5 Top Arizona Birdwatching Destinations

For decades I have been fascinated by wild birds. Once I picked up a camera, they became my favorite, albeit most elusive targets. Often, birdwatching gets a bad rap as a sedate and boring activity. I have climbed mountains, trekked deserts, paddled marshes and crept across frozen rivers in the pursuit of birdwatching. Birdwatching can be downright adventurous! Today, I want to share some of my favorite Arizona birdwatching adventures.

Let’s Go! Learn Things about Arizona birdwatching…

Arizona Birdwatching and Photography

To be honest, I am more a bird photographer than a birdwatcher. This might seem a subtle distinction to the non-birder. While birdwatchers and bird photographers often stand shoulder-to-shoulder in the same perfect spot, one carries binoculars and a checklist and the other carries cameras and a tripod.

Birdwatchers seek to update their personal and community bird databases. Often just a glimpse from afar is a jackpot for birdwatchers. Bird Photographers on the other hand want to see the bird and capture that “money shot”. Therefore, we need an up-close, unobstructed, well-lit view of the bird. Even better, we want an action shot of some sort.

Despite the differences, both birdwatchers and bird photographers have some great opportunities in the state of Arizona. Because of the state’s warm climate and location along the seasonal migration flight path, there are many Arizona birdwatching hotspots.

1. Madera Canyon in the Santa Rita Mountains

Arizona Birdwatching Hotspots, Madera Canyon

Madera Canyon is located deep in the Santa Rita Mountains. This range is part of the Sky Islands that dot the Sonoran Desert from Southern Arizona into Northern Mexico. Higher elevations keep Madera Canyon cool and the perennial water supply of Madera Creek draws a diverse collection of wildlife to the riparian ecosystem. Madera Canyon hosts 250 species of birds, including 15 hummingbird species. This Arizona birdwatching hotspot is especially known for the occasional sightings of the Elegant Trogon.
The quaint Santa Rita Lodge has the perfect set-up for birders with a plethora of feeders and shaded observation stations.

Directions: Take the Green Valley exit off of Interstate 19. Head east on Continental Rd and take a right up White House Canyon Rd and another right onto Madera Canyon Rd. Madera Canyon Rd takes you past the Proctor Trailhead, Whitehouse Picnic Area, Madera Canyon Picnic Area, Santa Rita Lodge, Ampitheater Trailheads, and comes to a dead end at the Mt. Wrightson Picnic Area and Trailheads.

Learn More: Arizona Sky Islands: Madera Canyon in the Santa Rita Mountains

2. Arizona-Sonoran Desert Museum

Arizona Birdwatching Hotspots, Arizona-Sonoran Desert Museum

The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum calls itself a zoo, aquarium, botanical garden and natural history museum. I am not typically a huge zoo fan but this one has plenty of space and natural habitat surroundings for the animals. Even if you are not interested in the critters, the setting is a spectacular desert landscape, with docents and annotation to expand your knowledge of the Sonoran Desert.

They offer a daily raptor program in the cooler months of the year and maintain an aviary and a buzzing hummingbird haven. This is a birdwatcher and bird photographer’s dream. I even loved their gift shop. It was packed with books and resources and ways to learn. Spend your time wandering this museum but be sure to stay hydrated anytime of the year.

Directions: The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum is 15 miles directly west of downtown Tucson. You can enter from the north through the town of Marana along Sanders/Sandorino Rd or from the south along Speedway Blvd and Gates Pass Rd. The south route is definitely more picturesque.

Learn More: 3 Days in Tucson

3. Gilbert Riparian Water Ranch

Arizona Birdwatching Hotspots, Gilbert Riparian Water Ranch

Water is a vital commodity and resource in the state of Arizona. Arizona is one of only 4 U.S. states that have an extensive system of using reclaimed water. Reclaimed water is treated wastewater that is reused in a variety of agricultural, commercial, and landscaping applications, instead of being discharged into dry washes, rivers, or lakes. In central Arizona, 95% of the wastewater generated is reclaimed to serve beneficial uses.

The areas set aside for storing and processing these reclaimed waters are called Riparian Water Ranches in Arizona. The concepts of water ranch, reclaimed water and riparian communities were all new terms to me. Riparian refers to the transitional ecosystems along the edges of wetlands, rivers and streams. These areas are ripe with waterfowl and migrating birds. One of my favorite Arizona birdwatching spots is the Riparian water ranch of Gilbert. Gilbert is a burgeoning suburb of Phoenix and a great spot for some nightlife when you are done photographing the birds.

Directions: The Gilbert Riparian Preserve/Water Ranch is located at 2757 E. Guadalupe Rd in Gilbert, AZ. Gilbert is a suburb 20 miles southeast of Phoenix.

Learn More: 10 Reasons to Visit Gilbert, AZ

4. Boyce-Thompson Arboretum

Boyce Thompson Arboretum

Of course an arboretum, aka tree garden, is a perfect place to find another Arizona birdwatching hotspot. To the non-desert dweller, it might seem challenging to create an arboretum in the desert. But if you have had the opportunity to visit Southern Arizona and the Sonora Desert, you will know that this desert is full of special trees and plants.

William Boyce Thompson was a mining magnate in the Western United States. Early 20th century history is full of wealthy tycoons like Boyce Thompson. One of his biggest successes was a copper mine in Superior, AZ. Just outside of Superior, nestled up against the Picketpost Mountain and burbling Queen Creek Thompson built his dream home. Thompson intended to share his little slice of paradise as a tree preserve/arboretum. Thus the Boyce Thompson Arboretum was born. Soon his collection expanded to trees, shrubs and plants of arid and desert lands around the world.

Directions: Boyce-Thompson Arboretum is located just off of Highway 60 a few miles west of Superior, AZ

Learn More: Discover another tycoon’s tree garden:
Morton Arboretum

5. Southeast Arizona Birding Festival

Presented by the Tucson Audubon Society in early August, the Southeast Arizona Birding Festival offers Arizona birdwatching field trips and workshops. Birdwatchers and Bird Photographers from around the world “flock” to the festival.

Directions: Venues all around Tucson and southeast Arizona.

Go! Learn Things Photography Tips

This is a new endeavor for us at Go! Learn Things. I have learned so much about photography here in Arizona. I hope I can share some tips with you. Coming soon: 5 Beginner tips for Bird Photography.

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Arizona birdwatching hotspots
Arizona Birdwatching Destinations

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