Imagine hiking through a cool desert canyon before sunrise and feeling a thrill as you spot a bird you’ve wanted to see all your life. It’s not a dream; it’s Arizona – one of the top 10 places in North America for birdwatching. Whether you’ve been birding since childhood or are a newcomer to the activity, you can find great birdwatching statewide.
Southern Arizona is world-famous for birding
Southern Arizona is a hotbed for avian species, from those that reside here year-round to others that pass through seasonally. A great place to start your Southern Arizona birding adventure is at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum west of Tucson. This combination museum, zoo and botanical garden is fun for birders and non-birders alike. It’s a great place to get acclimated and find such common desert birds as cactus wrens, gilded flickers and gila woodpeckers.
If you’re in town during Martin Luther King weekend, take a daytrip east to Willcox for the Wings Over Willcox Birding & Nature Festival. Enjoy guided birding tours, a nature expo and free seminars.
Heading south, Cave Creek Canyon in the Chiricahua Mountains, near the town of Portal, has been called one of the most exciting birding spots in North America. Some town residents have even been known to allow birders to visit their backyard feeders. Birds common to this area include elegant trogons, magnificent and blue-throated hummingbirds, rose-breasted becards and olive warblers.
Madera Canyon and Florida Wash in the Santa Rita Mountains – accessible from Interstate 19 near Green Valley – are two spots avid birders won’t want to miss. Here you may spy rufous-winged sparrows, yellow-eyed juncos, 12 species of hummingbirds and an occasional flame-colored tanager or crescent-chested warbler. After a fruitful day of sightings, take respite at the birding-friendly Santa Rita Lodge. Abundant feeders around the property allow you to continue your search, or sign on for one of the lodge’s guide-led birding walks.
In the grasslands near Sonoita and Patagonia, you’ll find the Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve, Patagonia Lake State Park and Sonoita Creek State Natural Area and, southwest of Patagonia, a roadside rest area that’s famous among birdwatchers for sightings of rare birds. In these areas, you may be able to train your binoculars on such finds as gray hawks, vermilion flycatchers, green kingfishers and broad-billed and violet-crowned hummingbirds.
The San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area, near Sierra Vista, features more than 250 species of birds. Look for Mississippi kites and gray hawks, yellow-billed cuckoos, northern beardless-tyrannulets and crissal thrashers. For a multiple-day birding adventure, stay at Birders Vista Bed and Breakfast in Sierra Vista or Casa de San Pedro Bed & Breakfast in Hereford.
And don’t miss Ramsey Canyon Preserve in the Huachuca Mountains. Stay at the nearby Beatty’s Guest Ranch and Orchard for great hummingbird viewing. Ash Canyon Bed & Breakfast also boasts avian-friendly grounds. Scan the skies here for blue-throated hummingbirds, sulphur-bellied flycatchers, spotted towhees and bridled titmice.
Great birding in all corners of the state
Metropolitan Phoenix offers the chance to see a few feathered friends in the heart of the city. The Rio Salado Habitat Restoration Area – just south of downtown Phoenix – stretches along five miles of the Salt River. This beautiful habitat features wetland ponds, a mesquite-willow forest and more than 200 species of birds. Try to spot great blue herons, Tennessee warblers, white-breasted nuthatches and ospreys. The Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix and the Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch in Gilbert are other great in-town destination for birders spending time in Greater Phoenix.
About 100 miles north of Phoenix, the Prescott National Forest – near the town of Prescott in North Central Arizona – spreads over 1.25 million acres. The Verde River flows through this area, creating a lush riparian habitat for more than 200 species of birds, including snowy egrets, white-faced ibis, doves and quail.
Continuing north to the Grand Canyon? Bring your binoculars. Grand Canyon National Park encompasses 1.2 million acres of the Colorado Plateau and is home to 373 species of birds, such as California condors, bald eagles, peregrine falcons and northern goshawks. Petrified Forest National Park, near the town of Holbrook, and spectacular Oak Creek Canyon, near the red rocks of Sedona, also offer wonderful birdwatching opportunities in the northern part of the state.
Arizona’s West Coast holds a number of its own thriving bird habitats. Near Parker, the Bill Williams River National Wildlife Refuge features one of the few remaining natural cottonwood-willow forests along the lower Colorado River. Here, the combination of the Sonoran Desert, a cool river and a cattail-filled marsh create an environment 344 resident and migratory birds find irresistible. Keep an eye – and ear – out for yellow warblers, vermillion flycatchers, Yuma clapper rails and southwestern willow flycatchers.
Heading further south, the Imperial National Wildlife Refuge, north of Yuma, protects wildlife along 30 miles of the lower Colorado River and offers a refuge and breeding ground for 275 avian species. While there, you may see great egrets, Gambel’s quail, southwestern willow flycatchers and cinnamon teals.
And there’s still so much more to see, from annual festivals to regular guided birding walks and more. For additional information on birding in Arizona, contact Arizona State Parks – they even offer Arizona birding lists on their website – Audubon Arizona or the Southeastern Arizona Bird Observatory. Then grab those binocular and look to the skies!