The Christmas Bird Count season is always an exciting time of year, with more eyes and ears out in the field looking at birds, gathering data and finding rarities; birders getting together, seeing old friends and meeting new people; and of course it’s a good reason to explore new areas!
This year I had the time and motivation to participate in four counts: Alamos in southern Sonora, the south end Salton Sea, and my two local counts, Bill Williams and Havasu. All were fun and good experiences for different reasons!
The Alamos CBC was December 14, the first day of the count period. I was invited to go with Dave Stejskal, a friend and veteran Sonora birder. We drove down (about a 9-hour drive from Tucson) two days before the count with Carol Tepper. This was my third trip to Mexico and second to west Mexico, so I was hopeful for a few lifers but mostly I was looking forward to just spending time with birds with which my experience is limited, getting some sound recordings, looking at butterflies, and looking at Nutting’s Flycatchers that aren’t from one family group!
We spent the day before the count hiking Arroyo Mentidero, which drains into the Rio Cuchujaqui just outside of Alamos. The area was incredibly birdy and diverse, and if we didn’t have birds to look at we were always distracted by plants, butterflies or scenery!
The birding highlight was a lifer, a flock of Purplish-backed Jays which flew overhead, giving great views of birds of different ages. Later, they were calling from a hillside next to the river and even perched up for extended views. Other great birds included a very vocal pair of Common Black-Hawks, plenty of vocal Nutting’s Flycatchers, two vocal Blue Mockingbirds that even came out in the open for decent views, Streak-backed Orioles in a variety of plumages including a stunning adult male, Five-striped Sparrow, and a very large array of other interesting species. Plenty of them performed for the mic, and I’ll hopefully get to organizing those recordings soon…!
Butterflies started puddling in the afternoon, and I was able to identify 13 species, several of which were lifers.
The next day, on the CBC, I accompanied Dave in hiking up Cañón Cieneguilla, a beautiful canyon rising into the Sierra de Alamos.
We started the morning owling, with the highlight being spectacular views of a meteor shower! We also had some owls just as the eastern horizon was beginning to lighten: a variety of calls from a pair of Ferruginous Pygmy-Owls, and brief bouts of calling from a Colima Pygmy-Owl and a Mottled Owl.
The bird highlight of the day appeared early, flying in and calling once in response to Dave’s FEPO whistles. He immediately recognized the call as sounding like a Greenish Elaenia. We were both able to get on it, and there it was: a drab green flycatcher which wouldn’t be very exciting, except that it was so far out of range that it has never before been recorded in Sonora! Click to see the day’s eBird checklist which includes Dave’s photos and my sound recording of this first state record!
Of course, there were plenty of other avian highlights, although overall Dave noticed that bird activity in the canyon was way down from past years. We did have quick looks at flyby White-fronted Parrots, my second of two lifers on the trip. Black-throated Magpie-Jays accompanied us and shared some great vocalizations and amusing antics. High in the canyon, we ran into some higher elevation species, such as Slate-throated Whitestart, Rufous-capped Warblers and a Brown-backed Solitaire that quietly sang its incredible song once.
The “butterflying” was good here, too, of course! I identified 14 species, including some real lookers like Ruddy Daggerwing.
(Sorry for all the butterfly pictures and lack of bird pictures; the butterflies are just so much easier with a point and shoot! Incidentally, I used A Swift Guide to the Butterflies of Mexico and Central America for butterfly ID and am so, so grateful that I had that book handy!)
The trip was so much fun, though all too brief, and a great introduction to birding in Sonora. I think I’m hooked! I’m definitely hoping to return for next year’s CBC (and hopefully will stay longer), and would recommend it very highly.
Two days of driving later, I woke up at the great, stinking, magical, bird-filled Salton Sea! This is a CBC which I try to do every year, and it’s a different experience every time: you never know what to expect. My assignment this year was the north half of the IID Wetlands, a fairly new managed wetland created by the Imperial Irrigation District. The habitat is being utilized by breeding and wintering rails and bitterns, resulting in numbers of these birds increasing every year on the CBC. I focused on these birds and had good numbers of all the various whinnying, grunting and clacking secretive marsh denizens (except Black Rail; the only one I heard was the tiny one that calls when I get a text message…). Two Red-shouldered Hawks also contributed to a nice morning of birding.
Most of the participants of the Salton Sea South CBC are very avid birders, so the count runs in a half-day fashion, with an early afternoon compilation followed by a rush to chase all the great birds seen that morning. I was able to chase a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, a Red Phalarope, and a Long-eared Owl. David and I decided to stay in Yuma that night, and woke up bright and early to look for something even better: a White Ibis that is wintering at Yuma East Wetlands!
After a break for Christmas and some much-needed sleep, it was back out in the field for the local CBCs!
My area for the Bill Williams CBC was the beautiful area between Kohen Ranch and Cougar Point, rarely visited by birders other than those who conduct surveys in the spring and summer.
I birded with Rus Hall, a snowbirder from Alberta who is wintering locally. We enjoyed about two hours in the morning of excellent birding, after which the wind came up and shut the birds down. This was the experience reported by just about everyone on the count. Fortunately, we managed to turn up a good list of rarities: THREE Golden-crowned Sparrows, a pair of Northern Cardinals, a Western Scrub-Jay and a Black-throated Gray Warbler!
Yesterday, we finished up our CBC season with the Havasu CBC. I went along with Rus and the count compiler, my friend DeeDee DeLorenzo, on her loop through the southern part of the refuge including Beal Restoration Area and Beal Lake. While landbirds were quiet, Beal Lake came through as usual with all the expected winter shorebirds, plus four American Avocets (rare in winter). After finishing our area, we briefly checked out some other areas including the dense saltbush at Pintail Slough. There, we found good numbers of Sage Sparrows, but didn’t feel comfortable identifying any of them to species.
All in all, it’s been a wonderful CBC season. Here’s hoping that next year brings more great experiences!