8 Arizona Spots Every Birder Should Know About

Welcome to paradise. A birder’s paradise, that is.

Arizona offers some of the best birdwatching in America. Thanks to Arizona’s rich riparian habitats that stretch from north to south, the state is a top destination for every serious—and not-so-serious—birdwatcher in the country. Birders can marvel at an array of exotic and rare species, from tiny hummingbirds to giant California condors.

Want to get started? Check out this guide to Arizona’s best birding locations.

Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area

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

The spectacular sight of thousands of wintering sandhill cranes is the main attraction at this 1,500-acre preserve. Between October and March, more than 20,000 cranes arrive, mostly from the Midwest, but some come from as far as Siberia. You can see the birds all day long, but if you get here before sunrise, you’ll spot them leaving their roost to feed—an unforgettable experience.

Ramsey Canyon Preserve

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

The cool walls of Ramsey Canyon Preserve lure more than a dozen hummingbird species (violet-crowned, broad-billed and blue-throated, to name a few), giving this region the title of “hummingbird capital of the United States.” The delicate birds flock to the ecologically unique spot where plants and wildlife from the Sonoran and Chihuahuan deserts blend with those from the Rocky Mountains and the Sierra Madre.

San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area

Gambil’s quail at San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The San Pedro Riparian area contains nearly 57,000 acres of public land stretching some 40 miles in a narrow band south from St. David. Most visitors start at San Pedro House which features interpretive signs of various native plants of the area, riparian, and wildlife. The American Bird Conservancy has designated San Pedro House as a globally important bird area. The cottonwood and willow trees provide essential habitat for a variety of wildlife including over 350 species of birds.

Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch

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

You’d be forgiven for thinking you can see exotic bird species only in Arizona’s wild lands. But you’re in for a pleasant surprise: Migratory routes pass through urban areas, too, making for great birdwatching in major Arizona cities. This riparian preserve, a premier bird site in metro Phoenix, was established in 1999 as a wetland habitat. In winter, ducks and water birds make their home here, as well as rarities like roseate spoonbill and little bittern.

Catalina State Park

Western scrub jay at Catalina Stte Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Set against the Santa Catalina Mountains, 25 miles north of Tucson, the park consists of 5,500 acres of high Sonora Desert habitat with eight trails traversing a landscape dominated by ocotillo, cholla, and saguaro cactus. Ladder-backed Woodpeckers, Greater Roadrunners, Gambel’s Quail, Say’s Phoebes, Harris’s Hawks, and 42 other bird species call the park home year-round. Migrants and seasonal residents include the Vermilion Flycatcher, Black-headed Grosbeak, Olive-sided Flycatcher, Lazuli Bunting, and 10 species of migrating warblers.

Boyce Thompson Arboretum

Anna’s hummingbird at Boyce Thompson Arboretum State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The multiple riparian habitats at this state park bring such sub-species of hummingbirds as the green-and-gray Anna’s or the hunched Costa’s, while the wooded areas, lake and river attract species like wrens, sparrows and orioles.

Watson Woods Riparian Preserve

Watson Woods Riparian Preserve © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The cottonwood and willow trees at this 126-acre site not only offer shade for land-loving wildlife like the Mexican vole, but they also provide homes for the water birds and migrant shorebirds that visit during the winter. Other cool-weather birds include the bald eagle, peregrine, and osprey. In summer, you might spot breeding birds such as wood ducks and yellow warblers.

Glen Canyon National Recreation Area

Raven at Glen Canyon National Recreation Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This massive recreation area straddles the border between Arizona and Utah and is notable for one specific bird species—the spectacular California condor. Only several hundred of these birds are still in existence, and many have been introduced into the wild at Glen Canyon. They have a wingspan of nearly 10 feet. Look for these graceful creatures as they fly free over the Colorado River, dipping and soaring along the air currents.

Greater Roadrunner © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

Have you ever observed a hummingbird moving about in an aerial dance among the flowers—a living prismatic gem…. it is a creature of such fairy-like loveliness as to mock all description.

—W.H. Hudson, Green Mansion

Birding in Arizona

Come along as we take a tour through some of Arizona’s best birding locations and get to know the birds of Arizona

The birds of Arizona are diverse and live in amazingly beautiful areas throughout the state from the deserts of southern Arizona, to the high country.

Locating birds in Arizona is relatively easy if you set afield with the right tools and mindset. Optics are a handy item in the field, some even deem them necessary equipment for birders of all levels. Eight power binoculars are popular and provide users ample magnification and a large field of view.

Scrub jay at Catalina State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Now, pick a spot and go!

Oh, yes—don’t forget your camera and telephoto lens.

Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area

Whitewater Draw © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Located four miles southwest of the town of McNeal, Whitewater Draw is former ranchland, now managed as a wildlife area. The Arizona Game and Fish Department has set up viewing platforms and built trails for better visitor access.

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

This is one of the best locations in Arizona to observe Sandhill cranes. As many as 15,000 cranes can be present from October into March, though the number varies depending on the amount of water present. More than 280 species of birds have been recorded including the snow goose (with some Ross’s) and more than 15 species of ducks.

Snow geese at Whitewater Draw © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The area is also known for wintering raptors including golden eagle, Cooper’s hawk, bald eagle, ferruginous hawk, peregrine falcon, red-tailed hawk, and American kestrel.

Sora at Whitewater Draw © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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. Other regulars at Whitewater Draw include scaled quail, Gambel’s quail, roadrunner, vermilion flycatcher, curve-billed thrasher, and yellow-headed blackbird.

San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area

San Pedro House © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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 an arid environment.

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

Stop first at San Pedro House, seven miles east of Sierra Vista on Highway 90 where trails wind through the riparian corridor. Another popular access point is not far away, east of the town of Hereford.

Gambel’s quail at San Pedro House © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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, yellow warbler, Abert’s towhee, and lesser goldfinch.

Sierra Vista Environmental Operations Park

Pied-billed grebe at Sierra Vista Environmental Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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 ducks, pied-billed 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.

Usery Mountain Regional Park

Gilded flicker at Usery Mountain Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Usery Mountain, a Maricopa County Regional Park is in a gorgeous Sonoran Desert setting northeast of Mesa. On the south side of the mountain, the word Phoenix with a giant arrow pointing west has been spelled out in enormous letters made of white rocks. It’s visible for miles. For me, Usery Mountain has an iconic status because it’s here I first fell in love with the Sonoran Desert over 40 years ago.

Cactus wren at Usery Mountain Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The dawn chorus here is raucous with cactus wrens, curve-billed thrashers, Gila woodpeckers, guilded flicker, verdin, Gambel’s quail, house finch, rosy-faced lovebirds, and phainopepla, to name just a few.

House finch at Usery Mountain Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

A bird does not sing because it has an answer.  It sings because it has a song.

—Chinese Proverb