St. Vrain State Park

Firestone, Colorado – May 2022

St. Vrain State Park had its beginnings in 1958 when the Colorado Department of Transportation bought some land around St. Vrain Creek to mine gravel needed for the construction of highways in the area. The mining projects left wide but relatively shallow holes in the ground, many of which filled in from the low water table of the St. Vrain. Over the years, more mining companies extracted more gravel, and now St. Vrain State Park has eight ponds and reservoirs, along with 87 campsites in eight different campgrounds. The state park is a popular destination for campers along Colorado’s Front Range; it’s just an hour’s drive from our former house in Denver. We camped there in our former trailer every April for a decade before becoming full-time RVers, and we returned to the shores of St. Vrain State Park in early May 2022.

St. Vrain State Park is a bird enthusiast’s dream destination. The park’s literature lists more than 200 bird species that can be seen in the park’s ponds, wetlands and meadows. Not all of those species are in the park at once; many use the ponds as a migratory rest area on their way to points north or south of Colorado, and others stay in the park for a few weeks or months out of the year. We saw more American white pelicans in the park in 2022 than we had in previous years. Watching them float noiselessly on the surface of the water is a very relaxing experience. When we were camping along the west bank of the Mississippi River in Arkansas a few weeks later, a flock of about 200 pelicans darkened the sky as the birds flew overhead.
St. Vrain State Park is the largest great blue heron rookery in Colorado. Great blue herons are relatively common sights along the banks of the larger ponds in the park; they usually fly off if approached. If one is patiently quiet and still, however, it’s possible to see a heron catch a fish in the shallows. The largest of the heron family, great blue herons can grow to 4 1/2 feet tall and weigh more than five pounds, with a wingspan of 6 1/2 feet. I photographed this one on an early foggy morning on the bank of Sandpiper Pond.
Whenever I think of St. Vrain State Park, the first bird that comes to mind is the red-winged blackbird. Their distinctive call (you can hear it at the soundfile below) can be heard throughout the park practically all day long, but especially in the early morning hours. While I’ve seen red-winged blackbirds perch on waving reeds and cattail stalks, in addition to tree limbs, this one found a solid fencepost upon which to belt out the hits. This is a bird species in which the males and females look nothing alike. This is a male blackbird; I’ve mistaken female blackbirds for some type of sparrow because they share the same light and dark brown markings.
We were happy that our friends Mary and Robert, and their German shepherd, Otis, could camp at the site next to us on one of the weekends we were at the park. Mary, Robert, Otis and I took a walk one morning around Blue Heron Reservoir, the largest and newest of the lakes at the park, and happened to spot this guy out in the water. This photo of a western grebe isn’t great – it was 50 yards out and drifting further away – but it’s an interesting bird. They dive underwater to catch fish, which is their main diet, and it’s kind of fun to guess where they’ll pop up to surface. One of five grebe species that visits St. Vrain State Park, I’d also seen this species at Lathrop State Park near Walsenburg in October 2021.
This well-camouflaged little bird is a song sparrow (I’m pretty sure; there are many varieties of sparrows and most of them look at least a little alike). It was hunting for bugs one evening along the banks of Mallard Pond. Click the link below to see why they got their name.
Nancy and Gunther and I went on a longer hike one Saturday morning and saw a pair of tree swallows feeding their young nestlings inside a tree cavity. This is the female of the pair, who was hanging out on a tree limb and watching her mate feed their kids in the tree. She’s got just a hint of iridescent blue coloring on her head, whereas the male tree swallow is mostly blue. Like other swallows, their diet is mostly bugs that they catch while flying in the air; unlike other swallows, they also eat berries which allows them to make it through winter much easier.
I took this photo of a female brown-headed cowbird a few minutes’ walk down the trail from the swallows’ nest. Cowbirds used to follow bison herds in the American West and forage on insects that were kicked up by the animals’ hooves. These days, they do the same with cattle herds and they’re found from coast to coast. This species has a fairly poor reputation among bird enthusiasts: it doesn’t build a nest in which to lay its eggs but instead lays its eggs in the nests of other bird species. This parasitism, which is practiced by only a few other birds, results in reduced numbers of other songbird species.
I’ll be the first to state that this is a terrible, terrible photo. However, there is a story behind it: a little while after taking the photo of the brown-headed cowbird, we looked up and saw what we thought was a flock of Canada geese flying overhead. I took a picture of part of the flock, and I really don’t know why. After our hike, I looked at the photo on my laptop’s screen and realized that those weren’t Canada geese. Look at the beaks of the birds (they’re flying toward the right side of the photo): they’re very long and slightly curved. I thought they might be ibis (ibises?), and I looked at the park’s literature to see if ibis were ever sighted in the park. Turns out white-faced ibis do indeed migrate through St. Vrain State Park! Here’s a link to an Audubon Society page so you can see what these beautiful birds really look like.
I know some readers of this blog frequently drive on I-25 between the Denver metro area and the northern reaches of the state. This is what’s beneath the bridges just north of Exit 240: thousands upon thousands (not kidding) of cliff swallow nests (those brownish smudges are the cliff swallows returning to feed their nestlings; I couldn’t get any decent photos of the birds themselves because they move so fast). The swallows have built the nests here to take advantage of the great biomass (bugs) available at the ponds and lakes of St. Vrain State Park. It’s important, I think, to remember just what a huge service that bug-eating birds do for us: imagine how many more grasshoppers, caddisflies, and mosquitoes we’d have to deal with were it not for these feathered friends of ours.
The hike that Nancy and Gunther and I went on was chock-full of nifty birds we hadn’t seen before. I had no idea what this was when I took the photo, but I could tell it wasn’t a seagull. Again, after returning to the Goddard, I looked it up. It’s a Forster’s tern (might be another species, the common tern, but Forster’s terns are, inexplicably, more common than common terns). This was an incredibly acrobatic and fast flyer, and much fun to watch during its migratory stopover at the park.
I took this photo of a beautiful barn swallow on the same morning that I took the photo of the great blue heron. The lighting, because of the fog, wasn’t great, but I was happy to see this little fellow light for a few minutes on a stretch of fence. Swallows of all kinds are very aerobatic flyers – they dip and whirl about while chasing bugs over bodies of water. We would see yet another species of swallow, the northern rough-winged, while camping on the Mississippi River in mid-June. There are six species of swallows, including the northern rough-winged, that visit St. Vrain State Park either on a seasonal or migratory basis.
Over the years I’ve probably taken a hundred photos of double-crested cormorants, but they’ve all been taken when the birds are too far away from shore to turn out very well. They seem to like the company of pelicans while swimming (or perhaps they’re opportunistic feeders taking advantage of the schools of fish found by pelicans), but they’re much more timid than the big white birds and stay further from shore. They also take flight well before the pelicans do. The stars aligned during our trip to St. Vrain State Park in May, and I finally got some photos that aren’t embarrassing to share. During our stop I also figured out why these birds look so odd while swimming: unlike pelicans, or ducks, or geese, or pretty much any other waterfowl, they keep most of their bodies submerged. I think cormorants are one of the greatest visual reminders that, in a way, dinosaurs still walk the earth. This guy would not look out of place as an extra in a Jurassic Park movie.
I’ll close with one of the best photos I’ve taken in a good long while. St. Vrain State Park is home to several pairs of nesting ospreys, which return to the same nest year after year, and the number appears to be growing. I noticed a new osprey nest (really not that impressive; it looks like a pile of trash and twigs because that’s what it is) along the road leading into the park, and asked a ranger about it. Turns out that the nest had delayed construction of a section of a long-planned hiking and biking trail that winds its way along the I-25 corridor, at least until the osprey fledglings had left the nest. True enough, work on the trail appeared to recommence a few days before we left, so I guess the fledglings had left home. Anyway, this osprey pictured was perched above Mallard Pond one late afternoon when the sun happened to be shining for a few minutes during an otherwise overcast day. It’s obviously used to passersby, but it’s a beautiful raptor nonetheless. The ponds and lakes have plenty of fish for both anglers and birds, like pelicans, and terns, and grebes, and cormorants. It’s fun to watch a grebe pop out of the water with a fish in its beak, but watching an osprey slam into a lake, talons outstretched, and then lift away with a trout in its grasp is a fantastic experience.

