“Arizona – why do you want to come here? Surely it’s all desert and no birds?”
This was one of the more memorable quotes from a local, who obviously doesn’t appreciate the birdlife he has at his doorstep. To be sure, after a week here I couldn’t disagree with the chap more.
So, why Arizona? After having done a fair amount of birding on the East coast of North America, I felt it was time to sample some of the delicacies that the West has to offer. The decision narrowed itself down quite quickly to South-east Arizona, based on the spectrum of birds that can be seen there, due mainly to a variety of habitats in such a (relatively) small area. So, the plans had to include timing and a specific area to bird.
As with choosing South-east Arizona as a destination, the specific itinerary more or less chose itself. We had seven full days for birding, and even the South-east corner of the state is quite large. Weekends see the exodus of many Tucson residents (and believe me, it’s a big city) to the surrounding mountains. The consequence was that prime birding sites such as the Santa Catalina mountains (including Sabino Canyon), and Madera Canyon, which is one of the birding hotspots, can be crawling with merry picnic folk. Another select destination is Sonoita / Patagonia Creek Preserve, and this is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays. I do like the reason for this – it’s to give the wildlife time to recover from the rigours of visitors. Such a delightful and considerate thought!
The tour thus started in the Saguaro Preserve (West) / Desert Museum area on the Friday. An inspired choice, since this was both quiet and we had a superb introduction to the local species. The weekend was spent in the Huachuca Mountains, which were far enough away from the cities to remain quiet (although not for birds) apart from a handful of birders. The closure of the Sonoita / Patagonia Creek Preserve meant that the Patagonia hotspots would have to wait until the end of the week. So we sandwiched the Santa Catalina mountains and Madera Canyon in between, at the start of the week. The Chiricahua Mountains are also a target for birding, but we decided to leave this area until another time, due to a combination of distance, stretching the balance of variety and enjoyment of the birds we saw, and the difficulties with accommodation.
We were by default birding the whole week in a rough triangle bordered by Tucson, Nogales, and Sierra Vista. As mentioned, there are a variety of habitats within this small area:
Mountains – the Santa Catalina mountains,
of which Mount Lemmon is the highest peak, are probably the southern most
extent of the rockies, and have a peak of over 9000 feet. The fleeces and long
trousers that we carried to the peak were an irrelevance in the 80+ degrees at
the top, but certain times of the day and perhaps poorer conditions could bring
them into action!;
It is difficult to appreciate while there, but South-east Arizona as a whole is at a high altitude (around 4000 feet). However, even small climbs upwards in elevation can again result in different mixes of species. This can be illustrated by the 4 or so species of Hummingbird seen at the Pattons home in Patagonia, to the much more diverse range found at the Beatty’s in Miller Canyon, which is much higher. Further up still will be the first Red-faced Warblers, Cordilleran Flycatchers, Stellers Jays, and other high altitude specialists.
Timing is not as easy as you would expect in Arizona, since any time of the year can be good – Winter for sparrows and other Northern breeders spending a few months in warmer latitudes, July and August for return migration of hummers not seen here as breeders, and March, April & May for migrants. March and April must be the choice for many migrants, as well as some of the wintering species that would be just about to depart for the North. May still has many migrants going through, but is also good for additional breeding species that arrive late in the Spring. We had set our sights on the Spring, and work commitments meant that mid May would be the time to go. Experience proved that this was as good a time as any. We saw 9 hummers, a selection of sparrows, and many more besides. Plus the fact that, even though we had a brilliant week with plenty of good birds, it leaves further trips open at different times of the year and a new mix of species.
It has to be mentioned at this point that Arizona is hot. No surprise there then! Temperatures each day were up to 100 degrees. This meant that we had to be protected from the sun, full day birding can be cumulatively very exhausting, and the peak birding time is usually first light (around 5:15 am) till mid to late morning (10 to 11 am). Evenings are also supposed to be good, since the temperature is dropping, but we found that this does not actually happen till after 5:00 (light disappears just after 7:30 pm), and by this time, the walking and heat can take its toll on energy levels!
The whole trip was arranged piecemeal. Flights and car were booked from the UK. When you live in the North of England, the most convenient flights seem to be from Manchester, where Phoenix is the preferred destination. We had a connecting flight in Philadelphia. Tucson does have an airport, but further connecting flights to here are much more expensive, and the drive from Phoenix to Tucson only takes about 1½ hours, which is probably less than a connecting flight (including boarding and waiting times) anyway.
The car was booked through Dollar, one of the most well known and respected hire firms in the States. Even so, don’t take the booking for granted, since mistakes can be made. Our contract included all taxes (including the necessary Supplementary Liability Insurance – or SLI), yet they still tried to add the already paid local taxes on to this (around $35). They then had the gall to suggest that refunds could not be done there and then.
