Saturday, January 30, 2010

1/17 to 1/18 in Arizona - Patagonia Lake Area

After 3 straight years of going to the rain forest for our winter vacations, we decided instead to go to the desert this year to see some parts of the country that were new to us. Our journey would start in southern Arizona, continue at Bosque Del Apache NWR in New Mexico and then end in southern AZ. We figured it would be nice to have a week of nice weather and sunshine. That turned out to not be the case, but more on that later.

We arrived on time at Phoenix airport after a nice flight (Thanks US Airways). After the shuttle to the rental cars, the Alamo folks let us pick any car in two rows which we thought would be great. Turns out the choices were limited to a Kia or.....other Kias. So, naturally, we choose a Kia. A Kia Sorrento to be exact which was roomy but turned out to be less than a stellar driving experience. Its snail like acceleration and jumpy gear shifting earned it the sarcastic nickname of "zippy" for the remainder of the trip.

We hit the road for our 3 hour drive to Patagonia Lake and enjoyed the desert scenery along the way. Southern Arizona has a lot more mountains than we expected and other interesting rock formations. After a brief stop at a Nogales Safeway for supplies, we arrived at our accommodations near Patagonia Lake. We stayed at A Room with a view (link) which is a nice location for those spending time at Lake Patagonia because it is only about 10 minutes from the lake itself. We arrived at dusk and decided it was too late to venture out so we turned in early so that we could be out by dawn the next day.

One of the main reasons for us to stay at Lake Patagonia was to maximize our time looking for the Elegant Trogon which winters there and was spotted days before we arrived. So, we were up early and ventured into the park. We stopped at the visitor center hoping to get information on the best places to look for the Trogon but they weren't open yet. However, I spotted a gentleman nearby with huge binoculars around his neck and an REI inspired wardrobe so I knew he must be a birder with insight on where to look. Turns out I was right and he whipped out his map and showed me where the locals said to look. He also mentioned that he saw the Elegant Trogon in Madera Canyon just a few days earlier.

Before setting out, we visited the feeders behind the visitor center which had many new birds for us including a Cardinal (us west coasters don't ever see these birds), the Green-tailed Towhee, and the Arizona and Gila Woodpeckers.

We spent the morning searching for the trogon but had no luck. We did see deer, more cardinals, heron, ducks, and more. In the afternoon, we decided to drive the hour or so to Madera Canyon which is known as another birding hotspot and we hoped to have better luck finding the trogon there. On the drive out of Patagonia Lake we encountered our first roadrunner. The roadrunner was another bird that we were hoping to see and it didn't disappoint. This roadrunner posed for us in some brush, inched its way to the road and then took off running across the road into a drainage ditch. It proceededto run along the ditch with us as we drove. A running roadrunner is a very entertaining sight.

We arrived at Madera canyon to find it without any water which really cut down on the wildlife in the area. The docent at the front entrance did recommend a trail for us to hike to find the trogon since they nested along this trail. So, we drove up to the top of the canyon and set out on a series of hikes looking for the trogon. Once again, we had no luck, but we did have a great encounter with a Painted Redstart.

On the way out of the canyon, we stopped at the feeders put up by the Santa Rita Lodge and saw a few more "lifers" including the Bridled Titmouse and Yellow-eyed Junco.

The next day we were off to New Mexico but took the back roads so that we could stop and hit some hiking and birding spots. Our first stop was at San Pedro NWR which is just east of Sierra Vista. This is a great area to hike and look for wildlife. They too have set up dozens of feeders that attract all sorts of birds. We saw dozens of American Goldfinch, Gila Woodpeckers, and more.

We hiked a 2 to 3 mile loop trail hoping to spot some mammals. We only ended up seeing some white-tailed deer but that was OK given that the scenery was spectacular.

Based on a tip from the docent at the Patagonia Lake visitor center, we headed off to Whitewater Draw NWR after lunch. Apparently there were thousands of sandhill cranes and snow geese in the area and a resident great-horned owl. We took a lot of backloads to get to Whitewater Draw which enabled us to see more roadrunners and our first coyote. Plus, it allowed us to test "zippy" a few times as we passed slow vehicles. Each pass provided ample excitement.

Whitewater Draw itself is not very picturesque. A medium sized lake in the middle of a desert valley. However, it was obviously one of the few water sources around which is why it attracted all the area wildlife. When we arrived, there were probably a few thousand cranes, but every 5 minutes groups of a hundred more would fly in. By the time we left, there had to be over 5,000 cranes with more arriving all the time. Too bad we couldn't' be there first thing in the morning for the big liftoff, but we did get a few mini liftoff shows and some nice flybys.

