Grand Canyon National Park … East Gate Entrance … Come In!

Is visiting Grand Canyon National Park on your list of places to travel? I hope so! Everyone should see this place at least once in their life. The biology, geology, anthropology and ecology of the area would be appreciated as one sits at the canyon’s edge. To view miles of territory discovered many years ago and still today there are many places where a human foot has not walked upon the land. Be sure to visit someday.

Many park visitors enter Grand Canyon National Park from its southern entrance. Arriving from the east gate entrance recently was a nice change of pace even for me who has visited this park often. One can spend time at the Desert View tower and see more of the Colorado River from the various viewpoints along the road eventually leading to Grand Canyon Village 20 miles to the west. The village area was congested with traffic and people and so I drove through and will save it for another time. I was glad to spend more time on the eastern end during this visit.

In 2014, Grand Canyon was designated as a Globally Important Bird Area. It is a flyway for hawks. From Lipan Point to the north rim of the park many birds go from forest to forest crossing an eight mile distance. On this visit, I saw violet-green swallows, ravens and black-throated gray warblers. Other times I have enjoyed seeing condors, mountain chickadees and other birds.

Here are photos from Grand Canyon National Park:

Leaving the park, elk were crossing the road so motorists need to be aware of wildlife on the road! I loved the elk sitting roadside watching all the action!

Again, if you have never been to Grand Canyon National Park add it to your list of places to see sometime in your lifetime! Come visit and enjoy nature! Remember, there is a south rim and a north rim to visit, but it takes a few days to accomplish that even if you are hoping to drive to both. Of course, there is also time to be spent down at the river whether on a river trip, hike or mule ride to Phantom Ranch, or backpacking to Bright Angel Campground. Hopefully when Covid-19 is history, we will be able to get back to enjoying those options.

Ospreys at Work

Taking time to observe wildlife. A photo story of 2 ospreys at their nest …

And the other osprey flying to the same nest …

Hmmm… will be interesting to see what happens in the next days …. this may only be nest-building time. I hope I see more activity in the upcoming days.

Mission San Juan Capistrano

At least 55 years ago my family and I visited the Mission San Juan Capistrano. I remember nothing else around the mission at that time, yet now the town is jam-packed with homes and businesses. The old train depot has been converted to a restaurant and the nearby street has old houses with shops, but all else is new construction. Beautiful flowers are everywhere!

The story of the swallows and San Juan Capistrano is well-known, but if you do not know it, here it is in a nutshell. In the 1930’s the swallows were a nuisance for a shop-owner in town. As the person was destroying their mud nests, Father O’Sullivan asked the shop owner why they destroy the homes made by and needed for the swallows? In discovering the person’s annoyance, Father said the swallows were welcomed at the mission. The swallows did begin building nests at the church.

In the 1990’s the nests were removed from the ruins of the Great Stone Church and with the loss of habitat the swallows did not return. With the help of cliff swallow experts, they have been able to lure the swallows back to the mission. Nowadays the number of swallows fluctuates. Their migration along the Pacific Flyway is really amazing when you realize these birds are flying 6,000 miles one way from Argentina to California!

Here are some photos taken at the mission:

After a delicious lunch in San Juan Capistrano, I drove to the San Joaquin Wildlife Marsh, Irvine, CA, and parked near Tree Hill. Of course, now I realize how huge the water treatment district is with 5 ponds. I discover this first-hand walking from one end to another. I saw a number of birds; 2 new ones for me: black skimmer and Clark’s grebe. 

I had a fascinating moment watching bird behavior between a male and female house finch. The male house finch was singing loud, non-stop and looking at the female as he continued to sing. The female house finch was not impressed or playing hard to get. She flew off!

To find my car, I walked the road/pedestrian access walkway along the San Diego River. There was the killdeer on the berm again (saw it 2 days ago), yet it stayed on its nest as I walked toward it. I walked near the wall since due to “no trespassing” signs posted on the berm I could not go below it to give the killdeer more space. The bird remained on the nest, looked at me, and seemed unstressed by my walking by. Maybe the bird remembered me from a couple of days ago when I had seen the egg the bird was sitting on.

