The six warblers that breed primarily in the Grand Canyon State are beautiful, fun to watch, even a little odd — and you can find them all on one mountain
By Charles J. Babbitt | Published: 4/20/2012
Of the 51 small colorful songbirds known as warblers found in the lower 48 states, most occur from the Great Plains east. About a dozen are scattered across the western and southwestern states, but they are not distributed evenly.
In fact, only my home state of Arizona can lay claim to having a large or significant portion of the breeding ranges of six of the species. I like to call them the Arizona warblers: They are Lucy’s, Virginia’s, Grace’s, Red-faced, and Olive Warblers and Painted Redstart.
They’re not the only warblers that breed in Arizona, of course, but they form a unique and intriguing group. Three of the six — Virginia’s, Painted Redstart, and Red-faced — build their nests on the ground, and Lucy’s is almost singular among warblers for its preference for nesting in tree cavities.
Only two of the six are closely related; Lucy’s and Virginia’s are members of the genus Oreothlypis. Taxonomists place one species, Olive Warbler, in its own family due to its uncertain relationship with other birds. And Virginia’s, Lucy’s, and Grace’s, all named in honor of family members of 19th-century naturalists, are the only North American songbirds named for women.
What I like best about the species, however, is that all six can often be found close to one another in easily accessible mountain ranges in central and southeastern Arizona.
I enjoy them so much I look for them every spring. By late April, most have arrived on their breeding grounds and are singing on territories. I like to review their songs before setting out. Several can be mistaken for the songs of other warbler species, and Olive Warblers can be confusing because they sound more like bluebirds and titmice than warblers.
One of my favorite places to look for the Arizona warblers is on Mount Ord in the Mazatzal Mountains, an hour and a half north of Phoenix. I usually make the trip the first or second weekend in May. The Mazatzals are typical of many mountain ranges in central and southeastern Arizona. They rise abruptly from the desert floor to an altitude of more than 7,000 feet. Vegetative communities change dramatically as you climb from desert scrub at the base to pine and mixed conifer at the top.
On Mount Ord, a dirt road winds approximately seven miles to the summit. On a good day in the spring, all six warblers can be seen in appropriate habitat along the route.
At about mile two, the road enters prime habitat for Virginia’s Warbler: a belt of trees where medium-size ponderosa pines and oaks are scattered on steep chaparral-covered slopes.
It usually doesn’t take me long to hear the bird’s sharp dry chip note or its slurred s-weet, s-weet song. Virginia’s can be difficult to see, however. It likes to forage at about eye level in dense manzanita shrubs and live scrub oak. Its mostly gray plumage blends in well in the brush-filled habitats.
The species was named for Mary Virginia Anderson, wife of army surgeon William Anderson, who discovered it in New Mexico in 1858. Of the six species I’m describing, Virginia’s is the most widespread; it breeds in much of Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico, as well as parts of Wyoming, South Dakota, Idaho, Texas, and California.
In Arizona, it begins arriving on breeding grounds in mid- to late April. The bird nests on the ground on steep hillsides, and as the summer progresses, it becomes quieter and more difficult to find. Virginia’s begins leaving the state in late July. By the end of August, most individuals have flown south toward their wintering grounds in the highlands of west-central Mexico.
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A 7,128-foot mountain northeast of Phoenix on the Beeline Hwy. Known as a great spot to look for Gray Vireo, Black-chinned Sparrow, Scott’s Oriole, Grace’s and Olive Warblers, Painted Redstart, and Hepatic Tanager.
Located in Tonto National Forest east of Phoenix and south of the town of Globe. Pinal Peak reaches 7,848 feet in elevation, and birds from southern and northern areas of Arizona are often found in the surrounding forests. Look for Olive, Red-faced, and Grace’s Warblers and Painted Redstart, as well as Yellow-eyed Junco, Mountain Chickadee, and Gray Vireo.
Read more: Birding the Pinal Mountains by Richard Hoyer (Arizona Field Ornithologists)
Located in Coronado National Forest northeast of Tucson on the Catalina Hwy. Painted Redstart, and Grace’s, Olive, Virginia’s, and Red-faced Warblers breed here. Also a great spot to look for Zone-tailed Hawks and Broad-tailed and Calliope Hummingbirds.
Site info (Aviatlas)
A deep, densely wooded canyon in the Coronado National Forest on the north slope of the Santa Rita Mountains, 25 miles southeast of Tucson. The famous feeding station at Santa Rita Lodge offers easy access to as many as 12 species of hummingbird as well as other canyon birds. Target birds include Grace’s, Red-faced, and Olive Warblers.
Our readers voted it among their favorite places to watch hummingbirds and owls.
Bird Sightings (Friends of Madera Canyon)
Site info (Aviatlas)
Huachuca Mountains south of Sierra Vista. The canyon, one of the premier birding sites in the country, was hit hard by fire and flood in June 2011. Thankfully, Beatty’s Miller Canyon Guest Ranch was largely spared. Contact the ranch for current conditions.
