Wednesday, February 16, 2011

It's All About the Birds

The arctic air was descending on normally balmy southern Arizona in early February.  Never mind.  Our plans had been made for our annual anniversary celebration trip to Bisbee and the nearby enormous gathering of wintering sandhill cranes.  At an elevation over 5500', this portion of southeastern Arizona is always chilly in winter, but this was ridiculous!  Driving east to Willcox, we made a quick stop at the golf course pond birding area, where we were greeted by a bitter wind, frozen ponds and very few birds.  An osprey and a northern harrier flew over.  Small flocks of birds flitted about making identification difficult.  The masked face and yellow on the throat were unique, and a visit to Sibley's Guide identified them as horned larks.  A new sighting for me!

As we began the drive south, Jay surprised me with my anniversary gift - a new camera.  It's an updated and upgraded version of the Canon I currently use.  Oh Boy, an excuse to take more photos!  We decided to side trip up into the Chiracahua Mountains, perhaps my favorite place in Arizona.  After a brief stop at the Chiracahua National Monument visitor center, we drove up the road in the bright morning light through the oak and juniper forest with the rock cathedrals looming over us.  A white tailed deer standing beside the road watched us go by. 

The temperature, already in the low teens, continued to drop as we ascended to the high point and road's end at Masai Point, dropping finally to 8°.  But who can resist a walk in this marvelous place?  Layer upon layer of clothing protected everything but my face as I ventured down the trail.  My husband told me I was crazy and stayed wrapped in his warm cocoon, listening to the radio. 

Bundled against the cold!

Chiracahua Rocks!

The land of jumbled rocks
Surprisingly, there were a fair number of other 'crazy' folks out for a walk through the jumbled rocks.  Bits of snow lingered among the manzanita.   My hike was brief as visions of frozen fingers and cheeks floated through my mind.  But I was already making plans to return in the warmer months and explore more of these trails in this "wonderland of rocks". 

Back on the road, down through the Sulphur Springs Valley, where raptors had claimed their spots on every available power pole, we made our way to the Whitewater Draw Wildlife Preserve, where the sandhill cranes have made their winter roosting grounds, and which is now owned by the State of Arizona.  No matter how many times you see the sight, it never fails to make your heart jump.  Tens of thousands of large birds gathered in one place, cackling constantly, rising in huge groups to fly to foraging areas, filling the sky as far as you can see. 

Standing 4' tall, with a wingspan over 6', with very long legs, overall gray body and bright red cap, the sandhills are impressive birds.  Photographs simply cannot capture the immensity of the scene.  But, we keep trying! 

But perhaps as interesting and impressive as the sight, is the sound of the constant cackling and callingof the cranes.

To listen to the sound, go to and

Though their numbers are the largest, the cranes are but one of the many species of birds gathered here in the winter.  Flocks of snow geese, green winged teals, northern shovelers, northern pintails, American wigeons, white-throated swifts as well as smaller numbers of yellow-rumped warblers, killdeer, lesser yellowlegs, vermillion flycatchers, say's phoebes, meadowlarks, mourning doves, shrikes, sandpipers, red-tailed hawks, northern harriers and so many more added to the frigid day's beauty.  In fact on this first day, it must have been too cold for the cranes to go foraging, for their numbers at the pond seemed larger than I've ever seen.  They stood around on the ice on one leg, grooming, sleeping, hopping, dancing.  I walked back along a line of old cottonwoods, straining my eyes for the shape of an owl as this is a well-known roosting area.  I was rewarded with the hoo-hoo-hooting of a great horned owl, but was disappointed to not find him. 

After trying several different inns and B&B's in Bisbee, we've lately settled on the Copper City Inn, a small, relatively new inn owned by the bartender at Cafe Roka.  Only 3 rooms, 1 down and 2 up, are all beautifully decorated and thoughfully provsioned, including a bottle of wine, freshly ground coffee, and every little amenity one could want.  A deck overlooks the street scene along Tombstone Canyon and is normally a wonderful place to sit with a glass of wine in the late afternoon.  With the temperature sitting at 22°, the deck was not all that enticing! 

Bisbee is a fun and funky old mining town that is now more artists' retreat, where a mix of resident characters and visitors keeps the place interesting.  We had long been hearing about a good breakfast place and finally decided to seek out the Bisbee Breakfast Club in the old Lowell section, just south of the huge Lavender Pit copper mine.  Looking rather inauspicious from the front, a wonderful suprise greeted us inside.  Big, bright, busy and beautifully renovated, this old five and dime store now hums with the chatter of a capacity crowd and the activity of an open kitchen that puts out amazing food.  The tempting menu of both breakfast and lunch specialties made a choice diffcult.  Diet?  What diet?

After a drive through the beautiful high desert, spotting mule deer, and a stop for a walk in touristy Tombstone, we wandered back to Whitewater Draw for another afternoon with the cranes.  On this second day, the weather was much warmer and the birds were considerably more active, rising in large groups, circling, landing, moving to foraging sites, returning to the ponds.  Raptors were busy in the nearby fields, but we didn't see bald eagles as we have in past years.  This time, Jay spotted the great horned owl hidden in the tangle of dormant branches, and then I felt as though my birding trip was complete. 

Dinner that night at our favorite restaurant in Bisbee, Cafe Roka, was special as always.  A jazz musician played while we savored four delicious courses.  Cheers for 33 years together!

Cafe Roka

Creme Brulee

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