Birding the Kaibab Plateau, Arizona
by Charles J. Babbitt
Notice: This article originally appeared in Winging It, vol. 7, no. 6, June 1995, published by the American Birding Association, P.O. Box 6599, Colorado Springs, CO 80934, and is reproduced with the written permission of the American Birding Association and the author. ©1995, American Birding Association. Reproduction restricted to personal or educational use; reproduction for commercial use is prohibited without the written consent of the American Birding Association and the author.
Northern Goshawk, Blue Grouse, Three-toed Woodpecker, and Cassin's Finch are just some of the sought-after species that can be found in the boreal forests of northern Arizona's Kaibab Plateau. Besides great birding, the plateau offers visitors incomparable scenery with stunning views of the Grand Canyon from forested points and overlooks along the Canyon's north rim.
The Kaibab Plateau is divided into two parts: the southern third, which is in Grand Canyon National Park, and the northern two-thirds, which is part of the Kaibab National Forest. De Motte Park campground, located four miles from the National Park entrance, is a good central location from which to fan out and begin birding and exploring this area. It is located on Highway 67, 26 miles south of the starting point at Jacob Lake, Arizona.
From Jacob Lake, Highway 67 winds south through Ponderosa Pine forest interspersed with large stands of aspen. As the elevation increases, Ponderosa Pine turns to mixed conifer forest. About 15 miles south of Jacob Lake, you begin traveling along beautiful Blue Spruce-lined parks. Swainson's and Red-Tailed Hawks can often be seen in these large mountain meadows. At 25 miles, you will come to the Kaibab Lodge on your right, and, a few hundred yards farther, the entrance to De Motte Park campground, also on your right. The elevation here is about 8,800 feet.
De Motte Park campground is a good place to find Three-toed Woodpeckers. Look for them along the forested park edge just south of the campground, where they can often be heard drumming and tapping on dead snags. Other species to look for here include: Williamson's Sapsucker, Clark's Nutcracker, Red-breasted Nuthatch, and Golden-Crowned Kinglet. A walk into the meadow should produce Mountain and Western Bluebirds. At dusk, look for occasional flocks of Wild Turkey which move into the park to feed. The plateau has a large turkey population and you can run into them just about anywhere.
A very reliable place to find Blue Grouse is along the road to Marble Viewpoint. From De Motte campground go south on Highway 67 for one-half mile to Deer Lake. Here there is a four-way intersection where an unpaved road crosses the highway east to west. Turn left and follow the dirt road (FR 610) east. At one mile there is an intersection. Bear right and follow 610 toward Saddle Mountain. This road, like many on the plateau, is lined with New Mexican Locust, a large shrub that produces beautiful bright-pink blossoms in early summer. Continue on 610 for 6.9 miles to a sign on the left that points to Marble Viewpoint (FR 219). [It should be noted that most of the dirt forest roads on the plateauincluding the ones mentioned in this articleare wel-maintained and can be driven in standard passenger cars.]
At the turnoff to FR 219, set your trip odometer to zero and drive to Marble Viewpoint (four miles). The entire length of this road is good for Blue Grouse. In particular, try walking areas with large gooseberry bushes, such as the area on your right at 2.1 miles. At three miles there is an old road to the right that goes out a short distance to the rim. Walk this road. Blue Grouse are often found along canyon rims from which they can fly when startled. Some of the other birds to look for here include: Band-tailed Pigeon, Hairy Woodpecker, Green-tailed Towhee, Red Crossbill, and Cassin's Finch. This area is also good for Three-toed Woodpecker, especially where there are snags and downed timber.
Breathtaking is the only word that can describe the view of Marble Canyon and House Rock Valley that you get from the windswept overlook at the end of this road. The big rounded mountain that you see on the far horizon is Navajo Mountain, a heavily forested volcanic laccolith that, at 10,500 feet, is the highest point on the Navajo Indian Reservation. As you return to De Motte Park, stop occasionally and listen for flocks of birds moving through the aspen groves. These are often mixed flocks that may include such species as Mountain Chickadee, Pygmy and White-breasted Nuthatch, Brown Creeper, and Warbling Vireo.
Another great place to bird is Fire Point on the west side of the plateau. Return to the four-way intersection at Deer Lake. Go right (west) from the intersection on FR 422. At 2.1 miles turn left onto FR 270. Continue on 270 for 2.2 miles until you come to a sign marked Fire Point and FR 223. Turn right and follow this road for 14 miles out to the point.
Along the way you might catch a glimpse of a Norther Goshawk. It is thought that the Kaibab Plateau once harbored the densest Northern Goshawk population in North America. Heavy commercial logging on the Kaibab National Forest over the last 15 years has caused severe habitat fragmentation and loss of tree canopy closure that now threaten not only the goshawk population but other old-growth dependent species such as Black Bear, Kaibab Squirrel, Flammulated Owl, and Sharp-shinned Hawk.
