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2009 Double Award Winner

*Honorable Mention
Association for Conservation Information
Wildlife Magazine Article

*Award of Distinction for Copy/Writing
The Communicator Awards

"High-elevation Elation: Watching wildlife in the

White Mountains," by Dianne Howard

This article was published in the July–August 2009 issue of Arizona Wildlife Views magazine. Support Arizona's award-winning wildlife magazine — order online.

Each year, the Sipe White Mountain Wildlife Area in the White Mountains hosts a hummingbird festival called High Country Hummers. More than 400 onlookers gather at this beautiful, yet out-of-the-way, spot to watch handlers from the Southeastern Arizona Bird Observatory capture and collect data on hummingbirds. It’s fascinating to watch. I don’t know how they handle such tiny birds without breaking them.

In 2007, a boy about 10 years old attended High Country Hummers and adopted a hummingbird through the Southeastern Arizona Bird Observatory’s “Adopt a Hummingbird” program. He returned to the event a year later to inquire about his adopted bird. The same bird had been recaptured! One of the handlers shared with the boy all of the bird’s vital information and said it was doing well. When the boy was satisfied he had learned all he could about his hummingbird, he grinned from ear to ear and exclaimed, “This is the happiest day of my life!”

If this is the kind of excitement you and your family are looking for, head to the White Mountains, where the Arizona Game and Fish Department offers wildlife-watching programs throughout the year. Not only can you learn about hummingbirds, but there also are workshops on wildlife watching, elk and bald eagles, too. And if simply wandering and watching wildlife on your own is more your thing, Sipe White Mountain Wildlife Area and the surrounding country offer plenty of opportunities for that, as well.

Sipe White Mountain Wildlife Area

Mention the White Mountains to an Arizonan and you’ll hear about high-elevation forests and meadows, crisp air and clean waters. Sipe, located in the White Mountains about an hour east of the department’s Pinetop office, has all these qualities. Purchased in 1993 as the White Mountain Hereford Ranch, the wildlife area was renamed in 1995 for Dennis Sipe, the man who offered the property to the department.

Open to the public year-round, Sipe’s 1,300-plus acres are surrounded by national forest land. The visitor center originally was built as a residence in 1930. It now houses beautiful exhibits about the area’s wildlife and the history of the property and artifacts from the Rudd Creek Pueblo, a prehistoric ruin dating back 1,000 years. About 2 miles of Rudd Creek run through the property, supporting the Little Colorado spinedace, speckled dace, bluehead sucker and Little Colorado sucker, all native species. Trout also are found in Rudd Creek: Brook trout and rainbow/Apache trout hybrids dominate the stream’s upper reaches.

The extensive trail system offers sights for young and old alike. On the trail that loops up to the top of the ridge behind the visitor center, there is a spotting scope for spying distant hilltops like Escudilla Mountain, or wildlife if your timing is right. Benches scattered along the way invite relaxing, pondering or just staring at the scenery.

There is also a short path that starts at the parking area and ends at a bench on the edge of a small pond on the creek. Walking back from this bench last fall, I nearly stepped on a snake. I was looking down and fiddling with the camera I was holding, so it entered my peripheral vision as I approached. Luckily, I stopped before I spooked the snake, and it just “stood” there like I did. I was able to take several pictures before it turned around and slithered back down into its hole in the grass.

One of the charming things about the sidewalks around the visitor center is the animal tracks embedded in the concrete. You’ll find all sorts of special touches like this around the property. The people responsible for creating and maintaining these special touches are the area manager, Brian Crawford, and Bruce Sitko, the Information and Education Program manager from the department’s Pinetop office.

Crawford and his wife, Brenda, live on the property and care for it like it’s their own. They do a lot to enhance the habitat for all kinds of wildlife. Elk are prevalent and can be seen year-round, although fall and winter are the best times. You also may find pronghorn antelope, mule deer, gray fox, coyote, badger or striped skunk.

And birds! There are woodpeckers, bluebirds and jays (Steller’s and pinyon) to see and hear. In winter, bald eagles perch in dead trees Crawford and Sitko “planted” around the reservoirs. There are a variety of other raptors, such as ospreys, kestrels, hawks, golden eagles and peregrine falcons. Waterfowl readily are seen during migration periods (fall and spring). Crawford planted an old tire on a 4-foot-tall platform in hopes that geese will nest on it. He says they’ve checked it out, but so far have not started building. We keep our fingers crossed. He also built two viewing blinds on the edge of McKay Reservoir.

If you think you’ve seen a lot of hummingbirds, I will beg to differ until you’ve been to Sipe in July. Brenda keeps the feeders as full as she can, and the birds hover like gnats, all vying for a port. The first time I visited Sipe, I fell in love with the property, but it may have had something to do with the hummingbirds. If you are a birder, add something new to your life list here. If you’re a photographer, subjects abound. And if you want to learn about more wildlife watching opportunities — attend a workshop (see box below).

From exploring the wonders of Sipe White Mountain Wildlife Area to taking part in a workshop that feeds your curiosity about the natural world, there’s plenty to do in the White Mountains. If you still can’t think of a good reason to visit, give me a call. I’ve got plenty more!

More White Mountains Wildlife Viewing

The Terry Flat Loop around Escudilla Mountain is another of my favorite wildlife-watching areas in the White Mountains. From just about any point at Sipe White Mountain Wildlife Area, visitors can see Escudilla, the third-highest peak in Arizona (10,912 feet). This flat-topped but majestic-looking mountain sits on the third-smallest wilderness area in the United States. Designated by Congress in 1984, Escudilla Wilderness totals 5,200 acres and is part of the Apache/Sitgreaves National Forests.

