Brake for Nature

Things That Fly – Birds and Planes in Tucson

March 2017

We spent far more time camping in the Casino Del Sol parking lot in Tucson than we planned – 19 nights to be exact. I was a bit frustrated about staying in a parking lot for so long, but there is no such thing as a year-long vacation. At some point you have to take care of business, and cities are useful for that. When I say business, I am talking about mail, taxes, breath-testing for progress on treating my SIBO, ordering supplements for my SIBO (SIBO really gets in the way), trailer maintenance, and other errands.  Even so, we did find time for the birds, as well as other things that fly!  Plenty of great stories and photos on birds and planes await you below, but first you have to hear about some of the mundane stuff that is made more interesting by traveling.

Taking Care of Business

I’m sure I don’t have to convince you that the business of life always takes longer than expected. Everything turned into a project. I even received my driver’s license renewal notice from the California DMV. It turns out that this year, after 15 years of renewing my license online, I needed to come into a DMV office in person! Since we were closer to California than we would be at any other point before my birthday, we had to take a day and drive all the way back to Blythe, on the California border, to renew my license. This is just one of the many complications of the traveling lifestyle.

We did learn about some convenient methods to get necessary shipments on the road. FedEx allowed us to have our family ship our mail to their local shipping center for us to pick up at no extra charge. Conveniently, Amazon.com has several locker locations in Tucson. I was able to order my necessary supplements and have them shipped to a locker at a nearby gas station.

The casino parking lot in Tucson also turned out to be a great jumping-off point for day trips around southeastern Arizona, and it was free, so we stayed. I should probably explain that this parking lot is nothing like overnighting at a Wal-Mart. It is very large with landscaping throughout. When we were there, it was full of snowbirds and other travelers, and we even enjoyed friendly neighbors.

Our truck and trailer in the Casino del Sol parking lot where we camped

Camping at the Casino del Sol

Gila woodpecker on the side of a tree trunk

One of our regular neighbors at the Casino del Sol – the Gila woodpecker

Vermillion flycatcher spreading its wings to take off from a yield sign

Another regular visitor to our campsite – the vermillion flycatcher

Airplanes

In between errands and chores, we were able to fit in some days of fun. If you’ve ever been to Tucson, you’ve probably noticed a whole lot of parked airplanes on the east side. The Davis-Monthan Air Force Base is located in the perfect place to store airplanes due to the dry weather and the hard caliche ground. The military stores aircraft here that may be used again as well as those that are only useful for parts. They also destroy aircraft that are no longer useful even for parts and recycle the materials. This very large collection of aircraft is called the “Boneyard,” and the Pima Air and Space Museum is located next door. We had been to Tucson a couple of times before, but we had not yet made it to see the planes.

The Museum

We spent a day and a half with the airplanes. Our first afternoon inside and on the grounds of the Pima Air and Space Museum was impressive. I am not an airplane aficionada. Though I do still marvel at air travel, even as routine as it is these days, and I enjoy watching planes take off and land. I did not need to be an airplane geek to be totally impressed by the museum’s collection. There were several hangars filled with planes and numerous planes parked outside. We took a walking tour led by one of the museum’s volunteers, most of whom are retired pilots. He told stories about each plane that really made the tour memorable. We highly recommend a visit to this museum if you are ever in Tucson. Below are some of the memorable aircraft we saw there.

A tiny yellow and black striped airplane with unbelievably short wings

One of the World’s smallest planes – the Bumble Bee

F4 Phantom II parked in the hangar

F4 Phantom II

F14 Tomcat parked in the hangar

F14 Tomcat

B17 Bomber parked in a hangar

B17 Bomber

Large, awkward cargo plane called the Super Guppy parked outside

Super Guppy – used by NASA for large cargo

SR71 Blackbird in the hangar

SR71 Blackbird

View under the wing of an F18 Hornet

F18 Hornet

B25 parked in a hangar

B25

Very large bomber parked outside

Unknown very large bomber!

