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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.

Meet Your:

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.

santacruzr2It’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.

Read the full story

Riparian Birds

Abert’s Towhee
ABTO_BryanSmithThis 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

Bell’s Vireo
BEVI_JimBurnsOne 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!
-Sara Pike

Common Yellowthroat
COYE_JimBurnsI 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.
-Kendall Kroesen

Great Egret
GREG_JimBurnsHave 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

Spotted Sandpiper
SPSA_MurielNeddermeyerThe ‘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.
-Erin Olmstead

Summer Tanager
SUTA_JimBurnsWhen 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


Tucson Audubon Society
300 E University Blvd. #120 Tucson, AZ 85705

Mason Center
3835 W Hardy Rd.
Tucson, AZ 85742

Paton Center for Hummingbirds
477 Pennsylvania Ave.
Patagonia, AZ 85624
520 415-6447


Tucson Audubon Society
300 E University Blvd. #120
Tucson, AZ 85705

Mason Center
3835 W Hardy Rd.
Tucson, AZ 85742

Paton Center for Hummingbirds
477 Pennsylvania Ave.
Patagonia, AZ 85624
520 415-6447


Tucson Audubon Society
300 E University Blvd. #120
Tucson, AZ 85705

Mason Center
3835 W Hardy Rd.
Tucson, AZ 85742

Paton Center for Hummingbirds
477 Pennsylvania Ave.
Patagonia, AZ 85624
520 415-6447

Michael T. Bogan (he/him)

Michael is an Assistant Professor of Aquatic biology at the University of Arizona. Originally from California, he earned his PhD at Oregon State University, where his research focused on stream ecosystems of the Madrean Sky Islands and Sonoran Desert. He is well-known for his work on Santa Cruz River Heritage Project, and his beautiful photos of dragonflies. His research topics include Arid Lands, Conservation Biology, Invasive Species and Population and Community Ecology.

Michael serves as the faculty advisor for the UA chapter of the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos Hispanics and Native Americans in Science, a national Diversity in STEM organization. Michael is a partner on our Santa Cruz River Heritage Project work and has contributed to the Vermilion Flycatcher in the past year.

Michael has a hard time choosing a single favorite bird, but says that Curve-billed Thrashers are pretty hard to beat. “I could watch them goofing around through the leaf litter and be entertained for days!”


Alberto Búrquez

I currently work at the Instituto de Ecología, Department of Ecology of Biodiversity, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM). I got my bachelor and master’s degree at UNAM, and my PhD at the University of Cambridge, UK. I do research in Ecology, Evolutionary Biology and Ethnoecology. Drylands ecology and societal use of resources in water-limited systems have been an ever-present passion through my life. It might be because I am a Sonoran Desert born person. However, my personal theory is that once someone experiences the desert landscapes they are smitten for life. I am passionate about bird and honorary bird species like bats and hawkmoths, particularly in their mutualist interactions with plants. My current projects include: 1) Columnar cacti: ecology, evolution, societal services. 2) Effects of extreme events on vegetation, 3) Species Distribution and Biogeography, 4) Indigenous lands and ecosystem processes, and 5) drought and freezing resistance in plants at the edges of distribution.


Jeanne Calhoun

Fascinated by wilderness and everything wild since growing up backpacking with her family in the Sierras, Jeanne pursued a diverse environmental career over the past 30+ years.  With a Bachelor’s in Biology (Carleton College) and a Master’s in Geology (Oregon State University), she pursued multiple aspects of environmental protection, with the last 23 years focused on ecological conservation in Arizona, working for The Nature Conservancy, US Fish & Wildlife Service, and the US National Park Service.  During her ten years at TNC, Jeanne was responsible for on-the-ground conservation in four ecoregions in Arizona, management of TNC’s preserve system, land management and restoration, government relations, and water policy.

Jeanne spent seven years with the USFWS where she oversaw threatened and endangered species issues in southern Arizona. She enjoyed the challenges of dealing with controversial issues such as the international border, proposed mining projects, energy infrastructure, wilderness management and climate change.

