Monsoon Birding Mt. Lemmon with Tucson Audubon

Guest post by Bob Bowers
Originally appeared on Birding the 'Brooke blog

Male Blue Grosbeak (photo copyright Bob Bowers)
As the raven flies (no crows around here), Mt. Lemmon’s summit is just nine short miles from SaddleBrooke, but when you’re driving, it’s two hours:  an hour to Catalina Highway near the base, and another hour to cover the 25 miles to the summit. If you’re birding, 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 more than 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 as the Visitor Center describes them, include the saguaro-rich Sonoran Desert, Semi-desert Grasslands, Oak Woodland and Chaparral, Pine-oak Woodland, Ponderosa Pine Forest and Mixed Conifer Forest.  This 25-mile drive is equivalent to driving from Mexico to Canada.

We’ve taken this trip many times, and last Saturday was a perfect time to do it again.  The temperature in Tucson was forecast to break 100, and in summer the mountain summit is typically 30 degrees shy of Tucson’s sizzle.  Conveniently, a Tucson Audubon field trip was also scheduled, a half-day of professional guiding at no cost.  Tucson Audubon Society (TAS) offers free, guided field trips year-round throughout southeastern Arizona and beyond.  The TAS web site lists 31 trip leader bios, but there are probably 50 or more leaders. Many of these are professional guides who regularly charge a lot more than nothing, and all of the leaders are birding experts. This is just one of lots of reasons to join Tucson Audubon. In truth, you don’t have to be a TAS member to enjoy these free trips, but if you are you’ll find it easier to learn about upcoming trips and more.

We were particularly lucky 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 22 years.  Like other TAS leaders, she birds by ear, taking frequent breaks to simply listen.  She picks up soft, distant or high-frequency songs and calls that elude the less-skilled, accurately identifying birds that invariably show themselves to prove her right.  Her background in music serves her well.

Yellow-eyed Junco on Mt. Lemmon, Arizona (photo copyright Bob Bowers)

On Saturday, Melody led us from 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 (8,000 feet).  It was a 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.  Unfortunately, we missed the Black-throated Green Warblers spotted on Friday.  Beyond this rainbow of color, the day’s highlight was close up views of Grace’s Warblers feeding their fluffy young in Rose Canyon.  Melody’s van proclaims ‘So many birds, So little time’, a perfect description for birding Mt. Lemmon.

Monsoon Storm Approaches SaddleBrooke, Arizona (photo copyright Bob Bowers)
As we drove down the mountain, towering storm clouds built behind us.  The monsoon officially had begun the day before, but the fixed June 15 start precedes the first storm, often by two weeks or more.  Regardless, thunder broke as we arrived home, and the wind rose.  I rushed to retrieve tools and cushions from the dry yard, flinching as lightning moved closer.  I stood at the door as the storm exploded 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, a spectrum of color in name and feather. Cataclysmic afternoon thunderstorms that frighten and amaze, with 30-degree summer temperature drops.  And that was just Saturday.  This is why I live in Arizona.

Find the full list of current Tucson Audubon FREE field trips


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