Meet Your Riparian Birds
This edition of “Tucson Meet Your Birds” introduces you to some birds of the Santa Cruz River and other local streams. Many resident and nesting birds need the thicker, more varied vegetation that arises along rivers and streams.
The Santa Cruz River starts in the Canelo Hills east of Patagonia, Arizona. It flows south through the high grasslands of the San Rafael Valley, a prodigious birding site. After flowing south from the border about 15 miles—the direction you would expect a river to go—the Santa Cruz abruptly horseshoes back north, crossing the border again just east of Nogales. From there it flows north through the aptly named Santa Cruz Valley, creating great birding opportunities in the area from Rio Rico north through Tubac. The river bed dries going north through Green Valley and the southern part of Tucson.
The river was formerly verdant again from San Xavier through Tucson due to springs and higher groundwater. But as groundwater was pumped out and the river dried out, many bird species suffered declines. Now discharge of treated effluent into the Santa Cruz in Tucson has resulted in a thin, but useful, ribbon of this kind of vegetation—thick shrubs, willows, cottonwoods. so birders still have a chance to see some of these great bird species right in Tucson.
Along with the Santa Cruz River, the species we describe here—and many more—can be seen along Sweetwater Wetlands, Sabino Creek, Tanque Verde Creek, and the Kino Ecological Restoration Project (KERP). Cool April and May mornings are great times to see these birds. Listen for myriad morning songs and enjoy their unique beauty.
For more Santa Cruz River culture and history, read Dry River: Stories of Life, Death and Redemption on the Santa Cruz, by Ken Lamberton.
It’s Not a Christmas Boat Trip, But It Is the Santa Cruz
With spring migration in full flow, birders across North America will be flocking to traditional migration corridors in the hopes of finding their ‘first of season’ warblers, flycatchers and —who knows—maybe a surprise or two. Here in southeast Arizona we’re blessed to have two of the most notable avian super-highways in the Southwest, the San Pedro and Santa Cruz rivers.
This mostly brown bird has a subtle beauty when closely examined. The feathers under the tail are a handsome russet and the black mask over its eyes makes it look like a little bandit. This bird has a very restricted range that lies mostly in Arizona and is found along flowing rivers and vegetated washes. Such suitable riparian habitat has greatly diminished in the last 100 years and as a result, this bird is on the Audubon Watch List.
Most often detected by it loud clear “seep” call note, if you wait quietly they will usually come out into the open. They tend to be in pairs or family groups and are usually on the ground where they forage by jumping forward and scooting back. I call this maneuver the “towhee shuffle” and it is fun to see. With the smallest total distribution of an U.S. bird, Abert’s Towhees are on many birders’ wish list, we are fortunate to have them right here in Tucson!
-Jennie MacFarland, IBA Conservation Biologist
One of my favorite mnemonic devices for birds: “Where’d I put my keys? Oh, I found my keys. Where’d I put my keys? Oh, I found my keys.”
Can you guess which bird? If you are around riparian areas in the springtime in southeast Arizona, or a surveyor for the Important Bird Areas program through Tucson Audubon, you probably know Bell’s Vireo. I’m always able to identify this bird by its “lost and found keys” song. Most likely, and more importantly, identifying this bird means that you are probably in an area where habitat is good for Bell’s Vireo. You might be near water or in a riparian area, especially in our arid region. The Bell’s Vireo qualifies as a Red List species for the American Bird Conservancy, which means its habitat is declining due to urbanization, agriculture, grazing and flood control.
This bird is rather drab in color and field marks, but its song is very distinct. Surprisingly, it is the most yellow in the most eastern part of its range. It breeds in Midwestern to southwestern states, and winters down into Mexico. When you’re out birding this spring, pay attention for the bird “asking about its keys.” When you can catch a glimpse of Bell’s Vireo it’s a special sight, and your finding is notable!
