Monday, December 12, 2011

Back and Gone Again

Old sign in South Tucson
I'm not usually highly distractible, but I must say that the last two and a half years of planning, building, and settling into a summer cabin in the Colorado Rockies certainly has tested me.  It was a great project, and as much as I love the Sonoran desert, a great place to escape the worst of the heat.  Now that the cabin is completed and we've settled in and spent four months in it over the summer, I'd like to think I'm back to my favorite place on earth and ready to give it my full attention, but we are about to head back north to spend Christmas and New Years at the cabin.  One of my resolutions for the coming year is to be wherever I am at the moment FULLY, but for now I wanted to take a little walk down memory lane.

We recently replaced an aged and expiring computer.  When they transferred over our data all my pictures from years ago, prior to my beginning this blog, became wonderfully accessible.  I wanted to share a few of them with you.  They are all reasons I love Tucson and the Sonoran desert.

The wonderful old Barrio Viejo market turned B&B where I used to stay
Some of my Moon Take Night Make Day hikers and part of the
reason I have been a volunteer ranger with Saguaro National Park
for almost ten years
A Virgin of Guadaloupe shrine in Barrio Hollywood
Ancient pictographs along a favorite trail
The screechless Western Screech Owl, a frequent visitor to our yard
The saguaro cactus, icon of the Sonoran desert
A not atypical sunset out our back door

How Christmas looks when we're in Tucson
These are just a few of the reasons I love Tucson, a place I have lived for ten years this month.  It has brought me many good things, including my loving husband, and is my chosen place on Earth.  It is my spiritual center and my home.

I hope you have a wonderful Christmas and terrific New Year, surrounded by those that mean the most to you and in a place that you love.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Hoodoo Death March (We Do)

Famous hoodoos of Chiricahua National Monument in southeaster Arizona

We took an overnight camping trip to Chiricahua National Monument over Mother's Day weekend.  We are National Park junkies (and volunteers at Saguaro National Park), and with my husband three weeks from retirement, we thought we'd give ourselves a taste of times to soon come when, at the drop of a hat, we throw our camping stuff in the SUV and take off.  With entrance to the park free thanks to my husband's Access pass (if you are 62 and a US citizen, buy one for $10 and enjoy your National Parks and Monuments free for the rest of your life!), including a half price camp site ($6 a night) thanks to his pass (age does have it's privileges), the price of gas to get there was our only real expense.

Faraway Ranch
We had a lovely and quiet perimeter camping site in Bonita Canyon.  Shortly after pitching tent we made the gentle one and half mile saunter to Faraway Ranch for the Volunteer Ranger led tour of this historic home.  Along the way we encountered white tailed deer and wild turkeys, spotted a Bridled Titmouse, and marveled at the riparian woodlands and meadows.

Still waiting to host guests since the 1960's

This room was originally used as a "fort" for protection from renegade Indians

White-tailed deer in the Silver Spur Meadow
Arizona Cypress bark
Alligator Juniper bark

Amazing trees of the riparian woodlands

That night we slept with a view of the trees, stars, and moon above us through the mesh screen of our tent that sloped over our heads.  The breeze rustled the dried oak leaves nearby and we slept deep.  After an early morning of coffee, oatmeal, and birdwatching (Mexican Jays, Hermit Thrushes, Robins, Yellow-rumped Warblers, Wilson's Warblers, a Hooded Oriole and a boat load of birds I couldn't ID), we de-camped and headed for the Visitor Center where we were registered to catch a ride on the shuttle to the top of the trails that threaded their way through the hoodoos back to the Visitor Center.

Mexican Jays mobbed the campground
When my husband first started talking about the different hikes we could do and mentioned an eight to nine miler he had his eye on, I'd replied "no way".  But after the nice three mile hike the day before and the good night's sleep, I was keen on seeing it all and hiking down the long way round with an additional mile plus loop through the famous Heart of the Rocks side trip.  Sure, it was over seven miles, but most of it was down hill, right?  Wrong.

