Thursday, March 9, 2017

Songbirds of the Sonoran Desert

[SEAZ, December 2016]

The Sonoran Desert covers a massive area of some 100,000 sq. miles and spans the arid regions of Arizona, New Mexico, California, Baja California and Sonora. It is renowned as the only place in the world that hosts the mighty saguaro cactus; yet, it also harbors a unique ecosystem that supports 350 species of birds as well as many other creatures such as mammals, reptiles and amphibians. 

And, in this vast desert, it is in Southeastern Arizona that the apex of biodiversity is attained thanks to the famous "Sky Islands" of the region. As the vast plains of Saguaro transition to montane coniferous forests (reaching elevations of 8,000 ft and above), a remarkable transformation also occurs in the birdlife -- a fact that we shall endeavor to illustrate in this post by profiling a selection of songbirds and other species recently encountered in the Tucson and Phoenix areas:
  • Phainopepla
  • Black-tailed Gnatcatcher
  • Lesser Goldfinch
  • House Finch
  • Northern Cardinal
  • Say's and Black Phoebe
  • Bewick's Wren
  • Loggerhead Shrike
  • Ruby-crowned Kinglet
  • Pygmy Nuthatch
  • Mexican Jay
  • Western Bluebird
  • White-breasted Nuthatch
  • Mexican Creeper
We start with the "Shining Robe" or (in Greek) Phainopepla:




The Phainopepla is a "silky flycatcher" and the only member of its family found in the US. And, while it is not unusual for some birds to raise two broods a year, the Phainopepla accomplishes this feat in two different habitats (desert and woodlands) and in two different social modes (monogamous and colonial breeding). Surely, something that no other bird in the US that can match! This outstanding male with the resplendent black plumage and striking red eye was observed at Rio Rillito Park in Tucson.

Also observed at this venue was this energetic songbird -- a Black-tailed Gnatcatcher (female):




In a couple of months, the males of these Gnatcatchers will develop a black cap that will make them instantly recognizable.

In the dry river bed, Lesser Goldfinch fed among the dry grasses:




Moving to Mt. Lemmon, a couple of bright songbirds were encountered -- a House Finch:



and a Northern Cardinal:



This is the Cardinal's Western limit.

Next, a couple of Phoebes: Say's and Black:




Thomas Say was Chief Zoologist in Major Long's expedition to the Rockies in 1819 and described many species new to science such as the Phoebe that bears his name but also Orange-crowned Warbler, Western Kingbird, Lazuli Bunting and Band-tailed Pigeon. These small tyrant flycatchers were observed at Proctor Rd and Gilbert Water Ranch respectively.

Also from the Water Ranch, a wintering Ruby-crowned Kinglet:




And, near Florida Canyon, a Loggerhead Shrike:



Other than perhaps Cactus Wren, our other wrens are splendid songsters and Bewick's Wren (seen at Molino Basin) is no exception:




Further up in the snow covered reaches of Mt. Lemmon, Pygmy Nuthatch was spied at Rose Canyon:




At Madera Canyon, on the other hand, observations were made of:

Mexican Jay:




Western Bluebird:



White-breasted Nuthatch:




And, Mexican Creeper:



While deserts don't typically come to mind when thinking about ideal habitat for birds, yet, the Sonoran Desert and its Sky Islands offer the perfect counterexample. And, the intrepid birder who ventures out to hotspots such as Mt. Lemmon, Madera Canyon and Florida Canyon will be rewarded with avian delights such as Phainopepla, Say's Phoebe and Mexican Jay.