6 Birding Hotspots in SE Arizona

Northern Cardinal

Northern Cardinal

For spring break, we traveled to the birding mecca of SE Arizona.  There are many, many places to bird in that part of the country in the spring to view migrating birds, but here are six spots that we enjoyed during our week in the sun.

1. Patagonia Lake State Park. Patagonia Lake is a man-made lake, and the birds are clearly big fans of it. It’s a well-used oasis during spring migration, and as a result it attracts birders from around North America. One of its big draws is a male Elegant Trogon who has come to the park every year for the last sixteen years. Unfortunately, we didn’t see him on our hikes there, but we did see many other beautiful birds. Among our favorites there were the Vermillion Flycatcher, the Bridled Titmouse, and the Gray Hawk. We went on a guided bird walk (free), a guided boat tour ($5), and explored on our own. In a new place, we find it’s helpful to have other people who can easily identify the area birds, but we like to get away from the crowds and try identifying birds on our own as well. Admission $15 per car, per day on weekends, $10 weekdays.

2. Sonoita Creek Natural Area. Directly adjacent to the park, entry to this area requires a permit, which can be obtained at the state park visitor center. Permits are free, but are limited to 30 a day. The natural area offers several hiking trails, some of which go down into the canyons, and some of which follow the creek. The trails are exposed and can get really hot, so bring lots of water (unlike some people we know…). Surprisingly, even though it’s directly next to the state park, different birds can be seen here due to the slight difference in elevation and vegetation. Free with state park admission.

Patagonia3. Paton Center for Hummingbirds. This lovely spot is right in the small town of Patagonia. During our weeklong visit, we went there nearly every day. Now a sanctuary owned by the Tucson Audubon Society, it was once the yard of Mr. and Mrs. Paton, who set out feeders for the hummingbirds and attracted quite a crew of them (and of birders, whom they welcomed). The Patons have since passed away, but Tucson Audubon manages the property and provides lots of hummingbird feeders as well as seed and suet feeders. There’s a nice seating area under a canopy, and there were often very knowledgable birders there to help identify the species being seen. Our favorite birds there were the Lazuli Bunting, the Hooded Oriole (who does not have a hood at all), and the Violet Crowned Hummingbird. Someone there said that she’d read that most people who have the Violet Crowned hummer on their life list got it right there at Paton’s! Free. Donations accepted.

4. Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve. This protected habitat owned by the Nature Conservancy is just a short hike or drive south of Patagonia. It is adjacent to the creek, so it’s unexpectedly green. They have several hummingbird feeders at the visitor center, and it can be hummingbird chaos there! Visitors can get very close to the hummingbirds here, which is a unique experience. There are several hiking trails from the visitor’s center down near the creek.  Our favorite birds here were the Black Phoebe and the Rufous Hummingbird. This spot is closed on Monday and Tuesday, so plan accordingly. $6 admission good for up to seven days, half price for Conservancy members.  Closed Monday-Tuesday.

Sandhill Cranes

Whitewater Draw’s Sandhill Cranes

5. Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area. Tucked into the southeast corner of Arizona, this location is a major wintering ground for Sandhill Cranes. Like 20,000 of them! They arrive in late fall or early winter and stay until mid-March or so. We missed the big excitement at Whitewater Draw by just a week, but we still had a great time and we still saw some cranes. The area is a wetland area, so there were lots of water birds — Shovelers, Grebes, Cinnamon Teals, and also some shorebirds, like Avocets, Killdeer and Yellowlegs (maybe lesser, maybe greater, who’s to say?). The wetland is surrounded by trees, there are also lots of songbirds. And up in the covered area, we saw a Great Horned Owl. Our favorite part of this visit was seeing the Sandhill Cranes that were still around fly in at lunchtime. They tend to take off early in the morning (it’s supposed to be a magnificent sight when the large numbers are around), and then return to Whitewater Draw around 11:00AM or noon. Right around 11:45, we were out on the farthest point of land in the area, and 25 or so cranes flew directly over our heads, just about 30 feet above us. The sound of their calls and their powerful wings was spectacular. Free.

Acorn Woodpecker

Acorn Woodpecker

6. Ash Canyon B&B. South of the surprisingly large town of Sierra Vista, this bed & breakfast offers a bird viewing area similar to that found at Paton’s in Patagonia. A friend told us about this place, and since we were already sort of nearby at Whitewater Draw, we decided to check it out. We were so glad we did! It was incredible. Mary Jo, the woman who runs the B&B, is as nice as can be and so very knowledgeable and friendly. She came out and sat with us in her yard, which has all kinds of suet and seed and hummingbird feeders, and helped us identify the many birds that were there, such as the Mexican Scrub Jay, the Scott’s Oriole, and all different kinds of sparrows, which we’re terrible at telling apart (although we’re getting better). She gets quite different birds on her property than we’d seen elsewhere on the trip, so that was great. $5 for non-guests, $20 for photographers using tripods.

There are many other birding hotspots for birding in SE Arizona as well. If you’re a bird nerd, you should definitely put this on your list of places to visit!

If you’ve got a tip for this area, please leave it in the comments. We hope that you enjoy your next birding trip, whether it’s for a week or a weekend!

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