Bird Lady Blog

January 1, 2016

Birds of Prey

Zone-Tailed Hawk

Zone-Tailed Hawk

The common names for birds of prey are eagles, hawks, falcons, kites, harriers, vultures, and owls.  In ornithology, “bird of prey” has a narrow meaning: those birds with very good eyesight for finding food, strong feet for holding food, and a strong curved beak for tearing flesh.  Most birds of prey also have strong curved talons for catching or killing.  So as I recently discovered, a sea gull, which forages for fish with its beak, would not fall into the bird of prey category, but an osprey, which catches fish with its talons and then rips it apart with a curved beak, would.

In and around Munds Park we have several birds of prey, and I recently spotted a new one while I was golfing (again) one afternoon.  A single bird of prey was soaring above us at the 8th hole of Pinewood County Club, and it got low and close enough for a real good look through my binoculars.  My first thought was that it looked different from our Turkey Vulture, but not that different.  When it got closer I could see a distinctive white band across its tail and broader wings without the distinctive coloration of a Turkey Vulture.  Plus, it was solitary – whereas most of the Turkey Vultures soaring above the Golf Course are in a group.

I pulled out my trusty iPhone and used the bird ap iBird Plus 7.2 and whittled it down to two species:  Common Black-Hawk or Zone-Tailed Hawk.  Both are black-ish, with the underside wing pattern a bit similar to that of a Turkey Vulture, but where they live is different.  The Common Black-Hawk is found primarily in southern Arizona; the Zone-Tailed Hawk, according to my bird aps and books, has a preferred habitat of deep, wooded canyons and mountainous, rugged areas, hunting in grasslands or sparse forests.  So even though I only got one good look at this bird (in between golf shots), I am going to say that it was a Zone-Tailed Hawk.  I can remember what hole I saw the hawk on, but for the life of me I cannot remember what my next golf shot was like.  I guess I have my priorities straight.

Other birds of prey we can see here are Bald Eagles (occasionally spotted soaring or perched on the limbs of a dead tree), Red-Tailed Hawk (the most common hawk in the U.S.), Northern Harrier (I saw one hunting just one time in my 15 years here), Peregrine Falcon (occasionally) and our resident Ospreys.  The Ospreys used to have a nest on the east side of Lake Odell, but for the last two or three years have now built their nest at the top of a tall dead tree to the south of Hole 13 at Pinewood Country Club.   We have seen as many as four Ospreys at a time – presumably the parents and two offspring.  Other golf courses in the area that also have resident Ospreys with nests are Forest Highlands Country Club and Pine Canyon Country Club.

The bird of preys I haven’t seen in Munds Park are any kind of owls.  No sightings, no hearing their hooting – nothing.  I suppose there may be owls here, but for the life of me I don’t know where.  If anyone thinks they have seen or heard an owl, I would be interested in hearing from you.


March 3, 2012

Steller’s Jay, American Crow, and Away We Go

Photo courtesy of Joseph V. Higbee

Some of us are packing it up and heading south.  I will be spending the winter and spring in Scottsdale, and already I’m looking forward to planting flowers in our garden and birding.  So far in our new home I have seen the following at our feeder from my office window:  American Cardinal, Inca Dove, Mourning Dove, Abert’s Towhee, Gamble’s Quail, Curved-Bill Thrasher, Red-Shafted Flicker, House Finch, and House Sparrow.  I also saw flying in our new neighborhood, but not at our feeder, Lesser Nighthawk, Harris Hawk, Turkey Vulture, and Western Wood Peewee.

There will be a few birds over the winter in Munds Park for sure, and I would like to hear from those of you who live here year-round about what birds you see.  I think two of the more common birds you will see are Steller’s Jay and American Crow.  They are related – both from the Corvidae family of birds in the Passerine order.  The American Crow is found throughout most of the United States, while the Steller’s Jay is found only in the Western part of the country and usually in habitat that is 3,000 to 10,000 feet above sea level.

The Steller’s Jay will be after peanuts if you put them out.  These birds are very smart and will watch for you, especially if you have a consistent time of day for filling your peanut feeder or placing peanuts on your deck railings.  With its black and crested head,  iridescent body, and loud call, the Steller’s Jay is will continue to remind you all year long that it is a proud and loud resident of Munds Park.