We also spotted Gadwall, Ruddy Ducks, American Coots, Mallards, a juvenile bald eagle and of course, the resident great-horned owl. We had a very enjoyable lunch sitting on zippy's tailgate watching and listening to the cranes.

The afternoon was spent driving around 4 hours to Bosque Del Apache via Bisbee and then up through New Mexico. I had hoped to have time to venture through Tombstone, but it wasn't in the cards this trip since we wanted to get to our destination before dark if possible The 75 mph AZ and NM speed limits helped a lot but didn't allow for much wildlife spotting although we did spot a coyote in the fields and another roadrunner along one of the back roads on the way to the freeway.

As we left Arizona behind, we couldn't help but be impressed by the mountains, cactus, and trees of southern Arizona. It was much prettier than we thought it would be. And, despite not finding the Elegant Trogon, we did see lots of new birds and had some great hikes.

Highway 10 through southern new Mexico is not the most scenic of drives to say the least and the periodic warning signs of high winds, dust storms and potential zero visibility didn't do anything to add to the experience. We encountered some rain along the way but still managed to reach our destination, San Antonio New Mexico, around dusk.

Click on the "Older Posts" link below to continue to the New Mexico Report.

Friday, January 29, 2010

1/19 to 1/21 in New Mexico - Bosque Del Apache Area

For our 3 days in San Antonio, we stayed at Casa Blanca B&B. We highly recommend this B&B since it is only 10 minutes from Bosque and is run by great people. Phoebe, the owner is a great hostess and her partner Phil is the former manager of Bosque so he is a wealth of information about the refuge and conservation in general. You can check out our review on tripadvisor here (EDH_Traveler).

Based on advice from Phoebe, we were out before dawn and took the auto loop at the refuge. She mentioned that Willow Deck was a good place to start since the mass geese lift off had been inconsistent the last few days. As dawn approached, we could see that no geese were in the Willow Deck area, but we heard them cackling off in the distance and could just make out the mass of geese as they flew up in the distance. We missed the liftoff, but were enjoying the hundreds of cranes and ducks that were having a bit of a feeding frenzy in the pond out in front of the deck. As more cranes came in, the sounds got louder and only the constant clicking of my camera shutter broke up the natural sounds of the area.

As I was taking pictures of pretty much anything that moved, Karen whispered..."Would it be too much to ask for a bobcat to walk by?". Yeah..right. I thought.

Unfortunately, having the camera on the tripod pointed out towards the pond cost us a great photo opportunity based on what happened about 10 minutes later. Karen grabbed my arm and pointed down toward the bottom of the elevated deck. Walking right below us not 15 feet away was a huge bobcat. I tried to quietly get the camera off the tripod but only succeeded in making some slight noise which alerted the bobcat to our presence. It looked right at us for a second or two and they quickly walked into the willows beside the deck and out of sight. The whole experience probably lasted less than 10 seconds but it was great. This was our first bobcat sighting and it was amazing to be so close to it and to stare it in the eyes. Of course, the only disappointment was the lack of photographic evidence, but we still have the images in our minds.

Since we felt that Karen's earlier declaration about seeing a bobcat must have led to the eventual sighting, we made sure she kept it up the rest of the trip. Unfortunately, we didn't have the same luck again. However, she did end the trip by saying "Wouldn't it be nice if we won the lotto". So, we have that going for us...which is nice.

Breakfast was being served at 8:30AM so we needed to head back. We followed the north end of the auto loop, which yielded some white-tailed deer, four bald eagles, and more cranes. Our bobcat sighting was a hit at breakfast and Phil told us that he had seen two in that area recently. So, we knew we needed to go back to try our luck again.

Bosque Del Apache is an amazing place for nature lovers. The huge auto loop makes it really easy to get close looks at the thousands of birds that hang out in the trees and ponds. Plus, there are many native mammals and reptiles to encounter. Since it was winter, we had no reptile sightings during our stay, but that is one more reason to come back a different time of year. Bosque Del Apache also has a few trails that provide ample hiking opportunity through the different ecosystems that exist at the refuge.

