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Goodbye, Arizona!

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Scarlet globe mallow, a flower I know from the prairie grasslands.
Its color is a little lost here in the red painted desert.

A pair of rufous-crowned sparrows came up to see me. This is a bird I've actively sought and eventually found in the Bisbee and Portal areas. And here it was, unbidden.

Gotta say these desert birds' beauty is on the subtle side.

I have new and redoubled respect for people who photograph birds in the desert. The lighting conditions can be hard, hard, hard. Can't say I got much that I'm proud of in the bird realm.

A Gambel's quail slips through the scrub. Every one I saw had babies with it, but getting a photo of them is like photographing will o' the wisps. 

Desert cottontails have extra fluffy tails, which they stick out more than our eastern bunnies do.

And speaking of subtle beauty, here's a juniper titmouse, with nothing to adorn or recommend it but its personality, which is pleasant. And she makes all her own clothes.

Not dissing desert birds. Just having a little fun. You know I love a subtle bird as much as the next guy.

At this point I've long passed the 4 mile mark, and I've swung all the way around the back of the mesa. It's getting hot. I'm thinking about catching my plane down in Phoenix. I'm looking through a chain link fence at the runway for the tiny perfect Sedona airport, and trying to imagine landing here in a small jet. You would not want to overshoot the runway. The prickly pear is waiting for your tires. I have to think this airport with its stunning surrounds is a bucket list item for a lot of private pilots. 

You can tell there's a runway because there is a tiny orange wind sock to the left of the big rock formation. :)

I'm starting to fret about getting to Phoenix on time when I hear a dry croaking rattle.

Huh. That sounds like a cuckoo, I think. I prick my ears and look for motion. 

And it is. This sound, which most would overlook as nothing at all, leads me to America's biggest cuckoo, a ground cuckoo, in fact, our only one. A roadrunner!

I couldn't have picked a better bird to bid me goodbye to Arizona, and speed me on my way.

Thank you, desert. I needed that. You're welcome. Now pick up the pace. Meep meep!

I step out faster yet, and at the 4.7 mile mark (by my Fitbit's reckoning), I see people doin' the Vortex thing at the trail's beginning.

No time to om. I'm zipping back to Sky Ranch Lodge, throwing my camera in the carry-on, and heading south, down into the low desert. No thanks to the inaccurate map at the trailhead!

Where I take photos of my car thermometer as I drive, starting at 107 degrees, and culminating in this beauty as I enter Phoenix. A personal temperature best. It scares the bejabbers out of me. That's outside temperature.

I think about the definition of "habitable," and all the things we do to occupy uninhabitable places. We're good at that. We're like roaches. Roaches with technology. But we're nothing without our air conditioning, our fossil fuels. 

We are nothing to the roadrunner, who pants in the shade of the creosote bush.

He lives here, and he has everything he needs in his lithe body to survive the desert. 

Desert birds, plain and fancy: amazements, all.

Eating Prickly Pear. Ow!

Sunday, October 4, 2015

So this amazing thing happened to me on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, unbidden and unexpected, as are most amazing things. 
I've written my column, "True Nature," for the Nov/Dec. issue of Bird Watcher's Digest, which actually comes out in mid-October, all about it.

So I'll save it until after our subscribers have had a chance to read about it. 

If you'd like to subscribe to this family-owned and operated magazine (one of the very last in the country), which also happens to be the best birding magazine going, please click here, or see the right sidebar of this blog, where it says True Nature. As more and more of the daily content we consume comes out of our computers and phones, print magazines everywhere are seeing drops in subscribers. If you'd like to help, please subscribe!

The amazing Pulitzer-nominated natural history writer Scott Weidensaul just signed on as our lead columnist, filling the enormous shoes of Kenn Kaufman, who's got book deadlines galore. I really enjoy writing my column, even though the deadlines creep up on me every time. It's good to have to put your experiences into readable form. Hence this blog...