Most recently, she worked for Grand Canyon National Park as Chief of the Science and Resource Management Division, where she oversaw all science research as well as natural and cultural resource management activities in the park.  During her years at the Grand Canyon, Jeanne initiated the first Paleontological Resources Inventory for the park, led a Climate Change Analysis for the park’s watershed, reinitiated the effort to designate 94% of the park as Wilderness, and led publication of the Natural and Cultural Resource Condition Assessment for the park.

Recently retired, Jeanne has a passion for water sports, hiking and exploring Arizona’s spectacular landscapes, and is learning how to play the saxophone.


Colleen Cacy

Colleen is a partner with the firm Gadarian and Cacy, PLLC, a Tucson law firm specializing in professional Tax Strategy, Estate Planning and Asset Protection law.

  • J.D. from the University of Kansas School of Law (1986)
  • President of the Board of the Southern Arizona Estate Planning Council
  • Elected member, American College of Trust and Estate Council
  • Memberships: Executive Committee of the Probate and Trust Section of the State Bar, the State Bar of Arizona, the Probate and Trust and Tax Sections of the State Bar, the American Bar Association, and the Pima County Bar Association.
  • Past President of the Board of ZUZI Dance Company


Richard Carlson

Richard started birding as a child in Minnesota 70 years ago. After a brief interlude at Harvard, where he majored in caving, mountain climbing, winter mountaineering and economics, he began birding again in Washington DC with the Maryland Ornithological Society. He was one of Chan Robbin’s volunteers in establishing the first Breeding Bird Surveys. Bribed by the Nixon administration to leave town with a fellowship to Stanford, he moved West in 1969. He worked at Stanford Research Institute, where he co-authored “Solar Energy in America’s Future” and led field trips for the Santa Clara Valley Audubon Society. He became President of the San Francisco Bay Bird Observatory and expanded his birding to Latin America. He has birded throughout the Neotropics and in Africa, Australia, Antarctica, India, China and Europe. He hopes to ultimately see at least half the birds of the world. He and his wife Pat now migrate between homes in Tucson and Lake Tahoe depending on where the birds are.


Tricia Gerrodette

Tricia never wound up with a career but instead had a variety of jobs and life experiences. She's been a bookkeeper, a typist, a proofreader and then a test analyst for a defense contracting company. She was a tour guide for trips into Mexico's Copper Canyon for Elderhostel (now Road Scholar). The trips focused on Mexican and railroad history as well as the history and culture of the Rarámuri (Tarahumara) natives.

Secretary of the board for Tucson Audubon, member of the board for Friends of the San Pedro River, president of the now-defunct Huachuca Audubon Society, treasurer for Sky Island Unitarian Universalist Church, Water Sentinel with Sierra Club Water Sentinels, Steering Committee for Sustainable Water Workgroup.

When Huachuca Audubon Society disbanded in May 2016, Cochise County became part of the "assigned" territory for Tucson Audubon Society. That was a huge amount of land, although not too many people, to absorb. I was invited to be on the Tucson Audubon board to help with that effort, and to help protect the San Pedro River. That work still continues! Photo by Mark Levy.

Kathy Jacobs

Kathy Jacobs is a professor of Environmental Science at the University of Arizona and Director of the Center for Climate Adaptation Science and Solutions (CCASS). CCASS is a component of the Arizona Institutes for Resilience, and builds capacity to accelerate adaptation and on-the-ground solutions to climate issues.  She is currently a member of a team that is building the Indigenous Resilience Center at the UA.  From 2010 – 2013, Jacobs worked in the Office of Science and Technology Policy in the White House. She was director of the Third National Climate Assessment, and the lead advisor on water science, policy, and adaptation. From 2006-2009 Jacobs was Executive Director of th

e Arizona Water Institute, a consortium of Arizona’s three universities focused on water sustainability. She worked 23 years for the Arizona

Department of Water Resources, including 15 as the director of the Tucson Active Management Area.  She was engaged in multiple aspects of implementing Arizona’s Groundwater Management Act, including development of water conservation programs and the Assured Water Supply Rules.  Jacobs has served on nine National Academy panels; she earned her M.L.A. in environmental planning from Berkeley.


