Spring Grand Arizona May 10—20, 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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Our recent Spring Grand Arizona tour was without doubt one of the most successful of all time. We saw virtually all of the regional specialties, had three Mexican vagrants, and tallied an astonishing ten species of owls and ten hummingbirds. Every day had wonderful highlights, but the second full day was perhaps our best.

We began that morning around Green Valley in search of the localized Gilded Flicker. Within minutes a very responsive pair began posing atop a saguaro a short distance away. Common desert species such as Gambel's Quail, Gila Woodpecker, Cactus Wren, and Curve-billed Thrasher vied for our attention. Just down the road, we had wonderful views of roosting Great Horned Owls at 20 feet. Having successfully knocked off Rufous-winged and Botteri's sparrows the previous day, we were able to bypass the grasslands below the Santa Rita Mountains and head directly up to Madera Canyon. A male Flame-colored Tanager (a vagrant from Mexico) had arrived just a few days earlier, so we made that our top priority. Almost immediately upon arriving in the location where the tanager had been seen, we heard its burry robin-like song in a sycamore right over the road. After a few frantic moments, we spotted the bird and enjoyed great scope views. Quickly, a Painted Redstart popped in overhead and was soon joined by an Arizona Woodpecker. The redstart got out of sight before everyone had seen it, so I gave a brief pygmy-owl whistle to coax it back in. Much to my surprise, a Northern Pygmy-Owl responded right over our heads. It was quickly mobbed by Black-throated Gray Warbler, Magnificent and Broad-billed hummingbirds, a Hutton's Vireo, a pair of redstarts, several Bridled Titmice, and a Dusky-capped Flycatcher. We had unbelievable scope views of this hard-to-find owl for over 15 minutes. I was stunned at our luck.

We headed down for an early lunch so that we could make an afternoon attempt at a pair of Rufous-capped Warblers (another rarity from Mexico) that had been frequenting nearby Florida Canyon for the past few months. It seemed unlikely that we would have much luck in the heat of the day, but that would be our only chance to check this particular location. The short, but difficult, walk to the warbler locale produced a Black-capped Gnatcatcher (our second Mexican rarity of the day) which gave nice comparisons with a nearby Blue-gray Gnatcatcher pair. This species has become annual in the past decade in Arizona, but is always difficult to find and best considered a bonus on any given trip. We settled in at the warbler spot and crossed our fingers. A pair of Rufous-crowned Sparrows provided excellent views, as did a Canyon Wren and a Western Tanager. After about 20 minutes, I heard the warbler calling just up slope from us. Some got quick views, but the bird disappeared before everyone got on it. Another 15 minutes passed and the bird began singing again. This time we found the pair working along the rock face just to our west. We watched them for several minutes and had repeated superb views. Amazing that we had seen a pair of Rufous-capped Warblers (a first time ever for this tour), a male Flame-colored Tanager, and a Black-capped Gnatcatcher all in about an eight-hour span! Eventually we worked our way down to Nogales where we would be spending the next couple of nights. En route, we added the first Tropical Kingbird of the season in the state, scope views of a perched Gray Hawk, and several Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks. What an amazing day!

Of course, this was but one day in a long line of successful days for this trip. The very next day we had prolonged views of three Montezuma Quail at 30 feet, a Five-striped Sparrow less than 15 feet away, another Black-capped Gnatcatcher, Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet, Violet-crowned Hummingbird, and Thick-billed Kingbird. In the Tucson area (and points north) we tallied Common Black-Hawk; Zone-tailed Hawk; Harris's Hawk; Elf, Western Screech, and Whiskered Screech owls; Costa's Hummingbird; and stunning Lazuli Buntings. The Huachuca Mountains near Sierra Vista yielded Spotted Owl (a pair roosting together); Common Poorwill; Lucifer, White-eared, and Blue-throated hummingbirds; Elegant Trogon; Buff-breasted Flycatcher; Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher; Greater Pewee; and a bevy of stunning warblers including the incomparable Red-faced.

Finally the Chiricahua Mountains, where we spent three wonderful days, produced such highlights as Flammulated Owl (12 feet away!), a very rare Northern Saw-whet Owl right overhead, a male Elegant Trogon that posed in the scope for 15 minutes, Mexican Chickadee, Crissal Thrasher, Juniper Titmouse, and Black-chinned Sparrow among others.

Ten owl species. Ten hummingbird species. Mexican rarities. Arizona specialties. What more could you ask for? This trip had it all.