August 17, 2007
Townsend's Warbler
Townsend's Warbler
A year ago in the spring I mentioned Pinal Peak south of Globe, 90 miles east of Phoenix on state route 60, as the newest birding hotspot in central Arizona.  If you missed it this spring, go now.  Late summer and early autumn is an exciting time to bird the Pinals.  Warbler migration through Arizona peaks during the last two weeks of this month, and peak hawk migration occurs around the first week of October.

The Pinal Recreation Area is located on the Tonto National Forest.  From Phoenix, shortly after you enter the western outskirts of Globe on Highway 60, watch for the brown forest service sign at the stoplight intersection with Russell Road.  Turn right and follow the signs up through Russell Gulch.  Pavement gives way to wide, smooth dirt and you will come to a stop sign at the intersection of Forest Roads 55 and 651.  In the spring you might want to go down FR55 about a mile and bird the old Kellner Canyon Campground, but now all the action is up the mountain on FR651.

This is washboarded dirt but suitable for passenger cars although caution is advised during heavy monsoon rainfall.  You may stop at any wide spot and walk with your binoculars, but there are four primary destinations:  Sulfide del Rey Campground about halfway up; the fire lookout road; the lower loop road connecting the upper campgrounds; and Signal Peak.  The campgrounds and the loop road are all about southbound flocks of warblers.  The lookout road (park and walk up from the locked gate) and Signal Peak are arguably the best fall hawkwatch sites in the state.

In the Pinals this time of year it is not uncommon to encounter large, mixed flocks of small birds, primarily warblers, moving through the upper and mid-story of the pine forest on the north facing slopes.  I have personally seen thirteen species of warblers in one September day, including painted redstarts and red-faced warblers, Arizona's own mountain gems, and Townsend's and hermit warblers, the stunning yellow, black, and white jewels of the Pacific Northwest.  Vireos, wrens, creepers, gnatcatchers, and nuthatches accompany the warblers.

This is also the time of year southbound hawks follow the ridgelines seeking the energy saving mid-day thermals.  Turkey vultures and red-taileds are common, accipiters and falcons to be expected, golden eagles, zone-taileds, and black hawks the real prizes.  Eating lunch one day on an exposed outcrop near the end of the road at Signal Peak, I watched a golden eagle soar around the corner of Pinal Peak below the lookout, pass me at eye level, and disappear into the haze over the Pinalenos to the south without a single wingbeat.

There's more than birds.  Twice, driving up the mountain after dark, I've seen ringtails cross the road and twice, running at dawn, I've spooked bears off the road ahead of me.  If you're not into camping after a full day on the mountain, stop in for the night at the Noftsger Hill Inn Bed & Breakfast ( in Globe.  Rosalie Ayala, the owner, is on the board of Arizona Watchable Wildlife (  If it's raining on the mountain, it might be clear at Boyce-Thompson Arboretum State Park, another fall migrant trap just west of Superior on the way home.

Close to Phoenix, a respite from the summer heat with spectacular overviews in all directions and a chance to see special birds from all over the American west, the spectacular Pinal Mountains are central Arizona's only sky island.  Go now.