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The Song of Sonora

Updated: Dec 4, 2023

Heading south to escape the grasp of winter, we pulled into a hotel parking lot in Albuquerque, New Mexico. As we left the car and headed over to our room, we shivered in the dry, cold winter air. It felt colder there in Albuquerque than it did in Denver when we left.

In the morning, the sun rose and the air warmed and I finally felt like I could lose my winter jacket as we blasted south on I-25 past Socorro. An interesting name for a town, I thought. “Help!” Something they tell you to scream if you are drowning in the surf on a Mexican beach.

The arid southwest dawned upon us: expansive vistas of greasewood plains backed by purple mountains, the ubiquitous assault of tawdry billboards advertising defense attorneys, the squalor of trailer parks and abandoned vehicles, the calling of unknown adventure that lay beyond.

As we drove towards Tucson, Arizona and Saguaro National Park we grew excited not only by the warming temperatures but by the desert ecosystem that was still so new to us. I wondered what kind of treasures we would find in our 12th National Park visited together.

After a day and a half of road travel, the evening quickly settled in around Tucson. We drove straight to Gilbert Ray Campground to look for a camping spot. I’ll never forget the view from Gates Pass as we watched the Sonoran Desert unfold in front of us. As far as the eye could see, dense forests of Saguaro Cacti dotted the rolling landscape. A variety of other desert plants accompanied the green giants, many of which act as nurse plants to shelter Saguaro seedlings from the harsh desert sun: Mesquite (Prosopis spp.), Palo Verde (Parkinsonia microphylla), Creosote (Larrea tridentata), desert Ironwood (Olneya tesota), Ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens), Fishhook Barrel Cactus (Ferocactus wislizeni), Teddybear Cholla (Cylindropuntia bigelovii), and Buckhorn Cholla (Cylindropuntia acanthocarpa). We couldn’t help but feel that we were surrounded by a botanical garden of wonder. In fact, with over 550 animal species and over 2,000 plant species, the Sonoran Desert is considered to be the most biologically diverse desert in North America.

Vast stands of Saguaro Cactus (Carnegiea gigantea) cloak the hills around Tucson. We like to call this one the "full frontal cactus."

Teddybear Cholla (Cylindropuntia bigelovii) with what I think may be an old Cactus Wren nest. This cactus appears to be white and almost fuzzy looking, but its spines are extremely sharp with microscopic barbs on them that cling readily to passing animals.

Buckhorn Cholla (Cylindropuntia acanthocarpa) - along with Teddy Bear Cholla (Cylindropuntia bigelovii) - is the most abundant Cholla cactus found in the Sonoran desert. The Tohona O'odham people would pit-roast the calcium-rich flower buds of Buckhorn Cholla, which taste a little like asparagus tips.

One of my favorite plants in the desert southwest is the Ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens). While it is a semi-succulent, it is actually more closely related to Blueberries and Tea than to cacti. Its leaves and flowers are medicinal and have been used to suppress cough and stop bleeding.

The singular charm and distinctive character of each of our national parks never ceases to amaze me. The Sonoran Desert is unlike any other I have experienced before.

The Saguaro Cactus (Carnegiea gigantea) can reach heights of 70 feet and weigh up to 8 tons! The genus name, Carnegiea, was given in honor of Andrew Carnegie for his generous support for research of desert plants. The Saguaro has a relatively long lifespan, often living longer than 150 years old. The first flowers won’t appear until the cactus is 35 years old and the first arms won’t grow until the cactus reaches at least 50 years old. It is a keystone species and provides food and shelter to a large number of species. They are the largest cactus in the United States.

Angie admires a giant Saguaro along the Hugh Norris trail in the Tucson Mountain District.

We try to imagine what this vast expanse of cactus would look like between the months of April and June when the Saguaros are flowering. The giant white petals with yellow stamens attracting bees, Costa’s Hummingbirds, Scott’s Orioles, and White-winged Doves during the day and Lesser Long-nosed Bats at night. The flowers have evolved to accommodate the nectar feeding of bats and moths through pollinator mediated selection. The flowers open at sunset, the pollen matures at night, and the flowers open at a position high above the ground, durable enough to withstand the weight of a bat.