In the two weeks we were at St. Vrain State Park, we saw 26 different species of birds, including five, like the tern and ibis, I’d never seen before at all. We don’t have immediate plans to return to the park, but I don’t doubt that we will go back sooner or later. It’s a great place to unwind, and, although it’s close to I-25, it provides plenty of opportunities to get to know a tremendous variety of our feathered friends.

Spring Birds of the American Southwest

March and April, 2022

The Goddard spent the fall and winter of 2021-2022 in New Mexico and then Arizona, and in the spring we headed back north to visit Colorado for a while. Spring is a great time to watch birds: they’re very active as they gather material for nests and later find food for their fledglings. Leaves on trees also begin to emerge as the weather warms up, which I was to discover makes photographing birds much more difficult than in the fall and winter.

Here are some birds we saw doing their spring thing in Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado.

Holbrook, Arizona

Our campground in Holbrook was next to a residential area, which doesn’t happen very often because usually campgrounds are on the outskirts of towns. It gave us a chance to walk by houses and see birds perched in the trees.

This female house finch was busy gathering materials for a nest at our campground in Hollbrook. Finches have really pretty songs, and they’re enjoyable to listen to in the morning. House finches are an interesting story: they’re native to the American southwest and Mexico, but profiteers captured some finches in the 1940s and attempted to sell them as “Hollywood finches” to bird enthusiasts in New York City. Rather than face prosecution for violating a federal law regarding migratory birds, the people released the finches into the wild and the birds established themselves on the U.S. east coast. In the ensuing years, they’ve moved both east (from the southwest) and west (from the east coast) to be found across nearly the entire country.
Here is the mate of the house finch, watching the sunrise the same morning. I’m sure he later helped build the nest, too. The reddish coloration of male house finches changes with the seasons and is dependent on the birds’ diets; as you’ll see, some male house finches are redder than others. For their size, finches have some powerful beaks.
This is a very common bird, the house sparrow, but it’s a very pretty one all the same. Mornings are a great time to take photographs of birds because the sun is low in the sky to provide dramatic lighting, and the birds themselves are fairly active.

Grants, New Mexico

The campground at which we stayed in Grants, New Mexico, at the end of March had an adjacent walking trail that wound through a lava field. A relatively recent volcanic eruption, perhaps only 4,000 to 5,000 years ago, produced the black basaltic rock that is everywhere around Grants. The campground’s trail attracted a lot of birds that perched on the trees and shrubs within the lava field, including this female white-crowned sparrow that was singing a pretty song one morning. It was the fifth species of sparrow I’d seen during our stays in New Mexico and Arizona. We really enjoyed this trail, which also provided great views of the surrounding mountains. A national monument, El Malpais (Spanish for “the badlands”) is very near Grants, and we look forward to visiting it in the future.
Here’s the other male house finch I alluded to earlier. Dunno what he’s eating to get all of that red coloration, but he’s definitely the reddest finch I’ve ever seen. This was in the campground at Grants; I have a bunch of photos of different birds perched on different types of water valves at campgrounds, for some reason.

Albuquerque, New Mexico

Our next stop on our return north was Albuquerque, which Nancy and I really enjoy visiting. There’s a lot to see and do there, and plenty of great Mexican restaurants and grocery stores to enjoy.

We returned to Albuquerque’s excellent Botanic Garden at the city’s BioPark, which also has a zoo and aquarium situated along the Rio Grande near downtown. In early April the garden had thousands of blooming bulbs, including daffodils, tulips, crocus, and others, as well as a lot of neat birds. This is a male white-crowned sparrow; compare him to the pretty female white-crowned sparrow from the Grants lava field, two photos above. This guy was hunting for bugs on one of the garden’s trails.
We watched this mountain bluebird bring a grub to its nest in a tree near the Botanic Garden’s farmstead exhibit. I really like the hue of blue, which contrasts nicely with their rusty chests, on these birds.
Gunther and I went for a walk on a trail along the Rio Grande bosque one afternoon and I heard this fellow singing in a cottonwood tree. I couldn’t tell what kind of bird it was at the time because it was so far away, but I got a couple of photos with my telephoto lens. I was a little surprised to see, after looking at it on my laptop, that it’s a spotted towhee. I’d never seen one in a tree before; I’ve only seen them on the ground, scratching through leaves while looking for bugs. (Of course, the next day we went to the city’s Botanic Garden and we saw another spotted towhee there, in a tree.) Spotted towhees are really pretty birds – they’ve got a lot of patterns and colors going on.
On that same walk we saw several wood ducks, including this very striking drake, swimming in a canal adjacent to the Rio Grande. I’d never seen wood ducks prior to our first stop in Albuquerque last November. They’re just incredibly beautiful birds (and the hens are quite pretty as well).

Las Vegas, New Mexico

In mid-April we made our way to Las Vegas, which we had also stayed at the previous fall. It was incredibly windy during our stay there in the spring (and the area would be subjected to several wildfires shortly after we left), so we didn’t venture out much. I did take a few photos at the campground, though.

This is a western bluebird, perched on a power line and watching me as I watched it. This is the same species from the cottonwood tree in the Albuquerque Botanic Garden. I’m writing this post while camping in central Arkansas, and I kind of miss those clear blue skies of New Mexico and Arizona. We sure don’t miss the wind, though.
Writing about blue skies: this mountain bluebird nearly disappears into them. We’ve seen this species in Colorado several times, including at the cabin near Eleven Mile Reservoir. You can see that the wind was blowing: look at the feathers on his chest.

Lathrop State Park, near Walsenburg, Colorado

We returned to Colorado around the end of April, choosing to camp once again at one of our favorite state parks. Located west of Walsenburg in the southern part of the state, Lathrop State Park has two large lakes, good hiking trails, and incredible views of the Spanish Peaks and Blanca Peak, each of which still had snow. The park attracts an enormous number of permanent and migratory birds each year.

We’d seen a couple of American robins, our first of the spring, at the Albuquerque Botanic Garden, but I couldn’t get any good photos. There were plenty of robins at Lathrop. I’ve learned to recognize their calls, which are really distinctive once you’ve heard them enough.
I hiked through the cactus and brush (you’ll notice that most of these songbirds at Lathrop are perched on juniper) north of our campsite one morning and took this photo. I had no idea what kind of bird it was until I looked it up: it’s a tufted titmouse, at the very northern edge of its range in southern Colorado. I’d never heard of them, let alone seen one before. Neat-looking bird, although you don’t see many species, outside of bluebirds and blackbirds, that are all one color.
Here’s another new bird to me, from the same morning hike: it’s a Bewick’s wren. I couldn’t get on the other side of it to take advantage of the morning sun, but I kind of like this backlit effect anyway. I’d never seen too many species of wrens before we started full-timing in the Goddard; I’ve since seen several, and they’re very attractive little birds.
This is a cropped photo taken with a telephoto lens from a long, long way from this bird, but I’d never seen one before. This is a pied-billed grebe swimming on one of the park’s lakes, and it spent more time submerged than swimming on the surface. I saw eight bird species at Lathrop State Park that I hadn’t yet seen in 2022, and three of them (the last three pictured) were species I’d never seen at all.
There were lots and lots of chipping sparrows at Lathrop. I’m not sure if there were more of these or if there were more American robins at the park (and there were a lot of blackbilled magpies, too). Very pretty calls from these little birds.

By the time we left Lathrop State Park on April 24, I’d seen 51 different species of birds in three different states in 2022. It had become obvious that being around water, whether it’s a river or a lake, greatly increases both the chance of seeing birds and the opportunity to see different species of birds. That would become even more clear at the next Colorado state park at which we’d camp.

Petrified Forest National Park, Day 2

Near Holbrook, Arizona – March 26, 2022

We made our first visit to Petrified Forest National Park on March 25, 2022, restricting our time to only the northern, smaller section of the park. That part doesn’t have much in the way of petrified wood, but it has plenty of awe-inspiring views. We returned the next day, with Gunther, to experience the southern side, and we did see some fossilized wood. And how!

