Saturday, December 15, 2007

Cienega Creek and Davidson Canyon

Ever since taking the IBA course my plan has been to go birding in Davidson Canyon and Cienega Creek. It is my hope that if we can establish this as an Important Bird Area it will give weight to the argument to prevent mining or other disruptive activities in this pristine area. As a County Preserve you actually have to obtain a permit to go hiking here. The permits are not hard to obtain, but scheduling a time for Gus to go with me proved to be difficult and I dared not venture into the canyon alone. The trip got put off more than once. However, on my December 5th bird survey in Sabino Canyon we were invited to Jean’s house for homemade granola afterwards. Jean is the leader of this group while Pam, Peggy and I are trainees. Pam was unable to come for granola, but Peggy came. We sat in the sun on Jean's patio with a Broad-billed Hummingbird visiting her feeder regularly. I met Jean’s husband, Mark while there. Mark Gerard Hengesbaugh is also an avid bird watcher and naturalist. He has written and published a book entitled Creatures of Habitat: the Changing Nature of Wildlife and Wildplaces in Utah and the Intermountian West. They had just obtained a permit to go birding in Cienega the following week. When they heard of my plight, they invited me to join them.

Our original plan was to go birding on Tuesday, December 11th. However, a storm rolled in over the weekend and refused to leave. Monday started out foggy, then turned to rain. The forecast was for rain the next 2 days. We postponed our trip until Thursday.

Tuesday morning I awoke late in the morning to an even thicker fog. It rolled into the backyard obscuring all but the closest houses. It raised and lowered; raised and lowered like breath in the chest of the earth. The fog didn’t burn off until after 11 a.m. I drove into town to do errands under heavy gray skies. When I left the store after 3 hours of shopping the sun was shining, but soon disappeared behind thick clouds in the west. As I headed south on Kolb towards home I glanced in the rearview mirror to change lanes. It almost took my breath away to see the snow capped Catalinas reflected in the golden light of the setting sun. I drove south with this beautiful view in my rearview mirror and finally pulled off the road when it was safe enough to have a good look. On all sides of me desert scrub and cactus spread out. The air was warm enough to be in my shirt sleeves. But there, suspended above the desert floor the mountains wore a coat of white with evergreen trees poking through the thick white blanket. The sight rivaled any seen in Utah or Colorado. I drove home with a smile in my stomach.

After a further stormy Wednesday, Thursday, December 13th, dawned sunny and bright. Mark and Jean arrived around 8:30 and we bundled everything into their vehicle and headed for Marsh Station Road. Though Cienega has a large parking spot with a big colored sign we headed for the more obscure parking lot with access to Davidson Canyon. We put the permit in the vehicle window, donned our packs, and headed down the trail. The gravel trail was a steady downhill slope. The morning chill combined with a brisk wind caused us to zip up our jackets and put on our gloves. Along the downward trail we saw Black-throated Sparrows and a gnat-catcher, most likely a blue-gray. We saw fresh plies of scat composed mostly of some kind of reddish berries at various intervals along the trail. When we finally reached the bottom we scrambled across a rocky out-cropping where we found ourselves on the canyon floor.

Beneath our feet the ground was gravel and sand. On much of the canyon floor the sand had gathered into deep sand bars or deposited in thick swaths. As we walked our feet squished in the sand and our legs worked twice as hard to push us forward with each step. A few Arizona Ash saplings gathered on the banks of the wash. A Gooding’s willow fell across the dry creek and we had to duck beneath it as we headed south. Here the leaves of the cottonwoods, ashes and willows still flaunted their autumn gold, while the mesquite endured in desert green and even a few cedars tucked themselves in along the banks. Dead leaves lay on the ground decaying in the moisture of the recent rains. The fragrance of wet leaves wafted up around us in the cool morning air.

Here past the willow the canyon took a sharp turn past a monolith that formed a cliff on the south side of the wash. More rocks poked out from the each side and we walked through the middle on the sandy bottom. Above us prickly pears clung to the cliff edges, their roots exposed by erosion. In spots we glimpsed saguaros on the bluff above, but down here in the canyon it felt almost as if I were back in a New England forest glade. The ground was damp in spots from the recent storms and water collected in pools carved out by the raging floods.

