Tommy J. DeBardeleben

Pipits, Starlings, Waxwings, and Silky-Flycatchers of Maricopa County


American Pipit Anthus rubescens

The American Pipit is a common and widespread bird of the far north, breeding and summering on tundra well above the treeline.  In higher mountain ranges in the Lower 48, American Pipits are local in tundra habitat, including some of the highest mountains above the treeline in Arizona's Coconino County.  American Pipits have the behavior of walking and running, never hopping, and they also constantly bob and wag their tail up and down.  They walk on the ground in pursuit of insects and seeds from weeds and grass.  When the breeding season ends, American Pipits migrate south, where in North America they winter along the southern states and both coasts.  During breeding season, these pipits are solitary or are found in pairs, but during migration and winter, they gather in huge flocks and are found in large numbers together.  In winter they are typically found in fields and beaches.  In Maricopa County, American Pipits are very abundant starting in fall, lasting through all of winter, and continuing through much of spring.  These birds are found anywhere where there are fields in high numbers, most often fields with shorter grass.  Pond edges are very good places to see American Pipits also.  Some of the great places to see American Pipits in Maricopa County are:  Area 4 (Gilbert Water Ranch, Higley Road Ponds, Veterans Oasis Park), Area 7 (Glendale Recharge Ponds, M-C 85), and anywhere in Area 8 with fields.


Cedar Waxwing Bombycilla cedrorum

The high-pitched trilling song of the Cedar Waxwing is very distinctive and fills the habitats these birds frequent when they are present.  Cedar Waxwings feed highly on a variety of fruits and berries, as well as insects.  They are widespread as breeders throughout Canada as well as the northern half of the Lower 48 (where they can also be permanent residents).  Much of the population does move south for the winter seasons throughout much of the southern half of the Lower 48, to places with higher food sources.  The waxwings go from being in pairs and small flocks in breeding season to large and abundant flocks in winter, as they become very gregarious.  Cedar Waxwings breed in woodlands and forest edges, farmlands with fruit trees, and open rural areas.  They winter in a variety of habitats that have good food source.  In Maricopa County, Cedar Waxwings are common starting in fall, continuing through all of winter, and throughout much of the spring season as a migrant and winter resident.  They usually favor riparian areas, and are abundant in several places on an annual basis where a lot of fruit and berries are provided.  Places to see Cedar Waxwings in abundant numbers in Maricopa County are:  Area 1 (Sunflower, Bushnell Tanks, Sycamore Ceek), Area 10 (Hassayampa River Preserve), and Area 11 (Lower Camp Creek and Seven Springs Recreation Area).  Any riparian woodland is likely to have a few vocal waxwings during this the right times.


Phainopepla Phainopepla nitens

The striking Phainopepla is found in the southwestern United States, where Arizona is one of the better states to view this unique species.  Phainopeplas are a berry loving species, and they also like to eat insects as they catch them in midair.  Phainopeplas are found highly in the desert, especially in areas dominated by mesquite.  A berry producing plant called mesquite mistletoe grows on the mesquite trees and is a parasite, but provides the Phainopepla with it's favorite diet.  Mesquite bosques that support mistletoe have abundant numbers of Phainopeplas, which is amazing to see.  The male Phainopepla is a spectacular sight, and he sets up a territory and does courtship flights that may reach about 300 feet off the ground.  Other male Phainopeplas see the others doing courtship flights and may join in at the same time, both giving each other visual clues of where one's territory is at.  Another interesting fact about Phainopeplas is that they may breed in two different places in the breeding season, breeding in the dry desert for the first stage, and then moving into higher and more moist elevations and habitats for the second stage.  Phainopeplas usually associate in pairs or loose groups, but it seems like they are all together when covering a large mesquite bosque with high amounts of good food source.  In Maricopa County, the Phainopepla is easily found as a year round resident.  It favors dry deserts, riparian areas, and mesquite bosques (as long as habitat has mesquite!), juniper and chaparral covered hillsides, and even pine and oak woodlands during summer months.  Although the Phainopepla is found throughout the county easily, some locations are very good to see them and will be listed on here.  Coon Bluff Recreation Site (Area 2) at the Lower Salt River is the very best place to see them in Maricopa.  Good areas to find them in are:  Areas 1, 2, 3, 6, 9, 10, 11, and 12.


European Starling Sturnus vulgaris

The European Starling was introduced in North America in 1890 in New York City's Central Park, and the bird has spread rapidly throughout all of North America since that time.  They are actually quite striking looking when thinking about it, but have sadly become more of a nuisance to take away any of their good looks.  Starlings are a strong force and nest in cavities, and compete with native cavity nesting North American birds for nesting sites, causing destruction to the health and life of important species.  European Starlings feed on insects, trash, fruit, and reptiles and will form huge flocks, sometimes numbering over a million birds.  Starlings flocks are even a nuisance in the air, and have caused airlines problems that have resulted in plane crashes.  This bird really doesn't have a good purpose in North America, other than perhaps a tally to make a list look a notch better.  Starlings are abundant in Maricopa County in cities, parks, and natural habitats in lower elevations (where there are cavities for them to steal). 


Also keep an eye out for....


Sprague's Pipit Anthus spragueii

The Sprague's Pipit is a distinctive and unique bird in short grass fields and prairies.  It breeds in the U.S. in North Dakota and Wyoming, and the Canadian States of Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba in these short grass prairies.  Even though it is closely related to the American Pipit, the Sprague's Pipit's behavior is literally the exact opposite of the American.  It doesn't pump it's tail in the open, but is very shy, and it never pumps it's tail while it walks.  When the Sprague's Pipit is alarmed, it doesn't fly right away but freezes or runs instead, which is more like the behavior of a skulking sparrow.  If the Sprague's Pipit does flush, it flies up very high before dropping back down into the grass.  During breeding season, the male pipit does spectacular courtship displays, flying in spirals and circles up to 500 feet above the ground while singing before falling back to the ground.  Like the American Pipit, the Sprague's Pipit also feeds on insects and seeds from weeds and grasses.  Sprague's Pipits migrate down through the midwest and winter in some of the southern states in good numbers west from southeastern Arizona and east to the western tip of Louisiana.  Southeastern Arizona's San Rafael Grasslands are the best place to view this pipit in Arizona.  In Maricopa County, smaller numbers of Spague's Pipits can be found in the area in short grass agricultural fields.  Although rare, they are probably annual in the county but are harder to detect due to their retiring behavior.  Look in fields with shorter medium heigth grasses, as well as alfalfa fields with shorter and more open patches.


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