Bird-watching is big business in Arizona

A group of Tucson Audubon birders watch for birds in the White Mountains of southern Arizona. Enlarge photo

Paul & Eng-Li Green, Tucson Audubon Society/Associ

A group of Tucson Audubon birders watch for birds in the White Mountains of southern Arizona.

PHOENIX – From the sandhill crane to the red-faced warbler, rock stars of the birding world have spawned a tourism industry in Arizona that draws bird-watchers from around the world.

“It’s one of the two or three best places in the United States to look for birds,” said David Pashley of the American Bird Conservancy. “Arizona makes a lot of money off of bird-watchers going down to the southeast corner of the state.”

More than 140 bird species are found in southern Arizona, and birding festivals take place year-round throughout the state, including Yuma and in northern Arizona’s Verde Valley.

One of the best-known birding destinations is the southeastern city of Sierra Vista, which is located near several canyons, the San Pedro River and the Coronado National Memorial. Birds are attracted to the area’s hodgepodge of ecosystems, including mountains and trees along rivers and lakes, said Joe Yarchin, an Arizona Game and Fish Department project coordinator.

“Those are the strongest kind of birding areas in deserts. People certainly don’t think of Arizona as any kind of mecca for birders,” Yarchin said. “Everyone thinks death and desolation when they think of desert.”

Many out-of-town birders come to see birds that are a rarity where they live. Sierra Vista, which promotes itself as the “Hummingbird Capital,” has documented more than a dozen species of hummingbirds that are found nowhere else in the country. With the Huachuca Mountains’ close proximity to the Sierra Madre mountain ranges of Mexico, birders also get excited at border-crossers.

“A bunch of birds that are Mexican in distribution get into that part of the country,” Pashley said. “There are essentially Mexican birds that you can see there that you can’t see anywhere else.”

In Sierra Vista, birders also can get an extraordinary peek at scientists’ effort to record information about hummingbirds. Near the San Pedro River, researchers set up nets and feeders to catch hummingbirds in the fall and spring. Once they’re caught, scientists weigh them and measure them.

According to a 2006 U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service survey, birders spent more than $12 billion nationwide on travel and equipment expenses such as cameras, binoculars and bird food. That same report states that about 1.3 million people came to Arizona to observe wild birds, Yarchin said. Arizona birding generated $838 million in trip-related spending the same year, bringing about $1.2 billion in revenue into the state.

For tourism offices and communities, that’s a lot of heads and beds, Yarchin said.

“It gets their attention when I go and give my talks to a county board of supervisors or a chamber of commerce,” Yarchin said. “You might just say wildlife viewing is comparable to the combination of hunting and fishing.”

A Lucifer hummingbird is shown in Sierra Vista, Ariz. Enlarge photo

City of Sierra Vista/Associated Press

A Lucifer hummingbird is shown in Sierra Vista, Ariz.

Sandhill cranes are shown in flight. Enlarge photo

Arizona Game and Fish Department/Associated Press

Sandhill cranes are shown in flight.

A red-faced warbler rests on a branch. Enlarge photo

Jim and Deva Burns, Tucson Audubon Society/Associa

A red-faced warbler rests on a branch.