Winter Southern Arizona Jan 16—22, 2017

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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Our Winter Southern Arizona tour is probably best known for three specific aspects—the potential for Mexican rarities, the presence of many species found only in Arizona in the winter (especially raptors and sparrows), and the year-round presence of many highly sought Arizona specialty birds. On all three fronts, this year’s trip excelled.

This winter proved to be an exceptionally good year for Mexican rarities, so we had several options of birds to chase. The crown jewel was a Streak-backed Oriole that had been present in Portal for a couple of months. We altered our schedule one afternoon and diverted to the Chiricahua Mountains to look for this exciting vagrant. It took only fifteen minutes of watching the feeders before our target had appeared. We enjoyed prolonged, close views of this visitor from Mexico that was a life bird for everyone in the group!

Streak-backed Oriole

Streak-backed Oriole— Photo: Barry Zimmer


Two more rarities were targeted northwest of Tucson, in an area known as the Santa Cruz Flats. One property was hosting both a male Ruddy Ground-Dove and a Rufous-backed Robin. On our first visit, we quickly tallied the Ruddy Ground-Dove, as it perched in an open pecan tree side by side with an Inca Dove. It had been a few years since we had seen this vagrant on our tour. The robin, however, was nowhere to be found. The final day of our tour is designed to be somewhat of a “potluck” day with built-in flexibility to chase things that we haven’t seen. So on the last afternoon, we returned to the Santa Cruz Flats for one more try at the robin. The bird was quickly spotted upon our arrival, but just as quickly disappeared before everyone had seen it. We had about an hour to wait it out, and just before we needed to depart, it appeared again in a small pomegranate bush. Quick scope views were obtained before the robin disappeared again. A great last-minute find! Finally, we saw two different pairs of Black-capped Gnatcatchers—one in Florida Canyon and the other at Patagonia Lake. This species has become a rare, low density resident in recent years, but is still considered a lucky find on any given trip. Four Mexican rarities on the same tour was quite a haul!

Yellow-eyed Junco

Yellow-eyed Junco— Photo: Barry Zimmer


Winter brings a unique set of birds to southeastern Arizona, many of which are not present at all in spring or summer. Raptors and sparrows are foremost within that group. We tallied a combined sixteen species of hawks, falcons, vultures, and owls, with highlights including seven regal Ferruginous Hawks, epic viewing of a pair of Golden Eagles over Ruby Road being dive-bombed by a Red-tailed Hawk, eight Crested Caracaras, two Prairie Falcons, a perched Peregrine Falcon no more than 40 feet away, Merlin, four Burrowing Owls, and a very cooperative Western Screech-Owl at a day roost. Our luck with sparrows was equally productive with a robust eighteen species recorded. Wintering species such as Brewer’s Sparrow, Sagebrush Sparrow, Lark Bunting, and Green-tailed Towhee were all seen well, in addition to resident species such as Rufous-winged and Rufous-crowned sparrows, Abert’s Towhee, and Yellow-eyed Junco. Other noteworthy “winter only” birds included a wonderful flock of 77 Mountain Plovers at a sod farm; 3,000+ Sandhill Cranes circling overhead at once; a Red-naped Sapsucker in Madera Canyon; Hammond’s, Dusky, and Gray flycatchers; and a flock of Chestnut-collared Longspurs (one of which sat out in the open on a paved road!).

Rosy-faced Lovebird

Rosy-faced Lovebird— Photo: Barry Zimmer


Many of the southeastern Arizona specialty birds are resident and, therefore, readily found in the wintertime. We enjoyed great views of Arizona and Gila woodpeckers, Gilded Flicker, the newly countable Rosy-faced Lovebird, brilliant Vermilion Flycatchers, Mexican Jay, adorable Bridled Titmice, six species of thrashers (including Crissal, Le Conte’s, and Bendire’s), Black-throated Gray Warbler, stunning Painted Redstarts, and a somewhat aseasonal pair of Hepatic Tanagers among others.

Finally, this tour also saw several other rarities either not generally associated with this area or at this season. A male Eurasian Wigeon was certainly out of place at a Willcox golf course, as was a very cooperative Winter Wren at Patagonia Lake. Four species of hummingbirds was a good mid-winter tally and included the likes of Magnificent, Costa’s, and Broad-billed, while a Green Kingfisher at Patagonia was a first for this tour in over a decade!

All in all, we saw nearly 150 species of birds, including a wonderful combination of Mexican rarities, wintering targets, resident specialty birds, and unusual visitors. We had four magnificent days of weather to start the trip and then managed to dodge some dicey weather on the tail end.