Petrified Forest National Park, which measures about 350 square miles, receives about 600,000 visitors per year. That number, while impressive, makes it just the third-most-visited national park in Arizona, following Saguaro National Park in Tucson (1 million visitors per year; Nancy and I were two of those people a couple of weeks earlier) and the most-visited park in all the land, Grand Canyon National Park (4.5 million). Incidentally, Rocky Mountain National Park in north-central Colorado is just behind Grand Canyon, at 4.4 million visitors per year. If you’ve been to Rocky Mountain National Park in the last 20 years and felt a bit cramped, it’s probably due to 4.4 million other people visiting a park measuring 415 square miles.

Wind and water erosion in the northern Arizona desert does some interesting things to rocks, like resting the one on the right side against the one on the left.

But we’re here to talk about rocks. A piece of petrified wood isn’t really wood any longer: it no longer contains any organic material and it is most definitely a rock. The process of petrification takes several important factors, including a tree, water, sediment, and time. Lots and lots of time.

Many of the rocks at Petrified Forest National Park represent trees that were quite large when they were living, about 220 million years ago. Here we see a park visitor with her dog observing a massive rock. (It’s Nancy, with Gunther, who appears ready to return home to The Goddard but we’d only been at the park for about 30 minutes at this point.)

Let’s start at the beginning. The scientists believe that the trees in Petrified Forest National Park were alive between 210 and 227 million years ago. At that time, the Late Triassic Period, the current area of the park was just north of the equator – in fact, it was close to where Costa Rica is today. The land was much different then: covered with forests of immense trees as well as large rivers and other wetlands. Huge amphibians and early dinosaurs roamed the forests and dwelled in the rivers. (Although there were many dinosaur species in the ensuing years, famous dinosaurs such as Tyrannosaurus rex and Triceratops wouldn’t appear until the Late Cretaceous Period, almost 160 million years later.)

There’s still a lot of detail from the former trees to be seen in their petrified logs. While it appears that the logs have been cut with a chainsaw to achieve those smooth sides, they’ve simply cracked along the crystalline structure of the quartz. That usually happens because of erosional processes: either geologic uplift over millions of years, or supporting materials below the log being removed through relatively quick wind or water action.

Many of these coniferous trees (there are nine species identified in the park; all are now extinct) grew to be enormous: some may have grown to 200 feet in height. When the trees died they lost their branches and bark, then eventually toppled over after being undercut by a river. If the tree fell into the river, it may have eventually been covered in sediment being carried by the waterway. This relatively rapid burial is critical to later petrification: the water sealed the dead tree away from both oxygen and bacteria, which helped prevent decay. That delay gave time for silicic acid in the rivers to percolate throughout the tree. This process chemically altered the wood into a mineral called opal that still retained the tree’s fine features, like the grain of the wood, or indications of where branches once sprouted from the trunk.

This is one of the biggest, if not longest, pieces of fossilized wood in Petrified Forest National Park. “Old Faithful” is 35 feet long and weighs about 44 tons. It’s also one of the relatively few logs that retained part of its root structure, which measures 10 feet across today, during the petrification process. In 1962, lightning struck and fractured this log. The National Park Service used mortar to reattach the pieces and added the retaining wall seen near the base of the former tree – a process that, in the name of resource management, the NPS would probably not undertake today. Old Faithful is located just west of the Rainbow Forest Museum and Visitor Center near the park’s southern entrance.
Here we see a park visitor with her faithful dog, standing next to the base of Old Faithful. (It’s Nancy, again, with Gunther, again; the dog appears to have perked up somewhat.)
While perhaps not quite as spectacular as the views we enjoyed in the northern part of the park the day before, there were still great vistas to enjoy on the Giant Logs Trail near the visitor center. One can see erosional forces still at work on the rocks at right.

Converting the wood into opal took only a few thousand years. Further layers of sedimentation over millions upon millions of years would cover the logs with tons upon tons of soil and rock. This process recrystallized the logs, converting the opal into quartz and a few other minerals. Over many other ensuing millions of years, erosion and geologic upheaval brought the logs back to the surface of the earth to once again see the light of day – this time as petrified wood.

Now that you know the factors involved in creating petrified wood, can you name the states in our country that contain it? The answer is below – keep on scrollin’!

The silicic acid in ancient waterways percolated through fallen logs, converting the trees’ organic material into opal. This closeup photo shows that the minerals retained the features of the trees, such as the grain of the wood.

The visitor center at the southern end of the park, which is part of the original monument created in 1906 (it was made a national park in 1962), contains some interesting fossils of both trees and animals. The fossilized remains of many amphibians and some dinosaurs dating to the time that the trees were alive have been discovered in the park (and the process for creating animal fossils is much the same as that used to create petrified wood). The museum also exhibits some handwritten letters: apparently, some visitors over the years were unable to withstand the temptation (and federal law) to leave the petrified wood where it lay within the park. Upon their return home with a fossilized wood souvenir, some of them inexplicably fell into bad fortune, such as personal or business relationship issues, and returned the rocks via mail, with an apologetic letter, to the national park.

Some of the many trails within the southern part of the park feature these helpful fossilized logs to help keep hikers on the path. Walking beside them gives an idea of just how tall these trees were.

After going to the visitor center and museum, and walking the Giant Logs Trail behind the building, we decided to go on a longer walk to see some more rocks. The Long Logs Trail, located a short distance from the visitor center, is so named because some of the petrified wood is more than 180 feet in length.

We saw this horned lark while on the Long Logs Trail. It had a very pretty song. We had never seen one before, and were happy to watch and listen to it for a while. (I write “we,” but Gunther couldn’t possibly have cared less.)
More than 1,200 archeological sites, indicating prior human habitation as long as 12,000 years ago, have been found in the park. The Native Americans arrived first as nomadic cultures, then over the centuries began to occupy the area on a seasonal basis. Eventually, the cultures lived in what is now the park year-round. A short spur from the Long Logs Trail leads to Agate House, a building that was reconstructed by the NPS to represent an actual seven-room dwelling built by ancient Native Americans, using the only construction material available, petrified wood, about a thousand years ago. Although centuries of weathering caused the original structure to collapse, park service staff used the same rocks to rebuild the house.
Realizing it’s a reconstruction, Agate House is still very pretty and was probably fairly resistant to the elements when it was first built.

About the states that contain petrified wood: were you able to name them? If you named all 50, you’re correct. Although each U.S. state contain some amount of petrified wood, northern Arizona is able to display one of the largest concentrations in the nation because of the geologic upheaval processes that brought the logs to the surface of the earth.

This particular log caught my eye because of the many colors it features. It’s simply spectacular. The different mineral composition within the petrified wood contributes to the varied coloration. The rocks can contain natural quartz, which is nearly clear and translucent, as well as varying amounts of iron, copper, manganese, and chromium, all responsible for the reds, yellows, purples, and greens. I would never take any rocks from Petrified Forest National Park. It would have meant that someone else wouldn’t have been able to see this one. However, if I was going to take a rock home, this would have been the one. But we have a weight limit, for towing safety purposes. on The Goddard. Also, I like my luck the way it is.

Tuzigoot National Monument

March 19, 2022 – Clarkdale, Arizona

We enjoyed a one-week stay in Camp Verde, Arizona, in mid-March of 2022, which allowed easy access to two National Park Service (NPS) sites. The first was Montezuma Castle National Monument, a cliff dwelling on which construction began a thousand years ago and which we visited on a couple of consecutive weekday late afternoons. The second was Tuzigoot National Monument, another ancient Native American dwelling site located about 20 miles northwest of Camp Verde. Tuzigoot was declared a national monument on July 25, 1939. Nancy and I visited the monument on a pleasant but overcast Saturday in mid-March.

Look closely at the top of the tower: that’s a group of about a dozen people. Tuzigoot is a big place.

Like the nearby Montezuma Castle, the Sinagua Native Americans began construction on Tuzigoot pueblo about a thousand years ago. Also like Montezuma Castle, Tuzigoot is misnamed: it’s a corruption of the Tonto Apache phrase “Tú Digiz,” which means “crooked water” and refers to a bend in the nearby Verde River. The pueblo, located on a hilltop with 360-degree views for miles around the area, featured 110 rooms.

