Nature Watching in the Sonoran Desert Region

Roseann Beggy Hanson

Native desert people, such as the Tohono O'odham and Pima Bajo, observed their surroundings closely. Just as you might watch for price reductions and new product arrivals at supermarkets, they watched the movements of animals and the fruiting of plants, the abundance or paucity of rain, the rise and fall of temperatures. They knew that in the mountain canyons when the coatis formed large troops and ventured to lower elevations, fall was arriving with cooler temperatures and the promise of acorns, hackberries, and wolfberries. Or that when a badger goes digging for squirrels or kangaroo rats, a clever coyote often hovers nearby, waiting for the hunted rodent to run out another hole.

Observing animals in their natural habitats is as rewarding as it can be challenging. Planning, patience, knowledge of habitats and animals, and a little luck are what you need to successfully "hunt" wildlife with binoculars or camera. This chapter offers a little help, with suggested hot spots for observing wildlife and flora of the Sonoran Desert region, and some how-to tips as well.

Click to hear some sounds of the Sonoran Desert

Click to hear more sounds of the Sonronan Desert

Ten Sonoran Desert Nature Watching Hot Spots

1   Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge

Desert grassland with riparian corridors, ciénegas and Madrean oak woodland

This diverse refuge, under management of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, is fifty miles (80 km) southwest of Tucson near the Mexican border and includes 116,000 acres of desert grassland, riparian woodlands, ciénegas, and oak woodlands (3200 to 4600 feet, 975 to 1402 m). Wildlife-watching is great year-round, featuring over 317 species of birds and other animals including unusual wildlife such as masked bobwhite, pronghorn, gray hawks, Underwood's mastiff bats; even jaguars have been sighted within the refuge. In spring and fall, the migratory bird show is spectacular, featuring hawks, hummingbirds (12 species recorded), warblers, and many other songbirds. The heart of the vast refuge is a broad grassland valley flanked by riparian areas at Arivaca Creek and Ciénega on the east and, to the west, sycamore-lined Brown Canyon below Baboquivari Peak. The entire refuge is open to the public; call refuge headquarters for information about Brown Canyon, which is open by guided tour only. Over 100 miles (160 km) of rugged dirt roads are open; there are fifteen miles (24 km) of walking and hiking trails. (520) 823-4251. To Top

2   Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument

Arizona Upland and Lower Colorado River Valley subdivisions of the Sonoran Desert

This 516 square mile (1336 km2) National Park Service preserve 140 miles (225 km) southwest of Tucson, along the Mexico-Arizona border, features two distinct subdivisions of the Sonoran Desert amid jagged volcanic mountain ranges (approximately 1000 to 4800 feet, 305 to 1463 m). Most of the habitat is classic cactus-palo verde, Arizona Upland desertscrub, with lusher ribbons of desert ironwood and mesquite trees along the many large, dry washes; along the southern and western edges of the monument are creosote bush and bursage-dominated Lower Colorado River Valley communities, and in a small hollow called Senita Basin the landscape is dotted with senita cacti, ashy limberbushes, and elephant trees. The namesake organpipe cacti, which offer lovely white blooms in May and June, are near their northern limit in the monument . Fall through early spring are the best seasons for temperate weather; in early spring rufous hummingbirds migrate through following the scarlet ocotillo blossoms and the stunning white ajo lilies may bloom. Late-spring through summer offer the best cactus blooms and wildlife viewing opportunities, but also hot weather. There are five miles (8 km) of maintained hiking trails, many miles of backcountry trails and two scenic, graded, unpaved drives, 21 and 53 miles (34 to 85 km) long. (520) 387-6849. To Top

3   Andreas Canyon and Palm Canyon, California

Desert fan palm oasis

The desert fan palm oasis is a unique habitat to the Sononran Desert region. Almost all of the known 158 oases occur in the Lower Colorado River Valley subdivision. Desert fan palms are the most massive palms in North America, especially when their skirts of dead leaves or "petticoats" are intact. The palms typically live in rocky canyons with permanent springs, creating shady, cool oases attractive to people and wildlife.

