Friday, August 15, 2008

A Hike Through Davidson Canyon

(Charlie, Charlotte, Mike, Jean and Sandra prepare to go birding.)
Click on photos to enlarge for better viewing

It is Wednesday morning and I am rushing to get out of the house for another birding adventure. This time I am meeting a group of people at Andrada Ranch to bird part of the Davidson Canyon Wash. While I have birded Cienega Creek a few months ago, I have yet to bird Davidson Canyon which runs between Mt. Fagan and the Santa Rita Mountains on the West and the Empire Mountains on the East. The north end of Davidson Canyon flows into Cienega Creek Preserve while the south end begins near the Rosemont Junction and the proposed Rosemont Mine. It is here that the Rosemont Mine wants to dump all of their mine tailings if their mining plan is ever approved. The Scenic Sonoita Highway runs through this canyon past Las Cienegas on the east, and The Greaterville Rd, Box Canyon and Gardner Canyon, all sensitive environmental areas and the locations of some of the most important birding areas around the Tucson area.

When I arrive at the ranch I am greeted graciously by my hosts. A table is set under tall pines and mesquite with a steaming pot of coffee and homemade pastries to boot. It is some of the best coffee I have ever had, but I only take a few sips as I don't know how long we will be gone, I don't know these people, and I don't want to have to go find a cactus halfway through the hike to relieve myself! We grab our gear and head south down the wash from Andrada Ranch. Gray skies provide some relief from the desert sun as we enter the wash. Desert broom brushes up against us as we pad along the sandy bottom. People engage in friendly chatter as we walk. It is strangely quiet at first, but there is still a lot to see.

Charlie is the caretaker of Andrada Ranch and besides being an excellent cook, he is a wealth of knowledge. He points out this beautiful wild morning glory blooming alongside the wash. I have to say that I am astonished since I have never seen a wild morning glory in the west. I have seen its cousin, bind weed up in Utah, but this is new to me. I feel I can fall into the depths of that blue.

Next Charlie points out this wild gourd growing alongside the wash.

And then we find a spider waiting in its nest. Do you know what kind this is?

We round a slight bend with some mesquite trees. I feel so responsible to find birds for these people, but so far we are not seeing much. Then, I see a shape like a thick stick on a branch of this mesquite tree that shouldn't have such a thick stump. To my delight I've spotted a barn owl and this time I am prepared! Everyone gathers around for a look before the bird flies off.

Charlotte and Mike in deep conversation as they hike past one of the canyon's cliffs.

Devil's Claw seed pod which will dry and become the devil's claw.

Yellow wildflower. Do you see the face in the blooms?

We've been hearing birdsong for awhile now but they all seem to be off in the brush and hiding behind leaves. Suddenly this male flies out to sing from the bent stem of a last year's agave bloom. These flowers can grow to over 15 feet high with stems like tree trunks. Their silhouette's dot the desert landscape.

A bit farther up ahead Charlie is the one to spot this bird atop a hackberry tree. When the bird comes into focus with my binoculars my excitement grows for if it is what I think it is, it will be a new life bird for me. I quickly switch to my camera and start snapping photos. I inch a little closer, for the bird is across the wash and up on the bank, but I do get close enough to get these shots, and though I had to crop and enlarge the photo quite a bit, you can see the characteristic bunting shape and the slight red on the back of the head, along with the bluish body. This is a Varied Bunting and a rare find indeed. For me, it is yet another lifer making this hike well worth it.

Next we find a Velvet Ant, which I am told is not an ant at all, but a wing-less wasp. And yes, I am told it does sting, so I keep my distance as I take this picture.

We leave the wash now heading up an old dirt road to the west. A flock of Lark Sparrows flies up from the grass and one lands on an ocatillo high above on the canyon's slope where I am able to finally get a decent picture with the soft filtered light from the still overcast skies. It certainly looks and feels like rain.

In the middle of the dirt road we find a hornworm. those are charlie's fingertips to give you an idea of the size. It's munching on the tiniest bit of greenery and hanging on for dear life. It doesn't look like much of a meal to me.

As we ascend the west hill we look back to the spine of the Empire Mountains to the east. The silver ribbon of a road you see here will turn into a wide gravel track that will carry monster trucks from the proposed SEEL Limestone mine. If this mine goes through these hills will become rubble that will be seen from the once Scenic Sonoita Highway and huge mining trucks will rumble up and down this narrow and winding canyon road on a regular basis.

Before us I see the remnants of the previous limestone mining operation. The stone itself is beautiful, but the scar on the landscape is not. This scar is left over from a small mom and pop mining operation. I can't help but wonder what it will look like if a big corporation takes over and brings heavy machinery in here.

This rock squirrel has no idea it may loose this lookout spot and its home, perhaps even its life.

The evidence of past mining attempts are left to litter the hillside.

This is just part of the limestone cliff created by the previous mine. I gaze down into a white hole 20 feet deep and 75 feet or more across. Mark Winkleman from the Arizona State Land Trust says it is okay to mine in this area, since it has been mined before, but though these scars are ugly and dangerous, they are nothing compared to the proposed mining operations they have planned now.