It being a Friday afternoon, Gilbert Ray Campground was full and we were forced to look elsewhere. Angie found a free campground on Bureau of Land Management land that had a small hill where we could hike and watch the sunset. The grounds were crowded with RVs and campers, but we were able to find a spot tucked away under a Palo Verde tree. We even had our very own Saguaro on site. The drawback was that we were right off a busy road, appropriately named “Speedway Boulevard,” so we tried sleeping in the back of our new Jeep for the first time.

Our first camping trip with our new Jeep Wrangler Rubicon.

Sunset from the hill behind our campsite.

Our pooch Sushi came along for the ride!

It was far from a comfortable night, but we awoke with alacrity and excitement. We immediately set off towards the Tucson Mountain District, passing through Mesquite-covered desert with miles of unbroken utility poles and wiring. A Black Vulture sat on top of one of the poles, warming up in the rising sun.

Saguaro National Park is divided into two districts, one on either side of the city of Tucson. The Tucson Mountain District is found on the west and the Rincon Mountain District is found on the east. In total, the park covers roughly 143 square miles ranging in elevation from 2,180 feet to 8,666 foot tall Mica Mountain in the Rincon Mountain District. The Tucson Mountain District has the densest stands of Saguaro Cacti, but the Rincon Mountain District spans six different ecological life zones, from low-lying Sonoran Desert to high altitude Pine-Oak forests that can get as much as 100 inches of snow a year!

Out first stop was at the “Desert Discovery Trail,” a short, paved stroll through a beautiful Saguaro stand – a fitting foray for the pooch and one of the few places we could actually get him out in the Park. It was on this walk that we became acquainted with some of the more common desert birds. Gila woodpeckers rattled off trills reminiscent of our Red-bellied woodpeckers back east, Gilded Flickers chased one another into large holes high in century old saguaros, Black-throated sparrows sang in light-hearted phrases, two curve-billed thrashes basked in the warmth of the first morning light, and several Verdins flitted effortlessly beneath Creosote boughs.

A male Gila Woodpecker explores a decaying cactus on our morning walk on the Desert Discovery Trail.

Two curve-billed thrashers sit amidst the thorns of an Ocotillo.

There were a number of interpretive signs along the way tuning us into everything we could not see: Gila monsters and desert tortoises buried in their seasonal burrows, desert bush rats and kangaroo rats waiting for nightfall to resume their nocturnal wanderings, and groups of Javelinas opportunistically feeding on grasses and flowers springing up across the desert. I thought about the diversity of reptiles and amphibians this park harbors: 8 frog, 1 salamander, 48 lizard and snake, and 3 turtle species!

Completing the half mile loop, we stopped at the Red Hills Visitor Center where we used the bathroom and brushed our teeth. Our next adventure brought us on a drive through the Bajada Scenic Loop with a stop at the Hugh Norris Trailhead. Named after a respected Tohono-O’odham police chief, the Hugh Norris trail winds 4.9 miles up to Wasson Peak through spectacular rockscapes and saguaro forests. Along the way, we observed several Rock Wrens, Green-tailed Towhees, Black-throated Sparrows, and a Canyon Towhee – a life lister for the both of us!

We heard and observed a number of Rock Wrens amidst the cactus gardens. The Rock Wren does not drink any water. It gets all the water it needs from its diet.

Black-throated sparrows were quite abundant along the Hugh Norris Trail.

Our hike towards Wasson Peak on the Hugh Norris Trail.

We turned around before we reached the summit because there was a lot more of the Park we wanted to see with limited time. On the way down, I realized that a few of the largest Saguaro showed fire scars at their bases. I later read that fire is becoming more of a threat to these lowland desert scrub habitats, primarily because of the introduction of non-native grass species like red brome (Bromus rubens), Buffelgrass (Pennisetum ciliare), and Lehmann lovegrass (Eragrostis lehmanniana). These grasses thrive in fire-mediated ecosystems and help to spread fires across the region. Unfortunately, cacti and succulents have not adapted to fire and can easily die. Studies have shown that fires create sediment that buries the vulnerable habitat of Lowland Leopard Frogs (Rana yavapaiensis).

Pink fairy-duster (Calliandra eriophylla) was one of the more eye-catching shrubs we saw along the trail.

The pink barbs of a fishhook barrel cactus (Ferocactus wislizeni). The fruit of this cactus is prized by mule deer, birds, and javelina; the people of the Sonoran Desert make a jam and candy from it.

