Starting Big

Madera Canyon landscape

Every birding trip is a narrative. And among the choices a narrator must make is that between offering a leisurely introduction and lighting the story’s short fuse right away. Today we opted for the latter.

It paid off.

Rather than spending time making the acquaintance or the re-acquaintance of the common desert birds of urban Tucson, we ate lunch and headed south to Madera Canyon, where things got serious right away at the feeders of Santa Rita Lodge. I’d expected to have to wait a little while, but no: a lovely plain-capped starthroat showed up just as we did, and returned half a dozen times to the sugar water while we stood and admired. Trochilid diversity at those feeders was otherwise very low for some reason, leaving us with a tally made up 33% of starthroats — not bad for Arizona.

We took in a satisfying fill with that rarity, knowing that we’d be back at those feeders later this week, and walked up the hill to the Madera Kubo. Hepatic tanagers and black-throated gray warblers accompanied us on our short stroll, along with small groups of implausibly plumaged acorn woodpeckers. Just as we reached the Kubo, two Arizona woodpeckers flashed across the road to land in front of one of the cottages; they stayed for several minutes, sampling the suet and relieving my worry about whether we would get good views of a species that can sometimes be hard to see well even in its favored montane habitats.

As usual, there were several huge, dark magnificent hummingbirds haunting the Kubo feeders; eventually, all of us got great close views of these purple and green beauties, their aggression towards everything winged overcoming their native suspicion of humans.

My favorite bird of the Kubo experience this time was less refulgent and less demonstrative. A movement in the low vegetation turned out to be the rustlings of a fine rufous-crowned sparrow, which shuffled along behind and beside and occasionally on top of some of the nearby rocks. Aimophila rules, still.

Tomorrow morning early: a longer day, north along the rivers to look for desert and riparian species. It’s going to be great.


Urban Ponds

vermilion flycatcher

Hm, how should I spend a free afternoon in Tucson?

A little birding, I suppose.

With long-anticipated meet-ups with friends arranged for midday and early evening, I decided to stay local, and so once settled in to my hotel, I zipped up to Reid Park to look for the tricolored heron that has been lingering on one of my favorite little urban ponds. It might seem silly to come from New Jersey to the Sonoran desert and set off to look for that bird of all birds, but I’ve seen only a few tricolors in Arizona, and I thought it would be a nice thing to have in the back pocket for the start of my tour with the Fontenelle Bird Club.

Not to be. I met a grim-faced group coming out as I was going in, and I looked long and hard before finally admitting that the heron just wasn’t there.

Happily, there’s always lots more to see in Reid Park. That horrible trashy pond behind the recycling center has always been good to me, and today it concealed a drake wood duck, hardly more common than the heron this time of year in this part of the world — if it’s a wild bird, of course.

Wood duck

Fortunately for the lister in me, this pretty little fellow stayed in the water the whole time, and if he was missing a hallux or two, I didn’t see it.

There were long-legged waders on the pond in the persons of two juvenile green herons, and a pair of American coots was a nice surprise to New Jersey eyes. I had long, lingering looks at a family of desert song sparrows, but never had so much as a glimpse at the yellow warbler singing from the willows — presumably a Sonoran yellow, but those morcomi-type birds could well be on their way south already, too. Black phoebes, a western kingbird, barn and northern rough-winged swallows, and hordes of vermilion flycatchers kept the air clear of flying bugs; I must say that the whiptails were doing a less thorough job on the ants, several of which seemed intent on returning to their hills with bite-sized bits of my ankles in their jaws.

Note for the week to come: You’re in the desert; wear socks!

There was one other golf course pond to check, the deep one on the west side at the baseball stadium. Normally I would have walked over, but the monsoon, welcome as it no doubt is, was making the afternoon air heavy to the point of oppression, so I drove across, parking at the fence in the first spot I saw a bird: a molting male vermilion flycatcher, bouncing around on the green (or the tee or the putt or whatever it’s called) like a badly sunburnt wheatear. Family groups of that species seemed to be everywhere in the park, and my afternoon’s total approached 20 individuals.

The pond was less exciting: a few more northern mallards, a black phoebe, a couple of skimming barn swallows. But why are those common ravens in the picnic area so upset?


I felt very sorry for this poor great horned owl, outnumbered and significantly outgunned by three ravens. The owl sat stolid for several minutes, but it was obviously too much when a big female Cooper’s hawk came in reinforcement. There was peace for a while after the owl flew off; it wasn’t long, though, before the whole ruckus started up again across the street, where I assume the big black birds had found their victim again.

August may not be the best time for Tucson’s urban parks, but the afternoon heat meant that the birds that were present and visible were largely unharrassed by human crowds. A surprising flock of lark sparrows had taken over one of the baseball fields, where the gravel of the infield apparently reminded them of their sandy, rocky breeding grounds.

