My favourite quote from biologist E.O. Wilson, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner often known as the “father of biodiversity,” is that this: “The very best excessive is the excessive of discovery.” These of us hooked on birds can effectively relate. The joy at discovering every new species fuels the fervour, the analysis, and the journey. And if that has you occupied with southeast Arizona for the primary time, plan on being sky excessive, each emotionally and bodily. Let me clarify.

This text was first revealed in our March/April 2023 challenge beneath the title, “Sky Excessive within the Sky Islands.”

The largest lament of chicken vacationers to southeast Arizona is, “I didn’t have sufficient time. I’ll be again.” Famend because the premier birding vacation spot in North America, southeast Arizona encompasses solely 4 counties during which 500 species have been recorded. Greater than 50 of these may be seen solely there, and a number of other full guidebooks have been written overlaying all of the hotspots. The place ought to a birder start?

My reply to this query from first-timers has all the time been to return between mid-April and mid-Might and start within the Sky Islands, capitalized right here as a result of they stand alone, above, and aside, fairly actually, from all the opposite great birding locales within the area. Southeast Arizona’s mountain ranges, spectacularly scenic and ranging to elevations over 10,000 ft, like islands in an ocean, are remoted by and from the desert biome surrounding them.

For birders, this implies a go to to one of many Sky Islands takes you from cactus to pines by way of 5 life zones and offers you entry to an incredible variety of our chicken species, a few of the most-sought reliably discovered solely within the increased elevations. The Sky Islands boast all our “mountain” warblers, most of our hummingbird jewels, and, after all, Elegant Trogon, the Holy Grail for a lot of first-timers. Moreover, they provide cooler temperatures, many roads and trails, and tenting alternatives.

The important guidebooks for birders planning a go to to Arizona are the eighth edition of Finding Birds in Southeast Arizona from the Tucson Audubon Society and Richard Cachor Taylor’s just-published Birds of Arizona. Within the pages that observe, my hope is to assist make your first journey manageable, pleasing, and rewarding by highlighting 4 of our Sky Islands and 4 nice birding areas present in every. That is solely the start. I do know you’ll be again.

Santa Catalina Mountains

(Two days really useful, base in Tucson)

As a result of Tucson could also be your arrival vacation spot and has many lodging and meal choices, it is best to start your go to on Mount Lemmon, which rises from that metropolis’s northern suburbs. As you drive upward alongside the spectacular Catalina Freeway, strive to withstand the temptation to cease at each scenic overlook lest you not have time to adequately chicken the most efficient areas above.

Your first cease on Lemmon, above the Saguaros, must be Molino Basin, mile 5.5 (mile 0 is the Coronado Nationwide Forest boundary), for birds of the chaparral and oak. Mexican Jay, Crissal Thrasher, each Rufous-crowned and Black-chinned Sparrows, and Scott’s Oriole are right here, and Grey Vireo has nested intermittently. Above Molino Basin the actual enjoyable begins because the vegetation modifications.

Park on the Bigelow Trailhead above mile 9.3, stroll again all the way down to Incinerator Ridge, and chicken up the jeep street. When you spot the Quick-tailed Hawks that raised younger within the space final 12 months, you may save your self a visit to Florida. At mile 9.9, the street takes you into moist and shady Bear Canyon. Now at 6,000 ft, about midway up the mountain, your focus ought to flip to Arizona’s so-called “mountain warblers,” eyes and ears each alert for Virginia’s, Yellow-rumped, Black-throated Grey, Grace’s, Painted Redstart, and Pink-faced. They’re all discovered right here, together with Olive Warbler and Hepatic Tanager, and this is a superb space for Flammulated Owl on the way in which again down the mountain after darkish.

Rose Canyon (additional charge space), at mile 17.1 in Ponderosa Pine, is the perfect spot in Arizona for Pink-faced Warbler. Stroll the street and/or take the path to the lake on the finish, watching and listening for Higher Pewee and Cordilleran Flycatcher. A vagrant Pine Flycatcher entertained birders from all around the nation within the campground all through final summer time.

