Tommy J. DeBardeleben

Tanagers, Cardinals, Grosbeaks, and Buntings of Maricopa County


Hepatic Tanager Piranga flava

The Hepatic Tanager resides in mixed pine and oak woodlands as it's preferred habitat in North America, where it is limited to the southwestern United States in it's ABA range.  These large tanagers are almost always found in pairs:  if a male is found, keep an eye out for the female nearby.  Hepatic Tanagers may be found in Arizona anywhere in their breeding season where there are dominant pine and oak forests, usually from 5-7000'.  In Maricopa County, that habitat can be found mainly in the Highway 87 Area (Area 1).  Look for Hepatic Tanagers starting in April and continuing through late summer in the high elevation hotspots of Area 1 which are Mount Ord, Slate Creek Divide, and the Four Peaks Wilderness Area.  Hepatic Tanagers are also sometimes observed in lowland riparian habitats during spring and fall migrations.


Summer TanagerPiranga rubra

The Summer Tanager is a rather widespread tanager in North America, being common in the east and having a more limited range in the southwest, where it is still common.  This tanager prefers pine and oak forests in the east, where in the west it inhabits cottonwood and willow dominated riparian stretches.  This tanager is very common throughout Arizona in riparian forests dominated by willows and cottonwoods.  Look for this tanager in these habitats in Maricopa County starting in April and continuing through September before populations migrate south.  Good places to see Summer Tanagers include:  Area 1 (Mesquite Wash, Sycamore Creek, Sunflower, and Bushnell Tanks), Area 2 (Foxtail/Sheeps Crossing stretch, Phon D. Sutton Recreation Site), Area 7 (Tres Rios Wetlands, Baselne and Meridian Wildlife Area), Area 10 (Morgan City Wash, U.S. 60 Roadstop, Hassayampa River Preserve), Area 11 (Jewel of the Creek Preserve, Lower Camp Creek, Seven Springs Recreation Area and Wash), and all of Area 12 where there are cottonwood and willow riparian forests.


Western Tanager Piranga ludoviciana

This beautiful tanager is found throughout much of the west where it is common as a breeder in high elevation forests that include pine/oak and mixed conifererous forests.  It's call is often heard when hiking through the woods, and the striking male can often be seen in the open catching insects.  Western Tanagers are common throughout Arizona in their favored forested habitats.  They can be extremely common or abundant during both spring and fall migrations throughout a variety of habitats and elevations.  In Maricopa County, Western Tanagers can be found breeding in the higher elevations of the Highway 87 Area (Area 1).  Look for them in the mixed pine, fir, and oak forests at Mount Ord, Slate Creek Divide, and Four Peaks Wilderness.  In both spring and fall migrations in the county, they may be seen in any birding area (Areas 1-13), especially in late April through mid-May in spring migration, and August through September in fall migration.


Northern Cardinal Cardinalis cardinalis

The cheery song of the male Northern Cardinal fills the deserts of Maricopa County.  The Northern Cardinal is a famous bird and a favorite among birders for obvious reasons.  In North America, it is mainly found in the east where it is very common.  It inhabits forests and suburban areas in the east, where it commonly comes into feeders.  In the west, it is found in the southwestern states in desert habitats, especially througout Arizona.  Northern Cardinals are permanent residents in Maricopa County, as they are found mainly in Lower Sonoran desert habitats and riparian areas.  They are common and are easily seen and heard in many areas throughout Maricopa County.  Some of these areas include: Area 1 (Mesquite Wash, Sycamore Creek, Bushnell Tanks, Sunflower), all of Area 2 and 3, Area 5 (Desert Botanical Garden, Papago Park, and Phoenix Zoo), Area 7 (Tres Rios Wetlands, Baseline and Meridian Widlife Area), and all of Area 10, 11, and 12.


Pyrrhuloxia Cardinalis sinuatus

Pyrrhuloxia's are commonly known as the "desert cardinal".  This cardinal is closely related to the much more common Northern Cardinal, but it's range in North America is limited strictly to the southwest.  It is found in deserts and arid areas throughout it's range.  It is common in the southeastern parts of Arizona, where it is rather hard to find elsewhere in the state.  In Maricopa County, the desert washes and habitats near the town of Aguila (30 miles west of Wickenburg) have a small breeding population of Pyrrhuloxias (Troy Corman), which are usually found reliably.  They are also found on a year round basis in Pinal County's Lost Dutchman State Park.  This park is close to the Maricopa/Pinal County line and is next door to the Apache Trail Area (Area 3).  If these birds are so closeby, chances are they may be breeding in the deserts also along the Apache Trail.  Pyrrhuloxia's are most easily observed in Maricopa County throughout the winter.  They spend the winter in the county in small numbers and can be found with some luck in desert and riparian areas that have a lot of good mesquite habitat.


