Rare Birds in Nifty Places -- Maricopa, Pima & Santa Cruz Counties, Arizona

Cooler temperatures have enabled me to bird into the afternoon hours this month. On Veterans Day (11/11/16), I birded with Hinde in the morning and on the way home from Needle Rock Recreation Area along the Verde River, we stopped to see if we could locate a rare GOLDEN-CROWNED SPARROW, recently reported at the same location and spot that it visited last year at Phon D. Sutton Recreation Area long the Lower Salt River near the parking lot. And, there it was!  In basic plumage, its golden crown is not as bright as it is in breeding plumage.

November 11, 2016
Golden-crowned Sparrow [two above photos]

By Monday, there had been a report of a bird I really like - RED-BREASTED SAPSUCKER. A male, it returned to its same tree as last year in Scottsdale Ranch Park. Although I saw it last year, it’s not an everyday bird, so I wanted to visit with it again.

Red-breasted Sapsucker 11/14/16  [two above photos]

That evening, from my front porch, I was able to snap a photo of the Super Moon as it rose over the Superstition Mountains. 

November 14th is a memorable day for me since I gave birth to my first child, David, while living in Japan in the early 1960s. (Johnson Air Base, so he's a USA citizen)


Thursday, November 17th - LIFE-BIRD-DAY
After seeing the Golden-crowned Sparrow and Red-breasted Sapsucker that had been Lifers for me when I saw them in 2015, I was thrilled to hear of a potential new Life Bird at Veterans Oasis Park in Chandler, about a 30-minute drive from home. The only draw back was that I had both a morning and early afternoon appointment the day after it was first reported, so instead of arriving at sunrise, I didn’t get there until early afternoon.

Not a good time for birding (they’ve already foraged all morning and won’t start up again until late afternoon), I did come upon other birders also looking for the GROOVE-BILLED ANI that probably came north from Mexico. After spending over an hour on the trails with Jeff Ritz and his mother; Laura Ellis arrived and joined us for another go-round on the trails for an equal amount of time. (Jeff’s Mom eventually went off to wait for Jeff). 

Range maps in birding field guides for the Groove-billed Ani do not show it coming into Arizona. The last time the tropical GROOVE-BILLED ANI had been seen in Arizona was in 2012 at Sweetwater Wetlands in Tucson and, before that, in 2005 at Gilbert Water Ranch, so I had no intention of leaving without giving my all to find it.

Later in the afternoon, the three of us were thrilled to see top-birder Tommy Debardeleben who had just arrived to search for the rarity. He was soon joined by buddies, Mark Ochs and Tyler Loomis with whom we all walked the trails (again!). With six of us looking for this big but stealthy bird, how could we miss it???  Again, I walked more miles on the same trails and through the empty pond basins finding lots of mud but no Rare Bird.  So, when we stopped to chat to figure out where to look or go next, Tyler said, “What’s that? — It’s our bird!”  Movement within a palo verde tree gave up the big GROOVE-BILLED ANI as it stepped stealthily from one branch to another eating insects while staying camouflaged against the many raptors that circled the park. 

With that, we all tried to get decent photos of this rare tropical long-tailed blackbird with a thick beak having parallel grooves running its length. After five miles of walking many of the same trails, I was thrilled to pieces to get just a few reasonable photos of the GROOVE-BILLED ANI. With two toes forward and two back, it is a member of the Cuckoo family, as is the Greater Roadrunner.

Friday, November 18th: Madera Canyon
After having walked over 5 miles yesterday in search of the Groove-billed Ani, I waited until after commuter rush hour to head south to one of my favorite distant birding spots, Madera Canyon.

