Looking for Birds in the Southwest

Where To Go and What You Will See

by Jay W. Sharp

Great Blue Heron near still waters in the Rio Grande.

Great Blue Heron near still waters in the Rio Grande.

If you are a birder who has come, for the first time, to the Southwest from a home in the Pacific Northwest, the Great Plains, the Eastern Woodlands or a coastal region, you are likely in for a few surprises.

First, you may be taken aback by the number of species that have found year-round or seasonal environmental niches in the Southwest desert basins and mountain ranges.

Second, you might be astonished by the birds' resilience and resourcefulness in coping with an arid and often unforgiving environment and in adapting to dynamic and changing conditions.

Third, you might be surprised to discover that the birds' limited choices of watering places in our arid region serve as an advantage for you. This is because more species tend to concentrate in fewer and often more open areas, making them easier to observe and photograph than in, say, a heavily watered and densely foliated rain forest or estuary.


The broad range of Southwest species, which thrive often under extreme conditions, speaks to the tenacity of life. According to the National Park Service, more than 300 species hold residence during the course of a year in the Mojave Desert's Death Valley National Park, where summer air temperatures in the parched lower basin routinely exceed 120 degrees Fahrenheit and soil temperatures may reach 180 degrees. Several hundred species occur in the Colorado River delta region, in the northwestern Sonoran Desert, where summertime air temperatures near sea level reach 115 degrees and soil temperatures, 130 degrees. Hundreds of species occur in the northern Chihuahuan Desert, where summer air temperatures exceed 100 degrees and soil temperatures, 120 degrees. The species have found places in the Southwestern deserts even though rainfall in those areas only infrequently exceeds more than a few inches in the course of a year.

Cliff Swallow - one of hundreds - at nesting site beneath bridge over the Rio Grande.

Cliff Swallow – one of hundreds – at nesting site beneath bridge over the Rio Grande.

The broadest mix of species tends to occur at those places where different environmental regimes intersect. Some 400 species have been counted, for instance, in the Chiricahua Mountains, in southeastern Arizona, where the Chihuahuan Desert, the Sonoran Desert, the Rocky Mountains and the Sierra Madre all join forces. Hundreds of species populate the slopes of Arizona's Mogollon Rim – the southern edge of the Colorado Plateau – which rises abruptly some 2000 feet from the Sonoran Desert floor to forested slopes. Several hundred species breed in or migrate through northern New Mexico and southern Colorado, where high and arid sage-covered plains meet the San Juan Mountains.

While many birds of the Southwest take moisture from the fruits and seeds of plants and from the tissues and moisture of prey, the populations tend to congregate, as if drawn by magnets, in those areas where water occurs—the mountain streams, the rivers, the riverine wetlands, the desert basin's ephemeral playa lakes, and the river impoundments.

Duck silhouetted on water of desert wetlands, late afternoon.

Duck silhouetted on water of desert wetlands, late afternoon.

Birds of the Mountain Streams

On summer hikes along the banks of mountain streams at the higher elevations, through stands of ponderosa pines and aspens, you will discover that "A tremendous number of birds – large and small, silent and noisy – find a congenial home in the forests of the West," as Spencer Whitney said in Western Forests, one of The Audubon Society Nature Guides. Grosbeaks, tanagers, warblers and bluebirds dart through the dark green streamside foliage – mere flashes of gold, yellow, red or blue – sometimes making identifications difficult. The Stellar Jay issues a raucous call; the raven, a taunting caw; a drumming woodpecker, a miniature jackhammer sound. If you happen to peer into a curious three-inch-diameter hole drilled into the lower part of the trunk of a Ponderosa Pine, a Western Bluebird may flush from the nest cavity, right in your face. Where a stream flows swiftly over a gravel bottom, you may see a charcoal-colored American Dipper skittering along the surface, diving suddenly to the bottom, and dashing underwater over the sand and rocks in a search for aquatic insect life. Early in the morning, a raven may fly overhead, weaving through the trees, with a certain arrogance in his call.

Once, early one morning when my family and I were camped beside the Mimbres River up in the Gila Wilderness, in southwestern New Mexico, a cocky raven weaving through the trees smacked into a branch of a narrow-leaf willow, hitting it so hard he knocked a large dead twig loose. The bird perched dizzily for a moment on a limb then flew on his way, perhaps a little chagrined. He returned the next morning, cawing as loudly as ever to announce his presence, but...he flew well above the trees.

Through the day near mountain streams, a Broad Tailed Hummingbird, marked by a rose-colored throat, takes nectar from summer blooms awash in sunlight. Come the dying light of evening, a Great Horned Owl takes wing, flying silently and surely through the trees, a ghostly specter in search of rodents or birds as prey.

Should you be in the bird-rich Chiricahua Mountains, along the stream that flows through Cave Creek Canyon, you could have the exceptional good fortune of seeing – or at least hearing – the Elegant Trogon, perhaps the Holy Grail of birding in the Southwest.

