Winter Southern Arizona Jan 20—25, 2009

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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We arrived at the parking area for the Florida Work Center in the mid-afternoon. A couple of weeks earlier someone had discovered a pair of Rufous-capped Warblers (an accidental U.S. visitor) about a half-mile above this area in a remote canyon. As we readied for our walk up the canyon, I noticed some bird activity behind us along the main road. We detoured to check out the small flock that was foraging along the creek bed. Some owl whistling quickly brought in a Gray Flycatcher slowly wagging its tail in an oak next to the road. Several kinglets followed and were joined by a Hutton's Vireo for direct comparison. "Peek" notes across the wash revealed a Hammond's Flycatcher in full view. A Spotted Towhee chimed in and was immediately followed by a Green-tailed in the same bush. Just then, Brennan spotted a pair of gnatcatchers quietly coming in to check out the commotion. Good looks and ensuing calls showed the birds to be the very rare Black-capped Gnatcatchers of which only a few pairs exist in the United States! This was certainly an auspicious start to our quest for the warblers.

We began our somewhat difficult hike up the canyon and passed several birders coming down who all gave negative reports—no Rufous-cappeds seen all day despite hours of looking. We were somewhat discouraged, but decided to continue on. A Black-chinned Sparrow, always uncommon and hard to find, flew in about halfway up and posed for lengthy, close views. Otherwise the area was quiet with little bird activity. We arrived at the area where the warblers had most frequently been reported and split up to look around. Three of us headed further up the stream bed to provide maximum coverage. As is often the case in late afternoon, there was precious little activity or sound. We were just ready to turn back when we heard the distinctive little ticking notes of a Rufous-capped in the wash up ahead. Some pishing, along with the alarm notes of a pair of nearby Rufous-crowned Sparrows, lured the bird into view. We called to the rest of the group and they came up to meet us. Soon the pair of warblers were foraging about within 15 feet of us, providing superb views for all. It had been 30 years since I had seen this species in the States, and it was a life bird for everyone in the group (including at least one person with a list over 700!). All this excitement was packed into just two hours of our wildly successful Winter Southern Arizona tour!

We had four full days of birding (all based out of one hotel) to cover a variety of different locations and habitats around Tucson. The morning of the same day of our Rufous-capped Warbler chase found us in nearby Madera Canyon. A mild winter had resulted in several species lingering later or in greater numbers than normal. We had a half-dozen Townsend's Warblers spread around in the canyon, along with at least four Painted Redstarts which obliged us with spectacular views. A male Olive Warbler with his pumpkin-orange head was a tour first, and a nearby female Hepatic Tanager was nearly as unusual. Regular species of this oak zone were very cooperative as well, with stellar views of Arizona Woodpecker, Magnificent Hummingbird, Bridled Titmouse, and Mexican Jays among others. Desert areas below the canyon yielded such goodies as Gilded Flicker, Phainopepla, and Rufous-winged, Black-throated, and Brewer's sparrows.

Our second day was spent northwest of Tucson in an area known as the Santa Cruz Flats. A combination of open agricultural lands and desert scrub here often produces a good variety of raptors and sparrows. Despite some challenging weather, we had a wonderful morning with four Ferruginous Hawks, two Prairie Falcons, a Merlin, a Peregrine Falcon, Burrowing Owl, Vermilion Flycatcher, three Bendire's Thrashers, several Sage Sparrows, Lark Bunting, and Yellow-headed Blackbird. In the afternoon we birded Sweetwater Wetlands where we had great scope views of Harris's Hawk, excellent studies of Sora and Virginia Rail, Cinnamon Teal, Abert's Towhee, and a rare Cassin's Vireo.

Day 3 found us in the vicinity of Nogales and Patagonia. Greater Roadrunner, Red-naped Sapsucker, Gray Flycatcher, and three species of towhees (including point-blank views of several Green-taileds) were found at our first stop. Patagonia Lake was next, and we hit the jackpot bird wise. Several rarities had been reported from here in the previous weeks, but the area is rather large, so finding one or two birds is often difficult. Luck was with us though, as many of our targets were concentrated into one small area. Most notable was the stunning male Elegant Trogon (not normally present in winter) that posed for over 15 minutes at 20 feet or less as it dined on a large grasshopper. An aseasonal Ash-throated Flycatcher and Plumbeous Vireo foraged in a nearby mesquite, as did another Black-capped Gnatcatcher which gave us lengthy views. Suddenly a male Hepatic Tanager appeared overhead, another unexpected rarity. Later on we visited some nearby feeders where we enjoyed four Lazuli Buntings among such regulars as Inca Dove, Anna's Hummingbird, Gila Woodpecker, Pyrrhuloxia, and Abert's Towhee. That evening an owling excursion produced fantastic looks at both Whiskered and Western screech-owls.

Our final day took us to the bird-rich Sulphur Springs Valley. An estimated 37,000 Sandhill Cranes were wintering in the valley this year, and I think we saw most of them! Most impressive was the sight of 10,000 or so bursting into the air at once when an adult Bald Eagle made a pass overhead. Four Tundra Swans, Ross's Geese, Scaled Quail, a rather ridiculous 23 Ferruginous Hawks, three more Prairie Falcons, roosting Barn and Great Horned owls, Crissal Thrasher, and 2,000+ male Yellow-headed Blackbirds rounded out the day. 

In all we tallied 150 species of birds including many rarities and loads of southwestern specialties. With the exception of one windy, rainy day, we also had superb weather (reaching 80 degrees one day), when much of the country was gripped in cold and snow. This trip is a perfect mid-winter getaway!