Desk-bound Nature Lover

My Blog: Occasional postings about the joys of birding, hiking, camping, and sightseeing.

My life: I spend most of my days in offices, looking at a computer screen, and waiting for those few weekends when I can get out and enjoy some remnant of our precious natural heritage. But, boy, do I live on those weekends!

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Southwest Wings Bird and Nature Festival, Sierra Vista, Arizona

I spent August 5 through August 10 in Sierra Vista, Arizona, where I attended the 2009 Southwest Wings Bird and Nature Festival. This was my first time attending this festival, which is in its 18th year. Mostly, it has been held in Sierra Vista, although for a few years it was held in the more charming town of Bisbee.

Sierra Vista is in the extreme southeastern corner of Arizona, so close to the border that I could see Mexico from the parking lot of the hotel I stayed in. This area of Arizona is famous with birders because it is at the extreme northern end of a chain of Mexican mountain ranges, and thus has many Mexican bird species that cannot be found any other place in the United States.

I had never traveled to this part of the Arizona and had never birded in Arizona at all, so I expected to see a great many birds which I had never seen before.

I arrived in Sierra Vista on the afternoon of the 5th after flying from Chicago to Tucson and then driving a rental car from Tucson. I checked into the Windemere Hotel, which was the venue for the festival, and immediately afterward in the hotel parking lot I got my first life list bird of the trip – a Canyon Wren, the state bird of Arizona.

Here are some of the places I saw.

San Pedro House

The San Pedro River is one of the last rivers in the Southwest which is more or less in its nature state. That is, not dammed or dredged or drained dry for irrigation. The land on either side of it is owned by the Bureau of Land Management and is managed as a nature preserve. San Pedro House is an old farm house which has been converted into a visitor’s center. There is a parking area at the house and a trail which goes from the house down to the river. Walking on that trail one passes through tan grassland full of singing Blue Grosbeaks, Vermillion Flycatchers, and Lesser Goldfinches. Right along the river is a ribbon of tall green trees. Southeastern Arizona has been going through a drought lately, so the river was very low – hardly flowing at all – but it was still a beautiful oasis in the dessert.

Ramsey Canyon
In the Huachuca mountains to the west of Sierra Vista, the upper part of Ramsey Canyon is a natural area run by the Nature Conservancy. I went up there two evenings with owling groups. As soon as darkness fell we could hear Common Poorwills, Mexican Whippoorwills, and eventually Whiskered Screech Owls. The leaders of these groups were able to call in the Owls with recorded calls and we got excellent looks at them.

Garden Canyon
Just north of Sierra Vista is a large military base known as Fort Huachuca. Part of the base is open to civilians, if you can prove you are a US citizen. There is some excellent birding in these areas, especially in the Huachuca Mountains. I took a field trip up Garden Canyon on the base. We took a van up a steep, rocky road, but the drive was worthwhile. As you get higher into the higher mountains of southeastern Arizona the desert gives way to beautiful pine and oak forests. These mountain top forests are known as “sky islands”.

I saw some great birds in that canyon. The most memorable is the Painted Redstart, a small black, red, and white warbler which flashes its colors as it climbs along the ends of tree branches hunting insects.

Miller Canyon
Another canyon in the Huachuca Mountains is Miller Canyon. This one is part of Coronado National Forest. I went with a group that took a hike a couple of miles up Miller Canyon. This is a popular hiking and birding destination for locals. The forest was lovely and we saw quite a diversity of birds. The bird we all most wanted to see was the Spotted Owl. (The Arizona population of this species is not as close to extinction as the population along the Pacific coast, but it still can be rather hard to find.) The guide knew some places where one particular owl had been perching in recent weeks, but we did not find it in any of these places. Just as he was deciding we should turn around and head back down the canyon, he looked around and saw the owl right next to the trail. We all got excellent views of it, and I took a couple of pictures.

Lower down in the canyon, surrounded by the National Forest, is a place called Beatty’s Guest Ranch and Orchard. This was a great place to watch hummingbirds. They have dozens of hummingbird feeders set up, and covered seating to watch some of them from. There I saw nearly all of the dozen or so species of hummingbird which one can find in southeastern Arizona.

Chiricahua Mountains

Somewhat further away from Sierra Vista than the Huachuca Mountains is a larger and grander mountain range, the Chiricahuas. I took a one day trip to the Chiricahuas which was kind of a whirlwind tour. It was enough to give me a good taste of the area, and to make me think that I want to go back there someday. This is another one of the “sky island” mountain ranges, with desert at the bottom and rich forest at the top.
The best sighting of that trip was a White-tailed Hawk. This is a bird which until recently could not be found anywhere near Arizona, but which has now moved up from Mexico in appreciable numbers.

Of the towns in southeastern Arizona which I saw, the one I would most like to spend more time in is Bisbee. It has quite a bit of charm to it. It is an old mining town which has turned into a hang-out for artsy types. The worst blemish on Bisbee is an old open-pit mine from which copper use to be dug. But most of the area around Bisbee is relatively untouched and there is some beautiful scenery.

Casa de San Pedro
If I were to go back to southeastern Arizona for birding and wanted really first class accommodations at a bed-and-breakfast, I think the Casa de San Pedro would be the place I would call for reservations. The last of the guided field trips I took stopped at the Casa de San Pedro for Sunday brunch. We had a wonderful meal in a beautiful spot.

Saguaro National Park
I didn’t see Saguaro National Park as part of the festival. Instead, I stopped there on my way to the Tucson Airport on the day after the Festival. I was cutting it pretty close with regard to catching my flight, so I could only stay about a half an hour. Those Saguaro cacti, as large as trees, are quite a sight. I actually did not realize that they grew as large as they do. Many of the cacti have holes in them which are dug by woodpeckers and used by a variety of the desert wildlife. This would be an interesting place to go back to. I hope I get a chance some day.


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