I had a business colleague in Los Angeles who told me once that she thought the American Crow is an urban phenomenon.  What she meant by that, I think, was that this large, all-black, social, mischievous, and noisy bird seemed to find itself at home in LA parks, parking lots, school yards, and lawns as well as the wilderness outskirts of the city.  American Crows live in most parts of the United States, and they are year-round residents.  While they eat insects, earthworms, small animals, seeds, and fruit, they will also pick at garbage, frequent landfills, and eat the stale bread or popcorn you may throw out the door for them.  American Crows nest early – about April – and they do not breed until they are at least two years old.  They are monogamous, and the mated pairs form families that stay together for many years.  American Crows have come to our bird bath in Munds Park and always more than one show up.  I am guessing it’s a few of the “teenagers” going out on their own for an exciting adventure at a new watering hole.

I plan on taking a few birding trips over the winter, including one to Wisconsin in October.  Hopefully I will get to add at least one “lifer” to my birding list.  However, I have come to realize that one never knows where the next new bird will appear, so a pair of binoculars is always at hand wherever I go.  Each day is an opportunity to open our eyes and ears to the wonderful nature around us, which includes our feathered neighbors.

Migration – A Hazardous Journey

August and September begin the migration period for many of our Munds Park spring and summer birds.  It is a time when birders get excited about the chance to see new and unusual species moving south, yet it is a scary and dangerous time for the birds themselves.  Bad weather, predators, crashes into vehicles, lights, and skyscrapers, exhaustion, and most significantly, the lack of suitable habitat for rest periods, all add up to make the journey a treacherous one.

Birders across our state  – from Lake Havasu, Parker, Rio Rico, Tempe, Glendale and Phoenix – are all reporting sightings of migrating birds, including our summer species of  Black-Headed Grosbeak, Western Tanager, Lesser Goldfinch, and Red-Faced Warbler.

One of my favorite movies is Winged Migration.  This documentary was filmed over the course of four years on seven continents and provides amazing footage of birds migrating over land and sea.  The scenery is beautiful and expansive, but more importantly the movie provides real-life examples of birds, many of them waterfowl, flying thousands of miles, wing-beat after wing-beat, to their wintering home.  If you haven’t seen it, it is worth renting and watching, especially if you have school-age children or grandchildren to share it with.

So where do our birds go for the winter?  The American Robin may hang around up to the dead of winter as long as their primary winter food source of fruit remains abundant.  In the spring Robins switch to earthworms and insects as their primary food source.  When they do migrate from North America, American Robins move into Mexico and South America.  A close relative of the American Robin is the Rufous-Backed Robin, which rarely enters the U.S. from Mexico.  However, my mother and I spotted one during a trip to the Boyce Thompson Arboretum near Superior, AZ, a couple of winters ago.  Being on the U of A’s BIRDGW05 Listserv was helpful, because I had received notices of the sighting from other birders.  We knew where to look as a start to finding the Rufous-Backed Robin, which was a lifer for me and her.

Western Bluebirds will also migrate, and sometimes not that far into lower elevations.  For example, for more than one winter in Phoenix we’ve had Western Bluebirds at the Arizona Country Club.  We have no way of knowing if they are Munds Park birds, but we can imagine that perhaps they are.

What about Turkey Vultures?  These are the large, black birds with a wing-span of five to six feet that you see soaring often just east of the intersection of Pinewood Boulevard and I-17.  On September 3rd, before writing this article and finishing up a round of golf, we saw more than a dozen Turkey Vultures circling unusually high in the air.  This flock of Vultures circling within a thermal is called a “kettle.” A kettle will ride the thermal high until it begins to falter, then they move on seeking the next thermal.  By using thermals and moving from one to the next, Turkey Vultures save energy and very rarely have to flap their wings, instead just gliding to cross vast distances.  In Phoenix, Turkey Vultures are typically spring, summer and early fall residents.  For the winter they have migrated even further south into Mexico, but in many of the Southern states, such as Florida, Turkey Vultures are year-round residents.

A wonderful place to view raptor migration is at the Grand Canyon during the months of September and October.  HawkWatch International used to have teams of scientific observers counting hawks, falcons, and eagles from two spots – Lipin Point and Yaki Point.  However, this non-profit has taken some funding hits in recent years and, as a result, has closed a couple of their fall migration projects.  The Grand Canyon project no longer is a HawkWatch International site, but of course birds are still migrating through.  A great day trip or overnight adventure is from Munds Park to the Grand Canyon to stake out one of these locations and watch the raptors soar across the Canyon as they migrate south.  I saw my first Peregrine Falcon at eye-level this way, and the whole experience is wonderful.  Try to pick a warm and not-too-windy fall day, pack a lunch, a folding chair, your binoculars, a field guide, and water, and enjoy the day seeing how many raptors you can identify.

