My favorite quote from biologist E.O. Wilson, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner known as the “father of biodiversity,” is this: “The highest high is the high of discovery.” Those of us hooked on birds can well relate. The excitement at finding each new species fuels the passion, the research, and the travel. And if that has you thinking about southeast Arizona for the first time, plan on being sky high, both emotionally and physically. Let me explain.
The biggest lament of bird tourists to southeast Arizona is, “I didn’t have enough time. I’ll be back.” Renowned as the premier birding destination in North America, southeast Arizona encompasses only four counties in which 500 species have been recorded. More than 50 of those can be seen only there, and several complete guidebooks have been written covering all the hotspots. Where should a birder begin?
My answer to this question from first-timers has always been to come between mid-April and mid-May and begin in the Sky Islands, capitalized here because they stand alone, above, and apart, quite literally, from all the other wonderful birding locales in the region. Southeast Arizona’s mountain ranges, spectacularly scenic and ranging to elevations over 10,000 feet, like islands in an ocean, are isolated by and from the desert biome surrounding them.
For birders, this means a visit to one of the Sky Islands takes you from cactus to pines through five life zones and gives you access to a tremendous diversity of our bird species, some of the most-sought reliably found only in the higher elevations. The Sky Islands boast all our “mountain” warblers, most of our hummingbird jewels, and, of course, Elegant Trogon, the Holy Grail for many first-timers. Additionally, they offer cooler temperatures, many roads and trails, and camping opportunities.
The essential guidebooks for birders planning a visit to Arizona are the eighth edition of Finding Birds in Southeast Arizona from the Tucson Audubon Society and Richard Cachor Taylor’s just-published Birds of Arizona. In the pages that follow, my hope is to help make your first trip manageable, enjoyable, and rewarding by highlighting four of our Sky Islands and four great birding areas found in each. This is only the beginning. I know you’ll be back.
Santa Catalina Mountains
(Two days recommended, base in Tucson)
Because Tucson may be your arrival destination and has many lodging and meal options, you should begin your visit on Mount Lemmon, which rises from that city’s northern suburbs. As you drive upward along the spectacular Catalina Highway, try to resist the temptation to stop at every scenic overlook lest you not have time to adequately bird the most productive areas above.
Your first stop on Lemmon, above the Saguaros, should be Molino Basin, mile 5.5 (mile 0 is the Coronado National Forest boundary), for birds of the chaparral and oak. Mexican Jay, Crissal Thrasher, both Rufous-crowned and Black-chinned Sparrows, and Scott’s Oriole are here, and Gray Vireo has nested intermittently. Above Molino Basin the real fun begins as the vegetation changes.
Park at the Bigelow Trailhead above mile 9.3, walk back down to Incinerator Ridge, and bird up the jeep road. If you spot the Short-tailed Hawks that raised young in the area last year, you might save yourself a trip to Florida. At mile 9.9, the road takes you into moist and shady Bear Canyon. Now at 6,000 feet, about halfway up the mountain, your focus should turn to Arizona’s so-called “mountain warblers,” eyes and ears both alert for Virginia’s, Yellow-rumped, Black-throated Gray, Grace’s, Painted Redstart, and Red-faced. They are all found here, along with Olive Warbler and Hepatic Tanager, and this is an excellent area for Flammulated Owl on the way back down the mountain after dark.
Rose Canyon (extra fee area), at mile 17.1 in Ponderosa Pine, is the best spot in Arizona for Red-faced Warbler. Walk the road and/or take the trail to the lake at the end, watching and listening for Greater Pewee and Cordilleran Flycatcher. A vagrant Pine Flycatcher entertained birders from all over the country in the campground throughout last summer.
Santa Rita Mountains
(Two days recommended, base in Green Valley or in Madera Canyon itself)
Madera Canyon, an hour south of Tucson in the Santa Rita Mountains, is the best-known and arguably the best birding site in southeast Arizona. It is the easiest place to find Elegant Trogon and hosts the full array of Arizona’s other specialty species. There is a campground, dispersal camping along Proctor Road, a bed and breakfast, two rental cabin areas, and quick access from lodging and meals in nearby Green Valley.
First-timers should not miss four areas. The mileage here begins just east of I-19, where you turn right off Continental Road onto Whitehouse Canyon Road, passing from grassland through oak woodlands to conifer forest at the top of Mount Wrightson, 9,453 feet. At the junction at mile 7.2, continue on the pavement, now Madera Canyon Road, to the right.
As you pass through these Santa Rita Grasslands, watch and listen for the four sparrows on your list: Botteri’s, Cassin’s, Rufous-winged, and Rufous-crowned. All are here and will be singing, especially after the monsoon rains, Arizona’s “second spring,” begin in mid-July. Best strategy is to park and walk the pavement, particularly at mile 9.0, where a dirt road enters to the right.
