Birding Along The Santa Cruz River

Beauty and Wildlife in Unlikely Places

Cottonwoods along the Santa Cruz River

The Santa Cruz River is a historic waterway of the desert southwest. For centuries, the Santa Cruz supported native agricultural and trading communities, whose archeological remnants are still being unearthed.

A dry riverbed through parts of Tucson, it is watered by effluent in the sections here in Marana. Did you know that the Santa Cruz headwaters are in Arizona, but the river winds down into Mexico and then heads north back into the U.S.? So downstream is north in our section of the Santa Cruz River.

Where there is water, there will usually be plenty of birds, even if the water is treated effluent. Pima County upgraded their water treatment system recently so the water quality is much better than it has been in the past, and the Santa Cruz River has a wide variety of birds as it flows through Marana. You can also find raccoon, bobcat, and other tracks in the sand along the shoreline. Bats also inhabit the Ina Rd. Bridge and can be seen at dusk. Marana is fortunate to have the Santa Cruz River running through, and the birds don’t mind the presence of effluent.

Year-round Resident Birds

In the portions of the Santa Cruz River that have surface water running through Marana, thick riparian habitat is home to a variety of warblers in the summer, and to many resident birds throughout the year. Bird rarities have been reported in this section of the river. Thick vegetation creates cool summer shade from willow, cottonwood, mesquite, and paloverde trees, interspersed with invasive tamarisk species.

You are likely to hear the high-pitched single note or chattering calls of Abert’s towhees. They love the underbrush, and are more often heard than seen.  They’re about robin-sized, brown birds with black around their beak and eyes.

abert's towhee marana

Abert’s towhee 

Gila and ladder-backed woodpeckers are also common year-round. Anna’s hummingbirds buzz by; pugnacious little birds that guard their food sources from other hummers. Killdeer are alarmists, skittering along shorelines giving anxious calls; they have long legs, a brown back, white breast, and a black necklace. Male vermilion flycatchers are ruby-red jewels with black markings, but their wives are plain brownish birds. Stately great blue herons stand at the water’s edge, looking very meditative as they watch for the movement of prey items, while the smaller green herons are camouflaged in vegetation on the banks. Cooper’s hawks patrol the air, or perch and look for unsuspecting small mammals and birds to pounce on, but after shift change at dusk, the great-horned owls take over the predatory role in this riparian area.

vermillion flycatcher

Vermilion flycatcher by Dave Hassell

Summer Birds

Warblers begin arriving along the river corridor as early as March and their songs fill the air. (The ducks mostly leave for northern climes to escape the heat of summer.) Wilson’s warblers are yellow, with a perky black cap.

wilson's warbler

Wilson’s warbler by Donna Dewhurst

Yellow-breasted chats are loquacious, with varied songs and whistles. They have a yellow chest and white “spectacles” around their eyes. Common yellowthroats sing “wichity, wichity, wichity” and the males have a black mask like the Lone Ranger. Large white-winged doves return – the scourge of some people who feed birds, but who’s to say – they have a right to be here too; singing “who cooks for you?” Yellow warblers are beautiful, bright yellow and they sing a sweet, high-pitched song.

yellow warbler

Yellow Warbler by Katherine Whittemore, USFWS

Bell’s vireos sound argumentative, and to me they seem to say “Why didn’t you tell me where to meet you? I told you to meet me right here!” Western tanager males are flashy little models, with a yellow body, black wings and a red head. Other warblers that may be seen along the Santa Cruz River include Virginia’s warbler, Lucy’s warbler, orange-crowned warblers, and black-throated grey warblers.  So take a walk along the Santa Cruz River Path and enjoy nature close to home!  Book your stay today.

Janine Spencer,Environmental Projects Manager  

Town of Marana 

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