Great Places To Bird in Tucson
For complete info on birding locations thoughout southeast Arizona, please see Tucson Audubon’s eighth edition of Finding Birds in Southeast Arizona. Also see our Tucson Birding Trail Map for a more comprehensive list of birding sites in and around Tucson. Both available from Tucson Audubon’s Nature Shops. And don’t forget to Meet Your Birds!
Mobility issues? See our list of Accessible Tucson birding locations
“A” Mountain in Sentinel Park
The crowded tourist spot overlooking downtown Tucson, is an unlikely birding hot spot. But on windy days this steep little hill becomes our local “Hawk Mountain.” Seven kinds of raptors have been seen, often at eye level, including Zone-tailed Hawk, Sharp-shinned Hawk and Peregrine Falcon. Common Ravens, White-Throated Swifts and migrant swallows also swoop low over the upper parking lot. A surprising variety of Sonoran desert birds can still be found in this urban “sanctuary.” Forty-seven observed species include Greater Roadrunner, Black-tailed Gnatcatcher and Rock Wren. Five kinds of warblers migrate through the park, such as Wilson’s, Townsend’s, Hermit and Black-Throated Gray. During the summer Purple Martins, Ash-Throated Flycatchers and White-Winged Doves are easy to find. Five kinds of sparrows and towhees are seen, especially in the winter and spring. The park opens at 8 am (walk in) but upper road does not open until 9 am.
Imagine you’re a migrant songbird, perhaps a young Hermit Warbler, flying between your breeding grounds and your winter home under the cover of darkness. As dawn breaks, the first light reveals you are flying over a vast, developed area surrounded by desert. Not exactly great news, since you are looking for a comfortable place to spend the day resting. Then you notice there are some promising-looking patches of habitat that might afford you the shelter and foraging resources you are looking for. Evergreen Cemetery is one of these places.
As one of Tucson’s largest non-golf course green spaces, it is no wonder Evergreen is a great spot to bird during migration. In late fall and early winter this green space tends to hold onto a few individuals of species like Hutton’s Vireo and Black-throated Gray Warbler that winter in much larger numbers farther south, and it regularly collects far-out-of-range rarities like the Pine Warbler that stayed for over a month during the winter of 2012–13. Throughout the winter it’s a great place to find flocks of sparrows and a variety of falcons that prey on the abundant doves and starlings. The cemetery is small enough that a birder can cover it fairly thoroughly in 2–3 hours but still large enough to provision adequate resources to a variety of tired migrants.
Think it’s creepy to bird in a cemetery? I’ve heard that from birders before. To me, quite to the contrary, I find it peaceful. A visit to Evergreen encourages me to reflect on the past. I almost always find myself looking at the dates on the headstones as I stroll, and wondering what it was like to be living in the 19th century!
Located at Oracle and Fort Lowell, Evergreen Cemetery is privately owned and open during daylight hours. The birding community has a good relationship with Evergreen, please be respectful when visiting this location.
Oro Valley Marketplace
Between the Oro Valley Marketplace and Canyon del Oro Wash is a wonderful patch of habitat that is especially productive in winter. This area, located right across from Catalina State Park, is easily accessible near the In-N-Out. In mitigation for the habitat lost to the stores, the adjacent area was enhanced and provides excellent birding. The planted native trees are still on the small side but this area will only improve over time. It has also been planted with so many native grasses that it is excellent winter habitat for native birds. A recent field trip produced many Western Bluebirds, Lawrence’s Goldfinches, Green-tailed and Abert’s Towhees, and numerous species of sparrows. For those living on the northwest side of town, this is an easily accessible place to go birding and see for yourself just how important relatively small patches of urban habitat can be for native birds.
Rillito Weed Patch
On the northern end of central Tucson’s Columbus Boulevard there is a small parking area with direct access to the Rillito River path. Head west ¼ mile along the paved walking path to the bridge and check the numerous hackberry trees and wolfberry shrubs, both of which provide berries for local winter species such as thrushes and sparrows. This path runs along the southern end of the locally famed “weed patch,” which is full of seed producing tall grasses and maybe one of the 14 species of sparrows recorded here! Back at the parking area continue east along the paved bike path as it skirts a large restoration area that frequently hosts a lesser-known southeastern Arizona specialty, the Rufous-winged Sparrow. Don’t forget to look up at the tall electric towers that run down the middle of the typically dry riverbed. They provide excellent perches for many raptor species, like Peregrine Falcon.
Rio Vista Natural Resource Park
Located at the top of Tucson Boulevard where it meets the Rillito, this pleasant and underbirded park is always worth a couple hours in the morning. It contains about a mile of meandering, unmarked trails through desert scrub with a few larger trees. Typical desert species like Costa’s Hummingbird, Greater Roadrunner, Black-tailed Gnatcatcher, Cactus Wren, and Northern Cardinal can be found here. Lucy’s Warbler nests in spring. Phainopepla can be abundant in winter. The small manicured grass field and playground area attract Vermilion Flycatcher, Say’s Phoebe, and Cassin’s Kingbird. These flycatchers sometimes stay late into wintertime. Nearby, dense mesquite bosque surrounded by tall weeds can hold migrant sparrows. Migrating swallows can be seen moving along the Rillito in the proper season. Finally, this park is as good a location as any to watch for the Prairie Falcons that patrol the Rillito during the winter months. Water and restrooms are available.
