The Southeast Arizona Birding Year
For brief descriptions of most of the sites mentioned on this page, please see our Where to Bird page. However, for full southeast Arizona birding information, we recommend our Finding Birds in Southeastern Arizona (2015, Rev. 8th Edition).
Southeast Arizona has a great variety of habitats encompassing everything from lower elevation Colorado River Sonoran desert up to sub-alpine forests at the tops of our “Sky Island” mountain chains. Because of this variety, birders (and birds!) can enjoy near-perfect weather throughout the year. Here are just some of the highlights:
Wintering raptors and cranes grace the Sulphur Springs Valley. Check fields there and in the Santa Cruz Flats for Mountain Plover. Sparrows and longspurs abound in the San Rafael and Sulphur Springs valleys. Look for loons at Patagonia and Parker Canyon lakes. Costa’s Hummingbird and thrashers are courting in the low desert in Avra Valley. Low elevation riparian areas and parks hold wintering passerines. A few “summer” hummers hold out at feeders. See also December.
Early northbound migrants begin to arrive; Western Grebes, Cinnamon Teal and Tree Swallows are conspicuous. Wintering ducks are showing brighter plumage. Raptors and sparrows remain abundant. Nesting is underway for thrashers and Anna’s and Costa’s hummingbirds. Resident passerines burst into song. Vermilion Flycatcher numbers build. Many January birds continue.
Although mornings are still cool, spring is very evident. Duck and crane numbers drop. Common Black-Hawks and Swainson’s Hawks arrive, followed later by Gray Hawks. Early shorebirds are passing through. Breeding is in full swing in the low desert. After wet winters, wildflowers explode in the desert. Swallow numbers swell over ponds, especially at Willcox. Sure signs of spring are Turkey Vultures riding thermals over Tucson and Bell’s Vireos and Lucy’s Warblers singing from mesquite thickets. Violet-crowned Hummingbirds are nearly certain at the Paton’s feeders.
Migrant landbirds appear everywhere in profusion. Specialty warblers arrive in numbers at all elevations. Other western warblers pass through, including Townsend’s and Hermit. It is still cool enough to find them on the desert, though temperatures are rising rapidly. Ponds and lakes host well over a dozen shorebird species. Check the Avra Valley wastewater ponds and Willcox lake. Elf Owls and Western Screech-Owls are active in lower elevations. Flammulated Owls and Whiskered Screech-Owls are in higher pine-oak areas. Hummingbirds crowd feeders in Patagonia, Portal, Sierra Vista and Madera Canyon. Listen for the peculiar calls of Elegant Trogons as they investigate nest cavities in sycamores in Madera and Cave Creek canyons and elsewhere. Buff-breasted Flycatchers and trogons are present in Fort Huachuca canyons.
Most of the specialty nesting birds have arrived. The dawn chorus reaches its peak. Hot days drive migrants to higher elevations in oak and conifer habitats. Nightbirds are at their most vocal in the same areas. The Nogales to Patagonia corridor hosts Tropical and Thick-billed kingbirds and Rose-throated Becard. Rising daytime temperatures quiet bird activity by 10 am in lower areas. A good plan is to start the birding day in a low area at sunrise and work up through a trogon canyon and on up to conifers atop a “sky island” (Madera Canyon trails in the Santa Ritas, Carr Canyon in the Huachucas, or Rustler Park in the Chiricahuas). Mt. Lemmon will serve but lacks trogons.
Mississippi Kites, Common Black-Hawks and Zone-tailed Hawks are active in the Dudleyville-Aravaipa Canyon area. Late May through early June is a good time for the vagrant species birders hope for; check bar graphs for possibilities and consult the Rare Bird Alert. Beware of dehydration and sunburn; drink frequently; protect your skin all day long.
The hottest, driest month. Desert temperatures often reach 80º by 8 am and 100º by 10 am! Bird activity dwindles quickly and the dawn chorus goes sotto voce. The latest arriving nesters (Yellow-billed Cuckoo and Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher) finally return. Southbound Wilson’s Phalaropes appear by the end of the month. Birders dream of finding a Yellow Grosbeak in June but most often settle for the more expected nesting rarities and a chance to study juvenile plumages. A trip to the top of a “sky island” (see May) is a good way to escape the heat. Red-faced, Grace’s and Olive warblers and Cordilleran Flycatchers are active along with Broad-tailed Hummingbirds and tanagers.