The proximity to Montezuma Castle, and to other pueblo communities like those in New Mexico’s Aztec Ruins National Monument and Bandelier National Monument, as well as Colorado’s Mesa Verde National Park, points to the fact that the residents traveled frequently between the dwellings and traded ideas and goods with each other. Again, much like the other pueblos in the area, the dwellings were abandoned beginning in the 1300s most likely due to a variety of reasons (depletion of natural resources, climate change, possible threats from other native cultures) rather than just one. Also, the Hopi, who count themselves among the Sinagua culture’s descendants, believe their forebears were naturally nomadic and didn’t like to stay in one place for too long.

The Tuzigoot National Monument experience begins with the site’s visitor center, which is itself a historic structure (although not as historic as the pueblo, since the visitor center dates only to 1936). The visitor center was built as a museum by local Clarkdale residents, who also helped professional archeologists with the initial excavation of the Tuzigoot pueblo. The center contains actual artifacts – not reproductions – that were found during the site’s excavation in the 1930s.

Here we see a Tuzigoot visitor (it’s Nancy), freshly armed with knowledge gained from the visitor center as well as a pair of binoculars, ready to begin her 1/3-mile trek to the pueblo. The center is a really cool building, both on the inside and the outside.

The visitor center is on the National Register of Historic Places and has a collection of 3,158 objects, not all of which are on display. The collection includes ollas (large pottery pieces serving as bowls or baskets), woven baskets, projectile points, and jewelry.

The visitor center has an extensive collection of artifacts from the Tuzigoot pueblo as well as from other ancient communities. Men and women from Clarkdale logged more than 34,000 hours excavating and conserving more than 150 pieces of pottery. These pieces, acquired back in the day by trading with natives from neighboring pueblos, date from the years 800 to 1375.
I really enjoyed these twig figures that represent mammals – they date from 4,000 to 2,000 years ago, but you probably read that. They’re each about four to six inches wide.
This example of a reconstructed wall from the pueblo shows how thick the structures were. That NPS flyer, placed helpfully by a visitor (me), is 8.25 inches wide. As anyone who’s ever built a pueblo knows, thick walls make for good insulation. Summer temperatures in the Verde Valley reach into the 90s, and wintertime lows commonly dip into the 30s.
We were happy to have some excellent birdwatching opportunities at Tuzigoot. This lesser goldfinch (Spinus psaltria) was singing a happy tune just outside the monument’s visitor center. These may be the smallest finches in the world: males generally range from 3.5 to 4 inches long and weigh between a quarter ounce and four-tenths of an ounce. Much of their diet consists of dandelion seeds.
The visitor center also has a nice native plant collection. This is a specimen of ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens), which translates to “stay far, far away” in Spanish (not really). Although it looks like a cactus, it’s genetically related more closely to tea and blueberries (really). Ocotillo can grow up to 30 feet tall and is sometimes planted as a living fence.
Desertbroom (Baccharis sarothroides) is a flowering shrub native to the Sonoran Desert of the southwestern United States and northern Mexico. Tea made from steeping the twigs helps alleviate pain from sore muscles. The plant is rich in compounds that reduce cholesterol and serve as an antioxidant. However, there’s also evidence showing that ingesting the compounds has its share of negative side effects so don’t go drinking that tea just yet.

The Tuzigoot site was first described by Anglo-Americans in the 1850s but wasn’t professionally excavated for nearly a century after that. Following the departure of the Sinagua, centuries of neglect, along with countless rain- and snowstorms, freezing temperatures, and the desert heat, left the pueblo in severe disrepair. The site was first excavated in the early 1930s and Portland cement was used to stabilize the rocks. Unfortunately, that material can, over time, damage the original rocks used in the buildings. In the late 1990s, researchers began to replace the Portland cement with mortar that is a better match with the bonding materials that were used a thousand years ago during initial construction.

This is from the top of the highest tower in the pueblo, looking southeast. The trees just on the other side of the meadow indicate where the Verde River flows. A couple of visitors to the left of the fence on the right side of the image provide a sense of scale. The pueblo was built on a hill that’s 120 feet higher than the surrounding terrain.
Nancy and I are fond of pointing out signs like this, which are necessary for exactly one reason.
This rock wren (Salpinctes obsoletus) was also happily singing, but on the rocks of the pueblo. They are also a very small bird, about 5-6 inches long and weighing half an ounce. Rock wrens are known for laying down a pathway of small stones outside their nests, which are located in rock crevices or in tree stumps.
Tuzigoot visitors are allowed to enter some of the rooms. This one allows access, via a steep set of stairs, to the top of the tower shown in the first photograph. The ceiling shows the viga-and-latilla (large logs crossed with perpendicular smaller logs) ceiling that also served as the supporting floor for the upper story.
Looking southwest from the high tower of Tuzigoot, the town of Jerome, Arizona, is visible from the top of the pueblo. Five centuries after the Sinagua left Tuzigoot, Jerome was founded at this location because of the nearby hill featuring a large capital letter “J.” I’m just kidding with you right now: the town was founded there because of the presence of immense amounts of copper underneath it. The copper mines have since played out. In 1930, Jerome had a population of close to 5,000 people and it now has around 500 residents. Also note the snow on the nearby mountains; Jerome is about 100 miles north of Phoenix and lies at an elevation of about 5,000 feet.

The 190-mile-long Verde River, which flows to the north and east of the Tuzigoot pueblo, drains an area of almost 6,200 square miles. The Verde flows just a few feet from where our campsite was in Camp Verde, which derives its name from the river. It eventually empties into the Salt River east of Phoenix, which in turn flows into the Gila River west of the city. A nice trail leads north from the Tuzigoot visitor center to a natural area called Tavasci Marsh (named after the family that once owned a dairy there). About 10,000 years ago the marsh was part of the river but it has since been separated through erosion and other geological forces to become a separate, but connected, wetland. There were, hundreds of years ago, many marshes in the Verde Valley. They’ve since been drained for human development and pasturelands, and today marshes are very rare in Arizona. The trail is a half-mile walk to an observation deck that overlooks the marsh, and there are more opportunities for birdwatching and plant appreciation.

I really like this plant, which we’d also seen at Saguaro National Park outside of Tucson, Arizona. It’s desert Christmas cactus (Cylindropuntia leptocaulis), and its pretty red berries were used by Native Americans to create an intoxicating beverage.
Sparrows aren’t generally thought of as especially attractive birds (I disagree), but the black-throated sparrow (Amphispiza bilineata) is definitely an exception. These desert natives are 4.5 to 5.5 inches long and weigh about half an ounce. Black-throated sparrows are extremely well-adapted to their desert habitat (they’re also known as desert sparrows in the southwest); while they get a lot of their moisture from water sources during wet times, during dry periods they derive almost all of their necessary moisture from eating insects. This handsome sparrow was hanging out near the trail to Tavasci Marsh.
It wouldn’t be a visit to a Sonoran Desert site without seeing the strawberry hedgehog cactus. They just have ridiculously long thorns compared to their body size.
This is Tavasci Marsh, one of the few remaining wetlands of its type in Arizona. Nearly 245 species of birds have been documented in this riparian area and the marsh attracts plenty of other wildlife – none of which happened to be visiting during our time overlooking the area, but that’s totally alright because we saw plenty of other birds on the trails during our visit.

Tuzigoot National Monument is a fine example of the diversity of ancient Native American pueblos. As conserved by the National Park Service, the monument is a great opportunity to not only learn about its former residents, but to also see some great natural attractions.

Tucson Botanical Garden

March 5, 2022

Nancy and I decided to pay a visit to the Tucson Botanical Gardens on a quiet Saturday morning in early March. The garden grounds are located in the northwest corner of the city, in a pleasant area of residential neighborhoods and small businesses. The gardens are at an expansive former family home, which adds a decided sense of intimacy to the experience of visiting.

We spent most of the morning wandering around the Cactus & Succulents Garden, which afforded us an opportunity to see some really interesting cacti and some birds as well.

