Santa Cruz County

Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve is the centerpiece of Santa Cruz County’s birding hot spots. This sanctuary, owned and managed by The Nature Conservancy, is one of the best birding spots in the Southwest. This lush riparian area provides habitat for over 200 species of birds plus rare fish, frogs, and plants. Gray Hawks nest in the large Fremont Cottonwoods along the creek, and Zone-tailed and Common Black-Hawks are occasionally seen. Over 20 species of flycatchers have been recorded on the preserve, including Thick-billed Kingbird and Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet. Recent rarities include the first known Sinaloa Wren in the United States. The preserve is on the west side of Patagonia; turn off Hwy 82 at Fourth Avenue, then follow the signs to the visitor center.

The Nature Conservancy charges a general admission fee of $5.00 per person for adult non-members, $3.00 per person for adult members of TNC. Children under 16 and Patagonia residents are admitted free. Admission is valid for 7 days from the date of purchase; annual passes are available. The preserve is closed Mondays and Tuesdays year round, and visiting hours vary seasonally. For current access schedule and additional information, please visit TNC’s Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve Web page.

Adjacent to the preserve on the edge of Patagonia is the Tucson Audubon Society’s Paton Center for Hummingbirds, the former home of the late Wally & Marion Paton. Multiple feeding stations serve different slightly different avian clientele, but the Violet-crowned Hummingbirds still favor the ones behind the house. TAS has made major habitat and improvements to the property as well, including extensive plantings for hummingbirds, an artificial stream with native fish, and a meadow for butterflies and other pollinators. As you travel toward the TNC preserve on Pennsylvania Avenue, the center is on the left just after the first stream crossing. Donations to the sugar fund are appreciated.

Southwest of Patagonia is the famous Roadside Rest Area. Many rare or hard-to-find birds have been sighted here, the most famous of which are the Rose-throated Becards that often nest in the Arizona Sycamores along Sonoita Creek (across the highway from the rest area). More common species abound; Broad-billed Hummingbirds visit flowering shrubs at the base of the rocky slope, Canyon Wrens sing from the cliffs, and Bell’s Vireos nest in the thickets of Netleaf Hackberry and Mexican Elderberry. Carefully cross the highway and walk along the fence marking private land along Sonoita Creek (please respect private property – stay outside the fence). The flowing water attracts species such as Thick-billed Kingbird (summer), Varied and Lazuli buntings (summer-fall), Lesser Goldfinch, and a variety of sparrows. A singing Fan-tailed Warbler was found near here in May 1997.

Down the highway from the Roadside Rest is Patagonia Lake State Park and Sonoita Creek Natural Area, a good location for many species of desert scrub and lower canyon habitats plus waterfowl and riparian species. Broad-billed Hummingbirds and Verdins are common around the campground, often visiting feeders put out by campers. Northern Beardless-Tyrannulets, Bell’s Vireos, and Lucy’s Warblers are fairly common spring-summer residents in the mesquite thickets that ring the lake. Watch for Zone-tailed Hawks among the Turkey and Black vultures soaring overhead in spring and summer. Rarities include a small breeding population of Black-capped Gnatcatchers, a Nutting’s Flycatcher that spent several months at the park in the winter of 1997-98, Arizona’s third known Northern Jacana seen here for several days in October 1998. A trail following the lake shore through desert scrub, mesquite bosque and lakeside cattails (watch for Soras and Virginia Rails) will get you away from the recreational boaters and other distractions and into some nice habitat. The park is located off Hwy 82 3.3 miles south of Roadside Rest Area. Admission is $15-$20 per car. For more information, visit the Arizona State Parks Web site or call the visitor center at 520-287-2791.

On the northern edge of Nogales is the Kino Springs Golf Course. Its large spring-fed ponds were once surrounded by large cottonwoods and willows, but drought killed most of them. The area is undergoing restoration, but it will be many years before the habitat returns to what it once was. The ponds still attract many water-loving birds, including Black-bellied Whistling-Duck. In summer, watch along the entrance road for Varied Buntings, Gray Hawks, and Black Vultures, but please stop your car off the roadway to avoid an inconvenient or dangerous situation for other drivers. Visitor parking is permitted in the parking lot in front of the club house/pro shop; please step inside to ask for permission to bird around the big ponds across the driveway. Watch for Tropical Kingbirds and Bronzed Cowbirds around the clubhouse in summer.