Lark sparrow

With them was a smaller bird, an adult chipping sparrow. That species does not breed in Tucson or anywhere especially close to Tucson, but this individual was right on time for the apparent molt migration that brings the first chipping sparrows of the fall to the Sonoran desert in late July each year — as eloquent a sign of fall as the shorebirds we’ll be seeing later this week.

I knew better than to hope for exotic ardeids around the concrete ponds in the center of the park, and in fact, the only heron of any kind was this classically photogenic adult black-crowned night-heron on the sidewalk.

black-crowned night-heron

Much less expected was the small diving duck amid the park mallards and graylag geese; I can’t recall ever having seen a ring-necked duck in Tucson in high summer, though given that species’ abundance as a winterer at precisely sites like this, it must happen with some regularity that one is left behind.

ring-necked duck

I wonder what these wild birds must think of some of their more flamboyant pond mates.

domestic mallard

Ring-necked ducks, of course, have been sharing lakes and puddles with weird mallards like this one for a long time, but the association is still relatively new for species like the neotropic cormorant, a fairly recent arrival to duck ponds in the Sonoran desert. This lovely pale juvenile made my afternoon, perching placid on the rocks among the barnyard birds and the great-tailed grackles.

neotropic cormorant

Maybe I will bring the group to Reid Park after all, tricolor or not.

Today’s bird list, all from the recycling pond and Reid Park:


Ring-necked Duck

Neotropic Cormorant

Green Heron

Black-crowned Night-Heron

Cooper’s Hawk

Red-tailed Hawk

American Coot

Rock Pigeon

Eurasian Collared-Dove

White-winged Dove

Mourning Dove

Great Horned Owl

Black-chinned Hummingbird

Anna’s Hummingbird

Gila Woodpecker

American Kestrel

Black Phoebe

Vermilion Flycatcher

Western Kingbird

Common Raven

Northern Rough-winged Swallow

Barn Swallow


Northern Mockingbird

Yellow Warbler

Chipping Sparrow

Lark Sparrow

Song Sparrow

Northern Cardinal

Red-winged Blackbird

Great-tailed Grackle

Lesser Goldfinch

House Sparrow

I also saw a scissor-tailed flycatcher today — but that was on the runway in Houston.


Thick-billed Dreams

Thick-billed parrot in Arizona

Way back when, August was prime time for the irregular incursions of the thick-billed parrot into the sky island ranges of southeast Arizona.

In the last week of the month in 1904, a flock of between seven hundred and a thousand — seven hundred to one thousand! — invaded Bonita Park in the Chiricahuas. As they gobbled pinyon nuts, the birds grew so tame that they could actually be photographed at close range with the slow cameras of the day, and one, “a bird of the year,” was taken alive and presented to its captor’s sister in Globe.

Never again will we see numbers like that, not in Arizona and sadly not in Sonora and Chihuahua, either.

I’d settle for one on this week’s tour with the Fontenelle Bird Club, but still we can dream of the old days.

Can’t we?

Pinery Canyon


Spencer Baird’s Trickster Sparrow

Song Sparrow fallax

As a young birder, just after the days of Hesperornis, I was puzzled by the claim in all the books that the Song Sparrow was abundant, familiar, ubiquitous. Though the species has greatly increased in eastern Nebraska over the decades since, back then it was an uncommonish bird, and it took me a couple of seasons before I felt that I had something like a handle on it.

Fast forward to our years in southeast Arizona. There, we quickly found, the local Song Sparrows looked nothing like what I had learned as a boy and grown so familiar with in Massachusetts and New Jersey and Illinois. Indeed, these birds of damp desert thickets and ponds are so different from what the historical eastern bias of American birding has styled “the typical” that many first-time visitors to the Southwest refuse at first to believe that they are Song Sparrows at all.

When Spencer Baird saw the first specimens of this new form in 1854, he found it distinctive enough to merit description as a new species. Compared with the “normal” Song Sparrow,

the bill is considerably smaller and the tail longer. The plumage above is more ashy, the streaks on the back not so distinct, the spots are more crowded about the breast, but fewer on the sides; their color more uniformly chestnut brown.

All that said, though,

this species bears a very close resemblance to Z. melodia,

and so Baird gave it the name Zonotrichia fallax, the “deceptive sparrow.”

Four years later, in the great report of the Pacific Railroad Explorations, Baird wondered whether he might not have been the one deceived:

Although this species is very similar to the M. melodia, yet, when specimesn are compared with an extensive series, of the last mentioned species, an impression of difference will at once be conveyed…. I do not, however, feel sure that this species will stand as perfectly satisfactory… At any rate, I consider it as less strongly established than any of the others before me.