In a good year a single tree can produce 350,000 fruits (350 pounds)-food for early native people and animals. In California most of the desert fan populations on the western edge of the Sonoran Desert are similar genetically and were likely established from seeds in coyote scat. Cahuilla Indians regularly set the palm groves on fire to clean out the underbrush, reduce insects, and increase fruit production. As in all riparian habitats, water and nutrients are concentrated, increasing productivity and diversity of animals and plants. Often desert animals are seen within a few feet of species more typical of other environments such as riparian, woodland, or chaparral habitats. Andreas and Palm canyons are well-developed, mature desert fan palm oases that are easily visited from Palm Springs. (800) 790-3398. To Top

4   San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area

Riparian corridor

The BLM-administered San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area is one of the most important preserves in North America, protecting thirty-six miles (58 km) of this rare undammed river, a vital corridor for millions of neotropical migratory birds. Over 380 species of birds and eighty-two species of mammals have been recorded within the cottonwood, willow and thornscrub corridor. Recently, reintroduction of once-native beavers has been proposed. The San Pedro RNCA is about ten miles (16 km) east of Sierra Vista, Arizona, and is easily accessed at the historic San Pedro House, a hub for several riverside trails. Birdwatching opportunities are excellent: green kingfishers, yellow-billed cuckoos, tropical kingbirds and gray hawks are favorites in spring and summer. (520) 458-3559. To Top

5   Sycamore Canyon, Pajarita Wilderness Area

Riparian corridor in desertscrub-Madrean evergreen woodland interface

The north-south border canyons of southern Arizona are natural corridors through which tropical and montane (Sierra Madrean) Mexican species funnel into the United States. The results of the invasion are typical in canyons such as Sycamore-a wealth of locally rare species such as elegant trogons, five-striped sparrows, brown vine snakes, ball moss (the only epiphytic flowering plant in Arizona, in the Bromeliad or "pineapple" family), a rock fern called Asplenium exiguum, and the only wild Arizona population of Sonora chub (see page 521), a small native fish. Coyotes, Mexican opossums, coatis, bobcats, and mountain lions are sometimes seen. The creek, the headwaters of Sonora's Río de la Concepción, flows in Sycamore Canyon year-round, though there are dry stretches during certain times of the year; the six-mile-long trail, which ends at the border fence, crosses the creek many times. Coronado National Forest is the land management agency for this canyon. (520) 281-2296. To Top

6   Hassayampa River Preserve, Arizona Nature Conservancy

Arizona Upland, riparian corridor with cottonwood-willow forest and lake communities

This exquisite Nature Conservancy property, preserving some five miles (8 km) of one of central Arizona's last perennial streams and a lake habitat, lies at the northern reaches of the Sonoran Desert. The well-preserved cottonwood-willow gallery (Frémont cottonwood and Goodding willow) is one of the most threatened forest types in North America. Along the river live such species as Gilbert's skink, zone-tailed hawk, Mississippi kite, yellow-billed cuckoo, willow flycatcher, mule deer, javelina, and ringtail; over 230 species of birds have been recorded at the preserve. At Palm Lake, a four-acre pond-and-marsh habitat, live five species of rare desert fish: bonytail chub, Colorado River squawfish, razorback sucker, Gila topminnow, and desert pupfish. The Hassayampa River Preserve, approximately 2000 feet (610 m) elevation, is about 60 miles (97 km) northwest of Phoenix and offers excellent nature-watching opportunities year-round. (520) 684-2772. To Top

7   Santa Catalina Mountains

Arizona Upland through mixed-conifer forest

The twenty-six-mile drive up the Santa Catalina Mountains, which flank Tucson's north side, is like driving from Mexico to Canada in just a few hours. Beginning at Milepost 0, the foothills are covered in lush vegetation typical of the Arizona Upland subdivision of the Sonoran Desert-a great spot to see saguaro cacti, curve-billed thrashers, and Gambel's quail. Five miles (8 km) up the road is Molino Basin; along the way you pass desert grassland, with yuccas, ocotillos and black-chinned sparrows, and a riparian woodland, with tall Arizona sycamores, walnut trees, black-necked garter snakes, and canyon treefrogs. In Molino Basin, oak woodland begins with three species of oaks, alligator juniper, border piñon, acorn woodpeckers, and Mexican jays. At Milepost 12 is a beautiful oak-pine woodland with tall ponderosa pines, silverleaf, blue, Arizona and Gambel's oaks, pygmy nuthatches, and gray squirrels. After that the road climbs to over 8000 feet (2440 m) through mixed coniferous forest, with ponderosa pines, white firs, golden aspens, Abert's squirrels, and black bears. Near the top of the mountain is the small community of Summerhaven, where several restaurants offer good food; here one often sees blue-throated and broad-tailed hummingbirds. Coronado National Forest is the land agency. (520) 749-8700. To Top

8   Alamos, Sonora, Mexico

Tropical deciduous forest, tropical riparian sabino forest, Madrean pine-oak forest

The pueblo of Alamos is a charming Spanish colonial town immersed in memories of an elegant and rich past, with cobblestone streets, vast old mansiones, vibrant gardens of colorful tropical plants, a palm-studded gazebo plaza in front of the 260 year old La Purisima Concepción cathedral , and a classical musical festival in January. Alamos is located 430 miles (695 km) south of the U.S.-Mexico border, a day's drive from Tucson on good roads. Excellent hotels, restaurants, and guides are available.

