When to Visit: Southeastern Arizona has something to offer birders and other nature enthusiasts in every season, but if your goal is to see the maximum diversity of southwestern "specialties" you'll want to visit between mid-April and mid-September. Though the first migrants arrive as early as late February, spring migration usually peaks in late April, and a few regional specialties, such as Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher and Rose-throated Becard, don't arrive until early to mid-May. By late May, the weather is usually uncomfortably warm at midday in the lower elevations, but early summer birding can be very productive in the mountains. Most non-birders would think you're crazy to visit Arizona in July or August, but the late summer rainy season is one of the most rewarding times for birding, particularly for hummingbirds, Cassin's and Botteri's sparrows, and various Mexican strays. Fall migration begins as early as late June with the arrival of the first southbound Rufous Hummingbirds and usually peaks between late August and mid-September. Birding slows down by the end of September, and most tropical species such as flycatchers, warblers, tanagers, orioles, trogons and hummingbirds will have departed by mid-October. Winter (late November-February) is a wonderful time to see many resident birds and wintering northern species such as sparrows, raptors, Sandhill Cranes, and Mountain Plovers, plus the occasional wintering Mexican rarity such as Rufous-backed Robin. The quietest months bird-wise are March and October, but even then first-time visitors to southeastern Arizona will still find much of interest, especially in the lower elevations.
For the migratory species on your must-see list, consult the seasonal abundance bar graphs in either of the two popular birding guides: A Birder's Guide to Southeastern Arizona, published by the American Birding Association, and Davis & Russell's Finding Birds in Southeast Arizona, published by the Tucson Audubon Society. Daily sightings updates from local birders can be found in the archives of the Arizona-New Mexico BirdChat discussion group (a.k.a. BIRDWG05). (See also Recommended Resources, The Five Seasons)
Lodging: Arizona has no shortage of motels, hotels, bed & breakfast inns, resorts, guest ranches, etc. For frugal travelers, cities such as Tucson, Sierra Vista, and Willcox offer inexpensive lodging close to good birding areas. If you prefer accommodations that are more than just functional, one of the historic hotels or bed & breakfast inns in Bisbee may be the right choice, particularly if your traveling companions are not as serious about birding as you are. But for the really serious birder, there's nothing finer than waking up to a dawn chorus in some remote hideaway. The guest cabins at Ramsey Canyon Preserve (a.k.a. "Mile Hi Ranch") were among the oldest and best-known of the region's birder-oriented lodging opportunities, but due to unacceptable impacts on the canyon's environment they were torn down in 1999. Similar lodging options include housekeeping cottages at Beatty's Guest Ranch & Orchard and San Pedro River Inn, bed & breakfast accommodations at Ramsey Canyon Inn, Casa de San Pedro, and Ash Canyon B&B, and modern housekeeping units or spartan rooms with wholesome meals included at the Southwestern Research Station in Cave Creek Canyon.
Some lodging operations and other businesses really care about birds and birders, while others just exploit the market. Patronizing businesses that support conservation and letting businesses know why you're here helps raise awareness of the economic value of preserving wildlife habitat. For a list of lodging providers, restaurants, retailers, tour companies, and other businesses that support SABO's conservation efforts, see the "Birder-friendly" Businesses page.
Transportation: Your mode of transportation will influence your birding options. If you're planning on doing a lot of birding by car, be aware that most rental vehicles in Arizona have deeply tinted windows; if there are more than two in the party, be sure the side rear windows open fully for viewing. For backcountry birding, particularly in the rainy season or winter, it's well worth the extra expense to rent a 4-wheel-drive vehicle. Even if you never engage the 4-wheel drive, the higher clearance will get you into places inaccessible to ordinary passenger cars. Also, most rental car agreements prohibit taking ordinary cars and vans off pavement—a serious handicap for travelers here in the rural Southwest. Drivers of large self-contained RVs will find their options limited unless they have alternate transportation. Some prime areas, including Ramsey Canyon, Carr Canyon, Miller Canyon, Greaterville Road and Rustler Park, are inaccessible to large RVs and/or trailers.
Arizona Time: Arizona doesn't change to Daylight Savings Time. This means that in summer Arizona Time is the same as Pacific Time, 1 hour earlier than Mountain Time, 2 hours earlier than Central Time, and 3 hours earlier than Eastern Time. This is especially important to remember in the morning; a potential host may be justifiably surly if you call at 8 AM Eastern Time to discuss your visit, and you'll find Ramsey Canyon Preserve closed if you arrive at 8 AM Mountain Daylight Time.
