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Mexican Yellow Grosbeak, Montezuma Quail, & More
THE FOCUS ON NATURE TOUR IN SOUTHERN ARIZONA
An immature Broad-tailed Hummingbird
during a FONT tour in southern Arizona
(photo by Doris Potter)
Birds & Other Wildlife during our Arizona Tour - July '07
Cumulative List of Birds during our Arizona Tours (with photos)
Mammals during our Arizona Tours (with photos)
Upcoming FONT Birding & Nature Tours in Arizona
The following narrative of the FONT July '07 Arizona Tour was written by Armas Hill, leader of the tour:
Birding in Arizona can be good at various times throughout the year. The state is one of the best in US for birding, as there is a fine diversity of habitats and because it borders with Mexico. In that neighboring country, there are a lot of birds, actually about 1,000 species! The number is high because the bird-rich Neotropics, as in Central America, reaches southern Mexico. And the Nearctic birds, as those in the US and Canada, are found in northern Mexico.
In reverse, there are a number of "Mexican birds" that spill over into North America, and they do so only in southern Arizona.
Late summer is one of the particularly good times of the year for birding in Arizona, as it's then that many of the wanderers from Mexico can most readily be found. This is especially true in regard to hummingbirds.
And so, there have been a number of FONT birding & nature tours in the latter part of the summer, in either late July or in August. In 2007, the dates of our Southern Arizona were July 22-29.
Another aspect of nature that occurs in southern Arizona in late summer relates to weather. It's then the season of the "monsoons". Following the hottest days of the summer, there are thunderstorms, most often in the afternoon, with lightning and heavy rains. These "monsoon storms" don't occur everywhere. Geographically, they can be spotty, and they can be sporadic. When many people hear the word "monsoon", they think of places in south-central Asia, such as India and Bangladesh. But in southern Arizona, everyone knows the word "monsoon" in the context of the annual rains that occur in late summer. It's quite a significant part of life there that time of year, as sometimes rain brings with it flash floods in streambeds and other low places in the desert. Where roads dip, there can quickly be a raging river where usually there's no water at all.
When we were in Arizona, in July of '07, the "monsoons" were active, and more widespread than usual. Most years, for us, the rains have been local enough that we could often avoid them as we'd bird in the afternoon. That was not the way it was for us in 2007. Even though we did bird every day, and even though, on occasion, we would skirt storms that we'd see in the distance, there were some afternoons when we had to halt. Some downpours lasted a long time. Some roads, even major paved roads, became flooded.
Because of the rains, we could not bird, as we normally would like to, along some of the back roads. Dirt roads became too muddy. Therefore, some of the birds that we'd normally find during our Arizona summer tours, were missed. But, still, on the other hand, we saw some birds in '07, that we don't normally see. A few of them were particularly "good", and one was especially so.
We were, one day, traveling along the dirt road from Arivaca toward Nogales - the road one would take to California Gulch (the haunt of the Five-striped Sparrow) and Sycamore Canyon. Dark clouds were looming ahead of us in the hills. It wasn't raining where we were. However, each stream that we had to cross on the road (without bridges) was getting progressively larger. Puddles on the now-muddy (no longer dirt) were becoming big olympic-sized pools. We reached a point where safely we could go no further. California Gulch and Sycamore Canyon were to be out of our grasp.
And so, with a raging torrent of water crossing the road ahead of us, and, a few miles back, a large pool getting ever deeper, we stopped. It wasn't raining where we were, and as there were birds by the road, of course we decided to bird. The birds, on the whole, were the "normal" cast of avian characters, such as Northern Cardinal, Vermilion Flycatcher, Summer Tanager, Canyon Towhee, Yellow-breasted Chat, Lesser Goldfinch, some warblers, some sparrows, and some others. But, then, all of sudden, Carol, one of our tour participants, said: "What is this yellow bird that I see in the bush, with the large bill and the black and white on the wings?" Well, it was a Mexican Yellow Grosbeak, a true rarity for North America, and even for southern Arizona, and a wonderful find. As of 2004, there were only about 15 records for the species in southern Arizona, with all of them in the summer. Most of the records for this bird have been in June, but some have been in July. Our Mexican Yellow Grosbeak was seen on July 27, 2007. The bird was both seen and photographed.
It never rained where we encountered the Grosbeak. In fact, for a few moments after we saw the bird, the sun shone on us from between the clouds. After a while, the water level went down on the road ahead of us (we had turned around), and so we went back to Arivaca to bird there at a wildlife refuge and at a hummingbird feeder by a restaurant. Both places were good, but we knew that the best had been where we had to stop on the road, earlier that day, because of the high water from a heavy rain in the hills.
Another rarity north of the Mexican border was seen during our July '07 Arizona Tour. When we were in the Tucson area, we learned that a Rufous-backed Robin had been found, among a flock of American Robins, on Mount Lemmon. So, during the last full-day of our tour, we went there to see it. In the woods near the summit of the mountain, after some searching, we found the American Robin flock, with the single Rufous-backed Robin.
