Needle Rock and Box Bar Recreation Areas along the Verde River, north of Rio Verde, Maricopa County, AZ

Friday, January 29th:
Felt like birding northeast of Phoenix this morning, so I had contacted two birder friends, Susan Fishburn and Glenda Jones to join me. It seemed like it had been a very long time since I had last visited this Tonto National Forest recreation area.

Located along the Wild and Scenic Verde River, a critical flyway for migrating birds, Needle Rock contains varied habitat. But as any birder knows, when water is available, birds will be present. And we saw some good ones!

Verde River due east of parking lot

The first birds spotted were four Canvasbacks (two males; two females) swimming in a quiet area around the base of some of the monolithic rocks that have uplifted there.

Not the friendly type, they turned and swam away from us - definitely wild ducks

Several Common Mergansers were swimming in a more distant spot around the rocks,but the drake was somewhat near "iffy" camera range as shown below.

Common Merganser - male
Two Black Phoebes were calling frequently and hawking insects from the air. At that point, we did not locate the rare Eastern Phoebe that continues in the willows and cottonwoods bordering the open area just northeast of the parking area.

So, we walked south along the full-flowing Verde (an important river for our watershed in the desert) until blocked by fallen limbs. We were hearing and seeing birds as we left the shoreline and continued on a slightly more interior path that led to a mesquite grove. 

Note the clumps of mistletoe in the mesquite trees below. Although mistletoe is a parasite that penetrates the tree branches to nourish itself, it is the favored nesting and dining spot of the Phainopepla. Of course, the host tree's growth is stunted and parts of it may die off.

Very few Phainopepla were present today but you can see photos of them in previous blogs.

I kept going off the main path to check out habitat closer to the river and was glad Glenda followed on the one near the washout. One of our best birds of the day was scratching around on the ground: a Crissal Thrasher.

Crissal Thrasher - photos by Glenda
Aside from its voice, its best ID markers are its bill (much longer than Curve-billed Thrasher) and its very dark vent or under tail feathers.
We followed the trail to the next developed area and then returned to the parking lot
Fortunately, this Gray Flycatcher dipped its tail for a positive ID

When we returned to our starting point, we meandered around the willows and cottonwood  border between an inlet and what may be beach in summertime, but is now a very weedy sandy open space. We HEARD THE BIRD! Before long, we also saw it!

Eastern Phoebe in Arizona! - a continuing rarity at Needle Rock.  Photo by Glenda Jones.
Babs and Glenda - before leaving Needle Rock Rec Area
With an early-morning start, lunch was on our mind so we slowly retraced our miles just a short distance to Box Bar Recreation Area owned by the City of Rio Verde with picnic tables available.

As we birded the area, we saw two separate Greater Roadrunners.


Also located along the Verde River, Box Bar proved very birdy, too. When we split up to bird the grassy lawn of the premises, Glenda spotted and got photos of a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, another rarity for the area.

Note the red throat that goes up to the beak and is fully outlined by black feathers, unlike RNSA
Even though I saw a familiar bird, it is definitely early in the year to see a Broad-billed Hummingbird. It was on a shrub at the top of the riverbank just over the fenced border of the lawn (NE section) when I spotted the brilliant blue throat and underparts of the bird.
Immediately, I looked for its slightly decurved red bill tipped with black - Yes! Then it spread its tail making it look very large. As soon as I reached for the camera, the Broad-billed hummer flew to another mesquite and possibly out of the yard. We never relocated it. But with the sun highlighting its deep blue feathers, I was treated to a memorable look at a Broad-billed Hummingbird.

Broad-billed Hummingbird; from my file 2014

Babs and Susan

Since our meeting place was Denny's in Fountain Hills, we took the time to see what might be on its lake around the fountain. Most unusual was the Eared Grebe, but I don't recall ever having seen seven (7) Black-crowned Night Herons in a tree there before!

Eared Grebe - photo by Glenda

Having seen 56 total species, including three rarities (Eastern Phoebe, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker and Broad-billed Hummingbird), we were all thrilled with our birding venture that started at 38°F and ended at 68°F.

* * *


  1. WAY TO GO!!!! Nicely done with the Crissal Thrasher! That is awesome! Do you know how many people come looking for nice shots of this bird?:) Well of course you do. Did you pay the bird to pose?:)

  2. Almost looks that way. A real stunner!

    Have been thinking of you relative to a visit to Mt. Lemmon. Too early for good birds? And, are you available weekdays or just weekends?