The Business Birder:  Arizona Highways


In 1955, a primal urge got the best of my uncle, the need to drive across the country.  It is, I think, is one of those “man things”.  He drove across the country from North Carolina to Whittier, California to visit his sister, taking his family and my grandmother.  Back in the days before interstates, they drove US 70, Route 66, and other “non-super” highways, traveling through some of the most wonderful scenery in America, especially Arizona.


My grandmother subscribed to Arizona Highways for a couple of years after the trip and would save the back issues for me.  I truly treasured those magazines, as I did my baseball card collection and other collections, and wish I had them today.  When you go off to college, mothers tend to throw out things of value without asking, psychologically scaring young men for life.      


Anyway, Arizona Highways left a lasting impression on me.  Now I visit in person and find, other that the suburban sprawl around Phoenix and Tucson, the beauty is still there.  It would be very difficult for humans to ruin the sun setting behind those sky islands.


My love for Arizona explains why I would dare go birding in Southeastern Arizona in late October.  I had a business meeting in Dallas on Wednesday, October 23, and since that pretty much wrecked the work week, I decided to cash in an American Airlines free ticket and fly from Dallas to Tucson for three days of birding, before returning to Dallas on Saturday and then North Carolina on Sunday. 


The trip also served as a reconnaissance exploration to gather information for next spring or August.  Our birding club is planning a trip to Arizona in May.  If that falls through, I will go by myself and may return in August anyway.  August is great for the start of the fall migration, especially for hummingbirds.  The heat is not so bad because of the monsoonal rains.      


How was my flight?  Thanks for asking.  It was typical of today’s jam-packed flights.  I was in a center seat in row 30, with sneezer/hacker types on both sides and a crying baby just behind me that cried most of the flight.  There was no easy way to get the ear plugs from my briefcase in the overhead compartment, so I improvised and tore pieces of my pillow cover and stuffed them in my ears.


I am writing an essay on categories of air travelers.  For example, there are several Hackers on each plane.  There is always one within a seat or two of me.  Ditto, crying babies, even if I ask for the no-baby section.  As a teaser for the next story, let me just name a few more:  the Ballroom Guy, the Clampets, the Disney family, and Cornrow Kelli.  You have seen and experienced them.  I will leave you hanging for now.   


An inbound plane from South American made up our flight.  How do I know?  The person next to me had a Spanish-labeled Coke and I had a wonderful bottle of Moravdé Piovero Chardonnay, a product of Chile according to the label.  That and the improvised ear plugs made the flight bearable.


That night I drove from the airport to Sierra Vista.  On Thursday morning, I took on Carr Canyon, primarily because I was out early and Ramsey Canyon does not open until 8 AM.  It was 18 miles to the top of the road at the Ramsey View campground from my hotel, a good site for the high altitude birds. For the last eight miles of switchback/washboard road, I highly recommend a 4X4, especially during rains.  At the top, I found:  Williamson’s Sapsucker, Red-napped Sapsucker, Steller’s Jay, Mexican Jay, Common Raven, Bridled Titmouse, White-breasted Nuthatch, Bewick’s Wren, and Western Bluebird.


Thursday afternoon, I headed to the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area (SPRNCA).  The trail from the San Pedro House (spend some time at the hummingbird and other feeders), along the river, past the Green Kingfisher pond and back to the house, leads you through the different habitats.  The Friends of the San Pedro River trail map does not include a little side trip to Phoebe Pond that I recommend.  The map in the guide noted below shows this pond. 


The river is a tremendous migrant trap.  I recommend sitting at location six on the bank of the river, early in the morning, to find warblers and other migrants.  I was there a little late in the season but I can just imagine that it is hopping during migration. 


At SPRNCA, I observed:  Mallard, Lesser Scaup, Red-tailed Hawk, Anna’s Hummingbird, Gila Woodpecker, Ladder-backed Woodpecker, Gilded Flicker, Black Phoebe, Eastern Phoebe, Cassin’s Kingbird, Loggerhead Shrike, House Wren, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Black-throated Gray Warbler, Rufous-crowned Sparrow, Rufous-winged Sparrow, Chipping Sparrow, White-crowned Sparrow, Red-winged Black Bird, and Lesser Goldfinch.


