Exploring Southeastern Arizona’s “Ribbons of Life”
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Riparian: Water-dependant habitats
Whitewater Draw, Ramsey Canyon, the San Pedro River, and Chiricahua Mountains.
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I need to confess that I was a “river author” for a long time before I came across the term, “riparian” while birding in Arizona. It is a lovely word, uniquely descriptive of the ecosystem desperately balanced along fading trickles of moisture that pass for rivers in the Arizona deserts. They are not to be unappreciated, for these “trickles” can just as well become raging torrents that carry away recreational vehicles. In these areas are found 75% of the native species (trees, birds, insects, mammals and reptiles) one is likely to find in Arizona. For example, 350 species of birds have been identified in the San Pedro Riparian Conservation Area!
These same riparian ecosystems comprise only ½ of 1% of Arizona’s landmass. Our experience with Riparian areas included “dry” Canyons, dry washes, bowl-like “draws”and rivers that grew from steady trickles to flooding rivers that washed out rattlesnakes and every other burrow- dwelling creature within ½ mile!
Our Arizona journey began in Albuquerque, New Mexico, when we followed state highway 80 southwest Douglas, Arizona, directly on the Arizona-Mexico border. There we had mapped out several nationally known birding sites clustered around the historic and scenic mining town of Bisbee. While Bisbee is full of delectable B&B options, and nearby Douglas has a well-known historic hotel, the 1906 Gadsden Hotel, our abode would be the Double Adobe Campground. We chose it simply because it seemed further from Hwy 80 than any other campground. It turned out to be one of our best desert birding/hiking/camping discoveries.
Double Adobe Campground is a wintering spot not only for numerous gregarious snowbirds from Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Michigan, it is also a destination site for trap-shooters. Located 4 miles off the Interstate and surrounded by 200 acres of protected desert habitat, it offers a comfortable homey ambiance, several developed trails through the desert, and a location within spitting distance of the towns of Bisbee, Tombstone and Sierra Vista. Winter birding was excellent at Whitewater Draw, in Coronado National Forest, along the San Pedro River and in the Chiricahua Mountains.
Serendipitously, we also discovered that it was at Douglas that the Mormon Battalion fulfilled their national obligation to participate in the Spanish-American War. They, too, were attracted to the riparian “ribbon of life” known as the San Pedro River and planned to follow it as it flowed north toward the Colorado River and California. Like the main body of Mormon pioneers who left Nauvoo, Illinois, on the Mississippi River in 1845 <?>, the Mormon Battalion would eventually find their way to Salt Lake in modern-day Utah. Near Douglas, the battalion survived their only major skirmish of the war as they returned from Mexico… an encounter with a herd of wild bulls. In California, they camped at lonely Sutter’s Mill, and discovered the gold that started the great California Gold rush. MAP
On the specific command of Brigham Young, the soldiers were to immediately return to the settlement on Salt Lake, and not to bring back even an ounce of the precious metal.
Birding “destination sites”:
Double Adobe Campground and Recreational Ranch had several wildlife ponds and miles of hiking trails. The birds (vermillion flycatcher, curved billed thrashers, canyon wren, hawks) stake out positions in trees and brush along the ponds, but the trails also took us out into the high desert where sparrows and other species fluttered low in bushes that provided some small shelter from the sun. We had to learn to look low. Up north, birds are generally seeking sun on the outer branches! Click here to see the "official" bird list for Double Adobe Campground.
A narrow nearly dry river had cut deep banks through the desert in the outlying acreage… look for bits of centuries-old Indian pottery and keep your eyes open—abandoned clothing and backpacks in the cuts betray the existence of illegals transiting through from the Mexican border. We found such evidence along most rivers and trails from Douglas to Organ Pipe National Monument.
Whitewater Draw, 12 miles from Double Adobe was a glorious, though unpublished site just outside our campground. A “draw” is a low desert “bowl” into which water seeps, thus attracting birds and other wildlife in the desert. Here we discovered many thousand sandhill cranes (especially at dusk), huge flocks of snow geese, yellow-headed grackles and several pairs of vermillion flycatchers, a great horned owl, and several other sought after bird species.
