Bird of the Month

June 2024
Tropical Birds in Prescott: Orioles

Every spring brings an immense amount of change to our region. The grip of winter slowly gives way to the temperate climate we all enjoy so much. The landscape explodes into green, mixed with an array of colorful wildflowers. With that wave of life comes the colorful palette of birds making their way north to find a place to breed and carry on their respective species.

These birds come from as far south as Argentina, and many are quite tropical in appearance. They are tropical birds for half the year, and because of that they are often adorned with the sort of colorful plumage often associated with birds we may find in the most secluded depths of the Amazon, yet we can enjoy them in our own backyards.

Bullock's oriole — Wikimedia Commons

One particular family of birds like these is the beloved orioles. They are so loved and appreciated we named a whole baseball team after them! In the Prescott area, we enjoy three oriole species with some regularity: the Bullock’s, the Scott’s, and hooded orioles.

Orioles are closely related to blackbirds and meadowlarks. If you take all the bright colors of an oriole and turn them black, you’d have a hard time picking them out in a flock of just about any blackbird species. They’re all going to be medium-sized passerines with long, pointed beaks, nothing out of the ordinary, in short, a stereotypical ‘bird’ shape. Where they differ dramatically from blackbirds is in their behavior, diet and aforementioned color.

With the trio of orioles in our region we enjoy three very distinct birds with distinct traits. Most commonly we get the Bullock’s oriole. During the early days of the spring migration it’s not uncommon to see this species in just about any Arizona back yard. As they migrate through on their way to their preferred nesting habitat, they are on constant lookout for food.

If you have what they want, they may add a splash of eye-catching tangerine to your yard for the few days before they move on. Orioles eat fruit and insects, so what they want are big trees, orange slices, grape jelly, nectar feeders (they will gladly requisition a vacant hummingbird feeder) and a little good habitat around the yard to retreat into if they sense danger lurking.

In most yards they won’t stay long, because they are strict habitat specialists in Arizona. Bullock’s orioles require a lush, lower-elevation deciduous forest to breed and rear young. For their diet it needs to be temperate and produce reliable food. This makes our riparian corridors like Watson Woods a perfect match. The insect-like chatter of their call is ubiquitous along our local waterways in summer.

Hooded oriole by Magdalena Richter

Next on our list is the lemon-yellow-bodied and black-headed Scott’s oriole, another strict habitat specialist. In complete contrast to the meandering oases of the Bullock’s, Scott’s seek out rocky hillsides covered in agave and yucca. They are pollinator specialists, using their long beaks to get deep into the bountiful blossoms of our local succulents. Their vocalization is extremely similar to that of the Western meadowlark, and it’s easy to get confused when you think you hear that grassland species, very out of context on a craggy slope. This is a harder bird to find, but anyone living in the rolling pinyon-juniper hills to the north of Chino Valley have great opportunities to see them in the yard.

Last on our list is the papaya-orange hooded oriole. We don’t often see this species in Prescott, but it’s not impossible either. They are certainly more common in the Verde Valley, the Cordes Junction area and even as close as Mayer. In Arizona we tend to see them in Sonoran and Mohave Desert habitats, though they do bleed over into our central highlands.

In their more typical habitat they frequent the abundant ocotillo, agave, yucca and saguaro blossoms, and feast on the local insect population. Hooded orioles have a jet-black face with an orange crown that extends down the back of the neck and across most of the body. This creates the “hooded” appearance.

My friends Magda and Michael recently took a trip to Boyce Thompson Arboretum near Superior, and it proved an amazing spot to observe this desert-dweller. The Bullock’s oriole has the same black throat, but also a black line that runs horizontally through the eye, and black also extends from the back to the top of the head.

Three orioles, three specialists and three habitats to comb in search of these vibrant birds, in addition to so many more!

Ryan Crouse manages The Lookout.

April 2024
Central Arizona’s Hummingbirds

As I write this we are heading into one of my favorite times of the year: the weather is slowly shaking off the final grip of winter, our year-round resident birds are beginning to sing, and Major League Spring Training is well underway.

Today I saw my first bona fide spring migrant, a lone turkey vulture soaring over the shop. Pollinators are beginning to appear from their winter dormancy as well. As I coached Little League baseball last night, a small bat (the animal type) was taking advantage of the stadium lighting in pursuit of the recently aroused white-lined sphinx moths in attendance.

The diminutive hummingbirds, one group of our more beloved pollinators, are rapidly ramping up their population to take advantage of our generously long breeding season. Male Anna’s hummingbirds are first to arrive. We have a small resident population that tough it out during our surprisingly harsh winters. They possess certain traits that help them survive and find food when others cannot. In the last couple weeks, though, the population has seen a dramatic spike, adding birds that have wintered in the more temperate southern half of our state. You can now find them performing their unique flight display for the newly arriving females. This medium-sized, stout and short-billed species is our most abundant hummingbird no matter the time of year.

Next to arrive is the lankier black-chinned hummingbird. At the shop we started receiving our first reports at the end of February, and the bulk of them started arriving in the second half of March. While the Anna’s tend to sit in a somewhat hunched position, the black-chinned tend to stretch out and display a much longer neck. Belying their longer appearance, they are about 25% lighter than the Anna’s, which explains their more slender physique. Also noteworthy is their longer, slightly drooped beak and royal purple gorget. They persist in our region through September, but by the last weeks of October are well into Mexico for their winter holiday. Black-chins tend to have a tranquil demeanor and are rarely seen harassing other birds at the feeder.

Accompanying the early sightings of black-chins, we also saw scattered reports of the contrasting, feisty rufous hummingbird. Their spring migration generally takes them up the California coast, where they can take advantage of blooming wildflowers. We always get notable spillover into our region, although it doesn’t last long. They are not an Arizona breeder, instead preferring the coastal Pacific Northwest. They range throughout much of Oregon and then north into southern Alaska. This coppery species is shorter than the Anna’s and weighs about the same as the black-chinned. What it lacks in size it more than makes up for in attitude. They are known for defending feeders with annoying persistence, chasing off anything that dares to imbibe at their well of choice.

These two pictures of the same Anna’s hummingbird were taken seconds apart, showing how the angle of light can dramatically alter a hummer’s appearance.

For anyone wanting to get a great look at the rufous, late summer is your time. As they make their way south they migrate directly through Arizona, timing it perfectly with the monsoon-fueled wildflower explosion. They will be a common visitor at your feeders during this time, and if their belligerence rubs you the wrong way, consider this: they are only halfway through their 4,000-mile trip home, which takes them from Oaxaca to Anchorage. You’d be hungry and defensive too! So, help them refuel and they’ll be on their way quickly.

In the higher-elevation areas of Prescott we enjoy another breeder, the broad-tailed hummingbird. During migration the distinct insect-like trill of special feathers on their wings can be heard streaking through the Prescott sky. By April, though, they are happily situated above 6,500 feet or so, and can be found breeding as high as 10,500 feet. Their unique sound echoes through the cool mountain canyons and Douglas firs. Size-wise they are between an Anna’s and a rufous, and have a stubby shape similar to both. They are more docile, like the black-chinned, and display a beautiful rose-colored gorget. The females are easily confused with rufous females, since they too have a bit of cinnamon on their flanks. Look for them at feeders during the migratory bookends of summer.

Those four species are the core of our local hummingbird population, which crescendos in size during the transition weeks between August and September. Any sighting beyond those four is noteworthy or downright rare. Be on the lookout for Costa’s, calliope and broad-billed hummingbirds though, as they do show up from time to time. Rivoli’s are also possible and we even had an astoundingly rare blue-throated mountaingem at a local feeder last year, proving that anything is possible!

This article is far from a comprehensive guide to identification, so I encourage you to study the differences as they patrol your backyard feeders. With time and persistence you can start to pick out the often subtle variations between species. Or simply enjoy the hummingbirds!

Ryan Crouse manages The Lookout.

March 2024
Cooper’s Hawk

The natural process is an unstoppable force, a cycle driven by the desire to eat and simultaneously not be eaten. It’s a cycle that’s often brutal. As humans, we are insulated from the life-wagering activities that guide the day of an average wild bird.

Sometimes, though, we can glimpse this daily struggle play out in front of us. A very common example of this is watching a cunning Cooper’s hawk ambush a group of birds busily feeding at a backyard buffet. A peaceful moment of watching the birds is interrupted by an explosion of activity as the flock frantically takes wing moments before the skilled predator zeroes in on the slowest of the group, striking with speed, high maneuverability and precision. In a moment it’s over; the weakest has fallen and the cycle continues. It’s a harsh one, but it is a reality. It’s not uncommon for us to have a customer inquire as to how they can keep the “hawk” from killing the birds in their backyard. The simplest answer is, “stop feeding the birds.”

I spotted this adult male Cooper's hawk in a tree right off Willow Creek Rd.

When we create an unnatural concentration of bird activity, predators are quick to pick up on it. Given the fact that roughly 40% of American households feed birds regularly, this gives animals like the Cooper’s hawk ample opportunity not only to find these concentrations, but to develop a style of hunting unique to the backyard habitat.

Through years of customer accounts it’s become obvious that Cooper’s hawks have perfected a technique in which they fly in from the appropriate angle, direct the excited explosion of birds toward the house and hope that one of them is unable to override its sympathetic nervous response and consequently hit a window at full speed. This instantly incapacitates the bird, making it easy for the triumphant accipiter to simply pluck it off the ground and enjoy its meal. It’s a plan, carried out using their environment as a tool. This requires critical thinking that rewards them with an easier meal devoid of the dangers of having to catch and kill the prey themselves.

Cooper’s hawks are bird-hunters by nature. With their close North American cousins the sharp-shinned hawk and Northern goshawk, they patrol the continent’s dense woodlands in search of unwary passerines. While they may prey on mammalian targets of opportunity, their short, rounded wings are specifically designed for close-quarters, high-speed maneuverability. Their long, rudder-like tail aids in rapid adjustments in direction, and can also be deployed as an air-brake. This tool can abruptly halt movement when they find themselves in the perfect position to snatch a bird from its perch. They can’t always rely on a window, after all.

Because of this tendency to patrol the neighborhood feeders, they are a common site in the backyard, often seen on the slat of a fence or a low tree branch.

Regardless of your opinion of them, they are handsome raptors with a unique shape. They sit almost perfectly upright, long tail pointing directly to the ground below. The head is quite large for the body, and a flat forehead slopes seamlessly into the beak. Adult birds display bright red eyes that darken to deep garnet with age. This well documented process makes it easy to estimate how old a given bird is.

An adult bird will have a slate-grey back, a banded tail with bright salmon-colored barring extending from breast to belly.

Cooper’s hawks are also widely known to use birdbaths, unusual in the raptor world. It’s not out of the question to see one thigh-deep in water, plumage ruffled as it preens its feathers, free of the day’s activities.

So like any other bird the Cooper’s hawk uses our yards as habitat, feeding there and even using the birdbaths we happily provide. Why, then, is there an almost universal negative response to their presence? The answer is obvious: there is a viscerally off-putting feeling associated with witnessing death, especially in the context of our backyards.

While this is understandable, we have to consider that when we inject ourselves into the natural process by feeding birds, there are strings attached. Nature does not cease in a yard, it simply extends from the other side of that fence. The process of a Cooper’s hawk hunting and culling a flock of its old and weak is a necessary one, not to mention that the hawk and its young need to eat too.

Back to the original question, “how do I get rid of the hawk?” While the easy answer is to stop feeding the birds, the better answer is “Do nothing. Because after all, you’re still just feeding the birds!”

Ryan Crouse manages The Lookout.

February 2024
Merlin
A surprise for my 2023 Christmas Bird Count

Every year on the third Wednesday in December a group of birdwatchers and nature enthusiasts participates in an organized Christmas Bird Count (CBC) for the Prescott area. A single person, or perhaps a small group, patrols a preassigned area for the duration of the day, taking careful notes on the species found and their quantities. For almost a decade I’ve been assigned an area that encompasses a large swathe of the southeastern section of the city. The communities I scour include Diamond Valley, Yavapai Hills, The Ranch, Prescott Canyon Estates, and all the land connecting them.

In general I can be a pretty fast-paced birder, bordering on impatient. I’ve often concluded that covering more area in a given amount of time is beneficial for seeing more, and that is often true. Over time, though, I’ve evolved my approach, especially during the CBC. This year I made a point of slowing down, really trying and picking apart every spot. It’s a quality-over-quantity mindset that I still have trouble embracing at times.

I started the morning where I do every year, in Diamond Valley. This large, scattered community is a fantastic place to observe the interfaces between people and nature. The homes are generally on separated bits of land, leaving ample space between them for the native oak chaparral woodland to thrive. Multiple drainages also cut through the terrain, creating fantastic diversity in plant life. Where there is diverse plant life, there will be a diverse set of birds!

The morning started off somewhat slow on Emerald Drive, but in short order I was able to check off a beautiful pair of northern cardinals watching a front-yard bird-feeding setup. Mixed with them were ample white-crowned sparrows, some elusive quail, and an oddly high count of canyon towhees. Unfortunately I was unable to find a curve-billed thrasher, one of the birds I visit this particular location to see.

Ryan Crouse

Ryan Crouse

On this morning I didn’t necessarily expect to see one of the “best birds” I would ever encounter, but that’s often how these instances unfold. As I rounded a corner onto the northern border of Diamond Valley, I spotted a bird sitting atop a pole. It was backlit and blacked out by the poor overcast light, but despite this I had a strong suspicion of what it was. The size and shape of the bird instantly made me think “merlin.” A quick look with my binos confirmed this suspicion, so I got out of my truck to get a better look.

I was stunned by the beauty of this particular individual. While merlins are among my favorite raptors given their beauty and relative scarcity, I had never seen one with such dark plumage. It had dramatic gunmetal-blue streaking on its breast, contrasting sharply with its rufous base color. While I was still 100% confident in the ID, it oddly lacked the diagnostic pale eyebrow (supercilium) that’s a hallmark field-mark for the merlin. I spent the next several minutes fighting the poor light as I snapped as many pictures of this gorgeous bird as I could, then in an instant it was over. As merlins always do, it took off in a flash of speed and flew eastward as fast as it could, not to be seen again.

All day the unique merlin kept me rechecking my photos to study and admire this oddly dark bird. It’s covert, primary and secondary feathers were steel blue, bordering on black. Most merlins in our area belong to a group within the species known as the Prairie race. These birds tend to be sandy brown to blend in with their western high-desert habitat. I suspected this bird to be a somewhat less common Taiga merlin, which are a bit darker in color and appear here in lower numbers. It was way darker than any taiga I’d ever seen, though. 

While turning the pages of my favorite raptor field guide, it occurred to me that I may have seen a significantly rarer bird altogether. The lack of a pale supercilium now made sense, along with the dark pattern on the breast and the inky blue feathers on its back. This particular bird belonged to the third and rarest race of merlin, the Pacific or black race. These birds are more commonly found along the Pacific coast, ranging up into Alaska. After talking with some very experienced and longstanding birders in the area, it’s not clear that one has ever been recorded in Prescott. Regardless of whether that’s accurate or not, this is one of my favorite bird sightings! 

Through the rest of the day I methodically dissected The Ranch and Yavapai Hills, compiling a decent list of expected birds with a couple of oddballs thrown in. At a particular drainage in The Ranch I’ve had year-after-year success locating and recording a small set of birds that are some distance from their typical comfort zone. At this spot, at roughly 5,750 feet, the diverse set of trees and year-round abundance of water create a habitat where I find birds that are more often seen at 7,000 feet and higher. This trend held true as I recorded a single Steller’s Jay, a crazy-high count of about ten red-breasted nuthatches, and a lone Williamson’s sapsucker. All these birds tend to prefer high-elevation coniferous forest, yet here they are every year!

At the end of the day my son Braeden joined me to do a quick survey of Prescott Canyon Estates. As the light waned I was delighted to see my boy turning into a great young birder. We worked our way up a drainage, discussing our sightings as we went. We had a fantastic look at a soaring sharp-shinned hawk, and were able to talk about what made it a “sharpie.” We concluded our day with amazing looks at a perched great horned owl preparing for her nightly hunt.

