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From Cacti to Conifers in the Sky Islands of Arizona

By Mel White, Photo by Brian E. Small
Mel White on a birding trip in the Southwest U.S.

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“There have to be some misses or it wouldn’t be birding.” This is a true statement, and wise and generous, and comforting for a guide to hear from a guide as we drove down the western slope of the Chiricahua Mountains, having just struck out in our last chance to find a Mexican Chickadee.

It helped, of course, that I’m not a real bird guide, and that my companion was in fact my wife, who has plenty of practice at forgiving her husband’s failings. I was nominally the leader of this trip only because I’d been to southeastern Arizona many times, and this was Hope’s first visit. Since we’d driven away from the Tucson Airport six days earlier, she’d spotted as many good birds as I had. Then, too, she’s congenitally inclined to accentuate the positive.

We’d debated various places to visit this July, a month of record-high temperatures across much of the country. But Hope has long wanted to make a birding trip to the Arizona “sky islands” region, where isolated mountain ranges soar above desert and grassland, and I wanted her to experience the phenomenon of the summer monsoon: the seasonal thunderstorms that initiate a second round of breeding activity. These storms, surprisingly to some, make July and August good months to visit this legendarily hot part of the world.

As we planned our trip I realized to my surprise that it had been 12 years since I’d been to southeastern Arizona. I’d be getting reacquainted with my favorite U.S. birding location, but I was most looking forward to seeing it, and its birds, through Hope’s eyes. The world around us as we landed in Tucson was a very different one from our home in Arkansas, at the nexus of the farming-dominated Delta and the worn old Ozarks.

“It’s a Dr. Seuss landscape!” she said, as we drove through the hills west of the city, where saguaro cacti grow as thickly as their need for water and spreading roots will allow. We stopped to see which desert birds might be out at midday, as the thermometer in the rental car hit triple digits before noon. Alas, Hope’s first lifer was a Gila Woodpecker, hardly different in looks or sound from the red-bellies nesting around our house. Things improved with the wit-weet of a Curve-billed Thrasher, and got lots better with her first Phainopepla.

“Oh, wow!” Hope said, with that laugh of discovery I’ve heard so often. (Did I mention we met on a birding trip? But that’s another story.) “What a crazy-looking bird,” she said. “It’s almost got a Mohawk. I’ve had students with haircuts like that.”

The same wind that ruffled the Phainopepla’s crest was like a blast furnace. Not to put too fine a point on it, we got the hell out of the hellish desert lowlands as soon as we could, heading for the Santa Rita Mountains to the south. Here, as we drove across the scrub grassland toward Madera Canyon, Hope saw her first monsoon storm. Blue sky and puffy clouds surrounded us but for one spot, where rain poured down as if someone had turned on a giant faucet. Here, too, was the first evidence of Arizona’s rain-sparked “second spring”: both Botteri’s and Rufous-winged sparrows sang from atop shrubs.

New birds came quickly for Hope in Madera Canyon, of course, even as we walked around the grounds of the lodge. She was delighted by Acorn Woodpeckers (“That eye ring makes it look surprised all the time”), and hardly less so by Broad-billed Hummingbirds and Bridled Titmice. The resident Elf Owls, we learned, had stopped calling and gotten hard to find. We tried; we failed. The next morning we set out along the Carrie Nation Trail into the Santa Ritas—I even more excited than Hope, I think, because I knew what was waiting for her. She loved the natty Black-throated Gray Warblers; for some reason, I’ve always loved noisy Sulphur-bellied Flycatchers. I said, “I’m surprised we haven’t seen a Painted Redstart yet,” and maybe 60 seconds later there they were—her instant favorite, for the spiffy colors, yes, but also for the way they spread their wings and tail like clockwork toys. “They’re more organized in their movements than American Redstarts,” she said. More like calisthenics, maybe, than ADHD.

“So,” I said, “I guess now I should say, ‘I’m surprised we haven’t seen a trogon yet.’” This time it took more like 10 minutes instead of one. We heard excited croaking from up the slope, and then two Elegant Trogons appeared, courting or fighting, we weren’t sure.

It was nice to get that lifer for Hope, but I’d been reasonably sure we’d find them someplace. I was happier, in fact, to get the next one. Two Arizona Woodpeckers chased each other around for a couple of minutes, giving us great looks. This species has been hard for me to locate before, but I was to see many more over the next few days than in all my previous trips combined. This week we spent more time in the mid-level oak woods and less in low desert and high-elevation conifers (and we missed, for example, Scaled Quail and the aforementioned Mexican Chickadee).

