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Take your binoculars to Arizona.

IF YOU VISIT TUCSON this fall or winter, be ready for impossibly beautiful sunrises, toasty days, and birds. Birds? More than that, birds that seem to draw double takes from everyone, serious birder or not. You'll find everything from bright red cardinals to painted redstarts, Chihuahuan ravens to clown-faced acorn woodpeckers.

Southeastern Arizona's serendipitous mix of mountains and desert attracts birds from Mexico, the East, and all parts of the West. Tucson is the gateway to all this. Within an hour's drive from town, two stream-watered canyons and a vast saguaro forest offer perfect birding in several habitats. Weather is usually excellent this time of year--cool at dawn, shirtsleeve-temperature later on.

Best birding (particularly in open desert) is early in the day. If you're out a sunrise, you'll be astonished at the number of variety of birds you can see. At midday, you probably won't find much.

Take binoculars and a field guide. And before you set out, call Tucson Audubon's rare-bird hotline--(602) 798-1005--to learn about recent sightings of unusual birds.



Rolling northwest out of the Santa Rita Mountains, Madera Canyon empties into the Sonoran Desert below. In just a few miles, the canyon takes you from desert plain to mixed tracts of pine, alligator juniper, Arizona madrone, and Douglas fir. Oaks and sycamores line the stream, and chaparral cloaks the canyon's flanks.

This rare combination of abundant water and multiple habitats serves as a magnet for a remarkable array fo insects, birds, and mammals.

A new, easy trail travels the 3-mile length of the canyon; parts are graded for the disabled. Starting at dawn, slowly walk the trail between Proctor Road (at the canyon's mouth) and Santa Rita Lodge (1 1/2 miles upstream). Painted redstarts, gnat-catchers, bridled titmice, yellow-eyed juncos, and gray-breasted jays frequent the trees above, while Gambel's quail and three kinds of to-whee work the underbrush. As the day warms up, look for vultures, ravens, and hawks floating on air currents over the canyon. The oaks here are full of woodpeckers; acorn woodpeckers are most common, with Strickland's here as well.

When birding slows down, walk up the nature trail 1 1/2 miles from the lodge to the Roundup parking lot. Trailside birding isn't great, but views down the canyon and out over the desert are.

If you aren't up for the hike, stake out the feeders at the lodge (almost every bird in the canyon visits them at one time or other), or hunt for insects in the canyon bottom. The area is rich in butterflies, spider-killing Anoplius wasps, and mesquite-girdling beetles (these litter the ground with perfect, pencil-thick mesquite prunings).

At night, check the lodge's hummingbird feeders again: nectar bats work them almost constantly. Then head back up to Roundup at the top of the canyon. Sit quietly, watch for shooting stars, and listen; you have a fair chance of hearing coyotes or javelinas (wild peccaries), or maybe spotting a fox or coatimundi slipping across the road.

To reach Madera Canyon, take I-19 south 23 miles from Tucson to exit 63, at Green Valley. Go east I mile on Continental Road to White House Canyon Road; turn right. Go 7 miles, then veer right onto Madera Canyon Road. Follow it 3 1/2 miles to the canyon.

To join a naturalist-led guided walk through the canyon (about $10), or to make reservations at Santa Rita Lodge (which caters to birders), call 625-8746.

If you like to camp, you can stay in the canyon at Coronado National Forest's Bog Springs Campground. Cost is $5 per night; picnicking is $5 per day.



Dawn in the time to be in Saguaro National Monument. The monument's western unit, draped over the mountains just northwest of Tucson, averages 200 saguaros per acre. Pull over at almost any turnout and start walking, scanning for a look at the birds that make their home in the saguaro forests.

Watch for gilded flickers, Gila woodpeckers, kestrels, white-winged doves, western screech owls, and cactus wrens, the latter of which dive with impunity into spiny teddy-bear chollas. As you walk through this rich desert environment, see how many kinds of cactus you can pick out. There are dozens of species in all sizes and shapes, and they seem to be organized into the most perfect of gardens.

