The Upper Verde River

The Upper Verde River Photo: Doug Von Gausig


Verde River Yellow-billed Cuckoo Surveys

Prescott Audubon Society 2018 Report

(By Karen O’Neil, Prescott Audubon Soceity)

As we all know, 2018 winter and spring were unusually dry virtually everywhere in Arizona.  The Prescott Audubon Society (PAS) volunteers all wondered what those conditions would do to the presence of Yellow-billed Cuckoos (YBCU) in the Upper Verde Wildlife Management Area Important Bird Area (UVIBA) this season.

This year, for the third summer in a row, four transects were surveyed within the IBA.   Prescott Audubon is fortunate to have six volunteers, each permitted by US Fish and Wildlife Service and Arizona Game and Fish Department to conduct surveys.   The permittees are David Frechette, David Moll, Catherine “Cathy” Levine, Laura Rhoden, Richard Balland, and Catherine “Katie” Benson.  Other volunteers on these surveys are “helpers” and keep track of other species present, record data, and do whatever other tasks the permittee requests.

The first two years (2016 and 2017) suggested a steady number of individual birds.  This is “suggested” because the surveyors count “detections” (seen, heard, or both), and it is not easy to extrapolate from detections the actual number of individuals that are present.  This difficulty is due to the fact that these are sneaky birds!  And, since PAS teams are searching in a riparian area in summer, the foliage of the Cottonwoods and Willows is thick!

The first survey conducted was on June 27, 2018.  The monsoon had not yet started; it was very dry, and some trees looked stressed - already showing some yellow leaves.   The primary food source for YBCU, large insects like tent caterpillars, grasshoppers, cicadas, etc. were virtually absent (although admittedly June is early for cicadas).  But, at least one detection was made on three of the four transects:  Lower Granite Creek had three YBCU detections, Verde Springs (on the Verde River; starts at the confluence of the Verde River and Lower Granite Creek, and goes east, downstream) had two YBCU detections, Campbell North (which begins at the east end of Verde Springs and goes further east downstream) had three detections, and Campbell South (which starts as the east end of Campbell North and continues even further east downstream) was the only transect to have no detections on this particular survey.

The second survey was conducted on July 11, 2018.  The monsoon had begun, but there had not yet been enough rainfall to make much of a dent in the arid conditions.   Lower Granite Creek reported two YBCU detections.  Verde Springs had no YBCU detections.  They did see a group of eight elk cows with two calves—with spots.  At 4000 feet elevation in July, the Elk must have been searching for water.  Fortunately, the Verde River is perennial.   Campbell North had only one YBCU detection, and Campbell South had one YBCU detection.

The third survey was conducted on July 25, 2018.  By this time the monsoon was making a difference and the vegetation had grown significantly. The trees were no longer looking stressed, but volunteers were still not seeing many large insects.   Lower Granite Creek had three YBCU detections, Verde Springs still had no YBCU detections, Campbell North also had no YBCU detections, and Campbell South had one detection.

The fourth survey was conducted on August 8, 2018.  The monsoon was proving to be a plentiful one.  Lower Granite Creek had five detections, Verde Springs had two detections, and Campbell South had one detection. Campbell North also had only one detection, but not until the survey team had returned to the starting point.  They were waiting in the shade for the Campbell South team to return when they heard (no playback) a YBCU vocalize.  They were unable to visualize it, and it may have come from near the beginning of Campbell South.

Because the season had been so dry at the beginning, Prescott Audubon volunteers decided to try one Post-season survey on August 22, 2018.  These are dedicated folks - it is typically hot and humid all summer, and they didn’t even know if any YBCU were still present!  It turned out that this was a productive survey.  Surveyors noticed that the cicadas were active, although their distribution throughout the IBA was patchy.   Lower Granite Creek had six YBCU detections!  Verde Springs had two YBCU detections, Campbell North had one YBCU detection, and Campbell South had two YBCU detections.  Although there is no way to know for sure, David Moll, the permittee for Lower Granite Creek, suspects that YBCU’s might have been nesting because of the locations of some of the detections across much of the season.  PAS permittees and helpers do not look for nests as that is not part of their permit or training.

As indicated near the beginning of this article, one of the roles of the helper volunteers is to keep track of the other bird species.  Across all transects and all surveys the typical breeding species found in mid-level riparian corridors were present.  These include Anna’s and Black-chinned Hummingbird, Western Wood-Pewee (also commonly found in the Ponderosa Pine-Oak forest around Prescott), Vermilion Flycatcher, Phainopepla, Lesser Goldfinch, House Finch, Yellow-breasted Chat, Yellow Warbler, Common Yellowthroat, Summer Tanager, and Blue Grosbeak.  In the uplands, Ash-throated Flycatcher, Canyon Wren, and Rufous-Crowned Sparrow were commonly observed.   On some transects on some dates were Virginia’s Rail, Song Sparrow, Bushtit, Red-winged Blackbird, Lucy’s Warbler, and Bullock’s Oriole. Interestingly, White-winged Doves are found often, but only on the Campbell South transect.  Also, for the past two or three years, Bell’s Vireo’s have been found only on Campbell North.  Rarely found, but found this year were Brown-crested Flycatcher on Campbell South, Northern Cardinal and Gray Vireo on Campbell North, Willow Flycatcher on Verde Springs, and Crissal Thrasher and Northern Mockingbird on Lower Granite Creek.  Wild Turkeys were re-introduced into the IBA early on by AGFD.  They are most often observed on Lower Granite Creek.  Black-throated Sparrow was observed on two different dates and transects. Raptors observed most commonly are Cooper Hawks followed by (not necessarily in order) Red-tailed Hawk, Common Black Hawk, Zone-tailed Hawk, Great-horned Owl, and Golden Eagle.  A couple miscellaneous notes are that while Ladder-back Woodpeckers are often observed across all transects, Hairy Woodpeckers have been found almost exclusively on Lower Granite Creek, and that happens with post-breeding dispersal.

Migration seemed to start early this year.  As expected, Rufous Hummingbirds started showing up by July 11th.  By August 8th, House Wren, Western Tanager. Broad-tailed Hummingbird, and MacGillivray’s Warbler were all observed.  On the August 22nd post-season survey, there was even more evidence of migration in progress.  Observed were an Epidonax flycatcher species, Nashville Warbler, MacGillivray’s Warbler, Wilson’s Warbler, Painted Redstart, Western Tanager, and Black-headed Grosbeak.

Besides the permittees listed earlier, the other dedicated volunteers who participated this season were Sue Drown, Sharon Arnold, Karen O’Neil, and Norma Jenkins.  A couple of Katie Benson’s students in her Ornithology course, one from Embry-Riddle (Mitchell Haug) and one from Prescott College (Samantha Bellis) participated twice.  Other volunteers included Oren Thomas (staff at Prescott Creeks at the time, now with the City of Prescott), Eric Playe and Kelly Bull (teachers at Orme School), Noel Fletcher, Gen Masters with Prescott National Forest, and Rachael Stringham who learned about these surveys through the PAS Website.   Rachael is a teacher from the Buckeye, AZ, area. Additionally, Arizona Game and Fish Department biologists in the Black-footed Ferret program, Jennifer Cordova and Heather Heimann participated when their schedule allowed as did their summer interns, Stephanie Gastelum, Mel Carlson, and Jonathan Karlen.

Finally, Dave Frechette did a fantastic job in his first year of coordinating ALL the Upper Verde IBA surveys.  As Dave says, these are some “awesome volunteers”.  Prescott Audubon is VERY grateful to them all!  (The author apologizes if anyone was inadvertently left out!).

How you can help, right now