The Birds and the Bees

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Verdin looking for crystallized sugar (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

If, like millions of other folks, you hang sugar water feeders in your yard to attract hummingbirds, you’ll know this article isn’t about sex education.  I get lots of mail from hummingbird lovers who want to know how to keep non-hummer intruders away from their feeders.  When you put sugar water in a feeder and hang it outside, you’ll certainly attract those little acrobatic marvels you’re after, but in the wild you should know there’s no such thing as table reservations.  Candy stores draw kids of all kinds and ages, and easy-to-get sweet, energy-packed sugar water works the same way in your back yard.

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Orioles, like this Hooded, are nectar lovers too (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

Among other creatures, hummingbird feeders attract ants, bees, bats and even other birds.  Although hummers aggressively fight off rival hummingbirds, including their own species, they’re mostly hesitant to take on other critters. They ignore ants, but ants contaminate feeders, and you can eliminate them by hanging ant guards between the feeder and its hook.  Hummers also tolerate bigger birds, and since there aren’t any smaller birds, this includes a lot of intruders like woodpeckers, orioles, Verdins and House Finches.  Even the school yard bully Rufous Hummingbird gives up his bar stool to a Gila Woodpecker that outweighs him 16 to one.  Nectar-feeding bats are also sugar water feeders, although, like Dracula, they feed only at night.  If your feeders are full when you go to bed and empty when you get up, you probably have bat visitors.  Migrating nectar feeding bats can use a little sugar, too, but if you don’t want to refill all your feeders every morning, put a couple on a flat surface when the sun sets.  Bats will ignore these, since they need to hang from the feeder to feed.  And until you rehang them in the morning, your hummers can still feed from a table top.

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Bees can be the most annoying nuisance (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

Compared with birds and bats, bees can be a real nuisance.  If bees on your feeders bother you, there are some ways to mitigate the problem.  First, try to keep your feeders at least half full.  Sugar water becomes more concentrated as it evaporates, and everyone including bees likes a sweeter hit.  Rinse off the outside of feeders daily.  Wind and heavier birds will splash sugar water onto the outside of a feeder, which is like a candy store tossing bonbons on the sidewalk.  In summer, dilute your sugar water from 1 part sugar to 4 parts water to 1 part sugar to 5 of water. The less concentrated liquid won’t attract as many bees.

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No bees, but a hitch-hiking fly on this Rufous (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

It also helps to hang multiple feeders; often bees will focus on the sweetest, leaving others for the hummers.  Some folks even designate one feeder for the bees, hanging it out of sight and filling it with more concentrated sugar.  Don’t bother with ‘bee guards’ or feeders with slits instead of holes.  Bees don’t seem discouraged by either.  Feeders with flexible membranes over the holes that open only when a hummingbird pushes the membrane aside with his bill will keep bees out, but given a choice, hummingbirds will also ignore these.

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Bee-free feeder with light coating of Avon Skin so Soft (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

Another option is to put a light coating of Avon’s Skin-so-Soft around (not in) the feeding holes.  Wet your finger with it instead of spraying it onto the feeder, and spread it lightly around the holes.  Although bees are not completely discouraged, their numbers will drop, at least for a while.  On the other hand, if you’re the one getting discouraged, look on the bright side.  In the high country, it’s bears, not bees that come to the feeders.

  (This article was published in the February, 2017, issue of the Saddlebag Notes Newspaper, Tucson, Arizona)

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Hummingbird Feeders

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A male Costa’s guards ‘his’ feeder (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

Hummingbirds, those amazing little winged marvels that seem to burn more energy than they consume, are pushovers when it comes to attracting birds to your yard.  Flowers are the simplest way to draw them, especially bright tubular ones like salvia and tacoma, and they love water mists and sprays, like when your drip irrigation system springs a leak.  They’re big fans of floral nectar with its high sugar content, not surprising when you weigh the same as a penny, fly 30 miles an hour and sport a heart rate up to 1,200 beats per minute.  These little acrobats can also hover, fly upside down and spin their wings in a figure eight pattern at more than 3,000 cycles a minute.  Did I mention they have the highest metabolism of any homoeothermic animal?  Sugar isn’t their only food source, however.  Like the rest of us, they need protein as well, which they get by snagging spiders, gnats, mosquitoes and other tiny tasty critters.  If you wonder why the hummer in your yard is playing elevator, going up, down and sideways in an apparently empty plot of space, take a closer look and you’ll likely find him picking off near-invisible bugs.  But it’s a sugar high that powers those aggressive dogfights we’ve grown accustomed to, and you’ll be their friend for life if you supplement your floral buffet with a few sugar water feeders.

