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Join us in November for an Arizona birding and nature tour, a gorgeous time to explore Arizona’s saguaro deserts. Temperatures are typically perfect and light is ideal for photography. Birds abound as wintering species arrive to join residents such as Greater Roadrunner, Vermilion Flycatcher, Verdin, Gambel’s Quail, Pyrrhuloxia, and Phainopepla. Every year rarities occur in Tucson’s tree-lined parks or outlying pecan groves where in many years Lewis’ Woodpecker can be found.
This Arizona birding tour starts and ends in Tucson, a delightful, multicultural city recognized for its local cuisine. Indulge in warm desert days among saguaros as we walk trails in Saguaro National and Catalina State Parks with fine views of the surrounding Sky Island Mountain ranges. Visit desert botanical gardens that hummingbirds frequent and the famed Sonoran Desert Museum. Northwest of the city, visit Santa Cruz Flats, where big agricultural fields create a winter birding hotspot with habitats ranging from turf farms to ponds and fields. We search for Yellow-headed Blackbird, Ferruginous Hawk, and Crested Caracara. One section of the flats is a reliable spot to find three species of thrashers: Curve-billed, Bendire’s, and with some luck, Le Conte’s.
Enjoy three nights in Tucson on this Southeast Arizona birding tour followed by two nights along the Santa Cruz River south of the city in view of the Santa Rita Mountains. At Madera and Montosa Canyons, Elegant Trogon may overwinter, feeding on fruits and on warm days, large insects. Trails near the artisan town of Tubac are ideal for natural history exploring. This tour make a nice short getaway, or pairs perfectly with our Arizona Fall Sampler that ventures to Patagonia, the Huachuca Mountains near Sierra Vista, the San Pedro River, and Sulphur Springs Valley.
- Explore stunning Saguaro National Park, where, on quiet roads and trails through dramatic cactus forests, we seek out Gilded Flicker, Gila Woodpecker, Gambel’s Quail, Harris’s Hawk, and other desert-associated species
- Learn about the geology and biodiversity of the saguaro desert while soaking in some southwestern sunshine
- Tally sightings of raptors, hummingbirds, wintering sparrows, and longspurs and desert mammals such as Javelina and Black-tailed Jackrabbit
- Dine in fun, local restaurants that feature a mix of borderland and bistro-style international cuisine
- Enjoy photography—our guides lend tips as we travel and site various birds and wildlife
- Seek out that elusive Le Conte’s Thrasher!
Itineraries are guidelines; variations in itinerary may occur to account for weather, road conditions, closures, etc. and to maximize your experience.
Day 1: Arrive in Tucson | Arizona-Sonoran Desert Museum | Local Cuisine
Tucson is surrounded by picturesque mountains. After a mid-day meet-up at the airport, we wind through them to visit the world renowned Arizona-Sonoran Desert Museum, a wonderful introduction to the rich natural history of the area. Its aviary lets you see species up close and personal, and mammals are displayed in open-air habitat zones with plants of the region. Wild species, such as Costa’s and Anna’s Hummingbirds, are attracted to the lush vegetation, so have your binoculars handy! There should be shrubs still in bloom and butterflies feeding at them as well.
Following our visit to the museum, we take a scenic drive to our hotel over Gate’s Pass to check into our lodgings in the northwestern corner of Tucson and enjoy dinner at a nearby favorite local restaurant.
Accommodations at La Posada, Tucson (D)
Day 2: Birding Tucson | Tohono Chul Park | Saguaro NP West | Tucson Mountain Park
This morning we start out at a delightful botanic garden not far from our hotel. Tohono Chul has an excellent café where we enjoy brunch with the hummingbirds and a walk to see what plants are still in bloom and birds and butterflies attracted to them.
We then head west to bird at the Sweetwater Wetlands, one of Tucson’s many birding hotspots. Harris’s Hawk rest in tall eucalyptus trees, while Song Sparrow and Abert’s Towhee hide in thick stands of salt brush. Ducks float past cattails and willows as Red-winged, Yellow-headed, and Brewer’s Blackbirds are on the wing. One year, we had a surprise glimpse of a Bobcat on the prowl!
