We managed to make it to the Airporter pickup point just at the departure time this evening. The nice driver loaded our bags and then followed Lee to the parking garage and waited for him. That allowed us to get to our hotel at Newark Airport earlier than we had hoped.
(The woman sitting in front of us on the Airporter had a live basil plant. The aroma was delightful--much mintier than I would have expected.)
A nice hot shower and a good pasta dinner and we already felt we were on vacation. I have just been re-reading Pete Dunne's chapter on birding in Southeast Arizona (from The Feather Quest). Dunne has made six birding trips to Arizona without ever having gotten to the Grand Canyon, but we hope to do both on this trip. We won't hit all of the places in his list of "the stellar points in the Arizona birding circuit", but we will do most of them. "It's a harsh and beautiful land filled with exotic birds, and plants, and animals."
We saw little of Tucson but headed right out to the highway, amidst the classic basin and range geology (huge blocks ripped apart and tilted by the stretching of the earth's crust, forming very high mountains and very deep basins, the latter subsequently filled in by erosion from the former to make wide flat areas between jaggedy peaks).
We did, however, pause to admire the beautiful garden of Saguaro cactus in front of the airport. We've seen none so far in the wild. The land we drove through was desert, but not just sand. The soil was mostly covered with a grey-green vegetation, yucca plants, prickly pear, joshua trees, and the like. Lovely, and a big change from New Jersey.
After a short while, we left the Interstate and headed up over the first set of ridges, arriving in the small (and very famous among birders) town of Patagonia. We saw few birds other than turkey vultures along the way. As the guide books all say, bird activity stops at 10am here.
I insisted upon a nap before going any further, but we were soon revived and headed a few blocks to the Paton's house. Wally and Marion Paton are a retired couple who hold open house (or, rather, open yard) for birders every day of the year. They have half a dozen hummingbird feeders strung from the eaves of their house, with a dozen chairs arranged nearby under a canopy. Anyone who wishes to watch the birds is welcome.
We joined a few other birders already there and spent an hour and a half entranced. Pete Dunne says, "What's the draw? Hummingbirds! Gems in feathers that sneer at gravity, laugh at physics, and humble the colors of the rainbow." On display this afternoon were Anna's ("Anna's are adorned with rose-colored hoods that bloom in sunlight"), Broad-billed (incredible turquoise and green iridescence), Black-chinned (which have a glorious stripe of iridescent purple under the black chin), and Violet-crowned (mostly black and white but for the iridescent crown). ("The Paton home is the most dependable site for Violet-crowned Hummingbirds in the United States", according to one of the bird books.)
There were typically 10-20 hummingbirds in view all of the time, and it was delightful. Each time one of the male Anna's caught the sun just right to make his whole head and throat glow bright rose it took my breath away. I'd seen them only once before, in Palo Alto at the REXX Symposium last year, when I spent half an hour watching one cavort among flowering geraniums that were exactly the same color as his iridescence. The other three species were new to both of us, and Lee took a zillion pictures.
The other birders left after a while but we were soon joined by a kid of about 13 who told us that he was checking up on things, that Mrs. Paton is in the hospital ("she couldn't breathe") but that Mr. Paton had come home that morning to fill the feeders before returning to the hospital. My heart went out to these generous people I've never met.
The kid then told us that they'd been trying to identify a "weird" hummingbird that had been coming to the feeders recently. When I asked him to describe it, he said, "It's, well, it's just weird". I was glad for his sake that the real birders had left. They might have been tempted to violence by that sort of provocation.
Our next stop was "The Rest Stop". Dunne says:
And, of course, no birder could speak of Arizona and fail to mention the "Famous Patagonia Rest Stop"--home of the Rose-throated Becard, the Thick-billed Kingbird, and the Violet-crowned Hummingbird, birthplace of the "Patagonia Picnic Table Effect": If a spot holds a good bird, it will attract good birders who in turn will find other good birds, which will in turn attract other good birders, who will in turn find...The rest stop (just an old piece of highway left when the road was straightened, fancied up with one picnic table) proved true to its reputation. We were barely out of the car when Lee pointed out a very large bird sitting on a wonderful pink trapezoidal rock at the pinnacle of the rocky cliff behind the rest stop. It was a Golden Eagle! When it flew away 10 minutes later, we figured out from the underwing pattern that it was an immature. We never found the Becard, and the Kingbirds were only a maybe-that's-what-the-little-things-with-the-yellow-breasts-were case, but the eagle was enough. And we did have two female Western Tanagers, and then a lovely Gray Hawk flew barely ten feet over my head and gave us a great view (we could count the feathers missing from its molting wings).
On the way back to our motel, we stopped to photograph a kettle of a couple of dozen turkey vultures. Just short of the motel parking lot, we spotted some White-winged Doves, another Patagonia must.
We've had a quiet dinner and will make an early night of it.
When Lee returned to our motel room with the ice for our breakfast Cokes, he reported that there was an interesting bird sitting on the railing outside, "It has a swallow tail". "It is a swallow", I cleverly replied. Despite the level of our pre-breakfast repartee, the bird sat patiently while I worked out that it was a Barn Swallow.
We took a short walk around Patagonia after breakfast and quickly found a Pyrrhuloxia (like a Cardinal but partly grey), a Curved-billed Thrasher (with wonderful yellow eyes) working over a beautiful big cactus plant, and a Phainopepla (a lovely black, crested, silky flycatcher). Rather a difficult lot to spell so early in the morning.
By then, it was time for the Nature Conservancy's Preserve to open. We were the first people there today, so we had a nice chat with the white-haired volunteer who was opening up. ("It's good you came so early; people come at noon and expect to see birds!")
The Preserve is a marvelous place. It begins with a beautiful meadow full of shoulder-high grasses and wildflowers. The meadow was alive with warblers and flycatchers. Our best moment there came while Lee was photographing a gorgeous Vermilion Flycatcher perched on a little tree; a male Violet-crowned Hummingbird flew up and perched a foot away in the same tree so it could be in the pictures too. I can't wait to see how they come out.
We also saw our first Lesser Goldfinches in that meadow, as well, sigh, as Something Blue (possibly an immature male Blue Grosbeak).
Lee finally dragged me out of the meadow to go along the rest of the trail, which passes into an open woods that has grown up around and on an old railroad line. It encompasses several kinds of habitat, all of them glowing with wildflowers. At most turns in the trail, one also gets a spectacular mountain view.
We paused at a bench built on the concrete base for a trestle that no longer exists and sat watching for kingfishers in the stream below. No luck with that, but we had butterflies and dragonflies of every color and we soon found Bridled Titmice (just delightful), Ladder-backed Woodpeckers, a Red-shafted Flicker, and lots of unidentifiable flycatchers who entertained us by hawking for insects. There were skinks sunning themselves and some fascinating big black beetles digging holes in the trail.
We kept just barely seeing a couple of deer before they ran off. Then, as were walking along after identifying some Wilson's Warblers, Lee said "Stop!". I froze and turned to see that two tiny deer (less than 4 feet tall), a male with respectable antlers and a female, were frozen staring at us not 30 feet away. I tried to look non-threatening while Lee got his tripod set up and the camera mounted on it and started clicking. I think the deer started running after his first click, not before.
A nice little female hummingbird sat on a sunny branch a few feet away from the trail and posed for us for several minutes without my being able to identify her.
We also had Kingbirds galore and decided that our vacation (if not life) is too short to try differentiating between the five possible species, all of which look exactly alike. We had no trouble identifying a handsome male Summer Tanager (bright red and another "lifer").
We were almost back at the Preserve headquarters before seeing another person on the trail, despite the gorgeous (and not hot) weather. We bought a T-shirt and a poster and said goodbye to the nice man.
After lunch (the best chile I ever had), we visited a birding store in town. The owner told us that there'd been a pair of Lucifer Hummingbirds nesting at the Rest Stop last year. "You didn't even have to get out of your car to see them." (Lucifers are quite rare; seeing a Lucifer's thimble-sized nest and tiny babies must have been a great treat.)
We drove south to Nogales (right on the Mexican border) and then turned east to drive across the range and back up the basin towards Tucson. The natural views were spectacular, a wide flat valley full of yellow and orange wildflowers and lined on east and west with tall mountain ranges (about 20 miles apart). As we got further up the valley, we could see Tucson with its big skyscrapers made insignificant by the mountains towering behind them. The manmade view left much to be desired; I was not impressed with all of the malls built to look like Spanish missions. I was glad to see a Raven sitting at the pinnacle of a "bell tower" doing what Ravens do to things they sit on.
Before reaching Tucson, we turned east to drive up Madera Canyon (i.e., we're now on the west side of the same mountains we spent yesterday on the east side of). As soon as we reached the Santa Rita Lodge, where we'll be staying for two nights, I spotted a telephone pole that has been made into a "granary tree" by Acorn Woodpeckers. Acorns are very striking red, black, and white woodpeckers, which are unusual in being very loud and very social (though not sociable). They store acorns in little holes they make in trees, one acorn per hole, so that the trees end up looking like a pegboard. We soon learned that these Acorns are making the cabin next to ours into a granary as well. When they are digging a hole, it sounds exactly like a carpenter driving a nail, but one can see little chips flying.
The cabin is very comfortable, with wood panelling and a kitchenette (but no phone, so the rest of my postcards will be a couple of days late). It is set in the midst of a lovely canyon full of sycamores and pines. We hope here to see Elegant Trogons. (The Resplendent Quetzals we saw in Costa Rica last year are members of the trogon family. The Elegant is one of two trogons that breed in this corner of Arizona (and nowhere else in North America).)
I was ready for a nap, so Lee went off exploring the canyon on his own and came back later to report having seen Painted Redstarts (very pretty crimson-and-black warblers).
As we had no groceries, we headed down to one of the suburbs of Tucson for dinner and some grocery shopping. We saw there a pair of the rattiest looking Great-tailed Grackles you can imagine, deeply in molt. We found ourselves in a restaurant in which we were the youngest people. This is really retiree country. The waitress understood immediately when a lady at the next table asked for "half-and-half"--half decaffeinated coffee and half real.
By the time we drove back up the road to Madera Canyon, it was very dark and the stars were out, so we had our first look in a long time at the Milky Way.
My sun has his sun, and round him obediently wheels,(I've been making myself giddy lately reading Walt Whitman.)
He joins with his partners a group of superior circuit,
And greater sets follow, making specks of the greater inside them.
I became less enchanted with the big black beetles when I found one of them under my pillow.
Lee has been reading aloud to me from a book called Trogons of the Arizona Borderlands (Richard Cachor Taylor):
Trogons are rare. Found breeding only in Southeastern Arizona within the U.S., fewer than 50 pairs occupy an area of over 10,000 square miles. Yet, so limited are they in their choice of habitat, that the knowledgeable can predict, almost to the acre, where trogons are likely to summer. Because they use the deep, well-watered canyons that form an ecological bridge joining timbered mountain highland to hot desert floor, trogons share their environment with a host of other rare U.S. birds, mammals, and reptiles. Because they are low in number, yet highly visible, Elegant Trogons are a sensitive barometer to the biotic health of Arizona's borderland canyons.They call the mountains in this area "sky islands", and they truly are (for creatures without wings) as isolated from one another as islands are. Probably my favorite of the books I've read this year is The Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinctions (David Quammen), which discusses the biogeography of species distribution among islands and areas that are like islands, such as these mountains. Quammen cites studies of the distribution of species in the mountains of the western U.S., which show that when a species is lost from a mountain or range, for most plants and animals, it can't be replenished by migration, because of the barrier of the hot, dry lowland. Fortunately, however, the birds can come back if the other species they depend upon are preserved.
This canyon certainly has enough Acorn Woodpeckers. After a while, we learned not to look up when we saw the shadow of a bird flying over, because it was always an Acorn. We did see a Painted Redstart early on (a first for me), along with another unidentifiable female hummingbird. After that, there were very few birds while we were climbing up.
The trail was just lovely, and we were the only ones on it the whole morning. It began easily but got rather rocky after a while, and I was soon wishing that we'd brought our heavy hiking boots, rather than the light ones. We kept going until the trail and its informal extension disappeared at the base of a waterfall. We were stopping every 20 feet or so to scan all the trees for trogons, using the search patterns that had worked for quetzals in Costa Rica. It should have been much easier to see such a brightly-colored bird here in these open sunny woods than it was in the dim misty cloud forest, but we saw none.
(The first-born child in me keeps wishing to be able to get a grade after one of these efforts, to be told whether the birds were really not there or we just didn't see them. Sigh.)
We could really see the "canyon effect" in operation here. The walls of the canyon protect the land from drying out, by cutting the wind and the hours of sunlight. So the vegetation is much lusher and of quite different character than outside the canyon. (In California once, we saw delicate maiden-hair fern growing a few yards away from a yucca plant, the one just inside a canyon, the other just outside.)
We were still a few hundred feet below the saddle of the mountain, so we headed up a very steep side trail that had originally been the trail to a mine. (These mountains are pocked with mines large and small. Out in the basin between here and Tucson, there is a deposit of mine tailings that extends for miles.) That got us above the sycamores and thus above the trogons, but it was such a lovely day we kept going for quite a while further until I decided my knees were getting wobbly.
We had more birds on the way down. Indeed, Lee finally uttered the phrase, "just another Redstart". It was great to get such good looks at such a lovely bird. We also had Lesser Goldfinches, and when we were nearly back at the parking lot, a couple of Yellow-eyed Juncos.
