The word monsoon comes from the Arabic word mausin, meaning “season” or “wind shift.” In Arizona, our winds are normally from a dry westerly direction, so humidity is low and temperatures soar above 100 degrees in May and June. As the atmosphere warms, the jet stream retreats northward, allowing winds to shift to a more southerly direction and bring moisture in from the Sea of Cortez and the Gulf of Mexico. Our summer sun heats the moist air, creating thunderstorms throughout July, August and September and producing 32% of our normal yearly rainfall. Sometimes the collision of dry and moist air results in dust storms called Haboobs, massive walls of dust that can travel 22–62 mph. Other times we get the drama of thunder and lightning, but no rain. When it does rain, it can be sudden torrential, causing flash flooding, a tragic example of which happened just last week when an entire family of ten drowned near Payson, Arizona.
So, that got me to thinking....how are birds affected by the monsoon season?
Water is Life
The downpour from monsoon thunderstorms spurs plant growth, replenishes basin groundwater and recharges riparian areas with streams that are vital to many desert dwellers. A rapid greening follows the rains, and many local birds delay nesting or nest a second time to take advantage of this short-term bounty. Mexican species often wander up from the south on the wet winds, while from the north come southbound migrants. Since the rains produce a bounty of wildflowers, this “second spring” is also a time of greatest diversity and abundance of hummingbirds and butterflies. The afternoon storms bring a welcome drop in temperature just as the heat is building to uncomfortable levels, and there is a jump in bird activity as soon as the storm passes. So just when the late-spring migrating birds have left my neighborhood, along with every senior citizen that can afford to pack up and roll to cooler summer RV pads, the monsoon season gives me reason to continue my search for exciting new birds. A birding trip was definitely in order!
Sunday brought an unexpected and delightful opportunity to do just that and as I drove to Wickenburg, climbing over a thousand feet in elevation, I was relieved to watch the outside temperature drop to 78. But when I arrived at Hassayampa River Preserve and opened the car door, a wall of humid air hit me, like I opened the door of a steam bath and stepped inside with my clothes on. The shock of coming out of the cool, air conditioned car took my breath away for a moment. Even though a thin cloud cover was helping to keep the heat down so far this morning, it was also keeping the dank, soggy air earthbound, and the smell of desert sage, mesquite and decomposing leaves was nearly palpable.
I was joining my friend, Susan Fishburn, and another consummate birder, Brian Johnson, in their quest to see a first-of-the-year male Rufous Hummingbird that has been sighted recently at the Preserve. Susan's bird knowledge and experience, combined with Brian's incredible ear for avian sounds, made braving the heat and humidity well worth the effort. We identified a total of 44 species, including a rare Willow Flycatcher and the elusive Yellow-billed Cuckoo. Our glimpses of the Cuckoo were fleeting and I only got one shadowy picture, but another party of birders, who arrived shortly after we left, reported seeing three! Sadly, we also did not spot the Rufous Hummingbird, but such is the fickle nature of birding.
Here is a gallery of some of the birds we saw. Just click on an image to bring up a slideshow, but be aware that it might be a little slow, depending on the device you are using. My thanks to Susan and Brian for letting me tag along!