Picking up the car was novel. We were led out to a batch of cars to the rear of the office and told to take our pick. The booking was for an Intermediate size, but the choice also seemed to include 4 wheel drives. We chose a saloon, due mainly to the safety factor – belongings could be kept more safely in the boot of the car. The downside of this is that a lot of the tracks in the area need a high clearance, which we found in places like Garden Canyon, where the drive between Sheelite and Sawmill Canyons often scraped our chassis, despite the 2 passengers leaving the car and guiding it over the many dips in the road. Probably the best compromise is a 4 wheel drive with a package tray over the boot area.
Accommodation was picked up as we travelled. The Chiricahuas are supposed to have limited places to stay, although we didn’t travel that far, so haven’t any experience of the situation. We did find the odd hotel to be full, but there was usually an alternative to be had. Three chains that we stumbled across between them seem to be well distributed and fit the pocket:
Since there were 3 of us, the price for each averaged out at between £10-15 per night. The standard was more than acceptable, with some even having a fridge and a swimming pool. The bases we used were:
Tucson – Santa Catalina mountains (also
good for Saguaro Reserves);
There are many good birding sites in the South-east Arizona area, and the site guide by Lane is absolutely invaluable (ABA / Lane Birdfinding Guide to “A Birder’s Guide to South-eastern Arizona”, Richard Taylor, published by the American Birding Association, Inc). As with other Lane guides, this book contains a mass of information on where to find the birds, including generally precise directions, although it is useful to be aware of the fact that the odd distance given is incorrect.
Additional information is also available on the internet. One of the best web sites is that by Stuart Healy ( www.aztrogon.com/index.htm ), who leads small group tours into the area. There is a vast amount of information on his pages, with particularly useful bird lists for each month, and a journal which is updated almost daily. He has spent a lot of time on this with a very organised catalogue of information as the result.
The National Audubon Society also has some very useful information on their local site ( www.tucsonaudubon.org/index.htm ). One of their reasons to visit is an up to date list of access and visiting tips to many of the locations within the region.
For identification, we took the tried and tested National Geographic guide to the birds of North America. The more recently published Sibley guide was also invaluable, since it has much more information on differing plumages than the former guide and the quality of the paintings is generally much better. The main drawback of this book is its size – not the most portable one available. However, salvation is to hand in the form of two new guides: “The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Western (Eastern is the second) North America”, by David Sibley, published by Knopf. These are basically just cut down versions of the larger book, and have very similar contents in smaller, more practical, size. I bought a copy of both for $19.95 while there.
It is also worth mentioning the nature shops that are present. We didn’t visit the Tucson Audubon Society Nature Shop (300 E. University Boulevard, Tucson), but the Lane guide espouses its vast stock of birdy articles. Two shops that we did visit were at San Pedro House, just East of Sierra Vista, and the Nature Centre on the main street in Patagonia ( www.kazzam.com ). Both have a nice selection of books, and the former is owned by a very friendly and helpful chap who also knew the whereabouts of local birds.
For directions, the road maps given by the car hire firms are very basic, so we bought the widely available “Benchmark Map: Arizona Regional Series” for $4.95. This covers South-east Arizona. An additional map that may be of use is the “South-eastern Birding Trail”. It also seemed to be easily available from shops (although we had ours sent free some months before from one of the many web sites highlighting the area), and has all the main bird sites marked. One of the sites bizaarly missed off is at Fort Huachaca, which includes the must visit sites in Garden Canyon, due to the whims of the commanding general in post at the time of publication.
Water – available at all garages and stores. Once the bottles are bought, they can be refilled with the more than palatable tap water
Bug spray – we only came across the odd mosquito, but there were also some irritating midges and flies. Later in the monsoon season (July to September), chiggers are an even bigger pest. “Off” insect repellent contains Deet, and is available at stores in Arizona
Warm clothes – even at a height of 9000 feet on Mount Lemmon, the sun still shone and kept the temperature high. However, one or two mornings in the more shaded canyons and woods began chilly, and some may find a fleece and long trousers more appropriate at this time of day
Food – if you bird continuously through the day as we did, there are sandwiches available at most petrol stations and some stores
Site information and maps – covered above, but essential
Sunglasses and / or peaked cap – is this getting predictable or what? The light is particularly bright in open desert areas
Paracetamol – for those Brits who are prone to headaches and paracetamol is the best antidote, take some with you, since this particular analgesic isn’t available in the States
Waterproofs – okay, our admission is that we took these and, surprise, didn’t have to use them. The most we had were a few high clouds at the end of the week. However, the monsoon season mentioned above does see heavy bursts of rain, usually for a short time in the afternoon. The www.weather.com website is useful for current and predicted weather patterns for Tuscon before you leave
Telescope and camera – this is always the big question. Do you carry the camera / video or telescope? The photographic opportunities are endless, with plentiful close birds. However, a telescope is also necessary at times (Western Bluebird wouldn’t have been ID’d without it, for instance)
Rucsac – the answer to the above problem, and also an essential for carrying enough water for longer walks. It is a good idea to keep the telescope with you for the odd important time it will be needed