So, we had no trogons, but it was a really pleasant hike, with at least 3 dozen different wildflowers in bloom, including some tiny, brilliantly colored geraniums. There were also many butterflies, the prettiest being black with red spots. And there were at least three kinds of squirrels, the largest having really luxurious tails. The whole hike was about 6 miles and not quite 2000 feet in elevation.
We had lunch in our cabin, and then I settled down on one of the benches before the Lodge's legendary feeders. (I had been disappointed to find that our little balcony has no hummingbird feeder. The owner explained that they'd had to take down all but two of the hb feeders. Bears had learned to climb up on the air conditioners of the cabins to get to the feeders and drink the sugar water, so the park rangers had asked her to take them down for the sake of both the bears and the people.)
There were White-breasted Nuthatches coming to the feeders. It was my first chance really to observe them and to be charmed by them. (We later bought me a little enameled Nuthatch pin to commemorate this day.) There were also Gray-breasted Jays and, of course, Acorn Woodpeckers. The two remaining hummingbird feeders had been claimed by a male Anna's Hummingbird, who did his best to fend off all other hummingbirds. I did see what I concluded must be a female Magnificent Hummingbird (much larger than the Anna's, 5.25 inches vs. 4 inches). I watched the hummingbirds for a long while, switching benches to be nearer the other feeder whenever an Acorn Woodpecker decided to take over the feeder nearer me. (The feeders are way too small for the woodpeckers, of course, but they manage to drink from them by bracing their tail on the bottom of the feeder.) The male Anna's shrieked at the woodpeckers, but it did him no good.
A British birder came along and told me he'd seen a male Magnificent there earlier in the day. When he asked whether he should go over the mountain to the Paton's, we told him we'd seen Violet-crowned Hummingbirds there two days ago. He headed straight for his car.
A woman drove up and asked me whether I knew where "they" were seeing the Whiskered Screech-Owl. I didn't. Did I know whether there were any other rarities about. I didn't. When I explained that this was my first time here and that everything was new, she said, "Isn't it wonderful!"
About an hour before sunset, we drove down the canyon road to a parking area about 1000 feet lower than the Lodge. There is an impressive paved trail there, designed to be wheelchair accessible. It goes through grasslands and light woods and was full of birds and other wildlife. We found a Verdin, another first for us, a pretty little grey bird with a mustard yellow hood, singing cheerily. A little further along the trail, we encountered quite an elderly lady, who smiled a conspiratorial grin and asked whether we'd seen anything good. I told her about the Verdin and she told us she'd seen one only once before when it strayed to her part of Texas. She'd been to Madera Canyon once before and had seen a trogon then but hadn't today. She hobbled off to look for the Verdin.
We continued along among the dramatic cacti and found a big flat rock in which I noticed a round indentation exactly like those we'd seen on similar rocks in Australia. I told Lee it had to be a mortar where early inhabitants had ground foodstuffs. It was gratifying a minute later to read a sign that said exactly that.
As we walked along the road to get back to our car, two guys from Scottsdale driving by stopped to ask what we'd seen. They're thinking of going after the Aztec Thrush in the morning. We're still reluctant to undertake that strenuous a climb for the sight of a basically brown bird. If we ever catch the listing passion, we may regret this.
We had a nice dinner of soup and muffins in our cabin and ended the day early.
We were seated in the small amphitheater by the creek in time to see the sun climb over the peak we hiked on yesterday. Our plan had been to spend the morning on the (concrete-paved!) trail along the creek looking for riparian species, but the next thing I knew we were headed up another mountain on a trail laboriously cut into the mountainside as a series of switchbacks.
The elevations were lower than yesterday's hike, so we had a dozen new wildflowers and three new butterflies. The area was also less damp, so the woodlands were more open. During most of the hike, we had spectacular views out the mouth of the canyon into the basin to Tucson and the mountains behind it.
The trail had name plates for many of the common plants, so we now know Alligator Juniper (bark like an alligator's skin) and have learned that the common tree we had thought looked like an overgrown blueberry bush is actually an oak (and doubtlessly popular with the Acorn Woodpeckers).
We were scolded by a flock of Bridled Titmice and then had a great view of a Bewick's Wren. (The Western form has an intricate lacy pattern on the underside of its tail, so we were lucky to have a view from below.)
In grassland areas of the trail, the hillsides were covered with dainty star-shaped yellow flowers and with a tall grass that has lacy lavender seedheads. Our Yellow-eyed Juncos yesterday were eating some of these seeds; today, we found a very small cave under an overhanging rock to which some little animal had dragged several of the seed stalks.
We collected a small rock made of a volcanic tuff common here. (We try to collect a rock from each mountain we hike up, but the size of the rocks we collect has gotten smaller over the years. The largest in our collection, a beautiful chunk of Middle Devonian coral reef, required several people to carry.) Along the trail, we also found a nice granite rock with a vein of green that we concluded must be the porphyry copper that is mined in this area. It, however, was immovable.
By the time we reached the bottom of that trail, we had to rush along the trail we'd been planning to do, past the folks who thought they had a Grace's Warbler and back to our cabin, so that Lee could pack and I could sit for a while longer in front of the hummingbird feeders.
One of the several birders who stopped to ask what I was seeing told me that he'd seen a Blue-throated Hummingbird (moan!) at the Paton's yesterday and that he'd heard there'd been one here this morning (I can't stand it!). Another confirmed for me that the bird I thought to be a female Magnificent Hummingbird really is. (She is a giantess compared to the male Anna's who keeps trying to drive her away. The Blue-throated will be almost as large, if I ever get to see one.)
I'm finding it terribly convenient that the hummingbirds are on page 256 of our field guide; that's a number a programmer can remember.
We headed down into the basin and then took a dirt road short cut back across the mountain towards Patagonia. The road passed through open grassland with scrubby trees, an amazing variety of cacti, and carpets of wildflowers, including lovely yellow-orange Mexican Poppies. We saw kingbirds galore and many Turkey Vultures rotating around the sky.
We continued through the next basin and across the next range and headed to the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area, a wonderful preserve in an area totally unlike those we've been in so far. The San Pedro is a small river (we'd call it a brook back home) that runs through the middle of flat, hot grasslands. There is no canyon effect here. Instead, the river is surrounded by a "bosque", a strip of greenery consisting of big old Cottonwood trees and undergrowth.
We parked in front of the headquarters building, clearly once the farmhouse for the alfalfa farm that had been here before the RNCA was formed. There were hummingbird feeders almost completely in the control of a marvelous array of bees of all sizes (up to sizes bigger than I knew existed). Rufous Hummingbirds were doing their best to feed, but were respectful of the bees. A Gila Woodpecker soon drove the bees away from one of the feeders and fed there while its colleague "improved" the wooden railing of the building's front steps.
90-95% of the riverside areas in Arizona have been cleared, to the detriment of wildlife and birds, especially migrating birds, so this preserve, which now includes both sides of the river for about 100 miles, is really important. It is rapidly recovering its original state, fortunately.
We headed from the house through a terribly hot, dry field of grasses and flowers toward the river, leaving behind us a wake of grasshoppers hopping off in both directions, more grasshoppers than you can imagine.
I was amazed at the reaction I had to the area along the river. Childhood memories came flooding back. It was so like Oklahoma (except that in Oklahoma we didn't have magnificent mountains all around the horizon). The cottonwood trees, the reeds and cattails, the greenish, slow-moving stream were all like my great-grandfather's farm, but here we didn't need to watch out for cowpats as we hiked along.
Despite the mid-afternoon heat, the bosque and the surrounding grassland were alive with birds, many flycatchers, warblers, and sparrows, most of which we failed to identify. A Wilson's Warbler was a definite; I'm beginning to think this is the only warbler I'll ever feel confident of. (And I suspect that the reason I've learned this one is that Wilson is my maiden name.)
We hiked along the bank for quite a while. We flushed a hawk, who cooperatively sat on a nearby branch long enough to be photographed and identified (an immature Gray Hawk). And we watched three pretty little sparrows attired in muted desert colors (Botteri's? Cassin's?) walk down a pebbly beach and drink from the river.
We were sorry we hadn't more time here. Perhaps we will return to try to find me the Green Kingfisher I missed on both of our trips to Central America. (One of my secret ambitions is to see all of the kingfisher species of the world, but most of them are in places where travel is both dangerous and difficult, so I just keep leafing through the kingfisher book Lee got for me. (Of course, his secret motive in getting the book for me is that he'd like to travel to all of those places.))
We drove on south to Sierra Vista, which calls itself the "Hummingbird Capital of America". Our goal was the Nature Conservancy's Mile Hi Preserve in Ramsey Canyon, where we were assigned a pretty little cottage reached by a footbridge across Ramsey Creek. It couldn't be more comfortable but there is no phone, so the rest of my postcards will be delayed another two days.
Changing clothes for dinner, I had another flashback from my childhood as I painfully removed the burrs from my socks, nasty seed pods with very sharp hooks that I'd picked up along the San Pedro. This, too, was much like Oklahoma.
We sat in front of the Preserve's hummingbird feeders (which hang above a pretty bed of hummingbird flowers) in the fading light before going to town for dinner. A woman staying at the Preserve told us that she'd heard that White-eared Hummingbirds come to the left-most feeder every evening between 6 and 6:30. Sure enough, they did, but we were too tired to go get our binoculars and instead left for town and got quite a good steak dinner and returned ready for some sleep.
That same woman had told us that bats come to the hummingbird feeders after dark. Sure enough, we could see them as we returned to the Preserve, but we were too tired to stay and watch. (In return, we told her how to get to the Paton's and the Rest Stop, neither of which she'd known about when she was in Patagonia a few days ago. Violet-crowned Hummingbird will be a lifer for her, too, so she's heading there first thing in the morning--after she finds the famous Aztec Thrush.)
We read in a notebook in the cottage that there was an earthquake here in 1887 that dramatically changed Ramsey Peak, much of which came tumbling down. The friction of the falling boulders started so many fires on this mountain and the ones nearby that people thought at first that there'd been a volcanic eruption.
We slept until 8 this morning. Such sloth! And the reward for our sloth was almost no bird activity as we hiked up Ramsey Canyon.
One of the first things we noticed was a great pile of Vinca Major (Myrtle or Periwinkle) that had been uprooted and brought down the hill to be destroyed. Vinca was introduced into the area as an ornamental ground cover, but it escaped from gardens into the wild here and has displaced a complex community of native plants. It is not as ugly as the layer of Kudzu covering parts of the Southeastern U.S., but its effect is as bad, as the native plants it displaces are food for a wide variety of animals. The Elegant Trogon feeds its young on fruits and large insects. Until recently, Ramsey Canyon, which was badly infected with Vinca, was one of the few canyons in the Huachuca Mountains that had no trogons nesting. In 1994, a pair raised two healthy young, however, and it is believed that their success is due at least in part to the efforts to restore native flora in the canyon. The Volunteer Vinca Vanishers have been pulling it up by hand, a very difficult job.
We paused to photograph two skinks sunning themselves on the stone of the National Natural Landmark plaque and a bunch of California Sister butterflies (milk chocolate brown with beige and red spots) sunning themselves on the trail. There were so many butterflies that they distracted us from the birds.
There were some Acorn Woodpeckers making lots of noise, of course, and a White-breasted Nuthatch seemed to follow us along as we went up the trail. It was pleasant to have the company of his cheery peeping as he scurried head-first down tree trunks searching for insects.
At the top of the short trail, we sat down on a bench and tried to work out the identity of a woodpecker who was busily doing something behind a screen of leaves in a nearby tree. We were soon joined by a pleasant couple from New Orleans, who had told us earlier in the day that they'd had a male Calliope Hummingbird overwinter in their yard.
Trying to get a kink out of my neck, I turned to my left and noticed a patch of bright red. Thinking it was probably just a marker on a tree (as nearsighted as I am, I often see bits of plastic tape as birds), I put up my binoculars and saw a beautiful adult male Elegant Trogon sitting in full sunlight not 30 feet away from us. It was an imposing bird (about 12.5 inches in length) and entirely silent. Its head was emerald green, its eye black with a red ring, its bill yellow. A clear white stripe appeared between the deep green of the neck and the vivid red of the breast, and the underside of the tail was a complex pattern of black and white scallops. And I could see all of that quite clearly, just as in the book. (The book says, "Found in streamside woodlands, chiefly at altitudes between 4,000 and 6,000 feet. Vagrants are seen in southwestern New Mexico and southern Texas. Formerly called the Coppery Tail Trogon.")
There was a quaver in my voice as I said to the others, "There's an Elegant Trogon". To Lee's eager "Where?", I replied, "Just look for the red patch in that tree". He started setting up his camera, but the others told us they'd seen one elsewhere yesterday and started babbling about the Bridled Titmice (a lifer for them) and about whether the little birds in another tree were Ruby-crowned Kinglets. Bridled Titmice and Ruby-crowned Kinglets are delightful little things, but nothing compared to a trogon, and I had to restrain myself from hushing them. The trogon didn't wait for Lee, but flew to another perch equally near but in the shade. Fortunately, the other couple soon left, so we had this glorious bird to ourselves and were able to savor it for ten minutes as it flew from perch to perch but stayed in the vicinity.
We had the one front view, followed by side views and rear views. I was delighted to see, as it sat with its back to us in the sunlight, that the deep green of its back iridesced a wonderful turquoise, just as the Quetzal's does. And when it flew through spots of sunlight, the red of its breast flashed as the Quetzal's does.
