Brake for Nature

Sandhill Cranes at Cibola National Wildlife Refuge

From our campsite near Cibola National Wildlife Refuge, we watched hundreds of sandhill cranes fly in to roost in the wetlands every evening as the sun was setting. Their calls tickled our ears and gave us goose bumps. At night we fell asleep to their intermittent calls rising up from the wetlands as well as the calls of snow geese at the refuge. Every now and then, we heard the chorus of a pack of coyotes, which to me, sounds like a crescendo of screaming, excited girls.

The Campsite

Cibola National Wildlife Refuge is on the Arizona side of the Colorado River, about 17 miles south of Blythe, California. We originally planned to camp in the Blythe area for a few days to make use of the Wi-Fi at Starbucks and get caught up on our blog. However, a search for campsites on Campendium.com pulled us in a slightly different direction. We found a review of a campsite on BLM land directly across the road from Cibola National Wildlife Refuge, a refuge we had not yet visited. Being birders and biologists, this option was more appealing than the sites on Levee Road near Blythe.

The drive on Neighbours Road, which eventually becomes Cibola Lake Road, took us through numerous agricultural fields and over some rough spots in the asphalt. We were starting to wonder if there really was a campsite out there. After crossing a narrow bridge over the Colorado River, we approached the refuge on the right side of the road and found the entrance to the BLM land on the left side of the road. The entrance was a rather narrow break in the fence with an old cattle guard that was quite rickety (the individual bars bounced as we drove over). We carefully maneuvered the truck and trailer over the cattle guard and up the hill. The dirt road to the campsites was a bit rocky and rutted on the hill. The high clearance on our truck and trailer were helpful.

We chose the campsite at the top of the first hill on the left, which had a great view of the refuge. After setting up camp, the sun started setting, and we began to see the lines of sandhill cranes in the sky. They approached the wetlands at the refuge, circled around, put out their landing gear, and landed with a graceful bounce, as if they were dancing. All the while, we were soothed by the sounds of their calls as we stood in awe at the orange glow of the sun setting behind the jagged desert mountains in the distance. We turned around to find the crescent moon rising behind a saguaro cactus on the hill. It was a perfect evening.

View of our campsite with Cibola NWR across the road, and mountains in the sunset in the distance

Our campsite across the road from Cibola NWR

Our shadows stretching out into the desert with a saguaro in the distance and the moon starting to show in the sky

Looking across the desert from our campsite

Sunset on the desert mountains called Trigo Mountains behind our campsite

Trigo Mountains across the road from Cibola NWR

The silhouette of a windmill at Cibola NWR with the yellow sky and dark purple mountains in the background at sunset

Windmill at Cibola NWR viewed from our campsite

Line of sandhill cranes in the evening sky with blue and purple mountains in the background and the vegetation of the refuge in the foreground

Sandhill cranes coming in for a landing at Cibola NWR

Sandhill cranes flying in the sky lit by the last bit of sun

Sandhill cranes flying in at sunset

Sandhill cranes flying in the sky with clouds lit by the sunset

Dramatic, intense red and orange sunset behind the Trigo Mountains

Sunset on the Trigo Mountains

Touring the Refuge – Goose Loop Auto Tour

We ended up spending a total of six nights here. On the first day we took the Goose Loop Auto Tour of the refuge. It’s a three-mile drive along the edge of ponds, wetlands, and agricultural fields. We stopped at the nature trail and walked the one-mile loop through a restored riparian forest. We saw snow geese, northern pintails, American wigeons, Canada and cackling geese, an American robin, black-tailed gnatcatcher, and many more birds.

Side view of a black-tailed gnatcatcher perched on a branch

Black-tailed gnatcatcher

A flock of snow geese flying low over the refuge

Snow geese

Snow geese, Ross's geese, American wigeons, and northern pintails on an island and in the water at the main wetland viewing area at Cibola

Snow geese, Ross’s geese, American wigeons, and northern pintails

Male northern pintail surrounded by American wigeons and additional pintails in the main wetland at Cibola

Male northern pintail surrounded by American wigeons and additional pintails

Canada geese and the smaller, shorter-billed cackling geese in the main wetland at Cibola

Canada geese and the smaller, shorter-billed cackling geese

Male northern pintail in the main viewing pond at Cibola

Male northern pintail

American robin on the gravel path at Cibola

American robin

Nature trail with trees forming an arch over the trail at Cibola

Nature Trail on the Goose Loop Auto Tour

American kestrel perched on a wire at Cibola

American kestrel

As we drove through the agricultural fields at the refuge, we noticed that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had constructed burrows in the levees out of corrugated drainage pipes, presumably for burrowing owls. We arrived at one with two owls sitting immediately outside their burrow. Burrowing owls are just adorable. They sat with their backs toward us, but turned their heads all the way around to look at us. They were keeping a watchful eye. When one turned away from us, the head on the other one swiveled around to face us.

Two burrowing owls standing just outside of their burrows at Cibola

Burrowing owl perched outside of his burrow (a pipe sticking out of rock pile) looking at us

Burrowing owl perched outside of his burrow (a pipe sticking out of rock pile) with his head turned to look at us

We returned to the refuge just before sunset to watch the sandhill cranes come in and land at the wetlands and got some additional photos.

Sandhill crane feeding in an agricultural field with mountains in the background at Cibola Sandhill cranes standing on a mudflat near the pond at Cibola Three sandhill cranes up-close flying at Cibola Three sandhill cranes flying at Cibola Four sandhill cranes flying at Cibola Flock of sandhill cranes flying at Cibola Flock of sandhill cranes flying at Cibola

Touring the Refuge – Colorado River and Cibola Lake

After a couple of rainy days, we got out to explore the desert around our campsite. We were happy to be in the Sonoran Desert again. It’s such a green desert with the palo verde, mesquite, jojoba, and many other shrubs in multiple shades of green, and the saguaro cacti standing tall. We found lots of animal tracks, including desert cottontail, black-tailed jackrabbit, striped skunk, and coyote tracks.

We spent another day exploring the southern end of the refuge, walking around a dried up marsh and driving along the Colorado River. There we saw green-winged teal, American white pelicans, osprey, double-crested cormorant, and one swimming raccoon!  On our way back to our campsite, we finally found the culprit behind the horse-like scat and tracks we kept encountering on our desert walks: burros (aka, wild donkeys)!

Green-winged teal in the water at Cibola

Green-winged teal

Osprey on nest platform at Cibola

Osprey

Double-crested cormorant sunning its wings by the water at Cibola

Double-crested cormorant

Raccoon swimming in Cibola Lake

Raccoon swimming in Cibola Lake!

Burros standing among some dead (treated) tamarisk trees at Cibola

Wild burros (donkeys)

Two burros up-close standing among some dead (treated) tamarisk trees at Cibola

We enjoyed our weeklong stay in this peaceful little corner of Arizona on the Colorado River. We will always remember falling asleep to the sounds of the sandhill cranes, snow geese, and coyotes every night.

 

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