January 5, 2007
Violet-crowned x Broad-billed Hybrid
Violet-crowned x Broad-billed Hybrid
Where's the best place around Phoenix for general birding?  Before there was a Gilbert Riparian Area (GRA) the answer, unquestionably, was Boyce Thompson Arboretum State Park (BTA).  BTA is still the answer because GRA, despite its tantalizing influx of unusual land birds this past year, is still mostly about water birds.  Boyce Thompson, on the other hand, provides much greater diversity of habitat which has led to its long standing reputation for the greatest bird diversity and the best migrant/vagrant trap in central Arizona.

When is the best time to visit Boyce Thompson?  Right now.  In spring there are hummingbirds everywhere, in summer BTA hosts many breeding birds that avoid the Phoenix heat, and fall migration always brings some surprises.  In winter, though, BTA becomes the birder's candy store:  seven species of wrens (winter wren is the prize); large, mixed flocks of sparrows (can you find the white-throated and fox sparrows amongst all the white-crowneds); a dozen northern flickers in sight at one time showing off their red tail shafts as they hang upside down gleaning the berries from the fruiting trees in the herb garden.

Some winters Boyce Thompson has hosted "invasions" of birds from Arizona's mountains (Clark's nutcracker) or the Pacific Northwest (varied thrush).  Some years eastern species (northern parula, brown thrasher) have inexplicably spent the whole winter.  For several consecutive years a rare Mexican vagrant, the rufous-backed robin, has shown up reliably around the pistachio trees along the main trail through the riparian canyon.  And one winter a northern saw-whet owl famously played hide-and-seek for months with birders searching for its daytime roosts in deep foliage along Queen Creek.

There are water birds at BTA too.  Ayer Lake, a small man-made impoundment, attracts migratory waterfowl (ring-necked ducks) in winter, and birders at this season may see a kingfisher patrolling the lake margins or hear the high whinny of a sora (a member of the rail family) exploding from the cattails as coots and grebes dive for water vegetation and small fish respectively.

A recent and fascinating addition to BTA's birdlist is the broad-billed hummingbird, a Mexican species typically found only as far north as southern Arizona's "sky islands."  Broad -billeds began showing up at BTA in the late '90s and breeding was confirmed in 2002.  Is this a major range expansion or some serendipitous result of global warming?  Many birders consider the broad-billed our most beautiful hummer, and an exciting chapter to this story was the discovery at BTA this fall of a broad-billed/violet-crowned hybrid, only the second such hybrid hummingbird ever documented.

Boyce Thompson in winter combines all the elements of a birder's perfect day--lots of birds in diverse habitats, the opportunity to study similar species side by side and the possibility, around every bend, for a lifer or a truly rare bird, all surrounded by the natural beauty of Queen Creek purling along between Magma Ridge and majestic Picketpost Mountain.  Go now.  It's the best of Phoenix birding.

Boyce Thompson Arboretum State Park is located at milepost #223* on Highway 60* east of Phoenix near the town of Superior*.  Driving time from Phoenix is about an hour*.  From September through April the park is open from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. with no admittance after 4:00 p.m*.  May through August hours are 6:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. with no admittance after 2:00 p.m*.

Daily admission is $7.50 for adults, $3 for ages 5-12, and children under age five are free*.  Annual BTA memberships as well as annual state park passes are also available.  Check the website at http://arboretum.ag.arizona.edu/* for more information.

In winter dress in layers.  Early morning temperatures in the canyon can be near freezing, with afternoon highs in the 50s to 60s.

Binoculars and lunch.  There is a picnic area with tables and restrooms.  There are also restrooms at the entrance visitors' center and water fountains throughout the park.

Organized birdwalks begin again in February, 1st and 3rd Saturdays*, 2nd and 4th Sundays*, led by members of Maricopa Audubon Society and Friends Of Audubon Arizona.

The park has a large variety of desert plants for sale and a full calendar of events ranging from seasonal celebrations to art exhibits to live music, and there is a gift shop/bookstore.  Go to the BTA website for specific information.