As I was hiking the trail between Proctor Road and Madera Picnic Area in Madera Canyon, https://friendsofmaderacanyon.org, I realized “snowbirders, the people”, are coming and here in SE Arizona! It’s that time of year when many people escape their anticipated cold, long winters where they live and descend upon SE Arizona. Others choose this area because the birding possibilities are numerous. Whatever the reason … welcome!
But also know … I live here year-round and have observed when snowbirds arrive there are more vehicular accidents and traffic on the roads. (We have pedestrian walkways with lights where you must stop with traffic lights to be observed and followed.) The Rillito farmer’s market, our largest one, becomes unbelievably crowded with people, no dogs please, and recently I almost found no parking space. The market only opened 15 minutes earlier! Next time I will bike/walk to the market which is right off the Chuck Huckleberry Bike Loop. You know about that bike loop, right? (If not, check it out, http://tucson loop.org it is a gem in Tucson and beyond.)
I am not complaining … or maybe a bit … but please know it is a wonderful area to visit in the winter and I wish to see it remain safe on the roads and pleasant in the canyon. Some of you may want to observe the elegant trogon and others may wish to hike a trail with other pleasant people. I saw 8 people walk on a trail and totally miss the elegant trogon in the tree. Stop being distracted on the road or trail and take time to LOOK! I know snowbirders are here and we can co-exist, but take time to look on the road and trail!
Hassayampa River Preserve is a nature preserve four miles southeast of Wickenburg, Arizona and worth a hike. It is a 770-acre riparian nature preserve. In the 1860’s it was a stagecoach stop; in 1913 a guest ranch. More recently, after more than 25 years of the property being owned by The Nature Conservancy, a partnership was created seven years ago with the Maricopa County Parks and Recreation Department. The Conservancy however retains most of the preserve.
When you check-in at the visitor center and pay five dollars per person, collected by the Maricopa Parks and Recreation Department, you discover their ownership includes the visitor center, a portion of the river channel and Palm Lake. The trail to Palm Lake is currently closed due to construction of a wildlife viewing platform at the lake. The Conservancy put a conservation easement on the property to ensure the land’s natural values are forever protected.
The flowing river was wonderful to see as I visited the preserve specifically to birdwatch. The Hassayampa name comes from a Yavapai Indian word “hayesamo, meaning following the water as far as it goes”. It has also been referred to as the “upside down river” by Apache Indians because the river flows underground most the way. Water is important for wildlife. As a result of the existence of this river, the preserve is home to a variety of wildlife and approximately 300 bird species. I did see lizards and deer, smelled skunk and observed numerous birds! Actually I saw two new birds to add to my life list: golden-crowned kinglet and a varied thrush! I will make a point of visiting the preserve each season to observe more wildlife!
Things to know before you visit:
The preserve is closed each Monday and Tuesday. There are specific park hours per season, so check what they are before you head out. The trails are sandy, so if you have difficulty walking on pavement, please know this could be a challenge for you. Pets are not allowed at the preserve. The trail loops 2.2 miles. Lykes Lookout trail ends with a very steep 123 foot elevation gain. Remember, what you climb up, you need to come back down … plan what is best for yourself! At top, you do get a 360 degree view and possibly see and hear a train passing by! Enjoy your visit and be safe … remember the usual: hat, sunscreen and plenty of water! The Hassayampa River Trail can be downloaded at the AllTrails app.
Numerous mornings I would look out my back window at our two bird feeders. They would sway in the breeze or hang perfectly still. Sometimes with a bird or two trying to feed at them, other times no one. My 2023 goal has been to enter a daily eBird checklist. Most often when I am home, I am observing the birds here at our feeders.
As fall temperatures arrived, I noticed the birds coming to the feeder later per day, sitting on tree branches in the sunshine and not moving to the feeder till minutes later. They would sit with puffed-up feathers, content to just be.
I too am finding fall mornings more mellow, less rushed, and allowing me time to consider a midday walk while temperatures are still comfortable. Gone are the days in needing to walk during the early sunrising hours or planning a trip to the air-conditioned local gym.
A few days ago I observed a Greater roadrunner walking across our yard’s back wall. The bird was in no rush. I thought, wow, I have so much time to capture a photo, but where’s my camera? The next day I wondered if the birds I was observing were white-crowned sparrows with dark-lores or not.