We had done the Echo Canyon hike down from the top eight years ago [note: that's eight years younger], just over four miles with a 1200 foot descent, and I remember it was gorgeous, downhill, and cold -- it was a Thanksgiving camping trip.  This time we were almost doubling the distance and as we found out within a mile of leaving the top, far from all downhill with extremely rugged trails most of the way, and many of them exposed to the intense May sun.  Over the course of the hike we climbed several hundred feet, much of it over trails with rock "staircases," some with treads of two feet!  The views, when I could look up from the trails (which was not often), were often spectacular, but by mile four of the toughest hiking I've ever done, I was starting to think of the rescue horse, Boomer, that the park service employed. Very high winds with gusts to near 50 mph buffeted us most of the way, blowing grit into our faces and eyes, and making the birding binoculars I lugged a moot point.  While it became a bit of a Hoodoo Death March about half way through our hike, we did see some amazing scenery.

Big Balanced Rock
Duck on a Rock in Heart of Rocks
Take the stairs up...
...and take the stairs down
Pinnacle Balanced Rock
Last look back at the Heart of Rocks
Arizona Mountain Kingsnake...hard to miss
I spotted a Arizona Mountain Kingsnake crossing my path about 3/4's of the way down and took that as a sign.  This snake (I've handled these with my work at the Desert Museum) mimics the markings of the venomous coral snake, so I took it as a sign that the trail was testing me, but would not kill me.  It lightened my mood considerably.  The last half mile was forested and mercifully flat with a smooth pine needle covered dirt trail, the kind we'd hoped we would have encountered much more of over the course of our hike, but hadn't.  Our car sitting in the Visitor Center's parking lot looked mighty good when we finally got there.

We made the two hour drive home elated and exhausted, an interesting combo.  After the use of a considerable amount of hot water we took our achy selves to bed and were asleep before 8:30.  I was surprised to not only find myself able to get out of bed this morning, but feeling pretty darn good.  Maybe our vows not to try anything like that again will go unheeded.  There's a lot of retirement time to come with lots of time to hike in lots of National Parks.  Maybe next we'll go rim to rim in the Grand Canyon.

Well, maybe not next...

Friday, May 6, 2011

Just Another Fabulous Friday at the Desert Museum

A Cactus Wren going for an easy insect meal in a prickly pear cactus flower
Bunny bingeing on primroses
I was assigned to lead the Bird Walk at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum today.  These walks are led every morning just as the museum opens, 7:30 AM in the summer.  As I drove into staff parking I passed a woman peering into some bushes in the parking lot, binoculars in hand, and I knew I'd be seeing her soon. Two Canadian couples, unknown to each other, showed up for the bird walk, and yes, one of the women was the one from the parking lot.  We had a laugh about my having ID'd her early on before heading off.  I always preface my bird walks by explaining that while I have a good grasp on the common and obvious birds in this part of the Sonoran Desert -- Gila Woodpeckers, Cactus Wrens, Gambel's Quail, various doves, etc. -- I am not an expert birder, but do know where to take them on the grounds for the best bird watching.  They were fine with that, and then they proceeded to give me the best birding experience ever at the Desert Museum.

Hooded Oriole
We wound our way down to the Desert Garden, pausing at the Pollinator Garden for my first good look at a Green-tailed Towee.  A brilliantly red Cardinal met us at the Desert Garden entrance and then we were off to the races.  Some highlights were the Black-headed Grosbeak, the Ruby-crowned Kinglet, a Bullocks Oriole and a Hooded Oriole, and a Lazuli Bunting.  They were thrilled to spot a Costa's Hummingbird, and we were amused by a Desert Cottontail who couldn't get his fill of primroses.  A Desert Spiny lizard in full breeding colors enticed a mate to join him on the garden wall.

Desert Spiny lizard showing his breeding colors

It worked!  She climbed up to join him on the top of the wall
As we left the Desert Garden we had an excellent view into the high elevation Life Zones area with oak and pine.  It was alive with warblers -- Yellow-rumped, Common Yellowthroat, Wilson's, Townsend's, and a life list bird for one couple, an Olive Warbler.  There was also a beautiful Western Tanager flitting from branch tip to branch tip.  Moving on to the beaver pond in the Riparian Area yielded a Townsend's Warbler and Black-throated Gray Warbler.

