We recently decided to take a multi-night birding trip and considering COVID, the planning seemed to take as long as the trip. We planned an twelve-night loop trip, with stays in four separate AirB&Bs. We picked places that were highly rated, had a thorough cleaning protocol and provided entry without checking in with other people. We kept our daily drives short and included two destinations in eastern Arizona we had been to before plus two in western New Mexico we had not. We took three coolers, and rented places with full kitchens and refrigerator/freezers. We planned all our meals in advance, and our frozen foods stayed frozen on our relatively short drives. It turned out better than we expected, and we were able to avoid grocery stores and restaurants the entire trip. If you’re a birder or otherwise interested in putting together a road trip in the time of COVID, details of our trip might be useful to you.
Our first day was a 200 mile drive from SaddleBrooke to Portal, Arizona, a 5,000-foot high outpost at the edge of the Chiricahua mountains and home to Cave Creek Ranch. We stayed in one of several independent cabin units, which are scattered across the wooded area and supplied with full kitchens and bird feeders. A central area at Cave Creek Ranch provides more feeders and socially distant seating, and our three days here were spent birding at both our own cabin and the central area, as well as at many of the nearby birding hot spots along Cave Creek and into the Chiricahuas.
This is where we found and photographed the pair of rare Eared Quetzals that have not been seen in Arizona for eleven years. The unique positioning of the ranch relative to the nearby mountains draws great birds to the feeders, including Rivoli’s Hummingbird, Blue-throated Mountain Gem, Yellow-eyed Junco, Bridled Titmouse, Mexican Jay and Arizona Woodpecker.
In addition to the quetzals, we also had a rare visitor to our cabin feeder, a Rose-breasted Grossbeak. After three relaxing days in this paradise, we packed up and drove just a hundred miles or so to Pinos Altos, a remote village north of Silver City, New Mexico. Our accommodation here was a beautiful casita that shared a driveway and two acres with the nearby owner’s home. We had bird feeders here as well, and the 7,000 foot location brought us different birds including Green-tailed and Spotted Towhees, Mountain Chickadees and, surprisingly, White-winged Doves. The three days we stayed here also gave us the opportunity to visit the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument.
From here our trip took us into elk country and two nights at a hundred-year-old farmhouse in Aragon, New Mexico, where we found a herd of elk waiting our arrival. Birds included Lewis’s Woodpecker and Northern Flicker. The drive from Pinos Altos to Aragon took us to one of our target destinations, the Catwalk Recreation Area, a series of high metal walkways on a 2-mile round trip loop trail along Whitewater Creek. The sixty-year old walkways are held in place by supports drilled into the sides of the volcanic cliffs above the creek, and Canyon Wrens were our most common bird. After Aragon, our loop trip took us back into Arizona and a private AirB&B home on the edge of the Reservation in Pinetop, Arizona.
We spent our final 3 days here, birding the feeders in the back yard (Pygmy Nuthatches and Steller’s Jays) and exploring the 9-10,000-foot high country between Pinetop and Greer. The brilliantly painted fall trees were an unexpected treat. Our last day included a relaxing lunch at Fool’s Hollow Lake in Show Low and a final late afternoon birding stop at the Shores Recreation Area north of Winkelman. All in all, a relaxing, enjoyable and safe time during a troublesome year.
This article originally appeared in the December, 2020, newspaper The Saddlebag Notes, Tucson, Arizona