For brief descriptions of most of the sites mentioned on this page, please see our Birding Locations page. However, for full southeast Arizona birding information, we recommend our Finding Birds in Southeastern Arizona (2015, Revised 8th Edition).
The first birding visit
If you are coming to southeast Arizona for the first time, it is helpful to become acquainted with the common birds and habitats. You could begin in the Tucson area palo verde/saguaro desertscrub where the typical species include Gambel’s Quail, Greater Roadrunner, Gila Woodpecker, Gilded Flicker, Verdin, Cactus Wren, Curve-billed Thrasher, Northern Mockingbird, Northern Cardinal, Pyrrhuloxia, Canyon Towhee and in summer, White-winged Dove and Black-chinned Hummingbird, or in winter White-crowned Sparrow and Anna’s Hummingbird. Agua Caliente Park, Catalina State Park, Tohono Chul Park, Tucson Mountain Park, the two units of Saguaro National Park and Sabino Canyon are good examples of desertscrub near Tucson. To see water birds and shorebirds, the ponds at Sweetwater Wetlands and Arthur Pack Park are good from fall through spring.
Another good location in a different habitat is the oak woodlands of Madera Canyon. Stop on the way at Florida Wash for birds of brushy areas such as Crissal Thrasher, Black-tailed Gnatcatcher, Black-throated Sparrow, Phainopepla and any desertscrub birds you may have missed. At Madera Canyon Picnic Area look for Acorn and Arizona woodpeckers, Mexican Jay, Bridled Titmouse and Painted Redstart. At Santa Rita Lodge check the feeders which attract, in season, oak woodland birds including Scott’s Oriole, Yellow-eyed Junco, Black-headed Grosbeak and a variety of hummingbirds. The canyon is also home to several species of owls.
The conifer forest closest to Tucson is found in the Santa Catalina Mountains, reached by driving the Catalina Highway to Bear and Rose canyons. Look there for Steller’s Jay, Pygmy Nuthatch, Yellow-eyed Junco and in summer, Greater Pewee, Grace’s, Red-faced and Olive warblers and Hepatic Tanager. Also in summer check the hummingbird feeders in Summerhaven as well as the willows along the creek. You can drive to these same coniferous habitats in the Chiricahua and Pinaleño mountains and hike to them in the Santa Ritas and Huachucas.
Planning your trip
Decide when you’ll visit based on what you want to see. The breeding season in southeast Arizona extends through most of the year but primarily from early March through the summer rainy season in July and August. Summer residents generally arrive between March and June and some leave as early as August. Consult the annotated checklist and seasonal occurrence charts for dates for the species that interest you. If this is your first visit and you want to see the birds residing permanently in southeast Arizona you can come any time of the year; the winter sun will feel good whereas summer temperatures are HOT.
As you plan note that many of the summer residents, including most of the “Mexican specialties” on the north edge of their breeding range in southeast Arizona, nest in the mountains or mid-elevation canyons. Temperatures drop as you gain elevation (roughly 3ºF for each 1000 feet) so birding in the mountains in the summer can be quite pleasant. Even winter days can be quite warm in the deserts. Plan to birdwatch early in the morning. In summer plan to be at your birding destination near sunrise.
In planning your field time and travel schedules or making phone calls, be aware that Arizona remains on Mountain Standard Time year-round. In summer, that equates to Pacific Daylight Time.
Southern Arizona is sparsely settled outside cities and towns. Your birding destination for the day may be miles from the nearest restaurant or motel. Some accommodations that cater to birders are noted in the descriptions of birding spots. There is also a list at the back of this book. For more accommodations consult the Tucson Audubon website. NOTE: I-10 through Tucson will be under construction through 2010. Ramps will be closed between Prince Road and 22nd Street. The frontage roads will be open to traffic that needs to move along this corridor. For current information about ramp closures visit www.i10TucsonDistrict.com or call 520-791-4371.
Female Elegant Trogon by Bob Wenrick
Suggestions for people with limited time
- Agua Caliente Park for desert birds plus some riparian species; go early. Then as many stops on Mt. Lemmon Highway as time permits.
- Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum and/or the Tucson Mountain Unit of Saguaro National Park for desertscrub birds and Sweetwater Wetlands (except summer) for water birds.
- Catalina State Park for desertscrub birds and Arthur Pack Park for water birds.
- Sabino Canyon plus a more thorough exploration of Mt. Lemmon.
- Florida Wash for desertscrub and grassland birds, Madera Canyon for oak woodland birds and hummers and visit Arivaca Cienega.
- Catalina State Park, Madera Canyon, Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve.
- Options 1 and 2 from the 1-day list.
- Option 1 plus San Pedro Riparian NCA and Garden Canyon.
3 OR MORE DAYS
Select from the places mentioned above plus Chiricahua Mountains (Cave Creek & Rustler Park), Willcox Lake, Buenos Aires NWR, California Gulch or other nearby areas.
Two areas at the edge of the geographic coverage of this book are included for their special interest. Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument is in the low desert about 150 miles west of Tucson. It offers spectacular desert scenery and typical desert birds. Puerto Peñasco is in Mexico, about 200 miles southwest of Tucson on the Gulf of California. It is a popular birding destination for Arizona birders because it offers a variety of birds not readily seen in land-locked Arizona.