Monday, January 27, 2014

Finding Rare Birds in Arizona

Guest post by Bob Bowers

Because Storm Chasers get lots of publicity on television, most of us are familiar with these daredevils that grab their video recorders, hop in their cars and head for the center of weather-related calamities like tornadoes and hurricanes.  One of the foremost of these crazy people is Warren Faidley, who has chased, filmed and survived 25 years of storms, fires, floods, lightning, grapefruit-sized hail and other disasters.  His website even reports he has survived ‘pitchfork-yielding farmers’.  They probably mean ‘pitchfork-wielding farmers’, but we get it.  Less well-known, but undoubtedly more common is a group that could be called Rare Bird Chasers.  Farmers with pitchforks is a conceivable hazard for bird chasers, but overall this is a much safer hobby than chasing tornadoes, and, besides, it’s hard to find birds in a hurricane.

The most significant publicity for bird chasing probably was the 2011 movie, ‘The Big Year’.  The movie is a fictionalized version of the 1998 ‘Big Year’ described by Mark Obmascik in a book with the same name, about three obsessed birders and their attempts to record the most species of birds north of Mexico in a single year.  The book (and the movie) opens on January 1, 1998, with Sandy Komito having a pre-dawn cup of coffee in a restaurant in Nogales, Arizona.  As dedicated as any storm chaser, he has just flown 2,400 miles from his home in New Jersey to find birds, and he launched his year in Arizona because in the prior week Arizona had reported more rare birds than anywhere else on the continent.  One bird in particular drew him to Lake Patagonia, a bird that had last appeared in the U.S. during Truman’s presidency, the Nutting’s Flycatcher.  A decade passed before this bird was seen again in Arizona, but it is now reported fairly regularly at Bill Williams River National Wildlife Refuge near Lake Havasu, and spring nesting birds have been confirmed.

Nutting's Flycatcher by Bob Bowers

On November 6 of this year, Prudy and I were surprised (and shocked) to find a young male Calliope Hummingbird at one of our feeders.  Although we have seen many Calliope Hummingbirds in Colorado in July, as they pass through on their migration back to Mexico, and have spotted similarly migrating Calliopes in Greer in August, we had never seen one anywhere close to SaddleBrooke.  The Tucson Audubon Society’s ‘Finding Birds in Southeast Arizona’ shows the Calliope as an uncommon migrant in late summer in Arizona, but only as a rare or accidental bird in November, making this addition to our yard list and SaddleBrooke’s bird list particularly special.

Calliope Hummingbird by Bob Bowers

Rufous-backed Robin by Bob Bowers

The Arizona-New Mexico List Serve regularly summarizes rare bird reports for the two states, and confirming photographs are often posted on the web site for AZFO, the Arizona Field Ornithologists.  Some of these postings reflect birds that are rare for a particular location or time of the year, while others are remarkable for being noted anywhere or anytime in Arizona.  Rufous-backed Robins used to be quite rare in Arizona, but now are routinely reported.  On New Year’s Day, 2008, we joined about 100 other birders to look at one in Catalina State Park, but they have now been reported in nearly every month of the year.  Other rarities that are currently being reported on the List Serve include Eastern Phoebe, Sinaloa Wren, Black-capped Gnatcatcher, Rufous-capped Warbler, Painted Bunting and Plain-capped Starthroat. Other rare birds that have been seen not long ago include Blue Jay and Scissor-tailed Flycatcher.  Most of our rare birds wander north from Mexico or from distant states, but in December, 2012, a birder with a sharp eye at Gilbert Water Ranch discovered a bird that was a LONG way from home.  This bird, which drew hundreds of bird chasers from all over the country, was a Baikal Teal from Siberia, and he stayed around until December 11.  Who knows what might be reported this month?  Keep your eyes open and your camera handy.  You might get lucky and experience the same rush Sandy Komito felt when he saw that Nutting’s Flycatcher at Patagonia Lake.  And you don’t have to risk grapefruit-sized hail in the process.

(This article originally appeared in the Saddlebag Notes newspaper in December 2013.)

Check Tucson Audubon's Rare Bird Alert or the Arizona/New Mexico Birding News for all the latest interesting bird sightings in the region.

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