After that, anything else would have been an anticlimax, so we headed back down the trail with me effervescing all the way (and wiping a few tears).
We stopped at the Preserve's famous bookshop to announce our find (no sightings had been recorded within the Preserve for 10 days, so folks had thought the trogons had left for the season). While we were there, we indulged ourselves with quite a few books and, of course, an Elegant Trogon T-shirt as a trophy for me.
After lunch in our nice little cottage, Lee drove off to do some exploring and I settled on one of the benches in front of the hummingbird feeders for the afternoon. I finally got really to know the tiny Rufous Hummingbirds (well, 1% of them were probably Allen's, but it's futile to try to tell these two closely related species apart in the field).
(I think I actually saw a male Rufous hovering in the bright sunlight over the highway yesterday, as we were driving to San Pedro, but we passed under it too quickly for me to be sure of anything other than that there was something hovering and glinting gold/rufous.)
And I got several long sunlit looks at a male Magnificent Hummingbird!! I had always wondered why one hummingbird should have been singled out as being the magnificent one. Now I know! Pete Dunne's description: "Aptly named and outshining them all is the male Magnificent--black as onyx in the moonlight, adorned with an amethyst cap and a turquoise throat. When a Magnificent arrives on the scene, it draws all eyes and lesser hummingbirds give ground."
There were audible gasps from the benches whenever the Magnificent turned so that its cap and throat iridesced that brilliant purple and green/turquoise.
We had an abundance of Anna's too, their geranium-colored hoods sometimes iridescing gold. And there were wonderful Black-chinneds, with their stripe of sparkling lavender. (The effect really is very much like sequins in a spotlight.)
I was startled to discover a hummingbird with a yellow head, as there are none like that in Birds of North America, but then I realized that it had just been doing its job pollinating flowers and had gotten its head and bill coated with pollen in the process.
A rumor spread of a male Blue-throated being at a feeder near the bookshop, but it was soon gone and I didn't see it. Then a man rushed up the hill to tell a friend on the benches that there was a White-eared Hummingbird down the hill at the B and B. Exactly the same thing happened when the Dunne's were here: "Several more serious, questing birder types were parked in the Mile Hi lot but were spending their time staking out the feeders at the bed and breakfast down the street. A family of White-eared Hummingbirds was hitting the B and B feeders--pearls of great price."
Everyone but me headed down the hill. Resisting the mob psychology (and knowing that the White-eareds would show up here at 6), I went off to wash my hair. When I returned to the benches, there was a good crowd. A professional guide identified a female Calliope Hummingbird (the smallest in North America, 3.25 inches); I could only believe her. A man who'd been sitting there a while said, "It's mesmerizing. You sit down to watch for 5 minutes and an hour later you're still here".
Late in the afternoon, Lee returned, having spent several hours scouting out the kingfisher locations along the San Pedro. He'd not seen any kingfishers, but he had found the locales described in the local booklet. I was happy to be able to show him the Magnificent, as well as Rufous, Anna's, and Black-chinned.
We waited until 6 to see the White-eared ("rare summer visitor from Mexico"), and it was very pretty, a less spectacular implementation of the Magnificent, with a green gorget and a purple crown.
We drove down to town with a beautiful sunset over the mountains to the restaurant we'd enjoyed last evening. This evening, I was in a mood to celebrate and had their Brown Bear for dessert (a good brownie topped with hot fudge, vanilla ice cream, real whipped cream, and almonds).
We drove back up to the Preserve after dark, pausing along the road to watch a group of three raccoons. By the time we got to the Preserve, the bats were at the hummingbird feeders, so Lee got out the flashlight he always travels with (ever since the Barking Owls in Australia) and shone it discreetly in their direction. We were amazed at how many there were and at how close they flew to us. (Even when they passed within inches of our heads, we heard nothing at all.)
The author of our trogon book has seen 4 species of quetzals and 15 other species of trogons. I wonder if it is still even possible to do that? This is from the beginning of his book:
On a muggy day in mid-July, 1976, I witnessed a pair of Elegant Trogons defending their nest against a marauding Sonora Gopher Snake.
Fully five feet long, the reptile was twice its length up the chalk white column of a sycamore tree. The chiming, food-begging calls of the young betrayed the dark entrance of the nest cavity not far above. While the snake cautiously tested each crevice and wart of the bark's slick surface before inching upwards, both adult trogons were motionless, churring their distress in a series of hoarse, rapid chucks.
The male held a large, green larva in its bill. Occasionally he readjusted this tidbit, obviously meant for the nestlings. After 20 minutes, he finally swallowed the caterpillar. The spell was broken. With powerful wing beats, he closed the short gap separating perch from gopher snake, balancing his brilliant body on a vertical axis. Before the snake could react, the bird battered its upper torso with a flurry of stiff-edged wing blows.
Now it was the female trogon's turn. Repeatedly, with no further assistance from her mate, she hovered within inches of the serpent's head, drumming the air and diving bill-first at the nest assailant.
For at least five minutes the reptile held its position, only weaving its blunt head and flicking a black tongue. Then, as the female attacked yet again, it lunged. She avoided the strike by a wide margin. Down the smooth, white trunk slid the snake in a rasping, slow-motion fall. And then silence. A tableau unbroken even by the young, who must have felt the danger telegraphed up through the decaying tree.
After a minute, I walked over to where the gopher snake lay collapsed at the foot of the sycamore. It seemed stunned or dead. I extended my boot to touch it; the snake nailed my toe in a lightning-swift stroke, coiled and began vibrating its tail in the leaves. With newborn respect, I looked again to where the trogons perched facing me, clearly alarmed, yet not willing to quit. Then I drove the reptile away from the nest vicinity.
The Acorn Woodpeckers were out in force this morning, although not like in Madera Canyon. We had a White-breasted Nuthatch again and a few Painted Redstarts (their scarlet tummies glow against their black backs and heads). And in a very rare occurrence, we identified a hummingbird in the wild, a male White-eared (the white "ear" is very conspicuous).
Just after it flew off, a nice couple from Georgia came along. We'd told them earlier about our trogon and they were hoping we'd repeat. They pointed out the call of a Strickland's Woodpecker before going on up the trail. Lee and I then both saw it, resulting in a discussion that was very confusing until we realized that he had the male and I had the female. "Well, I can't see any red on its head at all!"
We continued slowly up the short trail and then sat for a while on our lucky bench, but there were no more trogons. We chatted with the folks from Georgia, who are clearly much more skilled than we are. I think the man was slightly peeved that we'd lucked into finding the trogon. When I mentioned that I'd not yet seen a Blue-throated Hummingbird, he pointed out that he'd seen one yesterday afternoon when we were all sitting on the benches in front of the hummingbird feeders.
Lee and I headed back down to those feeders so he could photograph in the bright sun and I could keep looking for a Blue-throated. I had barely sat down, when I got a nice long sunny look at a male White-eared and changed my mind about its being less spectacular than the Magnificent (rather, a bit more subtle)--really a beautiful bird. When its gorget iridesced, it was an indescribable deep brilliant turquoise, modulating to emerald green.
Once Lee got there, the male White-eared came back and sat on a snag in full sunshine, iridescing splendidly and letting Lee photograph it over and over.
A tiny male Rufous kept dive-bombing the White-eared, trying to get it to go away, because the snag was too near one of the feeders, but fortunately it didn't succeed. (Male hummingbirds are very aggressive and territorial. Pete Dunne's description: "The action around the feeders was fast-paced, the air filled with the hyperpitched snitting and snarls that are hummingbird war cries. One-on-one aerial duels escalated to the level of squadron combat around particularly prized feeders.")
Well slathered with both sun screen and insect repellent, we left Ramsey Canyon (very reluctantly) late in the morning. We would certainly like to return some day.
We headed back to the San Pedro River, where Lee had scouted out the kingfisher locations. Our walk across the grasslands was even hotter than before. What must it have been like for the farmer whose alfalfa field this once was, toiling in worse heat all summer long?
Before we got to Kingfisher Pond, we had a wonderful long look at a Vermillion Flycatcher. (At times, they seem almost Day-Glo orange.) At the pond, Black Phoebes were hawking for insects out over the water. American Coots swam by with wonderfully raucous calls, and a White-winged Dove who thought it was hiding from us gave us an excellent view just a few feet away. Then we spent forever trying to identify a pretty little mostly-yellow warbler that I still can't figure out. And there was something making lots of noise invisibly down in the reeds. (It was probably some rare and wonderful rail that we'll never see in our lives.) As we continued to walk along the banks of the pond, frogs shrieked at us before leaping into the water, and Red-winged Blackbirds scurried off noisily. Bright red dragonflies and bright blue dragonflies were everywhere.
When we were finally convinced that we were not going to see a Green Kingfisher (or any other kind), we left the pond to go along the river trail again. There we found more lovely unidentifiable sparrows and got great looks at a Sharp-shinned Hawk and a Blue Grosbeak (fantastic!). We paused to watch a Song Sparrow (the Western race is paler than the ones we see in the East) bathe in the river and then preen itself sitting on a reed.
I thought I was going to wilt going back through the hot field, but then we spotted a beautiful little bird and I stood there in that awful sun for five minutes no longer noticing the heat while we worked out that she was a female Vermilion Flycatcher (so dainty--brown and white with a bright peach underbelly). But I was grateful finally to reach the air-conditioned car.
We had lunch at the biggest pizza parlor either of us has ever seen and then headed east.
The winner of today's euphemism prize was the "Refuse Transfer Station", which looked a good deal like a garbage dump to us.
We stopped at another place along the San Pedro, which is supposed to be good for Belted Kingfishers. Walking along the river was very pleasant, but kingfisherless.
Our drive lasted a couple of hours, getting us very close to the border with Mexico and then very close to the border with New Mexico. The basins we passed through were also hot, dry grasslands, but their elevation (5000-6000 feet) was great enough that there were almost no cacti. There were lots of kingbirds, however, hawking from the phone wires.
We stopped at a bronze historical marker commemorating the surrender of Geronimo. It praised the Army and said that the surrender "ended the Indian wars forever". Informal additions to the marker said "Bullshit" and "Geronimo lives". A little further on, there was a sign reading "Welcome home, Chiricahua Apaches" and another that pointed the way to the Geronimo monument.
We turned onto what is officially described as a "primitive road" toward the tiny town of Portal, Arizona, a birding hotspot of the first order. We went to the grocery store (which looks just like grocery stores did when I was a child--the screen door with the Holsum Bread ad gave me a wave of nostalgia). There, we checked into the adjacent motel (and were handed packaged Danishes, as there is nowhere in town to get food at a birder's breakfast time).
There are hummingbird feeders everywhere here, including just outside the door to our room.
We had a good Mexican dinner in the cafe attached to the store and then took a walk along the (very short) main street of Portal, where almost everybody is a birder, and where there are mountains very nearby in every direction.
The reason to come to Portal is that it's where "the South Fork" is (one doesn't even need to say what it's a fork of; birders know that you mean Cave Creek Canyon). The author of our trogon book says:
Most of my Elegant Trogon research has been conducted in the South Fork, a 10-mile-long arm of the Cave Creek watershed. Nowhere else is the rich biotic diversity of Southeastern Arizona better expressed. And nowhere else in all of Arizona has man permitted a canyon that razors through five life zones to go commercially unexploited. South Fork has never been mined, logged, tilled, overgrazed, or dammed. The vine-strung, pastel ribbon of trees that ties the desert Ocotillos to the conifer forest in South Fork is, in a sense, the last living picture of the original ecology of the borderland ranges. It is a picture that is still evolving.A delightful man from Oregon with whom I was chatting before the feeders at Ramsey Canyon yesterday and this morning had just come from Portal. He stayed here for five days and saw Elegant Trogons each day. Perhaps we'll be in luck again. (When we said goodbye, he said he'd enjoyed sharing his uncertainties with me.)
Or, dream of dreams, perhaps we will see an Eared Trogon, even bigger and rarer than the Elegant. (Well, Pete Dunne is said to have seen one here.)
The author of our trogon book was the first person to see an Eared Trogon in the U.S., and it was here that he saw it:
At two o'clock in the afternoon on October 23, 1977, in the South Fork of Cave Creek Canyon of the Chiricahua Mountains, Arizona, I saw the first Eared Trogon ever reported in the United States. I was winding up my first season of research on the Elegant Trogon when I heard the unusual, almost musical calls.The field guide doesn't even show a distribution map for Eared Trogon in North America, but just says, "Casual in late summer and fall in mountain streamside woodlands of southeastern Arizona".
The trogon was peering over its shoulder at me. I immediately looked for the white tear drop behind the eye which identifies Elegant Trogon juveniles and adult females. There was no teardrop, and--to my surprise--there was no orange eye ring. Furthermore, the bill of this bird was slate gray, not yellow.
While the realization swept over me that I was looking at an entirely new species of trogon, the bird launched itself across the canyon, uttering yet another cry novel to me. I remember thinking that it was a male because of its iridescent green back, still unable to dissociate it from the familiar Elegant. Working my way down the creek minutes later, the bird revealed its location with a loud squeal. For the next 30 seconds, I got my first frontal view of the newcomer.
There was no white collar separating the brilliant red belly and breast from the green upper torso. The undertail was nearly all black, except for two white crescents entering midway on either outer edge. The undertail was not barred. Abruptly the bird was airborne, flashing dazzling white outer tail feathers as it gave its flight call. I followed it from perch to perch for the next two hours.
