Arizona, landlocked and famous for deserts, saguaros and grand canyons, seems an unlikely place for ocean birding, but google ‘Arizona’s Beach’ and prepare to think differently. Search engines recognize a beautiful stretch of ocean frontage around Puerto Penasco, Mexico, as ‘Arizona’s Beach’, and for good reason. Just sixty miles south of Arizona’s Organ Pipe National Monument, Puerto Penasco, or Rocky Point, lies along the upper reaches of the Sea of Cortez, on a highway built to connect Baja California with mainland Mexico’s state of Sonora. Once a sleepy fishing village, Rocky Point has evolved into a serious tourist destination with high-rise condos, gourmet restaurants, dive shops and golf resorts. Almost equidistant from Phoenix and Tucson, Rocky Point easily qualifies as ‘Arizona’s beach.’ From Tucson’s I-19 intersection, it’s just 206 miles and less than 5 hours to Rocky Point’s Sam’s Club, and though you need Mexican car insurance, no tourist visas or automobile permit are required.
Even though birding goes unmentioned in most lists of Rocky Point attractions, the area’s open ocean, coves, bays, estuaries and wetlands are home to a large variety of resident and migratory birds. Eleven area hotspots are listed in eBird, with a total of 258 species, many of which are unknown or rarely seen in Arizona. This includes one Sea of Cortez endemic, the Yellow-footed Gull, American Oystercatcher, Surfbird, no fewer than eight terns, Sanderling, Red Tropicbird, five plovers, two storm-petrels, Black-vented Shearwater and both Brown and Blue-footed Boobies among many others. We toured these hotspots in mid-July, and although birding is far better from fall to spring, we found 57 species in two days of casual birding.
Of the 11 hotspots, some are easier to access and some are more productive than others. The largest list of species (240) shows for Puerto Penasco Ciudad (city), although this was probably the initial hotspot and likely included other sites now defined separately. Two of the other sites are west and north of the city, Cholla Bay and Playa Pelicano, while six of the hotspots are part of the city: Playa Bonita between Sandy Beach and the port, the port itself, the malecon, the settlement ponds, Las Conchas and CEDO. Two other sites are estuaries east of the city, Morua and La Pinta. The town, port and malecon are reached by continuing on Highway 8 from Arizona, which becomes Avenue Benito Juarez and ends at the waterfront. The Cholla Bay site is a protected estuary just north of the bay community west of town, and Playa Pelicano has been absorbed by the Laguna del Mar resort, which lies north of town and west of highway 3. The resort is under development, but at least for now is accessible to birders, and birding both here and at Cholla Bay is excellent. Another great site is the ‘Estanque de Aguas’ or sewage settlement ponds, which can be reached by taking Calle Sonora east of Benito Juarez until it ends in a residential area, parking there and walking the treed levees that separate the large ponds. The two estuaries east of town are not easily accessed, though you can reach Morua via Playa Encanto and La Pinta from the dirt road entry to the Mayan Palace resort. Tell the Mayan Palace gate keeper you want to go to the resort’s restaurant, and park your car at a bridge over the estuary in order to walk and bird at least part of the large wetlands.
Las Conchas is a gated oceanfront residential area that is almost impossible to bird unless you are staying there, and there are many short-term rental homes available, which is the option we chose in July. But CEDO, the center for desert and ocean studies, is also accessible through the Las Conchas gate, so you can tell the gate keeper you are visiting CEDO, park at the center and walk down to the beach that runs adjacent to Las Conchas. One morning, sitting on our ocean-view deck and enjoying a cup of coffee, we realized we were seeing flocks of Blue-footed Boobies flying east to west, in what seemed non-ending groups. We started counting, and the flocks, which ranged from a dozen birds to fifty, streamed by for two hours, at about 50 birds per minute. In other words, we sipped our coffee and watched 6,000 Blue-footed Boobies fly by our house. And this was during the slow-birding summer. I can’t wait to go back this winter.
The above article was originally published in the Tucson Audubon Society’s quarterly magazine, The Vermilion Flycatcher, on October 1, 2015.