November 2, 2007
Louisiana Waterthrush
Louisiana Waterthrush
Are you prepared for the invasion?  Bird movements across the Southwest since August indicate this winter may mark the latest in a cyclical "invasion," or irruption, of mountain breeding species downslope into deserts around Phoenix and Tucson.  These irruptions are typically related to a shortage of food supplies--fruits and berries, pine nuts, and weed seeds--at higher elevations in the state.  Invasion years are an exciting time for local birders because unexpected species show up in unexpected places.  Already such high country residents as red-breasted nuthatches and pine siskins are being seen in many lower areas, and western scrub-jays and American robins were recently reported flying through a Tempe neighborhood.

One of the most delightful winter destinations for Phoenix birders is the Seven Springs Recreation Area 35 miles northeast of Phoenix in the foothills of the Tonto National Forest.  Although the Cave Creek Complex wildfire burned through this area in June, 2005, much of the ground cover has returned, and the huge old walnuts and sycamores along the flowing Seven Springs Wash were hardly touched.  On a recent trip I recorded 42 species, most of them feeding in the vegetation along the streambed, then dropping to drink or bathe in the stream.

The road to Seven Springs along Camp Creek is a well known summer birding route with warblers, orioles, and tanagers in the cottonwood groves and common black hawks and zone-tailed hawks often seen soaring at eye level.  After fall migration though, the day use area itself is the destination.  Some winters bring an influx of spotted towhees, some years there are flocks of western bluebirds, and in others a golden-crowned kinglet graces the crowd of ruby-crowneds.  There are always sparrow flocks in winter, perhaps something unusual amongst the ubiquitous white-crowneds.  A list of past rarities includes Cassin's finches, nesters on the Kaibab which seldom find their way this far south, and a Louisiana waterthrush, a vagrant eastern warbler seldom seen this far west.

Birds love Seven Springs because it has fruiting bushes, running water, and thick chaparral cover.  Birders will love this quintessential winter Arizona experience--high desert, warm in the sun, almost cold in the shade beneath the deciduous trees along the purling creek.  If you want to spend the weekend or take a hike, drive up the road .2 miles to the CCC Campground or half a mile to trailhead access for a network of day hikes.

And, don't forget, birders are paying their own way with user's fees now, so pick up a daily ($6) or yearly ($95) Tonto Forest Pass before you go.  They're required at Seven Springs and the campground, but not at the trailhead.


Directions--From the intersection of Pima and Cave Creek Roads, follow Cave Creek Road northeast 16 miles to the Seven Springs Recreation Area.  A few miles past the turnoff to Bartlett Lake, Cave Creek turns to dirt and becomes Forest Road #24.  Passenger cars will have no problems unless washes are flooded immediately after heavy rain.

Amenities--Restrooms, nature trails, and solar powered water fountains, but no overnight camping.  Camping is available just up the road at the CCC Campground.

Fees--Daily passes for the Tonto are $6/vehicle/day, $95 for an annual pass.  Passes are available at the Cave Creek Ranger Station (open Monday through Saturday, 8:00am to 4:30pm) on the Bartlett Dam Road, the Shell station in Carefree, and the Circle Ks in Cave Creek.

Apparel--dress in layers of dark colors.  Early mornings may be near freezing, afternoons hot.  Successful birders don't wear white or bright, reflective clothing.