Exploring a small mountain chain

When we decided to visit southeastern Arizona, we discovered the Huachuca Mountains. We stayed in a little house south of Sierra Vista – elevation 4,600’.

The favorite activities of most visitors are bird watching and hiking. We took the Coronado National Memorial free park shuttle van up the canyon to be dropped off near the summit. We hiked 3 miles back down the mountain to the visitor center. From the scenic trail we looked at Arizona (to our left), Mexico (to our right), and kept watch in all directions for birds.

Many bird species prefer the higher, forested mountains. So, if we were going to see those species, we needed to go up the canyons and climb into the mountains.

Mary Jo at Ash Canyon B&B provides a wonderful introduction to birds of the area. We sat in the shade of her trees and watched a variety of birds at her feeders, including Mexican jays. She told us to come back at dusk to see the Lucifer hummingbird. We did, and the Lucifer is now our favorite U.S. hummingbird.

Miller Peak is the highest mountain in the Huachucas at 9,466’ (2,885 m), and Miller Canyon is one of the best places to see birds. We drove up the canyon early one morning and parked. Then we hiked steadily upward. A bird watcher coming down the mountain path told us just where to look after the bend in the path by a large split rock for a special owl.

Joe spotted the Mexican spotted owl right away on a limb about 10’ over the hiking trail.

We went back to Carr Canyon one evening to meet Sheri Williamson and Tom Wood for an “owl prowl.” We wanted to know how to go about finding owls in the woods. Shari and Tom showed us how they do it – which takes knowledge of each species, years of practice, and learning how to call the birds with their own voices. We walked to a clearing and within minutes saw the smallest owl in the world, an elf owl. What a sight! Would we see any more? We waited while Sheri and Tom listened. We walked to a different spot in the semi-darkness in an opening near some tall trees. All of a sudden Tom turned on his powerful flashlight and aimed it at the tree limb overhead so we could see not one, but two, western screech-owls looking down at us.

We wanted to drive the Carr Canyon road up the mountain. The problem was that it was a rutted, steep 5-mile road with one switchback after another. A sign at the bottom, “Not Recommended for Passenger Cars”, did make us pause, but friends had told us, if we drove very slowly, we should be all right. We did, and we were.

We met a couple at the top who were also bird watching, and together we looked for one of the rarest birds to be seen in the U.S., a vagrant from Mexico, the tufted flycatcher. We all couldn’t believe we saw one…but we did!

At the end of our stay, we drove to Fort Huachuca, an army base, that owns 20% of the mountain range. (The US Forest Service owns over 40%, and the rest is privately owned land.) Our destination on the base was Garden Canyon.

Petroglyphs (rock art) in the canyon were painted and included sacred images like the golden eagle.   The Apaches consider the area of religious significance.

We drove further up the rough road into Garden Canyon. When we finally got out of the car and started to walk, we heard an unusual call. Could it really be the elegant trogan? Since the bird is only seen one place in the U.S., the very far southern edge of Arizona, we could only hope. We walked a little further and heard the strange call again. (Their call is a little like a barking dog.) We hiked down the path in the direction of the trogan’s call but eventually gave up. Just as we started back toward the car, a bird flew right by us and landed in a nearby tree. It called out. The elegant trogon! A minute later, we saw two more in a faraway tree. What an amazing sight!

We saw this dragonfly only in Ramsey Canyon. Every one of the canyons we visited in the Huachuca Mountains was different…animals, insects, new flowers and butterflies, and lots of birds… It’s a worthwhile travel destination if that’s what you love.


April 2017






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An unsettling surprise

We did our research, but a key piece of information seemed to be missing, and we were left a bit unsettled. Had we known, would we have gone?

Here’s the story, in photos:

The San Pedro River is one of the best places to see birds in SE Arizona. Why? It’s a river with woods on both banks and “hosts two-thirds of the avian diversity in the United States, including 100 species of breeding birds and 300 species of migrating birds” according to The Nature Conservancy. We parked at the visitor center of the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area and took off through the grasslands for the woodland by the river.

The thin sliver of the San Pedro River, not so long ago a very wide river, originates in Mexico and flows north into Arizona. “It is the last major, free-flowing undammed river in the American Southwest.” 

We met two women from Nevada on the trail. We started to talk about birds they’d seen when we spied caterpillars crawling on their arms, their shirts, up their pants. Whoa!

They said the trail and the trees ahead were full of tent caterpillars. They’d never seen so many. Neither had we. As we walked forward, caterpillars were squirming on surfaces all around us.

hey told us the pond nearby had some interesting birds. We used the time at the pond to distract ourselves from thinking about caterpillars and look for birds. We became more interested in spotting the many bullfrogs, hiding in the pond.

It was almost a relief to look down and see something else crawling on the ground.


