Three National Wildlife Refuges

The sun sets over Kofa National Wildlife in Arizona.

February 11 – 19.

I usually have a plan. It is always flexible, never set in stone though, and often veers off in any direction at any moment. But this winter I didn’t really have much of a plan at all. We were meeting up with friends and it seemed easier just to follow them around. It was kind of nice. We tagged along with our buddies from Roaming About for a trip through Southern Arizona in December and then after meeting up with more friends from Scamper Squad later that month became a roving band of nomads, figuring out where we were going to go and what we were going to do each morning. When the gang split up and we had no one to tag along with anymore we just kind of piddled around in the Yuma/Southeastern California trying to decide what to do next. Our friends from Roaming About had invited us to join them on the beach in Baja California, Mexico but we weren’t sure if we wanted to leave the country just yet.

We were still pondering what to do when we used up all of our camping days at Mittry Lake so we decided to visit a nearby Arizona National Wildlife Refuge – which led us to visiting two more refuges while we continued to consider Mexico and then eventually once we made a decision to just kill time.

Arizona has nine National Wildlife Refuges. We have now visited five of them – Buenos Aires NWR, Cabaze Prieta NWR, Cibola NWR, Kofa NWR, and Imperial NWR. Wildlife Refuges have become sort of like off (way off) the beaten track National Parks for us. Many of the ones we have visited have visitor centers and often times have interpretive trails, wildlife exhibits, and sometimes even ranger programs.

Imperial National Wildlife Refuge

Our first stop after leaving Mittry Lake was Imperial National Wildlife Refuge. This refuge sits along the Colorado River and is adjacent to Martinez Lake. The refuge has a nice-looking visitor center but, of course, it was closed due to Covid. There is also an observation tower, trails, and a driving route to several overlooks throughout the refuge. We only spent the afternoon at the refuge and didn’t get to do everything we would have liked to – including kayaking in the lake and walking a tail intriguingly named the Painted Desert Foot Trail. If I had done a little planning I might have realized that there was State Trust Land nearby where we could have camped cheaply. Unfortunately, I didn’t realize where the State Trust Land was until we were leaving and in order to camp there, you need to buy a permit online and have a printed copy. We had no internet or printer at the refuge.

The visitor center at Imperial NWR.
Dozer the Desert Tortoise. Adjacent to the visitor center three enclosures house three Desert Tortoises, Digger, Dozer, and Dodger. When we arrived at the refuge the tortoises were still hiding in their burrows. A ranger was busy setting out the tortoises’ morning meal. She said that they were shy and preferred to stay in their burrows this time of year but might be out shortly for their breakfast. We went on a little hike and when we came back a couple of the tortoises were finishing up their breakfast and heading back in.
Anna’s Hummingbird. A couple of humming bird feeders hung outside the visitor center.
Anna’s Hummingbirds. Where do hummingbirds store their tongues when not in use? In their hyoid apparatus, of course. The tongue goes under the jaw then over the back of the skull to the top of the head. For centuries it was assumed that the tongue acts like a long straw. But UCONN scientists have filmed hummingbirds getting nectar from a clear hollow tube. With slo-mo replay, they can see that many hollow spaces in the tongue get compressed and drained before the tongue is extended, then filled with nectar during extension. The process is rapid, happening 12-15 times per second. Gee, hummingbirds do everything fast.
Anna’s Hummingbird. After taking some pics at the visitor center we walked to the observation tower and took a hike down the Meers Point Trail to Martinez Lake.
Flying around a short tributary off of Martinez Lake we saw tons of tree swallows. Flocks of tree swallows will saturate an area in the morning or evening, each diving and swooping in different directions, seeking insects. They are fast and make quick turns. It’s difficult to catch a camera shot of one.
Ironically, since they happily breed in nest boxes, they are very easy to study. Some researchers even consider them a model organism, which can be used to shed light on human biology in cases where research on people would be unethical.
After our stop at the visitor center and our hike to the lake we got back in Ballena Blanca and drove to a few overlooks. Our first stop Palo Verde Point.
The overlook at Ironwood Point.
Ruddy Duck. The Ruddy Duck species was brought into Britain by a naturalist. It escaped. In 50 years its population reached 6K. There was concern because Ruddy Ducks will breed with the endangered White-headed Duck. Europeans have been killing them off, reducing the European population to less than 100. Their numbers are doing fine in the US.

