With my great aversion to repeats, I’m not sure how to explain that we spent three weeks at the Pima County Fairgrounds in Tucson for the third time. It’s not that it’s a terrible place to be, it’s just that our two previous stays were both long (two months in 2019 and three weeks in 2020 respectively) Little had changed since we’d last been here, so there is little to say about the fairgrounds themselves, and there was zero reason to take any more pictures of it. We were happy to see that the resident Great Horned Owls were still here, as well as the Vermilion Flycatchers. And the hummingbirds, the only birds I feed while here. Still present, too, were the injurious goatheads, and not only could we not step foot outside without collecting a million in our shoes, we watched dog after dog being alternately carried or attended to with every other step. It was almost funny.
What do you do when you once again find yourselves in a place where you’ve done and seen a lot? Laundry for one. Shopping for another. We blew the better part of a day to yet again become Valued Costco Members, which may have something to do with our upcoming Big Plans in 2022. Enough with the ordinary stuff, you may be saying, what did you do for fun? Well, come on, and I’ll show you.
Another pair of full-time RVers, with whom we’d intersected on our first go-round in the Tucson area and from whom we’d learned about the RV park at PCFG in the first place, were coincidentally scheduled to be here for their third time as well. We’d had some near-misses in reconnecting with them over the last few years, but this time we were able to make a long-overdue meet-up happen. As fellow bloggers who don’t post nearly enough (post more often 40foothouse, we love it!) we did not record our visits with pictures. Except one.
With my (our) ever-increasing interest in birding, we planned our first outing to Madera Canyon, where the winged ones are known to gather in the winter, and where lucky folks might catch a glimpse of the Elegant Trogon that sometimes winters there. Luck was not with us this time, but we weren’t disappointed in the sightings we did have.
We parked at a lot midway up the canyon ($8 fee area, national or USFS passes work here) and walked out and back from that location in both directions. Along the walk we saw a uncooperative Painted Redstart, the above Black-throated Gray Warbler, the diminutive Coues’ Whitetail Deer, and a fat Arizona Gray Squirrel that climbed up a tree, turned itself upside-down, and started pulling off chunks of Alligator Juniper bark and eating them. Bark is not listed as one of their dietary choices, but squirrels can’t read, and they eat what they want.
At the northern-most end of our walk, we stopped at the Santa Rita Lodge wildlife viewing area, where volunteers and park workers maintain a large assortment of feeders in a fenced-off area. If you don’t find what you’re looking for on your walks, you will likely find it here.
Among some old favorites, new-to-us birds were the Hepatic Tanager, Arizona Woodpecker, and Bridled Titmouse. With plenty more trails to explore, we made plans to return before leaving Tucson.
Another big plus of spending time in this area is the chance to see our dear friend Ranger Nancy and her beau, Jim. We met at the Douglas Spring trailhead in Saguaro N.P. for a little hike, then picked up takeout for a picnic. All of that was a repeat, but so well worth doing again.
In between activity days, I utilized the park’s WiFi to work on pet computer projects like organizing my lifetime bird list and archiving earlier blog posts. One day, when I tried to open my super-big bird list file, it was not there. Not there!! I thought I was going to puke as I searched and tried everything I knew to find it and get it to open. TBG ultimately came to my rescue and was able to locate and recover it, and I printed what I had and then completed the project by hand, where it shall remain on paper forever.
Our second outing to Madera Canyon was a winner. I dropped TBG off at the southernmost trailhead so he could hike up the canyon and do some photography, while I then headed up to the lodge to see what I could see. There were only two other people there at that hour, and they kindly drew my attention to a non-feathered visitor to the feeding area.
A Coated Monkey!! (coatimundi, if you’re the serious type) This was not my first sighting, but it was the closest one in the wild, and we all delighted in watching it poke and dig and climb around. Apparently, a few of them are oft-seen here, and I was sorry that by the time TBG arrived, it would have wandered off.
As far as the birds went, the only new one for me was the Yellow-eyed Junco, but I really enjoyed the watching anyhow. Once the lodge gift shop opened, I was able to enhance my experience with a nice, warm mocha. While I was waiting for it to be made, another patron asked the barista where one might be able to see one of those “monkey cats.” I’d like to know, too, those sound amazing!