Regulations: A wide variety of visitor regulations apply at various natural areas, and they often change without notice. Some don't apply to the average birder (restrictions on firearms, alcoholic beverages, smoking, pets, etc.), but others do (entrance fees or permits, limited hours and/or days of operation, seasonal and/or holiday closures, no tapes, etc.). Confirming current regulations before your trip will help you plan around restrictions and closures, avoiding disappointments or awkward situations. Get your information directly from the source, not from general tourism publications which are too often full of out-of-date and inaccurate information. If you're leading a tour, be aware that permits may be required for organized activities on public lands, and violators may be subject to serious penalties (including confiscation of vehicles). If in doubt, consult the appropriate agency.
Climate: Southeastern Arizona has five somewhat overlapping seasons:
Be prepared for what the weather can bring in each season, and be aware that winter hangs on in the mountains long after spring is in full swing in the desert. Low humidity makes a warm spring or summer day more comfortable, but it can also put your health in danger. Sweat evaporates so quickly that dehydration can sneak up on you, with consequences ranging from irritating (headache, dry eyes) to life-threatening (heat stroke). Carry water with you everywhere and sip often, even on relatively cool days. Overhydration (water intoxication) has its own hazards, which can be fatal, so be careful to balance water intake with electrolyte replacement (salted snacks, sports drinks, or vegetable juice will help). To help you keep your cool, bandannas filled with hydrophilic polymer crystals that plump in water provide portable evaporative cooling that's perfect for southeastern Arizona's dry climate. Get two so you can soak one while wearing the other. Lightning is an obvious danger if you're caught out in a violent summer storm, but hypothermia and drowning are very real possibilities as well. Carry rain gear with you on every late summer hike, even if the sky is totally clear when you start out, and don't risk driving through flooded washes any time of year.
Elevation: Thanks to the region's "sky islands" topography, in a day's drive you can visit habitats ranging from cactus forest at 2000 feet to pine-fir forest at 8000 feet. Remember that even the low deserts may be significantly higher in elevation than you're accustomed to; take it slowly the first few days, giving your body time to adjust to the lower oxygen supply. A rule of thumb for calculating the effect of elevation on temperature is to subtract 3 degrees F. for each 1000 feet rise in elevation; this makes Bisbee (5200') approximately 9 degrees cooler than Tucson. Another peculiarity of our mountains is that they tend to generate their own special weather; it may be sunny and warm in the desert but foggy, raining, or snowing on the mountains a few miles away. The thin air at higher elevations increases the risk of sunburn, so put on sunscreen every morning and carry it with you to reapply during the day.
Clothing: Long pants, a long-sleeved shirt, and a broad-brimmed hat will help protect you from sun and unfriendly vegetation. Choose muted colors that blend with the environment, such as light to mid-tone tans, greens, and grays; avoid white and bright colors, which may spook birds or other wildlife, and dark colors, which are hot and may incite a bee attack (see "Little Critters" and "Dress For Success" below). Layering is wise any time of year; a sweater or light jacket may come in handy in the higher elevations following a spring snowstorm or summer thunderstorm. Much of the best birding is found along rugged trails, where lightweight boots with ankle support are recommended. Padded hiking socks with wicking action can reduce foot fatigue and discomfort. Rainwear of some type is essential during the late summer rainy season. If you prefer not to be burdened with a heavy rain suit, at least carry an inexpensive plastic poncho and/or compact umbrella in your day pack.
Little Critters: Mosquitoes and ticks, common pests in other birding hot spots, are rare in southeastern Arizona. The main cause of discomfort for birders, besides backing into a cactus or thorny shrub while trying to get a better view, is chiggers. These tiny mites thrive in grassy areas during the rainy season; they don't transmit any diseases, but their bites produce red welts and a maddening itch. Insect repellent sprayed on socks, pant legs and waistbands is usually enough to keep them at bay, and cortisone cream will reduce itching to bearable levels. Africanized Honeybees are increasing in Arizona, replacing feral colonies of the more docile European strains. These "killer bees" defend their hives more readily and aggressively than ordinary bees, and the sheer volume of venom injected may be enough to kill even without the allergic reaction many people suffer. They're particularly sensitive to dark colors, so dress in light to neutral shades (not white, which is too conspicuous to birds and other wildlife) right down to your socks. Be alert for sounds of bee activity and move away slowly should you find yourself near a hive or swarm. Scorpions and the recently arrived Brown Recluse spider like to hide in dark, humid places, like in shoes and under damp towels; when lodging in rural settings or camping, keep clothing and linens off the floor and shake out your shoes before putting them on.