Here are a few other photos from the visit to the San Joaquin Wildlife Marsh:

Common yellowthroat

The mission was a busy place but people wore masks and kept their distance. Parts of the mission were closed and other indoor places they did limit the number of people inside at a time, so all was good. I ate my lunch at an outdoor table and waiters wore masks. Tables were close, but the outdoor air helped alleviate any concerns I had. At the two birding places today, people wore masks if within 6 feet of another and for the most part it was just me outdoors with the birds. Californians seem to follow directions well when masks are required and some people shared the fact they had been fully vaccinated. It seems travelers have a natural sense of doing all that needs to happen to be healthy and out traveling again. Heck, whatever it takes to motivate people to get vaccinated, I am for it! Stay healthy all!

What’s In Your Backyard?

Often we live in an area and do not spend time discovering what is nearby. We hear people talk about living in a town for years and not realizing an interesting or beautiful place is just down the road. I always find this tragic as people miss opportunities to learn or enjoy places right in their backyard!

Catalina State Park was one of those places for me so I took time to visit it and actually will return in a few weeks to camp there. This state park is located within a national forest: Coronado, where we had a horrific wildfire burning here a couple of years ago. Many acres of land were burned, forcing wildlife to flee, and still some trails are closed due to the potential of flood waters carrying forest debris down the streams causing mudslides onto trails and roads. But the hiking I did was on three one-mile open trails: an interpretive trail, birding trail and nature trail and fortunately all accomplished with few rain drops.

The Romero Ruin interpretive trail is a loop through the site where a historic ranch and Hohokam village once stood. The signage along the trail helped one understand the advantages of the site’s location, the housing, ball court and trash mound so all the fallen rock walls we saw made sense as we walked the trail.

On the birding trail you see many remaining charred trees with grasses and shrubs growing back. Few birds were seen, yet I did get a chance to photograph one, a northern cardinal.

On our way out of the park we spotted a red-tailed hawk.

Those Verdins Are Busy Today!

Author and ordained interfaith minister, Katrina Mayer once wrote: “Time amongst the trees is never wasted”. The statement was so true one day a couple of weeks ago while I was on a trail simply looking for wildlife. I’m rarely a sunrise birder, unless I must. So by what birders would consider late morning, I had to search the ground and trees for activity. I know the rainbow grasshopper, gila monster or whatever it is will not be inactive all day; I just have to keep my eyes open! I have not found a rainbow grasshopper yet, but I noticed a verdin flying in and out of a tree. Perfect! My opportunity to set my camera and watch what happens.

Verdins are residents here and easy for me to identify with their yellow heads and small chestnut patch at the bend of the wing. These birds build nests year-round. A male usually builds a few nests with the female choosing the one to raise young. Here two verdins were working together on this nest.

I was relaxed watching the birds and I know they knew I was there. I was a good distance away from them using a zoom lens. For about 15 minutes I watched them work until other people on the trail were walking closer. Time for me to leave and let the birds be on their own.

I loved the bird looking at me and it feeling safe to continue doing what needed to be done. I was happy to have spent the time watching their activity. Clearly time not wasted for any of us!

I wished this nest was closer to my home so I could participate in NestWatch where one observes nest activity a couple of times per week and reports the activity. If you are interested or do not know about this citizen scientist activity, then check out nestwatch.org

Overnight in Honda & With Cranes!

I did it! My overnight adventure at Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area was an interesting 26 hours. I saw the sandhill cranes fly in during the late afternoon, sleep during the night and fly off in the morning. I slept in my recently converted Honda Element, detailed in a previous post: conversion of my Honda Element to a camper. I talked with various people on the trail and at the overnight camping area. Weather was a sunny 70 something degrees during the day and a very cold 28 degrees at night, as observed in a slushy-water bottle! Many people visited the wildlife area both days I was at Whitewater Draw and at least 15 campers, tents to class b motorhomes, stayed overnight.

