Today was the day for the mountains, and we decided to bypass Sabino Canyon, and head straight for the Mount Lemmon highway. Our reasoning was that the birds in the canyon would probably be mainly present in the mountain canyons, and it meant that we could get to the best warbler areas at a reasonably early hour.
This is about 5 miles up from the Tanque Verde road. It was not only the first birding site of the day, but also where we paid the $5 entrance fee to the park in the self pay envelopes at the car park. The elevation here is around 4500 feet, and we expected temperatures to be on the low side at this time in the morning, but at little after 6am, the air was very still, the sun peered over the mountain tops, and it warmed up very quickly. Small groups of birds were evident as we left the car, the first being noisy Mexican Jays, with an additional Western Scrub Jay further along the path, as well as flighty Phainopeplas and numerous Cassin’s Kingbirds.
From the tree enclosed camping area, the tarmac road opened up into a sunny and sparsely vegetated (tree wise) valley, with birds waking up and appearing as we progressed along it. Hooded Orioles became regulars, only outnumbered by the common Phainopeplas, supported by less evident Black-throated Grosbeak and Ash-throated Flycatchers. Male Blue Grosbeak and perched Broad-billed Hummingbird added extra colour. One of the pairs of Hooded Orioles was apparently building a nest somewhere nearby, with the female in particular flying to and fro with nesting material. At one point, the male of the pair displaced a Loggerhead Shrike from an open perch right in front of us.
We had now climbed to above 7000 feet, and the heat continued to rise, with a cooling mild breeze across the mountain. Again, the site was easily found, despite the disappearance of mile markers by the road some distance back, due to the excellent signposting of the lake. There was another $5 entry fee here, and it was well worth driving the 1¼ mile down to the car park at the end. We were greeted with Violet-green Swallows overhead as we left the car.
We initially took the track to the right of the small lake, which led upwards and eventually overlooked the small dam at the head of the open water. This view in itself would have made the trip worthwhile, but there were also a handful of Red-faced Warblers singing along the gradual ascent, many of which could be seen at close quarters. Apart from the sound of the odd angler and day tripper around the lake, this was a very peaceful and still spot. The open rocks above the dam were also a good vantage point for the Violet-green Swallows, which until now has been at neck-breaking height above the canopy. As we sat and watched from these bare white rocks, the reason for the name of the swallows became evident, with the sun revealing an iridescent green sheen on their backs.
We walked back down the track and crossed over a few stagnant ponds that passed for a stream filtering into the lake, and scanned the opposite shore from which we had just been sitting to find a male Western Bluebird, perched at the top of one of a pair of high bare trees. While it was there, a Violet-green Swallow landed on to the top branches of the second tree very briefly. An Acorn Woodpecker was followed, after which what appeared to be a female Hepatic Tanager remained mainly hidden in a tree up the slope. Trying to get better glimpses of this bird to confirm its identification unearthed a Pygmy Nuthatch feeding alongside. We climbed up the hill to gain eye level views of this bird.
Lunch was scoffed about half a mile further up the mountain road from the Rose Canyon Lake junction, at a vista overlooking the San Pedro River valley. While we sat on the wall, a male Magnificent Hummingbird rested on a horizontal branch, with a male Hepatic Tanager in the same area. Birds that got away were a couple of large hawks, which were picked up late. They looked to have different shapes in the air, the second of which had flat wings (possibly Red-tailed Hawk), the first held the wings in a very slight “V”, with very dark brown to blackish back (possibly Zone-tailed Hawk).
As we approached the restaurant, we came across some roadwork(s) American style. We were required to stop for what was described as a “whole pile of traffic coming down”, wait for 10 minutes, and then follow a pilot car once clear. The “whole pile of traffic” turned out to be half a dozen cars. We parked outside the Irongate Lodge, which is a restaurant in the Mount Lemmon ski valley bowl. This is magnificent for scenery, with ski lifts over the winter runs on one side, and a view of the valley below on the opposite side. First bird seen was a Greater Pewee at the apex of a dead tree about 100m down in the valley (showing the crest on the nape even at this distance), with Violet-green Swallows over the top. There are only four hummingbird feeders on the terrace outside of the lodge, and apart from a single Magnificent Hummingbird, all the others seemed to be Broad-tailed, with at least 3 males and 2 females, but these birds put together an eye-catching show, chasing each other off the feeders, quite often almost brushing us as they motored past, and producing the whistling noise made by the wings of the males (a characteristic of this genus). Although Broad-tailed &Black-chinned Hummingbirds are somewhat different in the field guides, it would appear that the most reliable way of telling them apart, in addition to the tail flicking of the latter when hovering, is to spot the crimson or purple throat sheen respectively in reflected light, both of which appear black at other times. The bill of the Black-chinned is also noticeably longer.
I thought I’d done well when I found a trio of Band-tailed Pigeons and single Steller’s Jay perched on the same tree in the valley below. That was until minutes later, when a return to the bird feeders revealed 4 or more Steller’s Jays feeding just beneath the balcony on food put out by the owner. Such a gracious act had to be rewarded, so we bought a portion each of blueberry pie and ice cream – sometimes sacrifices such as this just have to be made! While carrying out this difficult chore, Broad-tailed Hummingbirds were themselves feeding only a few feet away.
We completed the drive up to the radio mast clad summit. On the last leg of the road, we unbelievably passed a couple of small mounds of snow on the roadside, even though the temperature was still high (probably around 65-70 degrees+). We followed one of the trails, supposedly to the outlook, but of course chose the wrong one. We still saw a few birds along the way, however, including another couple of Pygmy Nuthatches, Yellow-eyed Juncos, Western Tanager, and a small yet frustrating flock of calling wood-warblers, which remained elsusive.