Hiking down, I made some offhand comment about how Plumbeous Vireo and Hutton’s Vireo would undoubtedly finish in a tie for the Most Boring Birds of the Week. Hope, always an advocate for the discriminated-against and trodden-upon, would have none of that. “

You can’t help but look at it that way, because we do tend to anthropomorphize everything,” she said. “But the Hutton’s Vireo—it doesn’t think of itself as some little plain-gray Quaker seamstress bird of the canyons. It thinks that it’s pretty cool. It’s not thinking of itself as an also-ran to the trogon or the Painted Redstart.”

I dunno. What with crime and war and stuff, I have enough to worry about without adding bird discrimination.

Back at the lodge, Hope was looking elsewhere when a Violet-crowned Hummingbird showed up for a quick second, and she was looking for the violet-crown when a Gray Hawk soared overhead and then dived behind a ridge. There have to be misses…

But there have to be hits, too. We drove north around the Santa Ritas, through the vast grasslands, and then south to Patagonia. We went straight to the renowned hummer feeders at the Patons’ house, where a Violet-crowned showed up within minutes. Hope had been thrilled by the broad-billeds, but she was enchanted by this one. “It’s like the girl who walks into the ballroom wearing the really simple gown after all the showy ones,” she said. At the Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve, we’d barely left the visitor center when a pair of Cassin’s Kingbirds chased a Gray Hawk right over our heads. But neither of those was the hit of the day.

As we walked the preserve trails, I twice glimpsed, and Hope twice missed, Abert’s Towhee, a species high on her want list. On our way out we stopped to rest on a bench, and I said, “Don’t give up. We could easily see one later.” No fooling: within 10 seconds an Abert’s flew up and landed on a branch right in front of us.

We spent almost two days exploring the famous canyons on the east side of the Huachuca Mountains, seeing how bad the fires of 2011 and earlier years had been. Post-fire flooding had turned the road up Miller Canyon into an ordeal, but our reward for making it to Beatty’s Guest Ranch was seven species of hummingbirds in a half-hour. Four were lifers for Hope; though the white-eared is rarer, the glittering Anna’s was her favorite.

Carr Canyon Road was as dizzying as advertised, and a serious washout kept us from reaching its end. We got to the coniferous zone a little late in the day—because Arizona doesn’t observe Daylight Savings Time, summer sunrise comes at 5:30 A.M.—and surviving patches of forest were scarce. Nonetheless, a Buff-breasted Flycatcher and a Hepatic Tanager couldn’t have posed any better if they’d been movie stars on a red carpet.

Fort Huachuca military base was temporarily off limits because of fire danger, so Hope didn’t get to see Garden and Scheelite canyons. Rainfall arrived too late for us, as the fort reopened the day we left the area. We heard that the rain, however, washed out the road to Beatty’s. Had it come sooner, we would have missed the hummingbird show.

Thinking about past trips to southeastern Arizona, planning an efficient six-day birding route, making reservations—in all this I’d simply forgotten how downright beautiful parts of this region are. “You’d never guess this was Arizona,” Hope said as we walked among the bigtooth maples and alligator junipers in Ramsey Canyon, pausing to rest under a massive sycamore said to be 250 years old. She could have said the same thing in lush, gorgeous Madera Canyon. But for sheer gawking factor, the Chiricahua Mountains are tops.

Most rocks in this range are composed of fused volcanic ash called rhyolite, which erodes into spectacular cliffs, fins, spires, hoodoos, and even an arch or two. There’s hardly a moment, as you explore the famous birding sites near Portal, when you’re not looking up at some photo-worthy ridgeline.

We saw more evidence of monsoon-fueled activity on State Line Road, where Cassin’s Sparrows sang lustily all around us, and a tiny, muddy roadside ditch was full to the brim with tadpoles—birds and amphibians rushing to complete their breeding cycle during a brief period of wetter climate. On lower Paradise Road we found Hope’s first Scott’s Oriole and Juniper Titmouse; on the upper end, a Grace’s Warbler sang and flitted overhead.

