A tyrannulet spotted at Raven’s Nest Sanctuary. Photo by Vince Pinto.

January is generally our coldest month and often promises rain, though with La Nina in full swing, this one may prove to be warmer and drier than historic averages. 

Drab is the word that comes to mind in January. Increasingly fewer plants are green, fall colors are long gone, and spring is but a frail promise. Still, the dead of winter in Arizona’s Sky Islands can be an exciting time for those who watch birds.

Unless you just returned from your most recent trip to Pluto, you’re likely aware that our extraordinary corner of the state is truly a birding Mecca. Avid birders flock here from near and far in hot pursuit of bird species that, by and large, are more typical of Mexico than the rest of the continental U.S. I know, because it’s been my privilege to guide many of them over the years. 

Even species that are locally common, such as Abert’s towhee and pyrrhuloxia – our other cardinal species – often represent “lifers” for birders living in other parts of the U.S. and certainly outside the states. 

A birding trip here in winter, while it misses many of the warm-weather species that make birders salivate, still offers winter rarities.

So far this year, the list of cold weather rarities has been a rich and varied one. I believe this is due to three factors. First, we just had a monumentally wet monsoon, which has literally set the table for birds both common and rare to partake of the resultant feast. More rain produces more plants, hence more seeds, fruits, and insects and ultimately more birds.

Second, our cold season has been anything but, and the warm weather has offered a proxy climate to species that normally winter south of the border. 

Third is the fact that there are more birders looking for rarities these days. Not only is birding a rapidly growing passion for many, but no doubt the Covid pandemic has produced more than a few new fans of the feathered.

We can sort rarities into a few helpful categories. Lingerers represent the individuals of Sky Island species that normally migrate away for winter. Northern beardless tyrannulet – a diminutive flycatcher that looks like a vireo – is one such species. Its distinctive downward piping call is a dead giveaway, though catching a good look at this frenetic forager can be challenging indeed. 

Strays are birds not normally expected in our region every year. A Hermann’s gull from its normal west coast/Sea of Cortez range is a good example of this category. 

Finally, we have misplaced migrants, species that normally give Arizona a pass. Several eastern warbler species, such as black and white warbler, fall into this category.

A fourth designation could well be mountain migrants, which are species normally found at higher altitudes than where they are recorded in winter. An errant Stellar’s jay in Tucson fits the bill.

All that said, here are some of the current rarities at press time. A black-throated green warbler was in Tucson near the Santa Cruz River, where remnant riparian habitat may well mimic its normal digs. A red-shouldered hawk was seen patrolling the Tucson Country Club in December, straying either from the east or the west coast population. Both winter and pacific wrens – formerly one and the same species until they were split years ago – were near the outskirts of Tucson. All of these species aptly demonstrate the vital importance of preserving habitat in urban areas. Without these remnants it’s unlikely any of them would surface.

In Patagonia a rose-throated becard – a hyper-rarity in the U.S. – was found in a number of places around town. It was joined by a red-breasted sapsucker, a handsome woodpecker species from the west coast region. 

Out at Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area in Cochise County, a clay-colored sparrow was spotted. A ruddy ground dove, a species that breeds just over the border, also was at Whitewater along with the usual blitzkrieg of sandhill cranes and waterfowl. 

The Tubac and Tumacacori area hosted green kingfisher, eastern phoebe, and gray catbird. The kingfisher is a perennially rare breeder and winterer here. The phoebe is, as the name suggests, a stray from the east, while the catbird is mostly eastern in distribution despite a small breeding population in east-central Arizona. 

Rufous-backed robins almost annually winter sparsely hereabouts, migrating north from their Sierra Madrean breeding stronghold. Look for them in trees and shrubs with fruit. The list goes on…

I’ll end with two of my favorite winter rarities. One is present only certain years in Arizona and makes a west-east migration to get here from California – Lawrence’s goldfinch. It is a handsome species that I keep finding this winter, including at our 42-acre Raven’s Nest Nature Sanctuary, and which to my eyes has actually been at least as common as the normally more frequent lesser goldfinch. 

Hepatic tanager vacates most of the U.S. in winter, but Madera Canyon and the Patagonia Mountains are both good places to find these striking birds. So too with painted redstart, a winsome warbler. 

Yes, that was three species, but I am a birder after all!

Vincent Pinto & his wife, Claudia Campos run RAVENS-WAY WILD JOURNEYS LLC, their Nature Adventure and Conservation organization – devoted to protecting and promoting the unique biodiversity of Sky Islands region. RWWJ offers a wide variety of private, custom-made courses including Birding and Biodiversity Tours. Visit: www.ravensnatureschool.com