As a wildlife biologist and professional bird guide, I look forward with great anticipation to the month of April. This is one of the best months of the year to seek a broad diversity of bird species in an equally dazzling array of local habitats. It is now that many neotropical migrants join our wintering and resident species in a veritable onslaught of birds. Traveling by day and/or night, various birds make their way to southeast Arizona which serves as either an important way station or as their breeding destination. Here I proffer a small taste of our avian array, hopefully whetting your appetite for observing some of our unique bird species.
Our Madrean archipelago boasts some of the highest levels of biodiversity for our latitudes, which mark the transition from the temperate to the subtropical realm. The towering ranges that constitute our forested islands harbor many habitats that complement our lowland plant communities. Thus, an idealized ecological trip from a low valley to the tallest of our mountains encompasses the following habitats, (going from low to high): Sonoran or Chihuahuan desert, grasslands, chaparral, Madrean evergreen woodland (oaks, junipers, and pines in particular), montane coniferous forest, spruce-fir forest, and montane meadows. We are indeed very fortunate to host a truly impressive spectrum of local bird habitats.
One of the most iconic of our desert species in the Costa’s hummingbird. This is among our smallest hummers and the most common breeder in our arid habitats. It mostly migrates locally in winter, eschewing colder climes in favor of the warmest nearby desert habitats. With a purple gorget – the iridescent throat patch found in most hummingbirds – that extravagantly spills onto its cheeks like Darwinian muttonchops, this species is certainly unmistakable. The courtship flight display of the male likewise gives pause for thought, as the sound produced by the U-shaped dive resonates in your head like a bout of tinnitus. Feathers, not vocalizations, produce this sound. Instead of checking your ears, look skyward and see if you can somehow pull this mere pygmy of a bird literally out of thin air.
Grasslands species include the Botteri’s sparrow. Amidst a local sea of other sparrows – our region has the most species on earth – Botteri’s stands out owing to its eclectic, bouncing song, often offered in response to monsoonal rains. Though some winter locally, others likely migrate back and forth between their breeding and wintering grounds. Healthy native grasslands are the realm of this long-tailed, large, and mostly reclusive sparrow.
Bushtits migrate mostly locally and are a highly acrobatic species, which serves them well in the dense shrubbery of our chaparral. There they deftly maneuver from perch to perch, while assaulting various tiny insects that comprise the bulk of their diet. Watching a flock of this highly social species is akin to witnessing an avian kaleidoscope, so dazzling and complex are their collective movements.
Continuing up our elevation habitat ladder, look for sulphur-bellied flycatchers in our Madrean evergreen woodlands, particularly near stream-side forests. There this brightly colored species seeks many of the same nesting holes as the famous elegant trogon. Biologists have witnessed fierce fights over the tree cavities that each species employs for breeding. Listen for the distinctive “squeaky doll” call of this acrobatic, insectivorous species.
Combining our high elevation habitats under the convenient umbrella of coniferous forests, we arrive at the tops of our highest mountains – the home of the elusive short-tailed hawk.
This neotropical species barely enters our area, mostly in the Huachuca and Chiricahua Mountains. Until a few years ago, birders had to venture to peninsular Florida to enjoy this species in the U.S. In the 1980’s, short-tailed hawks began to visit and breed in southeast Arizona. This small buteo strafes our dense coniferous forests in search of mostly avian prey, such as woodpeckers and jays, making its diet more like that of a Cooper’s hawk than most other local buteos.
Vincent Pinto and his wife, Claudia, run RAVENS-WAY WILD JOURNEYS, their Nature Adventure & Conservation organization devoted to protecting the unique biodiversity of the Sky Islands region. Visit: www.ravensnatureschool.org