Western Tanager feeding 
One of the couples was desperate to see a Gilded Flicker.  I sent them off suggesting they keep their eyes on the holes in the top three or four feet of the saguaros as the Gilded Flickers like the penthouses.  I headed off on the rest of my morning assignments which included interpreting horns and antlers at the Big Horn Sheep exhibit.  They were out and about, grazing on their morning meal, as was a wild Spiny Tailed Iguana, a lizard from much further south in the Sonoran Desert that we have a wild population of on the grounds where water and lush foliage are available.

This Spiny Tailed Iguana exceeded two feet in length
Spotted after this photo op with a lizard tail hanging out of his mouth
Desert Willow blossom
All in all, just another fabulous day as a docent at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum.

Thursday, April 14, 2011


The cienega and a majestic cottonwood near Arivaca
One of the wonderful perks of being a docent at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum is the monthly "birding" trip arranged by the Friday docent captains, Martha Mount and Buzz Hoffmann.  Actually "birding" trip is insufficient -- it should be "birding, mammaling, entomologying, botanying, herpetologying, geologying, etcetera'ing".  It's a grab bag of indulgences for those with a passion for nature, and the chance to experience these rambles with folks with loads of Sonoran Desert knowledge makes it not only a real pleasure, but a real learning experience.

Male Vermillion Flycatcher between snagging flying insects
Male Summer Tanager, just looking red 
Cattail lined nest
A few days ago we headed to Arivaca, well south of Tucson, to visit the cienega in the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge.  Here the rare southern Arizona experience of surface water draws in incredible birds, some permanent, some migrating, and not a little wildlife.  We saw everything from a coyote pouncing again and again in the tall grasses, probably hunting mice, to three Gray Hawks circling overhead.  To give you an idea of the range of birds and other animals, insects, and plants (and poop) we saw, here's Martha's list of the day's sightings:

Great Blue Heron
Black Vulture
Turkey Vulture
Cooper’s Hawk
Gray Hawk
Swainson’s Hawk
Zone-tailed Hawk
American Kestrel
Mourning Dove
White-winged Dove
Great Horned Owl
Broad-billed Hummingbird
Ladder-backed Woodpecker (heard)
Gila Woodpecker
Small flycatcher (not identified)
Black Phoebe
Says Phoebe
Vermillion Flycatcher
Cassin’s Kingbird
Western Kingbird
Bell’s Vireo (heard)
Plumbeous Vireo
Common Raven
Violet-green Swallow
Barn Swallow
Bewick’s Wren
Northern Mockingbird
Yellow Warbler
Yellow-rumped Warbler
MacGillivray’s Warbler
Common Yellowthroat
Wilson’s Warbler
Yellow-breasted Chat
Summer Tanager
Song Sparrow
White-crowned Sparrow
Red-winged Blackbird
House Finch
House Sparrow
Sow Bug
Pinacate Beetle
Pepsis Wasp
Pipevine Swalowtail
Fatal Metal Mark
Golden-headed Scallopwing
Ornate Tree Lizard
Elegant Earless Lizard
Mosquito Fish
Fat Herp (you’ll have to ask Glen about this one)
Willows w/Catkins
Mexicn Elderberry
Lots of grasses
Other Cool Stuff:
Hearing the Gray Hawks and Red-winged Blackbirds
Watching the coyote hunting
Coyote Scat
Javelina Scat
An extraordinary list for a day's outing, which only goes to show the incredible diversity that is the Sonoran Desert.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Cactus in the Fog

Saguaro, Ocotillo, and Palo Verde

This is guest-blogger Bob.  The Sonoran Desert is also my passion.  I volunteer on my day off in the botany department at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, and also get involved with cactus rescues for the Tucson Cactus and Succulent Society.  I propagate many of my own cacti, and generally spend much of my free time moving dirt from one place to another.  I look forward to having more time for it when I retire.

