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In Arizona, a biodiversity hot spot goes beyond science

PORTAL, Ariz. - For birders in the Southwest, the elegant trogon is the Holy Grail. A tropical parrot-like species, with a bright red breast, iridescent green top feather, and a long coppery tail, the trogon comes up from Mexico each spring to breed along area creeks.

But it’s not just trogons that make the place special. This remote corner of southeastern Arizona, home to the American Museum of Natural History’s Southwestern Research Station, attracts such a diversity of rare plants and animals it has been dubbed one of the world’s biodiversity hot spots.

Summer months are for scientists only, but each spring and fall the research station opens its doors - for a fee - to non-scientists, or guest naturalists, interested in birding, hiking, or simply communing with nature against a backdrop of soaring volcanic cliffs, burbling mountain streams, and high-desert forests of oak, juniper, pine, and sycamore. If there is extra room during the summer, non-scientists can sometimes snag a private cottage by calling two weeks in advance.

“The biodiversity is the reason we’re here,’’ said Dawn S. Wilson, the research station’s director and a herpetologist who studies the Chiricahua leopard frog. “People come from all over the world.’’


Climatically, temperate and subtropical regions meet here along this chain of 10,000-foot mountains, “sky islands,’’ of spruce and ponderosa, separated by lower elevation grasslands, scrub, and desert valleys.

Hiking trails in the surrounding Coronado National Forest are abundant. The 2 1/2-mile Ash Springs Loop hike is a gentle ramble along desert streams shaded by oak-juniper woodlands, and studded with red-barked manzanita, blue agave, yucca, grama grass, and sotol. For a more strenuous workout, try nearby Silver Peak, a 3,000-foot climb (about 8 miles round trip) on a series of switchbacks to breathtaking summit views of the Chiricahua Wilderness and the Peloncillo Mountains in New Mexico.


Lucky visitors may glimpse black bears, mountain lions, bobcats, mule deer, javelina - small boar-like creatures - or encounter a band of chattering coatimundi, fleet-footed, comical relatives of the raccoon. Alden Hayes’s 1999 history of the area, “A Portal to Paradise,’’ describes early ranchers trapping a jaguar. Other wildlife includes 13 species of hummingbirds, 18 species of bats, and numerous insects, lizards, snakes, toads, and frogs.

Nestled in the eastern range of the Chiricahua Mountains, where Geronimo once roamed, what is now the research station was first homesteaded in 1878, operated as a dude ranch in the 1920s through the 1940s, and purchased in 1955 by the American Museum of Natural History, with a gift of $50,000 from David Rockefeller, a beetle lover.

“The peak research season is July through the end of August,’’ during the rainy season, Wilson said. “Researchers come when their study animal is doing what they need it to do - usually breeding.’’

This winter the station is building a 55-bed dormitory and remodeling its nine private cottages to be ready by spring. “We’re remodeling the cabins into family units to provide more housing for researchers who want to bring their kids,’’ and couples, Wilson said.

The price to stay in a cottage, $90 per person per night for non-scientists, includes three meals, generally well-prepared, filling fare such as chicken fajitas, warm tortillas, fresh salad, and fruit. Sack lunches can be requested the night before.

A word of caution: There are no TVs and cellphones do not work here, though there is a pay phone that takes calling cards. Wi-Fi will be available in the newly renovated cottages.


During the summer seminar series, visiting researchers give talks about their work, which are open to the public. For interested amateurs, the research station also sponsors popular weeklong birding tours in April and May and a nature tour in September.

During the season, 20 to 30 student volunteers are needed from March 1 to Nov. 1. Volunteers can work 24 hours per week for six weeks in exchange for free room and board.

“Most [volunteer] applications are in January and February, but we tell people to call to see if we’re full,’’ Wilson said.

In late March or early April, the trogons usually arrive along the South Fork Trail, an oasis crisscrossed by a meandering stream with numerous waterfalls. “Because the creek is right there, they’ll nest fairly close,’’ Wilson said. “We have seven or eight pairs of trogons that come here to breed. The males come first to establish territory and then the females come in. Every so often a male will stay through the winter. The males start calling first, making a strange barking noise.’’ A noise, by the way, that sounds like a barking seal.

Last spring, a wildfire burned almost 223,000 acres in the Chiricahua Mountains. Wilson said the station was protected by firefighters who conducted controlled burns to remove underbrush around the station and surrounding area.

Wilson said she doesn’t know how many trogons will return in 2012. “There are a lot of trees still standing in South Fork, which is their stronghold. I think the birds are going to come back.’’


If you go...

Southwestern Research Station

Portal, Ariz.



Aubin Tyler can be reached at aubin@theriver.com.