Best bird-watching hikes in Arizona: Where to look for trogons, owls, tanagers and more – The Arizona Republic

Arizona offers some of the very best bird watching in the United States.
Blame it on our remarkable diversity. Soaring mountains, warm deserts, deep canyons and rolling grasslands provide welcoming habitats for a wide range of birds. Arizona’s species list of around 550 is the highest of any state without an ocean coastline.
Important Bird Areas, identified by the National Audubon Society, can be found all over Arizona but there’s an especially high concentration amid the “sky islands” of the southeastern corner of the state.
These forested mountaintop habitats are surrounded by seas of desert and grasslands creating tightly stacked ecosystems, distinct and isolated. This is our rainforest, a hotbed of life.
To enjoy an assortment of our feathered friends, grab your binoculars and hit some of Arizona’s best birding trails. And these are birding trails, not birding hikes. Birding is hiking interrupted. Finish the trail or don’t finish; it doesn’t matter. Birding is all about the pauses — the stopping and listening and, most importantly, the discovery.
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A riparian paradise is cut from the eastern flank of the Chiricahua Mountains with the small community of Portal guarding the mouth of the canyon. Cave Creek Canyon offers a variety of hiking options, and South Fork Trail serves the centerpiece of the rugged defile known as “Arizona’s Yosemite.”
Located at the end of South Fork Road, it follows an old roadbed to the creek, chasing the waterway through the wooded gorge. The trail parallels the creek, crossing and re-crossing, for four miles before beginning to climb.
During spring mornings, don’t be surprised to find birders staking out their favorite spots, hoping to catch sight of an elegant trogon. Most trogons reside in tropical forests but this dapper fellow with the coppery green head and bright red breast brings a touch of Christmas to the wooded canyons of southeastern Arizona.
The elegant trogon is one of the most highly prized sightings of birders who come from around the world for the opportunity. Trogons arrive in Arizona in April and May and depart at the end of summer. Other species to watch for include Arizona woodpecker, whiskered screech owl and Hutton’s vireo.
Details: 520-388-8436,
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Almost 200 species of birds have been seen in high-walled Ramsey Canyon, a lush defile in the Huachuca Mountains south of Sierra Vista that’s managed by the Nature Conservancy.
A single trail starts from the back of the visitor center past several hummingbird feeders buzzing with activity. After all, Sierra Vista is known as Arizona’s Hummingbird Capital, where 15 species of the small winged jewels have been sighted.
The path moseys alongside Ramsey Creek for about a mile beneath a canopy of shade. Big sycamore trees drape the stream, with oaks and pines filling the canyon. Summer avian visitors include the painted redstart, black-headed grosbeak and black-throated gray warbler. Surprise visitors like the flame-colored tanager and Aztec thrush are occasionally seen.
Past the small ponds that provide habitat for the threatened Chiricahua leopard frogs, the trail turns into the woods and switchbacks up to an overlook with nice views.
Details: 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Thursdays to Mondays from March 1 through Oct. 31; 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. the rest of the year; Closed Tuesdays and Wednesdays. 27 E. Ramsey Canyon Road, Hereford. Parking is limited; try to arrive early. $8 per person, free for age 12 and younger. 520-378-2785,
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If Ramsey Canyon is full, the trail to historic Brown Canyon Ranch makes a nice alternative. Meander through rolling grasslands dotted with manzanita and oak in this shallow canyon.
Resident birds include the Mexican jay, bridled titmouse and Montezuma quail. Look for elegant trogon and Scott’s oriole in the summer. A small pond at the old ranch site attracts many water loving species. Trailhead is on the north side of Ramsey Canyon Road, two miles from State Route 92. 
Details: Map and directions at
The San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area protects a 40-mile stretch of the San Pedro River. This slender forest of cottonwood and willow trees creates some of the richest wildlife habitat in the Southwest.
Start at the historic San Pedro House (it reopens from its COVID-19 closure and renovation on March 21) and, as with all birding trails, go only as far as you like. Follow the path through the grassy meadow to the river.
A network of trails trace the bank of the San Pedro in both directions, skirting oxbows and loops around a pond named for the elusive green kingfisher. Other sightings might include vermilion flycatchers, summer tanagers and yellow-breasted chats.
Details: San Pedro House, operated by The Friends of the San Pedro River, is nine miles east of Sierra Vista on SR 90. It will be open 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. starting March 21.
When you need a break from hiking, stop by this little oasis.
The Paton family began welcoming strangers to their backyard feeders swarming with hummingbirds in the 1970s. After Marion Paton died, neighbors kept the feeders stocked until the Tucson Audubon Society took over.
Visitors travel from all over the world just to sit quietly in a small Arizona backyard and  watch clouds of hummingbirds. It’s a lovely, small town way to spend an hour.
Details: Open dawn to dusk daily. 477 Pennsylvania Ave., Patagonia. Free; donations are appreciated.
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The Nature Conservancy stepped in to protect a stretch of Sonoita Creek at the edge of Patagonia and the verdant floodplain adjacent to the stream as its first project in Arizona.
More than 300 bird species migrate, nest and live in this rare and beautiful Fremont cottonwood-Goodding’s willow riparian forest where gray hawks like to nest. Over 20 species of flycatchers have been recorded in the preserve, along with the thick-billed kingbird and Sinaloa wren.
There are several gentle paths, including one along the old railroad grade, another that follows the creek and a one-mile connector to the Paton Center for Hummingbirds. If you want to stretch your legs a little more, the Geoffrey Platts Trail makes a 3.2-mile loop through mesquite-covered hills with views of the mountains and valley.
Details: Hours and hiking access points vary; check the website. Closed Mondays and Tuesdays. 150 Blue Heaven Road, Patagonia. $8, free for age 12 and younger. 520-394-2400,
South of Tucson, Madera Canyon is carved from the Santa Rita Mountains. The road into the narrowing gorge climbs from desert grasslands to mixed woodlands shading a seasonal stream.
More than 250 species of bird have been documented in these varied habitats. Favorite sightings include elegant trogon, elf owl, sulphur-bellied flycatcher and painted redstart.
The Madera Creek Trail follows the stream and has multiple access points. The Carrie Nation Trail branches off from Old Baldy Trail, tracing the creek bed deeper into the canyon. It’s a good place to see elegant trogons in April and May. See the website below for a map and directions.
Non-hikers can enjoy the picnic areas and the free viewing area at the Santa Rita Lodge, filled with hummingbirds and other desert species. Find out more at
Details: $8 day-use pass for Madera Canyon is sold on site. See website for map and directions:
Sitting at the edge of Sedona, this park makes a great introduction for novice birders. Guided bird walks take place at 8 a.m. Wednesdays and Saturdays.
A five-mile network of trails loops through this park. The Kisva Trail and Smoke Trail are easy strolls along the banks of Oak Creek beneath the shade of cottonwood, sycamore, velvet ash and alder trees where you might spot wood ducks and common mergansers.
Non-hikers can settle in on the patio beside the visitor center. It’s with hummingbird feeders.
Details: Hours vary; check the website. 4050 Red Rock Loop Road, Sedona. $7, $4 for ages 7-13. Pets are not allowed. 928-282-6907,
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What started as a small community event has grown into one of the preeminent birding events in Arizona.
The Verde Valley Birding and Nature Festival is based at Dead Horse Ranch State Park in Cottonwood and has expanded into diverse habitats across the Verde Valley and beyond with guided field trips and workshops. There will be speakers, vendors and educational programs for nature enthusiasts of all ages.
Visit the website to register and sign up for tours, field trips and seminars.
Details: April 21-24; see the schedule online. 928-641-6013,
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