Birdwatching in Kofa NWR in Arizona
A remote canyon in southwestern Arizona is the place to find bighorn sheep, Scott's Oriole, Black-chinned Sparrow, and the unforgettable Elf Owl
Published: February 16, 2007
|Read an article by Henry Detwiler about birdwatchng at California's Salton Sea.|
Southeastern Arizona is hallowed ground in birding. Elegant Trogon, Painted Redstart, a bazillion hummingbirds. By all means, if you haven't been there, go. But here's a plug for the other end of the Grand Canyon State, specifically a remote four-mile-long canyon in the Kofa Mountains northwest of Yuma. Birds you can see in Kofa Queen Canyon, which is just a sliver of the 665,400-acre Kofa National Wildlife Refuge, include Prairie Falcon, Western Tanager, Common Poorwill, and Elf Owl.
I bird the canyon every spring and find it exhilarating.
In 2005, I was working on a Big Year in Yuma County, where the canyon is located, and I had targets to nail. I was after that most gorgeous desert oriole - Scott's - and a couple of mountain sparrows. My friend Lin Piest of the Arizona Game and Fish Department had found both Black-chinned and Rufous-crowned Sparrows singing in the canyon on Signal Peak, which, at 4,877 feet, is the highest mountain in southwestern Arizona.
One Friday afternoon in April, my wife Suzanne and I packed up the Pathfinder and our girls, and headed to the canyon. We set up camp at the mouth of Indian Wash, deep within Kofa Queen Canyon, and I went to sleep dreaming of sparrows. The dawn chorus woke me shortly after 5 a.m., and for the next half hour I listened to one songster after another without leaving the tent: Canyon Towhee, Western Kingbird, Scott's Oriole, Northern Mockingbird, Ash-throated Flycatcher, Mourning Dove, Canyon Wren, Rock Wren, Gambel's Quail, Black-tailed Gnatcatcher, and Ladder-backed Woodpecker. It was nature's alarm clock.
Hiking up lush Indian Wash, we watched dozens of Black-chinned, Costa's, and Anna's Hummingbirds feeding on ruby chuparosa flowers. Black-throated Sparrows fluttered through the brush, occasionally offering us a glance.
Fifteen minutes later we climbed out of the wash onto the gentle grade of Ten Ewe Peak. A riot of blazing colors delighted our senses, and all thoughts of rare sparrows were temporarily excised from my mind. Instead of black chins, we were awash in purple lupines, indigo larkspurs, vibrant yellow California poppies, salmon globe mallows, and ivory desert chicory.
Higher still, we were awed by the most gorgeous sight yet: fields of deep orange mariposa lilies. The rare winter rains had worked their magic, and we were the lucky beneficiaries. A brightly clad yellow and black Scott's Oriole, singing from atop a spiny green ocotillo tendril, brought me back to the world of birds.
Farther up the flank of the mountain past a little saddle, and thankfully in the morning shade, the vegetation changed to scrub oak. Walking the trail here, we soon heard the bouncing-ball song of our first Black-chinned Sparrow, and shortly thereafter the quick melody of the Rufous-crowned Sparrow. The girls weren't impressed, but when several White-throated Swifts buzzed us, that was "cool."
In the gorge below us, a Canyon Wren let loose its descending trill, but we never did spy the pretty chocolate and white songster. A final scramble took us to a 3,600-foot saddle with superb views. Stretching out to the north were Indian Wash and the New Water Mountains. To the south, over the lip of the saddle, a nicely wooded bowl harbored migrant warblers and flycatchers. As the day was heating up and our stomachs were grumbling, we turned back to camp. Claret cup cacti and a speckled rattlesnake were nice finds on the return trip.
|Small owls and big views|
April is a little early for Elf Owls, so toward the end of May I once again headed up to Kofa Queen Canyon. Luck was with me right out of the starting gate, when I saw a herd of wild horses browsing on the side of Highway 95. Having left right after dinner, I was also treated to a picture-perfect sunset over the Trigo and Chocolate Mountains. Black-tailed jackrabbits and two coyotes scampered by as the last light faded.
Driving the pitch-black desert roads can be slightly eerie, so my eyes really bugged out when the track into the canyon came alive with hundreds of hopping toads. A recent rain had signaled the red-spotted toads to emerge from their burrows to procreate and seek vernal pools.
