10 best bird hikes

Experience nature's prime time in Arizona

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Listening to one of my friends rave about the birds she saw on her trip to the "spectacular Nogales sewage ponds," I realized that I'm different from many serious bird-watchers.

Arizona is legendary among birders worldwide, thanks to a diverse habitat, mild climate, and a prime location on the Pacific Flyway, a major migration route. But to me there's more to birding than simply compiling a bulging life list ― the stage is just as important as the play. Arizona is renowned for its landscape and for its avian visitors, so why not combine them?

Following are 10 of the most scenic birding areas in the state ― most include a stop for caffeine (essential fuel) or a meal nearby. The migration starts this month in the low desert, peaks in April, and lasts well into May. And these spots are worth a visit even if you can't tell an eagle from an egret.

1. Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge

Restricted access to the refuge's lovely riparian Brown Canyon southwest of Tucson ensures that the wildlife remains undisturbed. On a moderate, naturalist-led, 5-mile hike, you might see a painted redstart or sulphur-bellied flycatcher ― or just possibly catch a glimpse of a jaguar. One was videotaped near here in 1996. There's an impressive natural stone arch at the turnaround point.

Info: From Tucson take State 86 west 20 miles; turn south on State 286 and go 23 miles to the turnoff just past milepost 21. Guided hikes are scheduled the second and fourth Sat of the month Nov-Apr; $5 per person, reservations required. http://southwest.fws.gov/refuges/arizona/buenosaires or 520/823-4251 ext. 116.

Refuel: Drive the long way back to Tucson via Arivaca Rd. and grab a sandwich and latte at the Gadsden Coffee Company. 16600 W. Arivaca Rd., Arivaca; 520/398-3251.

2. Catalina State Park

Just north of Tucson in the Santa Catalina Mountains, Catalina State Park is a pristine refuge of Sonoran Desert flora and fauna, including more than 150 species of birds. Watch for dark brown-and-copper Harris's hawks hunting for rabbits from perches on saguaros. The easy, 0.75-mile Birding Trail provides an introduction; the longer Romero Canyon Trail (up to 6.2 miles round-trip, moderate to difficult) climbs to cool mountain pools. Listen for the beautiful, descending call of a canyon wren.

Info: From Ina Rd. in Tucson, take Oracle Rd. (State 77) north 6 miles to the park entrance. From $6 per vehicle. www.pr.state.az.us/parks/parkhtml/catalina or 520/628-5798.

Refuel: There's a Starbucks five minutes south of the park entrance. 10785 N. Oracle Rd., Oro Valley; 520/229-1979.


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