Birding the Lower Colorado River Valley (Parker to Lake Havasu)
By David Stejskal and Gary Rosenberg
Notice: This article originally appeared in the Cactus Wrendition, vol. 39, no. 1, Jan.-Feb. 1990, published by Maricopa Audubon Society. ©1990, Maricopa Audubon Society. Reproduction restricted to personal or educational use; reproduction for commercial use is prohibited without the written consent of Maricopa Audubon Society and the authors. All rights reserved.
One of the least birded regions of Arizona is the Lower Colorado River Valley (LCRV) despite the fact that it is also one of the best areas in the state for unusual birds, particularly during the fall and winter. The "river" was pioneered by Gale Monson during the 1940s and 1950s, and further studied intensively by field crews from Arizona State University during the late 1970s and early 1980s. Since then, the LCRV has been birded very infrequently and we feel that the main reason for this lack of coverage may be due to Arizona's birders' general unfamiliarity with the important birding localities in this area. In this installment of Arizona Field Notes, we hope to convey to the reader a sense of where to go on the river, and when the greatest potential exists for finding species that are more characteristic of the river, but are generally very rare (or virtually unknown) away from it in Arizona.
Few birders realize just haw many outstanding species have been found on the river, and adjacent areas in recent history. Spectacular birds have been found there at just about any time of the year, but the most productive time appears to be between early August and late March. The list of unusual species recorded from this time period on the river is quite impressive and includes the following: Red-throated Loon, Red-necked Grebe, Least Storm-Petrel, Blue-footed and Brown Boobies, Reddish Egret, Roseate Spoonbill, Oldsquaw, Red-shouldered Hawk, Black Rail, Black Turnstone (Cal. side), all three jaegers, Mew, Thayer's, Glaucous-winged and Western Gulls, Black-legged Kittiwake, Black Skimmer, Ruddy Ground-Dove, Red-breasted Sapsucker, Rufous-backed Robin, Bohemian Waxwing, Northern Shrike, Blue-winged, Cape May, and Blackpoll Warblers, Painted Bunting, American Tree Sparrow, LeConte's Sparrow, Lapland Longspur, and Rusty Blackbird. Not bad for an area that has been birded sporadically at best.
Although the likelihood of seeing any of the species mentioned above is low, the potential is certainly there and should be taken advantage of. Because the Colorado River is so long and basically makes up the entire western border of the state, we have divided it into three sections, north, central, and south. This article will describe only those areas from Parker north to Lake Havasu, as these areas are probably the most accessible to Arizona birders.
Parker to Parker Dam
Most Phoenicians probably don't realize how accessible the LCRV is. It takes about the same driving time to travel from Phoenix to Parker as it does to travel from Phoenix to Nogales. From Tucson it is a couple of hours longer, but not that much longer than driving from Tucson, say, to Rustler Park in the Chiricahua Mts. The best way to get to Parker is to take Interstate 10 west to the Vicksburg exit, north (across Rt. 60) to Rt. 72, then northwest to Rt. 95, and continue into Parker. Parker is reasonably sized and offers all the facilities a wandering birder may need (hotels, restaurants, gas stations, etc.). The best areas to bird around Parker consist of "oasis" in town along the river, and a large expanse of agriculture south of town. To reach the Parker Oasis (actually a housing development), turn left (south) at the light where Rt. 95 turns north toward Lake Havasu City (if you continue west the road crosses the Colorado and continues to Vidal Jct.). Continue southwest through town to the Colorado River Indian housing on the left. This area has a small grove of large California Sycamores and other ornamental plantings that often attract a number of species, particularly in winter. Continue straight, down a steep hill, where the road turns toward the south again. At the bottom of the hill the "oasis" will be obvious on the right across the canal (large tamarisk and eucalyptus trees). To enter the oasis there is a dirt road that doubles back to the right, parallel to the canal, to a small bridge. Cross the canal and park (remember this is private property but people there are friendly to birders). This area has produced an amazing variety of "eastern" warblers in the past, particularly during September and October. Back before you turn right onto the dirt road, if you continue straight, the Parker Sewage Ponds are immediately on your left. The gate is usually unlocked and the two small ponds have produced a variety of unusual ducks over the years (including Greater Scaup). Just beyond the ponds is a grove of Date Palms on your left. Over the years, Lewis' Woodpeckers have wintered in these trees on a number of occasions. Across the canal from this grove is another property (Bolton) that is always productive. Walk in on the entrance road and ask permission before wandering about. Continuing straight on the paved road will take you to the "blinking light" where the road intersects with the Poston Road. The Colorado River Indian Tribe administration offices are at this intersection and the trees around the buildings are worth checking, as are the trees around a group of houses just to the north of this intersection.
