Looking for a fun winter getaway close to home? A four-hour journey from Tucson or Phoenix will take you to a stunning white-sand beach and fantastic birdwatching. Puerto Peasco allows you to experience the exotic without the time and cost of a lengthy trip. It is gradually becoming a popular destination for birders. Puerto Peasco is an ideal resort due to its rich coastal waters, tremendous tides, large beaches, desert stretches, and warm winters. Birding is superb all year, although tourists seldom take advantage of it during the hot and humid summer months. Birding here is a soothing complement to a frantic tour across Southeast Arizona, and it can be easily paired with a visit to Organ Pipe Cactus National Park—a week-long vacation in and of itself.
Puerto Peasco is easily accessible. Highway 8 is a two-lane road that links Puerto Peasco to the United States border at Lukeville, just south of Organ Pipe Cactus National Park. You may easily get Mexican insurance at Ajo or Why, both of which are located close north of the Park. Several Phoenix vehicle rental companies allow you to obtain Mexican insurance at the time of rental. If you want to remain in the region of Puerto Peasco and return to Lukeville, no extra tourist papers or additional vehicle bonding are required. Such papers are required if you desire to proceed to Caborca. However, few tourists continue on this path, and there is no compelling reason for birders to do so.
Allow roughly an hour and a half to travel the 53 miles from the border. You will travel through rich Sonoran desert flora, a fascinating volcanic region (part of the Pinacate Biosphere Reserve and a wonderful side excursion), and eventually to the coast, where desert conditions dominate and vegetation is scant.
Puerto Peasco is a welcoming community. There are excellent restaurants, and fresh fish and shrimp are delivered daily to the waterfront markets. Despite the development of numerous huge resorts, Peasco retains small town charm and joy. It is quite simple to get about, and since many Americans own second homes there, it is relatively easy to meet someone who speaks English. Even better, visit the local bakery, restaurants, and stores along the port to practise your Spanish. For an excellent map and advertisements detailing local activities, pick up a copy of the Rocky Point Times or El Futuro.
Since discovering Puerto Peasco more than 20 years ago, I have returned every year. My initial excursions were to get away from the cold in Flagstaff, where I was attending graduate school. I’m not sure how I thought many hours of strolling the beach documenting shorebird densities would help my thesis on elk winter bedding needs, but the diversion has lasted longer than the schooling. So maybe the event foreshadowed the inevitable capture of passion for birding.
The combination of a superb climate, a highly productive and thrilling ocean environment, and consistently gratifying birding is what draws people to Puerto Peasco. Every field day is fascinating thanks to an amazing list of rarities and seabirds, as well as a continual flow of migrants. Rainfall averages 4-5 inches per year at this northern edge of the Sea of Cortez. Clouds may form on occasion, although they typically disperse over the desert or go farther north. As a result, you may expect sunny days and warmth throughout most of the winter. When a storm does arrive, it’s usually a good one, with offshore winds churning up the water and, hopefully, sending pelagic seabirds closer to shore.
By returning to Peasco for several years, I’ve gotten a great understanding of how volatile the ocean’s food supplies can be. The water may be simply bursting with life at times. Tens of thousands of loons, grebes, and cormorants may be seen in practically solid rafts. Brown and Blue-footed Boobies, as well as Brown Pelicans, dive wildly above them. And a swarm of gulls screech and plead, creating a commotion that can be heard for miles.
I can view three or four feeding groups of 3000-4000 birds apiece from the veranda of the beach home where I stay. Their rhythms change throughout the day and often wake me up around daybreak. Dolphins and whales come in close to shore during these years of plenty, and California Sea Lions move in from the islands. In calm years, the same species may be found, but in smaller numbers. Birds are more uniformly scattered, and I only observe large feeding groups near Estero Morua during the surge of incoming and outgoing tides.
As an inland birder, what first drew me to Peasco was the easy access to shorebirds. Indeed, Peasco is an excellent place for shorebird research! Thirty-seven different species have been identified here. If you are overwhelmed by the work, try a fresh system. Make a chart showing relative sizes, arranging the birds in ascending order of size. The updated Sibley guide makes it simple to add weight to the size chart, which is useful for distinguishing fat shorebirds like Surfbird from slimmer shorebirds like Black Turnstone.
