2024 Comprehensive Southeast Arizona – The Desert and Sky Islands

from $3,870
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  • Vacation Style Holiday Type
    Bird Watching
  • Activity Level Challenging
  • Group Size Medium Group
All about the 2024 Comprehensive Southeast Arizona – The Desert and Sky Islands Tour.

Southeast Arizona is simply a land of stark contrasts and remarkable scenery. In the lowlands, granite outcrops, lofty Saguaro cacti, and sandy washes typify the Sonoran Desert, a landscape that has featured in so many ‘Western’ movies. The legendary Sonoran Desert is the home of such iconic species as Greater Roadrunner and Gambel’s Quail. Here, isolated mountain ranges, clad in beautiful Madrean pine-oak woodland rise from the desert, and provide a habitat found nowhere else in the United States. At relatively cool (compared to the very hot desert plains below) higher elevations on these sky islands, pine forests can even be found. These forested mountain islands, with evocative names such as the Huachucas and Chiricahuas, are the northern limits for a long list of primarily Mexican species including the likes of Elegant Trogon and Mexican Chickadee. Ephemeral streams pass through the canyons surrounding these mountains bringing much-needed moisture to the parched lowlands below. These streams harbour stands of cottonwood that act as conduits for more tropical species to enter south-eastern Arizona, such as Thick-billed Kingbird and Violet-crowned Hummingbird. These strongly contrasting habitats make southeast Arizona one of the most exciting regions to bird in North America, with more bird diversity than any other land-locked area of comparable size in the United States. With unbelievable birding areas like Cave Creek Canyon and the Ramsey Canyon Preserve and Nature Conservancy, it is no wonder why only California, Texas, and Florida have state lists longer than this relatively small region! The Arizona bird list boasts over 570 species! Of these species, 36 are only occasional anywhere else in the United States, making Arizona a mandatory destination for North American birders.

This bird-filled tour begins in the city of Tucson, from where we explore the Sonoran Desert via Saguaro National Park, and explore the impressive peak of Mt. Lemmon. The Santa Ritas, in the southeast corner of the state, provides us with our first taste of birding the Madrean sky islands, with specials such as Elegant Trogon and so many others. Heading further east, we will intersperse our time spent in the upper elevation of the Huachucas with well-spent time at lowland hummingbird feeders for Violet-crowned Hummingbird and Lucifer Sheartail (Hummingbird). Heading further east still, we skirt the border with New Mexico and explore the Chiricahuas, which hosts more specials like Mexican Chickadee and Olive Warbler.

By combining this tour with our shorter northern Arizona and Grand Canyon tour, you will be able to have the most complete Arizona birding tour on offer and you will also be able to see a host of typical western species. It should also be noted that we time our southeast Arizona birding tour so that you can combine it with the famous Southeast Arizona Birding Festival run by the Tucson Audubon Society.

We will take a maximum of eight participants.

Duration: 10 days
Group Size Limit: 4 – 8
Date: 12 – 21 August 2024
Start: Tucson, AZ
End: Tucson, AZ (Transfer to Phoenix is provided to those joining the Northern      Arizona Tour)

Price: US$3,870 per person sharing assuming 4 – 8 participants
Deposit: 25% of full tour price
Single supplement: US$690

We can run the same trip at a price similar to the larger group price for 2 tour participants, if they rent their own vehicle and pay for fuel – please e-mail [email protected] for details.

The tour package inclusions and exclusions at a glance
What is included in this tour?Items that are included in the cost of tour price.
  • Meals
  • Accommodation
  • Guiding fees
  • Entrance fees
  • All transport while on tour
  • Tolls
Whats not included in this tour.Items that are not included in the cost of tour price.
  • Domestic and International flights
  • Items of a personal nature, e.g. gifts
  • Alcoholic drinks
  • Personal insurance
  • Laundry Service
  • Gratuities
  1. Day 1 Arrival in Tucson and early-trip birding

    Upon arrival at the Tucson International Airport, participants will be transferred to our hotel to get checked in. After checking in, we will head out for our first dinner of the tour and a chance to get to know each other. Following dinner, those who still have the energy, can go out looking for several nocturnal species such as Lesser Nighthawk, Elf Owl and perhaps even Common Poorwill. We will then head back to the hotel for the night.

