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Courtesy of James P. Smith,
Gareth Rees and Chris Rose

This much anticipated tour ran for the first time in January 2012 and more than lived up to its billing as an exciting winter trip to the deserts of the south-west. Rare birds provided much of the focus of tour but certainly didn't impede the finding of so many key species that inhabit the region in winter. Indeed, the tour was a remarkable success, greatly enhanced by our cordial group whose enthusiasm never waned from day one.

The trip started in whirlwind fashion where the unlikely backdrop of urban Phoenix provided us with some of the rarest birds of the tour. With careful planning we saw Rufous-backed Robin, Rusty Blackbird, Smith's Longspur, Cackling Goose and Lewis's Woodpecker all in a single day, and long before we'd encountered some of Arizona's most familiar species – all of those would come later in the trip. In terms of rarity value, the bird of the tour had to be the Nutting's Flycatcher wintering along a beautiful 'wash' by Lake Havasu in Western Arizona. This exceedingly rare bird was just the fifth ever to be recorded in the United States but I wonder how many of our group actually preferred the bright, sprightly Rufous-capped Warblers seen near Tucson just a few days previously?

Picking out a truly outstanding theme wasn't easy on a tour with so many highlights but the thrasher show on this tour was just incredible. We saw all the possible species for the region including Sage, Bendire's, Curve-billed, California, Crissal and LeConte's, and there was even an out-of-range Brown Thrasher to give a remarkable total of seven species. The sparrow tally was no less impressive with almost twenty species seen including the near-mythical Baird's Sparrow and a handsome Golden-crowned Sparrow. Woodpeckers provided much excitement as they do on most tours and the eleven species we found included Gilded Flicker, Williamson's and Red-naped Sapsuckers, White-headed and Nuttall's Woodpeckers.

Both the Sulphur Springs Valley in Arizona and the Salton Sea in California provided us with some of the best avian spectacles of the trip where we found tens of thousands of Snow and Ross's Geese, American White Pelicans, Sandhill Cranes and California Gulls, not to mention a memorizing roost of thousands of Yellow-headed Blackbirds.

Once in California, the Salton Sea gulls simultaneously provided us with entertainment and identification challenges. We found a Glaucous Gull (rare in southern California) but perhaps the close up study of several Thayer's Gulls was much more rewarding. Group participant Bill Dixon even managed to photograph an immature Yellow-footed Gull, quite rare in the winter months.

As always on our tours we encountered plenty of mammals. On this trip Grey Whale, Bobcat, Pronghorn, Collared Pecary and Botta's Pocket-gopher provided some of the highlights.

Grateful thanks go to the entire group for making the tour such a pleasure to lead, and in particular, special thanks to Bob Bailey, Jim Hamilton, Garry Milks and Chris Rose for graciously assisting in various ways.

This thrilling tour will take place once more (with a slightly amended itinerary) during 5th–21st January, 2012. In the meantime, please enjoy the photo gallery from the 2012 trip.

James P. Smith, Gill, MA, USA

(Richardson's) Cackling Goose (and Canada Goose) Ring-necked Duck
Barrow's and Common Goldeneyes Western Grebe
American White Pelicans
Red-shouldered Hawk Ferruginous Hawk
Cooper's Hawk Mountain Plover
American Avocet Greater Yellowlegs
Yellow-footed Gull Iceland (Thayer's) Gull
Thayer's Gull and Ring-billed Gulls Glaucous Gull
Rosy-faced Lovebird Rosy-faced Lovebird
Greater Roadrunner
Burrowing Owl Western Screech-owl
Anna's Hummingbird Hammond's Flycatcher
Grey Flycatcher Vermilion Flycatcher
Vermilion Flycatcher Nutting's Flycatcher
Nutting's Flycatcher Pygmy Nuthatch
California Gnatcatcher Wrentit
Rufous-backed Robin Northern Mockingbird
Brown Thrasher Bendire's Thrasher
California Thrasher Crissal Thrasher
Sprague's Pipit Phainopepla
Olive Warbler Smith's Longspur
Chestnut-collared Longspurs
Common Yellowthroat Rufous-capped Warbler
Painted Redstart Black-chinned Sparrow
Black-throated Sparrow Green-tailed Towhee
Lark Buntings
Savannah (Large-billed) Sparrow Baird's Sparrow
White-crowned Sparrow Golden-crowned Sparrow
Pyrrhuloxia Rusty Blackbird
Botta's Pocket-gopher
Whitewater Draw
Whitewater Draw
San Jacinto Mountains
Birdfinders' group, 2012
Heermann's Gull

Heermann's Gull