January 26, 2012
Harlan's light morph Red-tailed Hawk
Harlan's light morph Red-tailed Hawk

Much to the surprise of human snowbirds and beginning birders, the best time of the year for birding in Phoenix is right now—wintertime.  If you want to go birding locally in 100 degree temperatures festooned with four water bottles hanging off your belt, be my guest, but you won’t see or hear many birds after 9:00am, and you won’t have much variety.

Winter brings Mexican (Rufous-backed Robin) and eastern vagrants (Eastern Phoebe) to central Arizona and a large influx of birds from the north (accipiters, sparrows), and local birders eagerly await cold weather and Christmas Bird Counts with their annual reports of these true snowbirds.  The real hotspot for this season is forty-five minutes west of Phoenix in the Arlington Valley where, in a nice morning from your car as viewing blind, you can record a cornucopia of overwintering raptors along with a smattering of other interesting bird families (Sandhill Crane, Greater Roadrunner, Loggerhead Shrike).

This auto tour starts at the intersection of U.S. 85 and Old U.S. 80 southwest of Buckeye.  As you turn west on 80, slow down and begin checking every field, every utility pole, and the skies above.  The shoulders are wide and you can easily pull over to avoid occasional farm traffic.  You are now in Raptor Central where American Kestrels are trash birds, Red-tails of all ages and every variety of color morph can be seen, Ferruginous Hawks are guaranteed, and the larger falcons are the prizes.

Be sure you bird the dead end spur of 80, east off the south end of Wilson Road, then return west.  When you reach Palo Verde Road, turn north and drive all the way to Baseline, then turn around and come back to Lower River Road, turn west and proceed to the ponds on your left to look for gulls and Ospreys.  At Johnson Road turn south and go all the way to Narramore, turn east again on dirt/gravel, then pavement, and go all the way back to Palo Verde.  Along Narramore in mid-December I had two White-tailed Kites and four Bald Eagles.

Now you’re ready for the second section of the morning’s prowl.  Return to 80 and drive a few miles west to Arlington School Road.  South on Arlington School are more productive fields and the entrance to the Arlington Wildlife area where you may take a walk around the ponds at the south end if you’re getting bored with raptors.  (Is that possible!?)  Or, from that entrance, a turn to the west along Desert Rose will take you back to 80.  If time permits take 80 south to Gillespie Dam where you can walk in for bitterns and herons.  On your way back north and east to 85, be sure to retrace your earlier route through the Palo Verde area.  Hawks move widely over this area as they hunt, and you will probably pick up something you didn’t see on the way in.

Below is the list of raptors I’ve seen in the Arlington Valley and your chances of seeing them on any given winter’s day there:

Turkey Vulture (4)                                        5—guaranteed
Black Vulture (2)                                          4---should see
Osprey (4)                                                    3---might see
White-tailed Kite (3)                                    2---could see
Northern Harrier (5)                                    1---how lucky can you get
Golden Eagle (2)                                        
Bald Eagle (3)                                             
Sharp-shinned Hawk (2)                              
Cooper’s Hawk (3)                                      
Harris’s Hawk (2)                                        
Red-tailed Hawk (5)                                    
Rough-legged Hawk (2)                               
Ferruginous Hawk (5)                                  
American Kestrel (5)                                   
Merlin (3)                                                   
Prairie Falcon (4)                                        
Peregrine Falcon (3)                                   

Do your homework and be sure to glass each and every Red-tail carefully.  A rare light morph Harlan’s Red-tail has been along Arlington School Road for the past several winters, and I’ve seen Krider’s Red-tail as well.  The Arlington Valley in winter is a poor man’s hawk watch.
Peregrine Falcon juvenile with Mourning Dove
Peregrine Falcon juvenile with Mourning Dove