Tucson Spotlight

Bird Watching in Tucson & Southern Arizona

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Avian Hot Spots in the Sonoran Desert:
Bird Watching in Tucson and Southern Arizona

TUCSON, Ariz. -- Located along the migratory path between Canada and Mexico, in an area at the north end of the tropical zone and the south end of the temperate zone, Tucson and Southern Arizona is one of the best bird-watching destinations in the United States. More than 500 bird species have been observed here at different altitudes throughout the year. Hummingbirds are especially plentiful; more than 150 species have been seen in a single day during the spectacular spring and fall migrations.

Public gardens and state and national parks surrounding the city are havens for various winged natives and seasonal visitors. A short drive south of Tucson, in Southern Arizona's rolling grasslands and lofty mountain ranges, one can find the Elegant Trogan, Broad-billed Hummingbird, Vermilion Flycatcher and many other species. Bird-watching festivals and nature walks are especially popular during peak migration times.


The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum (ASDM) has enchanted millions of visitors with exhibits of live animals in natural settings for more than half a century. Within the 21-acre museum grounds, traversed by nearly two miles of paths, visitors can see more than 1,200 plant species and 300 animals, including 241 birds from 72 taxa. The museum participates in federal and state recovery programs for the thick-billed parrot, and ASDM's captive breeding program has resulted in the wild release of Golden Eagles and Harris' Hawks. The Desert Museum's hummingbird aviary also boasts up-close views of Costa's, Broad-billed, Black-chinned, Anna's and Calliope hummingbirds, which nest, lay eggs, and rear young. The ASDM's Raptor Free Flight, a dynamic bird of prey flight demonstration in the open desert, showcases natural behaviors of native birds. Unlike many other bird flight shows, the Raptor Free Flight focuses the attention on the birds and how they behave in nature.

Agua Caliente Park is a 101-acre park located on Tucson's northeast side boasting 10 acres of ponds, paths and picnic areas. The park features a warm, natural spring and pond that is home to an exceptionally rich mix of plants and wildlife, with a backdrop of the Santa Catalina and Rincon Mountains. Guests can visit the historical Ranch House and Art Gallery; tour the park on one of many naturalist-led walks; or picnic beneath mature palms and native mesquite trees. Birders can shop the many bird-related items for sale in Tucson Audubon Society's Nature Shop. The park's three ponds bring a wide variety of avian life to Agua Caliente, including Gila Woodpecker, Cactus Wren, Curve-billed Thrasher, Black-throated Sparrow, Black Phoebe,  Western Kingbird, Morning Dove, Red-tailed Hawk, Cooper's Hawk, American Kestrel, Osprey, Great Blue Heron, Great Egret, Belted Kingfisher, Mallard Duck,  Ruddy Duck, American Coot, Merganser, and on rare occasions, pelican.

Catalina State Park sits at the base of the towering Santa Catalina Mountains, and offers visitors a plethora of desert plants and wildlife, and nearly 5,000 saguaro cacti. The 5,500-acre park includes foothills, canyons and streams, and makes an idea spot for camping, picnics and birding (more than 150 species of birds call the park home!). Catalina State Park provides birders and outdoor enthusiasts with miles of scenic, winding trails that ascend into the Coronado National Forest at elevations near 3,000 feet. And located just minutes from Tucson's metro area, it's one of the most convenient birding spots in the Old Pueblo.

Sabino Canyon Recreational Area is a 2,800-acre recreation area located in the eastern foothills of the Santa Catalina mountain range. Sabino Creek, the perennial stream, flows through the length of the canyon, and Bear Creek runs through Bear Canyon. In the winter, watch for Black-tailed Gnatcatchers, Black-chinned Sparrows and Rufous-crowned Sparrows. Depending on the season, Arizona bird species that are commonly seen here include Northern Cardinals, Gambel's Quail, Pyrrhuloxia and Phainopeplas, Curve-billed Thrasher and Gila Woodpecker along the desert floor; Bewick's Wren in the canyon; Lucy's Warbler, Hooded Oriole and Broad-billed Hummingbirds in riparian areas; and Belted Kingfishers along the creek. In the evening, listen for the calls of Common Poorwills, Nighthawks, and Elf, Great Horned and Screech Owls. The Sabino Lake Trail #30 tram stop leads to a popular wetland bird-watching spot.