Bigger Critters: Perhaps no creatures are as unjustly feared as snakes. Most species are non-venomous, and the potentially dangerous rattlesnakes usually try to avoid contact with humans. Birders aren't in a high-risk category for snakebite; the typical victim is a young male under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs as well as machismo. Still, it's wise to stay a respectful distance from any rattlesnakes you encounter, no matter how docile they seem. Staying on well-marked trails and watching where you put your feet and hands are the best ways to avoid accidental bites. Mountain Lions are powerful predators with a strong instinct to chase moving objects. Attacks are extremely rare, but when in lion country it's advisable to avoid running and keep children and pets under close supervision. Javelinas, pig-like animals that live in herds, have poor eyesight and tend to bolt off in all directions when startled, giving them an undeserved reputation for aggression. They may attack dogs as potential predators - one more good reason to leave pets at home. Bears, deer, squirrels, jays, and other animals living near campgrounds often come to associate humans with a free meal. Hand-feeding peanuts to a chipmunk may seem harmless, but these situations often end in tragedy for the animal and sometimes for humans as well. Animals that come to associate humans with food often have to be destroyed after becoming a nuisance or biting someone, and wild mammals can be vectors for rabies, hantavirus, and other deadly diseases. Supplemental feeding of opportunistic omnivores such as jays can also lead to higher populations and increased predation on the eggs and nestlings of other birds. For your safety and theirs, avoid contributing to wildlife delinquency:
Many popular birding areas are on or adjacent to land used for grazing livestock, and though encounters with territorial bulls are a possibility the bigger problem is cattle trespass in riparian zones and other sensitive areas. Cattle in campgrounds or along streamsides on public lands where grazing is restricted or prohibited (such as the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area) should be reported to the managing agency.
Even Bigger Critters: Hundreds of thousands of people from throughout Latin America as well as other parts of the world (Hong Kong, for example) sneak across the Mexican border into Arizona each year in search of a better life. Birders have encountered these undocumented aliens (UDAs) with increasing frequency in recent years as natural disasters and political and economic turmoil have driven people from their homes. Though they leave a lot of trash behind and damage wildlife habitat, the typical UDA is not a dangerous person. However, birders in remote areas such as Sycamore Canyon and the San Rafael Valley may encounter another type of border crosser, the contrabandista. People smuggling drugs, exotic animals, and other illegal commodities are often armed and paranoid, and binoculars and olive drab or khaki clothing may make an innocent birder look like a law enforcement officer or rival smuggler. If you encounter suspicious looking individuals, it is best to "ignore" them while beating a discrete but rapid retreat, reporting them to law enforcement only after you've reached a well-populated area.
Birders occasionally witness illegal acts by hunters, off-road drivers, reptile collectors, and others. Some activities are obviously illegal, such as shooting endangered species, collecting in national parks, dumping trash, and destroying public property, while others may be illegal only in certain areas and/or seasons. Public lands access points are usually posted with information on permitted and banned activities, and copies of current hunting regulations are available wherever hunting licenses are sold, including many large retailers such as Wal-Mart. If you witness obviously illegal or even suspicious activities, do not risk your personal safety by confronting the person or persons involved. Gather as much evidence as possible from a discrete distance, including time, location, and detailed descriptions of people, clothing, equipment, and vehicles (photos and video make excellent evidence). Most wildlife violations should be reported to the Arizona Game & Fish Department's Operation Game Thief at 1-800-352-0700. Illegal or suspicious activities in national parks or wildlife refuges, including hunting and collecting, should be reported directly to the site's management. Officers of other law enforcement agencies are typically reluctant to respond to wildlife violations and public lands trespassing but should be notified in cases of littering, vandalism, or private lands trespassing.
Law enforcement officials charged with apprehending UDAs and other lawbreakers, including county sheriffs, state highway patrol, National Park Service rangers, and particularly the Border Patrol, are constantly on the lookout for suspicious activity. Unfortunately, this includes vehicles driving slowly along back roads and stopping for no apparent reason - in other words, typical birder behavior. If stopped by law enforcement while birding in the back country, be courteous and cooperative. The majority of these officers are just trying their best to enforce the law under dangerous and demanding conditions. Unfortunately, there have been recent incidents of Border Patrol helicopters harassing groups of birders and other innocent citizens, buzzing them repeatedly and at dangerously (and illegally) low altitudes far longer than necessary to verify the legitimate nature of these groups and their activities. If this happens to you, please note the date, time, and location of the incident as precisely as possible, get the identification number of the helicopter if possible, and report this information to the Tucson office of the Border Patrol at 520-670-6871. The Border Patrol also maintains immigration checkpoints along rural highways; all passengers should be prepared to state citizenship and show proof thereof if asked.
