April 1, 2016
At Tucson, Arizona
Sometimes you just need to seize the moment. I was about to return to Connecticut after six weeks in Florida when my son, Scott, asked if I had any interest in traveling to Europe or the western U. S. for 5 or 6 days. He is changing jobs, and realized he could squeeze a vacation week in between. Meanwhile, his girlfriend was tied up with her career. So, did dad want to play outside for a week? Well, the practical part of me wanted to head home to Farmington, Ct., and settle in for awhile. But my heart won. Of course I’d explore some new place with Scott. We looked at Europe, but only briefly, realizing we needed more time to plan something interesting across the pond. But Arizona was tempting; it is warm, or warm enough, and neither of us had explored the desert of southeast Arizona. We decided to make this a hiking and birding vacation in Saguaro National Park, a spacious park with two major properties, one east of Tucson, the other west of Tucson.
We’d both spent some time exploring northern Arizona – we rafted the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon when Scott was 12 – but he had never set foot in Sedona, with its wonderful red rock mountains overlooking the little city. We decided to first spend a full day in Sedona, get in a hike in the adjoining Coconino National Forest, then scoot south about 4 hours by car to the national park for 4 days.
Considering how arid the southeast Arizona climate is, we found the desert teeming with life, surprisingly so, dominated by cactus that manage quite nicely on an average of 12 inches of rain a year. We caught a week on the cool side – temps in the high 60s – but spring was nonetheless happening in the park. The earliest flowers were emerging on the signature saguaro cactus, many of which rise thirty or more feet over the desert floor. Hedgehog cactus was in full bloom, as was bitterbush, with brilliant yellow flowers, and New Mexico thistle, with purple flowers, among many others.
I hoped to spot some bird species I had never seen before, and I did. First, Scott and I wanted to see a roadrunner. We actually saw several, but we got an especially good look at one of them that, as is the way of this aptly named bird, literally ran across the road in front of us. I knew the gila woodpecker builds its nest in Saguaro cactus, and are thought to be fairly common, so I figured I’d see one for sure. I saw many. Gambel’s quail were numerous, too, as were curve-billed thrashers. Also saw lesser goldfinch. Clearly, had I made birding my top priority I could have added another dozen or so species. But, no complaints. We had a blast hiking every day in the national park, taking time to, literally, smell the flowers. And talk. Seize the moment.