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

Important Bird Areas for RV Travel

A driving tour of Important Bird Areas that offer fantastic bird-watching opportunities for RV travel

If you’re an RVer interested in bird watching, Audubon’s Important Bird Areas (IBAs) is a great source for planning your next road trip. The IBAs form an impressive network of conservation sites for birds, including expansive lands that support important habitats for birds and other wildlife.

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

To date Audubon has identified 2,832 IBAs covering 417 million acres of public and private lands in the United States. You may be familiar with many of these IBAs, as some are already protected as national parks and national wildlife refuges—some are small and some expansive—but all are significant. Of the 2,832 North American IBAs, 720 are considered of global importance, 113 are listed as continental importance, and 1,999 are of state importance.

Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Following are five of our favorite IBA destinations in the US for bird watching and the enjoyment of the natural environment during our RV travels.

New Mexico: Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge

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

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge is the winter home of thousands of sandhill cranes, snow geese, ducks, and other waterfowl. The annual arrival of the sandhill cranes is celebrated by a 6-day festival each November. The Festival of the Cranes is scheduled for November 20-23, 2019. The cranes and snow geese generally remain on the refuge until mid-February when they return to their breeding grounds in the north.

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

Even with their departure the refuge remains a wonderful place for hiking, biking, and wildlife- and bird-watching year round. You will want to drive the auto Tour Loop to get up close to the wildlife and their habitat.

Florida: Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge

Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge is an important National Wildlife Refuge on the Atlantic coast of Florida. It is also a ‘gateway site’ for the Great Florida Birding Trail. Recreational opportunities are offered at the Refuge from manatee and bird watching, to fishing and hunting. The Visitor Information Center located 4 miles east of Titusville, Florida, is a great place to start your visit.

Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Consisting of 140,000 acres, the Refuge provides a wide variety of habitats: coastal dunes, saltwater marshes, freshwater impoundments, scrub, pine flatwoods, and hardwood hammocks. The refuge’s coastal location, tropic-like climate, and wide variety of habitat types contribute to the refuge’s diverse bird population. To date, 358 species have been identified on the refuge.

Arizona: Gilbert Riparian Preserves at Water Ranch

Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch is managed as a part of the City of Gilbert water treatment facility. The Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch features hiking and equestrian trails. The preserve provides a great opportunity for wildlife and bird watching and is considered the premier bird watching facility in the Phoenix metro region. Approximately 250 species of birds have been sighted here.

Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The preserve also has the only valley astronomy observatory open to the public every Friday and Saturday evening from dusk until 9:30 p.m., subject to weather conditions.

Texas: Laguna Madre

Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Texas coast is bordered by the world’s longest barrier island system. Part of this system forms the Laguna Madre whose mosaic of coastal wetlands, freshwater ponds, and native grasslands provide critical habitat for migratory waterfowl, waterbirds, shorebirds, raptors, and songbirds.

Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Laguna Madre includes privately owned cattle ranches (Kenedy and King Ranches), federally owned conservation areas (Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge and South Padre Island National Seashore), and coastal communities.

South Padre Island Birding Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge is host or home to an incredible diversity of migrating birds that funnel through the tip of Texas in an effort to avoid flying too far east, over the Gulf Coast, or too far west, over the desert. In addition, many southern species reach their northernmost range along the Rio Grande.

South Padre Island Birding Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A slender thread of land between the shallow Laguna Madre and the rolling Gulf of Mexico, South Padre Island anchors the World Birding Center with nature adventures in every season.The nature center offers more than 3,300 linear feet of boardwalk, five bird blinds, and a five story tower with spectacular views of the Laguna Madre, beaches and dunes of South Padre Island, and the Gulf of Mexico.

Louisiana: Cameron Prairie National Wildlife Refuge

Cameron Prairie National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cameron Prairie National Wildlife Refuge is an epic birding destination near Lake Charles. This is due to the fact that it is at the convergence of the Mississippi and Central flyways. Numerous birds make year-round residences here while millions make their way through this region in the spring and fall during migration.

Cameron Prairie National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cameron Prairie is your chance to truly enjoy the Louisiana Outback at its finest. Wildlife is abundant and makes wildlife viewing and photography opportunities endless. The best places to spot wildlife are the Pintail Wildlife Drive, the visitor center, and all along the Creole Nature Trail.