To reach the monument, take Speedway Boulevard west from I-10 about 4 1/2 miles to where it jogs left onto Gates Pass Road. Follow that 5 miles to its end at Kinney Road; turn right and go 4 1/2 miles to the monument. For a map, stop at the monument's Red Hills Information Center, open 8 to 5 daily.



Sabino Canyon is much warmer, lower, and steeper-walled than Madera Canyon. Willows, cottonwoods, oaks, and mesquites line the south-west-draining stream, and saguaros stud the stone ramparts that hem it in.

Pick up a bird list at the visitor center, then ride a tram 4 miles to road's end in Upper Sabino Canyon ($5, departs every half-hour from 9 to 4:30 daily). Walk back down, birding as you go. You can reboard at any of nine stops along the road. Eight stops have rest rooms; stops 1 and 2, about 1 1/2 miles from the visitor center, have water.

As you walk, look for northern flickers, curve-billed thrashers, phainopeplas, and Gambel's quail among the saguaros. You have a chance of seeing a spotted owl on the cliffs here. Watch for soaring birds--including golden eagles--above, and listen for the clattering call of belted kingfishers along the stream below.

You can soak your feet anywhere along the stream. The most water--and often the best birding--is at Sabino Lake in Lower Sabino Canyon. To get there, leave the road at tram stop 1 and walk downstream almost a mile, checking for cardinals and small birds in the brush along the way. You can take the trail or a tram back to the visitor center from the lake. Look for roadrunners near the visitor center.

To get to Sabino Canyon, take Speedway Boulevard about 5 1/2 miles east from the University of Arizona. Go northeast about 1 1/2 miles on Wilmot Road (becomes Tanque Verde Road), then north on Sabino Canyon Road. Continue about 4 1/2 miles; the visitor center is on your right.


Southeastern Arizona also has a wealth of resources to help you understand the creatures you can see there.

Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. Already the West's best interpreter of Sonoran plants and animals, the museum also has one walk-through aviary for hummingbirds, one for songbirds. They put you nose-to-bill with most of the native birds that can survive in captivity.

As you walk through the hummingbird aviary, you'll probably jerk back countless times as these tiny birds zip past your head. Keepers say, however, that the birds have never touched a visitor. You'll find 10 kinds of hummers here, all of them common to southeastern Arizona in summer, but usually much farther south in winter.

Conventional cages house about two dozen native birds of prey (hawks, owls, vultures, eagles). Handlers may take them out for close-ups.

Built in a saguaro forest, the museum attracts remarkable concentrations of free-flying wild birds. Some are rare; bring your binoculars.

The desert museum is open 8:30 to 5 daily. Tickets (sold until 4) are $6 for ages 13 and over, $1 for ages 6 through 12. Follow directions on page 48 for Saguaro; the museum is on your left before you reach the monument.

Tucson Audubon (300 E. University Boulevard, open 10 to 4 Mondays through Saturdays, until 6 Thursdays). You can buy everything from discounted high-quality binoculars to field guides and birdwatchers' vests here.

If a bird stumps you, look through the shop's reference library. If you just want to know where to look for birds, or how to join a local Audubon field trip, the clerk can offer help.

Field guides, bird lists. Each location we've listed offers a free bird list. For a broader list, pick up Check List of Birds of Southeastern Arizona (25 cents) at the Tucson Audubon office.

The two best regional guides, with suggestions for where and when to look for each species, are Birds in Southeastern Arizona, by William Davis and Stephen Russell (Tucson Audubon, 1990; $8.50), and Lane's A Birder's Guide to Southeastern Arizona, by Harold Holt (L & P Press, Box 21604, Denver, 1989; $8.95).

For bird identification, try Birds of North America, by Robbins, Bruun, and Zim (Golden Press, New York, 1983; $10.45); Field Guide to the Birds of North America (National Geographic Society, Washington, D.C., 1987; $17.50); and A Field Guide to Western Birds, by Roger Tory Peterson (Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, 1990; $15.95).
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Title Annotation:bird-watching
Date:Oct 1, 1991
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