Santa Rita Mountains

(Two days really useful, base in Inexperienced Valley or in Madera Canyon itself)

Elegant Trogon is the Holy Grail of birding in southeast Arizona. Males like this chicken have a purple stomach, a white band on the chest, a darkish inexperienced head, and a yellow invoice. The species is the one trogon that usually breeds north of Mexico. Photograph by Jim Burns

Madera Canyon, an hour south of Tucson within the Santa Rita Mountains, is the best-known and arguably the perfect birding website in southeast Arizona. It’s the best place to seek out Elegant Trogon and hosts the total array of Arizona’s different specialty species. There’s a campground, dispersal tenting alongside Proctor Highway, a mattress and breakfast, two rental cabin areas, and fast entry from lodging and meals in close by Inexperienced Valley.

First-timers shouldn’t miss 4 areas. The mileage right here begins simply east of I-19, the place you flip proper off Continental Highway onto Whitehouse Canyon Highway, passing from grassland by way of oak woodlands to conifer forest on the prime of Mount Wrightson, 9,453 ft. On the junction at mile 7.2, proceed on the pavement, now Madera Canyon Highway, to the suitable.

As you cross by way of these Santa Rita Grasslands, watch and hear for the 4 sparrows in your checklist: Botteri’s, Cassin’s, Rufous-winged, and Rufous-crowned. All are right here and will probably be singing, particularly after the monsoon rains, Arizona’s “second spring,” start in mid-July. Greatest technique is to park and stroll the pavement, notably at mile 9.0, the place a mud street enters to the suitable.

At mile 11, flip into the Proctor Highway car parking zone and seize your bins and water for a protracted, productive hike following the stream by way of oak woodland. Earlier than you begin up the paved, bridged Forest Service path, you could possibly see or hear Blue Grosbeak and Diverse Bunting proper at your automobile. The path runs for about 1.5 miles as much as the Madera Picnic Space, taking you thru habitat for Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet, Brown-crested and Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher, and Summer season Tanager. Look ahead to Montezuma Quail watering on the creek and linger within the Whitehouse Picnic Space for Bushtit and Scott’s Oriole. In Madera Picnic Space, you could possibly get Acorn and Arizona Woodpeckers. Northern Pygmy-Owls have nested within the sycamores there for a number of years.

One place to search for Violet-crowned Hummingbird is the Santa Rita Lodge. Photograph by Jim Burns

Simply up the street at mile 12.2 is the Santa Rita Lodge, with a viewing deck overlooking hummingbird and seed feeders. The lodge is legendary for its Elf Owls, which nest yearly within the utility poles, and Whiskered Screech-Owls. Each species vocalize after darkish. Six species of hummingbirds are common, and a number of of the less-common species, White-eared, Berylline, Violet-crowned, and Lucifer, flip up each summer time, particularly in August and September. Wild Turkeys come to glean fallen seed, and a Zone-tailed Hawk is usually hovering with the Turkey Vultures.

After scoping out the avian guests on the lodge feeders, it would be best to drive as much as the final car parking zone, the place you possibly can entry the Carrie Nation Path (previously often known as the Vault Mine Path), probably the most dependable place within the canyon for Elegant Trogon as soon as nesting season has begun. Park within the tri-level lot beneath the restrooms and take loads of water (particularly in Might/June) and/or a raincoat (particularly in July/August, when you have to be alert for monsoon exercise build up across the peaks).

Stroll up the steps by way of the picnic space to affix the primary path, and in 0.3 miles, the Previous Baldy Pathis available in from the left. To entry higher-elevation species like Higher Pewee and Olive Warbler, spend your time on Previous Baldy. If the trogon is your purpose, proceed up Carrie Nation, the place you must also see Dusky-capped Flycatcher, Plumbeous and Hutton’s Vireo, Grace’s Warbler, and Painted Redstart. Elegant Trogons have nested in sycamore and oak cavities for years between the primary stream crossing and the purpose the place this path disappears into the stream channel a couple of hundred yards above the intersection with the Vault Mine Path. When you haven’t seen a trogon but, sit on a rock, have lunch, and hear for his or her odd, ventriloquial name. A trogon will typically discover you.

