Keeping Warm

Our traveling gang camping in the desert around Ajo.

December 25, 2020 – February 6, 2021.

We didn’t have much of a plan for this winter. After doing lots of planning during 2020 I was more than ready to not think too much about where to go next. We did have to make some plans to visit the dentist but other than that our biggest plan was to figure out how to keep warm.

Just like a house, there are many different ways not to freeze to death in a van. You can put on more clothes and pile extra blankets on the bed at night. Friends of ours have a diesel heater in their van with a thermostat. It keeps their rig warm and toasty day and night. We use a propane heater. In order that we don’t asphyxiate ourselves, we only run it while we are awake just after we get up and if it is really cold before we get in bed. But there is one way we can keep warm in a van that you can’t do in a house, drive your entire home south to warmer climates.

Florida is a good choice for keeping warm if you are in that part of the world and either have friends with driveways you can camp in or money. There isn’t much free camping in the warmest parts of the state and daily camping fees add up quickly. I always thought Texas was a good option but after their debilitating snowstorm this year I’m rethinking that. We spent one winter in Mexico which is an excellent option for staying warm. Friends of ours did just that this winter but our journey got detoured before we could join them. And of course, there is where we spend a good deal of our time, the southwest.

Now not every place in the southwest is warm during the winter. I mean it snowed in Tucson this year! Keeping warm during the cold months in the southwest is a matter of finding spots at low elevation. Every 1000 feet you go down or up you gain or lose 5° of temperature.

So this is what we did from the end of December until we switched gears at the end of February, we wandered around, not doing anything all that exciting while we tried to stay warm – and as always looked for birds. Here are a few of the spots we stayed.

Ajo Desert, elevation @1700 feet

We came to the Ajo desert to celebrate Christmas with our friends. It is beautiful here. It was pleasant during the days. We hiked and looked for birds (didn’t find many), had campfires with our friends, and took a trip to Organ Pipe NM and the Border Wall.

Locomotion rock and an organ pipe cactus.

View from Locomotion Rock.

Saguaro cactus and an organ pipe.

Northern Cardinal.

The Cardinal was once a popular pet bird. But not since the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918. This treaty, between the US and Canada, protects it from being sold in cages.

The view from our camp. The sunset turns the sky into pinks and lavenders over locomotive Rock in the Ajo desert.

Thirty minutes later the sky is dark and fiery red.

Five Palms Hot Springs, elevation @20 feet

We ended up here for New Year’s Eve with our friends. The birding was much better here – perhaps due to there being water here. The weather was pleasant again but unfortunately not warm enough for any of our gang to soak in the Spring – although there was a short (perhaps alcohol-fueled) and chilly dip on New Year’s Eve by two members of our nomadic pod.

The hot spring at Five Palms Hotspring.

Water bubbles up in the middle of the spring. Because of the palm trees the spring is mostly shaded except for a few times a day when the sun streams in.

We walked this canal near Five Palms looking for birds.

Merlin. The scrappy Merlin terrorizes other birds. It has been used by falconers since the Mid Ages.

Say’s Phoebe.

Cactus Wren.

Ruby-crowned Kinglet.

Red-tailed Hawk.

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher.

Mockingbird. Both male and female mockingbirds sing, but the males use song to attract mates. Repertoires vary by region. A Florida male may know up to 200 songs, while a Texan may have as low as 14 calls.

American Girl Mine Area, elevation @400 feet

We stayed here two different times. The first time was with our traveling friends while we were going back and forth to Mexico for dental visits. Then after we separated from our friends, we came back because of the good internet signal. This area is full of old small mining claims and one currently operating mine. There is not much vegetation and we didn’t have the stunning views out our door as we did in Ajo or the lure of a hot spring like Five Palms. And at first, it didn’t seem like it had many birds but on our second visit, we found quite a few perhaps because of recent rains.

Moonrise at American Girl Mine.

Our mornings at American Girl were spent hiking a lot of roads that looked like this.

Loggerhead Shrike.

While hiking the road one day a passerby told us about this interesting area where the mining company has piled up tailings. which the wind and rain have sculpted into interesting patterns.

Tailings and cracked earth.

The stars were numerous and it was warm enough to sit out and look at them.

Our second visit to American Girl was a little more colorful.  All of the ocotillos had sprouted green leaves. And we saw a lot more birds.

House Finch.

Hermit Thrush.

Sagebrush Sparrow

Sage Thrasher. The Sage Thrasher thrives in sage-covered environments. Sage is disappearing from the American West, and the Thrasher’s population is declining.

Brewer’s Sparrow. The Brewer’s Sparrow also lives in sage and has a declining population.

Black-tailed Gnatcatcher.

Black-tailed Gnatcatcher.

Costa’s Hummingbird. During courtship the male Costa’s Hummingbird will execute dives, coming close to the female. The male’s short tail makes a high, shrill sound. He follows this with similar vocalizations.

Train tracks near we were camped. Many people won’t camp near train tracks but I like the sound of a train in the distance.

The area may have been pretty barren but the sunsets were often spectacular.

Yuma, elevation @ 100 feet

Yuma oftentimes makes it on to lists of the warmest places in the country during the winter. Although we didn’t stay in Yuma, it was the closest city to many of the places we camped and we spent lots of time there shopping, doing laundry, picking up packages, and on occasion looking for birds.