Cameron Prairie National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

Legends say that hummingbirds float free of time, carrying our hopes for love, joy, and celebration. The hummingbird’s delicate grace reminds us that life is rich, beauty is everywhere, every personal connection has meaning and that laughter is life’s sweetest creation.

—Papyrus

Creole Nature Trail: Bayous, Beaches & Birds

Experience the Louisiana Outback along the Creole Nature Trail

Water—seemingly everywhere—is a big part of the Creole Nature Trail experience. Part of America’s Byway’s system, this All-American Road is known for its distinct waters, pristine blue skies, and plenty of wildlife and bird watching.

A+ Motel & RV Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

We used A+ Motel & RV Park on Highway 27 in Sulphur, Louisiana, as our home base while driving the Creole Nature Trail and exploring the area. Conveniently located on the trail, A+ Motel & RV Park earns its name with 134 full-hookup sites, neatly trimmed grounds with a stocked fishing pond, two laundry/shower houses, and two pools, including an adults-only pool with a covered patio and a 75-inch flat-screen TV. New in 2008, A+ is big rig friendly with pull-through and back-in sites and conveniently located 30/50-amp electric service, water, and sewer connections, and cable TV.

Creole Nature Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There are two exits onto the trail from I-10; one near our home base at Sulphur, and, to the east, near Lake Charles. While both towns boast the usual stores, fuel stations, and cultural attractions like museums, casino gaming, and restaurants serving Cajun cuisine, we quickly drove into wild Louisiana wetlands. This is the Louisiana Outback.

Creole Nature Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Creole Nature Trail, one of only 43 All-American Roads in the U.S., runs 180 miles through three National Wildlife Refuges. The main route is U-shaped with spur roads along the Gulf shoreline and angling into other reserves like Lacassine National Wildlife Refuge and the Peveto Woods Bird and Butterfly Sanctuary.

Creole Nature Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

We head south, passing through small towns, then farms, and, just past Hackberry, the landscape becomes meandering waterways with islands of grass as far as the eye can see. The road courses along the west side of brackish Calcasieu Lake. At 8 miles wide and 18 miles long, the lake earns its “Big Lake” nickname. Along the roadway, brilliant orange, daisylike flowers flutter in the breeze.

Creole Nature Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Our first stop is Sabine National Wildlife Refuge, at 125,000 acres, the largest along the trail. We pull into an area marked “Recreation” where a dozen locals are fishing.

Creole Nature Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Just a hop down the road, we stop at the Blue Goose Trail and wildlife overlook, a paved 1-mile walking trail and raised wildlife viewing platform. Atop the tower, the breeze through the grasses and bird tweets, cheeps, and squawks are the only sounds.

Creole Nature Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Creole Nature Trail is filled with prairie grasslands and miles of freshwater, brackish, and saltwater wetlands rich in marsh grasses, crustaceans, and small fish, making it a key stopover for birds passing through the Central and Mississippi flyways. In fact, this area boasts more than 5 million migratory waterfowl and 400 species of birds, making it one of the top birding spots in the country.

Creole Nature Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

While visitors will see birds and the occasional alligator along the road, the best way to explore the Creole Nature Trail is to hike refuge trails and walkways. We walked the Wetland Walkway, a raised, 1.5-mile-long boardwalk that wends through 6-foot-tall grasses to a two-story observation tower with a sweeping view.

Creole Nature Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The sun, now fully emerged from the clouds, makes me glad I brought along my Tilley, a broad-brimmed hat. We spot roseate spoonbills, great white egrets, great blue herons, tricolored herons, white ibis, and red-winged blackbirds, and, while there are Alligator Alley warning signs, no gators.

Creole Nature Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Another stop is Holly Beach, a community of beachfront homes leveled in 2005 by Hurricane Rita. Like a phoenix, the colorful stilted beach cabins have been rebuilt, and this “Cajun Riviera” is once again popular for sunbathing, swimming, and shelling.

Creole Nature Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Located at Cameron Prairie National Wildlife Refuge, the Southwest Louisiana National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center features exhibits about Sabine, Cameron Prairie, Lacassine, and Shell Keys National Wildlife Refuges, and their coastal habitats and inhabitants. Exhibits include a diorama theater with Cajun animatronic characters, a scale model of a water control structure for hands-on learning about marsh management, natural habitat dioramas, impressive alligator displays, an interactive computer, and a fiber-optic migration exhibit.