Kofa National Wildlife Refuge

My lack of planning brought us to Kofa National Wildlife Refuge. As we left Imperial, with no plan as to where we’d spend the night, I saw some close-ish camping spots marked on my map from when we had previously visited Kofa.

Kofa has a visitor center but it is located in Yuma – some 40 miles south of the refuge – so since we hadn’t planned on being there we didn’t stop by before we left the Yuma area. But the refuge does have nice glossy brochures located at kiosks on all the roads leading into the refuge. Free camping at Kofa is plentiful, located at sites throughout the refuge and on BLM that surrounds the refuge.

We camped in three different locations at the refuge – each with its own special features and beauty. Our first night was spent off of King road on BLM land. From there the next morning we drove into the refuge and took a long hike down one of the refuge roads pictured here.
We didn’t see much wildlife in the refuge although it is supposed to be a habitat for Bighorn Sheep and Sonoran Pronghorn. The views were pretty nice, though.
Our second camping spot in the refuge was near Crystal Hill. Crystal Hill is a 1.5-mile square area where rock collecting is allowed. You are allowed to collect either 10 specimens or 10 pounds of rocks in any 12 month period.
Collecting anything on most public lands is illegal so it was surprising to us that they allowed it here. We only left with a small piece of quartz and one of the slate-like rocks in the previous picture.
Rock in an old river bed.
We found a couple of sites like this where people had left memorials. Although taking a limited amount of rocks is allowable here, I imagine that leaving things is still frowned on.
A view at Crystal Hill.
Our last stop was at Palm Canyon. Here a small patch of palm trees grows wedged up in the rock walls of the canyon.
Palm trees in the rocks.
View from Palm Canyon.
A view from our camping spot at Palm Canyon.

Cibola National Wildlife Refuge

While we were at Kofa we ran into our friend Holly from Road Quill. We told her we were thinking about going to Mexico and she thought she might want to tag along. So we finally made a plan. We would all three cross the southern border and catch up with my friends Liesbet, Mark, and the lovely canine Maya from Roaming About. But Holly couldn’t leave for a week so we hung around Kofa a few more days and then headed to Cibola National Wildlife Refuge.

We had visited Cibola for the first time last March – right before the beginning of the shutdowns – and enjoyed it so much we thought it merited a return trip. Cibola has a nice little visitor center which we were able to stop into on our previous trip. In the back of the visitor center are a short trail, a pond, and a deck overlooking part of the refuge. From the visitor center, you can access a driving loop around a portion of the refuge. You are required to stay in your car on this loop except for one stop where there is a walking trail into a wooded area. Like Imperial, Cibola also stretches along the Colorado River and there are other areas of the refuge you can drive to with access to small lakes, ponds, and roads to walk on.

On our last visit to the refuge, we found a free camping area nearby called the Hippie Hole. This time we choose to camp on BLM land directly across from the entrance to the refuge.

