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Birding in Southeastern Arizona

The best birding opportunities in the Southwestern states are found in the southeastern corner of Arizona, along the San Pedro and Santa Cruz rivers and their tributaries. This is an amazing happenstance, considering the arid nature of the desert which surrounds the riparian habitats.

This area attracts more birding enthusiasts than any in the Western states. The Hummingbirds alone are worth a trip to the region.

Whichever location you choose, you'll know that the wildlife viewing will be exceptional.

What to See & Do

San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area

Covering more than 56,000 acres on both sides of the San Pedro in Cochise County, the conservation area extends about 40 miles from the Mexican border north to the little town of St. David, a few miles south of Benson and Interstate 10. It is the most extensive protected riparian ecosystem in the basin and range area of the Southwest.

Managed by the Bureau of Land Management, the conservation area provides habitat to more than 100 species of breeding birds as well as providing a terporary resting place for another 250 species of migratory and wintering birds.

What is most unusual about the bird population here is that they come from an amazingly different group of biotic zones -- from Alaska to the southern tip of South America, and from high mountain regions to the low desert regions of Mexico. More than 370 bird species have been identified along the river, including many species of shorebirds, 28 varieties of raptors, plus herons, loons, geese and ducks, cuckoos, owls, swifts, woodpeckers, flycatchers, grosbeaks, and hummingbirds.

This convergence of flyway routes makes the Upper San Pedro valley a special place indeed. The river manages to feed water to the riverside marshes throughout the year, although summertime flows are often reduced to a trickle. The river is augmented by a number of springs within the area which serve to keep the marshes wet

The Ecosystem

The uplands on both sides of the river are spread with a typical Chichuahan desert scrub, including creosote bush, acacia and tarbush. The areas closer to the river, the bottomland, is a mesquite bosque with large amounts of sacaton grass. The riverside is a cottonwood-willow woodland (Fremont cottonwood and Goodding willow). You'll also find other trees, including Arizona ash, hackberry, walnut and soapberry.

One should not forget the wildlife, beside the bird species which inhabit this ripe ecosystem. More than 80 species of mammals and some very special fish inhabit the conservation area. The collard peccary is found in herds, roaming through the area. Javalina are joined by many species of rodents, bobcats, a few mountain lions, white-tailed deer, mule deer, jack rabbits and cottontails.

Long before the development of the riparian conservation area, the San Pedro was home to fourteen species of fish. Only two remain: the longfin dace and desert sucker. Other species now found in the river are introduced species such as the mosquitofish, common carp and yellow bullhead.

One would think that the availability of a year-round water supply would attract amphibians. The area features a large number of lizards including the Gila monster and desert grassland whiptail lizard. You'll probably see the Sonoran box turtle and Couch's spadefoot toad, along with many species of snakes of which the most common is the western diamondback rattlesnake. Other snakes to be found (or maybe avoided) include the (seldom seen) Mojave green rattlesnake. Visitors should beware of rattlesnakes during the summer months. The resident Mexican gartersnake is not as ominous a companion while walking along the riverside trails.

Getting Information

The conservation area office is located at the old townsite of Fairbank, where only a couple of buildings remain from the mining days. Largely staffed by volunteers, the headquarters provides trail maps and other valuable information for nature lovers. A useful place to look for more information is San Pedro House, operated by the Friends of the San Pedro, located to the south on Highway 90, just 7 miles east of the town of Sierra Vista. This 1930s ranch house has been recently restored and serves as a bookstore and visitor center, It is open Saturdays from 10 am to 4 pm and on Sundays from noon to 3 pm. It is also open on a variable schedule throghout the rest of the week when volunteers provide information and assistance.

The conservation area is a prime area for birders, hikers, horseback riders and photographers. Most of the trails are open to hikers and riders. Overnight camping is permitted in backcountry areas, with permits required for overnight stays. There are self-service "pay" stations at all visitor parking areas. Camping is limited to seven consecutive days in any one location, unless otherwise posted. The area is free for day visitors. For more information, call the BLM at (520) 457-2265, Monday through Friday from 7:45 am to 4:15 pm, Arizona Standard Time (throughout the year).


To put it simply, trails lead from the parking areas along the riverbanks. From north to south these are: at the Cienaga-Land Corral, at the village of St. David, at the north end of the conservation area; Fairbank (BLM headquarters), beside Highway 82, west of Tombstone; Charleston Bridge, via Charleston Road which leads west from Tombstone and Highway 80, and east from the town of Sierra Vista; at San Pedro House, on Highway 90, east of Sierra Vista and west of Highway 80, between Tombstone and Bisbee; Hereford, accessed by taking Hereford Road north from Hwy. 92 west of Bisbee or east from Highway 92 south of Sierra Vista; Palominas, on Highway 92, west of Bisbee and south of Sierra Vista. This is the most southerly section of the conservation area, touching the Mexican border.

Terrenate Presidio

This is a historic site which is reached by a separate trail, found by driving 2 miles west of Fairbank on Highway 82 and then 2 miles north on Kellar Road. The Presidio Santa Cruz de Terrenate was built in 1775 to protect Spanish farmlands in the area. It had a very brief existence, about five years. Continual Apache raids convinced the Spanish to desert the fort in 1780. More than 80 residents lost their lives during the Indian raids. It is not known how many Apache were killed.

The Presidio Trail leaves the parking lot on Kellar Road, leading 1.2 miles to the ruins of the Spanish community. A stone foundation and several adobe walls are all that remain of the fort. Interpretive signs are found along the trail which leads through the presidio area.

