Climate: Southeastern Arizona has five somewhat overlapping seasons:
- Spring – late February to early May
- Dry – May to early July
- Rainy – mid-July to mid-September
- Fall – mid-September to early December
- Winter – December through February
Be prepared for what the weather can bring in each season, and be aware that winter hangs on in the mountains long after spring is in full swing in the desert. Low humidity makes a warm spring or summer day more comfortable, but it can also put your health in danger. Sweat evaporates so quickly that dehydration can sneak up on you, with consequences ranging from irritating (headache, dry eyes) to life-threatening (heat stroke). Carry water with you everywhere and sip often, even on relatively cool days. Overhydration (water intoxication) has its own hazards, which can be fatal, so be careful to balance water intake with electrolyte replacement (salted snacks, sports drinks, or vegetable juice will help). To help you keep your cool, bandannas filled with hydrophilic polymer crystals that plump in water provide portable evaporative cooling that’s perfect for southeastern Arizona’s dry climate. Get two so you can soak one while wearing the other. Lightning is an obvious danger if you’re caught out in a violent summer storm, but hypothermia and drowning are very real possibilities as well. Carry rain gear with you on every late summer hike, even if the sky is totally clear when you start out, and don’t risk driving through flooded washes any time of year.
Elevation: Thanks to the region’s “sky islands” topography, in a day’s drive you can visit habitats ranging from cactus forest at 2000 feet to pine-fir forest at 8000 feet. Remember that even the low deserts may be significantly higher in elevation than you’re accustomed to; take it slowly the first few days, giving your body time to adjust to the lower oxygen supply. A rule of thumb for calculating the effect of elevation on temperature is to subtract 3 degrees F. for each 1000 feet rise in elevation; this makes Bisbee (5200′) approximately 9 degrees cooler than Tucson. Another peculiarity of our mountains is that they tend to generate their own special weather; it may be sunny and warm in the desert but foggy, raining, or snowing on the mountains a few miles away. The thin air at higher elevations increases the risk of sunburn, so put on sunscreen every morning and carry it with you to reapply during the day.
Clothing: Long pants, a long-sleeved shirt, and a broad-brimmed hat will help protect you from sun and unfriendly vegetation. Choose muted colors that blend with the environment, such as light to mid-tone tans, greens, and grays; avoid white and bright colors, which may spook birds or other wildlife, and dark colors, which are hot and may incite a bee attack (see “Little Critters” and “Dress For Success” below). Layering is wise any time of year; a sweater or light jacket may come in handy in the higher elevations following a spring snowstorm or summer thunderstorm. Much of the best birding is found along rugged trails, where lightweight boots with ankle support are recommended. Padded hiking socks with wicking action can reduce foot fatigue and discomfort. Rainwear of some type is essential during the late summer rainy season. If you prefer not to be burdened with a heavy rain suit, at least carry an inexpensive plastic poncho and/or compact umbrella in your day pack.
Little Critters: Mosquitoes and ticks, common pests in other birding hot spots, are rare in southeastern Arizona. The main cause of discomfort for birders, besides backing into a cactus or thorny shrub while trying to get a better view, is chiggers. These tiny mites thrive in grassy areas during the rainy season; they don’t transmit any diseases, but their bites produce red welts and a maddening itch. Insect repellent sprayed on socks, pant legs and waistbands is usually enough to keep them at bay, and cortisone cream will reduce itching to bearable levels. Africanized Honeybees are increasing in Arizona, replacing feral colonies of the more docile European strains. These “killer bees” defend their hives more readily and aggressively than ordinary bees, and the sheer volume of venom injected may be enough to kill even without the allergic reaction many people suffer. They’re particularly sensitive to dark colors, so dress in light to neutral shades (not white, which is too conspicuous to birds and other wildlife) right down to your socks. Be alert for sounds of bee activity and move away slowly should you find yourself near a hive or swarm. Scorpions and the recently arrived Brown Recluse spider like to hide in dark, humid places, like in shoes and under damp towels; when lodging in rural settings or camping, keep clothing and linens off the floor and shake out your shoes before putting them on.