This cactus is called Mexican Fence Post. It can grow up to 20 feet tall and, true to its name, is native to Mexico can be grown as a natural living fence.

The Cactus & Succulents Garden features plants from around the world that also perform well in the southern Arizona environment. The plants have been divided into four major areas representing the:

  • Sonoran Desert of North America
  • Chihuahuan Desert of North America
  • Desert regions of South America
  • Desert regions of Africa

Mexico has between 750 and 800 different species of succulents. The United States has about 200 native species, and South America has about a thousand species.

A wandering passerby (it’s Nancy) provides a sense of scale for this cactus that also grows plenty tall. This is called organ pipe cactus, and can grow 20 feet tall with a width of 12 to 15 feet. It is native to Mexico and the United States.

We saw a number of birds at the Botanical Gardens, including five species I’d never seen before.

This is a very common bird, the house finch, but I like the way he’s looking at me.
This grizzled specimen of cactus is a representative of Old Man of the Mountain (Oreocereus trollii), which originates in Argentina. This slow-growing cactus can reach about 3 feet in height.
This is a curve-billed thrasher. It has a remarkable beak. This species is more widespread in New Mexico, but its range also includes southern Arizona and even the very southeast corner of Colorado, as well as western Texas and most of Mexico.
This is a species of agave called whale’s tongue. It can grow up to 4 feet tall and 4-6 feet wide (this is a younger specimen). Mature whale’s tongues (about 10 years old) will send up a flowering stem that reaches up to 14 feet. Like most agaves, the original plant dies after flowering and distributing its seeds.
This small species, Tephrocactus cactaceae, has spines that seem somewhat out of proportion to its body. It is a native of Argentina.
Back to a taller species: this is thick-stemmed totem pole cactus. It grows 10 to 12 feet tall, with smooth skin and no visible spines. It is a native of Sonora and the Baja Peninsula of Mexico.
Here’s the back of a broad-billed hummingbird. I took six or seven photos of this guy, and this is the best of the lot. Hummingbirds just don’t stay still very long. Other new-to-me birds that I saw at the garden were the orange-crowned warbler, the lesser goldfinch, and the verdin. I wish I had better photos to share of those last three, especially the verdin.
Here’s another succulent, crucifixion thorns. Native to Madagascar, this shrub can grow up to 7 feet tall.
Finally, here are several specimens of the distinctive saguaro cactus. Saguaros, native to Arizona’s Sonoran Desert, the Mexican state of Sonora, and a couple of areas of California, can grow up to 40 feet tall. We’d see a few more examples of this species when we visited Saguaro National Park a few days after our visit to the Tucson Botanical Gardens.

We were really happy to visit the Tucson Botanical Gardens. It’s always fun to visit a garden that, like Denver’s, is in a residential area, and there were several more habitats in the gardens that showed even more diversity in plants. Even in early March, there were plenty of blooming flowers to enjoy throughout the gardens.

Lake Cochise

February 19, 2022 – Willcox, Arizona

In arid areas like southeastern Arizona, water is especially important. Not least of all is its ability to support wildlife, and a wide range of it. Lake Cochise, just east of the town of Willcox, is one of the biggest bodies of water in the region. Located in the Sulphur Springs Valley, an 80-mile-long region stretching from north of Willcox to the Arizona-Mexico border, the lake supports a number of different species of birds and other animals throughout the year. Nancy and Gunther and I visited Lake Cochise in mid-February.

It’s difficult to say how many sandhill cranes we saw at Lake Cochise, but I’m comfortable (and not exaggerating) with the number of 10,000. They circled overhead in groups by the many hundreds before landing on the shores of the lake.
Sandhill cranes are generally gray in color, with black legs and bill. Adults have red foreheads, and may stand up to five feet tall and weigh between 10 and 14 pounds when mature.

The town of Willcox hosts an annual event each January, Wings Over Willcox, that attracts bird enthusiasts from around the world. In one year, attendees saw 146 different species of birds, ranging from great horned owls to chipping sparrows.

However, Lake Cochise is best known as a primary winter stop for migratory sandhill cranes. Many thousands of cranes spend the winter each year around the lake, with the highest populations present between the months of November and February. In 2008, the Arizona Game & Fish Department counted more than 36,000 sandhill cranes in the area – the highest number ever recorded.

Adult sandhill cranes have a wingspan of 6 to 7 feet. This group is flying in front of the Dos Cabezas (Spanish for “two heads”) rock formation.

Two groups of cranes spend the winter in the Sulphur Springs Valley: the Rocky Mountain and Mid-Continent populations. The Rocky Mountain group has about 20,000 birds and nests in Wyoming, Montana, Utah, and Alberta, Canada. This is the population that has a major migration stopover in Colorado’s San Luis Valley; the town of Monte Vista has its own crane festival each year to commemorate the event.

Sandhill cranes are very vocal birds – their distinctive call can be heard more than a mile away. During our stay in Willcox, we’d hear them calling while flying overhead most of the day.
Here’s an audio file, courtesy of the National Park Service, that gives an idea of what sandhill cranes sound like.
The cranes approached the lake in groups as small as three, and in flocks numbering in the hundreds. There are a number of recognized names for a group of cranes, including “a construction of cranes,” along with “dance,” “sedge,” “siege,” and “swoop.”

The Mid-Continent population of sandhill cranes has about half a million birds and nests in northern Canada and Siberia. This population has a major migration stopover in the Platte River Valley near Kearney, Nebraska. That town, too, has a festival each year – Nancy and I enjoyed a visit there some years ago where we were first introduced to sandhill cranes from an Audubon Society blind next to the river. We also saw and heard sandhill cranes during our stays last year in Albuquerque through Las Cruces, New Mexico.

The town has placed blinds around Lake Cochise so that enthusiastic birders like the one shown, with her ill-behaved dog, can enjoy the wildlife without disturbing the birds.
While many other people brought their dogs as well, this woman brought a couple of goats to spend a pleasant morning at the lake.
There were So. Many. Cranes. They usually spend the night at the lake, then fly off to spend the middle of the day foraging in fields in the area, and then return to the lake in the evening.
Not counting the sandhill cranes, a species we’d seen earlier in the year, we saw five new bird species that morning we hadn’t seen yet in 2022. The lake attracts many other waterfowl as well. Here’s a magnificent northern shoveler drake. He spent most of his time on the water with his head submerged, shoveling about, so I was fortunate to get this photo.
Here’s a pretty American wigeon hen. We also saw buffleheads and coots, but I didn’t get any decent photos of them.
I hadn’t seen a savannah sparrow before. I couldn’t get this one to look my way, but it’s still a very pretty little bird.
Again. So. Many. Cranes.

We had a great time at Lake Cochise, and we encourage everyone to attend a sandhill crane festival if one’s about — the cranes are a lot of fun to watch, and there are always other species to enjoy if cranes aren’t your thing.

Fort Bowie National Historic Site

13 miles south of Bowie, Arizona – February 6, 2022

Apache Pass is a natural low geologic divide in southeast Arizona separating the Dos Cabezas (Spanish for “two heads”; see more below) Mountains from the much larger Chiricahua (pr. “cheer-uh-cah-wah”) mountain range. Apache Spring, a year-round source of flowing water near the pass, is the main reason many thousands of people traversed the pass beginning in 1848 through the end of the U.S. Army’s conflicts with Native Americans in the mid-1880s. Horses and people needed water to keep moving, and Apache Spring was the only dependable source of water for many miles. From the end of the Mexican War in 1848 through the end of the Apache Wars (1862-1886), Apache Pass provided a corridor for travelers between El Paso and Tucson. Once the southern route of the intercontinental railroad was completed in 1880, the pass became less important for travelers and commerce since trains weren’t as dependent on water as horses were. Until then, Apache Pass was an important point in the expansion of the American west: many thousands of people and great tonnages of goods found their way to the West by traversing the pass.

Chiricahua Apaches lived in this area for many years prior to other cultures entering the Apache Pass region. The pass was identified by both Spanish and, later, Mexican forces during their respective control of the area in the 18th and early 19th centuries.