In all I tallied 36 species. While this was on the lower end for a total count compared with past years, I felt I enjoyed it more and was better able to take it all in. Going into this new year, take a moment to take a breath and enjoy the birds a bit more.

Ryan Crouse manages The Lookout.

January 2024
White-Breasted Nuthatch
Bird of the Month by Ryan Crouse

In the shop I manage, The Lookout, we often get questions about bird identification. Through the years a common description of a certain bird species tends to go something like this:

“I have a small woodpecker in my yard that I can’t identify. It has a bright white belly, a dark head and back, and it walks down the trunk of the tree head-first!”

While this is a fantastic description of the mystery species, it’s not actually a woodpecker at all. In this instance they are certainly describing the omnipresent white-breasted nuthatch.

This is a very common woodland species across almost the entire contiguous US, and it ranges well into the Canadian provinces. The birds are most commonly found in forested habitat, but I have personally seen them in a wide variety of habitats within Arizona. If you hope to to find one, the great swathes of Ponderosa pine forest that dominate much of northern and central Arizona are your safest bet to observe this keystone avian species.

One of the several ways they’re similar to the woodpecker family is their propensity for pecking at wood, both alive and dead, in search of their next meal. Also similar to woodpeckers, they dine on a wide variety of insects and tree nuts. In our area they will target Ponderosa and pinyon nuts while also happily gobbling down fat wood-inhabiting grubs and larvae they find along the way.

Along with their pecking, they have a long sticky tongue that is actually barbed at the end. This specialist’s tongue is used to probe small cavities revealed by pecking. As they peck, they listen for hollow voids hidden within the wood where they are likely to find juicy, protein-packed grubs. Once they expose the cavity to the outside world, that barbed tongue can snare the hidden prize.

Ryan Crouse

Along with this quest for concealed insects, they are prolific nut and seed eaters. They are known to cache large piles of nuts and will defend their territory against invaders who might rob them of their bounty. They are so focused on building their caches that they tend to flock with other like-minded species. In doing this they can use the group to find hotpots of food, but they also learn to recognize the alarm calls of other species. With this, rather than being constantly on the lookout for predators such as the Cooper’s hawk or merlin, they can devote more time to hunting.

For a species that eats nuts and seeds at such a high rate, it could be argued that they aren’t the most efficient at it. As do titmouses and chickadees, they’ll grab a single nut and fly to another tree, wedge the nut in a crevice in the bark or bare wood, and only then will they peck at it with their chisel-like beak till they reveal the payoff inside. Despite my personal reservations, they do seem to get along just fine, though.

In Arizona we have three different native nuthatch species, and we can see them all in the Prescott area. The other two are the striking red-breasted nuthatch and the aptly named pygmy nuthatch. The red-breasted nuthatch tends to stick to elevations of 7,000 feet and higher. But during the winter we often get them venturing into the city limits, especially during bumper crops of certain pine nuts. This is one of those years, with the local pinyon-pine crop being quite plentiful. 

They are easily detected by ear due to their very distinct nasal call; seeing them is another story. I recently heard some up Copper Basin Road, and they can be found year-round on top of Mingus Mountain. During snow events, be especially aware to the possibility of seeing one.

Throughout the calendar year we can detect and observe the pygmy nuthatch in the Ponderosa forests to the south and west of Prescott. Granite Basin Lake and Schoolhouse Gulch Trail near the White Spar campground are great places to find them, although they tend to stick to the tops of mature Ponderosas.

Again, your hearing is your best bet for detecting them, then crane your neck to try and get your eyes on them. Unlike the white- and red-breasted varieties, the pygmy is gregarious. You’ll typically see small flocks, where red-breasted nuthatches may only appear in groups of one to four.

White-breasted nuthatches mate for life, so are generally solitary or in pairs. Study the differences in these three species and make it a goal to see all three together in the same habitat! Hint: Mingus Mountain.

In the meantime, look for the white-breasted nuthatch in just about any back yard in Prescott. They are a staple species across the country, one of the foundation species on which new birders begin building their internal libraries of birds.

Ryan Crouse manages The Lookout.

December 2023
Burrowing Owl

Every family of birds carries a certain set of physical characteristics or behaviors to tie them together. Inherently, ducks swim in water, hummingbirds drink nectar from flowers, and woodpeckers, well, peck wood. But within these groups there are generally outliers that buck the trends and behave in ways that separate them from their genetic peers. One such is the burrowing owl.

Photo by Alyssa Crouse

This owl can be found as far north as southern Saskatchewan and Alberta during breeding season, and as far south as the most distant reaches of Argentina and Chile. They tend to make their way in sparsely vegetated areas, such as grasslands. Given some room, they can do quite well in rural or even suburban human habitats.

Of all the characteristics that make the burrowing owl unique, however, the most relevant would be that they make their homes exclusively in subterranean burrows, as the name suggests. Their scientific name, cunicularia, means ‘miner’ in Latin. But that's actually something of a misnomer in that they don’t do any of the burrowing themselves. Instead they rely on other animals, generally burrowing mammals, to excavate, inhabit and subsequently vacate an underground lair.

In the western US this is often the once-ubiquitous prairie dog, although its numbers have declined dramatically over the past few decades. Other animals whose unattended homes the owls will gladly set up shop in include the American badger, pocket gopher and various ground-squirrel species. Since burrowing owls tend to live in relatively arid, sparse habitat, the subterranean tunnels left behind by a bygone family of prairie dogs gives them the protection and shelter they need to rear young and cache food for the long prairie winters.

Burrowing owls are not flightless, but they do spend most of their time racing along the ground in search of the next meal. For this they have long, powerful legs, similar to another desert avian, the greater roadrunner. This is another feature setting them apart from their nocturnal cousins. Speaking of which, they’re one of the few owls in North America that are both diurnal and nocturnal, although they are most active above ground at dusk and dawn.

Burrowing owls enjoy an incredibly diverse diet. In short, if they can catch, kill and carry it, it’s on the menu. They enjoy an unending variety of insects, but they have a special taste for dung beetles. They enjoy them so much that burrowing owls are known to line their dens with animal droppings to attract their juicy snack of choice.

Because of their eagerness to snare any small creature that moves, they are fantastic neighbors to have in our own habitats. Most people regard small animals as pests, though the merits of that argument can be debated at length. What’s irrefutable, though, is that burrowing owls provide a free, effective and all-natural form of pest control if you live in the rural grasslands than dominate large swaths of our continent.

Why then, do they continue to decline at an alarming rate? While there is no one answer, much of it can be attributed to habitat loss and the wanton eradication of their food sources. For centuries grasslands have been held in low regard and seen as an expendable resource. They’re easy to build on and, more important, easy to cultivate. Much of the Great Plains region has been converted into millions of acres of corn, wheat and other crops to feed the world. More locally, the once seemingly endless deserts and chaparral that make up much of Arizona have been sectioned and often turned into subdivisions and farm fields and pasture. At the same time, small critter populations are suppressed to protect the crops, often with pesticides and herbicides, also very likely contributing to the owls’ decline.

Given seemingly incessant development, where does that leave this vulnerable species? In the state of Arizona the state's game and fish agency is working tirelessly to maintain healthy populations, and at one time was even building artificial nesting sites on suitable private land in collaboration with landowners. This program has helped reintroduce populations to rural habitats where they hadn’t been seen in years. If you live in a community like Coyote Springs or Paulden, you can look into ways to attract adjacent populations to your own property.

It also may be worth reaching out to Arizona Game and Fish to inquire about whether this program is still operational. It only takes a bit of effort by a small number of people to make a dramatic difference, and the borrowing owl is well worth it. For a good opportunity to see some yourself, patrol the roads around Paulden during the summer months; you may get lucky!

Ryan Crouse manages The Lookout.

November 2023
Wild Turkey

We’re fortunate to live in a city intertwined with nature in a way that provides unique opportunities to interact with animals on a daily basis. This should always be done at a safe distance, for the sake of animal and human alike, but it is an inescapable reality of living in our community.

One of the animals you may encounter along the fringes of the city happens to be one of North America’s larger native birds, the turkey. At our store there’s been a significant uptick in reported interactions during the past couple of months, the birds ranging deeper into the city than previously thought. I recently came across a group of ten to twenty individuals during my morning commute, in a neighborhood not typically known for turkey sightings.

The turkey’s range is vast across North America, extending deep into Mexico. The wild turkey we know can be found in all 48 contiguous states and is itself divided into five separate subspecies. There is also a completely different species of turkey native to the Yucatán Peninsula known as the ocellated turkey. In Arizona we are fortunate to have two of these subspecies within our borders, the Gould’s turkey in southern Arizona and the Merriam’s turkey, which inhabits much of the intermountain west.

The concept of subspecies in the world of ornithology has much to do with genetics and separate populations that experience little to no interbreeding or interaction. To the average birder, though, it’s of little consequence when making a field identification, and serves mostly as a point of interest.

Of all the domesticated fowl that humans have raised in North America, only the Muscovy duck and turkey are actually native to the continent. In fact, the close relationship between turkeys and humans began centuries before European settlers arrived, with the native population hunting and even domesticating the large bird. Its preference for fatty tree nuts gives its meat its distinctive rich flavor, universally desired by the world’s population. On their arrival European settlers began establishing new trade routes, and the turkey became a valuable commodity once introduced to old-world populations. There is speculation that the bird gets it name from the country of Turkey, because some of the world’s main trade routes ran directly through the Anatolian Pennisula.

Relative to other avian species the turkey has particularly dense bones. Since they are mostly terrestrially bound, they don’t need the lighter, hollow bones enjoyed by more frequent flyers. The bones tend to be more durable, providing us with an extensive fossil record of the species, detected as far back as five million years in both Mexico and the US.  So the relationship between bird and man has existed through the entirety of human activity in North America, and turkeys walked side-by-side with mammoths and saber-toothed cats! (Although I suspect they were doing more than walking when facing a saber-toothed cat!)

In our region, that preference for tree nuts I noted means they seek out acorns fallen from our many native oak species. They are also drawn to the highly energy- and nutrient-dense pinyon nut, which was equally prized by the Southwest’s ancient human population. Aside from nuts, turkeys enjoy an incredibly diverse omnivorous diet that includes berries, vegetative buds, grass, small animals and insects. They are exclusively a foraging species, which means they’ll pick through the leaf and ground litter, quickly gobbling up whatever they can find. A diverse habitat helps insure survival of the species.

This ability to survive is important, because turkeys continue to be popular game birds across the continent. Their ability to blend in and detect danger makes harvesting them a challenging game of cat and mouse, the payoff being an iconic addition to a holiday meal. They are also a staple prey item for wild cats and coyotes.

As we head into the cooler months and enjoy seasonal feasts that may feature one of these incredible birds as the centerpiece, consider their continued presence across our continent and their intrinsic link to the growth of our own population. When this relationship between beast and man is properly balanced, it provides a situation where both can thrive. It’s a balance too often skewed in man’s favor, only to reveal devastating long-term consequences down the road. Get out into the forest, try to stay quiet, and with some luck you may hear distant turkey vocalizations echoing down an oak-choked drainage.

Ryan Crouse manages The Lookout.

October 2023
Swainson’s Hawk

Every year birds migrate all across the globe. They log millions of miles collectively, perhaps billions. The longest migration of all belongs to the relatively diminutive Arctic tern, which travels almost 56,000 round-trip miles every year! Unfortunately you’d be hard pressed to witness an Arctic tern in Prescott. Luckily though, our corner of the world hosts no shortage of marathon aviators. One such species is the handsome Swainson’s hawk.

P. Lane

Every spring Swainson’s hawks begin arriving around late April. As they funnel in they’ve just completed a 12,500-mile journey that originates deep within Argentina, taking them just shy of three months to complete. Once they arrive in northern Mexico they fan out across the entire western half of the continent.

Swainson’s prefer open grassland with scattered perches to build nests on. When they breed adjacent to human activity they often find trees that border on agricultural fields. This generally provides ample resources during their most vulnerable period. In Arizona I always picture their ideal habitat as the Chihuahuan desert grasslands typical of the southeastern corner of our state. They like to perch on the tall yuccas and sotols that dot the vast sea of grass. Whenever I find myself in the Las Cienega Grasslands near Sonoita I have Swainson’s on my mind, and have viewed them fulfilling their romantic image in my head on several occasions.

During breeding season Swainson’s tend to stick to small mammals and reptiles. By focusing on that prey base they can deliver large portions at once to the hungry mouths waiting in the nest. Similar to the common black hawk I wrote about in our August edition, they have a varied diet that includes a wide variety of small creatures, generally up the size of a rabbit. Where they really distinguish themselves, though, is in their heavy reliance on insects, specifically large grasshoppers. While other raptors will dine on insects as well, Swainson’s sustain themselves almost entirely on insects when they are not actively breeding. They like to “hunt” grasshoppers in a very un-raptorlike fashion; they will simply walk along the ground and pluck up as many grasshoppers as they can get their talons around. This is a simple and efficient way to take in enormous numbers of calories while expending relatively few.

As breeding season comes to a close and Swainson’s prepare for the long journey back to the pampas of Argentina, they gorge themselves on abundant September grasshoppers. It’s not uncommon to see them in groups numbering in the hundreds, walking their way through farm fields in search of fat, protein-packed snacks. I have even heard reports of them following closely behind combines busily harvesting a crop. In the process the machines also kill and portion out the grasshoppers into smaller bites! The hawks have figured this out; why make it harder on yourself?

Unfortunately this heavy reliance on grasshoppers has at times put the species in peril. By the 1990s US Forest Service biologists had been tracking summering populations in northern California for decades. One year there was a sudden dramatic decline in the number of adult birds returning from the agriculturally rich La Pampas region. On investigation they discovered dead Swainson’s numbering in the thousands, and were able to conclude that a pesticide called monocrotophos was to blame. While it had been banned in the US, it remained in use in South America. Farmers were using it to control grasshopper populations in sunflower and alfalfa crops, and it was having a devastating effect on the Swainson’s population. Fortunately a coordinated effort by the farmers, multiple world governments, and even the company producing it led to the ban on the pesticide in Argentina. Coupled with a massive public outreach campaign that reduced reported mortality due to the pesticide from over 35,000 individuals in one year to just 24 a couple of years later. To this day Swainson’s maintain a large, thriving population.

During migration Swainson’s tend to fast, having stored up enough fat-energy to carry them home, but they have to travel in a highly efficient manner. While all raptors use thermal columns to some degree, Swainson’s rely more heavily on them. This reduces their energy output because they can be lifted on the rising columns of hot air and glide for hundred of miles before stopping to rest. They migrate in kettles of as many as 10,000 individuals, and it’s common to see groups in the hundreds right in our area.

Look for these slender, midsized raptors as you travel through Prescott or Chino Valley over the coming month. If you’re lucky you’ll see one atop a fencepost, plucking apart a grasshopper.

Be sure to check this column at 5ensesmag.com for past articles and updates on our 2023 Bird Challenge.

Ryan Crouse manages The Lookout.

September 2023
Hummingbird Capital of the US

The past couple of weeks have been a whirlwind! During the last week of July we attended the Sedona Hummingbird Festival. The event is held every year and draws attendees from all over the continent. It’s not a birding festival in the traditional sense as much as it is a celebration of the 365 species that make up the family Trochilidoe.

We were able to get in some great bird-watching in some of the Verde Valley’s premiere locations, such as the Page Springs Fish Hatchery and Sedona Wetlands. While working in our exhibit during that festival it dawned on me that hummingbirds draw a different crowd than a typical festival. At a more customary event the general focus is observing and identifying endemic species to the region. One may travel to Texas to see green jays or Alaska to find a northern wheatear. Similar to those locations, Arizona draws folks from all over the globe to find many species endemic to the higher-elevation Madrean woodlands of southeastern Arizona. This unique habitat extends up from our tropical neighbor, Mexico.

At the Hummingbird Festival though, many of the attendees were people who simply like hummingbirds. They love them for their uniqueness, their accessibility as backyard species, and as a subject in endless artworks. The attendees may not be able to identify them all, or even the most common urban birds, and that’s perfectly fine. They simply want to enjoy this amazing little creature while being given the opportunity to learn from some of the experts in the field.

