Sonoran Desert Birds - Riparian and Water

The birds listed here are mostly common or regular in riparian or wetland habitats in Arizona's Sonoran Desert. Some are found here year round; others are more likely to be seen in either the warm months (these migrate south into Mexico during the winter) or the cool months (birds that migrate from cold, nothern climes). Others are seen here only briefly during fall and spring migrations. During the winter months many migratory waterfowl take up residence on the urban ponds and lakes of Tucson, Phoenix, Scottsdale and Gilbert. Birds of course fly and can move into adjacent areas so that on rare occasions these will be found in other habitat types. Editing suggestions were kindly provided by Carol Anderson. See also Desert Birds.

Great-tailed Grackle ♂
Quiscalus mexicanus

Very common glossy black birds with huge tail. Males irridescent black; female brown. Almost always near water. Also in cities. Year-round resident. More info

Great-tailed Grackle ♀
Quiscalus mexicanus

Very common black or brown birds with large tail. Males irridescent black; female brown. Almost always near water. Also in cities. Year-round resident. More info

Brown-headed Cowbird ♂
Molothrus ater

Glossy black with brown head. Strange gurgling call. Females all brown. Common near agriculture but also riparian and city areas. More info

Hooded Oriole ♂
Icterus cucullatus

Brilliant spring and summer bird in trees along riparian corridors. Male has black on face, bib and wings. More info

Red-winged Blackbird ♂
Agelaius phoeniceus

Closely associated with open water or agric. fields/dairy feed lots year-round. Males are jet black with hideable red and yellow wing patch. More info

Brewer's Blackbird ♂
Euphagus cyanocephalus

Glossy black bird with conspicuous yellow eye and much shorter tail than grackles. Fall thru spring. Numbers vary widely from year to year. More info

Yellow-headed Blackbird ♂
Xanthocephalus xanthocephalus

Striking yellow head and black body feathers. White in wings. Agric. fields and marshy wetlands. Fall and winter. More info

Yellow-rumped Warbler ♀
Dendroica coronata

Very common winter birds near water. Yellow rump concealed when perched. Yellow on shoulders and on chin. Fall through Early Spring. More info

Black Phoebe
Sayornis nigricans

Virtually every open water spot in the Sonoran Desert will host Black Phoebes. Silky black except for a lily white lower belly. Year round resident. More info

Dark-eyed Junco
Junco hyemalis

Sometimes common winter birds in better vegetated areas and in cities. Pale conical bill, black eyes, tail with conspicuous white outer feathers. Fall through Early Spring. More info

Yellow Warbler ♂
Dendroica petechia

Males are bright yellow with reddish streaks. Spring through fall in leafy trees along riparian streams. Common in this habitat. More info

Vermilion Flycatcher ♂
Pyrocephalus rubinus

During the winter months this impossibly red bird flycatches near waterways in the lower deserts. In summer it moves to higher elevations. More info

Bell's Vireo
Vireo bellii

Small active bird of mesquite tree thickets near riparian streams. Frequent, distinctive calls. Spring and Summer migrating south in winter. More info

Ruby-crowned Kinglet
Regulus calendula

Tiny active bird v. common in winter along riparian habitats and sometimes lusher washes. Ruby in crown normally hidden. Absent in summer. More info

Western Wood-Pewee
Contopus sordidulus

Drab spring and summer flycatcher partial to trees along riparian streams. No wing bars, no eye ring and thin bill w/orange on lower part. More info

Northern Cardinal ♂
Cardinalis cardinalis

Found in the Sonoran Desert in the lusher habitats along riparian zones where there are plenty of berries, seeds and insects. Year round. Uses feeders. More info

Summer Tanager ♂
Piranga rubra

Nests and forages in sycamores and other riparian trees. Sturdy ivory bill. Females yellow. Nearly uniform dark red plumage. Summer Breeder, migrating south for winter. More info

Abert's Towhee
Pipilo aberti

Large, brown overall with thick seed-eating bill. Generally does not stray far from thick vegetation near riparian streams. Kicks leaves from soil to feed More info

Song Sparrow
Melospiza melodia

Brown and gray with streaked breast and long tail. Strong, seed-eating beak. Usu. with distinct spot in chest center. Stays close to dense riparian cover. More info

Lincoln's Sparrow
Melospiza lincolnii

A winter visitor with shorter tail and finer bill than song sparrow. Streaks on buffy background upper half of chest. More info

