This is a photo of one of the signs from the Upper Verde River Wildlife Area, highlighting some of the bird species that can be seen there including the yellow-billed cuckoo — which I didn’t see. (Eric Moore/Courtesy)

We’ve all heard the expression of someone being a little ‘cuckoo’, or ‘going cuckoo.’ I have been a little obsessed with cuckoos myself — yellow-billed cuckoos that is. 

I have been diligently recording my bird sightings into eBird this year, and have seen 246 species in the state of Arizona so far.  In spite of several attempts, I have yet to see a yellow-billed cuckoo. 

It can be very challenging to find cuckoos in riparian habitats, even if one knows where to look for them.  First of all, they are a late migrator. Oftentimes, they don’t show up in Arizona until June. Then there is the issue that they are just an uncommon bird, and there are not a lot of them out there.  Making matters worse, they are skulkers, and are proficient at disappearing into the foliage of deciduous trees.   

Timing is a critical factor when it comes to seeing specific species, as there is sometimes a narrow window when the species occurs in our state. I am running up against a time constraint that is beyond my control in my efforts to see a yellow-billed cuckoo this year. Before long, they will be headed south.

I keep seeing reports of yellow-billed cuckoo sightings posted in eBird, but all of my efforts so far have come up empty-handed. This past Saturday, I went to the Upper Verde River Wildlife Area, north of Paulden, and spent several hours birding along the river in an area that is a known cuckoo spot. No luck. I didn’t even hear one. However, I haven’t given up, and I am still hoping to see one before they get on their way. 

In spite of my failed attempt to find a cuckoo, I had a wonderful morning, and saw a good variety of birds.  Here are some highlights from my time along the Verde River:

  • I saw nine species of flycatchers that morning, which I thought was very impressive.  Flycatchers come in many different genera, so while the name ‘flycatcher’ might not be included in the species name, the bird is still considered a type of flycatcher. I saw western and Cassin’s kingbirds, Say’s and black phoebes, vermilion flycatcher, western wood pewee, ash-throated and brown-crested flycatcher, and a flycatcher that went unidentified. It was either a Pacific-slope flycatcher or a Cordilleran flycatcher, but I’m not sure which one. 

  • I saw four sparrow species:  rufous-crowned, black-throated, lark and song sparrows. This was an interesting combination of sparrows, as each of these species has its own habitat preference. Rufous-crowns like rocky areas, and there certainly are a lot of rocks rimming the canyon. Black-throated are more of a desert scrub species, and this area has a mixture of cacti and mesquite habitat. Lark Sparrows prefer a grassland habitat, and song sparrows are always associated with streamside habitat. 

  • I also saw a good mixture of really pretty birds — colorful birds — such as Bullock’s oriole (orange and black), summer tanager (bright red), blue grosbeak (a stunning blue and chestnut color) and vermilion flycatchers (brilliant red). 

  • Probably my most enjoyable sighting of the day, however, wasn’t even a bird — believe it or not!  My best find was a pair of river otters!  I was sitting on the banking of the river when a pair came within approximately 30 feet of me. They were actively foraging underwater for crawdads.  Each time they caught one they would come to the surface and noisily consume it by chewing it to pieces. Using my Swarovski binoculars at such close range resulted in a delightful experience of seeing nature up close. 

Until next week, Happy Birding!

Eric Moore is the owner of Jay’s Bird Barn, with two locations in northern Arizona—Prescott and Flagstaff. Eric has been an avid birder for more than 50 years. If you have questions about wild birds that you would like discussed in future articles, email him at