Avian Jewels of Arizona Jul 20—27, 2014

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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Our 2014 Avian Jewels of Arizona tour was arguably our best ever. It seemed as if every bird we looked for appeared magically, in short time, and then allowed spectacular views.

In discussing any summer tour to Arizona, you must start with hummingbirds. We had an impressive 12 species on our trip, highlighted by the Plain-capped Starthroat in Madera Canyon that visited the Santa Rita Lodge feeders about every ten minutes while we were there. This accidental visitor from Mexico is certainly one of the hardest to add to one’s North American list. In fact, I had seen only four previously in the U.S. in nearly 40 years of birding southeastern Arizona!

Our real target here, however, was the Plain-capped Starthroat (an accidental visitor to the United States) that had been visiting these feeders for the past couple of weeks. We had to wait only about 15 minutes before we had stellar views.

Plain-capped Starthroat — Photo: Barry Zimmer

The same set of feeders hosted a feisty male Allen’s Hummingbird which was another nice local rarity. Farther south, we enjoyed repeated close views of stunning Violet-crowned Hummingbirds in Patagonia, while Ash Canyon near Sierra Vista yielded a spectacular male Lucifer Hummingbird (not present annually). A tiny male Calliope in Miller Canyon was another bonus, a species that is sometimes present but cannot be counted on. Add in the migrant Rufous (gorgeous!) and Broad-taileds, along with the expected, but no less spectacular, Magnificent, Blue-throated, Broad-billed, Anna’s, and Black-chinned, and you have 12 amazing hummingbird species!

Of course, southeastern Arizona is about so much more than just hummingbirds. Summer is a great time to see most of the specialty birds of the region with many timing their breeding around the monsoon rains. Owls put in a great showing. Among the six species seen were two Northern Pygmy-Owls (one of which posed in the open no more than 15 feet away; we eventually just had to walk away!), close studies of both Whiskered and Western screech-owls, a family of adorable Burrowing Owls, and quick views of an Elf Owl. Scope studies of a perched Mexican Whip-poor-will and a flyover of Common Poorwill capped the night birding.

A short distance downhill, we stumbled onto a pair of the very rare and localized Black-capped Gnatcatchers right next to the road. They came to within ten feet of our group.

Black-capped Gnatcatcher — Photo: Barry Zimmer

In the Green Valley and Madera Canyon area, we tallied the likes of Gray Hawk, Arizona Woodpecker, Gilded Flicker, Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher, Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet, the rare Black-capped Gnatcatcher (from ten feet!), Painted Redstart, Rufous-winged and Botteri’s sparrows, and plum-colored Varied Buntings among others. Heading southward to Nogales and Patagonia, our list grew with the likes of Black-bellied Whistling-Duck, Zone-tailed Hawk (best views ever of a perched bird 30 feet away for ten plus minutes), Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Thick-billed and Tropical kingbirds, Vermilion Flycatcher, and Lazuli Buntings.

The Sierra Vista area and nearby Huachuca Mountains yielded a host of new species including Scaled Quail; quick looks at a pair of Montezuma Quail; several Elegant Trogons (the iconic bird of southeastern Arizona); Greater Pewee; the localized Buff-breasted Flycatcher; Olive, Grace’s, Black-throated Gray, and Red-faced warblers; Yellow-eyed Junco; and Scott’s Oriole.

For me, the highlight of the entire trip was the ten minutes spent watching this perched Zone-tailed Hawk from less than 30 feet away. Best views of my life, period!

Zone-tailed Hawk — Photo: Barry Zimmer

Our tour ended with two days in the Chiricahua Mountains. Spectacular scenery alone would have made the visit worthwhile, but the birds were equally as impressive. In the upper elevations of this range, we had great views of several Mexican Chickadees (a species found nowhere else in the United States) along with Hermit and Virginia’s warblers, Pygmy and Red-breasted nuthatches, and Juniper Titmouse. An incredible pair of Montezuma Quail walked right out into the road in front of our van (voted the favorite bird of the tour!). Bendire’s and Crissal thrashers, and Black-chinned and Cassin’s sparrows were among the other highlights.

On our way back to Tucson, we stopped at Willcox, where tons of American Avocets, Black-necked Stilts, and Wilson’s Phalaropes were joined by Baird’s Sandpiper, Semipalmated Plover, and a very impressive 45 Long-billed Curlews! In all, we tallied 181 species of birds for the tour, along with lengthy lists of striking butterflies, reptiles and amphibians, and mammals. Summer in Arizona certainly lived up to its famous reputation!