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"Parks, Historical, Cultural Magazine Article"

Ramsey Canyon opening pages

"Watchable Wildlife: Ramsey Canyon Preserve,"
by Julie Hammonds

Birders usually awaken before dawn. We sneak out of warm beds to dress hastily in the dark, grab daypacks and head out to catch the first movements of our feathered quarry. But the Ramsey Canyon Preserve opens at a civilized 8 a.m., so I am indulging in that rarest of birding days — the kind that begins with a full night’s sleep.

My eyes searching the treetops even as my fingers finish lacing my hiking boots, I almost miss the sight of a few Coues white-tailed deer picking their way delicately along the forest’s edge. Watching their black nostrils flare to pull in a soft breeze, I smell the dry powder of warming earth; the tang of young leaves; the scent of cool, running water.

I follow the deer into Ramsey Canyon on this bright spring morning, listening to echoes of other footsteps that have passed this way before.

Ramsey’s Road

In the 1880s, an early settler named Gardner Ramsey built a toll road in this Huachuca Mountains canyon to provide access to the Hamburg mine area, where prospectors mined gold, silver and other precious metals. A community grew over time — and even prospered for a little while, with its own school and (briefly) a post office.

In the early decades of the 20th century, Ramsey Canyon gained a reputation as a cool retreat from summer heat. Guest cabins, a dance hall and other attractions ensured its frequent mention in tourist brochures. Over time, though, the mines played out and people moved on. By the middle of the century, few people lived in the canyon year-round. The National Park Service designated the canyon as the nation’s first National Natural Landmark in 1963, due to “the significant plant, animal and geological formations found here.”

In 1975, Dr. Nelson C. Bledsoe of Bisbee willed 280 acres in the canyon to The Nature Conservancy. He directed that the area be used for scientific, educational and aesthetic purposes. Through later acquisitions, the preserve grew to 380 acres.

“We have two main themes in our management of the preserve,” says Brooke Gebow, southeastern Arizona preserves manager for the conservancy. “These themes are restoration of riparian habitat and removal of exotic plants.” The Nature Conservancy has restored the preserve’s lower area, taking out old buildings and restoring more natural stream conditions. Because the previous century of fire suppression left behind a forest dense with young trees and undergrowth, preserve managers now reduce fire risk through mechanical thinning and prescribed burning to open up the forest canopy.

As Far as the Feeders

I feel eager to follow the hobnail boots of miners and the homemade shoes of settlers up the trail on this warm, dry spring morning. Will I see a painted redstart or a sulphur-bellied flycatcher? Might an elegant trogon grace my view? My thoughts spill out the visitor’s center door and up the trail, past cottonwoods and sycamores, up to the sky where golden eagles and turkey vultures soar.

This fervor to head up-canyon is arrested abruptly at the sun-splashed feeders just behind the visitor’s center, where winged jewels zip back and forth, their flights accompanied by chirps, trills and buzzes. Filled with clear nectar, the red plastic feeders entice dozens of hummingbirds. Several people sit on benches set at a respectful distance.

The trail forgotten for a moment, I join them. Soon we are treated to the sight of a colorful hummingbird. A murmur passes from one person to another — black-chinned, black-chinned — as we confirm the bird’s species with a hum of satisfaction. Unaware of attention, the black-chinned hummingbird perches to drink, then pauses for a moment before winging upward. Black-looking feathers on his head suddenly flash their true color, a brilliant purple. “Ahhh,” we sigh in unison.

More hummingbirds zoom back and forth between the surrounding cottonwood trees and the feeders: the broad-billed, with its orange beak; the Anna’s, its scarlet gorget gleaming; the broad-tailed. Some hummingbirds share a feeder peaceably. Others face off aggressively, then rise with humming wings to zip away; their battles are a dance in double-quick time, almost too fast to follow.

Suddenly someone says the magic word “magnificent,” and all eyes focus on the feeder farthest back where a magnificent hummingbird perches. Binoculars bring the identifying features of this shy, large hummingbird of the northern forests into focus: dark overall, it has a long bill, green throat and purple cap.

Watching hummingbirds could keep me here for hours, but now a different show begins: the nature tour.

Interruptions Welcome

Our tour guides are the husband-and-wife team of Sandy and Betsy Kunzer. While one talks, the other takes charge of spotting birds at the feeders, and the only ground rule — which Betsy makes tour participants repeat, right hands raised — is to interrupt at any moment to ask a question or point out a bird.

People hesitate to interrupt Betsy at first. But her husband sets the example, calling out as birds zip to the feeders or wing through the nearby trees. Just as his wife begins explaining why Ramsey Canyon is such a biologically diverse and rich area, Sandy shouts, “Broad-billed!” Soon everyone is in on the act: “Gila woodpecker! White-breasted nuthatch!”