The rest of our day was spent on the auto loop, hiking some of the trails, or stopping at the Prairie Dog town in hopes of spotting one of its residents. While we did manage to see 3 of their Black-tailed Prairie dogs, they were too far away for pictures and didn't venture far from their burrow. However, we did have some great photo opportunities through out the day.

We ended the day by spending sunset at the Flight Deck and then heading to Socorro for dinner at a great Mexican restaurant where we took stock of the days sightings. While the bobcat was the obvious highlight of the day, we also spotted many white-tailed deer, coyotes, more roadrunners (who were fast becoming our favorite birds) and of course thousands of ducks, snow geese and sandhill cranes.

For the next morning, we had the choice of going to Willow Deck again with hopes of trying to see the bobcats in the area or trying to locate the mass snow geese liftoff. We opted for the latter since we wanted to experience that once during our trip. Unfortunately, we woke up to overcast and cold conditions. By the time we reached the refuge the rain started and so did the wind. So instead of standing out in the rain trying to figure out where the geese would take off, we decided to head to the ponds in the main road just outside the auto loop since we knew that once the snow geese lifted off, the ponds were their destination. This turned out to be a good choice since we could stay in the car to avoid the elements and still see the action. Soon after our arrival, the rain let up and we were able to walk around. The ponds already had about a thousand cranes in them who obviously spent the night there. Just before the sun came up, we could hear the snow geese coming. Wave after wave of snow geese arrived and landed in the ponds cackling the whole time.

Unlike refuges in our area, you can get really close to the birds here and they don't seem to mind. Some photographers were less than 20 yards from the birds but we stood on the edge of the pond about 50 yards away. All of sudden, the snow geese started to take off. Even though they only took off in groups that were probably less than 1,000 strong, they flew right over our heads. The sound was deafening and it was truly a great wildlife spectacle. Thank goodness birds tend to poop right before they take off as opposed to right after since we would have been prime targets. Zippy ended up taking a hit right in the windshield but we left the scene unscathed.

As great as the snow geese lift off experience was, back at breakfast we learned we missed the bobcat at Willow Deck that morning. One of the couples staying at the B&B had decided to go to Willow Deck that morning based on our sighting the morning before. They had great luck as the bobcat was actually hunting in the pond in the low light. We now knew what we were doing the following morning.

The wind really howled for the rest of the day and put a bit of a damper on our plans to hike and take pictures. The forecast was for some nasty weather to come in and the wind was just a precursor so we knew we needed to make the best of it. We nearly got blown over taking the Marsh hike and many of the critters were hunkered down from the winds, but we did manage to see harrier hawks, a sharp-shinned hawk, cormorants, ducks and a couple racoons.

The wind didn't seem to bother the snow geese and cranes however since they were just as lively as ever.

In the afternoon, we decided to get out of the wind and take a drive to see the area. Phoebe recommended that we drive up to Water Canyon which we did. This is a really pretty area and we got to see around 50 pronghorn on the way which was a nice treat. We would have ventured deeper into the canyon but the rains we had the night before turned into snow here and the road weren't plowed. So, we went back to Bosque and spent the rest of the evening driving the auto loop and watching the cranes.

On our last morning at the refuge we were out about 1/2 hour before dawn and at Willow Deck. Our new friends from the B&B were already there hoping to repeat the great bobcat sighting from the day before. Unfortunately, the bobcat didn't come back. We think this was mostly due to the fact that the huge number of ducks in this pond the last few days had moved on so there wasn't any food sources for the bobcat. After about an hour in the numbing cold, we gave up, returned to zippy to warm up and moved on. Since we were leaving for Arizona after breakfast we wanted to take one last tour of the refuge. The snow geese and cranes didn't disappoint.

After breakfast, we packed up and headed back to Arizona. Since we had more time, we took the more scenic Highway 1 south instead of the freeway which was nice. We stopped at Elephant Butte Lake State Park on the way out to see the mass of Common Grebes that were spotted in the area but the wind had picked up again and the choppy waters made it tough to see the grebes.

The 3 hour or so trip to Portal Arizona had its share of adventures, but none involved wildlife unfortunately.

