Winter Southern Arizona Jan 19—25, 2015

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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This year’s Winter Arizona tour had it all—Mexican rarities, Arizona resident specialties, abundant raptors and sparrows, high quality winter residents, and a few surprises. Combine the fantastic birding with the excellent weather (while much of the country was experiencing cold and snow), and you have a recipe for success.

The second day, we headed northwest of Tucson where we encountered this cooperative Bendire's Thrasher.

Bendire’s Thrasher — Photo: Barry Zimmer

Winter has proven to be a superb time for finding Mexican rarities, and this was certainly true this year. We had a pair of close Black-capped Gnatcatchers on the first day of the tour in Florida Canyon. This species has increased in regularity over the past decade or so, but is still generally considered a bonus on any given tour. Amazingly, we had a second pair at Patagonia Lake two days later! Additionally, we chased a Rufous-backed Robin in Patagonia on the final afternoon of the trip, and with some patience obtained good scope views of this rare visitor.

Resident Arizona specialty birds also put on a good showing. In the mountains, we enjoyed lengthy studies of Arizona Woodpecker, tallied four overwintering Magnificent Hummingbirds, and had wonderful views of such gems as Bridled Titmouse, Mexican Jay, Painted Redstart, and Yellow-eyed Junco. Lower elevation deserts and riparian produced the likes of Gilded Flicker, Vermilion Flycatcher, Bendire’s Thrasher (from 15 feet!), Abert’s Towhee, and Rufous-winged Sparrow among others.

Shortly before sunset, numbers of Yellow-headed Blackbirds arrived at a marshy area to roost.

Yellow-headed Blackbirds — Photo: Barry Zimmer

Large numbers of waterfowl, raptors, and sparrows invade southern Arizona in the winter, resulting in many species not seen at other seasons on Arizona trips.  In all, we tallied 19 species of waterfowl (including Ross’s Goose, Snow Goose, and striking Cinnamon Teal); 15 species of raptors (with such highly sought species as Ferruginous Hawk, Harris’s Hawk, Prairie Falcon, Crested Caracara, and Barn Owl in the mix); and a whopping 19 species of sparrows (including Green-tailed Towhee, Brewer’s Sparrow, Lark Sparrow, Black-throated Sparrow, Sagebrush Sparrow, over 1,000 Lark Buntings, and Lincoln’s Sparrow to name a few).

Other winter visitors not  seen on spring and summer tours included an estimated 15,000 Sandhill Cranes at one spot (nothing short of spectacular); a field with 41 Mountain Plovers; Red-naped Sapsucker; Hammond’s, Dusky, and Gray flycatchers; Western Bluebird; Chestnut-collared and McCown’s longspurs (scope studies); and Yellow-headed Blackbirds by the dozens.

The next morning started with the discovery of a very rare Couch's/Tropical Kingbird at a roadside rest area. The two species are visually identical, and we were unable to get the bird to call. However, the following day another birder heard the bird and said it was a Couch's. This would represent a second Arizona record ever!

A very rare Couch’s/Tropical Kingbird — Photo: Barry Zimmer

The mild winter had also led to many species lingering north of their typical ranges. Black-necked Stilt, American Avocet, Broad-billed Hummingbird, Plumbeous Vireo, Black-throated Gray Warbler, Townsend’s Warbler, Hepatic Tanager, and Lazuli Bunting all fell into that category.

Finally, as is almost always the case, we had some real surprises. A fabulous Lewis’s Woodpecker in a Tucson park was the first in several years for this tour. A very lost Pacific Loon at Amado was even more surprising, and a Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet at Patagonia was a winter bonus. The biggest rarity of all, however, was our discovery of a Couch’s/ Tropical Kingbird (visually inseparable in the field) at the Texas Canyon rest area. It remained silent for us, but was heard a couple of days later by another birder, who believed it to be Couch’s—representing maybe the third state record!

We totaled 156 species for our five days of birding, enjoyed wonderful weather (highs every day in the 60s or 70s), and saw some really awesome birds!