Thursday, November 21, 2013


I didn't think to check the forecast before flying to Arizona yesterday. It's always hot there, right? Wrong! Driving highway 17 north towards Flagstaff, the mercury dipped below freezing. I'd be needing my hat and gloves for this bird - a renowned skulker that could take hours of standing around and waiting. In the cold. Yes, my gloves - I did bring them, right?

Word came in on Tuesday of a pair of Rufous-backed Robins at the Cameron Trading Post in northern Arizona. Not only was the number unusual (they're usually singles) but also the location - while they're rare in southeast Arizona, they're extremely rare this far north. Rufuous-backed Robins live in Mexico, and annually cross the border into the US - in very small numbers. This was a bird I was hoping for (one of the more expected winter rarities) but one that's often so secretive and shy, that it's hard to successfully chase.

And so my recovery from driving the many miles of Canada at the weekend lasted only 2 nights. Not risking any delay, I flew out to Arizona the morning after the report and pulled into the Trading Post mid-afternoon, less than 24 hours after the birds were first seen.

Cameron Trading Post, AZ. Cold and overcast.

There were no birders in sight - just straggles of tourists, here to buy Native American arts and presumably to warm up.

The birds had been in a small flock with American Robins - in the east side of a courtyard. It didn't take long to locate the courtyard...

or the Robins...
American Robin - what a beauty! 
(Technically a Thrush, not a Robin, but probably too late to change that now...)

And as I was settling in for the long wait (which, with only 2 hours to sunset, wouldn't be that long) I saw movement in the Russian olive against the perimeter wall. It was a thrush - with a rufous back!

 Rufous-backed Robin (also technically a Thrush!)

And then, remarkably, the bird hopped down onto the lawn and into the open. I had amazing views of a normally very reclusive bird...

Rufous-backed Robin. Lacks the white eye-arcs of the American Robin, 
has more streaking under the chin, and an obvious rufous back.

I watched this bird for 5 minutes. It was nervous and cautious and I felt privileged that it trusted me while it went about its important business (tossing leaves aside.) A really stunning bird! I hardly noticed the cold (and no - I didn't bring my gloves!)

I drove to Phoenix last night after seeing the Robins, ahead of a threatening snow storm. I was up early today, ready to track down my last code 1 bird of the year - Sagebrush Sparrow. The ABA assigns each North American bird a code based on how populous they are. Code 1s are the most common; code 5 the least. (Well - code 6 is technically even less common: that code is reserved for extinct or locally extirpated birds.) 

I arrived at the "Thrasher Spot" as the sun was rising. An hour southwest of Phoenix, in Buckeye, the sage and creosote habitat is a popular place to find desert birds. 

The "Thrasher Spot" - Buckeye, AZ.

In fact - I was here in January this year, and undoubtedly saw Sagebrush Sparrow then. But that was before Sage Sparrow was split into Bell's and Sagebrush - and since both species winter here (Bell's are vastly outnumbered by Sagebrush) I had to come back to make sure I saw the right one. (I saw Bell's in San Diego back in October.)

The desert - sage and (distant) creosote.

This is such a beautiful area to wander around (and hopefully not get lost.) Despite the arid conditions, the place is full of life. It wasn't long before I saw a thrasher run across the sandy desert floor, from one sage bush to another. A Bendire's Thrasher...

Bendire's Thrasher - pale undertail coverts, orange eye and short curved bill. well as a stunningly pale Le Conte's Thrasher - that was too fast for me to (photographically) catch.

And then the sparrows started appearing - running around like little thrashers. Occasionally I'd see one dart across the ground out of the corner of my eye. And then they'd call - a thin, high-pitched "tseet" from some impenetrable sage bush. And even more rarely, they'd sit atop the sage and survey the surroundings. Apart from one Bell's Sparrow (the Mojave subspecies - canescens), which a thick dark malar stripe, these guys were all Sagebrush Sparrows...
Sagebrush Sparrow. Thin, pale malar stripe, and extensive streaking on the back.
Compare to the nominate race of Bell's Sparrow.

Nibbling on the sage. Not the strongly streaked back.

And after successfully finding my way back to the road, I headed to the airport. I was on my way home after a very successful trip to Arizona: two new birds!  

 Say's Phoebe - always a fun bird to see in AZ
+ + +

BIG YEAR LIST: 736 + 2 provisional (Rufous-necked Wood-rail, Common Redstart)

NEW YEAR BIRDS (2): Rufous-backed Robin, Sagebrush Sparrow

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