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Sonoran Desert, AZ - part I
April 2010

Sonoran Desert National Monument
    Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument
    Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge
    Tinajas Altas Mountains


Tuesday, April 13th: to desert paradise

Ten days of camping, hiking, birding, and relaxing in the Sonoran desert – what better way is there to spend a spring vacation? We took an early and uneventful (if you don’t include a 30 min delay) flight into Phoenix where we quickly picked up our baggage (maybe those checked baggage fees actually do something!) and took a cab to the downtown Enterprise car rental office (saving $300 from renting from the airport rental place). We picked up our big 4-wheel drive truck and headed through town and stopped at a small (and not well stocked) grocery store whose main clientele were Mexican migrants. We had to settle for a lot of the groceries we hoped for, but the best thing we by chance picked up were “Japanese peanuts,” which were peanuts with a rice cracker-like shell. Turns out they held up really well under the heat of the desert and were surprisingly good in trail mix. Having stocked up on most of our provisions, we continued on to REI to pick up fuel, and then stopped at a Safeway to fill out the rest of our food supplies.

By early afternoon, we were on our way down to our first destination for the night: the Table Top Mountain unit of Sonoran Desert National Monument, which was just an hour drive from Phoenix. We passed through Maricopa and by the fields of soybeans or canola where a small flock of White-faced Ibises waded in the wet fields. The scenery turned more “deserty” once we were on Highway-8. Lupine, brittlebush, and creosote bloomed on the sides of the road. Saguaros and ocotillo were interspersed among the desert brush.

We turned off the highway onto a graded gravel road, which tapered down to a one-lane, dropped through mesquite washes, and in places was deeply gouged with ruts in harden clay. We passed a couple of old corrals and started to bump our way up to the Table Top Mountain trailhead and campground. Along the roadside, buckhorn cholla, barrel cacti, palo verde, blooming strawberry hedgehogs cacti, ocotillo, and saguaros dominated the landscape.

The campground was small with only three sites, but there was a pit toilet and more importantly it was vacant. We parked the monster truck at one of the sites and took a stroll in the desert along the trial that skirted the mountains. The Fairydusters showed off their pink feathery flowers. Larkspur and Parry’s Penstemon bloomed in the washes. The dark lava rock hillsides were strewn with the radiant color of the brittlebush. Gila Woodpeckers and Gilded Flickers chattered away from the tops of saguaros in the business of finding the perfect nesting hole and claiming their territories. Cactus Wren churred from the protection of the chollas. And Canyon Towhees and Phainopeplas warbled loudly. Despite being cholla-ed (i.e. having a cholla segment embedded into my calf) within the first hour of walking in the desert, I enjoyed our reintroduction to the Sonoran Desert.

At sunset, the air cooled and the daytime birds quieted down. From the nearby hillside, a pair of Elf Owls began to call continuously, whi-whi-whi-ing away. A Great Horned Owl and a Western Screech Owl managed to get in a few calls from the distance. But the night was dominated by the Elf Owl and a few crickets.

To the south of us, we saw flares occasionally being fired off in the dark. We didn’t know what to think about that, especially since illegal active seemed relatively common in the area. But I still slept well in the open bed of the truck that night, glad to be back and looking forward to what the rest of the trip would bring.

Wednesday, April 14th: Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument

We awoke to the familiar cries of the Gambel’s Quail and Mourning Doves. While we prepared for the day, two American Kestrels dive bombed an unseen intruder who sounded like an unwanted Common Raven. Before heading out, we walked up toward where the Elf Owls had been calling during the night. We didn’t find the owls, but we see Curve-billed Thrashers, Green-tailed Towhees, and Verdin.

As the morning began to heat up, we packed into the truck and went back out of the wilderness area. We stopped abruptly when we spotted our first snake basking in the middle of the road. Our first snake turned out to be one very annoyed Mojave rattlesnake. As soon as we were with in 8 feet of it, it slithered to the side of the road rattling away and coiling its 3ft long body up into a defensive position. Its rattle continued to buzz away as we got into the truck and rolled on by it. As we continued down the road, we met a ranger coming into the desert. He informed us that the flares were a part of military drills.

Back on the highway, we skirted around Gila Bend and then down through Ajo and the measly Why. We drove down highway-85, the main road through Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. The road also led to a border crossing into Mexico. The highway was busy with border patrol vehicles in both directions. Soon we were back at the visitor center of Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument where we paid for a campsite at Alamo Canyon.

