Sierra Vista lies at the foot of the Huachuca Mountains, only minutes away from some of the most famous birding spots in the United States - places such as Garden, Sawmill, Huachuca, Ramsey, Carr, Miller and Ash Canyons. Miller Canyon provides the opportunity to see high elevation specialties such as the Red-faced Warbler, Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher, Painted Redstart, Greater Pewee, Hepatic Tanager and, with some luck, the Spotted Owl. These canyons have long been known for their great biodiversity, not only of birds, but of butterflies, odonates and other insects, as well as mammals and reptiles. The Huachucas have close to 1000 species of plants. We hope that our field trips and talks will introduce Festival participants to many of them.
Some of our field trips will go to other famous birding spots in southeastern Arizona. The Chiricahua Mountains, Patagonia and Sonoita Creek, San Pedro River and California Gulch to search for the elusive Five-striped Sparrow and other border specialties.
May is perfect for a Spring Festival as most migrants have arrived and will be in full song, while some residents will already have young. It is a good time to look for owls at night when they may be active and often noisy. Temperatures are warming up but not too hot, and while there is a chance of rain it is less likely than later in monsoon season. There should also be water present in several areas which always acts as a magnet for the local wildlife.
August, when we hold the Summer Festival, is one of the most beautiful months of the year here. Sierra Vista, located at 4600 feet elevation, is five to ten degrees cooler than Tucson. The monsoon season should be in full swing with spectacular thunder showers on many afternoons. These showers cool things off nicely and bring us a second spring, painting the hills and valleys a beautiful shade of green. Be sure to bring your rain gear so that you will be prepared.
Birding on fort huachuca: VISITOR ACCESS
You'll need a visitor access approval for your trip at Fort Huachuca. If you haven't already done so please plan to have your approved Visitor ID card in hand for the start of the trip. It is processed in person at the Visitor Control Center located at the Van Deman Gate. They do a quick background check, take a photo and issue an ID card.
The Visitor Control Center is open from 5:30 am until 7:30 pm Mon-Fri, and 8:00 am to 8:00 pm Sat and Sun, and is where you get your clearance. It is located at the Van Deman Gate, Hatfield Street (not the Buffalo Soldier Gate). Follow signs to Fort Huachuca, Van Deman Gate from the junction of Hwy 90 and Buffalo Soldier Trail.
Full details can be found here. For further assistance please contact the Visitor Control Center (520) 454 2323 directly.
Local Birding on Your Own
Here are some suggestions of places where you can go birding on your own, many of these are locations for Southwest Wings field trips.
Ash Canyon Bird Sanctuary – owned and managed by the Southeast Arizona Bird Observatory (SABO), was formerly the home of Mary Jo Ballater. Famous for its Lucifer Hummingbirds present from late March until mid-October. The Sanctuary is open every day from dawn until dusk, apart from Thursday when it is open from noon until dusk. There is limited parking and at present no more than 10 people are allowed in at any one time. Donation of $10 suggested. Membership is available - more information here.
Carr Canyon – 7 miles south on HWY 92 from Fry Blvd/HWY 90, turn west on Carr Canyon Rd – 8.5 miles to the campgrounds in pine forest. Unpaved, switchback road. One of the most reliable localities for Buff-breasted Flycatcher as well as other high-altitude birds such as Red-faced, Grace's and Olive Warblers, Red Crossbill, Yellow-eyed Junco, Pygmy Nuthatch and Steller’s Jay.
Coronado National Memorial –Turn south from HWY 92 16 miles south of Sierra Vista. All of the common Madrean Woodland birds such as Acom Woodpecker, Mexican Jay, Bridled Titmouse and Montezuma Quail are found here along with mammals such as White-tailed Deer, White-nosed Coati and Javelina.
Garden Canyon – South end of Fort Huachuca, west end of Sierra Vista. A visitor's pass must be obtained to gain access to the Fort (see above). Enter through Van Deman Gate and drive straight on along Hatfield Street. At Arizona Street turn left and then at Winrow Avenue, turn left. At roundabout, turn right along Winrow and on reaching the Fort bypass go straight across onto the unmade road, and follow signs to Garden Canyon. The upper picnic area offers great, easy birding: Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher, Painted Redstart and Elegant Trogon are regular here in season. At the end of the road (which becomes dirt after the Upper Picnic Area, the Sawmill Canyon Trail continues to climb into Pine forest. Garden Canyon is also legendary for butterfly and dragonfly enthusiasts. The road up to the top of Garden Canyon is best driven in a vehicle with reasonably high clearance.
Huachuca Canyon - North of Garden Canyon. A visitor's pass must be obtained to gain access to the Fort (see above). Enter through Van Deman Gate and drive straight on along Hatfield Street until reaching Smith Avenue where you turn right. Continue along Smith Road, across the roundabout, and then take the second road to the left, Christy Avenue. This becomes Hines Road, then Huachuca Canyon Road. The Lower Picnic Area is by a stream crossing with tall trees which is always worth checking. Look out for Gray Hawk. After a mile or so this road soon deteriorates and is really only suitable for high clearance vehicle. Further up the canyon is the Upper Picnic Area where the road ends. This is good for Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher and Elegant Trogons are often seen from here up the trail, which can be hiked.
Leslie Canyon National Wildlife Refuge - Located on the edge of the Swisshelm Mountains 16 miles north of Douglas on Leslie Canyon Road, or 11 miles (unpaved road) east of McNeal on Davis Road. This narrow desert canyon contains Leslie Creek, a stream supporting rare and protected native plants, fish, and frogs. The perennial water amidst Chihuahuan desert thornscrub and grassland attracts a tremendous variety of birds, including Violet-crowned Hummingbirds, Black capped Gnatcatchers, Lucy's Warblers, Rufous-crowned Sparrows, and Varied Buntings. Abide by the regulatory signs as portions of the refuge are closed to public entry to protect the habitat of threatened and endangered species. The road continues through the refuge to Rucker Canyon in the nearby Chiricahua Mountains, where camping is available. No fee.
