It is early morning and I am literally up with the birds in anticipation of a visit from Jeff and Dawn Fine. We have our sights set on a hike in the Cienega Creek Preserve today, but first they are meeting me here at my house to see all the wonderful birds in Sycamore Canyon. I filled the feeders and slathered on the bark butter the night before. The birds do not disappoint as they flock to my yard.
Jeff and Dawn arrive around 8:00 a.m. Gus greets them at the door as I slide a German pancake into the oven. With fresh brewed coffee we watch birds and wait for the breakfast to finish cooking. The birds do not disappoint as Costa’s hummingbirds, gilded flickers, black-throated, white-crowned and rufous-winged sparrows put in an appearance. To top off the experience a rufous-crowned sparrow shows its single-whiskered face. Larger and more round-headed than the rufous wings, it has a darker beak and a pale eye-ring and only one dark whisker mark outlining its throat. As Gus leaves for work, we sit around the kitchen table with plates and forks before us and binoculars close at hand.
With breakfast finished we pack up the car and head for Cienega Creek Preserve. Located off Marsh Station Road in Vail, it is a short drive from my house and we are soon there. I drive Dawn and Jeff to the bridge first to see the creek from above. We gaze down steep rock cliffs, past train tracks and bridges, into a green crevice. We are looking down on treetops where we hope we will see birds. Then we double back to the parking lot to the south where we hike the trail into the canyon.
As we leave the car the scolding of a cactus wren fills the air. In the distance the Empire Mountains rise soft and smoky looking today. A ragged dirt trail leads downhill through creosote bush covered slopes. Jeff carries the gear and the scope for us. Dawn and I chat companionably as we make our way down into the crevice that is Cienega Creek.
I have only been here once before and I am anticipating a great birding experience, but as we descend the slope all is strangely quiet. We enter the canyon in the dry wash of Davidson Canyon. Figuring that we will see more birds if we head toward the water, we head north towards Cienega Creek. Along the way we travel over gravel and sand. Rocky cliffs rise around us covered with willows, mesquite and Arizona ash trees. Saguaros poke their arms and heads above the tree line on the canyon rim above and some even grow out of the rock ledges. We finally join the creek and follow it westward towards the bridges but still, all is strangely silent.
I am thinking to myself; where are all the birds? I know I saw black phoebes here last time, as well as song sparrows and others. But though we see green grass and water plants, though we find a dead mammal of some sort in the water, we are not finding birds. We go as far as we can before the water prevents further travel and it is at this point that Jeff finds a Great Blue Heron downstream wading casually among the reeds and riffles. It has no fear from us. We cannot get down there. We each take a look through the scope, and then decide to try our luck up stream. It requires several stream crossing to make our way back, but we are able to find places where the channel is narrow or else a path has already been laid with stones and we step quickly across. Dawn decides to stop halfway across one creek crossing to answer one of my questions and loses her footing with a splash. Later on I am the one who ends up with mud on my ankles, but none of us cares, we are having a good time.
The day has turned warm and we peel off a layer. At the junction of Davidson Canyon and Cienega creek we turn east. Dawn wants to see if we can find the source and so we cross the creek once again and walk through a densely forested area with grass actually growing beneath our feet! For me it almost reminds me of walking through the woods of New England and I revel in this remembered experience.
We are hearing a sharp chipping noise now. We look ahead and find a black phoebe hunting insects from an overhanging branch. The dark little bird darts out quickly, grabs its prey and alights once again on a twig. We watch this entertainment quietly for a few moments before pressing on. The little phoebe precedes us upstream, always staying a few feet ahead of us, but it never flies off in fear.
We find the source of the creek as it spills out of the ground. Here the water is murky, and stagnant in some spots. An orange algae seems to flow with the water like strands of rust colored hair. The waterline fades to damp gravel then dry wash but we can see where someone dug down just a foot and found the water groundwater once again.
Now we hear the” chink, chink!” of an Abert’s towhee. Dawn and Jeff find a pair of them in the dense underbrush on the opposite bank, but all I get is a ghostly glimpse of a feathered shadow fleeing into the brush. Here even the trees look ghostly as we travel past white cliffs with tree roots exposed by the sculpting power of water.
As the wash widens the trees start to thin and we are suddenly hearing the twittering of birds. Tall cottonwoods and willows rise above us and now it is so busy we don’t know where to look first! On tall tree is putting out its catkins and it is covered in lesser goldfinches. Before us a flock of orange-breasted birds flies up into a different tree. Robins! We see the undulating flight of a woodpecker and focus in on a ladder-back female. From yet another tree a Gila woodpecker squeaks its alarm to the rest of the forest. Then I see the white rump of a flicker as it flies to the top of a cotton wood. Jeff gets it in the scope as we try to see if it is a red-shafted Northern flicker or the Gilded Flicker of the Sonoran desert. With this habitat I expect to find a red-shafted flicker and with the help of the scope I can just barely see the red feathers on the wing edges of a female as this magnificent bird clings to the silver tree trunk casually preening herself. It seems to know we mean it no harm as it gazes down on us from its lofty perch.
We stay here for several minutes. This is the richest bird area we have found down here this time. We start to speculate why here and not farther downstream. It is Dawn who comes up with the best theory. We must be just enough higher in elevation here that the trees have already started to bloom. The blooms bring insects and the insects bring the birds. From the junction of Davidson Canyon with Cienega Creek onward we have seen the phoebe, towhees, 3 kinds of woodpeckers, a ruby-crowned kinglet, 2 Bewick’s Wrens, a Verdin, a yellow-rumped warbler, and a whole flock of robins.
It is late now, long after lunch time and we reluctantly pack up our gear and bushwhack our way back to the Davidson Canyon channel where we pick up the trail to the parking lot and the car. As we hike back through creosote and cactus we know once again that we are in the desert and I marvel as always at the water that flows below. Here in the desert where water seems such a miracle, such a precious resource must be protected at all costs. Now that I have done it, I will have to go back when all is lush and green to see what else I can find; to see what else lives along this life-giving creek.
A Visit to Cienega Creek Preserve starts with a visit or a phone call to the Pima County Natural Resources office to obtain a permit. The permits to Cienega Creek are free but you need to have one in your possession to hike there. Cienega creek is a year round stream that flows from Davidson Canyon into the Pantano Wash. It is located on the southeast side of Tucson. Having only visited here one time before with friends, I was a bit intimidated by the permitting process, but it really was no big deal. The website has all the information necessary but what I learned was that you have to apply for the permit at least 2 business days ahead of time unless you want to do a walk-in. The website has three different phone numbers listed for information. Call the Permit line to learn about the process and leave a detailed message for your permit. I tired the info line but was only directed to voice mail. Since I needed a permit on short notice, I really wanted to talk to a person and ask a few questions before I drove the 30 miles or more to get it. I discovered that by calling the 520-877-6000 number I was able to talk to a live person and get my questions answered. The office is located at 3500 W. River Road in Tucson.
Pima County Natural Resources, Parks and Recreation: 520-877-6000
Permit Line: 520-877-6158
Additional Questions: 520-877-6123
Read The Thrush and I
a poem inspired by this walk.