Northeast of Sonoita is the Bureau of Land Management’s Las Cienegas National Conservation Area (formerly Empire-Cienega Ranch), an excellent place for grassland and wetland birds. The NCA gets its name from its cienegas, or marshes, which support water-loving species such as Vermilion Flycatcher and Common Yellowthroat in spring and summer. A variety of sparrows are found here, including Cassin’s and Botteri’s in summer and Baird’s in winter. Herds of Pronghorn are a common sight in the grasslands along Hwy 82 and Hwy 83 as you pass through this area, and Black-tailed Prairie Dogs have been reintroduced, attracting Burrowing Owls. Some roads on the NCA can become very muddy during rainy periods and remain deeply rutted when they dry out.

Located south of Hwy 82 and west of the Huachuca Mountains, the San Rafael Grasslands offer prime habitat for grassland birds, including Cassin’s and Botteri’s sparrows in summer and longspurs and Baird’s Sparrow in winter. Most of this area is within the Coronado National Forest, with many private ranch inholdings; taking care to respect private property will help maintain good relations between private landowners and the birding community. If in doubt about land ownership, do not leave public roadways while birding. The Vaca Ranch, famous as the site of “Baird’s Sparrow Hill,” is now closed to the public; this elusive wintering species occurs in other parts of the San Rafael Grasslands but is never easy to find (or see when found).

The Santa Cruz River crosses the Mexican border at Nogales and parallels I-19 on its way to Tucson and points north. Though its once lush cottonwood forest and mesquite bosques have all but disappeared, the river remains a corridor for migrating birds. This is especially evident in early spring, when a variety of birds of prey follow the river north from wintering grounds in Mexico. Common Black-Hawks, Gray Hawks, and Zone-tailed Hawks are the stars of the show, though a variety of more common raptors and many other birds use the Santa Cruz River as a migration corridor. To document the phenomenon, a hawk watch has been established at Ronald R. Morriss County Park in the charming historic town of Tubac. Raptor viewing is best during the middle two weeks of March, from mid morning to early afternoon.

Useful Links:

eBird: Santa Cruz Counts, Arizona
Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve (The Nature Conservancy)
Paton Center for Hummingbirds (Tucson Audubon Society)
Patagonia Lake State Park (Arizona State Parks)
Las Cienegas National Conservation Area (Bureau of Land Management)
Tubac Nature Center: Hawk Watch

Santa Rita Mountains

The Santa Ritas are a big mountain range by sky island standards, but there is relatively little convenient access. The main exception is Madera Canyon. Located in the Coronado National Forest on the north slope of the Santa Ritas, this deep, densely wooded canyon is one of the most famous birding localities in Arizona. It is accessible from Interstate 19 near Green Valley or from Hwy 83 via Greaterville Road, a scenic route over 11 miles of winding, unpaved road. The road passes through lush grasslands in the foothills of the canyon; during the late summer rainy season, Cassin’s and Botteri’s sparrows can often be heard singing near the road. Florida (pronounced “flor-EE-dah”) Wash is often a good stop for lowland and foothill species, including Varied Bunting and Rufous-winged Sparrow, and has hosted rarities such as Rufous-capped Warbler. Most of the sky island “specialties,” including Elegant Trogon and Yellow-eyed Junco, can be found in the oak woodlands and pine-oak forests of the upper canyon, along with occasional rarities such as Flame-colored Tanager and Crescent-chested Warbler.

The feeding station at Santa Rita Lodge (private) is open to the public and offers an easy introduction to the canyon’s birds, especially hummingbirds. Broad-billed Hummingbirds are common here along with up to 11 other species, including occasional rarities such as Plain-capped Starthroat, White-eared, and Berylline. Trails that begin both below and above the lodge lead to higher elevation habitats. Feeders at Madera Kubo Cabins and Chuparosa Inn (both private) are viewable from the public road, with parking for non-guests at a trailhead parking area a short distance downhill.

Except for Santa Rita Lodge, public parking in the canyon is limited to National Forest trailheads, campgrounds, and picnic areas; please respect private enclaves within the canyon and do not park or stop on the public road. Note to early spring visitors: Madera Canyon may be crowded with other outdoor enthusiasts on virtually any weekend from March through November, but it is an extremely popular site for big family picnics on Easter weekend. For the best experience, birders who must visit Madera Canyon on Mothers’ Day and Easter weekend are advised to arrive very early and hike up the trails away from the congested areas.

For more information, contact:

Coronado National Forest, Nogales Ranger District
303 Old Tucson Road
Nogales, AZ 85621
(520) 281-2296
Coronado National Forest Web site
Madera Canyon Recreation Area (U.S. Forest Service)