Every year a cavalcade of birders from all over the world flock with great excitement to our little corner of paradise to “chase rarities.” Amidst our unique Sky Islands and its legendary myriad of bird species, a few hyper-rare are found every year that stand out from the avian crowd. These bird species are either at the extreme edge of their normal range, perhaps blown off course by the wind far away from their normal range or driven to fly here by some inexplicable impulse. Regardless of the reason why they are here, they understandably attract an inordinate amount of attention from salivating birders.
We begin our “Chasing Rarities” journey with a species that arguably constitutes one of the Holy Grails of U.S. birding – the five-striped sparrow. Our Sky Islands host the most sparrow species on Earth, so one might think that this species is just another drab face among the crowd. Not so! Having first been recorded in the U.S./Arizona in 1957 – rather late in the ornithological game – this species remains rare. Each year it’s recorded at just a handful of sites in Santa Cruz and Pima Counties. Though highly reclusive and inhabiting remote, steep, and brushy canyons, the five-striped sparrow has an unmistakable blend of colors and patterns. The belly is slate gray, the back a dull rufous, and the face boldly patterned with, yes, five white, black and gray stripes.
Our next target species emanates straight from hell – at least in name. The Lucifer hummingbird is so dubbed because of its flaming purple gorget. The iridescent throat of the male “burns” brighter than in most species, as it is about twice as large as that of
other local species. Combined with a devilish curve to its bill, these two traits make the male unmistakable.
Most Lucifers are spotted at area hummingbird feeders. This little jewel prefers arid foothills with ocotillos and agaves – both seasonal nectar sources for them. The curved bill likely affords them access to flowers that straighter-billed hummingbird species would have difficulty reaching. I have to admit that they skunked me so badly at first that I dubbed this species the “elusifer”hummingbird for a while!
Rose-throated becards have been variously thrilling and frustrating birders since they were first discovered in Arizona in 1888. After that sighting in the Huachuca Mountains, they disappeared until 1947. It was then they began nesting intermittently along Sonoita Creek near Patagonia. Lately their U.S. stronghold has been along the Santa Cruz River by Tubac and Tumacacori where they have nested and even wintered.
Once placed among the New World flycatchers, rose-throated becards are now placed in the same family as the tropical Tityras. Becards build a huge nest that looks like flood debris, albeit at a height that even the most audacious flood will never reach. There, the
adults raise their young cooperatively, bringing them various insects and the invertebrates upon which to sup.
The last of our rare quartet of birds is not recorded every year in Arizona, and then normally in winter and early spring. The rufous-backed robin is in the same genus, Turdus, as our familiar American robin with the two species sometimes forming mixed flocks. True to its cousin’s culinary leanings, the rufous-backed robin relishes various fruits that bedeck our winter woods. Key amongst these are netleaf hackberry fruits.
Tubac and vicinity have been the spots to observe this tropical robin in the U.S. Sporting the same basic colors as our American robin, this species also has a rich rufous color that wraps around to its back. Befitting its rare status, this species often furtively skulks in the dense cover of trees, making clear sightings difficult at times.
Despite my ongoing Sky Islands research and explorations as a wildlife biologist, to catch even a glimpse of any of these hyper-rarities amidst our diverse ecosystems requires patience, skill, and a large helping of luck.
Hosting Birding & Biodiversity Tours with guests from all over the world since the early 90’s eager to “Chase Rarities” has taught me patience, diligence, and a deep appreciation of the amazing ecological diversity of the region – even when they outwit me!
Vincent Pinto and his wife, Claudia, run RAVENS-WAY WILD JOURNEYS LLC, their Nature Adventure & Conservation organization devoted to protecting and promoting the unique biodiversity of the Sky Islands region. Visit: www.ravensnatureschool.org