First, let’s talk about my “camper”. I built a bed platform in the rear area of my Honda Element and left space for a bicycle, but on this first try-out I did not bring my bicycle. My milk carts were under the platform and worked well when I opened my folding kitchen shelf. At night I had my winter sleeping bag and absolutely needed it since by 3am it was very, very cold! I slept on my bed platform on an ensolite pad and thermarest, unfortunately bringing back memories of sleeping on very hard beds when I visited China. So, I need to improve that concern so I sleep more comfortably. Just as I have organized my gear for solo backpacking and bicycling adventures, I need to arrange items in the car and be sure all fits when I also have a bicycle and that gear in the car. The other need is the importance of how and where to pee and poop. We all do it and as I watched people hesitate to use the available port-a-potties, I was glad I had my supplies. (To be discussed in a future blog post.) Overall, I was happy with my set-up.

With travel I love talking with people who are also viewing wildlife and, in this case, the birds. The majority of people were wearing facial masks and maintaining physical distancing since we are still in the throes of the coronavirus. One couple from Idaho camped right next to me. A solo bicyclist camped across the way. Others on the trail were visiting for their first-time to see the cranes. Each person I spoke with has a love for the outdoors and birds which is so important as we need to understand the importance of providing habitats for all wildlife. We are losing riparian habitats too quickly, and when wildlife goes, so do we … remember the canary in the coal mine? I want to have clean water and clean air in a natural environment for generations to come.

And now for the birds, specifically the sandhill cranes. It was a challenge to estimate the number of birds there but during late afternoon maybe 3,000 sandhill cranes and by nightfall or the next morning as they were taking off it looked like 5,000. I will admit my numbers could very well be low. There were other birds too: northern pintails, northern shovelers, western meadowlarks, killdeer, Greater roadrunner, black phoebe, green-winged teal, red-winged blackbird, Lincoln’s sparrow, curve-billed thrasher, red-tailed hawk which looked on as the sandhill cranes took off in the morning.

Here are some of the other birds:

Photos of the sandhill cranes as they flew in at night and also as they took off in the morning. Their loud gurgling bugle was always heard. It almost felt weird when for a few seconds you did not hear a sound from all of them! A second or two of silence!

I have many more photos, but I want to finish with one photo. I saw this sticker on the back of the van I camped near …

and immediately knew these are people I want to meet! And we did! They are snowbirds from Idaho enjoying SE Arizona for a few months. I enjoyed their company. Plus, they were most kind when I needed fresh matches to start my stove in the morning! I look forward to seeing them and the sandhill cranes again next year!

You Never Know Where You Will Find a Bird

I saw a bird! Bird-watching is all about keeping our ears and eyes open all the time. Birds are around and sometimes we can be pleasantly surprised to see one. Here was a colorful, male vermilion flycatcher sitting on a fence.

Or we hear a pecking sound of a woodpecker, not a squawking Gila woodpecker, and discover it is a young ladder-backed woodpecker.

Where there is water, a bird may stop by. A hermit thrush was drinking treated water from a treatment plant. I happened to be walking in the otherwise dry creek bed, saw the flow of water and the bird.

Recently I was driving a road and noticed a creek bed. I had time to stop and check it out. In time a song sparrow flew in. I was lucky! So many times I check out creek beds and see no birds.

Who would have thought I would see a bird while pumping gas into my car! A western meadowlark was walking around like he owned the place!

Under bridges, especially those with water flowing underneath them, is a great place to look for birds. I saw a belted kingfisher sitting on a concrete pillar and a green heron in the midst of the river’s water flow!

Or you notice on a “bird alert”list, a bird at a local pond which if you see it would add to your life list. My track record in finding/seeing the bird alerted to other birders is dismal, but I go and check the location when I have the time. Wow, this time a common goldeneye! I was lucky and glad to have zoom lens with teleconverter on it to capture a photo.

When we keep all our senses attuned and noticing what is around us each day, we’ll see birds.  Hawks, doves, crows, pigeons and various other birds visit our area too. There is no need to know the name of each bird, only recognize the life they bring to our environment. The balance between wildlife and humans is important. 

On a final note, let me share a quote from Albert Einstein: “Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.” I most certainly agree! Do you?

Visiting Patagonia … Arizona This Time!

