I’ve been spending the last several days in the “sky islands” of southeastern Arizona. These are the border mountain ranges that rise out of the desert thousands of feet, creating a host of different habitats for plants, birds, and animals.
While many people think of southern Arizona as desert, that’s far from the whole story. Yes, there are lowland areas of beautiful Sonoran desert, with the saguaro cacti, elf owls, and scurrying lizards.
But when you get to the mountains and start to ascend, the habitat changes. As the air rises up the mountain and cools, some of the moisture condenses – so the higher elevations typically get cooler and wetter. The next area up from the Sonoran desert is the mesquite scrub, where you find short trees and birds like this Black-throated Sparrow:
Moving higher still, you get into juniper and then oak trees. The canyons often have creeks and streams which provide additional water, and sycamores, maples, and oaks mix with some pines.
Up in the canyons, it is often at least 20 degrees cooler than the deserts below, and you can find a multitude of warblers, flycatchers, vireos, and other goodies like wild turkeys.
And Spotted Owls! I managed poor photos of an adult sleeping…
… and nearby a fledgling not too far out of the nest.
Above the oak canyons you actually get into firs and spruce – a true coniferous zone! The mountain tops at 7000-8000 feet same kind of habitat you find in much of boreal Canada. Some scientists have estimated that for every 1000 feet of elevation gain, the temperature and humidity differences are equivalent to travelling 300 miles north. So by driving up the mountains a dozen miles or so in the Arizona sky islands, you can visit most of the different habitats you would see by driving from Mexico to Canada! Which explains why they are such great places to go birding, as each local “life zone” has its own distinctive suite of inhabitants. Also, quite a number of essentially Mexican birds reach the far northern limit of their distribution here. If you want to see Red-faced Warbler or Painted Redstart in the US, this is the place to come.
My time in Arizona is rapidly coming to a close, and while it has been a great trip I am excited to get back to Seattle to see my family.