Baseball spring training tests player skill, compatibility, interaction and adaptability, ultimately producing a lineup that hopefully succeeds until fall. Similarly, Mother Nature has been managing the spring lineup of birds for eons, long before Abner Doubleday (or whoever) dreamed up our national pastime. Those fly-by-night migrants that arrived as summer ended to winter over, like White-crowned Sparrows, Red-naped Sapsuckers and Ruby-crowned Kinglets have been scratched and will shortly rejoin the minor leagues up north. In their place, heavy hitters like Hooded Orioles, Black-headed Grosbeaks and Turkey Vultures move in, build homes and start raising families. The big guns are joined by finesse players such as Lucy’s Warbler, Bell’s Vireo and Broad-tailed hummers, all of whom will steal your heart if not second base.
Beating other birders to the punch by reporting the FOS (first-of-season) Hooded Oriole or Ash-throated Flycatcher, is as much a game as baseball, and daily reports on the Arizona-New Mexico list-serve will soon be flooded with FOS accounts. Unlike baseball, however, anyone can play this game. To best your friends at this backyard sport, follow the guidelines below.
If you post your sightings on a calendar, use last year’s to give you a rough idea when to start looking for any given bird. If you don’t post sightings to a calendar, you should start or you’re not likely to be a contender. Our birds aren’t as predictable as Capistrano’s swallows, though, so you need to start looking early and stick with it. In 2012, our first Hooded Oriole, a female, showed up on March 16, followed by the first male on March 18. Last year, on the other hand, our first Hooded Oriole was a male, who didn’t make an appearance until April 6, followed by the first female on April 8. Of the three orioles that return to Arizona in the spring, only the Hooded actually breed in SaddleBrooke, and you can usually find them in or near a palm tree, their favorite nesting spot. Once you have spotted Hooded Orioles, start looking for Bronzed Cowbirds (the male is pitch-black with a bright red eye). Bronzed Cowbirds are parasitic with a special attraction to Hooded Orioles. Rather than build their own nests, incubate eggs and raise their young, all species of cowbirds sneak their eggs into other bird nests and let the confused hosts incubate and raise the foreign intruders. When Hooded Orioles start nesting, you should soon see Bronzed Cowbirds.
It’s relatively easy to be the first on your block to spot our first-of-season Turkey Vulture. Just stand outside all day looking at the sky, although you might want to take a break now and then if you’re married or have any close friends. Better than using last year’s calendar or staring at the sky to learn when some species of bird might appear, however, is a book published by the Tucson Audubon Society, Finding Birds in Southeast Arizona. This frequently updated book not only directs you to the most likely sites for finding local birds, it includes a complete set of charts that summarize historical records for the presence and abundance of those species. Checking Hooded Oriole, for example, shows the bird’s presence as casual (less than rare) until mid-March, uncommon from mid-March to the first of April, common from then until mid-September and uncommon again until mid-October, when its status returns to casual. In other words, just like your favorite ballplayer.
(This article originally appeared in the March, 2014 issue of the Saddlebag Notes newspaper, Tucson, Arizona.)