Bald Eagle
Haliaeetus leucocephalus

Unmistakeable raptor found along portions of the Salt and Verde Rivers. More info

Common Black Hawk
Buteogallus anthracinus

An all black hawk with broad wings and a distinct white band in black tail. A summer bird of gallery woodlands along perennial streams. More info

Copper's Hawk
Accipiter cooperii

A medium-sized hawk with long, black and white banded tail. Short, tappered wings for agile, bird-chasing flight. Bird of gallery woodlands. More info

American Robin
Turdus migratorius

A winter bird, familiar across much of North America, but sporadic in the Sonoran Desert where trees are fruiting. More info

Brown-crested Flycatcher
Myiarchus tyrannulus

Upright posture for sallying out to catch bugs mid-air. Similar to Ash-throated, but bill is heavier and lower belly yellow usu. brighter. More info

Lazuli Bunting ♂
Passerina amoena

Found in the Sonoran Desert only during brief periods of migration in spring and fall. Females are gray-brown. Uses feeders. More info

Cliff Swallow
Petrochelidon pyrrhonota

Rust-color chin patch. The mud nests are affixed to the undersides of road bridges over riparian habitats. More info

Northern Rough-winged Swallow
Stelgidopteryx serripennis

Common migrant near ponds, lakes and rivers from autumn through spring. Brown above gray-white below. Swooping flight on long wings. More info

American Pipit
Anthus rubescens
 © by Sandy Zetlan

A winter bird in the Sonoran Desert. Common along shores of water bodies and agric. fields. Light brown w/ streaked belly. Bill thin and straight. More info

Red-naped Sapsucker ♂
Sphyrapicus nuchalis

Secretive woodpecker uses cottonwoods, sycamores and other riparian trees. Winters here, migrates back north in summer. More info

Northern Flicker
Colaptes auratus

Large woodpecker restricted to wooded, riparian corridors in Sonoran Desert. Black bib, red shaft on side of head-neck, and white rump patch. More info

Great Blue Heron
Ardea herodias

Largest of herons found near ponds, lakes and rivers. Blue-gray feathers, long s-shaped neck, and long dark legs. More info

Green Heron
Butorides virescens
 © by Mike Plagens

Frequent all year along smaller ponds and streams. Upper half is rufous, lower back has greenish sheen. Long sharp beak used to spear and catch fish, frogs in water. More info

Black-crowned Night-Heron
Nycticorax nycticorax
 © by Mike Plagens

Common heron around marshes and ponds, but mostly hiding by day. Stocky & shorter neck. More info

Snowy Egret
Egretta thula

Long-legged wading bird with bright white plumage, black bill & legs with yellow feet. Slow moving streams and marshes. More info

Great Egret
Ardea alba
 © by Mike Plagens

Brilliant white plumage on very large, long-legged wading bird. Legs black and bill yellow. More info

Cattle Egret
Bubulcus ibis

Stocky bird with all-white plumage when not breeding - rusty feathers during breeding season. Uncommon. Flooded fields and shallow ponds. More info

Spotted Sandpiper
Actitis macularius

Winter shorebird mostly occurring singly along margins of ponds, lakes, rivers. Spots usually absent from non-breeding plumage. More info

Least Sandpiper
Calidris minutilla

Very small shore bird. Legs pale - hard to see in poor light. Moves together in flocks. Winters along rivers and ponds in Sonoran Desert. More info

Long-billed Curlew
Numenius americanus

Large bird with very long, decurved bill. Long legs. Seen in marshes, grasslands, flooded fields and the seashore. More info

Long-billed Dowitcher
Limnodromus scolopaceus

Occasionally very numerous on mud flats in spring and fall. Probe with machine-like jabs into mud for invertebrate prey. More info

Charadrius vociferus

Common bird of open lake shores, river and stream banks, agric. fields and expanses of urban turf. Distinct double black collar on white. All year. More info

Ring-billed Gull
Larus delawarensis

Yellow or pale bill with a dark ring near tip. Rivers, lakes and Sea of Cortez during the winter. More info

California Gull
Larus californicus

During the winter months found along the Sea of Cortez. Yellow mandible shows orange and black at tip in adults. More info

Herring Gull
Larus argentatus

At the coast in Sonora this is a common winter migrant from the north, but rare at inland waters. More info

Heermann's Gull
Larus heermanni

The red-shaded bill distinguishes this gull that can be found along the Sea of Cortez. More info