The Hummingbird Festival ended on a Saturday and we were back in the truck early Tuesday morning and on our way to Sierra Vista, about 15 miles from our southern border. Because it’s so far south it catches the northern edge of the Chihuahuan desert grasslands and aforementioned Madrean forests. It’s ruggedly beautiful and serves as home to an incredibly broad range of animals, among them the highest diversity of hummingbirds that can be found within our nation’s borders.

In Sedona we easily saw Anna’s, black-chinned and rufous hummingbirds; all expected and readily observable.

In the Sky Islands of southeast AZ, though, the flood of hummingbirds can be a bit overwhelming to a newer birder. Fortunately I’ve birded the area annually for almost a decade and had already seen most of the hummingbird species that are possible in the area. The difference this year was that I had never seen them all in less than a week’s time. In some years particular species may have a spike in population regionally, while others are absent. After we arrived this year, quick conversations with local friends revealed that most species were being reliably reported at any number of locations.

Our first stop was Ash Canyon Bird Sanctuary, nestled in the lower foothills of the Huachuca Mountains. About twenty hummingbird feeders are kept full there and it’s one of the few reliable spots to see the vibrant Lucifer hummingbird. During that visit we were able to see Anna’s, rufous, black-chinned, broad-billed, Rivoli’s, violet-crowned and Lucifer hummingbirds! There were even three individuals present that we were able to observe at length from less than 20 feet. But we were unable to discover a previously reported plain-capped star-throat. Rats!

Lucifer hummingbird by Ryan Crouse

The next evening we traveled to Beatty’s Guest Ranch in Miller Canyon, one of the few reliable spots to see the striking white-eared hummingbird. Again, instead of seeing our usual lone example of the species, we had at least three birds milling around in the flurry of activity, which also padded our list with the broad-tailed hummingbird and my first ever calliope hummingbird!

The next evening we split our time at two locations. A second visit to Ash Canyon gave us great looks at the Lucifer again, while adding a lone plain-capped star-throat to our list. With light waning, we headed to world-famous Ramsey Canyon to try our hand at the Beryline hummingbird. After 10 minutes of looking, we were told it had just been seen at some feeders about 50 yards away. We hurried over and within several minutes a male Beryline came to the feeders once more before settling into its evening slumber.

The next morning we found ourselves in Ramsey again, with no real goal except to get in some final minutes of birding. To our surprise we found two previously unreported blue-throated mountain gems to elevate our list of hummingbirds to 13 species! The only species we missed out on was the Costa’s hummingbird, which is more at home in the Sonoran Desert.

Sierra Vista was recently proclaimed the Hummingbird Capital of the US, and with many opportunities to reliably see so many species, I can’t think of a spot more worthy. You have to see it to believe it!

2023 Bird Challenge Update

In July I added several species to my 2023 The Lookout Birding Challenge list.

These included the lesser nighthawk, rufous hummingbird, yellow-billed cuckoo, great horned owl, red-breasted nuthatch and blue grosbeak. My year count now stands at 186 species!

As you read this we are barreling headlong into fall migration. In the coming weeks head to the higher elevations, such as the Bradshaw Mountains or Black Hills, for opportunities to see several different migrating warblers along with a few hummingbird species and so many more. Check back next month when we blow past 200 species for the year, following my early August trip to Sierra Vista!

Ryan Crouse manages The Lookout.

August 2023
Common Black Hawk

One of my favorite birds to study and identify are the raptors that rule the skies of the western US. The variety that can be observed is daunting for a new birdwatcher, but as you learn diagnostic traits of each species you can begin to wade through the different color-phases and morphs that exist within species like the red-tailed hawk or Swainson’s hawk. As with all birds, size, shape, behavior and habitat are invaluable clues when trying to come up with an ID. If you walk along a summertime riparian corridor in central Arizona and spot a dark soaring raptor with large, broad wings and a sharply contrasting white band across its tail, you can place a safe wager that you are looking at a common black hawk.

Ryan Crouse

While the name suggests a different story, this hawk is actually quite scarce across most of the continent, the majority of their range running the length of Central America right into northern South America. However, their northernmost breeding range extends into central Arizona, where they find suitable breeding habitat in the both the Verde Valley and the neighboring Prescott area. About 80% of the North American breeding population resides in the Verde Valley, with nesting pairs found all along the embattled waterway. Black hawks are habitat specialists, which means they require very specific criteria when searching for suitable breeding habitat. They will most often settle in riparian corridors like Granite Creek or the Verde River. They find refuge and suitable nesting sites among the canopies of the cottonwood and sycamore trees that dominate this unique ecosystem.

Their pickiness in finding homes is offset by their willingness to eat just about anything that crosses their path. Their dark pattern makes them hard to spot in the heavily filtered light of a cottonwood crown. From inconspicuous perches they can scan the forest for subtle movement. While they are happy to eat mice and other small mammals, they prefer a largely herpetological diet, with frogs and lizards among their favorite meals. Fish and even minnows and tadpoles are known to be on the menu, with black hawks happy to wade into the water in pursuit of the next snack. Black hawks have even been observed eating a variety of insects as small as ants. Employing various hunting styles to satisfy their diverse diet helps ensure survival in the fragile desert oases they call home.

When perched these hawks tend to be a bit heavier through the torso compared to other hawks, and can seem to slouch. They have almost uniform black plumage save the white banding across their short tails. Their long yellow legs help make them more maneuverable on the ground, and they display a bright yellow cere as well. In flight they are among the most unusual-looking raptors, and are hard to confuse with anything else. Broad, rounded wings coupled with the short tail can give the impression that they are all wing. I’ve personally seen individual birds whose tails barely extended beyond the trailing edges of their wings.

The outer third of the wings will have light patches, but most of the feathers are as black as the torso. The head is tucked deep into the shoulders compared to most other hawks, making the large wings seem even larger. While the tail is short, it is also wide, one of the defining features while on the wing. A large white band and thin white terminal band contrast sharply with the otherwise black tail feathers. On color pattern alone a black hawk could be easy to mistake for a zone-tailed hawk, but a brief comparison of the overall shape alleviates any confusion.

The common black hawk is one species among dozens that rely on the special set of circumstances that create the riparian corridors of the Southwest. Water is fleeting in our part of the world. Cottonwoods grow at incredible speed, requiring a lot of groundwater to sustain them. Since groundwater is never a given, cottonwoods must take advantage of it when available, and will complete their life cycle in a fraction of the time needed by similarly sized deciduous hardwoods. As water continues to become more scarce, this threatened ecosystem full of habitat specialists will continue to shrink. As the cottonwoods go, so will the black hawks.

Only sensible water conservation and proper stewardship of these critical wild areas will preserve them for future generations of humans and black hawks alike. Take a walk through Watson Woods or along Granite Creek for the opportunity to see this uncommon black buteo of the southwestern skies.

Bird Challenge Update

In June I was only able to add two species to my count for the year! Early in the month I helped participants on a birdwalk find the elusive greater pewee at a spot outside of Prescott called Kendall Camp. While camping last weekend I first heard and then saw a common nighthawk right as the final hint of sunlight was present. The end of migration, coupled with nesting activity and a busy personal schedule, made it a down month for me! We’ll try to come back strong in July, but new species in bulk will likely resume in August.

My year count now stands at 181 species!

Birds are deep into the breeding season, so vocalizations have waned a bit. Be on the lookout for young birds of all varieties, which make identification very difficult. They will often look and sound dramatically different from their adult counterparts and, so be easy on yourself if you find this time of the year to be a challenge. Late summer should bring a lot of bird activity as we experience post-breeding dispersion followed by the first wave of the fall migration. Enjoy!

Ryan Crouse manages The Lookout.

July 2023
Regional Cormorants

If you hang out around any of our lakes for just a bit, you’ll very likely observe a unique bird sitting atop a water-bound rock. It may have its wings outstretched in an effort to shed recently acquired water before it again slips below the surface in search of its next meal. This awkward-looking creature is one of our area’s cormorant species.

A local double-crested cormorant works to swallow a big channel catfish. (Everett Sanborn)

Cormorants and their close cousins, shags, are members of a group of birds that inhabit large parts of the globe. There are 42 different species worldwide and they all share a similar appearance, which includes a long neck, a slender hooked beak, short tail and generally a brightly colored eye and/or cere. The two species we can reliably observe in Prescott are the double-crested and neotropic cormorants.

Both are generally black or sooty grey, depending on age and gender. They both have a striking turquoise-colored eye and a bright orange gape and cere. While they are similar in appearance, they can be distinguished by size, the neotropic about half the weight of its larger cousin. This size difference is most obvious when you’re lucky enough to see them perched together. Otherwise relative abundance is a great clue, as the double-crested is much more common than the diminutive neotropic.

I should also note the feature that gives the double-crested cormorant its name. During breeding season the adults display plumes of feathers that extend horizontally from behind the eyes, used for courtship purposes. Neotropic cormorants display less prominent white tufts that rest lower on the sides of their heads.

Cormorants spend the vast majority of their days doing one of two things: fishing and resting on a prominent point. Similar to the common loon we recently highlighted, the cormorant hunts for its aquatic diet by diving below the surface and using its powerful webbed feet to propel itself at high speed. While the loon uses its lancelike beak to spear passing quarry, the cormorant uses its hooked beak to snare prey. Both cormorant varieties will troll the surface before abruptly diving when the moment is right. Unlike every other cormorant species, the neotropic is special in that it will drop from low altitude, plunging right on top of and snagging its next meal. This behavior is more generally associated with birds like terns, but the neotropic cormorant has added this effective method to its own arsenal.

Relative to ducks, cormorants possess significantly less water-repelling preening oil on their feathers. This means that they become water-logged much more easily than other aquatic birds do. This has it benefits, though. As they they take on water they become less buoyant, and don’t have to fight the tendency to float while they hunt. They can spend more time submerged, and they’re faster and more maneuverable, useful traits when trying to catch fish in their own element. While fish are fast, maneuverable and highly aware, cormorants simply can’t resist the challenge. Double-crested cormorants have been observed preying on over 250 fish species!

After a successful hunting trip, you’ll very likely find either of our region’s cormorants sitting on a whitewashed rock in the middle of a lake. Because of their tendency to get soggy, they have to spend time shedding that water using gravity and evaporation. They often spread their wings out to their sides, which amplifies their surface area, aiding the evaporative process. In a behavior similar to that of turkey vultures, this also helps regulate body temperature after an ice-cold dive. Taking flight from the water’s surface is often hard for a water-logged cormorant, so instead they must hop directly from the water onto their aquatic crag.

In this season it’s very easy to observe large numbers of cormorants roosting communally in what we call rookeries. They will nest together in the upper limbs of local cottonwood trees, often in and among neighboring heron rookeries. This can create a chaotic scene of awkward birds, guttural vocalizations and the ground beneath littered with leftover fish in varying states of decay. Despite that glowing review, it really is a sight to behold. For the sake of both your nose’s delicate sensibility and out of respect for the rearing process, always be sure to keep a respectful distance as you observe. Check out some of our local lakes for this unique opportunity. Get out there!

2023 Birding Challenge Update

In May I added several species to my 2023 The Lookout Birding Challenge list. These included a fleeting glimpse at a hepatic tanager, a juniper titmouse at my feeder, two peregrine falcons observed and identified from 2.5 miles away, several close looks at red-face warbler, a Townsend’s warbler, a surprise view of a Harris’ hawk as I drove to Phoenixn and several great flycatcher species, including the elusive greater pewee! Many of these birds were observed and shared with participants during one of our free weekly bird-walks. You should join us!

My year count now stands at 179 species!

Birds are still localizing like crazy, but they will soon fall into the late June into July breeding lull. This is when they move from the high-detection period of finding a mate into the low-detection period of raising and protecting their young. Get out in the woods for opportunities to see several fantastic warbler species, numerous and challenging flycatcher varieties, and even a recent influx in the area’s red crossbill population.

Ryan Crouse manages The Lookout.

June 2023
Flycatchers, Festivals and Folks

This past month our business attended the Verde Valley Birding and Nature Festival. We’ve been a vendor for over a decade and look forward to it every year. In addition to having a booth at the event, we lead bird walks, give classes and enjoy seeing friends new and old.

Birding festivals are a treasured part of the tight-knit community. It’s a place where people with a common passion can exchange ideas, learn from each other, and of course see great birds! The draw of any good festival is a full schedule of trips to local hotspots with a guide who intimately knows the birds in the area. Out-of-town folks can attend a festival and glean knowledge from regional experts while applying the limited time to seeing as many new birds as possible. It can be a whirlwind for a person recently exposed to the hobby, but birdwatchers are generally very welcoming and forthcoming with info to newcomers.

Arizona hosts six annual festivals spread across the year. Starting in January there’s Wings Over Willcox, where you can see sandhill cranes by the tens of thousands. It’s also a great opportunity to study shorebirds and the birds of prey that winter in the area.

In May, Southwest Wings hosts its Spring Fling in Sierra Vista, nestled along the Huachuca Mountains of southeastern Arizona. People come from all corners of the world see the many birds the area has to offer.

Once the doldrums of midsummer birding have passed with the onset of our annual monsoons, late July brings the biennial Sedona Hummingbird Festival. While hummingbirds are the stars, no bird is left out, and this coming season will bring the next event.

Hot on the heels is the late-summer installment of the Southwest Wings Festival, which we attend as well. That’s right, the birding is so great in southeast Arizona they need multiple festivals! Species like the Montezuma quail, elegant trogon, Arizona woodpecker and varied bunting can all be observed with some effort. It really is spectacular.

Just a week later, the festival season wraps up with the Tucson Birding Festival, which covers many of the same great spots as the longstanding SW Wings.

Vermillion Flycatcher - Magdalena Richter

Back to our very own Verde Valley festival at Dead Horse Ranch State Park in Cottonwood. With the ever-evolving Verde River cutting a channel through the heart of the park, it provides a glimpse into one of Arizona’s iconic riparian corridors. Guided trips to the valley’s many great birding locations are likely to reveal otherwise uncommon species, such as the common blackhawk (actually not so common), brown-crested flycatcher, Lucy’s warbler, painted redstart, and red-faced warbler. A leisurely stroll along the park’s roads will likely reveal great birds such as nesting bald eagles, fiery summer tanagers, the very chatty yellow-breasted chats, and maybe even an impossibly red vermilion flycatcher. Many festivals choose this bird as an annual theme, and this year it’s on the standard for the Verde Valley festival.

Flycatchers are a diverse and widespread group of birds, and Arizona is home to between ten and 20 related species. Some are quite common, others take significant effort to observe. While every species is beautiful in its own way, many flycatchers are relatively understated in their visual appeal. Among them the vermilion flycatcher stands out.

As the name suggests, the males carry vivid plumage that’s very hard to miss, even given its diminutive frame. No other species in Arizona can match its crimson saturation, and the contrast with its crisp black mask, back and tail creates an unforgettable experience. We’re fortunate that they are relatively common in the southern half of the state, with the Verde Valley at the historic northern edge of their range.

A trip to a city park in Tucson will likely turn up a vermilion flycatcher, and once found they are typically quite tame. A respectful birder can expect to see opportunities for close-up observation of this stunning bird. For someone from another part of the globe this may be the most memorable moment of a birding trip!

Birding festivals bring people together. Birding brings people together and, by and large, birders are a great group of folks. This hobby has introduced me to so many great people from all over the world (halo Michael und Magda!). So if you want to see fantastic birds, meet amazing people and support a piece of local economy, please consider checking out a birding festival near you!

2023 Birding Challenge Update

In April I added several species to my 2023 The Lookout Birding Challenge list. These included two surprise broad-winged hawks, our state representative cactus wren, evening grosbeak (remarkably beautiful), Cassin’s vireo, warbling vireo, western screech-owl, osprey, black-throated gray warbler, blue-winged teal, Harris’ hawk and green-tailed towhee.

My year count now stands at 165 species!

