Itineraries

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Of Elegant Trogons and Crested Caracaras

The best of Arizona bird watching:

If you can tell a great kiskadee from a crissal thrasher, then you belong in southern Arizona, one of the best birding regions in North America. It is here that dozens of bird species reach the northern limits of their ranges, and due to the scarcity of water, these birds are often easily located-just park yourself by a body of water and wait for the birds to come to you. OK, so maybe it isn't quite that easy, but where else can you sit on a bench and spot a dozen species of hummingbirds in an afternoon? Nowhere else in this country, that's for sure.

For a birder's dream tour, start in Tucson and head south to Madera Canyon, in the Santa Rita Mountains. With its creek and variety of habitats from grasslands to pine forest, Madera Canyon attracts a wide variety of bird life. From here continue south and then west to Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge, where you'll find wetlands that are an avian magnet and one of the most reliable places in the country to sight gray hawks. Buenos Aires is also known for its masked bobwhite quails, which were reintroduced in the U.S. here at this refuge.

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From Buenos Aires, head east to the tiny town of Patagonia, which is home to the Nature Conservancy's Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve. This is a good spot to try your hand at identifying fly catchers (good luck). Continuing east, you can check out the wetlands, grasslands, and forests of the Empire-Cienaga Resource Conservation Area, which is 10 miles north of Sonoita.

Southeast of Sonoita lie the Huachuca Mountains and some of the most fabled birding hotspots in the U.S. It is in the narrow, shady canyons of these mountains that you'll find the Nature Conservancy's Ramsey Canyon Preserve, as well as Garden Canyon (on Fort Huachuca army base north of Ramsey Canyon). To the south of Ramsey Canyon are Carr Canyon and Coronado National Monument, which both offer more good birding opportunities.

To the east of the Huachucas lies the valley of the San Pedro River, much of which has been designated the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area. This is one of the few rivers in southern Arizona, and though it isn't much bigger than a creek, the forests along its banks attract an astounding variety of birdlife. Keep an eye out for vermilion fly catchers.

Birds aren't exactly choosy about the water they frequent, so it should come as no surprise that some of the best birding spots in the region are bodies of water associated with the Willcox sewage treatment plant. Known as Cochise Lakes and located on the south side of Willcox, these bodies of water attract a wide variety of ducks and shorebirds. Each year between October and March, the Sulphur Springs Valley south of Willcox also attracts thousands of sandhill cranes.

Farther east, on the far side of the Chiricahua Mountains, lies another of Arizona's legendary birding spots. Cave Creek Canyon is home to one of the holy grails of North American birding-the elegant trogon, which, with its red breast and green head and back, also happens to be one of the more colorful birds in North America.

The Route:
To reach Madera Canyon from Tucson, drive south on I-19 to exit 63 and go east for 11 miles. To reach Buenos Aires, continue south on I-19 to Arivaca Junction and go west to Arivaca (spend the night in Tubac or Amado). To reach Patagonia, return to I-19, drive south to Nogales and then go northeast on Hwy. 82. To reach Empire-Cienaga, continue east to Sonoita and then go 10 miles north on Hwy. 83. To reach the Ramsey Canyon, continue east on Hwy. 82, go south on Hwy. 90 to Sierra Vista, and then continue south on Hwy. 92 (spend the night in Hereford).

The San Pedro River is accessible from several roads in the vicinity of Sierra Vista, including Hwy. 82 and Hwy. 90. To reach Cave Creek Canyon, take Hwy. 90 east to Douglas and then drive north on Hwy. 80 to Rodeo, New Mexico (spend the night in Portal). From Cave Creek, you can drive over the Chiricahua Mountains on a gravel road or go north from Rodeo on Hwy. 80 and then drive west on I-10 to Willcox. From Willcox, continue west on I-10 to return to Tucson.