By mid-month violent afternoon “monsoon” thunderstorms usually break the extreme heat. Humidity rises and Botteri’s and Cassin’s sparrows start singing. Five-striped Sparrows are singing in California Gulch. A Brown Pelican may wander north from the Gulf of California, joining growing numbers of migrant shorebirds. Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks nest in Nogales area ponds including Kino Springs, Palo Duro Creek golf course and Rio Rico ponds. Calliope and Lucifer hummingbirds are most likely at Huachuca Mountain canyon feeders. Plain-capped Starthroat is unlikely but possible at canyon feeders. Watch out for lightning and flash flooding from storms.
Another great birding month. Summer monsoons continue as migration picks up and diversity peaks. This is the top month for “Big Days.” Numbers of most of the breeding specialties are peaking. Scour the mountain canyons for a casual Aztec Thrush. Hone your hummer skills – diversity and density peak. Shorebirds and swallows swarm at ponds. By month’s end migrant warblers are common. Bunting flocks (mostly Lazuli) work sunflower patches and weeds in open areas. Townsend’s and Hermit warblers grace the mountains. Five-striped Sparrows continue to sing.
Monsoon rains peter out; heat and humidity moderate. Hummingbirds continue to mass at feeders. Locally breeding neotropical migrant species depart by month’s end. In the mountains check the mixed feeding flocks working the trees. Migrants congregate in the lowlands, anywhere there is water. Cassin’s and Plumbeous vireos are on the move. Carefully working any water hole or patch of trees could turn up an interesting migrant. Check ponds for Black Terns and rare shorebirds among the hordes of “peeps” and phalaropes. Purple Martins and Swainson’s Hawks are conspicuous migrants while the Empidonax challenge lurks in every woodland. Check prominent perches for Olive-sided Flycatchers and the much rarer Eastern Kingbird and Scissor-tailed Flycatcher. Winter sparrows begin to arrive in numbers.
As the days shorten and cool, desert residents briefly sing again; listen for thrashers, wrens — and relieved people! October offers the best chance for vagrant passerines from the east. Scour the migrant traps. As shorebirds dwindle duck numbers build. Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks often mass at Nogales ponds. Western (and a few Clark’s) Grebes turn up in small numbers. Wintering hawks arrive in numbers; check Sulphur Springs and Avra valleys. Wintering Anna’s Hummingbirds arrive as summer breeding hummers depart. Lawrence’s Goldfinches may be in every weed patch in a good year, absent in others. By month’s end nights are cool enough that most of the late migrant passerines are in the lowlands or mid-level canyons. Yellow-rumped Warblers invade.
One of the quieter months for birding, punctuated by late wandering migrants and vagrants. Check deeper lakes (Patagonia and Parker Canyon) for rare Common Loons, grebes and diving ducks. Check wigeon flocks for a Eurasian. Ferruginous Hawks, Mountain Plovers and thousands of Sandhill Cranes return to the Sulphur Springs Valley; watch for Rough-legged Hawks. Sage Thrashers and Sage Sparrows are often in Avra Valley. A run from the Santa Cruz Flats to Avra Valley Wastewater Treatment Plant (WTP) or from Whitewater Draw (Sandhill Cranes) to Willcox can be very productive.
Join one of the many Christmas Bird Counts. Examine sparrow flocks for the rare White-throated, Golden-crowned and Harris’s sparrows. Check berry-laden bushes for the possibility of a casual Rufous-backed Robin or Varied Thrush. Hunt for elusive Sprague’s Pipit and Baird’s Sparrow along with the more numerous longspurs in the San Rafael Valley. If fall has been mild, late migrant passerines may linger in broad-leafed trees; Yellow-rumped and Orange-crowned warblers are less picky. Driving the Redington Road from Tucson can yield bluebirds, solitaires, sparrows and raptors in good years. A few Magnificent or Blue-throated hummingbirds may winter at feeders; Anna’s is the only common hummer. Check flocks of Inca Doves for Common or Ruddy Ground-Doves.
Important resources to help you plan a trip to southeast Arizona:
- Check out our online Tucson Birding Trail Map at tucsonaudubon.org/tucsonbirdtrail. Find info on 45 birding locations in and around Tucson, separated by habitat type! Pick up a FREE printed copy at our Nature Shops.
- Look for an upcoming free Tucson Audubon field trip
- Check the Southeast Arizona Rare Bird Alert
- Accessible Tucson birding locations
- Explore Tucson area birding month by month
- Learn tips for safe desert birding