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.