Monday, December 8, 2008

My World: Agua Caliente Park

Agua Caliente Park in Tucson, AZ

It’s the middle of November and I have the day to myself. I drop Gus at the airport for a business trip in the morning, then do a few errands before buying myself a subway sandwich and heading to Agua Caliente Park on the northeast side of town. A warm lazy sunshine greets me as I enter the park off Roger’s road.

I immediately start scanning the area for birds, wondering who has arrived here for the winter. As the road curves around the perimeter of the park I look towards a certain corner where I always see a road runner. Sure enough it is there. I put on the brakes and roll down my window to get a better view of this desert dinosaur-like bird. The prehistoric looking creature cocks its tail and lifts its head to get a better look at me. We stare at each other for unspoken moments, then it turns, drops its tail and head while elongating its body and slinks away into the brush.

I continue on my way past the row of palm trees on my left and the scrubby desert on the right to the parking lot. After parking the car I grab all my birding gear and my lunch and head for a picnic table in the shade of the palms that grow along the stream. The shallow stream flows from the original spring for which Agua Caliente is named. It flows slow and lazily out to a reservoir providing a home to waterfowl, turtles and fish. Soras and blackbirds seek shelter in the reeds. Ducks and turtles live in the water and on the tiny island near the eastern edge. Agua Caliente is a true desert oasis providing shelter for body and spirit.

In the cool, dark shade of the palm trees I gaze through the frame of palm fronds to the sunny desert beyond. I can see the spot where the roadrunner was, but the bird itself has vanished. In the slow and shallow nearby creek a few mallards and a widgeon paddle and wade, ruffling their feathers, or drifting lazily with the slow current. Palm trees and palm leaves are still so foreign to me. The shade they cast is different and darker than the shade of a maple tree or a mesquite. I always feel like I am in some exotic place when I come here. While I eat my sandwich I search the surrounding area for birds, but I only see the ducks at this time of day. All the smaller birds are hiding from the afternoon sun. I walk back to my vehicle to return the remnants of my lunch. Now it’s time to get down to some serious birding.

Along the paved path a tiny bird flits about from tree to tree. When I see its lemony rump I know I am seeing a yellow-rumped warbler, my first for this fall. Overhead the towering date palms are loaded with their apricot-colored fruit. Gila woodpeckers squawk nosily in their branches as they compete for it. I wander across the open lawn area of the park and cross a little bridge to the south side of the pond near the reeds. I’m looking for something beside the numerous widgeons and mallards floating in the water. Far across the pond I see a ring-necked duck, but here near the shore I only see turtles bobbing.

I gaze across the sky-blue water at one of my favorite views. Here in bold colors I see the incongruity of palms and mountains reflected in the water’s mirror. Then, from the cattails the whinny of a sora fills the air.

A little song sparrows hops out of the reeds to investigate me and the sound. Its eyes are wide with curiosity. We watch each other for a bit, then I head on my way.

My path takes me along the edge of the water where ducks are settling down for their afternoon nap. A few of the numerous turtles decide to join them and I laugh at these odd companions snoozing on the island’s shore. I wander past the old ranch house that is now a museum and Audubon gift shop.

At the eastern edge of the house stands an old mesquite, rumored to be the oldest one in the Tucson area. Its many heavy branches are supported by brick columns and steel poles to preserve the tree for as long as possible. Frequently I can find warblers, wrens, or Verdin here, but today all I see is a rock squirrel scurrying for its hole. It freezes at the underground opening, hoping I do not see it, but I do, and I snap it’s portrait, before moving on. When I look away, it disappears.

Today only a few people are here in the park. I relish the solitude as I meander at will. I find a verdin busy in the branches of a nearby tree, and watch as it searches for insects among the tiny leaves.

A familiar silhouette on the bare branch of a Eucalyptus tree catches my eye. I walk ever closer to confirm its identity as a Cooper’s hawk. The towering tree elevates the bird far above my head. It has no fear of me as I walk slowly beneath it, then wander off towards the mesquite bosque.

A bosque is a Spanish term for a thicket or wooded area. Here the paved trail squeezes between the north end of the pond with its palm trees, willows and reeds, and the cottonwoods, eucalyptus trees and mesquite on the other side. In this narrow wooded fringe I have found brown creepers before. And this is where I have seen towhees, vireos, warblers and other woodland birds. Though the area is small in size it is rich with birds at times. The path before me is a tunnel through the mesquite. I have seen a hermit thrush in here before, but today the thicket is quiet and empty.