Bigger Critters: Perhaps no creatures are as unjustly feared as snakes. Most species are non-venomous, and the potentially dangerous rattlesnakes usually try to avoid contact with humans. Birders aren’t in a high-risk category for snakebite; the typical victim is a young male under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs as well as machismo. Still, it’s wise to stay a respectful distance from any rattlesnakes you encounter, no matter how docile they seem. Staying on well-marked trails and watching where you put your feet and hands are the best ways to avoid accidental bites. Mountain Lions are powerful predators with a strong instinct to chase moving objects. Attacks are extremely rare, but when in lion country it’s advisable to avoid running and keep children and pets under close supervision. Javelinas, pig-like animals that live in herds, have poor eyesight and tend to bolt off in all directions when startled, giving them an undeserved reputation for aggression. They may attack dogs as potential predators – one more good reason to leave pets at home. Bears, deer, squirrels, jays, and other animals living near campgrounds often come to associate humans with a free meal. Hand-feeding peanuts to a chipmunk may seem harmless, but these situations often end in tragedy for the animal and sometimes for humans as well. Animals that come to associate humans with food often have to be destroyed after becoming a nuisance or biting someone, and wild mammals can be vectors for rabies, hantavirus, and other deadly diseases. Supplemental feeding of opportunistic omnivores such as jays can also lead to higher populations and increased predation on the eggs and nestlings of other birds. For your safety and theirs, avoid contributing to wildlife delinquency:
- never feed or touch any wild mammal
- do not leave human or pet food unattended where wild animals can get to it
- at camp sites and picnic grounds, place all food scraps in bear-proof trash containers
- if feeding birds at your campsite, use an enclosed hanging feeder instead of scattering seed on the ground.
Many popular birding areas are on or adjacent to land used for grazing livestock, and though encounters with territorial bulls are a possibility the bigger problem is cattle trespass in riparian zones and other sensitive areas. Cattle in campgrounds or along streamsides on public lands where grazing is restricted or prohibited (such as the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area) should be reported to the managing agency.
Even Bigger Critters: Thousands of people from throughout Latin America as well as other parts of the world (Hong Kong, for example) sneak across the Mexican border into Arizona each year in search of a way to support themselves and their families. Though undocumented immigration has dropped drastically since the economic downturn of 2008, birders still occasionally encounter these “people without papers” (PWPs). Though they often leave trash behind and occasionally damage wildlife habitat, the typical PWP is not a dangerous person. However, birders in remote areas may encounter another type of border crosser, the contrabandista. People smuggling drugs, exotic animals, and other illegal commodities are often armed and paranoid, and binoculars and olive drab or khaki clothing may make an innocent birder look like a law enforcement officer or rival smuggler. If you encounter suspicious looking individuals, it is best to “ignore” them while beating a discrete retreat, reporting them to law enforcement only after you’ve reached a well-populated area.
Birders occasionally witness illegal acts by hunters, off-road drivers, reptile collectors, and others. Some activities are obviously illegal, such as shooting endangered species, collecting in national parks, dumping trash, and destroying public property, while others may be illegal only in certain areas and/or seasons. Public lands access points are usually posted with information on permitted and banned activities, and copies of current hunting regulations are available wherever hunting licenses are sold, including many large retailers such as Wal-Mart. If you witness obviously illegal or even suspicious activities, do not risk your personal safety by confronting the person or persons involved. Gather as much evidence as possible from a discrete distance, including time, location, and detailed descriptions of people, clothing, equipment, and vehicles (photos and video make excellent evidence). Most wildlife violations should be reported to the Arizona Game & Fish Department’s Operation Game Thief at 1-800-352-0700. Illegal or suspicious activities in national parks or wildlife refuges, including hunting and collecting, should be reported directly to the site’s management. Officers of other law enforcement agencies are typically reluctant to respond to wildlife violations and public lands trespassing but should be notified in cases of littering, vandalism, or private lands trespassing.
Law enforcement officials, including county sheriffs, state highway patrol, National Park Service rangers, and particularly the Border Patrol, are constantly on the lookout for suspicious activity. Unfortunately, this includes vehicles driving slowly along back roads and stopping for no apparent reason—in other words, typical birder behavior. If stopped by law enforcement while birding in the back country, be courteous and cooperative. The majority of these officers are just trying their best to enforce the law under dangerous and demanding conditions. Unfortunately, there have been incidents of Border Patrol helicopters harassing groups of birders and other innocent citizens, buzzing them repeatedly and at dangerously (and illegally) low altitudes far longer than necessary to verify the legitimate nature of these groups and their activities. If this happens to you, please note the date, time, and location of the incident as precisely as possible, get the identification number of the helicopter if possible, and report this information to the Tucson office of the Border Patrol at 520-670-6871. The Border Patrol also maintains immigration checkpoints along rural highways; all passengers should be prepared to state citizenship and show proof thereof if asked.