Patagonia – Sonoita Creek Nature Conservancy Preserve – On Pennsylvania Ave north of HWY 82. One hour west of Sierra Vista, this lush riparian area provides habitat for over 200 species of birds. The nearby Roadside Rest Area on Hwy 82 is another spot to visit. Carefully cross the highway and walk along the fence marking private land along Sonoita Creek. Rose-throated Becards have nested in the sycamores here in recent years. Fee. More details here.
Patagonia Lake State Park - located 13 miles southwest of Patagonia - has recently added the Sonoita Creek Natural Area to its attractions. The area boasts shorebirds, flycatchers, and even a trogon or two. You can rent a boat to see the area, take the trail around the lake, or take advantage of a guided pontoon boat trip. Park entrance fee is $15-20 per car up to 4 people. Overnight full-hookup camping is available. More details here.
Patagonia Butterfly Garden - of the 700 butterfly species you can see in North America, over 200 can be seen in Patagonia. The open butterfly garden is in the Patagonia Town Park. August is an excellent time to visit.
Paton Center for Hummingbirds - Tucson Audubon's Paton Center for Hummingbirds is located 1 ¼ miles southeast of the Preserve Visitor Center on Blue Haven Rd, this is definitely the place to see hummingbirds in Patagonia, especially Violet-crowned Hummingbird. The Center is open 7 days a week from dawn to dusk (closed at the moment due to COVID but feeders can be watched from the road). Donation suggested. More details here.
Ramsey Canyon Nature Conservancy Preserve – 6 miles south of Fry Blvd/HWY 90 in Sierra Vista, turn west and drive 4 miles to the end of Ramsey Canyon Rd. This 300 acre property in the middle elevations of the canyon provides excellent birding opportunities. Famous for its hummingbirds (including Magnificent, Blue-throated and White-eared), but offers even more. Look for Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher, Dusky-capped Flycatcher, Painted Redstart, Elegant Trogon, Arizona Woodpecker and Spotted Towhee. Fee. More details here.
San Bernardino National Wildlife Refuge - Located adjacent to the Republic of Mexico 16 miles (unpaved road) east of Douglas along Geronimo Trail Road (15th Street). A mixture of desert upland and scattered wetlands provide habitats for at least 293 bird species. This is a good place to find Northern Beardless Tyrannulets, Tropical Kingbirds, Bell's Vireos, Yellow-breasted Chats, and Varied Buntings. It is the only place in the United States to see Yaqui chub, Yaqui topminnow, Yaqui catfish, and Yaqui beautiful shiner - all rare and protected native fish. The refuge also protects the San Bernardino Ranch National Historic Site, including the beautifully restored 1884 Slaughter Ranch ($5 entry fee). The entire refuge is open to walk-in traffic only, during daylight hours every day. More details here.
San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area - San Pedro House Visitor Center on Hwy 90, 7 miles west of Hwy 90/Hwy 80 intersection. Additional access points include Hereford Road, Charleston Road and Hwy 92 at Palominas.
Holy Trinity Monastery, adjacent to the NCA at the town of St. David, invites birders to walk its 1.3 mile trail around ponds fed by artesian springs.
Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area - Located southwest of McNeal at the end of Coffman Road south from Davis Road. Operated by Arizona Game and Fish Department, this is the largest remaining wetland in the southern Sulphur Springs Valley and provides important wintering habitat for Sandhill Cranes and a variety of waterfowl. During summer, the mix of desert grassland and wetlands are good places to see Mexican Ducks and a variety of other waterbirds, raptors, sparrows, and other migratory birds. During the summer monsoon season, the night-time chorus of amphibians can be very diverse and extremely loud. Undeveloped camping is available. No fee. More details here.
BUTTERFLIES OF THE SOUTHWEST
In the U.S. there are over 700 species of butterflies - about the same number as birds. Short of Texas, Arizona has more species of butterflies than any other state in the Union : 331. Southeastern Arizona, with around 270 documented species has been a natural draw for butterfliers for years. The most active season for butterflies is during the monsoon, and in particular, the month of August. During this rainy season the desert turns green overnight and butterfly numbers explode. Vagrants, or influx species, come up from Mexico, and our corner of the state is a virtual "Mecca" for the butterfly enthusiast.
Though butterfly watching may be where birding was 40 years ago (remember birding is now a $14.4 billion dollar industry), people's interest in butterflies has grown remarkably and in tracing interest in butterfly counts (where, like birds, species and numbers are recorded), the numbers of participants has increased tenfold in the last 30 years.
Becoming a butterfly watcher is a natural for many who have an interest in natural history. Butterflies are flashy, showy insects and capture the interest of young and old alike. These mammals have an average life span of about two weeks in the adult state, though some like the Monarch and Mourning Cloak can live over a year, while some of blues and hairstreaks live only two or three days.
Like birding, butterflying attracts people of all income levels and occupations. Many people create butterfly gardens and transform their backyards into colorful refuges for these creatures.
Find more information about local butterflies at Southeast Arizona Butterfly Association (SEABA).
birding festivals and friends of southwest wings
FRIENDs AND GUIDES
Sky Island Tours - Jeff Babson
East West Birding Tours - Ken Blankenship
Patagonia Birding & Butterfly Co - Matt Brown
Take Flight Birding - Chris Chappell
Fun Birding Tours - Richard Fray
Redstart Birding Tours - Kristy Gallo
Melody's Birding Adventures - Melody Kehl
Borderland Tours - Rick Taylor