Saturday, April 30, 2011

A Morning In Sabino

I agreed to be involved in the Tucson Bird Count this year for the first time, and chose among the available routes a hike in Sabino Canyon which included three counting points.  My thinking was that I might as well be in a beautiful place while I counted birds.  Most of the other routes were urban areas, which didn't appeal so much.  If you're selecting a route that's away from roads, you're required to use a GPS to find the designated spots, so my first challenge was to get more comfortable with the confounded thing.  Well, I never did get comfortable, but, let's just say the Garmin and I made an uneasy truce.  Don't know that we'll ever really be friends.

By 6:00 am I was on the trail, along with many other people enjoying a cool, spectacular spring morning.  Ocotillo blossoms waved in the morning light, and birds were calling from the palo verde trees.  Being a bit anxious about finding my assigned location and completing my route within the allotted time, I kept moving along, east to Sabino Creek, then picking up the Phone Line Trail which rises steadily on the eastern side of the canyon. 

The farther from the creek and the trees I went, the fewer were the birds, and by the time I reached my first waypoint, the sounds of silence filled the air.  Until, that is, several very noisy hikers came down the trail drowning out even the possibility of other sounds.   Once they had passed, a raven flew overhead, mourning doves cooed and a broad-tailed hummingbird made loud passes, his tail giving off the characteristic trilling sound.  I scanned the skies anxiously hoping for more, but it was time to move on. 

Up, up, up went the trail. Beautiful blue-green lichen decorated the granite and the shady side of the canyon felt good in the warming morning air.  The paved road that follows the canyon bottom is a popular walk for many and I was happy to be up here on the hill above the crowd. 

As my next two waypoints were on the Esperero Trail, I took the connecting trail that switchbacks down to the creek, stopping to enjoy the view back up to where I had been.  See that v-shaped saguaro in the photo above, which was below me in that photo.  Now see it from below perched on top of the cliff.

As the green ribbon of the riparian vegetation neared, the bird chatter rose and avian creatures could be seen flitting everywhere.  Hmmm, why couldn't I have gotten a route down here?  Warblers, thrashers, cactus wrens, pyrrhuloxias, gnatcatchers, finches, woodpeckers and hummingbirds all beckoned me to sit a while beside the creek.  But time was moving on, the temperature was rising, and I still had a lot of trail to cover.

Crossing the road, I picked up a short section of the Rattlesnake Trail, which intersects the Esperero Trail after less than a mile.  Once on the Esperero, the climb began in earnest.  I was dismayed to see the desert vegetation infiltrated with the invasive, destructive buffelgrass, a non-native species introduced from Africa as a forage grass for livestock in the early-to-mid 20th century.  The Catalinas have been particularly hard-hit by the infestation of buffelgrass, and the steep slopes and rugged terrain make eradicating it extremely challenging.

 Reaching my second bird counting site, I found it even less productive than the first one.  Far below I could hear mourning doves, and a verdin darted from tree to tree.  A curve-billed thrasher sang a sweet song and a cactus wren investigated a saguaro.  Where oh where were all the birds?  I was losing heart as I trudged ever upwards toward my third and last counting site.  The sight of a tiny new saguaro arm covered with flowers and buds made me smile, however.

And, as if the bird spirits knew I was getting discouraged, my luck began to change.  One right after the other, I spotted a pyrrhuloxia, a male black-headed grosbeak, a male and female Scott's oriole, an ash-throated flycatcher, black-tailed gnatcatchers, house finches, numerous verdins, two western kingbirds and a black-chinned hummingbird.  Now I was having fun!  So I marked my list, reset the Garmin, and continued on the trail.  From this point the trail drops down into the small, aptly-named Bird Canyon.  A pleasant shady, dry-creek area with big boulders was the perfect place for lunch.  A desert spiny lizard stopped by to say 'hello'.  The birds kept me entertained with their songs and antics.  A curve-billed thrasher drank nectar from saguaro flowers, a hummingbird darted here and there, a pyrrhuloxia called, and a flycatcher grabbed a bite to eat as well. 

