Arizona Hummingbirds Jul 23—30, 2006

Posted by Brennan Mulrooney

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Brennan Mulrooney

Brennan Mulrooney was born and raised in San Diego, California. Growing up, his heart and mind were captured by the ocean. He split his summer days between helping out behi...

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Our Arizona Hummingbirds tour couldn’t have a more appropriate name. No other North American VENT tour comes close to offering such a diversity and abundance of hummingbirds. But while southeastern Arizona is rightly famous for its hummingbirds, a host of other fantastic birds can also be seen there, many of which do not occur anywhere else. In addition, late July can be a great time for vagrants to appear on this already exciting bird scene. I’m pleased to say that this year’s tour lived up to all of that; in fact, it exceeded any reasonable expectations! Here is just a sample of the fantastic birding we encountered.

With a bit of effort, planning, and luck, one might expect to find 14 species of hummingbirds in late July in southeastern Arizona. In some years 12 is probably a more realistic number. So seeing 14 in ONE DAY this year was a bit mind-blowing. And when you consider that we saw 13 of these species at one site in a little over an hour, you get an idea of just how good it was this year.

Perhaps the highlight of the group was a gorgeous adult Berylline Hummingbird coming to the feeders in Ramsey Canyon. This species isn’t present every year, and even when it is present, it’s not guaranteed that you will see it. A group arriving just as we left spent over an hour waiting without a sighting. This is the only species of hummingbird that we DIDN’T see at the Beatty’s Guest Ranch in Miller Canyon later that afternoon. As we arrived it was just starting to rain, and the hummingbirds, perhaps anticipating the upcoming storm, were absolutely swarming! A quick scan across the lower feeders turned up a rough count of 70 hummers at one point. At any given time there were scads of Black-chinned and Rufous, and good numbers of Broad-tailed and Anna’s. A continued vigil also produced a few Broad-billed and Calliope, at least one Costa’s, one female Lucifer, one Violet-crowned, and one adult male Allen’s.

Continuing to the upper feeders we were treated to both Magnificent and Blue-throated (the “mega” hummers) and a second strong contender for bird of the day, White-eared Hummingbird. This is another species that can easily be missed some years, and we had excellent looks at a male and a female coming to the feeders less than 15 feet away! The next morning, a break in the rain allowed us a visit to the feeders at the Ash Canyon Bed and Breakfast, and we were treated to repeated views of our first adult male Lucifer Hummingbird. The long magenta gorget, distinctly drooping bill, and long narrow tail really made this guy stand out (even among such flashy companions!). But as I said, this tour was outstanding for more than just the hummingbird show.

When you visit southeastern Arizona in mid to late summer, you can expect to see some strange things. This is prime time for Mexican vagrants to show up, and most years one or two “hotline birds” are around. But just because they’re around doesn’t always mean that you’ll see them! Often they show up in remote areas that require four-wheel-drive and a long hike, or they show up briefly and then vanish: the dreaded “one day wonder.” This year we were astoundingly lucky. We were able to successfully chase (and get great looks at) four birds that the American Birding Association classifies as “Code-4” rarities! “Code-5” is accidental and “Code-6” is extinct! So these were some pretty rare birds.

We began our amazing run of luck the very first morning with stunning scope views of a singing male Flame-colored Tanager in Madera Canyon. Even though it sang almost continuously, it took several minutes and about 20 pairs of eyes searching before we were able to spot it perched high in a dense sycamore. But once we found it, we all enjoyed lengthy views of this stunning specimen. It was definitely worth the effort.

Not ones to rest on our laurels (for too long), we met up following an afternoon break from the heat and were back on the trail of rare birds. This time our quarry was the diminutive Black-capped Gnatcatcher. A pair of this species has been seen with some regularity for the last few years in Montosa Canyon and we decided to test our luck. It didn’t take long before we had outstanding close-up looks at a male Black-capped right next to a male Black-tailed Gnatcatcher, giving us ample opportunity to compare the different field marks separating these two very similar birds. Success again, but surely our luck would run out soon, right?

The next morning, buoyed by our success with the tanager and the gnatcatcher, we set off for Sycamore Canyon in search of another great rarity, Rufous-capped Warbler. This was the first time in years, maybe ever, that this species had shown up and stayed in an area that was so relatively easy to access. I had said something earlier about a bird’s presence not necessarily translating into seeing it. Well this one really came down to the wire. We were basically on our way out when an uncooperative Arizona Woodpecker ended up virtually dropping the bird into our laps. Once we found it (thanks to David) we watched for several minutes from about 10 feet as it first gathered nest material for an unseen nest, and then flew up to the tops of the low willows and started belting out its song?simply amazing.

Later that day we found out that our luck might have already run out. On the day we had been in Madera Canyon, somebody farther up the canyon had located an Aztec Thrush. People returning the following day had turned up no fewer than seven! We wouldn’t be back in the area for four days; would the birds hold on that long? By the fourth day the count was down to three, but one was all that we needed. Upon our approach to the canyon it was evident that morning thunderstorms had caused creeks to wash over the road, but it was clear for us. As we hiked up the trail, we received positive reports from birders hiking out; the birds were still being seen! After a short vigil at a lower area, word came down that a bird had been located right over the trail and people were getting great looks. It seemed unlikely that the 20+ birders present would all be able to walk up there without flushing the bird, but that’s just what happened. The bird sat tight and we all enjoyed leisurely views of this fantastic rarity. In fact, we finally had to walk away!

Should I quit now? Should we just stop offering this tour in the future? Surely we used up all of our luck for years to come. Nah?even without all of these amazing vagrants this tour was an unmitigated success, and certainly will continue to be so in years to come.