Birding Sonora’s Free Zone

Rose-throated Becard (Bob and Prudy Bowers)

Rose-throated Becard (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

Having hundreds of species never seen in the U.S. and a border just an hour from Tucson, Mexico is a natural magnet for Arizona birders.  But birding by car in Mexico is a little more complicated than birding in Arizona. You need Mexican car insurance, and in most cases you need a tourist permit as well as a car permit, documents that can take an hour or more to obtain at the permit station 21 kilometers south of Nogales, Arizona.  However, you can get a taste of birding Mexico without the time-consuming hassle to get permits.  Mexico allows U.S. visitors 72 hours in Sonora without either a visa or car permit, as long as you don’t venture out of the ‘free zone.’ You still need to have Mexican car insurance, but that’s easy to get by phone in Tucson.

This Sonoran ‘free zone’ includes mainland Mexico west of highway 15 from Nogales to Guaymas and north of highway 2 from Imuris to Naco, Arizona. That’s a lot of territory and includes birding hotspots in Rocky Point, Hermosillo, Kino Bay, San Carlos and Guaymas.  Car permits are not required for visits in this area regardless of length of stay, and staying 72 hours or less obviates tourist permits.  Three days isn’t much time to bird these hotspots, but you can sample enough to decide where to spend more time on a longer trip.  And even though a tourist permit is required for stays longer than 72 hours, it’s free for 7 days and only $20 for up to 180 days.

Five-striped Sparrow (Bob and Prudy Bowers)

Five-striped Sparrow (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

Rocky Point and San Carlos are a bit far for a 3-day trip, but there are two free zone birding destinations that are less than 130 miles and only about 2 hours from Tucson.  One is Rio Magdalena in Imuris and the other is Rancho El Aribabi, just 20 miles east of Imuris on highway 2.  Rio Magdalena is an under-birded eBird hotspot with just 15 reports, but 155 species have been listed here on visits dating back to 1980.  The creek-like river flows year-round, attracting Black-bellied Whistling Duck, teals, mergansers, and grebes.  In addition, this hotspot has reported Mexican specialties like Elegant Quail, Green Kingfisher, White-tipped Dove, Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl, Crested Caracara and Black-capped Gnatcatcher.     A dirt road parallels the river, with multiple opportunities to park and bird, distracted only by friendly ranchers on horseback. Imuris is just 43 miles south of Nogales.

Cocospera River (Bob and Prudy Bowers)

Rio Cocospera in Rancho El Aribabi (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

The second hotspot is Rancho El Aribabi, a 10,000-acre cattle ranch at 3,500 feet in the Sierra Azul Mountains 19 miles east of Imuris.  The ranch focuses on conservation and research, and is open periodically to small group overnight visits.  The ranch guest house sits above the Rio Cocospera, a small stream flowing through a heavily treed riparian area rich with birds.  Birding the riverfront trails in early morning is like walking through nature’s cathedral.  In spring, Summer Tanagers are abundant and singing Sinaloa Wrens compete with machine gun chattering Yellow-breasted Chats.  EBird shows 157 species for this hotspot.  We stayed here two nights in May, and our group recorded 50 species including Gray Hawk, Sinaloa Wren, Green Kingfisher, Five-striped Sparrow, White-tipped Dove, Buff-collared Nightjar and Rose-throated Becard.  EBird reports for one of these birds, the Sinaloa Wren, have occurred in just 3 places in the U.S., all in Arizona: Tubac, Patagonia and Ft. Huachuca, and never for more than a single bird.  Aribabi is just 35 miles south of Arizona, and we watched 2 pairs of Sinaloa Wrens singing and nest-building.  We videotaped two minutes of this nest-building and singing activity, which can be found on YouTube here. We fully expect this bird to be nesting in Arizona before long.

Entering Mexico to bird these two hotspots is hassle-free and no more difficult than birding Santa Cruz County. If you’re interested in seeing some birds seldom, if ever, seen in Arizona, email me for details (

(This article was published in the August, 2016, issue of the Saddlebag Notes Newspaper, Tucson)

About Bob

A lifelong naturalist, Bob's avocation is birding, including field observation, study, photography and writing. He spent a career in computers and consulting, but his free time has been spent outdoors backpacking, fishing and enjoying nature firsthand. Bob has traveled extensively, exploring and photographing above and underwater in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, Egypt and throughout the United States, Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, Central and South America. Now retired, as an amateur ornithologist Bob studies, photographs and writes primarily about birds of the Western Hemisphere. Formerly the Feature Writer for Latin America and Caribbean Travel at, he has been Suite101's Feature Writer for Birds and Birding since January, 2010, and has received seven Editor's Choice awards, which are listed below. Bob also writes a monthly birding column for a newspaper in Arizona, and his work appears in the travel magazine, Another Day in Paradise, published in Zihuatanejo, Mexico. His blog, Birding the 'Brooke and Beyond, discusses birding, travel and other topics in Southeast Arizona and beyond. Bob is a member of the National and Tucson Audubon Societies, Western Field Ornithologists, Arizona Field Ornithologists, the American Birding Association and other birding and conservation organizations. Bob and his wife, Prudy, live in the Santa Catalina Mountain foothills near Tucson, Arizona. To date, Bob has received Suite101 Editor's Choice awards for the following articles: • Birding by Cruise Ship in the Caribbean • The Xantus' Hummingbird, Baja California's Only Endemic Hummer • Birding the White Mountains in and Around Greer, Arizona • The Greater Roadrunner, New Mexico's State Bird • Where to Find Steelhead on the Lower Deschutes River in Oregon • Birding La Bajada near San Blas, Mexico • The 2008 Christmas Bird Count at Estero del Yugo in Mazatlan
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2 Responses to Birding Sonora’s Free Zone

  1. Cheryl Pettijohn says:

    Sorry. Sent a reply without the thanks. Excellent information which we have saved. Love the photographs.

    Cheryl From my iPad


  2. Bob says:

    Thanks, Cheryl. Greatly appreciate your comments. Bob

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