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Birding Hotspots in Southern Arizona

Southern Arizona is one of the best regions for birding in the country, and Marana is home to several prime locations.

by Janine Spencer, M.A., Wildlife Management

Birding (commonly referred to as bird-watching) has become an increasingly popular recreational activity in the United States. Southern Arizona is known as one of the premier birding hot spots in the U.S.  People visit Arizona from around the world to view the wide variety of species here. Southern Arizona is located at the junction of the Sonoran Desert, Chihuahuan Desert, and the mountain ranges from Northern Mexico and the Southern U.S.  This merging of a variety of habitat types means that we see bird species associated with all of those habitats here in Southern Arizona.

There are several different micro-habitat types within the Town of Marana, each with its own suite of bird species. The Tortolita and Tucson Mountains are located in the Upper Sonoran Desert Scrub, where golden eagles and other species nest. There are lush patches of riparian vegetation for wading birds and ducks along the Santa Cruz River, and the irrigated farmlands provide habitat for hawks, burrowing owls, and other species.

Where the Birds Are in Marana

There are four excellent sites for watching birds in Marana.

  • El Rio Preserve is an easily-accessible walking area where one can see riparian and grassland species, as well as views of raptors soaring above the nearby Tucson Mountains. Water is present year-round, making it an ideal habitat for birds and many other animal and plant species.
  • The River Walk at Crossroads at Silverbell District Park along the Santa Cruz River is great for spotting riparian species, including many warblers, and during summer evenings, bats emerge in large numbers near the Ina Road Bridge.
  • There are several hiking trails Tortolita Mountains, with opportunities to see hawks, eagles, and many other species.
  • The irrigated farm fields in Marana are especially of interest for locating raptor species.

1. El Rio Preserve

This site is listed in Finding Birds in Southeast Arizona, Revised 8th Edition (2015) edited by Ken Kaufman. It is also advertised on the Tucson Audubon Society website, is mentioned periodically on the Arizona-New Mexico Birding Listserv site, and is part of a survey route for an Important Bird Area. El Rio Preserve (also known as El Rio Open Space and Marana Lake) was also featured in the April-June 2013 edition of the Tucson Audubon Society Vermilion Flycatcher magazine. This site is bounded by the Santa Cruz River to the east and the northern terminus of the Tucson Mountains. Tucson Audubon Society has worked on riparian restoration, planting native vegetation here. The Town of Marana has built a brand new ramada, sitting areas, interpretive signage, and viewing deck as part of a longer range project to create a constructed wetland here. El Rio Preserve is located on The Loop multiuse path that runs more than 100 miles throughout Pima County.

A mountain situated against a body of water in the desert near Marana, AZ. A gazebo in the middle of a desert park with two picnic tables under its roof in Marana, AZ

The large pond on the site is filled with water year-round, and is a great spot to easily view waterfowl and shorebirds. Some birds encountered here have included: Belted Kingfisher, Pied-billed Grebe, White-faced Ibis, Great Blue Heron, Black-necked Stilt, several duck species, and more. The birding remains interesting even when the pond is dry; during the summer months, Bell’s Vireos nest in the tamarisk, Gilded Flickers, Lazuli Buntings, Gambel’s Quail, Greater Roadrunners, an Eastern Phoebe, and many other species have been sighted. Even sandhill cranes stop by in the late fall, presumably on their way to the Wilcox Playa.

A great blue heron standing in a calm body of water near Marana, AZ A white, snowy egret standing in a body of water near Marana, AZ

(Photo credit: Great Blue heron, © Michael Glasson) (Photo credit: Snowy Egret, (c) Courtney Mack)

Hawks and falcons take advantage of the updrafts along the ridge of the Tucson Mountains, where you can spot Red-tailed Hawks, Peregrine and Prairie Falcons, Cooper’s Hawks are commonly sighted. A Black Hawk was once sighted during migration. The Sonoran Desert, with saguaros and prickly pear, directly adjoin the El Rio Preserve – so there are opportunities to spot Rock Wrens, Canyon Wrens, Black-tailed Gnatcatchers, Verdins, Gila Woodpeckers, and hear the occasional downward trill of the Canyon Wren.

Directions

To get to the El Rio Open Space Preserve, exit Interstate 10 at Twin Peaks Road. Go west about one mile and turn right on Coachline Boulevard. Take Coachline Boulevard north of Twin Peaks Rd. Park at the parking lot just before N. Turquoise Moon Way. It is also accessible from the south by taking Silverbell Road to Twin Peaks Road, making a right onto Twin Peaks, and then making a left on Coachline Blvd. 