On your next adventure out, consider a scenic drive on the Creole Nature Trail; you never know what may be lurking ’round the next bend.

Creole Nature Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

It’s not just a drive.

It’s an experience.

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

Great Parks to Observe Animals and Birds

The RV lifestyle offers numerous opportunities to get back to nature

National, state, and regional/county parks are havens for a variety of animals and birds that can easily seen by the casual camper or day visitor.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota

Prairie dog © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

If you want to see bison without the crowds of Yellowstone, this park in North Dakota is truly amazing. You might see a bison slide down the steep sides and cross the nearby river. During our visit, a bison grazed along the roadside. It is always enjoyable to watch prairie dogs pop out of their holes in the prairie dog towns at several locations in the park. Pronghorns, mule deer, white-tail deer, jack rabbits, and wild horses are frequently seen either from a car ride or a hike. Other animals include elk, coyotes, bobcats, and porcupines.

Catalina State Park, Arizona


Javelina or collared peccary © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Catalina State Park sits at the base of the majestic Santa Catalina Mountains. The park is a haven for desert plants and wildlife and nearly 5,000 saguaros. The 5,500 acres of foothills, canyons, and streams invites camping, picnicking, and bird watching—more than 150 species of birds call the park home. Commonly encountered species of wildlife include javelin, coyote, mule deer, bighorn sheep, and various reptiles.

Custer State Park, South Dakota

Bison roundup © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Custer State Park is a South Dakota State Park and wildlife reserve in the Black Hills. The park encompasses 71,000 acres of spectacular terrain and an abundance of wildlife. A herd of 1,300 bison roams freely throughout the park, often stopping traffic along the 18-mile Wildlife Loop Road. Annual Buffalo Roundup draws thousands of people to Custer State Park every September. Besides bison, Custer State Park is home to pronghorns, mountain goats, bighorn sheep, deer, elk, wild turkeys, and a band of friendly burros.

Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park, Texas

Green Jay © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

As part of the World Birding Center, Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park is a world-class destination for bird-watching. The Rio Grande Valley hosts one of the most spectacular convergences of birds on earth with more than 525 species documented in this unique place. Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park alone has an impressive list of 358 species recorded within the park’s boundaries. Birders have a chance to see bird species they can’t find anyplace else in the country—from the Green Jay and the Golden-fronted Woodpecker to the Great Kiskadee and the Altamira Oriole.

Jasper National Park, Alberta

Rocky Mountain Goat © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Jasper is the largest national park in the Canadian Rockies and part of UNESCO’s Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks World Heritage Site. For many visitors, a trip to Jasper is about seeing wildlife. The Canadian Rockies support 277 species of birds and 53 different species of mammals including elk (wapiti), white-tailed and mule deer, moose, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, black and grizzly bears, coyotes, wolves, beavers, porcupines, cougars, wolverines, hoary marmots, and Columbia ground squirrels.

Edisto Beach State Park, South Carolina

Birds at Edisto © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Edisto Beach State Park is a part of the ACE Basin buffer zone around the ACE Basin National Estuarine Research Reserve. The ACE Basin boundaries include the watersheds of the Ashepoo, Combahee, and Edisto Rivers. The park also offers access to the Atlantic Ocean and beach. It also provides access to the saltwater marsh and creeks.

The park is a nesting area for loggerhead sea turtles. Other wildlife includes white-tailed deer, raccoon, and opossum. The best area for bird watching is along the trails in the park. Water fowl can also be spotted along the beach or marsh areas.

Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park, Florida

Manatee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park occupies almost 200 acres around Homosassa Spring, which is the primary source for the Homosassa River. The Wildlife Park includes the Wildlife Walk and paved trails for wildlife viewing. The park’s central feature is the main spring, where you can view the spring from the Fish Bowl floating underwater observatory that offers an underwater view of the spring and the fish and manatees. The Park also includes a large number of native animals in natural settings.

Worth Pondering…

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

—Chinese Proverb

Focus on Birding in Arizona State Parks

Hit the trail and search for your favorite birds in Arizona State Parks

Many Arizona state parks are considered world-class birding destinations, and, depending on migrations, hold literally hundreds of species to watch throughout the year.