Saguaro National Park (both East and West Districts) is a true Tucson treasure, boasting saguaro cactus forests as far as the eye can see. But the park's cacti and other flora - including pine forests at higher altitudes - provide a unique haven for some of the United States' rarest birds, including Vermilion Flycatcher, Whiskered Screech Owl, roadrunners, Gila Woodpecker and Gambel's Quail. Other birds found in the park are the Northern Goshawk, Yellow-eyed Junco, Mexican Jay, and Anna's Hummingbird, Cactus Wren, Common Raven, Curve-billed Thrasher, Elf Owl, Harris's Hawk, Phainopepla, Pyrrhuloxia, Verdin, White-winged Dove and more.

The Sweetwater Wetland is a man-made wetland located near the Santa Cruz Riverbed, northwest of downtown Tucson. Created in 1996, Sweetwater serves as an environmental education facility and habitat for an array of wildlife, particularly birds. Rare birds that have arrived by various means at the wetland include the Chestnut-sided Warbler, Least Grebe, Harris's Hawks and many more. Birders can observe ducks on Sweetwater's ponds, which are surrounded by cattails, willows and cottonwood trees. Red-winged, Yellow-headed and Brewer's Blackbirds can often be seen among cattails, while thick stands of saltbush provide a haven for Song Sparrows, Abert's Towhees, wrens and other species. Paths along the ponds provide fantastic views of the large detention basins to the south which frequently attract shore birds and wading birds.

Tohono Chul Park in Tucson is recognized as one of the great botanical gardens of the world. The Hummingbird Garden is planted with salvia, desert honeysuckle, desert willow and many other hummingbird-friendly plants. Hummingbirds are drawn to sweet, flute-shaped flowers, which are perfect for the birds' long, narrow beaks. The hummingbirds most frequently seen in this garden are the black-chinned, a summer visitor, and the Costa's and Anna's, which have taken up permanent residence in the park. Migrants you may see include broad-billed, Rufous, and occasionally calliopes and Allen's. These hummingbirds, which migrate from colder climates, may be seen drinking their fill from the salvia plant, which blooms through the winter season.


The Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge occupies roughly 118,000 acres of grassland habitat for threatened and endangered plants and animals, managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. A re-population program is currently underway for the rare masked bobwhite, which makes the Buenos Aires Refuge the only place in the United States where four species of quail can be found. The riparian (wetland) areas along Arivaca Cienega and at Willow Pond attract nearly 350 species of birds - many of them rare - including Brown Pelican, American Bittern, Common Goldeneye duck, Red-shouldered Hawk, Northern Pygmy-Owl, Sandhill Crane, Black-chinned Sparrow, Fox Sparrow, Whip-poor-whil and many more.

Las Cienegas National Conservation Area is bird-watching heaven, boasting more than 45,000 acres of rolling grasslands and woodlands in Pima and Santa Cruz counties. Protected as a National Conservation Area, Las Cienegas is a wonderland of rolling grasslands, oak-studded hills connecting Southern Arizona mountain ranges, and flourishing riparian corridors. Cienega Creek flows throughout the year and is the central feature of the Conservation Area, supporting diverse plant and animal communities. Cienega's wildlife includes 230 birds, 60 mammals, 43 reptiles and amphibians and three native fish.

Madera Canyon, located an hour south of Tucson in the Santa Rita Mountains, features an outstanding cross-section of Southwestern bird habitats. Trails - including a wheelchair-accessible trail in the lower canyon - through Madera Canyon cover a broad range of wildlife zones, from desert grasslands to mountain forests. More than 200 bird species have been recorded in the canyon, including the Elegant Trogan, Cooper's Hawk, Northern Goshawk, Sharp-skinned Hawk, Zone-tailed Hawk, Golden Eagle, Northern Harrier, American Kestrel, Peregrine Falcon, Prairie Falcon, Inca Dove, Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Great Horned Owl, Spotted Owl, Red-naped Sapsucker, Gilded Flicker, a variety of hummingbirds,  and many more.

The Nature Conservancy's Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve is one of the best-known and most popular places for birding in the United States. The preserve's riparian habitat runs alongside Sonoita Creek, and contains some of Southern Arizona's most diverse plant and animal habitats. More than 300 species call the preserve home, and birders travel from around the world to catch a glimpse of them. The Preserve's birds include the Gray Hawk, Vermilion Flycatcher, and Violet-crowned Hummingbird, Thick-billed Kingbird, Zone-tailed Hawk, Green Kingfisher, White-throated Sparrow and Black-bellied Whistling Duck.

Ramsey Canyon Preserve is a 380-acre wildlife refuge, located on the eastern flank of the Huachuca Mountains near Sierra Vista, Ariz. Renowned for scenic beauty and excellent birding opportunities - particularly various hummingbirds - Ramsey Canyon is a rugged, beautiful home to a wide diversity of plant and animal life. The preserve includes up to 14 species of hummingbirds, and the surrounding arid grasslands create "sky islands" that harbor rare species such as the Elegant Trogan.

