Huachuca Mountains and San Pedro River

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The Huachuca Mountains

This small sky island mountain range is one of the most famous of all locations in southeastern Arizona. Many rare species of animals and plants have been recorded here in more than a century of scientific study. Birders delight in regular occurrences of “rarities” such as Elegant Trogon, Whiskered Screech-Owl, Blue-throated and White-eared hummingbirds, Sulphur-bellied and Buff-breasted flycatchers, and Red-faced Warbler. Like all higher elevations in southeastern Arizona, the Huachucas are quiet bird-wise between October and April, but from spring through early fall there is plenty to excite naturalists of all persuasions.

Huachucas in snow

A rare sight: The Huachuca Mountains covered in snow.

Among the most productive and accessible locations in the Huachucas are the east slope canyons within the Coronado National Forest: Miller, Carr, and Ramsey. Miller Canyon, south of Ramsey and Carr canyons, had usually been overlooked by birders until relatively recently.

SPOW

Mexican Spotted Owl

This lovely canyon deserves more attention, particularly since it has hosted a fair number of rarities, including Flame-colored Tanager, Eared Quetzal, Rufous-capped Warbler, Crescent-Chested Warbler, Aztec Thrush, and Brown-backed Solitaire, as well as one of the most accessible pairs of Mexican Spotted Owls. At the end of Miller Canyon Road (2.6 miles from Hwy 92) you’ll find a Forest Service parking area with trail access into the Miller Peak Wilderness Area. The trail is beautiful but steep, rugged, and damaged in places by flooding that followed the 2011 Monument wildfire. Side roads below the trailhead parking offer access to other less intimidating trails, some of which are still in development. As with other mountain sites, Miller Canyon is most productive for birding from April through September.

Just above the trailhead parking at the end of Miller Canyon Road is Beatty’s Miller Canyon Guest Ranch & Orchard. Long known to locals as a source of pesticide-free apples, eggs, honey, and beeswax, the orchard has become the hottest hummingbird-watching spot in Arizona. Owners Tom and Edith Beatty had long fed birds around their home and rental cabins, but in spring of 1998 they added a hummingbird feeding station and hummingbird/butterfly garden for the enjoyment of day visitors. The payoff has been 15 species of hummingbirds (up to 13 at one time) plus an astonishing variety of naturally occurring hybrids. The Beattys have added bleachers, a picnic table and a shade canopy to the Controlled Access Site (CAS) for visitors’ comfort.

3-WEHUback

White-eared Hummingbird, male.

Besides the high diversity of “regular” hummingbird species (including White-eared) plus occasional appearances by rarities (Lucifer, Berylline, and Plain-capped Starthroat), the feeding station is a dependable site for Rufous and Calliope in both spring and fall migration and occasional Allen’s in late summer. The Beattys also have several housekeeping units for rent, each with its own feeders. Like other hummingbird hot spots, the Beattys’ feeding station is best visited April through September. Parking on the Beattys’ property is limited to overnight guests and the handicapped, but there is plenty of shaded parking available in the Forest Service lot below (please park in developed spaces only, taking care not to block the Beattys’ driveway or the public road). The Beattys maintain a few hummingbird feeders at the main entrance (mainly for the benefit of mobility-impaired visitors). A fee of $5 per person, $20 per group is charged for access to the CAS hummingbird feeding station inside the property. As with all privately-owned birding sites, please respect the privacy of the Beattys and their guests, and observe the rules for access to areas not normally open to the public.

