Birding Around Tucson

Red-tailed Hawk seen from our friends’ backyard in Tucson.

November 1 – December 22, 2020.

We arrived back in Tucson and parked in front of our friends’ house in their vacant lot at the end of October. We had left from the same location in a rush back in March. The pandemic was just starting to get serious and we were afraid the city might completely close down and we would be stuck.

So we hit the road and found a camping spot in a wildlife preserve an hour’s drive south. In order to be safe and responsible, we decided to quarantine every two weeks. We bought two weeks of groceries and an extra 6-gallon jerry can in order to carry two weeks’ worth of water. We hung out in Southern Arizona moving every week or two until the heat of late spring started driving us north and into cooler higher elevations.

We followed the weather and our whims without a clear plan. Before the COVID-19 changed everything we were actively gathering information for a road trip to Alaska. But now the border to Canada was closed. We had had a list of places we wanted to visit along the way along in California, Oregon, and Washington but those states seemed off-limits now, being hard hit by the virus. We scrapped the entire plan. As we headed north we found places we could hunker down for a while but we could never stay in any one place very long, moving when the daily/weekly limit of those free public camping locations expired. As the months passed and we traveled into Idaho and Montana we feel freer to change locations more often. I studied the map when we had a good internet connection to figure out where we’d go next. Things broke. Worn-out clothing and shoes needed to be replaced. And each time I had to figure out in which city up ahead we could find stores or to get mail or pick up a package. In each new town, we didn’t know whether the businesses would be enforcing best practices for preventing the spread of the virus or whether the local citizenry would be complying.

This was the first year in the nine we have been traveling that we didn’t plan to go back to Cabbagetown for the summer to house sit and earn more traveling money. This worked out well since few people went away on vacation due to the pandemic. But it also meant we didn’t have a break. We didn’t have the convenience of living in a house with daily hot showers, uninterrupted internet, time to regroup, map out new adventures, and to work on van projects, time to pursue other interests, room to spread out, or time away from each other. We just kept moving, living each day out of our tiny abode, figuring everything out as we went along.

Even still we have been lucky. While most people were isolated in one place this past year we have been able to continue to roam. We visited 6 new states. We added a few new National Parks to our list, Bryce Canyon, Grand Basin, Yellowstone, Glacier, Theodore Roosevelt. We got to hike through lava fields, gaze up at gigantic roadside art, marvel at prehistoric fossils, meet up with friends, kayak, follow the path of adventurers, and hike among rock spires created by monumental forces and sculpted by time. But living this life 24/7 can be overwhelming. In my mind, it is carefree as we bounce from one place to another easily discovering the amazing things this world has to offer. But in reality, it is often the opposite of carefree, meal planning for two weeks has been hard, shopping each time in a new city can be stressful, figuring out how to store a whole household in just 55 square feet is daunting, adding new things even more daunting, figuring out where to live each day is time-consuming, I often fear arriving at a new place and finding bad roads or not having a spot to park, things that are simple to do in a house take twice as long in the van, we open the van doors wide to expand our space and to let a little sunshine into our cave and dust blows in coating everything, and when it rains our world shrinks back into 55 square feet.

Cooper’s Hawk seen from our friends’ back yard.

I love this life but out here in the world, I come face to face with my anxieties every day. Traveling makes me anxious, talking to new people makes me anxious. I’m prone to depression. And some days I just don’t want to face any of it. Some days it is a chore to get out of bed.

But we do it anyway. Get up, make the bed, dress, and head out the door for our morning walk. We go looking for birds most days. It can be a slow process and I often want to turn around, go back to the van, and busy my mind with a Sudoku puzzle. But then I see a bird perched on a limb up ahead. Greg sights it in his binoculars and I slowly creep forward until I can see it clearly through the zoom lens of my camera. I take a shot or two then wait for the bird to turn the right way so the light shows the details of his feathers and I can see one of his eyes, hopefully with a reflected spark of catch light. I creep closer, continuing to take shots until my subject decides he’s had enough of me and flies just far enough away out of the range of my camera. And now I’m awake, ready to find more birds, my mood elevated, and I’m glad to face the challenges of this life I’ve chosen, living and traveling in a small vehicle.

We spent a good bit of November and December in Tucson. I had plans for exploring parts of the city and the surrounding area we have never had time for before. But somehow we always stayed busy with other things and time seemed to just evaporate. After a couple of weeks in our friends’ vacant lot, we moved into their house for two and a half weeks to look after their cat while they were away. The daily hot showers were great! And with having the advantage of a whole house to spread out in along with unlimited internet, we found ourselves doing in those few weeks what we usually spend all summer in Cabbagetown doing – chores of van life, cleaning, repairing, regrouping, planning.