Behind the visitor center, we checked out the pond. When we visited 5 years ago, they were just trying to establish the pupfish in the pond, so fish didn’t look very happy. Thankfully things have significantly improved in the pond and there was quite a healthy looking population of fish. Some of the pupfish were even spawning. Birdlife at the pond was relatively good. A small flock of Lesser Goldfinch, a pair of Lawrence’s Goldfinches, a male Lazuli Bunting, and the ever-present House Finches and Mourning Doves hung around the pond to steal sips of water or take a cool bath. A Lincoln’s Sparrow looked desperately hot and out of place. I wondered when he’d be returning to his normal summer grounds or if he decided to spend this breeding season on vacation.

We had lunch under the same ramada that we used 5 years ago. Only this time, the roof of the ramada was significantly sagged, and the stability was now questionable. Still we dined thankful to have shade in the hot sunny desert afternoon.

After lunch, we hiked on the Palo Verde trail from the visitor center to the campground. It was a little over a mile long, but it seemed longer under the heat of the day and through the creosote. Things got more interesting as we neared the campground. Buckhorn cholla were blooming, and whiptails and sagebrush lizards ran across the path as we approached. Once we reached the campground, we walked over to the Desert View trail. The short loop trail with interpretive signs led us up to a ridge with views of the mountains and into Mexico. The trail led us past limberbush (an interesting almost succulent looking plant with branches that easily bend), mesquite, Mexican jumping bean, jojoba, bursage, brittlebush, white ratany, fishhook cacti, buckhorn cholla, ocotillo, and of course saguaro and organ pipe cacti.

Upon returning to the car at the visitor center, we drove to the Alamo Canyon campground to find it surprisingly empty. In the evening, we hiked up the canyon trail and were in awe of the beauty of the place. Even though we had been there not long ago, the place was enhanced by the burst of color from the brittlebush. It’s hard to capture the enchantment of a setting sun illuminating a canyon filled with bursts of vibrant yellow brittlebush, gold and silver spines of cholla so dense it almost looks inviting to touch, flames of effervescent red ocotillo flowers, towering spiny green sentinels, and the brick red rock walls bordering it all. A Red-tailed Hawk circled above the canyon with its prized snake dinner. It landed on a crevice high up the rock wall, left the meal probably for a hungry chick, and launched itself in the air once more.

Water was still running in the creek. Perhaps a little lower than it was the last time, but still a good flow. Mourning Doves cooed loudly from the mesquite. As the sun sank behind the distant mountains and the air dropped a few degrees, the red spotted toads began their dance of hormones. A few males began to call soon followed by a chorus of other male toads. As darkness set in, we could hear them splash in the pools around us, as they were fighting and wrestling for the best place to wait for incoming females.

Hiking back to the campground, we spotted the eyeshine from Common Poorwills resting on the trail floor. They took flight as soon as we saw them. At camp, our friend the kangaroo rat was scurrying around the rocks looking for any goodies to scavenge.

Thursday, April 15th: full of Bull

We woke at sunrise to the sounds of begging Curve-billed Thrasher chicks in a chain fruit cholla near our campsite. Their parents were diligently collecting bugs and caterpillars to try to keep up with those insatiable appetites.

We left camp soon after rising to head to the Ajo Mountain drive. Rather quickly I drove the auto tour loop to the Estes Canyon picnic area, which is also the trailhead for the Estes Canyon-Bull Pasture trail. The sun was about to crest the canyon walls as we began hiking up the Bull Pasture trail. Early in the morning cool air, the White-crowned sparrows and Green-tailed Towhees were busy gleaning and singing from the brush along the wash. On the gravely desert floor was a mosaic of yellow Mexican poppies, white desert star, purple scorpionweed, white chicory, and orangish-red globemallow. The trail split – one going through the wash into Estes Canyon and other going up the canyon wall. Both paths would meet again to lead up to the Bull Pasture. We choose to go up the canyon first. As we made our ascent toward Bull Pasture, we enjoyed the shade of the canyon walls and views of the Ajo valley below.

When we crested a ridge, we were greeted by a sweeping view of Estes canyon below us. Directly across from us a green forest of desert flora crept up the steep canyon wall. Towards the top of the canyon wall the forest relented, but the rock faces towered above. A few junipers were scattered among the boulders defiantly holding on to any crevice it could find purchase. White-throated Swifts chirped and flew in acrobatic loops through the canyon. Below was a wide canyon floor filled with creosote, cholla, and saguaros.

