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Follow the Birds

Updated on August 20, 2014

Want to escape the heat?

Want to escape the heat? Follow the birds! The birds have left the desert and are now hanging out in the mountains. Well, most of them, anyway. Who wants to give up birding to stay in an air conditioned building when you can be in the Great Outdoors in the mountains where it's cool?

Recently, I decided to do just that. It was my third foray this month, with a car that detests heat AND mountains. I love my Volvo, but it does have this one little quirk and we haven't been able to get to the bottom of it.

The first time this month, I took the car to try to go up Mount Lemmon. Elevation at the highest point there is in the neighborhood of 9000 feet, for an altitude gain of around 7000 feet. In order to get there, though, I have to drive through town. The trouble starts when I have to stop at too many traffic lights, and the car knows exactly when to stop working. It's right after the last stop sign before the highway up the mountain, when I can drive all the way to the top without stopping if I want to. And it did. And I waited the usual 10 minutes for it to get over its hissy fit, and then started 'er up again, and drove up to...milepost 1, where it quit again. Sat another 10 minutes. It didn't even want to start. Finally I got wise, and turned around so it was facing downhill, and made some phone calls about the problem, which took about 15 minutes. Started 'er up again, drove a short distance downhill, made a U turn, and then went all the way to the top without any further trouble.

Second time, I headed for Madera Canyon. I figured, I will only encounter 2 traffic lights to begin with, and at the end, there will be three, at an altitude at least 1000 feet about where I started, if not 2000 feet. But on the way, I wanted to pick up some takeout, and when I did that, I let the car sit in the parking lot, and when I started it up, it faltered, but after that, no problems. I talk about that trip in my lens Night Birds.

Third time I tried Mount Lemmon again. This time, I waited for a day when it was 10 degrees cooler. I will tell that story.

In each case, I went up the mountain in the day time, stayed to hear birds after dark, and came back down when it was cool.

All photos mine. This is at the bottom of the Mount Lemmon HIghway. All dry up there, eh? This is toward the bottom of the highway. I took it on the previous trip. It looked the same this time.

Unexpected Incident

I got through town all right, and everything seemed fine, but as I neared the last stop sign, I saw that the road was blocked off by a police car. I had to turn right. As luck would have it, that road curved around and ran into another north-south road, and several people turned left, so I decided to follow them. I didn't have any idea if this road goes back to the highway, but it turns out it does. And now I know a short route to another favorite birding spot, Agua Caliente. I turn onto this road going south, and it's a straight shoot for only a couple of miles. That's when I saw the reason for the diversion. Right at the intersection where I was able to rejoin the highway, there was a nasty accident. One car was badly messed up, and the other was resting on its SIDE. No pictures, though. I didn't want to stick around. Not with traffic in front and behind me, and a fire engine, ambulance, and several police cars at the scene. I'm glad I wasn't involved in THAT one!

So I went on up the mountain with no problem. Just to be on the safe side, I turned off the car air conditioner and rolled the window down some. Barely tolerable at a temperature of nearly 100 degrees. Fire danger, according to the sign is Very High. We had only one 3" rainstorm last November (a REAL gully-washer for us) and then nothing for the rest of the winter. Winter is usually a rainy season. Usually.

The scene is the dry hills in the valley below. Tinder. Golden and pretty, but very combustible. The mountains sport many trees that are either dead or dying, or have dead limbs. I saw plenty. This is tinder, too. And when the monsoons start, there are usually days with nothing but lightning. It can be a nightmare. I vowed not to hike very far from my car.

The surprising thing (see the close-up leaves) is that in many areas that have burned in the past, it's giddyingly green! Even though there is no surface water anywhere, not in the brooks or anywhere else, and hasn't been for some time.

But it's a DRY heat!

--local saying

Incinerator Ridge

My first planned stop was Incinerator Ridge. Although it was Sunday afternoon, it wasn't early, and the steady stream of traffic down the mountain suggested most people were returning after the weekend, and it would be reasonably quiet. In any case, I figured Incinerator Ridge wouldn't have been the most popular place to hang out, since the road is dirt and rather uneven.


There were ten cars up there! I had a little trouble finding a place to park.

To get away from the people so that I might find birds, I walked a short distance along a trail around the hill, and discovered the wind was strong, and it was COLD! Oops! I forgot to bring a sweater, and I also forgot how windy it is up in that location. Who thinks of a sweater when it's 100 degrees outside, which it was when I left home?

I found a small bush and sat down on the side away from the wind. And clenched my teeth.

I also know that birds are not particularly fond of wind. After failing to see a single bird, I walked back to my car and thought about where I might go next. I noticed a Yellow-eyed Junco in another direction, so decided to try that trail. I went a short distance, found a good spot, and sat down. In the sun. It was more sheltered as well.

Pretty soon, the birds started to arrive. That is by far the best collection of birds I have ever seen up there. There were so many birds my biggest problem was trying to decide WHICH bird to observe at any given time.

Among the first birds I saw were two Robins. This is one of them in the picture.

A Bird on the Head - Is Worth Half in the Bush

While I was sitting there watching for birds, I felt something land on my head. I had no idea what it was, but when I looked at my shadow, I realized it was a bird. I knew I couldn't take a picture as long as the bird was sitting there. I should have taken a picture of my shadow. I didn't think of it until after the bird was gone. Drat!

