By Mel White
Birds in This Story
|National Wildlife Refuges||National Parks||Acreage of Important Bird Areas|
A significant percentage of American birders, if asked to choose their single favorite regional destination, would pick southeastern Arizona. Within a relatively small region here, you can find Sonoran Desert, oak woodland, high-elevation conifer forest, and riparian areas. The list of special species is long, but a few highlights are Montezuma Quail, Gray Hawk, Violet-crowned Hummingbird, Elegant Trogon, Arizona Woodpecker, Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet, Buff-breasted Flycatcher, Olive Warbler, Rufous-winged Sparrow, and Yellow-eyed Junco.
There’s more to Arizona than the southeast, of course, including Grand Canyon National Park, the San Francisco Peaks near Flagstaff, the White Mountains in the east, and wildlife refuges along the Colorado River to the west.
Overall, Arizona’s species list of around 550 is the highest of any state without an ocean coastline. The total is aided by quite a few rare vagrants that occasionally cross the border from Mexico, such as Flame-colored Tanager and Streak-backed Oriole.
Eventually, every birder must visit Arizona. From the Chiricahua Mountains in the southeast to the world’s largest ponderosa pine forest in the north to wetlands along the Colorado River, the rewards are practically endless.
Arizona Birding Hotspots
The Chiricahuas rise as one of several “sky islands” in southeastern Arizona: isolated mountain ranges surrounded by lowland desert or grassland. They also rank on every top ten list of birding destinations in the United States.
Many birders enter the Chiricahuas through the small town of Portal, just four miles from the New Mexico state line. Scrub areas around Portal may host Gambel’s Quail, Lesser Nighthawk, Ladder-backed Woodpecker, Black Phoebe, Brown-crested Flycatcher, Bell’s Vireo, Bridled Titmouse, Verdin, Curve-billed Thrasher, Phainopepla, Lucy’s Warbler, Cassin’s Sparrow, and Black-throated Sparrow.
Many birders then head to beautiful Cave Creek Canyon in the Coronado National Forest. This spot is famed as the home of the Elegant Trogon, but also hosts Montezuma Quail, Whiskered Screech-Owl, Magnificent Hummingbird, Blue-throated Hummingbird, Acorn Woodpecker, Arizona Woodpecker, Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher, Hutton’s Vireo, Mexican Jay, and Painted Redstart, to name just a few highlights.
Then it’s up the main road into the heart of the Chiricahuas, heading to spots such as Onion Saddle, Rustler Park, and Barfoot Park (although birding all the way). Birds in the high elevations can include Band-tailed Pigeon, Greater Pewee, Cordilleran Flycatcher, Steller’s Jay, Mexican Chickadee, Pygmy Nuthatch, Olive Warbler, Grace’s Warbler, Red-faced Warbler, Yellow-eyed Junco, and Red Crossbill.
One day isn’t nearly enough to cover this area, from the desert lowlands to the conifer forests in the Chiricahua highlands. For a birder, a mid-summer trip here can feel like a visit to paradise.
This “site” actually comprises a riparian corridor around 40 miles long, following the San Pedro River as it flows north from Mexico to join the Gila River. The line of trees creates a lush ribbon of green in a dry environment. Not only does the area provide home for breeding birds, it acts as a figurative highway for migrants in spring and fall.
Stop first at San Pedro House, seven miles east of Sierra Vista on Highway 90. Volunteers here are happy to give birding advice, including directions to access points for the river corridor. The most popular access is at San Pedro House itself, where trails wind through the riparian corridor. Another popular access point is not far away, east of the town of Hereford.
Nesting birds along the San Pedro River include Gambel’s Quail, Gray Hawk, Green Kingfisher, Gila Woodpecker, Black Phoebe, Vermilion Flycatcher, Cassin’s Kingbird, Curve-billed Thrasher, Lucy’s Warbler, Yellow Warbler, Abert’s Towhee, Blue Grosbeak, and Lesser Goldfinch.