Tucson Audubon Mason Center
SW corner of Thornydale and Hardy Rds: Twenty acres of desert dominated by saguaros, ironwoods, and several species of cholla. On a slow walk of the 1-mile well-defined loop trail, which starts 100 feet north of the buildings, expect to see 12 to 15 bird species such as American Kestrel, Gambel’s Quail, Mourning Dove, Eurasian Collared-Dove, Gila Woodpecker, Verdin, Cactus Wren, Curved-billed Thrasher, Phainopepla, Black-throated Sparrow, House Finch, Lesser Goldfinch. Gilded Flickers, Red-tailed Hawks and Cooper’s Hawks are other regular sightings. Up-close views of Gila Woodpeckers and Gilded Flickers provide opportunities to appreciate differences between similar species in behaviors and in color patterns, and differences between the males and females. Along the trail many plants are labeled.
The University of Arizona Campus and Arboretum
Features plants adapted to arid regions throughout the globe and represents some of the most diverse, unique, and lush plantings in urban Tucson. Common desert residents and a nice variety of unexpected species can be found here at all seasons. Verdin, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Northern Cardinal, Lesser Goldfinch, and other residents are ubiquitous. Winter and early spring should also produce Orange-crowned and Yellow-rumped Warblers and lusher patches may produce a Cassin’s Vireo, Plumbeous Vireo, or a wintering Black-throated Gray Warbler. White-throated Swift (near the stadium) and Broad-billed Hummingbird are probably as easy to see here in winter as anywhere in the city. Birds can be found throughout campus but the best areas include the Main Gate area along Park Avenue, the cactus garden on the mall south of the student union, and near the community garden and park on Mabel Road north of the Highland Parking Garage.
The University of Arizona Farm
My favorite urban birding patch is the U of A Farm on Roger Road. The primary habitat of open agricultural fields is a very rare one within Tucson city limits. For me, the primary attraction is that it’s a mere 75 yards from my front door, and you can look into all the fields from three of the main perimeter roads with large shoulders. Having birded it reguarly over the past 15 years, I’ve noticed some interesting changes. The good numbers of Inca Doves are gone and Vermilion Flycatchers have increased substantially (14 on my last visit in mid-November). It’s still the best place in town for wintering species like Western Meadowlark, American Pipit, and Killdeer and one of the few places in the state with reliable Bronzed Cowbirds in winter. My favorite find here was a Broad-winged Hawk on October 7, 2003, soaring with a group of migrant Turkey Vultures on a showery day with no thermals. I had been birding on my bike nearby and was able to race to my yard to see it from there.
– Rich Hoyer
Tucson Area Sky Islands
Happy Valley / Paige creek Drainage – Rincon Mtns
Just under 60 miles from downtown Tucson, this basin sits at the eastern foot of the Rincons, providing spectacular views of these mountains. While there is little surface water in either Ash or Paige Creek, both contain larger trees along their drainages which attract residents of mid-level woods along with interesting migrants. Best times of year are winter and spring; the summers can be a bit hot, dry, and less birdy. Take exit 297 (J-Six Ranch/Mescal Road and drive through the less productive desert scrub ~14 miles to reach a long stretch of larger oaks with some sycamores. Walking along here, you will also come to a dry concrete stock tank but with surface water. This stretch is probably the most productive of the drainage, with birds common to oak woodlands and including Gray Hawk, Wild Turkey, and migrant warblers in season. Driving further, you pass through some ranch areas with grasslands and associated birds – look for Eastern Bluebirds here amongst other species. The road is eventually blocked by a gate, and although access is granted past the gate, I have found the drainage immediately before the gate most productive. A reasonably close area to Tucson, little birded, but with the potential to provide some interesting sightings such as Lewis Woodpecker in winter and migrant warblers such as the Northern Parula we found in spring of 2013.
Montosa Canyon – Santa Ritas
One of my favorite “secret” spots is Montosa Canyon in the Santa Rita Mountains. Even though recent birding discoveries here have put the area on the radar of many local birders, most visits will still be blissfully free of the traffic and crowds of nearby Madera Canyon. Montosa Canyon has some of the most easily accessible habitat resembling Sonoran thorn scrub in SE Arizona, which makes it a great place to look for associated specialty birds such as Black-capped Gnatcatcher and Five-striped Sparrow. Plain-capped Starthroat has been found in the early summer. Though it hasn’t yet been reported, a night visit in the proper season may produce Buff-collared Nightjar. Even if you don’t pick up a rarity, the birding in the canyon is excellent. In the lower canyon where the road crosses the creek bed, Varied Buntings, Rufous-crowned Sparrows, and Blue Grosbeaks sing in season and many migrants pass through the oak-scrub habitat on their journeys to/from their breeding grounds. Further up-canyon the habitat transitions into juniper with a few pines, which can add a number of species to a day’s birding list. No matter what time of year you visit, plan on spending a wonderful few hours in this excellent canyon.
