Travel in the Age of Covid-19 & Birding

There would have been no other time I would consider a drive of 2.5 hours to a site, spend 3 hours there, and then drive home, yet that is happening in my world these past months! I am doing my part in wearing a mask, physically distancing from others and trying to get our world back to what will be a new normal. As a result, my travel is a long day trip, with hopes of learning and seeing something new since that has always been my goal when traveling anywhere in the world.

My latest adventure took me to the Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch in Gilbert, Arizona. The town of Gilbert made a commitment in 1986 to reuse 100% of its effluent water and by 1999 the Riparian Preserve was developed. It encompasses 110 acres of land. Seventy acres of the land have 7 recharge basins filled on a rotating basis with treated effluent to then percolate into the aquifer for future use. There is an observatory, 4.5 miles of trails, various vegetative zones, plenty of birding opportunities, a compass course, and one side of the property borders the eastern canal of the Salt River Project where people were bicycling and walking.

Some basins had no birds, some had no water and some basins had hundreds of birds. I loved walking the entire place. My goal was to check out this place and see the birds. I saw four birds new to me in Arizona: roseate spoonbill, least sandpiper, American avocet and snowy egret (notice black bill, black legs and yellow feet) … photos follow:

My most exciting time during my visit was watching a female belted kingfisher and a great egret (notice yellow bill). I discovered the egret looking to the sky and I wondered what it was watching; then I discovered it saw a belted kingfisher. I had never seen this happen before so I was amazed! The belted kingfisher would fly over the way from a good distance from the water’s surface and then literally dive-bomb into the water, catch a fish and fly off … unless it missed and then in a few minutes you could see it happen all over again. The bird returned. I was fortunate to get the photos I did since this bird had to be diving at a huge speed. Then I was wondering if I could anticipate where it would hit the water’s surface and get that photo … probably not … what a photo it would be! The bird did not return so I never had a chance at my guessing game.

Great egret, scroll back and see the difference to the snowy egret.

I saw 31 different birds. Two birds I had not seen in years: long-billed dowitcher and black-necked stilt … so I will include them here.

It was a long day, but worth it! Thankfully people of Gilbert had foresight in reusing the wastewater. There is little doubt Arizona will have a water crisis in its future unless basins around our homes collect rainwater to water our landscape, water tanks are connected to rain gutters, and other plans are developed so our rivers will someday flow again. May we be reminded of the words from Theodore Roosevelt, “The wildlife and its habitat cannot speak, so we must and we will”. Thank you to all who do his/her part.

Saguaro East National Park

One can always enjoy the 8 mile loop drive in this park any day of the year. It’s a comfortable way to spend time if the day is getting hotter faster than you realized, but you wanted to be outdoors.

There is a nice combination of birds, cacti and scenery along the way, so enjoy! One can return numerous times in the year and always discover something new. Have you walked the ecology trail, climbed Javelina Rocks, or spent time in a picnic area? There are more trails to hike and lookouts along the drive, so come back and enjoy!

Javelina Rocks along the loop road.

Visit San José de Tumacácori

Tumacácori is a park preserving a Spanish mission ruin where you can also walk to the Santa Cruz River and two trailheads of the Juan Bautista de Anza Trail on the park boundary. During this COVID pandemic, rules are listed at the entrance and certain areas, such as visitor center, are not open. Yet one can walk the property and feel its history.

Tumacácori is one of 24 missions founded by Father Eusebio Francisco Kino, an advocate for the O’odham native people and spreader of the Catholic faith. As the O’odham people rebelled against Spain a military post was built in Tubac for Spain to protect its interests. Plenty of history to be understood and realized here and fortunately the National Park Service has an informative pamphlet available to help one understand it.

Walking the property, you’ll see fruit trees at the heritage orchard, water ditch, the church built during the 1800’s, a cemetery, lime kiln and courtyard. I also spent time in front of the place where there is a butterfly garden. A “monarch waystation” with flowers which truly attract many butterflies this time of year! This is a park worth visiting and I am sure when the visitor center is open to show displays and videos it will even be better.

