As we were on the approach to the Tucson International Airport, I commented to Barbara, “Somehow our plan to spend the rest of the day in the hotel looking at exhibits and listening to speakers seems crazy. We could be out looking for birds. How would you feel about renting a car for the day?”
“Let’s do it!” she replied unhesitatingly. “We can drive to the Sweetwater Wetlands and see the Least Grebe. It will give you at least one lifer.”
The city of Tucson has turned their wastewater treatment recharge area into a wildlife and nature viewing spot. Its open water ponds, marsh plants, cottonwoods, and willows attract a multitude of birds. We walked around the paved path enjoying many old favorites, including a covey of Gambel’s Quail babies scurrying in the underbrush. From the keyhole shaped platform in one area of the large pond, we spotted the grebe with its jaunty yellow eye as he headed for the shade of the over-hanging willows.
Normally found in Mexico and Central America, the tiny grebe sometimes strays into South Texas, but is a rarity in Tucson. “It didn’t recognize the border,” Barbara quipped.
“Well,” I announced as we were leaving the preserve, “It is a $22 bird (my share of the car rental), we need to find another area to explore.”
At lunch we poured over Finding Birds in Southeast Arizona, a publication of the Tucson Audubon Society, and decided to head for Sabino Canyon located within the national forest on the south side of the Santa Catalina Mountains. Private vehicles are not allowed within the recreation area, but an open-air shuttle takes visitors to the upper canyon every half an hour.
“Look,” Barbara pointed as we got out of the car. A Cactus Wren! Barbara had assured me I would see them everywhere. These two were eating crumbs on the parking lot. Within a few minutes, a Gila Woodpecker joined them – my third lifer for day. Its white wing bars flashed as it sailed in. The cost was coming down; however, Barbara had not yet recouped her investment.
The afternoon sun beat down upon us as we headed out on the trail. A Zebra-tailed Lizard scurried across the path. It looked almost transparent, except for its black and white striped tail. After a quarter of a mile, we came to a fork. As we studied the dots on the map, we realized we would need to retrace our steps to purchase a tram ticket. Our quickly formulated plan was to ride the narrated tram to the top of the canyon and walk back. However, by time we reached the turn around point, we realized it would be too far to walk in temperatures hovering near 100. “We can get off at the first stop and follow the trail along the river,” I suggested. “It will give us a chance to observe birds under the canopy of the oaks.” We were surprised to hear a familiar “pichew pichew” as the tram came to a stop, and looked up to see a Northern Cardinal – its red feathers a striking sight against the barren landscape.
Initially the trail meandered along the cliff, and we picked our way over boulders as it descended to the river. There was nothing to hang onto and the scrub brush along the trail was covered in thorns. So, Barbara walked ahead of me, one step at a time, and I put my hand on her shoulder for balance.
“Look in those bushes ahead,” Barbara motioned from her forward position on the trail. Little gray birds flitted about as we followed them with our binoculars. “They’re Black-tailed Gnatcatchers. Now my share of the car rental can count.” With 520 birds on her North American life list, adding new birds does not come easily.
While it was cooler walking in the shade, it was still sweltering. We stopped at each picnic shelter and doused ourselves with water from the drinking fountain. We felt guilty letting the water run so long in the desert to allow it to cool down somewhat. If we had used water right out of the tap, it would have scalded us.
Before long, we had left the river and were in Sonoran desert terrain. The trail became a road. As it headed up a slight hill we saw a private dwelling, and we were sure we had taken a wrong turn. So, we turned around and headed the other way until we came across a trail that said “Visitor’s Center.” We followed the trail, crossing two dry streambeds. All of a sudden I realized we had been this way before, and sure enough, we came out at the hill by the private home!
By time we reached the car, our carefully nursed water was gone, and we were covered with perspiration. “Since the Visitor’s Center closed five minutes ago, our first stop will be the mini-mart down the road to buy water,” I proclaimed.
We barely had time to get back to the hotel, check in, take a washcloth bath, and change our clothes before dinner. I almost fell asleep during a fascinating video presentation of a cross-country birding trip. There was no way we would be returning the car that evening.
Car rental – $86.70; case of water $6.75; memories – priceless!