Mon, Sept. 16

Just Passing Through

We have friends who spend part of the year in Alaska, and part-time in the Verde Valley.  About now they are saying “enough mosquitoes!”  Shortly they will start the long slow trip southward – watching the season change across the land as they head back to Arizona.

Many species of birds are doing the same.  Two or more clutches of young, millions of insects consumed, days spent feeding next to arctic fox and caribou – and now they are sensing it is time to go.  An ancient genetic make-up stirs inside.  Stars and constellations guide them as they return to southern lands.  Shorter day length, cooler temperature, the angle of the sun, changing vegetation and dwindling food supply all suggest it is time to move on.

Here in the Verde Valley we have come to look forward to peak bird migration times - April/May in the Spring and August/September in the Fall.  Keen observers begin searching the skies for early migrants that pass through this area, sometimes blown in or around their normal routes by summer monsoon storms.  Now is a good time for rare sightings.

This past weekend my husband and I were working in our garden when I noticed dragonflies in abundance flying over our desert hillside on their way to well-watered lands.  As I watched I noticed higher in the sky swallows had congregated.  They were feeding on a monsoon hatch of smaller winged insects.  Some of the “swallows” appeared very dark and much larger than the violet-greens we first saw.  They were, in-fact, black swifts – quite rare in this area.  They typically nest along seacoast cliffs in Washington and British Columbia or cliff edges behind waterfalls in mountainous areas.  But here they were passing over our house, making their way to their wintering grounds in Mexico and as far south as Costa Rica and the Greater Antilles. Needless to say we were thrilled with this ephemeral and serendipitous sighting of black swifts en route to distant lands.

As we walked to our porch for a break from gardening we caught a glimpse of a rufous hummingbird stopping by for a drink at our feeders - another fall migrant.  Before we could sit down my husband called out “A falcon!”  We jumped up, binoculars in hand and were treated to another rare sighting – A Mississippi kite, a falcon-like bird, snatching the dragonflies in midair.  Mississippi kites typically breed in the southeastern forested states of Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Georgia and Alabama, but some reports suggest there are a few breeding pairs in Arizona along the Mogollon Rim. We watched the kite for five minutes circling, gliding and dipping to catch another meal and then this beautiful bird was gone.  He was making his way possibly as far south as Central America.

You never know what might show up this time of year.  As you watch for unusual birds you might notice other things; the way the summer rains have changed the landscape, what’s blooming, what has gone to seed, what plants the ants are carrying seed from and which resident birds are through nesting and have returned to your feeders.  Take in the morning fragrance of datura and rain-soaked juniper.  Watch those incredible cloud shows in the sky.  And you might just catch a glimpse of a rare bird passing through.

Dena is a seasoned naturalist, birding guide and educator. As manager of Jay’s Bird Barn in West Sedona she is available to answer questions about wild birds and enhancing your backyard habitat. You may contact her at (928) 203-5700 or

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