Personally, I would be happy just to see a Roadrunner. It's getting to be embarrassing that we haven't, as they are supposed to be relatively common and very conspicuous. Dunne says that the Spofford's have one as their "resident harpy", and we'll be there tomorrow, too, looking for a Blue-throated Hummingbird (and just maybe a Calliope).
I'm reading Fay Weldon's novel Letters to Alice on First Reading Jane Austen, and I'm delighted with it. It takes the form of letters to a (fictitious) college-age niece who has complained of being required to read "irrelevant and boring" Jane Austen:
How can I hope to explain Literature to you, with its capital "L"? You are bright enough. You could read when you were four. But then, sensibly, you turned to television for your window on the world: you slaked your appetite for information, for stories, for beginnings, middles and ends, with the easy tasty substances of the screen in the living room...and:
I do wonder what it was that led Jane Austen into believing that her novels were publishable: were acceptable to a readership other than that of her immediate family and friends? She wrote the early books, initially, to be read aloud. Her tiny, fine handwriting, lacing the page this way and that--paper was expensive and it was customary to cover every available patch of it with writing--was hardly conducive to actual reading. The sense of the books, the delicacy of the language, the phrasing, the dialogue--all was written to be absorbed by the ear, not the eye.and (discussing the gentle Fannie's winning Edmund's heart in Mansfield Park):
Oh, Miss Austen, what wishful thinking do we not have here! It has come to my notice, Alice, that in the real world the worse women behave, the better they get on. (Discuss, with reference to your female friends, and their mothers.)
Then off we drove to the legendary South Fork of Cave Creek Canyon of the Chiricahua Mountains. The Chiricahuas are extensive, about 40 miles by 25 miles in area; they rise from an elevation of 3800 feet to almost 10,000. They are mostly quite a nice orangey-pink in color.
The Location Checklist to the Birds of the Chiricahua Mountains (by Richard Cachor Taylor, the author of our trogon book) says:
During the spring practically everybody in Cave Creek carries binoculars. Most people who live in the little hamlet of Portal, population about 60, are dedicated birdwatching enthusiasts. With this many sharp observers, it is not too surprising that the Chiricahua checklist presently stands at 362 species, not including five species still considered hypothetical--about half of all the birds regularly occurring on this continent north of Mexico.The mountain through which Cave Creek Canyon cuts is of volcanic origin and is pocked with caves. The Chiricahua Apache are said to have arrived here about 1500 AD, but the caves were peopled as long as 10,000 years ago.
The pretty picnic grove near the parking area for the trail we were taking has bear-proof refuse cans, placed there by the Bear Society of Arizona, which tries to protect bears from becoming "trash bears". "A trash bear is a dead bear."
The canyon is north-south trending between vertical orange cliffs (about 1000 feet apart where we started hiking). It is good that we saved this canyon for the last, because it is certainly the most beautiful of the sycamore canyons we've been in, and it is totally unspoiled--there is just a simple trodden path (that we lost now and then among the rocks).
It's hard to describe the beauty of the canyon. There is a nice rocky stream meandering through. The most predominant trees are lovely white sycamores, russet/black pines, and grey alligator junipers, but there are many others. The diversity is astonishing. We found many more wildflowers, including a patch of brilliantly red hummingbird flowers that we staked out for a while both coming and going. In breeding season, the canyon harbors about one pair of Elegant Trogons in every half mile, for a total of about ten.
The part we hiked along was an easy 1.5 mile trail (well, easy except for our having to leap from stone to stone crossing the stream a dozen times as it meandered from one wall of the canyon to the other).
Our first birds were two American Robins. Neither of us can remember ever having seen a Robin away from manicured lawns before, except for one in Madera Canyon a few days ago. These were scratching around in the leaf litter and were only slightly disturbed by our passing.
(A few years ago, Lee and I spent several delightful days in Scotland. When we returned to our hotel in London, we were chatting with the Manageress about the birds we'd seen, one of which was our first English Robin, a very common bird, tiny and sprightly with a personality much like that of our chickadees. (The American Robin is not really a robin at all, but a thrush that has the same coloring as the English Robin and to which the English settlers affixed the familiar name.) Lee innocently mentioned to the Manageress that our Robins are much larger, to which she replied, "Well, they would be, wouldn't they?" This was delivered in such an impeccable accent that one didn't mind the putdown.)
Soon after the Robins, the Acorn Woodpeckers started their day. There were no other birds at all for quite a while, other than a scolding Steller's Jay. I realized that we'd come too early, that the real birders had probably been headed out to see grasslands birds before it got to be too hot, and I was beginning to think we'd hike through North America's premier birding hotspot and see only Robins, Acorn Woodpeckers, and a Steller's Jay. (We are definitely in no danger of loosing our amateur status.) Of course, part of the problem was that the canyon was so beautiful that we were distracted by the scenery.
Although the west wall of the canyon was in sunlight when we arrived, none penetrated into the canyon until almost 9.
Before the sun got into the canyon, some of the groves were lit by an orange glow of sunlight reflecting off the west wall of the canyon.
About halfway up we encountered a "wilderness barrier", beyond which no bikes, motorized vehicles, or hang gliders are allowed. It would have been appalling to encounter any of those on the lower part of the trail either. Fortunately, we had the canyon entirely to ourselves the whole morning.
As things warmed up, we began to see some birds. There were Chickadees that seemed to be the rare Mexican, but we didn't have a really good look. We found a pair of Ovenbirds with "legs bubblegum pink" just as the book says. There were Ruby-crowned Kinglets (we were glad to see them this time) and a flock of Bridled Titmice.
A mystery woodpecker kept us occupied for quite a while. It sat in the sunlight nearby long enough for us finally to identify it as an immature Red-naped Sapsucker. (The rich milk-chocolate-brown hood threw us off for a while.)
At one point, while we were stopped to look around, a large male hummingbird (our first Blue-throated, I think) buzzed all around us several times, checking out Lee's delicious looking NJ Audubon binocular strap, which is bright red.
We found no trogons, but it was still a perfect morning.
We went back to Portal for lunch. As we were pulling out of the motel parking lot, the couple from Georgia were pulling in. (We'd seen them arrive last evening; they'd taken longer on the road from Ramsey Canyon than we had, because they'd spent a couple of hours at the Sierra Vista Sewage Treatment Plant, a noted birding venue.) Through the closed car windows, the man mouthed, "Trogon?" and answered my "no" and inquiring eyebrow with a "no" of his own. I do hope they found one later; they were to be here for a few more days.
We were off to "the Spofford's". Walter and Sally Spofford moved to a house outside Portal in 1972 and set about to attract birds to their yard by providing food, water, and cover. They succeeded magnificently. And they share their bounty with the world, to the extent of about 15,000 visitors per year. Their yard is said to be the best place in Arizona for Lucifer Hummingbirds, and they've had many other rarities.
The Spofford's yard is unlike the other places we've watched hummingbirds in that it is not in a canyon, but just outside, so the species that come to it are those that prefer a more arid environment. And the Spofford's have set out to attract other birds and wildlife as well. They have at least a dozen hummingbird feeders, plus suet, seed, and a shallow pool of water, all attracting birds.
There is a sign as one enters the yard warning that a bear has been frequenting the feeders. The recommended behavior if one sees the bear is, first of all, not to run. Making a loud noise is said to cause it to leave, but Lee instructed me that I'm to allow him to photograph it before I make any noise. Near the sign-in book, there are photos of the bear, a bat, and a coyote at the feeders.
It was pure Heaven. We'd barely sat down on a bench under a tree when we got a great iridescent view of a male Magnificent Hummingbird and then of a male Blue-throated (the blue is indescribable). We also had Black-chinned, Anna's, and Rufous/Allen's, but no Calliope (not that I'm complaining).
We were all alone there, so Lee set up his camera and photographed enthusiastically. We had a female and an immature Black-headed Grosbeak, a Curve-billed Thrasher, a Bewick's Wren (scuttling over and through the brush pile), House Finches, White-breasted Nuthatches, a male Summer Tanager, a California Towhee, and a Northern Cardinal. The Acorn Woodpeckers were starting a new granary in a nearby pole.
When Mrs. Spofford put out a small dish of crackers, a Bridled Titmouse rushed over to get one.
Perhaps the best of all was a flock of Gambrel Quail (those are the ones with the great topknot) that came through the yard to get some seed and water. There were about a dozen adults and five chicks. (The chicks had just a tiny nub of a topknot.) They were quite unconcerned by our presence as long as we stayed still, so we had a great view.
We did not see the semi-domesticated Roadrunner we've heard about, which is said to include hummingbirds in its diet.
We stayed for a couple of hours and then returned to the motel for a shower and a nap. At dinner in the cafe, we compared notes with the couple from Georgia. Their first question was whether we'd had a Calliope Hummingbird. They hadn't either, but they'd found half a dozen different warblers in the Spofford's yard, while we'd seen none. And they thought they'd found a Thick-billed Kingbird along the road, though that would be unusual at this time of year. (I didn't tell them that we don't do kingbirds.) They'd seen a Cactus Wren on one of the prickly pears on the road to the Spofford's house, so we'll look there tomorrow.
I've begun reading Nadine Gordimer's July's People, a gripping novel of a young white South African couple and their three children who are rescued by their black servant and taken to his native village when a violent revolution erupts. I fear I'll stay up way too late tonight.
We struggled awake at an early hour, quickly packed, and went out for a bit of grasslands birding outside Portal (we found a dozen Turkey Vultures still in their communal roost) before indulging ourselves in another hour in the Spofford's yard.
The Gambrel Quail family went scurrying off when we arrived but the other birds and animals put on a great show. We had two kinds of squirrels, plus a ground squirrel who sat on the brush pile chattering while Lee took his picture. There was a White-winged Dove, and Lee found a Rufous-sided Towhee scratching about under one of the bushes. Things quieted down for a while after a hawk flew low through the yard, but the hummingbirds popped back almost immediately. We got good long looks at the Magnificent and Blue-throated Hummingbirds, which will have to hold us until another year.
The rest of the day was devoted to driving to Sante Fe, New Mexico. We had lots of Turkey Vultures and Ravens, including some Chiricahua Ravens (slight white "necklace"), and many anonymous kingbirds, but that was about all in the way of birds. (We did at one point have a road sign giving the distances to the next two towns, Nutt and Hatch.)
The drive took us along a great rift valley, where the continent is being torn apart to form a new sea floor. The only reason that New Mexico is not bisected by a narrow sea running north-south is that the mountains on both sides of the rift are being eroded rapidly enough to fill in the trench (up to 20,000 feet deep in some places). The rift valley is still about 28 miles wide by the time one gets to Sante Fe and is even wider to the south of here.
The Rio Grande River meanders through the rift valley. The cottonwoods of its bosque are the only trees of any size in an otherwise extremely arid region (it appears to be much drier than Arizona). There are signs of over-grazing of the desert, including what are known as "post-1880 gullies". And, as in Arizona, there are always jaggedy purple mountains on the horizon.
By the time we got to the town of Hatch ("The Chile Capital of the World"), we were seeing irrigated fields of bright green chile plants laden with brighter red chile peppers. Passing through the town, we saw chiles spread to dry on roofs and strings of dried chiles (called "ristras") hanging everywhere.
The billboard laws seem to be much more lenient in New Mexico than in Arizona. I found the signs annoying, but I would hate to have missed the one for the Oasis of Love Church ("Healing is for You").
Compensating for the billboards was a very useful form of tourist information. Periodically, there would be a sign saying to tune to a particular radio station. If one did, Ricardo Montalban would regale one with interesting tales of the history, geology, biology, etc., of the area through which one was passing.
There were many Indian reservations, each of which had a gambling casino.
When we crossed the Rio Grande for the last time, late in the afternoon, the sound of tiny bugs hitting our windshield was like heavy rain. We were glad we weren't going to be camping there along the river tonight.
Sante Fe is a beautiful small city, a very sophisticated place, the home of many artists and artisans (and a "playground of the rich"). It was established seven centuries ago by Pueblo Indians and is considered to be the second oldest city in the U.S. (and to be the "dancing ground of the Sun"). None of the buildings seem to be more than about four stories high. Most are Pueblo Revival in style, which feels genuine here, and all are in muted desert colors. The flower gardens are spectacular.
We have a lovely suite in the Hotel Sante Fe, which is owned by the Picuris Pueblo ("Experience the Warmth of our Native American Heritage"). It's a beautiful building with excellent contemporary Native American art throughout the public areas. Our rooms are decorated with posters from Native American art exhibits that I am coveting mightily. The flower gardens range from lovely beds of native wildflowers to a small garden of corn and squash to a beautiful bed of cosmos and marigolds with fruiting woodbine hanging down the wall behind them. There are a number of very good contemporary Native American sculptures around the grounds.
Several tribes have built hotels and cultural centers on their lands for attracting tourists. The Picuris decided that their pueblo is too remote for that to work, so they built this hotel in Sante Fe about five years ago, and it is said to be doing very well both for generating revenue and creating job opportunities. The logo for the enterprise is an extremely graceful sleeping deer (from a Pueblo legend about a deer that was turned to stone for talking to a man).
The Picuris Pueblo had a population of about 3,000 when the Spanish arrived. 150 years later, the population was 300, due to the diseases, alcohol, and taxes introduced by the Spanish and to the Pueblo revolt of 1680 ("the first American Revolution"). Today, the population is 339, not much better.
