Prescott Teems with Critical Bird Habitat, Prime Viewing Opportunities

by Kelly Tolbert, Recreation Coordinator, City of Prescott

Nestled in the Central Highlands of Arizona, Prescott is in the top of its class in geographic diversity for several reasons. Unique habitats make Prescott ideal for attracting many varieties of bird species throughout the seasons. 

In fact, it is so ideal for birding that the National Audubon Society has a designation known as “Important Bird Area (IBA)” that was assigned to parts of Watson and Willow lakes due to the efforts of Prescott Audubon Society, Prescott Creeks and Arizona Game and Fish Department in 2002. The Watson-Willow Lakes Ecosystem stretches over 2.3 square miles. 

According to the Arizona Important Bird Areas website (www.aziba.org), the Watson-Willow IBA is located in two sections in the City of Prescott: one is east of state Highway 89 and the other is Willow Lake west of Highway 89. They include both manmade bodies of water, surrounding uplands, as well as 2 miles of Granite Creek that flows into Watson Lake. 

The site also states having an IBA designation is nonregulatory, elevating the profile of an area as being important for birds while acknowledging the stewardship of the landowners and managers. Look for the informative, colorful signs designating these areas as such while visiting the local lakes. 

Today, Prescott Audubon Society remains the steward for this Important Bird Area by collecting data and logging findings into a database periodically throughout the year. Due to the significant concentration of waterfowl at the two lakes, especially during migration and winter months, the lakes are crucial to the waterfowl and shorebirds seen visiting. Reports maintain that in years with exceptional precipitation, waterfowl counts can exceed 5,000 at one time. Additionally, over 350 different species of birds have been identified within the Watson-Willow IBA. 

One may even say the ideal birding climate brings visitors from around the globe. Local businesses and groups provide ample opportunities for both professionally guided bird tours and self-guided tours. A quick visit to the Prescott Audubon Society’s website (www.prescottaudubon.org) will provide more than enough information to get the novice on the path to bird watching and more.

As stated in the self-guided literature, bare essentials include binoculars, field guide, sunscreen and water. According to the experienced birders, the best time for viewing is early in the day when birds tend to be more active. Much like fishing, this activity requires patience to reap the benefits. 

Watson Woods Riparian Area is a great place to get started. Easily accessible from downtown Prescott, head eastbound on Gurley Street then north on Highway 89. In 2.3 miles, turn right onto Prescott Lakes Parkway, cross the bridge and turn left onto Sundog Ranch Road. On your left, you will see the Peavine Trail parking lot across from the Yavapai County Humane Society (daily parking fee $3; free on Wednesdays). From the parking lot (free trail maps available in map box), head west down the wide, flat path crossing over the old railroad bed. On your left will be a sign heading toward Highway 89. Meander around area near the foot bridge, looking for raptor varieties such as bald eagles, peregrine falcons, kestrels, hawks and great horned owls nesting in the massive cottonwood trees. 

Just a few miles away from Watson Woods is Willow Lake and its Important Bird Area. Willow Lake offers a nice, flat trail encircling the south side of the lake with four access points that are both fee-based and have free parking. One of the easiest access points for new birders is from the Willow Creek Dog Park/Jim McCasland Willow Creek Park free parking area, 3181 Willow Creek Road. From the parking area, enter through the fence and head left on the trail. In a short distance, you will see a beautiful area referred to as Cottonwood Peninsula. One is certain to find an array of large and small bird species nesting or flitting around this area. 

Local businesses are wonderful resources for guided tours, field books and binoculars if needed, as well as friendly suggestions on where to enjoy the local bird varieties. The Highlands Center for Natural History (www.highlandscenter.org) offers an array of educational opportunities for all nature-based learning. No matter what your interests inspire, Prescott offers many hobbies for enjoying the natural environment. 

Photo: Peavine Trail heading toward Watson Woods Riparian area. Photo by Staff at the Parks & Rec Department.