Birding in Arizona

Come along as we take a tour through some of Arizona’s best birding locations and get to know the birds of Arizona

The birds of Arizona are diverse and live in amazingly beautiful areas throughout the state from the deserts of southern Arizona, to the high country.

Locating birds in Arizona is relatively easy if you set afield with the right tools and mindset. Optics are a handy item in the field, some even deem them necessary equipment for birders of all levels. Eight power binoculars are popular and provide users ample magnification and a large field of view.

Scrub jay at Catalina State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Now, pick a spot and go!

Oh, yes—don’t forget your camera and telephoto lens.

Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area

Whitewater Draw © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Located four miles southwest of the town of McNeal, Whitewater Draw is former ranchland, now managed as a wildlife area. The Arizona Game and Fish Department has set up viewing platforms and built trails for better visitor access.

Sandhill cranes at Whitewater Draw © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This is one of the best locations in Arizona to observe Sandhill cranes. As many as 15,000 cranes can be present from October into March, though the number varies depending on the amount of water present. More than 280 species of birds have been recorded including the snow goose (with some Ross’s) and more than 15 species of ducks.

Snow geese at Whitewater Draw © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The area is also known for wintering raptors including golden eagle, Cooper’s hawk, bald eagle, ferruginous hawk, peregrine falcon, red-tailed hawk, and American kestrel.

Sora at Whitewater Draw © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Throughout much of the year visitors can see waders including American Bittern, Black-crowned Night-Heron, and White-faced Ibis, along with Virginia Rail, Sora, and a variety of shorebirds. Other regulars at Whitewater Draw include scaled quail, Gambel’s quail, roadrunner, vermilion flycatcher, curve-billed thrasher, and yellow-headed blackbird.

San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area

San Pedro House © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This “site” actually comprises a riparian corridor around 40 miles long, following the San Pedro River as it flows north from Mexico to join the Gila River. The line of trees creates a lush ribbon of green in an arid environment.

Lesser Goldfinch at San Pedro House © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Stop first at San Pedro House, seven miles east of Sierra Vista on Highway 90 where trails wind through the riparian corridor. Another popular access point is not far away, east of the town of Hereford.

Gambel’s quail at San Pedro House © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Nesting birds along the San Pedro River include Gambel’s quail, gray hawk, green kingfisher, Gila woodpecker, black phoebe, vermilion flycatcher, Cassin’s kingbird, curve-billed thrasher, yellow warbler, Abert’s towhee, and lesser goldfinch.

Sierra Vista Environmental Operations Park

Pied-billed grebe at Sierra Vista Environmental Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

While you’re in the area, consider a visit to the Sierra Vista Environmental Operations Park, a water-treatment site with wetlands and a wildlife-viewing area. It’s located just north of Highway 90, three miles east of Sierra Vista. This oasis in the desert has attracted more than 240 bird species, including 20 species of ducks, pied-billed grebe, several wading birds including white-faced ibis, Virginia rail, sora, common gallinule, and 24 species of shorebirds. Land birds include black phoebe, vermilion flycatcher, Bell’s vireo, Chihuahuan raven, and Lucy’s warbler.

Usery Mountain Regional Park

Gilded flicker at Usery Mountain Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Usery Mountain, a Maricopa County Regional Park is in a gorgeous Sonoran Desert setting northeast of Mesa. On the south side of the mountain, the word Phoenix with a giant arrow pointing west has been spelled out in enormous letters made of white rocks. It’s visible for miles. For me, Usery Mountain has an iconic status because it’s here I first fell in love with the Sonoran Desert over 40 years ago.

Cactus wren at Usery Mountain Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The dawn chorus here is raucous with cactus wrens, curve-billed thrashers, Gila woodpeckers, guilded flicker, verdin, Gambel’s quail, house finch, rosy-faced lovebirds, and phainopepla, to name just a few.

House finch at Usery Mountain Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

A bird does not sing because it has an answer.  It sings because it has a song.

—Chinese Proverb

Travel Photography Guide

Travel photography is exciting and gives you a chance to explore new subject matter and photography styles

In today’s post I’ll offer a little guidance on what images to take and how to create a stunning travel portfolio. One aspect I love about travel photography is the diversity of techniques available to create a well-rounded image set.