The turnoff to Escudilla Mountain and the Terry Flat Loop is not far from Sipe. The magnificent meadows seen from the loop drive explain why the area made such an impression on Aldo Leopold. When the last-known grizzly bear in Arizona was killed here, he wrote, “Somehow it seems that the spirit of the bear is still there, prowling the huge meadows, lurking in the thick stands of aspen and spruce, wandering the steep slopes that looking down from is like looking out of the window of an airplane.”

There are a couple of hiking trails, including one leading to a lookout tower. The area has such little water that camping is not encouraged, but is allowed in certain areas. I recommend driving the loop and eating a picnic lunch along the way. Pick one of the many beautiful spots to pull over and soak in the scenery. I was there in September while the leaves were starting to turn and saw few other people.

Once you’ve visited Sipe and driven the Terry Flat Loop, that’s not the end of wildlife watching in the White Mountains; in fact, the fun is just beginning. The department manages other wildlife areas in the White Mountains, including Wenima and White Mountain Grasslands. At Wenima, two hiking trails provide easy access to streamside and upland areas where you can view beavers, mule deer, pronghorn antelope, ringtail cat, ground squirrels, chipmunks, rabbits and lizards. Birding is fruitful along the river. At White Mountain Grasslands, high-elevation uplands are home to pronghorn, rock and golden-mantled squirrels, chipmunks and rabbits. The meadows and grasslands offer opportunities to see golden eagle, northern harrier, red-tailed hawk and other raptors. Both areas are open from sunrise to sunset.

Still haven’t had enough? Nelson Reservoir near Sipe has plenty to offer. This little fishin’ hole, which boasts trout, crappie and sunfish, is easily accessible from two parking lots, one at each end. Its shallows attract waterfowl. When I visited in early February, it was cold and windy, but there were lots of coots, and a few bufflehead, canvasbacks and ring-necked ducks.


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White Mountains Workshops

Wildlife Watching/Elk Workshop

In September, the Pinetop office hosts a Wildlife Watching/Elk Workshop at Sipe. Attendees learn how and where to see wildlife around the state. Sitko, who has worked for the department since 1992, gives tips on finding, viewing and respecting wildlife. You’ll also learn a lot about elk natural history.

After classroom instruction, participants go out in the field to find elk. Because this workshop is held during the rut, it is likely you’ll see at least one herd. Sitko sends scouts ahead to find fruitful areas. When I attended last year, the group of about 20 people crept up a hill overlooking McKay Reservoir. There was a large bull elk lying down at the edge of bright green grass about 100 yards away. When he realized we were there, he stared right at me. I zoomed in on him with my scope and realized he only had one eye. When I later told Crawford, he said, “No wonder he let me get so close to him the other day!”

One thing we learned in the classroom was that in 1492, there were about 10 million elk in North America. By 1900, there were only 40,000 left on the continent. Soon after, the Merriam’s elk, the subspecies that inhabited Arizona, became extinct. However, in 1913, Rocky Mountain elk from Yellowstone were released here. We now manage for 25,000 animals in Arizona, which is what habitats can sustain in the critical winter months. When you think about how the numbers have changed since 1492, I feel lucky to have seen any, let alone a majestic, one-eyed bull.

Bald Eagle Workshop

If you have yet to see our national symbol in person, the department hosts a workshop guaranteed to amaze and delight you!

In the classroom portion of the Bald Eagle Workshop, you’ll learn all sorts of interesting facts and stories from Jamey Driscoll, the department’s raptor management coordinator. For example, did you know bald eagles are lazy, opportunistic feeders that would rather steal fish from an osprey or eat at a carcass than hunt? Their diet consists of about 80 percent fish, and 20 percent opportunistic prey.

Driscoll told a memorable story about the Bald Eagle Nestwatch Program, in which people who contract with the department monitor high-recreational-use areas at which eagles are breeding. Sometimes nestwatchers are the first to know when eagles are in trouble. One day, a flood threatened a nest with two eggs. The eggs were removed from the nest, taken to the Phoenix Zoo and placed in an incubator. Only one survived.  But the story ends happily: When it was old enough, the baby bird was placed in a nest downstream from the original nest. There was already a fledgling in the nest that was close to the same age. When the mother eagle returned to the nest, she started feeding both babies without skipping a beat. Lesson learned: Eagles can’t count!

After the classroom portion of this workshop, the group heads to a nearby lake to try to see bald eagles. Since this workshop usually is held in winter at the Pinetop office, the weather can be unpredictable. We were lucky this year. First of all, the weather was beautiful. I wore short sleeves, and although it was a little windy, I was quite comfortable. Despite the wind, we saw plenty of bald eagles, and took home photos and memories for a lifetime.

High Country Hummers

At the opposite end of the seasonal calendar comes High Country Hummers. Held in July, it is sure to attract desert-dwellers wanting to escape the heat. Since it’s usually monsoon season by this time, it’s a little muggy, but you won’t mind — the birds don’t.

You’ll enjoy watching how hummingbird handlers from the Southeastern Arizona Bird Observatory capture the little birds in a contraption that surrounds a feeder. The trick is to catch just one at a time! Then they carry the tiny birds in a small mesh cage over to the table to await inspection. Data collectors handle the tiny birds with ease as they weigh, measure and prod. Finally, a band so small you can barely see it, much less read the number it carries, is attached to the bird’s leg. Then the bird is placed in the palm of someone’s outstretched hand for release. It takes the hummingbird awhile to realize it’s free to go, offering plenty of time to get photos.

This article was published in the July–August 2009 issue of Arizona Wildlife Views magazine. To subscribe or give a gift, order online.

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