I was surprised at how few birders we met in the Chiricahuas, but one lucky encounter brought us advice about the exact location near Rustler Park where Olive and Red-faced warblers had been seen just a half-hour before. Hope spotted a female olive first, and then the beautiful male appeared. As we were standing on the road eating a celebratory snack, a Red-faced Warbler lit above and looked down at us. The kindness of strangers—how many good birds has it brought me?

In the South Fork of Cave Creek Canyon, Hope spotted a female Elegant Trogon very close, and as we were admiring it another couple came walking down the trail. They hung back to avoid disturbing whatever we were looking at, but we waved them closer and asked if they’d like to see a trogon.

“A what?” the man asked.

“The bird that’s on your shirt,” Hope said, pointing to his chest. Yes, the fellow had just visited the Southwestern Research Station down the road, and had bought a T-shirt with a colorful male Elegant Trogon on the front. As if on cue, a flesh-and-blood male trogon flew in and landed 30 feet away. What followed was lots of excited whispering, passing of binoculars back and forth, pointing, and more pointing. I believe both of the hikers eventually saw the trogon well. Who knows? Maybe they went home and bought a field guide. It’s more convenient than buying bird shirts.

Before and during the trip Hope had heard me drone on about the difficulty of finding a Montezuma Quail: about how it had been a jinx bird for me for so long, about how I’d finally seen a pair along Ruby Road west of Nogales, about how I’d jumped out of a moving minivan to chase them, et tedious cetera. “We can’t expect to see one,” I said. “It’s pretty much just pure luck,” I said.

We were driving back toward Portal from the high Chiricahuas, passing through the oak-grassland habitat, when she called out, “Stop! Back up!” In the few seconds it took to do that, she added, “It’s probably just a stump.” This is the quail equivalent of “It’s probably just a yellow-rump” for winter warblers, or “It’s probably just a clump of leaves” for hawks.

It was a male Montezuma Quail on the slope beside the road, conveniently freezing instead of running away. It stood immobile while we skidded to a stop on the gravel road, backed up, rolled the window down, tried to muffle our excited exclamations, and opened the door to take pictures. It was by far the best look I’ve ever had of one, and an ideal first look for Hope at this bird with its bizarre pattern of stripes and dots.

That evening, we decided to knock off early and relax with wine and cheese on the porch of our cabin. We planned to walk to a nearby sycamore at dusk to try to spot Elf Owls said to be roosting in woodpecker holes. While we were watching Blue-throated Hummingbirds hovering among the oaks, Hope saw my gaze shift to something over her shoulder. She heard words unsuitable for publication and, before turning to look, wondered what bird might elicit that response.

A black bear was strolling up the path just 30 yards away, paying no attention to us. We watched as it continued to the bird feeders at the lodge office. We had our appetizer and wine; the bear had a serving of sunflower seeds before standing up, grasping and tilting a hummingbird feeder, and drinking sugar water like a guest at a cocktail party sipping a martini.

The bear left, but its presence made our evening walk to look for owls slightly problematic. First we debated whether we could outrun a bear in flipflops—and then we realized that we couldn’t outrun a bear no matter what, so we might as well be comfortable. This is what’s sometimes called “liquid courage.”

No bear appeared, and although something that was probably an Elf Owl flew from a tree cavity as we stood underneath, not even in our liberal-minded state were we going to count that shadowy shape.

On our last morning, we decided to make a quick drive through the east unit of Saguaro National Park, a suburbia-bordered patch of desert and foothills with an eight-mile scenic loop drive. We managed one last lifer for Hope when a pair of Gilded Flickers played follow-the-leader around some saguaros.

It had been a whirlwind visit, and we had to skip some of my favorite spots, including Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge and Fort Huachuca. Hope left with more than 40 new birds, but more importantly she got to see a place unique in its habitats and climate, and uniquely appealing in its birdlife.

We hiked in mountain canyons to the sound of Canyon Wrens, and enjoyed dramatic drives up a few just-slightly-daunting roads. We had sweaty desert walks, lazy strolls beneath the tall San Pedro River cottonwoods, crashing thunderstorms, and even a five-minute hailstorm in the Chiricahuas when the temperature dropped to a comparatively chilly 61 degrees. Not an hour went by that we didn’t see something different and fascinating: birds, mammals, butterflies, reptiles, and flora from prickly to pretty. You’d never guess it’s all in southeastern Arizona, but it is.

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