Still, despite our busy weeks in Tucson, we found some spare time to bird. Tucson is an amazing place to practice this hobby. We only had to walk a few blocks down the street from our friends’ lot to be in one of Tucson’s many birding hotspots. I marked up a map with dozens of places to drive to but we only managed a few, returning to our favorites when the chores of our traveling life allowed.

Sweetwater Preserve

4001 North Tortolita Road 85745

Sweetwater Preserve was not the best place we found for birding but it was a nice place to take a hike in the desert. The 880-acre preserve is located on the west side of Tucson in the foothills of the Tucson Mountains about a half-mile from Saguaro National Park. It’s 15 miles of trails cater to equestrians, hikers, trail runners, mountain bikers and is one of the few wilderness areas in the area where you can walk a dog.

Hiking through Sweetwater Preserve.
Curved-billed Thrasher.
House Finch.
Another House Finch.

Agua Caliente

12325 E Roger Rd 85749

In 1873 a ranch and a health resort were built at the site of what is now Agua Caliente Park. In 1984 local businessman Roy P. Dragan donated over $200,000 towards the purchase of the property and today the 101-acre park features a warm spring and several ponds. Wide paved and gravel paths wander past the ponds and through a scraggly desert landscape. The ranch house still stands and serves as a visitor center and art gallery. Unfortunately, the visitor center and gallery were closed during our visit. Normally there are walks, talks, and other activities in the park but they were all suspended due to the pandemic.

Bridge to an island in the warm spring at Agua Caliente Park.
View of the warm spring.
Greater Roadrunner. The oldest fossil of a roadrunner is over 33 thousand years old. Evidence indicates that they lived in forest environments until about 8 thousand years ago. This may be around the time they developed heat-regulating adaptations. Preferring to hunt on foot instead of flying, they rest in the hottest part of the day. Several of their glands reabsorb water and exude salt. They release water vapor through their skin and by panting. They may lay their eggs in raven or mockingbird nests.
Rock Pigeon.
Mexican Duck.
Another view of the warm spring.
Common Ravens. Ravens are the only bird species that have demonstrated displacement. They can communicate about something at a different place or time. A raven may find carrion to feed on, and tell others who, in turn, flock to the find. Ravens have “called” wolves to open a carcass for them. They cache food, hiding it from each other, and stealing from other caches. And they have aced practical problem-solving experiments. And ravens have been seen playing, sliding down snowbanks, and even playing “chase” with other animals.
Desert Spiny Lizard.
Gila Woodpecker.
Broad-billed Hummingbird.
Great Egret.
Male Ring-necked Duck.
Female Ring-necked Duck

Rio Vista Natural Resource Park & Rillito River Walk

3974 N Tucson Blvd 85716

Just a short walk down the road from where we were camped at our friends’ house is the Rio Vista Natural Resource Park and Rillito River Park. Rio Vista sits along The Loop, a 131-mile paved pedestrian/bike/equestrian path that circles the city. It has a playground, ramadas, and a large grassy field where people picnic and meet for “yapping hour” with their dogs in the evening. It also has a small maintained but ungroomed section with interconnecting paths that wander through desert scrub and with a few trees here and there.

The Rillito River Park is a linear park adjacent to Rio Vista and runs for 12 miles along The Loop along the banks of the usually dry Rillito River.

Labyrinth at Rio Vista Natural Resource Park.
Male Vermilion Flycatcher. Males choose a nesting spot and females make the nests. They are brood parasites, with females occasionally laying eggs in another Vermilion Flycatcher’s nest, sometimes in exchange for mating with the male.
Female Vermilion Flycatcher.
Red-tailed Hawk. These are the most likely seen hawks. They spend hours perched. They puff out their upper chest and throat before hunting. They are likely then to get mobbed by passerine birds. A murder of crows can actually cause them harm.
View of the dry Rillito River from the Rillito River Walk.
A cast of Harris’ Hawks. They hunt in groups. Two males and one female share a nest.
Harris Hawk.
Phainopepla. The name of this bird is Greek for shining robe. They eat insects and berries and are the only bird whose gizzard separates berry skin from the meat for more efficient digestion.
Vermilion Flycatcher.
Brewer’s Blackbird.
House Sparrow. They live all over the world, and often coexist with humans. Have been seen opening automatic grocery store doors to get in and feed.
European Starling. These birds are known for mimicry. From Shakespeare’s Henry IV, “The king forbade my tongue to speak of Mortimer… I’ll have a starling shall be taught to speak nothing but Mortimer, and give it to him to keep his anger still in motion.” Mozart had a starling which could perform from his Piano Concerto in G Major. A large flock, or murmuration, can have a million starlings.
Morning Dove.

