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It’s Not a Christmas Boat Trip, But It Is the Santa Cruz

By Richard Fray

santacruz_riverWith spring migration in full flow, birders across North America will be flocking to traditional migration corridors in the hopes of finding their ‘first of season’ warblers, flycatchers and —who knows—maybe a surprise or two. Here in southeast Arizona we’re blessed to have two of the most notable avian super-highways in the Southwest, the San Pedro and Santa Cruz rivers. Last year I moved to Rio Rico and now live in the foothills of the San Cayetano mountains, just a mile above the Santa Cruz River, so I’m looking forward to the spring migration more than most.

Migrating birds have few requirements, but each is critical: food, water, shelter and a direct route towards their eventual destination. The lush cottonwood-lined Santa Cruz River provides all those things in spades, and thus attracts impressive numbers of migrating birds streaming northwards.

The Santa Cruz originates in the hills surrounding the San Rafael Valley and has the unique distinction of heading south, into Mexico, before turning north and heading back into Arizona near Kino Springs. This initial section is mostly private and has been somewhat overgrazed and degraded, but could still be worth a look. However, the main action takes place further north. The Nogales International Wastewater Treatment Plant in Rio Rico pumps treated wastewater into the Santa Cruz channel, the water staying above ground for around 15 miles, creating a vibrant, flowing river.

The Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail, known to most as simply the Anza Trail, is a network of public trails that retraces the route of Lt. Colonel Anza’s expedition from Nogales to San Francisco, which began in 1775. The trail is still growing as more sections are opened to the public, and we’re lucky to have several stretches that traverse fantastic birding habitat in Santa Cruz County.

The best known, from a birding perspective, are the sections at Tubac, accessed from Bridge Road or the Tubac Presidio, and at Tumacacori, which can be reached via the private Santa Gertudis Lane. Birders have permission to walk this road, but not drive it, so please park on the Frontage Road.

Less famous, but equally birdy, is the section at Clark Crossing Road in Carmen (again, park on the Frontage Road). Either side of the bridge along Rio Rico Drive in Rio Rico, the Anza Trail moves through more open habitat with fewer large willow and cottonwood trees, so it produces a different birding experience. The southern access is easily spotted, with a large parking lot at the Guy Tobin Trailhead. An obscure turning just east of the bridge leads to the northern trail. Excitingly, a new section of Anza Trail is due to be opened in Rio Rico, hopefully in April, as part of the project to span the Santa Cruz River with a new bridge at Palo Parado Road. The area is currently closed but, from the plans, I gather the new trail will initially pass through the dense mesquite bosque adjacent to the river, so could provide yet another different birding opportunity.

GRHA_JBurnsI haven’t mentioned individual migrant species because the birds you might encounter while exploring the Santa Cruz are many and varied and, at this time of year, almost unlimited, with practically any migrating Western species (and maybe the odd Eastern stray) being possible. From raptors to vireos, swallows to orioles, if it migrates, it won’t be far away. This verdant corridor, flanked by desert, grassland and irrigated agricultural fields, is equally important as breeding habitat. Some of the birds you’ll find won’t be on the move, but will have already arrived at their preferred destination. These include one of the densest populations of the enigmatic Gray Hawk in North America, among other characteristic species of prime riparian habitat. It’s also the traditional summer home of Black-bellied Whistling-Duck, Yellow-billed Cuckoo and Tropical Kingbird.

By mid-May, most migrant birds will have passed through and the temperatures will begin to soar, so an early morning visit will be more productive and more comfortable. Even though you may be in the shade for long periods, it’s important to remember your key Arizona survival techniques: bring plenty of water and wear sunscreen and a wide-brimmed hat.

Good birding!

A lifelong birder, Richard Fray arrived in southeast Arizona from his native England in 2002. He founded Fun Birding Tours in 2010 and works full time as a birding guide and tour leader, proudly sharing the rich birdlife of his adopted home with local birders and those visiting from around the world. Learn more at: www.arizonabirder.com

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Tucson Audubon Society
300 E University Blvd. #120 Tucson, AZ 85705

Mason Center
3835 W Hardy Rd.
Tucson, AZ 85742

Paton Center for Hummingbirds
477 Pennsylvania Ave.
Patagonia, AZ 85624
520 415-6447

color_square_face_right

Tucson Audubon Society
300 E University Blvd. #120
Tucson, AZ 85705

Mason Center
3835 W Hardy Rd.
Tucson, AZ 85742

Paton Center for Hummingbirds
477 Pennsylvania Ave.
Patagonia, AZ 85624
520 415-6447

color_square_face_right

Tucson Audubon Society
300 E University Blvd. #120
Tucson, AZ 85705

Mason Center
3835 W Hardy Rd.
Tucson, AZ 85742

Paton Center for Hummingbirds
477 Pennsylvania Ave.
Patagonia, AZ 85624
520 415-6447