Do Your Homework: Spend as much time as you can with field guides and checklists, especially if this is your first trip to the Southwest. Pay particular attention to common ID problems such as flycatchers, thrashers, sparrows and female/immature hummingbirds. Study recordings as well, as many species are easier to find if you know what to listen for and some are best (or only) identified by voice. Learning what species to expect in each habitat can help you avoid feeling overwhelmed.
Dress For Success: Unlike hunters, who often go to great lengths to conceal themselves from their prey, birders have not traditionally put much thought into their field attire, but there's good evidence that they should. Birds are highly visual creatures, and observations of their behavior clearly show their sensitivity to color and pattern. Some examples:
Selecting field attire in neutral shades and subtle patterns can help maximize your birding success and minimize your impact on both wildlife and other people, considerations that become increasingly important as more of us crowd into ever-shrinking natural areas. You don't have to dress like a jungle commando, but do emphasize muted, "natural" colors (browns, grays, tans, and subdued blues, greens, and reds) and concealing patterns (plaids, checks, florals, batiks, etc.). Save white for birding in snow and bold stripes and vivid colors for the rugby field. One useful exception: Bright floral patterns that include some red, orange or hot pink may draw the attention of hummingbirds, so pack that gaudy Hawaiian shirt with the hibiscus print for your summer visit.
Orientation: Every first-time visitor to southeastern Arizona should spend a day at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, located on Kinney Road west of Tucson. This world-renowned facility combines the best of museums, zoos, botanic gardens, and nature centers into one amazing learning experience. You can hone your ID skills on the common desert birds that live on the grounds and rarer species in the two aviaries (one devoted to hummingbirds). There is no better introduction to the natural history of the Sonoran Desert region.
Attracting Birds: The use of recordings of songs and calls to attract birds is increasingly frowned upon, and the situation in southeastern Arizona is a prime example of the reasons for this. Each year, tens of thousands of birders crowd into a few famous but fragile natural areas, unintentionally disturbing both wildlife and habitats. Use of tapes magnifies this impact, particularly for a few much-sought-after species such as owls and trogons. Out of concern for the birds, the use of tapes has been prohibited or restricted in national parks, Nature Conservancy preserves, Madera Canyon, the South Fork Zoological and Botanical Area of Cave Creek Canyon, the canyons on Fort Huachuca, and a few other areas. Additionally, the American Birding Association's Code of Birding Ethics prohibits the use of tapes in heavily-birded areas, which could include almost any area mentioned in the birding guides, or to attract endangered, threatened, or locally rare species. Most birders still consider pishing, squeaking, and owl tooting "fair play," but even these may be considered harassment in special management areas (including national parks, Sawmill Canyon on Ft. Huachuca, and South Fork) and/or if directed at federally listed threatened or endangered species such as such as Spotted Owls and Ferruginous Pygmy-Owls. In many areas where such special regulations apply, the rules will be clearly posted, but if in doubt, DON'T.
Photography: Wildlife photography is a hobby that goes well with birding, but due to the unethical behavior of a few individuals (including some well-known professionals) photographers are increasingly viewed with suspicion. Resource managers have begun to take action against the most egregious offenders, and photo editors are beginning to consider the ethics behind the image. Following these guidelines can help minimize impacts on your subjects and avoid conflicts with resource managers, private landowners, and fellow birders:
Guide Services: Going out with a local birder can help you make the most of your visit. Opportunities are available at several levels, from free bird walks led by volunteers for parks, preserves, or nonprofit organizations, to personalized "target" birding with commercial guides, to multi-day workshops taught by resident experts. Personal needs and interest levels will determine which of the many opportunities is right for you. Many birders first visit Arizona's hot spots on commercial tours, which are usually great for the "Type A" birder but can be a strain on those who enjoy a more relaxed approach. Most birding tour companies will be happy to provide you with a rough itinerary. Before booking a commercial tour or hiring an independent guide, ask for references and find out if the individual or company has the federal permits and liability insurance required to guide on national forest and BLM lands. Being in the company of a guide caught without permits can be more than just embarrassing; the law allows confiscation of the offender's vehicle, which could leave you stranded. Some guides rely heavily on tapes to lure in hard-to-see birds; if you're uncomfortable with this, be sure to let the guide know up front (see also Attracting Birds).
