February 2, 2017
Red-breasted Sapsucker
Red-breasted Sapsucker
It’s long been my humble opinion, more than once stated in this column, that winter is the best birding season here in Arizona’s central valley.  Summer heat obviously weighs large in this calculation.  Spring and fall migration may bring unexpected delights, but aside from the heightened sense of anticipation, the latter two seasons are totally unpredictable both on the calendar and in the bounty of their passage birds.  Winter is neither.

Winter birding season here in The Valley begins with the first Pacific weather front and goes through the middle of March when increasing daylight triggers homeward bound hormones in our real snow birds.  I won’t go through the litany again of all the unexpected species that have shown up here in winter over the years, many from the east, some from the far north, a few from Mexico, but suffice it to say I am much more eager to get out and see what I can see at this season than at any other.

You should assume winter anticipation revolves around the unexpected, but a recent article by Eldon Greij in Birdwatching and a faithfulreading of the sightings on AZ/NM Birds and Birding News ABA suggest another reason to be out there in our perfect weather winter months—if you missed a great bird last winter, or even two or nine(!) years ago, it may be back.  In the same place!

Science has proven that birds have an internal compass which utilizes the earth’s magnetic field in conjunction with daytime sun position and the stars at night to guide them in a general direction, north for breeding, south for food when breeding season is over in northerly climates.    Once that general direction gets them close, it is assumed they home in on habitat and food availability, but “home in” must be taken quite literally with birds like homing pigeons.  How do they do that?

Let’s put the question a different way.  If you had to get to your grandmother’s house in the north woods of Canada would you leave Phoenix with just a compass?  Good luck with that--getting there on time, or at all, if that’s all you had.  No, you would take a map (or your personal device with Google maps).  Greij outlines recent scientific developments which suggest birds may also have actual gradient maps based on two environmental cues—odors from atmospheric gases and infrasounds generated by the vibrations of deep ocean waves.

In December I went out to the Arlington Valley after Mel Herring reported the light phase Harlan’s Hawk had returned to its winter haunts there for the ninth consecutive year.  It was waiting for me on its favorite stretch of pasture fencing but, as on all but two occasions, it didn’t want to pose for me.  The next day I found and photographed the Scottsdale Ranch Park Red-breasted Sapsucker which I missed in 2016.  A groundskeeper pointed out to me the exact tree where I would find it.  How do these coincidences happen so often?  If birds can smell and hear things we can’t, then these aren’t coincidences.

In January I birded the Salt River after the Rusty Blackbirds were seen again, like last year, just upstream from Coon Bluff.  I was happy for the opportunity to upgrade the crummy images I took in 2016 of these unlikely Valley visitors.  And I’m hoping the Louisiana Waterthrush discovered near there on this year’s CBC will return next year.  I’m already looking forward to next winter and this one isn’t even over yet.