Saturday, December 14, 2013

World Capital of the Vermilion Flycatcher – How Many Will We Get This Year?

An immature male Vermilion Flycatcher, the future red plumage noticeable with individual feathers coming in on the head. Note that "vermilion" has only one "l" – its etymology through Latin for "worm" has no relation to the numerical word "million."

When the Tucson Audubon Society decided to name their publication the Vermilion Flycatcher, they probably didn't know that we'd become the world's hot spot for this species' wintering range. It's actually a relatively recent phenomenon that so many now gather here for the winter.

In the early decades of the Tucson Valley Christmas Bird Count, only a small handful were noted, and it was not until 1984 that more than 10 were tallied (the current CBC circle dates to 1971, but the original was started in 1931). Even as recently as 1994, the CBC logged only five. Last year we had a world record-breaking (and mind-boggling) 190.

I have no idea what has changed to make Vermilion Flycatcher so common now, and I have no idea what the future holds. And until today, I didn't know but what the population might have crashed, and that we'd be back to "normal" this year.

Today I did some scouting in my own neighborhood, which includes the University of Arizona's Roger Road Agricultural Center – also my area on the count this coming Sunday. I was mostly stopping by to get in touch with director about access on Sunday, but took a quick gander at the birds. In a perfunctory look around the farm I saw nine Vermilion Flycatchers, two more than last year's exhaustive survey of this 40-hectare plot, which then was a high number for this area that I've been birding for 16 years.

In biking through Winterhaven – a wooded suburban neighborhood famous for its Christmas display competition, I saw two, a rather atypical habitat for this bird, which likes wide open areas with a few trees and short, moist substrate to catch their insect food on.

This rather indicates we may be in for another big year. Stay tuned!

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