Birds Love Watson and Willow Lakes

Given how few lakes there are in Arizona, each one is going to be important for local and migratory birds. But then there are Important Bird Areas (IBAs), such as Willow and Watson lakes, designated by the National Audubon Society.

These lakes and the surrounding woodlands and Granite Dells are at the heart of much of Prescott’s outdoor life, drawing hikers, kayakers, rock climbers and many more outdoor enthusiasts.

Then there are the birds and the birdwatchers, which most of us become at least momentarily while we’re there.

In the spring and summer, Watson Woods on the southeastern shore of Watson Lake is alive with birds’ chattering and movement, while the water is relatively quiet until the ducks in the fall and winter, says Sue Drown, president of the Prescott Audubon Society: “You can move with the birds with the seasons.”

Right now, the Watson Woods area just south of Watson Lake, plus any stands of cottonwoods or willows on the lakes’ shore, are teeming with avian activity.

“For spring you want to talk about the breeding songbirds, which we call passerines, in Watson Woods, and anyplace where there’ s cottonwoods around the willows, and in the Dells. That’s the time of year when they sing; in the winter there’s not that much song going on,” she says.

“But in the summer they sing to announce their territories, and they’re in their very brightest plumage, and you can listen to them and spot them because they’re busy setting up their real estate and finding their partner for the season,” Drown says. “So it’s a really fun time to watch for the smaller birds, the warblers, the grosbeak, the tanagers, titmice, all those little ones. Swallows are dancing around out there.”

Critical winter habitat

Later in the year the waterfowl take over the lake surface, up to 5,000 birds at a time during wet years, and the lakes take on the role that earned the Important Bird Area designation, Drown says, providing habitat for species that mostly breed farther north in the upper Midwest, Pacific Northwest or Canada.

There are no other lakes as significant as these two within 200 to 300 miles to the east or west, making them a crucial pit stop.

“They don’t spend the summer here, but because it’s such an important place for them to gather and stay fed and healthy over the winter, that’s why it’s an IBA,” Drown says. Many of them begin to exhibit their breeding behaviors in the late winter before they head north, making February and March an entertaining time to observe them: “This is all about getting ready, getting those hormones going and heading north.”

In 2011 Audubon designated the two lakes as one IBA — a distinct ecosystem large enough to provide essential habitat for at least one bird species, yet small enough to be preserved in its entirety.

Prescott’s Audubon chapter has about 550 members, Drown says, and is the designated steward for the IBA. For more information visit