The Boneyard

The Pima Air and Space Museum also leads tours of the “Boneyard.” Only one or two tours are offered per day, so the tickets must be purchased early in the day to land a spot on the tour. We arrived early on our second day at the museum and purchased two tickets on the afternoon tour. Since the “Boneyard” is on an air force base, for security reasons we all had to stay on the bus the entire time. The driver made lots of stops, and the tour guide described in great detail many of the planes parked in the “Boneyard.” Again, I did not have to be an airplane geek to be blown away by this massive collection of planes and helicopters. I was surprised at how much I enjoyed learning about all the planes and getting an up-close view of them.

F16s lined up at the Boneyard

F16s at the Boneyard

Cargo planes lined up at the Boneyard

Cargo planes at the Boneyard

Birds

Now for the birds. Southeastern Arizona is one of those places that every birder must visit at least once. The diversity of habitats patch-worked into this relatively small area attracts a diversity of birds. Plus, the area is geographically and ecologically connected to habitats across the border in Mexico. Many exotic birds that you might think would only be found in Mexico or Central America actually occur at the edge of their ranges here in southeastern Arizona. There are so many extra hot birding hotspots here that I checked eBird daily to see the latest bird list for each spot. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology maintains eBird. It’s a database of bird sightings all over the world. Birders can create an account and then post their bird list for each site they visit. The resulting database is extremely useful to researchers and environmental managers who are interested in the status of bird populations or locations of rare bird sightings.

Sweetwater Wetlands

All those hotspots in southeastern Arizona attract the birders, which means that you can be sure to find a new checklist nearly everyday on eBird. With eBird at my fingertips we were able to visit some exciting hotspots during our stay in Tucson. One of these is a wastewater treatment plant called Sweetwater Wetlands. Yes, it’s where at least a portion of the city’s icky wastewater goes, but these created wetlands are definitely the most pleasant way you can imagine to experience wastewater. Given the fact that so many wetland habitats in the West have been altered or destroyed by development, these created wetlands provide important foraging and even nesting habitats. Imagine flying over the desert and a sprawling city. This lush, green spot with ponded water certainly looks appealing from that vantage point.

California quail (male) on the ground

California quail

Verdin (yellow-faced small bird) sitting on a branch, head turned

Verdin

Verdin (view from the side) on a branch

Verdin

Anna's hummingbird (back to camera with head turned to side) on a branch

Anna’s hummingbird

Madera Canyon

Madera Canyon, located south and a little bit east of Tucson, is within one of the “sky islands,” the Santa Rita Mountains, in the Coronado National Forest. One of the most biologically interesting features of southeastern Arizona is the “sky islands.” These “islands” are isolated mountains that tower above the desert floor and provide a range of habitats completely different from the surrounding Sonoran desert. Oak woodlands, riparian forests, and even coniferous forests can all be found within a few miles from desert scrub due to the varying microclimates created by these isolated mountains.

We spent a couple of days in Madera Canyon in the Santa Rita Mountains. Down in the riparian scrub and riparian forest in the lower part of the canyon, we saw black-capped gnatcatcher, Mexican jay, and broad-billed hummingbird for the first time. On our hike up in the oak woodlands and conifers, we saw Arizona woodpecker, yellow-eyed junco, Williamson’s sapsucker, and painted redstart for the first time. Seriously, seven life birds in one canyon! The scenery was beautiful, and it offered a pleasant break from the heat of the desert. The only downside was that I am highly allergic to oaks, and the oaks were busting out in bloom this time of year. The itching, sneezing, and nose-running got especially bad when we stopped at the Santa Rita Lodge to watch their hummingbird feeders. It took a day and a half for me to recover from my body’s reactions to the pollen, and I was on antihistamines at the time! I would definitely return to Madera Canyon for the birds, but possibly at a different time of year.

