The green kingfisher, a big attraction for birders along the San Pedro River, is apparently in decline in this state.

Photo courtesy of Bob Herrmann

Like the now-dry pond named after it near the San Pedro River, the green kingfisher, once a popular attraction for birdwatchers there, is not doing well in Southern Arizona.

Our region is one of only two places in the United States where the bird is regularly seen. The other is South Texas, particularly in the Lower Rio Grande Valley, stretching from Laredo to the Texas Gulf Coast. It's considered uncommon there and is common down in Mexico.

In this region, it's essentially a straggler now due to drought and possibly climate change, after doing better here during the rainier 1980s and 1990s. About 12 inches long with a heavy bill, the forest-green-colored bird is a monsoonal specialty, typically arriving right about now after the monsoons have started. It still hasn't disappeared, however, and when and if our rainfall returns to normal, the kingfisher could rebound, biologists said.

In short, you can still see it, but you'll probably have to look harder than you used to. The region has now been in drought at least since about 2000, and the kingfisher has suffered accordingly. It's particularly become harder to see at the Green Kingfisher Pond, which it used to frequent regularly. The pond dried up about three weeks ago, partly due to its filling in with sediment, but possibly also due to drought and groundwater pumping lowering the water table there, U.S. Bureau of Land Management officials say.

(Before going into more detail on this topic, I will add as an aside that I was lucky enough to catch a fleeting glimpse of this lovely, creature back in 1989, as one raced past along the Lower Rio Grande at Falcon Dam. I was also lucky enough to see four or five of them back in 1994 at Green Kingfisher Pond, and one a year later while on a San Pedro walk with a federal biologist).

Although the bird's problems aren't apparently linked to the recent drying of the Green Kingfisher Pond near that river, it's also harder to see in and around that pond, birders in that area say. Statewide, its numbers have declined since the 1990s, say Arizona Game and Fish Department and U.S. Bureau of  Land Management biologists.

'It is an edge species that primarily occurs south of the border in Western Mexico," said Troy Corman, Game and Fish's statewide avian monitoring coordinator.

During the 80s and 90s, when the state was getting more normal rainfall, the bird was increasing and the state got more and more records, Corman said. Game and Fish started collecting data on it in about 1993 for the Arizona Breeding Bird Atlas, but by the middle 1990s, the green kingfisher wasn't showing up much in the state anymore, he said.

"Some of us thought that it may have been that this is an edge species that moves around where water is available," Corman said.

The less water, the less habitat for the birds, agreed Heather Swanson, a BLM natural resource specialist in Sierra Vista.

"They're fishermen. Riparian habitat is their habitat. It's not just summer rain. it's winter rain. It's spring rain," Swanson said. "Winter rain is what feeds the riparian habitat to begin with. It starts in the mountains, and the water percolates down and goes to the river. Any shift in precipitation and it will have an effect on your riparian habitat.

"The decline is probably due to climate change and drought, thus the decline of suitable habitat for the bird," Swanson said. "Of course this is the edge of the distributional limits of the kingfisher so inclines and declines are going to be seen from time to time."

From the records that Tucson Audubon Society's Jennie McFarland has looked at, it looks as if the kingfishers are exploring various places, she said. In 1995, it was seen at Reid Park in Tucson and in 1996 it was seen at Roy P. Drachman-Aqua Caliente Regional Park in unincorporated Pima County, said McFarland, a conservation biologist. In 2007, it was seen at the Holy Trinity Monastery in St. David, and in 2008, it was seen at Arivaca Cienega near the town of Arivaca, she said.

This year, McFarland said the bird has been seen on the DeAnza Trail along the Santa Cruz River near Rio Rico. There was a time when it was seen pretty regularly along that part of the Santa Cruz, which is fed by effluent largely from Mexico, but that's not the case anymore, McFarland said.

Along the San Pedro, it has become pretty rare in the past 10 years although it still does appear up and down the river, BLM's Swanson said. This year, it has also been seen at the San Bernadino National Wildlife Refuge, near Douglas at the Mexican border, Game and Fish's Corman said.

Yet the bird still breeds at the San Pedro River, usually starting around July but sometimes earlier, Swanson said. 

Still, "there's not a lot of sightings of green kingfishers and some years there's entirely none," along the San Pedro, said Robert Weissler, executive director of the non-profit Friends of the San Pedro River. 'It's a very hard to find bird."