Madera Canyon Trip Report


TRIP REPORT:  Madera Canyon, Arizona – July 15-16, 2006


We made a quick trip to south central Arizona the past weekend (July 15th & 16th) spending Saturday evening and early Sunday morning in the Santa Rita mountains in and around Madera Canyon.  The Santa Rita’s are located about 30 miles south of Tucson and are one of several “sky islands” that dot the south central and southeastern portions of Arizona.  They are called sky islands as they represent very unique habitats due to their elevation and rainfall which attract a huge variety of plant and animal life that would otherwise not be found in this, mostly desert, area.  This includes a wide variety of bird life that you can see nowhere else in the US, many Mexican species come up from the south during the summer monsoon season to feed and breed in these areas.  Exotic species such as the Elegant Trogan and the Flame-colored Tanager along with a huge variety of hummingbirds either live or pass through these “sky islands” in the desert.  Along with the bird life is a wide variety of other life including herps so these areas hold special interest to me and are one of my favorite habitats, anywhere.


It had been a very long time since I had visited Madera Canyon, 25 years to be exact!  I last made the trek across the Catalina’s, Santa Rita’s, Huachuca’s and Chiricahua’s in 1981!  Things have changed considerably since I was last here but there is still an abundance of wild life in the area I am pleased to say.


I made a quick stop on the way out from San Diego at the Imperial Dunes, hoping once again to get some photos of Uma for my website and once again, I got skunked!  I literally saw one within seconds of opening my car door and stepping into the sand but it took off like a zebra-tailed lizard and never stopped running!  However, I did get to photograph a couple of other very cool lizards, specifically the Desert Iguana and Long-nosed Leopard Lizard.  It was EXTREMELY hot in the area and by 10:00 even the most heat tolerant lizards were nowhere to be seen which was fine as this was not our destination but merely a distraction.  Here are a few photos from the mornings search:


Dipsosaurus dorsalis – Desert Iguana



Gambelia wislizenii – Long-nosed Leopard Lizard





We arrived in Tucson in the late afternoon and headed down to Green Valley and then up to the entrance to Madera Canyon.  Mount Wrightson is the highest peak in the area, rising 9,453 feet above the Sonoran Desert floor.  There were scattered thunderstorms in the area and the monsoonal flow was evident in the evening sky.


A sight for sore eyes!  Monsoonal moisture and rain falling over the sonoran desert near Madera Canyon


A look up at Mt. Wrightson in the Santa Rita Mountains


We took a short hike near dusk up the Mt. Wrightson Trail without spotting anything of special interest, a couple of Mountain Spiny Lizards (Sceloporus jarrovii) and some common birds.  It rained on our way into the park and intermittently until dusk, the ground was damp but drying quickly as we started to do some road cruising.  The first creature spotted at dusk was of course the ubiquitous Tarantula, this one was very friendly and seemed to want to crawl on my camera which made him difficult to photograph, I finally put my hand down and let him crawl up my arm for a minute which seemed to appease him, when I put him back down he stopped moving long enough for me to take a few pictures and then went on his way.




With much anticipation I started road cruising both paved and dirt roads in the area, eventually making my way up to Box Canyon and highway 83, plenty of wonderful looking habitat but not one herp to speak of!  Tons of kangaroo rats and a variety of other rodents, nighthawks, a fox, etc. but no herps.  It started to rain again as I got near highway 83, lightning flashed constantly and lit up the area, it rained steady for about 5 minutes and then the storm passed.  This time, at least the amphibians started to show.  First to start being seen were Mexican Spadefoot toads (Spea multiplicata). 


Mexican Spadefoot - Spea multiplicata



Once I got back to lower elevations the Sonoran Desert Toads (Bufo alvaris) started to appear.  These are one of my favorite amphibians, they can get really huge, the one I have in my hand below is a small one even though he is obviously bigger than my fist.  I was really pleased to see so many of these long-lived giants.


Sonoran (also called Colorado Desert) Desert Toad - Bufo alvaris


Very LARGE Sonoran Desert Toad, approx. 8" lenght!


We also found a lone Couch’s Spadefoot (Scaphiopus couchii) on the road, this one is a male, the females are much more boldly patterned.


Couch's Spadefoot - Scaphiopus couchii


This cool praying mantis was imitating a stick in the middle of the road and picking off insects...


The first official reptile of the night was a Tucson Banded Gecko (Coleonyx veriegatus bogerti).


Tucson Banded Gecko - Coleonyx veriegatus bogerti


Next I came across a beautiful example of a Western Diamondback Rattlesnake (Crotalus atrox) but right away I knew there was something wrong as it didn’t react hardly at all to me coming up on him.  He just sort of stayed in a U shaped configuration flicking his tongue as I shot a couple of pictures of him.  He was obviously injured, perhaps clipped by a car but perhaps just stunned as there was no obvious trauma to him.  I got my hook and moved him off the road as he remained completely passive.  Slowly he started to move off into the brush and when I drove by a little later he was gone so hopefully he survived whatever happened to him.


Western Diamondback Rattlesnake - Crotalus atrox


I saw more Sonoran Desert toads and a couple Mexican spadefoot toads but it was getting late and the plan was to start at dawn and hike up the canyon until it got too hot so we called it a night shortly after midnight.


The next morning we were up and on the trail before sunrise, there was a tremendous amount of bird activity in the area and we spotted quite a few noteables.  I have some pictures at the end of the post.


In terms of herps, the most numerous were the Sonoran Spotted Whiptail (Aspidoscelis sonorae) and Clark’s Spiny Lizards (Sceloporus clarkii) both of which were quite common within their niches.


Sonoran Spotted Whiptail - Aspidoscelis sonorae


Sonoran Spotted Whiptail - Aspidoscelis sonorae


 Clark’s Spiny Lizard - Sceloporus clarkii - juv.


Clark’s Spiny Lizard - Sceloporus clarkii - juv.



We also spotted a few Ornate Tree Lizards (Urosaurus ornatus) along the path.


Ornate Tree Lizard


In terms of the birds, a couple of highlights included this Zone Tailed Hawk, a new lifer for me and almost mistaken for a Turkey Vulture…


Zone-tailed Hawk


The hummingbirds were all over the place but difficult to photograph as there was so many tubular plants blooming they didn't stay around long...  I was able to get some shots of the Broad-billed Hummingbird and a female Blue-throated Hummingbird, both also lifers for me.


Broad-billed Hummingbird


Blue-throated Hummingbird


Some additional birds included:


Hepatic Tanager (female)


Hepatic Tanager (male)


Blue Grosbeak


Arizona Woodpecker


Mexican Jay


Bewick's Wren


Ladder-backed Woodpecker


White-breasted Nuthatch


Dusky-capped Flycatcher


All in all, a nice trip in a short period of time…


Thanks for looking, if interested here’s a link to some other recent trip reports:  TRIP REPORTS


Good herping!









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