Cactus Wren Stops By …

I was hoping to explore some of the 152 acres of Greasewood Park, the first natural resource park set aside by the city of Tucson. After talking with people in the parking lot, I decided to walk a wash and set up my camera for any wildlife observation and photography time since I would need to choose another day to have more time hiking this park. I figured hanging out in this wash would be okay as I had a couple of hours.

My camera was set to have best light for any bird that flew into a particular area I scoped out. Of course, it doesn’t always happen that way, nor right away, so I found myself photographing the wash, in each direction from where I was standing, and my shadow in the wash. 

Off in the bushes I see a bird fluttering around and with what look like feathers in its beak. I took a quick photo before it went anywhere as I did not want to miss a moment. I recognized it as a cactus wren, Arizona’s state bird, but what was this bird up to?

I discover the cactus wren is flying to a nest it is building just to the left of me! Of course that is just how wildlife photography happens! So I move my tripod with its camera and huge zoom lens to find good light to photograph this cute, hard-working bird. This is why I am out here and so I work fast!

Then to jockey all my equipment to photograph the nest itself was a bigger challenge. I was surprised to see this nest in a palo verde tree, but there it was and I had a chance to see the bird coming out of the nest! Nests are typically built within 10 feet of the ground. Also notice the football-like shape of the nest as it has a side entrance that leads to a nesting chamber. These male birds are known to build “dummy” nests while the female is incubating eggs and also the adults will puncture eggs of other birds nesting nearby!

More often I see cactus wrens building their nests in cholla cactus such as the photo below shows. It is usually the female initiating the nest building with the male taking over and feathers are what they line the nest with. The bird I observed definitely had feathers in his beak.

Another time I will visit this park again, discover more new things, and will check on this nest to know if activity is happening or not. Cactus wrens may mate for life and defend a territory while raising any of their 3 broods through incubation and nest time, so I may see more activity!

Birds keep you on your toes as they fly around doing their work!

Butterfly … Queen or Monarch?

I discovered butterflies can be as difficult to photograph and identify as birds! It finally dawned on me to wait for a butterfly to land on a flower,  photograph it, and then identify it. Any photo of a butterfly in flight has not been worth saving, but a few on a flower, well maybe yes!

My next question to myself, am I photographing a queen or monarch butterfly? To refresh my memory, I checked my resources and now know these are all queens. Notice in the dark orange of the wings there are occasional white dots; therefore, it is a queen butterfly in photo above and below.

Next question, is it a male or female butterfly? When their wings are open, a male will display prominent black markings, often referred to as the “family jewels”, but they are defunct pheromone sacs once used to drive the female butterflies crazy. And now you know! In the photo below, a male Queen butterfly.

Animals Need Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area

When I want to see any birds I look for areas near or around a body of water, also known as riparian habitats. Animals need water so you’ll have a better chance to find them there.

Prior to 1900, 10 percent of Arizona’s lands were considered riparian. Now less than 1 percent remains intact, according to the sign I read at Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area. This loss of habitat threatens the existence of not only birds, but other animals such as rabbits, raccoons, bats, mule deer, and turkeys, to name a few. We need to be concerned about this issue and protect the riparian habitats we currently have.

Most people travel to Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area to see the sandhill cranes as they migrate and remain here October to March each year. No doubt the birds are worth seeing. (Check out yesterday’s post about the cranes.)

However, my visit to the draw this month allowed me to see other birds too. Plenty of birds are in the bushes or scratching around on the ground:

Canyon towhee
Female red-winged blackbird
Red-tailed hawk
Say’s phoebe

Others are in the mud-flats or shallow water, such as mallards, northern shovelers and other ducks I am sure not to have identified. I am still looking for a wood duck though; no luck yet.

Killdeer
Greater yellowlegs
Northern pintail

When I finish photographing and leave an area, I always wonder which lens I should keep on my camera. I put my camera on the passenger seat in case I see something to photograph during my drive. Today, I kept my long lens on the camera and fortunately down the road away from the draw, I saw a western meadowlark. I would have been so disappointed if I did not have that lens on the camera to capture a photograph … such is luck and it allows me to identify the bird!

Western meadowlark

Sandhill Cranes at Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area

What do a few thousand sandhill cranes look and sound like? To find out, travel to McNeal, Arizona and visit Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area where you can see many sandhill cranes and listen to their gurgling trill voices. Other migratory birds winter in this riparian habitat and you can also find other animals, but this post is about the sandhill crane.