    Overnight: Tucson

  2. Day 2 Birding Mt. Lemmon to Madera Canyon

    Mt. Lemmon, at an impressive 9,159 feet (2,792 m), the tallest peak in the Santa Catalina Mountains, will be first on the agenda today. We will make several stops along the way as we ascend the mountain and hit different habitat types. Our first stop, usually involves a quick scan through a huge Saguaro forest looking for the likes of Gilded Flicker, Black-tailed Gnatcatcher and Brown-crested Flycatcher. Higher up, we will reach Rose Canyon Lake where we will look for Common Black Hawk, Yellow-eyed Junco, and Pygmy Nuthatch. We continue our ascent until we reach the pines near the top for high-altitude species such as Broad-tailed Hummingbird, Hermit Warbler, Cordilleran Flycatcher, and the special Red-faced Warbler. After enjoying lunch and some more birding, we will begin our descent of the mountains and continue southwards for our next session of birding in the sky islands.

    Next stop is the town of Green Valley where we’ll have an early dinner before heading back out for a relaxing evening at the feeders at the Santa Rita Lodge in Madera Canyon. Regularly attendees include Hepatic Tanager, Arizona Woodpecker, and Rivoli’s Hummingbird. These feeders have been a rarity magnet in the past and perhaps one might be hanging around today! At sunset, we will head up to the top of the canyon and try our luck at Mexican Whip-poor-will, Northern Pygmy Owl, and Whiskered Screech Owl. Then it is back to the hotel and time for bed, after what should have been a long yet productive day of birding in southeast Arizona.

    Overnight: Green Valley

  3. Day 3 Santa Rita Mountains birding

    The canyons of the Santa Rita Mountains will be birded today which is a very exciting prospect. Recent bird reports will probably dictate where we visit first, with loads of amazing birding spots around such as Box, Florida, and Madera Canyons. Over the past several years Box Canyon has hosted one or two breeding pairs of the rare Five-striped Sparrow and with any luck we will be this special along with the beautiful Varied Bunting and majestic Golden Eagle. Next, we will visit Florida Canyon, certainly the most reliable location for the special Black-capped Gnatcatcher, plus other interesting species such as Northern Beardless Tyrannulet. Of course, Madera Canyon itself will not be neglected and we will spend more time searching the riparian areas here for Elegant Trogon, Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher, Painted Redstart and many more! We have another evening for the chance at nocturnal species, should we have been unsuccessful the previous night.

    Overnight: Green Valley

  4. Day 4 California Gulch and more Santa Rita Mountains

    We start the day off with more morning birding in the Santa Rita Mountains where we will target any species or locations that we may have missed the previous day. At around midmorning, we are scheduled to make the journey to California Gulch. Up until fairly recently, this area was the only reliable site to see the rare Five-striped Sparrow, of which it is estimated only 50 territorial males come to the US each year. In recent years, a few additional pairs have been discovered breeding in easier-to-access locations, as the growing trend of southern breeding specials pushing northwards continues. In the evening, we will have a shot at another of California Gulch’s specials, this being Buff-collared Nightjar. The drive out of California Gulch will be a long one however if we have clear skies, we will be in for an amazing cosmic display as well as the chance of a roadside Common Poorwill. If we have already had luck at locating these species elsewhere, we will rather spend the day exploring the canyons of the Santa Ritas and save ourselves the long journey to the gulch.

    Overnight: Green Valley

  5. Day 5 Tubac/Tumacacori and transfer to Sierra Vista

    We will begin the morning with some pleasant birding in the lowland riparian areas along the Santa Cruz River in Tubac and Tumacacori, before it warms up too much.  Many amazing species occur here including a few nesting pairs of Rose-throated Becard, as well as Summer Tanager, Grey Hawk and Cassin’s Kingbird. Next, we continue our journey towards Sierra Vista with a few more stops along the way, such as at the relaxing Paton Center for various hummingbirds and then the world-famous Patagonia Rest Area to search for specials such as Violet-crowned Hummingbird and Thick-billed Kingbird. Patagonia Lake State Park and the Sonoita Creek State Natural Area are always worth a stop for a few water bird species like Neotropic Cormorant and Mexican Duck, which are uncommon in the arid habitats surrounding the park. To finish the day, we will arrive in the Huachuca Mountains where we will spend the rest of the evening at the Ash Canyon Bird Sanctuary feeders, a great stakeout for Lucifer Sheartail (Hummingbird).

