Tommy J. DeBardeleben

Towhees, Sparrows, and Longspurs of Maricopa County


Green-tailed Towhee Piplio chlorurus

The Green-tailed Towhee is common in Maricopa County starting in fall migration, continuing through winter and into spring migration.  It can be found in dense cover in a variety of habitats including desert and riparian areas, and up into transition zones.  It is more easily found in winter in lower elevations.  This bird can often be located by it's call notes.  Green-tailed Towhees frequent western North America on their breeding grounds, and breeds in northern Arizona at high elevations in riparian thickets.


Spotted Towhee Piplio maculatus

On chaparral and manzanita covered slopes in midst of Transition Zones in Maricopa County, the Spotted Towhee is abundant.  This bird breeds in these habitats, where it's cheery song can be heard often throughout the day.  They are usually easily seen on these dense slopes, often perching in the open while singing.  Shrubby habitat and oaks within the Transition Zone forests are good places to view Spotted Towhees also.  In winter, some remain in this favored habitat while a lot of them move into Upper Sonoran and Lower Sonoran Zones.  A Spotted Towhee may show up in any riparian area in winter, especially those ranging from 3-5000'.  They have a wide range throughout Arizona and the western United States.  Look for Spotted Towhees in abundance during breeding times in Area 1 at Mount Ord, Slate Creek Divide, and Four Peaks Wilderness.  Lower elevation areas that are often good for them in winter include Sunflower (Area 1), Lower Salt River (Area 2), Gilbert Water Ranch (Area 4), Hassayampa River Preserve (Area 10), Seven Springs Recreation Area and Lower Camp Creek (Area 11), and perhaps along the road to Horseshoe Lake Recreation Area (Area 12). 


Canyon Towhee Melozone fusca

The desert dwelling Canyon Towhee can be found on dry hills and rocky canyons in Lower and Upper Sonoran areas of Maricopa County and throughout Arizona.  Canyon Towhees are found year round easily, who are often located by voice.  Excellent places to look for Canyon Towhees in Maricopa County include:  Area 1 (lower Four Peaks, Mesquite Wash, Sunflower, lower Mount Ord), Area 2 (Saguaro Lake Recreation Site), Area 9 (White Tank Mountain Regional Park-EXCELLENT for CA TO), Area 10 (Castle Hot Springs Road), all of Area 11, and Area 12 (areas of Bartlett and Horseshoe Reservoirs). 


Abert's Towhee Melozone aberti

The Abert's Towhee has a very small geographical range, and almost all of it's population is found in Arizona.  California, New Mexio, Nevada, Utah, and Mexico have very small local populations near Arizona's border.  Most of the Abert's Towhee's range is limited from central to south Arizona.  Maricopa County has this bird just about anywhere, where it is abundant in Lower Sonoran desert habitats and riparian areas.  It is also common in any neighborhood, yard, or park within the big city.  Most residents in the area easily have this bird as a yardbird. 


Rufous-crowned Sparrow Aimophila ruficeps

The rather shy Rufous-crowned Sparrow favors habitats with chaparral and brushy rocky slopes in Maricopa County as well as throughout Arizona.  These habitats are found from 3000' even up to as high as 7000'.  In winter, it may move at times to lower than usual elevations.  This sparrow is often vocal, and has a distinctive call note.  Rufous-crowned Sparrows are also very responsive to pishing.  In Maricopa County, the following hotspots have habitats that are very good for Rufous-crowned Sparrow: Area 1 (Four Peaks Wilderness, Sunflower, Bushnell Tanks, Mount Ord, Slate Creek Divide) and Area 11 (Lower Camp Creek, Mount Humboldt, Seven Springs Recreation Area). 


