Winter Southern Arizona Jan 17—22, 2012

Posted by Barry Zimmer


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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We arrived in the little town of St. David shortly after dawn in search of two Rufous-backed Robins that had been reported from this area earlier in the week. Birds were just starting to wake up, and there was relatively little activity in the grove of hackberries where the robins had been seen. After a few minutes, a couple of American Robins flew into the trees, and then suddenly we spotted one of the Rufous-backeds. It was being chased by an American Robin that was vigorously defending a fruiting tree. We had several scope views of this Mexican rarity, though each was brief and a little obstructed, and field marks were being pieced together. Then a second bird was spotted and it flew down near a ditch flowing with a trickle of water. We held very still and the Rufous-backed Robin popped out into the open to drink right in front of us, its streaky throat and rich chestnut back obvious for all to see. The second robin followed suit and both provided fabulous studies from less than 30 feet away! The entire search for this spectacular bird took less than 10 minutes, and ultimately, Rufous-backed Robin was chosen as the favorite bird of the tour!

We chased two Rufous-backed Robins in St. David on our last morning and were rewarded with spectacular views of both birds drinking and bathing. This species, a Mexican vagrant, was voted the favorite bird of the tour.

Rufous-backed Robin — Photo: Barry Zimmer

This tour was chock-full of highlights. We began in Green Valley, where we enjoyed wonderful prolonged scope studies of a male Gilded Flicker, two roosting Great Horned Owls, Brewer's Sparrows, and a singing Rufous-winged Sparrow from about 10 feet away. Deserts in and around Green Valley and Continental yielded a variety of common desert species such as Gambel's Quail, Gila Woodpecker, Say's Phoebe, Verdin, Cactus Wren, Curve-billed Thrasher, Phainopepla, Pyrrhuloxia, and Black-throated Sparrow. Then it was on to famed Madera Canyon where a parade of new birds awaited us. A stakeout Red-breasted Sapsucker topped the highlight list, but Red-naped Sapsucker, Arizona Woodpecker, Bridled Titmouse, the incomparable Painted Redstart, a rare male Hepatic Tanager, and Yellow-eyed Junco all vied for our attention. In the afternoon we headed to Florida Canyon, where another Mexican rarity, Rufous-capped Warbler, had recently been seen. A difficult hike into the canyon yielded views of this vagrant for all who attempted the walk. Additionally, a pair of Golden Eagles; Hammond's Flycatcher; Canyon Wren; Green-tailed, Spotted, and Canyon towhees; and several Black-chinned Sparrows were seen.

Our second day was spent northwest of Tucson in an area known as the Santa Cruz Flats. We were clicking on all cylinders as target species came one after another all morning long. The localized Bendire's Thrasher began the morning by providing superb scope studies, and was quickly followed by a rare Ash-throated Flycatcher, several close Sage Sparrows (including one partial albino), a Sage Thrasher, a Burrowing Owl, four endangered Mountain Plovers, a field full of stunning Mountain Bluebirds, a pair of Prairie Falcons engaged in a prey exchange, the locally rare Crested Caracara, a brilliant male Vermilion Flycatcher, and an estimated 3,000 Yellow-headed Blackbirds in one spot! Afternoon birding in and around Tucson produced Harris's Hawk; Sora; a rare Solitary Sandpiper; Anna's, Costa's, and Broad-billed hummingbirds; and Abert's Towhee among others.

The next day we ventured to the Patagonia area, where we were treated to vagrant Least Grebes, Gray Flycatcher, Western and Mountain bluebirds, Canyon and Bewick's wrens, male Lazuli Bunting, and the rare and irregular Lawrence's Goldfinch. Evening owling resulted in prolonged views of Western Screech-Owl.

Our final day was spent in the Sulphur Springs Valley south of Willcox. Here raptors, cranes, and sparrows abound. After the aforementioned search for Rufous-backed Robin we tallied a variety of new species in quick order: Lark Buntings by the thousands appearing in the grasslands, two pairs of Crissal Thrashers, a Ferruginous Hawk (one of 11 for the day) that allowed us to approach within 40 feet, thousands of Sandhill Cranes, a roosting Barn Owl, and a rare (for winter) Cassin's Sparrow. Additionally we added another family group of Harris's Hawks, another Prairie Falcon, and four more roosting Great Horned Owls.

In all we tallied 154 species for the trip, enjoyed spectacular weather (highs in the low 70s every day with no clouds until the last day), had two great Mexican vagrants (the robin and the warbler), and stayed in only one hotel. Pretty much a dream trip!