Just south of Miller Canyon is another great spot for feeder watching: Mary Jo Ballator’s Ash Canyon Bed & Breakfast. Mary Jo first opened her property to birders in August 2002, when she first hosted a Plain-capped Starthroat (which returned in 2003 but not since). Her busy feeding station has attracted 15 species of hummingbirds, including Lucifer, Broad-billed, and Berylline as well as other birds such as Bridled Titmouse, Black-headed Grosbeak, Hooded Oriole, and Arizona Woodpecker. A straw-bale casita is available for rent. Directions: The site is about 0.5 mile off Hwy 92, at the end of Spring Road. From Hwy 92, turn west on Turkey Track Road (2.5 miles south of Miller Canyon Road, across the highway from Andalusian Way), and turn left in front of a yellow and black diagonally striped warning marker (less than 0.1 mile), then right on Spring Road and follow it to the end. Park in a designated space in front of the wall on the right and come through the gate in the wall; you’ll see the guest house on the right and the large main house and viewing areas on the left.

VISITOR NOTE: On April 12, 2011, the Cochise County Board of Supervisors revoked a previously issued business permit for the wildlife-viewing operation at Ash Canyon B&B, based on objections from owners of several neighboring properties. The site remains open to day visitors (as well as overnight guests) on a donation basis but has limited parking for normal passenger vehicles at a time. No RVs or buses are allowed, there is no overflow parking, and parking is prohibited along Spring Road and Turkey Track Road. If you arrive to find all parking spaces filled, you must leave and return later. Visitors are advised to carry precise directions to the site to avoid getting lost. Do not approach neighbors for directions or use private driveways as turnarounds.

Carr Canyon provides relatively easy access to the higher elevations of the Huachuca Mountains. The mostly unpaved, switchback road is not for the faint of heart but offers spectacular views of the San Pedro Valley and a chance to see some of southern Arizona’s high country without a long hike. Two campgrounds, Reef Townsite and Ramsey Vista, provide good birding as well as camping and picnicking opportunities. Trails leading into the Miller Peak Wilderness Area are easily accessible from both the campgrounds and the adjacent trailhead parking lots. This is one of the most reliable localities for Buff-breasted Flycatcher as well as other high-altitude birds such as Red-faced and Grace’s warblers, Red Crossbill, Yellow-eyed Junco, Pygmy Nuthatch, and Steller’s Jay. Fruiting trees along the Carr Peak Trail hosted a flock of Aztec Thrushes in 1996. The interesting cross section of habitats in Carr Canyon was featured on an episode of the PBS series BirdWatch. The campgrounds are fee areas; bring small bills to enclose in the pay envelope and place your stub on your dashboard where it can be seen by rangers. There is currently no fee for parking in the trailhead lot across from the entrance to the Reef Townsite CG.

The Forest Service, in partnership with Friends of the Huachucas, has renovated the Carr House site in lower Carr Canyon as a visitor center with exhibits, trails, and plantings for hummingbirds and butterflies. The site is open to visitors only on weekends. The nearby Perimeter Trail parking area (below the Carr House on the left side of the road, across from a small campground) is the starting point for SABO’s Huachuca Mountain Owl Prowls.

Carr Canyon Road is 7 miles south of the Fry Blvd./Hwy 92 intersection on the east side of Sierra Vista; it is 2.3 miles from Hwy 92 to the Carr House, 8.5 miles to the campgrounds. Ordinary passenger cars can negotiate the upper stretches of Carr Canyon Road, but high clearance is helpful. Warning: Large RVs and vehicles pulling trailers may not be able to negotiate the tight curves on this narrow mountain road! The campgrounds and upper part of the road are usually closed in winter due to heavy snow and ice in the higher elevations.

Ramsey Canyon has been famous among birders and other nature enthusiasts for over a century. Though best known for its diversity of hummingbirds in season, the canyon offers much more to discriminating naturalists. Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher, Black-headed Grosbeak, and Painted Redstart are common summer residents, while Arizona Woodpecker, Bridled Titmouse, and Spotted Towhee are present year-round. Sightings of Coues’s White-tailed Deer, White-nosed Coati, and Arizona Mountain Kingsnake are common, but truly lucky visitors may catch a glimpse of a Mountain Lion crossing the trail or a Black-tailed Rattlesnake basking on a tree trunk. The upper part of the canyon is within the Miller Peak Wilderness Area of the Coronado National Forest; trails here connect to trails in Brown Canyon and upper Carr Canyon.

