Just as most of our birds in the Hill Country are winding down their breeding activities, many of the birds in Southeast Arizona are gearing up to begin the process. The reason for the different schedules it that the Arizona birds have changed their cycles to correspond to the summer monsoon season when this arid region receives most of its yearly rainfall. The monsoon rains begin in July and run through mid-September producing vegetation growth that in turn produces the increased availability of the bird’s food resources of nectar and insects to feed their hungry young.
Birders who want to take advantage of extra breeding season when the birds are singing and actively feeding their young are only a day’s drive away from our area. When I was invited to speak at the Sedona, Arizona Hummingbird Festival on August 1 and 2, I decided to drive through the mountainous sky islands en route to Sedona. The western hummingbirds also take advantage of this late bloom season by traveling through the region as they migrate to their tropical winter habitats in Mexico and Central America. Adding these migrants to the summer resident population makes it is possible to see up to fifteen species of hummingbirds in this region.
Of special interest this year has been the appearance of a rare visitor from Mexico and the tropics, the Plain-capped Starthroat. As many as five or six individuals had been reported since early July in the Portal and Madera Canyon areas of Southeast Arizona. The starthroat hummingbird would be a new life bird for me, so I was hoping at least one would hang around until I could get there to see it. The first stop would be in the village of Portal located very near the Arizona/New Mexico border in the Chiricahua Mountains.
Several Plain-capped Starthroats had been reported being seen at feeders on a private property less than a mile from Portal. After arriving at this property, I was told by the owner that the bird had been last seen the previous morning. We birders are often perplexed by this scenario – “the bird was here just a few hours ago.” After spending six hours staking out the feeders and the bird being a “no-show,” it was time to move on towards Madera Canyon. This birding hotspot is located in the Santa Rita Mountains just east of the city of Green Valley between Tucson and Nogales.
That the starthroat was not seen in Portal was disappointing, but birders always try to take advantage of each situation and enjoy what shows up. While waiting for the rare bird’s appearance, several hummingbirds appeared at the feeders, including Anna’s, Broad-billed, Rufous and Black-chins. Gambel’s Quail, Abert’s, Spotted and Canyon towhees, Lucy’s Warbler, and a large number of more common area birds were arriving to utilize seed feeders located around the hummer feeders . When not waiting for the starthroats appearance, I was able to travel several roads in the Chiricahua Mountains to record other interesting species, such as Montezuma Quail, Yellow-eyed Juncos, Arizona Woodpeckers, Greater Pewee (a new life-bird for me), Painted Redstart and Red-faced Warbler.
Just after arriving at the Santa Rita Lodge in Madera Canyon, I visited their bird feeding area where the starthroats had been seen. I had barely sat down when one of the observers shouted, “there it is!” This large hummingbird is a rather plain hummingbird compared to other more colorful species, but to me it was the most beautiful bird at the feeders. This bird stayed less than a minute, but came back several times, including a couple of times with a second starthroat. I was able to get many photographs of this new life-bird – a couple with both birds in view.
The starthroat is about the size of the Blue-thoated and Magnificent hummingbirds (5 inches), but has a much longer bill, roughly two inches. Its gorget is not as spectacular as our two large hummingbirds, showing only a hint of red in proper light. Of more significance to me was that this was my nineteenth recorded hummingbird species, all of the hummingbirds likely to be seen in North America. Southeast Arizona is a special place for birders anytime of the year.