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A birding adventure in Arizona’s ‘sky islands’

                                A view of the Santa Rita Mountains and Madera Canyon in southern Arizona.


    A view of the Santa Rita Mountains and Madera Canyon in southern Arizona.

                                A broad-billed hummingbird on the grounds of the the Santa Rita Lodge in Arizona’s Madera Canyon.


    A broad-billed hummingbird on the grounds of the the Santa Rita Lodge in Arizona’s Madera Canyon.

                                A view of the desert on a drive to Portal, Ariz.


    A view of the desert on a drive to Portal, Ariz.

                                The visitors’ center in Cave Creek Canyon, Ariz.


    The visitors’ center in Cave Creek Canyon, Ariz.

The elegant trogon, befitting its name, is clever. One can perch in a tree 10 feet overhead and draw little attention, though it’s come dressed for it, with a striking yellow beak, blush-red breast topped with a white collar, and metallic green back tapering, like tuxedo tails, to finely barred tail feathers.

As a birding fan, I’d made its acquaintance on trips to Mexico. But during the pandemic, in my desire to find unexpected, wondrous and uncrowded places in the United States, I learned that the trogon comes north, often visiting a section of southeast Arizona that looks, from a bird’s point of view, a lot like the highlands of Mexico.

These are “sky islands,” isolated mountain formations separated by seas of desert that are uniquely biodiverse, offering habitats from scrub and grasslands to pine and fir forests as they rise.

Between the Rocky Mountains and Mexico’s Sierra Madre Occidentals lie nearly 60 sky islands, an “archipelago of mountains that are steppingstones between two big ranges,” said Peg Abbott, the owner of Naturalist Journeys, a birding and nature tour operator based in the region.

Stretched apart some 15 million years ago and isolated by the development of arid grasslands and deserts between them, about 15 sky islands lie in Arizona’s Coronado National Forest; the rest are in Mexico.

I met Abbott on a five-day trip in May to three of Arizona’s sky island ranges — the Santa Rita, Chiricahua and Huachuca mountains — on my first post-vaccination trip, designed to safely spend time hiking outdoors but squarely in the path of potential encounters with Crayola-colored warblers, up to 15 species of hummingbirds and seasonal guests like the elegant trogon.

Flocks of birders

From Tucson, I drove roughly 30 miles south to Green Valley and turned southeast for Madera Canyon in the Santa Rita Mountains, where more than 250 bird species have been documented. The road ascended from cactus flats to grass and oak savannas into a narrowing canyon, a crease of shady oak and sycamore forest flanking a seasonal stream, bone dry in drought conditions.

At the Santa Rita Lodge in the largely undeveloped canyon, I checked into a creekside casita ($160) and was asked to keep my showers short because of the drought.

But the lack of rainfall hadn’t discouraged the birds, or the birders. On the weaving two-lane road that dead-ends at about 5,400 feet, with footpaths ascending another 4,000 feet to Mount Wrightson, a flock of wild Gould’s turkeys held up traffic. The males, with fully fanned tail feathers, dragged their wings audibly on the pavement. In front of the lodge, more than a dozen feeders were filled with bridled titmouse, cartoonish acorn woodpeckers, thick-billed, black-headed grosbeaks and gregarious pine siskins.

Hummingbird feeders, filled with sweetened water, were staked closer to the benches facing this bird theater, allowing one woman to train her binoculars on a broad-billed hummingbird just 2 feet away for a microscopic view of its red beak and darting tongue.

The staffer checking me in said trogons hadn’t been seen yet this year, but directed me to the Carrie Nation Trail in the morning to look. Meanwhile, she suggested I head across the street at sunset to see the elf owl that burrows in a utility pole there.

“It’s like the littlest dog that has the biggest bark,” said Steve Holt, the lodge owner, speaking of the tiny elf owl that I and a dozen guests gathered to see, settling ultimately for the chirping, whistling and trilling that indicated it was nearby.

