Tommy J. DeBardeleben

Highway 78 and Big Lue Mountains Area

The Big Lue Mountains and Highway 78 offer Greenlee County birding a small and rather isolated, smaller mountain range within the Apache National Forest.  Highway 78 is a scenic drive and it climbs up into the mixed pine and oak forests of the Big Lue Mountains.  A variety of different birds can be seen within this area, from birds who favor desert scrub, to birds that thrive in pine and oak woodland.  With it's closeness to Duncan and Clifton, Highway 78 and the Big Lue Mountains can bring an added diversity to any day of birding in southern Greenlee County.

Birds and habitat you may see in Highway 78/Big Lue Mountains Area:  In this birding area, one will take Highway 78 to the east of Three Way, which quickly enters the Apache National Forest.  Habitats that are covered within this area are desert scrub, semi-arid grassland, chaparral, juniper woodland, cliffs and rocky areas, and mixed pine and oak woodland.  In spring and summer, breeding birds are abound.  In desert scrub and semi-arid grasslands, look for species such as Black-throated Sparrow, Verdin, Rock Wren, Loggerhead Shrike, and at times, possible Cassin's Sparrow.  As Highway 78 continues east and higher elevations are accessed, pull off the road at times to look or listen for birds.  The chaparral and juniper habitats hold birds such as Woodhouse's Scrub-Jay, Spotted and Canyon Towhee, Rufous-crowned Sparrow, and Crissal Thrasher.  It would also be worthwhile to check for Gray Vireo in this area.  In the pine and oak forests of the Big Lue Mountains, a variety of forest birds who favor the habitat that may be found breeding as well as some who are year round include Northern Goshawk, Acorn and Hairy Woodpeckers, Northern Flicker, Broad-tailed Hummingbird, Greater Pewee, Western Wood-Pewee, Ash-throated Flycatcher, Hutton's and Plumbeous Vireos, Mexican Jay, Bridled and Juniper Titmouse, Bushtit, White-breasted and Pygmy Nuthatches, Olive, Grace's and Black-throated Gray Warblers, Painted Redstart, and Hepatic and Western Tanagers.  Nighttime birding in these pine and oak woodlands may result in getting Elf, Flammulated, and Great Horned Owls, as well as Mexican Whip-poor-will and Common Poorwill.  Montezuma Quail are also found in the area, especially in hillsides among oaks with tall grass understory.  Fall and winter seasons will drastically change what birds are seen in this area.  In the desert scrub to chaparral communities, look for numbers of wintering species moving down from higher elevations such as Western Bluebirds, and look for numbers of wintering sparrows within these areas.  The chaparral may be worth searching through for Fox Sparrow.  Fall and winter in the pine and oak forests will bring in wintering birds such as Mountain Chickadee (which isn't known to breed in Big Lue Mountains yet), Red-naped Sapsucker, and Golden-crowned Kinglet among the more common resident birds. 

Area Elevation:  Three Way (3640'), Blackjack Canyon Overlook (6200'), Blackjack Campground (6240'), Seep Spring Canyon (~6000'), Coal Creek Campground (~5700')

Base Point for directions:  The base point for directions for this area will be at Three Way, which is the three way intersection of Highway 78, Highway 75, and Highway 191.  This area covers Three Way and Highway 78 east from Three Way up until Highway 78 reaches the state border of Arizona and New Mexico.

Area Maps:  Highway 78 and Big Lue Mountains Maps

Birding Locations:

1.  Three Way:  From the intersection of Three Way and continuing on east on Highway 78 towards the Big Lue Mountains, the first 13 miles of the drive will pass through desertscrub, semiarid grassland, chaparral, and juniper woodland before the second spot on this list, which is the Blackjack Overlook.  Elevation is increased gradually as the drive continues.  Travel on this road and stop and bird the different habitats it has to offer either on the way up to the pines and oaks of the Big Lues, or on the way back.  Refer to the birds mentioned above under what birds you may see in this area to get a better idea of what may be seen.

Three Way on eBird

2.  Blackjack Canyon Overlook:  This is a very scenic overlook on the south side of Highway 78 after traveling for 13.8 miles east past Three Way.  It overlooks Blackjack Canyon, a rocky canyon with steep cliffs on both sides, and has juniper hillsides as the dominant surrounding habitat. It is a good place to observe White-throated Swift and listen for Canyon Wren.  Also look for birds such as Woodhouse's Scrub-Jay, Spotted and Canyon Towhees, Rock Wren, Rufous-crowned Sparrow, Crissal Thrasher, and possibly Gray Vireo.

Blackjack Canyon Overlook on eBird

3.  Blackjack Campground:  At 14.3 miles of traveling on Highway 78 east of Three Way, Blackjack Campground is on the east (right) side of Highway 78.  This is only a half-mile past the Overlook that is described as the previous birding location before this one.  Immediately following the scenic overlook and continuing on Highway 78 to the north, pine and oak forest is quickly accessed and is followed shortly by Blackjack Campground.  This campground is an excellent location to find the typical pine and oak species mentioned in the description above, with the possibilities of some uncommon species such as Greater Pewee and Olive Warbler.  The campground is pleasant to bird, and hosts may have feeders out at times.  One AZFO expedition led by Eric Hough saw two Magnificent Hummingbirds frequenting feeders that were set up by campground hosts.  There are a few trails within the campground.  One is an easy and pleasant walk through tall pine and oak that is a wide dirt road trail that heads north from the campground.  After walking on this road trail for over a quarter of a mile, there is a trail that branches off to the east and decreases in elevation.  It goes down into a pleasant creek area, which is dammed up into a small pond if heading north along the creek.  If hiking this way from the trail that branches, it is another 0.4 mile.  The dirt road trail continues north past this side trail for a good distance. 

Blackjack Campground on eBird

4.  Martinez Ranch Road and Seep Spring Canyon:  Martinez Ranch Road comes into play at 16.2 miles of traveling on Highway 78 past Three Way.  It is on the west (left) side of Highway 78, and is a dirt road that is in good shape at least for the first few miles.  From the start of Martinez Ranch, it drops down into Seep Spring Canyon, where the road levels with the canyon at just over a half-mile of driving.  Seep Spring Canyon has pleasant birding year round.  Look for birds typical of pine, oak, and juniper forest, which is the habitat makeup of Seep Spring Canyon.  Owling at night in Seep Spring Canyon over the last few years has resulted in good numbers of Elf Owl at a much higher than usual elevation for the species.  Eric Hough detected them in 2014 in good numbers at an elevation of roughly 6000'.  Along the sides of Seep Spring Canyon and in the hills above the canyon further along Martinez Ranch Road are grassy hillsides in midst of oaks.  This is also a good area for hearing Montezuma Quail, and with some luck, maybe seeing one.  For one who wants to explore much further, Martinez Ranch Road continues further north and toward the San Francisco River.

Seep Spring Canyon on eBird

5.  Coal Creek Campground:  Coal Creek Campground is accessed on the north side of Highway 78, at 18.6 miles of driving past Three Way.  Look for species typical of pine and oak woodlands at this location, also.  The campground has good habitat to search through, and if crossing Highway 78 to the south, there is Coal Creek and several washes that are easy to walk through, through more pine and oak woodland at the base of northern facing slopes covered with pine and oak.  This location is shortly west of New Mexico by just over a mile.

Coal Creek Campground on eBird


Area Maps:  Highway 78 and Big Lue Mountains Maps


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