8 top spots for birdwatchers in the Arizona fall and winter

8 Top Spots for Birdwatchers in the Arizona Fall and Winter

Photo courtesy of Chelsea Sampson via Shutterstock

By Claire Mainprize

November 29, 2023

The best time to birdwatch in Arizona is when the temperatures fall and the birds rise.

According to the Southeastern Arizona Bird Observatory, a wide variety of birds (including raptors and sparrows) arrive to winter in Arizona, enjoying our desert scrub, warm temperatures, and arid grasslands. In contrast, the wetlands host cranes, waterfowl, and shorebirds during the winter months.

There are also plenty of year-round species that stick around, as those that live in the mountain canyons during the summer often head lower for additional warmth come winter. Even these prove easier to find in the winter, as species like Bindire’s and LeConte’s thrashers only sing in January and February.

Some of the more interesting birds you can spot during this time of year in Arizona include:

  • Hooded orioles
  • Black-chinned hummingbirds
  • White-crowned sparrows
  • Rufous hummingbirds
  • Western tanagers
  • Mountain plovers
  • Mountain bluebirds
  • Vermilion flycatchers
  • Yellow-rumped warblers
  • Sandhill cranes
  • Ferruginous hawks
  • Short-eared owl
  • Longspurs
  • Bald eagles
  • Roseate spoonbills
  • Peregrine falcons

Here are eight places across the state where you can see such birds in person—though it might just be through the lens of your trustiest pair of binoculars.

Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area

If you want to witness sandhill cranes in Arizona, head to Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area in the winter, as it’s one of the top roost sites for the stately birds. According to the Audubon Society, as many as 15,000 cranes can be in the area between October and March. This time of year also brings wintering or migrating snow geese and raptors, including the golden eagle, bald eagle, peregrine falcon, and red-tailed hawk.

San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area & Ramsey Canyon Preserve

8 Top Spots for Birdwatchers in the Arizona Fall and Winter

Photo courtesy of Ryan Mense via Shutterstock

The San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area includes around 40 miles of the upper San Pedro River, providing a protected riparian ecosystem for both resident and visiting wildlife—particularly birds. It serves as an ideal nesting area while migrating birds follow the river in fall and winter. The best access points are at San Pedro House in Sierra Vista and in Hereford.

The Ramsey Canyon Preserve Christmas Bird Count, which takes place in Hereford, regularly has one of the highest totals of any other inland US area, with more than 150 species and 11,000 birds spotted each year.

Sulphur Springs Valley

Sulphur Springs Valley is another lowland area with a wide variety of birds that either visit or call home in the colder months. Birds that pass through include sandhill cranes, Brewer’s sparrows (soon to be renamed), and ferruginous hawks along with other raptors, while roadrunners, quails, Bendire’s, and crissal thrashers reside there year-round. Many of the roads around these parts are unpaved, though, so make sure your vehicle can withstand lots of mud.

Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch

8 Top Spots for Birdwatchers in the Arizona Fall and Winter

Photo courtesy of John L. Absher via Shutterstock

The Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch in Gilbert is a favorite among birdwatchers because of its proximity to Phoenix (just 20 miles southeast of downtown). The wetland habitat, which includes seven “water recharge basins,” is home to many ducks and waterfowl in the winter, including the rare roseate spoonbill, wood stork, and little bittern. In total, more than 300 species have been spotted here.

Patagonia Lake State Park

Because Patagonia Lake State Park contains desert scrub, woodland, and wetlands, it’s a bird’s paradise. According to the Audubon Society, the site regularly attracts rare species like the neotropic cormorant, zone-tailed hawk, gray hawk, northern beardless-tyrannulet, Bell’s vireo, and scores of hummingbirds.

Sweetwater Wetlands Park

8 Top Spots for Birdwatchers in the Arizona Fall and Winter

Photo courtesy of Natalia Kuzmina via Shutterstock

Five miles from downtown Tucson sits a water treatment facility and urban wildlife habitat called Sweetwater Wetlands. Since it was constructed in 1998, more than 300 species have been seen here, making it a popular birding destination, especially in the cooler months. Although there are many land and shorebirds that hang out in the wetlands this time of year, some of the rarer birds include the Lucy’s warbler, least grebe, scissor-tailed flycatcher, and prothonotary warbler.

Boyce Thompson Arboretum

Need an expert to help tell you what you’re looking for? The guided bird walks at Boyce Thompson Arboretum are a great option, and they’re only available from October to May. Of the 275 species recorded in this designated “Important Bird Area” near Phoenix, 62 have Special Conservation Status in Arizona, so you never know what you’re going to spot here.

Watson Woods Riparian Preserve

8 Top Spots for Birdwatchers in the Arizona Fall and Winter

Photo courtesy of Harry Collins Photography via Shutterstock

Many water birds and shorebirds that make their way south for the winter stop at Watson Woods Riparian Preserve in Prescott. Go there and you might see a bald eagle, a peregrine falcon, or an osprey among the cottonwoods. There are many trails with interpretive signs to follow so you won’t have to drop breadcrumbs to find your way home (The birds would probably eat them, anyway).

READ MORE: Your official rock hunting guide to Arizona’s coolest native stones


  • Claire Mainprize

    Claire Mainprize is a writer and editor who covers the intersections of pop culture, lifestyle, and spirituality. Find more of her work at ClaireMainprize.com.


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