Here are some photos from my visit:

The mission church and grounds at Tumacácori.
Another view of the church and Santa Rita Mountains beyond.

Peña Blanca Lake, Today & Past

Eighteen miles northwest of Nogales, Arizona is a man-made reservoir originally built in 1957 by the AZ Game & Fish department. It sits in the Pajarito Mountain foothills of Nogales and was a new adventure for me the other day. Everything was lush green and it did look like a thunderstorm was to descend on this 3800 foot area, but I wanted to see what was there!

It is only about 10 miles west of the exit where I had been on Interstate-19 and a good paved road. Beautiful scenery as I drove into the Coronado National Forest to visit this lake.

Few people were there which was wonderful for me as long as the rain did not start. I hiked part of the trail on its west side and saw fishermen on the reservoir’s edge in a couple of locations. With a “hello” wave everyone was able to do what they wished. A rest room is at the main parking lot; nothing else except at picnic areas there are tables.

I walked the trail and saw some birds. As usual I snapped some photos to be pleasantly surprised when home to identify new birds. I knew goldfinch and vermilion flycatchers, but was surprised by the other birds.

Now I will have to return to this lake and try for better photos as the last 2 birds were new ones for my life list! What a surprise to identify them now!

I always research an area to learn more about the place. October 2008 the reservoir was closed for 8 months to drain it. They discovered sediment on its bottom contaminated with mercury and the fish were picking it up, passing it through the food chain. A major concern, I would imagine, as fishermen enjoyed fishing there for trout, sunfish, bass and catfish. An environmental company from Phoenix put three 14-thousand pound pumps to run non-stop for 30 days to drain the lake. Forest Service officials estimated it would take 8 years for the lake to refill itself. As of my visit in 2020, yes, the lake looked full so the rainfall in the area was most helpful.

So of course one should ask, how did the lake become contaminated? In the 1800’s there were mining operations. In 1999, three mining sites were cleaned up south of the reservoir with the mine tailings, waste rock, making their way through the watershed to the bottom of the lake. The mercury contamination needed to be addressed and this was how it was done.

Beautiful lake and fishermen are here too.

Prayers Carried on the Wind

Prayers flags

Each flutter of the flag in the breeze denotes a prayer blown by the wind to spread good will into all pervading space. Every thread unravels, flies away and carries the prayers and mantras to promote peace, compassion, wisdom and strength.

The flags are always arranged in a specific order, from left to right: blue represents the sky, white represents the air, red symbolizes fire, green symbolizes water, and yellow symbolizes earth. All five colors together signifying balance.

I have seen prayer flags flown from stupas and mountain passes in Tibet, Nepal, Northern India, Bhutan and at my home. It is always important to respect and acknowledge their religious meaning. Buddhism is a complicated religion, but learning about the actual teachings of the Buddha has benefits. People find the teachings relevant and helpful in their own lives, including meditation which has been proven to have benefits even according to Western science. Buddhist belief is strong in the power of prayer flags which include mantras from three of the great Buddhist Bodhisattvas: Padmasambhava (Guru Rinpoche), Avalokiteśvara (Chenrezig, the bodhisattva of compassion, and the patron of the Tibetan people), and Manjusri, to be carried on the wind.

Prayer flags are to be treated with respect and not ever touch the ground. Disposal can be by burning them, but they are not to touch the ground while they burn. The smoke carries sacred blessings. I always keep my flags flying, getting old, fading away and allowed to slowly disintegrate.

My main reason to hang prayer flags is to spread positivity far and wide. 

Truth in a Statue in Tucson

Near downtown Tucson, I noticed a statue of a fireman, so I stopped to learn why it was there by the Central Fire Station. It is a memorial and recognition of firefighter’s “ultimate sacrifice”. 