Just FYI: This is Post #2015, since I started blogging in December, 2005. And now back to our regularly scheduled illustrated musings.

I drove back south to Sedona, dopily high from my incredible day and a stunning sunset on the Grand Canyon rim. I looked at my flight time out of Phoenix and decided to eke one more short hike out of flight day.

I'd go to the Airport Vortex site and hike the loop trail that goes along the flank of a mesa, atop which sits the Sedona Airport.

Scrub jays said YEaAAah!! Good choice! 

I looked at the trail map--it said it was a 4 mile loop. No problem. I wasn't flying out until 2 pm. Yeah, I had a 2 hour drive, but I can hike fast. Ain't skeert of miles. I love to cover ground, especially when it's new.

I love this little purple verbena that grows everywhere, defying the desert. Bloom where you're planted, it seems to say.
I try, every day.

A whiptail paused to consider me
(feel free to chip in on which whiptail; my reptile guide has me thoroughly bamboozled)

then, in a disarmingly birdlike motion, scratched its face with a hind leg.

I've never seen so much prickly pear in my life. The slopes were pale green with it. 
I tried to imagine going off trail and discarded the idea.

The ripening cactus fruits, called "tunas," were tantalizing. My parents gave me Euell Gibbons' Stalking the Wild Asparagus when I was just a kid, and it sank in. I love trying new wild foods.

So do these bugs, apparently. They looked like they'd be sucking juice out of the cactus pears.

I twisted a tuna off a pad and immediately got dozens of tiny spines in my knuckles. It was as if they'd leapt off the fruit into my skin. Wow. That is really annoying. Will have to be more careful next time.

So after two tries in which I was thoroughly bespined, and having to sit down and pick each damn one out, some so tiny I had to use my teeth, I reverted to my primate roots and found a tool: my rental car key. I held the tuna down with a rock and used the key to dig some flesh out so I could taste it.

Sour and rather nice, with lots and lots of seeds. I suspected from its sour taste and color that this tuna was not dead ripe and decided to keep looking for some that were.

I didn't have to look long.

Ripeness! These, when keyed out, were tolerably sweet, and I could see how you could make a nice jelly from them. Lots of pecten. Not a jelly indulger, but I hear it's got a gorgeous wine-red color.

What a cool plant, but it's all about self-defense, protecting its juicy pads and fruit. 
Javelinas don't care. They eat 'em, spines and all. I wonder how that works. Just one tiny spine in a finger can preoccupy me until I work it out. I took a fishhook cactus spine from my greenhouse in the right index finger, and I wasn't able to get it out before we went on a snorkeling trip to Belize. I remember saying to Bill, "You know what you can do with an infected cactus spine in your right index finger?" 


Seriously, it impacted everything from typing to cooking to washing my hair. The salt water worked on the injury for several days and to my great joy it finally popped out when I surfaced, jubilant from having swum right over a giant spotted eagle ray, and decided to squeeze it (my finger, not the giant spotted eagle ray) one more time, just because I was feeling lucky.

Bloop! Pus, and the pressure it builds up, is a wonderful biomechanical operant. Aided by saltwater, it's magical.

Sometimes relief, just not feeling pain any more, is the best feeling of all.  

My hand, before the spine popped out...

A Gift for Don Alvaro

Thursday, October 1, 2015


When we arrived, Don Alvaro had just hosted a school group that morning. The macaws were already full of peanuts! He hosts as many as four groups per week now. He said there had been a sudden jump in requests for visits, and he's not sure why. (Could it be the magic that pervades his farm?)

I became worried that my blogposts might have been part of the reason for the uptick in attention. I'm not sure it is, but this is exposure of a kind he hasn't had before. I asked him if it was becoming too much for him. He said it wasn't a problem (yet).  But his first thought is what is best for the macaws. The modest fees he takes for hosting school and other groups go to making nest boxes, and a bigger jaguar enclosure, coming soon. He's making a road now, and a pond in a low pasture for wild birds. Beyond that flows the river where the sunbittern sings. All this, and a sunbittern hopping from rock to rock just below the finca...the magic never stops.

