Sandhill Cranes at Whitewater Draw

Sandhill cranes are wonderful to see! My annual visit to Whitewater Draw State Wildlife Area included an overnight. I was in my van as the night temperature was not higher than15 degrees! During the day, 30 – 50 degrees Fahrenheit … brrr! You gotta love sandhill cranes and birds in general to put yourself out there!

My visit was most enjoyable when I arrived. I was fortunate to pull my van into one of the two overnight spots still available. The majority of the cranes were out for lunch! Many people were visiting the area. I was especially surprised when I bumped into a Flagstaff tennis buddy who was with a Tohono Chul day trip group! Small world for sure! Always wonderful to see friends.

I took some photos and waited for the birds to return, but also saw a variety of other birds … even the sora hiding in the bushes!

Sleeping in my van with no additional heat is a challenge. But as a backpacker I knew I would be okay. Well okay as long as I was in my warm, down sleeping bag! Getting out of it the next morning to see the sandhill cranes take off, did not happen. Instead, my warm body had immediately cold fingers that froze in place necessitating me to manage the symptoms of my Raynaud’s syndrome/disease. Another time I will write about surviving cold weather when camping with Raynaud’s. It is doable, just a challenge one learns to live with since there is no cure.

So I walked the area, observed birds and returned to my van to make hot tea and walk the area again enjoying that cup of tea! I watched a red-tailed hawk eat its prey, fly off to another location, and then sit for us all to easily view it. Many of us were enjoying the beautiful cold morning as some of the birds walked on ice! 

Beautiful area:

Last year I was camping out in my van at Kearney, Nebraska’s Platte River area and freezing my butt off there to see the cranes. I need to discover where these birds hang out when it is a bit warmer. Actually, someone mentioned to me there are a couple of sandhill crane flocks that don’t migrate. Well I researched it and learned 3 of the 6 subspecies of sandhill cranes do not migrate. They are in Florida, Mississippi and Cuba. Good to know! Even so with the cold temperature, I was glad to visit here!

Some photos from Whitewater Draw. You’ll notice a couple of photos where I spent time watching the cranes drink water:

Sandhill cranes on the fly

Of course there are other beautiful birds here too! Plus the spectacular yellow-headed blackbirds as they flew as flock and could change direction as a group so quickly! Here’s a past post when I saw their behavior for the first time. People were so captivated watching these birds; I loved it!

Yellow-headed blackbirds. See past post if you have not already.
Killdeer
Northern pintail
Northern shovelers and American wigeons in the water, Northern harrier flew around.

Many people visit Whitewater Draw as a day trip and try to time when the sandhill cranes are flying in or out. It’s a great way to spend a day! If you have not, add it to your list of places to visit, especially if you are a birder! Then enjoy!

Morocco, Oh What Memories!

I had a busy 2019 traveling to Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand, then a few weeks in Canada, a month in Poland, and at the last minute I added a fall trip to Morocco. I thought, why not? My lifetime goal is to see the world, get on with it! Little did I know in March 2020 all my upcoming plans of international travel would be scuttled by the Covid virus affecting the entire globe!

While hearing recently about Morocco’s team playing at the World Cup, I realized I had fond memories of that trip. I traveled with a friend and the tour company Intrepid. It is a no-frills company. We carry our own luggage, why I always pack and use my backpack, use public transportation, and meet with local guides in each town. The tour company attracts younger people than us, but we held our own, especially as they tried to roll suitcases down escalators or to carry their heavy bags up stairs!

Morocco is beautiful! Here are some photos from that adventure. My goal is to return and spend more than one night in the Sahara Desert. While I loved our one desert night there it was not enough! I love dark skies as stars pop through and always seem to twinkle my way. Enjoy the photos!

Boots Are Made For Walking…

It was in the early 1970’s when Mike said to me, “Always take care of your feet”. We were talking about the hiking I was accomplishing in New York State’s Adirondack Mountains. Then, I carried my full backpack and slept out multiple nights during all seasons of a year. Yes, my 40 – 50 pound backpack pounded all the bones in my body … right down to my toes … Mike was right!

As years went by and I continued to hike, Mike’s words never left me. I have tried and worn many hiking boots. The REI store is my most helpful place to buy hiking boots. No hiking boot is worth buying till you know you can walk many miles in the boot and have your feet feel good at the end of the hike. Most times I get the right boot the first time I try one on; however, it was not the case in 2000. I was preparing for a trek in Nepal to Everest Base Camp at 17,600 feet. Good boots were a must. I trained in NYS and AZ. In New York State I was carrying my backpack up and down garage stairwells and notoriously steep roads in Ithaca, NY which happened to also be snow covered at times. In Arizona I was hiking up and down Chimney Rock in Sedona and changing pairs of boots as I tried them out. Fortunately REI allowed returns even after a bit of red dirt would be on the boots!

