By June, SaddleBrooke’s snowbirds have flown the coop, heading back to their nesting areas in Washington, Michigan, Maine and other northern states. In order to skip June, they miss the monsoons of July and August, the post-monsoon flowers of September and the glory of October in the desert. Those of us left behind reap the benefits of fewer cars, shorter lines and resort bargains, but we still have to deal with June. Summer arrives in June, and if you’re in the middle of the Sonoran Desert, this is not a good thing. The majesty and plummeting temperatures of a monsoon storm are still a month away, leaving June high and dry. And hot. Even Michigan starts looking good to a desert rat in June.
There are still lots of birds around, of course. But like us, they start seeking shade and conditioned air as breakfast winds down, and even dedicated birders lose interest in looking when the thermometer hits triple digits. All is not lost, however, since there is more to the Grand Canyon State than deserts. Arizona also has more than its share of ponderosa pines and high mountains, and coniferous mountain forests are a heck of a lot cooler than deserts in the summer. One of the best of these is Mt. Lemmon, just nine miles from SaddleBrooke.
OK, that’s nine miles as the raven flies. For those of us in cars, it takes nearly an hour to get to the Catalina Highway at Tanque Verde, and another hour to drive the 25 miles to the mountain top. This is time well spent, however. From the base of the scenic byway at 2,000 feet, the road climbs through six life zones to a parking lot near the mountain’s 9,157-foot peak. For birders, this relatively short drive produces a variety of birdlife that would otherwise require visits to multiple scattered destinations. As you transition through each life zone, new habitat and new birds appear, while the elevation increases and the temperature drops. On a typical summer day, an enervating hundred degrees at the base falls to an energizing seventy at the top. At lower elevations, summer birders will find Blue Grosbeak, Indigo Bunting, Canyon Wren and Rufous-crowned Sparrow. Middle elevations produce Yellow-eyed Junco, Plumbeous Vireo, Dusky-capped Flycatcher and Acorn Woodpecker, and higher elevations showcase Western Tanager, Pygmy Nuthatch and Olive Warbler. Feeders at the Iron Door Restaurant across from the ski lifts are the primary summer hangout for Broad-tailed Hummingbirds.
Unless you’re camping, however, Mt. Lemmon is a day trip destination, rather than a suitable week-long getaway. For longer breaks from the heat the White Mountains are a better choice, and from SaddleBrooke you can be in the cool pine forests of Show Low with only an hour’s more driving than what it takes to reach the top of Mt. Lemmon. Since Show Low, at 6,331 feet, can still be on the warm side, mid-summer birders might want to continue to Pinetop-Lakeside, Greer or other nearby and higher elevations. Year-round streams, lakes and reservoirs are found across the White Mountains and the Mogollon Rim, and a wide range of overnight accommodations are available throughout. Greer, which sits on the Little Colorado River at 8,400 feet, is just as birdy as it is cool, and three nearby reservoirs add to the variety of birdlife. The riparian area is good for Virginia’s, Wilson’s and Red-faced Warblers, Hairy Woodpecker and Clark’s Nutcracker, and the reservoirs are a great place to find Mountain Bluebird, Pine Siskin, Belted Kingfisher and Calliope Hummingbird, North America’s smallest bird.
Instead of dreading June and wishing you had a summer home in Minnesota, look on the bright side. Go picnicking on Mt. Lemmon and spend a couple of weeks in the White Mountains. Besides, there are no Calliope Hummingbirds or Red-faced Warblers in Minnesota, and most of the things that look like birds there actually are mosquitoes. Count your blessings.
(This article originally appeared in the June, 2013 issue of the Saddlebag Notes newspaper, Tucson, Arizona.)