After four days camping in the heart of Madera Canyon, we figured it out. The birds sleep in. That dawn chorus and morning buzz of activity? Forget it. Feeling the chill of a  February morning, the birds fluff up their feathers and wait for the heat of the sun.

Sandra and I honed it precisely to 9 am for bird breakfasting hour. In one sun illuminated Arizona Sycamore by Madera Creek  below the picnic area, we watched a half-dozen Acorn Woodpeckers, a pair of Hepatic Tanagers, and a White-breasted Nuthatch feasting away on nuts or insects.  The calls of juncoes (both dark-eyed and yellow-eyed) chorused with Bridled Titmice and the rolling two-syllable melody of a Painted Redstart.

All this, when 15 minutes ago, no birds sang or chirped at all. The chuckling, rushing creek prevailed in its tumbling journey over smooth boulders in a riparian forest of oaks, junipers, sycamores and cottonwoods trending toward spring. As the day warmed, the Mexican Jays clamored in like a street gang. With my binoculars perfectly focused on a the smoky rose red feathers of a Hepatic Tanager male, a jay landed so close I thought he’d jostle the tanager right off the branch.

white-breasted nuthatch
Arizona Sycamore in Madera Canyon–White-breasted Nuthatch visible!

Madera Canyon, only 30 miles south of Tucson, absolutely jostles with life in every season. In prime spring and summertime, the bird list soars. The documented list of 256 species includes 15 kinds of hummingbirds, 36 wood warblers, and rarities like the Elegant Trogon, Flame-colored Tanager, and Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher.

A more modest  list in winter months does not diminish the marvel of the birds that inhabit Madera Canyon in varying life zones, from peaks above 9000 feet down to the Sonoran desert lowlands.  They thrive, because of the gift of water and a spectacular variety of plant life that in turn hosts berries, nuts, and insects – a delectable banquet of foods rivaling the finest French chef’s seven-course dinner.

Madera Canyon
Madera Creek (highlighted by sycamores) flows down through a wilderness canyon in the Santa Rita Mountains–a “sky island” in the desert. Hikers heading up from the lower reaches traverse four life zones from pine-oaks to montane conifers to the top of Mt Wrightson at 9,453 feet.

Reading one of the informative interpretive signs (thanks to the Coronado National Forest), I  delved into the oak part of the banquet–specifically the Silverleaf Oak, the Arizona Oak, the Mexican Blue Oak, the Emory Oak, and the Netleaf Oak. If you care about spectacular birds, you have to care about oaks.  Every species supports its own highly evolved community of insects, including caterpillars that transform into butterflies or moths. When you consider it takes from 6,000 to 9000 caterpillars for one pair of chickadees to raise its young, and that oaks support more than 500 kinds of caterpillars (See Doug Tallamy), they’re impressive trees.

oak leaves- chewed!
Chewed up oak leaves are the sign of a great birding forest!

Acorns matter too.  Those comical Acorn Woodpeckers are aptly named and busy as squirrels stashing acorns in fall in tree holes or retrieving them in winter. When the chewed up oak leaves at last fall to the ground, they become part of a living forest floor. The decaying leaves support a whole array of living things,from fungi to mites, and predators like pseudoscorpions and spiders. Coatis –slender, long-tailed, and nosy–burrow into the leaf litter to dine on insects here.  Towhees scruff in the leaves for insects, too.

Acorn Woodpecker
Even Acorn Woodpeckers visit the living forest floor of oak and sycamore leaves to see what they might find.

A common theme seems to be emerging in this Blog. Food. Breakfast. When and where to have it. And who’s coming?  For birds in Madera Canyon in February,  the early bird catching the worm story does not yet apply. However, getting up early whets my appetite for the sun-infused drama ahead.  In the dark before sunrise, the single syllable rapid hoots of the  Whiskered Screech Owl signal the moon set.  The first light of day may be cool, yet in every shadowed tree lies the promise of the morning’s savory menu in a cherished Sky Island close to the Mexican border.

madera canyon trail

Madera Creek over stonessycamores- Madera Creek