Tucson and the Sky Islands

Wednesday, April 13
Up and out by 6:30, we headed down to the Paton Center for Birds in Patagonia. We got an excellent photo of a lazuli bunting, loads of hummingbird pictures, Alan got a black-headed grosbeak, I got a rat, and we chatted with a few of the other birders. One, Debra Johnson, does what we do – she collects her life list via photos. She told me she had 900 photos! Way to go girl! We left Paton and drove to Kennedy Park in Tucson for a PBJ picnic lunch. We walked around there for a little while, then visited the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. This is a bit of a zoo and nature area mix. The price is a bit much, but it was a good walk. We did see an ocelot for the first time. We checked in to our AirBnB and unloaded the truck for the next 6 days. Dinner was simple. Since I hadn’t gotten confirmation from David with the birding group yet, I contacted Filipe who replied that I should go ahead and contact him myself. Odd, but okay. I sent David a text.
Holiday Inn, Tucson. 4.9. Just right.

Thursday, April 14
We both slept well. The alarm went off at 5:00am so we could get an early start for the 1.5 hour trip south to Ramsey Canyon. This area is known as one of the Sky Islands of southern Arizona.There are several of these islands in the area and we visited three of them. When we got there the parking lot was closed because it didn’t open until 8:00. So we backtracked and visited Brown Canyon Ranch, just down the road. This is run by the US Forestry Service. Because we have a lifetime senior parks pass, we didn’t have to pay (the other sky Islands do ask for a donation, but haven’t required payment). We hiked the one-mile nature loop trail through dessert plains, and saw a lot of familiar birds. We went back to Ramsey Canyon where we hiked up the canyon about 1.5 miles, stopping frequently to talk to other birders and take lots and lots of pictures. At the beginning of the trail there are quite a few hummingbird feeders with seating areas for humans. About a quarter mile up the trail we joined other birders who saw a northern pygmy owl way up in a big tree. He was just preening himself, completely ignoring his audience down below. I was told by another birder that this species is one of only two that hunts during the day. This little guy was the highlight of this trail. Cool. We finished hiking the loop and headed out for lunch at Papa’s 50’s Diner. After lunch we drove to Ash Canyon Bird Sanctuary. For a hot minute it seemed that we wouldn’t be able to stay (parking is very limited), but a terrific docent told us to hang on, that someone would be pulling out shortly. This sky island has several really nice seating areas with feeders of all sorts in and around them. We stayed for about two hours. The species were plentiful, and we added quite few new names to our life list. We dropped a donation in the box on our way out. These sky Islands are definitely on our return to list! I took over driving because Alan’s eye was bothering him terribly. We stopped at a pharmacy to pick up some eye drops on our way back to the rental. We dumped our memory cards, rested, showered, then went out to dinner at Culinary Dropout. What a cool place this was! Very trendy. The décor was hip, the atmosphere was funky. We were seated at a bar top table and ordered the soft pretzels with provolone fondue as an appetizer, Alan got a burger & fries, and I got a super tasty kale salad bowl. The layout in this restaurant is kicked back. You can see through glass walls into the huge kitchen, the bar is central to the building, with the main dining room to the left. To the right is casual seating (couches and old metal porch chairs), with corn hole games and ping pong tables adjacent to that. The food was great and so was the service. We plan to go back Monday night. After dinner we did some grocery shopping, then got back to the house where Alan went through his photos while I did the laundry. Great day overall.

Friday, April 15
Aahhh. We got to sleep in this morning before heading out to Sweetwater Wetlands park on the west side of Tucson. We had been here before, but management had performed a controlled burn a few days before we arrived, so the place looked a bit like a disaster. In only six months the burn had turned into a lush wetland, and all the trails were open. We walked around, and at some point I struck up a conversation with another photographer. He told me about bats under a bridge, just to the north of where we were staying, claiming that their numbers far outstrip the numbers seen at the Congress Bridge in Austin, Texas. Well, this I had to see! When we finished our hike around the wetlands we talked about the bats and made up our minds to shuck our evening plans in favor of a shoot at the bridge. The Campbell Street bridge spans the Rillito River Wash on the north side of Tucson. We found some parking and broke out the tripods. We walked a short distance on the Chuck Huckleberry Loop trail, which took us under the bridge. We could hear, and (ugh) smell the bats that were tucked up in the crevices. We set up on the west side of the bridge because I seamed to remember reading somewhere that bats liked to fly toward the sunset, and I figured this might be our best vantage point. Sure enough, as the light began to wane, the bats began to swirl under the bridge. Slowly but surely, when they had enough numbers, they flew west. What a cool sight to see! It sure made up for the disappointment we felt back in Austin a few years ago. We got a few nice photos (more my thing than Alan’s), and packed up and walked back under the bridge toward the parking lot. It was so fantastical to feel the bats flying so close to us under there.