I remember the first time I saw a Common Yellowthroat. I was walking in a park in Los Angeles. There was a ditch with water in it; some kind of urbanized stream or runoff channel. Turf from the park gave way to patches of cattails or bulrushes. There was a flash of yellow and for a moment I saw a small bird with a big, black eye patch. The patch was outlined in white. The rest of the body was bright yellow. I was still pretty new to birding but I had little trouble finding it in the warbler section of the field guide. There is no other bird that looks like the male Common Yellowthroat, at least not in North America.
There is also no bird that sounds like Common Yellowthroat. This is helpful because they often stay inside thick vegetation along the banks of streams and rivers, where they are hard to see. Their wichity-wichity-wichity often leads you to a visual encounter. Their call is a distinctive, drawn-out chit sounding to me like the bird version of a short, defiant “raspberry.” This can be useful for identifying the female, which is a bit duller than the males.
Look for this species at Sweetwater Wetlands or along the Santa Cruz River at places like the Ina Road Bridge, Crossroads Park, or wherever trails along the river allow you to see the vegetation along the water.
Have you ever stumbled upon a Great Egret patiently hunting on a pond in one of Tucson’s urban parks or along the banks of the Santa Cruz river? Suddenly with a quick jab of that large yellow bill, lunch is had.
Great Egrets seem to be able to eat almost anything, wading in shallow water (both fresh and salt) to hunt fish, frogs, aquatic invertebrates (particularly crustaceans), insects, reptiles, other birds, and small mammals. We’ve discovered this at Tucson Audubon’s habitat restoration site in Marana. There is an annual feeding frenzy by the local “wedge” of egrets every spring when lizards first emerge to sun and are speared by the opportunistic birds hunting the fields.
Found on every continent except Antarctica, Great Egrets are in Tucson throughout the year but most likely seen in winter and during migration to and from breeding grounds to the north and in the Midwest. Breeding adults develop lime green facial skin and thin, wispy feather plumes used in courtship displays. Called aigrettes, these plumes were prized for women’s hats in the late nineteenth century, leading to more than 95 percent of this species in North America being killed. A symbol of the resulting conservation effort, the Great Egret became the logo of the National Audubon Society.
-Matt Griffiths, Communications, AZ IBA Program
The ‘Spotty’, is a handsome creature with a unique story. Did you know that the female Spotted Sandpiper takes the lead in establishing and defending territory? Spotted Sandpipers also sometimes employ an unusual breeding strategy called polyandry, where a female mates with several males, each of which then incubates a clutch of eggs and cares for the chicks!
Widespread throughout North America and easily recognized by its distinctive breeding plumage, teetering gait, and snappy wingbeat, the Spotted Sandpiper makes a great ‘entry-level’ shorebird ID. Look for them patrolling the edges of lakes, rivers, and streams, foraging on small invertebrates. In breeding plumage, the Spotted Sandpiper sports a boldly spotted breast and belly and a dark-tipped orange bill. Beware: Spotted Sandpipers are not always spotted! In non-breeding plumage they lack the namesake spots, but not to worry! Perhaps the best ID clue is the birds’ incessant bobbing as if keeping a beat. The Spotted Sandpiper is a common migrant in our area; check the recharge basins at Sweetwater Wetlands, the ponds at Reid Park (or other bodies of fresh water) for solitary birds or pairs.
When you see the beautiful rosy-red plumage of the first male Summer Tanager of the year, you know two things. First: that spring is finally here and second: that you are in high quality cottonwood and willow riparian habitat. This handsome species is closely associated with this habitat in the Southwest and will nest along flowing rivers such as the Santa Cruz. The male is the only all red bird in North America and looks shockingly red, especially against the bright green of a cottonwood tree. The female looks very similar in size and shape but instead of red, she is completely mustard yellow. When you hear their distinctive two-note “pi-tuk” call look up into the canopy and you may see them fly out to capture a juicy cicada to feed to their nestlings.
-Jennie MacFarland, IBA Conservation Biologist