This first adventure I will call "Troubles with a Tumbleweed". This adventure actually started at Elephant Butte Lake where I couldn't avoid running over a tumbleweed that blew into our path in town. We didn't hear any noises when it went under the car and it exited out the back intact so I thought nothing more of it. An hour and a half later, we stopped in Deming to get supplies for our next destination. The car was making a noticable whining sound at slow speeds in Deming. Karen suggested that the sounds actually started soon after we ran over the tumbleweed. Well, that's impossible right? How could a little round dried up plant hurt a car. So, in my infinite wisdom I think I actually uttered "Jesus...It's not the tumbleweed". (I used italics to emphasize the "tone" in my voice.) Well, the noise got worse and we pulled off into a parking lot. I got out to look under the car and what did I see....a huge hunk of rock hard tumble weed stuck up under the car. Contrary to what us tumbleweed virgins think, it's not just a dried up plant. It's really hard thick wood that didn't want to come out from under the car. I eventually got it out and said my apologies to Karen (who was nicer than she should have been) and we set off again towards Portal.

As we were driving 80 on highway 10 and getting close to the lovely metropolis of Lordsburg New Mexico we noticed this low cloud out in the the distance. The funny thing was, this cloud wasn't white or gray like a storm was brown. We quickly realized that this was no cloud, it was a dust storm. I flashed back to all the "Zero Visibility Possible" signs along this stretch that we saw a few days back on our way to Bosque and realized that we didn't want to go through this. Luckily, a quick map check showed an alternative route south coming up that appeared to go around the dust storm. So, we got off the freeway and only looked back long enough to see that this dust storm looked pretty big and that we did the wise thing.

We arrived at our destination in Portal, in the late afternoon. But, the winds were once again blowing really hard so we decided to stay inside until the morning. It was nice to relax and retire early.

Click on the "Older Posts" link below to view the last trip report from this trip.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

1/22 and 1/23 in Arizona - Portal Area

Our accommodation in Portal was Quailway Cottage . The cottage is located in a great wildlife area and the desert garden and feeders seem to attract many of the local critters including coyote, Curve-billed Thrasher, and Pyrrhuloxia. Our review on Tripadvisor is here.

Our first night, a huge storm came through with high winds and lots of rain. Between that and being in a new place, we didn't get much sleep. When we finally did get up, the rain was still coming down so we spent the morning on the back patio of the cottage watching all the birds that didn't seem impacted by the wind and rain. We saw some additional lifers for us like the white-winged dove, ladder-back woodpecker, and gambel's quail.

Around mid-morning the wind subsided and we decided to brave the rain and drive up into Cave Creek Canyon. However, only 5 minutes up the road, the rain turned to snow and we decided to head back. Amazing what a few hundred feet gain in elevation will do weather wise. After lunch, the rain stopped and provided us with an afternoon to enjoy the canyon. Despite the clouds still lingering in the area, we could tell the canyon was spectacular. We decided to hike the south fork trail since it is known to have wildlife but we got only about 1/2 mile into it before a gushing waterfall and rainwater filled creek blocked the trail. We decided not to get wet crossing and turned back. We definitely have some unfinished business in this area and vowed to come back again soon.

On the way out, we stopped at Cave Creek Ranch which my research had turned up as a good place to see wildlife. They are located at the entrance to the canyon and they put out feeders for the birds. Much to our delight, more than birds were enjoying the feeders. There were coati and white-tailed deer as well.

We spent the remainder of the day watching the birds, cottontails, and jackrabbits that had taken over the yard. We had heard about a bobcat and javelinas that liked to stop by in the late afternoon, but they didn't come today.

The next morning, we said goodbye to the coyotes, quail, rabbits and other critters that were around as we left and headed off to Tucson to visit the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. The drive was really pretty since all of the mountains had new snow on them. We even drove through a mini-blizzard on the way but the weather cleared before we reached Tucson.

The "museum" is really a well done zoo. Their exhibits are very natural looking and most of the animals had lots of room to roam compared with other "zoos". In addition, since it was primarily outdoors and in the middle of Saguaro National Park, wild animals visit as well. The museum gave us a chance to see all the Arizona native wildlife and plants that we missed seeing during our trip.

We eventually figured out where to return the rental car (no thanks to Alamo for warning us about how confusing this can be at Phoenix). Tip for newbies returning cars to Phoenix, you don't go to the airport. The rental return is a few exits away on a separate freeway. Needless to say, we weren't sorry to say goodbye to zippy even though we put 1,800 miles on it.

Despite being inconvenienced a little by the wind, rain and snow, this was a great trip. We saw areas of the country that we hadn't seen before, had an amazing encounter with a bobcat, saw some new birds and mammals, and made some new friends. Its hard for nature lovers to have a better vacation than that. We left Arizona and New Mexico with serious intentions to return as soon as we can.