February 2024
Bird of the Month
Ryan Crouse


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.

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