Birding in Southern Arizona

With summer fast approaching Pam and I took off for a short road trip to southern Arizona to do some birding before they head north. We decided to take some of the back roads through the state, which made for a very enjoyable drive.

Heading south through Globe we hit the Mammoth – Benson highway, a nice dirt road east of Tucson. We missed the turn initially, but stopped to talk with a guy in Mammoth who just happened to be the grader of the road and gave us the current conditions.


We stopped for lunch along the way in the desert surrounded by creosote and dry grassland.


We camped a couple of days at Patagonia State Park, about 15 miles north of the Mexican border. It has a nice campground and a lake.


It’s a big birding area in the winter and spring, with about 100 different birds to see in the area. We hiked around the lake and ran into the Green Valley Birding Club during our hike. Sometimes watching the birders is more interesting than watching the birds.


The path followed Sonoita Creek. The spring leaves on the trees have not come out yet so shade was limited, making it easier to see the birds.


We stumbled into a group that had found the Elegant Trogon in a mesquite thicket. While it’s the size of a raven we would have walked right by if they had not been there.


We also saw some Cinnamon Teals, a Vermillion Flycatcher and a host of other birds.

We left Patagonia and headed east towards Tombstone. Just west of Tombstone is the site that used to be the town of Franklin, a train depot crossroads for the old west, but now just a ghost town.


East of Tombstone I missed the turn again and ended up on a 4-wheel path through the desert along a buried gas line. After a fun, but short trek through the desert we connected with the paved road to Elfrida and the Whitewater Draw, the winter home of the Sandhill Cranes. The shortcut only caused Pam to say “you are not going up that” once so it wasn’t that bad. Man, I love this vehicle.


We set up camp right at the viewing area in one of the four sites there. We created our own shade with our canopy and had a great view of the area.


Birding can be tough, and it definitely builds a thirst.


There were a few thousand cranes in the draw, along with many other ducks and raptors. The sheer number of cranes is amazing. It reminded us of when we were at a nature preserve outside of Homer, Alaska last summer and the ranger said if we were lucky we might see their breeding pair of cranes. When she asked if we wanted to borrow her scope to see the crane we explained that we we’ve been to the Draw and she said, “oh, never mind”.


They fly north at daybreak to feed in the cornfields and return in the afternoon to lounge around the pool, my kind of bird.


That’s the Chiricahua Mountains on the right and the Dragoon Mountains on the left. This is the area Geronimo and the Apache Indians held off the US and Mexican Armies for decades.

Another flock of smaller birds flew through in the morning, giving a better idea on how big the cranes really are in size.


Like Patagonia, there are many birds that live in the draw. I spooked a few Northern Shovelers, Green winged Teals, and Cinnamon Teals.


In the evening the cranes get active again, flying south against the sunset in the cool air for one last spin before dark. Then they seem to call to each other all night across the draw – not a place for light sleepers.



We left the there and headed north through the cornfields to Wilcox, where we stopped to see some of the local shops.


We then headed up into the San Carlos Indian Reservation and took the long way around the San Carlos Reservoir.


The desert on the south side of the reservoir was covered in spring flowers under the mesquite trees.


We drove down to the water along one of the many dirt roads that branch off the main road, but we didn’t have a pass to stay the night. We ended up driving all the way around and across Coolidge Dam only to find out we had to drive further to the nearest store to purchase a pass.


Rather than backtrack, we pressed on north towards Roosevelt Lake and the Tonto National Forest. While this is effectively in our backyard we’ve never camped there so we decided to stop for the night along the lake. We found the ranger station, picked up our Tonto pass and camped at Bermuda Flat for the night.


The sunset was beautiful there and the nighttime temperature was perfect for a campfire next to the lake. We even spotted a few Clark’s Grebes doing their water dance across the lake for another lifer in the birding world.


We headed home on the Apache Trail, a very picturesque dirt road that runs through the mountains and along the series of lakes that hold the water for the Phoenix area. The dirt road is “mostly” two lanes wide, but an early morning traverse was no issue given the light traffic.


It becomes a paved road again at Tortilla Flats, where we stopped and walked around the few shops there. A classic car group was also there. I’m guessing they came from the Apache Junction direction and not the direction we arrived.


Back home now for a few weeks before our next short trip, and then gone for the summer again.