Birding the Navajo and Hopi Reservations, Arizona 

By Bud Johnson

Notice: This article appeared in Cactus Wrendition, vol. 46, no. 3, May-June 1998, published by the Maricopa Audubon Society, P.O. Box 15451, Phoenix, AZ 85060. ©1998, Maricopa Audubon Society and the author. Reproduction restricted to personal or educational use; reproduction for commercial use is prohibited without the written consent of the Maricopa Audubon Society and the author.

The great mesas and colored buttes of the Hopi-Navajo region East of the Grand Canyon are home to several birds not readily seen elsewhere in Arizona. Black-Billed Magpie, Northern Shrike, vagrant Eastern birds, mountain species and sometimes even Chukar can be found in the Colorado plateau. The movie set geology is worth pursuing even if no special birds are found. The Hopi-Navajo area is often referred to as the Four Corners area, since it is the only place in the 48 contiguous states where one can have feet and hands in 4 states at once.

The area has great expanses of sparse grass used to feed sheep, horses and cattle and valleys are often filled with sagebrush. Typical birds are: Horned Lark, Sage Thrasher, Pinyon Jay, Mountain Bluebird, and various sparrows including Vesper, Sage, and Brewer's.

Atop the great mesas, ponderosa pine with mixtures of Oak, New Mexico locust, Aspen and Douglas fir can be found. Birds to be looked or listened for include:

Northern Goshawk, Golden Eagle, Wild Turkey, Band-Tailed Pigeon, Flammulated Screech Owl, Northern Pygmy Owl, Whip-Poor-Will, White-Throated Swift, Broad-Tailed Hummingbird, Northern (Red Shafted) Flicker, Acorn Woodpecker, Hairy Woodpecker, Western Wood Pewee, Violet-Green Swallow, Steller's Jay, Mountain Chickadee, White-breasted Nuthatch, Pygmy Nuthatch, American Robin, Western Bluebird, Mountain Bluebird, Virginia's Warbler, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Grace's Warbler, Red-Faced Warbler, Western Tanager, Hepatic Tanager, Black-headed Grosbeak, Evening Grosbeak, Pine Siskin, Red Crossbill, and Chipping Sparrow.

Most of the Navajo-Hopi country, except that occupied by ponderosa pine and fir-spruce forests, can be divided into area characterized by three types of vegetation:

  1. open, weedy grassland that is chiefly grama and galleta grasses and snakeweed;

  2. stretches of sagebrush, greasewood and saltbrush; and

  3. the pygmy forest of pinyon pine and juniper trees.

Fig. 1. Recorded species vs. month, showing migration peaks

Fig. 1. Recorded species vs. month, showing migration peaks

In the grassland, the Poor-will, Horned Lark and Western Meadowlark are virtually the only breeding birds. Bird life in the sagebrush-greasewood-salt-bush type is also scarce, typified by such species as: Mourning Dove, Common Nighthawk, Say's Phoebe, Northern Mockingbird, Bendire's Thrasher, Sage Thrasher, Loggerhead Shrike, House Finch, Vesper Sparrow, Black-Throated Sparrow, Sage Sparrow, and Brewer's Sparrow.

In the pygmy forest, the following are the typical breeding birds: Red-tailed Hawk, American Kestrel, Mourning Dove, Great Horned Owl, Common Night Hawk, Cassin's Kingbird, Ash-Throated, Flycatcher, Gray Flycatcher, Scrub Jay, Pinyon Jay, Plain Titmouse, Bushtit, Bewick's Wren, Rock Wren, Mountain Bluebird, Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher, Black-Throated Gray Warbler, Spotted Towhee and Chipping Sparrow.

During migration, the number of species changes dramatically as seen in figure 1. The limited waterways with trees and the few marshes concentrate the migrating birds to a few areas. These can provide the best places to find vagrant shore birds and rare Eastern birds not seen often in Arizona. A loop can be planned for a long weekend that can yield a variety of birds as well as seeing some of the spectacular countryside of movie fame.

Fig. 2. Map of the Navajo Reservation, showing birding locations.

Fig. 2. Map of the Navajo Reservation, showing birding locations.

One bird finding route (See Figure 2) would be to go North from Phoenix to Payson and on up to I-40 by way of Holbrook. Good places to stop along I-40 are the trees at the Petrified Forest Visitor Center area, Navajoa, and the Sanders school grounds. Rarities such as Black-throated Blue Warbler have been found by MAS members at these migrant traps. One can then continue on North to Ganado and Ganado Lake. The lake can be reached by going East out of Ganado on Rt. 264 and then North on Navajo Rt. 27 a short ways. A dirt road to the West leads to willows near the lake. Camping out by the lake allows one to look for Eastern migrants in the willows and cotton wood trees with the dawn chorus. The lake had dried up due to a slow leak, but should have water in it now. A variety of ducks and geese, shorebirds and various swallows are to be expected at the proper season. Black Terns are regular in migration.

While in the Ganado area, the College at Ganado grounds have had some good birds such as Mourning Warbler. Park near the Hospital and walk the loop drive around the campus. Look especially along the ditches and outer areas from the buildings. Nearby is the Hubbell's Trading Post, which is a National Historic Site. Recently the Arizona Highways had an article on this very interesting place. Park by the Trading Post and then bird Northeast, up Ganado Wash. Interesting birds found in or by the wash have included Prothonatory Warbler and Rose-Breasted Grosbeak. Many Eastern warblers have been found along this wash, which is one of the best riparian areas on the reservation.