In the middle elevations of the canyon surrounded by the Coronado National Forest lies The Nature Conservancy’s 300-acre Ramsey Canyon Preserve, an excellent birding stop from April through September. The Nature Conservancy charges visitors to the preserve a $6 general admission fee, reduced to $3 for residents of Cochise County and members of TNC; children under 16 are admitted at no charge. Currently the preserve is open Thursday-Monday 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.; gates are locked at 5 p.m.

To reach the preserve, take Ramsey Canyon Road west from Hwy 92 south of Sierra Vista (6 miles south of Fry Blvd.); the preserve is at the end of the road, 4 miles west of the highway. The preserve’s narrow entrance road and parking lot may be impassable to large RVs and vehicles pulling trailers. Visiting hours and days vary by season, and access and activities are restricted to protect wildlife and habitats. Visitors may be turned away when the parking lot is full. Visit the preserve’s Web page or call (520) 378-2785 for current visiting days/hours and additional information. SABO recommends these nearby alternatives:

The California Sister is one of over 130 species of butterflies found in the Huachuca Mountains (photo by Sheri Williamson)The Brown Canyon Trail in the Coronado National Forest is great for both birding and butterflying. It begins 1.5 miles up Ramsey Canyon Road from Hwy 92, where the grassland meets the oaks on the north side of the road; watch for the Forest Service trail sign. From the trailhead interconnecting paths wind through oak savanna and classic Madrean oak woodland, eventually climbing up through pine-oak forest to the ridge separating Brown Canyon from Ramsey Canyon. A side route leads to a picturesque “box canyon” with a seasonal waterfall. Resident birds of the canyon include Mexican Jay, Bridled Titmouse, Spotted Towhee, Canyon Wren, and even the elusive Montezuma Quail. Elegant Trogon, Painted Redstart, Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher, and Scott’s Oriole are among the many species which summer in the canyon, while Black-chinned Sparrow and Townsend’s Warbler may linger into winter some years. A small pond at the historic Brown Canyon Ranch site often attracts water-loving species such as Black Phoebe. During the late summer rainy season over 50 species of butterflies, including the beautiful and charming California Sister, can be found in a day. (Note: There is another interesting but far less accessible canyon with the same name on Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge.)

For more information on camping, trails, road conditions, etc. in the National Forest, contact:

Sierra Vista Ranger District
5990 S. Hwy. 92
Hereford, AZ 85615
(520) 378-0311


Coronado National Memorial

Managed by the National Park Service, this historic park is located at the southern end of the Huachuca Mountains along the U.S.-Mexico border. The visitor center, on Coronado Memorial Road 5 miles from Hwy 92, has a small museum with exhibits about the Coronado expedition plus a variety of books about the natural and human history of the Southwest. By a large picture window overlooking a small artificial pool you’ll find photos of birds and other wildlife native to the area, many of which visit the pool to drink. All of the resident birds of the oak woodland, including Acorn Woodpecker, Mexican Jay, Bridled Titmouse, and Montezuma Quail, are found here along with mammals such as Coues’s White-tailed Deer, Javelina (Collared Peccary), and White-nosed Coati. Three miles west of the visitor center, the scenic overlook at Montezuma Pass provides spectacular views of the San Pedro and San Rafael valleys and Mexico. Warning: Large RVs and vehicles pulling trailers may not be able to negotiate the tight curves on this narrow mountain road! In July and August listen for singing Botteri’s and Cassin’s sparrows in the lush grasslands along the entrance road. The park, including the picnic area, is open only during daylight hours; there are no facilities for overnight camping.