Back at the Bajada Loop Drive, we stopped at the Signal Hill Picnic area where we fought off swarms of tourists while hiking a short trail to the Petroglyph rocks. Here, a large rock outcropping features several prominent petroglyphs from the Hohokam people who occupied the area between 450 CE and 1450 CE. I was most impressed by a large drawing of a spiral that may have symbolized their connection to the greater cosmos.

After finishing up the remainder of the drive, we shuttled across the Speedway Boulevard and up over Gates Pass to return to Tucson. We crossed the city and entered the Rincon Mountain District where we stopped for a photo in front of the National Park entry sign.

Park Number 12 together!

We stopped at the Visitor Center, stamped our National Parks passport, and drove out to the 8-mile Cactus Drive Loop. Here, the Saguaros were more dispersed and the homes of Tucson’s suburbs seem to spill out on the far limits of the Park.

We stopped at the Mica Mountain picnic area where we had a beer and admired a bizarre, flat-topped Saguaro in the distance. This cristate or crested growth is the result of fasciation, a process where the apical meristem grows perpendicularly to the main stem. This growth fasciation is known to occur in only one of 10,000 Saguaros!

Continuing on our drive, we stopped to view a beautiful coyote with an amber red head and ears. After crossing the road in front of us, it stopped and looked back for several seconds before darting off into the dense thorny growth.

We returned to Tucson where we checked into our hotel and showered. Feeling quite exhausted from our hike, we stopped at several Mexican restaurants with more than 2-hour waits for a table. Finally, we settled in at one called Guillermo’s where I enjoyed the most delicious green chile chimichanga I’ve ever had. We had hoped to explore some of Tucson’s other sites, but the heavy meal overcame us and sent us retreating to the hotel.

In the morning, we rose early and hit the road, heading south to Patagonia, Arizona, the home of the Paton Center for Hummingbirds. This region of Arizona is known to harbor as many as 15 species of hummingbirds, along with regional specialties like Elegant Trogon, Elf Owl, Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher, and Painted Redstart. It being February, many of the hummingbirds were absent, but we did see three species, all of which were new for us: Anna’s, Broad-billed, and Violet-crowned. The Violet-crowned hummingbird was particularly exciting due to its rarity in North America. It is a Mexican species that barely reaches the southwestern U.S. It is the only hummingbird in the U.S. that lacks a colorful gorget; its white throat contrasts sharply with the violet crown and orange bill. This was an unforgettable life-lister for us.

A Violet-crowned Hummingbird (Leocolia violiceps) at the Paton Center for hummingbirds. This Mexican hummingbird just barely reaches the southern United States and it is the only hummingbird in the US that has a white gorget (throat patch). We saw this large hummingbird chasing off the smaller Anna's and Broad-billed Hummingbirds at the feeder. Photo by Mike Czajkoski.

Here, at the Paton Center, the trees were dripping with Lesser Goldfinches, Yellow-rumped Warblers, White-breasted Nuthatches, Gila and Ladder-backed Woodpeckers, and the many brushpiles around the property attracted White-crowned Sparrows, White-winged Doves, Inca Doves, Gambel’s Quail, and we even spotted a Hepatic Tanager and a Lazuli Bunting sitting in an Elderberry tree.

White-winged Doves are important pollinators for Saguaro Cacti. In fact, they are Saguaro specialists, broadly overlapping with Saguaro distributions in the Sonoran Desert and relying on them solely for water and nutrients during the breeding season.

This Hepatic Tanager paid us a visit in the Paton's backyard. It is named for the male's grayish-red back, similar in color to the liver. It is one of four species of Piranga tanagers (Hepatic, Western, Scarlet, and Summer) that annually migrate to the United States.

This Gambel's Quail (Callipepla gambelii) just may have been Angie's favorite bird of the trip. She has been wanting to see a Quail in the wild for so long! The male's black belly patch and black lores distinguish it from the similar California Quail, although the California doesn't occur in this part of Arizona.

This Inca Dove (Columbina inca) was a real treat for Angie and I, having never seen it before. Apparently, they are very common in suburban neighborhoods of the desert southwest and they are gradually moving northward.

It seemed hard to top our hour-long experience at the Paton Center, but we hit the road again and drove north to the famous Madera Canyon in the Santa Rita Mountains about 45 minutes to the North. Here, on a Sunday, it was much easier to find a campsite at the Bog Springs Campground. We set up camp and headed over to the feeders at the Santa Rita lodge.

