Tucson, the gateway city to southeastern Arizona, offers a variety of excellent birding opportunities. First-time visitors to southern Arizona should spend a day at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, located on Kinney Road west of the city. This world-famous facility combines the best features of museums, zoos, botanic gardens, and nature centers into a single learning experience. As you acquaint yourself with the diverse habitats and wildlife of this unique corner of North America, you can also hone your ID skills on the common desert birds that live free on the grounds as well as rarer species in the aviaries (including one housing hummingbirds).
The museum is surrounded by Tucson Mountain Park and convenient to the western unit of Saguaro National Park, both of which offer excellent desert birding. The eastern unit of the national park, on the east side of Tucson at the base of the Rincon Mountains, is also a prime destination for desert birding; an extensive trail system leads into National Forest wilderness.
For more information, contact:
Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum
2021 N. Kinney Road
Tucson, AZ 85743-8918
Phone: (520) 883-1380
Saguaro National Park
3693 South Old Spanish Trail
Tucson, AZ 85730-5699
Phone: (520) 733-5158 (Saguaro West)
(520) 733-5153 (Saguaro East)
Though Tucson is bordered by outstanding natural areas such as Saguaro National Park and the Coronado National Forest, you need not leave the city to see a variety of typical desert birds. Cactus Wrens, Curve-billed Thrashers, Gambel’s Quail and even Greater Roadrunners stalk the city’s parks, washes and as yet undeveloped lots. Parks are often particularly productive, though not always for typical desert species. Agua Caliente Park, a county park off Roger Road on Tucson’s east side, features desert vegetation surrounding large spring-fed ponds that attract wintering and migrant waterfowl, Vermilion Flycatchers, and more. The park is open from 7:00 a.m. to sunset every day of the year (by permit only on Easter Sunday), and admission is free. Tucson Audubon Society conducts bird walks here on a regular basis.
Roy P. Drachman Agua Caliente Regional Park
12325 East Roger Road
Tucson, AZ 85749
Another desert oasis is Tohono Chul Park, a private sanctuary on the city’s northwest side on Ina Road west of Oracle Road. Attractions include cultural exhibits, botanical collections, a tea room and gift shop on the 48-acre site. Volunteers offer bird walks, and the grounds are a great place to get acquainted with the flora of the Sonoran Desert; admission is $2 per person. In the middle of town, convenient to many convention hotels, is Reid Park, north of 22nd Street between Country Club and Alvernon. Its ponds, irrigated lawns and exotic trees often attract birds that would not feel quite at home among the Saguaros. Wintering waterfowl, wandering eastern warblers, even Green Kingfishers have taken refuge here.
Tohono Chul Park
7366 N. Paseo del Norte
Tucson, AZ 85704
On the northeastern corner of Tucson in the foothills of the Santa Catalina Mountains is Sabino Canyon, a magnificent and extremely popular corner of the Coronado National Forest. Giant Saguaro cacti punctuate the rugged canyon slopes, overlooking a narrow ribbon of Fremont Cottonwoods and Arizona Sycamores along Sabino Creek. Permanent residents such as Gambel’s Quail, Cactus Wren, Phainopepla and Black-throated Sparrow are joined in spring and summer by Broad-billed Hummingbird, Brown-crested Flycatcher, Bell’s Vireo and Scott’s Oriole. Due to high levels of visitation (over 1 million visitors each year), the canyon has visitor access more typical of a national park, including a visitor center and trams. Picnicking is permitted, but camping and private motor vehicles are prohibited (even bicycles are restricted). Foot traffic is allowed during daylight hours, and an early-morning walk is a great way to beat the crowds and see this beautiful desert canyon and its birdlife. Parking at the visitor center now requires a permit, fees from which will support maintenance and development of visitor amenities in the local national forest district. Daily permits are $5 per vehicle, but local residents and long-term visitors may purchase annual permits for $20. All permits grant admission to the Sabino Canyon parking area, the Catalina Mountains (Mount Lemmon), and the Madera Canyon Recreation Area. Visitors who arrive on foot or by bicycle are exempt from the fee.
Coronado National Forest
Santa Catalina Ranger District
5700 N. Sabino Canyon Road
Tucson, Arizona 85750
Phone: (520) 749-8700
Another popular retreat for urban Tucsonans is Mount Lemmon, atop the Catalina Mountains north of the city. The Catalina Highway is one of the country’s most spectacular drives, winding up through classic Sonoran Desert complete with Saguaros through oak woodland to high conifer forest. In these cool heights, the small community of Summerhaven and a ski resort (really!) are surrounded by thousands of acres of Coronado National Forest. A devastating forest fire burned much of the forest and many homes and businesses in the summer of 2003. The town has rebuilt, but parts of the surrounding National Forest may remain closed due to fire damage and hazards such as falling trees. From spring through fall this is a good spot to look for many high-elevation birds, including Olive Warbler and Pygmy Nuthatch. The Forest Service collects a small fee at a toll booth along the highway to help maintain and enhance wildlife habitat and the recreational amenities that visitors to the mountain enjoy; passes ($5/day, $20/year) may be purchased in advance at the Sabino Canyon Visitor Center and also apply to parking at that site and the Madera Canyon Recreation Area.
You wouldn’t think a desert city could have too much water, but Tucson is little different from Tulsa, Toledo or Tacoma when it comes to the problem of treating and disposing of sewage effluent. One environmentally-friendly solution is constructed wetlands, and Tucson has a first-class example on its far west side. The Sweetwater Wetlands, just off Prince Road west of Interstate 10, opened to the public in March 1998. The fully-accessible site features paved trails, a shaded viewing pavilion, interpretive signage, and public restrooms. The artificial marshes attract a variety of water-loving birds, including waterfowl, shorebirds, rails, blackbirds, and swallows. Watch for overflights by a pair of Harris’s Hawks that nest nearby. The wetlands have been featured on the PBS series BirdWatch. During mosquito season (March through mid-November), the wetlands are closed to the public for a few hours each week for mosquito abatement operations.
Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge is southwest of Tucson, on the western edge of southeastern Arizona. Established to provide habitat for the recovery of the nearly extinct Masked Bobwhite (Colinus virginianus ridgwayi), this refuge is an outstanding example of the lush grasslands that once covered much of southeastern Arizona. Many typical desert-grassland birds are found here, along with reptiles, butterflies, and mammals such as Pronghorn, Javelina, and Desert Mule Deer. In springs following good fall and winter rains, the rolling landscape may be awash in the vivid colors of Mexican Gold-Poppy, Owls Clover, and many other desert wildflowers. Arivaca Cienega lies in a disjunct eastern section of the refuge adjacent to the town of Arivaca. This wetland oasis is home to many birds special to lowland riparian (streamside) habitats. Brown Canyon in the Baboquivari Mountains has restricted public access, but it’s worth taking part in a scheduled activity to see this jewel.
Travel advisory: The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has closed a portion of the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge south of the Garcia Road to public use out of concern for public safety. Garcia Road runs east/west parallel to the international boundary about one mile north of the line. Illegal activity is concentrated near the border, and violence associated with this activity has escalated to a point where continued public use of the area is not prudent. Closure is in effect until further notice.
Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge
P.O. Box 109
Sasabe, AZ 85633