By mid-day we enjoy a picnic and visit to Saguaro National Park, a 90,000-acre wilderness preserve teeming with desert life. The park is home to Vermilion Flycatcher, Gilded Flicker, Gila Woodpecker, Rufous-winged and Black-throated Sparrows, Curve-billed Thrasher, and a host of other species. Greater Roadrunner may zip past us, chasing lizards!
After a couple of short walks and an informative drive, we leave the park on its northern side, as time allows making a stop at a good wetland site for birding on the way home, timed for species coming in to roost.
Freshen up at the hotel, then enjoy dinner at another favorite local restaurant.
Accommodations at La Posada, Tucson (B,L,D)
Day 3: Santa Cruz Flats | Red Rock Feedlot | Thrasher Stalk | Tucson
This morning, we have an early breakfast at the hotel and drive north towards Picacho Peak and Phoenix. Our destination is an agricultural area that is a hotspot for wintering raptors, flocks of longspurs and sparrows, huge numbers of Yellow-headed Blackbird, and often Crested Caracara. Mountain Plover (rare), American Pipit, Loggerhead Shrike, and Horned Lark are also possible sightings.
We turn off the Interstate Highway at Red Rock, where at the Red Rock Feedlot we watch for Ferruginous Hawk, Prairie Falcon, Crested Caracara, and Merlin. We then spend the morning driving a series of farm roads, checking fields and powerlines for raptors and sparrows. A few ponds and run-off wastewater areas can be excellent for shorebirds. A turf farm has grassy areas prized by longspurs and if we’re lucky, Mountain Plover.
In the southwestern corner in shrub habitat we check an area known for the chance to see three species of thrasher, including the much sought-after LeConte’s.
Depending on what we are seeing we may linger here, make a day of it with a picnic lunch, or head back into Tucson with time to check some of the local parks for birds we’ve not yet encountered.
After time to freshen up at the hotel, we venture out for another good meal, and catch up on our species list.
Accommodations at La Posada, Tucson (B,L,D)
Day 4: Catalina State Park | San Xavier del Bac | Madera Canyon
This morning we indulge in one more immersion into the Saguaro Cactus forests so unique to this area. Catalina State Park has some lovely trails, and brushy habitat prized by Rufous-winged Sparrow. Views of the Catalina Mountains are stunning here. We return to our hotel in time to pack up and check out to head down to the Santa Cruz River Valley. We may stop at a local park along the way if we hear of a sighting, and we make a stop at the beautiful San Xavier del Bac mission church for photos and to learn about the T’ohono O’odham people.
Weather pending, we have a picnic, or a local restaurant lunch, then spend the afternoon in Madera Canyon’s oak-pine woodland and the grasslands that surround it. Scenery is dramatic here and birding can be excellent. Feeders at a local lodge are likely active with species like Acorn and Arizona Woodpeckers, and with luck some overwintering hummingbirds.
In the afternoon we settle into our lodgings and enjoy dinner at the nearby Tucson Country Club’s restaurant, the Stables.
Accommodations at Rio Rico (B,L,D)
Day 5: Montosa Canyon | Tubac | Tumacacori | Local Hotspots
The corridor south of Tucson is legendary for winter birding, much of it centered on the Santa Cruz River. A trail connects the artisan village of Tubac to the historic site of Tumacacori National Monument and birding can be excellent here. Montosa Canyon is good for a variety of species and known as a favorite wintering location for Elegant Trogon that do not migrate south.
We visit Montosa in the morning, then walk along the Santa Cruz River in a couple of different spots to make the most of our day. We network with other guides to know the latest sightings and have a fun and full final day.
Dinner is at a favorite restaurant in Tubac.
Accommodations at Rio Rico (B,L,D)
Day 6: Canoa Pond | Return to Tucson | Connect to our Arizona Sampler Journey or Departures
Our flock disperses today. After breakfast, we pack up and head out to enjoy some local birding at a pond at Canoa Ranch, a birding spot on our route that can be quite productive. We then head to the airport, reaching there by 10:30 AM for flights out after NOON.
Not ready to go? Join our guides who will meet the group heading out after lunch to the Paton Center for Hummingbirds at Patagonia and their lodgings at Sonoita then the lovely Casa de San Pedro at Hereford on our Fall Sky Islands Sampler tour.