The past few months, numerous firefighters have been fighting the Bighorn Fire in our national forest and state park. No structures or people have been lost with almost 120,000 acres burned. Seven fire fighters had non-fatal injuries.

Truth be told, we are appreciative of every firefighter. Carrying their gear, climbing the mountainside, working on the fire line, tenting at night, and caring about the people and buildings in the area all in very hot, varying elevation and weather conditions … a profession many people do not run to train and be active in. I greatly appreciate those who do choose this work and relieved when I know all survived. Thank you!

Due to the charred areas not being able to absorb water and the upcoming monsoon season, the areas will remain closed till about November 1. Before you head out, check Pima County website to know if you can hike in certain areas. Be safe.

Monday Memories: India and Bhutan

In 2017, my goal was to visit northern India from west to east, and then the small country of Bhutan. Only my daily journal could capture all I experienced during this trip. It was a fascinating experience and I have hopes of returning to see all of India some day.

Here’s a capsule of the adventure. After arriving in New Delhi, India, walking through various neighborhoods with our guide and seeing historic buildings, we headed toward the India – Pakistan border to watch the daily military ceremony referred to as a “border ceremony”. In the city of Amritsar, where the famous Golden Temple – a religious complex of the Sikh religion – is, I had unique experience with a local man who had poor vision. While helping him cross an area with road barriers, he and I talked. I invited him to join me for a soda or tea. I located a place to have our drink, much to the surprise of the shop owner and adolescent boys sitting in the shop, but my new friend and I had a good conversation.

Our tour continued north to Dharamshala where exiled Tibetan people live and work. The Dalai Lama resides here too when he is not speaking around the world. I loved seeing the Himalayan Mountains once again; last seen in 2001. Shops here support the Tibetan culture and handicrafts.

Women spinning wool.

We returned to New Delhi for a few more days and touring, then flew to Darjeeling, famous for its tea cultivation. While the streets of New Delhi and Delhi are hectic with wandering cows, people with push carts, wires hanging everywhere from poles, I appreciated people allowing me to photograph them; one man even asked that I photograph him! People in the countryside provided permission for me to photograph them too. But it was while I was in a moving vehicle that I caught sight of a man at his roadside dental appointment. Along that wall, many businesses were conducted.

I bought tea while in Darjeeling, relaxed in the British flair of this city, but I wanted to return to the Himalayan Mountains and visit Bhutan! Bhutan caps the number of visitors entering their country and maintains some traditions to hold on to their culture. Bhutan is a very small country between two super powers: India and China. It is an environmentally aware country and known for its “Gross National Happiness” philosophy. I asked for a specific example of where the people’s happiness and decision of the government may influence that philosophical index. Thimphu is the capital of Bhutan and many workers live on the other side of the mountain and have an hour’s drive to work each day. Workers wanting a shorter drive requested the government build a tunnel through the mountain. The government thought it best to use the construction money to build paved roads throughout the country to help a larger number of people, and thus did not build a tunnel. Great example, and roads were being built mostly by Indian workers throughout the country.

Thimphu is the main city; however, just outside of it you will see a huge statue of Buddha that has many more Buddhas within it. The countryside is beautiful and at one point we did stop to talk with a nomad.

We stayed in Paro, Bhutan for a couple of days so we could climb to Tiger’s Nest Monastery, a sacred Buddhist site. It requires an entire day to drive about 10 miles to the site, climb the 2 miles up to the monastery with an elevation gain of 1700 feet, and be at 10,232 feet where the air is thin. No vehicles are in this area, one must climb. It was worth the hike!

Tiger’s Nest Monastery

Two men from Bhutan will always remain in my memory. In my wandering I started speaking with a young man asking about his work. He acknowledged he was a young artist, but his job now was to sell the owner’s art work. I asked to see what he had drawn and I bought a piece of his work. Today it is framed and hangs on my wall. The other man was carving wood with his feet. I learned Bhutan’s Queen Jetsun Pema supports people living with disabilities and he has gained a thriving business as a result of Her Majesty’s support.