The No. 1 rule: Engage the viewer! Your viewers may never visit your location. So, a travel photographer must convey a sense of place, mood, emotion, taste, and smell through captivating images. In other words, snapshots just don’t cut it.

Mount Washington Resort, New Hampshire © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Below you’ll find an outline of subjects and techniques to help you photograph your next travel story—and engage the viewer! From simple family vacations to travel books, try these tips to creatively photograph your travel adventures.

Brooks County Courthouse and the old Chisholm Trail, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

“It’s a small world after all” and we know a lot about other places without having been there. For example, when I say “San Antonio” most people think of the Alamo and the River Walk. Or, if I mention “New Orleans,” the French Quarter comes to mind. 

The Alamo © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Photographing iconic structures and characteristics of a location establishes where you are and gives the viewer a starting point. Often these subjects are clichés, at least in the sense that they have been photographed thousands of times.

San Antonio River Walk © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t take the shot. But, cliché subjects require fresh perspectives, interesting light or different angles to show the viewer an iconic landmark in a new way. Make it your mission to photograph the Alamo unlike it ever has been photographed before or during a special event or reenactment (see photo below).

Reenactment during the anniversary of the Battle of the Alamo © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Go shopping. Yes. That’s what I said: Go shopping! But be sure to shoot photographs while shopping. Farmers markets, swap meets, and street fairs are great locations for photography.

Galt Farmers Market, California © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Try some of the local flare and photograph the kiosk vendors. Think about what makes the market special. Local foods and crafts paint the picture of the area and you can almost taste the fresh peaches and apples in those orchard fruit stands.

Baskets of fruit and vegetables at a local market © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Experiment with depth of field and photograph baskets of fruit and veggies up close. Shooting wide open will result in soft blurry backgrounds which helps reduce clutter. Also, look for interesting beams of light filtering through the scene.

Truth BBQ in Brenham, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Food can make or break a trip for many people. Yet, despite how important food is during a trip, many photographers never take photos of food during their travels.

Boone Tavern Hotel, Berea, Kentucky © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Here’s a quick tip: Sit near a window with diffused light and let the chef do all the food styling. Plus, you can use the simple diffused light coming in through a window to compose compelling food images. Remember that although food photography is very detail-orientated, try to keep it simple. And, take several steps back for a compelling image through the window as the outdoors street scene unfolds often with amazing pastel shades.

Plaza of Santa Fe © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Many regions of the country are defined by their architecture whether it’s adobe construction in New Mexico or the opulent mansions of the Gilded Age.

Loretto Chapel, Santa Fe © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Adobe structures are extremely durable in arid climates and account for some of the oldest existing buildings in the world. Located on the historic Santa Fe Plaza, the Palace of the Governors (see photo below) served as the seat of Spanish colonial government for centuries. The building was named a Registered National Historic Landmark in 1960 and an American Treasure by the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 1999.

Historic Newport © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Nowhere in New England compares to the Gilded-Age splendor of Newport, Rhode Island. This coastal town is set upon cliffs dotted with some of the most spectacular mansions of the 19th century including The Breakers (see photo below) but that’s far from the only draw.

The Breakers © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Research the area you’ll be visiting. Architecture isn’t all about big buildings or churches. You might try photographing a cobblestone alley or an old library interior or renowned book store (think, Powell’s in Portland, the world’s largest independent book store) with volumes of books.

Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, Savannah, Georgia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

And, don’t forget about the countryside, landscape, and wildlife. They can be a major draw for travelers and photographers. Landscapes are often best photographed in early morning or late afternoon light. Stormy weather can result in very dramatic images and provide a fresh look to an iconic scene. Wildlife can also be an important part of a travel portfolio. Decide if wildlife defines your location and photograph the species that identify the area.

Early morning light at Usery Mountain Regional Park, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

As you can see, there is an almost limitless array of subject matter at your disposal when it comes to RV travel photography. But remember what’s important as a RV travel photographer: Capture the essence of the destination through creative, stunning photographs of diverse subject matter.