Chipping Sparrow Spizella passerina

The Chipping Sparrow is a very common and widespread sparrow in North America, having a breeding range of nearly all of North America.  In Arizona, it breeds in the northern half of the state, favoring forest edges in higher elevations.  Maricopa County has only one known breeding location for this species, which is found on Mount Ord in shady pine and oak forest near the mountain's summit (Area 1).  In this small area near Ord's summit, the Chipping Sparrow is often heard singing and foraging in small grassy clearings.  Outside of this small and local county breeding population, Chipping Sparrows in Maricopa County are common migrants during spring and fall and they are also found during winter.  Check fields, weedy areas, and also grassy clearings within riparian areas throughout the county.  Chipping Sparrows often form flocks with Dark-eyed Juncos and other sparrows.


Brewer's Sparrow Spizella breweri

This sparrow gathers in large flocks where flocks are often very vocal and impressive to hear.  The Brewer's Sparrow is limited to western North America, breeding mainly in the western states.  In Arizona, it breeds in the northern part of the state, where the species favors mountain meadows and sagebrush flats.  In Maricopa County, this bird can be found from the start of fall migration through winter and contining through spring migration.  Numbers are high during this stretch, especially during the migrations.  Check fields, deserts, weedy areas, and also grassy clearings within riparian areas.


Black-chinned Sparrow Spizella atrogularis

The breath taking song of the Black-chinned Sparrow sounds similar to the idea of a bouncing ball.  This song haunts the brushy chaparral covered slopes that this sparrow inhabits during the year.  Maricopa County is perhaps one of the better places in the United States to view this species.  This sparrow favors chaparral covered mountain areas in it's range in the southwestern United States, which is limited to a few states.  From March through August, this bird sings away, as males often sing in the open.  They are generally a shy bird, but can often be pished in for closer views.  The elevation for this bird usually ranges from 4-6500' feet in appropriate habitat with chaparral.  Sometimes birds are found slightly lower.  Several individuals also winter in the area, in slightly lower elevations (usually between 3-4000').  In Maricopa County, the best area to see and hear Black-chinned Sparrows is by far Area 1, the Highway 87 Area.  Birders may see this sparrow in the Upper Sonoran Zone in chaparral areas at Four Peaks Wilderness, Sunflower, Mount Ord, and the Slate Creek Divide Area.  Out of these areas, Mount Ord is the best, where Black-chinned Sparrows can be seen and heard shortly after pulling off, where they are common from that point on.  Other areas that hold Black-chinned Sparrow are Area 3 (Fish Creek), Area 11 (Rackensack Canyon and Lower Camp Creek), and Area 12 (Horseshoe Lake Recreation Area).


Vesper Sparrow Pooecetes gramineus

The Vesper Sparrow is widespread throughout much of North America, more so in the west.  It breeds in the northeastern part of Arizona in high elevation grasslands, where it's peaceful song fills every summer morning.  This large sparrow is mainly a grassland bird, but also favors farmlands, clearings, and sagebrush.  In Maricopa County, the Vesper Sparrow is found in open fields, weedy areas, and open clearings during spring and fall migrations, as well as through the winter time periods.  They are often found in mixed sparrow flocks.  Examples of good places to look for Vesper Sparrows include: Gilbert Water Ranch and Veteran's Oasis Park (Area 4), Rousseau Sod Farms (Area 5), Tres Rios Overflow Wetlands, Tolleson Wastewater Treatment Plant, and fields and weedy areas along M-C 85 (Area 7), and most of the Arlington to Gila Bend Area (Area 8).


Lark Sparrow Chondestes grammacus

This colorful sparrow is common throughout it's range in North America, from western to east-central North America.  It is found in open country, examples including open fields, clearings, grassy/weedy areas, and open grassy areas under mesquite bosques.  This bird breeds throughout much of Arizona.  In Maricopa County, the Lark Sparrow is very common in spring and fall migrations, and is common throughout the winter as well.  Look in open grassy and weedy areas for this bird, especially those with trees or bushes nearby throughout the county.  When these sparrows are kicked up, they like to retreat to trees and bushes.  They are also found in areas with mesquite bosques commonly with grassy understories, such as the Coon Bluff, Granite Reef, and Butcher Jones Recreation Areas at the Lower Salt River (Area 2). 


