Arizonans Love Water and Horses!

Ever wonder what is down a road? This trip I decided to drive further east along the Salt River in Arizona from Granite Reef Recreation Site, where last time I was birding, to discover what was ahead. I had seen vehicles pulling horse trailers, carrying mountain and road bicycles, kayaks and other watercraft. This area is east of Phoenix, Arizona.

Yes, I discovered on the south side of the road, there is plenty of horseback riding and mountain biking opportunities. Road bicyclists were on the road and happy with the smooth road. Some day I should check the bicycling out.

My first stop was off the main highway to Saguaro Lake Ranch. I passed horse stables and people getting ready for a trail ride. A short distance further there were rustic cabins, all part of the Saguaro Lake Guest Ranch. They are in a beautiful location considering this is all part of the Sonoran Desert in the Tonto National Forest, the fifth largest forest in North America. As you drive along you’ll see interesting rock formations along with saguaros. At the end of this road is Stewart Mountain Dam, built between 1928-30. The dam includes a 13,000 kilowatt hydroelectric generating unit, operated by and Arizona public utility, SRP, and helps with flood control and provides irrigation. 

My next stop once back on the highway was Saguaro Lake Marina. We are now on the other side of the dam at Saguaro Lake, technically called a reservoir. It is the fourth reservoir on the Salt River, stretching 10 miles, with an average depth of 90 feet and 20 miles of shoreline. This place was jam-packed with people and boaters and it wasn’t even noon on a Friday! There is plenty to do in this area if you wish to rent a boat or use your own, picnic or eat at the ShipRock Restaurant. I do not think tours of the lake are happening right now on the Desert Belle.

You can also drive a few more miles down the road, as I did, to Butcher Jones Beach where people were here to picnic and swim. It was more calm in this area too. I loved seeing the rocky cliffs and will return in the future to hike a trail in this area. I understand it to be a 2 mile rocky, narrow trail of moderate difficulty with views of the lake and then 2 miles back out. Temperatures range in this part of Arizona from 25 to 115 degrees so do plan for a safe time when you visit and bring water!

I then drove 3 more miles down the highway to pick up a road back toward the Phoenix area. It made for an interesting loop to be on the other side of the Salt River. I had never driven this area of the state and it was really interesting seeing the diverse areas and the exploding population just to the edges of these lands which I hope will remain protected for generations to come. This is a perfect time to remember what Stewart Udall, a 3 time congressman from Arizona and Secretary of the Interior from 1961-1969, under presidents John F.Kennedy and Lyndon B.Johnson, once said: “Plans to protect air and water, wilderness and wildlife are in fact plans to protect man”. Enough said!

Know About Oracle State Park?

In 2001, a 4,000 acre wildlife refuge and environmental center was named Oracle State Park. It is located about 20 miles north of Tucson, Arizona. I recently visited the park and was fascinated with its history.

In 1903, two Kannally brothers from Illinois purchased 160 acres of land here with one brother hoping the dry air would help his tuberculosis. Two sisters eventually join the brothers and with land purchases the ranch land expands to 50,000 acres. They built a unique Mediterranean and Moorish-style ranch house which can be toured when Covid-19 pandemic concerns ends and allows tours, but visitors can sit at the patio. Bird feeders on one end, view of Antelope Peak to the north, San Pedro River to the east and Mount Lemmon area to the south, yet the summit there is blocked by Apache Peak.

There are numerous trails to hike and/or mountain bike. All trails are very well signed. From the nature trail one can look back on the ranch house.

Midway on the 1.2 mile loop nature trail is an adobe wildlife viewing blind. The only activity at the water hole was in the tree where I watched 2 ravens build a nest. At one point a raven brought in a long twig and it took its time to problem-solve where to put it in place while it kept hitting other parts of the tree and branches.

Although much of the 50,000 acres were sold to Magma Copper Company in 1952, it was Lucille Kannally who willed 4,000 acres to a non-profit, Defenders of Wildlife. Lucille died in 1976. In 1985, Defenders of Wildlife transferred the ranch house and land to the state of Arizona founding a new state park in 2001. In November 2014, Oracle State Park became the World’s 20th International Dark Sky Park and the first AZ state park to receive that recognition!

As an environmental education center some areas are available for school groups. There are plenty of trails to hike and/or bike. A windmill is further out on the property and one of my future hiking destinations. I look forward to the day I can tour the ranch house too. It is wonderful to see the National Scenic Arizona Trail also passing through some of its land. Want to spend some time outdoors, check out this park!

Visit Tonto National Forest

I had never realized the Salt River Recreation Areas were part of Tonto National Forest till my recent visit to the area. I hiked parts of three sites to view and photograph birds. Note: have appropriate park pass on your car’s dashboard.

Granite Reef is the first recreation site I stopped at along Bush Highway. Here you can walk along the river and see a dam in the distance. Plenty of waterfowl were on the river. I also saw a group of javelinas, called a squadron, on the other river bank.

My next stop was at Phon D Sutton recreation site a few miles further on Bush Highway. I chose one spot to sit and view the birds. Each of these sites have restrooms, cleaned Friday through Monday, picnic tables and plenty of paths to hike or ride your horse.

