Where to go: a Birder’s Tour of Southeastern Arizona

An Overview of must-see Birding Hotspots
–by Tony Battiste and Mary Jo Ballator

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 counter-clockwise. The following is a synopsis of a counter-clockwise birding loop beginning in Tucson.

Tucson offers montane birding on Mt Lemmon, 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.

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) harbor 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.

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.

Your final stop in the loop 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.

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.