Mt. Lemmon’s summit is just nine short miles from SaddleBrooke, but without wings, it’s a two-hour drive: an hour to Catalina Highway near the base, and another hour to cover the 25 miles to the summit. If you’re a birder, however, you’ll spend a lot more than an hour getting to the top. At mile zero on the Sky Island Scenic Byway, the road climbs some 6,000 feet to reach the summit’s 9,157 feet, taking you through six life zones and a variety of bird species impressive even for southeastern Arizona. These six life, or vegetative zones include the saguaro-rich Sonoran Desert, Semi-desert Grasslands, Oak Woodland and Chaparral, Pine-oak Woodland, Ponderosa Pine Forest and Mixed Conifer Forest. Botanically, this 25-mile climb is like driving from Mexico to Canada.
I’ve taken this trip many times, but one last June is most memorable. The temperature in Tucson was forecast to break 100, but the mountain’s summit beckoned at 30 degrees less. Conveniently, a Tucson Audubon field trip was scheduled, five hours of professional guiding at no cost. Tucson Audubon Society (TAS) offers free, guided field trips year-round throughout southeastern Arizona, many of which are led by professional guides who regularly charge a lot more than nothing. You don’t have to be a TAS member to enjoy these free trips, but the cost of membership is reasonable and the benefits substantial.
We were particularly lucky that Saturday. Our trip leader was Melody Kehl, a long-time Tucson resident and professional guide, leading more than 200 trips a year as Melody’s Birding Adventures, and she’s done this for 23 years. Like other TAS leaders, she birds by ear, taking frequent breaks to simply listen. She picks up soft, distant or high-frequency songs or calls that elude the less-skilled, accurately identifying unseen birds that invariably show to prove her right. Her background in music serves her well.
Melody led us to Molino Canyon at 4,000 feet, to Middle Bear picnic area at 6,000 feet, to Rose Canyon campground at 7,000 feet and finally to Ski Valley near the summit. From there, we turned back, pausing for lunch at Sykes Knob at 8,000 feet. It was a birding day of color, with Blue and Black-headed Grosbeaks, Indigo Bunting, Black Phoebe, White-breasted Nuthatch, Dusky-capped and Ash-throated Flycatchers, Painted Redstart, Hepatic Tanager, Olive Warbler, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Western Bluebird, Plumbeous Vireo, Black-throated Gray Warbler, Rufous-crowned Sparrow, Yellow-eyed Junco and no doubt some colors I’ve forgotten. Beyond this feathered rainbow, the day’s highlight was close up views of Grace’s Warblers feeding their fluffy young in Rose Canyon. The slogan painted on Melody’s van proclaims ‘So many birds, So little time’, a perfect description for birding Mt. Lemmon.
As we drove down the mountain, towering storm clouds built behind us, contradicting the forecast. The first monsoon is rarely seen before July, and it was only June 16. Regardless, thunder rumbled as we arrived home, and the wind rose. I rushed to retrieve tools and cushions from the dry yard, flinching as lightning moved closer. Wonder trumped fear as I stood at the door and watched the storm explode with horizontal rain, hail and thunder. Waves of rain washed over my eastern windows like seawater against a ship, measuring an inch in ten minutes and dropping the temperature from 96 to 66.
Free, professionally guided birding in the morning, ranging across 6,000 vertical feet and 6 life zones. More than 40 species of birds recorded; a spectrum of color in name and feather. A cataclysmic afternoon monsoon storm that was equally frightening and amazing. A 30-degree temperature drop that had me looking for a sweater. And that was just a Saturday. This is why I live in Arizona.
(This article originally appeared in the July, 2013 issue of the Saddlebag Notes newspaper, Tucson, Arizona.)