As I continued making my way up the canyon, I stopped and listened often, hearing a number of Common Poorwills, Elf Owls, and Western Screech-Owls. At Metate Rock, three miles into the canyon, I set up my cot and relaxed in my camp chair, soaking up the symphony as I gazed at the countless stars. Without a moon, the edges of the canyon walls were silhouetted against the sparkling constellations in the inky-black sky. The next morning, in the dawn twilight, I spotted a familiar outline in a dark saguaro hole. Inching closer, I found myself face to face with an Elf Owl. As I fired off a few grainy, low-light photos, the tiny owl seemed to dissolve back into the depths of its cavity to sleep away the day.
On every trip since, I've added to my bird list and seen new sights. Last time it was House and Bewick's Wrens and California patch butterflies. So pack up your scope and field guides, tune your ears to the sounds of the desert, and explore one of Arizona's remote treasures.
Henry Detwiler is a bird guide with Southwest Birders, member of the Arizona Rare Bird Committee, and an avid photographer. He's lived in Yuma for 16 years, all the while exploring the deserts and avifauna of southwestern Arizona.
On the way to Kofa Queen
Click on the map to enlarge it. Click on the PDF icon to download a printable map.
Kofa National Wildlife Refuge, which encompasses a staggering 665,400 acres northwest of Yuma, Arizona, was established in 1939 to protect desert bighorn sheep. The refuge also provides habitat for birds; its bird list includes 185 species.
Kofa Queen Canyon and neighboring Palm Canyon cut into the refuge's northern mountain range - the Kofas. To reach the canyons, take I-10 from either Phoenix or Los Angeles and exit at state Highway 95. Or from Yuma go north on 95. Turn east on Palm Canyon Road to enter the refuge. On the map above, the start of Palm Canyon Road is mile 0, and the six mile markers refer to the following must-see stops for birders.
3.4 miles: Thrashers and sparrows
Turn onto Kofa Queen Canyon Road. The vegetation thickens as you near the base of the mountains. Find Black-throated Sparrows, Curve-billed Thrashers, and Cactus Wrens year-round, and White-throated and Brewer's Sparrows in winter.
8 miles: Falcons and songbirds
The canyon mouth. Prairie Falcons may nest on a large monolith here. Listen for whirring Rock Wrens, the descending tremolo from a Canyon Wren, plaintive calls of the Phainopepla and Canyon Towhee, melodious Scott's Orioles, and tinkling Black-throated Sparrows. In spring 2005, two birding friends counted more than 100 Phainopeplas moving down the canyon one evening, only to return up the canyon the next morning.
10 miles: Goldfinches and warblers
On the north side of the canyon, hike Cereus Wash. Half a mile up the wash is Cereus Tank, a man-made watering hole for sheep and other wildlife. Look for Lesser Goldfinch, warblers, flycatchers, and four kinds of wrens. One spring evening I had close-up looks at two western diamond-backed rattlesnakes. An overhanging rock shelter with a sooty roof makes a good spot to camp.
10.7 miles: Hummingbirds and orioles
The mouth of Indian Wash, a major drainage into the canyon, is the start of a rugged, two-mile hike up to the top of Signal Peak. The first mile is all you need to traverse in order to see Black-chinned, Costa's, and Anna's Hummingbirds, Scott's Oriole, and Black-chinned and Rufous-crowned Sparrows.
11.3 miles: Towhees and thrashers
A small boulder outcropping juts out of the canyon. The thick desert brush here harbors Green-tailed and Spotted Towhees in the winter and spring, and Crissal Thrasher all year long. The site is another fine spot in which to camp.
11.8 miles: Rattlers and bats
You've reached the end of the line for vehicles. Hike up the track to reach the old Kofa Queen Mine, where hopeful miners sought their fortune in gold during the late 19th century. Now only bats, ringtails, and rattlesnakes use the abandoned shafts.
Palm Canyon: Rare trees and sheep
Due south of Kofa Queen, it's one of three canyons that harbor Arizona's only native palm tree, the California fan palm. Nestled in a side canyon, the palms are shielded from the direct sun most of the day. Go around 2 p.m. if you want to take sun-drenched photos. A very good spot to find desert bighorn sheep, Palm Canyon's sheer walls echo with the croaks of Common Ravens, the sweet songs of Canyon Wrens, and the twittering of White-throated Swifts.
Advice for travelers
Winter temperatures are in the 60s, but prepare for cold, wind, or snow. Spring is usually beautiful: in the 70s and 80s. Summer, when highs can exceed 115, is best avoided. The road from Highway 95 to Palm Canyon is graveled. The spur road to Kofa Queen Canyon and the rough rocky track in the canyon itself are strictly for a pickup or SUV. Bring two gallons of water per person per day, let someone know your schedule, and don't pet the teddy bear cholla.
Refuge contact information
Phone: (928) 783-7861