Recently I was at Grand Canyon National Park. I talk with people as they are standing at the start of the Bright Angel Trail contemplating their next move. Will they go to Phantom Ranch? Will they only hike to Havasupai Garden Campground? On this particular day a party of 3 talked of hiking to the Colorado River and back within the day. While quizzing them about the amount of water and food they had, and being sure they understood it is twice as long to return to the rim than going down, we helped as they struggled getting their Yaktrax’s on their shoes. It was noon and they were off. We worried about them for the rest of the day. I hope they were smart on the trail.

Then I saw a couple walk down the Bright Angel Trail. I could not help but notice their shoes. I watched them carefully walk down the snowy, icy trail to the tunnel. (If you have been on this trail, you know exactly what distance I am talking about.) It’s downhill and not far, but hiking boots are recommended!

I do not make a habit of this, but I really wanted to talk with them when they returned to the rim of the canyon. Fortunately, their walk was not the most fun so they were back before I froze. I asked if I could talk with them. I told them no friend of mine would ever believe me if I said I saw two people walk down the snowy, icy trail with those shoes! They graciously let me photograph their shoes. He had on suede loafers. The woman said her high-heeled chunky boots are so comfortable she wears them everywhere … including on this short hike! But they were glad to be back on the rim!

These shoes are meant for … hiking a snowy, icy trail? I guess …

I also talked with a group of college-aged foreign students visiting the USA. Within the conversation, I noticed all were wearing sneakers which led our discussion to how to pack lightly for a long-distance trip. The challenge really sets in when visiting areas with completely different temperatures. They started in the southeast USA, New Orleans, and driving to the Grand Canyon with snow, then Las Vegas, and off to the sunny Los Angeles. It is a challenge, plus who knew it would be snowing at the Grand Canyon? We all survive those moments of not being totally prepared, but if you’re planning to hike a distance, undoubtedly you will have the appropriate footwear. Mike was right, take care of your feet.

My photo of Mount Everest in 2000. What a trek to see it from Kala Patar!

My 4 Days of Winter!

It’s now winter! We beat the closure of Interstate 40 in northern Arizona. We were already relaxed in a warm Maswik Lodge room at Grand Canyon National Park. Driving the interstate highway the previous day was a breeze. We were ahead of the snow storm that eventually caused the highway’s closure. 

Coming to this national park when fewer people visit is what is best about the winter season. Unfortunately Covid is still in the air so facial masks are required in every building. Due to less staff and various supplies, we did find some restaurants with limited menus. We were here for the beauty of the place, so we were okay with how things were at the moment.

It is easy to spend 4 winter days here. We walked many parts of the rim trail. We stopped in at the art exhibit at the Kolb Studio and the geology museum. I do not think we missed any shop on the rim either. At Desert View we climbed the watchtower to see the eastern end of the canyon. Then we drove all the way to the western end at Hermit’s Rest to walk the rim trail. Meals were eaten at the historic El Tovar, Bright Angel Restaurant and AZ Steakhouse.

The day of our arrival there was no snow, but overnight the winter snow came! Unfortunate for those on the highway, but we woke to at least 6 inches of snow! Mule deer and elk were walking about during our visit. We bundled plenty of clothing layers on our body … it was cold weather! This was our 4 days of winter before returning to southern Arizona where we rarely see snow at our doorstep. It was a wonderful winter!

Enjoy the photos from our Grand Canyon stay.

Grand Canyon before the snow arrived.
Grand Canyon is beautiful all seasons!

Part 2 of 2: Carrizo Canyon Trail, Palm Desert, California

The Carrizo Canyon Trail is an approximately 3 mile out and back trail. I would much prefer a loop trail; however, since there were supposedly bighorn sheep in the area I thought, okay this out and back trail would give me a better chance in seeing the wildlife! Spoiler alert: I did not see even one bighorn sheep! Maybe next visit.

Carrizo Canyon is part of an Ecological Reserve to protect bighorn sheep. This area is only open to the public for 3 months, October – December.  This allows the bighorn sheep safe time for breeding and raising their young during the other months.