Sunrise in Tucson
Elegant Trogon by Homer Gardin
Santa Catalina Mountains
Birding Arizona by Homer Gardin
Western Meadowlark by Hugh Simmons
Broad-billed Hummingbird by Hugh Simmons
Painted Redstart by Hugh Simmons
Cost of the Journey
Cost of the Journey is $TBD based on double occupancy from Tucson, AZ. The tour price includes airport transfers, 5 nights’ accommodation, ground transportation in vans, professional guide services, park and other entrance fees, and miscellaneous program expenses.
The tour price does not include round-trip airfare to and from Tucson, personal expenses such as laundry, telephone, drinks from the bar, and gratuities for luggage handling or other services. Guide gratuities are at your discretion.
Please plan to make air travel plans only after the minimum group size has been met. We will send you a confirmation email as soon as the trip has been confirmed.
Airport is Tucson International Airport (TUS). We can pick-up and drop-off at hotels within a few miles of the airport—there are many!
Items of Note
Tour Notes & Pace
PACE: Moderate, with full days of birding and walks on quiet roads and trails. A typical walk is less than two miles and often we have a series of walks at different spots that are a half-mile each, several times a day. DINING: Casual, a mix of local restaurants and both restaurant and picnic lunches.
Browse below for trip reports and species lists from past versions of this and other tours from this destination.
- May 2012
- March 2016
- January 2019
- November 2019
- January 2020
- May 2021
- November 2021
- January 2022
- February 2022
- May 2022
- November 2022
- January 2023
- February 2023 (Sweetheart Birding)
- February 2023
- May 2023
- August 2012
- August 2014
- August 2016
- August 2017
- August 2018
- August 2019
- July 2021
- August 2021
- July 2022
- August 2022
- August 2023
Essential Information +
This information is important for being prepared for your journey; we want you to have the best experience possible. If you only read one section, this one is key!
Ahead of Your Tour
- Please talk with your doctor about general health needs. It is a good idea to consult with your doctor about general vaccinations recommended for travel.
- Please plan to make air travel plans only after the minimum group size has been met. We will send you a confirmation email as soon as the trip has been confirmed. After you make travel reservations, please send a copy of your travel itinerary to the Naturalist Journeys office at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Travel insurance in case of serious medical emergency is recommended. Full health coverage and repatriation is available through Allianz Travel Insurance.
- Soft sided luggage/duffel bags are easiest for packing the vans. Remember to pack essential medications in your carry-on luggage, as well as one day of clothing and optics in case of luggage delay.
We will share a copy of your health and emergency contact information with your guide. This information will be kept confidential but is very important in case of a medical emergency. In addition to bringing any prescription medications with you, we recommend that you have a copy of the prescriptions in case of loss.
Pace of the Tour & What to Expect
You will receive a Schedule-at-a-Glance and list of hotels (our eContact List) a few weeks before your departure. This will serve as an outline for each day and alert you to any recent changes made in the schedule or to our hotels, if needed.
Our journeys are set up to follow the rhythm of nature. Our focus is on birding and nature; we offer full, well-planned field days and often get up early for that magical time around dawn. We generally follow the published itinerary, but we stay flexible to the weather, wildlife opportunities and the interests of the group. Your guide will keep you apprised of the next day’s schedule at each evening meal, noting what to bring and what to prepare for. Questions and/or concerns are welcome.
The pace of our Naturalist Journeys tours is moderate; to fully participate you should be able to get in and out of vehicles several times a day, and walk 1-3 miles over uneven terrain. It is important to participate with a flexible attitude as adjustments may be made in our schedule to make the most of our time in the field or for other purposes at your guide's discretion. We are not a “listing” bird company that drills down on target species, but at times we do wait for those special species unique to the places we visit. During the day, we take time to stop for photos and for educational opportunities to learn about conservation projects, landscapes, and geology. We appreciate other taxa as well as birds, with mammals often the biggest draw but plants and butterflies are also very popular. Our clients often lend their own expertise to the mix.
We like to make meals a fun and memorable part of the experience, too. Breakfasts are often at hotels, and we carry snacks, fruit, and water in the vans each day. Lunches are a mix of picnics in the field (weather dependent) and a chance to dine with locals at small cafes and restaurants. For dinner, we pride ourselves in our homework to keep up with the best choices for dining, choosing restaurants with atmosphere that specialize in local foods. On occasion we keep dinner simple to go back out in the field for sunset wildlife viewing or night walks. In some remote locations, our choices are limited. If you are tired, room service for dinner may be an option you can choose.
