Rare Birds in Catalina State Park

Rufous-backed Robin, Catalina State Park (photo Jerry Schudda)

Rufous-backed Robin eating hackberries, Catalina State Park, Arizona (photo courtesy of Jerry Schudda)

Catalina State Park is one of Arizona’s state park gems, and remarkably the nearest one to a major population center.  The park was established in 1983, and consists of 5,493 acres of high desert/lower Sonoran Life Zone. The park entrance sits at about 2,600 feet above sea level in the Santa Catalina Mountain foothills, and a complete system of trails follow contours up and out of the park into the adjacent Coronado National Forest.  9,157-foot Mt. Lemmon is just 9 miles from the park as the raven flies (no crows in this part of Arizona) and readily accessible for hardy hikers.  For a couch potato, the state park is also just 5 minutes from an In-N-Out Burger, Walmart and a 12-screen movie theater.

Rufous-backed Robin in Alamos, Mexico (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

Rufous-backed Robin at home in Alamos, Mexico (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

Birders love Catalina State Park’s ease of access, varied habitat and large list of resident and migratory birds. The park is an eBird hotspot with 188 reported species from more than 1,600 individual reports.  Notably, this is one of the more reliable sites to find Rufous-winged Sparrows and Crissal Thrashers year-round, two birds that draw distant visitors from across the U.S., Canada and beyond.  Unusual rarities can show up here, as well, and recently two species did just that. Late last November, a birder reported a Rufous-backed Robin, a Mexican bird that hung out near the main parking lot gorging on the park’s healthy crop of hackberries for more than three months.  The last time a Rufous-backed Robin was seen anywhere close to Catalina State Park was a month long stay from December 26, 2007, until January 25, 2008.  That was eight years ago, but some of us think it could be the same bird.  Rufous-backed Robins are seen from time to time in Arizona, but to give you an idea of the rarity of this visitor, you have to drive to Alamos, Mexico, some 475 miles south of Tucson to find them easily.

An Arizona rarity, the White-throated Sparrow (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

White-throated Sparrow in Catalina State Park (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

Unlike 2008, we were extra fortunate this year with the simultaneous visit of another park rarity, the White-throated Sparrow.  Two or three of these beautiful sparrows joined the robin in late December and continued lingering into March along with the robin.  White-throated Sparrows are seen more often than Rufous-backed Robins in Arizona, but until this visit they have never been reported on eBird, the primary reporting tool, within Catalina State Park.  If you are from Canada, the Midwest or eastern U.S., you’re no doubt familiar with this sparrow, since it breeds in all Canadian provinces and either migrates through or winters in Midwest and Southeast states (as well as along the California to Washington coast.)  Its presence in the mountain states or most of Arizona, however, is almost unknown, and it’s considered a rare transient to winter resident in our part of the state. Like our common winter visitor the White-crowned Sparrow, male and female White-throated Sparrows are identical.  Both species are remarkably similar, but the White-crowned Sparrow has a yellow-orange bill and the White-throated Sparrow has a white throat (surprise!) and a bright yellow lore (small feather patch between eye and bill.)

With luck, both of these rarities will return next winter so you’ll have a chance to see them.  Year-round sightings of all rare birds in southeast Arizona are reported on the Tucson Audubon web site, at www.tucsonaudubon.cor/rba.html.   For these two local rarities, always take a close look at their more common cousins, American Robins and White-crowned Sparrows, since rare birds are like undercover agents avoiding detection.  Who knows, you might even find one in your yard.

The above article will be published in the Saddlebag Notes Newspaper, April 1, 2016.


About Bob

A lifelong naturalist, Bob's avocation is birding, including field observation, study, photography and writing. He spent a career in computers and consulting, but his free time has been spent outdoors backpacking, fishing and enjoying nature firsthand. Bob has traveled extensively, exploring and photographing above and underwater in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, Egypt and throughout the United States, Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, Central and South America. Now retired, as an amateur ornithologist Bob studies, photographs and writes primarily about birds of the Western Hemisphere. Formerly the Feature Writer for Latin America and Caribbean Travel at Suite101.com, he has been Suite101's Feature Writer for Birds and Birding since January, 2010, and has received seven Editor's Choice awards, which are listed below. Bob also writes a monthly birding column for a newspaper in Arizona, and his work appears in the travel magazine, Another Day in Paradise, published in Zihuatanejo, Mexico. His blog, Birding the 'Brooke and Beyond, discusses birding, travel and other topics in Southeast Arizona and beyond. Bob is a member of the National and Tucson Audubon Societies, Western Field Ornithologists, Arizona Field Ornithologists, the American Birding Association and other birding and conservation organizations. Bob and his wife, Prudy, live in the Santa Catalina Mountain foothills near Tucson, Arizona. To date, Bob has received Suite101 Editor's Choice awards for the following articles: • Birding by Cruise Ship in the Caribbean • The Xantus' Hummingbird, Baja California's Only Endemic Hummer • Birding the White Mountains in and Around Greer, Arizona • The Greater Roadrunner, New Mexico's State Bird • Where to Find Steelhead on the Lower Deschutes River in Oregon • Birding La Bajada near San Blas, Mexico • The 2008 Christmas Bird Count at Estero del Yugo in Mazatlan
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