Meet Your Southeast Arizona Specialty Birds
Rick Taylor | Borderland Tours
When I was a kid growing up in Tucson, summer vacations meant raggedy cut-off jeans, white cotton tees, and tennies without socks. The skimpy street attire my pals and I favored was designed to give us more time outdoors practicing on our skateboards. Skin damage—and skin cancer—were concepts over a decade away.
Eventually the sun always won and we retreated indoors to evaporative cooling and our reading—no digital universe in those days. My favorite writer was Weldon Heald. Heald penned a series of articles published by Arizona Highways about his adventures in the Chiricahua Mountains (ultimately collected in 1967 under the title of “Sky Island”) in which he chronicled his jaunts up the so-called “climate ladder.” Leaving the valley floor below Portal where summertime temperatures frequently exceeded 100 degrees, he ascended cave creek to a mountain meadow surrounded by pines and firs called Rustler Park. Still not satisfied, Heald hiked out on the Crest Trail to Chiricahua Peak. Here, among aspen glades and the southernmost Engelmann spruce in North America, the temperatures dropped to the mid-70s.
Vicariously I could smell the sweet mold in the leaf litter on the shady, north-facing slopes and the aromatic air where the trail meandered through tall stands of Ponderosa pine. From June through August, Weldon Heald created many of my daydreams. he was the master of the climate ladder.
That was over forty years ago, but Heald’s image of the Southeastern Arizona border ranges as mountain islands surrounded by a sea of desert still holds true today. rainfall increases about 4 inches per 1000 feet because cool air cannot hold moisture as well as warm air, and is the same as moving north in latitude approximately 300 miles. The vegetation changes from creosote desert to spruce forest over the 5,000 feet of elevation spread separating Portal from Chiricahua Peak are the same one would encounter driving 1500 miles north into Canada.
And—of course—the birds change too. Cactus Wrens give way to Golden-crowned Kinglets, and Verdins morph into Red-faced Warblers. This rich panoply of habitats, from saguaro cactus to Madrean pine-oak woodland and boreal forests of spruce and fir, gives southeast Arizona its concentration of “specialty birds.” Just as boys—and girls—need fantasy to escape the heat, this edition of Tucson Meet Your Birds introduces you to some of our neighbors that use the Sky islands to survive the summer in Southeastern Arizona.
Many American birders regard the male Elegant Trogon as the most beautiful bird north of the international boundary. Almost a foot-long with an iridescent green back and scarlet red breast, the multihued male trogon exhibits a yellow bill, an orange eye-ring, immaculate white breast band, dove gray wings, and a black-and-white laddered undertail. Females are fractionally larger than the males. Overall the olive-hued upperparts are a neutral grayish-brown, but she shows a dramatic white “teardrop” behind the eye, a coffee latte-colored vest, and a watermelon pink lower belly. The underside of her tail is more heavily barred than the male’s, and the top is a brilliant plane of beaten copper that gave rise to the former species name: Coppery-tailed Trogon.
Add rarity to the charisma of the Elegant Trogon. With a range that extends as far south as Costa Rica, a 2013 census revealed that only approximately 100 adult trogons summer in the United States, all in the border mountains of Southeastern Arizona. Furthermore, trogons occupy canyons hosting the greatest avian species diversity of any habitat within the whole of the U.S. Social scientists at the University of Arizona have estimated that over 25,000 birders come to Arizona annually to enjoy our unique avifauna. Undoubtedly the foremost symbol of that community is the rare and beautiful Elegant Trogon.
-Rick Taylor, Borderland Tours
Sometimes a bird’s name can be a bit baffling once you become more experienced with the bird itself. For instance the ring on a Ring-necked Duck can be very hard to see and Turkey Vultures don’t look all that much like Turkeys. The Elf Owl certainly does not have this problem! Everything about this tiny predator of insects is reminiscent of an elfin creature. Their miniscule size of 5 to 6 inches in length makes them the smallest owl in the world and their startlingly loud call sounds like ethereal laughter. This bird certainly lives up to its name. With a breeding range in the U.S. restricted to the southern half of Arizona and portions of New Mexico and western Texas, it is no wonder why this bird is featured on the logo for the Tucson Bird and Wildlife Festival.
Many of us in Tucson associate this bird with saguaros and indeed they do often use cavities created by woodpeckers in these giant cacti as nest sites. During late April through July their call can be heard throughout the deserts surrounding Tucson but they can also be found at higher elevations as well. They will also use woodpecker holes in Arizona sycamores, various oaks and even pines in SE Arizona’s Sky Islands. Next time you find yourself in suitable habitat as night begins to fall, be sure to listen for this amazing little bird.