For the naturalist, Alamos is the gateway to the New World tropics, the northernmost opportunity to experience the tropical dry season and the diversity of the lush summer monsoon forest-rampant vines, lianas, and epiphytes, tropical animals including boa constrictors, brown vine snakes, lilac-crowned and white-fronted Amazon parrots, black-throated magpie jays, and other tropical species. Trails from 1300 to 4260 feet (400 to 1300 m) elevation in the nearby Sierra de Alamos provide access to tropical deciduous forest , oak woodland, and pine-oak forest. The Río Cuchujaquí , just to the southeast, is a scenic tropical river lined by very large sabinos, or Mexican bald cypress, with indigo snakes, tiger herons, and more than 730 species of plants. In 1995, the Sierra de Alamos-Arroyo Río Cuchujaquí was declared a federally protected area for fauna and flora by the Mexican government. To Top

9    Cataviña, Baja California Norte, Mexico

Vizcaíno subdivision of the Sonoran Desert

Driving down the Baja peninsula on Highway 1 from Tijuana, one skirts the Pacific Coast until El Rosario, where the highway turns east and begins to cross the rocky backbone of Baja. The deserts of Baja begin here, in the strangely beautiful Vizcaíno sub-division of the Sonoran Desert. Around a tiny wayside stop called Cataviña spread some of the most scenic of Baja's landscapes. Giant granite boulders are strewn across the sandy landscape of cirio ("boojums"), palo adán (Fouquieria macdougalii), and the cardón cacti, cholla, pitaya, and garambullo, or old man cactus (see plate 21). Just north of Cataviña a perennial creek crosses the highway; look here for lush blue fan palms and many songbirds taking advantage of the oasis (see plate 26). The Cochimi Indians used to live in this area, hunting the elusive desert bighorn sheep. Sometimes fog rolls in from the Pacific, lending an eerie air to this arid land. To Top

10    Bahía Kino, Sonora, exico

Central Gulf Coast subdivision of the Sonoran Desert

A little over 150 miles (241 km) south of the Arizona border is the sleepy Mexican fishing and holiday town of Bahía Kino, or Kino Bay, on the Sea of Cortez. This picturesque bay is at the eastern edge of the sea's many midriff islands, a biological treasure trove where fin, pilot and orca whales, giant manta rays and several species of porpoises and dolphins may be seen. North of Kino lies some of the most beautiful desert in North America-the Central Gulf Coast subdivision of the Sonoran Desert-with giant cardón cacti, two species of elephant tree, and a stand of boojum trees a short distance up the coast (near Puerto Libertad). Migratory songbirds and shorebirds are some of the wildlife that make this area so special. To Top

A Few More Great Places to Explore

Cactus Forest Loop Trail, Saguaro National Park, East

An easy hiking trail through dense saguaro cactus and palo verde-mesquite forest, the five-mile Cactus Forest Trail showcases lots of resident desert birds such as Gila woodpeckers, cactus wrens, curve-billed thrashers, and phainopeplas and offers a chance to see how saguaros grow under "nurse" plants. (520) 733-5153.

Hugh Norris Trail and King Canyon, Saguaro National Park, Tucson Mountains

The King Canyon Trail begins along a large desert wash (across from the Desert Museum) where desert dwellers such as coyotes, javelina and mule deer are often seen. It ascends gradually through beautiful saguaro cactus and palo verde dominated desert, joining the Hugh Norris Trail to gain the summit of Wasson Peak with its glorious views of the Tucson Basin, Avra, and Altar Valleys, and Rincon, Santa Catalina, and Santa Rita Mountains. Of botanical interest is the remnant desert grassland and interior chaparral atop the peak. Length: 3.5 miles (5.6 km) from the King Canyon trailhead to Wasson Peak. (520) 733-5158. (See plate 27.) To Top

Garden Canyon, Huachuca Mountains

The Huachuca Mountains' proximity to Mexico make for excellent opportunities to see such southern species as elegant trogons, Montezuma quail, and spotted owls. Just a few minutes to the southeast of Sierra Vista, this canyon shelters habitats from desert grassland up through oak woodland and oak-pine woodland, with a montane riparian community running through all. The area is especially good for butterfly watching and wildflower viewing in September, and is also very rich in ferns. Access (usually permissible) is through Fort Huachuca (520) 533-7085.

