Chuck Darwin, Eat Your Heart Out

Cave Creek Canyon

Feb 1, 1999
Outside Magazine

I remember my wife's expression as we sat in front of several hummingbird feeders in downtown Portal, at the mouth of Cave Creek Canyon. Two blue-throated hummers, fighting for dominance, aimed straight at her face doing 30 miles per hour and then cut at the last second, one right and one left, within inches of her ears. She cringed and then whooped with glee. Meanwhile at least 30 more were engaged in their own fierce battles, zinging around us in tight loops and banked turns.
If the idea of flying 2,000 miles to see a bird called a plain-capped starthroat seems odd to you, you haven't spent much time in Cave Creek Canyon. This is one of the nation's top destinations (along with south Texas and Cape May, New Jersey) for power birders, those fanatic few who book last-minute flights to catch a glimpse of a blue mockingbird or an Aztec thrush. These are common birds in Mexico, but occasional dalliance across an imaginary political line lends them star status here.

But you don't have to have a 700-species life list—in fact, you don't even have to be a "birder"—to appreciate the avian show, particularly during the migration peak in May. In the white-barked sycamore trees along the creek, elegant trogons, members of the tropical quetzal family, hoot like sound effects in a Tarzan movie. Hummingbirds, over a dozen species, put on vertiginous displays of aerial acrobatics. Backyard tallies of species run higher here than in entire states. And it all happens beneath spectacular rhyolite cliffs that tower 2,000 feet over the canyon.
Portal, the tiny (population 80-ish) hamlet at the canyon's mouth, boasts a small store and the Portal Cafe, which serves up solid American fare. The Portal Peak Lodge, behind the store, rents tidy doubles for $65 (520-558-2223). Farther up the canyon, straddling the small stream, Cave Creek Ranch has apartments and cottages, all with kitchens (doubles, $60-$100; 520-558-2334). The managers/naturalists (full disclosure: my wife and myself) lead free birding and natural history walks. Nearby, three Forest Service campgrounds provide water and toilets ($6 per night). Be sure to stop by the American Museum of Natural History's Southwest Research Station, the hub of scientific inquiry for the Chiricahuas. The office staff will know what projects are underway, and you can supplement your burgeoning field-guide collection at the gift shop.

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