Migration is coming to a close, but birds are actively seeking mates and vocalizing like crazy right now. They’re all essentially saying, “I’m over here!” to any potential love-interest. Standing on my deck for just a few minutes the other day revealed a cacophony of sounds that included bushtits, northern cardinal, ash-throated flycatcher, house finch, brown-headed cowbird, lesser goldfinch, mountain chickadee, a red-tailed hawk, Gambel’s quail and black-headed grosbeak. Use your ears this time of the year to help pinpoint our feathered friends. Learning vocalizations is a lifelong process that can be perplexing and frustrating, but stick with it — for all the effort you will become a much more effective bird-watcher.

Ryan Crouse manages The Lookout.

May 2023
Common Loon, part 2

Last month I wrote about being involved in the rescue of an uncommon winter visitor. Contrary to its name, the common loon is a species that appears in Arizona only in low numbers. With effort, though, they can usually be found somewhere in AZ all year. They most often appear during the winter and tend to stay awhile. Their graceful, low-slung frames remind me of a submarine coasting along the surface, then rapidly diving in search of its quarry.

Ryan Crouse

When we left off last month, we had an irritated loon enclosed in a cat carrier, filling my store’s back room with the distinct smell of fish. This smell probably has something to do with one of their key survival traits. Since loons spend most of their lives on water, insulating, watertight feathers are a must. Loons possess two different types of feathers, contour feathers and down feathers. The down feathers are very similar to the goose down we fill winter jackets with, and for good reason. This dense undercoat acts as an insulated jacket, trapping heat against the skin. Also, cool blood coming from the uninsulated feet of the bird is warmed by adjacent arteries before it returns to the body. This is called a ‘double-shunt’ system, and coupled with the downy undercoat it provides the loon with amazing tolerance for cold conditions.

While the thick down is very effective, it does have an Achilles heel. When it gets wet it loses much of its warming properties and will instead trap cold water against the bird’s body. This is a huge issue for a bird that lives almost exclusively on water.

The second type of feathers, the contour feathers, provide the down feathers with a shield against the moist environment. These stiff, tightly fitted feathers are reasonably water repellent on their own, but they require an added layer of protection. The loon drags its beak along a gland at the base of the tail and transfers the viscous secretion onto the feathers as it preens. This is the same concept as rubbing mink oil into your favorite winter boots. Although I have not been able to confirm this through research, I’m willing to bet that the fishy odor emanating from our feathered friend can be largely attributed to this oleaginous adaptation.

What does this all mean for the lost loon in our care? Its means that the night spent on the side of an intermountain Arizona highway during blizzard conditions was survivable! Part of staying warm though, is the constant intake of nutrient-rich calories from their aquatic diet. When discovered it had been at least 18 hours since the loon had eaten. Most humans would find this to be an uncomfortable state of affairs, but the elevated metabolism of the smaller loon makes this a more immediate concern.

With that in mind my son Braeden and I loaded the hungry bird into the back of my SUV and we made our way toward one of Prescott’s marquee bodies of water, Willow Lake. With the elevated lake levels I was confident it’d be able to find adequate deep water for hunting. The part of Willow Lake we chose had less human traffic than the deeper Watson Lake, and I wanted to make the release as smooth and stress-free as possible. Either way I knew the bird would be happy to trade its cat-carrier situation for even a puddle!

As I feared, the ten-minute drive was punctuated with what I can only describe as musky fish filling our nostrils. We arrived at the lake’s north shore and quickly removed our smelly friend. Braeden gingerly transported the carrier to the shore and we lowered the entire container into the lake, allowing it to fill with the frigid February water. As the water was introduced to the loon, it became obviously excited by this development. I instructed Braeden to stand clear and slowly open the door. The loon wasted no time hitting the exit and slipped right back into its element. It lingered in the area for a moment, then like a high-speed schooner it slid into deeper water with its next meal in mind.

While I do not believe we hold dominion over nature, we can certainly be stewards, and involving young people in this process is time well spent.

Update: 2023 Bird Challenge

In March I added several species to my 2023 The Lookout Birding Challenge list. These include the greater white-fronted goose, common blackhawk, violet-green swallow, vermilion flycatcher and painted redstart. I also had a zone-tailed hawk fly over my yard, a first for that location. For a leg up on distinguishing zone-tailed hawks from similar species, be sure to read my 5enses column from May 2022.

My year-count now stands at 112 species!

Migration is really heating up at this point. The next four weeks are a great opportunity to see beautiful birds before the relative calm of breeding season sets in. We can study vocalizations and other breeding behaviors at length, possibly including any number of species-specific mating displays. The mild days and heightened desire to find a mate mean that birds are more likely to be active through the day. April is prime time in central AZ!

Ryan Crouse manages The Lookout.

April 2023
Common Loon, part 1

Rare bird alert! Those words will get the attention of any dedicated field birder. It means that a rare species has been observed in a given area. It also means that anyone who is motivated enough has the chance to see a bird that otherwise requires a significant amount of effort both in time and money.

While I generally stick to our local birds, I will periodically highlight recent rarities to our region.

One such came several weeks ago. It was the morning after a decent snow in the area. At the shop I found an email from a local veterinarian’s office that included a picture of a very out-of-place bird, out of place because we generally don’t get this species in our region, but also because the picture was of the individual sitting in one of their sinks.

They were seeking advice on how to proceed with caring for the bird and for any other info we might be able to offer. I quickly gave Mile-Hi Animal Hospital a call to offer any assistance I could. It turns out that they had a very irritable common loon on their hands, which they feared had a leg injury.

Photo by Braeden Crouse

The story goes that an employee of the hospital, Suzi, was on her way to work and spotted the distressed bird sitting on the side of a rural highway. She had actually seen the bird the night before, but only realized that in hindsight. It was so obscured by the previous evening’s snowstorm that she didn’t recognize it as a living creature. She quickly wrapped the beleaguered bird in a blanket and placed him in the back of her pickup.

Luckily, loons typically thrive on ice-cold lakes as far north as Canada’s Baffin Island. The average annual temperature there is 18°F, so the cold wasn’t the problem. The very real danger for this bird was that it was vulnerable to predation but any number of animals, unable to access its normal diet of aquatic animals, and unable to remedy these issues on its own. After talking with Eric, the owner of our shop, we determined that it didn’t likely have a leg injury. In truth, loon legs are designed only for swimming and almost completely useless on land. In general, loons spend most of their lives on water, where they are incredibly adept swimmers and deadly hunters.

What we could determine with some certainty was that in the storm the loon had been blown off course and become disoriented in the featureless conditions. It spotted the black country highway contrasting against the white landscape and mistook it for a river, where it then sought refuge. On impacting the ground it became instantly stranded, miles from a safe harbor. I’ve seen loons take off on several occasions, and they require long runways of water that they slowly ascend from. Imagine an old video of a Clipper flying boat lumbering off the water; it’s a very similar scene. This bird simply didn’t have the environment to create the lift it needed.

We were all relieved that the bird was likely fine, as it was very alert and quite aggressive. Any effort to touch or evaluate it was met with perturbed vocalizations and lightning jabs from its sharp beak. Now what? After some back and forth we decided that the great folks at Mile-Hi would bring the bird to us and we would in turn transport and release it at Willow Lake. Suzi arrived a short time later, pet carrier in tow. Inside was a clearly agitated loon, who was ready for a swim and a meal. It also had the distinct odor of fish, and not necessarily fresh fish. There was no mistaking what this bird chose to dine on. My son Braeden, who happened to be hanging around the store that day, was delighted to be able to observe this remarkable bird, up close and personal! While his ten-year-old curiosity warranted multiple peeks inside the carrier, we were careful not to unnecessarily stress the hungry bird.

Will the bird survive? Will we be able to avoid its lance-like bill? Will it stink it up my truck on the way to Willow Lake? Be sure to check out next month’s installment, in which I’ll answer these exciting questions and more! Till then, happy birding!

Online Extra: 2023 Birding Challenge

This past month I added several species to my 2023 Jay’s Bird Barn Birding Challenge list. These include the Chihuahuan meadowlark, horned lark, bald eagle, an unexpected golden-crowned sparrow, Abert’s Towhee, common loon, ring-necked duck and hermit thrush.

My year count now stands at 79 species!

The first signs of spring migration are happening as I write this, so right now is a great time to find birds that you have limited opportunity to observe. Some may be hurriedly passing through as they make their way north to breed. Species such as Wilson’s warbler, rufous hummingbird and lazuli bunting will provide us a short window for spotting them, so pay attention. Getting out and participating is a must. Start studying up on migratory warblers in our region. Also, gull and wading-bird identification skills will be useful in the coming months. Get out there and beat me!

Ryan Crouse manages The Lookout.

March 2023
Birding Challenge 2023

As I’ve mentioned, I manage Jay’s Bird Barn, a store focused on bird feeding and watching in your back yard. Of course we also encourage getting out and finding a wider assortment of birds beyond the confines of your yard. In a given year Prescott will host well over 200 bird species. Most are predictable and can be found without much effort. Many may take some effort on your part by exploring the appropriate habitat. Based on this we have created a Birding Challenge for 2023. It has already started and will conclude on October 18, when the winners will be eligible for prizes.

We have created a checklist of 143 species, taken directly from the two-volume set of folding guides we created several years ago. With some work it’s possible to see all 143, plus many more! We’ve also integrated several other challenges to which we’ve assigned point values as you complete them. These challenges are all geared toward getting our community outdoors and enjoying the amazing nature-viewing opportunities we have. Among the challenges included are: attending one of Jay’s Bird Barn’s free weekly birdwalks, attending a monthly meeting of our local Prescott Audubon chapter, creating an eBird.org account, adding a new feeder to your yard, and many more!

If you’ve ever been interested in the hobby of birdwatching, now is a great time to take that leap — or would “take flight” be more appropriate?

In conjunction with our own Birding Challenge, heavy monsoons and a wet winter have all but guaranteed a bountiful seed and insect crop in the coming year. This growth in natural food tends to bring large numbers of birds to our area, including many species that don’t regularly show up here. Central Arizona is on the fringe of the typical range for many species, but when our region can boast a generous food supply you’ll see spillover or “irruption” of some species motivated by high metabolisms.

A great example of this would be wintering seed-eating birds. The monsoon season we had contributed directly to thousands of square miles of native grass. As all these plants go to seed, it becomes an invaluable resource for calories. Even compared with just last year, our wintering population of white-crowned sparrows has been robust.

Along those same lines, weather patterns can affect bird movement within our region. This year’s poor crop of natural juniper berries has driven birds into more urban settings in search of the next meal. Perhaps you’ve noticed an influx of American robins recently? While they are year-round residents, they do tend to proliferate in the winter. Couple that with a poor berry crop and you may find large flocks in your yard, gorging on berry-producing plants. These large flocks can be great indicators of what else you should look for!

The captivating mountain bluebird is a winter resident that may show up where berries and habitat are plentiful. Photo by Ryan Crouse.

Along with robins, other berry-eating birds may be present, because they use each other to help find food. In the last couple of weeks I’ve recorded the first Townsend’s solitaire in my yard, have seen several cedar waxwings around town, and have been host to a few large flocks of western bluebirds. This last week, I led a walk here in town where we were delighted to find a half dozen mountain bluebirds. If I had to pick a favorite bird, the mountain bluebird would be it, and these conditions have been perfect to draw them into a more suburban habitat.

Please give us a call or drop by the shop if you have any questions regarding this topic or any other. We look forward to bird-watching with you all year, and are excited to see what birds you can dig up. If you want to give it a go, now is the time to start! Many of our wintering birds will be leaving soon and will not return before the contest ends.

My challenge to you, which will give you a great start on your list, is to make an effort to see these ten birds over the coming month: ruby-crowned kinglet, Cassin’s finch, American robin, hairy woodpecker, bushtit, pine siskin, white-crowned sparrow, savannah sparrow, western meadowlark, and ferruginous hawk. You can observe most of these in a yard setting, but a few may take a bit of effort. Ask me where to go! Till next time, happy birding!

Ryan Crouse manages The Lookout.

February 2023
Ferruginous Hawk

In Prescott’s rural neighborhoods many are aware of the ubiquitous red-tailed hawk, or perhaps you’ve seen a cunning Cooper’s hawk patrolling your bird feeders. While these are fascinating birds in their own right, there are somewhere between ten and 20 raptor species we can observe in the tri-city region. Each of these species exhibits its own unique characteristics, making our local birds of prey a very fun group to observe and differentiate from one another.

Photo by Ryan Crouse

One of the more intriguing species to me is the regal ferruginous hawk. Its Latin name, Buteo regalis, speaks to its handsome yet fearsome appearance while revealing its membership in the diverse Buteo family of hawks. This genus includes the red-tailed hawk, rough-legged hawk and zone-tailed hawk, among many more. Compared with its peers, this species is the one deemed regalis, saying a lot when you consider the competition!

Their common name speaks to the rusty color of the hawk’s mantle or shoulders, most prominent among light-morph individuals. Looking at the root of the name it’s easy to spot ‘ferrous,’ meaning something containing iron. Given its home in the ghost-town-speckled North American West, this reference to oxidized chromaticity is appropriate. Like other buteos the ferruginous hawk can come in a variety of color morphs, ranging from the largely paperwhite-breasted light-morph variety to a rich, chocolate-brown dark morph. Light-morph birds also carry steel-blue primary and secondary feathers, most easily viewed on a sitting bird, contrasting vividly with its rusty-orange shoulders.

While you’re likely to see a ferruginous hawk atop a grassland power pole, they are just as at home near the ground, which can be a useful distinction for identifying them. It’s not uncommon to see one perched on a fence post or even a small bluff, scanning vast expanses of prairie habitat. It is much less likely to be seen with most other raptors, a characteristic born of necessity. With a home territory offering little in the way of natural elevated vantage points, it uses whatever lower perches are available. Coupled with amazing eyesight, these perches provide enough of a leg up on prey while limiting the hawk’s own exposure to local predators. In more modern habitats they have learned to take advantage of taller man-made structures while retaining their terrestrial habits.

Along the same lines, ferruginous hawks will nest on bluffs or rocky outcrops when possible, but given the right circumstances they may find a suitable spot in a much lower-lying area. Coyotes and other animals love to dine on nutrient-rich eggs, so the hawks will often build large nests of relatively big sticks and limbs. Since it’s hard to weave these larger pieces of wood together into a more traditional nest, their nurseries often resemble loosely arranged piles encapsulating the young. Settlers moving west across sparsely wooded grasslands would often find odd piles of buffalo bones, later determined to be ferruginous nests. The hawks would also line the nests with buffalo dung, offering the young birds great insulation during the cool prairie nights. Settlers and their Native American neighbors also used the dung, which is tightly packed grass at its core, to fuel fires and keep their own young warm. With the decline of North America’s bison herds over the last 200 years, ferruginous hawks can now be found using cattle dung in the same manner. Luckily, humans generally have more attractive fuel options today.

While the population is doing well overall, its historic grassland range is among the most threatened and fastest shrinking. Often regarded as desolate or useless, humans generally have a more tolerant view of turning our surrounding prairies into seas of tract homes. As our western towns continue to swell in size, the royal buteo and others sharing this intrinsically important ecosystem are being squeezed to their limits.

For now and hopefully well into the future, we can marvel at the ferruginous hawk with just a short drive. During our winter months check for them perched on a fence post or pole. The eastern outskirts of Chino Valley is a prime area for spotting this amazing bird. Until next time, happy birding!

Ryan Crouse manages The Lookout.

January 2023
Gambel’s Quail

While the shop I manage loves all wild birds, there are a few that disproportionately add to our bottom line. Hummingbirds are critical to our success, as are the lesser goldfinches. The third species that drives our business is the striking Gambel’s quail.

Several quail species inhabit North America, and three that are native to Arizona. Of Arizona’s quail species, the Gambel’s is the most common and widespread, inhabiting inviting yards and brushy habitat throughout the west’s four major deserts: the Sonoran, Mohave, Chihuahuan and Great Basin.

Quail spend most of their time in large groups known as coveys, where they surreptitiously meander through dense undergrowth in search of shelter and food. They sustain on a largely vegetarian diet, although they will gladly pick at small passing insects on occasion. As is often the case with our local wildlife, quail are well adapted to the arid climate of the American Southwest. They are able to get most of their water from their diet alone, relying on small succulent sprouts, blades of grass, berries and cactus fruit to stay nourished and hydrated. They forage for food much in the way a chicken does, by scratching at the ground to reveal seeds and other edible morsels.