Aravaipa Canyon, Arizona Nature Conservancy and Bureau of Land Management

Rare raptors such as Mississippi kites, zone-tailed, gray, and black hawks call this cottonwood and willow lined riparian canyon home, as do tanagers, coatis, bobcats, mountain lions and native fishes. Access is through either the western end (Mammoth) or the eastern end (Klondyke) by permit only. The small effort needed to obtain a permit is more than offset by the solitude this system affords. (520) 348-4400. (See plate 28.) To Top

Sulphur Springs Valley

Sulphur Springs Valley is near Willcox, Arizona. Don't miss the wintertime spectacle of tens of thousands of sandhill cranes and snow geese. January is the best time to see these beautiful birds, with tours and seminars available during the festival. (520) 384-2272.

Palm Canyon, Kofa National Wildlife Refuge

The jagged Kofa Mountains thrust straight out of the flat desert pan 63 miles (101 km) north of Yuma, Arizona. Much of this 665,000-acre refuge is designated wilderness and is closed to motorized travel. One of the exceptions is the nine-mile rocky dirt road up to the mouth of Palm Canyon, where there are some fifty native palms tucked away in nearly inaccessible side canyons. The refuge is home to hundreds of bighorn sheep, five species of rattlesnakes, and many other desert animals. Fall through spring are the best times to visit. Camping is available along the dirt road. (520) 783-7861.

South Mountain Park

This largest municipal park in the world rises in southern Phoenix. High slopes and isolated valleys are home to coyotes, Gila monsters, rock squirrels, javelinas, and a variety of desert plants, including elephant tree, Bursera microphylla, here at its northern limit. Ancient petroglyphs chipped into rock varnish suggest that the mountain was sacred to prehistoric peoples. (602) 262-7275. To Top

Kitt Peak, Quinlan Mountains

Kitt Peak, located 50 miles (80 km) west of Tucson, is the home of the National Optical Astronomy Obser-vatories' viewing complex. The peak, which is accessible via a paved all-weather road, rises from the desert floor to beautiful evergreen woodland at almost 7000 feet (2130 m). On your trip to the summit look for coatis (a resident troop frequents the parking lot), birds such as acorn woodpeckers, Mexican jays, spotted towhees (in summer), and the cryptic-colored mountain spiny lizard, which might be seen even in winter because of its ability to regulate its body temperature and escape into deep crevices. (520) 318-8726.

Superstition Wilderness

Saguaro-palo verde forests, chaparral, pinyon, juniper, and oak woodlands, and even small pockets of Ponderosa pine, are all part of the rugged Superstition Wilderness landscape. The wilderness, roughly forty to sixty-four miles (64-100 km) east of Phoenix, also includes scenic and geological features, cliff dwellings, and a rich history. The less-visited eastern half offers the best wildlife viewing. (602) 610-3300. To Top

Cañon Nacapule, San Carlos-Guaymas, Sonora, Mexico

Just inland from the Mexican resort town of San Carlos is the magical Nacapule Canyon, an enclave of tropical deciduous forest at the southern edge of the Sonoran Desert. Several species of fig trees, including rock and strangler figs (nacapule is Spanish for Ficus pertusa), and tropical palm trees thrive in the oasis; Mexican boa constrictors have also been found there. To Top



Hummingbird Bats

In the Chiricahua and Huachuca mountains of southern Arizona, hummingbird enthusiasts have discovered nocturnal interlopers among their feathered friends. Nectar-feeding bats that feed on blooming agave and columnar cacti are also adept at locating bird feeders filled with sugar water. In many areas, flocks of bats arrive to drain feeders just as the bird-watchers are going to bed. Upon waking, avian naturalists were initially amazed at their drained feeders, looking for leaks or other nocturnal culprits such as ringtails or raccoons. But diligent overnight observations revealed the real story.

Nectar bats echolocate to maneuver around obstacles and to find their way on pitch dark nights, but their skills in this regard are not as finely tuned as those species which pursue flying prey. Most nectar bats rely heavily on their excellent sense of smell and upon vision to locate nectar-producing flowers. The sweet aroma of sugar-water-filled feeders proved an easy and reliable target for hungry bats.

Bats usually arrive at feeders well past sundown and feed in flocks, hitting a single feeder several times up until midnight. Two to half-a-dozen bats may circle a feeder in a well-choreographed "holding pattern,"while one at a time they peel off to dip in for a drink. Watching bats at feeders is not as easy as watching hummingbirds. The bats are much quicker and do not often hover, but their loud dove-like wing beats are unmistakable and often announce their presence long before their dusky shadows flit rapidly in and out of sight.

