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Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Phainopepla, Pyrrhuloxia and a Shorebird to Boot

[Tucson, Arizona, December 2012]

This post will cover Phainopepla and Pyrrhuloxia -- no, these are not the names of some dangerous tropical affliction -- they are specialty birds of the Desert Southwest.

But first, let's start with a mimid: with a range restricted roughly to a swathe parallel to the Mexico border (excepting California), the curve-billed thrasher is an unmistakeable bird with a prominent curve to its bill and bright orange eyes.

A common sight at Sabino Canyon, it is a wary creature that stays low, scurries away by hopping on the ground and is seldom photographed perched.

Of course, seldom doesn't mean never -- I was fortunate to grab a few shots of the curve-billed on this cactus.

Where it was feeding on the flowers before flying off to its next perch:

Early morning, and most readily seen (and heard), are the phainopeplas that are conspicuously perched on the tops of assorted shrubbery all along the trails. This oddly named bird (unless you know Greek -- 'phain pepla' means 'shiny robe'; in which case it all makes sense) surely merits a distinctive name given that this glossy black 'silky flycatcher' is the sole representative of its Central American family in the US.

Adding to our list of Arizona 'specialty birds', a Pyrrhuloxia appears in the distance. This 'desert cardinal' is indeed related to the much commoner Northern Cardinal but differs in color, bill shape, and preferred habitat. Its weird name comes from compounding the words pyrrhos and loxos -- Greek for 'flame-colored' (pyr == fire) and 'oblique'.

Thus, the word combination refers to two prominent visual characteristics to aid the novice birder in identifying this bird (assuming they know Greek): the reddish coloration of the Desert Cardinal's plumage; and, the strongly angled bill.

Much more commonly seen at Sabino, is the Northern Mockingbird. Also favoring the apex perching point on a given bush or cactus, it was observed quarreling with the Phainopepla for rights to be "king of the hill".

In riparian habitat near Sabino Dam, the woods provide perfect cover for a stealthy Cooper's Hawk.

This accipter is a bird-eating specialist. Luckily, I was not around when it chose its next meal.

Walking back from Sabino Dam, a Greater Roadrunner appears. This 2-ft ground cuckoo has been clocked running up to 20+ mph but is not too proud to fly when the need arises.

Impossible to miss in Spring, Cactus Wren are much more infrequently seen in the Winter. This is our largest wren.

Finally, the 2 thrushes that were discussed in the earlier post: Hermit and Rufous-backed:

Hermit thrush (above); and Rufous-backed thrush (below):

And, lastly the shorebird; but first, a Harris's Hawk. Known as the only hawks to hunt in packs (like wolves), a family is reliably observed at Roger Rd, Tucson.

Finally the shorebird surprise: A solitary sandpiper seen at Sweetwater Wetlands:

Initially carelessly identified as a spotted sandpiper, closer observation reveals the spots on its back and somewhat larger dimensions. This is a rather late migrant on its way to the tropics for some well deserved warm weather.

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