At mile 11, turn into the Proctor Road parking lot and grab your bins and water for a long, productive hike following the stream through oak woodland. Before you start up the paved, bridged Forest Service trail, you could see or hear Blue Grosbeak and Varied Bunting right at your car. The trail runs for about 1.5 miles up to the Madera Picnic Area, taking you through habitat for Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet, Brown-crested and Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher, and Summer Tanager. Watch for Montezuma Quail watering at the creek and linger in the Whitehouse Picnic Area for Bushtit and Scott’s Oriole. In Madera Picnic Area, you could get Acorn and Arizona Woodpeckers. Northern Pygmy-Owls have nested in the sycamores there for several years.
Just up the road at mile 12.2 is the Santa Rita Lodge, with a viewing deck overlooking hummingbird and seed feeders. The lodge is famous for its Elf Owls, which nest every year in the utility poles, and Whiskered Screech-Owls. Both species vocalize after dark. Six species of hummingbirds are regular, and one or more of the less-common species, White-eared, Berylline, Violet-crowned, and Lucifer, turn up every summer, especially in August and September. Wild Turkeys come to glean fallen seed, and a Zone-tailed Hawk is often soaring with the Turkey Vultures.
After scoping out the avian visitors at the lodge feeders, you will want to drive up to the very last parking lot, where you can access the Carrie Nation Trail (formerly known as the Vault Mine Trail), the most reliable place in the canyon for Elegant Trogon once nesting season has begun. Park in the tri-level lot below the restrooms and take plenty of water (especially in May/June) and/or a raincoat (especially in July/August, when you should be alert for monsoon activity building up around the peaks).
Walk up the steps through the picnic area to join the main trail, and in 0.3 miles, the Old Baldy Trailcomes in from the left. To access higher-elevation species like Greater Pewee and Olive Warbler, spend your time on Old Baldy. If the trogon is your goal, continue up Carrie Nation, where you should also see Dusky-capped Flycatcher, Plumbeous and Hutton’s Vireo, Grace’s Warbler, and Painted Redstart. Elegant Trogons have nested in sycamore and oak cavities for years between the first stream crossing and the point where this trail disappears into the stream channel a few hundred yards above the intersection with the Vault Mine Trail. If you haven’t seen a trogon yet, sit on a rock, have lunch, and listen for their odd, ventriloquial call. A trogon will often find you.
At this point, let me mention two caveats for first-time visitors. Playing bird recordings is not allowed anywhere in Madera Canyon, and it is best to avoid the picnic areas and the waterfall below Proctor parking on weekends because they can be crowded with non-birders, often playing boom boxes at max volume.
(Two days recommended, base in Sierra Vista or at Battiste Bed, Breakfast and Birds in Hereford)
The next stop on your Sky Island hop should be the Huachucas. You will find many food and lodging options in Sierra Vista, but try to make reservations at Battiste Bed, Breakfast and Birds. Julie and Tony Battiste are delightful hosts, and Tony is an excellent bird photographer whose time in the field makes him a perfect source of information about where to find birds still on your list.
Your first stop in the Huachucas should be Ramsey Canyon, on Highway 92 6 miles south of the 90/92 junction. The canyon, often referred to as the “hummingbird capital of Arizona,” is home to the birder-friendly Ramsey Canyon Inn and the Ramsey Canyon Preserve, a Nature Conservancy property open to the public five days a week year-round. I have had a 10-hummingbird day at the preserve’s feeders on two different occasions in the month of August, and it is the most reliable place for White-eared and Berylline.
After watching the feeders for hummingbirds, take the half-mile nature trail and/or the long, steep hike up to Hamburg Meadow. The trail might produce Montezuma Quail and Greater Pewee, and the meadow has hosted many rare vagrants over the years, including nesting Tufted Flycatchers the past two summers. Bear in mind parking at Ramsey is limited, and it can be crowded on summer and fall weekends.
Carr Canyon, one mile south of Ramsey on Highway 92, is your next destination. There are three reasons why you should navigate the nine hairpin switchbacks on the dirt and cobble road to 7,400 feet: Band-tailed Pigeon, Buff-breasted Flycatcher, and Olive Warbler. You should find three species of nuthatches, and the stunning vistas out over the upper San Pedro River valley are unforgettable. This drive is fine for passenger cars, but it’s not for the faint of heart.
Two miles south of Highway 92, you’ll find the road to Miller Canyon. Drive the dirt Forest Service road to a parking area just below Beatty’s Guest Ranch, justifiably famous for the hummingbirds attracted to its publicly accessible feeders. White-eared is often the main attraction here. Northern Goshawk has nested nearby, and after dark, listen for Whiskered Screech-Owls.
