Do Your Homework: Spend as much time as you can with field guides and checklists, especially if this is your first trip to the Southwest. Pay particular attention to common ID problems such as flycatchers, thrashers, sparrows and female/immature hummingbirds. Study recordings as well, as many species are easier to find if you know what to listen for and some are best (or only) identified by voice. Learning what species to expect in each habitat can help you avoid feeling overwhelmed.
Dress For Success: Unlike hunters, who often go to great lengths to conceal themselves from their prey, birders have not traditionally put much thought into their field attire, but there’s good evidence that they should. Birds are highly visual creatures, and observations of their behavior clearly show their sensitivity to color and pattern. Some examples:
- In winter flocks, male red-winged blackbirds avoid conflict by concealing the red epaulets that advertise their species, sex, and territorial status in the breeding season.
- Robins and meadowlarks often turn their backs on a human observer, concealing their colorful underparts from what they may perceive as a potential predator.
- Like White-tailed Deer, Elegant Trogons and Eared Quetzals flash the white in their tails when alarmed.
- A Blue-crowned Motmot that has never seen a coral snake will instinctively shy away from its red, black, and yellow ringed pattern.
Selecting field attire in neutral shades and subtle patterns can help maximize your birding success and minimize your impact on both wildlife and other people, considerations that become increasingly important as more of us crowd into ever-shrinking natural areas. You don’t have to dress like a jungle commando, but do emphasize muted, “natural” colors (browns, grays, tans, and subdued blues, greens, and reds) and concealing patterns (plaids, checks, florals, batiks, etc.). Save white for birding in snow and bold stripes and vivid colors for the rugby field. One useful exception: Bright floral patterns that include some red, orange or hot pink may draw the attention of hummingbirds, so pack that gaudy Hawaiian shirt with the hibiscus print for your summer visit.
Orientation: Every first-time visitor to southeastern Arizona should spend a day (or a morning, during the hotter months) at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, located on Kinney Road west of Tucson. This world-renowned facility combines the best of museums, zoos, botanic gardens, and nature centers into one amazing learning experience. You can hone your ID skills on the common desert birds that live on the grounds and rarer species in the two aviaries (one devoted to hummingbirds). There is no better introduction to the natural history of the Sonoran Desert region.
Attracting Birds: The use of recorded songs and calls to attract birds is increasingly frowned upon, and the situation in southeastern Arizona is a prime example of the reasons for this. Each year, tens of thousands of birders crowd into a few famous but fragile natural areas, unintentionally disturbing both wildlife and habitats. Use of playback magnifies this impact, particularly for a few much-sought-after species such as owls and trogons. Out of concern for the birds, the use of playback has been prohibited or restricted in national parks, Nature Conservancy preserves, Madera Canyon, the South Fork Zoological and Botanical Area of Cave Creek Canyon, the canyons on Fort Huachuca, and a few other areas. Additionally, the American Birding Association’s Code of Birding Ethics prohibits the use of tapes in heavily-birded areas, which could include almost any area mentioned in the birding guides, or to attract endangered, threatened, or locally rare species. Most birders still consider pishing, squeaking, and owl tooting “fair play,” but even these may be considered harassment in special management areas (including national parks, on Ft. Huachuca, and South Fork) and/or if directed at federally listed threatened or endangered species such as such as Spotted Owls and Ferruginous Pygmy-Owls. In many areas where such special regulations apply, the rules will be clearly posted, but if in doubt, DON’T.
Photography: Wildlife photography is a hobby that goes well with birding, but due to the unethical behavior of a few individuals (including some well-known professionals) photographers are increasingly viewed with suspicion. Resource managers have begun to take action against the most egregious offenders, and photo editors are beginning to consider the ethics behind the image. Following these guidelines can help minimize impacts on your subjects and avoid conflicts with resource managers, private landowners, and fellow birders:
- Stay on roads or trails at all times.
- Use a blind or natural cover whenever possible.
- Watch your subject’s behavior carefully as you approach and stop as soon as it shows any reaction to your presence.
- Stay at least 15 feet from any known nest, farther if your presence alters the behavior of parents or nestlings or if nest predators such as jays or coatis are present.
- Limit your time in close proximity to any nest to no more than 15 minutes, less if nestlings are unfeathered and/or if temperatures are above 85 degrees or below 70 degrees F..
- Do not use flash when photographing nests.
- Do not damage or remove vegetation around nests or mark them for others to find.
- At private feeding stations, respect visiting hours and ask permission before moving or putting up feeders or setting up large amounts of equipment.
- Be respectful of the rights of other visitors; if the presence of other people is likely to conflict with your photography, choose a location that’s off the main birding circuit.
Guide Services: Going out with a local birder can help you make the most of your visit. Opportunities are available at several levels, from free bird walks led by volunteers for parks, preserves, or nonprofit organizations, to personalized “target” birding with commercial guides, to multi-day workshops taught by resident experts. Personal needs and interest levels will determine which of the many opportunities is right for you. Many birders first visit Arizona’s hot spots on commercial tours, which are usually great for the “Type A” birder but can be a strain on those who enjoy a more relaxed approach. Most birding tour companies will be happy to provide you with a rough itinerary. Before booking a commercial tour or hiring an independent guide, ask for references and find out if the individual or company has the federal permits and liability insurance required to guide on national forest and BLM lands. Being in the company of a guide caught without permits can be more than just embarrassing; the law allows confiscation of the offender’s vehicle, which could leave you stranded. Some guides rely heavily on playback of recorded calls and songs to lure in hard-to-see birds; if you’re uncomfortable with this, be sure to let the guide know up front (see also Attracting Birds, above).
Private Property: Only about 10 percent of Arizona’s land is privately owned, but these properties are often the most attractive from a birder’s (or a bird’s) point of view. Ranchers frequently lease public lands for grazing, and privately-owned preserves and feeding stations that are open to the public further blur the line between public and private lands. A moment’s thoughtlessness can result in permanent loss of access privileges for the entire birding community. Please be respectful of landowners’ rights; asking permission to enter, leaving gates as you found them, staying out of restricted areas, strictly observing visiting hours and other posted rules, and avoiding controversial topics of conversation will help prevent conflicts and ensure that birders are welcome in the future.