Winter Southern Arizona Jan 18—24, 2016

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 at Catalina State Park in the midafternoon of the second day of our Winter Arizona tour. The morning, spent scouring the desert scrub and agricultural fields of the Santa Cruz Flats, had been a huge success. A spectacular Prairie Falcon (one of three on the day) glided right over our heads at our first stop south of Arizona City. A little further down the road, two of our main targets for the day, Bendire’s Thrasher and Sagebrush Sparrow, posed side by side in the scope. Mountain Plovers were next on the target list. This species winters in small numbers in the valley, but with countless fields and limited time, finding them is often the ultimate “needle in a haystack” situation. On this day, however, we drove up to some turf farms to begin our search and found a huge flock of 85 birds just awaiting our arrival. Two close Burrowing Owls along the same road allowed epic studies. The morning continued with numerous highlights, including five Crested Caracaras, close Greater Roadrunners, stunning Lark Sparrows, Lark Buntings by the hundreds, and thousands of brilliant Yellow-headed Blackbirds at a feedlot. By any account, had we not seen another bird all day, it would have been a superb day in the field.

In the afternoon, we had unsurpassed views of another Mexican rarity, the Rufous-backed Robin, at Catalina State Park. This bird sat up in the afternoon sun 30 feet away for several minutes as we soaked up scope views.

Rufous-backed Robin— Photo: Barry Zimmer


Which brings us back to Catalina State Park. A Rufous-backed Robin, a rare visitor from Mexico, had been present at this location for several weeks leading up to our trip. On this warm, gorgeous afternoon, however, the park was crawling with people, and the odds seemed stacked against us. Luck was on our side though, as within two minutes of exiting the vans, we had found the robin in a dense thicket near the trailhead. Everyone had quick, somewhat obstructed views, before the bird disappeared out of sight. Hoping for better looks, we fanned out along the streamside in an attempt to relocate the bird. About twenty minutes passed with no sign of the bird, and it seemed as if we would have to settle for the earlier brief sighting. Then some motion caught my eye, and I realized it was the robin sitting up in the open, roughly at eye level, basking in the afternoon sun. We enjoyed unsurpassed scope views for several minutes of this great vagrant before it flew off across the streambed. Just as cheers were going up and high fives being exchanged, Brennan said, “Everyone look, there are Lawrence’s Goldfinches bathing at the edge of the water!” This highly-sought, nomadic species is found on only about a quarter of our winter tours here. Like the robin, a male goldfinch sat up in the sun and allowed fantastic lengthy studies. On our way out of the park, a stunning Harris’s Hawk provided the send-off to our amazing day! At dinner that night, I commented that this may have been the best single day ever on this tour!

Almost as exciting was a small group of Lawrence's Goldfinches at the same spot. This species is notoriously nomadic and irruptive in nature, thus making it hard to find anywhere.

Lawrence’s Goldfinch— Photo: Barry Zimmer


Of course, it was but one day of an incredibly successful trip. The first day found us in Green Valley, Madera Canyon, and Florida Canyon. Among the many highlights were Golden Eagle, four species of hummingbirds (including male Costa’s, Magnificent, and male Broad-billed), Arizona Woodpecker, Red-naped Sapsucker, Gilded Flicker, Hammond’s Flycatcher, Plumbeous Vireo, adorable Bridled Titmice, a pair of rare Black-capped Gnatcatchers, Townsend’s Warbler, Rufous-winged Sparrow, Brewer’s Sparrow, Yellow-eyed Junco, and a pair of rare wintering Hepatic Tanagers.

The third day of the trip was spent in the vicinity of Nogales and Patagonia. Our morning was devoted to searching for yet another Mexican rarity, the Rufous-capped Warbler. A couple of hours of searching yielded Rock, Canyon, and Bewick’s wrens on the same rock, a Black-throated Gray Warbler (rare in winter), and a White-throated Sparrow (rare in Arizona), but no sign of the warbler. With time running out, a member of our group found the warbler in some reeds along the shoreline of the lake. It disappeared briefly, but was eventually seen by all from no more than fifteen feet away! A flashy Violet-crowned Hummingbird, a very rare Yellow-throated Warbler, Green-tailed Towhee, and a rare for winter Botteri’s Sparrow rounded out the day. Evening owling produced arguably our best views ever of Western Screech-Owl!

Our third Mexican rarity of the tour came in the form of this Rufous-capped Warbler that allowed views from as close as 15 feet away!

Rufous-capped Warbler— Photo: Barry Zimmer


The following day found us in the Sulphur Springs Valley to the east. This area is renowned for raptors and cranes, and it did not disappoint. Seven Ferruginous Hawks, 141 Red-tailed Hawks, four Harris’s Hawks, 8,000+ Sandhill Cranes, Cinnamon Teal, roosting Great Horned Owls, and Crissal Thrasher were among the many highlights. Late in the day, we discovered a rare Greater Scaup near Sunsites and had excellent, educational, side by side views with Lesser Scaup.

The final day of our trip is a flexible “potluck” day with our schedule dependent upon what we have or have not seen to that point. Having had great success in our first four days, we ventured northward to Phoenix in search of the newly countable Rosy-faced Lovebirds that reside there. Upon arrival in Encanto Park, we were immediately greeted by a flock of eight of these attractive, social birds. Our near instant success allowed us to head westward to Buckeye, where we had smashing views of the hard to find Le Conte’s Thrasher, as well as additional studies of Bendire’s and Crissal thrashers. 

In all we tallied 153 species of birds, including three Mexican rarities, 16 species of raptors, 21 species of sparrows, and countless rarities. All of this while basking under blue skies, windless days, and temperatures that reached 82 degrees the last day. Simply put: Best. Winter Arizona tour. Ever.