As a photographer I needed to determine the best light to photograph the birds, so I stopped on a nearby dirt road as I saw the birds flying toward the draw. These birds were probably foraging on corn stubble in nearby fields and now returning to the shallow water for an afternoon of loafing and what will be used for evening roosts.

Once at the draw, you will hear and see at least a thousand sandhill cranes. While walking the trail there will be more cranes and other birds too. (Next post will be about other birds I saw on this visit.) My estimated count was a couple thousand sandhill cranes once I walked the entire area.

The adult sandhill crane is gray with a red crown and white cheek patch. They are very tall wading birds and commonly winter here October to March. During our current pandemic, a sign reminds visitors to be physically distant. People were and many wore a mask too when closer to each other.

I took great pleasure in trying to photograph the cranes while in flight and had to laugh at times when they were coming in for a landing. They fly with neck and legs fully extended, but when they are coming in for a landing it looks comical to me.

I spent almost 2 hours walking the trails, taking photographs, talking with the less than 20 people who were also visiting on this week day and eating a snack at one of the trailside benches. Two times for only a long second did the cranes remain silent! I was shocked. I was used to hearing their non-stop voices that when they stopped the second felt like a long time, yet it was not! They were back and noisy as usual in no time. I would love to see a courtship display between two birds so I will have to visit again.

Tomorrow, the other birds at Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area.

Empire Ranch at Las Cienagas National Conservation Area, Arizona

I visited Empire Ranch to learn more about its interesting history, walk some of its property and to drive some of the paved and dirt roads through thousands of acres of grassland. There are 29 perennial grasses here depending on the season. I know little about pasture rotation or grasses, but this is what this area is known for, grasses.

Here’s the history in a nutshell: In the 1870’s, Edward Nye Fish had his 4 room adobe house and corral on 160 acres of land. In 1876, Walter L. Vail and Herbert S. Hislop purchased and expanded the land holdings, livestock and buildings till 1928. Frank Boice and family moved in and managed Empire Ranch for the next 47 years with ranching and some Hollywood western movies filmed here.

1969, Gulf American Corp bought the ranch for real estate development and sold in 1974 to Anamax Mining Co for mining and water potential. Fortunately, neither of those developments happened. 1975 – 2009, another family lived here and ranched the area. The ranch house built in the 1950’s for Boice’s oldest son has been rehabilitated for Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM’s) administrative and educational programs at Empire Ranch.

1988, land exchanges took place and eventually in 2000 the US Congress designated 42,000 acres as Las Cienagas National Conservation Area with cattle operations continued under BLM arrangements.

I walked a half mile Heritage Discovery Trail. There is a 1920’s, 2 room  house which had been for a family working on the farm.

Looking ahead, a line of green tree canopy is obvious as they are cottonwood trees, known as a cottonwood gallery. There was a “snag hazard” sign notifying hikers about the trees weakened by fire damage could fall at any time. All are encouraged to stay on the trail, be alert for falling  trees and to avoid the area in high winds. I also learned cottonwood trees self-prune, meaning they will drop limbs of 1,000 pounds or more on windy days. An awful place to tent for a night, not that it is allowed, but with no wind I confidently walked the trail. At some points I did step off the trail to check out a wash and another building on a dead-end trail.

I learned there are efforts to recover the threatened Chiricahua leopard frog. Also, the “cow pie” I saw on the road did actually result in me seeing cattle! I do not know how many gates I have opened and closed while hiking and mountain biking through the years, and I never see cattle. I did see them here! They seemed as surprised!

Near the ranch house is handicapped accessible parking for access to restrooms. Many ATV’s were being hauled in, yet I never saw them on the roads. The dirt roads vary in amount of ruts and rocks. Some areas you’ll see old campfires, bullet shells, and no people. Although in the middle of nowhere, I did see a large recreational vehicle with what I think is a tented toilet area. Otherwise, expect to see lots of grassland and dirt roads that go on and on! I checked out some areas designated as trailheads, but with snag hazard signs I did not wander in to far. Then at one point I realized, I need to turn around on this dirt road to eventually be out of the thousands of acres of silence and grassland! Another time, I will explore another road within this conservation area and find some tanks or other water sources to locate some birds. Today, some smaller birds and shrike were all I saw.

