Wednesday, February 22, 2012

February Rocks

They say time flies when you're having fun, so I must be having a ball!  Where have the days gone?  First there was the trip to Bisbee, then the Gem and Mineral Show, out of town visitors to entertain, days at the Desert Museum, Super Bowl party, gardening, writing, neighborhood meetings and activities, political meetings, birding, hiking, photographing and golf.  Oh, now I see where they've gone.

So I'll do a little recap here.  First a note about the new gadget on the left.  Recently, Blogger's Word Verification has stepped up the difficulty of the words you must decipher before leaving a comment on a blog that has it enabled.  It was always a tad annoying, but now it's ridiculous.  The words are so convoluted that sometimes it takes me three tries to get it right, and frequently I give up in frustration and protest.  I've never had Captcha (Word Verification) enabled on my blog and have never (knock on wood) been plagued with spam.  I have begun seeing more and more blogs with the Word Verification Free signs and messages and I am now promoting that movement.  Please, be kind to your readers and don't make them work so hard to leave a message.

January, February and March are the Busy Season in Tucson, with snowbirds in town and lots of big events.  The biggest of them all is the Gem and Mineral Show which takes over the entire city for two weeks and attracts sellers and buyers from all over the world.  Huge white tents sprout like mushrooms in the forest and many motels are filled with room after room of all things gem, mineral, meteorite and fossil.  There is a cacophony of languages and food aromas, and so many delights for the eyes.  It's really hard to know where to start, and virtually impossible to see it all.

First came the Desert Museum's Mineral Madness, and of course I had to bring home a couple of great rocks. Mostly, I look for things that I can put in the yard, like a nice, large piece of petrified wood that I found in the Yard Rocks barrel, sold for a dollar a pound.
Great Prices on Minerals at ASDM's Mineral Madness

Then it was on to the big tents, outdoor vendors and finally to Tucson Gem and Mineral Society Show at the  convention center.  I didn't take any photos in the tents, but just imagine hundreds of booths selling everything from gold and diamond jewelry to huge amethyst geodes, giant meteorites to ancient fossils, gemstones of every type by the millions, tables heaped with pearls, beads, coral, jade, turquoise and agate.

The Desert Museum sponsors a booth at the TGMS show to promote the Museum and that's where I spent 4 hours on a Thursday morning, demonstrating our meteorite and mineral ID education kits and extolling the virtues of the Desert Museum.  After my shift I am free to roam the aisles on the floor of the show, taking in the amazing sights.  A wonderful feature of this show are the exhibits that always center around a featured mineral.  This year, in honor of Arizona's 100th birthday, the theme was Arizona minerals.  Famous for copper, Arizona is also known among mineral afficianados as the  producer of some of the world's finest azurite, malachite, wulfenite and turquoise.
Carole at the Desert Museum Booth

Bisbee Minerals

TGMS Show at the Convention Center

For the most part, this has been a very warm and dry winter.  Fine and dandy for our winter visitors and all the outdoor activities and events, but not so great for our wildflower display or the enduring drought.  Lizards have been seen scampering around as if it were spring and even a few snakes have ventured out of their winter dens.  Flowers are popping up everywhere and birds are busy building their nests.

My husband planted his vegetable garden this week, so far with tomatoes, squash and peppers.  We're hoping the threat of frost is past, although this morning was still in the 30's.

The Desert Museum is on just about every Tucson visitor's itinerary, which means that this is our busy season too.  There's a lot going on, with morning and afternoon Raptor Free Flight programs, new exhibits in the gallery, Running Wild and Live and (Sort Of) on the Loose in the theater, a morning bird walk, four tours,and many animal demos and docent talks throughout the day.

I'm always happy when my schedule allows me to attend the Free Flight programs and talk to visitors about the raptors and our amazing staff and volunteers who train and handle the birds. The morning program contrasts and compares some of the many raptors who call Arizona home - great horned owl, prairie falcon, gray hawk, ferruginous hawk, Chihuahuan ravens (not truly raptors, but pretty cool to watch fly) and red-tailed hawk.

Great Horned Owl comin' at ya!

Gray hawk, getting a little reward
The social and unique Harris' hawks take over for the afternoon program, flying so close to visitors that people dare not raise their cameras above their heads.  These beautiful birds hang together in family groups, hunting cooperatively and assisting one another in territory and nest protection.

Our longtime resident roadrunner has moved into new digs in the Life on the Rocks exhibit and seems to be adapting quite well, looking over his territory and interacting with visitors. The roadrunner is the state bird of New Mexico, not Arizona, and is a member of the cuckoo family.  Watch his antics for a while and that family connection will be easy to see.

On my 1:30 tour I only had four people, all part of one family.  The elderly man and woman had been to the museum before and were bringing his sister and niece out for a visit.  They specifically wanted to see the animals, so off we went to find them some.  Along the way we talked about jojoba and creosote bush, saguaro and barrel cactus.  They were troopers and hung in there with me for well over an hour and a half, interested in everything we discussed.  Close to the end, the woman asked if I could guess how old Henry was.  Well, he looked about 80, but was really 92!  Amazing!  We can only hope to be that agile and engaged at that age.

Since Friday was the first day of the Great Backyard Bird Count, I did my counting at the Desert Museum between all my other activities.  I got 17 species, which wasn't great but it will have to do.  There were lots of black-chinned, black-throated, white-crowned and Brewer's sparrows in one of the gardens, and the phainopeplas were courting.  Some of the usual suspects did not make an appearance for me, but I did see pyrrhuloxia and Abert's towhee, Anna's and Costa's hummers, cardinal, curve-billed thrasher, lesser goldfinch, verdin, Gila woodpecker, mockingbird and mourning dove.

Here's wishing you busy, happy days in February, and good endings to all your days!
The End

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