Take your time scanning the flocks. Choose a common species to serve as a ruler. Is it shorter, shorter, thinner, fatter, bigger, or longer? This is the thrill of birdwatching in Peasco. Slow down a little, focus on species you may not be as acquainted with, and have fun! You may even be able to take on those challenging gulls given time. In any particular group, there are plenty of immature, second, and third-year plumages to work on. With just 18 species reported to date, this is a true rarity.
In English, Puerto Peasco is known as Rocky Point. It was called for the black, volcanic point that rises above the port in the town’s center. The superb birding chances at Rocky Point are intimately tied to the volcanic processes that formed this distinctive landmark. This lava, combined with lava from neighboring Cholla Bay and Black Mountain, formed a rock reef complex with texture and structure along the ocean beach. A wide range of fish and intertidal invertebrates occupy the reef’s niches, which offer a rich food supply for a variety of shorebirds and waders. Aside from the rock reefs, there are huge mudflats that are rich in invertebrates.
With the coming of the railroad, a once-remote fishing hamlet saw its first population explosion. Today’s rise is due to visitors and winter residents seeking the sun and beachfront property, as well as those who relocate due to construction and service sector employment.
On a clear day, you can see the whole northern Sea of Cortez curve. Light dances over the peaks and land stretch of northern Baja California at dawn and sunset, all the way around to a huge, unsettled desert area reaching into Kino Bay. The Sea of Cortez waters are shallow here, and the tides are among the most dramatic in the world. Tides frequently vary 20 feet vertically and may be higher over the season. You’ll quickly learn to spot tide movement and schedule your birdwatching appropriately. A tide chart is frequently published in the local daily, and you can also get one from the Center for the Study of Deserts and Oceans (CEDO), which is a fantastic site to start any naturalist’s study of the Peasco region. CEDO is situated in the beachside town of Las Conchas (directions are provided at the end of this article).
CEDO recently recognized 20 years of outstanding efforts in Peasco research, teaching, and conservation. The Center contains a Visitor’s Center with informative exhibits and a gift shop, as well as an outstanding multilingual newsletter. Free tours of the facilities are given twice a week, and sea kayak expeditions into Estero Morua are popular with birds. The Birds of Puerto Peasco and Vicinity Bird Checklist may also be purchased through CEDO. Contact the Center at PO Box 249, Lukeville, AZ 85341, or by email at [email protected].
After getting situated, a nice area to start birdwatching is near the beach directly behind CEDO. This beautiful six-mile beach has a rock reef running the length of it, and birding during mid-level incoming or outgoing tides may be quite fruitful. At high tide, you will only witness a sparkling, pristine, white sand beach. At low tide, you’ll see that the beach gives way to volcanic stones and a seawater-etched reef. I usually go about a mile back towards town, where a tiny bend on the beach stimulates shorebirds’ first and final feeding attempts since rocks are initially exposed here.
If you don’t have the time or energy to travel that far, you may also visit the other end of this beach at the CETMAR Aquarium, a public facility that features outstanding exhibits and live specimens of many intertidal creatures. Before entering the Las Conchas gate, look for signs for the Aquarium, which is situated in the local technical college. Business hours are provided, and it is definitely worth your time to check them out. It’s also a nice area to park if you want to go to the beach.
A third entry point to this section of the beach is at Manny’s Beach Club, through a road off Fremont Boulevard before Las Conchas. However, this section of the beach is often busier. This beach is vehicle-free (except for Las Conchas guards), which is great for wildlife.
Brown Pelican, Common and Pacific Loon, Western and Eared Grebes, Great and Snowy Egret, Black-bellied Plover, Whimbrel and Willet, Snowy and Semi-palmated Plover, Ruddy and sometimes Black Turnstones, and Surfbird are some of the birds you might see while walking along Las Conchas Beach and looking out to sea. American Oystercatchers are quite territorial, and you will often hear them before seeing them.
Great-tailed Grackles are extremely common around residences with palm trees with many fronds, and they also frequent tidepools. Houses and power wires are popular perches for American Kestrels, Loggerhead Shrikes, and Say’s Phoebe. Long lines of loons and Double-crested Cormorants, Brown Boobies, and, with luck and practice, a Black-vented or Sooty Shearwater will appear if you calmly monitor the horizon out to sea. There will be multiple “clubs” of roosting gulls; look for Glacous-winged Gulls, which are known to frequent this region.