Some of us humans are beginning the migration back to our winter homes.  We pack our cars, fill up with gas, settle into our comfortable leather seats, put on satellite radio, take along water and stop for a cup of coffee or shake or burger along the way.  Think of the birds:  tiny things beating their wings thousands of times, landing quite exhausted in your yard or a park or pond, and then having to seek water, food, and a safe place to sleep.  No Holiday Inn with complimentary continental breakfasts for them.  A hazardous journey indeed.

May 28, 2010

Turkey Vultures, Common Ravens, and American Crows

Filed under: Munds Park Birding,Vultures Ravens Crows — Munds Park Birding @ 4:24 am

Welcome back to Munds Park to each and every summer resident and weekender – and that includes our large, black summer-visitor bird, the Turkey Vulture.  The Turkey Vulture is one of three large, black birds we see in Munds Park.  The other two species are the Common Raven and the American Crow, both who live here year-round with many of you.  But it is the Turkey Vulture who comes and goes with the weather, just like yours truly.  (Note:  Picture : © Samuel Blanc /

Turkey Vultures are found throughout the United States except for Alaska and Hawaii.  In old Western movies you would see them circling overhead as the cowboys ride through the panoramic landscape and call them “ol’ Buzzards”.  In Munds Park we often see them soaring in a high loop near the intersection of Pinewood Boulevard and the I-17 exit.  Some people consider them ugly birds because their heads are completely free of feathers and instead show only red, bare skin and a white beak.  Turkey Vultures are beautiful in the air, however, barely beating their wings in flight as the glide through the skies seeking out their next meal – a dead animal.  These birds have a keen sense of smell and while soaring can locate carrion below our canopy of Ponderosa Pines.  From above they have a six-foot wing span and a black body.  When they are in flight you can see that the front of their wings is completely black and their tail and the back wing feathers are gray.  In spite of their appearance, Turkey Vultures have many human fans.  At least five annual birding festivals in the U.S. specifically celebrate the return of the Turkey Vulture from their winter migration.

The Common Raven is found generally West of the Mississippi and in part of the Central East.  If you moved to Arizona from the Great Plains or Southern States, the Common Raven would be a new bird for you.  Two feet tall when standing, this bird is coal black with a purple sheen and a stout bill.  In flight it has a wedge-shaped tail, which is a good identifier.  Compared to the American Crow, the Common Raven is quiet and solitary.  It gives out a guttural croak-like sound when it does vocalize.  The Common Raven mostly forages on the ground and will eat carrion, maggots, small mammals, reptiles, frogs, young birds, acorns, and fruit.  You can attract them with peanuts.  Common Ravens are viewed as very intelligent birds.  They have been observed in playful activity, making “toys” of sticks, and they have learned to fly down the middle of a road for long stretches looking for road kill for their next meal.

The American Crow is often heard before seen.  How many of you have tried to take a lazy-day afternoon nap only to be disturbed by a flock of crows cawing to each other from the nearby tree tops?  These birds are smaller than the Common Raven and are much more social.  Some consider them pests, as they thrive around people and can be found not only in our beautiful forests, but in landfills, garbage dumps, parks, athletic fields, and parking lots.  They are not found in the Phoenix metro area, as Common Ravens are.  American Crows are all black, including their legs and bill.  Their throat feathers are smooth when calling, unlike the Common Raven, which has ruffled throat feathers when calling.  Crows were hit very hard by the West Nile Virus, but have been on the rebound.  I personally like crows – they are the kind of birds that make themselves known, seem to openly enjoy their family group, and communicate loudly with each other right in front of us.  With gusto, they make sure you “hear” that you are in Munds Park

What do these three species have in common besides being large and black?  Well, they are monogamous, and the males and females of each species are similar to each other in size and look.  And all three eat carrion, although for the Turkey Vulture carrion is the only thing it eats.  It is usually first to the kill site because of its strong sense of smell, and Common Ravens and American Crows will follow based on sight and sound.

If you missed Article #8, find it at, and read up on how you, too, can help prevent birds from flying into your house windows and breaking their necks and your heart.  It is hard enough being a bird without people-made forest reflections luring birds to a window crash and fall.  Let’s all take preventive measures to make windows safer for the birds of Munds Park.  You can reach me at or visit

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