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Thursday, March 30, 2006

Back From Arizona, Where Many Critters Were Encountered

Hello again. I'm back from a week's trip to Arizona, most of it in the desert, hiking and birding. It's something I do every year with a group of gal-pals, most of whom, like me, lived in Tucson at one time and continue to be drawn back there because of the desert's unique beauty (a concept that some tropics dwellers might not understand, but with the desert, you either love it or hate it, and I love it).

I shot lots of pix but it's going to take a day to get them all uploaded, so check in again for the visuals.

We convened in town on Wednesday 3/22, then headed south to the Sierra Vista area on Thursday in three SUVs loaded with coolers and hiking gear. First stop: the Grey Hawk Nature Center on the San Pedro River (go to http://www.grayhawknaturecenter.org/home.html to check it out, with photos).

Sandy Anderson, who runs the nonprofit center that caters mostly to school groups, led us on a nature walk along what once was a rushing river and now, because of historic drought - no rain since Oct. 18 - and rampant development in Sierra Vista, is somewhere between a stream and a trickle.

Says Sandy: "The San Pedro River is an internationally recognized treasure - the last major free-flowing river remaining in the southwestern United States. Its location, in southeastern Arizona and northern Sonora, and north-south orientation make it a critical corridor for bird migration as well as the movement of animals and plants across this border region. As a consequence, the Upper San Pedro has been protected as the nation's first Riparian National Conservation Area.''

It was shocking to find so little wildlife, but it's a consequence of the dryness. This time last year, Southern Arizona was carpeted with wildflowers, the landscape a riot of purple and yellow. This year it was brown and dessicated, except for the green cottonwood trees clinging to the stream banks.

Still, where there's water in that part of the state, there are beavers, and we got a real education in their habits. So here's a quiz: Why do they make dams? Why do they chew down trees? It took eight college-educated women a really long time and lots of wrong guesses to figure it out (answers tomorrow).

We saw dozens of beaver-felled trees, ventilation holes on the bank, and dams, which create deep pools (that's a hint to the first question).

And we were charmed by the vermillion flycatchers, a prevalent bird during the migration, the male a brilliant red/orange. They're flirty and fun-loving, and love to show off my flitting around when they spot visitors (go here to see an excellent gallery of bird photos: http://www.schmoker.org/BirdPics/Flycatchers.html.

We also saw black phoebes, Say's phoebes, grey hawks, woodpeckers, about a dozen species of sparrow, brilliant red cardinals, and a heart-stopping collection of great blue herons nesting in a single cottonwood along the San Pedro.

According to Sandy, who has lived there for 17 years, it might not be long until this priceless habitat is gone, which would be a tragedy of epic proportions. Development on higher ground is sucking out so much precious water that the river is literally drying up. It's shocking to see where fast-moving water, 10 feet deep in places and powerful enough to carrying huge piles of woodland debris hundreds of yards, once carved out banks that now seem like tiny versions of the Grand Canyon.

When they rainy season starts in July, the river will rise to a certain extent, but it's hard to imagine this lazy stream ever reaching such mighty proportions again.

Back at the nature center, Sandy introduced us to her snakes, including every species of Arizona rattler, and let us handle those that aren't dangerous (the 'ick factor' proved too much for a couple in the group, but I don't have snake fear and got a real thrill out of draping myself in an 8-foot boa constrictor). She brought out a Western diamondback rattler on a special snake-catching pole, set him on the ground and told us to gather around. He was rattling like crazy, but she said they have a very limited strike range so we could get to within about four feet with no danger.

Then she grabbed a clear plastic tube, directed his head into it, and let us hold the rest of him, rattle included. THAT was a close encounter of the critter kind that I don't think many people get to have, and I thought it was amazing.

We spent the night at a Hacidenda-style B&B in Hereford, then headed for Muleshoe Ranch, a nearly 50,000-acre Nature Conservancy preserve. There are nature trails and hiking trails through some fairly rugged hills.

''Muleshoe comprises most of the watershed area for seven permanently flowing streams, representing some of the best remaining aquatic habitat in Arizona. Some 80 percent of the region's wildlife species depend upon these streamside communities at some time in their lives,'' according to the Conservancy.

Again because of drought, we didn't see much in the way of wildlife, with the exception of five white-tailed deer browsing close to the bunkhouse area and glimpses of coati mundi, ring-tailed critters that look like a cross between a racoon and a possum.

We're repeat visitors to Muleshoe, and this year again, we were surprised by Tess, a border collie, who materialized on a trail we were hiking around dusk, far from the ranch, to guide us home before dark. How she knew we were out there is anyone's guess, but
we were delighted to see her and impressed by her drive to round up the strays and bring us in for the night.

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