Booming industry takes flight along San Pedro River

A view of the San Pedro River, near the San Pedro House, in Cochise County, Ariz. The San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area provides a crucial habitat for over 300 species of birds. Nick Smallwood / Arizona Sonora News

The desert’s warm sun barely rises over the mountains of Cochise County, and the brisk air rejuvenates eager birders on this mid-January day.

Nine birders prepare themselves for the day’s adventure — binoculars, scopes and identifying bird books.

A photo of an Anna’s Hummingbird taken at the Sweetwater Preserve, Jan. 31, in Tucson, Ariz. According to the Southeastern Arizona Bird Observatory, there are at least 13 different hummingbird species that live in Southeast Arizona.
Nick Smallwood / Arizona Sonora News

Belinda Brodie, one of the nine, carries a tattered notebook ready to write down each species she hopes to spot. She and her husband furthered their interest in birding when they moved to Arizona.

That interest is what brings Brodie and the eight other birders to the San Pedro River this chilly morning.

This 150-mile-long stretch of water is one of the few rivers that flows north from Mexico to southern Arizona.

It serves as a major conservation corridor, and is home to hundreds of birds, native and migratory, throughout the year.

January tends to bring raptors and sparrows in peak numbers.

February is known for an increase in Western Grebes and Cinnamon Teal.

March is for the rare bird sightings. Birders could get lucky and catch a glimpse of the endangered Gray and Zone-tailed Hawks.

April is prime time to see specialty warblers and Elegant Trogons.

For first-time visitors to the Southwest, experts recommend bird-watching in mid- or late April for a good representation of Arizona specialties. It is also when spring migration is in full bloom, bringing millions of songbirds to the area as they make their way up north.

Brian Nicholas, a tour guide for Historic Hacienda de la Canoa, said southern Arizona is home to some pretty unique birds, such as the Yellow Warbler.

“We get some birds that people come specifically to Arizona just to see,” Nicholas said.

He found a passion for birding when he moved to Arizona for its diverse wildlife, he said, and picked up tour guiding when he retired about 10 years ago.

A close-up of a White-crowned Sparrow, taken at the San Pedro House, Feb. 3, in Cochise County, Ariz. White-crowned Sparrows are one of the more common bird species found at the San Pedro River. (Nick Smallwood / Arizona Sonora News)
Known for their long, slender necks and white bodies, Great Egrets are often found nesting along rivers and ponds, in Southeast Arizona. The Great Egret is the symbol for the National Audubon Society. (Nick Smallwood / Arizona Sonora News)

Nicholas said birding is a great way to stay grounded and aware of your surroundings.

“When you are birding you are using all of your senses,” Nicholas said. “It really helps you be in the moment.”

He said it took him years of practice to learn how to spot birds off hand. He referred to it like getting to know an old friend, by identifying marks and knowing where to look and when to look.

“An OK day of birding is better than a full day at work,” he said.

The diversity of birds in the region are a big draw.

Another bird spotter along the river, Peter Johnson, picked up the sport about 10 years ago, after what he called “an encounter with the creatures at backyard feeders in Minnesota.”

Johnson found friends with fellow birders, and he stresses the importance of sharing with the young. He uses the time to bond with his grandson.

“Just having the opportunity to have older and younger generations get together,” Johnson said. “It’s something they can carry on to the next generation as well.”

Each year, thousands of people flock to the San Pedro River to experience this birding oasis in Southern Arizona.

This booming industry has brought in the big bucks, too.

Jennie MacFarland, from the Tucson Audubon Society, said wildlife viewing contributes to about $1.4 billion to the state every year.

This number is determined by several factors. MacFarland said it includes people who stay in local hotels, eat at local restaurants and even those who buy something as simple as bird seed.

MacFarland said that other events like birding festivals, have an economic impact on Southern Arizona.

“Southeast Arizona is very rich in bird life,” MacFarland said. “We have a lot of different types of habitats, we have mountains to grasslands, to desert and a lot of different types of birds associated with each one.”

The San Pedro House is located off Highway 90, just east of Sierra Vista. This non-profit organization is mainly composed of bird-loving volunteers.

Robert Weissler, executive director of Friends of the San Pedro River, said the San Pedro House sees over 20,000 visitors yearly.

From Oct. 1, 2016, to September 30, 2017, the House logged a total of 22,514 documented visitors. This contributed to a value of $284,809.

San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area (SPRNCA) was created in 1988 to protect more than 40-miles of the San Pedro River.

According to Weissler, SPRNCA is an asset to the local economy because of the massive income associated with ecotourism.

He referred to birding as a low-impact and renewable source of revenue for businesses throughout the San Pedro Valley.

At the end of this January trip along the San Pedro River, Brodie seems pleased about the day’s adventure.

She packs up her gear and walks to her car, eager to add to her growing list of bird sightings.

Katie Caldwell is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact her at

Click here to high resolution photos and a Word version of the story. 

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