Spring Grand Arizona May 10—20, 2011

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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We arrived on the west side of the Chiricahua Mountains at around 7:45 PM in search of the always difficult Flammulated Owl and the recently split Mexican Whip-poor-will. Due to a large fire in the range, we were unable to stay in the Chiricahuas this year and this would be our only chance to go owling in the area. We were coming all the way from Benson (nearly two hours away) and I had warned people that we might be out until midnight. A steady and cool breeze blew down Pinery Canyon, and the initial bursts of Flammulated Owl tape drew no response. I paused, played some whip-poor-will, and then went back to the owl. Almost immediately a Flammulated called back, and within ten seconds it seemed as if he had halved the distance. Suddenly the moonlit sky revealed a small object darting directly over our heads. I spun around and there in a small oak, at eye level and right next to the road, sat our tiny dark-eyed quest. We watched the Flammulated for perhaps 30 seconds, studying every detail, before he took off into the darkness. A total of four minutes had elapsed since we had exited the van! Most years this species requires a few days to track down.

Elated, we headed up the road to try a different spot for the Mexican Whip-poor-will. We got out at an oak-filled draw where I'd had some luck in the past. When the van door was shut and the lights went out, I played the whip-poor-will song. Immediately we spied a fluttering shadow overhead. The flashlight caught the bird hovering about 15 feet directly above us like a giant butterfly. We had superb views for several seconds before he too vanished into the night. The time was 7:58 PM and both targets were under our belts! We headed back to the hotel for a much earlier night than anticipated.

Our entire Spring Grand Arizona tour seemed to be blessed with luck such as this. On our first afternoon at the Sonoran Desert Museum, we had wonderful studies of Costa's Hummingbird, Gilded Flicker, two late Green-tailed Towhees, and a pair of localized Rufous-winged Sparrows among others. The next day we headed north to Aravaipa Canyon in search of Common Black-Hawk, a species not readily found elsewhere in the southeastern corner of the state. Not only did we have superb views of a pair of black-hawks, but in addition we had three Zone-tailed Hawks, two Gray Hawks, and two Harris's Hawks among our nine species of raptors for the day! A pair of Tropical Kingbirds and close views of Botteri's Sparrows were among the afternoon highlights. Evening owling that night yielded the tiny Elf Owl from ten feet, a Northern Pygmy-Owl right overhead, and a pair of Western Screech-Owls almost close enough to touch.

The next morning we headed to Madera Canyon. Migrants seemed to be everywhere with numerous Empidonax flycatchers, Townsend's and Wilson's warblers, Western Tanagers, Black-headed Grosbeaks, and Lazuli Buntings. Magnificent and Broad-billed hummingbirds, Dusky-capped Flycatcher, Bridled Titmouse, Mexican Jay, Black-throated Gray Warbler, Painted Redstart, Hepatic Tanager, and Yellow-eyed Junco—the action was fast and furious. As we were about to leave the canyon, I received a third-hand tip from a friend about a nearby roosting Spotted Owl. I had never seen Spotted Owl in the Santa Rita Mountains before, and the area where we typically get the bird requires a difficult uphill hike. We followed the directions and, a short 150 feet or so from the parking lot, someone in the group spotted the owl along the edge of the creek bed. It was only about 10 feet off the ground and no more than 30 feet away from us. We had lengthy and completely unobstructed views of this endangered species.

Farther south around Nogales and Patagonia we enjoyed such treats as Golden Eagle, Common Poorwill at our feet, Violet-crowned Hummingbird, Thick-billed Kingbird, Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet, numerous Vermilion Flycatchers, Lucy's Warbler, Canyon and Rock wrens, and an amazing six Five-striped Sparrows (the most I have ever seen on one trip). The Sierra Vista region produced a thirty-minute show from a male Elegant Trogon; Whiskered Screech-Owl; Lucifer, Calliope, and Blue-throated hummingbirds; several Arizona Woodpeckers; Greater Pewee; Buff-breasted Flycatcher; Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher; and myriad stunning warblers including Grace's, Olive, and Red-faced. A large black bear in one canyon was a real bonus!

Despite being unable to stay in the Chiricahua Mountains, we were able to bird the west side and added the highly sought Mexican Chickadee, which can be found nowhere else in this country. Another Northern Pygmy-Owl (this one in the scope for 15 minutes at 20 feet!), Pygmy and Red-breasted nuthatches, and more Red-faced Warblers were also seen. We then headed into New Mexico to pick up some other species that we would normally find in the Chiricahuas. After some work we had Gray Flycatcher, Juniper Titmouse, and Black-chinned Sparrow in the bag.

In all we tallied 206 species of birds, including eight owls and nine hummingbirds, and saw virtually all of the southeastern Arizona specialties. We enjoyed unusually cool weather with temperatures reaching 90 degrees only once during our ten days. All in all a splendid trip!