This pond is the first thing you come to along the driving loop. When we visited Cibola in March of 2020 there were just a few ducks in this pond. This time the waterfowl were everywhere.
Snow Geese and Pintails.
American Wigeons.
Snow Geese.
The population of Snow Geese has grown so large it has affected the breeding grounds of other waterfowl. In 1999 the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the Canadian Wildlife Service enacted the Light Goose Conservation Order, which relaxed hunting restrictions on these geese.
Pintails in flight.
A shot of the nature trail where you are allowed to stop along the driving route and get out and walk.
Great-tailed Grackle. This bird passes a fun cognitive test. When confronted with out-of-reach food floating in a tube, it will drop items in. This raises the water level until the food comes in reach. Eureka!
The American Pipit is also found in Eurasia, where it is known as the Buff-bellied Pipit.
Roadrunner. This guy was cruising for chicks. He strutted around fluffing his feathers and crown. Another roadrunner in the distance was checking out his display. 
Western Meadowlark.
The refuge is also a working farm.
The boys are back in town. Both Red-winged and Yellow-headed Blackbirds are dimorphic. The females and males have different appearances. While these males flock and feed out in the open, the brownish females are in the reeds and brush, building nests in which they alone will incubate eggs. Fossils of Yellow-heads dating back 100K years have been found in Southwestern states.
When we visited last March there were no Sandhill Cranes at the Refuge.
Although there were quite a few Cranes here, there weren’t nearly as many as we saw at Whitewater Draw in December.
End of the driving loop. We drove this route first thing most mornings during our visit to the refuge. It was hard to get pictures of the birds without getting out of the van but I managed. The next van is going to have a window on each side that I can move back and forth with my camera.
We explored other areas of the refuge south of the visitor center and the driving loop. Here is a view of a pond at the Hart Mine Unit.
I’m sure that when you read the word “syrinx”, the song “Temples of Syrinx” from Rush’s “2112” album immediately comes to mind. No? Then you must be thinking about the special organ birds have that allows them to sing such wonderful songs. The syrinx sits where the windpipe (trachea) forks into the lungs. It can be controlled from either side of the fork, allowing multiple vocal sounds simultaneously. We actually miss a lot of birdsong that birds hear. Some species can produce and hear micro-second variations within their calls. Sadly, the Turkey Vulture lacks a syrinx, and can only grunt and hiss.
White Pelicans hanging out in the pond at the Hart Mine Unit.
Cooper’s Hawks find game birds tasty. They were once culled by hunters, who considered them competition. Hunting caused a dramatic population decline through the 1950s. Even after bans, their numbers declined through the 60s and 70s due to DDT exposure. They are on the rebound now with an estimated population of 800K in North America.
Mule Deer on Hart Mine Road on the Island Unit.
This Eurasian-collared Dove’s ancestors lived in a pet shop in the Bahamas. Some escaped when the shop was robbed in the 1970s. After the robbery, the shop owner released the remainder of his doves. They crossed to Florida, where the population has stabilized. They can now be seen in all US states, where their numbers continue to grow.
Great Blue Heron.
Marshland on the Island Unit.
White-faced Ibis.
Black Phoebe.

A New Plan

We never made it to Mexico. We would have liked to spend a few more days at Cibola but we decided to completely change course. We made the decision to head east to North Carolina and stop in on Greg’s parents. We hadn’t seen them in a year and a half and since they had just gotten the vaccine it seemed like time to go. When we told Holly she had already been thinking she’d give Mexico a miss this time. And my friends from Roaming About have been having a good time on the Mexican beaches without us. Perhaps next winter we will make a plan for a little beach time too.

It is quite possible that  I will be sharing this post on any one of these sites this week:  My Corner of the World, Travel Tuesday, Wild Bird Wednesday, Through My Lens, and Sharon’s Souvenirs. Check out these links to see what other people are doing all over the world!

8 thoughts on “Three National Wildlife Refuges

  1. My dad was passionate about his birds. He would have been happy to traipse around with you. I remember one time being with him when he was chasing some bird around trying to get a better look. We drove past a no trespassing sign, but I was just a little kid and didn’t know what it meant. A man came out from somewhere and chased us off.

    We get lots of Anna’s hummingbirds. They like our flowers. I’m sure you are a much better birder than me, but I seem to remember ruddy ducks as having distinctive sky-blue bills. Perhaps that one is a juvenile or perhaps both genders don’t.

    1. Luckily everywhere we go there is plenty of public land so it is easy to heed no trespassing signs.

      You are right about the ruddy ducks. We first saw these ducks in Montana with their bright blue bills. I was hot to get a photograph of one but could never get close enough to one to get a good photograph. I thought they all had blue bills too so I was surprised when this pic IDed as a ruddy duck. Turns out only breeding males have bright blue bills.

  2. Still a bummer you didn’t make it down to Baja with us this time. I wonder if Holly wouldn’t have caused the one-week delay, if you would have all been able to join us. We still haven’t made it to Kofa, but have heard wonderful things about camping there. And that’s a lot of birds at Cibola!! So much depends on timing. Everywhere. To see birds. To have nice weather. To make it here or there. Timing and luck.

    1. You know if we hadn’t had the delay we may have been driving to North Carolina from even farther away. It turned out that there was no emergency here but it was time to come anyways. Still I have thought lots in the last month – we could be in Baja right now!

      I think you would enjoy the camping at Kofa. There is lots to explore there and the roads were bad. Plenty of space for Maya to stretch her legs.

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