The 121st Christmas Bird Count in Arizona

Thirty-eight CBCs were held in Arizona this season, the same as last year. Two established counts were not held, primarily because of COVID, but two new ones are welcomed to the fold: Phoenix Metro and Safford. A total of 387,254 individuals of 287 species were tallied by all circles. Only three species were found on all counts: White-crowned Sparrow, Common Raven, and Red-tailed Hawk; House Finch and Dark-eyed Junco were missed only on one count each, while Eurasian Collared-Dove and Say's Phoebe were missed on two counts each.

This year’s top species count was achieved by Gila River, with 157 species. Four other CBCs found 150 species or more: Green Valley, Phoenix-Tres Rios, Nogales, and Tucson Valley. Phoenix-Tres Rios also tallied the highest individual count, with 55,116 birds tallied, helped in large part by big counts of blackbirds.

Tucson Valley led the state and placed 5th nationally with national high counts for 15 species, while Atascosa Highlands and Nogales each had nine and Phoenix Tres-Rios and Portal each had eight. The new Phoenix Metro count’s 103 Rosy-faced Lovebirds were a new all-time high, as were the five Violet-crowned Hummingbirds on Ramsey Canyon. Big numbers aren’t everything though, and hats off to those counts in remote areas with few local observers and sparse habitats: the data coming from places like Lukeville, Organ Pipe, and Ajo-Cabeza Prieta N.W.R. are equally valuable.

Among the rarest birds tallied were those whose single finds were also the national high counts: a Common Black Hawk on the Sedona count, the long-staying Northern Jacana in Tucson, a Dusky-capped Flycatcher and a MacGillivray’s Warbler on the Phoenix-Tres Rios count, a Bell’s Vireo on Salt-Verde River, and a Tennessee Warbler on Hassayampa River (though 12 other counts nationwide also had singles of that species). There were quite a few other rarities for Arizona that might be more expected elsewhere in the country, such as water birds: Glen Canyon had all three scoters and Iceland (Thayer’s) Gull; Bill Williams Delta had two Pacific Loons; Lake Pleasant had a Red-necked Grebe; and Nogales had a Long-tailed Duck. Unexpected lingering Neotropical migrants from across the continent included two Wilson’s Warblers, a Northern Parula, and a Summer Tanager on Tucson Valley; a Violet-green Swallow on Gila River; an American Redstart on Martinez Lake-Yuma; and a Bullock’s Oriole on Nogales. Other good finds included a Green Kingfisher (Nogales), two Greater Pewees (Ramsey Canyon and Tucson Valley), two Rufous-backed Robins (Patagonia and Ramsey Canyon), two Brown Thrashers (Hassayampa River and Portal), and Clay-colored Sparrow (one on Buenos Aires and five on Tucson Valley). It’s interesting to note that the only Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet found wasn’t in the Southeast where they are regular, but rather on the brand-new Safford count. Of special note are two species that have become locally expected while still state-wide rarities: Prescott this year had 18 Purple Finches and Hassayampa had seven Red-shouldered Hawks. Anywhere away from these two circles, these species require at least some details.

Rarities that were reported with no or insufficient supporting details (and/or no corroboration from eBird reports) were Black-chinned Hummingbird, Swainson’s Hawk, Wilson’s Phalarope,

Gray Hawk, Western Kingbird, and Violet-green Swallows. A Red-headed Woodpecker report was submitted to the Arizona Bird Committee but not accepted as an established record.

Trends in numbers were mostly difficult to detect by looking at statewide totals. The Southeast was notably dry (there was no monsoon in 2020 for most places), and many observers reported finding few birds, with species diversity and numbers very depressed. But migrants can move around, and for many species, the statewide numbers were close to average. The semi-subtropical residents who depend on the summer rains were clearly low in numbers. Twenty years ago, it would have seemed absurd to imagine that Black-capped Gnatcatcher numbers will have crashed, but this year’s high of six on the Atascosa Highlands count pales in comparison to Green Valley’s record of 26 on the 117th CBC, and this year that count had none. Elegant Trogon, Five-striped Sparrow, and Mexican Chickadee were represented by just single individuals. On the other hand, more widespread desert species, such as Cactus Wren, Curve-billed Thrasher, and Black-tailed Gnatcatcher were reported in normal numbers, if not even slightly higher than average. The lack of summer rains in 2020 almost certainly were the cause of low numbers of certain sparrows on some counts – compare 2141 Chipping Sparrows statewide with the total of 11,515 from the 117th CBC. But then consider that 3941 Black-throated Sparrows showed a five-year high as did the amazing count of 16 Baird’s Sparrow (all on Appleton-Whittell). With a near-record monsoon in 2021, it will be interesting to see how wintering sparrows respond on this coming CBC season.

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