The trail followed the ridge where it met up with other end of the Estes Canyon trail. We continued upward on the Bull Pasture trail, climbing the canyon wall rather steeply. The plants typical of the bajadas gave way to higher elevation plants. Bluedicks peppered trail sides. Resurrection plants were dried and dormant waiting for the next rain. Various small ferns, shriveled from the lack of water, withered in the rock crevices. Gila live forever, Indian paintbrush, and desert honeysuckle brightened the canyon with their ostentatious blooms. Shin daggers (an appropriate name) grew in large dense clumps. Pancake cacti grew with their perfectly stacked pads.

The trail finally crested a ridge and below us lay bull pasture, which seemed like a place both hard to get into and hard to get out of. But patches of light green below indicated it would be good land for grazing cattle. Directly in front of us among the brush, fluorescent orange mariposas were in their peak bloom.

We turned back down the trail, this time taking the trail through the Estes Canyon. The sun began to heat up the shadeless canyon, and we were glad to be going down instead of up. As we made our decent back into the bajadas, we stopped to admire the carpet of blooming flowers. I noticed movement on an embankment and saw a gila monster lumbering across the floor seeking refuge in the brush.

The trail led us through the washes, which snaked along the wide canyon floor. We returned to the trailhead and had lunch under the ramada before completing the auto loop tour. We took our time finishing the drive, as we were in no hurry to be exposed to the desert heat.

It was around the teddy bear pass, when we realized the auto tour was slightly altered since 5 years ago. We had brought along our 5-year-old auto tour booklet in addition to purchasing new one. One of the stops was gone; the park did away with the cactus trail – a short trail that went through various types of cactus.

It was still early afternoon so we drove the Puerto Blanco Mountain Drive. The drive used to loop around the mountains, but for border security reasons the park closed the loop and reduced it to a 5-mile drive to the base of the Puerto Blanco Mountains. When we first visited 5 years ago, they had recently closed these roads. And at the time of our first visit, they sold a pamphlet showing all the various hiking trails in the park. However, now the pamphlet was no longer offered at the visitor center as the numbers of trails were drastically reduced.

I was hoping to hike in the Senita Basin, which hosts the senita cactus (more commonly found in Mexico) and elephant trees. However, on the Puerto Blanco drive we could see that the trail was closed. This was another trail that had succumbed to the securing of the border.

The drive was beautiful, though didn’t get as close to the mountains as the Ajo Mountain drive did. As we were coming back down the drive, we spotted a Harris Hawk circling near the staff housing. It landed in a mesquite tree, and an irritated American Kestrel called and dove at the larger hawk. The Harris Hawk seems unperturbed and sat in the tree for a period of time. When it decided to fly, the kestrel resumed harassing the hawk.

Back at the campground, we saw we wouldn’t be alone for the night. Two truckbed campers were our new neighbors. As a thick blanket of clouds rolled in on the horizon, we hiked back up the Alamo Canyon. Evening once again brought the trills of the toads. As left the stream, we spotted a female toad making her way down to her suitors.

An elf owl called in the night. And a Great Horn Owl hooted from the canyon wall.

Friday, April 16th: back on the saddle again

Click on map for larger image
We woke up to a thick layer of gray clouds blanketing the sky. We had planned on reattempting to hike from the campground to Grass Canyon, over the saddle, down the other side, through the wash, and loop back out of Alamo Canyon. The unofficial trail looked pretty good according to a hiking map we got from our first visit to the park. Back then we had attempted it, but turned back after reaching the mouth of the canyon and realized we probably didn’t have enough water to make the full loop. It was too hot the first day we tried. But with the thick layer of clouds, we decided to take advantage and set out.

When hiking in the desert bajadas, it isn’t easy to keep a straight line or find a path that’ll get you directly from point A to point B. Instead, we tried to skirt away from the mountains to avoid crossing deep washes and pushing through the impenetrable brush that surrounded the washes. During our trek across the bajadas, we scared up another gila monster.

We stopped by the large boulder we had seen the first time we hiked out to Grass Canyon. Last time there were a few signs of illegal immigrants who had stop under the shade of the boulder. This time the area surround the boulder was littered with empty black gallon jugs, empty food tins, and old socks. The boulder now sported graffiti.

At the mouth of Grass Canyon, swathes of owl clover dotted the gravel floor with brilliant magenta flowers. Lupine, chicory, scorpionweed, and poppies also added color, but the owl clover dominated the scene. We hiked into the mouth of the canyon. A Black-headed Grosbeak sang softly while it munched down on the leaves of a Mexican jumping bean. The song of a Rock Wren echoed from the canyon walls.

As I was watching the dull colored Rock Wren, a burst of rattling from the bush in front of me causing both of us to jump back a foot. A Mojave Rattlesnake thought we were too close to its hiding spot and wanted to let us know! It continued its buzzing rattle until we were well a way from it.