For more information, contact:

Coronado National Memorial
4101 East Montezuma Canyon Road
Hereford, AZ 85615
(520) 366-5515

More information on Coronado National Memorial…

The Canyons on Fort Huachuca: Garden, Scheelite, Sawmill, Huachuca

ACCESS ADVISORY 1: On August 3, 2015, Fort Huachuca changed visitor access procedures. Information on the new access requirements is available on the fort’s official homepage, www.huachuca.army.mil. The most important information for birders is available on the “Gate Information” page (linked in the main homepage menu) and at the “Visitors Access” link under Resources at the bottom of that page. The “Installation Access Forms” link will allow you to download the access request form that each visitor will need to complete. To streamline the process, we recommend that each member of your party complete this form prior to arrival at the gate.

Garden Canyon on Fort Huachuca is arguably the most beautiful in the Huachuca Mountains. The fort is well managed for wildlife; you may see White-tailed Deer, Mule Deer, Pronghorns or Javelinas along the way. The Upper Picnic Area offers great, easy birding; Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher, Painted Redstart and Elegant Trogon are regular here in season. (Please note that use of picnic areas for picnicking is by permit only and should be arranged in advance by calling (520) 533-6707/6708.) The road is unpaved above the picnic areas and is often severely eroded by rain and subsequent flooding. A 4-wheel drive or high clearance vehicle is recommend beyond this point, and the upper sections of the road may be closed to vehicles if conditions are particularly bad.

The Scheelite Canyon Trail, famous for its resident Mexican Spotted Owls, takes off to the left 0.7 mile from the Upper Picnic Area. This steep, rugged trail was built and maintained by the late “Smitty” (Robert T. Smith), a local birder and conservationist whose years of selfless service in protecting the owls and guiding visiting birders are the stuff of legend. Smitty passed away on August 29, 1998, and without his vigilance the canyon has begun showing signs of deterioration, including trampled vegetation, new trails, and reports of harassment of the owls (a violation of the Endangered Species Act). Please help protect this fragile natural treasure by staying on established trails, respecting the owls’ privacy, and reporting harassment (including use of tapes or imitations of the birds’ calls) to authorities. Groups are limited to 12 or fewer.

At the end of Garden Canyon Road, the Sawmill Canyon Trail continues to climb, but more gently, through classic pine-oak woodland. This is superb habitat for Montezuma Quail, Buff-breasted Flycatcher, and Red-faced and Grace’s warblers, and Zone-tailed Hawks have nested within scope view of the trail. The same regulations apply here as in Scheelite Canyon, including group size.

Huachuca Canyon is another major drainage on the north end of the Huachuca Mountains. Not as isolated as Garden Canyon and a bit harder to find, it nevertheless is worth a visit. Elegant Trogons are relatively common here in summer along with all of the typical birds of the oak and pine-oak woodlands. A lingering trogon or two may spice up winter birding in the canyon, and the second Sinaloa Wren in the U.S.was found here in April 2009. The road is popular with runners, so drive slowly and watch carefully when coming around curves. As always, take care when stopping to bird along the roadsides; use parking areas wherever possible, or pull all the way to the right side of the road. Normal passenger vehicles are safe as far as the turnaround and picnic area where the road crosses the creek; walking is recommended beyond this point.

Important visitor information: Fort Huachuca regulations prohibit the use of recordings, pishing, tooting, and other methods for attracting birds and the use of cell phones while driving. All canyons are closed after dark. Fort Huachuca has traditionally been open to the public, but security concerns have tightened access requirements. Civilian visitors who are U.S. citizens must provide photo identification, vehicle registration and/or car rental contract, and proof of insurance. Foreign nationals are allowed to visit only in the company of a U.S. citizen with a military identification card. Additionally, all or parts of the post may be closed to civilians for indefinite periods of time for reasons of public safety and/or national security.  All visitors are subject to random inspections by military police. For more information on access and visitor regulations, contact:

Fort Huachuca
Public Affairs Office
(520) 533-1285


The San Pedro River Valley

Though wildlife habitat in the San Pedro River Valley is rapidly disappearing under the blades of bulldozers, some of the most diverse and important areas have been set aside for future generations. The San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area, managed by the Bureau of Land Management, may be one of binding’s best kept secrets. Designated a Globally Important Bird Area in 1996 by the American Bird Conservancy, this 56,000-acre preserve along the upper San Pedro River is home to over 100 species of breeding birds and provides invaluable habitat for over 250 species of migrant and wintering birds. A narrow ribbon of Fremont Cottonwoods, some over 100 years old, supports forty percent of the nesting Gray Hawks in the U.S. and creates a migratory corridor for an estimated 4 million migrating birds each year.

