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Saturday, December 15, 2012

Sabino Canyon in December

[Tucson, December 2012]

A quick trip to Tucson afforded an opportunity to see the typical birds of Southeast Arizona that can be found at the fabled hotspot that is Sabino Canyon.

Perhaps our most handsome sparrow, the black-throated or dessert sparrow is a 5 inch marvel of the West and Southwest US (also Mexico). With its numbers declining, it is reassuring to know that this photogenic gem is still commonly found at Sabino Canyon.

Hued in delicate greys and browns and adorned with white facial stripes and a bold black throat, this sparrow is a picture of distinctive elegance. In contrast, the Verdin [below], is a much plainer (dare we say dull) grey bird but with a bright yellow face and smart red-brown shoulder specks.

Nevertheless, the Verdin has one claim to fame that our handsome sparrow lacks -- it is the sole representative of its family (i.e., the penduline tit family) in the New World.

Vocal and hyperactive, the Verdin is a little dynamo that demands attention and its restricted range in the Southwest makes it a specialty bird that recalls the desert.

The Black-throated Grey Warbler is a wood warbler of the West that overwinters in Mexico and the South-West US while its breeding range extends across the Western US all the way up to Oregon.

Another specialty warbler is the painted redstart. Usually found at higher elevations, such as Madera Canyon, it was a pleasant surprise to see it at Sabino.

Not related to the American Redstart, it has deliberate and methodical foraging habits as it hops from one branch to the next.

This warbler has a bright red breast, black body with white wing patches and a half eye-ring in white. This dazzler is the only member of the Whitestart family found in the US.

Another SE Arizona specialty is the Rufous-winged Sparrow [above]. This uncommon sparrow has a small, restricted range confined to the Sonoran desert. Considered "extinct" in Arizona in the late 1800's, it was "rediscovered" in 1936.

Another sparrow found in the area is Abert's Towhee. This is a near-endemic of Arizona and thus has a highly restricted range largely consisting of Southern part of the state. It was named by Baird to commemorate the American Ornithologist James Abert.

The black-tailed gnatcatcher is similar to the blue-grey; however, predictably, it has a black tail, edged with white (when viewed from above or below) and, in the breeding season, it sports a black cap. In winter, it shows a greyish cap and black brow (see below).

Black-tailed gnatcatcher in flight:

Sabino Canyon offers desert scrub and riparian habitat thereby attracting a wide variety of species. It merits inclusion on every birder's itinerary when in Southeast Arizona.

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