As they forage, quail are never far from an escape route. Often there will be a lone male perched above the covey, providing a wary set of eyes. This bird is usually the patriarch of the group, and he will constantly monitor his surroundings to help keep it safe from approaching threats. Largely earthbound, quail are high on the menu of the neighborhood bobcat or fox. While not flightless, the quail’s main source of defense is concealment and the ability to disappear into thick brush at any sign of danger. Their contrasting, speckled and streaked plumage helps break up their shape, the same way a tiger’s stripes help it disappear in tall grass. When caught in the open, they resort to short bursts of high-speed flight, usually aiming at the nearest thicket of native shrubs. Even with all these tools at their disposal, a quail’s life is one of survival in the face of steady attrition. They breed and have young in sync with regional weather. Because the young birds sustain largely on vegetative sprouts, they need adequate precipitation to ensure new plant growth. When the odds are stacked against them and the challenges are more daunting, quail tend to rear less young. In wetter years, such as the one we’re currently experiencing, abundant plant growth provides enough shelter and concealment along with an adequate seed yield to feed larger coveys. So with this year’s impressive monsoon season our customers have reported healthy populations in their yards.

Females lay one egg a day in brood season, and this can continue for five to 15 days. Once she’s laid all her eggs, only then will she incubate them, which starts the clock. Like magic, 21-24 days later they will all hatch together. The hatchlings can walk within minutes, which is important, because their fight for survival starts immediately. These highly camouflaged little birds are a quick snack for any number of hungry predators, and they can be considered successful when only half make it to adulthood. Large broods and alert parents mean that enough make it to continue the species into the next generation.

While this has been a good year for quail, their numbers remain historically low, with decades of unreliable precipitation and habitat loss reducing their numbers. The surge in human population in Arizona has taken large swathes of their historical range and made it uninhabitable for most animals. Luckily, quail can thrive in urban habitats when the human population makes an effort. Low-growing native shrubs in your yard provide an inviting area for the neighborhood quail to forage and nest among. Establishing a feeding area on the ground is a great idea, although they will use elevated tray feeders as well. Having a yard that’s open to the surrounding habitat is ideal, but if you require a fence, make it one that critters can easily navigate through. The more we segment off wild areas from one another, the harder it becomes for all native life to thrive.

The choices you make have a very real effect on this regionally iconic chaparral dweller, so be an advocate for them. Until next time, happy birding!

Photos by John West

Ryan Crouse manages The Lookout.

December 2022
Wintering Ducks

Everyone knows that birds go south in the winter, right? Well, we have to determine what exactly “south” means. While its definition is undeniable, a lot of the people I come across in my profession assume that the southward journey of migrating birds always takes them south of us. When we take into account that over 60% of the globe’s northern latitudes are above us, that makes us “south” for a vast population of birds. Many species have determined that our relatively mild climate is just right!

For one species we will touch on, its breeding range extends into Canada’s Northwest Territories. A quick Google search just told me that it’s currently 3°F in Jean Marie River, NWT, and it’s noon in early November. Yikes! So, while our recent winter zephyrs have us longing for September, it could be way worse. Godspeed to the good folks of Jean Marie River!

Taking a break from our monthly bird, let’s touch on an entire group that we can study through our cooler months.

A group of birds embodying this migration pattern is Prescott’s wintering ducks. On any given day during these months there is a high probability of observing hundreds if not thousands of ducks. Since these birds are in constant flux, determined by weather and food supply, the amount you’ll see and species you find can vary on an hourly basis. That said, there are several species you can bet on sighting at our two largest bodies of water, Watson and Willow Reservoirs.

In this group of stalwart aquatic quackers you’re almost sure to see northern shoveler, bufflehead, ruddy duck, ring-necked duck, gadwall, mallard, green-winged teal and American wigeon. On a more limited basis you can find canvasback, redhead, common merganser, hooded merganser, northern pintail, blue-winged teal, cinnamon teal, and more! This group represents a wide range of behaviors and visual attributes to help compare and contrast them.

What binds the birds of this group together is their high probability of association with water. Their diets largely consist of aquatic flora and fauna. All these species carry dense, insulating feathers with an oily secretion to repel water, and are high in fat. We’re warmer than northern Canada, but there’s nothing warm about Watson in December, and these attributes help them regulate body temperature.

From there we can divide these birds into two distinct groups: dabblers and divers. Dabbling ducks tend to favor shallower waters, where they feed by tipping forward and submerging their front halves to snatch aquatic life from the muddy bottom. This group not only includes our Jean Marie summer resident, the understated gadwall, but also the ubiquitous mallard, the elegant northern pintail and, to a lesser degree, the teal family, which tends to feed on the surface. The feet of dabbling ducks are usually farther forward on the body, acting as a pivot to tip them forward while feeding. These birds are generally easier to observe because they stay closer to shore.

Venturing to deeper waters you’ll encounter diving birds like the stout ruddy duck, the torpedo-like mergansers and the diminutive bufflehead. Divers tend to have larger feet placed farther back on their bodies. This difference provides more propulsion to power their sleek frames through the water. While some of the divers feed on plant matter, birds like the mergansers prefer a meaty diet. Mergansers break from the typical duck bill and instead use their slender, serrated beaks to snare slippery fish from the depths.

One of the more abundant species you’ll find is the boldly patterned northern shoveler. While they’re technically dabblers who use their large spatulated bill to filter through silty water in search of invertebrates and plant matter, they have developed a behavior that allows them to feed in a wider variety of waters.  In one of the countless instances that make us ponder how smart animals actually are, shovelers form large groups of dozens or even hundreds of birds. They pack tightly together and swim in circular formation. Slowly this creates a submarine vortex that lifts the organic matter from the bottom in deeper water. Once the rich food source has been sucked up, they can then go sifting through the murky mess in search of breakfast.

Taken together, the many feeding styles of this single group of birds ensures that the waterways are evenly hunted, harvested and fertilized, which helps keep them all strong and healthy.

Our local wintering ducks provide a diverse palette to practice on. They are easily accessible and associated with habitat that supports a huge percentage of Arizona’s avian

population. In my opinion there isn’t a better group for the budding birder to observe and pick apart. Much of your perception of how behavior aids you in identification can be gleaned from this group, building a strong foundation for developing your skills.

So get out there and do it! Until next time, happy birding!

Ryan Crouse manages The Lookout.

November 2022
California Condor

Arizona is host to many extraordinary avian species, but none reaches the proportions of one that was once on the brink of extinction. By the 1980s the California condor was completely absent from the wild landscape, and while they have made a comeback, they are still relegated to the most remote parts of our state.

The condors once patrolled much of the West in search of carrion to fill their bellies. During the Pleistocene era they covered most of the continent. This was at the peak for megafauna on the continent, so food was plentiful. Like other scavengers they don’t generally hunt for live prey and must rely on the natural process of death for their next meal. Because this supply is unpredictable, condors can go for up to two weeks without eating. Unlike their cousins the turkey vultures, condors do not have a well developed sense of smell, instead relying on exceptional eyesight to locate food. This is especially impressive because their foods of choice are not generally on the move. To find a single carcass hidden in a vast landscape takes an incredible amount of patience and luck.

John West

A condor can soar for hours, taken aloft on an incredible 9-10-foot wingspan, and can reach heights of 15,000 feet! Like other soaring birds they use prevailing winds and thermal columns to navigate the topography. Instead of constantly flapping, they can glide for long periods of time, reducing calorie consumption while in search of replenishment. They cruise at about 30mph, which means they can quickly cover a lot of ground. Once food is located they take full advantage of their size by pushing other scavengers off the kill. Their sharply hooked beak is used to tear at the carcass, swallowing it down in chunks. They gorge themselves on the sour flesh, consuming and storing up to three pounds in their crop. For context, this is equivalent to a 200-pound human eating around 30 pounds in a single sitting.

Condors are very well suited to the western deserts they generally inhabit. First, it’s a tough environment for any creature to endure, which provides a reliable stream of food. Like vultures they use their giant vascular wings as radiators, spreading them out to either cool themselves off with whatever breeze is present or by soaking up the sun’s rays during a cold desert morning. In a process called urohydrosis, they are known to urinate on their legs, which has the same effect as when a human sweats. This is also how a swamp cooler works, using the principle of convection to transfer body heat to the surrounding atmosphere. Similar to other desert dwelling animals, Condors are also known to excrete excess salt from their nostrils, which regulates hydration.

John West

As I touched on before, the California condor was on the precipice of extinction in the latter half of the 20th century. Due to factors that included poaching, habitat loss, lead poisoning and the ravages of the pesticide DDT, the species was down to just 27 individuals when they were collected by the US Fish and Wildlife Service in 1987.

A key part of their revitalization has been legislation to protect the species coupled with public education. Lead-free ammunition has been made available to hunters and even mandated around the national parks where condors are most likely to be found. Benefiting countless avian and reptilian critters, DDT has been banned in the US. While habitat loss continues to be a concern, large swaths of federally protected land are protected across much of the Southwest.

A large hurdle to condor rehabilitation has been their breeding practices. Condors lay only one egg at a time and must incubate it for eight weeks, which is done by both mates. If the egg proves viable, the hatchling will be dependent on its parents for about a year before it sets out on its own. Because of the physical commitment it takes to rear young, mature adults don’t generally breed every year. After all this it takes six to eight years before a young condor can reproduce. Compounding these issues, as for all large carnivorous birds, the attrition rate is very high.

John West

All challenges aside, reintroduction into their natural habitat began in 1992, and there are over 550 individual birds in the wild today. They have been freed in Utah, Arizona, California and Baja California. While they remain critically endangered, the forecast is positive, and with continued effort and close monitoring of progress the future looks bright for this magnificent animal.

To see them in the wild, Navajo Bridge above Lee’s Ferry is a reliable spot. Look for them roosting on the steel girders, surveying their domain. Until next time, happy birding!

Ryan Crouse manages The Lookout.

October 2022
Greater Roadrunner

In our collective consciousness there are birds that serve as representatives of their respective habitats. They are so ingrained in our minds as regionally unique that it’d be reasonable to assume they’re omnipresent in a given habitat. Here the greater roadrunner adorns countless postcards and gift-shop mugs, but it can be found as far east as Missouri and ranges well into California and southern Mexico, where it shares habitat with close cousin the lesser roadrunner. Still, when we think of the roadrunner our mental picture often has the Sonoran Desert as backdrop.

While we welcome that association, it comes with a caveat: they’re very hard to find! Whenever someone comes into our shop asking where they can find roadrunners, our answer is a verbal shrug. It’s hard to plan a birding trip around finding one; they often just appear, with no warning. Roadrunners can be found in a variety of generally arid habitats, and their range is even expanding. They do well in urban settings with enough natural habitat to support them.

The craziest sighting I’ve personally had was near Mormon Lake during the dead of winter, with a foot or more of snow on the ground. The lake can be an exceptionally cold place, as it was that day. How the bird was finding food in that setting was beyond us, yet there it was, looking as healthy as ever! This is extreme, but it perfectly depicts that absolute randomness of the species.

Photo by Paula Lane

The most common roadrunner sighting is, appropriately, from the comfort of your car along the side of a dusty road. They love sitting atop berms, where they survey their surroundings for items of interest. While they’re not entirely flightless, they largely stay close to the ground, where they use agility, speed and cunning to outwit prey and threat alike.

This bird can run in excess of 20mph, and as it sprints through our highland scrub, it lowers its sleek frame to run nearly parallel with the ground. This provides enough aerodynamic effect to help squeeze out every lick of speed it can muster. Using those same aerodynamic principles it adjusts its long tail side-to-side during high-speed maneuvering, like a rudder. With this speed and ability to disappear into dense and often thorny undergrowth, it can evade predators that may include the stealthy bobcat, a particularly wily coyote and even larger birds of prey.

The roadrunner’s ability to keep from becoming someone’s lunch makes it a formidable hunter in its own right. It dines on a very diverse buffet, ranging from small insects to rattlesnakes. We’ve had reports from homeowners who’ve witnessed this clever species sitting in ambush near a hummingbird feeder, where it will jump straight up to snatch the diminutive pollinator from its perch.

Back to the rattlers, though. Roadrunners hunt a wide variety of reptiles, including several kinds of venomous lizards and snakes. Over time they have developed a tolerance for any number of otherwise deadly venoms.

While they tend to be solitary creatures outside mating season, they occasionally work in pairs when hunting some more dangerous targets. With lighting speed, heat-sensing capability and inch-long fangs, the rattlesnake is dangerous no matter how you slice it. The team of birds will slowly circle and size up the wary ophidian. Singularly or in tandem they will extend and flare their wings and crests while they deceptively dance just within reach of the dangerous viper. This is an effort to confuse the snake into striking at their brightly patterned wings, where a bite will likely fall harmlessly on feathers. At the right moment one of the avian tag-team members will dart at the diverted snake, aiming for the base of the neck. By grabbing the unfortunate rattler here, it cannot wheel its head around, which neutralizes its most potent defense. Wasting no time, the roadrunner will then strike the head of the snake on the nearest rock until the struggle ceases. From there the noxious reptile can be consumed, venom and all, with no ill effect.

If you have native shrubby habitat in your yard, cross your fingers for roadrunners nesting in the thickest, thorniest plants. If you’re so lucky, you cannot ask for better pest control. During mating season listen for its song, a sorrowful series of descending notes.

Unfortunately you won’t likely have them nesting in your yard. What will happen, given enough time and awareness, is that you’ll see one sitting atop a bit of roadside topography, thoughtfully contemplating its next move. Happy birding!

Ryan Crouse manages The Lookout.

September 2022
Peregrine Falcon

In the animal world, some species elicit a certain awe. Very often these are the apex predators that sit atop the food chain. The lions on the Serengeti, wolves in the Yukon and the great white sharks patrolling our oceans are examples of creatures held in a reverence reserved for the few.

Giant eyes and netlike, taloned feet make the peregrine falcon a capable hunter. Photo by Ryan Crouse

In the bird world this label can apply to any number of species, but the peregrine falcon demands a high spot on that list. They’re cunning hunters that use fantastic speed and laser precision to incapacitate their prey before they ever know what hit them. As you may know, they are the fastest creatures on earth. In a dive they can reach speeds in excess of 200mph; the fastest recorded peregrine was an individual named Frightful, who in 1999 clocked an eye-watering 242mph, a feat that manned flight did not achieve until 1922.

The entire hunt is a carefully choreographed and timed aerobatic display that we have only recently been able to imitate. Many of the most fundamental concepts that make manned flight possible were observed and copied from what we see in nature.

Take this bird’s incredible eyesight, roughly eight times more powerful than ours, and compare it to the complex avionics we carry aboard modern aircraft. Both systems are used to survey upcoming airspace for hazards, navigate at high rates of speed and acquire and close on targets with high accuracy. The peregrine preys on other birds almost exclusively, and can lock on a target from over three kilometers away — nearly two miles!

Once locked on, the falcon begins her dive from a soaring position, much the way a military aircraft loiters over a target, or from a high perch, such as a cliff face or high-tension electrical tower.

While capable of exceeding the magical 200mph barrier, it more commonly performs its dive (‘stoop’) in the 100-150mph range. It tucks back its angular wings, making them as “slippery” as possible as its cigarlike shape barrels toward the unwary prey.

Its profile is almost copied in the US Air Force’s most advanced stealth bomber, the B2 Spirit. This was not accidental.

The falcon’s large eyes continue to track as the head remains fixed on the target, aided by delicate input from the neck muscles. The nostrils are shaped to redirect the severe shock wave of the 200mph dive, protecting the lungs from those high pressures. The air intakes of our fastest aircraft mimic this principle, protecting the complex jet engines from the immense forces funneled in.

Like a wire-guided missile, the falcon makes minute adjustments based on input from the eyes, right up to the point where it’s on top of the unlucky quarry. With balled-up feet it delivers a blow to the target, instantly incapacitating the bird before streaking past. Then it hits the brakes and twists in a maneuver that can exert a 25-g force on the body.