There are so many more memories of my visit to India and Bhutan, but I have kept these for now along with a fraction of photos taken during this trip. Someday I will return and create new memories. People have asked why I did not go to the Taj Mahal, etc. My answer: those areas are so over-run with tourists and I believe I will be able to visit them while in a wheel chair. On this trip I wanted to go where I had to hike to see the sites.

Never in my mind did I think there would be a global pandemic, as we have happening now, where country borders and sites are closed. I am so glad I traveled when I did. I look forward to more travel in the future.

Monday Memories: Morocco

In my last “Monday Memories” post I mentioned Morocco, so I caught myself thinking about my 2019 trip. I am so glad I did not put that trip off to now, 2020. I would not have been able to travel to Morocco at the rate this pandemic is affecting our planet.

After three weeks of travel in the Kingdom of Morocco, I realized what a learning experience it was for me. In Casablanca, the Hassan II Mosque, second largest mosque in Africa, was simply incredible to see. I could not imagine 25,000 people inside it and 80,000 on its outdoor grounds. The mosque is huge, beautifully situated by the oceanside, ornate, and with a 210 meter minaret. Specific rules were followed to allow non-Muslim visitors inside the mosque.

I loved Moroccan food. Each day I had freshly squeezed orange juice, fresh bread and olives of all kinds, and hot, sweet, mint tea. Meats, vegetables and couscous were cooked in tajines and a Berber omelet were my most delicious meals.

We visited many cities around the country. The tannery in Fez was fascinating as we saw early stages of the product that would become a leather jacket. Every visitor to Morocco speaks of the blue city, Chefchaouen, so we visited there too. Four years earlier I visited Tangier’s old medina and thought the winding pathways and various markets chaotic. Its new town did not seem to be so crazy, but I am sure you can still buy just about everything there. Whenever we were in the countryside or the mountain villages, it was more relaxing and enjoyable to me. 

Most relaxing was our time in the Sahara Desert. To be honest, it was not very relaxing riding the camel to our campsite. But once there, climbing and then sitting on the ridge of a sand dune with a glass of wine, it was relaxing! Even better, the night came with shining stars and silence. I loved it!

I will remember many things about Morocco: our fantastic guide, people who allowed me to photograph them as I asked permission to do so, the women cooperatives we visited, the cats seen everywhere in so many cities and the goats in the trees!

When I return to Morocco some day, I wish to spend more time in the desert and to photograph it day and night. That would be an amazing accomplishment for me to be able to do such photography, and to enjoy the desert! 

Wander Down the AZ Road

It was time to wander south of Tucson, Arizona and discover new places. My opportunity to escape the Bighorn wildfire’s smoke, listen to classical music and Broadway tunes on my car radio, see big sky country, and whatever came my way.

An hour’s drive south, I took a lefthand turn to visit Las Cienegas National Conservation Area where 45,000 acres of protected grasslands and woodlands are available for wildlife viewing, bird watching, primitive camping, mountain biking and many more activities. Classic films had been filmed on or near the Empire Ranch, which is still a working cattle ranch. I’ll need to spend a day here another time.

Photography is my never-ending challenge so I decided to have some fun with shutter speed and a windmill. I set my camera’s shutter speed, took a photo and then changed it to be a slower shutter speed and took another photo. I remind myself, practice is important!

Although I saw signs for “entering wine country”, I think this photo indicates more of my travel today.

Cool sign!

When I travel, I like to read roadside historical markers. I read this marker and researched the topic further when home, to discover the middle initial of the man’s name is incorrect on the marker. Fort/camp Crittendon, the US Army post, was established in August 1867. It was in honor of Thomas S. (or should be “L”) Crittendon. The fort saw action during the Apache Wars in 1870 and 1871. The camp closed in June 1873, and supposedly with only crumbling barrack walls remaining on what is now private land. AZ Highway Department in 1968 made the error. I will check and see how it can be remedied.