While you’re in the area, consider a visit to the Sierra Vista Environmental Operations Park, a water-treatment site with wetlands and a wildlife-viewing area. It’s located just north of Highway 90, three miles east of Sierra Vista. This oasis in the desert has attracted more than 240 bird species, including 20 species of duck, Pied-billed Grebe, Eared Grebe, several wading birds including White-faced Ibis, Virginia Rail, Sora, Common Gallinule, and 24 species of shorebirds. Land birds include Black Phoebe, Vermilion Flycatcher, Bell’s Vireo, Chihuahuan Raven, and Lucy’s Warbler.
The Huachucas are another Arizona “sky island,” where a mountain range rises from a surrounding “sea” of desert and grassland. Like the Chiricahuas to the east, the Huachucas truly own a legendary birding reputation.
The bird list includes many southwestern and Arizona specialties, including Montezuma Quail, Gray Hawk, Zone-tailed Hawk, Whiskered Screech-Owl, Magnificent Hummingbird, Blue-throated Hummingbird, Violet-crowned Hummingbird, White-eared Hummingbird, Elegant Trogon, Arizona Woodpecker, Greater Pewee, Buff-breasted Flycatcher, Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher, Grace’s Warbler, Red-faced Warbler, Painted Redstart, Yellow-eyed Junco, and Hepatic Tanager. In addition, birders are always hoping for a rarity such as Eared Quetzal or Flame-colored Tanager.
One of the most poular sites within the Huachucas is Ramsey Canyon Preserve, owned by the Nature Conservancy. Trails here pass through a lovely riparian area with excellent birding, and link to paths into higher elevations.
A winding, unpaved road leads up Carr Canyon to reach Huachuca highlands by vehicle, rather than by hiking. (The road is not suitable for large RVs and can make some drivers a little nervous; it requires a little caution.) At the top, look for Buff-breasted Flycatcher, Red-faced Warbler, Yellow-eyed Junco, and other species of high elevation.
In Miller Canyon, privately operated Beatty’s Guest Ranch may be the best single hummingbird-viewing location in the United States. As many as 14 species have been seen here in a single day. A small fee is charged to visit and enjoy the many feeders at the viewing area.
All the Huachuca sites are ideal for birding April through October.
Several fine birding locations can be found near the town of Patagonia, on Highway 82 about 20 miles northeast of Nogales. One is the Nature Conservancy’s Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve, which protects a tract of riparian woodland along Sonoita Creek. This site is best visited during nesting season, when birds seen can include Common Black-Hawk (rare), Gray Hawk, Violet-crowned Hummingbird, Gila Woodpecker, Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet, Black Phoebe, Say’s Phoebe, Vermilion Flycatcher, Brown-crested Flycatcher, Verdin, Bushtit, Phainopepla, and Lucy’s Warbler. The preserve’s list of around 250 species includes such rarities as Ruddy Ground-Dove, Yellow-green Vireo, Sinaloa Wren, and Rufous-backed Robin.
On the road between Patagonia and the preserve, a site known as the Paton Center for Hummingbirds provides excellent hummingbird viewing at feeders behind a former private residence. And on Highway 82 about 4 miles south of town, a roadside rest area has attained near-mythic status for attracting rare species. (Not many highway rest areas have a bird list of more than 200 species.) It’s worth a stop here to look for vagrants and to enjoy regularly occurring birds such as Gray Hawk, Black-chinned Hummingbird, Gila Woodpecker, Thick-billed Kingbird, Bridled Titmouse, Canyon Wren, and Rufous-crowned Sparrow. Walk through the riparian area cross the highway, but don’t cross the fence onto private property.
A bit farther south, Patagonia Lake State Park boasts a bird list of around 300 species, thanks to its combination of desert scrub, woodland, and wetlands. Many, many rarites have shown up here, and birds seen with some regularity include Neotropic Cormorant, Gray Hawk, Zone-tailed Hawk, Broad-billed Hummingbird, Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet, Bell’s Vireo, and Lucy’s Warbler, and Abert’s Towhee.
Madera Canyon, in the Coronado National Forest about 30 miles south of Tucson, is yet another of southern Arizona’s beautiful wooded canyons with high birding appeal. On the western slope of the Santa Rita Mountains, the canyon (which includes public recreation sites and private property including lodging) is reached by a 10-mile road across the desert from the town of Green Valley.