Huachuca Mountains (Southeastern Arizona Bird Observatory)
Huachuca Mountains south of Sierra Vista. Just north of Miller Canyon. Great birding at the Reef Townsite and Ramsey Vista Campgrounds. Look for Grace’s, Red-faced, and Olive Warblers, as well as Painted Redstart, Spotted Towhee, and Yellow-eyed Junco. Note: Carr Canyon Road is closed at Carr House due to the damage from the Monument Fire. Will re-open in spring of 2012. Call the visitor center, 800-288-3861, to check on road conditions.
Southeastern Arizona Birders Guide (Visit Sierra Vista)
Huachuca Mountains (Southeastern Arizona Bird Observatory)
Located on Fort Huachuca Army base at the upper end of Garden Canyon. Great spot for Montezuma Quail, Buff-breasted Flycatcher, and Red-faced and Grace’s Warblers.
Read more: Garden Canyon, Hotspot Near You No. 136, by Jerry Uhlman, BirdWatching, April 2012, p. 45.
The Canyons on Fort Huachuca: Garden, Scheelite, Sawmill, Huachuca (Southeastern Arizona Bird Observatory)
Southeastern Arizona Birders Guide (Visit Sierra Vista)
Located in Coronado National Forest southwest of Portal. Don’t miss Cave Creek Canyon, one of the best places in the Southwest to see the Elegant Trogon. Among the 200+ bird species that have been sighted here are Rose-throated Becard, Olive Warbler, Red-faced Warbler, Magnificent Hummingbird, and Blue-throated Hummingbird.
Our readers voted Cave Creek Canyon among their favorite places to watch warblers, hummingbirds, and owls.
Guide to Birding Hot Spots in the Chiricahua Mountains & Sulphur Springs Valley (Southeastern Arizona Bird Observatory)
Read more: “The Chiricahua Mountains” by Mary Ann Chapman, Birder’s World, October 1987, p. 38.
Bold and inquisitive birds
Continuing up the road on Mount Ord, the pine trees and oaks get bigger and the chaparral changes to an understory that includes New Mexico locust and serviceberry. The area is home to one of the most beautiful of all the North American warblers, the Painted Redstart.
The striking black, red, and white bird belongs to a large family of Neotropical warblers called whitestarts, so named for the white in their outer tail feathers.
No other North American warbler species is more fun to watch than the flashy Painted Redstart. It will creep along trunks and branches of oaks and pines, constantly twitching and jerking its half-opened wings, showing off its white wing patches, and fanning its white-cornered tail.
Painted Redstarts are bold and inquisitive birds. They respond to pishing or playbacks of Northern Pygmy-Owl calls by approaching closely. I sometimes see pairs chasing each other across steep brushy slopes or flying down to the ground. Best of all, they can make even a mediocre photographer look good.
Like Virginia’s Warbler, the redstart is also a ground-nesting species. It builds its nest on steep slopes under tree roots or clumps of grass. Its song is a rich warble, its call a distinctive whistled sheu that is easily learned and recognized.
The bird arrives on its Arizona breeding grounds in mid-March and stays until mid-September. A few individuals spend the winter in southeastern Arizona, especially in Madera Canyon in the Santa Rita range and in the canyons of the Huachuca Mountains.
Painted Redstart is unmistakable, but keep an eye out for Slate-throated Redstart, which looks similar. It is mostly charcoal gray and has a maroon crown, and it lacks the white wing patch of Painted. The species has been recorded a few times in spring in southeastern Arizona. (See sidebar below)
Grace’s Warbler is found almost exclusively in pine trees. I typically see it in big pines near the summit of Mount Ord. The male often sings a rapid accelerating trill while hidden behind clusters of needles in the highest branches.
Just when I finally spot a Grace’s and get binoculars on it, however, it always seems to fly off to the top of the next tree. Looking for the gray, white, and yellow bird for any more than a few minutes can bring on an acute case of warbler neck.
The species is closely related to the Yellow-throated Warbler of the east but lacks the distinct black face and white neck spot of its counterpart. Grace’s was named in honor of Grace Coues, the sister of its discoverer, the famed 19th-century naturalist and ornithologist Elliott Coues.
Grace’s breeds from southern Nevada to western Texas and south into Mexico. Its Arizona range is almost identical to that of Virginia’s Warbler. Grace’s begins arriving in early to mid-April. Because it spends so much time high up in the trees, it has been notoriously difficult to study, and much of its nesting and breeding biology are still unknown. In late August, it begins leaving for its wintering grounds, which stretch from Mexico south to Nicaragua.
The Olive Warbler is the oddball of North American warblers. Studies of its behavior, physical characteristics, and DNA have shown that it’s not even a warbler. It’s the world’s only member of the family Peucedramidae and may be more closely related to finches, tanagers, and honeycreepers than true New World warblers.
The male is unmistakable and unforgettable. A beautiful burnt-orange head and upper breast surround his distinctive black mask. Females and young birds have a yellowish head and upper breast, and their masks are not as dark as the male’s.
