by Ed Masley – Apr. 1, 2008 12:00 AM
The Arizona Republic

It wasn’t long ago that the site of the Rio Salado Habitat Restoration Area was widely considered what acting habitat supervisor Heather Watson calls an “eyesore.”

Now, she says, that land is “an oasis in the middle of the city,” practically 600 acres located a mile and a half from downtown Phoenix, along the Salt River.

It’s a place where cottonwoods, willows and plentiful water have managed to draw more than 250 species of birds to what was once a dried-up river bed strewn with debris that people had taken to calling the Bottoms.

“If you build it, they will come,” Watson said, with a laugh. “What we’ve done, in conjunction with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is we’ve actually restored or created – in some cases both – a Riparian ecosystem along the Salt River. So along a 5-mile stretch, we’ve created a wetland and river system that has been extremely conducive to attracting birds.”

The water helps. A lot.

“We do get additional water in the Salt River now,” Watson said, “because of releases from upstream. All the reservoirs are full upstream so they’re having to release water, which is nice.”

Watson said the habitat’s reservoirs and wetlands also are fed from the shallow aquifer, which is non-potable non-drinking water. These sources combine to yield the lush vegetation that shelters birds and is “encouraging them to not only stop by when they’re in town but also have breeding activity as well.”

And what’s good for the birds is good for Phoenix.

“This wonderful ecosystem is also a great resource for the community,” Watson said. “If it’s not for bird watching, it’s for relaxing, walking, bike riding. We get a lot of local visitors that use it with their families, just come out and relax or exercise to get away from all the hustle and bustle of the city.”

There may be a little more hustle and bustle than usual there on April 12, though, when the Restoration Area, which opened to the public in 2005, hosts a second annual International Migratory Bird Day Festival: Tropics To Tundra.

Co-presented by the Phoenix Parks Department, Arizona Game and Fish, Audubon Arizona, Liberty Wildlife, Wild at Heart and the Adobe Mountain Wildlife Center, this year’s festival will celebrate the migration of birds with live bird demonstrations, educational booths, guided bird walks and plenty of hands-on activities for the kids.

“It really gives families, children and people of all ages the opportunity to get up close and personal with wildlife,” Watson says, “and hopefully enjoy some of the natural migration activity that’s occurring right now that can definitely be seen in an area that attracts so many birds”.

Rio Salado Habitat Restoration Area at 2439 S Central. 602 262 6863 for more info  – Sat April 12th 8 AM to Noon, Admission is Free.