The aftermath of yesterday’s daylong slow rain, plus an overnight low in the ‘30s, was heavy fog this morning.  I was inspired to take the following pictures from Debbie’s and my yard:

Dripping wet mesquite
Cholla, small Organ Pipe cactus
(note long green snake, possibly a Boomslang)
Small Senita (2 types), Sonoran galloping cactus
Barrel cacti
Cholla Forest

Saturday, April 9, 2011


In the kitchen happily looking out through the rain glazed window to the barrio garden.

A rare, and cold (in the 40's at 10 Am in mid-April with several 90+ days behind us), rain.  But oh-so-welcome.  One last day for books and hot tea and using the oven for dinner tonight, but the rain is the best part.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

What a Difference a Day Makes

I know that the Eagle Cam is all the rage, but this is the Dove Update and will have to do.

As of this morning:

One facing me, one facing away
This morning when I looked into the courtyard from the front gate it was clear mom wasn't on the nest.  These chicks were aware enough to be less than pleased about my taking their picture from six feet away.

When my husband got home from work he brought in the  "Nesting doves -- please use side gate" sign and I thought "uh-oh."  Sure enough, he reported the chicks were gone.  We went out for a look around as they didn't look ready to fly away and found them on the ground about 15 feet away from the nest on the ground near the wall of the house and under the Tombstone rose.  Mourning doves incubate their eggs for 14 days and nest after hatching for 12-15 days, so these chicks were right on schedule.  Having watched a semi-fledged dove before, it takes only a couple of days before they start looking like a regular dove, and after a week or so it's impossible to distinguish them from the adults.

This is the first fledging of three nests we know of around the house.  The second nest is on the support beam under the back porch, and we just discovered a third on the spool (spa/pool) heater.  There was a Cooper's hawk trying to flush birds into my big window under the porch this afternoon and for some time the nest on the porch beam was without a parent -- we know the chicks have hatched as I saw one of the parents feeding them yesterday.  Tonight there is a dove on the nest with the chicks, so I'll sleep better.  It's a little too much dove drama, but that's spring in the Sonoran Desert.  The white winged doves are beginning to show up and I saw breeding behavior with some of them today, so we'll have a second dove breeding cycle here soon.

Early this evening:

It that a glare?
All in all, not bad for a mated pair's month's work, though most chicks will not survive their first year.  The grim reality, but there is no shortage of doves, and we're all, in the end, somebody else's lunch.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Sunday Morning in Spring

Our favorite mesquite has leafed out this past week,
returning shade to the barrio garden

The weather has been unseasonably warm this weekend -- yesterday it was 95, today a little cooler.  Moving on towards noon it might make you retreat to a cool house, open all night and closed up early to keep from having to turn on the A/C (something we resist as long as possible).  But it is finally spring after the hardest, most damaging winter we've experienced here in Tucson, and it is so wonderful to see things flowering, leafing out, and taking off.

With warmer weather comes the return of outdoor eating.  The back porch is the morning destination of choice with coffee, binoculars, camera, and bird books in hand.  We hold court there for a couple of hours, watching the bird circus, having breakfast, taking pictures, and generally congratulating ourselves for living in the gorgeous Sonoran Desert.

Some of our breakfast companions:

Me and my shadow

Ocotillos make the best perches for birders ever!

This Abert's towhee sang to us during breakfast

After a while we decided to get a few things done, and took a tour of the yard, checking for signs of life in plants badly damaged by the Big February Freeze.  Most things survived (a moment of silence for the galloping cactus please) and some are clearly thriving.  We won't be throwing in the gardening towel any time soon, though we might fine tune our native plants to those that can take temps in the teens and still bounce back.

This hedgehog cactus came through the chill just fine

Cactus wren nest, extra padding

I had gotten a new bottle of meds for my dog with a huge wad of cotton under the cap (why on earth do they do that?).  Rather than throw it in the trash I pulled it apart and took it out to the garden last week, hanging bits on several of the plants around the yard.  Sure enough, it was salvaged by a cactus wren to use in at least one of his several nests in our chain fruit cholla cactus just outside the garden wall.  Maybe now he'll quit stealing stuffing from one of my outdoor pillows!

Happy Sunday!