SAGUARO NATIONAL PARK - As Phil Craig flashes his binoculars toward two gray Cooper’s hawks perched in a nearby tree, two tourists slide behind him for a clear view of the rare birds.
“This is special. I’ve never seen these birds here,” Craig tells a handful of people hiking near the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. Craig is a volunteer leading bird walks at the museum, meeting bird watchers from around the country and world who travel to see Arizona’s hundreds of bird species.
“Birders come from all over to Arizona,” he said. “We have such a big selection. People check the list of birds we have here and fly out just to see the birds they haven’t before.”
More than 350,000 people come to Arizona every year to spot birds. And they bring in an estimated $1 billion, making bird watching Arizona’s most lucrative tourist activity, said Joe Yarkin, watchable wildlife manager for Arizona Department of Game and Fish.
“Economically, it ranks above golf and the other big boys of tourism,” Yarkin said.
From scrublands near Yuma to the Mogollon Rim to areas near Sierra Vista where people flock to see hummingbirds, birding hotspots abound in Arizona. Of the more than 18 million bird watchers who travel each year, many consider Arizona a must-see.
“I’ve watched birds in Minnesota, California and in the Pacific Northwest. But I’ve never seen birds like I see here,” said John Sturtz, a retiree from Truckee, Calif., who joined Craig for the bird walk.
“Arizona is on just about every birders top five places to go see,” said Richard Payne, president of the American Birding Association, adding that Arizona is renowned for birds that fly from Mexico and those that migrate during colder months.
Arizona is home to 30 of the nation’s most important bird habitats, as determined by the National Audubon Society. The organization recently selected Sonoita Creek State Natural Area and Patagonia Lake State Park in southern Arizona as “Important Birding Areas.”
The number of bird watchers nationwide has more than doubled to 46 million in the past 20 years, ranking it behind only gardening as a hobby, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
In many Arizona communities, restaurants, bed and breakfasts, shops and tour operators benefit from birds. Sierra Vista Mayor Bob Strain said bird watchers are an economic engine for his city, which is known as the hummingbird capital of the United States.
“For the hotels and the restaurants, it’s all very significant,” Strain said. “Our hotels are filled at 95 percent year-round, and much of that is from bird watchers.”
Mary Jo Ballator opened the Ash Canyon Bed and Breakfast four years ago in Hereford, a few miles from Sierra Vista. Her one-room bed and breakfast is situated in the Huachuca Mountains, a popular site. She said 35 to 50 birders come to her property every day.
“Many communities rely on birdwatching visitors,” Ballator said. “We are very augmented by the business that birders bring.”
Bird watchers who visit Arizona spend an estimated $160 daily and usually spend several days here, said Yarkin with Game and Fish. To guide visiting birders, the Arizona Department of Tourism developed a list called the “Birding Trail,” which includes the state’s best spots to spot birds.
Arizona has one of the highest bird counts in the United States with more than 530 species, according to the Game and Fish Department. Cochise County has 226 species, giving it the third-highest bird population among counties nationally.
Arizona usually also hosts around 10 birding festivals every year. These birding marathons include tours to places around the state. One of the bigger events is the Fiesta de Aves, which will run from April 29 to May 5. It’s a traveling event hosted by the Southeastern Arizona Bird Observatory that will move around Cochise and Santa Cruz counties.
Other sites for festivals are Yuma, Willcox, Cottonwood, Tucson and Bisbee.
Thousands of birders attend these events, most of them in southern Arizona, where the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum is located. The museum considers itself a first stop for birdwatchers in Arizona, which is why Craig enjoys leading tours here. He said it’s a gateway to other birding spots in Arizona.
“There are just so many good places for this in our state,” Craig said. “All year long, it’s practically a mecca for birdwatching.”