At this level, let me point out two caveats for first-time guests. Taking part in chicken recordings is just not allowed wherever in Madera Canyon, and it’s best to keep away from the picnic areas and the waterfall beneath Proctor parking on weekends as a result of they are often crowded with non-birders, typically enjoying growth bins at max quantity.


Huachuca Mountains

(Two days really useful, base in Sierra Vista or at Battiste Mattress, Breakfast and Birds in Hereford)

The subsequent cease in your Sky Island hop must be the Huachucas. One can find many meals and lodging choices in Sierra Vista, however attempt to make reservations at Battiste Mattress, Breakfast and Birds. Julie and Tony Battiste are pleasant hosts, and Tony is a superb chicken photographer whose time within the discipline makes him an ideal supply of details about the place to seek out birds nonetheless in your checklist.

Tufted Flycatcher, a small crested flycatcher with cinnamon underparts usually discovered from Mexico to northern Ecuador, has been turning up in small numbers in recent times in numerous places in southeast Arizona. The final two summers, it has nested at Hamburg Meadow in Ramsey Canyon. Photograph by Jim Burns

Your first cease within the Huachucas must be Ramsey Canyon, on Freeway 92 6 miles south of the 90/92 junction. The canyon, sometimes called the “hummingbird capital of Arizona,” is house to the birder-friendly Ramsey Canyon Inn and the Ramsey Canyon Protect, a Nature Conservancy property open to the general public 5 days per week year-round. I’ve had a 10-hummingbird day on the protect’s feeders on two completely different events within the month of August, and it’s the most dependable place for White-eared and Berylline.

After watching the feeders for hummingbirds, take the half-mile nature path and/or the lengthy, steep hike as much as Hamburg Meadow. The path may produce Montezuma Quail and Higher Pewee, and the meadow has hosted many uncommon vagrants over time, together with nesting Tufted Flycatchers the previous two summers. Keep in mind parking at Ramsey is proscribed, and it may be crowded on summer time and fall weekends.

Carr Canyon, one mile south of Ramsey on Freeway 92, is your subsequent vacation spot. There are three the explanation why it is best to navigate the 9 hairpin switchbacks on the dust and cobble street to 7,400 ft: Band-tailed Pigeon, Buff-breasted Flycatcher, and Olive Warbler. You need to discover three species of nuthatches, and the gorgeous vistas out over the higher San Pedro River valley are unforgettable. This drive is okay for passenger vehicles, nevertheless it’s not for the faint of coronary heart.

Two miles south of Freeway 92, you’ll discover the street to Miller Canyon. Drive the dust Forest Service street to a parking space just under Beatty’s Visitor Ranch, justifiably well-known for the hummingbirds drawn to its publicly accessible feeders. White-eared is usually the primary attraction right here. Northern Goshawk has nested close by, and after darkish, hear for Whiskered Screech-Owls.

The perfect technique in Miller is to reach early and hike a pair miles up the Miller Canyon Path, then sit on the Beatty feeders in your means down later within the day. The principle attraction on the path is a dependable pair of Noticed Owls typically day-roosting just under the second stream crossing. Three species of jay and three species of vireo could also be seen alongside this stretch, together with lots of the mountain warblers. Rarities found right here over time embody Aztec Thrush and Flame-colored Tanager.

After Beatty’s, proceed down Freeway 92 to milepost 332 and switch onto Turkey Monitor Highway. Two right-angle turns convey you to the parking space for the Ash Canyon Hen Sanctuary and its feeders. Ash is drier than the opposite canyons, however 200 species have been recorded right here, the key attraction being Lucifer Hummingbird. It’s a excellent place to chill out and discover any of the mesquite/oak-chaparral species you’ll have missed.

