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Sabino Canyon


Photo by Richard at SearchNetMedia

Nestled into the foothills 12 miles northeast of downtown Tucson is the crown jewel of native habitat in the Santa Catalina Mountains, Sabino Canyon. The Sabino Canyon Recreation area, administered by the Coronado National Forest, is the most visited site in the lower Catalina's, both by local year-round residents and visitors alike. In fact, it is the most visited mountain canyon in the Sonoran Desert. But, don't let that fact slow you down in terms of making plans to bird that area. It is one of the most ideal locations in the Tucson basin for birders, from beginners to advanced birders. There's probably not a day in the year that would disappoint most birders. It's the ideal place to introduce children and grandchildren to nature's wonders, and birdlife. Highly experienced birders are always about in this canyon as it's a well-known site for finding rare and exotic species throughout the year.

Getting there is easy. Take Tanque Verde Road to Sabino Canyon Road. Follow Sabino Canyon Road to the end. After 4.5 miles the road ends at the parking lot and visitor center. The elevation here is 2800' and it is 3334' near the top where the shuttle turns around. Private vehicles are no longer allowed into the canyon, so access is only by shuttle service, horseback, or foot. A near permanent stream flows most of the year throughout the entire length of the canyon, providing a wildlife and bird friendly riparian woodland habitat of cottonwood, ash, sycamore and native walnut. Just off the streamside habitat, in either direction, visitors will find outstanding examples of desert habitat.

Photo by Richard at SerchNetMedia

Birding almost always proves most eventful after sunrise and for the first few hours of the morning. The widest variety of species are naturally found there during the spring and early summer breeding season, but many birds have very early breeding schedules, some as early as January and February. Gambel's Quail, Curve-billed Thrasher, Black-throated Sparrow, Greater Roadrunner, Vermilion Flycatcher and Phainopepla are very common residents of the canyon. Canyon, Rock, Bewick's and Cactus Wrens are all in abundance. Many exotic winter sparrows are easily seen there, especially Rufous-crowned and Black-chinned Sparrows. Many species of flycatchers and gnatcatchers are attracted to the stream areas and consume insects after they have hatched out following rains. A springtime walk along the stream at dusk will provide the sights and sounds of a variety of owls (particularly Elf, Great Horned and Screech Owls) and Common Poorwills.


Photo by Richard at SearchNetMedia

At the lower end of the canyon a small dam enables a dense grove of willows to thrive and, combined with a lush understory, creates especially attractive habitat for migrant and vagrant birds. Here, and in many places along the length of the stream, you can find many typical riparian birds including Broad-billed Hummingbirds, Bell's Vireo, Lucy's Warbler, and Hooded Oriole in breeding season. During the cooler winter months be sure to keep an eye out (or an ear tuned in) for Hermit Thrush, House Wren (Brown-throated Wren in Southern Arizona), and Ruby-crowned Kinglet. Rarities that have been recorded in the canyon include, but are not limited to; Plain-capped Starthroat, American Dipper, Gray Catbird, and many eastern warblers species. Varied Buntings have been seen in the habitat below the dam. Also watch for winter species such as Black-throated Gray Warbler, Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet, Dusky Flycatcher and several species of hummingbirds.

If you enjoy hiking, there are trails from the upper end of the canyon into the montane habitats, giving birders easy access to a wealth of different species more typically found in the manzinita, pinyon, oak, and juniper. While the lower end of the canyon is relatively easy walking, the higher end of the canyon gets steep and the hiking gets somewhat more difficult. Avoid being streamside if there are rains on the mountain as flash flooding is common in the canyon.

Photo by Richard at SearchNetMedia

The staff at the visitor center is friendly and very knowledgeable. Docents lead bird and nature walks on a regular schedule. Call ahead for information or sign up at the visitor center. The paved road up the canyon is wheelchair accessible. The first half mile is relatively flat and easy but gets steeper and more difficult after that. Local bird checklists are available at the visitor center. Be sure to consult the board listing the most interesting and recent bird sightings. Shuttle vans operate daily from 9 am to 4:30 pm daily between the center and the turnaround point at the higher end of the canyon. The shuttle service is privately run as a forest service concession, so there is a fee. The entire trip is 3.7 miles and takes about half an hour to complete. There are nine shuttle stops and visitors can get off or on at any one of them all through the day. All you have to do is show your ticket to gain shuttle access. Another shuttle runs hourly to Bear Canyon, just a little east of Sabino. For more information about schedules and ticket prices you can call 749-2327. You can also use any of the provided links for online information.

The Hummingbird Monitoring Network, based in Patagonia, AZ, operates a seasonal volunteer banding station at Sabino Canyon.

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