Southeastern Arizona's diverse habitats, rugged mountains and abundant wildlife make it a major hotspot for nature lovers the world over. For birders, especially, the area is renowned for its endemic species and its migrants from Mexico and further south. Recently, the authors had a chance to chat with a visiting birder from the UK. He mentioned that he thought it was difficult for British birders considering a US birding holiday to find out about the best birding locations in southeastern Arizona (SE AZ), when to come, species to be expected, and how to find lodging and guide services. Obviously, this information can be found in guidebooks and on the internet, but it can still be an overwhelming task to put together a workable plan for the trip of your dreams. This article will attempt to put you on the right track, and the resource list at the end will put the sought-after information on your computer screen.
Scott's Oriole (Tony Battiste).
Timing is everything. Some of our specialities are here year-round, but most are seasonal, and it pays to know when the ones you most want to see are here. Contrarily, if your travel plans have serious time constraints, you will want to know what you might expect to see during that window. Some guidebooks offer bar graphs showing the likelihood of a given species being in the area at any given time of the year, but locals with real-time knowledge should be your primary source of information when planning your birding holiday. This information is available from several sources: area listservs, birder/guide blogs, local Audubon chapters, and personal contact through email with guides and lodging providers.
Bridled Titmouse (Tony Battiste).
Spring migration (the end of March through to the middle of May) provides the opportunity of seeing the greatest number of species in the Sky Island mountain ranges and in the riparian habitats, including late-departing winter birds, migrants passing through, summer-breeding species, and our year-round resident species. Fall (autumn) migration begins in the second half of July, bringing the first of the southbound migrants, and runs well into November. There is an overlap of the fall migrants heading to Mexico and Central America and the return of Southeastern Arizona's winter species — raptors, sparrows, and waterfowl, to name but a few — which begin to arrive in late September. Wintering birding here is some of the best birding in the US. From October through to mid-March, tens of thousands of Sandhill Cranes winter in the Sulphur Springs Valley, and more than a dozen species of raptors and two dozen sparrow and longspur species can be seen in the valley on a given day.
Lazuli Bunting (Tony Battiste).
Most trips to the area begin and end in Tucson, which is served by several major airlines. Overseas visitors often chose Phoenix as their arrival point, leaving them with a two-hour drive just to reach Tucson. You will need a minimum of a week, but preferably 10 to 14 days to hit all the major birding hotspots. From Tucson, you make the circular route clockwise or anti-clockwise. The following is a synopsis of a anti-clockwise birding tour beginning in Tucson.
Pyrrhuloxia (Tony Battiste).
Tucson offers montane birding on Mt Lemon, urban birding at Sweetwater Wetlands, and desert birding at the Sonoran Desert Museum and Saguaro National Park. Consider a minimum of two nights lodging in or around Tucson. Travelling south, Madera Canyon in the Santa Rita Mountains will be your next destination. Again, a minimum of two nights at one of the several lodging facilities should be planned for. Look for hummingbirds, tanagers, warblers and trogons here. Rarities such as Flame-colored Tanager or Rufous-capped Warbler in an adjacent canyon can be expected in most years. The next destinations, continuing south, are Patagonia Lake State Park, the Nature Conservancy Sonoita Creek Preserve, the feeder station at the Paton's garden in Patagonia, and several other locations well covered in all birding guides. One night in Patagonia may work, but two is preferable.
Arizona Woodpecker (Tony Battiste).
Continue east to the Huachuca Mountains, the authors' own backyard. The eastern slope of the Huachucas has some of the most easily accessible canyons in SE AZ in which to bird. Miller, Ramsey and Ash Canyons are world-renowned for the hummingbird viewing available from late March to September at feeder stations, all well covered in birding guides. The canyons on Fort Huachuca (Garden, Scheelite, Sawmill and Huachuca Canyons) harbour nesting Elegant Trogons, several Myiarchus flycatcher species, Montezuma Quail and other sought-after specialities. Note that non-US citizens must make special arrangements in advance to enter the Fort Huachuca military facility. An escort with military clearance is required and may be arranged through the Sierra Vista Convention & Visitors Bureau.
Lucy's Warbler (Tony Battiste).
The San Pedro River, just east of the Huachuca mountains, flows north from Mexico. It has been designated a Globally Important Bird Area. Though the river is narrow, it remains a major migration corridor, and provides habitat for nesting Gray Hawks, Yellow-billed Cuckoos, Summer Tanagers, Vermilion Flycatchers and Tropical Kingbirds. Hundreds of bird species either breed here or use its riparian corridor as their migration route. A minimum of three nights in the Huachuca area is a must.
Lucifer Hummingbird (Tony Battiste).
Your final stop is the Chiricahua Mountain range. These mountains are home to the only known breeding population of Mexican Chickadee in the state. Other specialities such as Juniper Titmouse, Olive Warbler, Elegant Trogon and Montezuma Quail are also found here. Services are few in the town of Portal, but several lodging facilities cater to birders and bird photographers. Two nights should be considered here also.
Acorn Woodpecker (Tony Battiste).
Brief stays in each area can be maximised by investing in a local guide. Consider booking a half or full day at each of your major stops. Guides can give a good overview of what the immediate area has to offer. Book the guide well in advance for the early part of your stay in the area so that you'll still have the time for a more in-depth exploration if desired.
View Southeast Arizona birding in a larger map
Tony Battiste has over 30 years' experience as a birder/photographer. After his first birding trop to Southeastern Arizona in the late 80s, he was hooked. Tony and his wife Julie moved from the San Francisco Bay Area to Hereford AZ in 2004. They own and operate Battiste's Bed, Breakfast and Birds in lower Miller Canyon in the Huachuca Mountains of Southeastern Arizona. Tony also acts as a local guide for individuals and small groups.
Mary Jo Ballator is an interpretive naturalist. After falling in love with southeastern Arizona in 1992, she left the San Francisco Bay Area in 1994 to build her home in Hereford. She owns and operates Ash Canyon Bed & Breakfast in the Huachuca Mountains, where her garden is open to birders and photographers every day of the year.
Archives of National Birding Hotline Cooperative (NBHC) AZ/NM Birds http://listserv.arizona.edu/archives/birdwg05.html From this site, you can search the archives, post to the list, join or leave the list (or change settings)
Guidebooks for Southeastern Arizona
These books cover identical areas. They contain maps, hours and amenities at the various locations, as well as information about specific birds. The one published by Tucson Audubon has been updated more recently, and up-to-date information may be found on the TAS web site. Things change frequently, so if you have a book that's more than a couple of years old, invest in a new one.
A Birder's Guide to Southeast Arizona, Rick Taylor.
Published by American Birding Association (ABA).
March 2005; 373 pages. Order online from ABA
Finding Birds in Southeast Arizona, multiple authors.
Published by Tucson Audubon Society (TAS).
August 2011; 350 pages.
Order online from TAS
Local programmes and events
Where to stay
Madera Canyon: http://www.friendsofmaderacanyon.org/where_to_stay.html
Sierra Vista Area: http://www.visitsierravista.com
Arranging an escort to Ft. Huachuca for foreign nationals may be done through the Sierra Convention & Visitors Bureau http://www.visitsierravista.com.