For you non-fighter pilots, one-g is equal to the force of gravity, what we experience daily. You actually experience mildly elevated lateral g-force any time you drive your car. Next time you turn your steering wheel, let the centripetal force push your body off center. This is the concept, although you’re unlikely to experience even a single g of lateral force that way. To feel even a modest 6-g in a car, you have to be in a Formula 1 race car moving at over 150mph.

Turning back to our falcon, compare its 25-g to its USAF namesake, the F-16 Fighting Falcon, which can maintain around 9-g. Much more than that and the highly trained human inside risks blacking out from blood loss to the brain, or worse, the incredible force can rip the aircraft apart at the seams. The peregrine falcon withstands three times that before breakfast is served.

The predator performs this feat to position itself back on the target, where it can now snare its stricken prey with its oversized, taloned feet. If it finds the animal still alive, it can use what is known as a modified tooth on its upper mandible to reach down and sever the spinal cord, ending the struggle instantly. This tool is one feature that sets falcons apart from other birds of prey.

All that said, the peregrine’s attack-success rate is only 9.3%, which means it has to go through this entire set of events nine or ten times on average before enjoying a meal! Take that into account the next time the grocery store is out of your favorite potato chip.

Until next time, happy birding!

Ryan Crouse manages The Lookout.

August 2022
Great Blue Heron

As we become more advanced in our birdwatching we can grow jaded about common birds that live in our neck of the woods. I have certainly been guilty of this. It depends on the type of birdwatcher you are, but it can be easy to take the more familiar birds for granted. I’m often humbled a bit when I observe participants on my bird walks get very excited about what might be considered a run-of-the-mill bird.

Across North America, one of the more common birds is the elegant great blue heron. It’s an expected sight along the shores of almost any body of water, and it’s even common to see them atop a pelagic kelp-bed, hunting the local sea life. Beyond their natural association with water, herons will patrol farm fields and even mountain meadows for small animals. They seem to have a particular eye for the gopher population in our area, much to the delight of local landowners.

Herons deploy a lethal combination of unwavering patience punctuated with explosions  of precisely placed energy. They will slowly tighten up their posture to create a powerful spring, tipped by their lance-like beak. They can stand motionless for an eternity, waiting for the right moment to spear a unsuspecting passerby with lighting speed.

One of those instances in which my blasé approach to this species was instantly challenged was during a bird walk I led. We were traveling a trail near one of the local lakes, which ran along a mature cottonwood stand. In a flooded clearing among the trees, we were able to see a heron standing conspicuously among the reeds. At the big end they can be as tall as four and a half feet, so they’re hard to miss. We peered through our binoculars and the situation we observed was hard to decipher at first. It became clear, though, that this heron had bitten off a little more than it could chew. He had a firm grasp on a gopher snake, many feet in length, but the snake also had a firm grasp on him. Gopher snakes are non-venomous constrictors that help keep our local rodents in check. Much like a boa, they will grab and then wrap themselves around prey until they have suffocated the small animal.

The snake was using its powerful muscles as a defense, wrapping itself around the heron’s beak, head and neck. They were at something of a stalemate, and ironically the snake’s powerful squeeze was further clamping the heron’s beak on itself. As each animal adjusted, the other responded in kind. The snake could have easily suffocated the big heron if given the opportunity to wrap itself firmly around its airway. After several minutes of watching this struggle unfold in front of us, the heron was able to cast its opponent to the ground and dispatch it with a series of well placed jabs. The snake was dead, but now came the task of devouring the oddly proportioned animal. After lightly tossing its prey into the air a few times, the heron found the right angle to swallow the entirety of the slain serpent in one gulp. This was all so he could have breakfast — which kind of puts things in perspective!

This daily predator-vs-prey relationship exists all around us, 24/7. I’ve personally witnessed herons feeding on the snakes, crayfish, small fish, gophers, huge bass, bullfrogs and even small birds. On occasion we even hear of them in backyard ponds, depleting a small water feature of its expensive koi.

Herons can be found any day of the year in Prescott, and you can even observe them from a distance in nesting settings. Herons nest together in small communities called rookeries. This is similar to cormorants and egrets, other species that can be found nesting in close proximity to one another. These scenes are generally filled with loud squawks, screeches and various guttural noises. Awkwardly developed juvenile herons bounce around the trees until they learn to use their wings, littering the ground with the leftovers of recent meals. It really is a spectacle! Unfortunately, many of young birds perish before they ever reach water. During times of drought, their first walk to the shore is an extended gauntlet of exposure to coyotes, big cats and human activity. Still, enough make it to carry on the species.

Scan the shoreline of any of our lakes and you’re almost certain to see a heron lurking along the water’s edge. If you’re fortunate enough you may see them driving through the air on slow, powerful wingbeats, trailing their lanky legs behind. Enjoy them, but, as our region rapidly changes with all avian species grappling to keep up, don’t take them for granted. Happy Birding!

Ryan Crouse manages The Lookout.

July 2022
Band-Tailed Pigeon

At the shop we frequently receive phone calls from people concerning a certain species in their yard. It may be perceived as a pest, often with a lot of validity. Many of these legitimate “pest” species are non-native birds brought to North America at some point in the past. Some have now been here for hundreds of years and are fully incorporated into local ecosystems, which often has devastating consequences on native species. We take these calls seriously. and try to guide the customer through the issue. Periodically, though, a sort of inadvertent bait-and-switch happens mid-conversation, and it ends very differently from where it started.

I’ve had this conversation many times, but just last week I had one that went something like this:

“I have some doves in my yard that are crowding out other species. They are grey and have collars on the backs of their necks. What do I do? How do I get rid of them?”

At this point I immediately inferred that she was seeing the Eurasian collared dove, a common non-native species introduced to North America in 1981. They have multiplied by the millions in the intervening time and now pose a very real threat to the future of our native mourning dove. They’re more aggressive and bigger than the mild-mannered mourning dove, and populations are reacting accordingly as they compete for both nesting and feeding locations continent-wide. 

I started to explain some ways to help mitigate them, but it can be really hard to limit one species while providing a welcoming habitat for all others. As we navigated the conversation, some things started to seem weird. She kept referencing a “white collar,” which didn’t make sense because Eurasians have a black collar. After almost a decade of listening to people describe birds, I’ve learned that their memories often conflict with what they actually saw. So I didn’t question it at first. Other little details seemed odd, though: the description of the color gray was off, the description of size was off, the description of behavior was a bit off. But these can all be subjective details. I don’t know what was said that made it click, but I finally blurted out:

“Hold on, where do you live??” 

She answered, “Near Groom Creek,” a small community south of town. The neighborhood is thoughtfully integrated into the surrounding Ponderosa forest at an elevation of about 6,000 feet. 

Bingo!

At this point I have to instantly shift from helping the customer get rid of a pest to reassuring them that they actually have a really cool bird! She was hosting band-tailed pigeons. These are the last native pigeon in North America, and while they can still exhibit some of the negative bird-feeder decorum that their Eurasian cousins are derided for, band-tails are relatively rare and declining throughout their range.

The species is very social, and will often travel in flocks of 10-20 individuals. When I tell the person they are rare, the statement often falls on deaf ears at first. They are big pigeons and can sometimes monopolize a yard, but fortunately for the homeowner their presence is short-lived. They don’t generally winter this far north, retreating to the southern part of our state and Mexico. Their year-round range extends to the rainforests of Central America and western South America all the way to northern Argentina. 

In Prescott we’re in the southern part of their expanded summer range. They will generally only be found in higher-elevation forests, where they dine on nuts, seeds and fruit. 

Unlike other dove and pigeon species, they are not very tolerant of human interaction. They are much more at home in the top of a hundred-foot pine than on the ground, and much flightier. They have to be, as they must be wary of predators like the goshawk, which also inhabits our high-elevation forests. 

A typical band-tail sighting is a group of them flying at very high speed just above the forest canopy. If you’re lucky, you may happen to see one perched conspicuously on an upper limb of a tall Ponderosa.

Generally, as was the case last week, the person gets interested and grows to appreciate the unique species. Aside from first-glance resemblance to rock pigeona and Eurasian collard doves, they distinguish themselves in several ways and are truly a cool “yard bird.” 

Even the most initially mundane bird may be something special, even if it is eating all your seed.

Ryan Crouse manages The Lookout.

July 2022
Band-Tailed Pigeon

At the shop we frequently receive phone calls from people concerning a certain species in their yard. It may be perceived as a pest, often with a lot of validity. Many of these legitimate “pest” species are non-native birds brought to North America at some point in the past. Some have now been here for hundreds of years and are fully incorporated into local ecosystems, which often has devastating consequences on native species. We take these calls seriously. and try to guide the customer through the issue. Periodically, though, a sort of inadvertent bait-and-switch happens mid-conversation, and it ends very differently from where it started.

I’ve had this conversation many times, but just last week I had one that went something like this:

“I have some doves in my yard that are crowding out other species. They are grey and have collars on the backs of their necks. What do I do? How do I get rid of them?”

At this point I immediately inferred that she was seeing the Eurasian collared dove, a common non-native species introduced to North America in 1981. They have multiplied by the millions in the intervening time and now pose a very real threat to the future of our native mourning dove. They’re more aggressive and bigger than the mild-mannered mourning dove, and populations are reacting accordingly as they compete for both nesting and feeding locations continent-wide.

I started to explain some ways to help mitigate them, but it can be really hard to limit one species while providing a welcoming habitat for all others. As we navigated the conversation, some things started to seem weird. She kept referencing a “white collar,” which didn’t make sense because Eurasians have a black collar. After almost a decade of listening to people describe birds, I’ve learned that their memories often conflict with what they actually saw. So I didn’t question it at first. Other little details seemed odd, though: the description of the color gray was off, the description of size was off, the description of behavior was a bit off. But these can all be subjective details. I don’t know what was said that made it click, but I finally blurted out:

“Hold on, where do you live?”

She answered, “Near Groom Creek,” a small community south of town. The neighborhood is thoughtfully integrated into the surrounding Ponderosa forest at an elevation of about 6,000 feet.

Bingo!

At this point I have to instantly shift from helping the customer get rid of a pest to reassuring them that they actually have a really cool bird! She was hosting band-tailed pigeons. These are the last native pigeon in North America, and while they can still exhibit some of the negative bird-feeder decorum that their Eurasian cousins are derided for, band-tails are relatively rare and declining throughout their range. 

The species is very social, and will often travel in flocks of 10-20 individuals. When I tell the person they are rare, the statement often falls on deaf ears at first. They are big pigeons and can sometimes monopolize a yard, but fortunately for the homeowner their presence is short-lived. They don’t generally winter this far north, retreating to the southern part of our state and Mexico. Their year-round range extends to the rainforests of Central America and western South America all the way to northern Argentina.

In Prescott we’re in the southern part of their expanded summer range. They will generally only be found in higher-elevation forests, where they dine on nuts, seeds and fruit.

Unlike other dove and pigeon species, they are not very tolerant of human interaction. They are much more at home in the top of a hundred-foot pine than on the ground, and much flightier. They have to be, as they must be wary of predators like the goshawk, which also inhabits our high-elevation forests.

A typical band-tail sighting is a group of them flying at very high speed just above the forest canopy. If you’re lucky, you may happen to see one perched conspicuously on an upper limb of a tall Ponderosa.

Generally, as was the case last week, the person gets interested and grows to appreciate the unique species. Aside from first-glance resemblance to rock pigeons and Eurasian collard doves, they distinguish themselves in several ways and are truly a cool “yard bird.”

Even the most initially mundane bird may be something special, even if it is eating all your seed.

Ryan Crouse manages The Lookout.

June 2022
Anna’s Hummingbird

The diminutive Anna’s hummingbird has carved a disproportionate chunk out of Prescott’s collective bird psyche. It’s simple; people love them! When it comes to Arizona though, this often means the magenta-throated Anna’s.

John West

The Anna’s enjoys the northernmost year-round range in North America. During the wet and body-heat-zapping winters of the Pacific Northwest, this cold-tolerant little bird will range as far north as British Columbia, and has even been recorded in the frigid expanses of Alaska.

In the Prescott area the Anna’s is the only hummingbird that we can reliably find during our cooler months. While Prescott is certainly no Anchorage, overnight lows into the negatives are not unheard-of. These temperatures would test the limits of most human life left exposed to the elements, so how does one of the smallest warm-blooded creatures on Earth survive the bitter nights? The simple answer could be that they’re just tougher than us, and while that’s definitely true, there is a scientific explanation.

In the same way a bear will spend the winter months in hibernation, an Anna’s hummingbird will mimic this process, but only to get through a single night or perhaps the occasional northern Arizona tempest. We know this survival technique a “torpor state.” During torpor, the bird can lower its body temperature from 104°F to just below 50°F.

An average human would have lost consciousness about 3°5 before that and may have succumbed to death at about 20° warmer. The bird’s metabolic rate falls to about 1/300th that than when in flight, and respirations per minute drop to approximately 2.5% of the normal rate. In short, they’re in a state near death, so much so that we have personally heard of people retrieving Anna’s hummingbird “corpses” on the morning after a cold snap and discarding them accordingly. This is often followed by a phone call to our shop, where they report the sad discovery and ask in bewilderment why the bird didn’t have the good sense to find a warmer climate.

Our honest answer, that they likely threw away or flushed a living bird, is always an unfortunate one. In almost any circumstances, human intervention in natural processes is not a good thing. With exposure to the morning’s relative warmth the bird will generally wake from its torpor over a 20-minute period, and go about its day.

Another unique trait of the Anna’s is a migration style based more on elevation than latitude. Where a Rufous hummingbird can winter into the southernmost jungles of Mexico and breed as far north as southern Alaska, the Anna's lives year-round along the Pacific coast and into Arizona. They will venture east into the intermountain West during the summer, expanding their range to take advantage of the abundant food base.

In Prescott we are positioned perfectly to experience this annual routine. The Anna’s wintering grounds in Arizona generally extend to the northern border of the Sonoran Desert. While they can survive the cold, only a small percentage of Prescott’s population stays through the winter.

While most yards won’t host these birds, we do get consistent reports of Anna’s sightings, mostly on southern or eastern slopes for maximum winter daylight. This exposure allows for a longer growing and flowering season while also encouraging more insect activity, creating more reliable food sources for the Anna’s, which can comsume half its weight in flower nectar daily. Rich in sugar, nectar is the backbone of their diet, serving as high-octane fuel for their elevated metabolic output.

With energy consumption roughly 80 times that of a human by weight, food intake is of utmost importance. To help keep up their ever-depleting energy and provide other nutrients, they will hawk and glean foliage for insects, arachnids and their eggs. During the bleakest periods of food supply they will seek out the sap-wells of sapsuckers, where they can find sucrose-dense pine and oak pitch, along with the bugs trapped in it.

Beyond the ubiquitous backyard hummingbird feeder, another great choice is to plant and maintain a native flowering garden. Some readily available, beautiful and drought-tolerant options include penstemon, manzanita and a range of flowering cacti. While they’re tough little birds, the more habitat we can help provide, the better off we all are.

Till next time, happy birding!

Ryan Crouse manages The Lookout.

May 2022
Zone-Tailed Hawk

Mid-April is a time of transition. The weather is sporadic as the region tries to decide whether it is still winter. Plants and insects are waiting for their cues to start becoming more active. Along those same lines, the bird population is in a state of flux, with wintering species heading north as summer migrants begin to trickle in. As I was leading a bird-walk yesterday we spotted some of these summer species. Among them were two beautiful zone-tailed hawks soaring together. These were the first of the season for me, and they’re always a welcome sight, among my favorites to observe in the field.

For me there are several traits of the zone-tailed hawk that make it stand out from other raptors. I should back up, though.

John West

Earlier in the morning we’d spotted several turkey vultures, a common sight through Arizona’s warmer months. They started showing up a couple weeks ago, one of the earlier migrants we see every year. They are an easy bird to identify, even at great distance. In flight they hold their wings in a deeply angled dihedral. This simply means that if you were to look at the bird in head-on flight, its wings form a V shape. Many larger soaring birds do this to an extent, but it is an exaggerated characteristic of turkey vultures. Their wings are also “plank-like” and bi-colored. Much of the leading edge of the wing’s underside is a uniform black, in strong contrast with the silvery primary and secondary feathers. They soar in large interlocking circles, rarely flapping their wings. From this vantage, they are hoping to see or smell their food of choice, which is rotting carrion.