Saturday, April 16
This morning we got up very early to drive down to Madera Canyon for a guided hike up through the canyon by a biologist we’d hired through Arizona Birding Tours. We met David Griffin at the Super Trailhead parking lot at the far end of the canyon. After double-checking with us about our wish-list of birds to see (and hopefully photograph), we headed up the Carrie Nation Mine trail. David was amazing – he could identify most of the birds we heard along the hike by their calls. We saw flycatchers and warblers, a few wren, and a painted restart, but our desired quarry was the elegant trogan, a beautifully colored bird slightly larger than a robin. These birds have an unusual and distinctive call, and are stinkers to find along the canyon. We were hiking early in their season, so only a couple of males and one female were known to currently be in the area. We began hearing the male trogan calling about 1/3 of the way up the trail. We’d stop and wait for him to get closer, but then he would go farther away. At one point we saw a flash of red about 50 yards away deep in the brush, but that was all we saw of the male. We pressed on and continued our stop and wait pattern for the duration of our hike. Eventually David said we had gone farther than anyone else he’d taken on a hike this year and we should turn back. Halfway down the trail we started hearing the trogan again, then David spotted the female, and we got our pictures. While not colorful like the male, she was still beautiful! The Carrie Nation Mine trail is rated “difficult” by the National Forest Service. It is 4.7 miles loop, we came managed about two miles. The elevation gain for our portion of the hike was roughly 900 feet – from 5,378 to 6,200 feet. This was one of a few of the most difficult hikes we have been on; Machu Picchu, a trail over huge boulders, an accidental eight-mile hike (we got turned around on the trail), and the hike at Saguaro National Park in the middle of the day with only one bottle of water were among other tough hikes. We parted company with David in the parking lot and found a place to eat a late lunch in nearby Green Valley, then drove back to our rental for a few hours of rest and a change of clothes. That evening we met up with David again, this time in the lowest parking area of the canyon, and went on a night hunt for owls – specifically for us, elf owls. This time David used an app on his phone and a small speaker to “call” to the owls. This produced some interesting results. The owls would answer, but would not come closer – only interested in letting the new owl (David) know he might be in their territory. Eventually David found our first elf owl and we got some nice pictures. We changed parking lots and found a whiskered screech owl using the same technique. We tried another location, but only heard an owl off in the distance. The next parking area required us to hike up the canyon a tiny bit, but there were no owls to be found where he thought there might be some western screech owls. We didn’t mind a bit – we were tickled with the elf owl alone. When the night was over we bid adieu to David and went back to the house. Needless to say, we slept hard.

Sunday, April 17
We rested this morning, and I attended my church’s Easter Service virtually. We took our time, but finally got out the door and visited Agua Caliente Regional Park, a pretty community park on the northeast end of Tucson. Since Alan is interested in going mirrorless, we traded cameras so he could see what it was like to shoot with mine. He got the hang of it quickly, and we did some test shooting. We shot some turtles, dragonflies and a couple of birds. Nothing of great interest, but it was a lovely walk. We picked up some groceries, then went to the rental and had salad for lunch, and worked on photos, and just rested. Our bodies were a bit hung over from yesterday’s hike. For dinner we found a KFC that was open and had some chicken. Just a nice and easy day.

Monday, April 18
We were on our way back down to Ash Canyon at 5:15am. Alan has planned our day out with this trip, plus Paton Center for Birds, plus Madera Canyon. One last Sky Island loop before we leave. At Ash Canyon we took advantage of the photographer’s blind, then sat at the various venues around the property to watch and photograph the birds. One of the volunteers stopped by and chatted with us, and told us about another location with a “fantastic hummingbird set up”. So, when we left Ash we found it with Google maps and made our way out there. Can you say, “Deliverance” country? I swear, we heard banjos playing. The road was not just rocky, it was overlanding rocky. Thank goodness for the truck’s good clearance. The location definitely was not set up for birders, there was no place to park, and a fellow came out with about 8 hound dogs (no kidding) when we drove up. We politely turned around and left. At Paton’s we got to add a new bird to our list, the Inca dove, a pretty and very small dove with a feather pattern that looks like scales. We hiked about a mile, then got in the truck and left for Madera Canyon. Once there we had a brief picnic of PBJs and an orange, then drove down the canyon to the lodge to see if we could spot anything new. We did; an Arizona woodpecker. This one was on Alan’s wish list, so he was very happy to have gotten it. Of course the little fellow came down for a visit the minute I headed back to the truck for a spare battery. Fortunately he made a reappearance and I got a shot of him too. On the way back to Tucson, we stopped for gas at a Costco, then I put in an online order for something from Culinary Dropout, which we picked up on our way to the rental. We spent the rest of the evening washing clothes for the last time, going over photos, and packing.

Tuesday, April 19
Because my friend, Helaine, had recommended it, Alan and I had breakfast at Bisbee’s Breakfast Club on our way out of town. The portions were HUGE. Unfortunately, my appetite was not. While the food and service was great, it was just too much. Even Alan couldn’t finish his, but he did try. Today we are headed to Escondido, California to watch and photograph grebes.
AirBnB, Tucson. 4.8 A good experience, and something we will be adding to our wheelhouse for extended stays