So thanks to your generous response to my appeal, we had a very nice gift ($1,000) for Don Alvaro, and I'd written him a letter, which Mario read and translated as he went. We all gathered in the yard while the macaws dangled and played and the great curassow hen chased Jimmy our bus driver all over the place behind us while the "ceremony" was going on. I couldn't see that happening, but my group was all stifling laughter even as they tried to be respectful and solemn. The joy kept bursting out.

 These photos by Bonnie Bowen

 Jimmy wasn't wild about having a turkey-sized bird pecking at his calves. Who would be?

 Go chase somebody else, you durn bird!

But it's YOU I want. I like your shoes.

Mario translates my letter to Don Alvaro. Goofy scarlet macaw twirls and shows off.

Dear Don Alvaro:

  It is a great pleasure to see you again this year. Our group’s visit to your  beautiful sanctuary was the highlight of my trip last year. When I got home, I posted photos and a story on my blog about your work with macaws. It captured the imagination of my readers, and several of them asked if they might make a gift to you, so that you may continue to rescue macaws and return them to the sky. 

  So in January I posted some more photos of you with your macaws. And I offered to bring you a gift when I returned in February 2015. I was overwhelmed by the response from readers. You have touched their hearts.

  For 23 years, I had a macaw, named Charlie. She was a chestnut-fronted macaw, Ara severa. Although she was captive-bred and we loved each other, she was always wild at heart. I spent as much time with her as I could, but it wasn’t enough. She plucked her feathers, more every year. As the years went by I realized how wrong it is to cage a macaw. We built a special glass room for her, so she wouldn’t have to live in a cage. But that wasn’t enough, either. In my travels, whenever I would see wild parrots and macaws, it made me cry to see how happy they were in a flock, flying free. When Charlie died in 2010, I knew I would never again be able to own a parrot.

This is the only way to keep macaws: free. To take them from solitary confinement and return them to the society of other macaws, to set them free, is to give a gift to them and to the world. It is a lot of work to keep one macaw happy. I can’t imagine having 19 (and now 30!) to satisfy. Thank you for all you do to help these birds. Please accept this gift as a token of our respect and gratitude.

And the letter is signed with the names of everyone who so generously donated to Don Alvaro, that he may continue to show people how these magnificent birds were meant to live: free, in pairs and flocks, tussling and fighting and laughing and mating and --most of all-- flying.

On the evening after these photos were taken, Don Alvaro came to Selva Verde, where we were staying, to thank me personally for your gift. Because he is a self-effacing and humble man, he did not look in the envelope I handed him. When he finally did, he got in his truck and drove over. He said nobody had ever done anything like that for him. He was very grateful. He talked for a long time, in incredibly rapid-fire Spanish, and Mario interpreted for me. I scribbled down what he was saying as fast as I could, but I know I missed a lot.

Back to our visit that day...Don Alvaro had  a surprise for me, too. When we pulled up, the water buffalo I'd admired so last year was tied up to a tree, wearing a saddle. 
I became a little suspicious...

Here, he said. You ride him!

Aaaack! OK! Here we go! I'll do anything once.
 My soas muscles will never be the same.

As you could see in the video above, Don Alvaro has more than a little showman in him. When he vaulted up behind me I about died  and fell off the buffalo from laughing. I still hoot every time I see these photos. Oh Lord. I can't unsee that.

But this...this I want to see in my mind's eye forever.

A special thank you to reader and great soul Jeff Ferguson, who planted the idea for this litte fundraiser in my head after my Don Alvaro posts in 2014. With a book deadline that started in April and stretched through mid-July, it's taken me far too long to catch up and gather all the photos and information I needed to write these posts, and I thank you all for your patience and your generosity. 

Don Alvaro was truly moved, and so were we all. And yes, he smiled!

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