Sunday, December 22, 2013

The Crown-Jewel of Phoenix Winter Sparrows

Winter birding in the Phoenix area is exciting for many reasons. The ponds and waterways at last fill with more than just Coots and Mallards. The weather is finally agreeable for outings lasting past 10am. The sun doesn't rise until 7am, so you don't have to get up at 4am as in the summer months. My personal favorite aspect of winter birding in Phoenix is the sparrow-ing. Sparrows are my favorite group of birds behind flycatchers, and they descend on Arizona en masse in the cooler months. Regional specialties return and we're even treated to occasional vagrants with White-throated and Fox Sparrows turning up every year. In fact, some vagrants are more than random. For the last three years, a single Golden-crowned Sparrow has wintered around a little patch of (admittedly, well and thirstily maintained) greenery near the Desert Springs Golf Course in Sun City, 45 minutes northwest of central Phoenix. 

It was originally spotted by Dominic Sherroni, a well-established birder and photographer who also visited Phoenix in the winter months, but now since people have been looking it returns every year with an ever-increasing flock of White-crowned Sparrows. Presumably they all stick together in the spring and summer months too, but I have no idea where this merry band goes.

I saw the GCSP last winter but didn't have my camera with me. Then, on two subsequent trips with the camera, which always necessitates a terrible drive through Surprise, AZ, I couldn't relocate it. 
Third time was the charm as I again picked up this cool vagrant sparrow, but it seemed content to spend the early and overcast part of the morning up in a tree, being pretty un-sparrowlike.

Knowing I'd probably loose him but also growing impatient, I decided to poke around the golf course for any other accommodating birds. As far as golf courses go (and I have birded on a few), Desert Springs is pretty birdy. The two main ponds host Wigeon, Mergansers, and the occasional Wood Duck. Most of the expected desert residents can be found in the bordering landscape. In the liminal, manicured spaces between, nifty birds like this Green-tailed Towhee do their thing.

Of course, winter time also means the bulk shipments of Cardinals have arrived. 

Phainopeplas, Say's Phoebes, and Cactus Wrens dot the mesquite and ironwood trees on the periphery. Every good birding trip has to have a flycatcher in it somewhere.

After doing a pleasant little walkabout and giving curt 'good morning' nods to all the curt pedestrians (there is a deep mistrust of young people here, since it's a retirement community), I was also able to relocate the GCSP and improve a bit on the photo collection.

I figured it was foraging for seeds from the recently installed winter lawn--which it may have, in fact, been doing--but it also seemed perfectly happy just munching on the fresh shoots themselves. Getting some roughage and staying regular...these are important considerations for a Sparrow as well, even if it's not in breeding plumage.

These golf courses use absurd amounts of water, but I guess it does keep the migrants happy. I was very pleased to finally get some photos, and also to eliminate any foreseeable reason to ever have to drive back to Sun City in the near future. Later this week it'll be off to Rackensack Canyon in Cave Creek for Fox Sparrows. Merry Birding to all and to all a good sight(ing)!