Final stop: Coon Bluff, again a few more miles down Bush Highway. Of the three sites, this one was most popular with fishermen and people riding horses. I was told wild horses can sometimes be seen here or at 5pm down the road when they are fed. Interesting! A local photographer, familiar with the area the past 15 years, was talking with me about eagles being seen at times as I had also noted from eBird info, but we had no luck! The squirrels in this area are way too curious. As soon as I took a bite of my lunch a squirrel had its beady eyes focused on my food! I was talking with a young woman who was walking her dog about the squirrel’s reaction. She told me of her attempt to discourage her friend in feeding the squirrels or letting one climb on a pant leg. We are both convinced that there will be a day a squirrel bites her friend!

More sites to visit along Bush Highway which ends at Saguaro Lake. Weekends are when all sites are crowded. Road bicyclists were seen by me as I drove the road and to the south of the road there are areas to horseback ride and mountain bike. I can imagine this area being very, very busy at times! Be sure to have a park permit on your dashboard; no fun getting fined! Otherwise, have fun!

Agua Caliente Park

It had been awhile since visiting Agua Caliente Park. When I did, I arrived on a day workers were black-topping spots of the parking lot! I think the birds decided to be elsewhere while the project was completed. I walked all of the trails in the park. When some people asked me if I saw anything, I said, “No, it’s quiet, not even the coyote are passing through”. Little did I know then, as I was walking the last distance back to my car, a coyote looked at me and then took a turn. There were 2 coyotes walking across the park road to leave the park!

Plenty of mallard ducks and ring-necked ducks in the water. Ruby crowned kinglet, phainopepla and gila woodpecker were seen. Flying overhead was a northern harrier which I unfortunately did not get a photograph.

Sam Lena Recreation Area, Tucson

The Kino Sports Complex is huge when you consider the north and south side, but today I am only focusing on Sam Lena Park which is part of the north complex. Sam Lena was a longtime politician, member of the Pima County Board of Supervisors, served twice in AZ House and four terms in the State Senate. As a supporter of parks and recreation, the park was named in Sam Lena’s honor (1921-1996) along with a Sam Lena – South Tucson Library which he advocated for many years.

I was visiting the park to see what birds might be around since the last time I was here was about a year ago when I first began birding and had a birding workshop here. While walking a small part of the park, I noticed ramadas, fitness/1 mile walking trail, softball fields and had to keep an eye open as some played disc golf around me and where I was also watching a few birds.

I saw a number of birds:

Gray flycatcher
Greater yellowlegs
Ring-necked duck
Northern shoveler
Great blue heron
Roadrunner

If it wasn’t for the pandemic we are currently experiencing, this park would be very busy with people. Almost everyone I saw today was wearing a facial mask and many were visiting with me to ask what birds I was seeing and asking about my camera equipment. I like those teachable moments and it seemed all were wanting some conversation! The disc golfers even showed me their discs! I am not sure I will ever play that game as I can only envision losing the disc just like I lose golf balls! Who knows, someday maybe I will give it a try. I can always use another new activity in my life!

Sorry to tell them they have a spelling error on the “disc” golf.

Open Pit Mining in Arizona

You may not know it, but there are many abandoned mines (100,000, but only 19,000 officially identified) in Arizona. You may already know this state produces more copper than any other state, which also has gold and silver mines. I began thinking about mines when I read a highway sign on my way to Summerhaven. It stated there had once been 1300 mines in the valley I was overlooking to the east. Another day I was bicycling past a couple of open pits with their warning signs on the west side of Tucson. Then I got thinking about the jaguar, Gila topminnows, Chiricahua leopard frogs and yellow-billed cuckoos in the Las Cienagas National Conservation Area and Nature Conservancy property near the Sonoita Creek Watershed because I heard mining was proposed for the area. How would that wildlife survive mining activity?

There is plenty to absorb when learning about mining practices whether it be a shaft mine or an open pit mine, but here are my concerns: using our already scarce desert water and degradation of and leaving behind a toxic environment. The population in this state increases each year and clean water is always needed. A mining operation uses millions of gallons of water per day. When mining is done a scar at least a mile wide and 3,000 feet deep remains, and since backfilling an open pit can cause more environmental damage and safety concerns it is not done. Here’s the additional water concern, besides the millions of gallons of water used each day, the pit would puncture our aquifer and drain water into it creating a pit lake. That is not the direction water should be going! The water from the mine is not to be part of our groundwater and drinking water. An aquifer is to be separate and going to creeks and springs providing clean water for wildlife, along with being our future drinking water. The pit lake water evaporates faster than if in an aquifer, plus metals in the water are concentrated and years later create a toxic ground environment.

Is politics involved in any of this business activity? Apparently so. July 2016 there was the Clean Water Act to be adhered to and some mines had to refocus their process since they could not meet the guidelines. But after a political appointment was made (Deputy Secretary of the Interior, David Bernhardt) in March 2019, Clean Water permits began to be approved! Due to various opposition to some mining proposals, some projects are on hold. The best way to get involved with stopping industrialized mining is to join advocacy groups such as checking out the Patagonia Area Resource Alliance website. There you will find information and current concerns.