Many Anglos first used Apache Pass on their way to the California gold fields in 1849. In 1858, the U.S. Congress authorized the development of an overland mail route, operated by the Butterfield Overland Mail Company. In operation between 1851 and 1861, the Butterfield route took advantage of Apache Spring to water its horses.

Apache Pass was also the site of the Bascom Affair, a conflict between Chiricahua leader Cochise’s band of Apaches and the U.S. Army in 1861. The Bascom Affair was the beginning of a decade of conflict between the Chiricahua and the Army, and led to the development of Fort Bowie to protect travelers using the pass and spring.

In 1872 the U.S. government struck a peace accord with the Apaches, establishing the Chiricahua Apache Reservation. For four years things went pretty smoothly, but the Apaches began to flee the reservation and conduct raiding parties into Mexico; the military presence in the pass subsequently increased. Geronimo eventually surrendered to the Army in 1886. Between the removal of the Native Americans and the completion of the railroad, the need for the U.S. military in the pass disappeared. Fort Bowie’s last garrison left the fort in 1894.

Fort Bowie National Historic Site, declared a National Historic Landmark in 1960 and located about 35 miles from Willcox,, preserves some of the building ruins and other features of a U.S. Army outpost built in the 1860s to protect travelers using Apache Pass from Native American attacks. In addition to fort ruins, this 1,000-acre site also features a number of other interesting historical areas, all of which are accessible by a 1.5-mile hike from the parking lot to the site’s visitor center.

Nancy and Gunther and I visited Fort Bowie National Historic Site in early February. It was an immensely rewarding experience, from both a historical perspective as well as a natural history view.

The site is unique in that visitors are encouraged to hike 1.5 miles to the visitor center rather than simply driving to a visitor center parking lot and then hiking from there; it’s certainly possible to drive to the center and park, but you’d miss out on a lot of natural and historical points of interest.

One of the first historic stops on the trail is this view of the camp site for a survey party led by Lt. John Parke of the Topographical Engineer Corps in March of 1854. The party, searching for an all-weather route for a transcontinental railroad, had marched 55 miles through the desert prior to reaching Apache Pass and the spring. The men rested at this spot for two days, enjoying both easy access to water and the companionship of the then-friendly Apaches. Parke would find an easier route for a railroad to the north of the pass, and the rail line was completed in 1880. The route, which passes between present-day Willcox and Bowie, is still in use today; there was puh-lenty of railroad traffic passing through Willcox while we stayed there.

The Bascom Affair

The next significant event, from an Anglo perspective, in the Apache Pass region occurred in January, 1861. A boy named Felix Martinez Ward was kidnapped by Apaches when the Native Americans raided the Ward family ranch. Lieutenant George Bascom was put in charge of the U.S. Army’s effort to find the boy. Bascom arrived in the Apache Pass area on Feb. 4, 1861, with a detachment of 54 men and camped in the area shown above. Cochise, the famous Chiricahua Apache chief, was invited to meet with Bascom. The young lieutenant accused Cochise of kidnapping Felix Martinez Ward, and Cochise denied the claim. Nevertheless, Bascom ordered that Cochise and his party be held hostage.
The Bascom camp was just on this side of the hill shown above. Cochise escaped from the tent in which he’d been held and ran up the hillside. Cochise used a knife that he’d hidden to cut through the tent’s fabric; Cochise’s action is still remembered as “Cut the Tent” by the Apache today. The other Chiricahua, including members of Cochise’s family, were recaptured by U.S. forces. Bascom moved his detachment to a stage station nearby and fortified that building, apprehensive about what might occur during the night.
These are the ruins of the Butterfield stage stop where Bascom and his soldiers sought refuge. Built in July 1858, the station had walls that reached up to 8 feet high. The morning after Cochise escaped, Apache warriors approached the station and told Bascom that Cochise wanted to talk. The meeting progressed for about half an hour before ending abruptly; one of the station workers had been captured by the Native Americans. Shots were fired and in the following weeks Cochise took more captives, attempting to exchange them for his family and other warriors held by the U.S. Army. Those talks failed as well, and Cochise killed the hostages; the Army retaliated by killing the Apaches in their custody.

The Bascom Affair ignited more than 20 years of conflict between the Chiricahua Apache and the United States government. Significantly, Felix Martinez Ward had indeed been kidnapped by Apaches but not by Cochise’s Chiricahua. He was raised among the White Mountain Apache and, as an adult, became a scout and interpreter for the U.S. Army.

The Butterfield Overland Mail route passed through the center of the area shown in this photo (I think the trail is a modern hiking one, not a remnant of the stage trail) and passed by the stage stop. In 1857, the U.S. government awarded John Butterfield a contract to carry mail between St. Louis and San Francisco. The stage coaches took 25 days to complete the 2,500-mile route. The Chiricahuas permitted the passage of the stages for two years; in exchange for gifts, the Apaches provided firewood for the stage station. Butterfield used smaller mule-driven coaches for this mountainous stage of the route, as opposed to larger horse-driven coaches on either end of the line.

The company received $600,000 per year to carry the mail between St. Louis and San Francisco. Butterfield started with 2,000 employees, more than 250 coaches, nearly 2,000 horses and mules, and 240 stage stations along the route.

After the stage stop ruins, the next stop along the trail is the post cemetery for Fort Bowie.

The cemetery actually predates the fort, as some U.S. Army soldiers were buried here in 1862. In addition to soldiers, the cemetery held the remains of the soldiers’ families, civilians, emigrants, mail carriers, and three Apache children, one of whom was Geronimo’s two-year-old son. About a half-year after the closure of Fort Bowie, most of the remains were reinterred at the San Francisco National Cemetery. However, the graves of 23 civilians are still here.

The next significant stop on the trail to the visitor center is the ruins of the Chiricahua Apache Indian Agency.

Cochise died of natural causes in 1874 on the Chiricahua Reservation. Before his death he’d befriended a U.S. Indian agent named Thomas Jeffords, who governed almost a thousand Apaches from this agency from 1875-1876. The U.S. government removed Jeffords from this agency in June 1876 and relocated 325 Apaches north to the San Carlos Reservation. Many of the Chiricahua fled the reservation, however, and resumed hostilities with Anglos that would continue for another decade. The ruins of this agency were excavated in 1984. The building had three rooms, each with its own fireplace, and wood floors. National Park Service conservators have stabilized the ruins with plaster to slow their erosion; an ill-behaved dog at right provides a sense of scale.

A recreation of an Apache camp is a little ways further down the trail. The surrounding area, although rocky and mountainous, provided everything that the Chiricahua needed to make their home here: water from Apache Spring, wild game, edible plants, and materials for building shelter, weapons, and tools. The Chiricahua culture centered around the wife’s extended family; after marriage, the husband entered into the family and committed to supporting his wife’s relatives. While the men hunted and participated in raiding expeditions, the women maintained the wild food crops.

The camps consisted of small groups of several wickiups, built from a pole framework and covered with long grass and animal hides, like this one. Because of inconsistent food supplies and threats of enemy attack, the camps were not permanent and the Apaches moved often. Here we see a big baby absolutely terrified of what unimaginable horrors might wait in the dark depths of the wickiup recreation (there was nothing, as it turned out), accompanied by Nancy.
We got Gunther as an eight-week-old puppy in early November 2019, just a couple of months before the pandemic started, so he grew up in the last couple of years not having a whole lot of exposure to new experiences. For instance, we were made to realize he’d never been very close to horses when we went to Tombstone a few days after this hike. Once he gets used to new things, he’s generally okay with them. He gets along great with other dogs and people (and horses, once he’s seen one). He’s a really good dog, although I think he prefers hikes that have a lot more walking and a lot fewer opportunities to learn about history than this one did.

The Battle of Apache Pass

In mid-July, 1862, a guard of about 100 California Volunteers marched through Apache Pass toward the San Simon River in order to build a supply depot in that area. When the column approached the Butterfield stage station, which had by then been abandoned, it was attacked by Cochise, his ally Mangas Coloradas, and about 150 Apache warriors. The Californians drove the Apaches into the hills shown above, only to find that the Native Americans had taken up new positions around Apache Spring. After another attack, the Californians finally reached the spring and drove the Apaches away once again. The Battle of Apache Pass, July 15-16, 1862, led to the establishment of Fort Bowie.