Below the Aquarium, just shy of Las Conchas, are three “Shrimp Ponds,” or lagoons, that may be useful for birding depending on the tide level and how much water is dumped into them. Shorebirds flock here during high tide because they can’t graze on the rock reef or mudflats. This is also the finest area to locate Black-necked Stilt and American Avocet (all year) (all seasons except mid-winter). Black-crowned and Yellow-crowned Night Herons, as well as the uncommon Green Kingfisher, have been observed here. It’s a fantastic area to practice dowitcher identification since both species may be seen here, albeit Short-billed is more prevalent. Keep an eye out for Spotted Sandpipers and Greater Yellowlegs along the ponds’ edges. These ponds may be rather spectacular during migration.
Estero Morua has some of the greatest birding spots. If you proceed to the end of the road at Las Conchas and find a parking area away from the road, you will be able to reach the beach, where the sand and mudflats are much more vast and new species emerge. Public access walkways, which appear as a gap, space, or route between residences, are frequent. The Del Mar Resort is now at the end of the road, and the route is marked appropriately.
Wilson’s and Snowy Plovers, as well as Long-billed Curlew and Marbled Godwit, are prevalent at the estuary. There are a lot of gulls, so bring your scope and be patient. With patience, you will be able to locate the huge Yellow-footed Gull, a local specialty. Ring-billed, Herring, and California Gulls are the most common. Heermann’s Gulls, which are beautiful in all plumages, are also frequent. They are often observed begging near feeding Brown Pelicans. The more frequent species may be mixed together with Bonaparte’s, Laughing, or Franklin’s Gulls. Terns roost in large numbers among the gull flocks. Caspian, Royal, and Forster’s are the most likely in the winter. There are breeding colonies of Least Terns in the summer, while Elegant and Common Terns are more frequent. Out in the surf, look for Red-breasted Merganser, Redhead, and Surf Scoter. The Oldsquaw is a true discovery in this region, unusual yet feasible.
Keep an eye out for arriving and outgoing tides. They move fast and with tremendous power. The rocks that flank the estuary mouth act as beacons for birds and birdwatchers. Just be careful not to be trapped out there, since the tide fills the area surrounding them like an island (I speak from experience). These rocks offer excellent habitat for the Wandering Tattler, Black Turnstone, and perhaps an uncommon shorebird or two. In one expedition, I discovered a beautiful Craveri’s Murrelet, a breeding species on the “Bird Islands,” washed up on the shore. This was my sole encounter with this rare Sea of Cortez specialty.
You may also get to the rear side of Estero Morua by using one of two little roads that go to operating oyster farms on the route to Caborca. The mudflats are vast here, and the tides bring organic debris and crustaceans to the surface. As a result, it sometimes provides you with a close-up feeding frenzy. A small flock of Black Skimmer and Reddish Egret may be seen here. The Long-billed Curlew and the Marbled Godwit are very numerous.
The New Sewage Ponds, which continue to be a rich supply of fascinating species, are one of the top birding places in Peasco at this moment. The ponds are by far the greatest site to see a wide range of ducks. A large number of gulls converge here as well (as well as at the local landfill).
The ponds will become a wetland paradise when more vegetation grows in, especially if cattail habitat is allowed to thrive (it was well-developed in the former sewage ponds, which are now dry). Pied-billed Grebes are uncommon in PeascoNorthern Pintail, although they may be found. There will be lots of American Coot, as well as Ruddy, Northern Pintail, Northern Shoveler, American Wigeon, Lesser Scaup, and Bufflehead. Green-winged, Blue-winged, and Cinnamon Teal are probable, as are Gadwall, Redhead, and Common Goldeneye. Rarer species include the Mexican Mallard, Canvasback, Ring-necked Duck, and Hooded Merganser. Lesser Nighthawks are prevalent above the ponds during the warmer months and throughout the summer.
Between the New Sewage Ponds and the train lines, you may see typical shrub desert flora and the pale LeConte’s Thrasher. Verdin and Black-tailed Gnatcatcher are also possible. These shrub-loving species may be seen in shrub regions across the dunes toward the highway and train lines from CEDO, as well as wintering Sage, Brewer’s, and White-crowned sparrows.
