travel & recreation
The best birding opportunities in the Southwestern states are found in the southeastern corner of Arizona, along the San Pedro and Santa Cruz rivers and their tributaries. This is an amazing happenstance, considering the arid nature of the desert which surrounds the riparian habitats.
This area attracts more birding enthusiasts than any in the Western states. The Hummingbirds alone are worth a trip to the region.
Whichever location you choose, you'll know that the wildlife viewing will be exceptional.
What to See & Do
San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area
Covering more than 56,000 acres on both sides of the San Pedro in Cochise County, the conservation area extends about 40 miles from the Mexican border north to the little town of St. David, a few miles south of Benson and Interstate 10. It is the most extensive protected riparian ecosystem in the basin and range area of the Southwest.
Managed by the Bureau of Land Management, the conservation area provides habitat to more than 100 species of breeding birds as well as providing a terporary resting place for another 250 species of migratory and wintering birds.
What is most unusual about the bird population here is that they come from an amazingly different group of biotic zones -- from Alaska to the southern tip of South America, and from high mountain regions to the low desert regions of Mexico. More than 370 bird species have been identified along the river, including many species of shorebirds, 28 varieties of raptors, plus herons, loons, geese and ducks, cuckoos, owls, swifts, woodpeckers, flycatchers, grosbeaks, and hummingbirds.
This convergence of flyway routes makes the Upper San Pedro valley a special place indeed. The river manages to feed water to the riverside marshes throughout the year, although summertime flows are often reduced to a trickle. The river is augmented by a number of springs within the area which serve to keep the marshes wet
The uplands on both sides of the river are spread with a typical Chichuahan desert scrub, including creosote bush, acacia and tarbush. The areas closer to the river, the bottomland, is a mesquite bosque with large amounts of sacaton grass. The riverside is a cottonwood-willow woodland (Fremont cottonwood and Goodding willow). You'll also find other trees, including Arizona ash, hackberry, walnut and soapberry.
One should not forget the wildlife, beside the bird species which inhabit this ripe ecosystem. More than 80 species of mammals and some very special fish inhabit the conservation area. The collard peccary is found in herds, roaming through the area. Javalina are joined by many species of rodents, bobcats, a few mountain lions, white-tailed deer, mule deer, jack rabbits and cottontails.
Long before the development of the riparian conservation area, the San Pedro was home to fourteen species of fish. Only two remain: the longfin dace and desert sucker. Other species now found in the river are introduced species such as the mosquitofish, common carp and yellow bullhead.
One would think that the availability of a year-round water supply would attract amphibians. The area features a large number of lizards including the Gila monster and desert grassland whiptail lizard. You'll probably see the Sonoran box turtle and Couch's spadefoot toad, along with many species of snakes of which the most common is the western diamondback rattlesnake. Other snakes to be found (or maybe avoided) include the (seldom seen) Mojave green rattlesnake. Visitors should beware of rattlesnakes during the summer months. The resident Mexican gartersnake is not as ominous a companion while walking along the riverside trails.
The conservation area office is located at the old townsite of Fairbank, where only a couple of buildings remain from the mining days. Largely staffed by volunteers, the headquarters provides trail maps and other valuable information for nature lovers. A useful place to look for more information is San Pedro House, operated by the Friends of the San Pedro, located to the south on Highway 90, just 7 miles east of the town of Sierra Vista. This 1930s ranch house has been recently restored and serves as a bookstore and visitor center, It is open Saturdays from 10 am to 4 pm and on Sundays from noon to 3 pm. It is also open on a variable schedule throghout the rest of the week when volunteers provide information and assistance.
The conservation area is a prime area for birders, hikers, horseback riders and photographers. Most of the trails are open to hikers and riders. Overnight camping is permitted in backcountry areas, with permits required for overnight stays. There are self-service "pay" stations at all visitor parking areas. Camping is limited to seven consecutive days in any one location, unless otherwise posted. The area is free for day visitors. For more information, call the BLM at (520) 457-2265, Monday through Friday from 7:45 am to 4:15 pm, Arizona Standard Time (throughout the year).
To put it simply, trails lead from the parking areas along the riverbanks. From north to south these are: at the Cienaga-Land Corral, at the village of St. David, at the north end of the conservation area; Fairbank (BLM headquarters), beside Highway 82, west of Tombstone; Charleston Bridge, via Charleston Road which leads west from Tombstone and Highway 80, and east from the town of Sierra Vista; at San Pedro House, on Highway 90, east of Sierra Vista and west of Highway 80, between Tombstone and Bisbee; Hereford, accessed by taking Hereford Road north from Hwy. 92 west of Bisbee or east from Highway 92 south of Sierra Vista; Palominas, on Highway 92, west of Bisbee and south of Sierra Vista. This is the most southerly section of the conservation area, touching the Mexican border.
This is a historic site which is reached by a separate trail, found by driving 2 miles west of Fairbank on Highway 82 and then 2 miles north on Kellar Road. The Presidio Santa Cruz de Terrenate was built in 1775 to protect Spanish farmlands in the area. It had a very brief existence, about five years. Continual Apache raids convinced the Spanish to desert the fort in 1780. More than 80 residents lost their lives during the Indian raids. It is not known how many Apache were killed.
The Presidio Trail leaves the parking lot on Kellar Road, leading 1.2 miles to the ruins of the Spanish community. A stone foundation and several adobe walls are all that remain of the fort. Interpretive signs are found along the trail which leads through the presidio area.
Boquillas Land & Cattle Company Site
The old headquarters of this sizeable ranching operation is located two miles south of Fairbank. A bustling operation in its day, it included a railroad depot, houses, two barns, a smoke house and blacksmith shop. The area is now used for private residences.
Southeastern Arizona Birding Observatory
Located in Bisbee, the observatory offers guided birding walks in Carr Canyon and the San Pedro Riparian NCA, hummingbird banding sessions, and a lot more including winter birding tours from Bisbee. For information, visit the observatory's website.
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