By Marie McGee
There was a decided chill to the thin mountain air as our group of thirteen campers gathered at dawn on our final day on Mt. Lemmon. ‘Cold’ isn’t usually the first word that comes to mind when one thinks of August in Arizona, but at an altitude of over 7000 feet, Rose Canyon Campground was raised well above the blazing desert heat below. The mountain coniferous habitat supported at this altitude also meant that we were experiencing a unique array of bird life. Sighting Red Crossbills and Steller’s Jay brought to mind birding in the Rocky Mountains, while Arizona specialties such as Yellow-eyed Juncos roamed underfoot and firecracker-bright Red-faced Warblers flitted above.
The birds were just beginning to sing as we set off before breakfast for one last morning of birding near the campsite. Away up the hill abutting our campground, a Greater Pewee called. We had already encountered several Western Wood-Pewees, but had yet to set eyes on their larger relative, so we ascended the steep slope in pursuit of the flycatcher. By the time we reached the crest of the hill, however, the only sound was that of our own labored breathing. There’s nothing like hiking in the mountains to make you feel out of shape! Once we had regained our breath we set off again, this time working down across the hillside and over a shallow creek that fed into our next destination, Rose Canyon Lake. Here we hoped to catch a glimpse of a reported Common Black-Hawk, which had eluded us on three previous trips to the lake. As we hiked, I paused to nibble on juicy sprigs of woodsorrel, the tangy plant refreshing my dry mouth.
A few fishermen were at the lake when we arrived, and they informed us that the hawk had already come and gone that morning. Hoping that it might return, we scrambled up the rocky incline that sheltered the still water to a plateau which commanded an excellent view of both the lake and the tree-lined slopes surrounding it.
The sun rose higher over the tree line as we continued our vigil, providing pleasant warmth. Somewhere off in the distance, a Northern Pygmy Owl tooted his two note staccato, and a pair of Mallards dabbled in the still waters of the lake. As we noted these one of our leaders, Michael O’Brien, made another observation. “You know,” he said, “I really don’t like sitting waiting for a bird to show up.”
I could certainly relate to that. Memories surfaced of standing outside in whipping winds and sub-zero temperatures…
But he continued, “One activity that I really do enjoy is a doing a Big Sit.” A Big Sit is traditionally conducted over a 24-hour period within a 17-foot diameter circle, but this was a casual count and we adhered more closely to the spirit than to the letter of the law. Instead of focusing on the one bird that we weren’t seeing, we simply tried to detect as many birds as possible from our outpost.
The owl and the Mallards–that was easy. At the base of the dam beneath us, some Lesser Goldfinches bathed. What other birds were in the area? There. A Painted Redstart sang, a lovely rambling tune. Psit. Michael directed our attention to the call of an “Audubon’s” Yellow-rumped Warbler, and I glanced up in time to catch a glimpse of it stroking away.
A pair of Common Ravens offered an excellent opportunity to pause for a lesson in molt. The more dapper of the two was a juvenile, in clean fresh plumage. His adult companion gave away his age as he was scraggly in the middle of pre-basic molt, with a gap in his central tail feathers like two missing front teeth.
Another camper had been scanning the north slopes beyond the dam. He grabbed everybody’s attention when he announced, “I think I have a Greater Pewee.” Sure enough, in the middle of a distant clump of trees was the large flycatcher that had eluded us earlier in the morning. It was an impressive spot! We all lined up for distant scope views of this life bird, only for it to take wing and alight much closer to the group on a characteristic perch in a dead snag. Silhouetted against the sky he sat, stately and distinguished with his perfect upright posture, letting out a clear, “Ho-say ma-ree-ah.”
After the pewee departed, we lingered a little longer by the lake, exploring the rocks for lizards and remaining alert to notice individual Townsend’s, Wilson’s, and Black-throated Gray warblers. The morning was wearing on, however, and we had yet to break camp and breakfast before departing the Santa Catalinas for the Chiricahua Mountains. As we headed back to camp I was sad to end our time on Mt. Lemmon, our first introduction to Arizona’s beautiful and diverse sky islands. But Camp Chiricahua was only just beginning, and the next seven days would hold even more wonderful birds, nature and places to discover.
Learn more about Camp Chiricachua here.
About the author: Marie McGee is an 18-year-old young birder living in Southeast Michigan and has been birding since the the start of high school. She has been homeschooled since first grade and recently started college at Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan, where she is hard at work expanding the campus bird list.