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An impatient Broad-tailed Hummer being hand-fed (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

Hummingbird feeders are like fishing lures when it comes to consumers.  Stores are full of expensive elaborate contraptions that often appeal more to the buyer than the bird (or fish).  When shopping for a hummingbird feeder, keep the birds’ needs in mind.  Hummingbirds don’t like to wait in line for a sugar hit, so choose a feeder with multiple feeding holes.  They sometimes like to take a breather, too, so a feeder with a perch will give that racing heart a chance to rest.  You also want enough capacity to accommodate your traffic, but not so much that you’re tossing unused food when it’s time to clean the feeder.  And do yourself a favor at the same time—choose feeders that are inexpensive, wide-mouthed to facilitate filling and easy to disassemble, clean and reassemble.  Red components, like the reservoir and top cover, are common and may attract hummers initially, but once they find your feeders, they won’t forget.

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Frozen sugar water needs to be thawed (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

Don’t waste your money on commercial dry ‘nectar’ mix or premixed food.  All you and the birds need is a simple sugar water blend you can prepare easily and cheaply at a fraction of the cost of premixed ‘nectar’.  Use a four-to-one recipe:  bring water to a boil, add pure granulated sugar at the rate of one part sugar to four parts water, stir to dissolve, let cool and you’re done.  Store unused sugar water in a closed container in your refrigerator, and never add food coloring or anything else.  And don’t forget to clean your feeders when they are empty, after a week or two regardless and immediately if the liquid turns cloudy or black spots appear.  Use a bottle brush and hot water to clean the components, adding a vinegar or mild bleach mix if necessary, and always rinse multiple times to protect the birds.

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Choose a feeder with multiple holes for crowds (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

In SaddleBrooke, we have six species of hummingbirds during spring and fall migration, and three of those species are found here year-round:  Costa’s, Anna’s and Broad-billed.  ‘Seasonal’ hummingbirds, like the Midwest and eastern states are accustomed to, is not the case here, so keep your feeders up and filled whenever you’re in town.  These supplemental feeding sources, more for your benefit than the birds when flowers and bugs are abundant, can be critical lifesavers during a winter freeze.  Your hummers will thank you.

  (This article was published in the January, 2017, issue of the Saddlebag Notes Newspaper, Tucson, Arizona)

 

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Big Bird Holiday at Rooster Cogburn’s

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Up close and personal with the world’s largest bird (photo Prudy and Bob Bowers)

If you’re looking for a bird-oriented holiday outing designed for kids, grandkids and adults, too, there’s a great option about an hour from Tucson.  The Rooster Cogburn Ostrich Ranch is a 600-acre tract on the south side of Picacho Peak that features a petting zoo, monster truck tours and the opportunity to feed 300-pound ostriches and 4-ounce Rainbow Lorikeets. By December, 2016, added attractions will include diving ducks and stingray feeding.  In 1993, founder D.C. ‘Rooster’ Cogburn moved his ostrich ranch from Oklahoma to its present site, hoping to turn ostrich farming into a major enterprise. ‘Rooster’ Cogburn is a descendent of the one-eyed lawman portrayed by John Wayne in the 1969 movie, ‘True Grit’ (and by Jeff Bridges in the 2010 remake.) The original goal of a large-scale commercial ranch was never realized, in part due to a hot-air balloon flyover in 2002 that panicked 1,600 ostriches, resulting in a chaotic bird stampede that destroyed ranch facilities and led to the death of 1,000 ostriches.

