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Break Out Your Binoculars, It’s Bird-Watching Season

In his new book, a local avian expert explores the best birding spots around the state.

By Rebecca L. Rhoades

As a young boy growing up in Flagstaff, third-generation Arizonan Charles J. Babbitt was fascinated by birds. He recalls the first bird he remembers seeing—a great blue heron—and the crowlike “kaw” of the pinyon jay still conjures memories of playing among the chaparral with his brothers. 

But it wasn’t until he was a lawyer in Tucson that he became truly captivated by the state’s avifauna. “A fellow lawyer invited me on a trip to Mt. Lemmon in 1978 to look for some birds,” Babbitt says. “He showed me a Williamson’s sapsucker, and I was hooked.” 

In the four decades since that fateful trip, Babbitt has traveled to every corner of the Grand Canyon State, seeking out, identifying and researching the hundreds of birds that live in and pass through our diverse landscape. Now, he’s sharing his personal experiences and knowledge with ornithophiles of all levels in his new book, “Birding Arizona: What to know, Where to go” (R.W. Morse Co.), which was released in late February.

Author Charles J. Babbitt.

“I’ve done a fair amount of writing about birds and environmental issues, so I decided when I retired four years ago that I would sit down and write a book about birding, something that I’ve been interested in all of my life,” he says. 

From its very first line, Babbitt’s book quickly dispels the myth that the 48th state is nothing more than a barren dust bowl where only cacti and roadrunners thrive. In fact, it notes that more than 550 avian species have been recorded in the state—making Arizona one of the top places for bird watching in North America. It ranks third in the country for the number of native species, according to the author.

“A lot of that has to do with our geography—our proximity to Mexico and the Gulf of California,” Babbitt explains. “Arizona also has multiple habitats. You go from Sonoran Desert scrub to Sonora riparian to pine oak and spruce, even different types of water habitats. Each one attracts, supports and maintains its own suite of birds, both permanent residents and migrating species. The state is literally a bird-watcher’s paradise.”

More than just a handbook—and with no photos, it is not a field identification guide—“Birding Arizona” is part resource guide, part personal journal. “This is an armchair book to sit down and read,” says Babbitt. “It’s written to help you find, identify and appreciate birds.” 

We recently visited with Babbitt, who shared insight into how and where you, too, can spot the many amazing feathered friends that call Arizona home, even if only for a short time.

Babbitt’s wife, Eleanor, painted the Grace’s warbler image that is featured on the cover of his book, “Birding Arizona.”

“Arizona is literally a bird-watcher’s paradise.”

–Charles J. Babbitt, author

Signs of Spring

“Now is a wonderful time to bird,” says Babbitt. “The amazing spring migration starts in March, and we have all of the birds that have passed the wintering months in Central and South America flying through on their way north to breed. But a lot of them will also be coming here for the summer to breed. You’ll see migrating shore birds, such as gulls, sandpipers and willets; a lot of flycatchers; orioles; and virtually too many warblers to mention. I particularly enjoy watching the black hawks as they come up the Santa Cruz river in Southern Arizona. The migration will reach a crescendo or apex in early May, so it’s an exciting time to be out.” 

Backyard Birding

Babbitt recalls a recent morning when, at 4 a.m., he was awakened by the call of a screech owl at his Phoenix residence. “There are a lot of great species right here in town,” he says. “There’s a whole group of desert birds, including roadrunners, hawks, cardinals, white-winged doves and hummingbirds, that have adapted very well to urban living. You’ll see them all over, but they’re very interesting in their own right. We even have great horned owls in Phoenix. I can go into my yard and see or hear 15 to 20 different species at any given time. The bottom line is, you don’t necessarily have to go into the boondocks; you can start birding right in your own neighborhood.” 

1. Swainson’s hawk 2. Evening grosbeak 3. Yellow-bellied sapsucker
Local Attractions

“While writing my book, I polled many friends about their favorite places to view birds in the Phoenix metropolitan area,” says the author. “The choices for the Top 4 destinations were near-unanimous.” Babbitt’s picks for the best local birding sites are the Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch in Gilbert, Desert Botanical Garden, Tres Rios Wetlands in southwest Phoenix and the Glendale Recharge Ponds. 

Of course, there are numerous viewing opportunities throughout the state. “Many professional birders who lead tour groups worldwide live in Tucson because it has so many opportunities to see neat birds,” notes Babbitt. A favorite destination in the south is the Chiricahua Mountains. “You can

A black hawk rests in a tree along the Verde River.

spot almost 200 species in 24 hours going through the different habitats,” the author adds.

Hummingbirds are particularly plentiful in the southern reaches of the state. “In Phoenix, we could see three or four different species during the migration season; southeastern Arizona can see 11 or 12 varieties, especially in July and August, including the rare blue-throated and Rivoli’s hummingbirds,” says Babbitt. Elegant trogons, varied buntings, rufous-capped warblers and green kingfishers also draw ornithophiles to our border regions.

The author also points out some under-birded but fascinating areas in Northern Arizona, including locations on the Navajo and Hopi reservations, the North Rim of the Grand Canyon and the San Francisco Peaks north of Flagstaff. “In the fall, there is a phenomenal migration of raptors across the Grand Canyon at Yaki Point,” says Babbitt. “Sometimes there will be six or seven hawks of various species in view. It’s one of the most spellbinding and magnificent sights you can see.”

1. Clark’s nutcracker 2. Pinyon jay 
Getting Started

“The easiest way to start birding is to get a pair of binoculars and a field identification guide and head out to one of the four places in Phoenix that I mentioned,” says Babbitt, who adds that there are many local resources that can help, especially for beginning birders. For example, in Phoenix, Desert Botanical Garden and the Nina Mason Pulliam Rio Salado Audubon Center offer weekly guided bird walks. “There’s ample opportunity if you want to do it on your own or go with a group and learn that way,” the author assures.

For more information, see Sources.

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