To be clear within this blog post, I am referring to Arizona’s southern town of Patagonia. In 2013, I did visit the Patagonian region on the Argentinian side of the tip of South America. Whenever I think of Patagonia here, I have great memories of that travel and look forward to visiting the Patagonian region on the Chilean side someday! (Isn’t it said, anticipation of travel brings happiness to one!?!)

My recent visit to the Sonoita Creek State Natural Area which includes the Patagonia Lake dam/spillway was an adventure. While driving the mile-long dirt road to the parking lot, a coyote ran across with its fresh kill followed by another coyote. I could only grab my camera fast enough to get the second coyote. Further down the road was a coral and a cow lounging around. I’ll see more of these creatures later in my visit.

From the parking lot to the spillway is a dirt trail for a short distance and then a steep, concrete road to the spillway. As you are on your way down, do take a look at the lake. At the spillway, you can walk across even when there are a couple of inches of water flowing over it. Be careful though as the mud and algae do make it slick.

Some birds lazily swim along, while others fly in and out to snag insects in the air and never seem to stop flying! That was my challenge with the swallows and it was not till I arrived home to discover I had observed 2 different swallows. Here are some of the birds I photographed:

I hiked further along and parallel to the creek which joins the Black Hawk trail. About .6 mile from the spillway was my turn-around point. This photo shows the depth the trail goes down to the creek’s edge again, so I will save that for another day.

So, I need to go down & then back up … saved for another day!

On my way back to the spillway, I stopped at Jen’s vista for a snack and water. There is a bench to sit and enjoy the vista. Here are photos looking both directions from there.

It is an open range so cattle are all over as obvious by the observed cow dung and cows grazing near and on the hiking trail. I worked my way past a few cows to discover around a corner another one was staring at me. They seem to be comfortable with humans, yet all day I only saw 3 people on the trail. I talked to them as I walked by, and while they took notice they seemed unimpressed … maybe with what I was saying!

Back at the spillway I spent more time trying to figure out which type of sandpiper I was observing. There were 10 of these birds! I was challenged and apparently so was the Merlin Bird ID app I use for help with bird identification. Here is the bird. If you know what it is, let me know. Thanks.

Know what it is? Let me know. Thanks.

I then noticed a bird with a longer bill and different colored body nearby and knew it was no sandpiper. A much longer bill and stripes on its body compared to a sandpiper. Wilson’s snipe has now been added to my life list! Here is a Wilson’s snipe:

There are other trails in this area, but this is the only direct trail to the spillway. The Black Hawk trail continues for miles and can link with other trails to make for a long hiking day. I limit my hiking miles since carrying my camera backpack, tripod, lunch and water are a weight, plus I like to spend at least 45 minutes at a spot with birds so they get used to me being around. The spillway was a great place to spend time with the birds. In the future I would continue along the trail, about 1 mile I guess, to get down to the creek’s edge. Thankfully we have these protected areas for our adventures and safe places for wildlife to roam/fly in and out. Anyway you can support these efforts is greatly appreciated.

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

What is that bird on the pole?

Lakeside Park, Tucson, Arizona is a popular local fishing place and I discovered a particular bird thinks so also! I did not know this at first. My attention was on the the vermilion flycatcher, Say’s phoebe and yellow-dumped warbler. Then a snowy egret (notice its black bill) at water’s edge.

This urban lake is part of the Tucson Municipal Fishing Program. The lake is about 14 acres and fairly shallow at about 15 feet, yet 35 feet at its deepest places. An urban fishing license is required, no gas-powered boats, no swimming or wading, and no feeding the birds. This park is very popular especially with people fishing for bass, catfish and rainbow trout.

Once I decided to leave the park, I packed up my gear and drove away from the park. After rounding a street corner, I noticed a bird sitting on the bank of lights for the baseball field. I pulled into the parking lot and grabbed my camera, hoping the bird would not be spooked by the children playing below or me trying to move into position for a photo. Photo taken and then it flew! It is rare to see osprey here, but it made sense as these birds love fish too! In doing more research about this bird, I read it will position their catch with the fish head forward to to have an aerodynamic flight. Now I know to hang out and see if the bird returns with fish. That would be interesting to see since any osprey I have seen I did not take time to notice that detail. Learning something new every day!