We began our steeper climb up toward the saddle. Even though it was a saddle, it looked pretty high up and precipitous. We made the mistake of starting to climb up the north side of the canyon, which was much rockier with large ravines than the south side. We bushwacked our way through the main canyon wash and continued up on the southern side. Without a nicely maintained trail, it was a slow go up the canyon. We tried to follow animal paths that would peter out at any moment. Crossing the ravines that would cut down the side of the canyon was difficult, unless we happened to be on an animal path. Even the animal pathes could become perilously steep for us bipeds. But step-by-step, we made our way up toward the saddle.

As with the Bull Pasture trail, the flora changed as we ascended the canyon walls. Rocks were covered in resurrection plants. A few dried ferns protruded from the cracks. Some bluedicks were still in bloom. And the thickets of jojoba made our path up the canyon most difficult.

Finally the saddle was near. With the final strides through dwarf jojoba bushes and past cholla, we were on the top of the saddle! The saddle, interestingly enough, supported the same plants as the low elevation desert – cholla, prickly pear cactus, and creosote.  From the saddle we could enjoy views of the other side of Grass Canyon to the east and Ajo Valley to the west.

We ate our lunch on the top of the saddle as the clouds began to break up and the sun would occasionally peak through. It was time to get moving before the day would really heat up.

Following an animal path, we traveled along the canyon wall. Unfortunately, the path did not drop into the wash, so we found ourselves on the canyon wall peering over a drop off at the wash - the wash we were supposed to be in. We scrambled down the steep canyon wall over down loose shale, through brittlebush and bursage, and into the wash.

The canyon we were in was smaller and narrower, but beautiful nonetheless. As we continued down the wash, we had to start hopping down large boulders. Some of the wash was composed entirely of rock face. A large juniper shaded a stagnant deep pool of water in the smoothed rock. The deep green pool was the resting place for a lot of moths and insects that floated on the surface. Farther down the wash, we had to scramble down in some places. More small pools of water teemed with mosquito larvae, but no toad eggs. Cottony spindles of dried algae signified recently dried puddles.

The day started to heat up as the clouds disappeared. With the return of the heat, I was starting tired (especially my feet) and anxious about seeing Alamo Canyon again. We were both close to running out of water. When we finally reached Alamo Canyon, I felt great wave of relief. I knew we’d still have 1 more mile to go, but it was flat and more importantly, an established trail. We rested at the mortars in Alamo Canyon before collecting ourselves for the homestretch. Although the total hike was only 6 miles long with a 1,700 ft accent and decent, the lack of a trail was the toughest part. I was just happy to make it back in one piece.

On the way out of the canyon, a tiny Regal Horned Lizard darted in front of me. We scooped it up to get good looks at it. It was a cute little guy, who recently shed. After releasing the lizard, we continued down the path back to camp.

We spent the rest of the evening at camp recovering from the day. We had new neighbors for the night. One of the campers left, and two tents moved into the other site. It was another peaceful star filled night in the desert.

Saturday, April 17th: Gringo Pass

In the morning, we were slow to get moving. I spent the morning digascoping and attempting to get a decent shot of the Curve-billed Thrasher and their young. We took off from the campground as soon as the sun hit.

As we bumped along the 3-mile dirt road out to the highway, we spotted a snake basking in the middle of the road. Unfortunately, I saw it too late to brake before it. I tried to steer the car so the snake was in between the tires. Once stopped, we ran back to the snake to make sure it was OK. It didn’t even move from its spot so I was worried ,but I was glad to see it was completely unharmed. It was a beautiful freshly shed gopher snake. After allowing a few pictures, the snake slithered to the safety of the side of the road.

We continued on past the visitor center to the larger campground, where we parked at the Victoria Mine trailhead, which was one of the trails they still had open. The trailhead also went on to former destination (including the Senita Basin), but those trail signs were covered up and even the trail map was glued over.

The mine trail started off through low desert – creosote, brittlebush, ocotillo, and saguaros. It dropped through a couple of washes, where we saw Gambel’s Quail clicking and chucking while running away. A couple of Yuma Antelope Squirrels chewed on the bountiful seeds near in the wash. Copulating master blister beetles chewed veraciously on the petals of the brittlebush. As I rounded a hill, a black snake quickly slithered, almost writhing, around the creosote bushes. The Ajo Mountain whipsnake doubled back as I called for Tor and disappeared quickly down a hole.