Betsy takes the interruptions in stride, describing the canyon’s natural history between rounds of, “What’s that?” She explains that the Huachuca Mountains, in which Ramsey is just one of many canyons, are so biologically rich because they are a crossroads where four different ecosystems overlap. The mountains of the Mexican Sierra Madre bring southern species of plants and animals north, while the Rocky Mountains of North America do the same from the opposite direction. The Sonoran and Chihuahuan deserts also meet here.

As the Huachuca Mountains rise abruptly from the surrounding desert floor, the striking change in elevation offers a cool haven, a “sky island.” The diversity of plant and animal life at this crossroads of four ecosystems — from ridge-nosed rattlesnakes and lesser long-nosed bats to beryline hummingbirds and buff-breasted flycatchers — is remarkable.

The madrean oak woodland of Ramsey Canyon itself offers an unusual environment. “The northeast trend of Ramsey Canyon keeps the area cool and wet,” explains Betsy. “The spring-fed stream runs year-round at least intermittently along its length, so it’s always wet somewhere in here. The sycamore gallery riparian woodland along the canyon bottom attracts neat species of birds, including cavity-nesters such as the elegant trogon and whiskered screech owl.”

Over the next three hours, nature tour participants will leave the feeders to meander slowly through the preserve. When the tour ends, they will know more about the intricate natural history of this area — and perhaps interrupt a speaker more quickly when an unusual bird flies by.

From Titmice to Turkeys

Rather than stay with the group, I walk the canyon alone, enjoying the dry air of this bright morning. The National Audubon Society has designated the Huachuca Mountains as an Important Bird Area, and I have high hopes for what I might see.

The trail offers easy footing, leaving me free to look up into the trees and over at the stream rather than down at my feet. Because the cottonwoods and sycamores are fully leafed out, spotting birds is challenging. Usually my ears catch them first, and then (with luck) my eyes follow.

By this method, I hear a call like that of a chickadee. Soon a tiny black-and-white songbird with a jaunty black crest comes into view. The bird jumps from branch to branch in search of bugs, rarely pausing. My “Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Western North America” helps identify this bridled titmouse. The “bridle” in its common name refers to a white line above its brow that meets another white line arching up from its chin.

As I enter a sun-filled opening in the forest, a regular, repeated clucking captures my ear. The bird that flies overhead will be no trouble to identify: Its large size, coppery-green back, scarlet breast and long tail mark it as an elegant trogon. The sky islands of southeast Arizona represent the northern edge of this bird’s range.

Hiking farther into the canyon as the day warms, I hear a strange noise in the forest. It sounds like a fan being snapped open, then dragged through a pile of potato chips. What could be making such an unusual sound? A strutting turkey, that’s what. Showing off for several other turkeys, the tom stiffens its wings and drags the tips through dry leaves on the forest floor. With its white-edged tail fanned open, the turkey offers an impressive display.

This is a Gould’s, the larger of Arizona’s two native turkey species. Gould’s were reintroduced to the Huachucas after being eliminated in southern Arizona early in the 20th century. The big birds are making a comeback here and on other sky island mountain ranges. “Our goal is to eventually repopulate Gould’s in their historic range,” says Brian Wakeling of the Arizona Game and Fish Department, who has worked on the reintroduction program for more than a decade.

Reaching the top of this gently climbing trail at noon, I turn to survey the forest. This trail continues up and out of the preserve, where it joins a network of other trails throughout the Huachucas. I will go no farther today, but my wildlife watching is not done. Several Coues white-tailed deer — perhaps the same ones I saw when this hike began — browse among nearby saplings. One deer flicks its ears, then rears up to nibble the young leaves above its head. Watching the deer maintain its precarious balance, I enjoy this sweet finale to a rich morning in Ramsey Canyon.

If You Go

  • Getting there: Ramsey Canyon is about 90 miles southeast of Tucson. Take Interstate 10 east to the state Route 90 exit, then south to Sierra Vista. Then take state Route 92 south for six miles and turn right on Ramsey Canyon Road. Go four miles to the preserve.
  • Hours: 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, March-–October, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily, November–February.
  • Fees: $5 per person, $3 for Cochise County residents and members of The Nature Conservancy. Children under 16 free. Fees valid seven days from date of purchase. Annual passes available.
  • Parking: 23 spaces first-come, first-served.
  • Guided nature walks, birding and natural history programs are available March–October.
  • Contact: (520) 378-2785
  • On the Web:

This article was published in the May-June 2007 issue of Arizona Wildlife Views magazine. To subscribe or give a gift, order online or call (800) 777-0015.

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