Carrizo Canyon trail is a nice mixture of trail surfaces. The trail starts easy, sandy and only interesting in the fact you are searching the mountainside to hopefully see bighorn sheep. The next part of the trail is rocky; I too was hoping to see a bighorn sheep run up some rocky mountainside. The final part of the trail, we climbed over boulders, took a side trail to a waterfall that wasn’t, and then finally at our destination, an overlook. Down below we could see palm trees surviving because of the water they could reach through a large crack in the land’s surface. Our continued search for the bighorn sheep was disappointing because then and on our way to our starting point, we saw no bighorn sheep. Darn … but I understand if I get on the trail in the early morning hours I have a better chance in seeing bighorn sheep. Ok, maybe my next visit here.

A couple of photos from the overlook:

From the overlook, in another direction, to see the growing palm trees.

Part 1 of 2: Randall Henderson Trail, Palm Desert, California

Unfortunately no desert tortoise will be seen, on or near this trail, till maybe February. However, we hiked this trail and enjoyed the quiet, some wildflowers, birds, and amazing geology. This land and culture still exists for the Cahuilla people. The artwork at the start of the trail is a reminder of their basket-making tradition.

Work of Gerald Clarke Jr. … 2014, Enduring Tradition

Along the sandy, loop, approximately 3 mile trail, we saw at least 8 different species of birds and many plants. Few people were hiking the trail. One runner and one mountain biker though were enjoying the trail and day too. The rock formation, especially where the curving rock can be seen on the hillside is fascinating. It makes one wonder what geologic event was happening to the land at that time.

Look at the folds in the rock! Wow.

Stop at the visitor center near the parking lot and start of the trail. There are very informative displays and staff who are knowledgeable about the area. As a result of one conversation, the next day we went across the highway to hike a canyon trail and look for bighorn sheep! Below are other photos from this hike.

Could not miss seeing this mountain biker!

It’s Not Always About the Birds!

I was thinking about the readers of this blog. Are they saying, is it always about birds? So I went back through my photos to see and this is what I discovered. Many are birds, but there are some exceptions … time to share a few of those photos if I have not done so already.

Other animals: javelina, gray fox, squirrels in various locations in Texas, spider’s web, alligators, flowers and butterflies:

A woman walked by my campsite and asked what was for dinner. I told her minced clams with onions and rice noodles. She was amazed to find out I could cook it all on a backpacker stove. And yes, I do enjoy a Deschutes black porter beer! 

So now I see I am bird – obsessed sprinkled with some other observations! How can I not be though. I saw so many new birds in my life and that has been exciting! What are there, 10,000 different species of birds in the world? I now have 374 … I’ve got some work to do! I look forward to sharing them and my van adventures with you … and other thoughts and happenings … hang in there as who knows what the next year will bring!

On the Road to Home!

The last couple of days on the road I decided to eat Mexican food in Texas and in New Mexico, pleasant switches from the food I had been cooking. I Yelped for suggestions of places to eat and planned accordingly. What I had not planned for was the rock flying from a sleeper commercial truck trailer east of El Paso, Texas into my windshield … bummer … and then to watch the crack lengthen in the next day! Not fun … a whole 8 inches!

A better time …. my late Mexican lunch at Mi Pueblo Nuevo in El Paso was fantastic. I ordered horchata and it was huge! The drink was so large that I left with 8 oz in a to-go cup. The chips were tasty. The salsa so hot I could only have a small amount on each chip. The tortilla soup came with my meal and was hot and delicious. The green chili chicken enchiladas, rice and pinto beans hit the spot. The staff were friendly and most spoke Spanish. As I left I was practicing with one young lady on how to say eighteen, nineteen, etc…. in English. Maybe I should try to learn Spanish despite my difficulty learning French.

Green chili chicken enchiladas

At night in Las Cruces, New Mexico, I needed my fall sleeping bag and a fleece blanket as the late night, early morning temperature was 27 degrees Fahrenheit. I had already selected where I would eat my Mexican breakfast the next morning. Yelp reviews forewarned me about the popularity of OMPC, The Shed in Las Cruces so I arrived before the place opened. Four other vehicles were there too. I had huevos ranchero with pinto beans and the best green chili cheddar toast! Yum!

Huevos ranchero with scrambled egg, pinto beans and delicious toast!

Now for my final hours on the road. My audiobooks had been listened to, the interstate driving was tiresome and I was ready to be home! Along the way I did stop to make my cup of tea … thankfully rest areas were open so I had easy places to pull off. Time to think about upcoming projects: Habitat for Humanity work, holiday prep, and getting back to routines. The Harlingen – Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival was a wonderful experience! I was happy to have attended. Meeting new people, seeing 35 new birds, and for the most part we had very good weather … who could ask for more? Not me, it was all fun!

