Time flies when you are having fun bird watching! This week marks my 10th consecutive year working as a bird guide for Northern Arizona University’s Road Scholar program. Each year I am a Field Coordinator for the “Birding in the Sonoran Desert: Cactus Wrens to Vermilion Flycatchers” program.
So basically, I get paid to take people bird watching from all over the country. In this week’s session there are individuals from Minnesota, New York, Washington State, Nebraska, Virginia, Maryland and other places as well.
Each year we use Wickenburg, Arizona, as our base and we run day trips out and back every day. So far the weather has been unseasonably warm — it was 93 degrees on Monday, which affects both birds and birders! We leave the hotel at 7 a.m. and get back each day sometime after 3 p.m., so after eight hours of birding we are all pretty tired.
We had an amazing birding day on Monday. Over the years I have written about some of my birding experiences at Date Creek Ranch in the Date Creek Mountains. This holistic ranch raises grass-fed beef without using any hormones or antibiotics. They also raise organic chickens and pigs and there is an orchard with both apple and peach trees.
Each year when we visit Date Creek Ranch we have a wonderful experience bird watching here. The diversity of birds we observe at the ranch is quite amazing. Over the years we have compiled a list of all of the birds observed at the ranch, to common birds such as vermilion flycatchers and phainopeplas.
This year we really hit the jackpot when it comes to birds of prey. On our drive in, we got great looks at a Harris’ hawk sitting on a Joshua tree. Later we enjoyed seeing a pair of zone-tailed hawks in flight.
Zone-tailed hawks are a unique bird of prey in that they mimic both the appearance and the behavior of turkey vultures, which are not a bird of prey. Small prey animals such as ground squirrels, rock squirrels and cottontail rabbits don’t exhibit any fear of turkey vultures when they fly over.
Somehow these prey species have the ability to distinguish between a vulture and a bird of prey such as a red-tailed hawk. However, zone-tailed hawks typically fly with turkey vultures and in flight they look both similar to and act similar to vultures. This gives the hawk a competitive advantage when hunting small prey animals. Small prey animals do nothing to hide when they see a zone-tailed hawk as they think it is just another vulture.
This mistake in judgment is often fatal for prey animals as they get captured by surprise by a zone-tailed hawk. Earlier this week there was a short period of time when we were able to observe turkey vultures, zone-tailed hawk, and Harris’ hawk all in flight, sharing the same thermal, so it was great to be able to see all three species at the same time and make mental notes of the differences between each species.
Later in the morning we also saw gray hawk, at least four different red-tailed hawks, a Cooper’s hawk, and an American Kestrel, a small falcon. It was an amazing day to see all of these different birds of prey. Ironically, the very next day, when we were at Burro Creek recreation area, we didn’t see a single bird of prey! Most years we see red-tailed hawks at this location, along with zone-tailed hawks, and we have seen Bald Eagles here on several occasions over the years.
Until next week, Happy Birding!