May 4, 2007
Masked Bobwhite
Masked Bobwhite
Many of our country's national wildlife refuges, set aside for one or two specific species, contain only a single habitat type and are underutilized by birders unless they visit specifically for those species.  Arizona is blessed with a unique and beautiful refuge which encompasses four completely different habitat types and the consequent wide diversity of birds, many of them Mexican border specialties, but it too is underutilized by birders because it doesn't have the reputation or cachet of the sky islands and their hummingbird canyons.

Put Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge southwest of Tucson on your “must do” list.  Buenos Aires, a former cattle ranch, was purchased by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service in 1985 to preserve habitat for the endangered masked bobwhite quail.  With additional purchases the refuge now encompasses 118,000 acres of ungrazed grasslands, wetlands, streamside cottonwood corridors, and sycamore/oak canyonlands with over 300 bird species.

Arivaca Cienega

Cienega means “100 waters,” and there is a 1-1/4 mile trail across a boardwalk through a wet meadow to a cottonwood grove and a seasonal marsh.  Black-bellied whistling-ducks nest here and the reclusive Virginia rail and the spectacular vermilion flycatcher are year round residents.

Arivaca Creek

A 1-1/4 mile trail follows the seasonal stream beneath ancient cottonwoods.  Gray hawks and both thick-billed and tropical kingbirds breed here along the creek at the northern limits of their range.  Other birds include varied bunting, the male black in shade but electric blue in sunlight, and summer tanager, the male dazzling brick red.  Green kingfishers are occasionally seen in winter.

Buenos Aires Headquarters and visitors center

Pronghorn Drive loops through 10 miles of grasslands patrolled by Swainson’s hawks in summer and northern harriers in winter when 20 species of sparrows may be found.  A ferruginous pygmy-owl, rare and endangered north of the border, was recorded on a recent Christmas Count scout.

Brown Canyon

A riparian canyon that runs from desert scrub at 3500 feet up through oak woodlands to the high ridges of the rugged Baboquivari Mountains at 7000 feet. Highly sought black-capped gnatcatchers have been found near the canyon mouth, and elusive Montezuma quail inhabit the higher regions where zone-tailed hawks and golden eagles nest.  Four species of hummingbirds, including the neon green and blue broad-billed, come to feeders at the check-in center.

To sample the wonderful diversity of habitat and wildlife on Buenos Aires will take more than one weekend, and serious birders may want to devote one weekend to each of the four habitats.  Save Brown Canyon for last and plan ahead.  It is the crown jewel of the refuge and open only to guided hikes by reservation.  Brown’s uniqueness lies in the proximity of its diverse habitats reflected by a phenomenon known as “species pairing.”  As you hike from desert scrub to oak woodland, western screech-owls give way to whiskereds, poorwills to whip-poor-wills, western scrub-jays to Mexican jays.  Mammals also abound with deer, fox, and bear, and the north fork of upper Brown is called Jaguar Canyon for a reason.  This is wilderness.  This is a special place to look for birds.

Arivaca Cienega--Take I-19 south from Tucson to Arivaca Road, exit 48.  Go west on Arivaca Road about 20 miles to the Buenos Aires Cienega sign on the left just before you reach the town of Arivaca.

Arivaca Creek--Continue west through Arivaca and bear right at the Sasabe/Ruby Road sign.  Parking for the creek trails is another 2 miles on the left, west of milepost 10.

Buenos Aires Headquarters--Continue west past the Arivaca Creek parking to Highway 286.  Turn left and go past milepost 8 to the Buenos Aires NWR sign on the left.  Turn left and follow the signs to the headquarters visitors center (open 7:30 am to 4:00 pm daily except Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's).

Brown Canyon--Go north on Highway 286 from headquarters past milepost 20 to two mailboxes on the left.  Open to guided hikes by reservation only, second and fourth Saturdays, November through April, $5/person.

For information or reservations call 520-823-4251 or on the web at