Summer Arizona Jul 26—Aug 02, 2009
Posted by Brennan Mulrooney
A summer trip to Southeast Arizona is a pilgrimage that every North American birder should make. Your non-birding friends will think you're crazy (Arizona? In August?), but you will know better. Late July/early August is the beginning of the monsoon season, and afternoon thunderstorms and the clouds associated with them can make temperatures downright comfortable. What's really hot is the birding. This time period coincides with a second peak of breeding activity for some species, as well as the beginning of fall migration for northern breeders. This is also a great time to find vagrant birds from Mexico that wander north after they have completed their breeding effort. This year's tour was another great success with 13 species of hummingbirds, 14 species of shorebirds (in Arizona!), 17 species of tyrant flycatchers, 13 species of sparrows (including some of our most striking species), and 4 species of tanagers. Our list included over 20 species of Southeast Arizona specialties and at least 5 genuine rarities, including one that was a first for North America!
The hummingbird show in Southeast Arizona is without equal in the United States. Our trip is scheduled to coincide with the peak of diversity and abundance, and though this year's total numbers weren't huge, the diversity was fantastic. Our list spanned the spectrum: from giant Blue-throated and Magnificent hummingbirds to the tiny Costa's and Calliope, and from the common and widespread Anna's and Black-chinned to the rare and elusive Berylline and White-eared. Lucifer Hummingbird has one of the more intriguing bird names (it's Latin for "light-bearer"), and an adult male of this species certainly lit up one afternoon for us. Though we saw them almost every day, we were repeatedly taken aback by the beauty of the male Broad-billed Hummingbird. The large and striking Violet-crowned Hummingbird was more widespread than usual, and our impressive list of hummers was rounded out by the congeneric Rufous and Broad-tailed.
While the hummingbirds are often the show-stealers at this time of year, any trip to this part of the country is assured of a large dose of specialty birds. No birding destination in the lower 48 boasts such a long list of regional specialties. A few of the highlights were a female Montezuma Quail that just sat at the side of the road for at least 10 minutes, seemingly oblivious to our presence less than 50 feet away; a Whiskered Screech-Owl that perched on a branch not more than 20 feet away, calling to a nearby mate; a gorgeous male Elegant Trogon that circled us for about 20 minutes; many a Bridled Titmouse made a convincing case for being deemed cutest bird in North America (though our Pygmy Nuthatches might have had something to say about that); and speaking of Pygmy Nuthatches, they were the glue that held together an amazing flock in the Chiricahuas that produced Olive Warbler, Grace's Warbler, and Mexican Chickadee. Black-capped Gnatcatcher has gone from being seen as a vagrant to being a low density breeder, and we connected with a very cooperative bird on the first morning. Finally, a scenic hike up Miller Canyon produced a gorgeous Red-faced Warbler, as well as a roosting pair of "Mexican" Spotted Owls.
Although hummingbirds are great fun and regional specialties can pile up the "lifers" in a hurry, for most of us it's the rarities that really get our hearts pumping. Northern Parula was a nice find, and certainly a regional rarity, but it's a common bird in the east and certainly wasn't a lifer for any of us. Short-tailed Hawk, though a first for this tour, has started breeding here, and so our sighting doesn't quite qualify. The gorgeous male Flame-colored Tanager (now we are getting rarer) seen in Madera Canyon has been seen there reliably for several years now, so it would have almost been a surprise if we hadn't see one. No, the crowning achievement in the rarity category unquestionably goes to that sneaky little Sinaloa Wren. This was the first ever found in the ABA area, and though it had been in the area for about a year, it had never been easy to see and was a lifer for all of us. It took us two trips and plenty of patience, but eventually we all got glimpses of this littler skulker with the big voice.
All in all we had a fantastic trip with great rarities, spectacular hummingbirds, and superb looks at a multitude of regional specialties. And we even squeezed in a hail storm—in Arizona—in August!