The Old Sewage Ponds, near the new ones, are still worth birdwatching since they have produced a lot of huge trees and some heavy shrubs over time. You may not see them right away but search for a visible flat, disturbed areas near a burm with thick foliage. Gambel’s Quail, Burrowing Owl, and Greater Roadrunner may all be found in this location. This location is home to Great Horned Owls and Black-crowned Night Herons. Wintering warblers such as Orange-crowned, Nashville, and Yellow-rumped, as well as the Ruby-crowned Kinglet, may be found here. The Old Sewage Ponds are a great spot to see migrating songbirds including flycatchers, thrushes, warblers, and sparrows.
Observer Neil Wingert notes that one of the intermittent (usually dry) sections of the Sonoita River that stretches out to flow into the Sea of Cortez, east of Peasco along the route to Caborca, is a fruitful habitat for landbirds. In the thick bushes that flank the subterranean water source this autumn, he discovered Yellow-breasted Chat and Western Tanager, both excellent species for the region, as well as other fascinating migrants.
The Harbor is an excellent site for people-watch as well as bird-watch. It is constantly busy with activity and full of life. The side of the harbor closest to town, opposite the Navy Yard, is calmer and a nice area to put up your scope to scan for Clark’s Grebe (frequently mixed in with the more abundant Westerns), Belted Kingfisher, Double-crested Cormorant, and a fair variety of gulls. If the ocean conditions are favorable and the gulls can see the land, they may follow the shrimp boats back into the port. Brown Booby and Magnificent Frigatebird may be seen up close. Blue-footed Boobies like to remain further out, however they may be seen near the port. Black and Least Storm-Petrel flocks sometimes come in, and you’ll notice their distinctive dipping flight as they collect food from the surface waters.
The Malecon, or shoreline, on the livelier side of the port, is worth a look. Just be prepared to mingle, as everyone will want to sell you shrimp or show you around their restaurant, business, or anything! Balboa’s restaurant, on the quieter side, and numerous restaurants on the Malecon have large windows and provide excellent birdwatching directly from your seat! It’s difficult to eat fresh shrimp or fish tacos while sorting gulls and terns with a decent, cold Mexican beer. However, someone has to do it!
It is now possible to organize a trip to the Bird Islands, also known on maps as Islas San Jorge and located around 25 miles southeast of Puerto Peasco. Several businesses are now offering tours out there from Peasco Harbor. Their offices are located in the Harbor area, with one located on the far side of the Harbor near Balboa’s restaurant. Some people combine the trip with snorkeling, while others focus on viewing sea lions, so check with your captain and booking firm to ensure you have enough time to see and identify the birds of interest. You have a fair probability of seeing jaegers along the way. The parasitic species is the most frequent here. If there are no tour boats available and you are feeling adventurous, talk to some of the fishing boat captains. They could also be willing to take you out there.
The finest site to see land birds is in Puerto Peasco. If you just have a few days, you should concentrate your efforts on waders, shorebirds, and seabirds. However, if you become a Rocky Point regular, the big trees and beautiful plants of the residential districts will most certainly capture your attention. While the checklist includes a considerable variety of land birds, only grackles, starlings, and blackbirds are plentiful. Finding species like the Northern Flicker, Gila Woodpecker, American Robin, or House Wren requires patience and being in the correct area. The most frequent warblers are orange-crowned and yellow-rumped, although the checklist includes 17 species, including Cape May Warbler and Northern Waterthrush. One can only imagine the necessary rest and refueling stop in the middle of the desert for forest-loving species like the Hermit, Blackpoll, and Black and White Warbler, all of which have been recorded here.
To find the best areas in town, start with the grid of residential streets north of the harbor and west of Highway 8 from Sonoyta. Drive through an area to spot your best sites and then park and walk the streets of neighborhoods with large, tall trees. Expect it to be rather entertaining to the locals. Be friendly and respect their privacy (and their dogs), but enjoy your time and your glimpse into local life, as well as the birding. You will find that several people have noisy caged parrots, and these areas are good to check for songbirds that seem to be drawn in for the company. Hummingbirds frequent flowering shrubs. Anna’s and Costa’s are the most common wintering species. Six species have been recorded so far, but more are likely to show up with increased observation. Mountain bluebird numbers vary year to year, but the birds seem very fond of the cemetery on the west edge of town. Smaller birds of prey, such as Merlin and Sharp-shinned or Cooper’s Hawk may be found in a town in response to increased prey.