The agriculture immediately south of Parker has always been productive for species such as Ferruginous Hawk, Sandhill Crane, and Mountain Plover, and has produced rarities such as Sprague's Pipit, Lapland Longspur, and Eastern Meadowlark. Another area worth checking, time permitting, is a series of marshes just south of the Parker Oasis along the levee road that parallels the river. Over the years, a variety of waders, including spoonbills, have been seen here. It is also a good area for rails, Marsh Wrens, and the occasional Swamp Sparrow in winter.
Returning to Parker, continue north on Rt. 95 along the "Parker strip" to Parker Dam. Your main objective between Parker and the dam will be to stop at any convenient pulloff and scan the river for ducks and gulls. During the winter, Common Loon is a distinct possibility, as are Scoters, Greater Scaup, Oldsquaw, and both goldeneyes. The best vantage point is on the California side of the river about 1/2 mile below the dam. The dam itself can be very productive, sometimes harboring concentrations of gulls (Ring-billed and California are the most likely, but Herring and Kittiwake have both been found here). Land birding can also be productive around the Parker Dam area. The best areas are a series of trailer parks below the dam on the Arizona side of the river. Any of these parks with large cottonwoods, salt cedars, or eucalyptus can have migrants and/or wintering birds, and are worth checking. Always ask permission before entering. Another spot worth checking, although it is in California, is the government residency just on the California side of the dam. There are lots of tall trees, lawns, and hedgerows that have produced such good birds as Greater Pewee. If you continue down the California side to Parker, there are several more trailer parks that have produced many good records in the past.
Bill Williams Delta and Lake Havasu
Continuing north from Parker Dam on Rt. 95, the highway climbs up a steep hill then parallels the Bill Williams arm of Lake Havasu. There are numerous pulloffs on the left that offer excellent views (with a scope) of birds on the lake. Both Western and Clark's Grebes are abundant there, and in winter there are usually reasonable numbers of ducks, and sometimes geese, and there's always a chance for a rarity such as Red-throated Loon or Horned Grebe. It is possible to rent boats at Havasu Springs marina, just above the dam; in the past this was an excellent way to search for unusual birds, or just get close-up views of the thousands of grebes.
Just before Highway 95 crosses the Bill Williams River there is a dirt road going off to the right that takes you to the Planet Ranch. This road parallels the Bill Williams River for several miles and passes by numerous areas of dense stands of cottonwood/willow/salt cedar riparian growth. Historically this area was simply the best riparian habitat left in western Arizona, and despite some recent changes, it is still very impressive. There are far too many rarities that have been found along this section of the Bill Williams River to mention her, but any area that has produced Prothonotary Warbler, Worm-eating Warbler, and Ovenbird all on the same day in May, or no fewer than six Varied Thrushes at the same time in winter, is certainly worth a look! A visit in March through May to the extensive cattail marsh at the delta might yield a rare look at either Black or Clapper Rail.
Lake Havasu is certainly the most productive body of water on the Colorado River in terms of rarities for Arizona. The best way to work the lake is to rent a boat at the Lake Havasu City Marina and motor your way across the open water to the north end of the lake. August and September are probably the best months for an Arizona pelagic trip as trips in the past have turned up such goodies as all three species of jaegers, Brown Booby, Black Skimmer, Storm-petrel sp., Ruddy Turnstone.....all on the same weekend! In winter trips, you are almost assured of seeing at least some of the following species: Pacific and Common Loons, Horned Grebe, Greater Scaup, Barrow's Goldeneye, and Herring Gull. It is our opinion that Lake Havasu is the most likely body of water on which to find one of several species as yet unrecorded in Arizona, but known to have occurred in adjacent states, for example Ancient Murrelet, Harlequin Duck, Surfbird, Lesser Black-backed, Common Black-headed, and Little Gulls....or possibly even....dare we say....Ross' Gull. One just never knows what they are going to see; the possibilities are endless. If you are unwilling to take a boat out, you can scope the lake from numerous vantage points around the island across from London Bridge (we have often seen Pacific Loon right from the marina). Good luck out there!