Food & Drink
We carry water and juices/cold drinks in the cooler each day, and sodas if people like them. Please also plan on bringing and filling your water bottle for hiking each day. We try to use as few plastics as possible!
Packing, Clothing & Laundry
Soft sided luggage/duffel bags are easiest for packing the vans. Please pack essential medications in your carry-on luggage, as well as one day of clothing and optics in case of luggage delay.
Dress is informal and is casual even at restaurants. Layering is a great way to stay comfortable. Protective clothing is essential, whether it be from from sun, rain, cold, insects, or vegetation. You need closed toe shoes, and we comfortable walking shoes with good tread. Hiking boots with good support for hiking and on rocky terrain can work well.
Many people ask how much to plan to bring as spending money. Part of that depends on how much you want to shop. Most shops will take VISA and MasterCard or American Express. Typical items people purchase include local souvenirs and T-shirts, caps, and natural history books. You may want to bring cash for drinks with dinner (if available) or smaller local purchases.
Expect the normal tipping protocol to apply for hotel maids and bar service. If at the end of the tour, you would like to show your appreciation to your guides, tipping is entirely appropriate but at your discretion. We hope that you will be pleased with all professional services. Gratuities for group meals are included. For your birding tour guide, we suggest $10-$15 per day per guest. Note that if there is more than one guide, this amount can be split among them.
Cell Phones & Internet Service
Wi-Fi and cell phone service are available in most US destinations, although there are some exceptions in remote locations. Wi-Fi is generally provided in all hotels, lodges, and restaurants you visit, at least in public areas. Please refrain from taking or making cell phone calls in the vehicles when traveling with other passengers unless it appears to be an emergency as this disrupts other guests – please plan cell phone calls on your own time.
Smoking is not permitted in any vehicle or in any situation where the group is participating in an activity together, such as a vehicle excursion or a guided walk. Please respect all designated smoking areas at hotels and restaurants.
For this tour, your guides will drive travelers in either full-size or mini-vans or a combination of those two. We ask all attendees to please rotate your seating, so you ride with different drivers and alternate between front and back seats.
Photo Release & Sharing
We take many group photos and will share photos with the group. And after your tour, we will organize a chance to share photos via Dropbox or Google Photos. Please note that this is our policy and if you prefer to be excluded, we need to know ahead of your tour.
By registering for this tour, you agree to grant to Naturalist Journeys and its authorized representatives permission to record photos and/or video of your participation in the tour. You further agree that any or all of the material photographed may be used, in any form, as part of any future publications, brochures, or other printed materials used to promote Naturalist Journeys, and further that such use shall be without payment of fees, royalties, special credit or other compensation.
Please contact Naturalist Journeys by email at email@example.com or telephone our office: (520) 558-1146 or toll free: (866) 900-1146 if you have any questions. Many thanks for traveling with us and we hope you enjoy your journey.
Packing List +
Please Pack Light!
Soft luggage is much easier for us to pack than a more rigid hard sided piece, so if you have the choice, please use your soft luggage Be sure to have your name and address on the inside of the bag, as well as on the luggage tag on the handle. It is our hope that you can pack in one checked suitcase that does not exceed 45 pounds. Be sure to pack your personal medication, airline tickets, passport, binoculars, camera, and other essential items in your carry-on bag. You will want a day pack for field trips, so this is an ideal carry-on. Please reconfirm your airline’s baggage weight and size restrictions about a week or so before departure.
In general, the weather should vary from warm to cool, with highs to 80° and lows dipping down to the low 40s°F, sometimes even below freezing. We suggest packing a jacket and layers. Check your favorite weather website closer to your departure to better predict what the weather will be on your adventure.
Dress is comfortable and informal throughout the trip. Dressing in layers is the best way to be comfortable. Lightweight long-sleeved shirts and long pants make ideal field clothing as they are more protective from sun and vegetation. But if you like to wear them, by all means bring some shorts. Also, choose clothing you don’t mind getting dirty or muddy and things that are comfortable and easy. Note on clothing colors: We recommend muted colors of tan, brown, khaki, grey or green, as they are spotted less easily than white or bright colors, though camouflage clothing is not recommended.