I was delighted to be back near a phone for the first time in six days, so I logged on to catch up with my email while Lee went out to do some exploring. When he returned, he had found a train station and a good bookstore, not surprisingly.
We had dinner in the hotel, in their Corn Dance Cafe, which features native foods prepared in a sophisticated manner. The menu included turkey, buffalo (including "Kick-Ass Buffalo Chile"), etc. I chose the Rainbow Trout stuffed with mint and apple, with wild rice and a nice squash dish. We both had the highly memorable blackberry cobbler a la mode for dessert.
While we ate, there was a reception going on in the garden outside; the entertainment was a group of Picuris dancers, including a very small (and very proud) little boy.
I'm reading a book called The Navajo Code Talkers about the Marines' use of Navajo signalmen in the Pacific in World War II. It's a story I first learned about in the early 1960s when I began collecting Navajo art, as an artist whose work I particularly liked, Andy Tsinajinie, had been one of the Code Talkers.
The Marines had a bad problem in the Pacific early in WWII that their best field codes were too slow in encoding/decoding to be used under battlefield conditions, but if they used weaker codes, the Japanese decoded messages in time to anticipate the Marines' moves. An engineer in California, who had grown up on the Navajo reservation as the child of missionaries, suggested that the problem be solved by using a code based on the Navajo language.
The idea was adopted and the Reservation and the horrible boarding schools were searched for young Navajo men fluent enough in both Navajo and English to be used in the project. They were inducted, trained as signalmen, and sent to the Pacific theater. (Thousands of Navajo men had volunteered for the armed forces immediately after Pearl Harbor; many were accepted but many were turned down because they could not speak or read English.)
The first group of 21 Navajos were sent through a tough basic training program (which they joked was a breeze to anybody who had survived one of the boarding schools for Indian children). At the same time, they worked together to develop the code and prove it practical. Navajo terms had to be devised for common military expressions. For example, aircraft became birds--the code word for "dive bomber" was the Navajo word for chicken hawk, an observation plane was an owl, a fighter plane was a hummingbird, and so forth. By the end of their training, they were able to prove that they could encode/transmit/decode messages in real time that U.S. encryption experts could not decode. And the Japanese never managed to decode them either.
Ultimately, there were 400 Code Talkers, spread around the South Pacific. They became so crucial that in many cases their commanders assigned bodyguards to protect them. (In addition to the dangers all other Marines faced, they had to worry about being mistaken for Japanese by their own forces.)
They were credited with having saved thousands of lives, but the story was kept secret after the war, in case the same system should be needed in a later war. Ultimately, of course, improved electronics solved the underlying problem.
At the end of the Indian wars, when the Navajo finally capitulated (after four years of being starved in a concentration camp), the terms of the settlement provided for education of the children, with one school and teacher for every 30 children. What actually happened was the development of the boarding school system, which took the children away from the reservation to cold places where many of them died, where they were all ill-fed, and where they were punished cruelly for infractions such as speaking their own language. As a result, there was much resistance to the schools, and one of the Navajo heroes early in this century was a man who kidnapped an Indian Agent who was kidnapping children to send them to the schools (the hero ended up in Alcatraz).
But during World War II, the Code Talkers and other Navajo GIs began writing home to say, "Make my little brother go to school". They were learning the importance of education to their people. After the war, many of them went to college on the GI Bill. Many of the Code Talkers, in particular, went on to positions of influence within the tribe. For example, Peter Macdonald, whose grandparents had made the Long Walk to the concentration camp at Fort Sumner, left his position as an engineer at Hughes Aircraft to return to the reservation, ultimately becoming the Chairman of the Tribal Council and doing much to bring jobs to the reservation. Several other Code Talkers went on to become influential artists, after attending art school on the GI Bill.
There are two good-sized books on our coffee table here, guidebooks to the art galleries of Sante Fe (many of which feature Native American art). Leafing through them, I find that I want everything I see. Tomorrow we will do some gallery hopping.
We stopped first at the crafts shop in the hotel, which features work of the Picuris and other tribes. I didn't much care for the Picuris pottery. (It is quite graceful, but they use a micaceous clay that made their pots seem glitzy to me.) We did buy some dried foodstuffs (e.g., apple-wood-smoked dried tomatoes) from a cooperative on one of the other pueblos, several books, and a simple necklace and earring set of white beads (with turquoise just for the eyes of a bear among the beads).
Then we began exploring the town. It's really a pretty place, with many elegant touches--a graceful gate here, a rose garden there. The town has a program for encouraging young artists by commissioning murals. We enjoyed all of those we saw, but particularly one near the railroad station that portrayed stylized desert wildlife.
We've arrived a bit too late for the big event of the month, the annual Fiesta de Sante Fe. It begins with the burning of a 60-foot effigy of Zozobra (Old Man Gloom), and that's followed by a weekend of other pagan festivities.
But it became clear, as we walked about, that some sort of event had taken place earlier in the morning, while we were being lazy. There were small rubber balls of many colors all over the place. We saw a truck going along the street gathering them up. After it passed, there were still a few strays, so Lee stashed one in each pocket to have to take home to Purmudgeon and Lightning (who always complain that we never bring them anything).
There was a small park along the Sante Fe River (which is just a creek, really, but it had water in it, unlike 99% of the other rivers we've seen on this trip). We saw a woodpecker in a tree there, probably a Hairy. (For the first time in a week, I wasn't wearing bluejeans and binoculars, so I couldn't see it well.)
Our first goal was the Ray Tracey Gallery. Tracey is a Navajo silversmith whose work I admire. When Lee first start planning the trip, I told him I'd like to visit Tracey's gallery, but I didn't know what town it was in. He searched the Web, and I searched a year's worth of American Indian Art magazines, but neither of us found anything. Then, not surprisingly, given the rate at which the Web is growing, when he did another Web search shortly before we left on our trip, he found several hits and determined that Tracey has a gallery in Sante Fe.
When we got there, however, we found that it is closed on Sunday, which is probably a good thing for our bank account.
The Chuck Jones Gallery in the same building was open, so we stopped there for a bit. (Jones does animated cartoons, The Roadrunner, Bugs Bunny, How The Grinch Stole Christmas, etc., and the gallery sells the animation cells.) Although it would be amusing to own a Grinch or a Roadrunner or a Wiley Coyote, the prices were too serious. We got to chatting with the staff, however, and they asked whether we collect animation cells. Lee volunteered that I own four from The Yellow Submarine (which I bought at the Harvard Coop for $20 back in the 60's). They got all excited and insisted upon giving me information on getting them appraised and said they thought I could probably get at least $5000 for them now. (Too bad I didn't buy more of them, but of course the $20 was a great extravagance at the time. At any rate, I've no intention of selling them, especially my Nowhere Man.)
I whispered to Lee after we left that I hadn't dared mention that I'd cut the cells down to fit some frames I had. They'd probably have classed me with the troglodyte who cut up one of the Unicorn tapestries to make bed hangings.
We came next upon an open air art show. Passing through that, we were tempted by some watercolors of Sante Fe and by some prints of Central American animals in a colorful primitive style, but we resisted.
We did stop at the shop affiliated with the Sante Fe Museum to get a Georgia O'Keeffe Sante Fe Chamber Orchestra Festival poster to commemorate our visit.
Another gallery, which specialized in Northern Plains Indian art, had some stunning huge pottery pieces (mostly bears) that used an astonishing array of glazes. They were both very beautiful and technically dazzling.
Our real goal was the Palace of the Governors. The collonade in front is the traditional place for the buying and selling of Navajo jewelry. About 150 artisans were seated along the collonade, each with his or her wares spread out on a blanket. We walked along examining them all (so many beautiful things!) and then had lunch at a good chile place on the Plaza (the second best chile I've ever had) while considering what we'd seen.
After lunch, we headed back to the Palace for some serious jewelry buying, going slowly and chatting with people:
Penniless by then, we continued gallery hopping. I loved one gallery we found that was devoted to Navajo folk art. There wasn't a piece in the place that I wouldn't have enjoyed having, but they all left Lee cold (it is unusual for us to have such opposite reactions).
Another enormous gallery seemed to be devoted almost entirely to antique wooden doors and large carvings of animals. There were some really lovely things, but one would need a very large house for any of them.
And gallery after gallery after gallery was filled with Navajo, Hopi, and Zuni jewelry. (I hardly dared glance at the windows.) And, of course, there were exquisite rugs and a particularly wonderful big gallery featuring contemporary Native American sculpture.
We spent some time at the great bookstore Lee had found, assuring that our suitcases will be heavier than ever, then went back to the hotel to drop things off and to get Lee's cameras so that he could photograph some of the murals.
We stopped at a really good chocolate shop and bought more chocolate than made sense for two people about to head out into the desert again, but it would have been a shame to miss the opportunity.
We had quite a pleasant dinner at a restaurant on the Plaza and then window-shopped some more of the now-closed galleries. I fell in love with an appliqued wall-hanging with designs from Mimbres pottery and a turquoise "stacked fetish" necklace that was obviously out of our price range.
It's just as well that we'll be leaving before the galleries open in the morning, but we both wish we'd allotted more time to "The City Different", as Sante Fe calls itself. We hadn't realized how much we would like it. And we're regretting the museums we've missed, which are excellent. (We had enough difficulty getting reservations for our stay at the North Rim of the Grand Canyon that it's clearly too late to try to rearrange the rest of the trip.)
I'm reading a novel that was recommended in the hotel shop, The Man Who Killed the Deer (by Frank Waters, first published in 1942). It is the story of a Pueblo Indian man integrating back into traditional Pueblo society after returning from "away-school". His killing a deer without first performing the proper ritual for obtaining the deer's permission becomes a stone thrown into a quiet pond, the ripples reverberating throughout the community.
We headed west and were soon up on the Colorado Plateau. For the first time since we landed in Tucson, we were among full-sized trees that were in neither a canyon nor a bosque, but out in the open.
This is mesa country. (A mesa forms when erosion of flat-lying sediments reaches a layer that is hard enough to resist erosion and to protect softer underlying layers from erosion. Thus, one has a flat-topped hill with vertical walls. The mesa erodes by a process known as "cliff erosion"--pieces around the edge of the hard layer break off because they have been undercut.) All day long, we drove among crumbling cliffs of every possible color. After a while, there were no longer any trees. There were also no longer any Turkey Vultures; that left the carrion-eater niche to the Ravens, of which there were many.
Early in the afternoon, we turned off the highway and headed along a dirt road to Chaco Canyon. The road passed through very arid country with a few cattle, sheep, and horses. A handsome white colt, excited by our passing, skittered away kicking up its heels.
The Chaco Culture National Historical Park is one of a small number of places in the U.S. to have been designated a World Heritage site. Chaco Canyon was home to Anasazi a thousand years ago.
The canyon is wide and flat with high sandstone cliffs on either side. It contains impressive ruins of a number of "great houses" built of well-dressed stone. By AD 1000, the Anasazi had about 75 towns in the canyon, each consisting of a village built around a large stone pueblo. (Population has been estimated as somewhere between 2000 and 5000.)
Their ancestors, the Basketmaker people, who had just made the transition from hunting and gathering to agriculture, lived here in circular pit houses, partly underground. By 500 AD, the early Anasazi were living in one-story, stone houses above ground, but still making circular pit buildings as kivas, whose purpose was religious and ceremonial. The great houses, as much as four stories high, were built (and added on to) between 850 and 1150, after which the canyon was abandoned because of a climate change that made it too dry for successful farming.
The Anasazi here were knowledgeable astronomers. There is a petroglyph in the canyon that is believed to record the 1054 supernova. Another petroglyph is lit by a "sun dagger" that marks the solstices and equinoxes. Many architectural features are aligned in accordance with celestial events.
From the air, one can see the road system that connected the Chaco Canyon towns to other settlements hundreds of miles away. Also visible is the irrigation system that captured runoff from the mesas and channeled it to walled garden plots. Archaeological digs in the ruins have found beautifully carved wooden flutes, elaborate turquoise and jet and shell jewelry, and handsome pottery. One of the loveliest artifacts is a scraping tool made of bone inlaid with jet and turquoise. Feathers were likely used as decorations too; there is evidence that captive parrots were bred here. (I wonder if they had chocolate? Their trade network was certainly very extensive.)
We spent most of our time exploring Pueblo Bonito, the largest of the great houses in the canyon (four stories high, with hundreds of rooms and dozens of kivas). There is a good trail going around and through the building, with quite a good self-guiding tour book.
Bonito is built in the shape of a "D", with the curved side backing onto the cliff wall. An enormous block of sandstone (97 feet high, 140 feet long, 34 feet thick, weighing about 30,000 tons) fell from the cliff onto the back of the building in 1941. Archaeologists had earlier named it Threatening Rock. The Anasazi engineers had realized the threat when they began the building in 850 AD and had built a supporting masonry terrace below the rock to slow the undercutting that eventually caused its collapse (800 years after the building ceased to be occupied).
The walls are made of stone and mud with a finely crafted dressed stone veneer on both sides (which was originally covered with a plaster of mud like later brick pueblos). The roof and upper floors were supported with massive wood beams. The lintels of the doors and windows were also wood (and many can still be seen). The kivas had an under-floor ventilation system to provide good air flow even though they were underground.
Only by walking through the building could one appreciate its scale and the enormous effort to build it. The rooms were large and the ceilings high, but most doors were so low that I had to bend deeply to pass through them and Lee had to double over. Going along with our guidebook, we found ceremonial T-shaped doorways and a corner doorway that allows in light as the sun rises on the morning of the winter solstice. There was a room with its original ceiling intact and another with stones for grinding meal. An unseen Raven, sitting higher in the ruins, croaked loudly now and then. We found ourselves whispering to one another in our awe of this place.