    Overnight: Sierra Vista

  6. Days 6-7 Birding the Huachuca Mountains

    The Huachuca Mountains, straddling the border with Mexico, are the second of the Madrean sky islands on our itinerary, which offer a slightly different set of specials to the Santa Ritas. Here, we’ll search for the semi-colonial Buff-breasted Flycatcher and the charismatic Spotted Owl. We will likely spend our time birding a series of canyon outlets on the eastern flank of these mountains, such as Carr, Ramsey, Hunter, and Miller Canyons, which provide access to the pine-oak woodlands where these species occur. From time-to-time rarities such as White-eared Hummingbird or Rufous-capped Warbler appear and we will adjust our itinerary accordingly, to target these birds. In addition to the fantastic canyon birding, the Sierra Vista area also offers some amazing grassland habitats which we will explore, such as Las Cienegas National Conservation Area and the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area. After rain, the scrublands begin to bloom, and the fantastic Cassin’s and Botteri’s Sparrows start singing and establishing territories. In the grasslands we’ll also be on the lookout for other impressive wildlife such as Burrowing Owl, Pronghorn Antelope and Black-tailed Prairie Dog. We will have two busy days to explore this fascinating region that are sure to be filled to the brim with birds and fun!

    Overnight: Sierra Vista

  7. Day 8 Birding Portal and the Chiricahua Mountains

    We will have an early start this morning as we leave the Huachucas behind and head towards the final range of the sky islands. The Chiricahua Mountains, which means “Big Mountain” in Opata, rise suddenly out of the surrounding desert and is the single-largest mountain mass south of the Gila River in Arizona. These mountains also boast the most diverse land-locked plant and animal community in the United States! At dawn we will start birding the lower-elevation desert valley, and will explore the area around Big Thicket as we straddle the border with New Mexico, searching for the ridiculously curve-billed Crissal Thrasher. As the mercury begins to rise, we will retreat to the cooler forests along the South Fork Cave Creek Trail – a trail well-known for its breeding population of Elegant Trogon, the standout species of any birding trip to Arizona. More numerous specials such as Bridled TitmouseMexican Jay, and Painted Redstart also occur here. An area towards the top of the Chiricahua Mountains claims the only accessible population of Mexican Chickadee on public lands in the United States, we thus make a special effort to see them on this itinerary. Here, at higher elevations, will also give us a nice opportunity for other great species such as Olive Warbler, Red Crossbill and Steller’s Jay. The afternoon will be spent driving up to the Paradise Road junction around East Turkey Creek, in search of the above species. We will also target Juniper Titmouse which occurs a little further along the road in the old mining town of Paradise which hosts excellent feeders.

    Overnight: Portal

  8. Day 9 Portal to Tucson

    The morning will be spent further exploring the Chiricahuas in search of any species missed the day before while also enjoying the unbelievably scenic views these mountains have to offer. As we drive the canyon roads in the morning, we’ll keep our eyes peeled for a wandering Montezuma Quail which may be seen in the area. Another visit to local feeders is likely to produce the stellar Blue-throated Mountaingem, yet another hummingbird special of this fantastic region.

    After a successful few days of birding in the Chiricahua Mountains, we must say goodbye to the sky islands and start our journey back to Tucson, making a few birding stops along the way. Our first stop is likely to be Lake Cochise in Wilcox which is a true water oasis in the middle of the desert, teaming with plenty of thankful shorebirds and waterfowl. American Avocet, Wilson’s Phalarope and Cinnamon Teal are a few of the potential species here. After some time scanning through these water birds, we’ll continue on to the small town of St. David which is known to host a few pairs of Mississippi Kite, the most westerly known population of this species. After a final dinner in Tucson, we will enjoy a Sonoran Desert sunset and then have the chance to track down any missing nocturnal species.

    Overnight: Tucson

  9. Day 10 Tour concludes

    For some, our exciting southeastern Arizona tour concludes this morning when you will be dropped off at the Tucson International Airport for your flights home. For others, it will be the start of an exciting second itinerary, as we bird northern Arizona. Participants joining the northern Arizona tour will be transferred from Tucson to Phoenix, for Day 1 of that itinerary.