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A Lorikeet treat for grand kids (photo Prudy and Bob Bowers)

However, the switch in focus to family-friendly entertainment has been a big success, and this 5-star Trip Advisor attraction is well worth the drive.  Hundreds of ‘South African Black’ Ostriches are available for viewing, feeding and photographing, visitors can feed deer, miniature Sicilian donkeys, Boer goats, lorikeets and parakeets. ‘Monster truck’ tours provide a 40-minute open-air ride around the ranch on weekends, and a gift shop sells a variety of ostrich-related products, including (in season) fresh eggs that weigh 4 pounds and equal 2 dozen chicken eggs.

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The author interviews Rainbow Lorikeets (photo Prudy Bowers)

If you’re under 6 or over 106, admission is free, something to look forward to if you’re retired. Otherwise, 7 bucks will get you into the feeding areas, and admission includes food pellets for ostriches and a nectar cup for lorikeets. Rainbow Lorikeets are noisy parrots as colorful as their name, native to Australia and eastern Indonesia and, at nearly a foot in length, a three-ring circus when you’re holding a nectar cup. Make sure someone in your party carries a camera instead of nectar.

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Flightless birds are good runners in lion country (photo Prudy and Bob Bowers)

Feeding ostriches, on the other hand, is a whole different story. Ostriches, native to Africa, are the world’s largest bird, standing up to 9 feet tall and weighing in at 300 pounds or more. They have muscular legs and can run 40 miles per hour, a useful trait for a bird that can’t fly and lives in lion country. In the wild, they hang out in hot, dry deserts, making them happy campers in our lion-free Sonoran Desert.

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Discretion is the better part of valor when feeding 300-pound birds (photo Prudy and Bob Bowers)

At Rooster Cogburn’s Ranch, fenced walkways and platforms provide visitors unobstructed close-up views of the ostriches, as well as easy access to feed the birds. The ostriches roam a large area, but know exactly where and when to find pellet-toting visitors. You have three choices for feeding them: placing pellets into an external chute safely screened from the big bird’s big beaks, placing the pellets into fence rail-top trays or, for the brave and foolhardy, extending an open hand full of pellets. The ostriches can easily swing their heads a couple of feet over the top of the fence, giving them ready access to guests’ hands and more. They may not have teeth, but they don’t have a smile, either, and an aggressively hungry largest-bird-in-the-world with a big open bill can be unnerving, to say the least. You might prefer the feeding options with less direct contact. Additionally, ostriches have been known to skip the pellets and go for an earring instead. Let’s just say that discretion is the better part of valor when it comes to feeding a 300-pound bird.

 (This article was published in the December, 2016, issue of the Saddlebag Notes Newspaper, Tucson, Arizona)

 

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The Hummingbirds of Colombia

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Male Booted Racquet-tail (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

Arizona draws a lot of retirees for a lot of reasons, but if you love birds that could be reason enough. More than 600 species have been recorded here, including 16 different hummingbirds. If you moved to Arizona from an eastern state, your hummingbird world likely was limited to a single species, the Ruby-throated Hummingbird, and in comparison, Arizona’s variety has persuaded more than a few folks to take up birding. We’ve documented 7 species in SaddleBrooke so far, with a couple more likely to show up at some point. Most American birders have a special affinity for hummingbirds. They’re our smallest birds, easily attracted to our yards and capable of incredibly acrobatic feats unmatched by any other bird. What many folks don’t realize, however, is that hummingbirds are unique to the Western Hemisphere. You won’t find this incredible bird in Africa, Australia, India or Asia. Hummingbirds exist only in the Americas and Caribbean, from Canada to Argentina, and as you head south across the Mexican border, their numbers increase, peaking in Ecuador and Colombia, where more than 150 species have been documented.

