Blame it on the state’s remarkable diversity. Soaring mountains, warm deserts, deep canyons, and rolling grasslands provide welcoming habitats for a wide range of birds. Arizona’s species list of around 550 is the highest of any state without an ocean coastline.
Important Bird Areas, identified by the National Audubon Society, can be found throughout Arizona but there’s an especially high concentration amid the sky islands in the southeastern corner of the state. These forested mountaintop habitats are surrounded by seas of desert and grasslands creating tightly stacked ecosystems, distinct and isolated. This is the Arizona rainforest, a hotbed of life.
To enjoy an assortment of feathered friends grab your binoculars and cameras and hit some of Arizona’s best birding trails. And these are birding trails, not birding hikes. Birding is hiking interrupted. Finish the trail or don’t finish; it doesn’t matter. Birding is all about the pauses—the stopping and listening and, most importantly, the discovery.
Patagonia: Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve
The Nature Conservancy protects a stretch of Sonoita Creek at the edge of Patagonia and the verdant floodplain adjacent to the stream as its first project in Arizona.
More than 300 bird species migrate, nest, and live in this rare and beautiful Fremont cottonwood-Goodding’s willow riparian forest where gray hawks like to nest. Over 20 species of flycatchers have been recorded in the preserve along with the thick-billed kingbird and Sinaloa wren.
There are several gentle paths including one along the old railroad grade, another that follows the creek, and a one-mile connector to the Paton Center for Hummingbirds. If you want to stretch your legs a little more, the Geoffrey Platts Trail makes a 3.2-mile loop through mesquite-covered hills with views of the mountains and valley.
Details: Hours and hiking access points vary; closed Mondays and Tuesdays. 150 Blue Heaven Road, Patagonia. $8, free for age 12 and younger.
Patagonia: Paton Center for Hummingbirds
The Paton family began welcoming strangers to their backyard feeders swarming with hummingbirds in the 1970s. After Marion Paton died, neighbors kept the feeders stocked until the Tucson Audubon Society took over.
Visitors travel from all over the world just to sit quietly in a small Arizona backyard and watch clouds of hummingbirds. It’s a lovely, small town way to spend an hour.
Details: Open dawn to dusk daily. 477 Pennsylvania Avenue, Patagonia. Free; donations are appreciated.
Sierra Vista: Ramsey Canyon Preserve
Almost 200 species of birds have been seen in high-walled Ramsey Canyon, a lush defile in the Huachuca Mountains south of Sierra Vista that’s managed by the Nature Conservancy.
A single trail starts from the back of the visitor center past several hummingbird feeders buzzing with activity. After all, Sierra Vista is known as Arizona’s Hummingbird Capital where 15 species of small winged jewels have been sighted.
The path moseys alongside Ramsey Creek for about a mile beneath a canopy of shade. Big sycamore trees drape the stream with oaks and pines filling the canyon. Summer avian visitors include the painted redstart, black-headed grosbeak, and black-throated gray warbler. Surprise visitors like the flame-colored tanager and Aztec thrush are occasionally seen.
Past the small ponds that provide habitat for the threatened Chiricahua leopard frogs, the trail turns into the woods and switchbacks up to an overlook with nice views.
Details: 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Thursdays to Mondays from March 1 through October 31; 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. the rest of the year; Closed Tuesdays and Wednesdays. 27 E. Ramsey Canyon Road, Hereford. Parking is limited; try to arrive early. $8 per person, free for ages 12 and younger.
Sierra Vista: Brown Canyon Trail
If the small parking area at Ramsey Canyon is full, the trail to historic Brown Canyon Ranch makes a nice alternative. Meander through rolling grasslands dotted with manzanita and oak in this shallow canyon.
Resident birds include the Mexican jay, bridled titmouse, and Montezuma quail. Look for elegant trogon and Scott’s oriole in the summer. A small pond at the old ranch site attracts many water loving species. Trailhead is on the north side of Ramsey Canyon Road, two miles from State Route 92.
Sierra Vista: San Pedro River
The San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area protects a 40-mile stretch of the San Pedro River. This slender forest of cottonwood and willow trees creates some of the richest wildlife habitat in the Southwest.
Start at the historic San Pedro House and, as with all birding trails, go only as far as you like. Follow the path through the grassy meadow to the river.
A network of trails follows the bank of the San Pedro in both directions skirting oxbows and loops around a pond named for the elusive green kingfisher. Other sightings might include vermilion flycatchers, lesser goldfinch, summer tanagers, and yellow-breasted chats.
Details: San Pedro House, operated by The Friends of the San Pedro River, is nine miles east of Sierra Vista on SR 90. It will be open 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
Wilcox: Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area
A 1,500-acre wildlife habitat, Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area is famous for the large population of sandhill cranes during the winter season of October through February. Whitewater Draw lies in the Chiricahua desert grassland habitat of the Sulphur Springs Valley.
The Sulphur Springs Valley, west of the Chiricahua Mountains between Bisbee and Douglas to the south and Willcox to the north, is great for bird watching. The valley’s highways and back roads offer access to a variety of habitats including grassland, desert scrub, playa lake, and farm fields. A wide variety of birds winter here alongside permanent residents.
