Tommy J. DeBardeleben

Wrens and Gnatcatchers


Cactus Wren Campylorhynchus brunneicapillus

The Cactus Wren is the largest wren in North America, is found in the deserts of the southwest, and is a great symbol for the desert as Arizona's state bird.  In the Cactus Wren's range, it is easily found year round in deserts with cactus.  It feeds on the ground, where it's diet consists highly of insects but also spiders, small reptiles, fruit and seeds.  The nest of the Cactus Wren is shaped like a dome and placed on a thorny cactus, which helps protect young wrens from intruders.  Cactus Wrens have distinctive songs that can often be heard throughout the day.  In Maricopa County, Cactus Wrens reside in any desert that has cactus, and are often found in riparian areas that are surrounded by desert, and they may also be found in residential areas and homes that have desert landscapes planted in yards or developments.  Excellent places to find Cactus Wrens in Maricopa County include:  Area 1 (Mesquite Wash, lower Four Peaks), all of Area 2, much of Area 3, Area 5 (Desert Botanical Garden, Papago Park), Area 6 (Thunderbird Conservation Park, Phoenix Mountains Preserve, Squaw Peak Park), Area 9 (White Tank Mountain Regional Park), Area 10 (Morgan City Wash, Lake Pleasant Regional Park, Castle Hot Springs Road), Area 11 (Jewel of the Creek Preserve, Spur Cross Ranch Conservation Area), and all of Area 12. 


Rock Wren Salpinctes obsoletus

The Rock Wren is widespead in western North America in rocky areas, which include rocky sections of deserts, rock piles in open areas, canyons and cliffs.  This bird is a year round resident in the southwest, but northern populations do migrate south.  Rock Wrens have a distinctive song and call, and are often heard.  They are often seen in the open on the top of large rocks, where they bob up and down constantly when disturbed by intruders.  Rock Wrens feed on the ground on insects and spiders.  In Maricopa County, Rock Wrens are easily found in rocky areas, which include deserts, canyons and cliffs, and various slopes that have rocky areas on them in areas where vegetation is more limited.  In Maricopa County, the following areas have good hotspots for Rock Wrens:  Areas 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 7, 9, 10, 11, 12, and 13. 


Canyon Wren Catherpes mexicanus

The breathtaking song of the Canyon Wren echoes throughout the canyons it frequents in western North America.  This bird is very remarkable, and is an enjoyable sight to see and hear.  Canyon Wrens deliver their distinctive song while perched on a rock or branch.  They feed highly on insects and spiders by searching rocks, climbing over and between rock openings in pursuit of their prey.  Canyon Wrens are permanent residents in canyon habitats in North America in a variety of different surrounding habitats and elevatons.  In Maricopa County, Canyon Wrens can be found on rocky slopes and canyons in Lower Sonoran deserts, riparian canyons, and sometimes much higher elevations in Transition Zones where there are some rocky areas.  In Maricopa County, Canyon Wrens are common throughout much of the county limits and throughout all of Arizona in their favored habitat.  Great places in Maricopa to see Canyon Wrens include:  Area 1 (Mesquite Wash, Sunflower, Sycamore Creek), Area 2 (Phon D. Sutton, Coon Bluff, Saguaro Lake and Butcher Jones Recreation Sites), Area 3 (Fish Creek), Area 9 (White Tank Mountain Regional Park), Area 10 (Morgan City Wash, Lake Pleasant Regional Park, Castle Hot Springs Road, Hassayampa River Preserve), most of Area 11, and Area 12 (Needle Rock Recreation Area, Bartlett Lake and Horseshoe Lake Recreation Areas).


Bewick's Wren Thryomanes bewickii

This loud songster is found in open woods, scrubby habitats, farmlands, and thickets in it's range, which is rather widespread in the west and limited in the east.  Bewick's Wrens are very bold and can be quite tame, and are skulky at the same time.  These curious birds often come into very close range and are very responsive to pishing.  They feed on insects off the ground or from trees, and nest in an assortment of different cavities.  Bewick's Wrens are found as permanent residents throughout much of Arizona.  In Maricopa County, they breed in elevations from 3-7000' and winter in lowland habitats.  Breeding habitats consist of riparian woodlands in Upper Sonoran Zones dominated by sycamores, chaparral and juniper covered slopes, as well as Transition Zone pine and oak forests where dense thickets are found.  Good places to find breeding birds include:  Area 1 (Sunflower, Bushnell Tanks, Mount Ord, Slate Creek Divide, Four Peaks Wildnerness) Area 10, and Area 11 (Lower Camp Creek and Seven Springs Recreation Area).  During fall and winter Bewicks Wrens are found in the county easily in riparian habitats with thick vegetation.