What does this have to do with the article’s title bird? Well, that description of a vulture in flight can also largely apply to the zone-tail, so much so it’s widely speculated that it uses this similarity to its advantage. For animals on the ground the sight of a vulture is common and of little concern; they know which animals pose threats — their lives depend on it. At the same time, they can’t needlessly exert energy by running from an animal that means them no harm. Vultures are only concerned with animals that are already dead, and zone-tailed hawks seem to understand this relationship. Consequently they will join groups of vultures, mimicking their every movement, even periodic teetering, the “unsteadiness” that vultures display while soaring. I have observed zone-tails doing this while with vultures, but not necessarily when they’re on their own, the idea being that animals on the ground will be lulled and lower their guard. At that moment the hawk will pounce.

For me this has always posed a very interesting question: is this knowledge inherent to the species, or is it taught by the preceding generation? Are they born knowing they look like vultures, and if not, how did they figure it out? They don’t have mirrors, so how is this communicated within the species? This is a defining behavioral characteristic, yet its genesis is largely a mystery.

Zone-tailed hawks occupy a variety of habitats, but while we can spot them in Arizona’s riparian corridors, I think of them as a higher-elevation, pine-forest species, making Prescott an ideal location to see them soaring overhead. For several years in a row we had a lone individual that would patrol the cemetery across from our shop. They prey on a range of small animals, from aquatic amphibians to small mammals. Zone-tails seem to me more opportunists than a specialists, which fits their behavior perfectly.

While in flight they are extremely similar to soaring vultures at a glance, there are several features that to provide a positive ID. The zone-tail has the same bi-colored wings, but where a vulture wing is silvery-smooth, the hawk has a more “textured” set of primary feathers. The bright yellow legs of the zone-tail are generally a dead giveaway, but the large white band across the tail confirms it.

As an interesting comparison, pull out your bird book and study the two species together. To complicate things, add the common black hawk to that study session.

At this time of year I tell all my bird-walk participants, “Check all your vultures, because it may be a zone-tailed hawk!” Happy birding!

Ryan Crouse manages Jay's Bird Barn.

Ryan Crouse manages The Lookout.

April 2022
Acorn Woodpecker

We in Prescott are within short drives of several different habitats and life-zones that play host to their own distinct flora and fauna. Within an hour we can experience a range from the lower limits of Alpine forest to the upper reaches of the Sonoran Desert, providing unique opportunities to experience a wide variety of natural outdoor settings.

You can find a hallmark example of Prescott-style habitat immediately to the south and west of town, as the landscape gradually climbs into the Bradshaw and Sierra Prieta mountain ranges. Beginning at about 5,500 feet of elevation the landscape becomes choked with a wide variety of shrubs and trees, including juniper, manzanita, piñon pine and Wright silktassel. For this column we’ll take a deeper dive into the relationship between a certain kind of oak, Ponderosa pines, and the appropriately named acorn woodpecker.

Much of the intermountain west is dominated by vast stands of Ponderosa pine, which range from the rainforests of British Columbia to the rugged madrean forests of Mexico. Northern Arizona’s Coconino National Forest is the largest Ponderosa pine stand in the world, bordering the Kaibab NF and our very own Prescott NF. Together they make up a huge area in which you’re certain to find many species that are well adapted to the arid landscape. One of these is the acorn woodpecker.

This bird is immediately recognizable to anyone living around Thumb Butte or in Ponderosa Park, to name a couple of spots. In the store we hear them called “red-headed woodpecker,” although this is technically incorrect. Their appearance is overall black, white belly and breast, with bold patches of white on wings and rump. They have a striking white eye with a black pupil, and you’ll most often hear their facial pattern described as “clownlike.” We can differentiate the genders of most woodpecker species from the presence of color (usually red) on the head or face of the male. Acorn woodpeckers are unique in that both genders display extensive red on their heads, and they can only be distinguished by a small line of black over the eyes of the females. Think mascara to remember that!

This is not where the unique nature of these woodpeckers ends, though. They have a perplexing social structure that’s rife with aggression and infidelity. Social groups of a dozen individuals or more will live in tight-knit communities, generally revolving ar und a single Ponderosa snag that they have turned into their own multilevel condo, complete with nursery and sleep cavities. The species will violently defend a large area around their stand of trees and are in constant conflict with other woodpecker species, jays and even nut-gathering mammals like squirrels.

There may be several mating pairs and there will generally be a patriarch and matriarch within the group. Their breeding habits can be described as “cooperative,” with males breeding with as many females as possible. The rearing of young is also a communal effort, as is the gathering of food. Females will often destroy another female’s eggs, but cease this practice once they are sitting on eggs of their own. The destroyed eggs are then cached in a neighboring tree for the community to use as a highly nutritious food source.

Caches by acorn woodpeckers

Acorn woodpeckers dine on a variety of foods, but one of their staples is their namesake acorn. In the context of the intermountain west, acorn woodpeckers are consistently present in mature pine forests coupled with an oak understory. In other expanses of their range, the type of forest can vary, but the presence of oak will be the common denominator. They gather and cache acorns and other nuts in lines of pre-drilled holes, usually in Ponderosa snags. They will also use power poles and even wood-sided homes, much to the ire of some local communities. This practice can be largely mitigated with responsible and thoughtful preservation of large snags in your area, as they prefer their historic cache sites. They will pack these “granaries” with thousands of nuts, carefully fitting and packing the nuts to help prevent spoilage and theft from competing animals. This system is under constant maintenance and surveillance, and the loss of that food depository can have dramatic consequences for a community.

Beyond this staple food, they dine on nutrient-rich grubs that are plentiful in the dead trees they inhabit, other arthropods, grass seed and even the occasional lizard or small rodent if given the opportunity.

In the forests in and around Prescott, listen for their omnipresent and raucous repertoire of vocalizations. With little effort you can observe this fascinating species year-round in our neighborhoods.

Ryan Crouse manages The Lookout.

March 2022
Pinyon Jay

For even experienced birders, misidentifications are part of the game. There are too many variables to be correct 100% of the time. For people living in piñon-juniper (PJ) forests north of the tri-city area, one of the more common misidentifications we hear at the shop goes something like this: “We have a large group of bluebirds at our seed feeders! They’re loud and very pushy with the other birds.”

We hear the term “bluebird” used a lot, and while we do have two separate species of bluebird that occur here, a description of the behavior of the mystery bird often tells another story. Without any other information, we can be reasonably sure that what this person actually has is a group of pinyon jays.

Behavior is huge when it comes to bird identification, arguably more important than what the bird looks like. In low-light conditions it will very often be what determines your ID. In any description given to an experienced birder, what the bird was doing is often the most valuable piece of information.

So how did we know that the birds in question were pinyon jays rather than bluebirds? They both share the predominately blue color palette, so that’s of little help. The given habitat is a big clue, although it would not be uncommon to see either western or mountain bluebirds in the PJ during the winter months, so we’re not there yet. The large group, perhaps? Maybe. But while pinyon jay flocks are known to number in the dozens or even the hundreds of birds, a large flock of mountain bluebirds can also be a common occurrence.

Here’s where we start to get a clearer picture, though. The aggression of the described birds and what they were eating steers us in a very distinct direction when given with the other clues. Bluebirds will almost never be seen at a seed feeder, as they are almost exclusively insect and berry eaters. In general, they are also a mild-mannered species, and while they can be vocal, they exhibit a much more melodic repertoire of sounds when compared to the harsh screeches of the pinyon jay. Being jays, they can also be quite territorial with other species, and will pick a yardful of seed feeders clean in a whirlwind of blue flashes and nasal calls.

It can be interesting to wonder how these two species, which can both occur in overwhelming numbers, can cohabit in the relatively sparse PJ forests of central and northern AZ. While they both have ravenous appetites, bluebirds will gorge themselves on the plentiful juniper berries while the pinyon jays tend to go to their namesake, the calorie and nutrient-packed piñon, aka pine nut. They use their multitool of a beak to expose the nut, which is concealed in the small, sap-covered cones of the parent tree. Both avian species will gladly snatch up any insect they find along the way, providing pest-control for both species of trees, and the consumption of their fruit helps propagate the species through dispersion in the bird’s droppings and food caches. Inside a completely self-sustaining system, the birds instinctively cultivate, fertilize, protect and harvest an entire crop every year, year after year.

In an example of how a species has adapted to its food of choice, pinyon jays lack the feathers at the base of the beak that other corvid species (jays, ravens, crows, magpies) have. These feathers would generally cover and protect their nostrils, but the lack of feathers allows them to insert the length of their beak into tightly packed piñon cones without gumming up their feathers with sticky pine pitch.

They also cache food to save for leaner times, so they are able to fit up to 40 piñons in their pouch-like throat for more efficient foraging. Like many species they rely on their numbers to detect predators, find food and maintain fairly complex social structures within their groups. In areas where the regional piñon crop is lackluster, they will show off their nomadic spirit and shift their range to more plentiful crops, leaving an area entirely in some years.

Pinyon jays are spread throughout the PJ forests and high deserts of the western US. Anderson Mesa, which runs along the north shore of Flagstaff’s Lake Mary, has been designated an Important Bird Area by the federal government for its importance in supporting the pinyon jay as a species.

Finding them is often happenstance, but look and listen for their quail-like calls while in flight, their propensity to flock in huge numbers, and for their uniformly powder-blue pattern. Get out and enjoy the birds!

Ryan Crouse manages The Lookout.

February 2022
Loggerhead Shrike

One of my favorite types of birding is the often overlooked grassland habitat so abundant in our area. It plays host to a unique and diverse set of birds that you can easily observe in the relatively open and accessible land around Chino Valley, Paulden and Dewey-Humboldt. Much can also be done from the comfort of your warm car during these cooler winter months.

For me one of the more interesting species that call this area home is the loggerhead shrike. Although it can’t technically be considered a raptor, the shrike certainly qualifies as a bird of prey, closely related to the vireo family.

Shrikes will hunt for larger insects and spiders all the way up to small mammals and even other bird species. This makes them very valuable to have around your property, as they provide free, effective and long-lasting pest control in many rural yards.

I have most often seen them preying on the large stink beetles that are so common in summer. They will work from a perch, flying out to catch whatever prey they can find, then often taking it back to the perch to consume.

However, during mating season the male shrike’s hunting takes on a more sinister-looking form. Colloquially titled the butcherbird, the loggerhead shrike will catch the prey, then impale the catch on a thorned bush or even barbed wire.

While this practice may seem macabre, it actually serves two very special purposes. It acts as a way to show a potential mate that he can provide food for her and their offspring, and it warns other males to stay out of his territory. That display, coupled with the well known avian tendency to sing for a mate, sends a strong message to rivals who look to compete for food and mates.

Speaking of song, shrikes are also known for having a beautiful if not dizzying repertoire of vocalizations at their disposal. Like mockingbirds, chats and jays, they are well known mimics, extremely talented at replicating the songs of their neighbor species. I once thought I heard a red-tail hawk in odd habitat, which turned out to be an extremely convincing Steller’s jay.

While other species do this for fun or to create alarm, it’s long been suspected that shrikes mimic smaller songbirds to lure them to their deaths. A recent study showed that when researchers played a five-minute recording of a loggerhead shrike imitating an American robin, the shrike attracted noticeably more prey-sized songbirds. In essence the shrike sets an ambush for whatever unfortunate bird takes the bait.

In its own right the loggerhead shrike is a very elegant and uniquely shaped bird, known for its beautiful songs. It can be found, generally with moderate effort, sitting atop fence posts, small trees and even telephone poles on occasion. It is smaller than any raptor in Arizona, but its bright gray primary color makes it easy to spot.

It can also be found in Arizona’s diverse desert habitats, all the way from the Sonoran Desert in the south up into the pinyon-juniper high deserts and chaparral that make up much of the Prescott area. Look for the distinctive black mask, black wings, black hooked beak and large, flat head relative to the body.

Shrikes do tend to be a bit flighty, so proceed with caution and respect when trying to observe them. With patience, you can generally get within about 25 yards, well inside binocular range. Get out there and try to find this fascinating species, which you can observe in our region 365 days a year!

Ryan Crouse manages Jay’s Bird Barn.

Ryan Crouse manages The Lookout.

November 2021
Northern Harrier

With its stiff facial feathers in a disk shape, the northern harrier may give the impression that it might be an owl, but it is definitely a hawk! These unique features actually improve the bird’s foraging skills by enhancing its ability to hear the movements of prey hiding in vegetation. This is also a little ironic because in winter northern harriers occasionally roost on the ground with short-eared owls.

Northern harriers normally forage for small mammals and birds, but also take larger animals like rabbits and ducks. They are known to sometimes drown their prey, and normally eat on the ground.

Mature males and females measure 18 to almost 20 inches in length, weigh10.5 to 26.5 ounces, and have 30- to 46.5-inch wingspans. Adult males are gray above and whitish below, with black wingtips, dark trailing edges on their wings and black-banded tails. Females and juveniles are brown with black tail bands. Adult females have whitish undersides with brown streaks, while juveniles are buff-colored with fewer streaks. All northern harriers have the prominent white rump patch. The eyes of young males are yellow-green where those of juvenile females are brown, but with maturity the eye color for both sexes changes to yellow.

A male may mate with several females during the breeding season and select nesting sites, normally in dense vegetation such as willows, grasses, sedges, reeds, bulrushes or cattails. The male may also start construction while the female completes the nest, lining it with grasses, sedges and rushes. The female incubates the single seasonal brood, consisting of four or five pale white eggs, and cares for the hatchlings, while the male provides most of the food for the family. Incubation is 28-36 days, with a nesting time of about two weeks, and chicks hatch helpless and covered with short white down.

To add a northern harrier to your 2021 bird list, your best chance is to visit Willow or Watson Lake or the Highlands Center for Natural History this month, and with a luck you’ll be rewarded.

Happy birding!

The Prescott Audubon Society is an official chapter of the National Audubon Society. Check it out online at PrescottAudubon.org.

October 2021
Osprey

The osprey is a migratory hawk that may cover over 160,000 miles in its lifetime.

John West

It has a slender body, long, narrow wings and long legs, reversible outer toes and hooked pads to help them hold slippery fish, and an awareness of aerodynamics demonstrated by carrying captured fish headfirst to minimize wind-resistance. While foraging, ospreys set the standard for concentration, as they dive with outreached talons and yellow eyes sighting straight along their talons.

Either sex weighs between 49.4 and 70.5 ounces, with body length of 21 to 23inches and wingspan of 59.1 to 70.9 inches. Brown above, white below, and generally lighter and whiter than most raptors, their white head shave a brown stripe between their eyes. Juveniles display white spots on their backs and buff shades on their breasts.

They feed primarily on live fish, but also consume fish carcasses, birds, snakes, voles, squirrels, muskrats and salamanders.

Ospreys nest from Alaska to New England, Montana to Mexico, and Carolina to California. Their preferred nesting habitat requires accessible fishing within a maximum of around twelve miles, and the nest is elevated, often on manmade structures like poles, channel markers, duck blinds and specially designed platforms. The nest is built with sticks and lined with bark, sod, grasses, vines, algae, or flotsam and jetsam.

The male collects the building materials and the female molds them into a structure initially less than 2.5 feet in diameter, but often expanding to 3-6 feet over the years. One seasonal brood consists of one to four cream- to cinnamon-colored eggs, speckled with reddish brown. Incubation is 26-42 days, nesting 50-55 days, and chicks hatch with down and eyes open. Eggs do not hatch all at once and older chicks often monopolize food, which can cause late hatchlings to starve if food is scarce.

Osprey populations grew by 2.5% per year from 1966 to 2015, and the species rates a 7 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score.

While visiting Prescott’s many water features, be on the lookout for these beautiful and exciting raptors.

The Prescott Audubon Society is an official chapter of the National Audubon Society. Check it out online at PrescottAudubon.org.