Giving Thanks Every Day

It can be a simple wave of a hand from the driver of a car you allowed space for in front of your car or a nod of appreciation for whatever from anyone, especially since their smile may be  hidden behind a face mask. While I appreciate holidays set aside for assured historical recognition, of which some can be debated, there is no reason not to give thanks every day.

Whether a person gives thanks to another or is the person receiving the thanks, a sense of positivity and community occurs. For a moment, there is recognition of a good thing happening. No matter how brief the feeling it is is often paid forward, which in turn provides strength within relationships and ultimately a community.

We are all having a challenging year with many people and families suffering more than others. This is not the time to forget needed connections and remain within our bubble on every account. It is all the more reason to say hello or thanks or give a nod to another person, even if once a day. For the recipient, it may be the highlight of ones week! 

Thank you first responders for helping with numerous medical, fire and security needs; thank you family and friends who are caregivers of young and old; thank you non-profit organizers for providing food banks, crisis hotlines, holiday gifts for families, and various other needed services keeping our lives moving forward. Today, tomorrow and next year as our challenges continue, let us each take time to give even the simplest of thanks which will offer a moment of relief to another.

I know I have said this all before, but I believe it is worth repeating … no matter who you are, thanks for being in my life. We will get through all together. Thanks … and know there is a smile behind my mask … some year soon you will see that too! Till then, many, many thanks!

Rio Vista Natural Resources Park, Tucson, Arizona

What to do with a former horse ranch near a bike path in Tucson, Arizona? Forty acres of land has provided an equestrian trail, bicycle and walking trails within and to the bicycle “loop”, along with sitting places and picnic areas at ramadas. There is also a playground with a children’s climbing wall, dog area and a Compassion Garden. The Compassion Garden is a place for people to seek solace in nature as they grieve a loss.

A gneiss (pronounced “nice”) bench is nearby to sit on, with a plaque explaining its origins … love humor in the least likely places! It was formed during uplift of the Santa Catalina Mountains from 1.4 billion years old black Oracle granite and 50 million years old white Wilderness Suite granite through high temperatures and pressures to a recrystallized gneiss, an artist sculpted it, and now here as a bench; nice!

I recently discovered this park while looking for birding places. Various trails cut through the land with the City of Tucson Parks Department making a concerted effort to close off trails to slow down erosion of the land. Other signs encourage visitors to not feed animals, stay on main trails and to watch out for coyotes and bobcats. No doubt in my mind, the coyotes I see walking across the nearby wash do use this park as a pathway since neighborhoods are all around the park.

Lots and lots of sparrows! I identified most as white-crowned sparrows, along with phainopepla and house finches. The male house finch seemed to pose for me so I did spend time with him.

I was walking to leave the park when I saw a hawk-like bird on a cement wall. I quickly took a photo, but it then flew off into a bush after something and over my head to another area. This sharp-shinned hawk was to fast for me to capture him in anything but his sitting on the wall!

People can drive and park their car, ride their horse through, or walk in from the neighborhood or bike path, so it is an easily accessible park. I nice place for all to take a break from whatever we wish!

Do You Have A Sense of Adventure?

Life can be so humdrum at times, but we each have opportunities to seek something new and different … I call mine adventures! All to have a sense of adventure, to discover a new adventure, and break the cycle of humdrum-ness! Recently I realized I had been doing the same ole thing every time I drove down a particular road toward the Grand Canyon and it was time to do something different. And so I did….

How many times had I driven past various trailheads on my way from Flagstaff, AZ to Grand Canyon National Park and wonder where do those trails go? Numerous times! I had to do something about that mystery and decided to check out a few trails. My adventure was to begin!

Red Mountain Trail is 25 miles northwest of Flagstaff. The 1.5 mile trail is very easy to hike with one short ladder to climb. You’re walking into a “U” shaped area, what remains from a volcanic cinder cone that blew more than 700,000 years ago. 

Red Mountain is part of the San Francisco Volcanic Field. As you walk into its amphitheater-like  center you see eroded pillars, called hoodoos. It had snowed the night before so in some cracks snow was evident. People do climb around in this area which has walls going about 1,000 feet up.

Returning to our car, we could see the San Francisco Peaks in the distance.