Friday morning I planned to cover Ramsey Canyon, so I bided my time by stopping at the Sierra Vista Waste Treatment Ponds.  I added:  American Wigeon, Northern Shoveler, Northern Harrier, Merlin, Peregrine Falcon (eating a duck for breakfast), and Western Meadowlark.  This site requires at least a scope; better yet, call and try to arrange a tour.


The Ramsey Canyon road is paved to the visitor center and then you take the trail.  The elevation at the visitor center is 5,500 feet.  I took the Hamburg Trail to the overlook at about 6,500 feet.  The trail is switchback heaven for you hikers.  Personally, I stopped many times under the ruse of scanning for birds.  


I met a couple of hiker/birders, John and Joann from Santa Cruz, California, who headed out before me.  Not long after I headed up the trail, John was coming back to get anyone he could to take them to the point his wife was holding an Elegant Trogon.  Just kidding.  She had kept it in sight for us.  They found the bird by watching an Acorn Woodpecker in a dead tree, soon realizing that there was a Trogon in the foreground, in line with the Woodpecker.


We continued up the trail, not really together, because they were in better shape that me; however, when they stopped to look at a bird, I usually caught up.  Good people; I enjoyed their company.


Other species added at Ramsey included:  American Kestrel, Plumbeous Vireo, Hermit Thrush, and Canyon Wren.


After Ramsey Canyon, I visited the Beatty’s Guest Ranch & Orchard at the top of Miller Canyon Road (520-379-2728,    I had a great visit with the proprietors Tom and Edith, partook of one of their golden delicious apples, and bought a jar of honey to take home with me.  Unfortunately, I may have taken one of his honey bees with me.  I had to stop and let one out of my Blazer on my way down the mountain.


On the way back to the hotel, I took Hereford Road, to the SPRNCA Hereford bridge access point.  I walked down to the river and a short distance in each direction from the bridge.  This area looks a little scary for a lone birder, so I did not stray too far from the bridge.  It is close to the border with Mexico and subject to drug and people smuggling. The only species I added on this side trip was a Say’s Phoebe along the road.


I headed out on early Saturday morning for Madera Canyon.  It can be reached from the Sierra Vista via AZ 90 and AZ 82 to Sonoita, then AZ 83 until turning left on FR 62.  This turn is about 37 miles from the Super 8 and there is a sign for Madera Canyon, just no FR signs coming from East to West.  At the fork in the road at 41 miles, with Greaterville to left and Madera to right, take the right.  From here to Madera Canyon Road, the gravel road is passable by car, with not much change in elevation.  The distance from the hotel to the Canyon was 56 miles.


I checked out three places to stay for future trips to Madera Canyon:  Santa Rita Lodge (520-625-8746), Madera Kubo (520-625-2908), and Chuparosa Inn (520-393-7370).  I did not spend the night; however, the Chuparosa looks like the best place to me. 


The Chuparosa was full, so the proprietor could not show me a room; however, she suggested that I watch the birds out back.  Against the woods and across the now-dry creek, there is a wooden deck with several sets of wrought iron furniture, feeders on one end and a small waterfall in the middle.  I sat only a few feet from the waterfall, with my back to it, and enjoying watching the seedeaters and Hummingbirds. 


After awhile, I realized that there was a lot of activity going on behind me.  In the dry season, this waterfall may be the only source of flowing water in the canyon.  I repositioned myself about four feet from the waterfall and watched Juncos, a Hermit Thrush, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Anna’s Hummingbird, and a Townsend’s Warbler drink and bathe.   The other owner came out to talk and, after I told him how much I enjoyed the waterfall, told me how every bird in the canyon makes a stop for water during a given day and that they had even had a bear sipping from the falls. 


Other birds added in Madera Canyon were:  Blue-throated Hummingbird, Magnificent Hummingbird, Arizona Woodpecker, Mountain Chickadee, Dark-eyed Junco (Gray-headed race), and Yellow-eyed Junco.


I swung by Chino Canyon on Saturday after Madera Canyon.  Trust me, no cars!  The road to the state preserve is very rough, requiring a 4X4 with high clearance.  There is no reason to make this trip because you probably have most of desert birds, unless you want to go for the Black-capped and Black-tailed Gnatcatchers and Five-stripped Sparrow.  I did not see them; however, I added:  Cactus Wren, Phainopepla, and Brewer’s Sparrow.


