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Winter Sparrows of the Southwest IFO

HansenThe return of the ABA’s popular Institute for Field Ornithology (IFO) tours has been one of the most requested items on the last year’s agenda.  That triumphant return was made real at the end of January with what sounds like a spectacular tour of the sparrows of the southwest led by Arizona native and chairman of the Wings Over Willcox Birding & Nature Festival Homer Hanson.

Here, Homer recounts that wonderful tour, and invites you all to join him for another go at Southwestern Sparrows this December!


Rufous-backed Robin!  Not the way one would expect to start a sparrows and longspurs workshop!  However it was a great lead into the weekend.  Spotted near the Tucson airport, we started our first day there while also looking at White-crowned Sparrows, Blue-gray Gnatcatchers and Pyrrhuloxias.


Afterwards we traveled to Catalina State Park where we were treated to three Spizella species (Chipping, Brewer’s and Clay-colored) foraging with White-crowned and Black-throated Sparrows.  The common bird of the park, Rufous-winged Sparrow, proved to be an unusual challenge and only gave us brief glimpses, but we did have the opportunity to listen to them countersing as they declared their
territorial intents.

Then off to our lodgings at Battiste Bed, Breakfast & Birds, a wonderful place to stay with many feeders to watch after a day in the field.  We started the evening with an identification class with a focus on the structure of birds.  This was one of three classroom sessions for the weekend, all power point presentations with many photographs to stress specific field marks, sonagrams for vocalizations, and other helpful diagrams.

Blog-CASPOn Saturday we stayed around Sierra Vista and started at the San Pedro River. Walking the grasslands by the riparian area provided us with great opportunities to view mixed flocks of foraging sparrows with a wide variety of genera to observe.  We were rewarded with views of Grasshopper and Cassin’s Sparrow among the White-crowned, Brewer’s, Vesper, Savannah, and Black-throated.  Part of the fun was watching the behavioral differences of the Ammodramus and Peucaea representatives compared to the other species.  The Cassin’s Sparrow was very sharply dressed with fresh basic plumage and gave us
nice scope views.

Heading to the foothills of the Huachuca Mountains we were treated to wonderful views of Lark Sparrows and Canyon Towhees, but a Rufous-crowned Sparrow stole the show.  It sat for a prolonged period on a dying agave, with its rich reddish-brown feathers complimented by the pinkish red of the agave where it perched.

Blog-RCSPFor the evening classroom session, we worked on vocalizations with a focus on similarities and differences between genera and species.  Following dinner, the enthusiastic participants were ready for more review and we spent another hour going over identification characteristics before turning in.

Sunday was spent in the grasslands with more looks at Ammodramus, Passerculus, Pooecetes, and Spizella species.  Both Baird’s and Grasshopper Sparrows provided us with great scope views.  There is nothing quite like seeing these birds in winter, their fresh plumages quite the contrast to the worn feathers of summer. We also had first hand looks at Short-eared Owls, with one spooking close to where we hiked, climbing into the sky and soon joined by a Red-tailed Hawk and Northern Harrier, what a sight!

All good things must come to an end, and Monday, our final day in the field, was spent in Sulphur Springs Valley viewing longspurs at Cochise Lake, swirling in large flocks of 100+ individuals; looking for Black-chinned Sparrows in the the Dragoon Mountains, along with bluebirds and waxwings; getting Sage Sparrows to perch up in the saltbush on the flats, with Bendire’s Thrasher nearby; and seeking elusive Swamp Sparrows foraging by the cattails along with Wilson’s Snipes and Soras in the wetlands at Whitewater Draw.

The weekend wrapped up wonderfully with 26 species of sparrows and longspurs (full species list at The next Winter Sparrows of the Southwest IFO will be held December 6-11, 2012.  More information is available at

Photo credits: Rufous-backed Robin – Paul Ostler, Cassin’s Sparrow – Paul Ostler, Rufous-crowned Sparrow – JoAnn Hackos

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