We were on this trail in early February and were plenty warm; I cannot imagine what it would have been like to engage in battle with Apaches in mid-July, and while trying to fight your way to water.

Apache Spring

This is what all the deadly fighting over the decades at this site was about: Apache Spring, the only year-round source of water in the region. Archeologists have found pottery fragments around the spring that suggest the Mogollon Native Americans were here many years before the Apache came to this area.
Apache Spring averages a flow of about 5 gallons per minute, but that can vary significantly depending on the time of year and recent precipitation amounts. It’s not a big outflow, but it’s wet and that’s all that matters. This little rivulet a few yards from the mouth of the spring is about a foot wide. Fort Bowie is a quarter-mile further down the trail.

The First Fort Bowie

A 500-yard spur from the main hiking trail leads to these ruins of the first Fort Bowie. Construction started in July 1862 following the Battle of Apache Pass and the U.S. Army’s control of Apache Spring. A 100-man detachment of the 5th California Volunteer Infantry, under the command of Col. George Washington Bowie, completed the fort in two weeks. Incidentally, this instance of “Bowie” is pronounced “BOO-ee,” not “BOH-ee.” Also, that tree growing in the middle of the ruins is a catclaw acacia (Acacia greggii). Its Apache name is “ch’il gohigise,” which means “a bush that scratches you.” It has very sharp and claw-like thorns, but its seed pods were a significant food source for the Apache and they used the wood to make furniture and drumsticks. Bees are attracted to the catclaw’s blossoms and make a very distinctive honey.
Although the Apaches didn’t control the water at Apache Spring any longer, they continued to attack travelers that weren’t being protected by the U.S. Army as they traversed Apache Pass. This first fort was only in use for six years as the California Volunteers pursued the Apaches with little success. It was apparently not an enviable duty post because of the extraordinary isolation, constant illness, poor living conditions, and consistent threat of Native American attack. I’d think, however, that the original builders would be pleased to know that the walls they constructed are still standing, in the heat of the Arizona sun, 160 years later. Regular U.S. Army soldiers relieved the volunteers in 1866 and began construction of the new Fort Bowie, 300 yards northeast of this location.
This picture was taken looking to the southwest of the hill on which the first Fort Bowie was built; I’ve indicated the locations of several stops on the trail. The location of Apache Spring is not in this photo; it’s to the right of the area shown in the picture. The prominent mountain in the background is Government Peak, elevation 7,556 feet.
As we approached the visitor center, we encountered a herd of 10-12 mule deer about 100 yards away. They gradually made their way up the opposite hillside, blending really effectively into the rocks and brush of the area.
This is the visitor center for the Fort Bowie National Historic Site. At the end of the 1.5-mile hike, it’s an impressive structure that overlooks the site of the second Fort Bowie, and has a wonderful wraparound patio with plenty of rocking chairs and benches from which to admire the view. The building contains artifacts from the fort and other items representative of military life in the late 19th century; we didn’t spend much time in the building because due to Covid concerns NPS was understandably limiting how many people could be inside at the same time. That’s what is left of the fort’s armory on the left side of the image, well removed from the original site of the fort itself.
Like the Indian agency from down the trail, there’s not much remaining of Fort Bowie. The mounds you see in the middle foreground are walls of the fort’s buildings that have been covered in plaster by NPS conservators in an attempt to preserve as much of the original construction as possible. This picture is taken from in front of the visitor center, looking to the northeast.
This is a picture of a picture of Fort Bowie from January 1894, at the height of its presence at Apache Pass. For a perspective, the angular hill at the top left of the previous photo is the same one at the top center of this one. The tall building on the right side of the photo comprise the commanding officer’s quarters and in front of that structure are the officers’ quarters. The hospital is to the left and up the hillside a bit from the CO’s quarters. The low buildings at left are the corrals and stables; behind those are the ice machine and steam engine. In total, there are about 38 buildings in this photo. With the Apache Wars ending after Geronimo’s final surrender in 1886, the Army occupied Fort Bowie for eight more years. The U.S. Army abandoned Fort Bowie nine months after this original photo was taken. Area residents stripped the wood from the buildings for their own uses, and all that was left were adobe walls.
Here’s a view over the ruins looking southeast from the visitor center’s railed porch, where Nancy and I sat on rocking chairs while enjoying a picnic lunch. Gunther collapsed in the shade of the porch. Some of the fort’s ruins can be seen in the mid-foreground as light tan mounds. You may have noticed the prominent rock formation in the background in previous photos; it is called Helen’s Dome, elevation 6,376 feet. The granite peak is reportedly named after the wife of an officer at Fort Bowie, and served as an important landmark for travelers approaching Apache Pass.

After the visitors center, hikers can either retrace their steps back to the trailhead’s parking lot or use an alternate route that provides a different perspective on the surrounding area. We chose the latter.

This spectacular view shows the valley of the eastern approach to Apache Pass and the Peloncillo (Spanish for “little baldy”) Range, 35 miles away on the horizon, and just beyond those mountains lies the New Mexico/Arizona border.

We also decided to drive back to The Goddard by a different route, making a loop between Willcox and Bowie on either end. It gave us a chance to see some different country, and I’m glad that we did.

This is the rock formation that gives the Dos Cabezas (“two heads” in Spanish) Mountains their name. It doesn’t take much imagination to see faces in the rocks, especially the one on the left. This formation is about 15 miles due west of Willcox; it’s easily visible from the town (I enjoyed watching the colors of the setting sun on the formation while playing with Gunther in the campground’s dog run), but this perspective from the opposite side definitely shows you why it’s named what it is.
We also passed this red-tailed hawk, perched on a roadside fencepost, on the way back to Willcox. It let me take five or six pictures before taking off. That’s snow-covered Mount Graham in the background, but from the opposite side of where we saw it while staying in Safford, Arizona.

We really enjoyed Fort Bowie National Historic Site. This was a “the journey is the destination” sort of experience — while it was interesting to see the ruins of the actual fort, the hike to those ruins, and the natural and cultural historic points we saw, was more rewarding. Hiking in the same paths that Cochise and Geronimo once walked, and learning more about the conflicts between the Chiricahua who lived here and the U.S. Army, is something that we’ll always remember.

Did You Know / Did You Care #6

When we traveled to Arizona from New Mexico in late January of this year, we noticed a lot of very tall and very thin pine trees growing next to buildings (as in, just inches away from them), and also grown close together as natural windbreaks or privacy fences. They are called pencil pines, and they are a cultivar of a species of cypress tree called Cupressus sempervirens.

Did you know / did you care that this cultivar was developed from trees native to the Mediterranean region of western Europe? The same conditions in Italy and Greece can be found in some parts of the American southwest, and the cultivars are very popular in Arizona’s arid and hot climate.

Our campground in Willcox, Arizona, had a single pencil pine planted next to each campsite.

In addition to providing protection from wind and prying eyes (when planted in close proximity), pencil pines, we were to discover, also serve as great habitat for a wide variety of songbirds. Their dense foliage and impressive height – up to 110 feet – provide plenty of safe nesting and perching spaces for our feathered friends.

I took this photo of a house sparrow (a very common bird around the entire country) from a window inside The Goddard. It was perched in the pencil pine planted next to our front door (the one at far left in the photo of The Goddard above).
Here’s another common bird, a house finch, perched in the same tree. This photo was taken in the late evening from below the bird. A bonus Did You Know / Did You Care!: house finches are native to the American southwest but some were captured in the 1940s and taken to the East Coast for breeding and to sell as house pets. That practice violated a couple of federal laws, and, in an effort to avoid prosecution, the captors released the birds to the wild. The house finches established wild populations, and now the species is found from coast to coast. The species was also taken to Hawaii in the 1870s and is now found on all of that state’s islands.
Here’s a bird not found from sea to shining sea (and Hawaii): the cactus wren. This guy perched at the very top of a different campsite’s pencil pine and called out almost every morning we were in Willcox. I thought it sounded like a car with a dead battery trying to start (but in a way that’s somewhat more pleasing than what it sounds). The calls last up to four seconds and can be heard a thousand feet away.