Ring-necked Duck ♂
Aythyla collaris

White ring around base of bill. Chest, back and head irridescent black. Very common on ponds and canals in winter. More info

American Wigeon ♂
Anas americana

Common duck in ponds and slow rivers during winter months. Drake has dash of white over head and a swatch of emerald green through eye. Underbelly white and shoulders/back light brown. Rump black. More info

Mallard ♂
Anas platyrhynchos
 © by Mike Plagens

Wild-type male has emerald green head and yellow bill. Interbreeds with domestic ducks to produce wide range of intermediates. Found commonly on ponds and canals. Breeds here. More info

Northern Pintail ♂
Anas acuta
 © by Mike Plagens

Drake has rich brown on head with distinct white on neck extending up behind ear. Long narrow tail. Found on shallow ponds in winter months. More info

Common Merganser ♀
Mergus merganser

Head of female is rusty brown with a sharp, orangish bill. Catches fish in ponds/lakes. Winter only in Sonoran Desert. More info

Canada Goose
Branta canadensis

Arrives in the Sonoran Desert at wetlands and urban ponds by autumn. Gray sides, black neck and head with white patch. Large, robust. More info

Ruddy Duck ♂
Oxyura jamaicensis

Small wintering duck to be found on ponds and calm marshes in the Sonoran Desert. White patch on side of face. More info

Black-bellied Whistling-Duck
Dendrocygna autumnalis

Uncommon duck of ponds and slow rivers. Long neck, pink bill and black lower belly. Summer and fall mostly. More info

American Coot
Fulica americana

Abundant winter bird on ponds and rivers. Wanders onto lawns and grazes of fresh green growth. White bill. More info

Common Moorhen
Gallinula chloropus

Duck-like skulker stays close to reeds and cattails at edges of marshes or slow rivers. Bill red and orange. Nearly black plumage is partially irridescent. More info

Porzana carolina

Common, but rarely seen bird that hides in dense marsh vegetation. Yellow bill and slate-gray neck and chest. More info

Belted Kingfisher
Megaceryle alcyon

Fall and winter resident of rivers and ponds. Loud raucus call. Plunge dives for fish. Prominent crest. More info

Pied-billed Grebe
Podilymbus podiceps
 © by Mike Plagens

Small duck-like bird that dives below surface incessantly after fish. Ring on bill fades in winter. Common on small ponds. More info

Double-crested Cormorant
Phalacrocorax auritus

Often seen drying feathers after diving for fish. Long snakey neck and body. Heavy bill with hooked tip. More info

Neotropic Cormorant
Phalacrocorax brasilianus

Sleeker build and bill than dbl-crested. Greenish sheen visible in good light. Locally common but with fluctuating populations. More info

Green-winged Teal ♂
Anas crecca

Small wintering duck to be found on ponds and calm marshes in the Sonoran Desert. Rufous head marked with emerald green on sides. More info

Cinnamon Teal ♂

Male plumage is unmistakeable. More common in the Sonoran Desert during the warm months. More info

Wood Duck ♂
Aix sponsa
 © by Michael Plagens

Amazingly colorful male - unmistakeable. Red eyes and a long green crest. More info

White-faced Ibis
Plegadis chihi

Long-legged wading bird with long down-curved bill. Mostly dark irridescent with some maroon shading in plumage. Late summer through winter months in flooded fields. More info

Black-necked Stilt
Himantopus mexicanus

Black and white plumaged wading bird with long, slender pink legs. Seen in shallow ponds and recently flooded crop fields. More info

American Avocet
Recurvirostra americana

Very long, thin, upturned bill captures small invertebrates in the mud. More info

Sandhill Crane
Grus canadensis

Tall birds often in big flocks foraging in agricultural field and marshes along Gila and Colorado Rivers. Fall and Winter. More info

American White Pelican
Pelecanus erythrorhynchos

Huge white bird with robust orange bill. Black and white wings seen in flight. More info

Brown Pelican
Pelecanus occidentalis

Where the Sonoran Desert meets the Sea of Cortez this is a common bird. Rare inland. Huge bill. More info

Wood Stork
Mycteria americana

Very rare stray from Mexico. Large mostly white with black featers visible in flight. Huge bill. More info

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Copyright Michael J. Plagens, 1999-2017
Editing suggestions were kindly provided by Carol Anderson.


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