SE Arizona: Owls, Hummingbirds & a (?) Tanager

Burrowing Owl - Tucson, Arizona

Burrowing Owl – Tucson, Arizona

Anna's hummingbird: common Arizona resident

Anna’s Hummingbird: common Arizona resident

Southeastern Arizona is the premier destination in North America to search for owls and hummingbirds. The mesquite-lined washes in the seemingly endless desert around Tucson are dramatically framed in the distance by the Huachuca and Chiricahua mountains to the south and east. These mountains, with some peaks exceeding 8,000 feet, contain riparian woodlands and pine/oak & spruce/fir forests….which translates into a huge variety of BIRDS! This past weekend I joined Dave Stejskal’s Field Guides Tour with hopes of adding a couple of lifers and photographing some amazing birds along the way. But the fact that I saw 160 species of birds and added one lifer (Plumbeous Vireo) in three days is NOT the subject of this posting. Rather, it is an admission of an amateur birder’s embarrassing moment.

I was bringing up the rear of our nine person group as we descended Miller Canyon deep in the Chiricahua mountains. Dave was 100 yards ahead of me and had already stopped and listened to the forest noises at the spot where I heard something interesting…..a call that sounded like “pit-er-ick“. A quick processing of my limited selection of cerebral birding i-tunes could only come up with “tanager”. It sounded like our Scarlet Tanager, but one has probably never been seen west of the Mississippi river. There are several western tanager species likely to be seen in this area and we had already ticked the completely dark-red Hepatic Tanager on our lists. Western Tanager, a common but brilliantly colored (black, yellow and red) beauty, was on my mind. So I hung back and searched the dense foliage for the source of this repeating call.

Since Dave had already moved ahead, and he pretty much identifies everything he sees and hears, I pre-judged that whatever I found was not likely to be new for the group. Just then I spotted the orange head of the bird. Orange, like an oriole. I had about three seconds of viewing but quite honestly, I hadn’t done my homework and thought that it probably was just another one of the relatively common orioles we had already seen. Within five minutes or so, I caught up to the group and Dave asked me what I had seen.

“Oh, it sounded like a tanager but looked like an oriole, it had an orange head”, I casually replied. “An ORANGE head?! Are you sure?” he asked quite emphatically. “No question”, I replied with confidence and a growing sense that maybe I had been too cavalier about this exchange. “The Flame-colored Tanager has an ORANGE head!!”, Dave pronounced with bulging eyes. Uh-oh. The Flame-colored Tanager is a Mexican mega-rarity….seen maybe once a year in Arizona. Before I could move or respond, his six foot four inch frame marched back up the trail. After an unsuccessful attempt to re-locate my “oriole”, we walked in silence back to the trail head. I felt badly. I had missed a chance to identify something really special…..AND please our leader. I honestly would have traded several lifers for another crack at this bird.

Again, I hung back from the group. This time out of some embarrassment and shame…. certainly not because I was interested in announcing a sighting the people in the front might have missed. I came around a bend and immediately knew the group was on to something “good”. I put my new 10×42 Swarovski (Varsity, remember?) binocs up to the spot they were looking in a sycamore tree and imagine my sense of RELIEF and JOY when I saw my “oriole”!

Flame-colored Tanager x Western Tanager (Hybrid)

Likely Flame-colored Tanager x Western Tanager (Hybrid)

Dave is the co-head of the Arizona Bird Records Committee. At the moment he believes this is a hybrid form (a rarity in itself) of the Flame-colored x Western tanager. Hybrids are not countable for the life-list…. but certainly worth a blog posting!

About George C. Wood

A birder since age ten, but not necessarily an avid "lister", I am closing in on 700 (*800!) species seen in North America.....hoping to capture each sighting with my camera.
This entry was posted in Quest for 700 (*800!). Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to SE Arizona: Owls, Hummingbirds & a (?) Tanager

  1. fleur thomas says:

    Brilliant. Love your blog, can hear your voice as I read which makes me happy xx

    Sent from my iPhone

  2. Anne Wood says:

    I think that counts for two birds.

  3. Anne Wood says:

    I saw a burrowing owl in Carefree AZ Yours is hard to see.

  4. Arlin says:

    Loved the story – and hybrids are good for the environment!
    Well done,

  5. Glass, Dennis says:

    Looks good

    Sent from my iPad

  6. Thomas, Brinton (RBC Wealth Mgmt) says:

    wow…… Cappy!!!!!!


  7. mike selverian says:

    I love the photos..and your prose. Who knew birding could be so exciting? One question: when you are driving in your car by yourself do you listen to NPR or “BirdTunes” on your iphone?
    Mike S.

  8. nina weisbord says:

    so fun! xoxo NFW

  9. Tom Mason says:

    Great story, George. And, wow, on the number of species seen!

  10. Dorothy Weisbord says:

    Loved this posting. Tanager a beauty. George, I lived iat edge of Tucson, 1940 to 45. I wish you could have seen that area then. It was very raw and largely uninhabited. Tucson was a little desert town.

  11. Anne Favaloro says:

    Hi George — great blog, I didn’t know you were a birder. We saw a Flycatcher and a Northern Flicker this morning at Mount Auburn Cemetery. Good luck w your sightings!

  12. Jim Buck says:

    You have most definitely found your muse, Woody. Thank you for sharing it with the rest of us, many of whom are stuck in, ahem, less glorious settings than the ones you describe in your blog! Jim

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