Birding in abundance awaits visitors in the Grand Canyon State.
Southeastern Arizona is an ecological crossroads, where the Sierra Madre of Mexico, the Rocky Mountains and the Sonoran and Chihuahuan deserts all come together.
The abrupt rise of mountains like the Huachucas from the surrounding arid grasslands creates “sky islands” harboring rare species and communities of plants and animals.
If you are a birder, Southeastern Arizona is the place to go. Birding enthusiast are attracted to this unique region with many arriving in recreational vehicles.
The following are our suggestions for where to find the best birding spots. Generally, they are located along streams and rivers or in forested mountain canyons. Some will have nearby RV parks or forestry campgrounds but will require a drive in your toad/tow vehicle.
Birding at Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve
Between the majestic Santa Rita and beautiful red Patagonia mountains is the rustically charming town of Patagonia. Set among rich foothills and valley grasslands, towering cottonwoods, and the Sonoita and Harshaw creeks, Patagonia has been called the “Jewel of the Sonoita Valley” due to its natural beauty and vitality.
Since early days, Patagonia’s oak grasslands, at over 4,000 feet have provided excellent climate and terrain for cattle ranching, and the Patagonia Mountains, filled with rich ore bodies, have attracted miners.
At first glance Patagonia is a town that you pass through on the way to somewhere else. However, a second glance will reveal some surprises about this historical former Spanish land grant. There is a growing community of artists and crafts people that have decided that this is a very desirable area to live and work.
And Patagonia is an internationally renowned bird-watching destination with visitors from around the world stopping here to see over 250 species of rare and exotic birds that migrate from Mexico to this southeastern tip of Arizona.
Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve, owned by the Nature Conservancy, is 850 acres of cottonwood and willow forests with trees as old as 130 years and as tall as 100 feet. Well-marked trails take visitors along two miles of Creek and into undeveloped flood plains. More than 260 species of birds call the preserve home, including the gray hawk, green kingfisher, vermillion flycatcher, and violet-crowned hummingbird.
In Patagonia, drive north on 4th Avenue; turn left at the “T” onto Pennsylvania Avenue. Preserve closed Mondays and Tuesdays year-round.
On your way to the Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve, stop for a visit to Wally and Marion Patons’ home; it’s on the edge of town on your left.
Paton’s Birder Haven had its start in 1974, when Wally and Marion—life-long bird-lovers—began to plant flowers and install water features on their property. They put up hummingbird feeders and had great success, attracting Violet-crowned Hummingbirds along with even rarer species like the Cinnamon Hummingbird and Plain-Capped Starthroat.
When the couple realized birders were crowding outside their fence to get a better view, the Patons opened the gate and welcomed them inside.
Over time the Patons provided a tent for visiting birders, installed benches, and provided bird guides. They placed a chalkboard in the yard so daily sightings could be noted. On the gate, they installed a tin can called the “sugar fund” for donations to help defray the cost feeding their beloved hummers.
In recent years, Wally and Marion both died, creating an uncertain future for this birding landmark as the remaining family has opted to liquidate the property.
That’s when American Bird Conservancy, Tucson Audubon, and Victor Emanuel Nature Tours stepped in to join forces in an effort to purchase the Paton property and together contributed about a third of the purchase amount and entered into a contract with the Paton family.
The remainder of the purchase price—around $200,000—was the goal of the fund-raising effort, which successfully ended October 15 (2013). Thanks to many hundreds of generous birders, the Paton property will now be maintained in perpetuity for birders and birds—in keeping the tradition Wally and Marion Paton began.
The associated groups are scheduled to close on the property in early 2014. Once the sale is complete, Tucson Audubon will assume ownership and management responsibilities of the Paton property, and maintain an office there.
Patagonia Lake State Park
Patagonia Lake State Park is a popular camping and birding site located 12 miles south of town. The park’s campground offers 72 developed sites, 34 sites with hookups, and 12 boat access sites. Other park facilities include a beach, picnic area with Ramadas, tables and grills, a creek trail, boat ramps, marina and camp supply store, restrooms, showers, and a dump station.
Hikers can stroll along the beautiful creek trail and see a variety of birds such as the canyon towhee, Inca dove, vermilion flycatcher, and elegant trogon.