Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Beyond the Bins in Baja Arizona

Is there any place more amazingly birdy and astonishingly spectacular than Southeastern Arizona?  For those of us ornithologically inclined places with names like Florida Wash, Sonoita Creek, Patagonia, Madera, Mount Lemon and Sweetwater ring like a birding Mecca with the possibilities of border specialties that can be seen in few other places.

I headed to Baja Arizona-what the locals in the know call the southern tier of counties—Pima, Santa Cruz and Cochise for the third annual Tucson Birding and Wildlife Festival.

 I was invited there by Dr. Paul Green and Tucson Audubon to deliver a keynote on changing the culture of birding and give a workshop on creating birder conservationists. In between the "work" I found some time to wander in the arid landscapes of desert  and grassland that whet my natural soul.

Can you hear the Botteri's Sparrows singing sweetly?
 There was time at Sweetwater; a human-created oasis that’s a trash to treasure story. Never mind that the birds flock to what used to be sewage, the lush wetlands ringed by cattails harbor a diversity of avifauna in the city of Tucson that make great birding easy.

 Tropical kingbirds, verdin, cinnamon teal, Wilson’s phalarope, Lucy’s warblers and Abert’s towhees are easily seen here. I was fortunate enough to lead a Sunday morning walk there with a half dozen or so youngling birders –ages five to eleven--whose enthusiasm for feathered things was inspiring and amazing. It was a highlight of my time as we took our time wandering and watching—not just the birds but bugs and flowers and all that nature has to offer.

 Further afield I found solace in the landscape that quite simply almost drew me to tears. The rise of bare ridges above the desert—the Santa Rita’s , Chiricahau’s ,Huachuca’s and others –into impossibly wide blue skies made it hard for me to focus solely on the birds.
 In the moments between my landscape lust I was able to tick a few borderland birds--gray hawk, Botteri’s sparrow, thick-billed kingbird and varied bunting,  that appropriately capped the experience.

Thick-billed kingbird at the Roadside Rest Stop
To have a dean of southwestern birding like Rick Taylor leading the way and artfully intertwining history, culture, geology and humor along with unforgettable tidbits on bird ecology and identification was an experience I will not soon forget. Thank you Rich for a wonderful time!

Rich Taylor leads the way west!

Gray hawk near Nogales

The work of moving birding to another level is something we certainly need to address. Again, if birding is to be even better going into the future we must find ways to expand our hobby into meaningful conservation actions. After all, what birds will there be to watch if we don’t work now to save them? And then there’s the issue of helping others beyond the traditional audience better understand why the natural world that birds so beautifully exemplify is important to ALL people.  Both actions will require us to have a wider vision and more intense focus than any binoculars can ever offer. I think the work to do so is absolutely essential.

That Kenn Kaufman recommended me for the job is a heady thing. This gentle genius has been a invaluable  friend and mentor to me who I hope to one day repay—somehow. I’m so thankful that Dr. Paul Green, Executive Director of Tucson Audubon had the courage to invite me out west to speak on topics that aren’t easy to deliver and even harder for many to listen to. A huge hug also goes to Erin Olmstead who makes the whole thing go!  I had more fun in the three days of the festival than ought to be legally allowable. I made new friends and re-found old ones. I fell in love with the landscape and want to wander through it again and again. I can’t wait to get back to Baja—Arizona that is!

Have Fun Birding Y’all!

My new friend "Blanco" the Chihuahuan  raven


  1. An interesting read. It's good to get different perspectives on birding in different places. Good luck getting back to the area!

  2. Drew, this is, indeed a wonderful place for all the reasons you mentioned. I am so sorry that I missed you while you were in town. I would have loved to meet you. I am thankful that you put such emphasis on bird conservation, because I agree with you, if we do not save these sacred places there will be no birds to sing to the next generation. I hope you come back again soon!