Best Birding in Arizona: Tips on Where to Go, Species to See, and How to Identify

A significant percentage of American birders, if asked to choose their single favorite regional destination, would pick southeastern Arizona

Arizona is known as one of the top birding destinations in the United States. The diverse range of ecosystems—from desert lowlands to mountainous “sky islands”—provides habitat for 566 species of birds. Arizona has 48 designated Important Bird Areas spread across over 3 million acres. These are areas of a habitat that are critical to the conservation of bird biodiversity. If you are interested in seeing some of these birds for yourself, grab a pair of binoculars and a camera, and head out to some of these prime birding destinations around the state.

Curve-billed thrasher at Whitewater Draw © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Where to Go Birding in Southeastern Arizona

Southeastern Arizona is an ecological crossroads where the Sierra Madre of Mexico, the Rocky Mountains, and the Sonoran and Chihuahuan deserts all come together. The abrupt rise of mountains like the Huachucas from the surrounding arid grasslands creates “sky islands” that harbor tremendous habitat diversity and form stepping stones to the tropics.

Acorn woodpecker in Ramsey Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ramsey Canyon’s unique interplay of geology, biology, topography, and climate make it a haven for more than 170 varieties of birds including 14 species of hummingbirds. Thanks to a spring-fed creek that nourishes the area, you may spot birds like Painted Redstarts, Sulphur-bellied Flycatchers, Bridled Titmice, Acorn Woodpeckers, and Mexican Jays.

Related: The Beginners Guide to Birding (and Bird Photography) on Your Next Outdoor Adventure

Black-necked stilt at Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Chiricahua National Monument, about 35 miles southeast of Willcox is another place where you can find sky islands. Over 200 species have been documented in this area including the sought-after elegant trogon. While this bird is rare, you are more likely to spot hairy woodpeckers, turkey vultures, and Mexican jays.

Lesser goldfinch at San Pedro House © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

One of the most important riparian (streamside) areas, the San Pedro River runs through the Chihuahuan Desert and the Sonoran Desert in southeastern Arizona. The San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area contains nearly 57,000 acres of public land stretching some 40 miles in a narrow band south from St. David. The river’s stretch is home to more than 100 species of breeding birds and 250 species of migrant and wintering birds.

Vermillion flycatcher at Patagonia Lake State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tucked away in the rolling hills of southeastern Arizona is a hidden treasure, Patagonia Lake State Park. Hikers can stroll along the creek trail and see birds such as the canyon towhee, Inca dove, vermilion flycatcher, black vulture, and several species of hummingbirds. 

Related: Birding in Arizona

Lesser grege at Whitewater Draw © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In a verdant floodplain valley between Patagonia and Santa Rita Mountains within the watershed of Sonoita Creek, lies some of the richest of the remaining riparian habitat in the region. This site contains the first two miles of the permanent flow of Sonoita Creek and the floodplains adjacent to the stream. More than 300 bird species migrate, nest, and live in this riparian habitat. Possible sightings include everything from gray hawks to vermillion flycatchers, thick-billed kingbirds, and the wonderfully named black-bellied whistling duck.

Hummingbird at Paton Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Paton Center for Hummingbirds is a place to explore and experience the special birds of southeast Arizona. It is dedicated to the celebration and conservation of hummingbirds—and all of southeast Arizona’s astounding biodiversity. 212 bird species have been reported for this cozy home lot on the outskirts of Patagonia including Violet-crowned hummingbirds, gray hawks, varied buntings, thick-billed kingbirds, and many more local specialties.

Madera Canyon in Coronado National Forest is a popular spot for birders who want a chance to see the elegant trogon or an elf owl among many other more common species like the painted redstart and warblers. Madera Canyon is also a good place to see multiple species of hummingbirds in the summer—15 different species have been spotted there.

Sora at Whitewater Draw © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area is a wetland near the town of McNeal with almost 300 species of birds to spot, but in the winter it becomes a roosting site for over 20,000 sandhill cranes that fly south from other Western states.

Sandhill cranes at Whitewater Draw © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Where to go Birding around Phoenix

There are plenty of places around the Phoenix metro area to go birding. The Tres Rios Wetlands is a 700-acre wetland created by reclaimed water from a wastewater treatment plant. The lush and scenic Tres Rios is now home to more than 150 different species of birds including black-necked stilt, double-crested cormorant, and American white pelican. The beautiful cottonwood groves, willows, mesquites, and other desert shrubs around the reed-lined ponds and along the trail attract many migratory and wintering songbirds.

Related: Birding Arizona’s Sonoran Winter Vacation Destinations

Ring-necked duck at Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Rio Salado Habitat Restoration Area is the home of the Nina Mason Pulliam Rio Salado Audubon Center. Over 200 species of birds have been spotted in this wetland restoration area that is only 2 miles south of downtown.

American avocet at Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In the Town of Gilbert, The Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch provides a great opportunity for bird watching. The Preserve is organized into various vegetative zones ranging from marshlands to native riparian and upland vegetation areas. Approximately 298 species of birds have been identified on the site. Over 4.5 miles of trails weave through the park. Viewing blinds have been established at various locations near the edge of several ponds.

Great Blue heron at Dead Horse Ranch State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Where to go birding in northern Arizona

Sedona and the Verde Valley are great destinations for birding. The area has a mix of desert habitats and water features that support a diverse community of birds from cedar waxwings to black hawks. Dead Horse Ranch State Park in Cottonwood and the Sedona Wetlands Preserve off State Route 89A is easy-access birding destinations in this region.

Related: Focus on Birding in Arizona State Parks

Watson Lake near Prescott is an important refuge for birds in the winter and is a good place to see multiple species of ducks like mallards and wood ducks.

Great horned owl at Whitewater Draw © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

How to identify birds

Besides traditional books and paper guides, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology manages eBird, a free citizen science portal where birders can log what birds they see while out in the field. You can search the website for birding hot spots and checklists so you know what species have been spotted recently. Cornell also offers a bird identification app called Merlin ID that can be used to identify birds based on characteristics such as color and size. 

Northern shovelers at Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

Legends say that hummingbirds float free of time, carrying our hopes for love, joy, and celebration. The hummingbird’s delicate grace reminds us that life is rich, beauty is everywhere, every personal connection has meaning and laughter is life’s sweetest creation.