Birdwatching in the Chiricahua Mountains of southeastern Arizona
From riverbeds to mountaintops, this peaceful southeastern Arizona region is a birder's paradise
Published: September 1, 1987
|Ten years ago, on my first birding trip to southeastern Arizona, I arrived after dark at a campground in the Chiricahua Mountains. When an unfamiliar dawn chorus enticed me from my camper a few hours later, it seemed that some mystical shuttle had transported me into a magic kingdom.|
Painted Redstarts and Grace's Warblers fluttered through the canopy, White-breasted Nuthatches and Brown Creepers worked up and down tree trunks, and Yellow-eyed Juncos foraged in the leaves at my feet. The sounds of Cave Creek formed a background for the raucous carousing of Gray-breasted Jays and the "squee-zee" of Sulphur-bellied Flycatchers, while from up the shaded canyon came the nasal "ark ark ark" of an Elegant Trogon. When I returned from an impromptu, pajama-clad bird walk, I found a Blue-throated Hummingbird inside my camper!
Like many, I have come, over the years, to revere the Chiricahuas. The birding is unparalleled in the U.S., and it is also a place to retreat from a hectic lifestyle, spending time with nature. Though a few favorite spots have suffered from intense birding, the area is remote enough that most of it is still wilderness, marked only by a network of foot trails.
A three-hour drive from Tucson, this is not a hot spot to "get your lifers" and run. Almost all the birds that inhabit this area can also be found in more accessible areas. If you are limited to a weekend of Arizona birding, visit Mount Lemmon, Madera Canyon, Ramsey Canyon, or Patagonia. Save the Chiricahuas for a time when you have four or five days to immerse yourself in the spirit of this place. Of course, there are occasions when the rare bird alert brings news of an Eared Trogon or Flame-colored Tanager in Cave Creek Canyon, or a Plain-capped Starthroat in Whitetail Canyon, and the listing itch takes over. (No matter how peaceful the setting, no birder can ever become totally passive!)
The Chiricahua Mountains are one of the "sky islands" which are oases in the southwest deserts. Though not the tallest, they are the largest expanse of montane habitat in southeastern Arizona, extending 40 miles from north to south and 20 miles to the east and west. Map study shows that they form a transition between the Rocky Mountains and the Sierra Madre Occidental of Mexico. Perhaps less obvious is the range's position in what biologists term the "Chochise-Hidalgo corridor," through which wildlife migrates between the Chihuahuan Desert on the east and the Sonoran Desert on the west. These influences and five life (habitat) zones, ranging in elevation from 4,600 to 9,795 feet, result in a vast diversity of habitats and wildlife.
The unchallenged "star" of the Chiricahuas' show is the Elegant (or Coppery-tailed) Trogon. Whether seen as a brilliant flash through the canopy or as a foot-long scarlet and emerald creature curiously eyeing you from a perch 10 feet over the trail, your first Trogon will be a never-forgotten birding experience. Favoring steep-walled canyons with a perpetual source of water, the Trogon finds an ideal home in the Chiricahuas.
Though the Trogon takes the award for personality and exotic beauty, the Mexican Chickadee must be counted as the foremost specialty of the range. It is found nowhere else in the U.S., and is the only chickadee found here.
The Chiricahuas virtually teem with owls — during a single 24-hour span in May, an expert owler can expect to see (not just hear) Flammulated, Western Screech, Whiskered Screech, Great Horned, Northern Pygmy, Elf, and Spotted Owls without leaving the mountains. A Northern Saw-whet Owl is reported occasionally, and Burrowing Owls can be found just a few miles to the east. Owls are most easily seen in May, when they are calling and sometimes are "staked out" at nest holes.
As in all Arizona sky islands, hummingbirds are abundant from spring until early fall, with rarities appearing most often in mid-to-late summer. "Feeder sitters" stake out seats at hummingbird havens in the yards of friendly local residents, where Lucifer, Berylline, White-eared, Calliope, and Violet-crowned Hummingbirds are occasionally seen. A check of the feeders at the Southwestern Research Station offers some variety to the day's "hummer" watch.
Often the rarities which appear at feeders in August have been feeding at agaves north of Cave Creek since mid-June. Birders who concentrate on riparian areas along Paradise Road and Whitetail Canyon get a jump on the feeder crowd and sometimes see birds that drink their fill without stopping at the feeders.
