I’ve been in Arizona for seven years without exactly setting the place ablaze with my rare bird finding exploits. I’ve chanced upon a few notables, but nothing to really get people racing to the scene. That finally changed on Saturday…
I was looking for a Rusty Blackbird, itself a very rare bird here, found by Mark Stevenson along Woodland Road in Tucson, a community of ranch-style properties with horse paddocks, pecan groves and lots of nice green fields. Unfortunately I wasn’t having much luck with the blackbird flock, which refused to cooperate by resolutely staying up in the trees, away from the road and silhouetted against the sun. Just after 4:00pm I turned my attention to a small pecan grove. A flock had formed in a couple of pine trees across the road, Chipping Sparrows mainly, a couple of Ruby-crowned Kinglets and… something else – a warbler – what was that?
As I raised my binoculars my brain had already made a suggestion – greeny-yellow around the head, faint chestnut streaks down the flanks – Chestnut-sided Warbler. Splendid, a state bird for me (I really must get to Sweetwater). But as soon as I focused the binoculars, I knew something was wrong. In fact, everything was wrong – size, shape, head pattern – this was something different. I ran the short distance back to the car and grabbed my camera, my mind making another uncomfortable leap to the only other bird that could show flanks like that, surely – Bay-breasted Warbler. But that’s both very rare and often very difficult to identify. Uh-oh…
I relocated the bird in the pine tree and got a couple of out of focus shots before it flew across the road, calling, and perched right near the top of a pecan tree. Very strangely for a warbler, it barely moved for about three minutes. I was firing off shots, which, seeing as it barely moved, all look the same. It then flew off into the pecan grove and I never saw it again.
What to do? I found a couple of birders also looking for the blackbird, and flagged down a few more driving by. We all looked at the photos, scoured various books, scratched our heads and tried to find it again, without success. The other birders drifted away and found the blackbird. It had been flushed by a Merlin by the time I arrived, but I was more interested in getting home and looking at my warbler photos.
Once I had the photos on the screen, the ID looked solid so I contacted a few other birders for opinions. Rich Hoyer agreed that it was a Bay-breasted and that was good enough for me – I put the news out. I was still nervous that I’d made a horrible mistake, but as luck would have it, the warbler was seen in the same area by quite a lot of people on Sunday and Monday, all (presumably) agreeing it was a Bay-breasted Warbler, about the 16th record for Arizona, 9th for SE Arizona and a state bird for almost everyone.
It was nothing more than dumb luck, but finally I’ve found something that got Arizona birders talking 😀