April in Arizona started off with a bang: Tufted Flycatcher!
This little gem from the tropical pine forests of Mexico is one of the rarest birds in North America (i.e. the ABA area). Fewer than 10 have been recorded north of the border … ever. “Our” bird was first spotted in Ramsey Canyon Preserve, Arizona, on Monday, March 28th, but since the preserve was closed on Tuesday and Wednesday, we had to wait until the 31st to go look for it.
We weren’t the only ones who had that idea. When we arrived at the preserve gate, about a half hour before opening time, a line of cars stretched back at least a quarter of a mile! Once through the gate and after paying the entry fee ($6 per person; good for one week) we joined the throng hustling up the approximately one-half mile long trail to the last known location, the Bledsoe Loop.
Along the way, we met some familiar faces, including “John from Australia” whom I had met while chasing the Common Cranes in western Texas late if February. John had tried unsuccessfully for the bird in the afternoon when it was first seen and had an inkling that the bird might have moved to higher elevations, so we left the masses behind and hiked a short way up the Hamburg Trail. The reason for this inkling was that two Tufted Flycatchers had spent the summer in the higher elevations of the Hamburg Trail in 2015, and the current bird is suspected to be one of that pair or one of their offspring.
Unfortunately, despite some nice birding along the trail, we missed the Tufted Flycatcher. Not only that, but it started to snow! We certainly did not expect snow at the relatively low elevation of the preserve (5000 – 5500 feet) this late in the year, but there it was. Then, to add even more insult to our injuries, we heard a report that the flycatcher was seen down in the canyon where we had first been.
The rest of the day, (We spent seven hours at the preserve.) we walked up and down the trail visiting all of the likely locations without success. We managed to find the other rarity that has been at the preserve this spring, Flame-colored Tanager, and that certainly was a treat, but no flycatcher. We were bushed by the time we left and headed into Sierra Vista for dinner and a motel.
The next day, April Fool’s Day, we returned to the preserve once again, hoping that nature would not play any tricks on us. The volunteers at the gate to the parking lot let the waiting birders in early to avoid another long line-up of cars and the trail up the canyon was opened a little early as well.
This time the weather was perfect: no hint of snow or precipitation of any kind, calm winds, and bright sunshine. The crowd of birders was noticeably reduced. Unfortunately, and somewhat surprisingly, the crowd of birds was lower as well. We spent several hours looking but never got a glimpse of either the flycatcher or the tanager. We also saw far fewer of the usual local birds and migrants than we had seen in the snow flurries the day before.
Late in the morning we took a restroom and snack break and returned to the visitor center. We spent about 30 minutes there and started back up the trail. Almost immediately, we ran into one of the birders we had been with earlier in the day. He had just re-found the flycatcher and was hustling back to the visitor center to spread the word! We hustled up the trail as fast as our lungs would let us and we were very fortunate to find a small group of birders still watching the bird. Amazingly, it had hardly moved from where it had been found and was still actively feeding and offering nice views. Unfortunately, it was quite distant from the trail and I was not able to get a good photo.
It is quite remarkable that the bird was re-found where it was. It is only because it was on the edge of a clearing that is was visible at all as it foraged under the branches of oaks and young pines well across a creek from the trail. Everyone we had spoken to had advised us to look for the bird in sycamore trees near the creek. No one ever mentioned hillsides of pine-oak woodland. We’re certainly thankful for the sharp eyes of the helpful birder who re-found the bird and then took the time to alert everyone!