Black-headed Grosbeak Pheucticus melanocephalus

The Black-headed Grosbeak is very common in the west, breeding in forests, woodlands, and thickets.  It breeds in Arizona in higher elevation forests, which consist of pine/oak woodlands, mixed conifer, and riparian edges with thickets.  This bird feeds highly on seeds and berries, and comes to bird feeders often.  In Maricopa County and throughout Arizona, Black-headed Grosbeaks are very common in spring and fall migrations as well as it's breeding time frame.  They are easily found starting near the end of April/beginning of May and through all of May in spring migration and throughout a majority of fall migration in any area of the county (Areas 1-13).  Black-headed Grosbeaks are found breeding in the county in the higher elevations of the Highway 87 Area (Area 1).  Look for them at Mount Ord, Slate Creek Divide, and the Four Peaks Wilderness Area.


Blue Grosbeak Passerina caerulea

This beautiful bird is found throughout much of the Lower 48, where it favors weedy and brushy areas, most often in midst of riparian forests.  It is common throughout Arizona, and is present during breeding season and both migrations.  The Blue Grosbeak arrives in Maricopa County near the beginning of May for the breeding season, and can be seen through September.  They are most often found in riparian areas in the county where there are weedy areas alongside rivers and marshy areas.  Males are commonly observed singing at the top of trees.  Some of the good places in Maricopa County to see Blue Grosbeaks include:  Area 1 (Mesquite Wash, Sycamore Creek, Sunflower, and Bushnell Tanks), Area 2 (Lower Salt River Recreation Area), Area 7 (Tres Rios Wetlands and Baseline and Meridian Widlife Area), Area 8 (Arlington Wildife Area), Area 10 (Morgan City Wash, U.S. 60 Roadstop, and Hassayampa River Preserve), Area 11 (Lower Camp Creek and Seven Springs Recreation Area), and Area 12 (Needle Rock and Box Bar Recreation Sites).


Lazuli Bunting Passerina amoena

Lazuli Buntings are found throughout much of the western United States in North America, where they favor open and weedy areas near trees and riparian habitats.  They most often feed on the ground, where they feed on insects and different seeds.  Lazuli Buntings are mainly migrants in Arizona, and spring and fall migrations are the only time to observe them in Maricopa County.  They can be seen in flocks during the migration time frames, often at the edge of fields or weedy areas within riparian habitats.  Any riparian setting in Maricopa County during spring and fall migration is likely to have Lazuli Buntings migrating through.  April and May are good months in spring migration and in fall, mid-August through September are the best months to look. 


Indigo Bunting Passerina cyanea

This bright blue bird is very similiar to the Lazuli Bunting, and is much more common in the east, where it is very widespread.  Indigo Buntings prefer similiar habitat as compared to the Lazuli Bunting, which consists of open areas near trees and brush, often riparian areas.  Indigo Buntings are most easily found in Arizona during both spring and fall migrations, but is also a local breeder in riparian areas throughout Arizona.  This bird hybridizes at times with Lazuli Buntings, as some of these birds may show characteristics of both species.  In Maricopa County, the Indigo Bunting has been found singing during the breeding months off and on in riparian areas, some of which have been pure Indigo Buntings and others hybrid individuals.  These Indigos have been found in the Highway 87 Area (Area 1) at Bushnell Tanks, Sunflower, and Mesquite Wash.  It is important to listen for this species during the summer months, to detect potential breeding individuals.  Indigo Buntings migrate through Maricopa County in similar time frames as does the Lazuli Bunting, but they are uncommon and seen in much smaller numbers.  Look for them in places where Lazuli's are beeing seen in migration, sometimes in midst of Lazuli flocks.


Also keep an eye out for...


Rose-breasted Grosbeak Pheucticus ludovicianus

The Rose-breasted Grosbeak replaces the Black-headed Grosbeak in the east.  It is similiar to the Black-headed Grosbeak in habits and habitat but adult male and females differ highly between the two species, which the species have been thought of at times as conspecific.  The voices between the two are very similiar, but the Rose-breasted Grosbeak has a higher and more of a squeaky voice.  A female Rose-breasted Grosbeak in shown below, which pales in comparison to the stunning male.  Rose-breasted Grosbeaks are often found throughout Arizona during both migration time frames.  They may show up anywhere where Black-headed Grosbeaks are being seen.  Migrant Rose-breasted Grosbeaks are rare but very annual throughout Arizona in multiple numbers.  Look especially in riparian areas where there are large numbers of Black-headed Grosbeaks during migration.


Dickcissel Spiza americana

The Dickcissel is a common sight throughout much of the eastern Lower 48.  It's favorite habitat is in grassy and weedy fields with taller brush nearby.  Dickcissels have a very distinctive flight call which helps locate this bird when it's around.  This flight call sounds very similar to a human being passing gas, also known as, farting.  Birders looking for Dickcissels in the east in weedy fields can have the excuse to fart and blame it on a "Dickcissel" overhead.  In Arizona, they may quickly run out of lame excuses however.  This bird is annual in the state but uncommon to rare in fall.  Numbers of these birds are still seen and reported, or heard farting overhead yearly.  In Maricopa County, watch and listen for this bird during the fall in weedy fields, tall grass, and weedy areas within riparian clearings.  Anywhere where there are numerous Lazuli Buntings and sparrow flocks around, there's a chance for a Dickcissel too.  Gilbert Water Ranch (Area 4) has had this bird on several occasions.  The month of September holds the best chance for observations.


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