Saturday, March 22, 2014

Spring Migration at Tubac, AZ.

Ron Morriss County Park is an innocuous little clearing along the Santa Cruz River in Tubac, Arizona between Nogales and Tucson. It's basically a playground, dog run and baseball field. But it is one of the best places to see numbers of Common Black-Hawks migrating in spring. Baseball practice and barking dogs accompany the hawkwatcher who ventures here during March to witness this fairly unique migration event.

Turkey Vultures, Swainson's Hawks, accipiters, falcons, osprey and harriers are also seen regularly during the season. While the total number of birds seen each day usually stays on the low side of triple digits, the quality more than makes up for it. Along with the Black-Hawks, Zone-tailed and Gray Hawks are the draw here. The best time of day is usually mid-morning (9-1100) when the birds are getting up from roosting in the lush riparian forest along this stretch of the river.

After watching HawkCount totals reported by counter Peter Collins increase during the second week of March, I packed up the truck and made the 4+ hour trip from Prescott on the 14th. Dusk is often a productive time to visit the park to see birds cruising over the cottonwoods in search of a last bite or a good roost tree. I had only been at the park for maybe an hour when a light buteo flapped quickly out of the trees and started to soar over the ballfield - adult Short-tailed Hawk. This bird has been on the increase in SE Arizona over the last several years, but it doesn't show up at this site very often. A great way to start my visit. While this bird didn't make the count today, it was likely the same bird seen several days later by Peter at the site. A couple of Swainson's drifted over high, an adult Zone-tailed Hawk strafed the treetops and a decent number of Turkey Vultures seemed to have a hard time figuring out where to roost. A lone male Northern Harrier beat a hasty path northward to end the day.

Adult light morph Short-tailed Hawk over Tubac watch site

I arrived at the park the next morning eager for what might happen. This is typically the peak of the Black-Hawk movement, so I hoped for a good flight. Even though the 11 Blacks that went by that morning was a bit less than I had hoped for, it was still an impressive sight to see. They are so distinctive in flight next to nearly anything else in the area (except for Black Vultures). All broad wings and stubby tail. Most of the birds were pretty high as they passed the count site, but with such impressive birds to watch, I don't think many of the birders that congregated at the park were disappointed.
Adult Common Black-Hawk overhead, heading North

The following day birds seemed to come over a bit lower, which made for some great views. A pair of local Gray Hawks kept us on our toes as they would pop into view over the trees and mingle with the other passing birds. A small handful of Zone-tailed Hawks passed by, hinting at greater numbers to come later in the month. I left the site with a grin, both from the birds and from the shared experience with the other folks who showed up to see this unique flight. 

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