There is considerable conjecture as to what became of the Anasazi. The most widely accepted view is that they became today's Pueblo Indians or at least merged with another group to become the Pueblos. Some Navajo believe that after the Anasazi migrated away from this area, they migrated back as the people who became the Navajo. ("Anasazi" is a Navajo word, variously translated as "ancient ones", "ancient enemies", or "ancient relatives", which leaves the matter up in the air.) At any rate, there is known to have been a lot of mixing of the tribes. Many Pueblos took refuge with the Navajo after the failure of the Pueblo Revolt, and Navajo who escaped Kit Carson's men took refuge with Pueblos while their kinsmen were led away on the Long Walk.
Chaco Canyon had a major turquoise jewelry industry. An 1890 dig in Pueblo Bonito uncovered 56,000 pieces of turquoise, mostly in the form of beads or pendants. Harvester ants in this area have an affinity for blue-green stones and are known to move small bits of turquoise from the archaeological sites to their nests. This can mess up stratigraphy, but it can also be helpful to the archaeologists. One did a survey of the turquoise industry throughout the canyon by examining the ant nests to find the areas where the industry had been localized.
(I am reminded of something I read years ago about a dig somewhere in the Southwest. The pottery sequence for the area was thought to have been all worked out until a grave was found that contained pieces of several styles that had been thought to be separated widely in time. It took a while for the archaeologists to understand that they'd stumbled onto the grave of an ancient collector of pottery.)
After completing the Pueblo Bonito trail, we drove on a loop road past several other ruins and then stopped at the visitors center to view the exhibit and raid the bookshop. One of the books I got was on Navajo folk art. We were quite touched when the young Navajo woman tallying our charges opened that book to show us the work of a man who lives nearby and then explained to us in halting English how to get to a trading post where his work is sold. (Alas, we misunderstood her instructions and couldn't find it.)
From there, we drove on through more canyons and past more cliffs to Farmington, New Mexico, where we've stopped for the night. Just across the road from our motel is the Riverwalk, a lovely brick-paved path winding along one bank of the San Juan River. We will take the time for a walk there in the morning.
I've begun reading Power of a Navajo, the biography of Carl Gorman, a noted Navajo artist and educator (and the father of the very great Navajo artist, R.C. Gorman). His earliest memories were of drawing horses on bits of paper he scrounged from his father's trading post while his mother sat nearby weaving her beautiful rugs and together they listened to Caruso on the wind-up gramophone for which his mother had traded a rug. Like many of the other Navajo Code Talkers, Carl Gorman lied about his age to get into the Marines, but in his case he had to say he was younger than he really was. He was among the first group of 21 who devised the code and he went on to serve in the South Pacific. After the war, he attended art school on the GI Bill. He later broke new ground as an Indian artist and served on the faculty of U.C. Davis.
His youth had much bitterness, from his escaping ill-clad across snowy mountains from a missionary school (where he'd been chained in the basement for a week for rebelliously speaking Navajo) to his receiving only a certificate as a farmer, not a high-school diploma, from the government boarding school in Albuquerque where he was sent next. Sixty years later, however, also in Albuquerque, he was awarded an honorary doctorate for his art and his work in gathering Navajo lore from the aging medicine men and herbalists.
The sacred mountains that define the traditional boundaries of Navajo land are the San Francisco Peaks (the "Abalone and Coral Mountain") in the West, Mt. Blanco (the "White Shell Mountain") in the East, Mt. Taylor (the "Turquoise Mountain") in the South, and Mt. Hesperus (the "Black Jet Mountain") in the North. We are very close to the Navajo Nation here and will be in it for the next few days.
Most of the day, we were driving through the Navajo Nation with its dry, heavily grazed desert, where greasewood bushes are the most common plant. We had more canyons and cliffs, but here some of the mountains are volcanic in origin.
Our first spectacular sight of the morning was the famous Shiprock ("Winged Rock" to the Navajo), a volcanic plug rising 1700 feet above the flat, dry plain, and visible for many miles. Radiating out from it are volcanic dikes only a few feet thick but resistant enough to erosion to remain standing like tall stone walls across the plain. Several other volcanic plugs are visible nearby, but none so tall or picturesque as Shiprock.
At Shiprock, we left the main route to take a road marked as "scenic" that went through a place named the Red Valley. We'd never heard of it, but when we came over a rise (with Shiprock still visible behind us) and saw the Red Valley, we were awestruck by its beauty--miles of red and orange and pink and lavender cliffs and mesas and mountains spread across the horizon, capped by black volcanic rock. It was very lovely.
The road soon turned to dirt and headed up a mountain. The spine of the mountain was a dark brown volcanic dike, exposed for several hundred feet, an almost vertical cliff with aspen trees in bright fall foliage nestled in every cranny.
The road climbed sharply. When we stopped at an overlook to peer back into the flatlands, the Red Valley and Shiprock were visible far below in a beautiful landscape of eerie colors and bizarre formations. I'm sure the photographs Lee made could grace the covers of science fiction novels about life on the moons of Jupiter.
Further up the mountain, we stopped again just in time to see a Red-tailed Hawk fly up the canyon and glide into the clearing we were in to land on a tree, his tail spread as a rudder with the sunlight shining through it. He was not happy to share the clearing with us, however, so didn't remain long.
Soon, unfortunately, we passed the road grader hard at work. After that, the road grew rather dreadful, with deep channels eroded across it and along it. However, there were almost no other cars, so Lee could choose his way, and the woods were beautiful, conifers and bright yellow aspen. The air temperature had dropped sharply, and there were little waterfalls beside the road. It was so very strange suddenly to be in this cool, verdant place after so many days in the desert.
There were many birds. We identified Chipping Sparrows, Dark-eyed Juncos (the grey-headed race), and Steller's Jays. We also spotted several chipmunks, one of whom was sunning itself on a big rock next to the road and was quite content to be photographed as long as we remained in the car. (I suspect he'll be hibernating soon.)
As we started down the other side of the mountain, we found ourselves among huge red stone monoliths very like Ayres Rock but with slightly more vegetation. One wouldn't have been surprised to see Zebra Finches, as we did at Maggie Springs a few years ago. The resemblance to Ayres Rock was uncanny, except that this rock was not alone in the midst of a flat desert. It had the same stained streaks from rain running down, the same wind-eroded caves.
Coming down from our unplanned mountain, we were at once back in the desert and soon reached a regular highway where we could look back to see the red cliffs extending for more miles.
We continued southwest on the high, dry plain to the Canyon de Chelly National Monument, coming in along the Canyon del Muerto branch. Half a mile away, one wouldn't dream that there was anything there but more plain, but we followed the sign to the Mummy Cave Overlook and had our second spectacular sight of the morning. The picture this month in the Ansel Adams calendar hanging in our kitchen at home is a black-and-white photograph of one of the Canyon de Chelly Anasazi ruins. That hardly prepared us for these tall red walls!
At Mummy Cave Overlook, our first impression was not of the ruins, but of the Canyon itself. The sheer red walls drop about 600 feet to a flat valley with a small winding stream (which we've read is notorious for its quicksand). The Canyon is not wide, but there is room for some Navajo farms, with corn fields and peach orchards and pastureland for sheep. (The Anasazi grew cotton here, too, in the sunniest, warmest locations, to trade with others a bit further north where the growing season was too short for cotton.)
On the other side of the green fields rise the red sandstone cliffs formed from wind-deposited sand dunes (with beautiful examples of cross-bedding). The top of the cliffs, where we were standing, is made of a hard conglomerate that protects the underlying sandstone.
Scanning the valley, we finally noticed the Mummy Cave ruins (75 rooms and 4 kivas spread across two shallow caves about 200 feet up from the streambed), looking very much like the stone buildings in Chaco Canyon but with the most extraordinary setting imaginable. Mummy Cave is the most extensive ruin in Canyon de Chelly, but it is dwarfed by the enormous red cliff rising behind it.
The site has been occupied since Basketmaker time; remains of their early wattle-and-daub buildings have been found there. The stone ruins are the best preserved in the Canyon; many of the inner walls still have their original plaster, in several different colors. (The ruin was given its English name because of two well-preserved bodies that were found during excavations.)
We drove on to Massacre Cave Overlook. Here Spanish soldiers killed many Navajo woman and children hidden in a cave while the men were away hunting. (The Navajo are believed to have moved into the Canyon in the early 1700s. Unfortunately, its rich farmlands made it a good place for them to be attacked, first by the Spanish and later by the U.S. Army. Kit Carson's slash-and-burn campaign through the Canyon succeeded in starving the Navajo out; all of the peach trees were cut down, all of the livestock were slaughtered, all of the houses and crops were burned.)
Next was the overlook for Antelope House, which quite took our breath away. Here, too is a shallow cave with an extensive stone building (40-50 rooms), but it also has famous rock paintings. Near the building is a narrow ledge on which first Anasazi and later Navajo stood to paint figures on the canyon wall. With our binoculars, we could see the paintings quite clearly. The Anasazi figures, done all in white paint, are somewhat stiff (animals and what I think is a rainbow symbol), but the Navajo figures (four antelope, about half life size, done by a man named Little Sheep in the 1830s) are quite vivid and life-like.
Carl Gorman's father Nelson was one of the first Navajo to have a trading post of his own. It was in Chinle, very near the Canyon de Chelly. Carl's biography describes a trip he and his father took into the Canyon when Carl was a budding artist (but still a small boy):
At a quick turn in the canyon trackway, the wonder of Antelope Ruins was before him.... Carl turned to gaze toward the great cliff wall to the left of the ruins. There, in clear definition, was a series of splendid antelopes, colorfully painted in deep shades of brown pigment. Full of eternal life, never slowing, as they leaped along the face of the wall.... In the years that followed, this magic area was Carl's playground. He returned to Canyon de Chelly many times, alone on horseback, searching for new ruins, looking for the pictographs that might be found hidden away on the high, secluded walls of the canyon. He discovered hundreds of them, never tiring of the search. But he would always come back to these antelopes. Then he would go home and draw them.About 50 feet above the canyon floor across from Antelope House is a crypt that contained the well-preserved body of an old man believed to have been a weaver. His grave goods included a spindle whorl and skeins of cotton yarn (totalling almost two miles in length). His body was wrapped in a blanket of Golden Eagle feathers! Under the feather blanket was a cotton blanket so white when archaelogists found it in 1920 that it looked as though it had just been woven. Under the cotton blanket was a single ear of corn.
After leaving Antelope House Overlook, we went into Chinle for a late lunch at the restaurant of the Holiday Inn there, which is owned by the Navajo Nation. I had really good chile, Navajo fry bread, and peach cobbler, adjourning between courses to the crafts shop, which had spectacular Navajo rugs and jewelry, including a whole case of Ray Tracey. In the end, I bought a tiny pair of Ray Tracey earrings (very practical, I told myself) and a Calvin Begay necklace and earrings, in a night sky inlay pattern much more finely executed than similar ones I'd lingered over in Sante Fe.
After lunch, we stopped briefly at the Canyon de Chelly visitors center (more books, of course) and headed off along the main canyon. At the Tsegi Overlook, a flock of bluebirds flew along the canyon edge in front of us, but I was so absorbed by the view that I didn't notice them in time to decide whether they were Western or Mountain.
Finally, we went to White House Overlook for the view familiar from so many photographs, of the White House ruins in another shallow cave in the massive cliffs. White House was named (in both Navajo and English) for the white plaster on the wall in the upper portion of the ruins, which contrasts sharply with the red canyon walls. It is a very large building, about 80 rooms and several kivas, but still appears tiny against the canyon wall.
There is a trail down from this overlook and across the canyon floor to the ruins. It is the only place where one can go into the Canyon de Chelly without a Navajo guide. We were boggled by the sign warning that the trail is not wheelchair accessible--it's a sheer 600 foot drop and was more than we were up for (although if one were allowed actually to enter the ruins, as we were at Chaco, I think I would have been tempted).
There was much, much more of the Canyon to see, but it was growing late, the wind was rising, and the sky was becoming overcast, so we headed on to the town of Window Rock, the Navajo capital, where we are staying at the Navajo Nation Inn. I opted for a nap while Lee went off to explore. The craft center and the zoo had already closed, but he did find Window Rock (the rock itself) and reported back that there were many birds in the park in front of it.
We had dinner at the Inn. The freshly made tostadas they served with the guacamole and salsa have permanently spoiled us for the packaged kind.
We're using a very interesting guidebook called Native Roads, written by Fran Kosik, a former public health nurse for the Indian Health Service in Tuba City. This is from her description of Gray Mountain:
Former Navajo Tribal Chairman Peter MacDonald, in his autobiography The Last Warrior, tells a story about Apollo 15 astronauts, Jim Irwin and David Scott, who were training on the moon-like landscape of Gray Mountain in 1971. Wearing space suits, the two astronauts practiced driving the moon buggy over the rocky terrain gathering specimens and traveling to and from a mock-up of the lunar landing module.Our modem doesn't like the phone system here, so the rest of our postcards will be delayed another day.