Peppersauce Canyon – Santa Catalinas
Oracle State Park is only open weekends and just six months of the year, but even better birding can be found year-round seven miles past the park. Peppersauce Canyon and a National Forest campground are located in a treed oasis at 5,000 feet along the old Mt. Lemmon Road. Pavement ends two miles from the state park, but the dirt road is an easy drive to the campground. Enormous sycamores shade the camp sites, and the adjacent Rice Peak trail gently ascends through Mexican blue oak and juniper to a second spring-fed oasis just a mile from the campground. This habitat is ideal for birds, and 139 species have been reported on eBird’s hotspot, including 17 flycatchers, phoebes and kingbirds, as well as 5 vireos and 14 warblers. Summer Tanagers are reliable summer visitors, and resident birds include Phainopepla, Mexican Jay and Bridled Titmouse. It’s also just 20 miles from Ski Valley, but don’t try it in the family car.
Local Riparian Areas
Cañada del Oro Wash
Originates at more than 9,000 feet on the north side of Mt. Lemmon, and ends 48 miles away at the Santa Cruz River in Marana, having dropped nearly 7,000 feet. Most of this normally dry wash essentially is inaccessible, but much of the lower 16 miles, all within the Tucson metro area, is open to birding and includes a wide range of rich habitat. From Catalina Regional Park at 2,900 feet through Catalina State Park, and along Oro Valley’s Cañada del Oro River Park to Christina-Taylor Green Memorial River Park, ending at Thornydale and Starburst, more than 200 species can be found. One of the best segments is a two-mile paved bicycle/ walking path from Rooney Ranch Shopping Center to La Cañada Drive, which parallels the wide, treed wash to the north and Oracle Country Club’s golf course to the south.
Coachline Gravel Pits (aka El Rio Open Space)
These are publicly accessible gravel pits bounded by the Tucson Mountains and the Santa Cruz River, and owned by the Town of Marana. Tucson Audubon has worked on a riparian restoration project here, planting native vegetation, and it is on an Important Bird Area survey route. During rainstorms, the gravel pit fills with water, stays wet for months, and becomes a great spot to easily view waterfowl and shorebirds. Some birds encountered here have included Belted Kingfisher, Pied-billed Grebe, White-faced Ibis, Great Blue Heron, several duck species, Black-necked Stilt, and more. Even when the pond is dry, there are interesting birds to see. During summer, Bell’s Vireos nest in the tamarisk. Gilded Flicker, Lazuli Bunting, Gambel’s Quail, Greater Roadrunner, Peregrine Falcon, an Eastern Phoebe, and other species have been sighted. Take the Twin Peaks exit from I-10, go west and turn north onto Coachline Road. Drive past W. Oak Stream Road, and in approximately 0.15 miles turn right onto a dirt road; follow it a short distance to a parking area.
-Janine Spencer, Town of Marana
Santa Cruz River and Columbus Park
There is good birding in Columbus Park and the adjacent Santa Cruz River. Starting just north of Sweewater Drive, effluent flows into the riverbed from the Roger Road wastewater facility. A ribbon of willows and cottonwoods hugs the flow. It is a faint echo of the river’s past abundance, but it does provide a resource for birds that have grown rarer. In the winter see Yellow-rumped Warblers and Ruby-crowned Kinglets filling the trees. In spring migrants move through. In summer Cliff Swallows nest under bridges and cruise the river. A variety of raptors hunt along the river. Columbus Park, on the west side of the river, has two lakes. Neotropic and Double-crested cormorants are often there. Egrets and herons roost in the eucalyptus trees on the small island in the big lake. In summer Purple Martins swoop down to drink from the lake. To get there walk along the east river dike north of Sweetwater Drive. Theres a good view but to get to Columbus Park you have to cross the muddy, effluent-filled channel. Or go directly to Columbus Park, on the west side of the river off Silverbell Road ( just south of Camino del Cerro Road). Visit the lakes and walk (or bike) on the trail along the west side of the river.
Sweetwater Wetlands is a gem of urban bird and wildlife activity right in urban Tucson. 306 bird species have been documented here. Join our weekly bird walks on Wednesdays and see what you can find!
Revised 8th Edition, 2015
Tucson Audubon’s updated edition brings together all the latest information on finding birds in southeast Arizona. This is your best source of detailed information that will help in planning bird watching adventures in the region.
A great interactive companion to our Finding Birds in Southeast Arizona, our new app covers over 130 birding sites in six subregions in and around Tucson, all vetted by local experts. Search by nearest site, by bird, or by city and get exact directions! Keep track of your sightings and share with friends on Facebook.