Come along as we hit the trail and search for our favorite feathered friends in some of Arizona State Park’s best birding locations and get to know the birds of Arizona. 

Species lists are available from each park and give birders a preview of what they might encounter on a trip. Simply decide which type of habitat you would like to explore and hit the road!

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

Dead Horse Ranch State Park

This great blue heron snags his dinner at Dead Horse Ranch State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Long celebrated as a world-class birding destination, Dead Horse Ranch State Park offers varied opportunities for birders of all levels. The riparian zone trails flanking the Verde River give birders a chance to see nesting black hawks, numerous waterfowl species, plus the chance of seeing a majestic bald eagle in its native environment. Near the lagoons, great blue herons can often be seen snagging a fish lunch near the shore, and seasonally, the hummingbirds buzz around hurriedly in search of sweet nectar.

Picacho Peak State Park

Gambil quails are often seen in the desert parks © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Desert birds abound at Pichaco Peak State Park, enjoying the cooler weather among the saguaros as winter visitors. Hawks, falcons, quail, and hummingbirds are commonly seen at the park, and if you look closely, you’ll catch sight of woodpeckers, curve-billed thrashers, flycatchers, and warblers. Ask for a bird list at the park’s Visitor Center to guide you as you experience the incredible wildlife within the park.

Red Rock State Park

Cactus wren © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Red Rock State Park trails offer a peek into the habitats of myriad bird species. The riparian area along Oak Creek offers a cool spot for wrens, swallows, hawks, and eagles. Some waterfowl species use this portion of the park seasonally. House finches and lesser Goldfinch offer a splash of color for visitors within the native vegetation.

Pair of house finches © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

The park also features a feeding area for birds where you can sit with your binoculars or camera as birds come to eat and enjoy the park themselves. The Visitor Center roof is also a great place for spotting birds, and offers a gorgeous view of the park. 

Boyce Thompson Arboretum State Park

Hummingbird at Boyce Thompson Arboretum © Rex Vogel, all rights reserv

Founded in the 1920s as a botanical garden, the 323 acres of Boyce Thompson Arboretum State Park serve as a wildlife preserve. The main trail is 1.5 miles and begins at the Visitor Center. Allow yourself at least two hours as you will encounter numerous trails that branch off from the main trail.

The fast-running greater roadrunner is a common sight in the Southwest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

The Arboretum’s irrigated gardens and protected grounds are a magnet for birds. With more than 250 species the Arboretum has been designated as an important bird area. Gambel’s quail, canyon wren, curved-billed thrashers, and black throated sparrows are among the most abundant species. Bird lists are available at the Visitor Center.

A nesting hummer © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Black-chinned, Anna’s, Costa’s, broad-tailed, and broad-billed are among the species of hummingbirds that find nectar in the diversity of flowering plants.

Patagonia Lake State Park

Vermillion flycatcher © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Patagonia Lake State Park and the adjacent Sonoita Creek State Nature Area hosts vultures, owls, and roadrunners in sight of visitors daily, and that’s not all. Occasionally, birders will experience the Gould’s turkeys, white-faced ibis, warblers, vermillion flycatcher, and the elegant trogon! Waterfowl species abound here as well and can often be seen cruising around the lake or flying around looking for a place to land.

Catalina State Park

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

Set against the Santa Catalina Mountains, Catalina State Park consists of 5,500 acres of high Sonora Desert habitat with eight trails traversing a landscape dominated by ocotillo, cholla, and saguaro cactus. This Sonoran life zone includes seasonal streams providing habitat for mesquite, desert willow, cottonwood trees, and walnut groves.

Mourning dove at Catalina State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Ladder-backed woodpeckers, greater roadrunners, Gambel’s quail, Say’s phoebes, and Harris’s hawks call the park home year-round. Migrants and seasonal residents include the vermilion flycatcher, black-headed grosbeak, and 10 species of migrating warblers.  

Worth Pondering…

Legends say that hummingbirds float free of time, carrying our hopes for love, joy, and celebration. The hummingbird’s delicate grace reminds us that life is rich, beauty is everywhere, every personal connection has meaning and that laughter is life’s sweetest creation.