A trip to the San Pedro River is worthwhile any time of year. Vermilion Flycatchers are hard to miss in spring and summer, sharing the lush greenery with nesting Summer Tanagers, Yellow and Lucy’s warblers, Blue Grosbeaks and Yellow-breasted Chats. Spring and fall bring thousands of migrants, including Lazuli Bunting, Green-tailed Towhee, MacGillivray’s Warbler and Western Tanager. Year-round residents such as Abert’s Towhee, “Lillian’s” Eastern Meadowlark, Gambel’s Quail and the elusive Green Kingfisher and Crissal Thrasher are joined in winter by large flocks of sparrows and finches and the raptors who hunt them. Casa de San Pedro Bed & Breakfast offers lodging adjacent to this outstanding natural area.

The primary access point to the National Conservation Area is at the San Pedro House, 7 miles east of the Hwy 92/Fry Blvd. intersection in Sierra Vista, where volunteers from the Friends of the San Pedro River provide visitor information and sell books, gifts and beverages. This is also the location of SABO’s hummingbird banding station, in use in 2-hour weekly sessions from April through September. Trails lead from the house through the grasslands and retired farm fields to the river. Additional access points include Hereford Road (site of SABO’s weekly River Walks), Charleston Road and Hwy 92 at Palominas. Holy Trinity Monastery, adjacent to the NCA west of Hwy 80 at the town of St. David, invites birders to walk its 1.3-mile trail around ponds fed by artesian springs. The ponds attract various species of waterfowl (including Wood Duck, a rare species in Arizona) and Belted Kingfishers from fall through spring and many songbirds from spring through fall. In the large trees on the monastery grounds, a Lewis’s Woodpecker joined the more usual Gila and Ladder-backed woodpeckers and Northern (Red-shafted) Flickers in the winter of 2000-2001.

more information on the San Pedro Riparian NCA…


Sierra Vista Wastewater Wetlands (City of Sierra Vista Environmental Operations Park)

Water is precious in the desert, and wildlife is drawn to it regardless of its source. Established in 1992 as a 7-acre pilot project to test the feasibility of natural treatment of secondary sewage effluent and expanded in 2002 to 50 acres of lush wetlands, this site attracts thousands of birds, including waterfowl, shorebirds, rails, raptors and songbirds. Fall and winter are particularly productive times to visit. Huge flocks of Yellow-headed Blackbirds often roost in the cattails and rushes from fall through spring. White-faced Ibis and Long-billed Curlews are common visitors in migration, and both Sora and Virginia Rail may be seen skulking along the edges of the reed beds. Abundant prey often attracts raptors such as Northern Harrier, Merlin, and Peregrine Falcon. Be alert for the occasional surprise, such as the two immature Sabine’s Gulls that visited in September 1997. A large, elevated platform provides shaded, wheelchair accessible viewing.

The entrance to the facility is on Hwy 90 3.1 miles east of Hwy 92; turn north into the entrance, then follow the signs. Due to vandalism, city officials have instituted restricted hours for the viewing area. The wetlands are currently open 7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., Monday through Friday. Residents and visiting birders alike are invited to participate in Sunday morning birding tours sponsored by SABO, Friends of the San Pedro River, and Huachuca Audubon Society. These walks, guided by volunteers from the sponsoring organizations, cover areas otherwise off limits to the public. For more information, see SABO’s activities page.