The Riparian Conservation Area on the San Pedro River in Sierra Vista (south of Tucson) is considered one of the largest and most critical avian migratory corridors remaining in the western United States, stretching from the Mexican border north for 36 miles. The Conservation Area supports more than 350 species of birds, as well as roughly 80 mammal species and more than 40 species of reptiles and amphibians, including a recently restored beaver population; it includes about 40 miles of the Upper San Pedro River, where visitors can see both migratory birds and birds native to Southern Arizona. From March through October, bird-watchers can observe and participate in a hummingbird "bird-banding" event. Guests can weigh, feed and band the tiny birds for a migratory study.

The Village of Tubac, Arizona, is an artists' haven, south of Tucson, along the Santa Cruz River, where Sonoran Desert meets riparian cottonwood forests. This diverse habitat makes Tubac an exceptional bird-watching site, particularly the Anza Trail, which winds from the Tubac Presidio State Historic Park through lush riparian areas to the Tumacacori National Historic Park, just three miles south. Birds found in Tubac and along the Anza trail include: Tropical Kingbird, Arizona Flycatcher, Northern Cardinal, Broad-billed Hummingbird, Black-chinned Hummingbird, Gila Woodpecker, Macgillivray's Warbler, Vermilion Flycatcher, Goldfinch, Black-headed Grosbeak, Verdin, Cooper's Hawk, Canyon Towhee, Black Vulture and many more.


Wings over Willcox Birding and Nature Festival (January) takes place over Martin Luther King Jr holiday weekend in January, with daytime and evening activities at the Willcox Community Center, the Willcox Playa Wildlife Area, and at various natural areas in the Sulphur Springs Valley, south of Tucson. The festival celebrates the thousands of Sandhill Cranes that migrate here in winter and a host of other bird species that populate this area year-round.

The Fiesta de la Aves International Migration Celebration (May) features a variety of activities for birders and other wildlife enthusiasts. The festival is a traveling event, with activities taking place at a series of amazing birding locations in Cochise and Santa Cruz counties, including the Huachuca and Chiricahua Mountains, San Pedro River, Patagonia and across the border in northern Sonora, Mexico.!calendar

Tucson Bird and Wildlife Festival (August) celebrates the unique biodiversity of southeastern Arizona, with exciting opportunities to discover and enjoy birds and wildlife found in the Sonoran Desert and Sky Islands. Experts lead field trips, from Sweetwater Preserve to the Huachuca Mountains and many other favorite bird-watching sites in between, are highlighted. A Nature Expo features nature-oriented vendors, exhibits, and presentations.  

Southwest Wings Birding & Nature Festival (August) is Arizona's longest-running nature festival and an educational celebration of the diversity of birds, mammals, reptiles, and insects in their unique environment - the sky islands in Southern Arizona. Southwest Wings takes place in Sierra Vista, in spectacular Cochise County, home to the Huachuca Mountains and the San Pedro River.

The Tucson Audubon Society's Bird-watching Field Trips (year-round) are generally free-of-charge. These bird watching adventures take enthusiasts to a wide range of hotspots in Tucson and Southern Arizona, such as Madera Canyon, Florida Canyon, Huachuca, Ramsey Canyon, and more. For schedules and more information, go to

The Tucson Audubon Society's Urban Bird Walks regularly bring bird watching to the public by encouraging people to start watching birds in the urban area. The free trips reach out to beginners and families in and around Tucson.


For a continually updated list of rare bird sightings in Tucson and Southern Arizona, visit the Tucson Audubon Society's Southeast Arizona Rare Bird Alert website at:


Audubon Nature Shop
Tucson Audubon Society
300 E. University Blvd. #120
Tucson, AZ 85705
(520) 629-0510

The mission of the Tucson Audubon Society is to improve the quality of the environment by providing education, conservation and recreation programs, as well as environmental leadership and information.

Southeastern Arizona Bird Observatory (SABO)
P.O. Box 5521
Bisbee, AZ 85603-5521
(520) 432-1388

SABO is a non-profit organization dedicated to the conservation of the birds of southeastern Arizona, their habitats, and the diversity of species that share those habitats through research, monitoring and public education.

The Nature Conservancy of Arizona
(Tucson Office)
1510 E Fort Lowell Rd
Tucson, AZ 85719
(520) 622-3861

Since 1966, The Nature Conservancy in Arizona has helped protect some of the state's most significant land. Through purchase and partnership, the Conservancy has helped to protect more than 1.5 million acres in Arizona.


For more information about Tucson-area bird watching, go to or call Tucson Visitor Information at 1-800-638-8350. Learn more at

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