Seeing these strange creatures, a medicine man who was grazing sheep in the area came over to MacDonald for an explanation. When MacDonald told him the astronauts were practicing to travel to the moon the elder asked if he could send a message with them. MacDonald explained to the astronauts that Navajo legend describes the Dine stopping on the moon on their way to visit their father, the Sun. The message was for any Navajos still living on the moon. Too happy to oblige, the astronauts gave the medicine man a tape recorder for his message. When the medicine man was finished, MacDonald interpreted the tape for the astronauts. In essence, the medicine man had warned the moon-dwelling Navajos to beware of these two men, because they will want to make a treaty with you.
The Rock itself is a very handsome monolith of peach-colored sandstone with a large hole through it. The park in front of it has been made into a memorial "to our warriors", the Navajo who died in this century's wars. It was really lovely on this bright, sunny morning, with the blue sky showing through the "window".
The park is surrounded by the Haystacks (sandstone monoliths that look like miniatures of Australia's Olgas) and low buildings containing the Navajo government offices. We found Rufous-sided Towhees and Chipping Sparrows in the park.
And then we headed west again, through more canyon and mesa country and more dry grasslands. There were no trees at all, and there were almost always cliffs of some color near or far. Indeed, we had canyons within canyons. We'd be driving along across a high, dry plain, and suddenly we'd come to an edge, where we'd step down a couple of hundred feet into a canyon. Soon that canyon would be wide enough that it appeared to be a plain with distant mountains, and then we'd step down again into a lower canyon with walls of a different color.
And we finally saw our first tumbling tumbleweed.
Off and on during the day (and yesterday, as well) we listened to WTNN, "the Voice of the Navajo Nation", a very powerful radio station (playing "Indian Country"). Much of the broadcasting was in Navajo (with some songs in other Indian languages). Numbers, dates, and street addresses seemed always to be given in English, however. There was lots of rodeo news. The most popular song was a touching Indian-pride lullaby ("You are our future"). And there were frequent get-out-the-vote pleas.
By the middle of the day, we had reached the Hopi Reservation (which is in the middle of the Navajo--there has been a long, sad history of land disputes between the two). We had visited there once before we were married and have fond memories of a conversation with a Hopi man who owned a gas station that also sold wonderful pottery. As then, we went for lunch and more shopping to the Hopi Cultural Center on Second Mesa. Still regretting a Hopi wedding vase we didn't buy long ago, this time we bought a lovely bowl painted with a design of (very stylized) hummingbirds. And, of course, I dawdled long over the jewelry, ending up with a very contemporary turquoise necklace and a beautiful old-fashioned necklace of coral, spiny oyster shell, turquoise, and silver beads.
At lunch (chile and Hopi frybread), we couldn't help overhearing the conversation at the next table--three woman discussing a Web page they were putting together for the Cultural Center.
Continuing west after lunch, we came finally to a "T" in the road and had a choice between "Grand Canyon, South Rim" and "Grand Canyon, North Rim". We turned right, heading for the North Rim (through the badlands of the Painted Desert).
For many miles, we drove along the base of the Echo Cliffs, the tallest cliffs we've had so far, more pink and orange and lavender. This was once the Mormons' "Honeymoon Trail". After a civil wedding, young Mormon couples from among the settlers in Arizona would make the long trip to Salt Lake City for a wedding in their Temple. The road passed this way because Lee's Ferry up ahead was the only way to cross the Colorado River.
We crossed the River at the Navajo Bridge (one of only three places in Arizona where one can cross with a car--there are also a couple of foot bridges down in the Canyon) and then turned west again along the Vermillion Cliffs, more spectacular than any we've seen so far. (I am beginning to wonder whether we'll be entirely sated with cliffs by the time we get to the Grand Canyon.)
We spent an hour or so "stepping up fault blocks", rising from under 4000 feet to 7925 feet, by which time we were in a forest of ponderosa pine and aspen, quickly making the journey from Summer to Fall. About half way up, we laughed at a sign that said "Scenic Overlook"--we'd had quite a lot of scenery already--but we stopped and found a view that really was worth stopping for, back down to the Vermillion Cliffs rising above a wide, flat plain.
We are staying in the tiny town of Jacobs Lake, about 40 miles north of the Canyon. We are surrounded by beautiful ponderosa forest. As usual, I opted for a nap as soon as we arrived and Lee went off exploring. I woke to the sound of thunder just before he came in soaking wet; he'd been hiking in the forest when the rain started 20 minutes earlier.
He had seen bluebirds on his hike. Minutes later, standing on the porch of our cabin, I was seeing them, too--Western Bluebirds flitting about practically at our feet. And he'd seen an endangered Kaibab Squirrel (this is the Kaibab Plateau). These squirrels are large and dark but have luxuriant white tails; they live only here.
He had brought me a bird checklist for the Plateau and a wonderful Charley Harper poster that I'd been hoping we'd find on the trip. Lee found me the image last April when he started planning the trip. Charley Harper is my favorite wildlife artist. He describes himself as being the only American wildlife artist who is never compared to Audubon. His work has flat surfaces, hard lines, bold colors, and a sense of humor. I've embroidered two of his prints and am hoping soon to begin on a very large piece from a print of his that shows about 100 different neo-tropical migrants flying south through the night. (Perhaps that will teach me a few more warblers.)
We had a very good dinner at the Inn in a dining room with walls covered with excellent Navajo rugs, all of which were for sale. Lee spent the meal eyeing a wonderful Yei rug, but decided that we've not enough bare wall space for it. After dinner, we visited the Inn's shop, which has really high-quality Native American crafts. The pottery, especially, was very lovely; it grows more wonderful all the time. The Hopi Kachinas were great, too; I especially liked the (black-and-white striped) clown playing basketball using a watermelon. Oddly, we've observed that the sand paintings (everywhere we've been) seem to be of lower quality than when we were in Arizona 20+ years ago, but the best of the rugs and jewelry and pottery are both more finely executed and more creative than any we saw on our earlier trip. I bought just a book about contemporary Navajo jewelry to have to sigh over.
And now I'm off to study the bird list. We're again without a phone (which is actually rather nice), so the rest of my postcards will be delayed for another two days.
We slept late and then had a quick breakfast in our room before taking a walk around the grounds of the inn to see birds. We had lots more Mountain Bluebirds, Yellow-rumped Warblers, Dark-eyed Juncos, Chipping Sparrows, White-breasted Nuthatches, Mountain Chickadees, Steller's Jays, Common Ravens, and a pair of black-and-white woodpeckers with bright yellow tummies that had to be Williamson's Sapsuckers. (And there were two other kinds of sparrows that I didn't get worked out. Sigh.)
There were also several of the rare Kaibab Squirrels running up and down trees with pinecones in their mouths. The big white bushy tail is very strange, as it would seem to make them quite conspicuous to predators. (Both sexes have the flamboyant tails, so presumably it's not the result of sexual selection.)
Lee wanted me to see the visitors center for the National Park, which is nearby, so we walked there. They had an exhibit of mounted specimens of several of the animals we're not likely to see, such as a puma with kittens (and a sign explaining that the animals had been taken from poachers or road-killed, not killed for the purpose of exhibiting them).
In front of the visitors center was a small plaza paved with concrete, in blocks about 3 feet square. Since every place here that is not paved is covered with Ponderosa pines, it was not surprising to see that there were pine needles on this plaza. But then I realized that some of them were real, but most were just impressions of pine needles in the concrete. Looking closer, I could see tracks of a deer racing across the plaza, also captured in the concrete when it was wet, and the tracks of a puma (one could see the claw holes in front of the paw prints) that had been chasing the deer. The prints of a wild turkey made another path across the plaza. A bear had shambled through. The smaller cat paws must have been a Bobcat, and one of the Kaibab Squirrels had run across as well. It was a work of art! No effort was made to draw attention to it, so one had the delight of discovery. I was enchanted with it.
Logging is allowed on the Plateau (but not clear cutting), so the whole area is criss-crossed with good dirt roads. Birding Arizona had a recommended route for the best birding, so we took off on that, through the beautiful forests of Ponderosa and aspen, the latter at the height of its Fall color, all yellow and orange and red. With the dark green of the pines and the white bark of the aspens, every turn of the road brought a new vision.
Our first new bird was a Pygmy Nuthatch, which was really a joy. We had lots of birds, although mostly the ones we had already seen at the inn. By 11, I had made Lee laugh at me for saying, "It's just another Bluebird." The best sight of the morning was a sunny puddle in the middle of the road with seven Bluebirds and a Yellow-rumped Warbler bathing with obvious pleasure, splashing about like small children. (But they all flew off when Lee got out of the car to photograph them.)
We had a herd of almost a dozen big mule deer, who did consent to be photographed, and more Kaibab Squirrels, and a ground squirrel who scolded us for at least ten minutes (but stood his ground).
We'd had the inn prepare a picnic lunch for us (with some of their very good lemon sugar cookies). We stopped at the prettiest place possible to eat it, a sunny hill overlooking the orangest grove of aspen that we found all day.
Our best sighting after lunch was another puddle in the road. In just two minutes, we had male and female Western Bluebirds, male and female Red Crossbills, male and female Cassin's Finches (yes, I'm sure (well, almost) that they weren't House Finches), and a Pygmy Nuthatch, who showed us the steel blue of his back.
We looked and looked, along the border of every meadow that we passed, to see turkeys, but failed in that. (I've never told you about the dozens of Ocellated Turkeys we had in Belize earlier this year. They were so coppery and beautiful in the sunlight, and watching their semi-controlled crash landings as they came down from their roosts way up in the trees is something I'll always remember.)
By early in the afternoon, we concluded that we weren't just imagining it; somebody was eating the signs! These were nice wooden National-Forest-style road signs, painted dark brown with white lettering, and many of them had bites taken out of them--big bites. There've been no beavers that tall for a few million years, and it didn't look like the work of beavers anyway. Nor did it look like woodpecker damage. Our current hypothesis is that the bears have developed a taste for the glue in plywood. Whoever it is seems to be stymied when the foresters cover the signs with chicken wire.
The Plateau is interesting in that it almost never has running streams. One can discern a normal dendritic drainage pattern, but the streambeds are free of both water and rocks--they're covered with grass--because most of the rainwater drains straight down through the porous limestone. Much of it appears again only when it has sunk down to the very hard Bright Angel Shale. Then it surges out of the walls of the Canyon as springs.
And speaking of the Canyon, yes, we did eventually go see it. We finally got to the park entrance around 2:30. (The deer nibbling grass along the edge of the parkway were quite blase about being photographed.)
I had been to the Grand Canyon once before, about 30 years ago, but to the South Rim. The approach there is through dry plains, with no trees at all. I remember being so tired then from long days of travel that the Canyon itself made very little impression. However, I still remember my mind being really bent by the sight of one of the exhibits in the visitors center, a small antelope figurine made of split willow twigs, as evocative as the animals in cave paintings. (Only a few of these willow figures were known then. Many more have since been found in caves in the Canyon. They were made 3000-4000 years ago by the Desert Archaic people, probably as hunting "magic".)
The North Rim is heavily forested (it's about 1000 feet higher than the South Rim), and my first glimpse of the Canyon this time was off to the side of the road through a veil of trees.
I confess that I had not really been looking forward to seeing the Grand Canyon at all. The rim of an 11-mile-wide, 6000-foot-deep canyon is not the most congenial habitat for an acrophobe. That first glimpse through the trees wasn't wholly pleasant, though lovely, but I did pretty well at Point Imperial Overlook. My knees were a bit wobbly as we started along the path to the point, but I kept going and stood not too far from the edge, giving more attention to the ravens and hawks floating by than to what they were floating in front of. The Canyon is so familiar from photographs that the visual impact wasn't very strong, but then I wasn't really looking it in the eye either.
I was braver at Cape Royal Overlook. This is the one that has the Angel's Window. A very narrow (about 5 feet wide at the neck) "peninsula" sticks out into the canyon for maybe 70 feet, with sheer cliffs all around it. The top is fairly flat, but there is a big block of stone missing down 30 feet or so, forming a large "window". I told Lee that I didn't think I'd be able to go out on the point, but the path there was so interesting (a pinon-juniper forest, rather than ponderosa-aspen, because this was lower than we'd been earlier) that I got distracted by new birds and calmed down. (The new birds were a Plain Titmouse and an unidentified woodpecker who would show us only his back.)
So, we got to that terribly narrow neck, paused to read the instructions about not getting struck by lightning, and then went on out, knowing that there was a big hole in the rock below us. I did surprisingly well, though not getting very close to the edge and not really drinking in the view. While I was looking in another direction, Lee saw one of the ravens fly through the window below us.
I was pleased with myself and pleased to get back in the car, but then we drove right along the edge of the cliff for a while and I had a panic episode. That ended when one of the Kaibab Squirrels distracted me by running right in front of the car. Lee managed not to make the Kaibabs more endangered by one, but it was a close call.
We drove on to Bright Angel Overlook. I found a nice bench about halfway along that "peninsula", where it was still about 20 feet wide, and sat down to watch the birds gliding by, Steller's Jays glinting deep blue in the sunlight. By the time Lee returned from the point, I was able to show him a flock of a couple of dozen Pygmy Nuthatches gathering in a tree that was leaning out from the cliff.
From there, we walked up to the Grand Canyon Lodge, one of the grand old lodges built by the Union Pacific in the heyday of rail travel (1926). In one of the quadrangles formed by cabins, we found a deer mowing the lawn, oblivious to tourists, cameras, and even dogs.
