The ‘Ahakhav Tribal Preserve lies just outside of Parker, AZ. The preserve was established in 1995 by the Colorado River Indian Tribes as a place to restore the natural and cultural heritage of the Colorado River. Now it stands as a bright green patch among the agricultural fields of the Parker Valley and the River’s invasive tamarisk sprawl.
David and I visited the preserve two days ago, on January 26, to see what birds were about. We didn’t even have to leave the picnic area! There were plenty of the expected species, like this Phainopepla.
We went to the preserve hoping to see a certain sapsucker, first reported by Paul Lehman on November 26 last year, and recently seen by Henry Detwiler et al. This guy turned out to be very confiding, and had no problem with me snapping photos.
This is a hybrid between the expected Red-naped Sapsucker and the rare Red-breasted Sapsucker. The black mottling in the breast and the relatively limited red in the face pattern give this away as a hybrid, as a pure Red-breasted would have a solid red breast and much more red on the head. Red-naped Sapsuckers shouldn’t have any red in the breast, and have more limited red in the face pattern. Even though this bird isn’t “countable” as either species, it was an interesting individual to study. These hybrids are probably more regular in Arizona than pure Red-breasted Sapsuckers, so it is important to be able to recognize hybrid characteristics when a possible Red-breasted is seen.
This point was illustrated the same day, when David spotted a different sapsucker, this one with an apparently solid red breast! Unfortunately the bird was extremely skittish and did not allow us to get good looks or decent photos. While the bird looked good in the field, my one photograph shows a bit too much white in the face pattern for Red-breasted Sapsucker, so this was probably another hybrid. We’re hoping to see the bird again and study it more.
Of course, these birds were considered conspecific until the 1980s, and this may not have been a good split. Extensive hybridization in a broad area of range overlap is an indication of subspecies within a single species, which seems to be the case with these sapsuckers. Many ornithologists believe that these taxa should be “re-lumped” as one species. Read more about sapsuckers and hybridization here and here. No matter what happens with these taxa, I will continue to look for unusual individuals and try to understand variation within this complex!
Departing from ‘Ahakhav, we checked some agricultural fields around the Parker Valley and drove back to Lake Havasu City along the California side of the river, searching for the Yellow-billed Loon. After a group of us found it just north of Parker on January 15, it has been giving birders a hard time, moving miles up and down the river within a single day. David and I finally spotted it from Empire Landing, on the California side of the Parker Strip, on a section of river with little more than coots. Just goes to show that rare birds can be found anywhere, not just our hotspots!