Arizona birding includes rare rufous-backed robin

Arizona birding includes rare rufous-backed robin

This is the first time we have stayed in the Tucson area in March. I have always wanted to see what kinds of changes happen here as spring migration gets started. Lots of the Southern Arizona nesting birds don’t get back to the area until late April or even mid-to-late May. However, there are birds showing up in March that were not here during January and February.

One of the first things I noticed in early March was a large increase in the number of sparrows at Canoa Ranch, the park near Green Valley we visit several times every week. There were literally hundreds of white-crowned and Brewer’s sparrows coming to the water in the newly constructed wetland. Some of the other sparrows seemed to have already left. Most of the ducks are gone, although a small group of cinnamon teal are staying around for the time being.

A mockingbird is now on territory, singing from the same small grove of trees every day. While we saw many Lawrence’s goldfinches all winter, they seem to be absent recently.

At Madera Canyon the rufous-backed robin that was around for several weeks may be gone. I was fortunate to see it several times. The pyracantha bush that has hosted many thrushes and other birds over the years has been totally stripped of the red berries that drew the birds. Further east in the Chiricahuas, the first elegant trogons and several new hummingbirds have been showing up.

We spent several days in Phoenix visiting with family but also did some birding at Gilbert Water Ranch. We saw about 50 species of birds including lots of avocets and black-necked stilts. We missed the white pelican and roseate spoonbill that have been hanging around recently. We also saw our first black-chinned hummingbirds that morning.

The most exciting thing has been the raptor migration along the Santa Cruz River corridor from Nogales, along the Mexican border north through Tubac, and points further north. In mid-March there is a raptor watch at a park in Tubac. I was there on March 15, and there were about 100 other birders in the park, many of them from other states.

I got there early, around 8:30 a.m., and it wasn’t until about an hour later that the first common black hawks began showing up. These hawks roost in the large cottonwood trees along river valleys, so we had excellent looks at them as they circled overhead. A beautiful zone-tailed hawk also put on a show over the park. Later we saw two gray hawks, a species that also nests in the riparian woodland. The daily counts of common black hawks grew from 15 to as high as 70 per day, over a period of about a week.

I did some sky-watching at Canoa Ranch. One morning from 10:30 a.m. until 11 a.m., I was kept busy scanning the sky for raptors. A total of six common black hawks came over, as well as a golden eagle and a peregrine falcon. At one point a kettle of 31 turkey vultures sailed over the park, and a total of 55 passed during the 30 minutes.

More recently, we were up at Madera Canyon, late in the afternoon, and were surprised to find a zone-tailed hawk soaring overhead with eight turkey vultures. As it got dark in the canyon, I heard a whiskered screech owl and a common poorwill at a lower elevation.

I think we will try to be here in March next year, and staying through April would be even more exciting.

Good birding.

Bruce Glick can be emailed at

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