So you see the hummingbird up there? That’s a Magnificent Hummingbird. It’s one we’ve only seen once before, but they are quite common in the lodge area, and there were several to observe. They are large as hummingbirds go but terribly hard to photograph. They’re frustratingly active and not as interested in the feeder nectar as other hummies seem to be.
If you’re an avid birder, you will know that their current official name is the Rivoli’s Hummingbird. “Magnificent” is their former name and was perfect given their size, rich purple crowns, and flashy green gorgets. I had to know what precipitated the name change, and I was even more disappointed when I learned the story.
It seems that in 1829, some natural historian dude named the hummingbirds after the Duke of Rivoli who was an amateur ornithologist. Wasn’t that nice of him? NO. First, the Duke of Rivoli was French, and hummingbirds don’t even exist in Europe. It’s unclear whether the Duke ever even saw one of the little birds. Second, Rivoli is a geographic region (now part of Italy,) not really even the duke’s name, so the ‘s is superfluous. Third, in 1983, ornithologists with some sense, changed the name to Magnificent. Huzzah! But then, in 2017, others with bird brains determined that there were actually two distinct species being included in that group and separated them. One, which doesn’t reach into the U.S., they named Talamanca. For the other, they resurrected the name “Rivoli’s!” Why?! Why would they do that?! They didn’t need two new names. I think that’s just the dumbest thing in the history of ornithology, and I refuse to acknowledge the name change. To make matters worse, the Anna’s Hummingbird was named for the Duke’s wife, thus I shall now only refer to those birds as Magenta Hummingbirds. I invite you all to join my crusade!
Once TBG made it to the lodge, we motored to the northern-most lot to set off on a short hike along the Carrie Nation trail. The peak on the right in the photo below is Mt. Wrightson, which will come up again later in this post.
As far as how TBG’s photo session in the canyon went, you be the judge.
Though we could’ve spent even more time in Madera, Saguaro N.P. has always been a favorite for us, and we accessed a new trail from outside the park, Picture Rocks.
We’ve encountered several crested saguaros in our previous southwest explorations, but hadn’t really been seeing many this time around, so it was fun to spot this big one out among the “regulars.”
We also used to enjoy trying to find the babiest of saguaros, and this year they seem to be easy to find, with many “families” comprised of lots of offspring. Though we found saguaro babies, a big Crusty, and a pair of coyotes, we did not find the Picture Rocks.
Our third and final visit to Madera Canyon was a bust for me. Again, I dropped TBG at the south end of the trail and headed up for some bird-watching. Problem was, it was very cold. I was the only one there for well over an hour, and I alternated sitting outside all bundled up and making short drives to warm up because running engines aren’t allowed in the small lot and the bathrooms are down the road anyhow. The feeders were mobbed with Jays and little else showed up. I had foregone my home-brewed coffee that morning in lieu of our early start, and I was eagerly anticipating the opening of the lodge at 9 so that I could get a hot coffee after two hours of freezing. When the first employee showed up, I waited a bit to give her time to get things brewing before entering, but when I finally did, the empty pots were an ominous sign. I inquired as to the the coffee status and was told there would be none because she didn’t know how to work the coffee maker. I nearly cried.
The only “new” bird was this female Hepatic Tanager, the low morning light spoiling my photo. TBG had better luck in the canyon, capturing several little waterfalls.
The next evening, we reciprocated by having Shawn & Andrea over for dinner at our place. We had a great time, again took no photos, and they left the remainder of a delicious caramel apple pie with us which we saved for our reward after our next planned hike.
Our next planned hike was to try to reach the summit of Mt. Wrightson. The access to the trail required another drive into Madera Canyon, and it hadn’t warmed up at all since we were last there.
This time, though, I was moving — up, to be precise — and the chill was soon overcome by the effort. We wove in and out of thermal pockets of warmer air and through sprinklings of sunlight as we ascended.