As you approach Fire Point you will notice more and more big yellow-barked Ponderosa Pines. The bark on these trees does not begin to turn yellow until the tree is at least 150 years old. At 13 miles, the road crosses a fence and you are on the point, in the middle of a magnificent stand of old-growth trees. This is how the plateau's pine forests once looked before many of the big trees were cut and large areas reduced to ugly, unregenerated clearcuts. The last mile of this road is rather bumpy and you may want to get out and walk throughout the forest out to the point, where you will have a great view of the Grand Canyon looking west toward Great Thumb Mesa.
Birding Fire Point can be very productive. In the big pines look for Downy Woodpecker, Williamson's Sapsucker, Yellow-rumped and Black-throated Gray Warblers, Evening and Black-headed Grosbeaks, and Red Crossbill. In migration, watch for Hermit and Townsend's Warblers. During the day, listen for Northern Pygmy-Owl and, at night, for Common Poorwill. In the chapparal on the south side of the point look for Ash-throated Flycatcher, Virginia's Warbler, Rufous-sided Towhee, and Lesser Goldfinch. In late summer the purple and red blooms of Wheeler Thistle and Skyrocket Gilia attract Broad-tailed, Rufous, and an occasional Calliope Hummingbird.
The big pines at Fire Point are also a good place to see the plateau's most famous mammal, the Kaibab Squirrel. Geographically isolated, this beautiful tassel-eared squirrel has an all white tail, unlike its close relatives across the Grand Canyon. It is an example of divergent evolution and reminds us that the Kaibab Plateau, like many Southwestern forests, is an isolated sky-island-forest ecosystem that is both unique and highly vulnerable to human activity and disturbance.
While on the plateau you will want to visit Grand Canyon National Park. Because of steeper canyon drainage and more restricted access, birding inside the park is not as easy as on the National Forest, but a birding side trip to Cape Royal is well worth your time. From De Motte Park drive four miles south on Highway 67 to the park entrance where you pay an entrance fee. Continue on 67 for 9.3 miles, then turn left toward Point Imperial. At 5.5 miles turn right toward Cape Royal. Continue for 2.7 miles where there will be a pullout for Greenland Lake. Try walking the trail that circles this small body of water. You can find many of the boreal species already mentioned including Evening Grosbeak and Cassin's Finch. Continue on the road out to Cape Royal. This overlook is in pinyon-juniper habitat. Some of the birds you may see here include: Gray Flycatcher, Plain Titmouse, Common Bushtit, and Scrub Jay. White-throated Swifts often fly over the canyon.
A good place to find some different species and wrap up your tour of the plateau is Big Springs, a Forest Service work camp about 23 miles from De Motte Park. At Deer Lake take FR 422 west. At the intersection (2.1 miles) go straight ahead, staying on 422 for the next 21 miles.
Big Springs is located in a north-south canyon on the north side of the plateau. It gets its name from the water that gushes out of the Coconino sandstone formation on the canyon's east wall. There are a number of staff houses and other buildings here. Ask permission to enter to bird the large trees near the houses and the area around the pond. In the big trees look for Western Kingbird, Yellow Warbler, and Northern Oriole. MacGillivray's Warblers can be found in the tangled brushy area just north of the pond. In weedy areas look for Chipping, Vesper, and Brewer's Sparrows. Try birding the riparian vegetation along the roadside north of the work camp. Look for Townsend's Solitaire, Grace's Warbler, Western Tanager, and Indigo Bunting. Listen for raucous flocks of Pinyon Jays and the beautiful descending song of Canyon Wrens. At night this is a good place to hear Flammulated Owls.
When you have finished birding here, you can return to the starting point at Jacob Lake on FR 429 (13 miles) or you can go to Fredonia, Arizona, by continuing on FR 422 for another 29 miles.
Note: Highway 67 from Jacob Lake to the north rim of the Grand Canyon is closed by heavy winter snows from mid-November through mid-May.
About the author
Charles J. Babbitt is a lawyer, avid birder, and past president of the Maricopa Audubon Society in Phoenix.
Inns and Restaurants
Jacob Lake Inn (junction of US 89A and AZ67) lodging, gas station, restaurant. You can get Forest Service maps of the Kaibab National Forest here.
Kaibab Lodge (25 miles south of Jacob Lake) lodging and restaurant.
North Rim Country Store (across from De Motte campground) groceries, gas, camping equipment.
North Rim Lodge and Campground (13 miles south of Park entrance) in the National Park at the north rim; lodging, restaurant, post office, and campground.
De Motte Park campground (26 miles south of Jacob Lake) 20 camping sites; good central location.
Jacob Lake Campground (junction of US 89A and AZ67) single-unit campsites with RV sites nearby.
In addition to the above, Fredonia, Arizona, 30 miles north of Jacob Lake, has lodging, gas, food, and supplies.