Madera Canyon’s attractions shouldn’t cause visitors to rush along the entrance road. There are many chances to pull over and explore roadsides and washes (creek beds) for species such as Gambel’s Quail, Greater Roadrunner, Lesser Nighthawk, Common Poorwill (may fly up from roadsides after dark), Ash-throated Flycatcher, Verdin, Black-tailed Gnatcatcher, Curve-billed Thrasher, Phainopepla, Lucy’s Warbler, Rufous-winged Sparrow, Cassin’s Sparrow, Botteri’s Sparrow, Black-throated Sparrow, Pyrrhuloxia, and Varied Bunting.
As the canyon walls rise, birders should stop at roadside recreation areas and continue to the end of the road, passing through oak woodland into coniferous forest. Doing so could bring sightings of Zone-tailed Hawk, Acorn Woodpecker, Arizona Woodpecker, Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet, Mexican Jay, Bridled Titmouse, and Black-headed Grosbeak in the lower section. Hiking trails into higher elevation in summer brings the chance to find regional specialties such as Band-tailed Pigeon, Mexican Whip-poor-will, Elegant Trogon, Greater Pewee, Cordilleran Flycatcher, Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher, Hutton’s Vireo, Grace’s Warbler, Red-faced Warbler, Painted Redstart, and Yellow-eyed Junco.
Several lodges along the road allow public viewing of their hummingbird feeders, which can swarm with many of the 15 species that have been recorded locally. Madera Canyon is also known for owls, with Whiskered Screech-Owl heard regularly and Elf Owl sometimes nesting in old woodpecker holes in telephone poles along the road.
The constructed impoundments called Sweetwater Wetlands have accumulated a bird list of nearly 300 species since they were opened in 1998. Easily accessible and just five miles from downtown Tucson, they have become one of the region’s most popular birding locations.
Marshy ponds and associated willows and cottonwoods can be seen from paved trails through the area. At times hundreds of ducks are present, along with grebes, cormorants, and wading birds. Virginia Rail and Sora are found regularly, and 25 species of shorebirds are on the park list. At times up to seven species of swallows may be seen zooming over the ponds.
Land birds found here include Harris’s Hawk, Gila Woodpecker, Ladder-backed Woodpecker, Vermilion Flycatcher, Verdin, Marsh Wren (except in summer), Curve-billed Thrasher, Abert’s Towhee, and Yellow-headed Blackbird. In nesting season, look for Lucy’s Warbler, Western Tanager, Black-headed Grosbeak, and Lazuli Bunting.
The oasis nature of the wetlands means that they can and do attract all sorts of rarities and vagrants, including oddities such as Least Grebe, Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, and Prothonotary Warbler.
The Santa Catalina Mountains rise northeast of Tucson, largely within the Coronado National Forest, The tallest point, 9,157-foot Mount Lemmon, offers a cooler summer retreat from the desert around Tucson. The highway to the top, known at the Mount Lemmon Highway or Sky Island Scenic Byway, offers travelers one of the most picturesque routes in Arizona as it covers around 25 miles from the Tucson suburbs to the high country.
For birders, the attraction goes beyond great vistas. Driving the highway takes you with relative quickness from the desert where saguaro cactus and ocotillo grow up through scrubby oak forest and into high elevation with ponderosa pine, Douglas-fir, white fir, and aspen. Picnic sites and other recreation areas are scattered all along the way, making it easy to stop and sample the mountain’s diversity of habitats.
This means a birder can go from seeing Ladder-backed Woodpecker, Ash-throated Flycatcher, Bell’s Vireo, Verdin, Phainopepla, Rufous-crowned Sparrow, Hooded Oriole, and Scott’s Oriole at the Molina Basin (4,370 feet) to finding Greater Pewee, Cordilleran Flycatcher, Buff-breasted Flycatcher, Mountain Chickadee, Olive Warbler, Grace’s Warbler, Painted Redstart, Yellow-eyed Junco, and Pine Siskin at Rose Canyon (7,000 feet)—in less than an hour. Nobody would want to be in such a hurry on this drive, though, because there are too many fine birding sites along the way.