At the corner a rock wren whistled and bobbed on the cliff above us, but as we hiked farther south the birds were few and far between. When we did spot a bird it was hard to see definite markings as the sun was before us and behind the birds causing them to be little more than black silhouettes. We quickly realized that to birds this area we would need to start at the south end of the canyon and walk north. But would there be an access point? We hiked on.

As we continued south down the canyon the sun rose higher in the sky. The canyon widened out to a more open area with a grassy island in the middle with a smaller side channel. We continued on the main channel and stopped to investigate footprints in the sand and mud. We saw prints that could have been from coatimundis or raccoons, as well as javalina prints. We found evidence of cattle in the form of large cow pies, and still more scat piles of reddish berries. Whatever deposited them had been here recently for they were still wet and fresh. When we found a Hackberry Tree along the wash full of red berries we decided whatever deposited the scat must have been feasting on this and other Hackberry trees. The berries were hard and reddish orange. They didn’t look appetizing to us at all. However, the piles of scat looked like cranberry-orange relish being served up on desert stones, for that is where whatever animal was responsible seemed to always deposit their scat.

With the warming sun more birds ventured out. A flock of 20 or more white-crowned sparrows flitted in the brush keeping ever ahead of us. In the trees we saw numerous ruby-crowned kinglets busily collecting insects for breakfast. We turned around when we reached the bridge near I-10. Two huge Arizona Ash trees towered over the canyon here with golden crowns, but we found no access points from this end of the canyon. We headed back toward Cienega Creek stopping to observe a Northern Flicker as it flew with its undulating flight into a large cottonwood tree. The red of its underwings flashed in the sun and its white rump patch was clearly visible. We also saw a Say’s Phoebe along the way.

We ducked under the willow branch again and walked past the point where we entered the canyon. Now the canyon walls narrowed even more and cottonwood trees became even more abundant. They towered overhead forming a lemon and chartreuse canopy. Sunlight filtered down to the canyon floor in spangles. Here the sand and gravel gave way to larger stones and rocks. The creek was flowing here and tumbled noisily over a small rocky ledge. We scrambled over the piles of stone and debris underneath a looming train trestle, and rounded yet another corner.

Here the creek flowed freely. A black phoebe caught our eyes as it darted towards the water then flew back to its overhanging branch again. Another flash of movement proved to be yet another kinglet. The gentle gurgle of water was a soothing sound in our ears. It washed over my being with memories of other creeks, eastern streams and forest brooks. But I am here, this day in this place in Arizona. I am in a desert and this is a true desert oasis. It draws me even as it draws the wildlife with its promise of life giving water and cooling shade. Above us the open desert burns, but here deep in the canyon is shelter, shade and serenity.
We crossed the creek 2 or three times and passed beneath the bridge that carries cars 75 feet of more above us on Marsh Station Road. Above on the roadway a marker says the bridge was built from 1920 to 1921. I knew the main parking lot with its large painted sign was somewhere near this bridge, but still we found no access point anywhere nearby. Another train trestle ran overhead even higher than the road, and we later discovered train tracks passed by beneath that bridge along the canyon wall, but from that parking lot there was no good access point. The smaller parking lot with its brown sign that read “trailhead” was truly the best access point to the preserve.

In the creek Mark noticed tiny minnows swimming against the current. Along the rocky cliffs Jean pointed out a spider web hung with cottonwood leaves giving the effect of a child’s mobile hanging over a crib. At this point we turned back due to time constraints, but we were delighted with one more surprise when we saw a Canyon Towhee bathing in the creek beneath an overhanging tree. The towhee stayed close to the bank but splashed with delight in the pool formed by the bend of the creek.

We found our access point and hiked back up to the world above. Even as we ascended we noticed more birds. Mark spotted a huge red-tailed hawk perched in one of the towering cottonwood trees in Davidson Canyon. We stopped to watch until the hawk felt our eyes upon him and took flight. I lingered in the spot a bit longer to take in the sweeping view. Below in the canyon the tree canopy is a fluff of green and gold. Beyond that the gray-green desert painted a swath across the horizon. Then, even farther the Empire Mountains are silhouetted against the azure sky, their flanks a deep purple and blue, as if they are freezing in these cool December temperatures.
Cienega creek has more secrets to tell, but we will not learn them today. Today we head home to share a meal and memories and plan for another adventure to Cienega Creek. Perhaps on our next visit we will see the elusive Green Kingfisher. It would be a life bird for all three of us. Perhaps next time Gus will be able to come with us. Perhaps today, besides exploring and birding, I have made new friends.

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