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Golden-breasted Puffleg (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

Colombia is a relatively small country, smaller than our state of Alaska and just one-eighth the size of neighboring Brazil. In spite of this size disadvantage, Colombia is home to more bird species than any other country in the world, nearly 2,000 in total, or almost one in five of all bird species on the planet. Unfortunately for birders, Colombia also has been a problematic destination, suffering 5 decades of war, but this is finally changing. Armed conflict has ended, and the country seems determined to resolve these issues permanently. We took advantage of this improved environment in August, and just returned from a month’s tour of many of the country’s best birding sites. We were not disappointed. We found exceedingly friendly people, exceptional coffee, wonderful food and spectacular sights. Best of all, we found amazing birds and lots of them. Colombia is ideally situated as a birding destination. It is the only South American country that borders Central America and both the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean. The Andes diverge into three separate cordilleras here, the Santa Marta Sierra end abruptly at the Caribbean, and the topography includes llanos, paramo and Amazonia.

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Rainbow-bearded Thornbill (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

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Hand-feeding Hummers at Termales, Colombia (photo Bob Bowers)

We found 345 species of birds, and most of these were birds we had never seen. We also took nearly 8,000 photographs. With this many exotic birds, it’s difficult to pick favorites, but as a family hummingbirds are unmatched. We recorded 55 species of hummingbirds, ranging from tiny buzzers to long-tailed wonders, with names as colorful as the birds themselves, like Tourmaline Sunangel, Violet-tailed Sylph, Shining Sunbeam and Rainbow-bearded Thornbill. We found hummingbirds in national parks, botanical gardens, eco-lodges and private yards, but one of our favorite sites was at the Termales Hotel, 10,000 feet above sea level near an active volcano. In addition to a thermal-heated swimming pool, each morning the hotel provides guests with miniature sugar water feeders you can hold in your hand. High-elevation hummers perch on your head and hands as they swarm the feeders, giving you a bucket-list experience as well as amazing photo opportunities. We might have seen more exotic birds, like Booted Racquet-tails and Sword-billed Hummingbirds, at other sites, but hand-feeding the birds of Termales is the memory that lingers longest.

 

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Sword-billed Hummingbird (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

(This article was published in the November, 2016, issue of the Saddlebag Notes Newspaper, Tucson, Arizona)

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Birding Postcard from Colombia

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Lazuline Sabrewing, El Dorado, Santa Marta Sierra (photo Prudy and Bob Bowers)

Colombia is smaller than 25 other countries, and just two-thirds the size of Alaska, and yet it holds the world’s record for most species of birds. Nearly 2,000 species have been documented to date, or nearly 20 percent of the world’s total. Colombia’s count exceeds that of every other country in the world, including its bird-rich border-sharing neighbors Ecuador, Peru, Venezuela and Brazil, which incidentally is nearly eight times larger than Colombia. In spite of this, birders have been slow to explore Colombia’s avifauna, in large measure due to the country’s 52-year war with FARC, a conflict that has killed more than 220,000 people.  That conflict appeared to have ended when government and rebel leaders signed a peace accord in Havana last month. A public referendum endorsing the accord was held on October 2nd, and was expected to pass by a wide margin, but instead failed in a close vote. This may cast a shadow on Colombia’s future birding prospects, but there is reason to be hopeful, since both sides are tired of fighting and seem willing to continue seeking an acceptable solution. From a birding perspective, the doves are dominating the hawks.

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Rainbow-bearded Thornbill, Termales del Ruiz (photo Bob Bowers)

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Andean Cock-of-the-Rock (photo Prudy and Bob Bowers)

Prudy and I took advantage of this stabilization in August, and traveled to Colombia for a month’s exploration of many of the country’s best birding destinations.  We flew into Bogota, spent two days with a local guide at four sites near the capitol and another two visiting cultural sites, then flew two hours north to spend 3 days birding on our own on San Andres, a ten square-mile, little-known island off the coast of Nicaragua. From there, we returned to Bogota, then flew to Cali, where we joined local guides Andrea and Alejandro. Recently wed, this young couple have started a birding and herping tour service, appropriately called ‘Birding and Herping’, and they had agreed to spend 10 days with us, following a birding itinerary we had put together to cover the three Andean cordillera between Cali and Medellin. We parted with Andrea (the ornithologist) and Alejandro (the herpetologist) at Medellin, from where we traveled on our own to Cartagena, and from Cartagena to Santa Marta, Minca and finally El Dorado, an eco-lodge in the Santa Marta Sierra before returning to Bogota and home.