We headed back to the visitor center. As we walked over to the counter, the staff person knew exactly what our question was before we even had a chance to open our mouths! She smiled and without a word handed us a guidebook opened to the page for the forest tent caterpillar.

We later discovered that the caterpillars make great food for all the migrating birds. We know somehow that should have made us feel better.

As we drove away, Joe found a caterpillar on his neck, and we tried to remember to think of them as merely good “bird food.”

Soon enough the caterpillars will be gone, either devoured by the birds or metamorphizing into moths. That would be a better time to visit, we think.


April 2017

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Art makes the town

We spent our Sierra Vista days split in time: hiking for a good part of the day and the rest of the day reading and writing.   Every once in a while, we wanted a serious break. We decided to take a day off from our usual routine and head for the funky, arty town of Bisbee, Arizona.

This window says it all about Bisbee: The buildings are old, but people seem to have a great sense of design and color, and aren’t afraid to use it.

We strolled down an alleyway behind Main Street. This painting transformed what we guess was the back door to one of the businesses.

Copper, gold, and silver mines gave Bisbee its claim to fame. Those started in 1880. You can still see the enormous open-pit copper mine in town. As with most towns dependent on mining, the population soared, miners struggled for better wages and working conditions, and eventually the mine was shut down, throwing the town into a depressed economy.

In the 1970’s and 80’s, Bisbee started a period of rejuvenation. Artists moved in and restored the old buildings, many of them Victorian. The town is still small, with a population of just over 5,000 residents, but it is a vibrant place to be.

We passed a building with at least 20 of these figures painted across the front, arising from the sidewalk. We’d love to know the story behind them.

Many building walls provided surfaces for creative painting.   As we walked up the hill towards a Catholic Church, the concrete retaining wall was covered in grape vines.

It seemed that all surfaces offered an opportunity to mix art with function. A wall at the curve of a road had a decorative “SLOW” sign painted on the rock face.

Artwork did not end when we reached the residential section of Bisbee.

We loved the birdhouses on the side of the house and it appeared many of the little houses were occupied.

Right before we descended the steps back into town, we saw a small garden. The frog looked a bit like Bisbee – a bit worn and faded, but quirky all the same.

Bisbee was a very good visit!


April 2017

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Plotting a return

Four years ago we spent two memorable days at Casa San Pedro near Sierra Vista, Arizona. Ever since, we’ve plotted a return to the area. We know it’s not exactly a hot spot on most vacationers’ lists, but it has a beautiful climate and, best of all for us, good walking and hundreds of species of birds to see. Did we also say very affordable?

A good time for both weather and watching birds is April. Mid-70’s (25 degrees C) in the day and mid 40’s (7 degrees C) at night. Migrating birds are traveling through so chances of seeing more birds and different species increases.

We searched the web to find a place where we could stay for 2-4 weeks and up popped “Arizona Sky Island Escape With View” on AirBnB. The listing was for a little 1-bedroom house that was close to canyons – a perfect fit for our walking and bird watching. The price was so good for a month’s stay that we booked it a year ago and, since then, had been anticipating our stay eagerly.

After a year of waiting this is what we found:

We couldn’t wait to get out for a walk in our new neighborhood. What was that perched in the ocotillo bush? A Gambel’s quail, a common bird here, but thrilling to see for those of us not used to seeing them on a regular basis.

Our walk in the neighborhood led us down a road with few cars going by. It was quiet, except for bird song, and the scenery was pleasant.

What is it about walking through a different environment that perks up your senses to really pay attention?

Small wildflowers grew by the road side which I later looked up and identified as arrowleaf balsamroot (balsamorhiza sagittata). We must have seen these little flowers before but never noticed their amazing detail.

A sign by the road offered us the choice to continue down a path with grasslands on either side. We thought this environment looked familiar, and, when we saw the sign describing it as an oak savannah, we realized that we’d been in another oak savannah near Eugene, Oregon.

We knew so little about the flowers in Arizona, for all we knew they could be weeds. No matter. We did find them charming.

We admired the view of the mountains, enjoyed the warm sunshine, and asked ourselves, “Was the return as good as we had anticipated?”   For us, Sierra Vista has been better than we expected….

…and we spotted over 100 different species of birds in the first few weeks. Most birds – like the yellow-headed blackbirds – we had rarely seen before.


March 2017

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What’s here? Plenty!

We grew up in Ohio, a state entirely covered in green: grass, farmland, and trees. The look was rich, fertile, and inviting. When we first saw the desert many years ago, we thought: empty and ugly. It had to be said. Stretches of barren sand or fine rock with random scrawny shrubs and cactus filled the vast landscape with only an occasional tree. The look was infertile and unforgiving. Over time and a few trips, we changed our minds.

We anticipated wonderful sights in Saguaro National Park near Tucson, Arizona, and yes, the cactus with arms is a saguaro.

So much of the desert environment remains foreign to us. What is this bug that landed on Joe’s hand?

