World-Class Birding in Arizona

Arizona excels in natural areas and bird-watching locations

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.

Lesser goldfinch © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A day pack will help stow your creature’s comfort items, snacks, water, a sweater or light jacket, and a birding field guide. 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.

Desert Botanical Garden © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Desert Botanical Garden 

Located near Papago Park and Phoenix Zoo, the Desert Botanical Garden offers an excellent opportunity to view desert birdlife up close. These gardens provide excellent habitats for a variety of desert species. The birds may be observed throughout the five informative trails that exhibit different desert habitats and settings. Since each trail has a theme, the birdlife may vary on each trail. 

Gambel’s quail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Birds commonly seen include Gambel’s quail, red-tailed hawk, American kestrel, white-winged and Inca doves, greater roadrunner, Western screech-owl, Anna’s and Costa’s hummingbirds, Gila and Ladder-backed woodpeckers, gilded flicker, Ash-throated flycatcher, verdin, cactus and rock wrens, black-tailed gnatcatcher, Northern mockingbird, curve-billed thrasher, Abert’s towhee, and Northern cardinal. 

Related Article: Birding in Arizona

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

Nature Conservancy’s Ramsey Canyon Preserve

Ramsey Canyon is renowned for its beauty and serenity. It is also an ecological crossroads where plants and wildlife from the Sonoran and Chihuahuan deserts mingle with those from the Rocky Mountains and the Sierra Madre. The abrupt rise of mountains like the Huachucas from the surrounding arid grasslands creates “sky islands” that harbor amazing habitat diversity.

Mexican jay at Ramsey Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The diverse wildlife and habitats of Ramsey Canyon may be viewed from the Hamburg Trail. This open-ended route parallels Ramsey Creek through the preserve before climbing 500 feet in a half-mile series of steep switchbacks.

Other wildlife can be seen at Ramsey Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ramsey Canyon has been famous among birders and other nature enthusiasts for over a century. Though best known for its diversity of hummingbirds—as many as fifteen species of hummingbirds migrate through Ramsey Canyon—the canyon offers much more. Residents of the canyon include Arizona woodpecker, Mexican jay, canyon wren, bridled titmouse, elegant Trojan, Montezuma quail, and spotted towhee.

Broad-tailed hummingbird © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tuzigoot National Monument

Crowning a desert hilltop is an ancient pueblo built by the Sinagua people. The riparian, upland and marsh habitats in the monument are used by a large number of bird species.

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

Cactus wren © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

To the north and east of the Tuzigoot Pueblo in the Monument is the Tavasci Marsh, an oasis for birds and other wildlife. The Marsh is a spring-fed freshwater wetland that occupies an abandoned oxbow of the Verde River. Named an Important Bird Area by the Audubon Society, the Marsh feeds into the Verde River, and over 245 species of birds have been documented within the Monument, many of them found in the riparian corridor of the Verde River and the Marsh.

Say’s phoebe at Tuzigoot National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bird species common to the Monument include Abert’s towhee, ruby-crowned kinglet, curve-billed thrasher, Western kingbird, cactus wren, sora, Gila, and Ladder-backed Woodpecker, Northern flicker, Say’s phoebe (pictured above), and lesser goldfinch.

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

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.

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

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.

Related Article: Focus on Birding in Arizona State Parks

Pied-billed Grebe at Whitewater Draw © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Sora at Whitewater Draw © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The number of waterbirds wintering here has also increased in recent years, and thousands of ducks, grebes, cinnamon teals, Northern shoveler, Northern pintail, and other waterbirds are usually present all winter. 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.

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

The small stand of riparian woodland attracts many migratory birds including warblers, vireos, flycatchers, orioles, tanagers, grosbeaks, and buntings. You may see mourning dove, white-winged dove, Gambel’s quail, and scaled quail. Several species of sparrows can be found, including lark, vesper, white-crowned, Lincoln’s, and Cassin’s. Members of the flycatcher family including vermilion flycatcher, Say’s phoebe, and black phoebe are common here.

Black-necked stilt © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Yuma

It’s not just snowbirds that flock to Yuma—nearly 400 species of birds make this a seasonal stop or year-round home because of the area’s diverse habitat.

American avocet © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There’s great birding right in the middle of town, thanks to West Wetlands and Gateway parks and the East Wetlands park and trail system. Birds commonly seen include cinnamon teal, common moorhen, white-faced ibis, least bittern, clapper rail, black-necked stilt, ladder-backed, and Gila woodpeckers, verdin, blue grosbeak, lesser goldfinch, greater roadrunner, and numerous flycatchers and warblers.

Related Article: Birding Arizona’s Sonoran Winter Vacation Destinations

Curve-billed thrasher © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Farther afield, Imperial, Kofa, and Cibola national wildlife refuges and Betty’s Kitchen Interpretive Area at Mittry Lake provide thousands of acres of diverse desert, mountain, and riparian habitat.