During the day, sandhill cranes spread out to glean any grains that may still be in area fields. It is a thrill to watch them return en masse to these lowland “draws” beginning about an hour before sunset. Flight after flight dots the sky, sometimes in large V-shaped flocks, other times in small family groups. Because the roost on the ground rather than in trees, the wetland provides a watery alarm system should a raccoon, coyote or other intruder enter their preserve.
For us, “glorious” birding sites have come to designate sites that at times must be reminiscent of Audubon’s sightings. On the upper river, the November gatherings of Tundra Swans must be called “glorious.” The sun is not yet darkened, but 10,000 birds gathered in one spot definitely evokes awe in our day!!
On January 5, 1998--21,045 sandhill cranes were counted in the Sulphur Springs Valley. 10,654 came out of Whitewater Draw. In addition to the cranes, the site boasts a wide variety of bird and animal life, particularly birds of prey.
Overnight parking/Camping is still allowed in the parking area for Whitewater Draw, but Double Adobe was so conveniently located that I would recommend staying there. It’s worth noting that the Willcox Playa, near the town of Willcox on I-10 north and East of Benson is another desert “draw” that is well-known to birders. We did not get there ourselves, but it is well known for wintering cranes and other birds.
The San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area was our main destination on Hwy 90 west of Bisbee, enroute to Sierra Vista and Ramsey Canyon. If there was ever an opposite of the Mississippi River, the north-flowing trickle of the San Pedro River is a good candidate!
The riparian forest is one of the most endangered forest types in the world. Deer and some 350 species of birds inhabit the narrow strip of grasses, cottonwood and willow trees along its banks. Look for the green kingfisher at the edge of Kingfisher Pond.
Flooding along the main channel provides pools for fish, amphibians and reptiles. The Mormon soldiers leaving Mexico for California followed its fresh water and abundant wildlife northward.
Numerous trails parallel the river for a distance of nearly 30 miles. There is a convenient short interpretive loop that begins at the San Pedro House, and occasional guided tours. Schedules are available at the store or by phoning 520-458-3559. There is a great birding bookstore/giftshop in the San Pedro House just off Hwy 90 at the main entrance to the conservation area.
The Bureau of Land Management set aside 40 miles of the Upper San Pedro in 1988 which is located about 20 miles from Double Adobe. Two thirds of the inland species of birds in North America have been sighted here. The river is an important migratory corridor for thousands of birds. Trails offer chances for Vermillion Flycatchers, Green Kingfishers, Grey Hawks, Crissal Thrashers, Abert’s Towhee and a variety of Warblers.
BIRD Lists specific the San Pedro River and to the marked locations below are available.
Send $2 per list, or request three lists for $5. Please send your personal check or money order with a stamped (.39) return envelope to:
Great River Publishing
W987 Cedar Valley Road
Stoddard, WI 54658
The folks at Double Adobe recommend these SE birding hotspots, all easily accessible from Double Adobe Campground & Recreational Ranch. The distance from Double Adobe is noted for each park. Locations are also noted in YELLOW on the map at the top of the page.
This canyon in the Huachuca Mountains is part of the Coronado National Forest and is about 35 miles from Double Adobe. This is one of the most reliable spots for Buffbreasted Flycatcher, Red-faced Warbler, Yellow-eyed Junco, Red Crossbill, Pygmy Nuthatch, Stellars Jay and other high altitude birds.
Coronado National Memorial
Located on the Mexican border. This memorial is about 25 miles from the park. It contains all of the common mid-elevation birds of the area such as the Acorn Woodpecker, Gray-breasted Jay, House Finch and Bridled Titmouse. Two rare birds that visit the feeders are the White-eared Hummingbird and the Plain-capped Starthroat.
Garden Canyon on Fort Huachuca may be the prettiest in the Huachuca Mountains. Located a little over 40 miles from the park, the Scheelite Canyon trail is famous for Mexican Spotted Owls and Elegant Trogans. Further up Sawmill Canyon trail are Buffbreasted Flycatchers, Montezuma Quail, Sulphur-bellied Flycatchers and Red-faced Warblers. Northern Pygmy Owls are a possibility.
