Sonoran sunrise

2010 November 8
by David J. Ringer

I found myself leaving Phoenix, Arizona, Sunday morning, eager to snag a few local specialty birds on the way out. The Papago Park-Phoenix Zoo-Desert Botanical Garden complex is an easy 10-15 minute drive from Sky Harbor International Airport, a mercy for birders like me with little spare time on their hands. The morning was bright and cool.

morning light

Saguaro cacti stand guard in the chilly morning glare.

Gambel's Quail, Callipepla gambelii

I was excited to encounter a covey of Gambel’s Quail (Callipepla gambelii), a species I’d seen only once before. With streaks, blotches, and lines that could have come from a modern art exhibit and their extravagant crests, these birds are a sight to behold.

molting Anna's Hummingbird

This Anna’s Hummingbird, which was singing its scratchy, squeaky song, flashes a few brilliant magenta feathers. In time, he’ll have his full endowment of splendor.

Gila Woodpecker

Life bird! One of several Gila Woodpeckers (Melanerpes uropygialis) I observed. One of their calls sounds similar to a Red-bellied Woodpecker call, but they have another common call that’s very different.

Gila Woodpecker

Flight shot affords a good look at the yellow vent and barred plumage. Gila Woodpecker was one of three life birds; Abert’s Towhee and Gilded Flicker were the other two.

Verdin (Auriparus flaviceps) building a nest

Verdins chipped in the brush. This bird caught my eye just before it disappeared into its nest carrying a bit of fluff. They’re not breeding now, are they?

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Polioptila caerulea

I didn’t find any Black-tailed Gnatcatchers, but I did find two Blue-grays. You can see this bird’s extensively white outer tail feathers.

Audubon’s Warblers moved through the shrubs in little flocks. Their call note seems more bell-like than the hard, dry call of their eastern counterpart. White-crowned Sparrows and Curve-billed Thrashers skulked.

Introduced palms and artificial ponds created habitat for an additional suite of birds.


This Osprey circled above the ponds; other water-loving birds included Neotropic Cormorants, Great and Snowy Egrets, and American Coots.

Great-tailed Grackles

Male Great-tailed Grackles compete in a palm. Their vocalizations are noticeably different from those of eastern birds. In fact, the two populations are not each other’s closest relatives. Could they be split someday? Is a massive hybrid zone developing in the interior West as the two populations meet due to range expansion? We don’t know yet.

White-throated Swifts

A small flock of White-throated Swifts plied the morning blue.

From atop a hill overlooking the zoo, I could see a Common Raven taking food in the African vulture and crowned crane exhibit. Two later flew directly overhead, uttering only a few soft croaks. Apparently Chihuahuan Ravens peter out just east of the Phoenix area.

Prairie Falcon

A raptor moving quickly caught my eye. I got glasses on it just in time to see an unmistakable and magnificent Prairie Falcon, which promptly disappeared behind a rock outcropping. I walked up the trail a bit and found it perched high on the rock — an exhilarating way to end the morning.

4 Responses
  1. Elias Elias permalink
    November 8, 2010

    I hadn’t heard that bit about the great-tailed grackle. Can you provide more detail?

    • David J. Ringer permalink*
      November 8, 2010

      Hi Elias,

      I mentioned this in passing in a post about ravens last year but never got around to writing a full post.

      A 2008 paper showed that the western Great-tailed Grackle is sister to the extinct Slender-billed Grackle, and the eastern Great-tailed Grackle is sister to Boat-tailed Grackle, from which it is isolated reproductively, of course. This means that the two Great-tailed forms may be separate species — or not. If they aren’t reproductively isolated, it may be a case of reticulation.

      Historically, the two Great-tailed Grackle clades were geographically separated, but their range expansion since the 1960s has put them into contact in the interior western U.S. No one knows what is happening in that new overlap zone.

      Here’s a PDF of the paper, which has interesting maps, etc.: A Complete Species-Level Phylogeny of the Grackles (Quiscalus spp.), Including the Extinct Slender-Billed Grackle, Inferred from Mitochondrial DNA (Powell et al. 2008).

  2. thainamu permalink
    November 8, 2010

    I’ve been birding in the Desert Botanical Gardens (my inlaws live nearby). It’s is a cool place.

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