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Avian avocation

Birdwatching combines relaxation, recreation and research


To declare an interest in birdwatching was once regarded as an admission of nerdiness, and, well, it still is. But, let’s face it, we live in times in which all things nerdy have become the pinnacle of chic. What birdwatching should not be considered is a synonym for dull. Birders are avid seekers and explorers, committed advocates of conservationist causes, and manic users of social media. Moreover, many birders achieve the status of citizen-scientists who contribute to local and global research projects. Starting to sound kind of exciting?

Birding basics

To seek and identify bird species reflects a desire to increase one’s awareness and appreciation of the diversity of the natural world. As creatures capable of flight, birds present unique challenges and opportunities for discovery and description. Becoming a successful birder also involves learning about the biology and ecology of birds. Locating specimens requires not only knowing what a type of bird looks like, but also knowing answers to questions, such as: What do different species eat? When is their mating season? Where do they nest? What predators would they want to avoid?  Are they migratory? What do their vocalizations mean?

Acquiring the skills to make accurate identifications requires some fieldwork and some book work. Knowledge can be sought in a solitary manner or in a group – so the activity is as social as you want to make it. With a decent pair of binoculars and a competent field guide, you can make observations in your own backyard. (Wild Birds Unlimited (wbu.com) is a retailer that supplies stay-at-home types with products to attract bird visitors to their yards.) However, hanging out with more experienced birders is the fastest and most fun way to learn quickly.

The best first step to becoming part of the birding community is getting acquainted with Audubon Arizona (az.audubon.org), part of the largest and oldest non-profit organization dedicated to the study and conservation of avifauna. Peruse their website to find out about the Audubon Society’s mission, resources, events and programs. Audubon Arizona has nine chapters, which include Maricopa and Tucson chapters. Membership levels vary, but you can join for as little as $20/year. Even without joining you can avail yourself of information about what birds to look for, where and when. The most popular destinations for Valley birdwatchers are described below. Each location has prepared trails, optional guided tours and provides a checklist of birds on their website.

Rio Salado Habitat Restoration Area


Four trailheads in downtown Phoenix: 2439 S. Central Ave., 

3212 S. 7th Ave., 2875 S. 7th St. and 3202 S. 16th St.; 602-262-6863

Trailhead parking areas open from sunrise to sunset (7 p.m. in summer)

Free admission and free parking

A 600-acre park characterized by Sonoran riparian habitat plays host to more than 200 bird species. The preserve is also the home of the Nina Mason Pulliam Rio Salado Audubon Center, opened in 2009. The Center, located at 3131 S. Central Ave., Phoenix 85040 (602-468-6470), is HQ for the Maricopa Audubon Society and offers beginning birding classes, regularly scheduled bird-walks, and special events like the monthly Bird’n’Beer lectures.

Gilbert Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch


2757 E. Guadalupe Rd., Gilbert AZ 85234; 480-503-6744

Preserve is open dawn to dusk all year round

Admission: free

The trails in this unique 110-acre preserve thread through a series of tree-lined ponds, which have been developed for groundwater recharge. The trails connect to the Gilbert Trail System. The facility is managed by the Gilbert Parks and Recreation Department. The Desert Rivers Audubon chapter sponsors free Family Bird Walks every third Saturday at the Preserve from October through March, 8 a.m. to noon. On these same days 7-to-13-year olds can attend the Early Birds Kid’s Club (info at 480-419-9804). An Education Center is in the planning stages.

Boyce Thompson Arboretum State Park 


37615 U.S. Highway 60 (milepost #223), Superior, AZ 85173

September through April hours: 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. (no admittance after 4 p.m.)

Admission: $10, adults; $5, children 5-12; free for children under 5

Over 300 acres of mining magnate Col. William Boyce Thompson’s original holdings in the uplands of the Sonoran Desert are open to public use. The Arboretum is jointly managed by the University of Arizona, Arizona State Parks and a private non-profit. The Park borders the base of Picketpost Mountain and follows the contours of Queen Creek. Knowledgable volunteers lead weekly bird-walks each Sunday starting at 8:30 a.m. at the Visitor Center where hikers can get a copy of the bird checklist.  

Hassayampa River Preserve


49614 N. U.S. Highway 60, Wickenburg, AZ 85390; 928-684-2772

Open 8 a.m.-5 p.m., Wednesday through Sunday from September 17 to mid-May (extended hours in summer)

Admission: $5; $3 (members); free for children 12 and under; $25 annual pass 

This 700-acre preserve, owned by the Nature Conservancy (TNC) in Arizona, is a mecca for area birdwatchers. Prepared trails traverse cottonwood-willow and mesquite forests supported by the mostly underground Hassayampa River that surfaces within the Preserve to produce this unusual desert habitat. Marsh-dwelling waterfowl, such as heron and ibis, inhabit the spring-fed Palm Lake. The Arthur L. Johnson Visitor Center is the place to meet for scheduled walks and talks for birders. 

Bird Counts

One component of a birdwatching expedition is recording species sighted. Keeping tallies can become more than a source of personal satisfaction. When shared with a research organization, data compiled by thousands of amateurs from all over the world can be used to answer questions about environmental health, the status of endangered species and the effects of climate change, for example. 

The Audubon Society organizes the most extensive annual survey of bird populations, usually referred to as the Christmas Bird Counts, with data collected in late December and early January. Registered volunteers are assigned an area and a day on which to record every bird sighted; over 35 such counting events are scheduled in different parts of the state during the survey period. Participants are usually assigned to teams based on their identification skill level and capacity for fieldwork. Your local Audubon chapter can provide details and resources necessary to participate. 

At any point in time, there are a number of programs looking for volunteer bird-counters. Depending on the goal of the study, counting may be conducted from a fixed point or accomplished by a pedestrian survey team. To investigate the possibilities for participation in a bird-count project, check out birdsource.org/gbbc/get-involved/citizen-science-guide.

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This Article appears on the October 2013 issue of LPM under Fitness

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