What do you think of when someone mentions birding Arizona? Hummingbirds? Elegant Trogons? Arizona Woodpeckers, Gray Hawks, and Crissal Thrashers?
While the far southern part of the state offers all these, plus a chance at birds normally only found in Mexico, the northern part of the state can produce some lifers as well.
Pete and I attend yearly meetings that are typically held in Arizona, in late March or early April. After several trips to the south (within range of such legendary places as Patagonia, Madera Canyon, and the mountains near Sierra Vista), I was a bit disappointed to learn that our upcoming conference was to be in the north this time… in a place called Cornville.
Cornville? I’d never heard of it. I imagined a conference center in the middle of fields of grain, with only starlings to look at. Sure, it was much cheaper than the place in Tucson, that abutted Saguaro National Park, or the lovely retreat center in Scottsdale, with its abundance of flowers and feeders. But who wants to go to Cornville?
I later learned that the town was meant to be named Cohnville, after a local family, but an official in Washington, D.C. misread the writing. Even more amusing, the honored ranchers weren’t the Cohns at all—they were the Cone family! Talk about a mix-up!
As we exited the interstate south of Flagstaff and headed west, I was pleasantly surprised to note that it looked more like ranching country than farms. We wound through grassy rolling hills dotted with piñons and junipers, arriving at a small town with a gas station, a couple of businesses, and a sign pointing to our destination. Welcome to Cornville.
We crept two blocks down a narrow lane, turned left, and rolled down a steep driveway into a large parking lot. A peacefully flowing river (which I later learned was Oak Creek) was lined with old cottonwoods. Several acres of lawn ended in the complex of two-storey buildings that housed the retreat center. Horses grazed next to a large duck pond. There was plenty of natural vegetation. I grew hopeful.
We’d arrived fairly early, so I dumped my luggage in our room, grabbed my camera, and headed back outside. Gazing up into the first humongous cottonwood, I noticed something sitting on the branches. Grabbing my binos, I looked more closely. It was a Peregrine Falcon! Not bad for a first bird.
Encouraged, I scanned the next tree. A bigger lump resolved into a large black hawk with yellow feet. I grew excited as I checked my field guide. Yup, a Common Black Hawk—not at all common, despite the name, and a lifer for me! Maybe this trip wasn’t going to be so bad, after all.
Birding the retreat property turned out to be quite rewarding. Vermillion Flycatchers darted out from some low trees near the pond, shagging insects on the wing. Say’s Phoebes chose the barbed wire fence for their launch pad. The willows along the stream were full of birds, as was the brushy growth edging the lawn.
When we had a break, I headed over to nearby Dead Horse Ranch State Park, along the Verde River, and picked up even more species. The diversity of habitats in the park, from riparian to creosote/mesquite desert, make it a desirable birding destination.
I enjoyed the Gambel’s Quail, Bridled Titmouse, and Ladder-backed Woodpeckers—birds we don’t get at home—but the highlight of the trip was my first-ever Summer Tanager. He was simply breathtaking. He was a;sp very hard to photograph, making sure to always keep a curtain of twigs and branches between himself and the camera. I guess if you’re that bright, it pays to be cautious!
While northern Arizona doesn’t equal the south when it comes to rarities, there are plenty of interesting birds to keep any birder entertained. I really wasn’t at all disappointed. And if we meet there again next year, I’ll plan a side trip to the Grand Canyon, where California Condors soar.