Black-throated Sparrow Amphispiza bilineata

The striking Black-throated Sparrow has a limited range in North America to our southwestern deserts, and is the sparrow symbol of the desert.  This bird is easily viewed throughout Arizona on a year-round basis, as it is a permanant resident in lower elevation deserts throughout the lower half of the state.  It's song can be heard throughout the day in the desert.  In Maricopa County, look in any Lower Sonoran desert habitats dominated by the Saguaro Cactus.  Black-throated Sparrows are often active all day.  This sparrow can easily be found in it's appropriate habitat in any area throughout the county (1-13). 


Sage Sparrow (Now Sagebrush Sparrow and Bell's Sparrow) Amphispiza belli

The odd Sage Sparrow winters in Maricopa County in high numbers in the southwest part of the county, in open creosote desert.  This sparrow is quite different in behavior as compared to other sparrows.  The Sage Sparrow runs on the ground when alarmed rather than taking flight, which is quite comical to spectators.  In Maricopa County, look for the Sage Sparrow in the southwest part of the county in the Arlington to Gila Bend Area (Area 8).  Look in areas dominated by flat open deserts (often dominated by creosote bushes) such as the "Thrasher Spot" at Baseline Road/Salome Highway, Robbins Butte Wildlife Area, and some of the area surrounding the Arlington Wildlife Area.  Driving along the Salome Highway and scanning habitat will produce more sightings.  The sparrows are present starting in fall through all of winter and are usually gone by the earlier stages of spring.  In North America, Sage Sparrows are in the west.  Two species now exist from being split from Sage Sparrow, one in mountain chaparral along the Pacific Coast (Bell's Sparrow), and the other in sagebrush in the interior west (Sagebrush Sparrow) (which can be found breeding in northern Arizona).  A supspecies of Bell's Sparrow, canescens, may be found in Maricopa County, likely in small numbers.  Look at the Thrasher spot, where it may be present, but highly outnumbered by the Sagebrush Sparrow.  For excellent in depth information, read David Vander Pluym's excellent article on the two species here:

Sagebrush Sparrow

Bell's Sparrow


Lark Bunting Calamospiza melanocorys

This large sparrow-like bird is a breeder in the midwestern United States in dry plains and prairies.  Large wintering flocks of Lark Buntings are incredible to see, which they make their way into the southern parts of Arizona, Texas, and New Mexico for their wintering range in the United States (they winter south into Mexico also).  In Maricopa County, they may be extremely abundant in the winter times, and are also around during spring and fall.  They are mainly seen in open fields, mainly those with agriculture.  Lark Buntings are sometimes seen in other areas, such as deserts or areas with open clearings.  Flocks often gather on dirt beams that border their favored fields.  In Maricopa County, some of the best areas to look for Lark Buntings are:  Rousseau Sod Farms (Area 5), M-C 85 and Tuthill Farmfields (Area 7), and all agricultural fields in Area 8, from Arlington to Gila Bend (including the Paloma Ranch area).


Savannah Sparrow Passerculus sandwichensis

The Savannah Sparrow is another widespead sparrow in North America, especially in the west.  As a breeder, it's range in Arizona is limited to grasslands in Apache County's White Mountains.  The Savannah Sparrow, true to it's name, inhabits a variety of grassland habitats.  In Maricopa County, this bird is easily found in open and grassy habitats abundantly, from fall migration through all of winter, continuing into spring.  Any agricultural fields or weedy open areas will likely have Savannah Sparrows in numbers.  Good examples of places to look for this sparrow are: Veterans Oasis Park's surrounding fields (Area 4), Rousseau Sod Farms (Area 5),  M-C 85, Tuthill Farmfields (Area 7), and most of Area 8.  This bird is abundant throughout the county in appropriate habitat, these are only examples of places to look. 