Fort Lowell Park

2998 N Craycroft Rd 85712

1873 seems to have been a busy year for the city of Tucson. Besides the ranch at Agua Caliente, the U.S. Army built Fort Lowell to guard the city against Indian attacks. Today, the site is home to a museum and ruins of the fort as well as a park featuring athletic fields, a swimming pool, a playground, tennis courts, and most importantly a duck pond.

The pond at Fort Lowell Park.
Red-tailed Hawk.
A Ring-necked Duck among a raft of American Wigeons.
Black-crowned Night Heron. These birds will fish with bait, tossing it into the water within striking distance.
Juvenile  Black-crowned Night Heron.
Belted Kingfisher. They build their nests in tunnels on riverbanks.

16 thoughts on “Birding Around Tucson

  1. Thank you so much for the fabulous images. And the very interesting info. Birds are amazing . Your details on parks is also useful. Makes me dream ….maybe I will be teavelling again.

    1. You are so welcome. Birds are so amazing and it has been fun to learn about them. Hope the traveling dream comes true again soon.

  2. Re: “The Rillito River Park is a linear park adjacent to Rio Vista and runs for 12 miles along The Loop along the banks of the usually dry Rillito River.”

    Somewhere in the distant past New Zealand legislated a rule that (I believe) 50 yards on either side of any flowing water was public space. This encouraged the sport fishing industry there as you can walk up and down any river or stream looking for a good place to fish. Also cities like Christchurch, which I’m familiar with, turned that space into a public park which goes all through the city along the river Avon.

    1. What a good rule.

      The Rillito only has water in it a few rare times every year – so I wonder if it would qualify.

      Montana seems to do a lot to encourage fishing. There is lots of free camping along many of the states rivers.

  3. Tucson seems to be teaming with life! Great images all. I loved visiting there last year. I saw on the news that you got snow. Boy, when I was there it was hot. But I like it hot.

    1. Tucson is really the most amazing place for wildlife – especially birds. I never really realized this before we took up birding.

      We are gone from the Tucson area now but we did hear about the snow. Too cold for us!

    1. Tucson is a great town. Lots of great birds and wildlife. My next post is about my favorite place for birds in Tucson!

  4. Yes, I’m sure that’s tough living in small quarters. Be glad you don’t have teenage daughters; that whole van would be occupied be one of mine, and I would be directed to the ground outside at night, only permitted inside when it was time to drive her places.

    1. Yes, I am glad I don’t have teenage daughters. Maybe you could have a little sleeping pod that could be towed behind the van instead of a tent. And when the girls are old enough to drive they can just tow you around and you could come out to open jars and stuff like that for them.

  5. So many thoughts from this post. All that self-quarantining but it probably wasn’t too different than your daily life. Love the red-tailed hawk. What a sighting! It’s hard to believe you are depressive and worry about things. You’ve picked an amazing life to handle those kinds of stress. Is anything ever the same except knowing the day will be filled with new circumstances?

    Great post.

    1. Thanks Jacqui. I’ve always said the one thing you can count on is change. But some things are always the same. When we spent summers in Cabbagetown it was the neighborhood. Now it is the van. I have all my stuff – everything I own, my house with me at all times. That’s comforting. But even though I love to travel and experience new things it isn’t easy. I’m shy and have social anxiety. But I try not to let that stop me from doing the things I want to do.

  6. As you know, Duwan, I/we can totally relate to the challenges this lifestyle and being 24/7 together bring. It does sound healthy for you guys to plan a multiple-month break every year, in which you either house sit again or rent cheap accommodation to catch up on all that stuff. Or even stay in a campground with hook-ups and WiFi. I’m sure not going to Cabbagetown this past summer added to the anxieties and stresses of being on the road full-time. Luckily, you don’t need to make money and work anymore on top of it all. 🙂

    Great shots as always. We have been to a few places you mention, but we never see any birds! You two have patience and practiced eyes! Kingfishers are so awesome. Hope to see you both again soon!

    1. I never saw birds until we started looking for them. I seriously didn’t think there were many birds in Arizona but now it seems AZ is one of the best places to bird.

      Yes, I think we need to figure out how to work in a break from the road every year. Actually all the hanging out in with friends has been nice since we haven’t been doing much but still have other people to talk to every day.

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