuahuan Raven          

Common Raven              

House Sparrow             

Bell's Vireo              

Plumbeous Vireo           

Hutton's Vireo            

Warbling Vireo            

House Finch               

Lesser Goldfinch          

Yellow Warbler            

Black-throated Gray Warbler

Grace's Warbler           

Red-faced Warbler         

Painted Redstart          

Hepatic Tanager           

Summer Tanager            

Western Tanager           

Spotted Towhee            

Canyon Towhee             

Abert's Towhee            

Botteri's Sparrow         

Cassin's Sparrow          

Rufous-crowned Sparrow    

Rufous-winged Sparrow     

Black-chinned Sparrow     

Lark Sparrow              

Black-throated Sparrow    

Grasshopper Sparrow       

Yellow-eyed Junco         

Northern Cardinal         


Black-headed Grosbeak      

Blue Grosbeak             

Varied Bunting            

Eastern Meadowlark        

Great-tailed Grackle      

Bronzed Cowbird           

Hooded Oriole             

Scott's Oriole            




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