Fox Sparrow Passerella iliaca

The highly variable Fox Sparrow has four distinct subspecies in a widespread range in North America.  These may be separate species, as many ornithologists believe Fox Sparrow is a genus.  Out of the four subspecies, Arizona gets the "Slate-colored" Fox Sparrow most commonly from mid-fall through winter into spring.  It is irregular, sometimes nearly absent to common in numbers in favored habitats.  Favored habitats usually consist of riparian areas or hills domintated by junipers and chaparral in elevations between 3-5000'.  In big years, they may visit lower elevations in dense and heavily vegetated riparian woodlands.  The Fox Sparrow is a very shy bird, almost towhee-like in it's behavior.  It spends a lot of it's time on the ground, where it feeds on seeds, fruits, and insects.  The sound of the bird kicking up ground material as it feeds can often be a clue to the bird's presence.  Good places to look where the Fox Sparrow is most likely to be seen in Maricopa County include:  Area 1 (Sunflower's juniper hills and dense riparian vegetation, Bushnell Tanks, lower Mount Ord), Area 10 (Hassayampa River Preserve-lower in elevation but a lot of good cover and food source), Area 11 (Rackensack Canyon, Lower Camp Creek, Seven Springs Recreation Area), and Area 12 (possibly in juniper and chaparral areas on the road to Horseshoe Lake).   


Song Sparrow Melospiza melodia

The widespread and abundant Song Sparrow is very familiar in North America.  True to it's name, these species is quite the songster.  It breeds throughout most of Arizona, and it is abundant throughout Maricopa County at all times of the year.  Look and listen for the Song Sparrow in any riparian areas throughout the county, where it is most often seen and heard in high numbers. 


Lincoln's Sparrow Melospiza lincolnii

The Lincoln's Sparow breeds in much of the western United States and the throughout Canada in North America, in high elevation riparian thickets and meadows.  It has a beautiful, almost thrush-like song.  Lincoln's Sparrows are in the White Mountains of northeastern Arizona as breeders.  This sparrow is quite shy, but can be seen well with patience.  In Maricopa County, Lincoln's Sparrows are very common from fall throughout all of winter, and into spring, a common migrant and winterer.  They favor dense and marshy vegetation in riparian areas, as well as weedy field edges.  Anywhere throughout the county with riparian habitat and weedy areas will likely have Lincoln's Sparrows.


White-crowned Sparrow Zonotrichia leucophrys

The White-crowned Sparrow breeds in high elevations in western North America, in habitats that are brushy and weedy, excluding Arizona.  It is widespread as a migrant and winter visitor.  This large sparrow is one of the most abundant birds in Maricopa County and throughout Arizona from fall through all of winter, and into late spring.  It's song can be heard throughout the day during this long and abundant stretch.  They can be found in a variety of habitats in the county, and can't be missed, as they often gather in large feeding flocks.  The White-crowned Sparrow belongs to a genus of sparrows called Zonotrichia, where White-crowned is the only common bird of this genus in Arizona.  The three others are rare but usually annual in Arizona, and can sometimes be found in the large flocks of White-crowned Sparrows. 


Dark-eyed Junco Junco hyemalis

The widespread Dark-eyed Junco is one of North America's most variable birds.  It has six different subspecies (5 may be seen in Arizona in winter).  Large flocks of Dark-eyed Juncos often have different subspecies in their flocks.  The "Red-backed" form of Dark-eyed Junco is a common breeder in Arizona (not in Maricopa County).  In Maricopa County, the Dark-eyed Junco is a very common winter resident.  It may be seen in fall and early spring as well.  While this bird is common, it can often be abundant in Upper Sonoran to Transition Zones.  Places like Sunflower and Mount Ord (Area 1), or the Seven Springs Area (Area 11) hold abundant numbers of this species.  In the Lower Sonoran Zone, they are common in a variety of different habitats such as riparian areas, open lawns, and even in residential areas.


Chestnut-collared Longspur Calcarius ornatus

The Chestnut-collared Longspur is the most common of the four longspur species in Arizona.  It breeds in the mid-northwestern part of North America, where it is a grassland bird, nesting in prairies.  In Arizona, it winters in habitats with rather short but dense grass.  Arriving in fall and present through winter, Chestnut-collared Longspurs are very gregarious and form large flocks.  They are abundant in winter in the San Rafael Valley in southeastern Arizona.  In Maricopa County, they can be scarce to fairly common annually in numbers in appropriate habitat with short grass fields that offer plenty of cover.  Several areas throughout Maricopa County offer good chances to see these longspurs.  On another note, longspurs can often be found feeding in the middle of large flocks of Horned Larks, a species that longspurs commonly associate with.  Look for Chestnut-collared Longspurs at any short grass fields throughout Area 8. 