Another good group of large trees can be found just south of Fremont Boulevard (which takes you to CEDO and Las Conchas) between the police station and the beach. A large home with fruiting date palms is particularly productive. The nearby “town” of Cholla Bay is also a good birding area. Fewer large trees and shrubs occur here, but several people have feeders. A walk around town on this year’s Christmas Bird Count revealed a bright male Spotted Towhee, several Anna’s Hummingbirds feeding on blooming tree tobacco, a Loggerhead Shrike and an American Kestrel, House Finch, Orange-crowned Warbler, and White-crowned Sparrow.
On the left side of the road before you come to the town of Cholla Bay, you will see a prominent volcanic hill with a sand dune blown up against the side. If you park here and explore the rocky canyon that angles up the west side of the mountain, you are likely to find a good selection of wintering songbirds. The desert vegetation is well developed here, with shrubs and cholla and other cacti. You may find Verdin, Sage Thrasher, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Mountain or Western Bluebird (the latter new to the checklist in 2000), Gambel’s Quail or Curve-billed Thrasher. In the high shrubs on either side of the road you may find wintering Sage Sparrow. It is a nice walk, but closed-toed shoes are advised, as there is a lot of trash and broken glass.
The real birding action in Cholla Bay, however, is at Pelican Point, which gives you the best vantage point for ocean species. This is a place to set up your scope and scan the ocean horizon. Drive to the very end of the road, and you can park here in the open turn-around area or near the beach, off the road next to the local hotel. From here you can see the Point and walk out there to perch on the rocks. Red-throated Loons have been spotted fairly regularly on the Christmas Bird Counts. Blue-footed Booby come in quite close, and often roost on the rocks at mid-tides. Surf-scoter are fairly numerous. This is a good place to keep your eye open for Thayer’s and other uncommon gull species. At a good distance (or in closer if there have been strong winds towards the shore) you may spot shearwaters or jaegers.
Another prime birding location for Cholla Bay is at the edge of the bay where extensive mudflats provide feeding areas for thousands of birds. Access this on your right just before you enter town (you can drive up and park on the burm). You will see a large flagpole near the last house, which marks a good spot to set up for viewing. You will need a spotting scope to fully appreciate the area, but, in any case, try to get there within an hour one way or the other of high tide, when birds are roosting closer to the road. If you can time it this way, reach the area about two hours before the high tide, and watch the birds congregate as the incoming tide pushes them closer to you. You should find dozens of Wilson’s, Snowy, Semi-palmated and Black-bellied Plover, Least and Western Sandpiper, Dunlin, Long-billed Curlew, Marbled Godwit, Whimbrel, Ruddy Turnstone, Sanderling, and Short-billed Dowitcher. There are grassy habitats extending into the bay, and here you will find Snowy Egret feeding with Willet, both species of Yellowlegs, and Spotted Sandpiper. This is also good habitat to look for Bonaparte’s gulls in the small quiet pools. A practiced eye will pull out Surfbird, Red Knot, and, with luck, Baird’s, Pectoral or Stilt Sandpiper. Beyond the shorebirds, you will find roosting groups of gulls, sometimes numbering 4000-5000. And, in the pickleweed and other succulent shrubs in between the road and the mudflats you should find dozens of the “large-billed” race of the Savannah Sparrow. This is the resident breeding species in Peñasco. A few of the smaller billed birds may be wintering with the resident flock. It’s interesting to note variety in bill size as well as some interesting and local vocalizations.
RESOURCES FOR THE PEÑASCO AREA
Peg Abbott, author of this article, has published a checklist specific to the Peñasco area. It lists 322 species and was revised in November of 2000. The checklist is based on an extensive compilation of data from published articles, as well as books and checklists by Russell, Taylor, Howell, Ganley (see references below) and on personal observation. Additional sightings by competent observers were used that were turned in to CEDO after publication of the draft checklist. It is available for $3.00 plus shipping. Contact Peg at the addresses below. Proceeds benefit CEDO and the Friends of Organ Pipe Cactus National Park.
The most current annotated list for Sonora can be found on Steve Ganley’s website at www.primenet.com/~sganley. While Sonora does not have an official Rare Bird Record Committee, several individuals keep a close tab on sightings. Rick Taylor of Borderlands Tours in Tucson, and Steve Ganley of Phoenix have both published checklists for the Birds of Sonora, and keep in good communication regarding all recent sightings. Ganley, Taylor and Steve Russell, who authored a monumental work The Birds of Sonora (1998) with Gale Monson, are recognized experts and can help you evaluate your sightings and add them to the base of knowledge for Sonora.