Most of the trees are shedding their tiny leaves for the winter, but scattered among them are cholla cacti and even a few barrel cactus. Then I spot a baby saguaro beneath a nurse tree. At only 12-15 inches high it’s already 15 years old. Saguaros have to grow in the shade of a nurse tree to be protected from sunlight and from being trampled. It takes a long time for them to get established and even longer to gain height. By the time you see the many armed saguaros that are the familiar backdrop of westerns, you are looking at a “tree” that is over 100 years old!

Bright white sunlight blasts my eyes as I emerge for the bosque into the desert beyond. The cacti are more numerous here along with other typical desert scrub. Desert grasses have turned gold and brown in this dry season. Agua Caliente Lake is white and empty, its surface cracked and baked, its shadows blue and long. Along the circular path the blue-black males and gray female Phainopeplas call from the surrounding trees and bushes, their eyes red as the berries they eat.

A rufous-winged sparrow flies up on a stag-horn cholla to check me out. I spot its two dark whisker marks and its rufous epaulets, for which it is named. This tiny sparrow is a fragile resident of this area. Southeast Arizona is the only place in the United States to see this little sparrow. Even over the border into Mexico it does not inhabit a large area. Loss of habitat here could doom it to extinction.

The path around the dry lake is a silver thread of compressed caliche. Though I have never seen this area flooded with water, apparently sometimes it is. The few palm trees that dot the lake look like island women in grass skirts ready to dance in the slightest breeze. It is mostly still today as I round the bend and head back towards the desert oasis. I have wondered aimlessly for well over 2 hours. In that amount of time the sun has sunk casting longer and bluer shadows.

Alongside the trail this heap of earth is carved by rain into a sculptured mound. I find it pleasing to look at. I’m intrigued by its geography and topography. What are you made of? Why are you here? What forces shaped you into this silvery beauty. Are you something dying, or growing? Or are you a reflection of my soul?

The cackling of cactus wrens shakes me from my reverie. I put my feet on the silvery path until I reach the pavement once again. Passing through the mesquite tunnel, along the water’s edge the turtles sunning on an emerged log act bored with my existence. They tilt their serpentine heads upwards to soak in the last warm rays of sun.

The croaking call of a common raven catches my ear as I leave the cool tunnel of trees and enter the open area of the ranch lawn. I turn to see the Cooper’s hawk still sitting on its bare branch silhouetted against the late afternoon desert sky. Below it on another branch the large black raven croaks and calls and twists and turns its head, taunting the bird above him.

Irritated, the Cooper’s tries to ignore the rascal beneath,

but suddenly another raven flies in to join the fun and when I look again, the Cooper’s Hawk is gone and only ravens laugh in the waning light.

Visit MY WORLD Tuesday to continue your tour around the globe.

Birds seen Today at Agua Caliente Park:

Location: Agua Caliente Park, Tucson
Observation date: 11/19/08
Notes: Sunny, warm, bright day. The Cooper's hawk was sitting on the branch of a Eucalyptus tree for at least an hour until 2 ravens came along and chased it away. The blackbirds were seen at the end of the day as I was leaving. They were diving in and out of the reeds and rushes.
Number of species: 25

  1. American Wigeon 49
  2. Mallard 73
  3. Ring-necked Duck 2
  4. Cooper's Hawk 1
  5. Sora 1
  6. American Coot 5
  7. Mourning Dove 1
  8. Greater Roadrunner 1
  9. Anna's Hummingbird 1
  10. Gila Woodpecker 12
  11. Black Phoebe 1
  12. Common Raven 4
  13. Verdin 10
  14. Cactus Wren 4
  15. Northern Mockingbird 1
  16. Curve-billed Thrasher 2
  17. Phainopepla 11
  18. Yellow-rumped Warbler 5
  19. Rufous-winged Sparrow 6
  20. Chipping Sparrow 1
  21. Song Sparrow 3
  22. Yellow-headed Blackbird 2
  23. Great-tailed Grackle 12
  24. House Finch 3
  25. Lesser Goldfinch 2

Photographer's Notes: All of today's photos are by Kathie taken with the Nikon D80 and the 70-300mm lens set either in Sports Mode or Programmed Auto for landscapes.


kjpweb said...

What a great MyWorld post! Bravo - love every little detail you captured!
Cheers, Klaus

Amy said...

The Mallard and turtles make funny bedfellows! How cute! Those naughty ravens must have been having fun taunting that poor little hawk. They ARE rascals!