On average, the Rufous-backed Robin, during the last couple decades, has been found 3 times a year. Most of the sightings have been in Arizona, but there have also been a few occurrences in New Mexico, California, and Texas. Most of the records in the US of this normally-Mexican endemic have been from October to April, but in Arizona the species has been found a few times in July, at places such as Patagonia and Madera Canyon.
It's interesting that now it's been urged that most of the New World Thrushes that have been called Robins, be called, instead, Thrushes, as "they should be". For example, the Central American bird that's been called the Clay-colored Robin would be more appropriately called the Clay-colored Thrush. This change of nomenclature would apply to a number of species throughout the Americas. But, as old habits sometimes can not be changed, there's no viable thought of changing the American Robin to the "American Thrush". And, for some reason (maybe due to its closeness to the US), there's also no such change in the works as to the name of the Rufous-backed Robin.
There were other birds that were good to see during our July '07 tour in Arizona - quite a few in fact.
As always, the Elegant Trogon was wonderful. As were the Red-faced Warbler and the Painted Redstart.
The last of these is up, by the way, for a name change. The warblers throughout mostly Central & South America in the Myioborus genus that have been called "Redstarts" are rather to be called "Whitestarts". Their tails, it's true, are with white, not red.
We also saw, in the mountain forest, the Olive Warbler - which is now, by the taxonomy, no longer a "warbler", but rather in a family of its own, more closely related, strangely, to the pipits than to the warblers.
Yet other birds in the "good to see" category during the tour included the Phainopepla and the Pyrrhuloxia. (When we saw the latter of these, we had to pronounce it properly.)
And there was the Varied Bunting, the Abert's Towhee (nearly endemic to Arizona), and Arizona Woodpecker (the only bird with "Arizona" in its name).
There were a couple different Chickadees, the Mountain and the Mexican. Outside of Mexico, the Mexican Chickadee only occurs in the Chiricahua Mountains of Arizona.
There were a couple different Titmice, the Bridled and the Juniper.
Two different Nighthawks were seen, the Lesser and the Common. The Lesser tended to be lower in flight; the Common higher in the sky.
There were a couple different Phoebes, the Black and the Say's.
Flycatchers that come to southern Arizona to spend the summer were seen, including the Sulphur-bellied, the Buff-breasted, the Brown-crested, and the Dusky-capped.
We saw Greater Roadrunners again and again, sometimes closely. On one occasion, as we sat in our vehicle, looking out the windows, at some small birds such as Verdins (they don't come much smaller), a Greater Roadrunner came right up to us - pleading "look at me, too!". Not only did it come about as close to us as a bird could, it simply stayed there, looking at us! It stayed until we left.
When we went to a favored place for Harris's Hawks, near Tucson, we saw them. But not just them.
A birder we met told us to look on a telephone wire for a Tropical Kingbird. We saw it. Not only was it on the wire, but, from there, it chased one of the Harris's Hawks as it flew by.
Another birder told us to look in a dense part of a nearby tree, about the sidewalk by the edge of the street. We did. And by doing so, we saw a roosting Great Horned Owl.
After that, we went to a place to see Burrowing Owls. They're always good to see. When we did this time, not only did we see adults, but also their youngsters. It was a classic case of all of the owls looking at us as we looked at them.
The just-mentioned Harris's Hawk was just one of a number of raptor species during our tour. It was really a good tour for raptors, with a nice number of them, and with all of them seen well.
The most numerous, as would be expected, was the Red-tailed Hawk.
But, we also saw, in addition to both Turkey and Black Vulture, these:
Northern Crested Caracara, Mississippi Kite, Northern Harrier, Cooper's Hawk, Common Black Hawk, Gray Hawk, Zone-tailed Hawk, Short-tailed Hawk, and Swainson's Hawk (in addition to the Harris's Hawk as already noted).
The Mississippi Kite flew by us twice. We hoped it would come yet again, and that it might linger.
We saw only one Northern Harrier. That species is not normally seen where we were in July.
We were fortunate to see quite a few Cooper's Hawks. Some flew fast; others were seen as they sat still.
Our sighting of a Common Black Hawk was of it sitting still in a large tree.
What was just said regarding the Cooper's Hawk, could also be said in relation to the Gray Hawk. We were fortunate to see quite a few. They were of various ages. Interestingly, most that we saw, during this tour, were not in areas where we've seen them mostly in the past.
Our best views of the Turkey Vulture look-alike, the Zone-tailed Hawk, were in the Chiricahua Mountains, during a sunny afternoon, as we were observing what seemed to be individuals in a family-group of Short-tailed Hawks. As a couple Red-tailed Hawks were also soaring about, we watched the Short-tailed Hawks fly closer to the treetops on a ridge, on the other side of a valley. There were both light and dark morph Short-tailed Hawks.
