Winter Southern Arizona Jan 18—23, 2011

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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Once again our Winter Southern Arizona tour was a huge success. We enjoyed superb weather (highs in the 70s every day) and had great luck with resident specialties, wintering species, and rarities.

On our first day we ventured south to the Santa Rita Mountains and world-famous Madera Canyon. En route we detoured through Green Valley where we enjoyed prolonged scope studies of the localized Gilded Flicker, as well as the equally restricted Rufous-winged Sparrow, a flock of Lark Buntings, a Prairie Falcon, and a family of Harris's Hawks. Common species included Gambel's Quail, Gila Woodpecker, Cactus Wren, Curve-billed Thrasher, and Pyrrhuloxia. Desert slopes below Madera yielded Black-throated and Brewer's sparrows, Green-tailed Towhee, Phainopepla, and Verdin. Up in the canyon the birds came fast and furious. A male Hepatic Tanager (rare in winter) was quickly followed by the often elusive Arizona Woodpecker. Acorn Woodpecker, Mexican Jay, Magnificent Hummingbird, Yellow-eyed Junco, Bridled Titmouse, and Hutton's Vireo all quickly ensued. A walk down from Whitehouse Picnic Area produced a stakeout Red-breasted Sapsucker (casual in the state) from as close as five feet, in addition to Hammond's Flycatcher, Red-naped Sapsucker, and Townsend's Warbler. All in all, a great first day!

On our second day we headed north to an area known as the Santa Cruz Flats. In one particular area, two nice vagrants had been recently located: Ruddy Ground-Dove and Rufous-backed Robin. Initially we did not locate either bird, but enjoyed a stunning male Vermilion Flycatcher, Yellow-headed Blackbirds, and Abert's Towhee. Finally, the Rufous-backed Robin was spotted in a bare pecan tree. It flushed before everyone could see it, but with a little patience we were able to relocate the bird and get scope views for all. On the way back to the van, we spotted a flock of small doves which included several Common Ground-Doves and three Ruddys—two good Mexican vagrants in about an hour! The remainder of the morning yielded Ferruginous Hawk, two more Prairie Falcons, Black-tailed Gnatcatcher, and Sage Sparrow.

The afternoon found us back in Tucson visiting a private yard with hummingbird feeders. Here we enjoyed a super show with a rare Violet-crowned, several Broad-billeds, (also rare in winter), a male Costa's, and lots of Anna's. We ended the day at Sweetwater Wetlands where highlights included Cinnamon Teal, Sora, Orange-crowned Warbler, an aseasonal Yellow Warbler, lots of Yellow-headed Blackbirds, and a very rare Summer Tanager.

The next day we headed south towards Nogales and Patagonia. Patagonia Lake had some surprises in the form of unusual waterbirds, Common Loon and Pacific Loon, in addition to the more expected Common Merganser, Canvasback, and Eared Grebes. Nearby thickets and ravines produced Gray and Dusky flycatchers, Canyon and Green-tailed towhees and, amazingly, another Rufous-backed Robin (in the scope for ten minutes!). Feeders in Patagonia hosted Inca Dove, Lincoln's Sparrow, and Lazuli Bunting. A final stop at Pena Blanca Lake resulted in nice studies of a vagrant Least Grebe, in addition to Rock Wren and Rufous-crowned Sparrow. That evening we ventured out on an owling trip and were rewarded with a Western Screech-Owl about 15 feet away at eye level!

We visited the Sulphur Springs Valley south of Willcox on our last day. This area has become famous for the huge number of Sandhill Cranes that winter in the nearby agricultural fields. We were not disappointed, as we saw an estimated 15,000 cranes, many of which were very close and readily photographed. Other highlights of the day included Clark's and Western grebes, Ross's Goose, over 50 Greater White-fronted Geese (rare), a very rare Rough-legged Hawk, an impressive 16 Ferruginous Hawks, Merlin, Long-billed Curlews, a rare for winter American Avocet, Barn and Great Horned owls, a wonderfully close Bendire's Thrasher, and absolutely staggering numbers of Lark Buntings (estimated at 2,500 for the day).

The combination of southwestern specialty birds, large numbers of wintering raptors and sparrows, and great rarities made for superb winter birding—and with temperatures in the 70s, it just can't be beat!