Rising from the southern edge of Globe to over 7800 feet elevation, the Tonto National Forest Pinal Peak Recreation Area is one of the best kept secrets in the bird watching world. With a checklist of 195 species that includes dense populations of several species difficult to see elsewhere, this area is becoming a must for birders visiting from all over North America. During migration in May and again in August, you can find 110 species in six or seven hours of birding up the slopes. Even in winter when higher elevation roads can be closed because of snow, it is possible to find 50 to 60 species in a day birding the lower elevations. Late spring into early summer, however, is the favorite time for most birders to be here. Not only is it 10 to 20 degrees cooler than the oven-like temperatures of Phoenix and Tucson, but a different set of colorful and unusual birds is in each habitat as you ascend the mountain.
All year the lowest elevation mesquite bosques and cottonwoods along Russell Road, Kellner Canyon, and Ice House Canyon Road are full of early morning bird activity. These range from brilliantly-colored Vermilion Flycatcher to more somber-colored desert species. In the summer Blue Grosbeak and other migrants from Mexico add their songs to the predawn chorus and help make this habitat the most species rich in the area.
As you drive farther, you encounter a sea of low madrone and chaparral bushes that extends for miles up the slopes. At first sight they appear birdless and not worth stopping for, but there are many secretive species uniquely adapted to this open habitat. In the spring and summer, Woodhouse’s Scrub-Jay and Scott’s Oriole become obvious. During the winter, some of these birds are replaced by visitors, such as Fox Sparrow, escaping the harsh months in northern states.
Higher along USFS roads 651 and 112, junipers are scattered in among the chaparral, and they are home to Juniper Titmouse and Spotted Towhee. Then above 5500 feet elevation the first Ponderosa pines appear, and soon you are in a cathedral of pines and oaks 80 feet tall or more. In the winter most birds of this area are packed into mixed species flocks. An hour can go by with no birds around, and then, all of a sudden, a flock of 30 birds made up of eight or more species comes through led by the noisy Bridled Titmouse and Yellow-eyed Junco. In the summer, birds are a more constant presence, and jewels like Painted Redstart and Hepatic Tanager make for jaw-dropping views.
Finally above 7000 feet the coolness allows Douglas firs, maples and aspens to grow. Among them live higher altitude birds, such as Red-faced Warbler and Magnificent Hummingbird. Picnic and camping areas along several parts of this route are always handy places to stop, eat and review the dazzling bird species already seen that day. Whether you are taking photos or just observing, a day in the Pinal Mountains is one you will brag about to your friends and remember for a long time.
David L. Pearson, School of life Sciences, Arizona State University, Tempe