Catalina Highway... entering the ascent up Mt. Lemmon
Prior to my last day in Arizona this past October, 2010, I was struggling to figure out what to do. There were so many options; I was challenged with making the right decision. Two birds I desperately wanted to see before leaving the state was the Mexican Jay and the Stellar's Jay. However, to see these birds I would have to travel upward into the oak and pine forest to have any chance whatsoever - I wasn't going to find them in the desert. I asked two birder friends for advice and both (ironically enough) suggested Mt. Lemmon.
Mt. Lemmon is one of many mountains in the Tucson area but it's slightly unique among its neighbors. The mountain is part of the Coronado National Forest and reaches more than 9,000 feet into the sky. As you near the top you'll fine a ski resort and the town of Summerhaven.
What makes Mt. Lemmon even more special is that you can start at the base of the mountain in a world of Saguaro Cactus and then wind your way up the Catalina Highway 27 miles through various flora zones ending up in crisp pine forest. This can be compared to a trip from Mexico to Canada except that this trip only takes about 1 hour.
The Catalina Highway is well-maintained and easy to drive - although if you are afraid of heights you might be a little nervous... I was. However, even if your a little nervous you will soon be engulfed in the gorgeous scenery and will quickly forget that you had any fear at all. By the way, be prepared to pay a slight fee at 5,000 feet of $5 if you plan to exit your vehicle even for a short walk and some pictures.
Even though the scenery was beautiful and the air was perfect I was on a mission and that was to see a Mexican and Stellar's Jay. My first stop in the General Hitchcock area at 5900 ft looked promising but, unfortunately produced nothing more than a healthy walk. My next stop was the Rose Canyon Campground. Sadly, the road into the campground and back to Rose Canyon Lake was closed - so I had to do my most favorite thing... walk!
The area was beautiful. The temperature was about 15-20 degrees cooler than the desert where I started and the sunlight through the pine trees were extremely picturesque. I knew the area was going to produce some birds. And, produce it did. About five minutes into my hike I approached a flock of Jays, Mexican Jays! A few minutes later some Wild Turkey's strolled by and then another new bird showed up, in numbers - Pygmy Nuthatches everywhere. Bonus! Another 10 minutes and I got another unexpected new bird - Yellow-eyed Junco! Bonus #2! This was a very cool bird I might add.
I continued to walk and walk and walk and walk toward the lake. One kid I passed by said it would take me about 10 minutes to reach my destination but I am now certain that he must of had something against overweight old people because it took me far longer than 10 minutes. Exhausted I couldn't help but think I was going to be supper for a family of Black Bears for the winter. Of course, the Black Bear signs didn't help to slow down my imagination either.
I finally made it to the lake, took a few pictures and then headed back toward the car. After a looonnnggg walk back, even though I felt as if I had walked 100 miles, it was worth 3 life birds! The Stellar's Jay is still outstanding.
Molino Basin area, 4300 ft.
Rose Canyon area... 7,200 ft. This was the area that made me realize I might be bear food.
Mexican Jay... Rose Canyon. One of my favorites of the trip!
Yellow-eyed Junco... Rose Canyon. Check out the eyes on this bird. Very cool.
Rose Canyon Lake...