IIt may seem an oxymoron to find Southern Arizona, or the Tucson area, in the same sentence with waterfowl and shorebirds, since the region is thought of as a dusty desert. However, Southern Arizona is one of the most diverse places on earth, also making it one of the best places in the world for bird watchers to find an extremely wide range of our feathered friends.
The city of Tucson sits in the middle of this unique environment, which includes the Sonoran Desert, several mountain ranges, and even a few wetlands. Birders flock to many great sites in Southern Arizona in all four seasons, but visiting and resident shore birds and waterfowl are best found during three general times: spring migration, fall migration, and winter season.
The Wilcox Playa is the best shorebird and waterfowl watching area in Southern Arizona. Birding guidebooks refer to Wilcox, about an hour east of Tucson, more often than any other site for opportune viewing water-friendly birds of an amazing variety and number. The Wilcox Playa is a large, shallow, dry lakebed with limited access, but worth exploring at any rate, especially at the AEPCO Ponds, also known at the Apache Station Wildlife Area. Grasslands and mesquite gently frame the area. When rainwater fills the lake, it looks deeper than it really is. About sixty acres of it is ponds. The Arizona Game and Fish Department has owned, operated, and protected it since about 1969.
During the spring and fall migrations, the list of shorebirds and waterfowl often seen in the Wilcox Playa include: Willet, Greater Yellowlegs, Lesser Yellowlegs, American Avocet, Black-Faced Stilt, Least Sandpiper, Western Sandpiper, and sometimes Stilt Sandpiper and Baird’s Sandpiper.
During the winter season, on the third weekend in January, the Wilcox Playa and the nearby town of Wilcox are hosts to “Wings Over Wilcox.” This event celebrates the Sandhill Cranes wintering around the ponds and surrounding fields of the area. There are photo contests, birding workshops, tours, and other bird watcher’s events throughout the weekend.
Probably the best spots on Wilcox Playa, and the easiest to access, are at the AEPCO Ponds (Apache Station Wildlife Area). From Tucson, take I-10 east toward the town of Wilcox to US 191. Take US 191 (exit 331) for about 8.5 miles south. Watch for the entrance-sign on the left. It is wheelchair accessible at its viewing deck, and there is a mounted spotting scope available. Between March 16 and October 31, it’s open weekends only, from 5 a.m. to 6 p.m. Between November 1 and March 15, it’s open daily from 5 a.m. to 6 p.m. The AEPCO has a recorded Bird Hotline at phone 520-586-5137.
Another great site to see shore birds and waterfowl, in the general Tucson area, is Avra Valley’s Wastewater Treament Plant, also known as Snyder Road Sewage Ponds. Though the words “wastewater treatment plant” conjure up fears of noxious odors, that is not the case at Avra Valley. It is the best alternative, when there isn’t time to drive out to Wilcox from Tucson, as it is only about fifteen miles from Tucson.
Avra Valley is one of the best locations close to Tucson for observing birds. Waterfowl are most likely seen November through March, and because of the constant water source, there are birds of many kinds near the treatment plant all year round. Most reliably seen shorebirds and waterfowl included: Least Sandpipers, Western Sandpipers, American Avocet, Willet, Black-Necked Stilt, Greater Yellowlegs, and Lesser Yellowlegs. Sometimes Baird’s Sandpipers or Stilt Sandpipers are also seen. Non-shorebirds that frequent Avra Valley are: Greater Roadrunner, Turkey Vulture, and Gamble Quail (one of my favorite).
To get to Avra Valley Wastewater Treatment Plant from Tucson, start at the intersection of I-10 and I-19. Go south on I-19 and drive only about a mile to the Ajo Way exit. Take Ajo Way west for about 8.5 miles, and turn right on San Joaquine Road. In less than a mile, turn left on Snyder Hill Road., and drive about three miles. Turn right at the treatment plant sign. If you go passed the end of the paved road, you’ve gone too far on Snyder Hill Road. Park in the visitor parking area and walk through the gate. Be sure to sign in at the office. Bring a telescope. Open hours are from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. daily. The plant can be reached by phone at 520-578-7341. Sometimes it closes due to terrorism threats, so calling ahead can be a good idea.
The Sweetwater Wetland, adjacent to the Roger Road Wastewater Treatment Plant, in the west edge of Tucson, is also a great place to see shorebirds and waterfowl. It is the quickest access in the Tucson area of these three wonderful birding sites, as it is actually in the city of Tucson.
The Roger Road Wastewater Treatment Plant is an older facility, and the odors from it can be a little strong sometimes, but the Sweetwater Wetland has a nice density of trees, so there is shade even on very hot summer days, and it is wheelchair accessible.
Because of the trees, Sweetwater Wetland not only has many of the same shorebirds and waterfowl of Avra Valley, just a little further west, but is also home to a wide variety of Warblers.
Sightings of Blue-Wing Teal, Green-Wing Teal, Cinnamon Teal, Northern Pintail, Ring-Necked Duck and Bufflehead are not uncommmon..
To find Sweetwater Wetland and the Roger Road Ponds, start at the intersection of I-10 and Prince Road, which is exit 254. Turn west onto Prince and then a quick right on North Business Center Drive. Go left on River Park Road, which becomes Business Commerce Drive. Take the first left (there is no sign), following it to Sweetwater Drive. The Sweetwater Wetland parking is quickly visible on the left. The contact phone number is 520-888-4801.
1. Personal visits by writer to sites, 2000-2006.
2. Writer interview with Tucson bird hobbiest, Damon Pritchett, Sept. 2, 2006
3. Book: Tucson Audubon Society’s Finding Birds in Southeast Arizona, compiled by David Stejskal and Gary H Rosenberg, copyright 2004, Tucson Audubon Society