View of the desert valley from halfway up the mountain at Madera Canyon

View from Madera Canyon

Female Williamson's sapsucker on the ground

Female Williamson’s sapsucker

Mexican jay on a tree trunk at Madera Canyon

Mexican jay

Broad-billed hummingbird on a feeder at Santa Rita Lodge

Broad-billed hummingbird

Ruby-crowned kinglet on a branch, looking up

Ruby-crowned kinglet

Painted redstart on a manzanita branch through Michael's binoculars

Painted redstart through Michael’s binoculars

Yarrow's spiny lizard on a rock showing off its bright turquoise collar and tail

Yarrow’s spiny lizard

De Anza Trail

Next was Ron Morriss County Park on the De Anza Trail in Tubac, south of Tucson on the Santa Cruz River. This was a bright red hotspot on the eBird map, and we visited twice hoping to catch a glimpse of the elegant trogon that had been spotted there. Although we never did see the trogon, and it was very, very hot here even in early March, we definitely saw a diversity of birds here. We even saw the common black hawk for the first time. In fact, on our first visit, we arrived to find the place absolutely packed with birders gazing up at the sky through binoculars and spotting scopes. Apparently they were part of a “hawk watch,” counting the hawks migrating up the Santa Cruz River to their northern breeding grounds. As soon as we jumped out of the truck and looked up, we spotted both a common black hawk and a zone-tailed hawk.

Trail marker with the Juan Bautista De Anza National Historic Trail sticker

De Anza Trail marker

Vermillion flycatcher, a bright red and black bird, perched on a branch

Vermillion flycatcher

Two common black hawks soaring in a bright blue sky

Common black hawks

Cooper's hawk perched on a branch, facing the camera

Cooper’s hawk

Broad-billed hummingbird - orange billed, bright green and blue feathers

Broad-billed hummingbird

Lincoln's sparrow, a brown, gray, white, and yellow striped bird, perched on a branch

Lincoln’s sparrow

Peña Blanca Lake

On one of our days at the County Park we decided to drive further south toward Nogales to check out Peña Blanca Lake. The rocky, mountainous landscape was unexpected, and the lake reflected the brilliant colors of the surrounding cliffs and vegetation. I would have enjoyed camping here and exploring some of the trails.   There were many oak woodland studded canyons with natural springs in the area. Just before we left to return to the casino parking lot, we spotted several javelina! We had seen their tracks and scat on many occasions, but this was our first time seeing the actual animals.

Pipevine butterfly, black with bright blue, orange, and white spots, on a cherry blossom

Pipevine butterfly

Domestic mallard on calm waters with reflection in the lake

Domestic mallard, an oddball duck on the lake

Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge

We had planned on camping at Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge for a few nights, but we were either waiting on a package to arrive in Tucson, or it was too windy to tow the trailer. It was always more convenient to just stay put in the casino parking lot and take day trips. We finally made it down to Arivaca Cienega, a birding hotspot inside the refuge, for a few hours of birding. A cienega is a type of wetland found in the arid Southwest – picture a spring-fed marsh in the desert. We had been to Arivaca Cienega once before in the winter. This time it was warm and quite dry. We did see a rufous-winged sparrow for the first time, and several green-tailed towhees, a favorite bird of mine.  Michael got a great shot of a loggerhead shrike here as well!

Boardwalk through the grassland with scattered trees at Arivaca Cienega

Boardwalk at Arivaca Cienega

Grassland and a large twisted cottonwood with hills in the background at Arivaca Cienega Boardwalk with railing over the wetlands at Arivaca Cienega Scope on the boardwalk with wetland and grassland landscape in the background

Rufous-winged sparrow hiding among some dead branches of mesquite

Our first rufous-winged sparrow!

Loggerhead shrike, gray bird with a black mask, perched on a mesquite branch

Loggerhead shrike

Las Cienegas National Conservation Area

After suffering through several unseasonably warm days at the Casino del Sol (temperatures in the mid-nineties with no air conditioning) and running errands in between chasing down rare bird alerts, we finally towed Foxy to a more natural setting – Las Cienegas National Conservation Area. First, we had to dump our waste tanks and fill up on fresh water for $10 at the Western Way RV Resort in Tucson. Just an hour and a half later, we were setting up camp at Las Cienegitas, an area of about six dispersed campsites among the native bunchgrass and mesquite with expansive views of the Santa Rita Mountains. Our campsite was loaded with tracks – coyote, jackrabbit, kangaroo rat, and ground squirrel. We were also frequently surrounded by grazing cows!

