Pining for Pine Flycatchers

What do you do when a first U.S. record shows up about two hours from where you live? If you are me, and you live in southeastern Arizona, and the bird in question is the Pine Flycatcher, you watch your Facebook newsfeed fill up with brilliant pictures taken by all of your friends who were free to go look for this unlikely arrival. It was midweek, though, and I had to work.

By the following Saturday, it was clear that the bird was planning on sticking around for at least a little while longer. According to all of the reports, she was working on a nest and everyone who managed to navigate the somewhat treacherous drive in from the road was rewarded with a chance to see this first-ever visitor from south of the border.

I was at a birthday party with a bunch of birder friends, most of who had already seen the bird. My pal Greg wanted to go the following morning, but didn’t have a vehicle that could make the trip. I had the vehicle, but was looking for someone to accompany me. Our plans fell into place pretty quickly after that.

The Santa Rita Mountains are one of southeastern Arizona’s Sky Islands, disjunct mountain ranges that are separated by “seas” of desert grassland and scrub. While the region is world renowned by birders, it is a biodiversity hot spot for everything from ants to oaks. Southeastern Arizona and the Sky Islands are a naturalist’s idea of Eden.

The west side of the Santa Ritas is fairly well known by birders: the famous Madera Canyon and Florida Canyon are there. The east side, however, receives far less attention, probably because it is more difficult to get there, a longer drive with challenging access.

It was in one of these under-birded canyons that bird guide Dave Stejskal found the Pine Flycatcher in late May of this year. Word quickly spread and birders from across the state and country descended upon the region in hopes of seeing the unlikely bird.

Sunday morning, June 5, 2016, Greg and I left Tucson while it was still dark and headed southeast. The first part of the drive from Tucson to Aliso Springs is straightforward—interstate and secondary highway gets you to the turn off where the road quickly turns to dirt and rock, leading you head ten miles into the canyon. It was slow going, with rocky, twisty, steep road, but our vehicle handled it with no problem and by 6:30 am we pulled into the parking area at Aliso Springs. A small group of birders was already there, including Troy Corman, Arizona Fish & Game Department biologist and one of the editors of the Arizona Breeding Bird Atlas . The bird wasn’t there when we first arrived, but Troy pointed to the nest she was building, high in an oak tree. We kept our eyes on the area and within ten minutes we heard a soft whip note. In the Pine Flycatcher flew. I was grateful to be with another birder who had the same birding style as me, in no hurry to leave once we’d seen the bird. We stayed there for three hours, mostly standing in the same spot, watching the Pine Flycatcher fly in and out, taking pictures, and enjoying the other birds in the area.

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The Pine Flycatcher was incredibly relaxed and didn’t seem to notice all of us gawking at her with our binoculars, cameras, and spotting scopes. We watched her find nesting material and bring it back to the nest she was working on. She foraged on the ground. She took a bath in the spring and then perched on a twig and preened her feathers. She flew off for minutes at a time, always notifying us of her return with the whip call. She practically posed for us. She was that cooperative.

Finding reliable sources of water in the desert can a life and death situation for wildlife (for people, too). Springs like Aliso provide critical habitat not just for birds, but all kinds of wildlife. I found out later that Tucson-based non-profit Sky Island Alliance has been monitoring Aliso Springs as part of a long-term project at springs across the region. They are using the information to help understand if their habitat restoration efforts are having the desired affect on wildlife and ecosystems. The study is also helping to track the impact of climate change on spring ecosystems. Now their data have a pretty compelling and interesting angle for birders: is there something special about Aliso Springs compared to other similar spring sites, or are there similarly good areas with the potential for unusual species to turn up?

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In a stunning example of the Patagonia Picnic Table Effect, the week after I saw the Pine Flycatcher, a birder reported an Aztec Thrush in the same area—another unusual visitor to the region. And the birds at Aliso Spring are great even without the rarities—Sulphur-bellied Flycatchers squeaked as they foraged in the trees, Mexican Jays squawked as they flew by, and Scott’s Orioles sang from the tree tops. It’s a beautiful spot of its own accord, Pine Flycatcher or no.

We all love to bird in the famous spots: Ramsey Canyon in the Huachucas; the South Fork of Cave Creek in the Chiricahuas; Madera Canyon in the Santa Ritas; the list goes on and on. I have lived in southeastern Arizona for over fifteen years now, and I sometime still have to pinch myself to see if I am dreaming when I visit these fabled locations.

But it makes you wonder: how much more would we see if we went birding in spots where no one usually birds? If a tree falls in the woods and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound? If a Pine Flycatcher whips in southeastern Arizona and no one spots it, was it still there?

Make sure to check out this video of the USA’s first Pine Flycatcher:

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