Regarding the Short-tailed Hawk, a species mostly of Central and South America, a couple comments should be made. In North America, it's a permanent resident in Florida (rather analogous to the Snail Kite, although in a different habitat). Other than in Florida, the Short-tailed Hawk has been only "accidental" in Texas and Arizona. But, during the past few summers, the species has been present, and bred, in the Chiricahuas (all be it, just a few - maybe just a family). It nested there again in 2007, and the birds we saw were adults and young.
Referring to young, of another species of raptor, one of our favorite sightings during the July '07 Arizona Tour, was of a group of 3 juvenile Swainson's Hawks. Odd-looking, they were. Maybe, in a way, it could be said they somewhat resembled Aplomado Falcons.
Some hawks are in Arizona all year (such as the Harris's and the Red-tailed).
Some hawks occur there commonly in the winter (the Ferruginous Hawk is in that category).
Others are present, either mostly, or entirely, in Arizona in the spring, summer, and fall, as breeders and migrants. Among the hawks we saw, the Mississippi Kite, the Common Black Hawk, the Gray Hawk, and the Short-tailed and the Swainson's Hawks were in that grouping. Those young Swainson's Hawks that we saw, when they would get beyond adolescence, would fly south - very far south, to Argentina, to spend "another summer" there.
Early in this narrative, it was mentioned that late summer is a good time in southern Arizona for hummingbirds. And even though reference has not been made of them again until now, yes, we did see hummingbirds during our '07 Arizona Tour. We saw all of the regulars. We especially enjoyed the White-eared Hummingbird (a species common in Mexico and the Guatemalan mountains).
Usually, during our Summer Arizona Tours, hummingbirds abound at various feeding stations. But in '07 there were less, because more plants than usual throughout the countryside were in bloom (perhaps due to the more-than-usual amount of rain).
A particular place we visit during our Arizona tour is a pool of water in an area of plains near the town of Wilcox. The water level of that pool can vary from year to year, but we always see birds there - and always something unexpected.
A Ruddy Turnstone along the shoreline there, with other shorebirds, was the most unexpected bird for us in '07. Ruddy Turnstones occur many places in the world, but it's a rarity in Arizona. In "the book", it's said to be a casual fall transient in the state. In the accompanying graph, there was no "dot" for it in late July.
There were some other memorable moments we had at that area near Willcox as we watched:
an Avocet feign injury (as does a Killdeer) on the dirt road outside our vehicle,
Black Terns flying about, as they caught insects in the air, above the pool,
many Wilson's Phalaropes spinning about on the water of the pool,
and a male Yellow-headed Blackbird in the reeds, somehow thinking it was hidden.
The last bird to be mentioned here is a species that's absolutely adept at hiding. It's the Montezuma Quail. What a wonderful encounter we had with that species, when, as luck had it, a female was first seen standing on a road in front of us, as we drove around a bend. "No, that's not a dove", I said at the time.
That female quail then walked from the road, up a small hillside, blending in as it went. What did it blend in with? Everything - the grass, the dirt, whatever. We got out of our vehicle, and also walked (gently) up that hillside. Then, in the tall grass above, we flushed both the male and female Montezuma Quail. It was nice to see them, but it was then baffling as to how they could so readily disappear in the grass - not ever to be seen again, even though we knew they "were there"!
As usual in these narratives, most of what's written is about the birds seen during the tour. But there was, as always, more. We saw some animals, including Coyote, 2 species of Deer, and 7 species of Squirrels and Chipmunks.
And we visited some wonderful places that were as diverse as deserts and grasslands, valleys with sycamore trees, beautiful canyons, and forests of oaks and pines in the mountains.
Among the most notable of the places were the Chiricahua National Monument with its spectacular rock formations, the impressive Aravaipa Canyon, and the mountain called Kitts Peak.
The last of these, Kitts Peak, is quite a place. It's an island of sorts in the sky, from which the sky is observed. At the summit, there's an outstanding astronomical observatory. During the day, the facility is open to the public, and we found it a very interesting place to visit. Of course, during the "monsoon season", it's not a good time to view the skies at night. Winter-time is best for that. But the observatory, and the accompanying museum, was interesting for us anyway. Outside, Kitt's Peak is a good birding locale, as the road, with very little traffic, ascends from 4,000 to over 6,000 feet above sea level. With that change in elevation, the birdlife changes along the way.
Inside at the Kitt's Peak observatory, I liked the photograph on the wall of a Puma seen one day basking on rocks outside the observatory building. And I liked the photographs, on display, of colorful nebulae, that had been taken through the observatory's telescopes.
No, we didn't see either the Puma by day, nor the Nebulae at night, but it did lend to one's imagination, as we left the observatory and drove the highway back to the city of Tucson.
During that ride, it should be noted that there was quite a display of nature for us in the darkening evening sky - the lightning that's one of the pluses of the "monsoons".
At the end of the tour, upon reflection, there was not only what had been imagined. There was so much that we had really experienced that could be remembered.
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