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Blue-winged Mountain Tanager, Anchicaya Valley (photo Prudy and Bob Bowers)

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Colombia’s National Bird, the Andean Condor (photo Prudy and Bob Bowers)

The primary cities of Colombia are large (Bogota is nearly nine million), traffic-bound centers of growth and hustle, but once outside these metropolitan areas, birders are faced with problems of access, transportation and some challenging roads. In spite of this, and by using local guides, we saw much of this spectacularly beautiful country and many wonderful birds. We recorded 345 species, almost all of which were birds we had not seen before, including 55 species of hummingbirds and 14 of Colombia’s 78 endemics. We also took more than 7,600 photographs. In addition to Colombia’s 56 National Natural Parks, many lodges, private homes and fincas share hummingbird and other feeders with visiting birders. One of our favorite sites was the Hotel Termales del Ruiz, nestled more than 10,000 feet high in the Andes’ Los Nevados, and featuring a volcanic-warmed thermal swimming pool. Each morning, you can hold miniature sugar water feeders while dozens of hummingbirds swarm around, perching on your head and hands for up close and personal observation.

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Colombia’s endemic Yellow-eared Parrot (photo Alejandro Echeverry, Birding and Herping)

This is an adventure we recommend without reservation, and guided trips are offered by several U.S. based companies. This is the easiest and most convenient option, although you can also arrange personalized guided trips in Colombia using the same guides that would accompany your states-originated trip at a fraction of the cost. Several U.S. airlines fly direct to Colombia, and with a flight time of just four hours from Atlanta to Bogota, fares are reasonable. Living this close to the country with more bird species than any other in the world is an opportunity that should not be skipped.

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Birding Sonora’s Free Zone

Rose-throated Becard (Bob and Prudy Bowers)

Rose-throated Becard (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

Having hundreds of species never seen in the U.S. and a border just an hour from Tucson, Mexico is a natural magnet for Arizona birders.  But birding by car in Mexico is a little more complicated than birding in Arizona. You need Mexican car insurance, and in most cases you need a tourist permit as well as a car permit, documents that can take an hour or more to obtain at the permit station 21 kilometers south of Nogales, Arizona.  However, you can get a taste of birding Mexico without the time-consuming hassle to get permits.  Mexico allows U.S. visitors 72 hours in Sonora without either a visa or car permit, as long as you don’t venture out of the ‘free zone.’ You still need to have Mexican car insurance, but that’s easy to get by phone in Tucson.

This Sonoran ‘free zone’ includes mainland Mexico west of highway 15 from Nogales to Guaymas and north of highway 2 from Imuris to Naco, Arizona. That’s a lot of territory and includes birding hotspots in Rocky Point, Hermosillo, Kino Bay, San Carlos and Guaymas.  Car permits are not required for visits in this area regardless of length of stay, and staying 72 hours or less obviates tourist permits.  Three days isn’t much time to bird these hotspots, but you can sample enough to decide where to spend more time on a longer trip.  And even though a tourist permit is required for stays longer than 72 hours, it’s free for 7 days and only $20 for up to 180 days.

Five-striped Sparrow (Bob and Prudy Bowers)

Five-striped Sparrow (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

Rocky Point and San Carlos are a bit far for a 3-day trip, but there are two free zone birding destinations that are less than 130 miles and only about 2 hours from Tucson.  One is Rio Magdalena in Imuris and the other is Rancho El Aribabi, just 20 miles east of Imuris on highway 2.  Rio Magdalena is an under-birded eBird hotspot with just 15 reports, but 155 species have been listed here on visits dating back to 1980.  The creek-like river flows year-round, attracting Black-bellied Whistling Duck, teals, mergansers, and grebes.  In addition, this hotspot has reported Mexican specialties like Elegant Quail, Green Kingfisher, White-tipped Dove, Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl, Crested Caracara and Black-capped Gnatcatcher.     A dirt road parallels the river, with multiple opportunities to park and bird, distracted only by friendly ranchers on horseback. Imuris is just 43 miles south of Nogales.

