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.