Luckily, we'd made reservations for dinner at 6, and sunset was at 6:19, so we timed it just right. The Lodge diningroom was very large, with high stone walls, huge wooden beams, and big windows looking south and west into the Canyon (it's built right at the edge of the cliff). We sat there having a very good meal (an excellent potato-leek soup, pork medallions with a good pepper sauce, and Heath Bar Crunch cheesecake) while being treated to a Grand Canyon sunset so spectacular that even the waiters and waitresses were stopping to gape. The South Rim, the San Francisco Peaks, the sky, and the clouds showed every possible shade of blue and every possible shade of pink, until just before dark, when there was a final stanza of bright turquoise and peach.
Then, for our continued viewing pleasure, there was a total lunar eclipse as we drove the 40 miles back to Jacobs Lake!
The announcer on WTNN was reminding listeners that the Dine were taught long ago to stay inside during an eclipse, to suspend any ceremonies that were being performed, and not to eat or drink. And he added that he would inform them when totality was over.
We got back to the inn just in time to walk down the road a bit to a clearing where we could watch the end of totality. 8000 feet above sea level and in the middle of nowhere makes a very good place to see the sky. I don't think I'd ever before seen the Moon look spherical rather than flat.
A wonderful day!
So, we set out to go down off of the Kaibab Plateau, stopping half way down for a misty morning look at the Vermillion Cliffs.
When we were down to the 4000 foot level, we turned onto a side road to go to Lee's Ferry, the only place for 500 miles in either direction where there is easy access to the Colorado River on both sides.
The road to the site of the old Mormon ferry wound through some very interesting formations, more eroding cliffs and mesas. One area had some great examples of "pedestal rocks". These form when a cliff is eroding and a piece of the hard top layer breaks off after being undercut. It tumbles to the lower surface and sits there quietly. After a while, the surface it landed on also erodes, but it protects the spot it landed on from being eroded, so after enough time the surface is much lower and the rock is sitting on a pedestal of uneroded surface material. Some of the pedestals that we saw on our way to Lee's Ferry were 10 feet or more tall and obviously becoming thinner over time because of wind erosion.
We parked and hiked down a slight sandy hill (with lots of unidentified flycatchers) to the river. There is just a small area on each side where the incline would have been gradual enough for a covered wagon. Near where we stood on the sandy beach, some little brown songbird was pretending to be a sandpiper. Not far away, a group of yellow rubber rafts was getting ready to push off into the river as soon as the leader finished his safety talk.
It was satisfying actually to be where we could touch the river, rather than always barely spying it down in a deep canyon. Even here, tall canyon walls were within sight.
We stopped at the visitors center, where I failed to focus quickly enough to identify a wren that was calling loudly. It was probably the Rock Wren I've been seeking for days. We did, however, have a good look at a Townsends Warbler, who must have been migrating through the desert. (We still haven't seen a Roadrunner. I guess we should have stayed in Window Rock until the Navajo Nation Zoo opened; they are said to have one there. Sigh.)
There were Datura blossoms all around. Datura is a low bushy plant that produces very large morning-glory-shaped white flowers. The whole plant is poisonous and hallucinogenic.
We stopped at the Navajo Bridge, so that Lee could take some photographs and I could browse the jewelry stalls. (The stalls are on the old bridge, which sits unused next to the new bridge.)
Then we continued on south along the Echo Cliffs, stopping for lunch at the Cameron Trading Post, a famous old trading post known for its annual auction of Native American art. We browsed their gallery, which was full of beautiful works, many of them quite old. I was much taken by a Zuni bracelet with hummingbird inlay, but resisted. At lunch (more chile and frybread), we were surrounded again by excellent Navajo rugs for sale. I was fascinated by one that used snatches of traditional rug designs to form the parts of a picture; that seemed much cleverer than others we've seen in the past few days that were essentially pictures of six or eight rugs in six or eight traditional designs. (This one had a prize ribbon hanging from it.)
By the middle of the afternoon, we reached an area of recent volcanic activity (the San Francisco Peaks are volcanic) and turned off the road toward a pair of National Monuments, Wupatki and Sunset Crater.
We watched two ravens battling in the air over us as we drove along. It appeared that one was attempting to drive the other from his territory. He repeatedly dove into the other, hitting him with his beak. (One of my favorite books last year was Ravens in Winter (Bernd Heinrich), which is a diary of the author's attempts to understand why non-related ravens share food--they actually lead one another from communal roosts to rich food sources, such as the road-killed cow we saw a bunch of ravens devouring a few days ago. His answer (after years of spending the winter in an isolated cabin and carrying heavy carcasses up icy trails so he could watch the interactions of the ravens) was that the birds sharing the information about food sources are adolescents who have no territory of their own; they alert others so that jointly they can intimidate the mated pair in whose territory the food source is found and be allowed to eat rather than being driven away.)
Driving along, we also had a lovely view of the Painted Desert, more mountains and cliffs and mesas of many shades of red and pink and orange, tinted blue and purple by the distance.
Wupatki National Monument contains many ruins of stone buildings built by the Sinagua ("without water") Indians in the 12th Century. The buildings are similar to the ones we saw at Chaco and Canyon de Chelly, although the stone work is perhaps not so fine. A very interesting feature near the largest ruin (which contained about 100 rooms) was a circular ballcourt with stone walls, presumably used for a game similar to the one played in Mexico. There was also a stone amphitheater about 50 feet in diameter that was apparently used for ceremonial gatherings.
Sinagua had lived here for many centuries before these ruins were built; they were farmers who had to flee in the winter of 1064-65, when the Sunset Crater Volcano formed. The volcano began as a steaming vent in someone's corn field, just as the Paricutin Volcano did in Mexico in the 1940s. And the two volcanoes formed very similar cinder cones. Tree rings record the devastating effects of this volcano; growth was very slow for some years after the eruption. However, a few decades later, after the eruptions stopped, the area became quite productive farmland for a while, because the coat of cinders over the land retained water and warmth. There was a population explosion that led to the building of the ruins that one can now see. After another century, however, most of the buildings had been abandoned, probably because of drought.
Even today, everywhere one looks the ground is covered with black cinders. In fact, the immediate impression is that somebody has paved the desert with asphalt, carefully going around each little bush and tree and wildflower.
Sunset Crater itself is a huge black cinder cone. Near the top, it has a fringe of trees that survive by combing moisture from the clouds. Near the bottom, it has a fringe of Pink Penstemon, a lovely wildflower that grows only here in the San Francisco Peaks volcanic field. All the rest of the cone is bare black cinders.
The visitors center near the crater had lovely wildflower gardens, with pink and yellow and white and red flowers growing up through the black cinders. There was a collapsed lava tube running down a former creek bed; enough moisture accumulated there for Ponderosa to grow.
Oddly, the layer of dried pine needles on the "asphalt" under the pine trees was so thin that one would guess that it had been accumulating for only a year or two. But many of the Ponderosa were gnarled old trees that had been here for many years.
Driving back to the main road, we watched a hawk swoop down after a small bird that managed to get away, probably because we threw the hawk's timing off by driving up.
The main road took us over a couple of mountain ranges, through Flagstaff and on to Phoenix. Fifty miles north of Phoenix, we came over a rise and suddenly were in Saguaro Cactus country, indeed, almost a forest of them.
It was something of a shock to arrive in downtown Phoenix at rush hour and to go from Ponderosa to palm trees in only about an hour. We were very favorably impressed by the beautiful plantings along the roads in Phoenix and Scottsdale. One freeway I thought particularly attractive had Saguaro and blooming Lantana planted in a very formal geometric pattern on its sloping shoulders.
We're settled in a handsome suite in Scottsdale and have had a nice Room Service dinner. Lee has gone off to a movie and I've been reading my email. There were several amusing notes about the PC Week article, including one from Bart Hetrick, who said he could see a Rufous Hummingbird in the ivy behind me in the photo. And a couple of folks were speculating as to whether an Elegant Trogon is something from The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy.
I've begun reading Naturalist, the autobiography of Edward O. Wilson (of Sociobiology fame):
Nature, with a capital N, the concept: for me it holds two meanings. When the century began, people could still easily think of themselves as transcendent beings, dark angels confined to Earth awaiting redemption by either soul or intellect. Now most or all of the relevant evidence from science points in the opposite direction: that, having been born into the natural world and evolved there step by step across millions of years, we are bound to the rest of life in our ecology, our physiology, and even our spirit. In this sense, the way in which we view the natural world, Nature has changed fundamentally.
When this century began, people still thought of the planet as infinite in its bounty. The highest mountains were still unclimbed, the ocean depths never visited, and vast wildernesses stretched across the equatorial continents. Now we have all but finished mapping the physical world, and we have taken the measure of our dwindling resources. In one lifetime, exploding human populations have reduced wildernesses to threatened nature reserves. Ecosystems and species are vanishing at the fastest rate in 65 million years. Troubled by what we have wrought, we have begun to turn in our role from local conquerer to global steward. Nature in this second sense, our perception of the natural world as something distinct from human existence, has thus also changed fundamentally.
So, off we went to the Sonora Desert Museum, which is north of Tucson (making a full circle for this trip). We were again in flat desert surrounded by jaggedy purple mountains. Here, however, some of it was irrigated, so we passed cotton fields, pecan groves, and even an ostrich farm. There were Saguaro here and there on the flat land, and thick groves of them on the slopes of the many small mountains. It was sad seeing wide swaths of desert that had been cleared for rather nasty looking developments. And this was the first time in 30 years that I'd seen a sign reading "Get US out of the UN--Join the John Birch Society".
We went first to Saguaro National Park, which was fabulous. The change in the desert as one passed through the gate was dramatic. The vegetation was much lusher, as there has been no grazing here. The Saguaro were practically shoulder to shoulder, and there was an amazing collection of other cacti. The visitors center was an extremely handsome modern stucco building that fit beautifully in the desert and had great gardens with many of the plants identified. We saw a Curve-billed Thrasher sitting on a Saguaro in one of the gardens as soon as we got out of the car. (What I would love to have seen is an Elf Owl; they make their homes in the Saguaro.) We were glad that some dead Saguaro had been left standing so that we could see the skeletons (they've ribs that look rather like bamboo).
There was a good exhibit that had a Saguaro and many of the birds and animals that depend on them, including an Elf Owl. A sign told us that Saguaro begin to branch when they are about 75 years old and that they seldom live to be older than 200. They are pollinated by bats, bees, and White-winged Doves.
The bookshop had another Charley Harper poster, entitled Desert, a companion to the Canyon Country one we got a few days ago. It showed a Saguaro with a White-winged Dove nesting in the blossoms at the top and many other birds and animals living on and around it. I snatched it up, of course.
I would love to have had more time to walk the trails through the cactus "forest", but we headed on to the nearby Sonora Desert Museum, another wonderful place where we could have spent much longer. We grabbed a quick lunch at the Museum cafe and then went right away to their famous walk-in hummingbird aviary. It was delightful, but rather too full of people (and little people) who hadn't sense enough to keep their voices down. I did finally get to see a Costa's, though I never caught the iridescence, and Lee had a wonderful opportunity to photograph a male Rufous from very close up. As far as I could see, there was no Calliope there (they swap the birds in and out to give them some peace). It was especially nice that the aviary was so full of blooming hummingbird plants that the birds were mostly ignoring the feeders and feeding from the flowers instead.
We went next to another walk-in aviary, which gave us good views of many of the birds we've failed to see here in the wild: Inca Doves, Yellow Grosbeaks, Painted Buntings, Black-throated Sparrows, and Killdeer. I was disturbed by the obviously unhappy Gambrel Quails, who kept walking back and forth trying to find a way out, but I enjoyed the conversation we had with a volunteer who really knew the birds (and their individual histories) and obviously cherished them.
There was much more to see, but it was getting late (and was very hot), so we headed back to Scottsdale.
One pleasant note from this trip, and especially today, is that we are seeing much more "public" use of themes from Native American art. For example, several really handsome bridge abutments we saw today incorporated traditional figures and designs. Of course, there is the downside that some of the best (such as the wonderful Kokopelli (flute player) from a Hohokam bowl) have been overused to the extent that one can no longer find much joy in them, but on the whole it seems a good thing.
Today's winner of the euphemism prize: a sign for "Arizona Aftercare" (cremations and burials).
From Naturalist (E.O. Wilson describing his college years):
On weekends and holidays, we struck out across the state (of Alabama), to the farthest corners and back and forth. We pulled the car over to roadsides and clambered down into bay-gum swamps, hiked along muddy stream banks, and worked in and out of remote hillside forests. On rainy spring nights, we drove along deserted rural back roads, falling silent to listen for choruses of frogs. Sometimes I sat on the front fender of the car as Rawls or Valentine drove slowly. Perched that way, with my left arm curled around a headlight and a collecting jar held in my right hand, I watched for frogs and snakes highlighted by the high beams of the car. When one was sighted, the driver stopped the car, and I dashed ahead to bottle the specimen.... Chermock was unimpressed by our growing expertise. He told us, half seriously, that we could not call ourselves biologists until we knew the names of 10,000 kinds of organisms. I doubt that he could have passed the test himself, but it didn't matter. Hyperbole from the chief kept our juices flowing.We fly home in the morning.
By the age of eighteen, I had been converted to scientific professionalism. Barely out of my Boy Scout years, I was back on the trail of merit badges, this time through research, discovery, and publication. I came to understand that science is a social activity. Previously I had spent most of my time in natural history to learn about wild creatures and to enjoy personal adventure. I didn't care much what others thought of my activity. Now, as Alfred North Whitehead once said of scientists generally, I did not discover in order to learn; I learned in order to discover.
Love to you all,