A Birding Adventure in Arizona’s ‘Sky Islands’

The elegant trogon, befitting its name, is clever. One can perch in a tree 10 feet overhead and draw little attention, though it’s come dressed for it, with a striking yellow beak, blush red breast topped with a white collar and metallic green back tapering, like tuxedo tails, to finely barred tail feathers.

As a birding fan, I’d made its acquaintance on trips to Mexico. But during the pandemic, in my desire to find unexpected, wondrous and uncrowded places in the United States, I learned that the trogon comes north, often visiting a section of southeast Arizona that looks, from a bird’s point of view, a lot like the highlands of Mexico.

But the lack of rainfall hadn’t discouraged the birds, or the birders. On the weaving two-lane road that dead-ends at about 5,400 feet, with footpaths ascending another 4,000 feet to Mount Wrightson, a flock of wild Gould’s turkeys held up traffic. The males, with fully fanned tail feathers, dragged their wings audibly on the pavement. In front of the lodge, more than a dozen feeders were filled with bridled chickadees, cartoonish acorn woodpeckers, thick-billed, black-headed grosbeaks and gregarious pine siskinds.

“Sky islands are a concept of geography that not a lot of people in the U.S. know,” said Peg, explaining the similarities between the Galápagos Islands and the sky islands to the group over drinks. “Part of diversity is how close are you to the big mama ship that has all the species, and part is being in the path of things that move on currents and wind. The principles of island biogeography play out in these sky islands.”

As we climbed to 8,500 feet, we left grasslands for oak-and-pine forests and Douglas fir stands, catching red-faced and yellow-rumped warblers amid alligator junipers with coarse, block-patterned bark, and olive and Grace’s warblers near a meadow of lupine and iris.

“They say it’s like driving from Mexico to Canada in an hour,” Peg said.

“I never walk without my binoculars,” Carrie told me later that evening as we headed to the motel’s cafe for a beer, spotting a bright yellow warbler working an eye-level canopy of mesquite tree blossoms.

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