This past weekend, I finally extended my Arizona birding, outside of Maricopa County for the first time this year. I had the privilege of escorting a couple of serious birders from out-of-state in the quest for some highly desired birds, Jennifer Rycenga and Peggy Macres. I had collaborated with friend, Chris Rohrer, in advance in trying to find a couple of specialty birds that were being seen in southeastern Arizona and we had come up with a plan. Chris was working on our first day, so Jen, Peggy, and myself headed to the first spot on our own in the search of a Rufous-backed Robin.
This bird is a resident of western Mexico, but it is considered annual in Arizona in the winter and there always seem to be a handful that make an appearance in the state every winter. The one we were looking for, has been reported for some time at Catalina State Park, so this was our destination. We knew it frequented the Hackberry Trees, so it was just matter of being patient and keeping our eyes open for it. As most birders will do while waiting, we wandered around and started keeping a tally of the birds we were seeing. For Jen and Peggy, almost all of the birds we found were new 'year' birds, and for me as well since I had not been out of Maricopa County yet this year. So the first cool bird we found was a pair of Rufous-winged Sparrows. Just looking back on my history and I had not seen this bird since 2013, so it was time to reacquaint myself with it and the two we found were actually quite calm with us. They did prefer to stay a little deeper in the trees, but really did not show any stress with us observing them and enjoying them. Often the small rufous colored lesser wing coverts are covered and may be difficult to see, but at least one of my photos does show this distinctive marking for a change.
Rufous-winged Sparrow with visible rufous wing patch
As we walked up the road a bit, we started finding a plethora of other birds as well and part of that group was a couple of male Vermilion Flycatchers. Yes, this is a pretty common bird in Maricopa County as well, but when one sees this bird and it poses so well, you just cannot ignore it and not take photos; that would just be rude!
Another bird that we discovered in the area was a couple of Pyrrhuloxia, also known as the 'desert cardinal'. But unlike the Rufous-winged Sparrows, they wanted to be seen on the far side of the trees which meant trying to see them through the branches through small openings.
Pyrrhuloxia - Female
We had a lot of White-crowned Sparrows to look at and while sorting through all of them for a possible misfit, I caught glimpse of a bird in the background and when I focused my binoculars on it, I discovered it was a Lawrence's Goldfinch. Like the Pyrrhuloxia, this is another bird that I do not see that often, so it is always a treat to find it.
After about and hour and a half of waiting and watching, Jen caught a glimpse of our target bird, the Rufous-backed Robin, coming in and sure enough it worked its way to one of the Hackberry Trees and put on quite a show for us. It was not long and we had a crowd of others showing up and asking what we were looking at. Some were not birders, so we pointed it out to them and some were birders that just drove in and they almost could not park fast enough so they could get over to see this gorgeous bird. The non-birders were interested and thought it was very pretty. One of the birders that drove in was a lady that had flown into Phoenix that morning and rented a car to come down to look for it. Another was a trio of 3 young kids with binoculars and cameras and they were very excited when they saw it. This bird acts a lot like the American Robin that just about everyone in the United States is familiar with, but that rufous colored back really stands out.
Rufous-backed Robin - First View
Rufous-backed Robin, posing.
By the time we finished at Catalina State Park, Chris had gotten off work and proceeded to join us in pursuing a few other birds in the short time we had left of the daylight hours. At our last stop on the Mt Lemmon Road, and while we were listening for and trying to locate a Black-chinned Sparrow, a couple of deer made an appearance on the opposite side of the road on the slope and it was amazing how easily they could disappear into the foliage and rocks.
Deer in the rocks and grass
Even though the first day was only about a half of a day birding, we really got to see some incredible birds. The Rufous-backed Robin is one that I had only seen once before and I only got mediocre photos, but this one was more than accommodating and I along with Jennifer and Peggy thoroughly enjoyed it to the fullest. The next day was going to be a long one and an epic one. Stayed tuned for part two.