‘A concept of geography’

Posted outside Cave Creek Ranch in the Chiricahua Mountains, about 150 miles southeast of Tucson, a schedule of the expected arrival dates of migrating and seasonal birds anticipated the elegant trogon April 6.

“This year, almost everything’s been late,” said Reed Peters, the owner of the 13-cabin retreat where I joined Abbott, the tour operator, and her group of about a dozen travelers on a nine-day birding trip in the sky islands. They were paging through a binder of listings, checking off the day’s sightings, including the northern beardless tyrannulet and greater pewee.

“Sky islands are a concept of geography that not a lot of people in the U.S. know,” said Abbott, explaining similarities between the Galapagos Islands and the sky islands to the group over drinks. “Part of diversity is how close are you to the big mama ship that has all the species, and part is being in the path of things that move on currents and wind. The principles of island biogeography play out in these sky islands.”

In Arizona, breeding trogons tend to nest in the cavities of big trees like sycamores that grow in riparian zones, which have streams or rivers. Fortunately, the next day, the water was flowing in Cave Creek Canyon, just a few miles beyond the ranch where I joined a loose confederation of birders on a three-hour trek along the road and the South Fork Trail that continues along the creek.

Ears trained for the trogon, we delighted in flamboyant warblers and a family of grosbeaks bathing in a rock pool. At an inviting swimming hole known as “The Bathtub,” I heard something between a bark, a gobble and a chortle, possibly a trogon, but I never saw it.

“He likes to hang out there,” Abbott confirmed that afternoon as she drove me to the top of the Chiricahuas on a tour that took in campgrounds where visitors erected their own hummingbird feeders, and the Southwestern Research Station, a wilderness campus managed by the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, where scientists have conducted long-term studies on Mexican jay breeding, hummingbird physiology and the social behavior of ants.

As we climbed to 8,500 feet, we left grasslands for oak-and-pine forests and Douglas fir stands, catching red-faced and yellow-rumped warblers amid alligator junipers with coarse, block-­patterned bark, and olive and Grace’s warblers near a meadow of lupine and iris.

“They say it’s like driving from Mexico to Canada in an hour,” she said.

Patience is key

Birding is a patient practice. You can put yourself in the path of migration and still miss sightings through inattention or impatience or, in my case, a fitness fanatic’s stride. As a Cave Creek birder from Austin, Texas, put it, “Hiking and birding are incompatible. Birders are always stopping.”

What I needed was a guide to set the appropriate pace, which I found in Chris Harbard. A native of England, Chris worked for 24 years for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds before moving to the United States and settling, in 2016, in the Huachuca Mountains, roughly between the Santa Ritas and Chiricahuas, where he writes about birds between lecturing gigs on expedition cruise ships.

He and his wife, Mari Cea, run the Southwest Wings birding festival in May and August — the latter is high season for hummingbirds — with lectures and tours. They also rent a spacious Airbnb casita behind their home in Hereford in a very birdy yard; Chris’ list of yard sightings is over 150 species. Proving that the thrill never fades, we all got quiet when the elusive Montezuma quail, a rotund, charismatic bird with facial racing stripes and polka-dot sides, emerged from the tall grass just before sunset.

The next morning, I followed Chris to Ramsey Canyon Preserve, a site managed by the Nature Conservancy ($8), and my last hope for a trogon.

From a distance, the scrubby slopes of the Huachucas look barren, but they harbor astonishingly life-filled, creek-cut folds, including Ramsey Canyon, shaded by towering white-barked sycamores. Following his meditative pace, we watched painted redstarts flitting from tree to tree and spied a velvety red hepatic tanager singing for a mate until Chris, possessed of the bionic ears that distinguish the best birding guides, caught a barking sound.

“Trogon,” he whispered, pointing down the creek.

Just a few minutes after backtracking and intensely scanning the canopy, we found him, just 10 feet above, his red breast, white collar and striped tail feather impeccable, teaching me the difference between bird-watching and simply looking.

“If you look closely,” Chris said, “he has incredibly long eyelashes.”

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