Glittering gems of the desert

Birders that visit southeastern Arizona in the spring are treated to the dazzling displays of brilliant color and iridescence by the smallest of the many avian migrants from Central and South America — the hummingbirds.

Anna's Hummingbird-

A male Anna’s Hummingbird looking straight forward at another male would present an intense and intimidating glare of brilliant pink.

Broad-billed Hummingbird-

The many-hued iridescence of the male Broad-billed Hummingbird coupled with his bright red bill must make him very attractive to the ladies (and to human fans of hummingbirds).

The flash of color seen on their throats and heads is a product of specially constructed feathers that contain layers of elliptical plates that reflect certain wavelengths of light.  In the absence of direct sunlight on these feathers, they look black, but in direct light, they shimmer with brilliant color.  (Read more about iridescence in bird feathers here.)

Magnificent Hummingbird

The throat and head of this male Magnificent Hummingbird don’t look all that magnificent…

Magnificent Hummingbird

until you catch the bird in just the right light, and then the flashes of color are truly magnificent.

More than 15 species of these glittering gems pass through the cooler canyons of the southwestern deserts, attracted to seasonal blooms of flowers, and all the sugar water feeders in residents’ backyards.  Eventually, they will migrate to higher latitudes and altitudes, such as the flower- and insect-rich meadows of the Rocky Mountains to breed.  But for a few weeks, hundreds of birders come to southeastern Arizona to enjoy their displays.

Female Magnificent Hummingbird

Female Magnificent Hummingbird Backing away from a feeder, tongue still extended.

Female Anna's Hummingbird

Female Anna’s Hummingbird, maybe not as “pretty” as her mate, but every bit as fun to watch.

Male Blue-throated Hummingbird

Male Blue-throated Hummingbird, aptly named. The largest of the hummers in southeastern Arizona, these birds stay and breed there. Some may even overwinter there, if there is a constant supply of sugar water available.

On a trek for a Trogon

In the cool canyons above the desert floor, riparian woodlands thrive along the banks of streams flowing down from the mountains.

Madeira Canyon

We stopped at Santa Rita Lodge in Madera Canyon southeast of Tucson for a few days and enjoyed finding some unique birds flitting in the sycamores that line the creek.

Madera Canyon

Sycamores trees along the banks of the creek are a valuable resource for forest birds; their soft wood makes drilling holes easy for Woodpeckers and sapsuckers, and branches that drop in windy weather leave gaping holes for nests of rare birds like the Elegant Trogon that we set out to find on this trail along the creek.

As we hiked up the canyon, keeping our ears and eyes alert to signs of Trogon, we were rewarded with a couple of other birds unique to this part of Arizona.

Painted redstart

The first of these Painted Redstarts we saw played cat and mouse with us, making me really work to get its photo. Then as we hiked higher along the trail, we saw them everywhere.

Painted Redstarts aren’t that closely related to our American Redstart, though they have the same annoying habit of calling continually from hidden locations.  They are only found in parts of southeastern Arizona and south western New Mexico, and are members of the group of Whitestart warblers (named for their habit of flashing white tail feathers as they fly) that inhabit Mexico and Central Mexico.

Painted redstart

Another visitor from Mexico was found probing the litter beneath the trees, the Yellow-eyed Junco. It looks just like our Northern Juncos, but what a standout with the bright yellow eye!

Yellow-eyed Junco

These are not common here, but whenever we heard scratching noises on the forest floor, it was usually a junco.

And the bird we came to see, the one that frequents these trails in montane riparian woodlands, the one sighted just days before 50 yards from a bench overlooking the creek, the one we brought two cameras with big telephoto lenses to capture in all its splendor —  was nowhere to be seen (or heard).

Elegant Trogon

Elegant Trogon from Friends of Madera