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Southeastern Arizona Bird Observatory

Guide to Birding Hot Spots

The Chiricahua Mountains & Sulphur Springs Valley

updated Friday, April 8, 2011

Click for Douglas, Arizona Forecast


Click on a location in the menu below (boldface indicates main site entries):

Chiricahua Mountains:

Cave Creek Canyon
Chiricahua National Monument
Portal
Rustler Park
South Fork Zoological and Botanical Area
Southwestern Research Station

Sulphur Springs Valley:

Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area
Cochise Lakes (Twin Lakes), Willcox
Apache Generating Station Wildlife Observation Area

Mule Mountains:

Bisbee
Zacatecas Canyon

Vista Park
Galena Park


Chiricahua Mountains

The largest of the "sky island" mountain ranges in the Coronado National Forest, the Chiricahuas are home to animals and plants found nowhere else in the U.S. The town of Portal is the gateway to world-famous Cave Creek Canyon. Traveling on Hwy 80 toward Portal from Douglas you will pass through rolling grasslands punctuated by the cones of extinct volcanoes; watch for Burrowing Owls and Pronghorns along the highway. As you cruise up Portal Road west from Hwy 80, grasses give way first to thorn scrub then to a variety of evergreen oaks. Some residents in the Portal area welcome visitors to their backyard feeding stations; for information on current opportunities, inquire at the Portal Store in town or the ranger station up the road. Beyond Portal the road passes the U.S. Forest Service ranger station and winds along Cave Creek; watch for Elegant Trogons all along this stretch, particularly where Arizona Sycamores grow close to the road.

The road to the famous South Fork Zoological and Botanical Area takes off to the left near the Sunny Flat Campground. This day-use-only area is closed to collecting year round and to use of recording equipment or playback of taped calls during nesting season to protect trogons, owls, and other birds. The 1.3-mile entrance road offers excellent birding which is all too often missed by those hurrying on to the trailhead. The road can be hard on vehicles, particularly in the rainy season; ordinary passenger cars may not be able to safely navigate the stream crossing following heavy rains or snowmelt. The loop at the end of the road is narrow and often crowded with cars; large RVs or vehicles with trailers may not be able to negotiate it. A new and mandatory $3.00 fee per vehicle funds maintenance of campgrounds, picnic areas, and trails; the pay station is self-serve, so be sure to have small bills. About 2 miles past the turn-off to South Fork is the Southwestern Research Station, a research facility of the American Museum of Natural History. Visitors are welcome to observe the station’s hummingbird feeders, which attract a good number and diversity of birds in season, but please remember that this is a scientific facility with research in progress. A small selection of books and gifts is on display in the main office near the visitor parking area. The station is open spring through early fall, and lodging with meals is offered to non-scientists as available; call (520) 558-2396 or vist the SWRS Web site.

The pavement ends a short distance beyond the research station and the road begins to climb toward the high, cool conifer forests atop the mountains. The route over the top of the Chiricahuas is a wonderful (if sometimes nerve-wracking) drive from April through November, but heavy snows force closure of this road in winter. At Onion Saddle, one fork leads to the campground at Rustler Park, a good stop to look for high-elevation species such as Mexican Chickadee, Red-faced Warbler, Olive Warbler and Red Crossbill. The mandatory day-use fee of $3.00 per vehicle funds maintenance of campgrounds, picnic areas, and trails; the pay station is self-serve, so be sure to have small bills. Nearby Barfoot Park is an alternative for some quiet birding if Rustler Park is crowded (as it often is on summer weekends). A reintroduced flock of Thick-billed Parrots made their home in this area in the late 1980s; this reintroduction effort, involving both wild birds confiscated from smugglers and captive-bred individuals, ended in disappointment, but there are still hopes of returning this magnificent bird to the sky islands. Warning: Large RVs and vehicles pulling trailers may not be able to negotiate the tight curves on this narrow mountain road!

On the west side of the range lies Chiricahua National Monument, also known as "The Wonderland of Rocks." Eerie spires of rhyolite are the park’s biggest attraction, but wildlife is also abundant. Watch for the occasional Zone-tailed Hawk or Golden Eagle soaring high above the formations and Hepatic Tanager, Juniper and Bridled titmice, Grace's Warbler and Strickland's Woodpecker in the lush forests of the canyon bottoms. The second Berylline Hummingbird nest ever discovered in the U.S. was found here. The park is accessible from the Sulphur Springs Valley via Hwy 181 from Sunizona or Hwy 186 from Willcox, or you can stop in on your way down from Onion Saddle.

For more information on camping, trails, road conditions etc., contact:

Douglas Ranger District
RR 1, Box 228-R
Douglas, AZ 85607
(520) 364-3468

or:

Chiricahua National Monument
Dos Cabezas Route
Box 6500
Willcox, AZ 85643
(520) 824-3560

More information about Chiricahua National Monument...

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Sulphur Springs Valley

The Sulphur Springs Valley, west of the Chiricahua Mountains between Bisbee and Douglas to the south and Willcox to the north, is great for birders on the move. The valley’s highways and back roads offer access to a variety of habitats, including grassland, desert scrub, playa lakes and farm fields. A wide variety of birds, from stately Sandhill Cranes to tiny Brewer’s Sparrows, winter here alongside permanent residents such as Greater Roadrunner, Scaled Quail, Crissal Thrasher and Pyrrhuloxia, but it is the wintering raptors that attract birders from far and wide. It is not uncommon to see over 100 birds of prey of up to 12 species in a day’s drive. Ferruginous Hawks, now rarer than Bald Eagles, are regularly seen around colonies of Botta's Pocket Gophers, their favorite prey. Other regularly seen raptors include Great Horned Owl, Northern Harrier, Harris’s Hawk, Prairie Falcon, Bald and Golden eagles, and a rainbow of subspecies and color morphs of Red-tailed Hawk. In summer, Turkey Vultures and largely insectivorous Swainson's Hawks replace the northern raptors. Caution! Wet weather turns many of the valley's unpaved roads and shoulders to slippery, tire-trapping mud—travel with care.