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

Best Parks and Gardens to Connect with Nature

Parks and gardens are ideal destinations for picnics, enjoying the outdoors, and simply taking time to relax and enjoy nature

In an earlier article I detailed ways to live healthier and extend both the quantity and quality of your life. There is evidence to support the positive impact of adopting a healthy lifestyle and following certain definitive, scientific, time-tested methods including enjoying nature.

From an ancient forest and coastal wetlands to a botanical garden and desert oasis, here are eight of our favorite parks and gardens for enjoying nature.

Frances Beider Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Frances Beider Forest, Harleyville, South Carolina

Feel the beauty and serenity of this ancient forest. Frequented by photographers and nature lovers from all over the world, this 18,000-acre bird and wildlife sanctuary offers a beauty unsurpassed in the South Carolina Lowcountry. Audubon’s Beidler is the world’s largest virgin cypress-tupelo swamp forest—a pristine ecosystem. Enjoy thousand-year-old trees, a range of wildlife, and the quiet flow of blackwater all from the safety of a 1.75-mile boardwalk. Paddle the flowing blackwater under towering 1,000-year-old cypress trees. Wildlife is plentiful and varied.

Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, Austin, Texas

Lady Bird Johnson was the First Lady who championed the planting of wildflowers along Texas highways. Her passion was not only for wildflowers but native plants of all kinds. So it’s fitting that the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center is both a showplace for beautiful plants and a botanical research center. The public botanical garden introduces visitors to the beauty of wildflowers and other native plants and natural landscapes through experience and education. There are 284 acres of gardens, savannas, and woodlands including the Ann and O.J. Weber Butterfly Garden, the sprawling South Meadow, and the Erma Lowe Hill Country Stream.

Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, Tucson, Arizona

The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum is a zoo, natural history museum, aquarium, and botanical garden all in one place. Founded in 1952, 85 percent of the Desert Museum is outdoors and primarily a walking experience. Located just west of Tucson, it features 2 miles of walking paths traversing 21 acres of desert landscape. The Desert Museum’s 98 acres host 230 animal species—including prairie dogs, coyotes, Gila monster, and mountain lion—and 1,200 local plant species (totaling 56,000 individual plants). This highly acclaimed Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum deserves all the accolades that it receives.

Bernheim Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest, Kentucky

Are you looking to connect with nature? Bernheim is the place to do it. With over 15,000 acres of land, there is an adventure waiting for everyone, no matter what your interest. At 15,625 acres, Bernheim boasts the largest protected natural area in Kentucky. Bernheim contains a 600-acre arboretum with over 8,000 unique varieties of trees. Take a scenic drive through the forest on paved roads, or bicycle around the Arboretum. Over 40 miles of trails weave their way through the forest at Bernheim.

Desert Botanical Gardens © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Desert Botanical Garden, Phoenix, Arizona

You’ll never look at cacti the same way again after visiting the 140-acre Desert Botanical Garden. In this environment, every plant represents stunning beauty. Five marked trails, such as the Sonoran Desert Nature Loop Trail, capitalize on views (whether of mountains or flowers) and fragrances. Learn how native ancestors and current ethnic groups survived in the desert climate by traveling along the Plants & People of the Sonoran Desert Loop Trail which documents Hispanic, Tohono O’odham, and Western Apache people’s connection to plants. The Desert Botanical Garden is located in Papago Park in central Phoenix.

Botany Bay Plantation © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Botany Bay Plantation Heritage Preserve, South Carolina

If you want to see the South Carolina coast the way the original settlers did, take a step back in time at Botany Bay Plantation Heritage Preserve on Edisto Island. The 4,600-acre preserve includes three miles of undeveloped beachfront. This wildlife management area exhibits many characteristics common to sea islands along the southeast coast: pine hardwood forests, agricultural fields, coastal wetlands, and a barrier island with a beachfront. Only this tract has been left undisturbed.

Boyce-Thompson Arboretum © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Boyce-Thompson Arboretum State Park, Superior, Arizona

Boyce Thompson Arboretum, tucked into the foothills of Picketpost Mountain near Superior is a state park like no other. The Arboretum is home to hundreds of species of desert loving plants from around Arizona and other parts of the world. This venerable “Arizona oasis” has nearly three miles of paths and trails winding through colorful gardens, woodlands, and native riparian habitat. Founded in 1924 by mining magnate Col. William Boyce Thompson, the Arboretum is Arizona’s oldest and largest botanical garden and offers over 323 acres to explore.