Where’s my camera? Isn’t it always someplace a distance away? Or with lens not attached to the camera body? Or simply not where you want it and need it to be?
Here’s my solution. Keep the camera with your lens of choice on a tripod in the room where most sightings are being made. For me, I can see our bird feeders and the pollinator plants that attract birds with my camera in place on a tripod. Having the camera on the tripod makes it immediately available to me, along with it being on a tripod so I can pivot from feeder to plant or wherever … even that brick wall! While it is true that I am shooting through our back window, which I am fortunate to have a clean window, there is some challenge to getting the absolute best photo, but I am not complaining … I got a photo! Here are some from one morning:
A fall, weekday, school day, midday afternoon is the best time to visit Sabino Canyon Recreation Area! You’ll feel like the park is all yours, and it will be! Times, such as this, I imagine taking a first-time hiker to the park. The person can see saguaro cacti of all sizes, even young ones emerging from below mesquite trees. They can hear bird songs and/or calls with no interrupting noises. Other wildlife may wander past, water may flow over the dam, and we could choose from a variety of 30 miles of hiking trails.
Sabino Canyon Recreation Area is in the foothills of the Santa Catalina Mountains. As my imagined hiker looks beyond the park, he/she would see the Santa Rita Mountains to the south and the Rincon Mountains to the east. They would hear a cactus wren, a rock wren and curve-billed thrasher and see black-throated sparrows. Often a Gila woodpecker can be calling and flying overhead as would common ravens. Wildflowers may be at their peak or slowly dying off as cool air begins to descend here and on our nearby Sonoran desert. But saguaro cacti stand tall with their gangly-looking “arms”. Some birds make nests in these cacti and Native American people have multiple uses for this plant. The saguaro cacti really do have shallow roots as seen in the photo below:
Respect for wildlife is important to me. I want the birds, the wildflowers, the insects and animals to find safety in this protected area. Sabino Canyon Recreation Area provides for that with “no pets or camping being allowed”. For photographers, artists, joggers, hikers or cyclists there are times and places we can use the area with respect. Despite a sign at the entrance of where I enter the area, people still do not seem to understand, dogs are not allowed. Thus, park officials erected another sign to make the point clear!
It seems obvious to me why dogs are not allowed. How would this funnel web wolf spider survive if a dog ran through its web? And trampled wildflowers are not what we want to see from dogs running through an area or people hiking off-trail.
Respect … our Sabino Canyon Recreation Area has been here many years and finally closed to vehicles since 1978. A shuttle is available within the park. Hard to imagine private vehicles ever being here, especially now with about a million park visitors per year! All the more reason for me to enjoy my quiet time …. now!
If I headed home directly, I would be at our front door in 2 days. But how could I pass up time at the North Rim of the Grand Canyon? No, stay one night. And the South Rim of the Grand Canyon? No, stay two nights. Then I’ll join my partner and friends in Sedona for a few days!?! No reason why not; do it!
On my way to the north rim, six California condors were at Navajo Bridge. I am always amazed how people will walk on the bridge and not see these birds till some of us point them out to these people. Then it is almost a mini science lesson, or what we often call a teachable moment.
I camped at Demotte Campground north of the national park because everyone seemed to be at the Grand Canyon this fall! I drove to Point Imperial, took a short hike, then drove to the north rim to hike the Bright Angel Point Trail before having dinner at the lodge. That night was the coldest night of my entire trip. Frost on front windshield in the morning is the reason I always carry an ice scraper. As I left the campground it was 37 degrees at 8:00am.
I drove north and stopped at two Arizona Trail trailheads. The AZ Trail is a 800 mile hiking trail from Mexico to Utah. I know someone who will be hiking it next spring and I offered to provide support as he crossed some trailheads. Here was an opportunity for me to be aware of these two trailheads. My next stop was at the Navajo Bridge again to view condors. There were 4 condors on this day.
And now to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon…
Finally I drove to Desert View Campground on the eastern side of the South Rim of the Grand Canyon National Park. I checked in, made dinner and hit the sack.
The next day I had breakfast, viewed oil paintings at Kolb Studio, drove to the visitor center and hiked 3.3 miles on the rim trail to Yaki Point. I attended the Hawk Watch International basic information presentation with 10 people. I was the only one to join the presenter at the area where the Hawk Watch International seasonal workers were watching for hawks and recording their results.