Cocospera River (Bob and Prudy Bowers)

Rio Cocospera in Rancho El Aribabi (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

The second hotspot is Rancho El Aribabi, a 10,000-acre cattle ranch at 3,500 feet in the Sierra Azul Mountains 19 miles east of Imuris.  The ranch focuses on conservation and research, and is open periodically to small group overnight visits.  The ranch guest house sits above the Rio Cocospera, a small stream flowing through a heavily treed riparian area rich with birds.  Birding the riverfront trails in early morning is like walking through nature’s cathedral.  In spring, Summer Tanagers are abundant and singing Sinaloa Wrens compete with machine gun chattering Yellow-breasted Chats.  EBird shows 157 species for this hotspot.  We stayed here two nights in May, and our group recorded 50 species including Gray Hawk, Sinaloa Wren, Green Kingfisher, Five-striped Sparrow, White-tipped Dove, Buff-collared Nightjar and Rose-throated Becard.  EBird reports for one of these birds, the Sinaloa Wren, have occurred in just 3 places in the U.S., all in Arizona: Tubac, Patagonia and Ft. Huachuca, and never for more than a single bird.  Aribabi is just 35 miles south of Arizona, and we watched 2 pairs of Sinaloa Wrens singing and nest-building.  We videotaped two minutes of this nest-building and singing activity, which can be found on YouTube here. We fully expect this bird to be nesting in Arizona before long.

Entering Mexico to bird these two hotspots is hassle-free and no more difficult than birding Santa Cruz County. If you’re interested in seeing some birds seldom, if ever, seen in Arizona, email me for details (bobescribe@gmail.com.)

(This article was published in the August, 2016, issue of the Saddlebag Notes Newspaper, Tucson)

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The Wren from Sinaloa

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Sinaloa Wrens nest building at El Aribabi, Sonora (photo Gordon Karre)

Sinaloa, the Mexican state that lies along Sonora’s southern border, is well known for the popular beach-front tourist destination, Mazatlán. You might also associate it with a major drug cartel, but if you’re a birder you’ll probably think first of its namesake bird, the beautiful Sinaloa Wren, Thryophilus Sinaloa. The Sinaloa Wren is endemic to western Mexico, and just 21 years ago was unknown north of Alamos, deep in southern Sonora. However, by 2006 it had expanded its range into central and northern Sonora, and ultimately made its first appearance in Arizona in August, 2008, in Patagonia. Today, 12 years later, Sinaloa Wrens continue to appear in Arizona rarely but expectedly, and although they have not been seen in Patagonia for 6 years, for the past 3 years single birds have been found in both the Tubac area and in Ft. Huachuca. Sinaloa Wrens have not yet been found in any other U.S. state, nor has more than a single bird been found, so it’s still a crowd-drawing event when one is reported here.

 

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Sinaloa Wren at nest, El Aribabi, Sonora (photo Pete Baum)

This may well change, however, since the wren now is routinely found nesting at Rancho El Aribabi on the Cocospera River just 35 miles south of the Arizona border. We visited El Aribabi in May, 2014, and although we never saw a Sinaloa Wren, we clearly heard one singing, a loud but harmonious song that competed well with the clatter of Yellow-breasted Chats. We returned to El Aribabi again this May, and this time found two pairs of Sinaloa Wrens building purse-like grass nests draped across riparian tree branches. Each monogamous pair sallied out to find grass and fine twigs, added them to the growing nest and, as they flew away, broke into song.

 

We videotaped two minutes of this nest-building and singing activity, which can be found on YouTube here.  This song is well-described as ‘complicated and harmonic.’

This beautiful bird has moved 400 miles north of Sinaloa in just 2 decades, and is now nesting 35 miles south of Arizona. I think it’s safe to bet it won’t be long before she loses her endemic status in Mexico. After all, birds can’t read and they have wings.

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