Deserts and Sky Islands

The yellow-eyed junco, a bird of Sierra Madrean forests, enters the US only in southeast Arizona and southwest New Mexico.  I photographed this one just as it took off at Santa Rita Lodge.

“I saw one day a little pigmy [hummingbird]…I thought, as I watched it, that there was no need for poets to invent elves and gnomes, whilst Nature furnishes us with such marvellous little sprites ready to hand.” – Henry Walter Bates, The Naturalist on the River Amazon (1873)

There exists a tiny, singular region within the United States where, in the span of one or two hours, one can drive through vastly different life zones from the entire continent–from Lower Sonoran to Canadian, even to Hudsonian–and see an amazing assortment of species.  That region is southeastern Arizona, a land of deserts and sky islands.  We were fortunate to be able to explore this area for a few days a couple months ago.

In southeast Arizona, one can see greater roadrunners, Chihuahuan ravens, phainopepla, and verdin amongst saguaro cacti, ocotillo, palo verde, and other desert plants, and soon after observe an assortment of birds nearly impossible to see elsewhere north of the border:  bridled titmice, painted redstarts, elegant trogons, yellow-eyed juncos, Arizona woodpeckers, Mexican jays, and many other species amongst sycamore, cypress, Mexican alder, spruce, pine, fir, and juniper trees of Sierra Madrean montane forest.

Between the Rocky Mountains to the north and Mexico’s Sierra Madre to the south, forty-two mountain ranges effectively form an archipelago of sky islands within the vast Sonoran and Chihuahuan deserts.  To become a sky island, a mountain must possess sufficient mass and height and must be isolated–in this case, by harsh desert. There are sky islands elsewhere in North America, but the location of this particular archipelago supports a unique overlap of flora and fauna from temperate North America, Mexico, and Central America that is unmatched elsewhere on the continent.1

I took this photo during a hike along the Carrie Nation trail in the Santa Rita Mountains.  The Sonoran desert is not far from here!

Even the elusive, near-mythical northern goshawk is found on these sky islands, though with numbers greatly diminished by hunters and farmers who shot them in the past, as well as by loss of habitat related to human development.1

We didn’t see any goshawks, trogons, or quetzals–the US range of the latter two is only in southeast Arizona–but we did see many other interesting species during our time there.

Initially based in Tucson, we took a short road trip in the Santa Catalina Mountains toward their highest peak, Mt. Lemmon.  The base of this range north of Tucson is mountainous desert dotted with saguaro cacti and palo verde desertscrub.  We stopped at multiple lookouts and hiking trails along the way, including Babad Do’ag Vista, above which we no longer saw saguaros.  (According to the excellent Finding Birds in Southeast Arizona, which was conceived of and cowritten by a physician, “Babad Do’ag” means “Frog Mountain” in the Tohono O’odham language.)

A photo from our hike along the Lower Bug Spring Trail in the Santa Catalina Mountains. Note the absence of saguaros.

We passed through multiple life zones, sometimes with dramatic changes of scenery.  Saguaros gave way to chaparral, which suddenly gave way to a landscape of mixed deciduous and coniferous forest dotted with hoodoos. One hoodoo resembled mo’ai figures, while another resembled a sphinx.

At Bear Canyon, among a stand of tall pine trees, we spotted our first set of life birds.  A clamor of bird calls in the background approached, soon revealing a mixed flock of clownish acorn woodpeckers, ruby-crowned kinglets, white-breasted nuthatches, a beautiful spotted towhee, and Sierra Madrean Mexican jays, which took over the trees and picnic tables around us.  After they left, with the late afternoon sun almost behind the mountains, my eyes happened upon a yellow-eyed junco quietly foraging on the ground in front of me, mere feet away. This montane species–found at 4000 feet and above–isn’t observed in the wild anywhere else in the US outside the sky islands of the desert southwest.

I realized a year or two ago that I bird because birding is the most accessible way to be a naturalist; it allows the most universal connection to nature.  One doesn’t even need binoculars.  By birding, one can observe, explore, and appreciate nature in practically all seasons and places, including otherwise ordinary or undesirable places that are infused with wonder and significance when certain species are present.  Birds are larger than insects, are easier to see with human eyes, add joy to our lives with their songs and their freedom, and are even found in places devoid of plant life.

One of the better photos I took of this yellow-eyed junco at Santa Rita Lodge.

Back at the hotel, in deepening twilight, we observed tiny, slow-flying bats foraging for insects low overhead. I’m pretty sure they were the smallest bat species in the country, the Western pipistrelle, with bodies the size of walnuts.  At night, the mountains and desert were tinted blue by the near-full moon, which appeared to float upon a sea of stars.

A seemingly fearless roadrunner I photographed during our hike in Sabino Canyon.

After spending more time exploring the area in and around Tucson, including Sabino Canyon and Saguaro National Park, we headed south to the Santa Rita Mountains and the most spectacular birding experience I’ve had in the US outside of spring migration at High Island.

An incredible view during our Sabino Canyon hike.