Christmas Bird Counts have been run at Peñasco consistently in the 1990’s and for several years in the early 1980’s. Steve Ganley summarizes and compares Christmas Bird Count results for the last ten years or so on his website, which is particularly helpful in understanding mid-winter relative abundance. This year more than 15 observers participated in the event on December 17th. Many species were recorded, with some very notable finds—particularly in the town where the mountain birds seem to have discovered Peñasco.
In Peñasco and the immediate vicinity, if you sight birds that are considered casual or accidental, or are new to the checklist, please carefully document your sightings and send them to Peg Abbott, P.O. Box 180 Gallatin Gateway, MT 59718 ([email protected]). Peg will note them for future checklist revisions and send them on to Steve Ganley. Since the draft edition of the checklist in 1998, 38 species have been added. The checklist will be updated every year, as it is a work in progress as new sightings are reported and documented. A particularly exciting Christmas Bird Count this December has already added 3 species to the checklist and 11 to the total seen on a Christmas bird count day.
If you venture to Peñasco and enjoy the birding as much as I do, please let them know! Write a letter to the Rocky Point Times, and send a copy to the Mayor. So much of the new development is centered around the large resort concept – complete with golf courses and gated communities. The future of coastal, estuary and ocean habitats will largely depend on good management of these precious resources. The best way to insure future conservation of this precious location is to enjoy it and spend your birding tourist dollars.
LOGISTICS FOR A JOURNEY TO PUERTO PEÑASCO
- General Driving Instructions
To reach Puerto Peñasco, you will be driving south on AZ Highway 85 and will cross the border at Lukeville, just south of Organ Pipe Cactus National Park, about two hours west of Tucson. The border is open from 6:00 am to midnight. Mexican officials at the border may ask to see your belongings before waiving you on to Mexican Highway 8. You will travel through the outskirts of the town of Sonoyta and should follow signs to Puerto Peñasco. Veer left at the first junction where Highway 2 takes off to the right towards Mexicali and the Pacific Coast. You will cross the Sonoita River and shortly afterwards you will see the sign indicating you should drive diagonally to the right to follow the road to Puerto Peñasco. There are several slow zones marked for school crossings, and you must stop at all railroad tracks. Soon you will leave town and travel through lush deserts. It is approximately 53 miles to Puerto Peñasco, and I allow about an hour-and-a-half to cross the border and make the drive.
- La Ruta de Sonora
If you wish to travel into the Pinacate Biosphere Reserve en route to Puerto Peñasco, or to continue on to Caborca and other locations in Sonora, there is an organization that can help you with travel plans and ideas and arrange for local guides to sites such as the Kino Missions, the rock art and Mimbres cultural sites near Caborca, and other locations. Their office is in Ajo, Arizona, and they can be contacted at [email protected]. They may also be able to suggest day guides and activities in the Peñasco area.
As noted in the text, the Center for Studies of Deserts and Oceans, located in Puerto Peñasco, has been going strong for 20 years. The Center offers a variety of natural and cultural history programs for both residents and tourists, and you may want to time your visit around one of the scheduled field trips. These range from an all-day trip into the Pinacate, to sessions on
marine and intertidal life at Estero Morua. Peggy Turk-Boyer and Rick Boyer and their staff have dedicated themselves to working hard for the betterment of Puerto Peñasco through conservation and education programs on the ecology of marine and other wildlife of the Sea of Cortez. You may find a group of students at work in the lab and library, or some local school children involved in hands-on environmental education opportunities. The Boyers can be contacted for information about membership, and upcoming programs at P.O. Box 249, Lukeville, AZ 85341, or by email at: [email protected].
- Ajo Stagelines
This is a transportation company based in Ajo, Arizona, that offers day tours to Puerto Peñasco. While you won’t have much time for birding if you go up and back in the same day, you may want to consider this for a first-time visit to get oriented for a future visit. The company can also provide transfers from the Phoenix airport, connecting to transfers to Puerto Peñasco, if you prefer not to drive. Call (800) 242-9483.
- Tourist Imformation, Meals and Accommodations
There are two web sites for general information about Rocky Point or Puerto Peñasco, and these can help you plan the logistics of a several day visit. The Rocky Point Tourism office can be contacted at www.rockypoint.com, or by calling (888) 850-5122. Others sites include www.puerto-penasco.com and www.rockypointonline.com.
