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July 22, 2008

Wildlife Hot Spot: See (and Hold) Hummingbirds in Arizona


Hummingbirds are an evolutionary masterpiece—no bigger than several inches long, these tiny birds can come to a dead-stop, midflight and in milliseconds, in order to sup sweet nectar from flowers and plants. And they're no lightweights, either. In the January 2007 issue of National Geographic magazine, writer Michael Klesius reports that these territorial bruisers are, "gram for gram, perhaps the most confrontational players in nature."

As if to underscore all this feathery brawn, over 300 species of hummingbirds live on the margins of some of the Western Hemisphere's harshest terrain, from the arid Baja California chaparral to the snow-fringed realm of 15,000-foot Andean peaks. In the United States, one of the best places to spot these birds is in southeastern Arizona near its border with Mexico. Here, the San Pedro River forms a nourishing flyway for hummingbirds flitting between temperate wintering grounds to the south and nesting grounds to the north. Up to ten species of hummingbirds take advantage of this riparian habitat during the spring and summer migratory season, with August and September being the peak viewing months.

ecotourism travel idea: Hummingbird banding in Arizona The San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area, about seven miles east of Sierra Vista on Highway 90, is the best place to not only see hummingbirds but also have the opportunity to hold one. Hummingbird-banding sessions take place at the visitor center at San Pedro House on select days throughout August and September (see detailed calendar here), and offer members of the public the rare chance to hold the birds after they've been tagged. Performed by an elite group of USGS-certified banders, fewer than 150 "master" banders in the U.S. are permitted to perform the intricate work of capturing and tagging the birds for future migratory monitoring. These sessions are free, although donations of support are appreciated. (For $25, visitors can also "adopt" a hummingbird that's being banded, letting you name it and receive subsequent updates about your adopted bird.)

Another good spot for catching hummingbirds on the move is The Nature Conservancy's Ramsey Canyon Preserve, an ecologically diverse sanctuary on the eastern flank of Arizona's rugged Huachuca Mountains. The preserve is about 15 miles south of Sierra Vista (which is, in turn, located about 70 miles south of Tucson, Arizona). And even if you don't spot one of those beautiful nano-sized flutterers, chances are you'll see something else that catches your eye: other species that call Ramsey Canyon home include treefrogs, coatimundis, rattlesnakes, dozens of species of butterflies, and even mountain lions.

Photos: Hummingbird feeding: courtesy, Sierra Vista Convention & Visitors Bureau; girl holding hummingbird: Mike Stephany

For more of the best birding spots in the United States and around the world, visit's Regional Birding Guide.

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