Montezuma Quail is often seen on the South Fork Cave Creek Path within the Chiricahua Mountains. Photograph by Jim Burns

Chiricahua Mountains

(At the least two days really useful, base on the George Walker Home in Paradise or in one of many 5 Coronado Nationwide Forest campgrounds within the space)

I’ve saved the perfect for final. The Chiricahuas are the biggest and most distant and distinctive of Arizona’s Sky Islands, the one almost definitely to evoke what southeast Arizona was like when solely the Apaches lived right here. The start line in your exploration of the realm is the village of Portal through the dust San Simon-Portal Highway simply east of San Simon on I-10. If it has rained just lately, it’s best to detour into New Mexico and go south on U.S. 80, then again west on the Portal Highway, all paved.

Essentially the most thrilling birding space in your complete vary is the South Fork Cave Creek Path. On the “Y” intersection a half-mile west of Portal, keep on the paved street into Cave Creek Canyon, probably the most scenic areas in all of Arizona. Watch and hear for Peregrines on the cliffs above. Blue-throated Mountain-Gem typically nests close to the Info Station and exhibits up on the feeders there.

About one mile past the doorway to Stewart Campground, take the dust street straight forward to South Fork. Many birders park and stroll the 1.3 miles to the top. Montezuma Quail, Bridled Titmouse, the mountain warblers, and Yellow-eyed Junco are often seen. The path begins on the finish of the street. A number of pairs of Elegant Trogons use the creek right here, as do the lowest-nesting Mexican Chickadees. Please word that it’s prohibited to play chicken sounds in South Fork Cave Creek.

After your exploration of South Fork, return to the paved Cave Creek Highway and switch left, then left once more in 1.8 miles on the entrance to the Southwestern Analysis Station. Right here you’ll discover a cottonwood grove on the confluence of Cave Creek and its north fork and feeders maintained by the workers. Current chicken sightings will probably be listed on a signboard on the present store, hummingbirds abound, and plenty of rarities have been found right here over time. A stroll alongside the street after darkish might produce Widespread Poorwill and Flammulated Owl.

Subsequent, proceed up the dust street previous the analysis station to the Herb Martyr Campground within the pine-oak woodland. Buff-breasted Flycatchers have nested within the space, and it is best to look ahead to Higher Pewee and Arizona Woodpecker within the lifeless snags and hear for Grace’s Warbler and Painted Redstart.

A return to Cave Creek Highway and a left flip there’ll take you over Onion Saddle to the excessive nation round Barfoot Park/Rustler Park. Mexican Chickadee, the one chicken in your checklist discovered solely within the Chiricahuas, is usually seen across the saddle, and birding the meadows within the two parks can reward with Broad-tailed Hummingbirds, Golden-crowned Kinglets, and Cordilleran Flycatchers. Each Northern Noticed-whet and Flammulated Owls could also be heard alongside the roads at evening, however pay attention to bear exercise.

Homework assignments

Earlier than embarking on a Sky Island journey, any southeast Arizona first-timer ought to full two homework assignments. The primary is to learn and completely annotate both or each guidebooks talked about within the opening paragraphs. The second is to familiarize your self with the vocalizations of the birds in your checklist, notably the mountain warblers, Elegant Trogon, and the raptors.

These duties accomplished, you at the moment are ready for the perfect birding vacation spot in North America. Bear in mind, the Sky Islands are solely the start. Avid birders all the time come again, some yearly, only for the local weather, the surroundings, and the recollections. Southeast Arizona by no means fails to excite visiting birders, and writing this text has me trying ahead to the approaching summer time. Hope to see you and share that top of discovery.

When to go birding in southeast Arizona

Right here’s a brief checklist of the optimum months for a few of the most-sought species in southeast Arizona.

Specialty hawks (Widespread Black, Grey, Zone-tailed): April by way of September

Specialty owls (Whiskered-Screech, Flammulated, Elf): April by way of June

Specialty hummingbirds: August, following their post-breeding dispersal

Elegant Trogon: April by way of September

Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher: June by way of August

Mountain warblers: April by way of August

Specialty sparrows (Cassin’s, Botteri’s): July and August, after monsoon rains begin

This text was first revealed within the March/April 2023 challenge of BirdWatching journal.

Raised by birders: A daughter of ornithologists reminisces about her unusual childhood and the eternal truths she learned from her parents’ love of birds.

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