Upon arriving at Santa Rita Lodge in Madera Canyon, the first thing that impressed me was the great number and variety of birds at the feeders there, a diversity I have never before experienced.  I first noticed the Gould’s wild turkeys (M.g. mexicana), huge and with white-tipped tails, out in the open. An older couple–who also said that the lodge is probably the best place to bird in Arizona–told me that the wild turkeys used to be skittish/retiring many years ago.  After years of feeding, they are now accustomed to human presence.

Gould’s wild turkey atop a platform feeder at Santa Rita Lodge.  This is the largest subspecies of wild turkey.

There were Rivoli’s, rufous, and Anna’s hummingbirds; chipping, Lincoln’s, rufous-winged (only found in the Sonoran desert), and white-crowned sparrows; raucous Mexican jays, white-breasted nuthatches, acorn woodpeckers, and a charming little house wren that hopped around my feet, into the underbrush, and back out again multiple times.  There were dark-eyed and yellow-eyed juncos.  The following day, we saw pine siskins and lesser goldfinches all over the feeders, bridled titmice, red-naped sapsuckers, Arizona woodpeckers, a greater pewee (rare for November), and more!

After many tries, I finally snapped a decent photo of this male Rivoli’s hummingbird, a species with a tiny US range: a small part of southeast Arizona and southwest New Mexico.

Acorn woodpeckers have idiosyncratic, dramatic flight patterns: they often fly straight up like a whale spyhopping a peek out of the ocean, then dive sharply along a parabolic arc to a tree trunk or branch.

We went on a short hike along the lovely trail behind the lodge, almost immediately spotting a male hepatic tanager, a male Townsend’s warbler (resident year-round), and a  painted redstart.

I used Lightroom to try to improve this backlit photo I took of one of the painted redstarts we saw in Madera Canyon.

Madera Canyon is the quietest place at night I’ve ever visited.  The total darkness–one is surrounded by mountains–is well-matched by the total silence.  (We did hear some scuffling near our cabin the second night.)

The following day, we spent hours hiking the trails, hoping to see an elegant trogon, knowing that most had migrated south for the season.  We didn’t see the trogon or the red-faced warbler, both gorgeous Madrean species that overwinter in Mexico and Central America, but we greatly enjoyed our hikes through what looked like a magical forest.*

I took this photo along the Super Trail in the Santa Ritas.  It’s difficult to tell that one is surrounded by desert!

We saw Arizona sycamores, Mexican blue oak, alligator juniper, and Arizona white oak, among many other plant species, as we hiked along Madera Creek. As we ascended the Super Trail, we encountered a mountain spiny lizard sunning itself atop a rock. Later, during a descent along the Carrie Nation trail, we encountered an Aphonopelma madera tarantula crossing to the other side, each leg moving with the delicate elegance of a human finger playing a piano sonata.  This tarantula just received a species name in 2016!

I photographed this male Aphonopelma madera tarantula along the Carrie Nation trail, in Madera Canyon.

A couple staying at an inn down the road from us photographed a ringtail drinking hummingbird feeder fluid at night.  There are black bears, mountain lions, coatis, even jaguars (extremely rare) in the area, none of which we encountered, although a black bear was seen at our lodge the night before we arrived.  We did see white-tailed deer, Arizona gray squirrels, and fox squirrels.  The mammalian fauna of Madera Canyon was once much richer and included grizzly bear, jaguarundi, ocelot, and wolf, but these have been extirpated by encroaching human civilization.1

Bridled titmouse, yet another Madrean species with a very limited US range. This one was only a few feet away from my camera.

Birding in southeast Arizona feels like neotropical birding “lite,” in a sense: colorful species abound, there are multiple hummingbird species, and one can even see trogons. (If one is very lucky, one may even see an eared quetzal.)  For me, it feels a world apart from birding in the eastern half of the US because western flyway species and eastern flyway species don’t mix much. It feels like birding on another planet, at times, to one accustomed to birding the upper Texas coast.

The trail behind Santa Rita Lodge is filled with wonders for those who know what to look for.

Our final morning in Madera Canyon, we went for a short hike along the beautiful trail behind our casita.  Much to our surprise, we encountered a male Montezuma quail sitting, statuelike, atop a small boulder.  Initially unsure if it was real, we stopped walking and observed it.  I took photos.  It then slowly turned around and skulked away into the tall grass.  It reminded me of a bizarre Studio Ghibli character.  Reading about these birds later, it surprised me to learn that they can leap several feet straight up if startled.  I wasn’t surprised, however, to learn that the mechanism by which they locate the roots they dig up to eat is unknown, because so much of natural history is still unknown, even in well-explored places around the world.

Our hike that morning was also special in a different way.  I proposed that morning.  She said yes!

I photographed this Montezuma quail along the trail behind Santa Rita Lodge, shortly before my now-fiancée and I became engaged.

*Mexico’s Sierra Madre is also home to the outlandish black-throated magpie-jay and the (possibly extinct) imperial woodpecker, the world’s largest woodpecker species.

Further reading:
1. Moore, Douglas W. The Nature of Madera Canyon.  Green Valley: Friends of Madera Canyon, 1999. Print.
2. Finding Birds in Southeast Arizona (revised 8th ed.).  Tucson: Tucson Audubon Society, 2015. Print.


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