Located in the southwestern part of the valley, the Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area lies within a desert grassland habitat. Nearly half of the Wildlife Area falls within a floodplain. Over 600 acres of the area is intermittently flooded wetland with two small patches of riparian habitat. The surrounding agricultural community of the valley enhances feeding opportunities for wintering birds.
Whitewater Draw has a one-mile boardwalk trail that takes you around cattail marshes, shallow ponds, and eventually to several viewing platforms. Here you can use permanently-mounted spotting scopes to observe the wintering sandhill cranes and the flocks of snow geese and tundra swan that share the sky with the cranes. This is also a great place to see avocets, stilts, and yellowlegs. Wetland birds include egrets, great blue heron, black-crowned night heron, ibis, soras, terns, and other shorebirds.
Overnight camping is allowed in designated areas only, for no more than three days within a seven day period. Camping is free; however, no utilities are available. There is a vault toilet on site. Open fires are allowed in designated areas only.
Details: Open 7 days a week, 24 hours a day
Related article: Southeast Arizona Birding Hotspot: Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area
Green Valley: Madera Canyon
South of Tucson and west of Green Valley, Madera Canyon is carved from the Santa Rita Mountains. The road into the narrowing gorge climbs from desert grasslands to mixed woodlands shading a seasonal stream.
More than 250 species of bird have been documented in these varied habitats. Favorite sightings include elegant trogon, elf owl, sulphur-bellied flycatcher, and painted redstart.
The Madera Creek Trail follows the stream and has multiple access points. The Carrie Nation Trail branches off from Old Baldy Trail, tracing the creek bed deeper into the canyon. It’s a good place to see elegant trogons in April and May.
Non-hikers can enjoy the picnic areas and the free viewing area at the Santa Rita Lodge, filled with hummingbirds and other desert species.
Details: $8 day-use pass for Madera Canyon is sold on site.
Related article: Madera Canyon in the Santa Rita Mountains
Oro Valley: Catalina State Park
Catalina State Park sits at the base of the majestic Santa Catalina Mountains. The park is a haven for desert plants and wildlife and nearly 5,000 saguaros. The 5,500 acres of foothills, canyons, and streams invites camping, picnicking, and bird watching—more than 150 species of birds call the park home. The park provides miles of equestrian, birding, hiking, and biking trails which wind through the park and into the Coronado National Forest at elevations near 3,000 feet.
Because of the high diversity of bird species, the National Audubon Society has designated the park as an Important Bird Area (IBA). The species count has reached 193 and includes several much sought-after birds such as Gilded Flicker, Rufous-winged Sparrow, and Varied Bunting.
The makeup of birds in the park varies with the seasons. Spring and summer birds include noisy Brown-crested Flycatchers, beautiful Blue Grosbeaks, and the tiny Lucy’s Warblers. In the early fall, waves of migrants pass through including Lazuli Buntings, Western Tanagers, and several kinds of warblers. Winter brings in a variety of birds that nest in the north such as Red-naped Sapsucker, Green-tailed Towhee, and several species of sparrows. Permanent residents include Great Horned Owls, Red-tailed Hawks, and many other Sonoran Desert species.
The many trails in the park provide great opportunities to see birds. In addition, there are regular bird walks from October into April led by local experts. The park is located within minutes of the Tucson metropolitan area.
Related article: Catalina State Park: Sky Island Gem
Sedona: Red Rock State Park
Red Rock State Park is located 5 miles west of Sedona off State Highway 89A on the lower Red Rock Loop Road. A bird list is available upon request. This park makes a great introduction for novice birders. Guided bird walks take place at 8 a.m. Wednesdays and Saturdays.
The park has an abundance of resident and migratory birds that can be appreciated by park visitors. A five-mile network of trails loops through this park. The Kisva Trail and Smoke Trail are easy strolls along the banks of Oak Creek beneath the shade of cottonwood, sycamore, velvet ash, and alder trees where you might spot wood ducks and common mergansers.
Non-hikers can settle in on the patio beside the visitor center. It’s with hummingbird feeders.
Details: 4050 Red Rock Loop Road, Sedona. $7, $4 for ages 7-13. Pets are not allowed.
Related article: Color Your World at Red Rock State Park
Read more: The Ultimate Guide to Sedona
No matter if you’re new to bird watching or are an avid birder looking to check rare species off your life list, Arizona is your place. A day pack will help stow your creature’s comfort items: snacks, water, a sweater or light jacket, a birding field guide, binoculars, and camera. Bring enough gear to ensure your stay in the field is as comfortable as possible.
The last piece of the birding equation is totally up to you. Just get out there and enjoy nature. Hike around while peering into the brush, on the water, or in trees for Arizona’s diverse bird species.
Plan your trip:
- World-Class Birding in Arizona
- Best Birding in Arizona: Tips on Where to Go, Species to See, and How to Identify
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 that laughter is life’s sweetest creation.