Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Clouds of Sandhills

We’ve settled into our new home for three months at The Nature Conservancy’s Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve near the little town of Patagona.  The job here fulfills all of our requirements – excellent site with hookups, interesting place to work, and lots to do in the area. Host Site
Now if it only had a frozen yogurt bar, it would be perfect!  In return for our site, we open the gate three days a week at 7:30, host the many visitors here for birding, collect fees, and close the gate at 4:00.  Our site looks across a meadow and towering Cottonwoods with the Patagonia Mountains in the distance – an absolutely beautiful scene!  The preserve, just under 400 acres, is a mix of meadow and riparian area, with a year-round creek that attracts migrating birds and wildlife.  We’re looking forward to increasing our birding “life-list” and exploring the area during our stay.
One of our first road trips after getting settled was with our friends Don and Betty to Whitewater Draw, an area of ponds in a broad valley to the east of us where an estimated 30,000 Sandhill Cranes spend the winter.   Sandhill cranes are the world’s most abundant cranes, with an estimated population of over 500,000.  At an average 10 pounds and almost four feet tall, with an impressive wing span of up to seven feet, it doesn’t take many to fill up the sky.  And fill the sky they did!
We arrived shortly before noon, just as the huge flocks of cranes were returning after foraging in the area’s fields.  Incoming Cranes
As they got closer, the colors of their red crowns become visible and the loud trumpeting drowned out all other sound – truly magical.  Listen here.Cranes2
They spiraled down in patterns that are not that different from an airplanes at an airport – but in all directions at one time.  As a former air traffic controller, they were making me nervous; but everyone landed without colliding – although there were a LOT of near misses!Cranes Landing
Some returned in formation, like this flight of four – just like jet fighters:Flight of FourOr this flight of two on final:Two on Final
Some seemed to enjoy buzzing through the formations with abandon.  As an Air Force guy I figured they must have been trained by the Navy:Cranes3
But taken as a group or individual, the Sandhill Cranes in flight are amazing to watch:Single Crane
Gradually, the skies cleared as the last cranes landed.  This is just one of the many flocks that landed during our visit:Cranes4
In another month or so, the Sandhills will begin migrating north for the summer.  Once there, pairs (who mate for life) build their nest, and have their young (usually one chick).  Surprisingly, these birds can live for 20 years, and the oldest on record survived over 37 years.  And at the end of summer, just like us, they’ll head south again for the winter.  And we’ll be looking forward to seeing them here again!
We’ve got a lot going on to share with you, so check back!

Thursday, January 08, 2015

2014 In Review

2014 MapIt seems it was  just yesterday that I was writing the 2013 in Review blog.  It isn’t until we sat down and look at the last year’s blogs and pictures that we realized how much we’ve seen and done this past year.  While we didn’t cover a lot of ground, we made the most of the places we visited for another memorable year.
We had a late start from Wimberley, Texas while waiting for  Brenda to recover  from extensive shoulder surgery.  But as soon as her physical therapy was complete, we packed up and hit the road.  Fort Stanton ChapelWe had time to kill before our scheduled volunteer job in Oregon, so we headed into New Mexico and the Sacramento Mountains, an area we’ve visited many times but always enjoy coming back to.  So much great history here;  battles were fought, cattle and land were fought over, and Billy the Kid lived and died. Inn of the Mountain Gods The Army may have won the Indian battles, but the Apache won the economic war judging by the size and beauty of the Inn of the Mountain Gods Casino Resort.  While Brenda tried her hand in the casino, I enjoyed sitting in the main lobby with its high windows overlooking the lake and Sierra Blanca, waiting for her screams of joy as she wins a big jackpot.  I’m still waiting.
Our next stop was Silver City, another of our favorite places, but our plans to revisit the Gila Cliff Dwellings, Emery Pass, and the Gila Wilderness were changed by high winds and tree pollen that made both of us miserable.  So off we went, north on Highway 180 through the incredible beauty of nearly unpopulated forests and mountains, crossing into Arizona and eventually connecting with I-40.  Our next stop was Kingman, where we spent a few days in the local Freightliner service parking lot waiting for a new starter.  Brenda's New FriendsWe made a day trip to Oatman, where Brenda made friends with most of the wild mules that roam the streets.  Thankfully, she couldn’t persuade any of them to join our cat on our travels, so once the motor home was fixed, we left for a stay in Las Vegas. 