Clothing & Gear
- Long pants, 2 pairs
- Shorts (1 pair or use a pair of zip-offs that give you both short and long)
- Long-sleeved shirts (2)
- T-shirts or equivalent (remember you may be buying some there anyway)
- Lightweight raincoat or poncho (rain not likely, but possible)
- Windbreaker type jacket (can be same as above)
- Personal underclothing
- Socks, long enough to tuck in your pants – lightweight and easy to wash and dry
- Comfortable walking shoes and lightweight hiking boots – good tread is essential!
- Light to medium weight jacket
- Fleece sweater or a sweatshirt
- Hat with broad brim
- Gloves, warm hat, scarf for mornings and evenings
- Comfortable clothes for evening (a cleaner version of your field cloths or a skirt, etc.)
Equipment & Miscellaneous
- Airline ticket
- Photo identification
- Toiletry articles
- Small daypack or fanny pack for carrying your field gear
- Walking stick (optional but recommended if you usually use sticks when hiking)
- Water bottle (or plan to refill one bought on location)
- Alarm clock (if you use your phone, be sure to turn off data roaming)
- Sunscreen/lip balm
- Gel bandana for cooling (optional)
- Sunglasses with neck strap
- Umbrella, compact and not brightly colored (optional, but useful for protection from rain if not windy)
- Small flashlight or headlamp with fresh batteries
- Binoculars (a clear shower cap works well to keep off rain and mist)
- Camera and extra batteries, battery chargers, film or digital chips, lens cleaning supplies and your instruction manual (optional)
- Spotting scope and tripod (optional, guide will have one)
- Notebook or journal and pen (optional)
- Field guides (optional)
- Earplugs (optional)
- Portable packages of facial tissues
- Laundry soap if you plan to do hand washing
- Small bottle of antibacterial soap
- Rechargeable power bank (optional)
WE DO NOT RECOMMEND TRAVELING WITH PRECIOUS OR VALUABLE JEWELRY – don’t tempt anyone and don’t bring things you’d regret losing, and your mind will be at ease!
Medical & First Aid Items
- Personal medication
- Motion sickness preventatives if likely to be needed on bus, van, drives, etc.
- Personal first aid kit and medications for general ailments (including tweezers for spines)
- Copy of eyeglass prescription, medical prescriptions, vaccination records, and any medical alerts
- Health insurance information
- Extra pair of eyeglasses or contacts
- Band-aids, moleskin to protect against blisters
- Antibacterial soap in small container for quick handwashing
Suggested Reading List +
There are a number of other good bird field guides, bring that you are most used to using. Please note that your guide will have a full set of local identification guides for plants, reptiles and amphibians, mammals and butterflies.
As an Amazon Associate, Naturalist Journeys earns from qualifying purchases, and may get commissions for purchases made through links on this page at no added cost to you.
Useful Links +
Nature, Wildlife & Biology
Tucson Audubon Society
Santa Cruz Flats Sightings List – eBird.org
Hummingbirds of Arizona
Sweetwater Wetlands hotspot
Reptiles and Amphibians
Southeastern Arizona Wildflowers
Conservation, Parks & Reserves
About Sky Island Mountain Ranges
Sonoran Desert Museum
Tohono Chul Gardens
Saguaro National Park
Tucson Mountain Park
Catalina State Park
San Xavier del Bac
Tubac Nature Center
Tumacácori National Historical Park
Geology & Geography
Geology of Arizona and Coronado National Memorial Arizona
Geography of Arizona
History & Culture
Tucson & Southern Arizona
Helpful Travel Websites
Tucson International Airport
Homeland Security Real ID Act
Transportation Security Administration (TSA)
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
Date & Time
Photo credits: Banners: Tucson Mountain State Park Scenic (NJ Stock), Loggerhead Shrike (NJ Stock), Desert Flowers (NJ Stock), Tucson Scenic (Steve Wolfe), Acorn Woodpecker (Hugh Simmons) Thumbnails: Harris’ Hawk (Steve Wolfe), Broad-billed Hummingbird (NJ Stock), Albert’s Towhee (NJ Stock), Yellow-headed Blackbird (NJ Stock), Anna’s Hummingbird (NJ Stock), Crested Caracara (NJ Stock), Greater Roadrunner (NJ Stock), Gila Woodpecker (NJ Stock)