As we neared the mine, we heard and then saw a helicopter patrolling low over the desert. At the mine was a brick building much like the one in Alamo Canyon, but in more disrepair. The roof was missing and the brick walls were crumbling. The mines themselves were covered over with grates and fenced off with barbed wire.

We returned to the car and headed down the highway to Lukeville, the US town on the edge of the border. Lukeville wasn’t much to write home about. Basically its only existence is because there’s a border crossing. The entire town, which was comprised of a motel, gas station, and a strip mall (containing the cafe, liquor store, grocery store, and insurance agency), was probably owned by the same person/company. Everything was named Gringo Pass. I didn’t see any reference to Lukeville.

A few cars were going through the border, but there wasn’t a long line. A drug-sniffing dog was barking ferociously and the place was crawling with armed border patrol guards.

We pulled into the cafe where we dined on the typical Mexican cuisine (taco, tamale, chile relano, refried beans, and rice). It was OK going down, but later didn’t settle well with my digestive track. After lunch, we ducked into the grocery store (surprisingly well stocked) to get some provision, but sadly didn’t find any Japanese peanuts.

We returned to the national monument and took the Ajo Mountain drive. This time we took our time enjoying each stop and soaking in the scenery. At a stop overlooking a large wash, a collared lizard scampered up the rocks and paused to watch us. We stopped at the natural arch and hiked up the trail. The path followed the canyon with the arch on the right. It began circling behind the arch until a sign warned us of the steep rocky path head. The rest of the trail up to the arch would be scrambling up the steep rock. I didn’t have the desire, especially after yesterday, so we returned back to the car.

On the drive, I saw a snake with a yellow stripe down its back slither off into the brush. We didn’t get a good look before it disappeared. Farther down the road, I stopped when we saw another snake in the road. I was able to stop without the snake making a run for it. This one too had a yellow stripe with black borders down the back. The patch-nosed snake held still until it didn’t like the smell of us then finally left the road.

We finished the rest of the loop, still wondering where the cactus trail went, then headed back to the campground. On the road into the campground, another patch-nosed snake was warming itself. It too was slow to move off the road.

At the campground, we had more new neighbors: an amorous young couple, a couple of pyromaniac guys (used a lot of lighter fluid), and the other tent campers. The night was strangely silent of owl or poorwill. And a thick haze of clouds blocked out the stars.

Sunday, April 18th: diga-see, diga-scope that bird?

The morning was gray and cloudy again. We took our time getting ready and we hiked out to Alamo Canyon once more. We spent the day at the creek. I tried improving my digascoping skill, which may require more patience than I am capable of. The bright cloudy sky didn’t make for a good backdrop or good photographing conditions. And I swear no matter where I positioned myself, the Lesser Goldfinches knew where to move in order to make it difficult to photograph them.

Still I enjoyed watching life at the creek. A Northern Cardinal spent the day around the creek. He sang loudly and continuously from the tops of the mesquite. A Lincoln’s Sparrow hid in the underbrush. And Nashville and Wilson’s warbler poked in dense underbrush. The Phainopeplas showed up to grab a few bits on the wing, as did a Pacific-sloped Flycatcher. The Lesser Goldfinches and the Mourning Doves frequently came down for a bath and a drink. And the male Costa’s Hummingbirds focused on fighting each other and holding on to the best perch. A Clark’s spiny lizard crawled up a snag, positioning itself in a good sunning spot. Lazuli Buntings made a brief appearance at the creek for a quick drink and a Black-headed Grosbeak sang from the depths of the desert brush.

By the afternoon, the clouds burnt off and the sun seemed to quiet everyone down. I turned to reading in the shade with my scope set up nearby in case the birds were feeling more cooperative. As I sat on a rock while reading my book, I saw movement out of the corner of my eye. It took me a few seconds to register that not more than 5 feet away was a snake – not just a snake, but a rattlesnake. And it was crossing in front of me and heading towards my scope. In shock and surprise, I shouted for Tor. The western diamondback rattlesnake realized the commotion around it and curled up underneath my scope in a defensive position. I was unwilling to give up my nice shady spot and the snake was unwilling to move without a little prodding. Tor managed to chase it under some rocks, where it was able to make a further escape. I was a little uneasy about not know exactly where the snake went.

We hiked back to camp in the early evening. In just the few days during our stay, we began to notice that a large number of the brittlebush blossoms beginning to fade. Seems our timing was perfect on catching the peak of the brittlebush. The sky had cleared up considerably and we were treated to another star filled night. The turnover in camping neighbors brought in a photographer and a young hippie guy. It was another quiet night devoid of the sounds of our nocturnal avian neighbors.

continue onto part II



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