Winter Southern Arizona Jan 19—24, 2010

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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Despite some of the most challenging weather that I have ever encountered on a tour, our recent Winter Southern Arizona tour was hugely successful. Normally this trip enjoys mild conditions, with warm, sunny skies. This year, however, a series of fronts brought us instead a steady dose of wind, rain, and even some snow. Our bird list did not reflect the weather situation, however. With four full days of birding based out of Tucson, we enjoyed a bounty of rarities, hard-to-find southwestern specialties, and irregular invaders.

On our first day, we ventured to the Madera Canyon/Green Valley area and were treated to myriad highlights. In Green Valley we tallied prolonged scope views of Gilded Flicker among more common desert species such as Cactus Wren, Curve-billed Thrasher, and Pyrrhuloxia. Further up the road near Continental, we had walkaway scope studies of the highly localized Rufous-winged Sparrow and the always stunning Black-throated Sparrow. Madera Canyon itself was quite active. A stunning Painted Redstart posed for over five minutes in the scope, as it warmed itself in the morning sun. An Arizona Woodpecker foraged on a nearby sycamore. Bridled Titmice, Acorn Woodpeckers, Mexican Jays, and Yellow-eyed Juncos entertained us at the feeders of a small lodge. A female Broad-billed Hummingbird, defending one of the feeders, was an unexpected treat. Canyon Wren, Hermit Thrush, Spotted Towhee, Red-naped Sapsucker…the birds just kept coming. A walk along the stream bed produced Hammond's and Gray flycatchers, Hutton's Vireo, and a rare Olive Warbler.

Day two found us heading northward to an area known as the Santa Cruz Flats. A Bendire's Thrasher posed well to start the day and was followed by a challenging, but successful, search for Sage Sparrow. A flock of 21 Mountain Plovers on a nearby sod farm was a real bonus. They kept walking towards us until they were no more than 30 yards away! One alfalfa field yielded a flock of 20 Long-billed Curlews and over 100 Mountain Bluebirds. Crested Caracara, Black-tailed Gnatcatcher, Lark Buntings, and Lark Sparrow quickly ensued. The Sweetwater Wetlands of northwest Tucson had a lot of activity despite strong winds. The parking area, which was in the lee of the wind, was swarming with birds including Black-throated Gray, Orange-crowned, and Yellow warblers, Abert's Towhee, Harris's Hawk, and several Vermilion Flycatchers. One of the Vermilions was leucistic, its entire body being a creamy white (it was voted the favorite bird of the tour!). At a private home a short distance away, we enjoyed a rare winter hummingbird extravaganza with two Violet-crowneds, one Broad-billed, a stunning male Costa's, and many Anna's all providing up-close views.

Our third day may have been the most exciting of all. We headed to Santa Gertrudis Lane at first light to chase the Rufous-backed Robin and Varied Thrush that had been wintering in the area. When we arrived, there were many Western Bluebirds, American Robins, and Hermit Thrushes enjoying the fruit-laden bushes along this lane. Within a very short time we spotted the Varied Thrush feeding on the ground no more than 20 feet away. As we were looking at her, Brennan spotted the Rufous-backed Robin. It jumped up onto a bare log and posed for some time. Here was an unlikely duo of rarities (one from Mexico and the other from the Pacific Northwest) just feet apart! After soaking up these special birds, we continued on to Patagonia Lake, where highlights included a pair of Black-capped Gnatcatchers from about 15 feet away, a male Hepatic Tanager (rare in winter), and a very early Violet-green Swallow among others. Several Greater Roadrunners, two more Red-naped Sapsuckers, 15 Black Vultures, a male Canvasback, and a couple of Brewer's Sparrows rounded out the day.  

On our final day we headed east toward the Sulphur Springs Valley—famed for its wintering raptors, sparrows, and cranes. This area did not disappoint. Over 4,000 Sandhill Cranes were seen in addition to Ross's Goose, Greater Scaup, nine Ferruginous Hawks, a Merlin, two coveys of Scaled Quail, several Soras in the open, four roosting Great Horned Owls, and arguably the most cooperative pair of Crissal Thrashers I have ever seen!

We concluded our trip with fabulous views of a Western Screech-Owl after our last dinner. In all, we tallied over 140 species of birds despite the challenging (and very unusual) weather.