January 3, 2019
Prairie Warbler male, December in Arizona
Last month an old birding friend from out of state visited us, along with his adult son who had never birded in the West.  We spent three days driving and walking many of the central Arizona winter hotspots which my friend hadn’t done for several years.  It was great fun.  I was reminded what an expert birder my friend is, and I was surprised what a keen eye his son has.  And, since my friend became expert by making copious notes on each new species back when he began birding, we had several interesting identification conversations.

On one of our trips we chanced upon a flock of American Robins foraging in a berry tree.  They were accompanied by several smaller birds flitting about so quickly in the dense growth surrounding the food tree we lingered for fifteen minutes trying to sort them all out—several Ruby-crowned Kinglets, a Cassin’s Vireo, and a possible warbler, noteworthy simply by its presence in mid-December.  Our problem with the bird that was certainly acting like a warbler was that it left the immediate area on three occasions, flew to the top of a nearby pine tree and buried itself amongst the upper branches.

Here’s how the conversation went as we tried to get on this mystery warbler:

Son—“Prairie Warbler.”

Friend—“Um . . . um . . . um . . . damn!”

Me (wielding camera with telephoto lens, binoculars hanging down around my neck)—“Sugar Tax!  I had it in the viewfinder for just a moment there.”

Son—“Well, the face pattern’s all I saw, and it reminded me of Prairie.”

Friend—“I’ve never seen the whole bird all at one time.”

Me (studying back of camera)—“I’ve got a clear shot here in the evergreen showing white wing bars . . . but it’s just the wing bars.  Maybe Townsend’s?”

Friend—“Black-throated Green looks like Townsend’s, especially this time of year.”

Son—“Would Prairie even be here?”

Me (shrugging shoulders)—John, if you saw a Prairie, we’ll stop on the way home and you can buy a lottery ticket.”

Friend—“Black-throated Green looks like Townsend’s, especially this time of year.”

Me (pointing camera up into evergreen again)—Pat, Townsend’s is much more common here than Black-throated Green would be.”

Son—“Um . . . um . . . um . . . damn!”

Me (studying back of camera)—“Another clear shot . . . of the undertail coverts."

Friend—“Now where did that little bugger go?”

As you may have guessed, we never saw the bird again.  Nor was there any consensus on its identity.  I have photos, but to call them inconclusive might be an understatement.  My friend concluded this rather typical birding moment by reminding us that photographs often cause more confusion than solution.  Colors can change as light intensity varies.  Key characteristics can pop or be obscured as sight angles change when the bird moves.

I remember thinking, long ago just after I had left the beginner stage of birding, that if I came home from the field having found a good bird, I was a good birder.”  Years later, sometime before I quit listing altogether, I had changed my tune, and my mind set.  By then I remember thinking that if I came home from the field without having found a good bird, I was a good birder.”  When it became apparent we were not going to be able to pin a label on our mystery warbler, my friend just shrugged.  He enjoys the sightings now, no longer feeling the compulsion to label everything.

Here are some facts I gleaned from a little research after my friends’ visit:

*Prairie Warbler is seen and confirmed in Arizona about every five or six years.
*I have seen three Prairie Warblers in Arizona in thirty-five years.
*I have a smashing photo of one from December, 1997.
*Black-throated Green Warbler is seen and confirmed In Arizona every couple years.
*I have never seen a Black-throated Green Warbler in Arizona
*Townsend’s Warbler is common in Arizona in migration, rare but annual in December.

What did my friends and I see that day in December?  Who knows?  Actually, who cares?  What we know for sure is that we thoroughly enjoyed a great day birding together.

Black-throated Green Warbler male, December in Texas

Black-throated Green Warbler male, December in Texas

Townsend's Warbler male, October in Arizona

Townsend's Warbler male, October in Arizona