This canyon located in the Santa Rita Mountains is about 90 miles north-west of the park. Broad-billed hummingbirds are common at the Santa Rita Lodge feeders along with as many as 11 other species. Most of the Southeastern Arizona favorites can be found here including Elegant Trogon, Flammulated Owl and Buff-collared Nightjars.
Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Sanctuary
This riparian area, located about 70 miles from the park, is owned and operated by The Nature Conservancy and is one of the best birding spots in the southwest. The preserve provides habitat for over 200 species of flycatchers including kingbirds, phoebes, and the Northern Beardless Tyrannulet. Along the way, watch for Violet-crowned Hummingbirds and across the road look for Rose-throated Becards. During our December visit, we sighted a very rare Elegant Trogan.
Portal, gateway to the Chiracahua Mountains and the Wonderland of Rocks, is located about 75 miles from the park. Look for Crissal and Bendire’s Thrasher, Black-throated sparrow and Burrowing Owls around Rodeo and Portal. From the South Fork Campground, Elegant Trogons, Painted Redstarts, Sulphur-bellied Flycatchers and Strickland’s Woodpeckers can be seen. Rustler Park provides access to Red Crossbills. Mexican Chickadee and Red-faced Warblers. Another possibility is the re-introduced Thickbilled Parrot. Also Virginia’s, Red-faced and Olive Warblers and Elegant Trogon population in Cave Creek is the largest in the U.S.
Ramsey Canyon Preserve
This preserve may be the best known of the birding hot-spots in southeast Arizona. Located 30 miles from the park, Ramsey is famous for its large variety of hummingbirds including Magnificent, Blue-throated and White-eared. The many trails offer chances to view Strickland’s Woodpecker, Yellow-eyed Junco, Painted Redstart, Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher and many other species.
Sulphur Springs Valley
It is here in this valley that Double Adobe RV Park is located with its great variety of raptors. Ferruginous Hawks, Rough-legged Hawks, Prairie and Peregrine Falcons, Harris’ Hawks, Merlins, Kestrels, Bald and Golden Eagles, Cooper’s and Sharp-shinned Hawks, Harriers and many color phases of Red-tailed Hawk can be seen driving the back roads throughout the area. Wintering along playa lakes and agricultural fields are a variety of birds from the 12,000+ Sandhill Cranes to Lark Buntings, Chestnut-collared Longspurs and Long-billed Curlews and an occasional Whooper.
The Bisbee area is also central to several great hiking, biking, birding, and historic sites.
You will also want to visit:
Douglas, Arizona 25 miles
Tucson, Arizona: 55 miles northwest.
Willcox, Arizona: 37 miles east.
Tombstone, Arizona: 35 miles north.
Benson, Arizona: 84 miles north.
Parks & Monuments
Kartchner Caverns State Park: 100 miles north.
Fort Bowie National Historic Site: 75 miles east.
Tombstone Courthouse State Historic Park: 75 miles North.
Organ Pipe National Monument
Double Adobe Campground & Recreational Ranch
5057 W. Double Adobe Road
McNeal, Arizona 85617
E-mail us today for reservations.
Double Adobe Campground & Recreational Ranch located in Sulphur Springs Valley (elevation 4200 feet), is in the center of some of the best bird watching areas in the U.S. with Madera Canyon, Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Sanctuary, Ramsey Canyon Preserve, San Pedro Riparian Conservation Area, Cave Creek and Portal all within an afternoon’s drive. If you are planning a visit to historic Tombstone, Bisbee or an excursion into Old Mexico, Double Adobe is the perfect starting point to discover the wild west. We also offer an ATA certified trap range with scheduled registered competitions and a sporting clays layout for your enjoyment.
You’ll find us just southeast of Bisbee (see map), about a two hour drive from Tucson off of scenic highway 80 on Double Adobe Road.
Partial Bird List from Sightings at Double Adobe Campground
"Mexican" Mallard Intergrade
Canyon Towhee (Brown)
Common Ground Dove
Great Horned Owl
House Finch (orange varient)
Attention RV/Nature Enthusiasts!
If you are planning on spending the winter months in the mild SE Arizona climate, why not line up a professional bird guide to entertain you? For a personal and unique tour, Wezil Walraven can take you birding for a full or half day. Contact him directly at: call: 520-432-4697or email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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