Our truck and trailer in our campsite at Las Cienegas surrounded by golden grasses and dormant mesquite shrubsAside from one ridiculously windy day that kept us inside all day, we got out for more birding since we were still surrounded by hotspots. It is southeastern Arizona after all. Empire Gulch was probably our favorite spot at Las Cienegas. We got to know the gray hawks by sight and sound. We had previously caught a glimpse of one in south Texas, but this time we had multiple good looks at one gray hawk that kept circling and calling. This riparian woodland was also full of yellow warblers and Lucy’s warblers singing and establishing territories.

Black clouds and a rainbow over our campsite at Las Cienegas

Many cottonwoods all leaning to the left in Empire Gulch

Empire Gulch

Lucy's warbler on a willow twig

Lucy’s warbler

Gray hawk perched with head cocked on a branch

Gray hawk

Gray hawk flying overhead against the blue sky

Gray hawk

Las Cienegas is not just for the birds. Black-tailed prairie dogs have been reintroduced there. These prairie dogs were extirpated from southeastern Arizona and many other parts of their range, because they were considered pests, burrowing holes in the ground that were dangerous for cattle. In fact, their range has been reduced to only two percent of what it was 150 years ago. Unfortunately only after they were gone did people learn that they had been extremely important to cattle and other grazers. The prairie dog is a keystone species, which means that prairie dogs greatly affect the structure and function of their ecosystem in a way that benefits many other species. For example, their grazing promotes the growth of more nutritional plant species, and their burrows allow water to penetrate the ground and enhance the soil. Cows actually do better where there are prairie dog colonies.

One afternoon we drove down to the viewpoint for the reintroduced prairie dog colony and were entertained by their antics and downright cuteness!

Black-tailed prairie dog running - off the ground, front feet back and hind feet reaching out front Black-tailed prairie dog sitting up on hind feet, arms out in front, alert Black-tailed prairie dog sitting down, arms in front, looking exhausted

Patagonia Lake State Park

On one of our Las Cienegas camping days we took a trip out to Patagonia Lake State Park. This park is another birding hotspot that we had missed on previous trips to southeastern Arizona. Wow, what a birder’s heaven! This little lake in the desert attracts an enormous diversity of birds. An easy, enjoyable trail takes you through various ecotones around the lake, and there are new species of birds around every turn. We saw 58 species of birds there. The park even has several bird feeders set up by a bench where you can lazily sit and watch the birds come to you!

Patagonia Lake with hills covered in brown sagebrush in the background and green cottonwoods around the lake

Broad-billed hummingbird female sitting on her nest, head and tail up and out of the nest

Broad-billed hummingbird female on her nest

Broad-billed hummingbird perched on the feeder and black-chinned hummingbird flying in

Broad-billed hummingbird perched on the feeder and black-chinned hummingbird flying in

Pyrrhuloxia, a gray and red cardinal-like bird, hiding in a shrub

Pyrrhuloxia

White-winged doves and a white-crowned sparrow on a feeder

White-winged doves and a white-crowned sparrow

Yellow warbler perched on a willow branch

Yellow warbler

Yellow warbler with a fly in its beak

Yellow warbler catching lunch

Rock squirrel sprawled out on the bottom of a bird feeder

Rock squirrel relaxing

Ladder-backed woodpecker on the side of a tree trunk

Ladder-backed woodpecker

Next on the itinerary was Chiricahua National Monument, and it was time to make our way there, but Las Cienegas had a couple more surprises for us. On our last night, we enjoyed the most spectacular sunset from our campsite. The next day on our way out, we were surprised by a small herd of Sonoran pronghorn antelope foraging in the grasslands. Michael slammed on the brakes and backed our rig slightly off the road so that we could get out and enjoy these beautiful creatures.

Sun setting and lighting up some clouds that passed in front of it, with purple mountains below Fiery red and orange sunset

Several pronghorn antelope among the grasslands with mesquite and mountains in the distancePronghorn antelope - a closer lookPronghorn antelope profile up closePronghorn antelope from behind with head turned

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