-Jennie MacFarland, IBA Conservation Biologist
Birders in southeast Arizona are lucky to have one of the most striking and rarest breeding sparrows in the U.S. The Five-striped Sparrow is a mostly Mexican species whose range barely extends into Arizona just south of Tucson. It can be the bane of birdwatchers (including myself!) who choose to locate them “out of season” when they are very secretive. Once the summer rains start, nearly inaccessible mesquite and hackberry-filled mountain canyons come alive with this sparrow’s song. Only an estimated 75–100 individuals inhabit places such as California Gulch and Montosa Canyon (the two well-known Five-striped locations), making them hard to find even at their most conspicuous!
So why even try to see a Five-striped Sparrow? Well, because they are a beautiful bird with five white stripes around the face, bold triangular black “whiskers” and a rich, rusty back. First found in Arizona in 1957, birders now come from everywhere to catch a glimpse of this species. Most hear the bird before seeing it, and luckily Five-striped Sparrows are not shy about showing off their large vocal repertoire that may contain up to 200 different songs!
-Matt Griffiths, Communications, Habitat Restoration, AZ IBA Program
A regular at our Mason Center water feature, Gilded Flicker is one of Tucson’s Most Wanted (Specialty Birds). Have you seen this handsome woodpecker and the golden flash of its wing feather shafts?
Once lumped with look-alike Northern Flicker (which is widespread throughout North America and comes in Red-shafted and Yellow-shafted forms), Gilded Flicker is found from extreme southeast California and Baja California, southeast Nevada, through central Arizona to northwest Mexico. Found singly or in pairs, it frequently forages on the ground for ants and other insects, and also eats fruits and berries.
Closely associated with cactus and yucca plants, this cavity nester/master carpenter is a keystone species of the Sonoran Desert, creating crucial nest holes used by other birds and small mammals. Gilded Flicker uses its strong bill to excavate deep holes toward the top of saguaro arms. The saguaro responds by secreting a sap that hardens into a bark-like shell, defending against water loss, and creating a waterproof lining inside the cavity. This hardened structure, known as a ‘saguaro boot’, was historically used by the desert-dwelling Seri people to carry water.
-Erin Olmstead, Former Development Manager
I knew the first time I saw a Harris’s Hawk that this was a remarkable bird. I was immediately impressed with the richness of its color. According to color psychology, brown is a serious, down-to-earth color signifying structure and support. What better terms to describe such a beautiful creature, and even more so knowing the nature of this bird’s way of life?
Harris’s Hawks most often nest and cooperatively hunt within a social unit of a small number of birds. This unit typically consists of an alpha female (who may sometimes breed with two males), or a main breeding pair, and a few other non-breeding adults. All adults care for the young. Eventually young may grow up to care for additional broods. These hawks are unique among raptors for hunting in family groups and are only one of two types of hawks in the world that hunt in this fashion. By hunting in groups, they are able to take down larger prey than if hunting on their own. Their style works in such a way where some members of the family group flush out prey and chase it toward other hunters in the group. The structure of the Harris’s Hawk family unit, and the support the birds provide to each other through hunting and raising young, are commendable traits.
-Sara Pike, Associate Director
On first encounter, a Magnificent Hummingbird brings to mind a large butterfly. The relatively slow wing beat, though, is faster than that of the larger Blue-throated Hummingbird, the largest hummingbird in North America.
Of the two races of Magnificent that inhabit a combined range extending from southwestern United States to Panama, Arizona has the smaller northern race (Eugenes fulgens fulgens). Malesare around ten percent larger than females by mostmeasures. However, the females have bills that are around ten percent longer, which would make some nectar sources available to her that the male cannot reach.
The male’s green throat and purple crown sometimes flash in the light but usually the bird appears to be all dark with a white spot behind the eye. The female is much plainer, with a white stripe behind the eye, a noticeably long bill, and mottled gray-green sides. Easy to see at some feeders in Madera Canyon and elsewhere, this species wanders far from its southeast Arizona stronghold. There are regular records from the White Mountains, and northwest along the Mogollon Rim and as far north as Flagstaff. It prefers cool, shaded Madrean pine-oak canyons. While some birds winter locally at feeding stations, most are migratory, appearing in Arizona during early to mid-March.
-Paul Green, Former Executive Director