Here you see a view of the existing former limestone mine in relation to the Empire Mountains behind it, but if the Cal-Portland Mine and the SEEL Mine go in, you will never see these hills and mountain slopes this way again. Where will the Varied Buntings, barn owls, blue grosbeaks and Lark Sparrows go then? Where will the rock squirrels live? And where will we find such a peaceful place to hike, for the canyon will ring with the sounds of blasting and our lovely dark skies will be flooded with the high powered lights needed to run the mines 24 hours a day. And perhaps the biggest issue of all will be the water. Where will the water come from to run these mines and what will happen to Davidson Canyon when the rains come and the runoff flows downhill to Ceinega Creek Preserve?

We end our hike back at Andrada Ranch where I am served lemonade and scones. We review the birds we have seen today and discuss another possible birding expedition in the fall when the Autumn migrants will be passing through. Then I bid my gracious hosts good-bye and drive up across the Davidson Canyon wash, to old Sonoita Highway. As I drive home I wonder if I am seeing the end of a lifestyle here in Davidson Canyon, or the beginning of a new wave of conservation, where wildlife and nature take precedent over the quick buck. It is my hope that the preservation of this beautiful and sensitive area will prevail. This is truly a unique natural area unlike any other place in Arizona or the United states. I believe it should be preserved now, and for the generations to come.

To Learn More visit the Empire Fagan Coalition Website or view the short Arizona Illustrated Video from KUAT TV: Collisions on the Frontier.

Other Links:
Location: Andrada Ranch
date: 8/13/08
Notes: Andrada
Ranch/Davidson Canyon South from Ranch to Limestone Mine.
2 hummingbird sp.

Number of species: 12

Gambel's Quail 1
White-winged Dove 8
Greater Roadrunner 1
Barn Owl 1
Verdin 2
Cactus Wren 1
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher 1
Lark Sparrow 10
Northern Cardinal 2
Black-headed Grosbeak 1
Blue Grosbeak 2
Varied Bunting 3

This report
was generated automatically by eBird v2(

Note: All of today's photography is by Kathie with the Nikon D80, 70-300mm lens set in sports mode for birds, bugs, and buds, and landscape mode for all other shots.


AphotoAday said...

Very cool... Thanks for taking me along... Very interesting reading...

Kathie Brown said...

aphotoaday, you are welcome. It was a fun walk!

Kathryn and Ari said...

Wow. Another amazing day! I felt aesthetically satiated after just seeing that morning glory photo. Add in a whole host of fantastic creatures (including my favorite the bard owl), and you have a wealth of sightings. I'm envious--and vicariously thrilled!

Deborah Godin said...

What a terrific trip you had, and wonderful shots. And a varied bunting - I'm blue and purple with envy...

Shelley said...

It was neat to see the Owl buried in those branches - you have a good eye!!

bobbie said...

Thanks for the walk, Kathie. I was surprised at the wild morning glory and the squash. and I have never seen nor heard of a velvet ant.

It would be a tragedy to see all this lost with mining. I hope that you are spared that.

kjpweb said...

What a great walk, you took us on! The Barn Owl is my favorite among Owls - just love their color and patterns! Good job!
Cheers, Klaus

Rambling Woods said...

I had to come because your blog mentions bird and I am a new birder who blogs about the wildlife around our pond and woods. Great photos and I love your SW photo too...

Kathryn said...

Loved the walk with you. Really enjoyed the owl. Velvet ants aka cow killers are nasty--saw them in Texas where I grew up. Gun Barrel City Daily Photo had a post about them last Sunday, 8/10. Word of advice--stay away from them.
Love, Kathryn

Mary C said...

Kathie, thanks for taking us along on your walk in Davidson Canyon. I sure was fascinated by the hornworm; I didn't think you would find them in that kind of environment.

Pappy said...

Looks like you had a great adventure. Thanks for sharing. Pappy

Larry said...

Congratulations on the lifer!
That Velevet Ant is so cool looking.-It would be even more interesting if it actually was an ant.-It looks like an insect from toys are us.I hardly ever see owls.-I would be really excited to see that Barn Owl.

Kathie Brown said...

Kathryn, what a nice compliment, especialy from you, who have had so many interesting wildlife encounters yourself!

Deborah, I was so hoping to see a varied bunting but I had no idea if I would. It was a great surprise and a thrill.

Shellmo, I was so glad to find the owl and I would have gotten more pics but there was a dog along on the tip that chased it away once it moved in the tree. It was only about 10 feet away from me! The people I went with were very new to birding and so had no idea that a dog would not be good on the walk. It really was no trouble other than the owl incident, but dogs just tend to scare away the birds before you even get to see them!

Thanks Klaus, it's the closest I have ever been to an owl in the wild. See comment to shellmo above.

rambling woods, Welcome to my blog. I'm glad you came for a visit. I shall drop by and see you too. Welcome to the birding world!

Katnell, from what I read on the internet I will certainly heed your advice. I can't image the pain and I don't want to experience it for myself!

Mary, I never know what to expect around here, especially because I am still new and because the biodiversity here in AZ is amazing!

Hey pappy, it was a fun adventure but we were sure hot and thirsty by the time we got back!

Larry, owls are the most challenging because you usually don't see them during the day and they are so hard to photograph at night! I was just in the right place at the right time!