Of course, all of this avian activity was of great interest to the feline member of The Goddard’s crew.

Here’s Rusty keeping an eye on the goings-on in the pencil pine outside the door of The Goddard.
We regret not getting the optional extra-wide tread for the steps in our trailer, but we didn’t know that Rusty would be spending so many of his waking hours watching birds from the doorway.

Gila Box Riparian National Conservation Area

January 30, 2022 – near Safford, Arizona

Riparian areas, or habitat on or near flowing rivers, have historically constituted only 2 percent of the state of Arizona’s landmass. According to the Bureau of Land Management, in the last 200 years almost 95% of that meager acreage has disappeared due to human development from grazing, farming, and diversion projects

The Gila Box Riparian National Conservation Area, located between Safford and Clifton in southeast Arizona, was established in 1990 to protect 23,000 acres (about 36 square miles) of wildland river habitat and the surrounding area.

This photo is from an overlook above the Gila River as it briefly splits before rejoining downriver, looking to the southeast. The Gila Box Riparian National Conservation Area has plenty of very long vistas of natural spaces. The section of the Gila River that runs through the NCA is a very popular destination for kayakers, canoeists, and rafters during high-flow season, and there are several developed areas along the river for putting in and taking out watercraft.

The word “Gila” is found in many, many placenames and other references in New Mexico and Arizona, and it’s thought to be derived from a Spanish contraction of “Hah-quah-sa-eel,” which is a Yuma Native American word that means “running water which is salty.” The river starts near Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument and flows almost 650 miles along an watershed of nearly 60,000 square miles in the two states before emptying into the Colorado River near Yuma, Arizona, where the Colorado forms the state’s western border with California..

The Gila Box Riparian NCA includes more than 20 miles of the Gila River as well as sections of three other waterways that flow year-round in southeast Arizona. Gila Box is one of only two riparian NCAs in the United States; the other is San Pedro Riparian NCA, located in extreme southeastern Arizona along the border with Mexico.

The waterways provide food, shelter, and water for a huge variety of wildlife, including fish, mammals, and birds as well as invertebrates.

The importance of preserving these lands can be seen in the variety of animals that call Gila Box home, including at least:

  • 175 permanent and migratory bird species
  • 42 mammal species, including bighorn sheep, black bear, javelina, mountain lion, and cougar
  • 24 reptile species
  • 17 fish species, including the endangered Gila chub and razorback sucker
  • and 10 amphibian species.
This is Bonita Creek, which flows southeast from the San Carlos Apache Reservation, now home to about 10,000 Apache, northwest of the National Conservation Area to enter the Gila River near the NCA’s western edge. This riparian environment is certainly atypical habitat for the mostly desert state of Arizona: Fremont cottonwood, Goodding’s willow, and Arizona sycamore trees are prevalent along with uncommon large bosques of mesquite, which is a very common tree/shrub in the drier areas of the desert but there grows in sparser groupings.
One of these days I’ll stop being surprised at seeing blooming flowers in January, but today was not that day. This is a plant called brittlebush (Encelia farinosa), which has several interesting characteristics: it derives its name from having very fragile stems; depending on where in the stem the sap is collected the sap can be used as a glue or as a resin to hold seal pottery vessels; or the sap can be melted to use as a varnish. There were a lot of bees collecting pollen from this plant.
It’s difficult to be sure, but I’m fairly certain this raptor is a redtailed hawk perched on an ocotillo. A few minutes after this photo, the bird took off and immediately rose a hundred feet in the air to soar over the desert. The mountain in the background is Mount Graham (elev. 10,724 feet), the southernmost peak in the continental United States to exceed 10,000 feet. Mount Graham dominates the landscape in southeastern Arizona: it’s visible from nearly everywhere. It and other tall mountains are referred to as “sky islands” in the American southwest because their different elevation zones support a number of varied habitats for wildlife and plants. Beyond this bird and the bees, we didn’t see much in the way of wildlife on our visit to Gila Box; we’d especially hoped to encounter Gila monsters, which we’d been advised by Arizonans were common in the NCA.
Here’s another view of Mount Graham taken at a different time of day in the NCA, with part of the city of Willcox seen at its base. It’s barely visible in the previous photo with the raptor, but this image better shows a box-like structure in a mountain saddle at the right: that’s one of several telescopes maintained in the Mount Graham International Observatory (MGIO), which is operated by the University of Arizona along with other partners. The one viewable here is the Large Binocular Telescope; the other two MGIO telescopes are the Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope (the “Pope ‘Scope,” if you will, and maybe you won’t) and the Submillimeter Telescope. The clear skies due to the high elevation and sparse populations in the immediate area lend themselves to excellent telescope operations. The Large Binocular Telescope is about 30 miles from this viewpoint; it is indeed large. Regrettably, the MGIO only conducts tours from mid-April through mid-October because of road conditions so we weren’t able to check it out. We had a great view of Mount Graham from our campsite, and enjoyed seeing the changing weather conditions across the mountainside during our stay.
The abundant water of the Gila Box area (by Arizona’s standards, at least) supported ranching operations, including by the Apache, beginning in the 1870s. Cattle, sheep, and goat production peaked in the 1880s and early 1890s as the Southern Pacific Railway was completed across this part of Arizona, but later droughts and land mismanagement led to a near-total collapse of the industry. Ranchers may still graze stock on the NCA, which is overseen by the Bureau of Land Management, but must restrict their herds to upland parts of the area and no grazing is permitted on public lands near the riparian areas. This structure’s roof has seen better days.
From a geology point of view, there’s a lot going on in these cliffs about 100 yards away from the Gila River. Between 25 and 16 million years ago, volcanic eruptions created lava flows that resulted in layers of basaltic rock. Later eruptions formed layers of sedimentary and conglomerate rocks, all of which the Gila carved through to make a spectacular canyon over millions of years. These cliffs are probably about 100 feet high.
And here is that canyon, which is the Gila Box. This is a few miles upstream from the overlook where I took the first photo of this posting. I really wish the sun had been shining on the canyon walls when we were there, but canyons and sunlight rarely have good timing together. The color of the rocks is still spectacular. Water is an amazingly destructive force, especially given enough time: this is the other side of the canyon formed by the cliffs in the previous photo, which are at least 100 yards west of this standpoint. Nancy and I were somewhat frustrated with the lack of established hiking trails in the NCA, but we did enjoy a short walk along the banks of the Gila River and experiencing this canyon wall, several hundred feet high, was especially rewarding. Gunther wasn’t able to join us next to the river; he kept getting spooked by something in the underbrush as we approached the river – it could only have been a lair of writhing, snapping Gila monsters, we believe – so we took in this sight individually while the other held the leash of our big baby.

Despite not being able to find any trails on which to stretch our legs (and it’s very possible that trails exist in parts of the NCA we didn’t see), we did enjoy the visit to Gila Box Riparian National Conservation Area. It would be really interesting to see it in spring, when the water’s really flowing. Maybe we’ll find Gila monsters somewhere else in Arizona.

Roadrunner, revisited

November 14, 2021

The opportunity to photograph another roadrunner presented itself while we were at the Albuquerque Botanic Garden on Sunday, Nov. 14. The garden has a display of vintage farm equipment next to its exhibit on old-timey farmsteads, and this greater roadrunner (as we now know, the state bird of New Mexico) was hanging out among the implements. He/she spent a couple of minutes in full view. I really like the coloration on that snappy head crest.

Many, many species of birds serve as powerful reminders that dinosaurs still walk among us in a way, but roadrunners must be near the top of that list.
I think Rico (what could his/her name be, other than “Rico”?) was looking up at a wooden fence here, perhaps looking for grasshoppers. Although they can fly, roadrunners greatly prefer to run. And run they do, at speeds of up to 20 mph.
I am greatly amused by photos of birds looking directly at the camera, and I hope that you are too. Thanks for entertaining us for a couple of minutes, Rico!

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