A scenic highway with fantastic views and an excellent introduction to southern Arizona birdlife—no wonder Mount Lemmon has long been such a popular destination for birders.
Located four miles southwest of the town of McNeal, Whitewater Draw is former ranchland now managed for wildlife. In recent years it’s become known as the best place in Arizona to see wintering Sandhill Cranes.
As many as 15,000 cranes can be present from October into March, though the number can vary considerably depending on the amount of water present. The state Game and Fish Department has set up viewing platforms and built trails for better visitor access.
Whitewater Draw attracts more than Sandhill Cranes, as evidenced by its bird list of more than 280 species. In winter, common birds can include Snow Goose (with some Ross’s) and 15 or more species of ducks. Throughout much of the year visitors can see waders including American Bittern, Black-crowned Night-Heron, and White-faced Ibis, along with Virginia Rail, Sora, and a variety of shorebirds.
The area is also known for wintering raptors, which with luck can include Golden Eagle, Sharp-shinned Hawk, Cooper’s Hawk, Bald Eagle, Ferruginous Hawk, Merlin, and Peregrine Falcon, as well as common Northern Harrier, Red-tailed Hawk, and American Kestrel.
Some of the other regular birds at Whitewater Draw are Scaled Quail, Gambel’s Quail, Greater Roadrunner, Vermilion Flycatcher, Loggerhead Shrike, Curve-billed Thrasher, Common Yellowthroat, and Yellow-headed Blackbird. The area’s grassland and scrub habitat is attractive to wintering sparrows, with common species including Brewer’s Sparrow, Lark Bunting, Vesper Sparrow, and Lincoln’s Sparrow.
One of the most popular and productive birding areas in central Arizona is located in the city of Gilbert, about 20 miles southeast of downtown Phoenix. The Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch consists of 110 acres with seven “water recharge basins” where wastewater is treated, creating a superb wetland and riparian wildlife habitat.
Birders call it the Gilbert Water Ranch, and since it was established in 1999 have identified roughly 300 species here. Many kinds of ducks are present from fall through spring, along with (depending on water levels) various shorebirds. Black-necked Stilt and American Avocet are common year-round. Grebes, cormorants, waders, and occasional gulls and terns also frequent the wetlands.
Regular land birds include Gambel’s Quail, Inca Dove, Black-chinned Hummingbird, Anna’s Hummingbird, Gila Woodpecker, Black Phoebe, Verdin, Yellow Warbler, and Abert’s Towhee, to list only a small selection. The Water Ranch is famed for attracting rarities such as Wood Stork, Little Blue Heron, Roseate Spoonbill, American Golden-Plover, Sabine’s Gull, Prothonotary Warbler, and Dickcissel.
More than four miles of trails wind through the preserve, making birding easy. The area is at its best from fall through spring, although summer visits can be pleasant if started early in the day.
Located about 55 miles east of Phoenix, Boyce Thompson Arboretum State Park owns a bird list of roughly 260 species, a significant number of which are locally unusual or rare vagrants. Founded in the 1920s as a botanical garden, the 323 acres also serve as a wildlife preserve, the irrigated plantings creating a bird oasis.
Though it’s not a waterfowl hotspot, the park attracts occasional ducks as well as Pied-billed Grebe, Neotropic Cormorant, Great Blue Heron, and Green Heron. Black-chinned Hummingbird, Anna’s Hummingbird, Costa’s Hummingbird, Broad-tailed Hummingbird, and Broad-billed Hummingbird are among the species that find nectar in the diversity of native and foreign blooming plants.
Typical lowland Arizona birds include Gambel’s Quail, Gila Woodpecker, Ladder-backed Woodpecker, Western Wood-Pewee, Vermilion Flycatcher, Ash-throated Flycatcher, Brown-crested Flycatcher, Bell’s Vireo, Verdin, Rock Wren, Cactus Wren, Black-tailed Gnatcatcher, Phainopepla, Lucy’s Warbler, Black-throated Sparrow, Abert’s Towhee, Black-headed Grosbeak, and Hooded Oriole. The park is known for diversity of wintering wrens and sparrows.
