The Northern Cardinal, Cardinalis cardinalis, is a bird that is no doubt familiar to most people reading this. But yesterday during the Superior Christmas Bird Count (here in southern Arizona where I’m spending the holidays) we had several sightings of a bird that may have left some people from other parts of the country scratching their heads. Look, a cardinal! But – wait a sec…
No, you’re not going crazy. This odd-looking (but striking) bird has a name as confusing as its appearance: it’s a Pyrrhuloxia, pronounced roughly PEER-oo-LOX-ee-uh. The funny name comes from a pair of Greek words, pyrrhos meaning fiery red (the same root that gives us the word pyre) and loxia meaning oblique, describing the shape of its bill. The Pyrrhuloxia, Cardinalis sinautus, is obviously a close cousin of the more familiar cardinal, resembling a female cardinal with a red face and a yellow bill. Found primarily in arid parts of Mexico, it ventures across the border into the southern parts of Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas.
Until yesterday, Pyrrhuloxias were on the dwindling list of birds I knew could be found here fairly commonly but which I had yet to see. For the Christmas Count I was assigned to a group that started out by birding the banks of Queen Creek, upstream of Boyce Thompson arboretum, a pleasant cottonwood-lined stream flowing through the high desert. After walking along its banks for a little while we made our way up into the surrounding scrub, counting Black-throated and White-crowned Sparrows. As we had our binoculars trained on a clump of bushes, a brown-and-red bird with a suspiciously yellow-looking bill darted into my field of view for a moment. Could it be…? But before I could fully realize what I was looking at it was gone again, and unfortunately no one I was with had seen it well enough to make a positive ID. That tantalizing split-second glance left me frustrated, uncertain as to whether or not I had really just added a species to my life list.
After lunch we moved into the town itself and started beating the bushes around a ball field. After seeing a Say’s Phoebe and more sparrows, one of my companions called out that he had seen another Pyrrhuloxia – for sure this time! It darted from bush to bush as we strained to get clear looks at it, finally settling in a shrub up a slope from us, obscured by branches and leaves. We must have spent ten minutes standing there motionless with our binoculars trained on its hiding spot, determined to get a really satisfying look before moving on. Finally our patience was rewarded when it hopped up to the top of its bush and posed in profile. Yellow bill, check!
Since I participated in my first one as a college freshman, Christmas Bird Counts have become a permanent fixture of the holiday season for me. For more information and to locate a count circle near you, visit the Audubon Society’s official CBC website.