Take a virtual field trip to the Sulphur Springs Valley

The Sulphur Springs Valley's crown jewel is the Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area. Familiar to veteran birders as Hyannis Cattle Company, this 1500-acre property was purchased in January 1997 by the Arizona Game & Fish Department to provide habitat for waterfowl and Sandhill Cranes and wildlife viewing and hunting opportunities. Located in the southwestern part of the valley, between Bisbee and Elfrida, this area features a seasonal wetland (playa lake) that attracts up to 21,000 Sandhill Cranes in winter and numerous other water-loving species from late summer through spring. AGFD has added a number of visitor amenities, including a public restroom, picnic tables, benches, two viewing platforms, interpretive signs, and trails (see map). Visitors are asked to sign in at register boxes located at each parking area. The register sheets include spaces for comments and sightings, so sign in when you arrive and check to see what recent visitors have reported.

Other entrances on Coffman Rd. and Tornrose Rd. (off Davis Rd.) provide access to areas where hunting is permitted. Hunting is now prohibited near the main visitor area, and parts of the wildlife area (mainly the southern part of the lake and fields just north of the main viewing area) are closed to all public entry from October to March to reduce disturbance to the cranes. Funding for management of Whitewater Draw comes primarily from the state lottery via the Heritage Fund, though traditional hunting-related funds were used in its purchase.

The main entrance is located on Coffman Road, accessible either from Central Hwy via Bagby Road or Lee Road or directly from Davis Road 1 mile west of Central Hwy. Caution! Coffman, Bagby, and Lee are unpaved and can become extremely slippery in wet weather.

Beginning in 2006, SABO will be offering guided walks at Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area from 9 a.m. to noon most Tuesday between Thanksgiving weekend and mid-March. More information on Whitewater Walks...

  Map of main visitor area at Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area

At the northern end of the valley, on the east side of the city of Willcox, is Cochise Lakes (a.k.a. Twin Lakes) a pair of effluent ponds adjacent to the municipal golf course on the east side of the city of Willcox. These ponds, ranging from shallow and ephemeral to deep enough for grebes and diving ducks, provide habitat for a variety of migrant and wintering waterfowl and shorebirds. The ponds are deep enough to support diving species such as Canvasback, Ring-necked Duck, Lesser Scaup, Redhead, Common Merganser, and Western and Clark's Grebe. In winter, Sandhill Cranes can sometimes be seen loafing in the grasslands nearby in the afternoons. This is a very popular birding stop from August through May, but be aware that the route around the lakes is not paved and is treacherous when wet. The city of Willcox has recently begun to develop visitor access to this site; please sign in at the visitor register at the entrance. Each January the Willcox Chamber of Commerce and Agriculture puts on the Wings Over Willcox festival celebrating the cranes and other wildlife of the valley; call (800) 200-2272 for more information. On the west side of Willcox Playa is the Apache Generating Station Wildlife Observation Area, created by the Arizona Electric Power Cooperative adjacent to its plant on Hwy 191. Visiting hours for the site, which is handicap accessible, varies seasonally:

On the east side of Willcox Playa, Kansas Settlement Road and the side roads that intersect it are excellent for roadside birding in winter. As always, be sure to pull all the way off the road before stopping to bird.

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The Mule Mountains

Along the opposite side of the Sulphur Springs Valley from the Chiricahuas is another small sky island mountain range, the Mule Mountains. Though often overlooked by birders due to a lack of easy access to public lands, the Mules are definitely worth a stop.

Bisbee, a turn-of-the-century copper boom town turned artist colony, lies sprawled over the southern end of the mountains, just two miles from the field station. Victorian architecture, historic hotels, bed and breakfast inns, fine dining, and a variety of shops and galleries are among the many delights of this charming stop. Local residents are particularly proud of the large flock of Turkey Vultures that roosts in big cottonwood trees above the Arctic Circle (a now-defunct hamburger joint). Watch for Mexican Jays, Acorn Woodpeckers, and White-winged Doves crossing the upper part of Tombstone Canyon Road, which is continuous with Main Street. A few of the lodging establishments in this neighborhood maintain hummingbird feeders. Canyon Wrens and Black-chinned Sparrows nest on many of the rocky slopes that surround the historic district, including Zacatecas Canyon (the narrow dirt road begins at the end of infamous Brewery Gulch). A short walk around Old Bisbee in late summer may turn up two dozen species of butterflies plus a few common birds (Barn Swallow, House Finch, Turkey Vulture. Lesser Goldfinch). South of the traffic circle in the Warren District you'll find Vista Park, a long, linear park modeled after the National Mall in Washington, D.C. The park is bordered by a stately mansion and not-so-scenic ore dump at the top end, the nation's oldest baseball field at the bottom, and homes on both sides. This oasis has attracted some odd birds, including Red Crossbills and Lewis's Woodpecker. To reach the park, take the Bisbee Rd. exit off the traffic circle, turn left just past the ore dump and right on West Vista or East Vista. Galena Park, on Hwy 92 at the first traffic signal past the traffic circle, is a scrap of natural desert with walking trails and other amenities, a good spot to find a few common desert birds such as Cactus Wren, Verdin, Curve-billed Thrasher, and Black-throated Sparrow.

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