Sandhill Cranes foraging near desert wetlands, others, overhead, about to land.

Sandhill Cranes foraging near desert wetlands, others, overhead, about to land.

Birds of the Rivers

Along the few rivers in the Southwest, you can expect the bird communities to vary continually, reflecting the challenges raised by the changing conditions of the streams. They have to adapt as water flows normally during years with average upstream rainfall and snowpack, or rise and rush dramatically following intense upstream thunderstorms, or disappear altogether during periods of prolonged drought.

In normal years, given the right season, the right river conditions, and good luck, you could see not only the birds of the adjacent arid lands, you could find many water birds – in the hearts of the deserts! – including, for instance, geese, ducks, herons, cranes, egrets, terns, sandpipers, rails, coots, plovers, ibis, grebes and phalaropes. You might even see birds you normally associated with the coastlines and estuaries, for example, the Franklin Gull or the White Pelican or a Double-crested Cormorant.

I remember once, not long after we moved to the Southwest, that my wife and I saw, to our astonishment, an Osprey once near the Rio Grande just below the Big Bend National Park in Texas, hundreds of miles upstream from the Gulf Coast. The Osprey, says Roger Tory Peterson in his Western Birds, is "Our only raptor that hovers over the water and plunges into it feet-first for fish..." We had not seen an Osprey since we moved from the Gulf Coast, near Houston, several years previously. We learned later, from an expert on the birds of the Big Bend region, that the Osprey makes fairly frequent appearances along the river, where it flows through the Chihuahuan Desert, especially in those years with good stream flow.



You will find that the San Pedro River, which rises in Mexico and flows northward into Arizona to join with the Gila River near Hayden, about 75 miles southeast of Phoenix, ranks as one of the top birding areas in the entire United States. One of the last free-flowing rivers in the Southwest, the San Pedro's "...cottonwood-shaded corridor supports about 350 bird species and provides critical stopover habitat for up to 4 million migrating birds each year," according to The Nature Conservancy's Internet site. "The San Pedro supports nearly two-thirds of the avian diversity [emphasis mine] in the U. S.; about 100 species of birds breed around the river and an additional 250 species use the corridor for migration and winter range." You will see not only the usual resident and migratory land birds and waterfowl, you may get a chance to see "green kingfishers, gray hawks, and other birds rarely seen in the United States" since the San Pedro lies at the northernmost tip of their range, according to Jon Christensen, in an article published in the New York Times several years ago.

Sandhill Cranes and Snow Geese foraging in field near desert wetlands.

Sandhill Cranes and Snow Geese foraging in field near desert wetlands.

Birds of the Riverine Wetlands

You can know more of what to expect in the bird populations of the comparatively stable riverine wetlands, which typically occur in broad stream bottoms with high water tables. You can, of course, count on seeing the resident birds of the deserts as well as nesting and migrating water birds.

Sadly, opportunities for visiting these areas have diminished as the wetlands have given way, over the decades, to agricultural and urban development, but you can still find several rewarding places, with perhaps the paramount example being the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in central New Mexico.

Two Canadian Geese foraging near desert wetlands.

Two Canadian Geese foraging near desert wetlands.

The Bosque "...is among the best places to see a wide variety of species in a small area," according to authorities John Parmeter, Bruce Neville and Doug Emkalns, New Mexico Bird Finding Guide. "Birding can be good to excellent at any time of year. During the height of the spring migration in late April and early May, over 100 species in a half-day of birding is not unlikely. Even in mid-winter 60-70 species can usually be found..." The full checklist, according to the U. S. Geological Survey, "contains 377 species which have been observed on the refuge since 1940."

Any time at the Bosque, you can count on seeing a broad range of the water birds, raptors, and the land and perching birds. Depending on the season – and with reasonable luck -- you can see a Double-crested Cormorant, an Osprey, a Golden Eagle or a Bald Eagle. With really good luck, you may see a Rose-breasted Grosbeak, a Lazuli Bunting, an American Goldfinch or a Little Blue Heron. With exceptional luck, you will see a Peregrine Falcon, a Whooping Crane (partnered with Sandhill Cranes) or possibly even a Wood Stork.

In the winter months, when thousands of Snow Geese and Sandhill Cranes have settled in for the season, you can experience some of the great experiences in birding. If you come to the Bosque just after sunrise on a cold morning, you will see geese and cranes rise from the water in concert, with an operatic chorus, to head for the fields where they will feed for the day. If you come at sunset with the evening chill setting in, you will see the Snow Geese come in for crash landings in the water, where they will raft up for the night. You will see the Sandhill Cranes approach by squadrons, silhouettes against an orange sky, calling loudly, circling, then landing daintily in the shallows, where they will spend the evening gossiping about their day's experiences.

