Timing Your Birding Trip to Arizona

Southeast Arizona is a year-round birder’s paradise. In short, anytime is a good time to go birding here!

This unique region is a biodiversity hotspot because four distinct biomes intersect here.  The Chihuahuan Desert just barely reaches southern Arizona from the east. It transitions - sometimes dramatically - to the surprisingly lush Sonoran Desert, which covers much of the western portion of the state.  A diverse array of flora and fauna usually found at higher latitudes extends south through the tail end of the Rocky Mountains, giving way to species typical of the Sierra Madre Occidental of Mexico.  With all four of these biogeographic regions meeting in a relatively small corner of the world, species from each region can be found together!  Montane-associated species overlap with birds of the desert scrub lowlands; scattered wetlands are covered with ducks and cranes in winter; migrants abound along cottonwood-lined riparian corridors, supplemented with vagrants from the eastern U.S. in fall and rare visitors from Mexico in several seasons; grasslands swarm with sparrows as scores of raptors hunt above.  The diversity of southeast Arizona is tough to beat!  And of course, the area is famous for those highly sought-after species that rarely occur anywhere else in the United States, including Elegant Trogon, Rufous-capped Warbler and Five-striped Sparrow.

So when is the best time to visit?  While Arizona affords great birding at any time of year, this question greatly depends on what you are most interested in seeing.  Some species, even when present, can be difficult to find outside of a specific set of dates.  For example, year-round residents like Bendire’s and Leconte’s Thrashers can be exceedingly difficult when they are not singing (i.e. outside of January and February).  Similarly, it would be virtually pointless to look for Five-striped Sparrows in mid-winter.

For a first-time visit to the Southwest, we recommend middle to late April to see most of the western migrants and a good representation of southeastern Arizona specialties.  Almost all of those specialties are present by mid-May.  All breeders have settled in by June, but be warned: it is hot and dry in the lowlands!  Much more pleasant temperatures can be found by visiting one of the "Sky Islands."  The monsoon season in July and August brings massive thunderstorms that provide relief from the oppressive heat, and breathes new life into the desert and mountains.  This is a fantastic time to visit for hummingbirds, monsoon breeders like Cassin’s, Botteri's and Five-striped Sparrows, and the potential for vagrants from south of the border (like the exceptionally rare Aztec Thrush).  A fall or winter visit is great both for the birds and the weather!  As one might expect, one cannot see all of the birds that southeast Arizona offers in just one trip or at one season.  We are convinced that once you visit, you will be hooked like we are - and will want to return for more!

Before any trip, we highly recommend purchasing at least one of the two excellent bird-finding guides to southeast Arizona.  Or better yet, get them both!  Finding Birds in Southeast Arizona  is produced by the Tucson Audubon Society, edited by Mark Stevenson.  A Birder’s Guide to Southeastern Arizona  was written by Rick Taylor and is part of the great ABA/Lane Birdfinding Guide series.  Each contains a wealth of information on birding locations, and feature seasonal bar graphs which allow you to get a feel for what Arizona offers throughout the year.  These books are available from the Tucson Audubon Nature Shop.  (Need more planning tools? Check out our "Resources" pages!)


The following is a brief monthly synopsis of what one could expect to see:



Raptors and sparrows are in peak numbers; thrashers of several species are singing and conspicuous.  Waterfowl are present at most small ponds and lakes, while longspurs - and with luck, Baird’s Sparrow - can be found in the San Rafael grasslands.  Riparian areas contain many wintering passerines, while Costa’s Hummingbirds are already courting.  The Sulphur Springs Valley and Santa Cruz Flats may hold the highly sought-after Mountain Plover.



The avian chorus increases dramatically in the desert lowlands as we begin to see the earliest northbound migrants trickling in. Vermilion Flycatchers increase in number while many of the wintering ducks are transitioning into their brighter alternate plumages.



Breeding behavior is evident everywhere in the low desert and migrants are appearing.  Gray and Zone-tailed Hawks arrive, as do the much more localized Common Black-Hawk.  Turkey Vultures, which look astonishingly identical to Zone-tailed Hawks without a perfect view, soar into the area as well.  Lucy’s and Yellow Warblers compete with Bell’s Vireos in vocal duels.  Swallows increase in number as wildflowers cover the desert, provided that the winter rains have been generous.



Migration explodes! Western and Whiskered Screech-Owls, along with Elf and Flammulated Owls, are heard in proper habitat.  Specialty warblers and Elegant Trogons arrive, while migrating passerines move through in numbers.



Almost all of SE Arizona’s specialties have arrived including Tropical and Thick-billed Kingbirds and the extremely localized Buff-collared Nightjar. Temperatures begin to rise, so an early start in the lowlands followed by higher-elevation birding is the best plan of action.



Hot and dry in the lowlands, but late arrivals such as Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher and Yellow-billed Cuckoo are now being seen.  A trip up one of the Sky Islands will afford cooler temperatures and Red-faced, Grace's and Olive Warblers!  The potential for a vagrant like Yellow Grosbeak drives birders to brave the hotter days.



Usually by the middle of the month, monsoon thunderstorms ease the daytime temperatures in SE Arizona. With the slight increase in humidity, Botteri’s, Cassin’s, and Five-striped Sparrows (rare) sing in earnest. Hummingbird diversity increases. Birders scour local hotspots for the odd vagrants.



Hummingbird numbers peak!  Southbound species like Hermit and Townsend's Warblers appear in the mountains, while Elegant Trogons become more conspicuous.  Both resident birds and birders are really happy that the seasonal rains are in full swing.  Shorebirds begin to amass at the few places that will host them, namely the Twin Lakes in Willcox.  This is also a really good time to go on "blacktop runs" at night in search of frogs, toads and snakes.



Rains taper off, humidity and temperatures drop as migrants continue to increase.  Shorebird numbers peak, as mixed-species flocks in mid-elevation canyons and lowland migrant traps are checked diligently for unusual species.  Sparrows begin arriving from the north.



Temperatures rise briefly but then drop steadily, while numbers of ducks and hawks increase.  Yellow-rumped Warblers flock in the lowlands and sometimes a vagrant warbler from the eastern U.S. is lurking amongst them.  Keep an eye out for Lawrence’s Goldfinches in good years.



Lakes and riparian areas are checked for wandering species as duck numbers continue to increase. Ferruginous Hawks and thousands of bugling Sandhill Cranes arrive in the Sulphur Springs Valley along with Mountain Plovers and Mountain Bluebirds in good years.



Sparrow flocks are sometimes impressive in size; careful checks could reveal a rare Harris’s or Golden-crowned Sparrow. A trip to the San Rafael Valley could yield Baird’s Sparrow, longspurs, Sprague’s Pipit, or even Short-eared Owl, but one would certainly need incredible luck to find all four at once! Christmas bird counts are a great way to learn more about local birds, and often turn up something unexpected. Cooler temperatures, abundant sunshine and scores of birds make winter in southeast Arizona an experience everyone should enjoy.


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