Avian Jewels of Arizona Jul 25—Aug 01, 2010

Posted by Brennan Mulrooney

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Brennan Mulrooney

Brennan Mulrooney was born and raised in San Diego, California. Growing up, his heart and mind were captured by the ocean. He split his summer days between helping out behi...

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Generally speaking, at the end of most VENT tours the leader asks the group to share their three favorite birds of the trip. It's a great way to remember some of the highlights of the trip, and also to see how different birds made impressions on different people. Usually there are some clear standouts that garner the majority of the votes, but this year, on our Jewels of Arizona tour, a group of only six people nominated 17 different species—with none getting more than three votes. This is a testament to just how many impressive and memorable birds there are to be found in Southeast Arizona in the summer.

Our tour started on a warm afternoon in the desert west of Tucson. We were seeking some of the Sonoran Desert birds that might not be as easy to find as we moved east. We quickly encountered birds like Cactus Wren, Verdin, Black-tailed Gnatcatcher, and the desert subspecies of Purple Martin, which nests in the Saguaro of this region. A rocky desert wash produced our first of several male Varied Buntings. This bird was quite cooperative, and we enjoyed a nice long look at the changing reds, purples, and blues of its plumage. Another stop produced a large group of Gambel's Quail that kept us entertained for quite some time. And what would a day of birding be without a visit to a sewage pond? Sweetwater Wetlands is justly famous among Tucson birders, and we found it to be teeming with birds including displaying Ruddy Ducks, Sora, Black-necked Stilt, Tropical Kingbird, Lucy's Warbler, and Abert's Towhee.

Soon we were leaving the hotter lowlands behind and venturing up into some of the canyons that make this area so popular with birders. On our way up to Madera Canyon we stopped for Gray Hawk; Vermilion Flycatcher; Rufous-winged, Botteri's, and Black-throated sparrows; Gila Woodpeckers; Greater Roadrunner; Bell's and Hutton's vireos; Phainopepla; and a pugnacious little Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet. Up in the cooler shadows of the canyon we found our first hummingbirds, with Anna's, Black-chinned, Broad-billed, Magnificent, and Violet-crowned hummingbirds all visiting feeders. Mexican Jays, Dusky-capped and Brown-crested flycatchers, Scott's Oriole, and our first Painted Redstarts all made appearances as we waited for darkness to fall. After a picnic dinner in the canyon we found a Common Poorwill right in the road, heard an Elf Owl, and had fantastic close-up views of a Whiskered Screech-Owl before rain chased us back to the hotel.

The rest of our tour was met with similar success and our list of specialty birds continued to grow as we visited some of the most scenic mountains and canyons in southern Arizona. We enjoyed an amazing hummingbird show at the Beatty's Guest Ranch in the Huachuca Mountains that included Blue-throated, Broad-tailed, and the rare White-eared Hummingbird. Higher up in Miller Canyon we enjoyed great looks at Arizona Woodpecker, Red-faced Warbler, Hepatic Tanager, and the always popular Bridled Titmouse. In the high Chiricahua Mountains we found some fantastic mixed flocks with Black-throated Gray, Virginia's (super sneaky), Yellow-rumped, and Grace's warblers; Olive Warbler (neither olive, nor a warbler); "Brown-throated" House Wren; Pygmy and Red-breasted nuthatches; Yellow-eyed Junco; and the highly sought Mexican Chickadee.

Our last day brought a whole new group of birds when we visited a pond near Willcox that is a real shorebird hotspot (in the middle of the desert!). Here we enjoyed the comical antics of twirling flocks of Wilson's Phalaropes; at least 100 of these gorgeous little shorebirds dotted the surface of the pond, and they certainly entertained with their unique and comical foraging strategy. Elsewhere along the shore we worked our peep skills as we sorted out the small sandpipers. We saw lots of Least, Western, Baird's, and Stilt sandpipers, and our focus on their distinguishing characteristics paid off when we found one that just didn't fit. Semipalmated Sandpiper is rarely found in Arizona, but we were able to spot one trying to blend in with its more common cousins. We snacked as we took turns at the scope, discussing the finer points of shorebird ID.

By skipping a sit down lunch, we freed up just enough time for one more stop, and it paid off big. We had already spent quite some time waiting patiently at feeders, hoping for a glimpse of a Berylline Hummingbird. Several had been seen at various locations, but we just hadn't been able to connect with one yet. With only about 30 minutes to give to the effort, we made it back up into Madera Canyon. It only took about 3 minutes, and there it was—the rarest bird of our trip and our twelfth species of hummingbird. It came in twice while we waited, giving us all fantastic looks at its emerald head and breast, rufous wings, and purplish tail. It was a fitting way to end a fantastic trip through one of my favorite birding destinations.