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“Listen,” says Mark Larson, president of the Maricopa Audubon Society.
After parking, grabbing my notebook and rushing to meet Larson in front of the Nina Mason Pulliam Rio Salado Audubon Center less than two miles south of downtown Phoenix, I have to make a conscious effort to hear the sounds around me. As soon as I do, the chirping comes at me from all directions.
“There weren’t any birds when I got here, but I started pishing, and they filled that tree,” he says, pointing to a mesquite.
I don’t see the birds, but I continue to hear them, drawn by the call of “pish, pish, pish” Larson sounded before I arrive. Birding, I learn from him, is just as much about what you hear as what you see. It’s also about stopping, being still and noticing your surroundings, which is why it’s such a great way to explore Phoenix.
“Birds are all around us,” he explains. “They connect us to the natural world. When you stop and be fairly quiet, birds will start to appear. It’s like magic.”
Pausing to really experience a place gives you a deeper appreciation for it, I realize as we walk along the Salt River. You’re not zipping past on a mountain bike or dutifully hiking a trail. You notice the insects swarming near the water’s surface, the shape of the leaves on an unfamiliar tree, and—out of the corner of your eye—something grey slash in front of a tree and disappear behind a bush.
“That’s a green heron,” Larson tells me.
As we continue through the Rio Salado Habitat Restoration Area, I ask him what it takes to get started birding. His answer is simple: binoculars. A field guide helps, too, and most places known for birding will have a bird list available online or onsite. If you’re not sure what to do, he advises taking an organized bird walk, like the one held on Mondays at the Desert Botanical Garden.
Birding is something you learn by doing, and in Phoenix, there are plenty of great bird sites to get the hang of it. Here are just a few:
Once a dump site less than two miles south of downtown Phoenix, this 600-acre restoration area stretches along five miles of the Salt River and is home to the Nina Mason Pulliam Rio Salado Audubon Center. Today, more than 250 birds have been spotted here. Bird on your own when the trails are open, sunrise to 7 p.m. (or sunset), or take an organized Saturday morning bird walk, October through May.
Also known as Gilbert Water Ranch, the 110-acre Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch attracts more than 200 species of birds and is considered one of the best places in the Greater Phoenix area for spotting ducks and shorebirds. Desert Rivers Audubon offers free family bird walks on the more than four miles of trails here every third Saturday, October through March.
With its five trails showcasing different desert habitats, including a mesquite bosque, the 140-acre Desert Botanical Garden is one of the premier birding destinations in the Greater Phoenix area. If you’re new to birding, come on Monday when garden docents lead a bird walk. A comprehensive list of what was spotted on each week’s walk can be found here.
1201 N Galvin Pkwy, Phoenix 85008
Just next door to the Desert Botanical Garden, the Phoenix Zoo also attracts a remarkable number of birds, and because there are so many people at the zoo, the birds there aren’t as skittish as they might be in more secluded areas. Watch for several varieties of ducks near the zoo’s entrance and on its ponds.
455 N Galvin Pkwy, Phoenix 85008
One of the newest birding areas in Phoenix, the 700-acre Tres Rios Wetlands is home to more than 150 species of birds, including American White Pelicans, ducks, Osprey, and grebes. You’ll need to obtain a free permit to visit, but it’s worth it for the seclusion and excellent birding.
Roughly 20 miles northeast of downtown Phoenix along the Bush Highway, the Granite Reef picnic site is considered the best birding spot on the Salt River and one of the best in Maricopa County. Watch for waterfowl, raptors and even songbirds. Tonto National Forest daily passes are required for the area.
The entire Phoenix Mountains Preserve offers great birding opportunities, but if you want to spot desert species, including quail and roadrunner, the less trafficked trails of the Dreamy Draw Recreation Area are your best bet. The trails surrounding Piestewa Peak can be good for birding, too, but are often much more crowded.
2421 E Northern Ave, Phoenix 85020
These no-frills water retention basins are far from scenic, but many birders rank them among the state’s best viewing areas, especially for shorebirds. Head out with your binoculars and field guide in August and September to see Sandhill Cranes and several varieties of sandpipers. Osprey, Bald Eagles and herons are usually present throughout the year.
About the author: Teresa Bitler
Teresa Bitler’s earliest memories include visits to the Phoenix Zoo and hikes on Camelback Mountain. After moving away from Phoenix briefly, she returned to the city 20 years ago to raise a family. She writes for Valley Guide and AAA Highroads, and is the author of two Arizona guidebooks.