The young woman who gave the info to the park visitors is from Argentina and lives in Mexico. The other 2 guys are from USA. They will be at Yaki Point for a month and this is done every year. Check hawkcount.org for all hawk watch results everywhere, not just at Yaki Point at the Grand Canyon. They record sightings, compare the data with other years to see what birds are migrating through the area west of Yaki Point.
Can I get a photo of any of these birds? I added a 1.4 teleconverter to my 200-500mm lens and it was really a challenge to get a good photo. There were American kestrels, peregrine falcons, red-tailed hawk, and California condors. Thankfully the workers would identify the birds for me as some birds only looked like white or black dots in the air! The condors flew closer to where I was standing on the rim so I tried to capture a photo or two of them! Here is a photo of a condor:
As my trip drew to a close, I asked myself: did I accomplish my goals? Yes, I did. One, visit a national park new to me: Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota. Two, visit my friends in Idaho. Three, visit Bears Ears National Monument. I visited many other places and loved being outdoors, camping, with a new something happening each day; no routine!
There is a big world for me to see and the USA has many spectacular places to visit too! I hope you get out to visit some of the places also … go for it! Do not put off your goal(s) whether it is to travel or do something else! Go for it!
After leaving Pueblo Colorado, I stopped at the Denver Audubon Kingery Nature Center in Littleton. I met friends there for some birdwatching time. As expected, with 3 sets of eyeballs we saw more birds than I would have on my own. And one bird was new for my life list, a red crossbill! Fortunately as I looked overhead, I could see the beak clearly… a crossbill. We saw 20 different species of birds as we also tip-toed off the center’s usual trail and into a patch of poison ivy! (We guessed, obviously not their property!) I camped north of Fort Collins, cycled a bike trail, found an ice cream place, and birdwatched at a lake and a reservoir during my 2 day stay.
Back on the road: I drove Interstate 25 all the way to Cheyenne, Wyoming! Then route 85 to Spearfish, South Dakota where I had a Harvest Host stay. Back on the road again, route 85, to Medora, North Dakota. After driving through so much rain, why was I surprised when I arrived at Theodore Roosevelt National Park Visitor Center to see rain?!? More about all of that in my next post….
Photos from the road… I stopped at a rest area to do some birdwatching:
My van travel plan is to head north …. eventually as north as North Dakota! The first few days after leaving southern Arizona, I am not traveling new roads. However, I did notice a short distance and time off Interstate 25 (I-25) in New Mexico allowed me to see an area I had never seen before. I drove through many, many pecan trees. Wondering if they were pistachio or pecan trees, it soon became clear to me. They were pecan trees. A sign indicated, “anyone thieving at the pecan trees would be prosecuted”. That’s fair! Then I saw this sign about a short-lived colony in the area:
Further down the road I passed fort ruins. If you are a history buff, there are plenty of fort ruins to see in the west, but I drove on and connected with I-25 to spend hours at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge. The refuge is open all year with 374 different bird species having been observed. My bird list for this location is shorter than that, so I still have plenty to see out here!
Depending upon the season, there are birds migrating through this wetland area. I was rushed in my birdwatching because I was trying to stay ahead of a thunderstorm! I drove both loops and saw no new birds, but remained dry! The area is beautiful and one unusual snake was crossing the road while I was driving the auto loop. I stayed at a winery that night and people did not know it was a desert kingsnake as I asked around to see if anyone knew what it was before I put it in iNaturalist app. They were thinking garter snake and knew it was not a rattlesnake.
I-25 is hundreds of miles long! After hours, finally getting to Colorado! I took a walking break at Pueblo Colorado’s riverwalk. It was a short, stretch-my-legs, time before hopping back on the interstate.
My first 3 days on the road were fun. I met people from Lebanon, Oregon, beat the thunderstorm while bird watching, but unfortunately had plenty of thunder, lightning and rain while driving. My windshield is very clean….and not cracked! (If you don’t know, I already 3 trips with a windshield crack each trip.)
Point Imperial has the highest elevation on the north rim of the Grand Canyon at 8803 feet. You’ll drive north from the north rim’s main lodge on the park road and turn east onto Cape Royal Road. After some miles of driving, you turn left and this road takes you to Point Imperial … lodge to point is 11 miles and about a 25 minute drive.
