2009 Double Award Winner
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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