Also keep an eye out for....


Clay-colored Sparrow Spizella pallida

The brightly colored Clay-colored Sparrow is a rare but annual fall migrant and winter resident throughout Arizona.  It can sometimes be found in mixed sparrow flocks in brushy and weedy areas, often with large numbers of Chipping and Brewer's Sparrows.  This can include brushy habitats at field edges or within riparian areas.  The Clay-colored Sparrow breeds in the northern part of the Lower 48 and into Canada and prefers grasslands and brushy areas.


Grasshopper Sparrow Ammodramus savannarum

The Grasshopper Sparrow loves fields of dense grass and is often hard to see.  It breeds in this habitat throughout much of the Lower 48.  In Arizona, it is a breeder in southeastern Arizona and is a common resident.  In recent years in Maricopa County, it has become annual in fall and winter, with several sightings each year.  This has been a scattering of sightings throughout Maricopa County, not just in one area.  A majority of these sightings have been in fields with tall dense grass, but they have also shown up within riparian areas.  The Grasshopper Sparrow is likely to be more regular than birders may think in Maricopa County, because it is often very hard to detect at times.  When birding in fields that support favorable tall grass habitat, keep an eye out for this sparrow.  Two of the hotspots they have been sighted at have been Tuthill Farmfields (Area 7), and along Arlington School Road, which is mentioned under the Old US 80 description (Area 8).  Area 7 and 8 have the best open field habitat in the county, which would be good areas to keep a Grasshopper in mind! 


Swamp Sparrow Melospiza georgiana

The Swamp Sparrow is a rare but annual winter resident throughout central to southern Arizona.  Sightings may come also in spring and fall migrations.  They have almost a phoebe-like call, which helps to locate it at times.  In Maricopa County, this sparrow is mostly found in riparian areas, especially in reeds and marshy habitat bordering ponds.  They may also be found in moist weedy areas.  Look for a lot of rust on the wings and a clean gray nape!  Swamp Sparrows breed in marshy habitats throughout much of the east, and they are scarce but regular migrants and winter residents in the west. 


White-throated Sparrow Zonotrichia albicollis

The song of the White-throated Sparrow sounds similar to heaven on earth.  This bird breeds in Canada and the far northeastern Lower 48.  It is an abundant winter visitor throughout most of the east, and is scarce in the west.  In Arizona, it is fairly common in southeastern Arizona, and rare but annual elsewhere throughout the areas of Arizona.  In Maricopa County, look for this bird in flocks of White-crowned Sparrows in a variety of habitats.  These sparrows are part of the genus, Zonotrichia, where two others in the same genus, Harris's and Golden-crowned Sparrows, can also be found in Arizona annually statewide, but are more rare.  Scanning abundant White-crowned Sparrow flocks for these other three species is important, where birders are often rewarded for taking the time to search.


McKown's Longspur Rhynchophanes mccownii

The McKown's Longspur is uncommon to rare throughout Arizona in late fall and winter, and is an annual winter resident in southeastern Arizona's San Rafael Grasslands.  It is rare but annual in Maricopa County mainly in fall (month of November is best), and sometimes during winter.  McCown's Longspurs often prefer more open ground than Chestnut-collared, and are more likely to be found in midst of large Horned Lark flocks in plowed fields.  They are still found in short grass areas just as much as plowed fields however.  Keep an eye out for McCown's Longspurs in plowed fields throughout the county that have large numbers of Horned Larks, and in midst of any Chestnut-collared Longspur flocks (which is very regular).  Besides McKown's Longspur, the Lapland Longspur (not shown) is more rare and has become annual in Arizona in recent years.  McKown's Longspurs are found breeding in short grass plains in the mid-western United States.


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Birding in Maricopa County

An online guide to the birds and birding locations of Maricopa County


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