Kathie Brown said...

Hello friends and fellow bloggers, My Mom is visiting me this week from the east coast and I am trying to show her Tucson in 5 days! If I don't see you today, I will stop by later this week. Thank you for stopping by Sycamore Canyon to see MY World!

klaus, thank you for your kind and encouraging words. I know it was kind of long but there was so much to tell!

Amy, so nice to see you again! I loved the turtles and the ducks and the raven incident was just too amusing not to include. Glad you appreciated it.

Amila Salgado said...

Great post as usual. Youare bird photography is looking very good.
I have a good book on the American South West and it is intersting to see familar pics from your blog too.

bobbie said...

"Hot Water Park" Fascinating.

Wonderful post. That photo with the reflections in the water is absolutely gorgeous.

Ruth's Photo Blog said...

Wow!I feel like I have just been on a long walk with the best tour guide I know.Beautiful pictures.

Deborah Godin said...

Love the mallard and turtles. That one invites a "caption"! LOL turtles maybe? And ravens, I so miss ravens! I keep hoping that one winter one or two ravens will wander down here from N. Ontario to see me!

Vickie said...

Enjoyed all the scenery and wildlife. I love the photo of the mallard and turtles. That is a special photo.

Anonymous said...

You saw a road runner as soon as you got there - how cool is that.

Love the mallard-turtle strange bedfellows

Gaelyn said...

What a marvelous tour! I now feel like I've been there. You are good, as both a photographer and writer. Thank you.

Its Time to Live said...

You know, I visit all the time and you have yet to let me down. Thanks for the insite into the world of nature and the outdoors.

Louise said...

What an incredible park! The warmth you describe makes me a bit envious, but your pictures are fantastic. I have never been able to get a stellar roadrunner photo. (I love the birds.) Yours are excellent. My favorite, however, has to be the duck and turtles. Never seen anything like it! said...

reading your post while freezing in NY makes me want to move to the land of the warm lazy sun!
Thanks for the tour.

Dirkjogt said...

Wow, great birdwatching!! Thanks for sharing, wish I was with you on this moment! My favourite picture is the one with the duck and the turtles.

chrome3d said...

So much stuff you have here! I loved the small black yellow-rumped warbler, it was so cute.

Cathy said...

I always enjoy visiting your blog. We both like to share our corner of the world.

SandyCarlson said...

What a gorgeous walk in your part of our country. Those birds are gorgeous.

TR Ryan said...

Thanks for the fantastic journey. I got seven lifers with you today! This is a great post and exquisitely written. I hope to see this place in real time someday. Enjoy the time with your mom.

Doug Taron said...

Beautiful bird pictures, as always. I've driven by Agua Caliente Park many times and never stopped in. I'll have to take a peek. I don't believe that bosque derives from Native American terminology. It's Spanish for woods.

Unknown said...

What a beautiful area!And a wonderful "World" post.Thank you for sharing.

This Is My Blog - fishing guy said...

Kathie: What a neat look at the park in your world. You have captured the essence of the park wonderfully. Thanks for sharing all your pictures.

kayleen said...

Kathie, you have absolutely outdone yourself with this post. And that is quite a feat. Lovely photos, every one of them. Hope you are enjoying your mother's visit. Oh, and yuppers, Nebraska Birding is back up and running. Thanks for stopping by again.

Anonymous said...

The Road Runner. That is one strange looking bird Kathie.

Oman said...

wow. these birds seem to pose for you. wish i could do that too without scaring them lol. great job.

Pearl Maple said...

Amazing collection of photos you are sharing with everyone here. How lucky to be so up close with nature and all those little animals.

Arija said...

Kathie, your post as always is a wonderful experience. Your knowledge of birds, the shine of your soul, the blue shadows all, all of it sheer magic to me. I think you know that by now as I have often told you so.

Larry said...

I would love to see a Roadrunner but I know the Roadrunner theme song would be stuck in my head like it is now.-Love the color and lighting in the verdin photo-cool bird! Don't forget about Big January. Remember you told me last year that you were going top your list for the month of January this year.

Texas Travelers said...

Thanks for the great walk.
As I have said before, Cactus wrens are one of my favorite outdoor bird sounds. I especially like the Verdin.


Anonymous said...

You've sold me on visiting this park. You got some awesome shots here with an abundance of wildlife at this true oasis. Your landscapes are beautiful too. The Mallard with the pond turtles made me laugh too. I am definitely going to visit this place someday. It reminds me of Palm Canyon next to Palm Springs.