On my way to the airport, I stopped by the Green Valley Sewage Treatment Ponds.  Unfortunately, this site is closed due to construction.


Also on the way to the airport, I passed several Ostrich in a pen off Business I19.  I did not count this species because I was not counting.  Not that it was an ethical dilemma.  In the past, I have had no qualms about counting the Brant decoy on the Outer Banks of North Carolina or the duck decoys in that store on Cape Cod. 


This trip I stayed at the Super 8 Motel in Sierra Vista (520-459-5380 or 800-800-8000) two blocks east of intersection of Buffalo Soldier Trail and Fry Boulevard. It is just behind the Beef Baron (An Italian Steakhouse) on Fry, which is a decent restaurant.


The hotel was clean, adequate, had ESPN, had a safe in the room for my laptop, and was relatively inexpensive ($50-60 per night).  ESPN?  This time of the year, football shares the pedestal with birding.


I have made three trips to Southeastern Arizona in the past fifteen months.  You can consult the guide noted below or others that are available from the American Birding Association for planning a trip.  My limited knowledge, however, does not prevent me from offering my unsolicited advice.  I have enough data points for me, even though I have barely scratched the surface.


My suggested trip would be: fly in to Tucson and spend the night and bird around Tucson for a day, traveling to Portal that night.  Spend two nights in Portal covering the desert scrub areas, Cave Creek Canyon, Paradise, Rustler Park, and other sites.  Even with two days in the Portal area, you will not cover all of the good sites.  Work the lower elevations in the early morning and climb in altitude with the heat of the day.


After the second night in Portal, bird those same areas and cross the Chiricahuas, stopping at the Chiricahua National Monument (just for sightseeing) and the Fairbank access point to the SPRNCA on the way to Sierra Vista for two nights. 


From Sierra Vista cover Carr Canyon early the first morning and then proceed to the SPNCA San Pedro House access and bird the loop.  Next day, cover the Sierra Vista Sewage Treatment ponds (call for the tour) and then return to the SPRNCA San Pedro House prior to going to Ramsey Canyon.    A stay at Beatty’s looks good to me for the second night is this area.  It will be one of the best Hummingbird stops of your trip.  Bird the area around Beatty’s the next morning before striking out for Madera Canyon.  


The Ramsey Canyon Bed & Breakfast (520-378-3010), managed by the Nature Conservancy, as well as the Super 8, would be good places to stay for other nights in the Sierra Vista area.


That night travel to Madera Canyon and stay at the Chuparosa Inn and bird the various sites around Madera Canyon the next morning.  Before returning to the airport, visit the Chino Canyon site if you have time and a 4X4.  Also, an additional day in the Tucson area on either end of the trip is recommended because of the numerous good sites.


As a public service to my fellow birders who read these articles (yes, all three of you) I unofficially field test and report on useful outdoor and birding products.  This trip I field tested my new Swarovski EL 10X42 binoculars.  Wow!  That is all I need to say.


Most of the hotels and lodges mention above have Web sites.  Before the trip check the Tucson Audubon Society’s (TAS) Website and monitor their Rare Bird Alert number (520-798-1005) during your trip.   The RBA line will also alert you to transient dangers such as the location of Africanized Honey Bees.


I used Finding Birds in Southeast Arizona by Davis and Russell published by the Tucson Audubon Society.  I have found this to be the best guide for the region.  I have left many details concerning directions and distance to sites, danger alerts, and expected birds for you to read in this book.  You can find ordering information on the TAS Website and be sure to also order a few TAS checklists and the Southeastern Arizona Birding trail map.  The map is a great “birding-at-a-glance” reference.


Yes, I purchased the current copy of Arizona Highways.  The article “The Violent Chiricahuas” is a “must read” for anyone who loves Southeastern Arizona.


Speaking of childhood memories, one of my favorite books then and now is Travels with Charley, In Search of America by John Steinbeck.  From the last chapter of that book:  Who has not known a journey to be over and dead before the traveler returns?  The reverse is also true: many a trip continues long after movement in time and space have ceased.”  I suspect that my grandmother’s trip lived on.  So do my trips to Arizona. 




The author, John Ennis, is a full time healthcare consultant and a part time birder, who wishes that it were the other way around.  He lives in the Wilmington, North Carolina area. 


John B. Ennis ã 2002