2. Crossroads at Silverbell District Park River Walk (between Cortaro and Ina Roads)

This is a mile-long walk one way, on a paved pathway along the Santa Cruz River, between Cortaro and Ina Roads. Riparian vegetation along the river is lush with cottonwoods, willows, cattails, and tamarisk. The path is used by birders, walkers, and cyclists. Native upland vegetation has been planted along the entire length of the path

Birding is best here during breeding season when Yellow Warblers, Bell’s Vireos, Orange-crowned Warblers, Wilson’s Warblers, Lucy’s Warblers and Common Yellowthroat are present. Other common or year-round residents include Red-winged Blackbirds, Spotted Sandpipers, Killdeer, Gila Woodpeckers, Black Phoebes, Say’s Phoebes, Verdins, Abert’s Towhees, Song Sparrows, Great-tailed Grackles, Gambel’s quail, and Lesser Goldfinches. Raptors include Cooper’s Hawks, Red-tailed Hawks, Northern Harriers, and American Kestrels. Black-necked Stilts and several species of ducks (including an occasional wood duck) are common during the winter months. About 70-80 species can be seen here regularly, with rarities showing up at times.

Besides birds, you can also watch hundreds to thousands of bats emerge from the Ina Road Bridge on summer evenings. Mexican free-tailed bats are the most numerous occupants under the bridge. Some overwinter in Arizona, but many go to Mexico for the winter and return to Southern Arizona in the summer.

A hummingbird sits on its nest which rests on a branch in a tree in Marana, AZ

(Photo credit: Anna's Hummingbird on nest, © Christopher Saunders)

Directions

Take Interstate-10 to the Cortaro Road exit and go west on Cortaro Rd. Turn south on Silverbell Road an turn in at the Crossroads District Park sign. Drive toward the library and turn left into the parking lot by the volleyball courts. Walk east toward the tall swath of greenery along the river. There is a paved trail you can follow to the south to the Ina Road Bridge.

3. Tortolita Mountains

The Tortolita Mountains are located on the northwest edge of the Tucson Valley. The Tortolitas are a small, rocky, rugged mountain range near the Pima/Pinal County border. There are large, healthy stands of saguaro cactus and a few junipers in the higher areas. Elevations range from approximately 2,500 ft to 4,200 ft. There are several crested saguaros visible from the trails in the Tortolita Mountains. Vegetation is Upper Sonoran Desert paloverde-mixed cacti and Southwest riparian deciduous forest and woodland.

A saguaro cactus in the Tortolita Mountains near Marana, AZ

(Photo credit: Crested saguaro in Tortolita Mountains, © Janine Spencer-Glasson)

Cactus wrens, Rock Wrens, Roadrunners, Phainopeplas Black-tailed Gnatcatchers, Cardinals, Brown-crested Flycatchers, Gila Woodpeckers, Mockingbirds, Bell’s Vireos, Anna’s Hummingbirds, Ruby-crowned Kinglets, Ravens, Turkey Vultures, Red-tailed Hawks, and more occur in the Tortolitas. You may also catch a glimpse of the wild horses that inhabit the area, as well as Sonoran Desert Tortoises or Gila Monsters.

Four horses, one brown and three black, all with white noses in the desert near Marana, AZ

("Wild" horses in the Tortolita Mountain Park)

Directions

Drive north of Tucson on Interstate 10 and take the Twin Peaks Road exit, heading northeast. Go several miles and as you cross Tangerine Road; Twin Peaks becomes Dove Mountain Boulevard. Follow this road to its end (through the gates for the Ritz-Carlton Resort). There will be a Town of Marana-signed parking lot on your right a short distance after the entrance gate to the Ritz-Carlton. There are several trails in the Tortolita Mountains; you can get maps from the Marana Parks & Recreation Department. These hikes vary in difficulty so be aware to bring water and be well-prepared to hike.

4. The Farm Fields of Marana

There are a variety of species that can be viewed from public roads along the irrigated farm fields in Marana. Species range from waterfowl and shorebirds to burrowing owls and hawks. Some birds that are frequently viewed in the flooded farm fields and along irrigation ditches include: White-faced Ibis, Great Egrets, Red-winged Blackbirds, Horned Larks, and ducks. Between March and July, Burrowing Owl families live in burrows along the irrigation ditches. If you look carefully, you may see the youngsters peeking out of their hole, while a parent stands by watchfully. Some of the owls stay all winter, so it’s worth a drive any time of year. A variety of species also take advantage of the growing and harvest seasons, and can be viewed during those times.

A large flock of blackbirds flies over a two-lane road near Marana, AZ

(Photo credit: Blackbirds on Barnett Rd., © Ryan Mahoney)

During the winter months, many hawk species cruise over the fields or perch and watch for prey. Some frequently observed hawks include Northern Harriers, Cooper’s Hawks, and Red-tailed Hawks.

A burrowing owl stands in the desert near Marana, AZ

(Photo credit: Burrowing Owl at irrigation ditch, © Kim Otero)

Directions

One good spot to view birds is from Sanders Road. Take the Avra Valley Road exit off of Interstate 10 , north of Tucson, and head west on Avra Valley Road to Sanders Road. Turn right on Sanders Road. After about 1.5 miles, you will come to some cattle pastures, just south of the Santa Cruz River, that are often flooded during the growing season. There are frequently White-faced Ibis, Egrets, and ducks wading and foraging in the fields. Continue north on Sanders Road. If you turn west from Sanders onto Barnett Road (a dirt road), go about one mile, and then turn north again onto Wentz Road, you will pass a pond created by tail-water from the irrigated fields.

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