A copy of the free monthly newspaper El Futuro (in English) is helpful for the map and ads for various accommodations and attractions. You can contact El Futuro at [email protected], or by calling (520) 690-9231. You can see a copy online, including advertisers, at www.biz.rtd.com/plaza. Other good publications include the Rocky Point Times, and the Rocky Point Explorer.
Eating out is one of the great pleasures of Puerto Peñasco, and there is a wide range of restaurants to choose from. I confess that most of my favorites are on the water, so I never half to stop birding. Balboa’s (on the Harbor) and the Delfin Amigable (Friendly Dolphin) in old town on the Harbor are two of my favorites. I also like several of the fresh fish and Taco places on the Malecon, and Costa Brava and the Vina del Mar are always dependable.
There are also several good hotels, and the number is growing by the day. Costa Brava (011-52-638-34100) and Vina del Mar (011-52-638-36000) are on the Malecon close to the Harbor. Bella Vista Suites is a smaller hotel in the historic Old Port section, with kitchen suites available (011-52-638-32007), or in the U.S. (800) 42-ROCKY. Playa Bonita is a resort hotel close to Sandy Beach and the quiet side of the Harbor (011-52-638-32186). There are also camping areas and RV parks. Several rental agencies specialize in beach house and condominium rentals but may require a minimum stay of at least three nights. Casa de Carolina Rentals can be reaches at [email protected], or by calling (011-52-638-35482). Cyndi’s Beach Rentals can be contacted at [email protected]. They can both be reached through the website of www.rockypointonline.com, as well. If you are overwhelmed at the whole idea of finding a place to stay, see www.rockypointres.com for ideas.
DIRECTIONS TO BIRDING SITES MENTIONED IN THIS SITE GUIDE:
- Harbor Area, the Malecon, and the Old Port:
If you stay on the main road coming into town (Highway 8 becomes Benito Juarez Boulevard), you can access the quiet side of the Harbor, Balboa’s, Playa Bonita and the Marina by turning west on Calle 13. A covered walkway with many signs marks this turn. If you want to go right to the boat docks, the downtown area, and the Malecon, continue on the main road, pass the junction east to Caborca (Fremont Boulevard) and curve around (watch the speed bumps—they are impressive!) to reach the Harbor. You will see the water on the right, and you can pull off where it is convenient to scan for birds. If you stay closest to the water, this becomes a one-way street that swings around through the Old Port. The Malecon has a lot of parking and is also the sight of many restaurants and the hotels Vina del Mar and Costa Brava.
- The New and Old Sewage Ponds:
You will find there are several routes into the sewage ponds, none of which is marked. I think it is easiest to find them off the Caborca Road (Fremont Boulevard). Slightly shy of the junction of the road to Las Conchas, turn left (or north back towards town) at the new Pemex Station on Josefa Ortiz de Dominguez. If you’re okay with fairly loose sand, you can angle right after crossing the railroad tracks and follow the dirt road parallel to the tracks until you see the burms and construction shed of the sewage ponds. Park here and walk around the ponds. If you are not sure how your car will do on this road, go back to Josefa Ortiz de Dominguez and continue north a few blocks. Turn right at a small liquor store called Deposita. You will pass a school, and the road will end (or become less of a road) near some large trees and a bright green trailer. The cemetery is north of this corner. The green trailer marks the entrance to the Old Sewage Ponds, and you can bird along the edge of this site, following a road and burm, until you reach the newer ponds. If you have high clearance and four-wheel drive, you can drive this route as well, but its probably best to walk it first to check conditions. Perhaps the easiest way to find the ponds on your first trip is to ignore the turn at Josefa Ortiz de Dominguez and just continue east on Fremont Boulevard. Go past the junction to Las Conchas and start to look on the left as you go. You will first notice the large trees of the Old Sewage Ponds and the obviously disturbed sandy soil burms of the new ponds. There is a construction shed towards the east end of the ponds. You can park safely out of traffic’s way off the main road and walk over the railroad tracks on a dirt road that leads to this shed and the ponds. There will likely be workers in the area, but birders so far are welcome.