Until early in this century, when they were apparently hunted out, Thick-billed Parrots ranged freely through the Chiricahuas. Unconfirmed sightings were reported as late as the 1940's. In recent years, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) has seized a number of smuggled, wild-bred Thick-bills. In the fall of 1986, after public hearings and extensive planning, the birds were radio-banded and released into the Chiricahuas in a joint project between USFWS and the Arizona Game and Fish Department. Several birds immediately returned to Mexico, but 16 remained, flying the ridges of the Chiricahuas. The flock is being closely monitored and augmented by release of new birds with fresh radios as the old batteries expire. If the parrots seem to settle permanently and exhibit nesting behavior, releases of additional birds raised in captivity may be undertaken. For now, at least, there are once again free-flying parrots in the Chiricahuas.
|In addition to birds, a healthy population of black bears lives throughout the range. If you encounter a bear, just back slowly out of sight, and circle around its territory. More than one birder has exited the South Fork trail in Cave Creek Canyon, running full tilt and screaming "Bear!" This technique merely interests the bear and encourages it to follow you. To avoid bears in your campsite, lock up all food in your vehicle at night. And to avoid encounters with rattlesnakes, always check your path with a flashlight when walking at night.|
The ideal time to visit southeastern Arizona is between May and August, when all the nesting species are present, although trips in March and September can be productive in terms of species numbers. Some resident species are present year-round, but higher elevation roads are often closed in winter due to snow.
Weather also plays a part in the timing decision. Southern Arizona has five distinct seasons: fall, winter, spring, the "foresummer" drought of mid-May through mid-July, and the monsoons of mid-July through mid-September. During the drought, many creeks dry up, diminishing the aesthetics of a visit. On rare occasions, portions of the Coronado National Forest are closed as a fire-preventive measure when the foresummer is unusually dry. Later in the summer, the monsoon rain usually falls for a brief period each afternoon, cooling the air. But I recall drinking coffee in the Portal Store for two days, waiting out a deluge, and shouting greetings across the swollen Cave Creek to friends marooned in their campground.
By far the best approach to the Chiricahuas is through Cave Creek Canyon. From Portal to the east, towering pink rhyolite cliffs form an imposing entrance to the range. For the most spectacular effect, arrive just before sunset. If coming directly from Tucson, take the San Simon exit marked "Portal Road" and follow the signs. This good dirt road leads almost directly south but twists through several washes in the last few miles. For a longer but less hazardous route during the monsoons, continue to Road Forks, New Mexico., and go south on Highway 80. When coming from Patagonia or the Huachucas, approach on Highway 80 from the south through Bisbee and Douglas. At the New Mexico state line, the dirt "State Line Road" bypasses Rodeo, New Mexico, keeping you in Arizona and saving a few miles.
Birding is a major industry for tiny Portal. Walk-in meals, limited groceries, and gasoline are available only at the Portal Store, a friendly, family operation which also offers bed-and-breakfast accommodations and trogon memorabilia. Cabins are available at Cave Creek Ranch, and the Southwestern Research Station offers room and board when it's not fully occupied by research scientists. All maintain hummingbird feeders, feature good birding just outside your door, are accustomed to birders' peculiar habits, and welcome non-guests to watch their feeders. These facilities are often booked months ahead for the nesting season, but the U.S. Forest Service operates campgrounds throughout the Chiricahuas, including several in the Cave Creek area. The Research Station has a small bookstore with postcards, and the Portal post office is open two hours a day.
The most popular and heavily birded portion of the Chiricahuas is the road between Portal (elevation: 4,600 ft.) and Rustler Park Recreation Area (elevation: 8,400 ft.), which passes through five life zones and features a long list of bird species.
Birding the sycamores and the pine-oak woodland along the five paved miles from Portal to the Southwestern Research Station can consume two or three days. All the campgrounds along this portion of the road are worth birding, as well as the entire roadside. The most delightful spot, and the most heavily stressed and damaged by overzealous birders, is the South Fork campground, where I awoke that morning 10 years ago. It is in South Fork that Elegant Trogons are most numerous. Last year the U.S. Forest Service closed all but three campsites to give this delicate area a chance to recover from such traumas as the thousands of birders and national television crews who trampled it during the Flame-colored Tanager's appearance in 1985. The entire South Fork area is an official Trogon Management Area. Use of tapes to attract any wildlife, including owls, is strictly prohibited from April 1 to September 1 each year.
