Saturday, February 11, 2012

Beyond Bisbee

As Mardi Gras nears, so does our anniversary.  We were married at Mardi Gras in New Orleans many long years ago.  I always get the urge to throw beads and doubloons and to eat breakfast at Brennan's.  But instead, we make a pilgrimage to the old copper-mining, now counter-culture haven and artist-colony town of Bisbee in southeast Arizona.  Beside the interesting people, crazy architecture and cool shops, it's also the birds that draw us to this beautiful corner of the state.  Sandhill cranes by the tens of thousands winter in the nearby Sulphur Springs Valley, as do many raptors, owls and smaller species.

The morning of our departure, and just about every morning of late, the rising sun paints the clouds and sky with gaudy, glorious color.  Good karma.
Before leaving the city, we decided it would be wise to have breakfast, so huevos rancheros it was at El Indio on S. 6th Ave.  It wasn't Brennan's, but it tasted quite fine.  Thus fortified, we headed out of Tucson to the east, turning south on scenic SR83 where the controversial open-pit copper mine is proposed to change the landscape forever.  I'll save my rant about that for another venue.  The rolling hills are dotted with oaks and sotols, and the Santa Rita Mountains dominate our view to the west.

 Here's a sight you don't expect to see in the desert.  A huge houseboat taking up the entire road.  We had to pull over and wait for the convoy to pass.

At the little town of Sonoita we decided to take the back road to Bisbee, going south past Parker Canyon Lake and Coronado's Monument.  First, we took a little detour through Elgin and Arizona's wine country.  On this Thursday morning, all the wineries were still closed, so I still can't vouch for Arizona wine.
Arizona's once-extensive grasslands are now confined to a rather small area extending across the southeast part of the state.  The endangered Sonoran pronghorn herd roams this open land, but look as I might, I was unable to spot them.  As we rose higher, the oak trees became dominant, their evergreen leaves standing out against the brown of the dormant grasses.  Mt. Wrightson, in the Santa Ritas, rises in the distance.
A little side-trip took us to Parker Canyon Lake, a lovely reservoir (did you know there are no natural lakes in Arizona?) used for recreational purposes.  The Forest Service maintains a beautiful campground and picnic area, and there is a privately owned store, dock and rental facility.  I have hiked and birded at this lake in the past, but today we were on another mission.
From here the road turns to dirt and can get pretty rough in places due to all the Border Patrol traffic.  These backroads are favorite routes for drug and people smugglers from Mexico. Along this portion we began to see huge areas blackened by last summer's  Monument Fire.   At the southernmost tip of the road is Coronado's Monument, very near the starting point of the fire.

 It's a good place to stretch the legs and take in the incredible views from the high point.  In the parking lot was some of the high-tech equipment being employed by the Border Patrol to watch for smugglers and other illegal border crossers.
The trail leading to the mountaintop was right in the path of the fire, and many of the signs, benches and, of course, plants were destroyed.

 The signs tell the story of Coronado's exploits in the San Pedro Valley, looking for the Seven Cities of Gold in the 16th century.

While the fire's destruction was depressing to see, it was also rewarding and impressive to witness the resilience of many of the plants.  Yuccas and bear grass were resprouting right out of the blackened mass of the parent plant.  True grasses, of course, love fire, and need fire for regeneration.  Other plants, not so much.  The mesquites and oaks will be a long time returning.