- Estero Morua, CETMAR Aquarium, Las Conchas Beach and CEDO:
You can access this highly productive estuary in two locations. The back side is reached off the road to Caborca (Fremont Boulevard). Continue past the Pemex Station, the turn to Las Conchas, the New Sewage Ponds (not marked but described above) and look for signs for Oyster Farms on your right. There are two dirt roads that lead into separate farm operations. The road to the second one is straight and more direct, but on either road just work your way to the water, park, and walk the area. Alternatively, to reach the mouth of the estuary you will have to do some beach walking—quite a bit of walking if it is low tide. Take the Caborca Road (Fremont Boulevard) east to the Las Conchas road, just past the Pemex Station. The station is on your left, and the turn is to your right. After making the turn, you will pass several lagoons on your right that may or may not have birds or water in them. If there are birds, pull off the road carefully and scan the flocks. Continue on past the CETMAR Aquarium (good place to visit and to park for the Las Conchas Beach). You will pass through a guard gate to Las Conchas. Continue on to CEDO, which is well marked. This is also a good parking and access point for the Las Conchas beach. To reach the estuary mouth, continue quite a ways past CEDO—literally to the very end of the road or whereever you can find a parking spot, whichever comes first. Walk down to the beach and turn east to reach the mouth of the estuary. At high tide many shorebirds roost in the upper sand areas just below the dunes. It is crucial not to disturb them. In summer, this area and another across the estuary host colonies of Least Tern that have at least attempt to nest (they are often disturbed by vehicles).
- Cholla Bay:
From the town of Puerto Penasco, head back north towards Lukeville for several blocks until you see a well-signed major turn to a dirt road heading west. The turn is 1.8 miles north of the turn on Fremont Boulevard that you use to access CEDO and Las Conchas. After making the left turn, you will cross over the railroad tracks, pass many roadside stands with various arts and crafts, and then drive through open desert with Pelican Point in view directly ahead of you and Black Mountain off to your right. The turn to Sandy Beach is approximately three miles. Continue on, and the road will dead end at Pelican Point after passing through the small town of Cholla Bay. The road is signed as “Playa Cholla.” Access the mudflats by turning right just before you reach the entrance to the town. There will be a small group of houses on your right. Continue to the large flagpole at the end of this row of houses. This is a good place to park and set up your scopes.
- Residential Areas of Town/Shrimp Ponds:
The older residences have the largest trees, and these are mainly between the Harbor and the road to Cholla Bay on the West side of Highway 8 and the railroad tracks. The streets are organized on a grid, so you can simply go north on any one of them from the Harbor, and when you run out of trees go around the corner and travel back to the Harbor on the next one. There are also some large trees and date palms in residences between the police station off Fremont Boulevard and the beach. These are also on a grid. If you find the easternmost road of this section (2nd street which extends from Sinoloa), you will have a great view of the Shrimp Ponds from the other side than the Las Conchas road.
- Dry Streambed of the Sonoita River:
Several new developments have been started closer to the second estuary east of Puerto Peñasco. If you follow the road to Caborca, you will reach the intersection of the new cut-off road from Sonoyta. Turn right and continue east for about four miles. You will see signs urging caution as you cross several impressive dips. At the third or fourth dip, you will notice a line of very large trees that indicate an underground water source. Park safely off the road and wander towards the ocean, following the line of trees. This route is probably most productive during the spring and fall landbird migration.
- The Birds of Sonora. Stephen M. Russell and Gale Monson. 1998. University of Arizona Press.
- A Bird-Finding Guide to Mexico. Steve N.G. Howell. 1999. Cornell University Press.
- A Checklist to the Birds of Sonora and the Sea of Cortez. 1986 (and updates). Published by Borderland Tours, Tucson, Arizona.
- A Checklist to the Birds of Puerto Penasco and Vicinity. Peg Abbott. 1998 (and updates). Published by Naturalist Journeys, Bozeman, MT.
- Annotated Checklist to the Birds of the Puerto Peñasco Region, Sonora,
Mexico. Steve Ganley. www.Primenet.com/~sfanley.
Peg Abbott owns and guides trips for a small birding and natural history travel company known as Naturalist Journeys (www.naturalistjourneys.com). She’s been creating itineraries and guiding trips for over 20 years, first with the National Audubon Society, and later with a small travel company and a variety of conservation organizations. In any given year you can find her from Alaska to Argentina, or most anywhere in between. Birding holds a great sense of inspiration for Peg, as does a sense of place. She is active in conservation issues and is a master bird bander. In between journeys Peg raises and trains horses on a small farm in Bozeman, Montana. She can be reached at [email protected].