Upper Sabino Canyon (Coronado National Forest) is a narrow riparian area in a deep canyon at the southern base of the Santa Catalina Mountains. Stream is perennial and lined with willow (Salix sp.), cottonwood (Populus fremontii), ash (Fraxinus velutina), and sycamore (Platanus wrightii). At one point a small silted in pond contains a wide area of thick vegetation. Downstream of the national forest boundary the floodplain widens and contains mesquite bosque (Prosopis velutina) as well as the same riparian trees as upstream. Habitat is particularly wide where lower Bear Creek flows into Sabino Creek from the northeast. Here Sabino Creek becomes an intermittent stream; meandering through more hydro- to xeroriparian vegetation until it intersects with Tanque Verde Wash. Significant housing developments abut the lower stretches.
Although documentation of bird species is not extensive at this time, eight Arizona Watchlist bird species and two (or possibly three) U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Birds of Conservation Concern, are known to nest in the Sabino Creek floodplain's riparian vegetation, or to forage in the floodplain during nesting season (two are Audubon Red-listed species: Bell's Vireo, and Rufous-winged Sparrow). One Yellow Listed species, Abert's Towhee, is particularly abundant within the IBA. In addition to Watchlist species, the creek hosts other riparian obligate species whose habitat has seen a radical decline in extent over the last century (Brown-crested Flycatcher, Black Phoebe, Belted Kingfisher, Summer Tanager, and Song Sparrow). The creek corridor is likely to be used by migrating birds as well (long-distance migration and local elevation migration). Seven species of hummingbirds have been observed in migration (Broad-billed, Black-chinned, Anna's, Costa's, Calliope, Broad-tailed, and Rufous).
An extreme rarity in the Sonoran eco-region Sabino Creek is one of the few remaining waterways where a riparian plant community, and habitat corridor, stretches out of the mountains, down the alluvial slope and into a desert basin (the Tucson basin). Only San Pedro River (in Mexico), and nearby Cienega Creek and the upper reaches of Canada del Oro and Paige Creek flow into the desert from the mountains, thus providing low-elevation riparian oasis habitat with surface water. A high water table supports riparian vegetation along nearby Tanque Verde Creek also, but creek flow is seasonal-intermittent. In southern Arizona lowland riparian floodplains have generally been reported to have declined by about 90 percent.
The Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan (SDCP), to meet requirements for a US Fish and Wildlife Service approved Habitat Conservation Plan for the region, has designated land in Pima County according to its value for maintaining biodiversity and protecting critical species. The SDCP designation for Sabino Creek and most of the Madden property (a legacy private property parcel within the IBA to be managed by Tucson Audubon as a nature refuge) is "Important Riparian Area." Low-elevation dense, healthy riparian areas are extremely important elements in the conservation lands system of Pima County (and southern Arizona) and every effort should be made to protect, restore and enhance the structure and functions of these areas, including hydrological, geomorphic and biological functions (Pima County 2002).
Intact lowland riparian habitat tends to have very high breeding bird densities. Initial bird survey data from Sabino Creek during summer (2003) suggest relatively high densities of breeding birds, particularly cavity nest species (e.g., woodpeckers, wrens, and Brown-crested Flycatchers), where mature ash, sycamore, cottonwood, and bordering saguaros provide prime cavity habitat.
Riparian corridors and oasis riparian habitat in southern Arizona are extremely important for birds migrating through the area. Smaller, low-elevation riparian oasis sites, such as Sabino Creek, have been shown to have greater species diversity and densities has high as larger connected riparian corridors (e.g., the San Pedro River), and thus their conservation value is extremely high at landscape level to birds migrating through the southwest (Skagen et al. 1998). Sabino Creek's habitat value to birds has likely grown in importance as a stopover habitat given the decline and elimination of most of the region's other historic native riparian areas.
Private and public wells remove groundwater that may be necessary for health of the riparian habitat. Introductions of invasive non-native plants are facilitated by the proximity of homes.
Groundwater extraction is a central issue. Pumping by many unregulated domestic wells is unrecorded. In combination with larger wells owned by water companies they may be drawing down groundwater that may be necessary for riparian health. Encroachment of suburban developments and new houses is serious. There is potential for building flood control projects and bridges across the riparian area (including at Snyder Road).
Sabino Creek contains extensive native riparian vegetation, which borders a perennial (then, in the lower stretch, annual) creek. The Santa Catalina and Rincon basin area's other former principal riparian habitats, those along the Santa Cruz River and Rillito Creek have completely disappeared due to channel incision and groundwater pumping with the growth of urban Tucson.
Upper Sabino Canyon is managed by the Coronado National Forest. Several private property parcels have conservation easements on them held by The Nature Conservancy and a seven-acre private property parcel (Madden property) will be donated to Tucson Audubon as a legacy property to be managed as a nature refuge.
Arboreal flora in the floodplain consists of mesquite (Prosopis velutina), Arizona ash (Fraxinus velutina), netleaf hackberry (Celtis reticulata), cottonwood (Populus fremontii), elderberry (Sambucus mexicana) and some Arizona sycamores (Platanus wrightii). Understory shrubs include desert broom (Baccharis glutinosa), seep willow (Baccharis salicifolia), burro weed (Isocoma tenuifolia), creosote (Larrea tridentata), graythorn (Ziziphus obtusifolia), wolfberry (Lycium sp.), cholla (Opuntia sp.), prickly pear (Opuntia sp.) and desert hackberry (Celtis pallida). Many annuals, grasses and forbs are also found at various times of the year.
Other Flora and Fauna:
Twenty-two species of plants, mammals, reptiles, fish, amphibians and insects within a five-mile radius of Sabino Creek are listed as special status species according to Arizona Game and Fish Department's Heritage Data Management System. Most of these are found in the area due to the riparian habitat found in the area of the creek. Additionally, Sabino Creek attracts waterbirds (Great Blue Heron, Green Heron, and Snowy Egret), shorebirds (Wilson's Snipe and Black-necked Stilt), and even when water is abundant Double-crested Cormorant for brief periods of time at Madden pond within the IBA. A search of the Arizona Game and Fish Department's Heritage Data Management System for a five-mile radius surrounding a location centrally located along the Sabino Creek IBA resulted in 25 species of plants, mammals, birds, fish, reptiles, amphibians, and insects that are species of concern for various state and federal agencies. The creek's riparian habitat, and the loss of such habitat elsewhere, certainly contribute to the diversity of species on this list.
The first Anglo settlement in the region that was not located near the Santa Cruz River was established along Sabino Creek by William Kirkland in the 1850s. A pond on a private property near the creek may date from later development (1880s) of the Kirkland-Carrillo Ranch. A depression-era dam and other improvements built by the Works Progress Administration are still present along the portion of the creek in the Coronado National Forest. A road follows the creek and is currently limited to bicycles and a shuttle bus service operated as a concessioaire for the USFS visitor center. All vehicular access is closed after dark. Several private property parcels have conservation easements on them held by The Nature Conservancy and a seven-acre private property parcel (Madden property) will be donated to Tucson Audubon as a legacy property to be managed as a nature refuge.
Non-native fish removal by Arizona Game and Fish Department and U.S. Forest Service.
Protected Areas: The US Forest Service lans are designated as the Sabino Canyon Recreation Area which is closed to the discharge of firearms for public saftey reasons.
The Sabino Canyon Visitors Center (Coronado National Forest) has a major educational component and provides a base of operations for volunteer organizations such as the Sabino Canyon Naturalists. The Sabino Canyon Naturalist's programs specifically emphasize birds, habitat, and avian ecology of Sabino Canyon and Creek. These programs have been on going for over 10 years.