Private Property: Only about 10 percent of Arizona's land is privately owned, but these properties are often the most attractive from a birder's (or a bird's) point of view. Ranchers frequently lease public lands for grazing, and privately-owned preserves and feeding stations that are open to the public further blur the line between public and private lands. A moment's thoughtlessness can result in permanent loss of access privileges for the entire birding community. Please be respectful of landowners' rights; asking permission to enter, leaving gates as you found them, staying out of restricted areas, strictly observing visiting hours and other posted rules, and avoiding controversial topics of conversation will help prevent conflicts and ensure that birders are welcome in the future.
Spring (late February to mid-May): Spring works its way up from the desert lowlands to the sky island mountains between late February and May. Wintering birds begin leaving the lowlands in late February, and though many resident desert birds are nesting in March the overall birding experience is best between mid-April and mid-May, when spring migration kicks into high gear as millions of songbirds make their way north. Nesting specialties such as trogons, warblers, and most hummingbirds and flycatchers are usually present by mid-April. Owling is usually most productive from late March through May, before family responsibilities distract the birds from vocally advertising their territories. Spring weather is as variable here as anywhere. Typical conditions are cold to cool nights and cool to warm days, often with high winds, but late winter storms can bring cold rain to the valleys and snow to the mountains as late as early May.
Dry Season (May to early July): In Arizona, summer is really two distinct seasons. Most "tropical" specialties are present and nesting during the dry season, but it can be dangerously hot at midday in the lower elevations. If your visit falls between late May and early July, be prepared to get out by 6 AM, birding the lower elevations first then retreating to the higher elevations during the heat of the day (or take a siesta to prepare for owling).
Rainy Season (mid-July to mid-September): The rainy season, which usually begins by mid-July, is characterized by powerful but localized afternoon thunderstorms which often develop with amazing speed. A rapid greening follows the rains, and many birds, including Botteri's Sparrow, Violet-crowned Hummingbird and Eared Trogon, delay nesting or nest a second time to take advantage of this short-term bounty. Mexican species often wander up from the south on the wet winds, while from the north come southbound migrants such as Lazuli Bunting, Yellow-headed Blackbird, American Avocet, and Baird's Sandpiper. Since the rains produce a bounty of wildflowers, this "second spring" is also the time of greatest diversity and abundance of hummingbirds and butterflies. Hummingbird diversity usually peaks between late July and mid-August, while butterfly diversity is often better between late August and late September. A few early migrants, including Sulphur-bellied, Cordilleran, and Buff-breasted flycatchers, are already headed south by early September. In most years the regular afternoon storms bring a welcome drop in temperature just as the heat is building to uncomfortable levels, and there is a jump in bird activity as soon as the storm passes.
Fall (September to early December): September is fair to good for birding in the lowlands, particularly around wetlands as waterfowl and shorebirds stream southward. Mixed flocks of songbirds, particularly warblers, can sometimes be found in the higher elevations through mid-September, but birding in the mountain canyons is often disappointing by early October (butterfly diversity is usually good well into October). Birding usually remains relatively quiet until November, when early storms push good numbers of sparrows, raptors, and Sandhill Cranes southward. The fall colors of aspens, cottonwoods, sycamores, and maples from late October through late November will keep the eyes busy even when the birds are few and far between. Fall weather is typically lovely, with mild, sunny days and crisp nights, but tropical storms and early winter storms can bring heavy rain to the valleys and snow to the mountains.
Winter (December through February): Though most of the "tropical" specialties are absent, diversity remains high in winter; the Ramsey Canyon (San Pedro Valley) Christmas Bird Count regularly has one of the highest inland totals in the U.S., with 150+ species. Lowland areas, including the Sonoran Desert around Tucson, the San Pedro River, and the Sulphur Springs Valley, support the greatest variety of both resident and wintering birds. Arid grasslands and desert scrub support raptors and large flocks of sparrows, while wetlands host waterfowl, cranes, and a few shorebirds and songbirds. By contrast, the mountain canyons can seem eerily quiet in winter as even resident birds move to lower, warmer elevations. Winter days are usually sunny and mild, but occasionally an arctic storm system will bring cloudy skies and rain or snow.
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