Cerulean Warbler at Falcon State Park, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

Greater Roadrunner © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Beauty can be seen in all things, seeing and composing the beauty is what separates the snapshot from the photograph.

—Matt Hardy

A Monumental Big Year

643 bird species, 44 states, two trips across the country and back, one pickup camper—all Taylor Páez needed to complete her Big Year on the road

In case you didn’t see the movie The Big Year, a Big Year is a personal quest to find as many species as possible during a calendar year. There are personal variations on this simple definition, but any way you do it, a Big Year is a serious undertaking that takes an absolute dedication, lots of free time, and some extra cash, as most participants do a lot of traveling.

Gambel’s Quail at Usery Mountain Regional Park, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Enter an ambitious young birder, Taylor Páez, who planned her Big Year, saved money, and left her office job; then ready, set, go—she was off, with the hope of finding 700 different birds in the lower 48 states.

Sandhill Cranes at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Taylor’s route was a road trip of epic proportions. Starting at her home in northern California, she looped south through Arizona, southern Texas, and around the Gulf of Mexico; then turned north, passing through many eastern states to New Hampshire and Maine. Next: New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Michigan including the Upper Peninsula, and Wisconsin. Then it was back to the West: the Great Plains, Colorado, on to Washington, and back home to California—all by July; traveling solo, living out of her compact truck camper, and experiencing the ultimate bird search day by day.

Green Heron at Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

As she traveled cross-country, Taylor monitored bird sightings reported on eBird, the American Birding Association’s state by state Birding News, Audubon listserves, and local birding groups’ posts on Facebook. Sometimes she even learned of rare bird sightings on Instagram, or by word-of-mouth from birders she interacted with at popular birding hotspots.

Western Scrub Jay at Catalina State Park, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

After a month-long break to re-charge at home, Taylor began the “zig-zagging” phase of her Big Year, driving through southern California, Arizona, Texas, Mississippi, then zigging and zagging before taking a boat trip off the coast of Maine; on to New Jersey, Ohio, Minnesota, Nebraska, Montana, and back to California to finish the year. Taylor explained her zig-zag pattern: “Toward the end of the year it was pretty crazy because it’s less about the common birds and more about the rare ones;” so when a rare bird showed up cross-country, she might begin a heated chase.

Black-bellied Whistling Ducks at La Feria Nature Center, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

After her sweeping bird quest across the country—twice—Taylor had a tough time picking just one favorite local. The country is filled with amazing biodiversity, and she enjoys it all. But if she had to pick a favorite, Taylor would pick the subtropical region of southern Texas. During one day at Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge she identified 35 new birds, the most new species she listed at once.

Roseate Spoonbills along the Creole Nature Trail, Louisiana © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Her favorite birds: Green Jays, Roseate Spoonbills, Greater Kiskadees, and Audubon’s Orioles—all found in the above-mentioned wildlife refuge.

Plain Chachalaca at Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

After spending a year in the great outdoors and tallying 634 species, Taylor did not go back to her office job. Instead, she turned to opportunities in the natural world: Working as a park naturalist and a stint conducting hummingbird surveys.

Tri-Colored Heron at Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, Florida © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

“I realized I not only wanted to be outside, but I wanted to make a positive impact on people. I wanted to bring them accessibility to nature and the outdoors. We need it now more than ever,” Taylor said. “I never thought I would do what I did—before that I played everything safe. I didn’t take risks, ever.”

Great Kiskadee at Edinburgh Wetlands, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Such a long trip was a big challenge, but after her Big Year, Taylor knows the risks are well worth the payback.

Black-necked Stilt at Gilbert Riparian Preserve, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The original article about Taylor Paez’s Big Year appears on the BirdsEye Birding website. BirdsEye’s free photography website is a comprehensive library of photos submitted by nature enthusiasts.

Great Horned Owl at Whitewater Draw, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

There is nothing in which the birds differ more from man than the way in which they can build and yet leave a landscape as it was before.

—Robert Lynd, The Blue Lion and Other Essays

A Great Migration: Bosque del Apache

The sound of the sandhill cranes and the scent of roasting green chile herald the arrival of autumn in the Rio Grande valley

It was a frigid November morning at New Mexico’s Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge where we had joined dozens of ardent wildlife photographers and nature enthusiasts, lined up tripod-to-tripod and scope to scope, ready and waiting for the action to begin.