So you know what that feels like, shape your hand like you are holding a tennis ball. Then move your fingers as if you are playing the strings of a guitar. Now place your fingertips on top of your hair (if you don't have any hair, don't worry. The bird probably wouldn't land there anyway.) Then use the same motion as before, as if you are playing a guitar.


That's what it felt like.

I put my hand up slowly, hoping the bird might hop on my finger. Instead, it flew to a nearby tree, where I was able to get its picture. It's a young whippersnapper of a bluebird. I can just imagine he was telepathing to his mom, "Look, Ma, I am sitting on a human and getting away with it!"

Here's Papa.

Here he is feeding the baby. He has a tasty bug in his beak.

Have You Ever? - Have you ever had a wild bird land on your head?

No, not a tame bird. A WILD bird.

If you have, tell us about it.

Have you ever had a wild bird land on your head?

Where I was sitting, I could look down into the valley as well

The scenery was fine. Imagine being able to watch birds, and see scenery at the same time. Imagine the hot brown grasses below, while you are barely keeping warm.

Moving On...

I drove part way back to the main highway, and stopped a couple of places to look for birds with no luck. But I did catch this nice view of a little canyon. These are the rocks on one side of the canyon. Looks inviting and cool.

Back at the Highway

Just before you get to the stop sign, a hillside of ferns. My, how GREEN!

Heading for Inspiration Rock

A flowering tree. Not sure what species.

Stopover at Box Elder

A picnic area. This is Yellow Sweet Clover.

Inspiration Rock Picnic Area

Not finding any birds at Box Elder, I went across the street.

Stopping at a place I can usually find a nice little cluster of wildflowers, I saw that this year the Penstemons are pitiful. Only two stems. Here's one of them...

The Special Visitor

Since the sun was getting close to the top of the next mountain, and sunset would happen soon, I parked where I could look away from the sun, and there would be adequate light for pictures.

I didn't see much, but I did see this absolutely delightful Western Tanager. He posed for me for quite awhile.

Cookie Cabin

Summerhaven is a little town near the top of Mount Lemmon. I like to go there to bird. The Cookie Cabin serves pizza, cookies, and chili. I eat there sometimes. Unfortunately, all the restaurants there close at 5, and it was well past by this time (7, to be exact).

I like to sit across the street to look for birds, aiming my view up toward the houses.

Did you know that some of these places run Christmas lights in June? I guess it's too cold and freezes light in the winter, so there is no point in running Christmas lights then! What say you?

These are two of the cabins across the street. The one in front, left, always looks like it has two Christmas trees all lit up, in the window, after dark. Many of these houses remind me of pictures of houses in Switzerland, in the Alps. And some of them have pitched roofs for the same reason: to dump the snow. The window that has the Christmas trees is below the field of view in this shot.

The Cow Parsnips are in Bloom

There are many of them, all over the place. They're beautiful!

Getting Dark and Colder

I want to be able to sit outside so I have an unobstructed listen for owls, but it's just too darn cold! In the back seat of the car, I find an old piece of plastic that used to hold water bottles. It has a hole at each end. I cut it until it forms a cylinder, then cut a slice on either side, because the diameter is smaller than my upper body. I slip it over my head and pull the plastic down on either side against my arms. It helps a little by protecting my upper arms from the wind. Not enough. I still end up sitting in the car the whole time.

Not much bird activity. I see and hear one Anna's Hummingbird, and I hear a couple of other birds I can't identify.

I watch the sunset through the trees. Yes, the big tree is really leaning. My camera is straight.

After dark, I hear one Lesser Nighthawk, and not much else. No owls.

After about an hour, having heard all the birds I will hear that evening, I decide to go back to town.

My Favorite Mount Lemmon Bird - Red-faced Warbler

Isn't he beautiful? Unfortunately, the woman who helped me find him no longer wants to be friends. So thinking about this bird is a bittersweet experience.

Unfortunately, I only saw one once. I keep looking for them, but they're hard to find. Except for everyone else.

I'll add other favorites that I see from time to time.

On the Way Home

After checking a few places in Marshall Gulch for owls and hearing absolutely nothing, I started back for town at about 9:30. I drove a few miles and saw a Striped Skunk.

Fortunately, he didn't spray my car.

Unfortunately, I didn't get a picture of him.

A few miles further down, I saw a White-tailed Deer.

Fortunately, I didn't run into her.

Unfortunately, I didn't get a picture.

I went a few more miles and saw three Mule Deer.

Fortunately, I didn't run into them.

Unfortunately, I didn't get a picture.

The rest of the trip was uneventful. As I get near the bottom, I have to turn on the car air conditioner. Welcome back to the desert heat. Remember, it's a DRY heat!

Fortunately, I arrived exactly when I said I would, safe and sound.

The rest of the week, I will hang out in the air conditioned computer room. Next week, I'll venture forth again.

Books about the Santa Catalina Mountains in southern Arizona

available on Amazon

A Natural History of the Santa Catalina Mountains, Arizona; with an Introduction to the Madrean Sky Islands

by Richard C. Brusca, Wendy Moore, Foreword by Bill Broyles

Mountain Wildflowers of Southern Arizona: A Field Guide to the Santa Catalina Mountains and Other Nearby Ranges

by Frank S. Rose

A useful and comprehensive book for a person who is serious about hunting up wildflowers. I keep it in my reference shelf.

Hiking Arizona's Cactus Country: Includes Saguaro National Park, Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, The Santa Catalina Mountains, And More (Regional Hiking Series)

by Erik Molvar


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