As we made our way up the trail, it gradually changed from a duffy leaf-strewn surface to a rockier and ever-increasing frozen crunchiness. We’d known that with the elevation and the season, we’d likely encounter some snow and/or ice on the trail, and we weren’t wrong. Eventually the frosty dirt became actual ice-crusted snow. Our pre-hike agreement was that if we got to a place where it seemed more hazardous than fun, we’d turn back. When TBG instructed me to try to angle myself toward a shrub I could grab onto if I found myself sliding down the mountainside, the turn-around point was marked.
Shortly after these photos, we called it. Though we didn’t reach the pinnacle, we felt justified in polishing off that pie upon our return.
On our final day in the Tucson area, we were treated by Ranger Nancy — who is also Docent Nancy — to a day at the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum (ASDM.) It was not our first visit by any means, but it is a place at which you can visit again and again and never get tired of it. We vowed this time to hit some of the highlights we’d not seen prior. The first was the Raptor Free Flight, an event at which several raptors are flown above and around us spectators, none of them tethered, hence “free.” Before that presentation, though, we roamed some of the animal exhibits. One of my favorite things about ASDM is that there are always several “bonus” animals in that native birds, reptiles, etc. make their homes in and around the captive critters. As we were enjoying the puma on one side and the Coues Deer on the other (can the cat see the deer? if so, isn’t that mean?) I noticed a lump in a tree.
A volunteer Great Horned Owl! We pointed it out to some other patrons and the next docent we saw, who was very excited. We’ll come back to this. It was time for the raptors!
Hey, that’s not a raptor, what gives? It is a Chihuahuan Raven, and while decidedly not a raptor, they are often flown first in the presentation as ambassadors of the native avian population. If you’ve never watched ravens fly, you should. They are some of the most entertaining birds in the world. OK, now the raptors!
First in was this beautiful Crested Caracara, a member of the falcon family. We had front-row seats to them in the wild in Florida, but it was still fun to see one again, especially since there are precious few places they can be seen in the U.S.
Next came a bird I’d not heard of before, a Gray Hawk. They have a very limited U.S. range, only occurring in breeding season in very southern Arizona and Texas. We’ll be sure to keep a lookout for these beauties before we leave very southern Arizona!
Lastly, they flew a group of birds we first became acquainted with at Usery Regional Park, the Harris’s Hawk. They fly them in groups because, in their U.S. range, where they are not native, they hunt in groups. They do not do this from where they are native because they don’t need to. It is a geographical adaptation allowing them to survive and thrive in the desert environment! Although we’d seen several before, they are always gorgeous in flight with their sepia and chocolate coloration and impressive wing formations.
After the raptor show, we made our way to another activity we’d not participated in before — the Stingray Touch! I tried to convince TBG to join me, but he declined. I had the place to myself for a little bit, and it was so cool!
First you have to rinse your arms up to the elbow, then they show you how best to hold your hands in the warm water. The cownose stingrays are curious critters, and it doesn’t take but a few seconds for them to come over to see why you have your hands in the water. They bump with their snoots, nibble with their lips, but mostly glide their velvety sliminess under your palms seemingly enjoying being petted. If you’re wondering why there are stingrays in a desert museum, it is because the Gulf of California is in the Sonoran Desert, and stingrays are in the Gulf. Ta-da!
I could’ve stayed there all day, but we had a lunch date with Docent Nancy, after which she toured around more of the grounds with us, acting as our personal guide. As when we hiked with her in the Gila wilderness, she was a consummate guide, full of knowledge and love for all the native flora and fauna. She makes things I wouldn’t normally think I was interested in very, very interesting, and the museum is blessed to have her on their team.
As we walked, we heard an announcement over the walkie-talkie alerting all docents to a Great Horned Owl sighting near the cougar enclosure. “You don’t say!” I said.
We were having such fun that we made Nancy a bit late for her last assignment of the day, presenting an animal diorama.
Her critter this time was Messy, the Gila monster, and unlike all other Gila monsters we’d ever seen, Messy was being very active and entertaining. When it was time for Nancy to take Messy back inside, it was time for us to say farewell to our dear, dear friend. Don’t tell her, but I cried all the way back to the car.
We’ll be moving along to our last southern-most destination before we begin a northern push in a few months. Soon, I will tell you where we’re headed and what those Big Plans in 2022 are. Until then, you can count on more hikey, crittery escapades. Let’s go!