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

We were standing on an observation platform called Flight Deck overlooking a network of fields and marshes teeming with thousands of sandhill cranes and snow geese that pause here to feed and rest during their annual migration south.

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Talk about a great migration! Every year starting in early November, some 10-15,000 sandhill cranes, 20-30,000 snow geese, nearly 40,000 ducks, and even a few hawks and bald eagles migrate to the Bosque del Apache. This annual event also attracts birders, photographers, and nature lovers of all kinds who also migrate to the Bosque to enjoy this spectacle of nature.

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Situated on the Rio Grande just a few miles off Interstate 25 south of Socorro (between Albuquerque and Las Cruces) in the tiny town of San Antonio, the 57,000-acre refuge was established in the 1930s to protect the sandhill crane. The majestic 4-foot-tall crane had nearly vanished along the Intermountain West Corridor, a vital north-south flyway for migratory waterfowl and many other birds.

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For instinctive reasons known only to the birds, a sunrise “fly out” en masse is a daily routine. As is a “fly in” at sunset when the flocks return to the shallow marshes after a day of feeding on corn and grain crops farmed on more than 1,300 acres, mostly at the northern end of the refuge.

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

“They could go any minute now,” said the photographer next to us. An amateur wildlife photographer, here as a member of a photo tour group. “They take off all at once…thousands of them,” he adds, “and it’s really unbelievable.”

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

As we watched and waited, the sun inched over the eastern horizon illuminating a wispy fog rising from the marsh several hundred feet away. Then, without any discernible signal, it happened. In virtual unison thousands of snow geese erupted in a thunder of wings, and in a blur filled the sky as they flew low over head before soaring northward to spend the day feeding in the fields.

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sandhill cranes then started to walk. Others lowered their heads, long necks stretched out in front of them, almost off-balance. This signal is followed by quick steps, the awkward first wing flaps and flight.

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

It’s unbelievable how they take off all at once, thousands of them. Nothing we’ve ever seen in nature compares to it. It is the rare human who is not stirred to awe and excitement as thousands of birds soar scarcely 20 feet overhead.

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Then in the late afternoon they streak the sky and return to the water to roost for the night. The afternoon fly-in is almost as enjoyable to observe as the morning fly-out.

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The spectacular sunrise had also made us forget for a time the freezing chill as we retreated to the warmth of our toad.

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Once warmed up, we drove the 15-mile one-way auto loop road and hiked the trails and observed large groups of snow geese and cranes, thousands of ducks of many varieties, hundreds of Canada geese, dozens of hawks, eagles, blackbirds, crows, roadrunners, sparrows, grebes, coots, and other birds along with occasional reptiles, amphibians and mammals, such as mule deer, coyotes, and jackrabbits.

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The refuge’s dirt roads are well maintained and RVs should have no trouble driving on them. If 15 miles sounds too long, you can cut your tour short by taking a two-way cutoff and driving on one section—the 7-mile Marsh Loop or the 7.5-mile Farm Loop.

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge is open year-round from one hour before sunrise until one hour after sunset. The one-day entry fee is $5 per vehicle including all occupants; an annual pass is $25. Golden Age and other federal passes are accepted.

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The refuge hosts a number of special events, including the annual Festival of the Cranes, staged during the height of the fall migration. The 32nd annual Festival of the Cranes is set for November 20-23, 2019. It’s a glorious pageant of nature celebrating the annual migration of birds as they head south for the winter.

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Where to Stay: Kiva RV Park and Horse Motel (Bernardo); Bosque Birdwatchers RV Park (San Antonio)

Worth Pondering…

I saw them first many Novembers ago and heard their triumphant trumpet calls, a hundred or more sandhill cranes riding south on a thermal above the Rio Grande Valley, and that day their effortless flight and their brassy music got into my soul.

—Charles Kuralt

What Is Birding?

Your life is going to be better with birds in it

If you had asked me a decade ago about birding, I would have said, “What is birding?”

I knew about some of the more common birds including chickadees, robins, finches, and blue jays, but had no idea birding was an activity people did together in an organized fashion.

