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

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.

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!

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.

Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona

We timed this adventure to the Petrified Forest National Park perfectly! Weather was comfortable for hiking the Agate House and Long Logs Trail, Crystal Forest Trail and viewing Newspaper Rock and Blue Mesa at the park and finishing our drive at the Painted Desert. During Covid-19 time now, masks were required to be worn when within 6 feet of other people and quite honestly not many people were at the park. Almost felt like we had the park to ourselves as we looked across the land with its petrified wood!

Petrified wood at the park.

Many prehistoric people lived in this park known for its petrified wood. Trees once stood over 200 feet tall before flood waters carried them into a log jam where they were covered with mud and ash from volcanoes. As a result, the wood lacked oxygen to decay. The wood’s tissues broke down with minerals, such as silica, filling some voids in the tree. Over millions of years the minerals crystallized. After erosion, the logs are visible for us to see the colorful minerals crystallized within what is no longer wood of a tree. This petrified wood was once used by prehistoric people to make tools and use as building blocks. The agate house is one interesting gathering place from prehistoric time that still stands.

Part of the Agate House Trail is handicapped accessible and beyond a certain point it is not so well paved. While walking on this trail I saw a horned lark!

Long Logs Trail and Crystal Forest Trail are where you can see the tall trees now in their petrified state, all intact, while others are chunks throughout the park lands.

Agate Bridge is a petrified log that jammed in a spot now as a bridge, yet park officials had built a support underneath it to hold it longer for visitors to see it. Newspaper Rock is a designated area on the park’s road and worth a visit to see the petroglyphs. Blue Mesa is a short drive/loop off the park road and also good to see. All of this is a small glimpse of a large park.

Blue Mesa

Painted Desert can be accessed here at the Petrified Forest. It too is so much larger, but interesting to see even with this small glimpse of it.

Driving from Flagstaff, Arizona to the Petrified Forest National Park, we entered at the south entrance of the park, off Rte 180, and headed north through the park. Visitor centers were open, portable toilets available, and social distancing and masks required per park rules. Long ago people traveled the now historic route 66 by car to visit the park. Here is one car:

Geologically-speaking, 900 Years Old is Young

People hike the San Francisco Peak trails in Flagstaff, Arizona. Unknown to many hikers, the area is eroded remains of a stratovolcano that erupted at its latest 400,000 years ago. Also within the San Francisco Volcanic Field, a cinder volcano, eventually named Sunset Crater, spewed cinder/ash only nine hundred years ago. It is this cinder volcano, geologically-speaking, that is considered to be young. People can visit this area now referred to as Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument.

When you visit Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument take time to walk a couple of trails. The Lava Flow trail is a one mile long walk on cinders/ash. The basaltic rock is dark and high in iron, once spewed from a vent as the cinder cone grew in size. It is amazing now to see trees and other plants growing from the solid lava.

Another trail, the Bonita Vista Trail has, for three-tenths of a mile, a paved, wheelchair-accessible path. It loops around and also connects to an amphitheater area. There is also an unpaved trail continuing on through the lava flow of this area.

People who lived in this area were displaced when the volcano was active in its eruption and creation of the cinder cone. They were the Sinaguans who moved away from here. Evidence shows they moved to what is now named Walnut Canyon National Monument and Wupatki National Monument. If you visit the Flagstaff area, there are plenty of historic places to visit.

Walnut Canyon National Monument, Flagstaff, AZ

Who lived in the cliff dwellings near Flagstaff Arizona? When you visit Walnut Canyon National Monument you’ll discover the 12th century Sinagua people had inhabited this area. They were hunter/gatherers and knew how to dry-farm, thus the term “sinagua” was coined in 1939 by an archeologist from Spanish words meaning “without water”. These people knew how to use the land in the canyon and at the top to capture and irrigate their crops. It really is a fascinating place to visit when trying to appreciate how 300 families lived and survived in these cliff dwellings.

As you walk down hundreds of steps to walk the Island Trail, the living and storage spaces are in varying degrees of restoration. Many years ago, unfortunately, others had raided the dwellings and taken pottery, etc.

The dwellings off in the distance in the cliffs have been undisturbed and the places buried at the highest elevation are yet to be excavated and studied. They would be the most fascinating to see. I guess that is why some people today study cultural anthropology. Of course geologists would enjoy looking at the cross-bedding and studying the rock layers in this canyon. Biologists would make sense of how the Sinagua survived foraging as hunters and gatherers. None of it seemed to be an easy life so I can understand moving south as next generations found this area.

There is also a rim trail to walk and see the dwellings in the distance, along with their irrigation and planting techniques. One does not need to walk the whole way down to the Island Trail, especially if feeling the steep walk back would be to much of an effort. Signs do remind you “returning is mandatory”, so I included just one section of stairway, as I think there are over 700 steps, and a path to provide a sense of what you will encounter on the loop walk.

Also in this Covid-19 time, a one-way direction on the Island Trail is encouraged and masks are to be worn when within 6 feet of another person. All were compliant in meeting that responsibility. Visit someday when you can and marvel at the life and survival of the people so long ago.

Mountain Bicycling … Am I Having A Good Time?

After each mountain bike ride I ask myself, did I enjoy the ride? No doubt I love moving onto areas of land it would take me longer to get to if I was walking. Add a beautiful sunny, non-windy day and I can enjoy this bicycle ride also as good physical and mental exercise. 

I ready my backpack, set my Garmin so I eventually know how much hardship I endured during the ride, clip into my pedals and take off for a ride. I only ride easy, green circle, and intermediate trails, blue square on maps, and even still find my legs challenged at times, especially when at higher elevations. Why is there always a rock exactly where I want to pedal uphill? And believe it or not, some rocks are in the wrong place even when I want to be gravity-led downhill, so I just roll right over the top of them!

More mountain bike trails are available throughout our country and hikers, dog walkers and other mountain bikers are sharing the trails. Maps and apps make it easier for us all to find places to be outdoors and during this pandemic it is an easy way to social distance. I love trails where I can see ahead and be sure no one else is on the trail and knowing I am soon to enjoy the flat, singletrack. 

You’ll notice I do not photograph trails full-of-rocks, steep uphill or downhill. I was surviving them through my smallest chain ring or walking! I find no shame in that walk. It simply allows me to get further out on a trail to enjoy another piece of scenery. We were on a segment of the Arizona Trail, originally designed as a 800+ hiking trail from Mexico to Utah, south to north through Arizona. Enough crazy people also started mountain biking it, but we thought a segment would be interesting since we had done other segments elsewhere in the state. After cursing the part I had to walk I was thrilled to go through this gate onto a grassland area. Yeah!

Further down the AZ Trail it intersected with Tom Moody Trail. Reading the trail signs, we discover petroglyphs in the area, so we check it out. A nice diversion and a place we returned to when hiking with our friends days later.

Now the ride back. The AZ Trail segment was okay, yet I also did hate the sandy areas. A good rain or snowfall is needed to tame sections of a sandy trail. Back to our main trail and finish our loop. Whew! Survived, no major falls, some aching body parts, I am done! Did I have a good time? Yes! It’ll be a few days before I mountain bike again. My body needs to recuperate from all the bouncing around and that is fine; I am not as young as I used to be. Till then a hike is just fine!

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.