I recently took a trip to south-east Arizona. This was my first trip I have ever taken to another state purely for birding. Overall it was a great trip and I saw over 30 new species. I had 4 target birds for the trip:

  • Elegant Trogon
  • Painted Redstart
  • Rivoli's Hummingbird
  • Olive Warbler

Of the four targets, I saw two; the Painted Warbler and Rivoli's Hummingbird. The trogon and olive warbler were spotted recently but I was not able to locate them.

While I was in a desert, there were several mountains in the area, forming what are called "sky islands". Sky Islands are mountains in areas that are otherwise flat and low elevation. This causes them to have a dramatically different ecosystem than the surrounding area. As you rise in elevation, the flora and fauna rapidly change. Towards the bottom are typical deserts and cactus forests. In the foothills, there are forests of oak and juniper trees. Very beautiful golden sycamore trees could be found around here, which form an important home for cavity nesters. As you continue upward, pine trees replace all else. In a single hike you can go through all three types of forests.

The main places I visited were Madera Canyon, Mt. Lemmon, Patagonia, and Saguaro National Park.

Madera Canyon

This was the first spot I visited. Madera Canyon is located on Mount Wrightson near Green Valley, south of Tucson. It is a sky island like most of the other mountains in the area, but in terms of biodiversity it is one of the most impressive. This place deservedly has a reputation as one of the best birdwatching locations in the United States. It is famously home to elegant trogon, coatimundi, and frequent rarities from Central America. Here I saw a painted redstart and Rivoli's hummingbird, two of my target species.

Saguaro National Park

Saguaro was the next place I went. It was beautiful and filled with much more plant life than one would expect for a desert. There were very few patches of unoccupied sand near the trails. The giant Saguaro cactus that dominate this area are an important home for many of the local birds, such has Gila woodpeckers. Cactus wren, green-tailed towhee, curve-billed thrashers, and black-throated sparrows are very common here.


Patagonia was a small remote town next to a large resevior called Patagonia Lake. The town is home to a hummingbird garden funded by the local Audubon society called the Paton Center for Hummingbirds.

Patagonia Lake

The lake itself is a manmade reservoir created when the adjacent Sonoita creek was dammed. The area around it forested with washes and streams. The reservoir was full of ducks of all kinds but not in very significant numbers. There was a large population of coots which the lake seems to be known for. This park is home to the ocasional green kingfisher, a smaller emerald colored kingfisher from Mexico. They have a very active set of birdfeeders where I saw a rufous-winged sparrow. This was the only place I saw any warblers on this trip, including a black-throated gray warbler.

Paton Hummingbird Center

In the nearby town, there was a hummingbird garden funded by the local audubon chapter. It frequently recieves unusual species of hummingbirds that are not typically found elsewhere, such as the Violet-crowned Hummingbird, which I was very lucky to have seen.

Mt. Lemmon

This was the last location I visited. It is the tallest mountain in the area and had lots of very impressive views. Like all of the other sky islands, it recieves some unusual rarities like the olive warbler. I saw various montane species, such as red crossbills, mountain chickadees, and others.

Overall, the trip was very productive and I saw more species than I expected. South-east Arizona is certainly one of the best places in the country for birdwatching, and I would definitely like to return in spring during migration season.