The best strategy in Miller is to arrive early and hike a couple miles up the Miller Canyon Trail, then sit at the Beatty feeders on your way down later in the day. The main attraction on the trail is a reliable pair of Spotted Owls often day-roosting just below the second stream crossing. Three species of jay and three species of vireo may be seen along this stretch, along with many of the mountain warblers. Rarities discovered here over the years include Aztec Thrush and Flame-colored Tanager.
After Beatty’s, continue down Highway 92 to milepost 332 and turn onto Turkey Track Road. Two right-angle turns bring you to the parking area for the Ash Canyon Bird Sanctuary and its feeders. Ash is drier than the other canyons, but 200 species have been recorded here, the major attraction being Lucifer Hummingbird. It is a great place to relax and find any of the mesquite/oak-chaparral species you may have missed.
(At least two days recommended, base at the George Walker House in Paradise or in one of the five Coronado National Forest campgrounds in the area)
I have saved the best for last. The Chiricahuas are the largest and most remote and unique of Arizona’s Sky Islands, the one most likely to evoke what southeast Arizona was like when only the Apaches lived here. The starting point for your exploration of the area is the village of Portal via the dirt San Simon-Portal Road just east of San Simon on I-10. If it has rained recently, it is best to detour into New Mexico and go south on U.S. 80, then back west on the Portal Road, all paved.
The most exciting birding area in the entire range is the South Fork Cave Creek Trail. At the “Y” intersection a half-mile west of Portal, stay on the paved road into Cave Creek Canyon, one of the most scenic areas in all of Arizona. Watch and listen for Peregrines on the cliffs above. Blue-throated Mountain-Gem often nests near the Information Station and shows up at the feeders there.
About one mile beyond the entrance to Stewart Campground, take the dirt road straight ahead to South Fork. Many birders park and walk the 1.3 miles to the end. Montezuma Quail, Bridled Titmouse, the mountain warblers, and Yellow-eyed Junco are frequently seen. The trail begins at the end of the road. Multiple pairs of Elegant Trogons use the creek here, as do the lowest-nesting Mexican Chickadees. Please note that it’s prohibited to play bird sounds in South Fork Cave Creek.
After your exploration of South Fork, return to the paved Cave Creek Road and turn left, then left again in 1.8 miles at the entrance to the Southwestern Research Station. Here you’ll find a cottonwood grove at the confluence of Cave Creek and its north fork and feeders maintained by the staff. Recent bird sightings will be listed on a signboard at the gift shop, hummingbirds abound, and many rarities have been discovered here over the years. A walk along the road after dark could produce Common Poorwill and Flammulated Owl.
Next, continue up the dirt road past the research station to the Herb Martyr Campground in the pine-oak woodland. Buff-breasted Flycatchers have nested in the area, and you should watch for Greater Pewee and Arizona Woodpecker in the dead snags and listen for Grace’s Warbler and Painted Redstart.
A return to Cave Creek Road and a left turn there will take you over Onion Saddle to the high country around Barfoot Park/Rustler Park. Mexican Chickadee, the only bird on your list found only in the Chiricahuas, is often seen around the saddle, and birding the meadows in the two parks can reward with Broad-tailed Hummingbirds, Golden-crowned Kinglets, and Cordilleran Flycatchers. Both Northern Saw-whet and Flammulated Owls may be heard along the roads at night, but be aware of bear activity.
Before embarking on a Sky Island adventure, any southeast Arizona first-timer should complete two homework assignments. The first is to read and thoroughly annotate either or both guidebooks mentioned in the opening paragraphs. The second is to familiarize yourself with the vocalizations of the birds on your list, particularly the mountain warblers, Elegant Trogon, and the raptors.
These tasks completed, you are now prepared for the best birding destination in North America. Remember, the Sky Islands are only the beginning. Avid birders always come back, some every year, just for the climate, the scenery, and the memories. Southeast Arizona never fails to excite visiting birders, and writing this article has me looking forward to the coming summer. Hope to see you and share that high of discovery.
When to go birding in southeast Arizona
Here’s a short list of the optimal months for some of the most-sought species in southeast Arizona.
Specialty hawks (Common Black, Gray, Zone-tailed): April through September
Specialty owls (Whiskered-Screech, Flammulated, Elf): April through June
Specialty hummingbirds: August, following their post-breeding dispersal
Elegant Trogon: April through September
Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher: June through August
Mountain warblers: April through August
Specialty sparrows (Cassin’s, Botteri’s): July and August, after monsoon rains start
This article was first published in the March/April 2023 issue of BirdWatching magazine.
Raised by birders: A daughter of ornithologists reminisces about her unusual childhood and the eternal truths she learned from her parents’ love of birds.
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