Winter Southern Arizona Jan 26—31, 2008

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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Our 2008 Winter Southern Arizona tour combined a great list of rarities with superb views of many southwestern specialties. The day we ventured north to the Casa Grande area and the nearby Santa Cruz flats was perhaps our best. A golf course in western Casa Grande had been hosting an adult Northern Jacana for several weeks prior to our arrival, so we made searching for this accidental U.S. visitor a top priority. Upon arrival, we were temporarily sidetracked by an almost equally rare Long-tailed Duck, a Vermilion Flycatcher, and several striking Cinnamon Teal among others. Finally, after a tense 15–20 minutes, Steve spotted the jacana hunkered under some brush on the south end of one of the ponds. The bird flew across the pond, landing in full view, and began feeding along the open shoreline. We had incredible scope views of this tropical bird from about 40 feet. Its presence with a Long-tailed Duck from the Arctic on the same pond made quite an unusual combination!

From Casa Grande we headed southeast to the Santa Cruz flats. A Sage Sparrow that was spotted along the roadside put on an amazing show in the open for several minutes. A few minutes later, a very responsive Bendire's Thrasher gave us walkaway views. Our next target was the declining Mountain Plover. This area hosts small numbers of Mountain Plovers each winter, but they can be devilishly hard to find in the countless square miles of sod farms and dirt fields. We had great luck finding a group of four in one of the first fields we checked, and savored lengthy scope views. A perched Prairie Falcon, a perched Merlin, a flock of 250+ Lark Buntings, two male Yellow-headed Blackbirds, and, best of all, a Ruddy Ground-Dove (another rare U.S. visitor) from about 20 feet rounded out the highlights from this area.

Late afternoon was reserved for a check of the Sweetwater wetlands in northwest Tucson. When we arrived a stunning Harris's Hawk was sitting atop a telephone pole dining on a Mourning Dove. The late afternoon light accentuated the beautiful chestnut shoulders and thighs. A Sora walked into full view as we began circling the ponds. More Cinnamon Teal and Yellow-headed Blackbirds, a pair of Abert's Towhees, and a dazzling male Anna's Hummingbird topped off the day. That night we pondered how the combination of Northern Jacana, Long-tailed Duck, Ruddy Ground-Dove, and Mountain Plover in the same day had probably never been duplicated in birding history!

Of course, this was but one day of our exciting trip. Our first day was spent in the vicinity of Madera Canyon, which produced superb views of Arizona Woodpecker, Magnificent Hummingbird, Yellow-eyed Junco, and Painted Redstart. Nearby desert locales yielded Gilded Flicker, Rufous-winged Sparrow, and a stunning male Lawrence's Goldfinch. Montosa Canyon produced yet another rarity with a Black-capped Gnatcatcher, great studies of a Green-tailed Towhee, and quick views of a Black-chinned Sparrow. Evening owling resulted in wonderfully close views of both Western and Whiskered screech-owls.

Another day was spent in the Sulphur Springs Valley to the east of Tucson. Raptors abound here in winter and we had an impressive 11 species for the day, including an absolutely amazing 21 Ferruginous Hawks. Apparently prey was abundant this winter, as raptor numbers were through the roof. Whitewater Draw was hosting some roosting owls and we had scope views of 8 Barn Owls, 5 Great Horned Owls, and a well-camouflaged Long-eared Owl. The Draw also produced about 10,000 Sandhill Cranes, several Vermilion Flycatchers, and Ross's and Greater White-fronted geese. Other highlights for the day included more scope views of Harris's Hawk, a Cackling Goose, incredible studies of Crissal Thrasher, and a field with 47 Mountain Plovers.

Finally, the Patagonia area provided us with Dusky and Gray flycatchers, Red-naped Sapsucker, and a dazzling pair of Hooded Mergansers.

This trip was packed with memorable moments and highly sought species. An added bonus was staying all five nights in the same hotel. I can hardly wait for next year's tour!