—Papyrus

Birding Arizona’s Sonoran Winter Vacation Destinations

Enjoy nature while observing Arizona’s diverse bird species

Arizona is a great location for birders to observe new life birds, to study the birds of the Sonoran Desert, and to photograph resident and wintering species. Arizona’s species list of around 550 is the highest of any state without an ocean coastline.

Come along as we hit the trail and search for our favorite feathered friends and get to know the birds of Arizona. 

While periodic rains green the Sonoran landscape, January through April is an ideal time for birding this unique cactus-dominated landscape and to enjoy some warm winter weather. The number of unique birds that range northward from Mexico and Central America and the western species that flock here during winter are big attractions.

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

Also you can enjoy resident species including the greater roadrunner, cactus wren, curve-billed thrasher, Gila woodpecker, Harris’s hawk, and the ones with the weird names—phainopepla, pyrrhuloxia, and verdin.

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

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

One of the most popular birding areas in the Phoenix area is located in Gilbert. The Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch consists of 110 acres with seven “water recharge basins” where wastewater is treated, creating a superb wetland and riparian wildlife habitat. More than four miles of trails wind through the preserve, making birding easy. The area is at its best from fall through spring.

American Avocet at The Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Roughly 300 species have been identified here including various ducks and shorebirds, black-necked stilt, American avocet, grebes, cormorants, Gambel’s quail, Inca dove, black-chinned hummingbird, Anna’s hummingbird, Gila woodpecker, black phoebe, verdin, yellow warbler, Albert’s Towhee, and little blue heron.

Northeast of Mesa is a beautiful Maricopa County regional park—Usery Mountain. Walks along a variety of hiking trails take you through an attractive abundance of native cacti and mountain outcrops that yield an abundance of Southwest birds including Gambel’s quail, cactus wren, Gila woodpecker, Inca dove, and gilded flicker.

Black-necked Stilt at The Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Farther east of Phoenix, a favorite hiking and birding location is Peralta Canyon, located on the south side of the Superstition Mountains. Drive east on Highway 60 past the town of Apache Junction to the Peralta Canyon turnoff. Along the way to the Peralta Trailhead, you will pass through beautiful landscapes filled with native cacti and palo verde trees where Harris’s hawks are a potential treat along with three species of wrens—cactus, rock, and canyon—plus Gila woodpeckers, gilded flickers, verdins, and phainopeplas.

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

Farther south, to the west and east of Tucson, the two units of the majestic Saguaro National Park contains many species seen in few other places in the United States. The diversity of habitats in the park ranges from lowland desert to pine forests. These diverse ecosystems support a surprising array of bird life. Common desert birds include greater roadrunners, Gila woodpeckers, gilded flicker, cactus wren, and Gambel’s quail. Northern goshawks, phainopepla, yellow-eyed juncos, and Mexican jays can be found in the park’s higher elevations.

Set against the Santa Catalina Mountains, Catalina State Park consists of 5,500 acres of high Sonora Desert habitat with eight trails traversing a landscape dominated by ocotillo, cholla, and saguaro cactus. This Sonoran life zone includes seasonal streams providing habitat for mesquite, desert willow, cottonwood trees, and walnut groves.

Greater Roadrunner at Catalina State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ladder-backed woodpeckers, greater roadrunners, Gambel’s quail, Say’s phoebes, Mexican jays, and Harris’s hawks call the park home year-round. Migrants and seasonal residents include the vermilion flycatcher, black-headed grosbeak, and 10 species of migrating warblers.  

Vermilion Flycatcher at Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A premier birding region of the state is to the southeast of Tucson and includes Madeira Canyon, Ramsey Canyon, Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve, The Paton Center for Hummingbirds, and Patagonia State Park. These remarkable birding locations offer a whole different birding realm, and frankly, winter isn’t the best of seasons to visit the Southeast. We will describe birding opportunities there in a future article.

Any day birding in Southeast Arizona holds a level of excitement that you will find a rare bird wandering north from Mexico but the region holds plenty of remarkable birds to search for, along mountain slopes and river valleys—any day.

Hummer at The Paton Center for Hummingbirds © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The best takeaway message for this article is that Arizona has exciting birds found in a variety of birding locations throughout the state for snowbirds and residents alike to enjoy—and warm sunny weather, even in February!

Worth Pondering…

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

—Chinese Proverb