There is a huge parking area, a picnic area and a short trail with scenic vistas overlooking the Painted Desert and the eastern end of the Grand Canyon. Here are some photos from that trail:
Some people were picnicking, volunteers were collecting native seeds, and I was time bird-watching. I saw 11 different species of birds. Here are a couple of bird photos:
Back on the road our next stop, and blog post, will be at and about the end of the road at Cape Royal and Angel’s Window … 17 miles from Point Imperial to Cape Royal Point, taking about 35 minutes to drive. However, you may also stop at other vistas along the way as we did and the drive then is longer, but all wonderful to explore and enjoy! Do so, since who knows when you’ll ever return!
In the northern Arizona strip, the Navajo Bridge is everyone’s way across the Colorado River. On our way to southern Arizona, we stopped again at the bridge with hopes to view some condors. This time we saw 2 adults and 1 juvenile condor. Notice the pinkish-orange color of the head of the adult condors. Maybe not as clear here, the juvenile condor has a black head.
Condors are released at the Vermilion Cliffs National Monument area. They come from a breeding facility in California and spend a couple of days in a pen above on the Paria Plateau before being released. As more of the birds reach breeding age there will be more wild reproduction. We are fortunate to have the recovery program to help restore the population of condors. It started in 1996 with 6 condors transferred from the breeding facility and released at the Vermilion Cliffs, to 6 – 10 condors released now per year. Each condor is fitted with a number tag and transmitter to help monitor its behavior, movement, feeding and survival.
They are huge birds! Wingspans are 9.5 feet in length as they fly up to 200 miles a day. They are the largest flying land bird in North America and can fly up to 50 miles per hour! Their food source is carcasses of dead animal; therefore, they are helpful scavengers. Condors can live 60 years and breed into their 30s! Here again is a photo showing the size of a condor in comparison with other birds of prey. (If you follow my blog, yes I am repeating this photo.)
The condors were almost gone due to various reasons: the west being settled, lead poisonings and egg collecting. Thanks to the recovery program a healthy population of condors continues to rise. You can do your part to help: use non-lead ammunition if you hunt, never shoot or harm a condor, and do not litter so birds are never eating trash.
I hope you have an opportunity someday to see these amazing birds! I was looking over the side of the bridge as I saw the other condor walking along. See photo below.
Vermilion Cliffs National Monument is a geologic structure between two monoclines rising 1,500 feet with many colored layers of shale and sandstone in northern Arizona. John Wesley Powell first named these cliffs in 1869 while he was on the Colorado River exploring the Grand Canyon. It was not till November 9, 2000 though when the monument was established with the National Landscape Conservation System mission: “to conserve, protect, and restore our nation’s natural treasures for present and future generations”.
We drove a dirt road, House Rock, to the condor viewing site. The condor breeding facility is in California with the condors being released here each year. There was no condor activity during our visit at this site. Condors were sighted at Navajo Bridge. We fortunately discovered there are more places to explore down this road the next time we visit here. See the map below with the West Bench Pueblo stop, Maze Rock Art site, and various trailheads … one of them being where the 800 mile Arizona Trail (from Mexico to Utah through Arizona) ends.
I loved this sign showing the size of the condor wingspan: 9.5 feet compared with other birds of prey. The following photo shows how the range of condors has diminished.
As you drive the road between Navajo Bridge and Jacob’s Lake in northern Arizona, it is the only paved road across 2.8 million acres of public land. There are 4,000 miles of unpaved roads that necessitate use of a high-clearance vehicle. Take time to plan your adventure as this is remote backcountry terrain with no services or cell phone signals. Be prepared!
A personal experience:
Years ago, I experienced this wilderness area while on a 3 night backpacking trip through the Paria Canyon. We started our hike a day later than our original departure plan due to heavy rains in Cedar City, Utah. Those rain waters would have flooded the deep slot canyon the next day and we would have had no escape. A couple of important points: have a permit to enter this area and know what weather is predicted for a couple of days before and also during your hike in the canyon. Do not get caught in a deep slot canyon with water roaring through and at you! Please do your homework and understand what you are planning to accomplish … be prepared … this is a wilderness area!