Where to Find Southern Arizona Birding Hotspots by Janine Spencer, M.A., Wildlife Management
Birding (i.e. bird-watching) has become an increasingly popular recreation in the United States. Southern Arizona is known as one of the premier bird hot spots in the U.S. People visit Arizona from around the world to view the great 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 great coming-together of such a variety of habitat types means that we have 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 a fairly easy walking area where one can see riparian and grassland species, as well as views of raptors soaring above the nearby Tucson Mountains.
- The Crossroads Park River Walk along the Santa Cruz River is great for spotting riparian species, including many warblers, and during summer evenings bats emerge in vast numbers near the Ina Road Bridge.
- There are several good 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.
During rainstorms, the large pond fills with water, stays wet for months, and becomes 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.
(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.
To get to the El Rio Open Space, exit Interstate 10 at Twin Peaks Road. Go west about one mile and turn right on Coachline Boulevard. Take Coachline Blvd north of Twin Peaks Rd. Park at the parking lot just before N. Turquoise Moon Way.
2) Crossroads 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.
(Photo credit: Anna's Hummingbird on nest, © Christopher Saunders)
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 palovered-mixed cacti and Southwest riparian deciduous forest and woodland.
(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.
("Wild" horses in the Tortolita Mtn. Park)
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 Marana 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 obtain a map at 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.
(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.
(Photo credit: Burrowing Owl at irrigation ditch, © Kim Otero)
One good spot to view birds is from Sanders Road. Take the Avra Valley exit at Interstate-10 , north of Tucson, and head west on Avra Valley Road to Sanders Road. Turn north on Sanders Road. After about 1.5 miles, you will come to 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 and during breeding season. 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.