Some experts rank Southern Arizona as the best bird watching in the world. No wonder, with the diverse ecosystems that merge in this region, a multitude of bird varieties and other wildlife call Southern Arizona region and the Tucson area home. Some live here year-round, while others find summer breeding havens or winter rest stops, while still others just pass through in spring and fall migration.
Many mountain ranges are scattered throughout Southern Arizona, all within a day’s drive of the city of Tucson. A variety of habitats are in each range, but three particular canyons in the Huachuca Mountains stand high above the rest for our family of bird watchers and wildlife enthusiasts. A four-wheel drive or high clearance vehicle, in good condition, is recommended for any visit to the Huachuca Mountains. As with any drive out-of-town in Southern Arizona, always carry 1 gallon of water per person, per day in your vehicle, along with food that does not need refridgeration, and a first aid kit.
The Huachuca (pronounced Wa-choo-ka) Mountains are a little over seventy miles from Tucson, Arizona, taking I-10 east to Rt. 90 south through Sierra Vista. A few bed and breakfasts are scattered among the canyons, and some invite day visitors onto their properties to view a vast array of hummingbirds, rarely seen anywhere else in North America. My favorite hummingbird is the Costa, and I’m not the only one who fondly calls it “Yosemite Sam” because of the male’s prominent purple “mustache!” Other unique hummingbirds to the area include broad-billed, Broad-tailed, Magnificent, White-eared, and Berylline. Most of the bed and breakfasts encourage donations to offset their feeding costs, but do not charge a set admission price. To really get a feel for the Huachuca Mountain area, one must arrange to stay in any one of these wonderful bed and breakfasts for a weekend or more, taking scenic drives all over the area.
The hummingbird feeders at Ramsey Canyon Preserve, in the Huachuca Mountains, are wheelchair accessible. This preserve is owned and operated by The Nature Conservancy, which charges a general admission, good for seven days from the date of purchase, that is $5 per person, or $3 for Nature Conservancy members and residents of Cochise County. They also offer annual passes and can be reached at 520-378-2785, or online at http://nature.org. The preserve is open everyday of the year, except Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day. The hours November through February are 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., and from March through October are 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. There is a urgent effort being made to reintroduce the endangered Ramsey Canyon Leopard Frog with Huachuca area breeding areas being protected and monitored carefully.
Garden Canyon, located on the active U.S. Army base of Fort Huachuca, is a unique outdoor experience. Make sure you have proper photo identification for all passengers, as well as, the vehicle driver’s license, auto insurance and registration, or valid auto rental agreement. All vehicles must stop at the visitor’s center and receive a pass. There is no fee. Expect to show two forms of photo identification during high alert situations. Call 520-417-6960, 520-533-3000, or 1-800-288-3861 for current open hours and other questions. The entrance to the base is along Rt. 90, in the town of Sierra Vista, Arizona.
Once inside the base, the road to Garden Canyon is paved, but rather narrow. Follow the signs, obey all rules, and do not stray from the road at any time. Remember this is an active U.S. Army base, and live ammunition may be present, due to artillery drills and practices.
The road goes through grasslands, by ponds, and then into the narrow Garden Canyon. Each ecosystem provides its own, unique opportunity for birding and viewing other wildlife. On our first trip into Garden Canyon, we watched a mother Coatimundi cross the canyon road, and saw several White-tailed deer.
Near the third picnic area, at about milepost 9.2, is the best bird viewing of the Canyon. Rare birds to the U.S.A., such as the Elegant Trogan, nest here in the summer. Other common sightings include Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher, Arizona Woodpecker, Painted Redstart, Buff-breasted Flycatcher, Hutton’s Vireos, and Plumbeous Vireos, Acorn Woodpecker, and Bridled Titmouse.
Drive up a little further and see rare Native American pictographs painted under cliff overhangs, near the road. There are few pictographs in Southern Arizona, and the military has tried to preserve these, in spite of some obvious vandalism that’s taken place in recent years.
Miller Canyon is another favorite wildlife and bird watching location for our family. White-tailed deer frequent the canyon. At the end of this unpaved road is a primitive state day-use park facility, as well as Beatty’s Guest Ranch. Due to the extreme fire hazards of this remote environment, the ranch is a seriously non-smoking property. People who choose to smoke, and the people with them, are told to vacate immediately and can never return. The ranch welcomes non-smoking day visitors to view their hummingbird areas, as long as the visitors have called ahead. Drop-in guests create a problem, as this is a family ranch with domesticated animals roaming. A little “fair warning” is appreciated. The Beatty Guest Ranch can be reached at 520-378-2728 or via Internet at http://users.wildblue.net/beattysguestranch. The ranch sometimes has eggs, apples, and honey for sale. They appreciate cash donations to keep their many hummingbird feeders properly maintained and filled. They also offer several non-smoking cabins for various group sizes, from singles to small tour groups. They have been featured in Arizona Highways Magazine, Birds & Blooms Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, and will be in The National Geographic in 2007.
Writer’s personal visits to sites, 2000-2006; Book: Tucson Audubon Society’s Finding Birds in Southeast Arizona, Compiled by David Stejskal and Gary H. Rosenberg, copyright 2004 by Tucson Audubon Society, Tucson, Arizona; Nature Conservancy website at: www.nature.org; Beatty Guest Ranch website at: http://users.wildblue.net; The Canyons on Fort Huachuca website at: www.sabo.org