The frequency of rare birds have made the Boyce Thompson Arboretum a true favorite of Phoenix-area birders. Just a few that have appeared over the years are Tufted Flycatcher, Clark’s Nutcracker, Rufous-backed Robin (seen here with fair regularity), Ovenbird, Prothonotary Warbler, and Chestnut-sided Warbler.
Located just north of the central Arizona town of Prescott, Watson Woods Riparian Preserve and adjacent Watson Lake have accumulated a bird list topping 250, making the area one of the state’s birdiest locales. Watson Lake and nearby Willow Lake constitute an Audubon Important Bird Area, recognizing their importance for wintering waterfowl, fall migrant shorebirds, wintering Bald Eagle, and resident Peregrine Falcon.
Many species of ducks winter on Watson Lake, including occasional rarities such as White-winged Scoter and Red-breasted Merganser. Double-crested Cormorant, Great Blue Heron, and Green Heron nest locally. In addition to regular visits from Osprey and Bald Eagle, the Watson Woods area is home to summering Common Black-Hawk.
A sampling of resident or breeding-season land birds includes Hairy Woodpecker, Warbling Vireo, Western Scrub-Jay, Bridled Titmouse, Bushtit, Lucy’s Warbler, Yellow Warbler, Spotted Towhee, and Bullock’s Oriole.
Take a trip into the slightly higher elevation areas near Prescott, such as Granite Basin, and you’ll find a different set of birds, such as Acorn Woodpecker, Hutton’s Vireo, Steller’s Jay, Mountain Chickadee, Pygmy Nuthatch, Graee’s Warbler, and Painted Redstart.
The impressive San Francisco Peaks rise north of Flagstaff, topped by Humphreys Peak, Arizona's highest point at 12,643 feet. Once the high peak here was even higher, but an ancient volcano blew itself apart perhaps 200,000 years ago, and erosion has been at work ever since.
A road up Humphreys Peak to a recreation and ski area provides an easy way for birders to access high-elevation conifer habitat and the birds that live in it. In addition, a chair lift operates in summer as a scenic attraction, dropping passengers off at 11,500 feet. Those who want to earn their elevation gain can also hike more than five miles to the summit or make shorter walks in the vicinity.
Some of the special birds found high on Humphreys Peak in summer include Dusky Grouse, Northern Pygy-Owl, Broad-tailed Hummingbird, Williamson's Sapsucker, American Three-toed Woodpecker, Dusky Flycatcher, Steller’s Jay, Clark's Nutcracker, Violet-green Swallow, Mountain Chickadee, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Brown Creeper, Western Bluebird, Mountain Bluebird, Townsend’s Solitaire, MacGillivray's Warbler, Green-tailed Towhee, and Red Crossbill.
A fine system of hiking trails in the Coconino National Forest north of Flagstaff offers near-endless opportunity for birding and exploration of habitats from ponderosa pine woodland to mountain meadows to spruce-fir forest.
Southeastern Arizona, where isolated mountain ranges rear up like islands in a sea of desert grassland, lures you with more than 400 bird species, including dozens that spill across the border from Mexico. This birding trail, sponsored by the Southeastern Arizona Bird Observatory with help from the Tucson Audubon Society, identifies 52 key sites for finding those birds. If you go expecting to find only desert, you’ll be in for a shock. Magnificent desert vistas are here, of course, but the lowlands also have riverside forests, home to specialty birds like sleek gray hawks and noisy Abert’s towhees. The mountain summits are draped in pine and fir forests, habitat for stunning red-faced warblers, Mexican chickadees, and other prized finds. Many of the sites on the birding trail are noted for hummingbirds; more than a dozen species occur here—the highest concentration in the United States—from the minuscule Calliope hummingbird to the blue-throated hummingbird, which is as big as a sparrow. Some of the most exciting birding awaits you in rocky tree-lined canyons that snake through the foothills. These are the haunts of such Mexican-border rarities as the sulphur-bellied flycatcher, the buff-collared nightjar, the thick-billed kingbird, and the fabulously colorful elegant trogon, the northernmost member of a purely tropical family of birds. —Kenn Kaufman