    Please note that the itinerary cannot be guaranteed as it is only a rough guide and can be changed (usually slightly) due to factors such as availability of accommodation, updated information on the state of accommodation, roads, or birding sites, the discretion of the guides and other factors. In addition, we sometimes have to use a different international guide from the one advertised due to tour scheduling.

Your Guide: Jacob Roalef

Tours: Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Maine, Minnesota, Ohio, Texas, Wyoming, Birding Ecotours (Worldwide)


4-8 August 2012

Top 10 lists are voted upon by the participants at the completion of each tour.

1 – Montezuma Quail – A gorgeous male was attempting to hide in the grass along the road above the Southwest Research Station in Cave Creek Canyon. Our group and another tour group watched it for as long as 15 minutes.
2 – Plain-capped Starthroat – We found this hummingbird rarity within two minutes after arriving in Montosa Canyon.
3 – Whiskered Screech-Owl – It took some effort, but we finally had spectacular looks in a trailer park below Ramsey Canyon Preserve. It was still calling as we departed.
4 – Red-faced Warbler – Our best looks at this showy warbler were in Huachuca Canyon, on Fort Huachuca in the Chiricahua Mountains.
5 – Elegant Trogon – Heard and saw five different trogons on Huachuca Canyon.
6 – Painted Redstart – Common and friendly in several wooded canyons.
7 – Hooded Oriole – Best looks were of a male and female feeding young in a nest close to Madera Kubo Lodge in Madera Canyon.
8 – White-tailed Kite – A great look at a soaring bird below Portal at Quail Way Inn.
9 – Thick-billed Kingbird – We found two adults feeding four newly fledged young at Sonoita Creek Sanctuary in Patagonia.
10 – Summer Tanager – Excellent views of an adult male and a young bird at the George Walker House feeders in Paradise, near Portal.

Saguaro National ParkHome to a very unique cactus, and many bird species

  1. Will we do any birding the first day?

    YES! – This tour will depart Tucson at noon. One of our first targets is only a few minutes from from the airport.

    Most participants choose to arrive in Tucson one day prior to the beginning of the tour. This helps to eliminate any possible conflict with a delayed or cancelled flight. This night is not included in the tour fee. Please consult about the full details of this arrangement when you begin the tour registration process.

  2. How should I dress for the tour?

    Check the weather for the destination as close to your departure date as possible, and dress accordingly for your comfort level. You can also review our What to Bring page for more information.

  3. Besides clothes, what do I need to bring?

    There are many items the will be useful to you while on a Bird Treks tour. We have put together our list of recommendations on the What to Bring page.

  4. What language are tours conducted in?

    Our tours are all conducted in English, but we do have some experience working with client that don’t speak English well – Some English would be needed for safety reasons. In locations where another language is predominately spoken, a native guide may accompany the tour.

  5. Can you help me book flights?

    Yes, we will always try our best to help with anything at all! We’re here to serve you. However, it is usually easier if you book your flight through your own travel agent as we can’t always get the best deals from your particular country. But we will help whenever needed!

  6. Can you book accommodation for us the night before the tour starts or the night the tour ends?

    While Day 1 is usually a travel (arrival) day, and the last day of the tour is usually also a travel day (departure), many people do like to arrive early and/or leave late. We can indeed book extra nights before and after the trip, and we in fact recommend you let us book them, as it avoids confusion and allows us to book the accommodation that is most convenient for the tour.

    NOTE: Most often it is the same hotel or lodge that you use on the first night of the tour, but in some instances, it could be an airport hotel or an accommodation establishment where the guide is staying.

  7. Do you provide trip insurance?

    No, we do not. We find that it is better for trip participants to purchase their own medical, trip cancellation, and baggage insurance through their own insurance provider in the country they reside in. We expect all tour participants to have comprehensive insurance, and we encourage everyone to send us a copy of their insurance documents.

  8. Are meals included?

    For most tours, meals are included in the tour price. This may include a hotel-provided breakfast, or guide-provided box lunches. For dinners, we strive to find interesting and delicious local restaurants – this allows us to give back to the local economy, and find exciting new place to eat.

  9. Can I take the Extension Tour without doing the main tour?

    You may participate in the 5-day extension with the regular 12-day tour, or take either tour separately. Simply tell us your preference: 5 days, 12 days, or the full 17 days.