We’d seen the red flowers waving on top of the tall ocotillo plants. The blooms looked like little red signal flags on those pole-like spikes. An ocotillo we passed was bent over, and we finally got to see what the flower buds looked like close up.

After walking for some time we spotted a small cactus in bloom just off the path. The flower’s color and the delicate dusting of pollen made it worth crouching all the way down to take the photo.

At the end of the afternoon we collapsed onto veranda chairs at a nearby Bed & Breakfast where we stayed. We just wanted to stay outside awhile longer to watch the desert. Cameras and binoculars were close by.

The B&B hosts kept birdfeeders filled and tossed food scraps out for the javelinas. Sure enough, the javelinas trotted in just moments later.

Amazing and glorious birds tempted us to pay attention to them and forget the javelinas.

Who would get bored observing the desert and all there is to see?


March 2017

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The heat is on and it’s time for a date

When we planned our stay for a week in March, we never thought the temperature in Yuma, Arizona would climb to 95 degrees.

When the sun set that day it was with some relief.

We were up and ready to go the next morning to chase down a date. A medjool date, that is. We tried to make a reservation for a tour at Martha’s Gardens Medjool Date Farm on the phone (unsuccessfully) and then tried to drive there using the directions on their website (unsuccessfully). We finally made it there just as the 10:30AM tour was set to depart. Luck was with us: the tour start had been delayed that day, and they made room for us after all, even though we had no reservation.

Actually, we had no idea what we were about to see. Don’t the palms produce dates, laborers pick them, then we buy and eat them?

It was a surprise to us that farming medjool dates requires a lot of intensive work.

First off, our guide, Chris, showed us a male date palm…

…and female date palms. One male date palm can pollinate 50 female date palms. This is just about the number of trees that fit into one acre of farmland.

It takes 8-10 years for a date palm to start to produce fruit, but the tree can live many years. The problem for the farmer is that the tree continues to grow each year, and there is a limit as to the height anyone would want to go up to pick the dates. At Martha’s Gardens they wouldn’t pick a tree higher than 75’ (and that’s really pushing it).

They rely on the most efficient way to pollinate the female flowers. A farmer ties the strings together and then sprays them with some male pollen.

At this point we assumed the work for the farmer ended, but it had just begun. The date palms are watered twice a day. Farmers remove the new growth thorns. (Prickly work!) The pollinated strings are eventually thinned to a group of 20 strands. Later they’ll train the fruit arms to bend down and out for easier picking. By summertime, workers thin the fruit nubs to 1.5” spacing.

A month before harvest the dark green fruits turn yellow. Net bags are placed over the fruit arm to protect the dates from birds and to catch any ripe fruit that drops off.

The harvesting, washing, and sorting of the dates are a huge production. We were astounded how much labor went into producing that little bag of dates we bought at the end of the tour.

We wandered outside the store photographing wildflowers nearby and discovered some dates still on the palms from the last harvest. The real thing.

Beth ordered a date shake and took a long sip. Excellent! Bon appetit.


March 2017

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What did we do in San Diego?

When the weather was good, we spent most of our outdoor time exploring. We didn’t always know what we were looking for, but we liked to keep our eyes open to see what we could find. The San Diego we came to know during the first few weeks of our month’s stay centered on the Pacific Ocean, the bays, and watching birds along the coast. We had put off famous sights that are on many tourists’ “must-see” lists and all inside activities. When the first cool and cloudy day rolled in to San Diego, we decided it was time to head for famous Old Town.

Stepping into quaint Old Town San Diego was supposed to feel like the calendar was turned back 150 years. Displays of the early California days were interesting, but what caught our eyes was the small contemporary collection of Indian art not far from the old stagecoaches.

A few days later we headed for Balboa Park, an “urban cultural park,” where a number of museums, theatres, and even the zoo are located, surrounded by greenery and flowers.

The Botanical Building in the park was constructed with wooden laths, the largest of its kind in the world. The setting, with garden and pool in front, was pretty spectacular.

We had to go inside to see what was on display. The tulips looked perky.

Orchids filled the center of the building, and all seemed to be in full bloom.

We’d never heard of the Mingei International Museum, “dedicated to art of the people (mingei) from all eras and cultures of the world.”

A striking red quilt decorated one wall…

…and little Scandinavian dolls dressed in red were in a display case nearby.

When we explored the cultural area of the park, we wandered through the Spanish Village Art Center. Under the shade of a large tree stood this larger-than-life sculpture.

Something seemed familiar about this piece. Was there a vague resemblance to the contemporary Indian artwork in the first photo above?

We liked San Diego but mostly for its compelling ocean and outdoor scene. It was so different from what we are used to. Dropping in to museums and Old Town satisfied us for an interesting change of pace. In a month’s stay, we didn’t even scratch the surface of what we could see and do, but maybe it was enough.


March 2017

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