Desert habitat just outside Tucson that's perfect for sparrows, owls, and four species of towhee.
By Matthew Brooks | Published: 12/21/2007
It’s easy to see why people fall in love with desert habitats after a late-afternoon walk in Sabino Canyon. When the setting sun casts a golden glow on the mountains, I have to remind myself that I visit this place with the intention of birding. I’m brought back to the task at hand by the inquisitive wurp of the locally common Phainopepla and the activity of bold, noisy Cactus Wrens. On spring evenings, Elf Owls can be heard barking from the surrounding saguaros, and they are often joined by Common Poorwill, Western Screech-Owl, and Great Horned Owl.
Winter is my favorite time to bird the canyon. I like to walk the lower stretch of the creek to where an old dam has backed up moisture and created a thick willow forest. In the colder months, it’s possible to see four species of towhee here: Green-tailed, Canyon, Abert’s, and Spotted. Numerous rarities have also shown up over the years.
Sabino Canyon’s variety of habitats (including a rare desert creek lined with riparian vegetation) has prompted its inclusion as an Important Bird Area in National Audubon’s program in Arizona. The birds seem to know of the canyon’s regional importance. They are abundant, taking advantage of the excellent protected habitat in the area. — Matthew Brooks
Matthew Brooks is the education outreach specialist for the Tucson Audubon Society. He also wrote about Mendenhall Glacier Recreation Area, Juneau, Alaska, Hotspot Near You No. 41, Sweetwater Wetlands, Tucson, Arizona, No. 79, and Mesilla Valley Bosque State Park, Las Cruces, New Mexico, No. 103.
At a Glance
Click on the coordinates below to view location:
5700 N. Sabino Canyon Rd.
Tucson, Arizona 85750
Desert canyon. Saguaro cactus forest transitioning to pine forest. Riparian vegetation at canyon bottom. Desert scrub in foothills.
Fairly level. Main trail is a sloping paved road that leads back into the canyon. Several trails of varying difficulty start at the visitor center.
Residents: Abert’s Towhee, Black-chinned Sparrow, Western Screech-Owl, Northern Cardinal, Pyrrhuloxia, Greater Roadrunner, and Rufous-crowned, Rufous-winged, and Black-throated Sparrows. Summer: Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet, Elf Owl, Brown-crested Flycatcher, Bell’s Vireo, Broad-billed Hummingbird, Lucy’s Warbler, Bronzed Cowbird, Hooded Oriole, and Varied Bunting (uncommon). Winter: Hermit Thrush, Lawrence’s Goldfinch, and Green-tailed Towhee. Rarities: Plain-capped Starthroat, Violet-crowned Hummingbird, Winter Wren, and eastern warblers.
When to go
Fall, winter, and spring. Desert species are present year-round.
Visitor center has restrooms, water fountains, picnic areas, and beverage vending machines. No food is available within the recreation area, but restaurants and groceries are nearby.
Federal recreation area (U.S. Forest Service). Admission $5/vehicle. Open sunrise to sunset year-round. Visitor center open daily 8 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Shuttle tours (additional fee) access upper areas of canyon. Other than the shuttle, there is no vehicle access to the canyon.
Bring sun protection and water. Winter weekends are busiest. Be aware of bicyclists on main trail before 9 a.m. Check at visitor center for weather conditions and trail closures. Summers are hot, and flash floods are possible in July and August.