Elisabeth (Lissie) Jaquette

Elisabeth (Lissie) Jaquette had been an occasional birder prior to moving to Arizona in 2018. Since connecting with Tucson Audubon, she has become increasingly passionate about birding, and is excited to give back by serving on the board. Lissie first became involved with Tucson Audubon by participating in the Habitat at Home program, then by joining as a member, and more recently by volunteering with the Southeast Arizona Birding Festival, the Birdathon, and several bird surveys.

Lissie’s education includes a BA from Swarthmore College and an MA from Columbia University. Since 2017 she has served as Executive Director for the American Literary Translators Association, a non-profit membership organization.

When Lissie is not birding, she enjoys hiking and trail running in the Sonoran Desert, and translating literature from Arabic to English (her latest book was a finalist for the 2020 National Book Awards). She lives in Tucson with her 1-year-old son, Cassin (named for the kingbird); dog, Cooper (named for the hawk); and husband, Dan (sadly not named for any birds).


Riana Johnson

Riana Johnson is a skilled researcher with experience in quantitative, qualitative, and data visualization within the energy efficiency and utility industry. She brings creativity along with strong data analysis skills to her work. She uses her background in fine art and econometrics to deftly craft data visualizations and tell data-driven stories. Riana is a new birder and loves living in Tucson where the Vermillion Flycatchers are plenty. She recently started a chapter of the Feminist Bird Club in Tucson where she can mix her passion for activism, art, and birds. Riana has degrees in Political Science and Studio Art from New York University and a Masters of Public Policy from the University of Arizona.


Linda McNulty

Linda McNultyLinda’s education includes a Bachelor of Science in Nursing from the University of Rochester, and a Juris Doctorate from the University of Arizona, where she graduated Summa cum Laude and was elected to the Order of the Coif. A recently retired partner at the law firm of Lewis and Roca, LLP, Linda was a member of the firm’s Real Estate and Finance practice group. Her law practice focused primarily on commercial real estate, business and natural resources law. Linda has served a number of board roles, including: President of the Tucson chapter of Commercial Real Estate Women (CREW) and member to the board of directors of the Pima County Sports and Tourism Authority, the Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest, and the Wilderness Land Trust. Early in her career, Linda worked for the Arizona Department of Water Resources and she’s maintained a connection to water policy issues in Arizona. Linda has been a member of Tucson Audubon Society since 1976 and lives with her husband Michael in Tucson.


R. Cynthia Pruett

Cynthia-Pruitt-with-raffle-tickets-by-Kendall-KroesenFor a long period I was what you might call a "lapsed birder". I started birding in college with a boyfriend who became my husband and we traveled all over the United States while he was in the service; leading to a pretty comprehensive bird list. Then suddenly, other life activity got in the way and for about 25 years birding was shelved. In the late 80's I was introduced to an avid woman birder at an environmental conference and the passion came back. My work career involved many executive jobs, some of them key environmental positions, which only reinforced my understanding of the need to protect important habitat around the world. It's (the birding) led to many trips to many countries, a joy of seeing both new and revisited birds and of course, to becoming active in Audubon chapters, both here and in Virginia.


Cynthia M. VerDuin, CPA

Cynthia began birding when she was 10 by participating with her girl scout troop create a bird-watching badge. In the 90’s she began birding with family, friends and with bird walks in various Ohio regions. Since 2010, she has enjoyed Tucson Audubon bird walks and short trips. Beginning in 2016, she has participated in the Birding Festival, serving as a volunteer in 2017-2019 and at Meet your Birds events. She served on the Gala and Finance committees in 2016-2017, and joined the board in 2018. She now serves as Treasurer and Search Committee co-chair.

Cynthia founded her accounting firm in 2007, focusing on not-for-profits, small companies and individuals, providing accounting, tax planning and reporting services, calling upon her Kent State University (BA degree in accounting with honors) and her experience at one of the “Big Eight” accounting firms (Arthur Andersen). Cynthia is also a Physical Therapist and commercial hot air balloon pilot, and enjoys hiking, birding, biking and swimming.