Thursday, April 3, 2014

Spring Sapsucker Surprise

Guest post by birder, Tucson Audubon member, supporter, Birdathoner, and volunteer, Brian Nicholas.

I'm a firm believer in omens, especially good ones. As I met Paul Suchanek at our neighborhood lake he had already spotted our first good omen, a Peregrine Falcon sitting on our favorite dead Eucalyptus tree. It was already a great day of birding.

Peregrine Falcon

As we walked around the lake and nearby field it was clear spring migration had begun in earnest, just two days after its heralded beginning. Lucy's Warblers were singing from the mesquites, four varieties of swallows circled the lake, and Lincoln's Sparrows gave short buzzy bursts from the knee-high grassy understory.

Peregrine Falcon digiscoped from 300 feet

My first Black-chinned Hummingbird perched over us in the mesquites, and the soft sounds of White-winged Doves could be heard above the mockingbird's repetitive spring repertoire.

Neotropical Cormorants
Neotropic Cormorant & Northern Shoveler
Large groups of Neotropic Cormorants were also a pleasant surprise. Each group which passed seemed larger than the previous one, the last being 18 individuals. Ebird would be flagging this entry as a high count for sure.

In the first one and a half hour stretch we had seen just under 40 species, a good clip for early migration. I pitched the idea to continue on to our cattail pond, a diverse habitat which could be a warbler trap. This winter a juvenile Yellow-bellied Sapsucker had also taken advantage of the predrilled holes in the Eucalyptus trees along the shoreline. Paul agreed, and both of us hoped we would also see some raptors catching thermals for migration as the heat rose up from the desert floor, what is locally known as the "lift off." We would be disappointed in this area (only a single migrating Turkey Vulture) but our birding efforts would be rewarded.

A medium-sized bird caught our attention as it flew to the uppermost dead snags of the tree before us. It was an American Robin, an uncommon sight in the low desert this late in the season. Two Neotropic Cormorants had also stopped down for a bite, or should I say swallow, as we watched it engulf some sort of sunfish. They both soon departed and we left the pond's shoreline to walk the wash directly behind it. We looked up at the tall budding Eucalyptus before us. There was some fluttering about, but mostly Yellow-rumped Warblers. I thought back to when this tree was a migrant magnet, with tanagers, grosbeaks, warblers, and vireos captivating my senses for hours. Perhaps this could be another such year...

Williamson's Sapsucker-photo property of Paul Suchanek
It was so unassuming as if flew into the loftier reaches of the tree, resting on a upwardly sloping branch. It then became immobile except for it's head, which cocked about slowly and curiously around the loose light bark. Paul and I were both locked onto it with our bins, but neither of us called out its name. We shot each other a puzzled glance. I had the better angle of the mostly hidden bird (and was looking through a scope), and noticed barring on the flanks. A long shot came to mind. "Female Williamson's Sapsucker?" It was more of a question than a statement. The last time it had been recorded in the low desert of Tucson was in 2011, and in 2009 before that. And never this late in the season.

Paul noted other field marks, the yellow on the belly, the relatively unmarked brown head, and we both got looks at the black bib, all differentiating it from not just other sapsuckers but it's closest lookalike, the Gila Woodpecker. It was not only a first for the neighborhood, but a life bird for me as well (1st ever sighting).

As we craned our necks with our cameras to document this unusual gift, I smiled, remembering the special trips I had taken up Mount Lemmon this year, just to see this species. The trips had all been unsuccessful, but had prepared me for this moment, seeing this unique specialty right in our own neighborhood patch. Thank you for appreciating the unique gifts in your neighborhood!

Ebird entries can be found below;
Cattail Pond Birds
Castlerock Birds (excluding Cattail birds)

Images credit to Brian Nicholas unless otherwise noted.

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