I find Olive Warblers every spring on Mount Ord. The birds seem to move around constantly, usually in pairs or small groups, and stay high in pines and Douglas fir, where they creep along branches, gleaning insects. I often hear their very unwarbler-like calls and songs before I see them. One call sounds a lot like the soft phew note of a Western Bluebird, and several of their songs have a decided titmouse quality. Keep in mind that both Western Bluebird and Bridled Titmouse breed in the same mountain ranges as Olive Warbler.
Females can sometimes be confused with Hermit Warblers, particularly first-fall Hermits that migrate through the mountains of Arizona in the fall. A few Olive Warblers overwinter, sometimes descending to lower elevations.
Olive Warbler’s breeding range extends from east-central Arizona and southwestern New Mexico to Nicaragua. The northern edge of its range is near Flagstaff and may be creeping northward.
The warbler that I sometimes miss on Mount Ord but find elsewhere is Red-faced Warbler, another ground-nesting species. It likes cool canyon drainages and north-facing slopes with mixed conifers and Gambel oak. It especially prefers areas with big-tooth maple trees.
Titmouse, chickadee, or warbler?
If your first glimpse is from below or behind, the bird’s pearly gray back and whitish underparts might suggest you are looking at a titmouse or a chickadee. Just wait until it turns and looks at you, displaying its brilliant red and black face.
Red-faced Warblers look like their heads and throats were dunked in a can of bright red paint. You may have a hard time tearing yourself away from watching the beautiful birds.
The song, a series of quick zweet notes, sounds like the Yellow Warbler’s song. The Yellow Warbler, however, is primarily a bird of valleys and lower elevations, while Red-faced is a mountain bird found above 6,000 feet. If you’re in the mountains and hear what sounds like a Yellow Warbler, think again; it might well be a Red-faced Warbler.
Though difficult to find on Mount Ord, Red-faced can be quite common in southeastern Arizona. I remember a hike up Miller Creek in the Huachuca Mountains in which the species seemed to be singing from every other tree.
Like Olive Warbler, Red-faced may be expanding the northern limit of its range in central Arizona. We get to enjoy its presence from late April through early September, when it heads south for Mexico and Central America.
The Mesquite Warbler
The final Arizona warbler, and one I never miss in spring, is Lucy’s Warbler. I stop to look for it on my way back from Mount Ord where the highway crosses desert washes and streams. I usually hear the bird singing in the mesquite trees the minute I get out of the car. In fact, Lucy’s could well be called the Mesquite Warbler. Naturalist James G. Cooper discovered it in 1861 at Fort Mohave near the Nevada border. It was named not for the tree but for Lucy Hunter Baird, the daughter of Smithsonian ornithologist Spencer Fullerton Baird.
The tiny pale-gray warbler has a reddish brown rump that is difficult to see. More diagnostic is its dark eye, which stands out like a button on the whitish face. By mid-August, Lucy’s acquires a distinct buffy color on the breast.
The species arrives in March, shortly after the mesquite and sycamore trees have leafed out. It builds its nests in tree cavities and will sometimes use abandoned woodpecker holes. Breeding continues until July. By early September, the bird is mostly gone from Arizona.
The Arizona warblers are easy to find in much of their breeding range. The sexes look similar in all but Olive Warbler, and the identification of all six species is straightforward. Whether you visit central or southeastern mountain ranges to look for them, I guarantee you’ll enjoy the experience.
OTHER CELEBRITY WARBLERS
Arizona’s breeding warblers are occasionally joined by one or more of the six warblers below. Unpredictable but always welcome, they never fail to light up rare-bird alerts and quicken twitchers’ pulses.
An uncommon and declining breeder in the eastern half of North America and a very rare vagrant in the West. About two dozen records, most recently at Pena Blanca Lake in Santa Cruz County in October 2011.
Resident from northern Mexico to Nicaragua. About 10 records in mountain canyons and riparian woodlands, including at Madera Canyon, Buenos Aires NWR, and Pinery Canyon in the Chiricahuas.
Resembles Northern Parula but lacks its white eye ring. A resident of Mexico and Central America. At least four records since 1984. Most recently from Molino Basin on Mount Lemmon in May 2010.
A Middle and South American species. About five records scattered across southeastern Arizona, including one in Madera Canyon in 1996 and another in Carr Canyon in 2005.
Endemic to Mexico and northern Central America. Fewer than 10 records in mountainous riparian areas, mostly in the last two weeks of May. Reported from Madera Canyon in May 2011.
Known from western Mexico to northern Colombia and western Venezuela. About 20 records, including a few nesting attempts in Arizona. Multiple birds found in Florida Canyon in the Santa Rita Mountains from 2008 to 2010 and most recently beginning in December 2011. Also reported at Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve in 2009.
Charles J. Babbitt is a Phoenix lawyer and an avid birdwatcher. He is past president of the Maricopa Audubon Society and a past member of the Arizona Bird Committee. He wrote about finding Arizona’s 13 owl species in our February 2011 issue and about Pinyon Jay and Clark’s Nutcracker in our June 2014 issue.