Finally arrived at Patagonia Lake State Park where face masks were required and people had camping with space to provide social distancing in this 2020 covid-19 pandemic. The 265-acre man-made lake was enjoyed by swimmers and anglers can catch bass, bluegill, catfish and crappie. Cabins are available to sleep up to 6 people with restrooms and showers within walking distance. Will need to check this again as the park is also a good place for birdwatching.

Beautiful scenery all day and more places for me to visit. I will love to visit some small towns in the future, but for right now the great outdoors is perfect!

Monday Memories: Poland

As I look back on 2019, I am thrilled I did not put off international travel to save money for future trips: New Zealand, Australia, the Arctic and Antartica. On this trip to Poland I had an opportunity to volunteer for a week with Habitat for Humanity (H4H) in Gliwice, Poland. Once realizing I was flying from western USA to Poland, I decided to travel on my own prior to my H4H responsibility.

I arrived in Warsaw, Poland and spent a few days joining walking tours to learn about and understand Poland’s history. I walked around the city which has so many museums and places to visit, such as the POLIN Museum about the history of the Polish Jewish community and the Warsaw Rising Museum, just to mention a couple of museums. I was glad to return to this city for a couple of days before flying home at the end of this trip, especially to decompress while walking through the Royal Łazienki Park.

Walk the city of Warsaw and see where the ghetto wall held in the Jewish people.

My travel around the country was by train so I could talk with people and see the countryside while traveling. Polish people were very friendly and there were interesting small towns and beautiful fields along the way to Gdańsk on the Baltic Sea. Buildings here were more colorful than Warsaw and the Museum of the Second World War was definitely worth visiting. I took the train to Sopot and Gdynia for a day trip. Sopot was unbelievably crowded and Gydnia’s Emigration Museum telling the history of migrating Poles was worth visiting.

My two favorite meals while in Poland were pierogies stuffed with potato and cheese, cooked in boiling water and not pan-fried, and kielbasa and sauerkraut. I was becoming a critic of the best of each during my 3 weeks in Poland and loved eating it all!

There were so many cities to visit in Poland, yet I hop off the train in Wrocław. As you stand in the main square of this city, you’ll see the Gothic Old Town Hall with its astronomical clock and have plenty of time to people watch. I loved looking for the gnomes around the city … visit to find out the history and importance of these characters.

After a few days I visited Kraków. As you stand in its main square you see the Cloth Hall and the 14th century Gothic church: St. Mary’s Basilica, where I also attended an evening organ concert. The Rynek Underground Museum was interesting and the walking tours about Jewish history were informative. There is plenty to do in Kraków and it is an easy city to walk.

I joined a day tour to learn more about the Holocaust and the Nazi crimes against Poles at Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II-Birkenau sites. While some buildings are not open to the public, one clearly feels the horror that occurred at these places. The shoes, luggage and hair collected, the sleeping areas, electric fences, cattle cars which brought people in to these concentration camps, and the crematoriums were just horrifying to see knowing now the history. Another day I toured the Wieliczka Salt Mine where all statues, etc are carved into the salt. It was a good way to decompress after being at the camps the day before.

I met the team of Global Village/Habitat for Humanity volunteers in Krakow and we traveled to Gliwice, northwest of Kraków. For the next 5 days we helped renovate some old buildings to eventually house teenagers with addiction issues. We met and had dinner with some of the young people at their current site. Our work during the day was plastering walls or pulling up old flooring. Our hard-working crews accomplished so much in the short time; however, it may be a year before all work is complete … and that was the prediction before Covid-19 became real.

I returned to Warsaw. I flew home thankful for the opportunity to volunteer my time and energy to a worthy project and also visit a country I had wished to visit someday. Now in 2020 I wonder when my international travel will resume. Only time will tell as the world deals with the coronavirus pandemic.