The drive to Sabino canyon is long. Though I am early the traffic is already thick on the roads. As I pull into the parking lot the sky is turning to gray. A desert cotton tail nibbles on greenery near the visitor center where I wait for Jean and Peggy. Any day that starts off with a cute little bunny will be a good day.
Down in a gully three white-tailed deer grazed without fear.
So did this male and female cardinal!
We climb over rocks and we trek through sand. We duck through brush as we head downstream. Peggy finds a raccoon track in the soft creek sand. I keep hoping to see a coati but so far, no luck. Then we find an ant lion trap, a conical indent in the sand where, if an insect wanders in it has a hard time getting out and usually the ant lion gobbles up the victim before it can escape. Along the creek the willows drop their shaggy bark. Some branches have fine green leaves and yellow catkins in flower and along with the cottonwoods’ new lime green leaves it gives the impression of a green mist along the treetops. One willow is such bloom the branches were humming with drunken bees. A Morning Cloak butterfly joins them sipping nectar far at the top out of reach of my camera. I gaze at its dark brown wings edged in cream through my binoculars. Its head is buried deep in the tree’s flowers, hidden from sight.
A ruby-crowned kinglet comes to check us out, then, uncharacteristically deices it needs to preen right in front of us. These busy little birds are often so hard to photograph simply because they are in constant motion, but today I was able to snap of 10 to 12 good shots!
We finish out point counts just south of the Sabino creek dam. I see the old road washed out from previous flooding. The creek cascades over the cracked cement and meanders on its way in a gentle fashion today. At our last stop we see the most birds, including a broad-billed hummingbird and a ladder-backed woodpecker, but it is on our walk back to the parking lot that we make our best discovery. I am constantly scanning the trees, brush, cacti and skies for motion. Suddenly I see something gray moving in the thick tangle of a mesquite. Gazing through my binoculars I’m delighted to discover a nesting pair of phainopeplas! The male flies out to a tree near a saguaro, but the female sits on the nest rearranging the twigs to better suit her taste. Her silky gray body blends perfectly with the mesquite bark. If it weren’t for her red eyes, she would disappear completely with her camouflage.
Jean has taught me an interesting thing about phainopeplas. One of their favorite foods is mistletoe berries. The phainopeplas eat the sticky red berries and excrete them onto the trees they use as perches. Since the birds tend to go back to the same perches frequently and since the seeds are still sticky when they are excreted, they stick to the tree branches in clumps until the mistletoe can take root on the branch and start its parasitic cycle all over again!
All along the trail we see spring wildflowers blooming. Miniature lupine pokes up its blue spikes no more than 10 inches high. After having lived in Maine where the lupine can top five feet tall, this new variety amazes me. I suppose it doesn’t have time to get that tall here. It’s never wet enough or cold enough! Still, the bluish-purple blossoms have a delicate beauty.
We see yellow primrose along the trail, globe mallow and Mexican poppies, but it is not warm enough yet for them to be open. A few more hours of sun will coax their petal wide, but for now we only see their tightly wrapped buds pointing skyward. We see other flowers in bloom that we don’t know the name of, but we enjoy their beauty nonetheless.
An antelope ground squirrel gazes at us from atop a rock, then hurries away as we pass by. We stop to check out the Cooper’s hawk nest in a tall cottonwood tree a bit off the trail, and then continue on our way to the parking lot. It’s almost noontime and I’m tired and hungry as I drive back home to Sycamore canyon. As I head up the road with my head full of today’s birding expedition I suddenly notice a large black bird with its wings held in a “V” gliding over the desert. I was wondering when they would return! It’s my first sighting of a turkey vulture here in Sycamore Canyon this year. Now I know that spring is almost upon us! And then, as I round the bend onto my road I see a patch of bright orange on the side of the road. I pull over and park the car and clamber out with my camera to capture the beauty of Mexican poppies growing wild right here in Sycamore Canyon. As if that is not enough to finish off my day, a lovely jewel green insect flies right into the orange cup just in time for me to snap this picture!