Tips for Birding Travelers

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 Finding Birds in Southeast Arizona, published by the Tucson Audubon Society. Recent sightings from local birders can be found on the Arizona-New Mexico discussion group. (See also 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. Lodging options include housekeeping cottages at Beatty’s Guest Ranch & Orchard and Ash Canyon B&B, bed & breakfast accommodations at Casa de San Pedro, 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 enough 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 the road over the top of the Chiricahuas, 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.