Spring Grand Arizona May 10—20, 2007

Posted by Barry Zimmer

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Barry Zimmer

Barry Zimmer has been birding since the age of eight. His main areas of expertise lie in North and Central America, but his travels have taken him throughout much of the wo...

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The silence of the night was intermittently broken by a single ventriloquial hoot from the large ponderosa pine in front of us. Despite our efforts we were unable to spot the small owl that was giving the call. This was our second night out in the high elevations of the Chiricahua Mountains in search of the elusive Flammulated Owl?without a doubt, the most difficult to see of the nine owl species that are possible on this tour. Tonight we were determined to be successful. The bird became silent for a short period and then began calling behind our group in a small oak thicket. A quick glimpse in the light revealed a back view only, and then the bird disappeared once more. A minute later it began calling again; fortunately, it was in another low oak tree. We crept up slowly and collectively held our breath, fingers crossed, prayers whispered. Suddenly, there in the spot light was the target of our quest. No more than 15 feet away and at eye level sat an adorable brown-eyed Flammulated Owl on a totally exposed lichen-covered oak branch! In over 20 years of leading trips to Arizona and New Mexico, I have never seen this species so well. We enjoyed unsurpassed scope-filled views of this wonderful bird as a Whip-poor-will serenaded us in the background.

This was but one of many amazing highlights on our recent Spring Grand Arizona tour. The next morning we completed our goal of seeing all nine species of owls when a Northern Pygmy-Owl was whistled in directly overhead. No more than 30 feet away, he glared down at us while an entourage of Mexican Chickadees, Pygmy Nuthatches, Grace’s Warblers, and Brown Creepers created a scolding frenzy around him. We eventually walked away from this one after enjoying prolonged views.

Other owls were also memorable on this trip. A pair of roosting Spotted Owls in shady, maple-lined Scheelite Canyon were unforgettable, as were the tiny Elf Owls nesting in the telephone pole our first night of owling. Western and Whiskered screech-owls provided excellent studies that night as well, while Burrowing, Barn, and Great Horneds were all seen exceptionally well in the daytime.

Of course this trip was about much more than just owls. For starters we had 11 species of hummingbirds. Nowhere else in the country can come close to boasting this sort of diversity. Rarities included a stunning male White-eared, a female Lucifer, and a tiny female Calliope. Regulars such as the brilliant Violet-crowned and Broad-billed, the appropriately named Magnificent, the huge Blue-throated, and the localized Costa’s put on great shows as well. The incredible Elegant Trogon, arguably the most sought-after bird in Arizona, was viewed at point-blank range in the Huachuca Mountains as it barked out its strange dog-like calls. Repeat views came days later in the Chiricahuas.

Winning honors as favorite bird of the tour was the amazing Montezuma Quail. We had a male perched on a rock for over ten minutes at 20 feet in Madera Canyon, and later in the tour we saw another male on Ruby Road and a pair in the Chiricahuas?our best luck ever with this often-missed species! We studied a singing Five-striped Sparrow from about 25 feet as it perched in a blooming ocotillo. We marveled at wonderful warblers such as the incomparable Red-faced, the pumpkin-headed Olive, and the spiffy Painted Redstart. Raptors put on a great show with superb views of Common Black-Hawk, Zone-tailed Hawk, Gray Hawk, Mississippi Kite, and Peregrine Falcon among others. In addition we saw virtually all of the Arizona and southwestern specialty birds. From the unique Arizona Woodpecker to the raucous Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher to localized specialties such as Rufous-winged Sparrow and Buff-breasted Flycatcher, we had marvelous views of all.

As an added bonus we had a couple of nice rarities. A gorgeous male Flame-colored Tanager in Madera Canyon was a real treat, as were a pair of Black-capped Gnatcatchers sitting on a nest (!) at Patagonia Lake. Although both seem to be increasing in the United States, they are still viewed as unexpected Mexican vagrants.

I have barely scratched the surface on highlights of this trip, having failed to mention such noteworthy species as Crissal and Bendire’s thrashers, Common Poorwill, Thick-billed Kingbird, Canyon Wren, Red Crossbill, and Black-chinned and Botteri’s sparrows. Join us in May 2008 and see for yourself!