We stopped at West Wetland Park in Yuma one day to eat our lunch after which we took a few pics of the birds in the park’s pond. Here’s a Double-crested Cormorant

Double-crested Cormorant.

Like the owl, Double-crested Cormorants regurgitate pellets of the hard parts of prey they can’t digest.

Mallard.

Mallard.

Mallard.

Ring-necked Duck.

Great Egret.

We saw this osprey hunting while we were visiting a friend camped near Yuma at Fortuna Pond. Ninety-nine percent of an Osprey’s diet is fish. Ospreys can compensate for refraction when they dive for fish. Other adaptations that help Ospreys with fishing include oily water-repellant plumage, nostrils that can close underwater, reversible outer toes, and barns and scales that help grip fish. When they carrying fish they turn the snouts ahead to make their flight more aerodynamic.


This week I will be sharing this post on  My Corner of the World, Travel Tuesday, Wild Bird Wednesday, Through My Lens, Weekend Coffee Share, and Sharon’s Souvenirs. Check out these links to see what other people are doing all over the world.

14 thoughts on “Keeping Warm

  1. Denise E Smith said:

    Beautiful pictures as always. Thank you!

    • Duwan said:

      Thank you Denise! I always love hearing from you.

  2. Good suggestions. I struggle with how my prehistoric people stayed warm in cold times (they didn’t have shelter or clothing). At first, I just had them stay in warm areas but humans like to wander and they ended up in cold. I have the curl against cliffs still warmed by the sun, sleep with friendly animals, and finally, in caves (thank goodness I found out we did, as far back as 1.8 mya).

    Great topic to cover in your blog!

    • Duwan said:

      Thanks Jacqui. Such interesting options for your prehistoric people to keep warm. I guess they didn’t have fire? One way I forgot to mention is that some people have wood stoves in their rig. I imagine it keeps them toasty warm but I don’t think we would add one to our van.

  3. I am curious if your love of birds is just a hobby or related to your work. My dad was a zoologist who worked for the Fish and Wildlife Service. Dad was passionate about birds. While I’ve always had an appreciation for nature, I’m afraid that I didn’t get the birding bug. We used to take cross-country trips, and it seemed like we were forever stopping at some wildlife refuge along the way. Along the way, he wore down my mom into becoming a birder. They had a motor home and would leave for two-three weeks at a time, in search of wildlife.

    We came to California when Dad became a member of the Recovery Team for the Aleutian Canada Goose (now known as the Aleutian Cacking Goose), a subspecies of the Canada Goose. It is estimated that there were only 800 of these birds left in 1974, but through conservation efforts there are now approximately 200,000.

    • Duwan said:

      What an interesting occupation your dad had – and to be part of a team to conserve a endangered animal!

      Greg and I picked up birding just this past year. I take lots of pictures and he wanted something to do while I was snapping away so he decided to take up birding. I then started taking pictures of birds becoming a birder too.

      It is a little like a treasure hunt – finding birds. And taking pictures is like collecting them. I remember the first time we went on a birding talk – our guides could ID a bird from a distance or just how they looked flying in the sky. Now we can sometimes do the same.

      It was a great hobby to take up during this last year since since it gave us something to do in more remote locations. And since museums and other things we usually like to do were closed.

  4. bob chekoudjian said:

    Your photography is fantastic! And you’ve really got it down for bird pics. What kind of camera/lens setup are you using?

    • Duwan said:

      Thanks so much Bob! I’ve always been a lazy photographer but I’m learning a lot trying to get good bird pics.

      I have a Sony Cyber-shot RX10 iv bridge camera. It has a 24 – 600 mm zoom lens.

  5. Anya Warren said:

    Hello Duwan and Greg,

    I bet Cabbagetown was practice for sleeping near train tracks. Your photos are fabulous! check out another C-town resident is out wandering in his van IG ryanvizzions – check him out he is photographing his experience. Maybe you will cross paths. His work is displayed at the Monroe Gallery in Santa Fe, NM. Please continue sharing your photos – I can live vicariously through your posts.
    Cheers.
    Anya Warren

    • Duwan said:

      Yes, I remember when we first moved into Cabbagetown hearing the CSX all the time + especially when they dropped those train cars but after a while it all faded into a reassuring background noise.

      I’ll check ryanvizzions out and keep posting about our travels.

      I know you’ll be out there doing it yourself some day!

  6. Well, you – and we – did find a few interesting spots during the first part of winter. The days were doable, but we spent way too much time inside our tiny vans (if there weren’t campfires) to feel happy. Luckily, we were in great company! Baja is a wonderful alternative for future winters. We have no regrets of our decision and love it here. If the South America plan isn’t possible yet due to Covid, we would like to return next winter.

    • Duwan said:

      Winter is just hard. I’ve frooze in Key West during the winter before. And although I wish it had been a little warmer this winter we managed to not get snowed on (like they did in Texas and Tucson)! And, for me, hanging with good friends makes the weather more toleralbe.

  7. I never thought about being cold in the southwest or Florida! I guess you really never know what the weather will bring.
    You found some delightful little friends to photograph which, I’m sure, is a great consolation 🙂 Your little gnatcatcher looks like our native robins.

    Your link is a welcome addition to My Corner of the World’ this week!

    • Duwan said:

      Thanks! I never really thought about it being cold in either of those places until I was actually in those places and was freezing!

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