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January 13th, 2013
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Sweetwater Wetlands

I spent the morning and early afternoon birding at Sweetwater Wetlands in Tucson with Gayle, Joe and Ed. As is often the case at Sweetwater, Tucson’s birdiest birding site, we had a great time with plenty of memorable moments.

We began at sunrise but, with unusually freezing temperatures afflicting our normally mild winter climate, it was a slow start. Steam was rising from the frigid ponds and, not surprisingly, activity was low. As soon as the sun broke through and began to warm the air a little, the birds ventured out to play. We had good views of hundreds of RED-WINGED and YELLOW-HEADED BLACKBIRDS as they left their cattail roosts and swirled around, flocking up and heading out to their daytime feeding grounds around the Santa Cruz valley.

As we progressed around the ponds, the bird list grew. A decent selection of ducks dazzled in the cold sunlight. Many were coming into their finest plumage. I’m not a fan of the term ‘basic’ plumage as it just doesn’t do these stunning birds justice. NORTHERN SHOVELERS were the most numerous, with plenty of AMERICAN WIGEON and smaller numbers of MALLARD (including a pair of MEXICAN DUCKS, or at least a good simile), GREEN-WINGED and CINNAMON TEAL, NORTHERN PINTAIL and RUDDY DUCK. We enjoyed nice scope views of several GADWALL, a criminally under-rated species which has the most beautiful, intricate patterning on close inspection. A male LESSER SCAUP and female RING-NECKED DUCK added to the collection.

One feature of the day was the sheer number of calling SORAS, with probably at least five around each pond. We had brief views of a couple – a tail bobbing through the gloom here, a head popping out from the reeds there. Eventually we found one which was coming out in the open every few minutes at close range, for scope filling views. A cracking bird, and unusual to see one in full sunlight. It wasn’t just us humans that were feeling the cold!

We did well for raptors, the best being an adult PEREGRINE FALCON tearing into its breakfast on a distant pole near Silverbell Lake. Two HARRIS’S HAWKS, an immature female COOPER’S HAWK and a splendid little male AMERICAN KESTREL all gave nice views, while a dashing SHARP-SHINNED HAWK was less obliging.

Looking towards Silverbell Lake from Sweetwater can often be productive. We watched a BLACK-CROWNED NIGHT-HERON fly in, and right over us. Five GREAT EGRETS and five NEOTROPIC CORMORANTS were on the wing, with another two cormorants on the westernmost pond.

The major highlight, for me at least, was a female BLACK-AND-WHITE WARBLER, originally found by Gayle in cottonwood trees between the Hidden Pond and the gazebo at midday. This is the third winter running that I’ve seen a female Black-and-White Warbler at Sweetwater. Whilst it’s the commonest of the Eastern warblers to appear in Arizona, it’s still a rare bird here. Could it be the same individual returning every winter? Shortly after, a SWAMP SPARROW showed briefly by the gazebo, an additional highlight.

Another unusual and probably returning winter visitor was a SOLITARY SANDPIPER, which was feeding at close range in the stream, alongside a SPOTTED SANDPIPER for a nice ‘field guide’ style comparison. More shorebirds were found, including eight LEAST SANDPIPERS and a BLACK-NECKED STILT.

We ended on 57 species for a really pleasing day of birding. My thanks to Ed, Joe and Gayle for their engaging company despite the freezing temperatures.

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