In addition to the dramatic change of vegetation and climate, the birdlife became vastly different as well. Wild Turkey awkwardly balanced on top of feeders to get at the goods stored within, Acorn Woodpeckers flashed their white wing patches across the live oak treetops, Mexican Jays alighted on the hanging feeders, and a Yellow-eyed Junco scouted the ground for fallen seeds.

The Mexican Jay (Aphelocoma wollweberi) is found in pine-oak-juniper woodlands of the southwest US and Mexico. In Madera Canyon, they are the first birds that people often notice, along with the raucous Acorn Woodpeckers.

Acorn Woodpeckers (Melanerpes formicivorus) peck holes into dead standing trees creating what are known as "granary trees." Up to 50,000 acorns can be stored in one tree and they will access them when resources are less plentiful.

After spending some time at the feeders, we drove to the top of the canyon where we hiked a mile or so on the Little Baldy trail. A group of White-tailed Deer scoured a picnic area for handouts and a White-nosed Coati climbed to the high limbs of an Arizona Sycamore. We hiked through forests of Arizona White Oak, Alligator Juniper, Ponderosa pine, and Arizona Madrone, listening to the raucous, high-pitched calls of Mexican Jays. It did indeed feel like a sky island in the middle of the Sonoran desert.

Many tropical species reach the northern terminus of their range in southeastern Arizona. We watched this white-nosed coati (Nasua narica) climb high into the trees around us.

It always feels as if there are never enough hours in the day when we take a long weekend to visit our Nation’s wild areas. There is still so much we wanted to see and do that we weren’t able to due to time limitations. However, we certainly made the most of our time in southeastern Arizona. In fact, on our last moring in Madera Canyon, we paid one last visit to the Santa Rita Lodge where we were able to pick up Rivoli’s Hummingbird (formerly Magnificent Hummingbird) and Painted Redstart. Talk about a squeeze!

Birding in the Pine-Oak woodlands of Madera Canyon.

On our 14-hour road trip home, I reflected on the many things we saw this trip and the things I would want to see on our next trip to southern Arizona. Here are the lists:

What we saw

The following lifer birds:

1. Gilded Flicker

2. Verdin

3. White-winged Dove

4. Inca Dove

5. Canyon Towhee

6. Chihuahan Raven

7. Mexican Jay

8. Yellow-eyed Junco

9. Painted Redstart

10. Acorn Woodpecker

11. Lawrence’s Goldfinch

12. Anna’s Hummingbird

13. Broad-billed Hummingbird

14. Violet-crowned Hummingbird

15. Rivoli’s Hummingbird

Hugh Norris Trail

Signal Hill Petroglyphs

Bajada Scenic Loop

Cactus Drive Loop

Guillermo’s Mexican Food – Tucson

What we still want to see

The following target bird species:

1. Costa’s Hummingbird

2. Lucifer Hummingbird

3. Cactus Wren

4. Harris’s Hawk

5. Gray Hawk

6. Greater Roadrunner

7. Black-tailed Gnatcatcher

8. Gray Flycatcher

9. Rufous-backed Robin

10. Bewick’s Wren (oak woodland)

11. Rufous-winged Sparrow

12. Rufous-crowned Sparrow (oak woodland)

13. Ash-throated Flycatcher (oak woodland)

14. Black-throated Gray Warbler (pine-oak, and mixed conifer)

15. Abert’s Towhee

16. Brewer’s Sparrow

17. Hutton’s Vireo

18. Montezuma Quail

19. Elegant Trogon

20. Common Ground Dove

Other animals:

1. Javelina

2. Western Diamondback Rattlesnake

3. Gila Monster

4. Desert Tortoise

5. Ringtail Cat

Things to do in Tucson:

· Make a reservation at El Charro Mexican Food

· Get a drink at the Congress Hotel

· Visit the Sonoran Desert Museum – visit the botanic garden and hummingbird feeders

· Tiny’s Saloon and Steakhouse


· Backpack Tanque Verde Ridge (18-mile round trip, camp at Juniper Basin)

· Visit at the end of May – Saguaro blooms

· Crush Creosote leaves and smell them – take in the essence of the desert

· Hike the 5.2 mile Douglas Springs trail in the Rincon District

· Get a sunset photo of the Saguaros and the mountains

· Have lunch at Ez-Kim-in-Zin Picnic Area

· King’s Canyon Trail

· Hike the Desert Ecology Trail

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