In many areas of southern Arizona, nectar bats are relying heavily on hummingbird feeders. Scientists are not sure of the behavioral and health effects of this artificial nectar source on the bats. Like most animals-humans included-the bats readily take advantage of an easy, reliable food source. But after gorging on "candy" for a while , it is quite possible that they seek out the more nutritionally complete flower nectar and pollen that make up essential nutrients in their diets. Meanwhile, the presence of bats at hummingbird feeders provides unprecedented encounters with one of America's most rarely seen and most interesting bat species.

                                                        - Janet Tyburec       

Nature-Watching Tips

Too often we charge off down a trail, binoculars in hand, optimistically scanning for wildlife-then we end up wondering why we didn't see very much despite the great distances we covered. One of the best tips for increasing the chances for seeing wildlife is to slow down. Or better yet, stop. Pick a spot to hide, such as under a tree or between some boulders, get comfortable, and put your patience in gear. You'll be surprised how much wildlife will wander by.

Tips for Mammal and Bird Watching

Tips for Watching Butterflies (and Other Arthropods)

Tips for Reptile and Amphibian Watching



A "Talk" with A Coyote

I often wander around in the desert by myself and have been very fortunate in seeing lots of wildlife and in observing many of the miracles that happen every day in nature. One of my favorite memories is of an encounter with Coyote.

I was walking up a lushly vegetated wash at dawn one summer morning. A coyote started ambling across the wash, then suddenly realized I was there. He began to trot away, so I sat down on the sand. That immediately aroused his interest since it's not a typical reaction from people, and it's also a very non-threatening gesture. So the coyote stopped and sat down, watching me. I simply sat, waiting for him to make the next move. He did. He lay down and put his head on his paws, still watching and assessing me. I lay down resting my head on my hands, staring into those intelligent brown eyes. After a minute he rolled on his side, so of course I did too. We spent several wonderful minutes changing positions and rolling around.

Suddenly Coyote sat up cocking his ears around. He glanced at me one last time as though to say goodbye, then moved off into the brush, just before a horseback rider came into view down the wash. It was an incredible, magical feeling staring into the soul of Coyote and finding myself judged worthy of a few private moments of play.

                                                        - Pinau Merlin        


Observe But Don't Participate

When exploring for plants or sitting and enjoying the wildlife, it's important to remain an observer and resist becoming a participant. Using food to bait animals in for a better photograph, or handling baby animals, is harmful to the animals in the long run. Approaching nests or burrows too closely can cause an adult to flee, leaving the young exposed to predation. In sensitive habitats, such as along stream banks or in desert areas with cryptobiotic ("with hidden life" or "living") soil, care is necessary to avoid trampling delicate growth or causing erosion. Also, avoid staying near tinajas (water holes or tanks) and other solitary water sources for long as you may be keeping animals from a life-sustaining resource.

Binoculars can greatly enhance your nature experiences by bringing wildlife nearer without your having to get close. Use them to get a better look at birds, butterflies, mammals, and reptiles.To Top

Going South

If you venture into Mexico, you will need a few extra travel items. Many American automobile insurance companies offer coverage up to fifty miles (80 km) into Mexico, but most of the best places to explore are a hundred or more miles across the border. In Tucson and Phoenix, in border towns such as Nogales and Lukeville, and at the car permit stop at the border, you can purchase Mexican insurance for your automobile (look in the Yellow Pages under "insurance"or "automobile insurance, Mexico"). Take your car registration, passport or voter identification, and photo IDs. Depending on where you are going in Mexico, you may or may not need a personal travel visa and a permit for your automobile. It is important that you consult with your Mexican insurance agent about your destination. If you are a member, AAA offers excellent Mexico maps and tips for Mexico travel.To Top

Additional Readings

Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. Tucson Mountains Trail Guide. Tucson: Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum Press, 1995.

---. Mount Lemmon Road Guide. Tucson: Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum Press, 1995.

Carr, John N. Arizona Wildlife Viewing Guide. Helena, MT : Falcon Press, 1992.

Hanson, Roseann Beggy and Jonathan Hanson. Southern Arizona Nature Almanac. Boulder: Pruett Publishing Company, 1996.

Tucson Audubon Society. Davis and Russell's Finding Birds in Southeast Arizona. Tucson: Tucson Audubon Society, 1995.


The Arizona Public Lands Information Center coordinates information from all U.S. and Arizona agencies that are concerned with public lands and is an excellent source for maps and books: 222 N. Central Avenue, Phoenix, AZ 85004. (602) 417-9300; www.publiclands-usa.com/html/home.html.

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