To find higher-elevation species while they are nesting, you must brave the rocky dirt road that extends from the Research Station to Rustler Park. Here you can easily spend another two or three days. Mexican Chickadees, Pygmy Nuthatches, Olive and Red-faced Warblers, and Greater Pewees can be found throughout the coniferous forest zone but are most reliable at Barfoot Park, Rustler Park, and Pinery Canyon. The fork just below Rustler Park, where a right turn leads to Barfoot Park, is often quite "birdy." Also productive, and largely ignored by birders, is the Jhus Canyon trail, accessible from Onion Saddle. Goshawk and Zone-tailed Hawk can be found along the higher-elevation roads, and in some years Red Crossbill and Pine Siskin are abundant in the conifers. From mid-July through August, when the higher-elevation species are flocking to migrate, roving flocks may be found at a somewhat lower elevation.
On the west side of the range, the Chiricahua National Monument is popular with those who prefer paved roads. Many of the same birds can be seen in the Monument, and Berylline Hummingbirds have nested there. Since the cliff tops are closer than at Cave Creek, nesting Peregrine and Prairie Falcons can be viewed more easily.
But sticking to this standard birder's itinerary is akin to taking a 10-day tour of European capitals and assuming you have seen Europe. Other areas in the Chiricahuas have equally interesting birds, unique scenery, and far fewer birders.
In the dry grasslands just east of Portal, an entirely different group of birds occur: Scaled Quail, Burrowing Owl, Pyrrhuloxia, and Bendire's Thrasher. On summer evenings, look on the roads east of town for the red eye-shine of Common Poorwills hunting for insects on the warm pavement. Be sure you see the Poorwill's white tail spots which set it apart from the Lesser Nighthawk, which occasionally roosts on roads.
Poorwills also frequent the road to Paradise, which forks off to the north about one-half mile west of Portal. In spring migration, four or five hours of birding in the riparian area along the Paradise Road or in Whitetail Canyon can yield 50 species, including the Plain Titmouse and the Scrub Jay.
On the south side of the Chiricahuas, with access from Highway 80, lie Price Canyon and nearby Rucker Lake Recreation Area. Price Canyon birding is similar to that at Cave Creek, except that trogons don't frequent Price. At Rucker Lake, the only real lake in the range, species that prefer proximity to water are common nesters — Whip-poor-will, Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher, and several owls. And Rucker does get an occasional trogon. West Turkey Creek Recreation Area, accessible from Highway 181 just below the Chiricahua National Monument, is another area worth exploring.
For the more intrepid birder/hiker, an interconnecting network of hiking trails leads through nearly pristine wilderness. Try leaving cars in two spots and hiking across the Chiricahuas, from Rustler Park to West Turkey Creek, or from South Fork to Rucker Lake to find Eared Trogons and Rufous-capped Warblers. The Crest Trail across Chiricahua Peak (elevation: 9,795 ft.) offers particularly spectacular views. Cachor (Rick) Taylor's Hiking Trails and Wilderness Routes of the Chiricahua Mountains, from Rainbow Expeditions, 1977, is an indispensable hikers' guide.
Veteran birders, having visited hot spots throughout the country, return to the Chiricahuas. Tour leader Ben Feltner, who has led southeastern Arizona tours since the 1960's, spends almost half of each tour there. "It's the highlight of every trip," he says. "Clients never want to leave — they just can't get enough."
Lifetime birder Emery Froelich has lived in Texas and Florida, birded in Europe and Mexico, and seen 620 species in North America. "There's no place I'd rather be than in a canyon in southeastern Arizona," he says. "It's so beautiful — so many birds singing, hummingbirds and Mexican birds nesting — the Chiricahuas are just spectacular. Anything can show up and often does. Each birding spot is a special place, surprising and different on each visit, year after year."
Mary Ann Chapman is a freelance writer based in southern Arizona. Formerly the operator of a bird tour company, she is now a resident volunteer on the Buenos Aires NWR south of Tucson Audubon Society's Desert Ecology Institute.|