Coon Bluff, the third of nine designated fee sites on the 13-mile stretch of the Lower Salt River Recreation Area, is the best general birding site in the stretch. It is within easy reach for visiting birders with a day to spend in the Phoenix area, and it can be productive at any time and season of the year except middle of the day (9 a.m. to 4 p.m.) May through September.
The mile-long paved entrance road to the left off the Bush Highway between mile markers 25 and 26 passes through a mesquite bosque and can be driven slowly or walked to observe many of the common desert species such as Gilded Flicker, Abert’s Towhee, and Black-throated Sparrow. Watch for Harris’s Hawks early in the morning and listen for Elf Owls early in spring (April) beginning at dusk.
The entrance road ends at a large parking lot, where you will find restrooms and picnic tables. On a ramble around the edges of the mesquite-dotted camping area and upstream among the river bluff cottonwoods, you should encounter any of the common desert species you may have missed. Be sure to glass the river itself for ducks, herons and egrets, the desert-nesting subspecies of Bald Eagle, Sora, and shorebirds. Non-avian wildlife that use this riparian corridor include river otter, raccoon, and bobcat.
Cooper’s Hawk, Ladder-backed Woodpecker, Vermilion Flycatcher, and Phainopepla are year-round here, and a morning during fall and spring migration may yield assorted flycatchers, warblers, and tanagers. The ribbon of foliage tracing the water’s edge is the closest thing the Sonoran Desert has to a migrant trap. The best season of all may well be winter, when Common Mergansers and Belted Kingfishers are seen along the water, and Gray Flycatcher, Red-naped Sapsucker, and winter irruptives such as nuthatches and Western Bluebirds ply the mesquites.
Riparian corridor lined with willow and cottonwood adjacent to mesquite bosques surrounded by Sonoran Desert with saguaro cacti.
Mostly flat, one paved road, and trails through open mesquite bosques.
Over 150 species. Year-round: Gambel’s Quail, grebes, herons, egrets, Osprey, Bald Eagle, Cooper’s, Harris’s, and Red-tailed Hawks, Peregrine Falcon, Greater Roadrunner, Great Horned and Western Screech-Owls, Anna’s Hummingbird, woodpeckers including Gilded Flicker, flycatchers including Vermilion, Verdin, wrens including Cactus, Black-tailed Gnatcatcher, Curve-billed Thrasher, Phainopepla, Northern Cardinal, Abert’s Towhee. Spring-summer nesting species: Elf Owl, Lesser Nighthawk, Western Kingbird, Bell’s Vireo, Lucy’s Warbler, Summer Tanager, Hooded Oriole. Migrants: Eared Grebe, Olive-sided Flycatcher, empidonax flycatchers, vireos, warblers, tanagers. Winter: Common Merganser, Wilson’s Snipe, Belted Kingfisher, Northern Flicker, Red-naped Sapsucker, Gray Flycatcher, Loggerhead Shrike, Western Bluebird, and surprises like Red-breasted Sapsucker, Steller’s Jay, Harris’s Sparrow, Rusty Blackbird.
When to go
Year-round, but avoid summer heat from 9-4, May through September.
Restrooms and picnic tables.
National Forest recreation area. Open year-round, dawn to dusk. Tonto Daily Use pass ($8) required. Follow U.S. Highway 60 (Superstition Freeway) east from the metro Phoenix area to Power Rd. (exit 188), or Arizona Loop 202 (Red Mountain Freeway) east from Scottsdale to Power Rd. Turn left (north) onto Power Rd. which becomes the Bush Highway and continue to the well-signed Coon Bluff turnoff between milepost 25 and 26.
Day-use passes not sold on site but can be purchased at the forest service kiosk at the Phon Sutton site just south of Coon Bluff. Bring water and sunscreen. Cell phone service spotty.
Jim Burns is an outdoor writer and photographer and the author of four books illustrated with his photos: A Beginner’s Field Guide to Phoenix Birds (Maricopa Audubon Society, 2004), North American Owls: Journey Through a Shadowed World (Willow Creek Press, 2004), Jim Burns’ Arizona Birds (University of Arizona Press, 2008), and Owls Rock (e-book, 2012). In the October 2016 issue of BirdWatching, he described a close encounter with an Elegant Trogon, and in our April 2017 issue, he wrote about toucans and barbets in Costa Rica.
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