Avian Jewels of Arizona Jul 21—28, 2013

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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A summer trip to Arizona always offers a wide variety of avian treats and this year was no different. The monsoon season was in full force, lowering temperatures, making the landscape lush and green, and bringing a flurry of bird activity. Hummingbirds are one of the main highlights of this trip and we tallied eleven species for the tour. Stunning Broad-billeds, huge Magnificents (living up to their name), and the ubiquitous Black-chinneds were all widespread and seen on a nearly daily basis. Migrant Rufous (brilliant orange and feisty), Broad-tailed (with its unique wing trill), and the tiny Calliope were recorded as well. Less numerous but still expected were Anna’s, Costa’s (many have departed by this time), Violet-crowned (striking white below with red bill and purple crown), and the biggest of all, the Blue-throated. The prize of our hummingbird list was the Lucifer in Ash Canyon that we studied for several minutes from very close range. This species has declined dramatically since the fires of 2011 and has become very hard to find.

Of course this trip is about so much more than hummingbirds. From the deserts of Tucson to the famed Santa Rita, Huachuca, and Chiricahua mountain ranges to the riparian areas of Patagonia, we totaled nearly 180 species of birds. In the Tucson and Green Valley area, Zone-tailed Hawk, Burrowing Owl, Gilded Flicker, the localized Tropical Kingbird, Lucy’s Warbler, Abert’s Towhee, and Rufous-winged Sparrow topped the list. Madera Canyon yielded Scaled Quail (uncommon here), Whiskered Screech-Owl, Arizona Woodpecker, Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet, Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher (a species that is much more common at this season than in May), Vermilion Flycatcher, Bridled Titmouse, Painted Redstart, Blue Grosbeak, plum-colored Varied Buntings, and Botteri’s Sparrows among others.

Farther south in the vicinity of Nogales and Patagonia, our list continued to grow with the likes of Gray Hawk, Thick-billed Kingbird (one pair had two just fledged babies), a pair of very rare Black-capped Gnatcatchers from close range, Phainopepla, and Yellow-breasted Chat, while nearby grasslands produced Horned Lark, Grasshopper and Cassin’s sparrows, and the southwestern race of Eastern Meadowlark (a possible future split).

The Huachuca Mountains just outside of Sierra Vista proved to be our most productive stop. Our morning in Huachuca Canyon produced great views of a family of Elegant Trogons, perhaps the most wanted bird of any trip to Arizona. Incredibly, shortly after we left, another birder further up the canyon discovered a Slate-throated Redstart—an accidental stray from Mexico. This created an immediate change of plans, and the option of a return trip into Fort Huachuca to look for this great vagrant the next morning quickly became a reality. After some patient searching, the folks who went in search of the redstart were rewarded with nice views—a great bonus and a tour first! The remainder of the group ventured up the rocky road into Carr Canyon and had an equally productive morning. Another Zone-tailed Hawk; more Arizona Woodpeckers; Greater Pewee; Buff-breasted Flycatcher; Virginia’s, Grace’s, and Black-throated Gray warblers; stunning Indigo Buntings; and Yellow-eyed Juncos were among the highlights. Other noteworthy species around Sierra Vista included a Common Poorwill literally just feet above our heads and a family of Harris’s Hawks in a church parking lot that captivated our group.

En route to the Chiricahuas, we were exceptionally lucky to tally both Bendire’s and Crissal thrashers in the heat of the afternoon in the Sulphur Springs Valley. As always, the Chiricahuas were an absolute delight with birds everywhere. Mexican Whip-poor-will, Cordilleran Flycatcher, Mexican Chickadee (found nowhere else in the United States), adorable Pygmy Nuthatches, Juniper Titmouse, the ethereal song of Hermit Thrushes, a pair of Olive Warblers, gorgeous Red-faced Warblers, early migrant Hermit Warblers, and a singing Black-chinned Sparrow were arguably our most memorable sightings in this location.

We concluded with a stop in Willcox at Cochise Lake, where we were greeted by over 200 Wilson’s Phalaropes, 30+ Baird’s Sandpipers, a hundred or more American Avocets, Black-necked Stilts, Stilt Sandpipers, Long-billed Dowitcher, both yellowlegs, Western and Least sandpipers, Cinnamon Teal and more!

In all, our week of birding Arizona yielded 178 species of birds, 18 species of mammals (including two Black Bear sightings), 14 species of reptiles and amphibians, and many beautiful butterflies and dragonflies. We had largely pleasant, mild temperatures throughout due to the monsoon season, yet managed to avoid virtually all of the rain. A great success on every level!