Birds of the Playa Lakes

You will find unpredictable, but sometimes extraordinarily rewarding, ad hoc gatherings of bird species at the playa lakes, those ancient, ephemeral and mineral-filled ponding sites common in all our desert basins. Both resident and migratory birds capitalize on the playas as targets of opportunities, sites where water is intermittently available – sometimes more or less annually, sometimes every few years – after localized rains.

The birds, both resident and migratory, appear at the occasional waters, which may cover several square yards to some square miles in area and measure several inches to several feet in depth. They celebrate an awakened and refreshed community of life—including, example, amphibians such as the Spadefoot Toad, crustaceans such as the Fairy Shrimp, and salt-tolerant plants such as the Saltbrush. You may find a surprising number of bird species or no more than a single bird species. I have seen sizable playas where three or four Black-necked Stilts, feeding on the temporary playa banquet, were the only representatives of the bird population.

While you can never be sure just what birds you will see at desert playas, you may find, according to the Northern Arizona University Internet site, that one of the most reliable is southeastern Arizona's 40-square-mile Wilcox Playa, especially the Arizona Game and Fish Department's 600-acre Wildlife Area. Many large waterbirds as well as numerous raptors visit the playa, especially during wet seasons. Often "migrating northern flickers, white-necked ravens, and many songbird species," find feed and cover in the shrubs and trees along the playa periphery, said the university's site. "Sometimes more than 10,000 birds will congregate at the playa." The most notable visitors, especially during wet winters, are sandhill cranes. They may come by the thousands to feed and court in the shallows before they leave in the spring, headed for their summer breeding grounds in the northern Great Plains.

Mallard at a small lake.

Mallard at small lake.

Birds of the River Impoundments

While the damming of rivers of the Southwest has undeniably drowned wild and free waters, damaged stream ecologies, flooded spectacular canyons, and submerged invaluable prehistoric and historic archaeological sites, you will find that expanded bird populations and new species have set up permanent or seasonal housekeeping at the reservoirs as new environments were created. As the NPS said in its Internet site, new birds were attracted as "...dams for power generation and flood control in the southwestern United States created the first large bodies of open water in this arid region since the late Pleistocene ice age, which ended approximately 10,000 years ago." For example, as Lake Powell began to fill behind Glen Canyon Dam after it was completed in the 1960s, "rare bird species and species previously unknown to the region were documented."

You will discover that the Southwest's major impoundments – for instance, the Elephant Butte and Caballo Reservoirs of central New Mexico; Lake Powell, on the Arizona/Utah border; Lakes Mead and Mojave, on the Arizona/Nevada border; and Lake Havasu, on the Arizona/California border – offer an exciting mix of birding and adventure, especially if you have a boat that can take you to the more remote and sheltered areas.

According to Parmeter and his associates, Percha Dam State Park, immediately downstream from the Caballo Reservoir, which is only a few miles downstream from the Elephant Butte Reservoir, "is the best site for landbirds along the entire length of the Rio Grande in New Mexico and one of the best sites in the state. Birding is excellent at any time of year..." The authors called the park "a migrant trap with a good concentration effect for migrating passerines."

At Lake Powell, embodied by the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, the bird population "is very diverse," said the NPS, "with 325 documented...species. This diversity can be attributed to the colonization of Lake Powell by aquatic birds, augmented by the presence of the Colorado River, which is most likely a migration corridor for aquatic and riparian birds."

At Lakes Mead and Mohave, surrounded by the Lake Mead National Recreation Area, the dams created "vast bodies of water...that immediately attracted many kinds of water and shore birds. The vegetation that developed around the shores became fine feeding grounds for numerous insect-eating birds." More than 240 species have been recorded so far.

Lake Havasu, set within desert, mountain and lake and river environments and located near four National Wildlife Refuges, ranks among the top birding areas in southern California and western Arizona. At the Bill Williams River National Wildlife Refuge, the U. S. Geological Survey says in its Internet site that the riparian habitat "draws a variety of neotropical migratory birds—winging their way from Central and South America to their breeding grounds in the north.

"About a dozen endangered Yuma clapper rails spend the summer months in the cattails of the marsh and may overwinter. More likely heard than seen, their dry kek-kek-kek echoes at dusk and dawn."

Goose near a small lake in western Texas.

Goose near a small lake in western Texas.

Photographing the Birds

If you have come, for the first time, to visit the Southwest, you will likely want to photograph, not only the birds, but also our striking landscapes. You might consider bringing a digital single lens reflex with a wide angle to short telephoto zoom lens and a short to long telephoto zoom lens. Canon, Nikon, Leica, Olympus, Pentax, Sony, Panasonic and others all produce reasonably priced cameras that yield high quality images, exactly what you will want to memorialize your experience.

For more information on photographing birds, see Bird Photography.

For more information on Nature Photography, see Things to Do: Photography.

More about Birds and their Habitat
Woodpeckers of the Southwest
The Mourning Dove - A Classic Canyon Bird
The Elegant Great Blue Heron
The Colorado River: Lifeline of the Southwest
Things to Do in the Desert: Photography


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