One of the most remote destinations in New Mexico, Clanton Canyon is situated in the southwest most part of the state known as the bootheel. The 430 mile drive from Santa Fe reminded me of New Mexico's rank as the 5th largest state in the union. A very wild feel surrounds one while camping in the Peloncillo Mountains there, a part of the Coronado National Forest.
Although the Peloncillos lack the height of the Chiricahuas in southeast AZ a short distance to the west or the Animas Mts across the valley to the east (and not open to the public), they offer several very unique habitats. The lower east end along the Geronimo Trail is a mix of juniper studded grasslands and substantial oaks along the main (usually dry) drainage. Higher up the canyon, one enters a zone of Chihuahuan pine, a conifer more adapted to the high desert conditions than the ponderosa pine, which does not occur here. Essentially, the area is an extension of Sierra Madrean Oak woodland, typical of the Sierra Madre Occidental in west Mexico.
The regular bird species that use this area include Mexican Jay, Bridled Titmouse, Hutton's Vireo, Bushtit, and Arizona Woodpecker. The nocturnal denizens include Common Poorwill, Northern Pygmy Owl (somewhat diurnal) and both Western and Whiskered Screech Owl-the latter being easily viewed here and nowhere else in the state. With the arrival of warm weather, the likes of Black-throated Gray Warbler, Scott's Oriole, Ash-throated Flycatcher, and Dusky-capped Flycatcher take up residence. The Dusky-capped has one of the largest ranges of any Western Hemisphere flycatcher, ranging from here all the way to Argentina.
In addition to encountering all the above species during our stay, we found some scarcer ones as well. A surprise visitor to our hummingbird feeder, for two days, was an adult male Magnificent-oops-Rivoli's Hummingbird. Getting to view this beauty, especially in such a dry setting, was a treat. A northbound migrant Cassin's Vireo from west Mexico was an unexpected surprise. Although not rare in the area, the pair of Zone-tailed Hawks near our campsite repeatedly gave us a show.
One of the real prizes of patiently birding here is the very occasional encounter with Montezuma Quail. And I had two of those in the time we camped. The first was down low at the east end of the canyon when 3 birds burst out from quite close to the forest service road. Higher up near the Whiskered Screech Owl camping spot, I flushed two then three more in succession. I tracked the second group into the area I thought they had landed. One jumped from a spot about 4 feet from me, earning the "Heart Attack Quail" nickname that some folks have given this bird. Creeping even more cautiously (and consciously) ahead I came to a stop and looked down not more than 3 feet from my foot in time to glimpse a stunning male bird before it blasted off. Back at the campsite at dusk, we heard several of these birds making their eerie, quavering whistle call as they presumably got the group back together.
For solitude, unique habitat and memorable birding, Clanton Canyon is a most worthy destination.