By 1874, Baird and the distinguished co-authors of the History of North American Birds had rethought the whole thing. Their deliberations largely anticipate the notion of the Rassenkreis, a concept that would be explicitly applied to the Song Sparrows by Patten and Pruett 135 years later. Writes Baird in 1874,

Spread over the whole of North America, and familiar to every one, we find each region to possess a special from [of Song Sparrow] (to which a specific name has been given, and yet these passing into each other by such insensible gradations as to render it quite impossible to define them as species. Between M. melodia of the Atlantic States and M. insignis of Kodiak the difference seems wide; but the connecting links in the intermediate regions bridge this over so completely that, with a series of hundreds of specimens before us, we abandon the attempt at specific separation, and unite into one no less than eight species previously recognized.

Baird’s old fallax was one of those eight, listed in the History as Melospiza melodia var. fallax. 

Unfortunately, however, Baird extended his name fallax to comprise two very different birds, the pale, reddish, sparsely marked Song Sparrows of the southwestern deserts and the darker, more richly colored birds of the Great Basin and adjoining Rocky Mountains. Henry Henshaw corrected that error in the very first volume of the Auk, restricting the name fallax to

the older though least known form … inhabiting our southern border — Arizona and New Mexico.

The more northerly birds received their own, new name, montana.

The AOU Check-list, back in those happy days when it provided a full accounting of each species’ recognized subspecies, called fallax in its strict sense the Desert Song Sparrow, from 1886 up to the Fourth Edition of 1931, when the fallacious one pulled another of its tricks.

Screenshot 2014-02-24 12.45.51

Following Oberholser in rejecting Henshaw’s identification of Baird’s type specimen, the committee responsible for this, the weakest edition of the Check-list voided the name montana and re-allocated fallax to the northerly populations covered by Baird’s early description, using Grinnell’s name saltonis for the southern birds. As a result, fallax was called in English the “Mountain” Song Sparrow, and the English name “Desert” was shifted to saltonis, generating a quarter century’s worth of confusion that must have had our trickster sparrow laughing its pale rusty head off.

Not even the sneakiest sparrow was a match for Allan Phillips, though. Phillips, writing midway between the publication of the Fourth and the Fifth editions of the Check-list, re-asserted the validity and the identity of Henshaw’s montana, once again calling it in English the Mountain Song Sparrow, and effectively splitting the pale southern birds into three races — fallax (northern Arizona), saltonis (southwestern Arizona and California), and his new bendirei (central and southern Arizona and Sonora).

More recent authorities tend to synonymize all three of those Phillipsian races under fallax in Henshaw’s sense, leaving us with just one Desert Song Sparrow, a tricky little bird that no doubt still relishes the almost endless confusion it has caused over the years.


The Vainglorious Cardinal

Northern Cardinal superbus

Ho hum, thinks the birder from eastern North America: just another Northern Cardinal.

But as our Linnaean Society field trip to Phoenix this past week reminded us, a close look at that bird in the southwestern US and northern Mexico reveals a bird a little less contemptibly familiar than we might expect.

Northern Cardinal superbus

The red cardinals of Arizona are startling and striking, big and long-tailed and long-crested. The species’ best-known field mark, the black mask surrounding the bill, is noticeably reduced compared to the same patch in eastern birds, often not quite meeting across the forehead, making that brilliant red helmet stand even taller.

It’s no wonder that Robert Ridgway found these birds “easily distinguishable.” In 1885, he described a series of specimens from Arizona as belonging to a new subspecies, which he named Cardinalis cardinalis superbus.

In the 70 years after Ridgway’s description of the bird, this distinctive race — one of sixteen most authorities still recognize across the Northern Cardinal’s extensive range in North and Middle America — went by the sensible and straightforward English name of the Arizona Cardinal, a name lost, like so many others, when the 1957 edition of the AOU Check-list created standardized vernacular names for North America’s birds at the species level.

Northern Cardinal superbus

More and more, I think, American birders are returning to the English subspecies names propounded in earlier editions of the Check-list. In this case, though, there’s an alternative better even than “Arizona Cardinal.”

Though Ridgway provided no etymology when he named his new cardinal, it seems likely that he understood superbus to mean simply “superb, outstanding, excellent.” But in real Latin, as opposed to scientifiquese, the word is much richer. From the vaunting ambition of Turnus in the Aeneid to the traditional mortal sins of the medieval church, “superbus” and “superbia” referred to one’s own hubristic estimation of oneself as superb or outstanding or excellent.

Northern Cardinal superbus

Doesn’t this bird look superbus? We could do worse than to call these Arizona birds Prideful Cardinals, glowing as they do in the certainty of their own superbness.