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, Bendire’s and Crissal thrashers, 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.
The Sulphur Springs Valley’s crown jewel is 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 opportunities for wildlife viewing and hunting. Located in the southwestern part of the valley, between Bisbee and Elfrida, this area features a seasonal wetland (playa lake) that attracts 15,000 to 30,000 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. 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.
SABO offers guided walks at Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area from late fall through winter. Please check our Calendar of Events for upcoming walks.
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. 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:
- November 1 – March 15: open daily 5:00 a.m. – 6:00 p.m.
- March 16 – October 31: open Saturday and Sunday only, 5:00 a.m. – 6:00 p.m.
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.
The Mule Mountains
Dividing the San Pedro and Sulphur Springs valleys 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. 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 large cottonwood trees up Tombstone Canyon from the historic district; the vultures are sometimes joined by a Zone-tailed Hawk. 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). Rock Wrens are commonly seen further south along the southern edge of the “scenic” Lavender Pit.
A short walk around historic Old Bisbee in late summer may turn up two dozen species of butterflies plus a few common birds (Barn Swallow, House Finch, White-winged Dove, Lesser Goldfinch, Turkey Vulture). 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. In winter, fruiting shrubs may attract Cedar Waxwings, American Robins, Hermit Thrushes, and Northern Mockingbirds. 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, Pyrrhuloxia, and Black-throated Sparrow.