Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Going 'Nuts' at the Bill Williams Wildlife Refuge

With good reason, the southeast corner of Arizona attracts a lot bird-related attention--attention both from birds and birders. It hosts all kinds of tropical and mexican species that cannot be found anywhere else in the state or even the country. Black-capped Chickadees, Five-striped Sparrows, Quetzals, Trogons, Plain-capped Starthroats, Baird's Sparrows...it can take years to see everything the Madrean sky islands and their surrounding valleys have to offer, and a fair bit of luck too. And yet, for the last two years, one of the state's rarest visitors has been wintering not in the foothills of the Chiricahua or Santa Rita Mountains, but far away to the west, in a little patch of salt cedars about two miles down a little dirt trail called Planet Ranch Road, near the Bill Williams River by Lake Havasu.

At first glance, and really after that, the habitat around the Bill Williams River isn't one-of-a-kind. It is beautiful, mixing the reds and tans of sandstone canyons with the softer greens of desert scrub and the cedars and willows nearer the water, but this all can be said of the larger surrounding area too, and many of the lakes and reservoirs around the state. General birding in the area is excellent, with lots of coastal and deep-water birds visiting the nearby Lake Havasu and all the usual desert and canyon specialists present. But again, most of these species can be found in Maricopa County, and throughout much of the American southwest.

As I walked along Planet Ranch road, keeping and ear and an eye open for the ultra rare, ABA code 5 visitor, the question nagged at me. The singing Canyon Wrens were as lovely as their canyons, and the irascible young Phainopeplas were as charming as ever. In truth, the sheer number of Phainopeplas (I counted over forty) are worth the trip out from Phoenix.

But why would a rare Mexican flycatcher come here? It is not the only habitat of its kind between west/central Arizona and the Mexican border. Any why come at all? This was the second winter in a row that the bird was discovered. Does this individual just like the Bill Williams winter climate more than all the rest of its species? Does it just need a vacation from the financial and social demands of its spring and summer residence farther south? Did it clunk heads with a Woodpecker and develop a bad sense of direction now? Do birds appreciate their environment in and of itself, more than just he extent to which it suits their instinctual survival needs?
Yes, I'm anthropomorphising too much here, but people seem to do the same thing. The Mogollon Rim north east of Phoenix has tons of small mountain towns, mostly populated with cabins that are only inhabited for half of a year. What makes people buy a cabin in one town but not another? In addition to just availability (and that is a factor for birds too of course), we all tend to find something special and delightful in a place that, by any other account or observation, might be ubiquitous to everyone else.

I asked the local Crayon Wrens why they all set up shop in the rocky slopes along the road, and not somewhere else. At some places it seemed like there were four or five noisy neighbors all arguing about their property lines and coveting each other's perches. The Canton Wren response, of course, was that when you look and sound this good, you don't need to know anything.

For about an hour and a half I walked along the road, intruding into the brush from time to time and keeping an eye on the cottonwoods and salt cedars nearby. I mused and meandered quite contentedly, until a harsh, 'RHEEEP' (normally notated as 'weeep', but it sounds more 'rheepy' to me) call shattered the morning's melodies and meant it was time to get down to business.

Only the fifth or sixth record for the United States, this Nutting's Flycatcher was first discovered last winter (2011) by bird experts Lauren Harter and David Van Der Pluym. Its loud, recognizable call tipped them off right away that this was not just an unusually stubby Ash-throated Flycatcher, and after careful consultation and additional observations the record was accepted. Unusually for a rare migrant, the bird stuck around for most of the winter and thrilled many birders with it's relative sociability and vocalizations. Perhaps most surprising of all though, was that it returned for a second year. Does that mean it's not a vagrant any more???

Although this species of myiarchus Flycatcher favors the undergrowth of the salt cedar and cottonwood trees more than most Flycatchers, I was able to pick it out pretty quickly after it called, and also had the pleasure of directing a birder from San Diego to the spot so we could both enjoy a rare lifer.

Why this rare visitor chose this spot will forever be a mystery. It's curious to think that, despite this bird being relatively conspicuous and raucous in his unassuming little patch near mile marker two, it is probably the rarest bird (for North America) I've ever seen, and may well be for some time.

While the curiosities of bird vagrancies will continue to pester me, the trip out to see the Nutting's was most satisfying. After getting some nice views and spending time with this heart-throb of a bird, I headed over to Lake Havasu to look for James Bond villains, I mean Goldeneyes. More on that later.


  1. You know.......I just may have to make a trip:) This has been a challenging month, I have been really pushing my birding work and tracking birds down. This is inspiring....and your shots are wonderful! There really are a lot of quirky birds calling AZ home. If you come to Tucson, stop at Sweetwater for a quick glance at the Solitary Sandpiper. Winters here every year. Bizarre!

    1. Arizona is such a weird and beautiful place...

      You've been super busy with the birds this month! I guess that's what a Big January is all about. It's been a lot of fun to follow your trips to; they're both enviable and impressive, as is your dedication.

      I don't suppose that Ani is around Sweetwater anymore huh..?

    2. Someone reported one several weeks ago flying across a random road. It was the most bizarre thing. I have doubts about the sighting as it was the only one:)

      We are creating a plan and mapping out the state for the last of the weekends in January. This weekend Kathie and I are going to the Santa Cruz flats.....finally. I've printed off instructions for the roads and places birds were seen. The birds I'd love to see....the Caracara(love that beautiful shot of yours!), the alien Mountain Plover(Kathie's dream bird), and up in the Prescott area....the Tundra Swan. All 3 for me would be lifebirds....for Kathie....just the Mountain Plover. ALL birds would be new ticks for this year:) Oh and I need those vultures! See them all year round.....and then when you need them, they are in Casa Grande:) Plus I still want the Monk Parrot.

      I don't know if there's any turning back from this. SO it's moving forward into the inter/national waters this year outside of Tucson. This experience is more than just birding....it's a connection to something else that I can't explain but whatever it is....it has transformed my life.

    3. Ha! Yes you seem to be carried away Chris! It is addicting isn't it/ And yet, unlike so many other addictions, it's also totally fulfilling.

      I'll maintain healthy skepticism about the fly-over Nutting's, but stranger things have happened.

      Good luck finishing out the month! If you all are driving through Phoenix, or you're thinking of heading west, stop at the Thrasher spot past buckeye to get 3 or 4 species of Thrashers and some Sage Sparrows too.

  2. Someday, I will get shots like that of a Phainopepla...

    I'm very glad that our little celebirdy was so cooperative for you! When considering how unusual it is that he found his way there, remember that one was found just a few miles up the river in the fall of 2008. Extraordinary, but they did find their way to the most extensive native riparian habitat along the lower Colorado River. It boggles my mind to think of how many amazing birds are out there undetected, in those miles of dense forest...

    1. Thanks for stopping by Lauren.
      I don't want to sell the BWR area short, it's fabulous habitat, but yes there's got to be something extra since half of the North American records for this bird have all come in that little area.

      It's such a pull, what else might be in that area. I mean, if Nutting's is there than almost everything else that likes riparian wood margins is on the table eh? As the title says, one could go...Nuts.

      Thanks again for all the work you've done in tracking and publicizing this bird. Have you named this Havasu celebrity? Bill? William? Ol' Reliable?

  3. Looks like you had a pretty great time. Wish I could get out there.

    1. Twas' a great trip to be sure. Many times I have though, "Wow I wish..." while looking at your posts Scott :)

  4. Wow! That is so cool. I need to plan another trip to AZ for this one!

  5. Awesome shots. While you may take the Caynon Wren for granted in AZ, I think he's the coolest bird you snagged there.