Birds After the Festival

Birds are around, even as I travel home … and where are they? The weather in southern Texas turned cold quickly! Everyone said how unusual this was and the birds were smart enough to nestle into warm places. While I was tired of hot and humid, cold is not something this Arizonian loves. Then unfortunately, when I arrived in cold, damp San Antonio, I was not able to bicycle ride. So the next morning, I departed early for South Llano River State Park, Junction, Texas, thanks to a fellow birder’s recommendation. 

This park has 5 bird blinds in different locations around the park and a huge area for wild turkeys to roost in the pecan trees. I spent hours walking in 45 – 50 Fahrenheit degree weather to view birds at each blind. An advantage of blinds is the staff often set food in feeders early in the day and birds regularly check-in for the food. Plus a blind allows viewers and photographers to get views and photos while not scaring the birds off. So I hid in the blind, out of any wind and somewhat protected from the coolness of the day, and often had the blind to myself. It was a great way to spend time before getting back on the road to spend the night in Fort Stockton, TX.

Here are some photos taken on this day:

Ruby-crowned kinglet
Ladder-backed woodpecker
Bewick’s wren
Black-crested titmouse
Northern cardinal

Rio Grande Valley Bird Festival in Harlingen, Texas

This is my first bird festival where I am attending field trips. During the 5 day festival, I attended morning field trips from 6am – 1pm, afternoon speakers and interacted with many other birders day and night. It was wonderful to walk and see birds with people of all abilities. For me, the guides and fellow birders provide support in locating and identifying birds seen or pointing out birds I would have missed if on my own. My goal in coming to the festival is to see different birds. We are not far from the Mexican border and the Gulf of Mexico; there will be different birds than from landlocked Arizona!

Here are the trip locations and number of new birds seen by me at each location:

South Padre Island Birding & Nature Center , SPI Convention Center & Valley Land Fund lots – this was actually my second visit to the Birding & Nature Center since I went on my own a couple of days prior. With my festival group and guide, I added 10 new birds to my list at the listed above locations: buff-bellied hummingbird, clapper rail, Magnolia warbler, bronzed cowbird, short-billed dowitcher, dunlin, red knot, white-eyed vireo, golden-fronted woodpecker and groove-billed ani.

Clapper rail

Magnolia warbler

Kings Ranch – Norias

The next morning we drove to a section of Kings Ranch and I had 3 new birds: Couch’s kingbird, Sprague’s pipit, and after three hours of searching we finally saw a ferruginous pygmy-owl! 

Ferruginous Pygmy-owl

The next day I birded on my own at Hugh Ramsey Nature Park and found 2 new birds: plain chachalaca and long-billed thrasher. I actually had a better photograph of the plain chachalaca in upcoming days but I am including it here.

Plain chachalaca

The next day was many degrees colder, damp and overcast. I found myself wearing a pair of pants and fiberfill jacket, winter hat and gloves. The birds seemed to have hidden deep in the shrubs. At Sabal Palm Sanctuary on the Rio Grande River, I saw an olive sparrow and black-crested titmouse. We were not having that much success here. Our hiking boots had tons of clay on them. We were walking on trails muddy from the previous night’s rain. So we went to the RGV- University of Texas campus. It’s a beautiful campus, we saw a number of birds and my new ones were: greater scaup and social flycatcher.

The next day, our last day of the festival, was a park I liked best: Estero Llano River Grand Park. We saw many birds and 2 birds I would never have seen unless the guides pointed them out. They were a common pauraque and a McCalls Eastern Screech owl.

McCalls Eastern Screech Owl
Look closely for the Common pauraque…eye is in top right area.

San Benito Wetlands

That afternoon a few of us birded at San Benito Wetlands. My new birds were a white-tailed kite, least grebe and a fork-tailed flycatcher. We had a fun time trying to identify birds as we saw them. At one point we saw 4 birds high in a tree. We identified them as 3 scissor-tailed flycatchers and 1 fork-tailed flycatcher, yet we were unsure of our identifications. If correct, this would be the first fork-tailed flycatcher any of us had seen. We were thrilled when another group yelled up to us and asked if we saw the 3 scissor-tailed and 1 fork-tailed flycatcher … yeah, yes!

Least grebe

Afternoons I attended the various speakers, the trade show and checked out the silent auction. The festival was very well organized. It is wonderful having such a positive experience at a festival … not only for the birds, but the many nice people who also attended. It was a joy to be in such a positive experience. I look forward to more opportunities. I suspect I will see some of these people again at other festivals. Come to the Southeast Arizona Festival each August in Tucson, Arizona.

Final tally: I saw 140 different bird species. Thirty-five bird species were new to me! WOW!