April 9, 2009
Common Black Hawk
Common Blac Hawk
If birdwatching is now the fastest growing outdoor recreational activity, then certainly the most rapidly expanding component driving this growth is the birding festival.  The American Birding Association website lists 55 birding festivals scattered across the country from Alaska to Florida and across the calendar from January through November.  Arizona, the country's preeminent birding destination, hosts five, and a favorite one close to the Valley, the Verde Valley Birding and Nature Festival, is coming up April 23 through April 26 at Deadhorse Ranch State Park in Cottonwood.

It's hard to lure springtime birders away from the Mexican breeders in the Sky Islands of southeastern Arizona, but it helps if the name of your festival rhymes with "birdy" and you have great spring weather, diverse habitat, a riparian corridor, and lie on a major migratory route.  To see the full panoply of events at the Birdy Verde Festival go to birdyverde.org/.

Birding isn't just walking through the desert by yourself with binoculars hanging around your neck.  Many if not most birders find one of the greatest attractions of their avocation is making new friends and sharing their passion.  Birdy Verde, now in its ninth year, brings together birders from throughout the Southwest and around the country for 46 field trips, a free family nature festival, kayaking on the Verde River, and assorted workshops on diverse outdoor topics ranging from photography to organic farming to identifying birds by ear.  Oh, and this year's keynote speaker is a bird columnist familiar to Republic readers.

Birdy Verde's "Grand Tour" field trip is an all day Friday excursion to the Grand Canyon to see the reintroduced California condors and lunch at historic, spectacular El Tovar Lodge.  Then you can spend the rest of the weekend debating whether the "best bird" of the festival was the condor or the black hawk.  Common black hawk, considered by many to be North America's most beautiful raptor, is the signature species of the Verde Valley, breeds in the cottonwood forests along the river, and is a guaranteed checkmark on the festival birdlist which includes well over 200 species.

Many others in that number are species special to Arizona that draw hard core bird listers from out of state.  Zone-tailed hawks nest on the south face of the Mogollon Rim, and Spotted Owls inhabit north facing canyons above the Rim.  Reclusive crissal thrashers live in the thick chaparral of the foothills, and field trips upslope to the pine-oak habitat on Mingus Mountain encounter magnificent hummingbirds, bridled titmice, olive and Virginia's warblers.  Red-faced warblers and painted redstarts, two colorful favorites, migrate to Oak Creek, and the iconic roadrunner is often seen in Verde Valley grasslands.

If you've never done a birding festival, make Birdy Verde your first.  It's one of the best and provides a great introduction into wild, natural Arizona.