September 2021
American Kestrel

The American kestrel, sometimes referred to as the sparrow hawk, is North America’s most common and smallest falcon, about the size of a mourning dove.

John West

The male’s blue head and rust-colored back and tail, and the slightly larger female’s similar reddish wings, back and tail, contribute to the striking beauty of these colorful raptors. The wings are long, narrow, and tapered to points, and there are two black spots on each side of a white or orange nape, thought to confuse potential enemies by presenting a false set of ‘eyes.’

Despite their size kestrels are fierce predators, and can be seen perching on wires and poles or hovering into the wind as they forage. Their varied diet consists of grasshoppers, cicadas, beetles, dragonflies, scorpions, spiders, butterflies, moths, voles, mice, shrews, bats, small songbirds, small snakes, lizards and frogs.

American kestrels have three basic calls: a ‘klee’ or ‘killy,’ a ‘whine’ and a ‘chitter.’ The ‘klee’ is normally repeated in a rapid series when the bird is upset, excited, or courting. The male locates potential nesting sites and shows them to his mate, who makes the final decision. Since kestrels lack the ability to excavate nesting cavities, they use existing ones. Nests are usually in abandoned woodpecker holes, tree hollows, rock crevices and building nooks, as well as specially designed nesting boxes, such as those provided by your Prescott Audubon chapter. Nesting materials are not used, and if a site contains debris the female simply hollows out a shallow depression.

There are one or two broods per season, each with three to seven eggs. Incubation is up to 32 days with both parents participating. Born feeble, covered with slight amounts of light down and eyes closed, the young remain in the nest for about a month.

American kestrels rate 10 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score, indicating low conservation concern. However, if current trends continue they will lose half their population by 2075.

Always beautiful and exciting to watch, be sure you add this species to your Big List!

Russ Miller is a local illustrator, writer, bagpiper, motorcycle enthusiast and former reference librarian.

American Robin

The American Robin, a North American songbird and our largest thrush, is common in gardens, parks, yards, golf courses, fields, pastures, deciduous woodlands, pine forests, shrub lands, and regenerating forests after fires or logging. 

A gray-brown bird with a large, round body, long legs and fairly long tail, orange beneath and dark-headed, it displays a white patch on its lower belly and under the tail during flight. Females have paler heads that contrast less with their gray backs. A robin’s presence is often broadcast with clear, lilting musical whistles.

They are known to visit feeders where mealworms or animal-fat suet are on offer, and can be attracted to a backyard with a proper nesting box if it is installed well before breeding season.

They forage on earthworms, insects, snails and fruit, and seem to consume certain foods depending on the time of day, i.e. earthworms for breakfast and fruit later in the day (especially if there are bugs in it). During fall and winter robins may become intoxicated after eating fermented honeysuckle berries.

The female chooses the nesting site, typically hidden on a low to mid-level, horizontal tree branch, but occasionally on the ground in a thicket. The nest, six to nine inches across and three to six inches deep, is constructed by pressing dead grass, twigs, paper, feathers, rootlets or moss into a cup shape using the wrist of her wing, and finalized with mud for strength and grass for comfort.  

There are up to three broods a year of three to five eggs each. The young are born helpless and naked except for sparse white down. Sadly, 40% of nests fail to successfully produce young, and only 25% of fledglings survive to November.

The American robin is considered a common backyard bird in North America, with a current world population estimated at 310 million, and not considered threatened.

One of the first birds a child learns about and a species replete with history, mythology and stories, this is certainly one species every birder looks forward to adding to the list. Happy Birding!

The Prescott Audubon Society is an official chapter of the National Audubon Society. Check it out online at PrescottAudubon.org.

July 2021
Brown-Headed Cowbird

Brown-headed cowbirds have an unorthodox method of raising families. While the non-monogamous male plays the field, impregnated females forego the boring task of nest-building and simply deposit their eggs (up to 36 per season) in a host species’ nest!

The chicks are born naked except for scant clumps of down, eyes closed and helpless. But since they usually grow faster than their nestmates and are aggressive, they receive more attention and food than the foster parents’ actual offspring, and they thrive, often at the expense of the host’s young.

Though the cowbird’s behavior suggests poor parenting skills, it’s noteworthy that parents often return to the host nest to check on how their abandoned chicks are doing!

Brown-headed cowbirds frequent fields, meadows and lawns, often mixing with other blackbird flocks. Even in a mixed flock the males stand out because of their glossy black feathers and brown heads, while the females display an unmarked brown appearance. The male’s loud gurgling call and the female’s constant chatter also help identify them.

These ground-feeders may visit backyards where grain has been scattered, or may visit bird feeders. When not displaying or feeding, they often perch high on prominent tree branches. They also feed on insects attracted by livestock, which earned them the “cowbird” moniker in 1839.

Adult males weigh up to 1.8 ounces and are up to 8.7 inches in length, with over 14-inch wingspans. Females are slightly smaller, 1.6 ounces, up to 7.9 inches long and with wingspans under 13 inches.

Cowbirds that are permanent residents in the southern US rarely migrate, while northern birds travel to the southern US and Mexico for winter, returning to their customary summer habitats around March or April.

Rated a seven of 20 on the Continental Concern Score, they are not on the 2014 State of the Birds Watch List.

These lively, noisy and energetic birds are fine candidates for a Big List, so keep your eyes and ears open around large flocks of blackbirds. Happy Birding!

The Prescott Audubon Society is an official chapter of the National Audubon Society. Check it out online at PrescottAudubon.org.

June 2021
White-Winged Dove

White-winged doves are plump, square-tailed and thin-billed, displaying a white stripe on the front edges of their wings that spreads to a bright flash during flight. Primarily grayish-brown with dark lines on their cheeks, they have relatively small heads and their tails have white tips accented with black stripes. They measure up to 11 inches in length, with wingspans of almost 23 inches and weigh around five and a half ounces.

They prefer bulky seeds because of their large bills, and have an eating style of appreciating their food, rather than pecking like chickens and other doves, like the mourning dove. They also ingest small pebbles into their gizzards to aid food-processing. They often visit bird feeders and are fond of sunflower, milo, corn and safflower, but will also forage for berries.

They usually breed in woodland interiors, near feeding habitats like grain fields or desert cactus communities. During the winter white-winged doves are present throughout most of their breeding range, but some individuals wander widely across the continent.

Russ Chappell

Males choose the general nesting area and gather building materials, but the female selects a nesting site and builds the nest, usually on a branch or shaded crotch of a tree. A flimsy bowl about four inches across is constructed of twigs mixed with weeds, grasses or moss, and occasionally lined with leaves, bark, feathers or pine needles.

There are two broods per season of one or two creamy white or buffcolored eggs, around one inch in width and length. Incubation is 14-20 days, nesting time 13-18 days, and hatchlings are born helpless, eyes closed, with long off-white down.

If predators approach the nest, a white-winged dove may fake a broken wing as a distraction, or in other circumstances fly into a brushy area. When startled near houses they sometimes fly into windows, so making sure your windows are bird-safe is a nice touch. 

This species rates an eight out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score, and is not on the 2014 State of the Birds Watch List.

Happy Birding!

The Prescott Audubon Society is an official chapter of the National Audubon Society. Check it out online at PrescottAudubon.org.

May 2021
Violet-Green Swallow

The violet-green swallow’s name comes from the coloration of its back and rump.

John West

This beautiful little bird can appear dark until its metallic-green back and shimmering purple rump capture the rays of the sun! A small bird, it averages slightly over four and a half inches in length, with a 10.6-inch wingspan and weighs half an ounce. Common in our area during spring and summer, they migrate to Mexico and Central America for the winter.

They routinely forage for insects over our lakes and ponds in groups of over a hundred, intermingling with other swifts and swallows, but they are easy to identify by white patches on the sides of their hindquarters and cheeks. Viewing them at a distance with binoculars makes following their flight easier since they can reach speeds of up to 28 miles per hour, around the cruising speed of a peregrine falcon! Similar to other cavity dwellers, they attract more parasites than species nesting in the open, thus they sunbathe and preen frequently, providing easier viewing and photographing as they perch on power lines and dead trees.

Breeding in open evergreen and deciduous woodlands, they prefer areas with dead trees featuring woodpecker holes or other cavities. Male and female build the nest, which can take up to 20 days. Constructed with grass, twigs, rootlets and feathers, the cup-shaped nest is up to three inches across, depending the cavity or nesting-box size.

There are one to two broods per season, each consisting of four to six white eggs, less than an inch in length and width. Incubation is around 14 days, with a nesting period of about 24 days. Hatchlings are born naked, eyes closed and with scarce patches of down on their backs, crowns, and scapulars.

Common throughout the West, this species is rated nine out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score, and is not on the 2016 State of North America's Birds Watch List.

This is a great time of the year to add this beautiful little bird to your list as it brings a smile to your face. Happy birding!

The Prescott Audubon Society is an official chapter of the National Audubon Society. Check it out online at PrescottAudubon.org.

April 2021
Western Bluebird

Western bluebirds sit on low perches to pounce on prey below. They are primarily insectivorous during the summer, but during the winter can be attracted to backyard feeders with mealworms. 

Western Bluebird by John West

Deep blue, rusty and white, males are more colorful than the gray-brown, blue-shaded females. They are small and stocky, with straight bills and fairly short tails, measuring six to seven inches in length, with average twelve-inch wingspans and weighing about an ounce.

A social species, they form flocks of up to a hundred, sometimes joining with mountain bluebirds, American robins and yellow-rumped warblers as they forage for insects or berries, and vocalize their quiet, chortling calls. They can also be attracted to a partially wooded yard by putting up nest boxes equipped with predator shielding.

Western bluebirds may have a gentle look, but when territory battles occur, one male may attack the other’s legs, dragging him to the ground and aggressively pecking at him. Residing in open woodlands and at the edges of woods, this small thrush is a cavity dweller, nesting in tree cavities or nest boxes and often socializing in small flocks.

The female does most of the nest construction over a two-week period, gathering grasses, straw, pine needles, moss, other plant fibers and fur to build and line the nest in an irregular shape.

There are up to three broods per season, consisting of two to eight pale blue or white eggs measuring less than an inch in length and width. Incubation times range from twelve to 17 days, with a nesting period of 18 to 25 days. The young hatch naked with pink skin, light gray down and eyes closed.

Rated nine out of twenty on the Continental Concern Score, the Western bluebird is not on the 2016 State of North America's Birds Watch List.

If you are feeling blue, a trip to one of our local wooded areas may be just what the doctor ordered, because this beautiful little bird will certainly cheer you up!

The Prescott Audubon Society is an official chapter of the National Audubon Society. Check it out online at PrescottAudubon. Org.

The Prescott Audubon Society is an official chapter of the National Audubon Society. Check it out online at PrescottAudubon.org.

March 2021
American Dipper

If American Dippers are to be trusted — and hey, they’re really quite discerning — then Fain Park has a pond with quality water. They’re very selective and avoid even mildly polluted waters.

These casual, transient winter visitors normally prefer clear, fast-running streams, where they feed on aquatic insect larvae like caddis flies, mayflies, beetles, bugs and mosquitoes, as well as adult insects, worms, snails, fish roe and small fish. They are rarely seen on ponds or lakes.

Also known as the water ouzel, the American Dipper is stout and dusky grey with some brown on the head, bright white eyelids and a thick bill, 5.5-8” in length and weighing 1.5-2.4 ounces. It has a nictating membrane, like an extra eyelid, which helps it see underwater, as well as scales to block its nostrils when submerged.

Permanent residents in a territory ranging from Alaska to Panama, some dippers stay through the winter where streams remain unfrozen. Others relocate to lower elevations and southward for wintering.

To help them tolerate cold water they have a relatively low metabolic rate, extra oxygen-carrying capacity in their blood, thick feathers and generous quantities of secreted oil, which keeps them warm when feeding underwater. When they’re not foraging you can catch them bobbing up and down on a rock or the shore.

The dipper is North America’s only aquatic songbird, its loud song consisting of high whistles and trills, “peee peee pijur pijur.” Both genders sing year-round. They defend the territory along the streams they frequent, and while feeding underwater may fall prey to bull or Dolly Varden trout. Unlike most songbirds they go through total molts as ducks do, rendering them flightless by late summer.

They construct globe-shaped nests with side entrances, on ledges or banks near the water, behind waterfalls or under manmade structures. Normally the female incubates 2-4 white eggs, which hatch in 15-17 days. The young grow into fledglings 20-25 days later.

This unique bird may still be hanging out at Fain Park, and perhaps you can add it to your bird book!

The Prescott Audubon Society is an official chapter of the National Audubon Society. Check it out online at PrescottAudubon.org.

February 2021
Gadwall

Male ducks often display glossy green, red, or blue colors, so with its gray-brown body and black patch on its tail, the Gadwall is easy to overlook. Females are dappled brown and buff, with thin, orange edges on their darker bills, and both sexes display white wing patches in flight and occasionally while swimming or at rest.

Approximately the size of mallards, Gadwalls have relatively square heads with sharp foreheads, bills that are more delicate than the mallard's, and in flight their necks are noticeably smaller and wings slimmer. They average 20 inches in length, weigh between one to two and three-quarter pounds, and have 33-inch wingspans.

These dabbling ducks feed on aquatic vegetation such as algae, grasses, rushes, sedges, pondweed, widgeon grass and water milfoil, including leaves, stems, roots, and seeds. They also consume snails, midges, water beetles and other invertebrates, especially during the breeding season. Gadwall also routinely steal food from surfacing diving ducks and coots!

Mating begins in late fall, and breeding is primarily in the Great Plains and prairies. During winter they reside on reservoirs, ponds, water wetlands, parks, sewage ponds or muddy inlets where there is aquatic vegetation.

They nest on islands within marshes, providing some protection from predators like foxes, weasels, mink, coyotes and badgers, but winged predators are still a threat. The female scrapes out a cup-shaped depression about a foot across and three inches deep, then uses her body as a mold as she adds twigs and leaves, finally insulating the nest with her own down feathers.

There is one brood per season consisting of seven to twelve eggs, which are laid one per day, and about one and a half inches by two inches in size. They incubate in 24 to 27 days. The chicks are able to leave the nest in one or two days. 

Gadwall are not considered threatened, although they are the number three most-hunted duck in America.

March is a good time to visit our local lakes and add this unique duck to your personal birding list!


The Prescott Audubon Society is an official chapter of the National Audubon Society. Check it out online at PrescottAudubon.org.

January 2021
Canada Goose

During fall and winter Prescott hosts migrating Canada geese, normally spotted on our beautiful lakes, occasionally in grassy backyards, park lawns or farm fields.

During migration long V-formations may be seen, however more geese are foregoing travel, because increased urban development is creating more parks and lawns that attract this species. They are also often heard flying, by day or night, with their honking calls that distinguish them from other species of geese or swans.

Canada geese are large water birds with long black necks, brown backs, tan chests, distinctive white cheeks and chin straps, and wide, flat bills. They can measure from 30 to 44 inches in length, have wingspans exceeding five feet, and weigh up to 20 pounds.

They feed by dabbling in the water or grazing at fields and large lawns. In spring and summer, they feed on grasses and sedges, including skunk cabbage leaves, and during fall and winter they rely on berries and seeds, specially enjoying blueberries.

The female constructs the family nest on ground in an elevated area, near water and with unobstructed views. The large cup-shaped nest receives a layer of her personal down and body feathers after the second egg is laid, and she does all incubation while her mate stands guard.

There is one brood per season consisting of two to eight cream-colored eggs, slightly larger than two by three inches. Incubation is within 28 days, with total nesting time as long as 50 days. Born with yellow down and eyes open, the young leave the nest in a couple of days, able to walk, swim, feed and dive, and prior to leaving feed on their yolk sacs.

The young often remain with their parents for their first year, and as summer fades the families become more social, congregating in large flocks as food becomes more scarce and migration time approaches.

Their total North American population in 2015 was between 4.2 million and over 5.6 million, and although 2.6 million are harvested by hunters each year, the species is not considered threatened.

The Prescott Audubon Society is an official chapter of the National Audubon Society. Check it out online at PrescottAudubon.org.