With the recent return of the Nutting’s Flycatcher, the Bill Williams River National Wildlife Refuge and Planet Ranch Road in particular are once again getting attention from the birding world.
|Map of the western portion of the refuge|
On the map above, note the location of the visitor center, a good place to stop in for information. It’s also a good place to scan the Bill Williams Delta, also known as the Bill Williams Arm of Lake Havasu. Just down the road east of the headquarters, marked in both directions by brown binoculars signs, is the entrance to Planet Ranch Road.
|Sonoran desert and cottonwood/willow/mesquite riparian come together on the Bill Williams River. This photo was taken just after the gate on Planet Ranch Rd.|
Some caveats. Note that asking a GPS to point you to Planet Ranch Road is not likely to be useful–I’ve heard stories of people turning up in random locations in Parker, and also being pointed to the other end of Planet Ranch Road, a long drive through the desert to a section of the river that is privately owned and not accessible. The road once ran all the way from Lake Havasu to Planet Ranch, but was washed out in floods several years ago. Many maps still show it as it was, but it now ends in a gate at the red triangle shown on the map above.
A person walking along the edge of the forest anywhere along Planet Ranch Road is likely to encounter flagging, some of which marks trails entering the forest. I can’t stress enough the importance of staying off these trails. Researchers create and use them for a variety of projects on the refuge. The flagging comes in many colors depending on the project, year, and type of trail. The trails crisscross and backtrack, some lead into ponds or river channels, and many are disused and being reclaimed by the forest. Sometimes the flagging just ends. Navigating these trails requires a knowledge of the flagging systems, a detailed and updated map, and a good handheld GPS unit and compass (not to mention a willingness to crouch, squeeze, climb, bellycrawl, wade, and be scratched up). Recently, hikers entered the trail system at Mosquito Flats, and eventually became hopelessly lost. They managed to find a spot with cell reception and called the Sheriff’s department. The Sheriff’s department flagged their way along the trails, got lost, but eventually (miraculously) found the hikers on the other side of the river, dehydrated but otherwise okay. Don’t try to hike the trails.
|There’s a trail in there somewhere|
Sorry for the doom and gloom, but I had to get that out of the way. So, what is the best way to bird Planet Ranch Road? The road winds through desert hills, cutting through interesting rock formations and running by washes and canyons. All of this makes for great exploring, and the dense mesquite edge of the riparian interface can always be good birding. In my opinion, the best place to bird along the road is Mosquito Flats. Of course, this happens to be where the Nutting’s Flycatcher is. This is the only place where the riparian abuts the road, and the mesquite edge even crosses the road. Birds to be found here regularly include species of cottonwood/willow riparian, mesquite bosques, and Sonoran desert. Rarities that have been found here include Northern Parula, Black-and-white Warbler, Hutton’s Vireo, Painted Bunting, Gray Vireo, Winter Wren, and Broad-billed Hummingbird.
Birding along the road, you may run across a binoculars sign underneath a double power pole, indicating a nature trail. More than once I’ve overheard people saying “Hey, this isn’t a trail!” It is just a short trail that cuts through the thick mesquite and reaches into the forest, where it ends at one of those research trails I mentioned. Still, even though it is short, it’s worth checking out.
|Check out this short jaunt into the forest|
So, how about a hike? I mentioned that the road ends in a gate, but the track continues for miles, ending around the Cougar Point area. Park at the gate, make sure to pack some water, and explore. In places the forest is very dense, but in other spots the river channels are very open, and an adventurous hiker can wander to a variety of areas. Generally, the track is the most direct way to access the best habitat (there are usually tire tracks to follow from ATVs used by the refuge). Be aware that this hike requires a chilly wade from about December through May, when the river is flowing.
|The end of the road|
|Biologists wading in the river|
After a little more than a mile, the road crosses the river and forks. The left fork runs through some very nice riparian habitat and passes through the old Kohen Ranch. There isn’t much left of the ranch except for overgrown Bermuda grass fields being invaded by mesquite. The refuge is working on mesquite restoration in the area, and the resulting brushy mesquite bosque is wonderful habitat for sparrows in the winter. If you can find the right fork running alongside the river, it passes into more open habitat with some spectacular scenery. It ends after another mile or so around Cougar Point.
|The river crossing just before Kohen Ranch|
|Bermuda grass fields at Kohen Ranch|
|Scenery between Kohen Ranch and Cougar Point|
What season is best to bird the area? I recommend late April or early May, when many of the breeders have returned but spring migrants are common, sometimes in large numbers. Summer can be great birding, with a good variety of breeding species, some of which are amazingly abundant (especially Song Sparrow, Yellow Warbler, and Yellow-breasted Chat). Black Rails and Elf Owls are some of the more sought-after breeders. Black Rails will call at night and, sometimes, all day. Listen for them at Mosquito Flats. Elf Owls are common in the area–go out on a spring night and keep an ear out, and you will be sure to hear them. Just remember that they are at the edge of their range here, so please don’t disturb them or play tapes. Remember that summers are hot in the desert, so it’s best to be out early and back to the car by 10-11. Fall is more subdued than spring, but can carry surprises of its own, such as the Northern Saw-Whet Owl found at Kohen Ranch this fall. Winter is more hit-or-miss, with some stretches seemingly birdless until you happen upon a flock, which will typically include many Yellow-rumped Warblers and Ruby-crowned Kinglets. No matter which time of year you visit, be sure to bring plenty of water. Allow plenty of time for exploration and enjoy this beautiful and unique area!
Great guide to this hospot! I can't wait to bird it.
thanks so much for this info
i have been following the saga of the nuttings fc for over 2 years now, nice to know its back
do you do any guiding for out of town birders…and if not can you recommend anyone?
i may fly down to las vegas and drive to the refuge in the next few days for the fc and blue footed booby!
steve kohl, vancouver,wa firstname.lastname@example.org