Column: Birding in the desert – nine years running

Gray hawk

Courtesy/Rick and Nora Bowers

Gray hawk

It is that time of year once again, where I lead bird watching trips out of Wickenburg for Northern Arizona University’s Road Scholar Program. I am two days into this week’s program having spent Monday at Date Creek Ranch and Tuesday at Burro Creek.

This is my ninth consecutive year participating in this program and it is interesting to observe the consistency we see in nature. We visit the same locations every year in search of specific “target” birds we are hoping to see at each destination, and rarely do the birds let us down. The out-of-state birders in our group are enjoying seeing Arizona’s amazing birds such as vermilion flycatchers.

Highlights from Date Creek Ranch include three Arizona specialty hawk species; Harris’ hawk, gray hawk, and zone-tailed hawk. We also saw red-tailed hawk and Cooper’s hawk—we have had good success seeing a variety of birds of prey.

Birdwatching in early spring increases your ability to maximize the number of bird species you can see. This time of year you can see three different sub-sets of birds: year-round species, winter species and migratory spring birds.

This week we have seen several migratory bird species that have already arrived such as Lucy’s warbler, Bell’s vireo, ash-throated flycatcher and western kingbird. We have also seen some of our winter residents that have yet to leave, such as lark bunting, ruby-crowned kinglet, yellow-rumped warbler, white-crowned sparrow and hermit thrush.

When we arrived at Burro Creek, one of our first observations was an adult bald eagle sitting on a sheer cliff face, high above the river. Our morning was off to a good start!

In previous years, there was an area along the creek where there was a stand of cottonwood trees. However, each of the last few years there have been fewer and fewer trees due to beaver activity. Since last year’s visit. the last of the cottonwood trees was felled to the ground! I have mixed feelings about the beavers’ impact on the stream-side habitat. We used to see yellow warblers here each year, but this year, without any cottonwood trees, we didn’t see any.

One of our really good sightings at Burro Creek was a pair of black-tailed gnatcatchers. This species is typically really difficult to get a good look at as they are constantly moving through foliage. Today we had the unusual opportunity of seeing a male right out in plain sight for several minutes—long enough in fact to get a scope on it, allowing all of the participants to get fantastic looks at this normally elusive species.

Even though I am out of town right now, I do have some local Prescott bird news to report. I have received emails this week from two different customers reporting the return of orioles! Three oriole species occur in Prescott from March through August: Bullock’s, Scott’s, and hooded.

While it seems early, if you don’t have your oriole feeder out yet, I would strongly encourage you to get it out right away. In addition to nectar feeders, orioles can be attracted to your yard with grape jelly, orange halves and live mealworms.

I received another bird sighting from Prescott this week—someone had a male rufous hummingbird at their feeder. So far this week I have seen both black-chinned and Costa’s hummingbirds here in Wickenburg.

If you want suggestions on how to attract orioles or hummingbirds to your yard come by the store and we would be happy to help you.

Until next week, Happy Birding!

Eric Moore is the owner of Jay’s Bird Barn, with two locations in northern Arizona – on Willow Creek Road in Prescott, and at 2360 State Highway 89A in Sedona. Eric has been an avid birder for over 50 years. If you have questions about wild birds that you would like discussed in future articles, email him at eric@jaysbirdbarn.com.