To walk Proctor Road beginnng at noontime seemed bizzare; that’s usually when I stop for the day. Most birds were hunkered; I got few photos but I could hear some and managed to accumulate a nice list. Best on that list was BLACK-CAPPED GNATCATCHER that I heard early on but managed to see it only when I returned from the loop trail. Two of them were very vocal with their “mee-ur” calls. Not in breeding plumage, both small gnatcatchers were blue-gray on top with grayish/white underparts. The male did not have its distinctive black cap of springtime. It’s long thin beak and white underside of tail (when closed) confirmed my ID. So, I had both vocal and visual identification of this rare (but continuing Mexican bird). It likes thickets and streams and that’s where I found it— between where Proctor Road crosses the paved trail and Madera Creek.

Black-capped Gnatcatcher

Another awesome sighting at Madera Canyon was at the top of the dead-end road at the Mt. Wrightson trailhead and picnic area. Each time I take visitors to this place, we usually plan a lunch at a certain spot I like. Today, having already eaten, I walked over to just look around. Birding instinct?    Look what I found!

Not a usual sighting at this location, the two AZURE BLUEBIRDS above are Eastern Bluebirds hailing from Mexico. In Arizona, these birds are known as AZURE BLUEBIRDS...and here they were, not in Patagonia much farther south where I can usually find a few, but at the top of Madera Canyon.  
** The entry into eBird was rejected and I was told they were Western Bluebirds. Take a look at your favorite field guide and tell me what you think.
National Geographic 6th Edition: p. 396 shows subspecies fulva (southwestern)
Sibley Field Guide, 2014 p. 433 includes Arizona Bluebird.
Kaufman Field Guide 2000 - uses photos. Compare his Southwest race of Eastern Bluebird to the female photo shown first above. p. 256.
I'm far from expert, so I've changed my eBird listed as requested but I've never taken photos of Western Bluebirds that looked like this.

Saturday, November 19th:  Birding with Chris Rohrer
Early Saturday morning, I met Chris in Green Valley from where we headed south to the deAnza Trail in Tubac to look for the rare Worm-eating Warbler that had been seen by several birders in that area. A brisk 48°F when we entered the trail, we stayed long enough to get warmed up. While we never laid eyes on that rare species, the 39 other species we spotted provided more than ample pleasure.

Next stop was Santa Gertrudis Lane where the "treats" showed up. As we walked into the area, birds were busy with pyracantha and other berries along a thick hedgerow. One that I thought might be a very late-staying MacGillivray's Warbler turned out to be a species of Orange-crowned Warbler I had never heard of, let alone seen.

Orange-crowned Warbler - Oresta species with gray head and long slightly curved bill.
Our expected species of OCWA in Arizona is Lutescens, mostly all dull orange/yellow.
[Photo by Chris Rohrer]
Chris Rohrer, my birding bud for the day in Santa Cruz County

Soon after the excitement of the new-to-me species of Orange-crowned Warbler, we walked to the Santa Cruz River before taking the walking trail.  There we saw a big black bird on the  muddy flat beside the river. When it saw us, it flew up and perched on a limb. Looking only at the tail (and a good reason we're not supposed to bird by color], I thought it was a Zone-tailed Hawk. (I didn't have a good look at the head.) But Chris said, "Nope. It's a Black Hawk!"  Hmmm. He could tell, he said, by its posture.  A juvenile!  Yikes, these young birds still get me every time. Instead of a mature Black Hawk's one wide white band across the tail that is also tipped with white, this bird had several bands down its tail.

Juvenile Common Black Hawk
It was quite distant when I took this photo, but after we got on the walking trail, it seemed to follow us and I was able to get a much closer photo with a front view.

Juvenile Common Black Hawk [two above photos]

Red-tailed hawk

In addition to the Common Black Hawk, we saw a Red-tailed Hawk (above), Chihauhuan Ravens and a female Hepatic Tanager on the Santa Gertrudis trail. It was a beautiful day for a walk and both Chris and I reveled in the fact that the summer heat appeared to be gone.

Chris on the trail
We made several other stops (Rio Rico and Amado Waste Treatment Plant) before heading back to Green Valley where I had parked my car.

Another awesome day of birding with 58 species, some of which were very unexpected.

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