Western scrub jay at Catalina State Park, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Birding has become one of the fastest-growing and most popular activities in the US, Canada, and around the world. An estimated 30 percent of all Americans go birding each year.

Green jay at Bentsen-Rio Grande State Park, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bird watching is also one of the few activities open to all ages and levels of ability. It doesn’t take much to get started in bird watching. You don’t need special hiking boots or clothing and you don’t require special equipment. Birds can be observed with the naked eye, although a pair of binoculars makes the experience more enjoyable.

Roseate spoonbills on the Creole Nature Trail, Louisiana © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Using one or more field guides is also recommended. The choice of a field guide for birding can be a very personal thing. Partly it depends on what you want from your field guide; partly on how you process information.

Sandhill cranes at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Sibley Guide to Birds is THE North American bird book if you’re a serious birder. The volume covers all the birds, and most of the plumages of all the birds you can find in the US and Canada. Kaufmann Field Guide to Birds of North America is also THE guide to own. The text is clear and the illustrations are very well done. 

Wood storks at Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, Florida © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

According to a US Fish & Wildlife Service study on the demographics and economic impact of birding, birdwatchers contribute over 36 billion dollars annually to the nation’s economy. One in five Americans has an active interest in birding. Some 47 million bird watchers, ages 16 and older, spend nearly $107 billion on travel and equipment related to bird watching.

Gambel’s Quail at Usery Mountain Regional Park, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In Washington State alone, wildlife viewing and photography adds more than $5 billion each year to the state and local economy.

About 88 percent focus mainly on backyard birding. But some extreme listers travel extensively in search of rare birds for their life lists.

Great Kiskadee at Edinburgh Wetlands World Birding Center, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The legendary birder Phoebe Snetsinger became obsessed with bird watching when she learned she had only one year to live—she was diagnosed with terminal melanoma in 1981. Living another 18 years, she fervently observed birds across the globe setting a world record of 8,398 bird species before her death in a 1999 car accident in Madagascar.

Ring-necked duck at Gilbert Riperan Preserve at Water Ranch, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Others, like master birder Connie Sidles, find endless joy in daily visits to one favorite spot. She has written two books describing the natural beauty and wonder she finds at the Montlake Fill (Union Bay Natural Area), a premier birding oasis in Seattle. The “fill” is a former landfill located in the heart of northeast Seattle on the banks of Lake Washington.

Pauraque at Estero Llano Grande State Park, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

People give different answers when asked what drew them to bird watching. For most, it starts with the simple aesthetic pleasure of enjoying the grace and beauty of birds and sharing the experience with family and friends.

Ibis at Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Wildlife viewing is among the most popular forms of outdoor recreation, and birds are the most visible and accessible form of wildlife, especially in urban and residential areas. You can even enjoy them from the comfort of your own home.

Royal terns at Padre Island National Birding Center, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Birds also symbolize freedom for many because they fly with such ease. For some, it has spiritual qualities and evokes feelings of peace and tranquility. It’s healthful and restful and no doubt good for your blood pressure and general well-being.

Snow geese at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Their exquisite plumage and vivacious songs enliven our sense of the magnificence and beauty of the world we share. Our love affair with birds connects us with the simple bliss of being alive and feeling at home in the natural world.

Plain chachalaca at Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Like many pursuits, birding embraces a whole subculture, with many levels of expertise and intensity. For some, it is highly competitive. For others, bird watching involves serious study of physiology, behavior, and the role of birds in the ecosystem.

Vermilion flycatcher at Bentsen-Rio Grande State Park, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For many, like us, it’s a pathway into the natural world by combining photography and RV travel with birding.

Altamira oriole at Bentsen-Rio Grande State Park, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

As a birder, I want to find and enjoy new birds, observe their behavior, and document what I see. As a photographer, I want to photograph birds in good light and a pleasing background, and above all return to my motorhome with quality photos.

Redhead at Padre Island World Birding Center, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

Have you ever observed a hummingbird moving about in an aerial dance among the flowers—a living prismatic gem…. it is a creature of such fairy-like loveliness as to mock all description.

—W.H. Hudson, Green Mansion