This past Saturday, I drove for almost two hours to reach my birding destination—a cattle tank in the Santa Maria Mountains, northwest of Prescott. My route took me out Williamson Valley Road to Camp Wood Road, and ultimately to Forest Service Road 9.
When I arrived, the tank was frozen from edge to edge, but the water at the margins began to thaw as the morning sun rose over the tops of the trees. The elevation was close to 7,000 feet, and the temperature when I arrived was in the 20’s. However, it didn’t take long for the morning chill to disappear.
As the ‘water’ converted from a solid to a liquid, the birds started to arrive, and they just kept coming and coming. The surrounding forest was bone dry—it has been almost 120 days since there has been any measureable precipitation. It was obvious that this single source of water was drawing birds from a large distance.
The presence of water was not only drawing birds seeking water, however. It also created a large concentration of prey for potential predators in a very small area. While I didn’t see any birds of prey, there was plenty of evidence of their frequent occurrence. There were piles of feathers from the efficient plucking of an accipiter—perhaps a goshawk.
I found a place in the shadows so my presence was lessened, and I sat on the ground for over an hour and watched nature in action. I felt as if I were watching a watering hole in Africa, where prey was lurking, hidden under the surface of the water. At the cattle tank, however, the prey was lurking in the forest—somewhere out of sight, but present in each visiting bird’s instincts.
For more than an hour, I watched as flocks of birds flew down to the edge of the tank seeking the water they so desperately wanted, only to flush up into the trees, back down to the ground, and back into flight—again and again.
I sat enthralled by what I was witnessing—flocks of Steller’s Jay’s, acorn woodpeckers, northern flickers, Lewis’ woodpeckers, Clark’s nutcrackers, red-breasted nuthatches, dark-eyed juncos, and even an Abert’s squirrel all coming down to the water and going back up into the surrounding trees as fear overcame thirst.
What was fascinating was the fact that most of the birds seen on the ground were not ground-dwellers—red-breasted nuthatches, acorn woodpeckers, and Lewis’ woodpeckers; even a male Williamson’s Sapsucker came down time and again to get water. Typically, these species are found bark-gleaning on the trunks of trees.
The scene before my eyes was so beautiful! The stunning colors of Steller’s jays, Williamson’s sapsucker, Lewis’s woodpeckers and Clark’s nutcrackers, lined up side by side or clustered in small groups at the water’s edge. Even though I had a narrow field of view with my 12 power Swarovski binoculars, I could easily see multiple species simultaneously in their colorful combinations.
On my way back from the Flagstaff store this past Monday, I made a quick stop at Sullivan Lake, off of Old Highway 89 in Paulden. There is a dam that impounds a small body of water that acts as a migrant trap in winter. I went there specifically to see mountain bluebirds, and I wasn’t disappointed.
There were probably close to 200 mountain bluebirds! Similar to my experience at the cattle tank, I observed them flying down to the water and up into the surrounding trees, over and over again. What a sight to see so many bluebirds together in one tree!
Until next week, Happy Birding!
Eric Moore is the owner of Jay’s Bird Barn, with three locations in northern Arizona – Prescott, Sedona and Flagstaff. Eric has been an avid birder for over 50 years. If you have questions about wild birds that you would like discussed in future articles, email him at email@example.com.