Las Vegas SmogWe always enjoy a stay at the Nellis AFB RV Park, and usually avoid the strip – all you have to do is look at the air quality from a distance.  On a trip to Lake Mead, we were surprised to see how low the lake has become (and it’s even lower now). 

Lake Mead Marina

Little A Le InnWhile stationed here in the late 70s, I worked at an Air Force facility on the Nevada Test Site now known as “Area 51”.  Although we couldn’t visit, I took Brenda to the nearest metropolis – Rachel, NV, (pop 54 humans), for a visit to the Little A’Le’Inn, where those who believe the Air Force is testing “captured alien space technology” congregate.  Self Parking SignAlas, the “Inn” was closed and we missed our chance to buy some of those cool alien-shaped salt and pepper shakers, but we did get to stay in the self-parking area.

Beach at Battle Rock
We continued northwest, with a brief stop in Reno before pushing on to the Oregon Coast.  Driving down the highway to our summer location of Humbug Mountain State Park, we were once again stunned by the beauty of the coast.  Offshore rocks (sea stacks), crashing waves, screeching gulls – for us it was like coming home.  Brenda and RedwoodWe spent mid-May through October here, teaching the “Junior Rangers”, giving evening talks on seals and sea lions, and exploring the area.  Just across the border into California, we wandered through the Lady Bird Grove’s immense Redwoods, and almost fell over backwards trying to see the tops. 

Lady Bird Grove
We drove logging roads through the miles of forests in the Coastal Range searching for the Cobra Lilly, a carnivorous plant that resembles little space aliens:Cobra lilly1
Those who follow us know we’re all about food, and the Oregon coast is a land of berries and seafood.  We visited blueberry farms, huckleberry patches, mussel rocks, and crabbing docks – good thing we have a large freezer!Oregon Eats
In my past life I thought that Blue Crab was the tastiest of the crab; but now I know the one truth about being a crab connoisseur – Dungeness is best!  And so I was thrilled when Ranger Greg, our volunteer boss and good friend invited me to go crabbing. Lighthouse View On a beautifully calm and somewhat foggy day, we caught enough crab for a couple of meals, and I learned no matter how your grab ahold of a crab, it can (and will) make you bleed.  But I had the last laugh – with melted butter and Old Bay seasoning!

Big Crab
While on the coast, we made arrangements to volunteer in 2015 at the Yaquina Head Outstanding Natural Area near Newport.  With it’s classic lighthouse, beautiful visitor center, and great tide pools we’re looking forward to another great summer.  Yaquina Lighthouse2
In late October, we packed up for the trip down to Tucson for the winter.  On the way, we stopped for the night near Mt. Shasta, one of the truly beautiful mountains of the Northwest.Shasta from RV Park
Desert ViewSpending time in the desert climate was a huge change after a summer on the Pacific coast.  Our sinuses rebelled and our eyes watered, but after a while we started to adjust.  After a month in Tucson, we moved to the Saguaro Escapee Park in Benson where our good friends Don and Betty were gracious hosts.  Christmas Eve PartyThe Christmas holiday was filled with friendship, good food, and parties.  Next year we vow to spend a few months getting in shape – these people are the party champions of the Medicare set!
Sonora Hot DogWe’ve had the chance to try a Sonoran Hot dog (bacon wrapped, with avocado, pinto beans, onions and mayo), and found the best ones are from the food trucks -the ones that you don’t look inside of to see how things are prepared.  Browns FansAnd for what has become a yearly ritual for us long-suffering Cleveland Browns fans, we, along with our daughter, watched the 16th and final game of the Browns’ season.  There’s never a 17th (playoff) game for us, but at least we can plan our January weekends without worrying about missing a game. 
And so we came to another great year of travel – we’ve laid plans for a great 2015, so stay tuned!