 I had never hiked this trail before, and I always want to know what's around the next bend, what delights await.  How will I know if I turn around now?  So I set a goal to hike for another hour before turning back, and vowed to see as much as possible in that short time.  Rising out of the canyon the switchbacks climb steeply again, offering views of Tucson and the distant mountains, as well as the McMansions that have been built far up into the Catalinas.  A giant saguaro had died and fallen across the trail, left there to rot and provide a home and a meal for a multitude of arthropods and their predators. 

Now that the sun had warmed the rocks, the lizards were out in abundance. 

And as I got higher into mesquite and oak trees, the bird life picked up too.  Near my turn-around point, I saw green-tailed towhees, black-throated gray warblers, blue-gray gnatcatchers, numerous hummingbirds and woodpeckers, black-throated sparrows and more.  Alas, it was time to start down.  More beauty awaited, however, as the sun had enticed the cactus flowers to open and give me a show. 

Standing right in my path was a stunningly beautiful collared lizard, who posed so patiently, turning his head this way and that to make sure I got his best side. 

 Descending the last mile or so to the Visitor's Center, a brilliant red male northern cardinal flew by, while green-tailed towhees scratched on the ground, and verdins, cactus wrens, Gila woodpeckers, lesser goldfinches, northern mockingbirds and one Lucy's warbler greeted me.  It truly was a beautiful day on the trail, and not bad birding either.

Happy Trails to You!

Sunday, April 24, 2011

The Desert Spring

This, we're all told, is a lousy year for wildflowers.  Those of us familliar with the desert know all too well that spectacular wildflower displays are a rarity, reserved for those unique years when the rain comes at the perfect time and in the perfect amount.  Those massive blankets of color are primarily composed of annual flowers, whose seeds may have lain dormant for years, waiting for just the right conditions.  The rarity of this event makes it all the more special.  There'll be no spectacular displays this year, just our normal glorious desert spring. 

Claret Cup Cactus

As the days begin to warm in March, bits of color begin to appear among the monochromatic desert shades.  The claret cup cactus is one of the earliest bloomers in the cactus family and the sight of its shocking red flowers is a delightful surprise. 

Parry's Penstemon

Soon, tall stalks of pink Parry's penstemon are waving, and the long wands of the ocotillo are bearing red buds that will sustain the migrating hummingbirds, and provide an energy source for so many other birds.  Ocotillos look like a collection of dead sticks for much of the year, but add a little water and voila! out jump little green leaves all along the stems.  These leaves will remain for two or three weeks if there is no more rain.  And, regardless of whether there are leaves or not, the flowers will open in March and April.  Their brilliant red clusters of tubular flowers making a stark contrast to the dry stalks.
Ocotillo Blossom
Strawberry Hedgehog Cactus
As I walk my neighborhood in March I am delighted to spot the marvelous pink blooms of the strawberry hedgehog cactus, a small columnar cactus that you might walk past without noticing at any other time of year.  Now, they seem to be everywhere!  Hiding below a little bursage plant, or cuddled up next to a saguaro, they draw me out into the desert with my camera.

Northern Cardinal
Of course it isn't just the flowers that make the desert spring special.  Southern Arizona is a premier birding area, and in the spring many migrators join our residents avian population sporting their bright breeding colors.  Then there are the sunrises and sunsets, punctuating the day's beginning and ending with a splash of color.

Along comes April, and popping into bloom are the prickly pears, palo verdes, desert marigolds, bahia, creosote bush and brittlebush, all adding yummy yellow shades to the widening palette.
Hooded Oriole
Engelmann's Prickly Pear
Black-Spined Prickly pear
Palo Verde Tree
Sunset in Tucson
Now it's time for the majestic saguaro cactus to begin to bloom.  "It seems early" everyone says, including me.  But there they are, showing off a new flower every day, sending their alluring message to bees, bats and doves who come to sip the nectar and perform their pollination duties.

Sunrise from my driveway
Yes, Spring is a glorious time in the desert.  After our bitterly cold spell this winter, no one was sure what to expect of the plantlife so unused to such temperatures.  But resilience and strength are two characteristics  necessary to survive in the Sonoran Desert.
Saguaro Cactus Blooming