A small ramada, benches and signs mark the high point of the Monument, and the end of the trail.  From this point you can see forever.
Coronado Monument, looking southeast into Mexico.
From the Monument we drove across the valley paralleling the border and approached Bisbee from the west.  The modern section of Bisbee on this western edge is quite unremarkable and the views are dominated by huge mine tailings.  But once you pass the big pit of the Queen Mine and enter Old Bisbee, you are transported to another century, one out of the Wild West.  Although mining is making a resurgence, thanks to record prices for metals, Bisbee has transformed itself into something of a counterculture kind of place mixed with artists, strange characters, upscale shops, quirky architecture and downhome eateries.  At the Copper City Inn in Tombstone Canyon we were in the Louis de Bisbee room overlooking an always-interesting, sometimes loud, street scene.
The sunny deck is a nice place to sit for a glass of wine (the bottle thoughtfully provided by the innkeepers) in the afternoon, watch the world go by and marvel at the houses that cling perilously to the steep hillsides.
With no reservations for dinner that night, we chose Santiagos, a lively and colorful Mexican restaurant that served tasty margaritas and fish tacos in an old brick building that houses a bed and breakfast upstairs.
I had hoped to get to Whitewater Draw early enough in the morning to see the big flyout of the sandhill cranes as they took off for a day of foraging in the fields of the San Rafael Valley.  By the time we got dressed in many layers, stopped for coffee at the Bisbee Coffee Company and drove the 15 miles or so to the refuge, all we saw was a huge black mass in the sky.  No, the cranes did not wait for us.  How rude!  For the first time ever there was not one crane in the ponds or nearby field.  It was shocking, really.  I stayed entertained with the many Northern harriers cruising low over the ground in search of prey or standing patiently in the grass.
There were also some sparrows, phoebes, killdeer, and a variety of ducks, but no snow geese or bald eagles, which we normally see here at this time of year.  I would love to have gone into the bosque to look for the roosting owls who are always there, but with the temperature hovering around 18°, my fingers were already frozen and refused to stay out in the cold any longer.

As we drove north in the valley looking for the cranes, we could see some flights of them in the air, and finally spotted a large group feeding in a fallow field.  There may have been a few thousand, but this pales in comparison to the number of these birds normally present in February.  It's been so warm and dry that many of them have possibly started moving to their northern summer grounds.

Across the road in a pasture filled with sheep were huge flocks of lark buntings and yellow-headed blackbirds.  They would all rise occasionally en masse, then settle again.  My photos of both these scenes are pathetic, but, they're what I have.
In the afternoon we wandered through the shops and around the funky streets.  Our anniversary dinner that evening was at the wonderful Cafe Roka just down the street from our inn.  A jazz trio entertained while we savored fresh and innovative entrees and a complimentary choclaty dessert.  In the morning, it was back to Tucson, via the beautiful drive through Tombstone and St. David.  Despite the disappointment of the birds, it was, as always, a wonderful trip!
Looking back toward Bisbee


  1. I'd rather make that trip than do Mardi Gras any day!

  2. Judy makes a good point!! What beautiful country.

  3. Have never been to Mardi Gras, or had the desire. Yet I like Bisbee as a cute American "theme" town, and even better the surrounding countryside. Thanks for taking us along and Happy Anniversary.

  4. What a great post. You shared the beautiful scenery with a beautiful story. Congratulations on all of those Yellow-Headed Blackbirds (I've still never seen one) and most importantly, on your successful and joyous marriage.

  5. Happy Anniversary! and happy birding forever!

  6. I would skip Mardi Gras, mainly because I try to avoid crowds of people. I would have love doing just what you did. Love the crane and the yellow-headed blackbirds are pretty. Thanks for sharing your trip. Happy Anniversary!!

  7. Happy anniversary!! Thanks for the road trip. Sounds you had fun. I was in Sonoita this past weekend and went to Patagonia for some hiking. Beautiful weather. As we were coming home, we saw the wildfire start up near 83. I hpe they get it contained soon. Hope you have a good start to your week. Great post!

  8. Happy anniversary, looks like you had a fun trip! I enjoyed all of your pictures. It's nice to see that the Yuccas and bear grass are growing back where the fire had been.

  9. Wishing you a very Happy Anniversary! A fascinating post again, you do have some wonderful adventures :-) It looks a very impressive place but what a shame about the fire.

    Naughty Cranes, departing before you got there! ;-)

  10. Happy Anniversary! Gus and I used to go to Whitewater draw frequently but we have only been to Bisbee once or twice. It is a quaint town as you say. I have never eaten there though. You make it sound so appealing! I sure do hope that mine does not go in in the Santa Rita Mountains. It will ruin everything!

    BTW, I have seen the pronghorn in Sonoita on a few occasions. I saw some at Las Cienegas NCA, and others on the Greaterville Road. Both are great places to go birding!

  11. Hi Carole
    Happy Anniversary! The Coronado Monument back road was one of my favorits and I'm glad it's recovering from the fires. Some beetles should be especially plentiful and I will make some summer trips. I disabled the feature that you pointed out - thanks for letting me know!


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