Brad Jacobs notes in his book on Birding the Navajo and Hopi Reservation that: "This area is a regular on the fall field trip list of the Maricopa Audubon Society. Many of the vagrant Eastern warblers recorded for North-east Arizona are seen in the part of the grove that stretches from the Trading Post to about a half mile above the bridge on highway 264. September and early October seem to be the best time to visit for vagrants."

Going West of Ganado on Rt. 264, one comes to Rt. 191, which is taken north towards Chile. A family of Long-eared Owls was seen at Moaning Lake bed to the West of Rt. 191. In Chinle, take the road East to the Canyon de Chelly area. The cottonwoods and Russian olives at the mouth of Canyon de Chelly have yielded several Eastern vagrants. The corral area on the road to the Thunderbird Lodge has had an Eastern Kingbird. There is a large campground to overnight for catching the dawn chorus along the wash. The Lodge has a cafeteria that features Navajo and Southwest dishes at reasonable prices.

Continuing on North on Rt. 191 leads to Many Farms Lake. This is one of the best birding areas on the Reservations any time of the year. Well over 200 species have been seen on or around the lake. Access to the lake is by a good dirt road going to the West just a ways North of the town of Many Farms. The road leads to the dam, where a scope can be used to look out over the lake. Following the road further West and North allows one to park and walk out to the lake. Good birds have included documented White-rumped Sandpiper and Lapland Longspur. Black-Billed Magpies and gulls are often found around the lake.

The next stop on our loop could be Round Rock Lake by the Round Rock community reached by continuing on North on Rt. 191 until the intersection with Navajo Rt. 12. This is a good place to look for wintering birds. One year several swans kept the lake open by disturbing the ice as it formed. Going further North on Rt. 191 until reaching Rt. 160 leads East to the town of Teec Nos Pos. Black-Billed Magpie nest near here and Black-Capped Chickadees have been found since they have nested in the San Juan river area just to the East in New Mexico. Blue Jays have also been seen.

Kayenta is to the West on Rt. 160. This is near Black Mesa and the Peabody Coal Company where Chuck LaRue was the biologist for a number of years. Chuck is now in Flagstaff and is not able to provide the updates as often on the good birds in the Northeast part of Arizona and the Reservations. He was also a good guide for trying to find the elusive Chukar in the reservation area.

The coal is taken from the mesa South of Kayenta by a long conveyor belt that can be seen to the West of town. The belt loads storage bins, which are used to fill long electric trains. The train runs along Rt. 160 for quite some way before going off to the North to be used to fire the Navajo power plant near Lake Powell. Along the road in the winter watch for Northern Shrike. Watch for the road to the North of the train tracks leading to Cow Springs near the old Cow Springs Trading. The lake has had a number of unusual migrants including the first record for Red Phalarope for Arizona.

Our loop takes us on to Tuba City; home of the Tuba City Truck stop made famous by a song. The food and service is good. This area and any of the towns along our loop should be checked for birds since the towns typically have the only trees and water for miles around. Taking Rt. 264 to the East out of Tuba City takes one past Coal Canyon. This interesting place is famous for its legend of an Indian maiden that haunts the canyon on full moons. Continuing on Rt. 264 to Keam's Canyon, one is in the heart of the Hopi Reservation that is surrounded by the larger Navajo Reservation.

Watch for groves of cotton woods and Russian olives along the way to look for Eastern strays. Just before the town, there is an old camp ground in the wash. Park and walk the wash looking for Cassin's Finches and Townsend's Solitaires. This is a good place for a picnic. After leaving the wash, continue on East into town to past the hospital area. Park by the school play ground and look along the wash for such birds as Brown Thrasher and Philadelphia Vireo that have been found here. Continuing on the road leads to a small lake where Rose-Breasted Grosbeak has been seen.

Leaving East from Keam's Canyon one can take Rt. 77 South back to Holbrook and return to Phoenix to complete the loop. If time is short, one can do just the Ganado, Many Farms and Keam's Canyon portion only by doubling back after leaving Many Farms. Motels are available on the Navajo and Hopi reservations in Chile, Kayenta, Second Mesa, Cameron and Tuba City. In addition to the campgrounds already mentioned, on can camp in Monument Valley, Wheatfields Lake and Page.

Remember that travel within the Navajo and Hopi reservations comes under the Indian Nation laws and is a privilege, not a right. Many sections have been closed at the request of residents or to protect archeological sites in the area. Please stay on marked roads and stay away from private homes, buildings and livestock. Also, landmarks such as unusual hills, other geological formations and rock outcroppings may have religious significance and should not be climbed. If in doubt ask local residents before proceeding. They will appreciate your courtesy and concern, but they will be reluctant to talk about such sites. Ask permission before taking pictures of residents, their homes or their livestock.

Always avoid approaching livestock herds too closely. You may frighten or scatter the herds. Local residents are concerned about poachers, so when strangers near their herds, they have reasonable cause for concern. Also, dogs that run with the flocks can be very aggressive. With a little forethought and planning, one can have a unique experience birding the USA 's largest Indian reservation. With the lack of birders in the area, you too may find a new bird to add to the growing list of Arizona birds.

References: Jacobs, Brad. 1986. Birding on the Navajo and Hopi Reservations, Jacobs Publishing Co, Sycamore, Missouri.