Boquillas Land & Cattle Company Site

The old headquarters of this sizeable ranching operation is located two miles south of Fairbank. A bustling operation in its day, it included a railroad depot, houses, two barns, a smoke house and blacksmith shop. The area is now used for private residences.

Southeastern Arizona Birding Observatory

Located in Bisbee, the observatory offers guided birding walks in Carr Canyon and the San Pedro Riparian NCA, hummingbird banding sessions, and a lot more including winter birding tours from Bisbee. For information, visit the observatory's website.

Prime Birding Areas

Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve

In 1966, The Nature Conservancy, with help from the Tucson Audubon Society, purchased 312 acres along Sonoita Creek in order to protect a delicate riparian environment. It was the Conservancy's first project in Arizona, leading to many other ventures. The Conservancy -- over the ensuing years -- has parlayed the 312 acres, through obtaining conservation easements and donations, into more than 750 acres. It is an outstanding example of how nonprofit organizations such as The Nature Conservancy, along with governments, donors and private landowners, can work together to preserve a priceless heritage.

The preserve is located at the town of Patagonia, on State Highway 82, which runs from Tombstone to Nogales. Patagonia, a pioneer Old West town (with cowboys following the miners), has matured into a charming little town which has retained much of its pioneer flavor, while developing facilities for tourists, including several fine bed and breakfast homes. After arriving in Patagonia, turn west on 4th Avenue. Then turn south on Pennsylvania and cross the creek. The preserve is about 3/4 mile down the road.

Patagonia and the creek lie between the Santa Rita and Patagonia Mountains, in the Santa Cruz watershed. The perennial creek provides a variety of habitats as it wanders through the valley, joining the Santa Cruz, north of Nogales. The Conservancy's preserve features a wonderful, mature cottonwood and willow woodland ecosystem. Many of the Fremont cottonwood trees are over 100 feet tall, a perfect perching and nesting place for hawks. Some are as old as 130 years. Several varieties of willow are found here, along with the lesser trees including Arizona black walnut, velvet ash, canyon hackberry and mesquite, close to the water. The preserve also includes marsh areas or cienegas. Over 250 species of birds are found in the preserve and other wildlife lives on and under the ground including javalina, bobcat, coyote, the desert tortoise, toads, frogs and white-tailed deer. As with other Arizona places, rattlesnakes are also seen.

This is most of all a birder''s paradise. Three trails (Creek, Railroad and Cienega) lead through the sanctuary, along the creek and to the marsh areas. The Railroad Trail leads along the old rail bed of the Santa Fe line, which ran the length of Sonoita Creek when it was built in 1882. A visitor center provides trail information, bird checklists and information on current sightings. A self-guided nature trail has been planned.

Guided trail tours are given each Saturday at 9 am, and other walks are conducted according to the seasons. For information, call the preserve office at (520) 394-2400. The prime birding period is March through September. Migrants are seen during late April and May and again during late August and September. Winter brings a few migrants including the rufous-backed robin.

Cave Creek Canyon

The canyon is the location of the Southwestern Research Station of the American Museum of Natural History. The station contains an superb collection of flora and fauna. The canyon ityself is a renowned birding area and hiking trails lead from the canyon floor through the Coronado National Forest. Cave Creen Canyon is near the New Mexico border. You can reach the site by taking State Highway 80 northeast from Douglas, or south on Hwy. 80 from Interstate 10, a few miles east of the New Mexico state line. It is also possible to drive along an unpaved road which leads south from Exit 362 of I-10 (east of San Simon). This road leads south into the national forest, joining the road from the town of Portal.

Sulphur Springs Valley & Willcox Playa

The wide valley which lies between the Dragoon Mountains and the Chiricahua range is the Sulphur Springs Valley. Along the Interstate 10 corridor, the town of Willcox is situated at the north end of the valley, with the small town of Elfrida at the southern edge. Winter is the prime season for bird watchers visiting the area, as winter rains flood portions of the huge Willcox Playa -- which in summer is a dry pan. Each year, 12,000 sandhill cranes descend upon the Playa, joining other migratory birds including long-billed curlews, lark buntings, chestnut-collard larkspurs and the occasional whooping crane. The town of Willcox established the annual Wings Over Willcox Festival to celebrate the arrival of the enormous flock of visiting cranes. It's held in January; call 800-200-2272 for information.

Farther down the valley, raptors are the prime attraction. Along the old Highway 666 route is the largest collection of eagles, hawks and falcons in the state, including ferruginous, rough-legged coopers, sharp-shinned, red-tailed and harris hawks, harriers, merlins, kestrels, prairie and peregrine falcons, bald and golden eagles. A good place to see waterfowl and shorebirds are the ponds in Willcox (called the Cochise Lakes), located beyond the golf course. Shorebird migrants include pharalopes, stilts and avocets. Sandhill cranes are the most populous species here, with peregrine falcons seen from time to time. Motel accommodations are available in Willcox.

Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area, located in the southern part of the Sulphur Springs Valley, uses what used to be a large ranch as habitat for waterfowl, sandhill cranes, and other wildlife.Operated by the Arizona Game and Fish Department, this is a multi-purpose wildlife area, with seasonal hunting taking place. The main entrance is on Coffman Road. Public facilities include picnic tables and restrooms. Thousands of sandhill cranes are drawn to the area during winter months, and you'll also see the mahy raptors that occupy the vallley from Douglas to Willcox.

Fraser Bridges



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