Walterboro Wildlife Sanctuary © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Walterboro Wildlife Sanctuary, Walterboro, South Carolina

There is a beautiful wildlife sanctuary located in the middle of the historic and picturesque city of Walterboro, South Carolina. Easily reached from I-95, the Walterboro Wildlife Sanctuary is a great place to leave the traffic behind, stretch your legs, and enjoy nature. Located within the ACE Basin, the East Coast’s largest estuarine preserve, the 600- acre Sanctuary features a network of boardwalks, hiking, biking, and canoe trails that are perfect for viewing a diversity of a black water bottomland habitat.

Worth Pondering…

We can never have enough of nature.

—Henry David Thoreau

Stunning Papago Park: A World-Class Attraction

Papago Park features a wide variety of outdoor fun opportunities

Papago Park is located on the east-side of Phoenix, near the border of Tempe and South Scottsdale. The 1,200 acre park is home to “Hole in the Rock” a red rock that is distinctive to its landscape. Its massive, otherworldly sandstone buttes set Papago Park apart, even in a city and state filled with numerous world-class natural attractions.

Papago Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

It is not the largest park in the city of Phoenix, a distinction that belongs to South Mountain Park. But Papago features the widest variety of outdoor fun and is home to some of the most visited attractions in the Phoenix area making it a popular destination for both residents and vacationers. 

Papago Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Papago’s desert trails are generally smooth, easy treks with little elevation gain, making it a great place for a family hike or to hone your mountain biking skills. While visitors to Papago can enjoy its extensive trail network through Sonoran Desert habitat, they can also enjoy the park’s two major residents, the Phoenix Zoo and Desert Botanical Garden, world-class attractions that draw millions of visits each year.

Hole-in-the Rock Butte at Papago Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

It is also home to the Arizona Historical Society Museum and Hunt’s Tomb, the tomb of George W.P. Hunt (1859-1934), Arizona’s first governor. The Papago Golf Course is also located within the park. Oh, and did we mention it’s only 10 minutes from downtown Phoenix.

Looking through the Hole-in-the-Rock at Papago Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

But did you also know that its 1,200 acres were once known as Papago-Saguaro National Monument? Part of the homeland for the Hohokam, local tribes—the Maricopa and Akimel O’odham—and rich in petroglyphs, archaeological sites, desert plant life, and scenic qualities, this area stood out among many other spots in Phoenix for a national monument status.

Papago Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

In 1914, about 1,700 acres surrounding Hole-in-the-Rock butte was designated Papago-Saguaro National Monument by President Woodrow Wilson. The intention of this was to federally protect the archaeological sites, per the Antiquities Act of 1906, as well as create a scenic area for locals and tourism.

Desert Botanical at Papago Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Despite the lofty designation, however, Papago-Saguaro suffered from severe funding issues, something that many national park sites are still struggling with today.  Eventually, in 1930, Congress abolished Papago-Saguaro National Monument and transferred ownership to the state and local city governments.

Desert Botanical Garden at Papago Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

During World War II, the area housed German prisoners of war from 1943 to 1946. After the war, the prisoner camp was converted to a Veterans Administration Hospital from 1947 to 1951. It became the District Headquarters for Arizona’s largest Army Reserve Unit from 1953 to 1966. In fact, today an “off-limits” portion of Papago Park is used for Arizona National Guard training.

The hole-in-the-rock is the most prominent icon in Papago Park and carries evidence that the prehistoric Hohokam Indians settled this area thousands of years ago. The red butte was created 6 to 15 million years ago and naturally formed with a series of openings caused by erosion.

Desert Botanical Garden at Papago Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

The openings and chamber (hole) near the butte’s summit are easily accessed from the rear via a smooth, but somewhat steep path. Those that trek to the chamber hole-in-the-rock are rewarded with great views across the city.

Desert Botanical Garden at Papago Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

The ancient Hohokam People noticed that a hole in the ceiling in the chamber creates a ray of light that changes positions on the chamber’s floor during the year depending upon seasonal movements of the sun. They marked the occurrence of the summer solstice by grinding a bedrock “metate slick” at the location where the ray of light falls during the day at noontime.

Desert Botanical Garden at Papago Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

The winter solstice is marked by the ray of light interaction with a natural seam in the bedrock. They also marked the equinoxes, the seasonal halfway point between the summer and winter solstices with a bedrock metate slick. The boulders near the hole-in-the-rock appear to provide other solstice and equinox markers.

Papago Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

While Papagp Park may not be part of the original vision when the area become a national monument, it is an area where a portion of Phoenix’s original natural beauty still manages to flourish.

Papago Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Worth Pondering…

Alone in the open desert,

I have made up songs of wild, poignant rejoicing and transcendent melancholy.

The world has seemed more beautiful to me than ever before.

I have loved the red rocks, the twisted trees, the sand blowing in the wind, the slow, sunny clouds crossing the sky, the shafts of moonlight on my bed at night.

I have seemed to be at one with the world.

—Everett Ruess