On the other side you’ll hear advantages of a mine: about 2500 people hired for typically a 3 year construction period, wages two times the median in the area, 500 people employed for the 19 years typical for the life of a mine, and metals extracted and shipped for products to be made, such as electronics. Then ask: do we have millions of water to give away each day? Is our aquifer protected so we have drinking water now and the future? Do you know what that scar on the earth looks like? Why are we making our environment unhealthy for wildlife and ugly? Are you aware that Native American tribes consider some of these lands sacred? Why is a foreign country ruining our land and water for their economic business? How many more endangered species do we need to lose before we care?

This is not just about Arizona. Many U.S. states and places around the world are facing similar issues. Be aware of what we are doing to our planet Earth. Future generations wish to enjoy water, air and land within healthy lifestyles so let’s be sure we leave them the best we can!

Patagonia Lake State Park, Arizona

Two weeks ago I finally walked the birding trail at Patagonia Lake State Park. I was searching for an elegant trogon and while not successful in seeing one there were plenty of other birds!

A canyon towhee was one bird I thought, now you look a bit different from others so let me photograph you! It was wonderful for the bird to sit on the branch and allow me to photograph it. Other birds like the bridled titmouse were all over the place before I could get a decent photo. But the verdin won the movement contest! With all of its moving around I could only capture a photo while the bird hung upside down! I almost missed one bird. I saw some action at a spot. I took a photo even though it was the back end of what I guessed to be a wren. Fortunately its eyebrow is in the photo to know it is a Bewick’s wren!

Canyon towhee
Bridled titmouse
Verdin
Bewick’s wren

Plenty of woodpeckers were in the woods. I felt like it was practice in determining is it a Gila woodpecker or a ladder-backed woodpecker?

I saw this next bird and was not sure what it was till I arrived home to enter it into Merlin Bird ID, love that app! I captured a photo of an Eastern phoebe!

Eastern phoebe

Another little bird I have not seen in awhile is the next photo: ruby crowned kinglet.

Ruby crowned kinglet

And finally a bird I knew as soon as I saw it…hermit thrush! Always wonderful when I can actually identify a bird on the spot of observing them!

So many birds on that birding trail and the creek near it, along with an entire lake to check out. I saw 15 different bird species during the 2.5 hours on the trail. It is a great day trip for any time of the year! I’ll be back!

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.

Never Know What You Will Discover…

I was searching for a particular grebe. While I did not find the bird I was looking for, I did get to visit Sahuarita Lake Park in Sahuarita, Arizona, so I guess that was a plus. This manmade 10 acre lake opened in 2001 is enjoyed by many people. You’ll see people walking, fishing ….need a license… boating (no motor, and only sunrise to sunset) and enjoying the outdoor space. There are restrooms, ramadas and an outdoor amphitheater most likely used frequently when we are not in a pandemic. The lake is slightly more than a mile in length and 12 feet deep at the max, yet the fisherman are catching catfish, trout, bass and sunfish. Be sure to check what the fishing regulations are so you are not reported.

I did observe pied-billed grebe, ruddy duck, American coot and rock pigeon. In researching rock pigeon, I added a new word to my vocabulary: cere. Rock pigeons have this off-white deposit of calcified keratin protein above their nostrils where the cere meets the feathers of their face. I did not find the bird I wanted, but I learned something new today and know I will return to this area another time.

Often, I never know what I will discover when I go on some of my wanderings. I do ask myself if there is anything in particular I am searching for. And it is not always about birds, but life in general. Have you recently asked yourself what you are searching for? The start of a new year is a good time to do so, but not a necessity. Ask yourself, what are you searching for, and then go for it! Even if you do not find it, you may discover something else … and that is not really so bad, most the time! A new year can have some new looks! Take joy in the newness. Keep your life fresh!

I only took one photo of the park since I had a zoom lens on my camera for bird photography. But here’s a nice look while I stood along the walking trail about halfway down the side of the lake. If you are in the area of Sahuarita, Arizona, stop in. I wish you a safe and healthy new year

To The Moon & Back, Now I Know

In 1971, on the Apollo 14 mission to the moon, astronaut Stuart Roosa had about 500 tree seeds with him. He and the seeds experienced 34 orbits around the moon. It was during a college summer break, when Roosa was a “smoke jumper” risking his life and parachuting into an area to fight forests fires. He took these seeds to the lunar orbit for a US Forest Service germination experiment and also as a tribute to “smoke jumpers”.

An American sycamore seedling was planted at the University of Arizona, in Tucson, on Arbor Day, April 30, 1976 in honor of the US Bicentennial. It was the only original moon tree still alive in Arizona with 64 other moon trees at various locations around the world.

A 2015 news reporter questioned whether the sycamore tree would last another 5 years, so it was time for me to find it. Prior to this I had never heard about any “moon trees”. My partner and I bicycled to the campus and did find the tree! 2020 and the tree was still alive which I was happy to see! May it live many more years!

American sycamore tree still alive December 2020 at U of A campus.