House Wren Troglodytes aedon

This small bird is very common in North America, as it breeds widespread from southern Canada to Mexico.  It's favored habitats are varied, including forests, parks, gardens, farmlands, and lowland riparian habitats during migration and winter.  This bird is a cavity nester, and like the Bewick's Wren, it nests in a variety of different habitats.  They forage for food on the ground for their primary diet of insects.  House Wrens in Arizona are found in mixed conifer and fir forests where there are clumps of wood and lush and moist green understory.  In Maricopa County, House Wrens are rare and local as breeders in higher Transition Zones in some locations where there is green and shady understory.  Breeding birds have been found at Slate Creek Divide often, and near the summit of Mount Ord several times also (Area 1).  House Wrens are common in Maricopa County during both migrations and are regular throughout winter mainly in riparian areas with dense vegetation. 


Marsh Wren Cistothorus palustris

True to it's name, the Marsh Wren haunts marsh habitats, and is a very shy and skulking wren.  It's is heard far more often than it is seen, and is hard to see a lot of times.  Marsh Wrens have a very widespread breeding range throughout North America in marshes with tall reeds.  These wrens have western and eastern populations that differ in voice and slightly in visual marks, and are often thought to be different species.  Like most wrens, the Marsh Wren's diet consists of insects, as they feed on aquatic marsh insects.  In Arizona and Maricopa County, Marsh Wrens are found in Arizona as migrants and winter residents.  They are found in Maricopa during both migrations and winter along rivers, wetlands, and marshes with surrounding cattails and tall reeds.  Good places in Maricopa County to see Marsh Wrens include:  All of Area 2 along the Lower Salt River, Area 4 (Gilbert Water Ranch, Higley Ponds, Veterans Oasis Park), Area 7 (Tres Rios Wetlands, Baseline and Meridian Wildlife Area), Area 8 (Arlington Wildife Area), Area 10 (Hassayampa River Preserve), and Area 12 (Box Bar and Needle Rock Recreation Sites).


Blue-gray Gnatcatcher Polioptila caerulea

The Blue-gray Gnatcatcher is the most common and widespread gnatcatcher in North America, where it favors different habitats throughout it's range.  It is found throughout the Lower 48 in shrubby areas and tall trees in woodlands.  Blue-gray Gnatcatchers are very active birds, as they forage constantly for insects flicking their long tail.  True to it's name, they also catch gnats in midair.  In Maricopa County and throughout Arizona, Blue-gray Gnatcatchers breed in higher elevations in dense thickets and chaparral in elevation ranges from 6-7000' in midst of pine and oak woodlands.  Blue-gray Gnatcatchers are abundant as breeders in Maricopa County in the higher elevations of Area 1, at Mount Ord, Slate Creek Divide, and Four Peaks Wilderness Area.  In migration and all of winter, Blue-gray Gnatcatchers are common in the lowlands especially in riparian habitats.  They are often observed close to Black-tailed Gnatcatchers.  Be sure to listen for differences in voice, and especially by looking at different colors of outer tail feathers.


Black-tailed Gnatcatcher Polioptila melanura

The Black-tailed Gnatcatcher is found in dry deserts of the southwest.  This small bird is very active, and always flicks it's tail up and down and side to side as it feeds on insects.  True to it's name, this gnatcatcher does have a lot of black on it's tail, which is always the best identication mark when looking at gnatcatchers in Maricopa County.  The Blue-gray Gnatcatcher has white on it's outer tail feathers.  Breeding male Black-tailed Gnatcatchers (see photo below) show a striking black cap on it's head which differs from other plumages of the gnatcatcher plumages in this region.  Black-tailed Gnatcatchers are easily found in Maricopa County in any desert habitats throughout the area.  They often favor mesquites.  Look for Black-tailed Gnatcatchers in appropriate habitat throughout most of the county in most of the areas with good desert habitats.


Also keep an eye out for....


Winter Wren/Pacific Wren Troglodytes hiemalis    Troglodytes pacificus

These two species were recently split into two species from the Winter Wren.  Two distinctive populations of both western and eastern North America were split into two:  the western subspecies became Pacific Wren and the eastern kept the name Winter Wren.  Both have different songs and callnotes, and are colored differently.  The Winter Wren of the east is shown below, which is paler than the buff-fronted Pacific Wren of the west, also shown below.  Both species are found along streams in coniferous forests, and winter in wood piles and dense habitat.  They are often hard to see, but can be located by their distinctive double note call.  The Winter Wren's callnote sounds similar to a Song Sparrow while the Pacific Wren sounds much like a Wilson's Warbler.  Throughout Arizona, these two species are rare but annual migrants and winter visitors.  Winter Wren has always been considered rare but have increased throughout Arizona in recent years as birders are paying more attention to the species after they were split.  Pacific Wren has usually been annual every year in the state in small numbers.  Pacific Wren breeds in Arizona in several moist canyons in central Arizona.  Keep an eye out for both of these species when birding, mainly in riparian areas with dense wood and brush piles.  Seven Springs Recreation Area and Lower Camp Creek (Area 11), have often been good places for these species as well as the Hassayampa River Preserve (Area 10).  There are plently of areas in Maricopa County where Winter and Pacific Wrens may show up. 

Winter Wren

Pacific Wren


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