Nature’s Way: Birding the Sky Islands of Arizona

An elegant trogon

The red-faced warbler

Jim Hoagland

As the weather heats up, there is no better time to explore birding areas than in the higher elevations, where it can be several degrees cooler. This month we explore some popular areas where you can get relief and escape the hot weather here in the desert.

One of my favorite places and a world-renowned location for bird watching is Madera Canyon. Madera Canyon is nestled in the northern slopes of Santa Rita Mountain range, east of Green Valley and south of Tucson. With more than 250 species of birds documented, including fifteen species of hummingbirds, elegant trogon, unique flycatchers, flame-colored tanagers, and 36 species of wood warblers, it is a place you do not want to miss and only an hour and half away. There are many trails right alongside the road into the canyon, but my favorite is the Carrie Nation Trail at the end of the road. Plan an overnight stay at Santa Rita Lodge to hear the owls. In the morning, visit the feeding stations for a great variety of birds, and in the evenings you might see a coati or a ring-tailed cat.

Although we can see Mount Lemmon from the Ranch, getting there can be a challenge. Mount Lemmon is in the Santa Catalina Mountains, a rugged range with lots of steep slopes and deep canyons. The backroad out of Oracle to Mount Lemmon requires a high vehicle with 4-wheel drive and the road is extremely rough. The other route takes you south on Oracle Road to Ina Road, and then out to Tanque Verde before your ascent up the mountain to 9,171-foot elevation. This route takes close to two hours and you are going to want to stop on the way up to explore the various trails because the scenery is breathtaking. One great birding location begins at the Gordon Hirabayashi Campground where you pick up the Arizona Trail. About two miles out, is the Sycamore Reservoir with excellent birding along the trail. Once you make it to Summerhaven at the top, there are several trails leading away from the center where you have a good chance to see the red-faced warbler or even a Grace’s warbler.

Our last place is an overnight trip since it is more than three hours away. The Chiricahua Mountains in Southeast Arizona offer many great trails and roads to explore. Your stay should be near Portal. My favorite is the Cave Creek Ranch in Portal, staying in one of the creekside cottages. This sky island mountain of southeastern Arizona is the only place in the U.S. to find some high-elevation Mexican pine-oak woodland. So there is a variety of Mexican specialties from tropical hummingbirds and elf owls in the town of Portal, to even a rarity such as the eared quetzal seen last year. More on chasing rarities in a future article.

These are just three of the 15 Sky Islands in the Coronado National Forest. With all these locations, avoid weekends and holidays as they become quite crowded. Happy birding!