We drove back to Flagstaff and stopped at a trailhead where I discover there are actually a few trails, the Walker Trailhead and Watchable Wildlife Trail. Some other day I will check out Walker Lake Trail to see if there is a lake on the 1.7 mile trail. Instead, I took a quick walk to check out the Watchable Wildlife Trail. With snow from the night before, it was not evident to me there was a .25 mile paved loop accessible for wheelchair use. Plus there is supposed to be a 1.5 mile trail for wildlife observing. It looks like a beautiful area however with the snow I walked my own trail.

It was interesting looking at the cinder cone in the distance and realizing what this entire area used to be like when volcanoes were erupting, such as Red Mountain, and how some others had not erupted yet. I enjoyed seeing the snow too since those of us living in the southern part of Arizona rarely do.

Another time I will return, walk these trails and put the final pieces of this adventure into my book of adventures. Where is your sense of adventure? You’ve got it! Just take it out and provide it time for a spin. Have fun! Go for it! Enjoy an adventure!

Wupatki National Monument, AZ

Who lived here 900 years ago? Ancestral Pueblos still stand in the Wupatki National Monument area of northern Arizona where Native Americans once lived. Our journey today took us from the north end of the monument’s area, known as Antelope Prairie, to the southern end, known as the Wupatki Basin. Within a full day of travel one can continue another 20 miles south to Sunset Crater National Monument and hike there too, but we chose to visit in 2 days to spend more time in each place. 

Wupatki National Monument was established in 1924. Grazing continued until 1989 when a fence was installed around the monument’s boundary. Our first stop included 3 pueblos and where the Box Canyon dwelling stood. We spent time at the Lomaki Pueblo, known as The Beautiful House. Farmers used to live here 900 years ago and now the area is habitat for pronghorn. The other 2 pueblos are Nalakihu and Citadel.

The Box Canyon dwelling was interesting because it was built along an ancient earthcrack, literally the size of a canyon now!

Dwellings on each side of box canyon.

We drove about 10 miles south to the Wupatki Pueblo which is huge in comparison to the other pueblos. We are driving in the Wupatki Basin area where this pueblo along with the visitor’s center and Lomaki Pueblo can be seen. The Wupatki Pueblo was for large gatherings, 100 people or more, with its numerous rooms and ball court. Paths allow visitors to see this pueblo, walk to the ball court and the blowhole.

Wupatki Pueblo

Obviously some competitions happened here with teams from other areas coming to this gathering place and using the good-sized ball court. Just down the path is a blowhole. This hole connects to an underground passage/earthcrack in the Kaibab Limestone and has grown larger through the years. Dependent on the air pressure differential, above and below ground level, cool air can be felt.

A few miles further south, then taking a left turn you can drive to Wukoki Pueblo. Its 3 story structure is easily seen from many miles away. Archeologists continue to study these ruins so it is important to keep pottery shards where they are and not be sitting on walls of the pueblo. The trails are sufficiently built for visitors to see the pueblo.

Wukoki Pueblo

During our current pandemic, masks are required to be worn when walking within 6 feet of another visitor at Wupatki National Monument. I appreciated taking a full day to visit all the pueblos here, whereas in the past I had hurried through Wupatki and Sunset Crater. If you have the time, enjoy two days to see the sights and have more time for hiking, especially at Sunset Crater.

Bicycling & Picture Canyon

It was a mountain bike ride find! We ventured further than Campbell Mesa mountain biking area to a connector, then the Arizona Trail, and onto the Tom Moody Trail to check out some petroglyphs at Picture Canyon. An interesting ride of single track and some trail segments necessitating me to walk my bicycle; overall a fun ride! We had not realized at the start there were petroglyphs to check out, so to be in a new area and cycle to the spot was wonderful.

The “waterbird” petroglyphs area on the Tom Moody Trail is only one part of Picture Canyon. The human-like figures with a tail are petroglyphs which Zuni people believe their people came into this world from a watery underworld. The waterbird is either a crane or great blue heron which is a clan symbol for Hopi and Zuni peoples. The celestial images of the sun and moon may indicate the Yavapai people were here as they were known as the People of the Sun. The zig-zag design may be waterways or lightning.

A nice day for a bicycle ride and when friends visited we hiked the entire Tom Moody Trail, had lunch and could enjoy ourselves easily outdoors socially distanced.