ARIZONA – THE WILDLIFE STATE
I have to say we really didn’t know what to expect when we came to Arizona but it was one of the states I really wanted to explore.
We drove into south Eastern Arizona from New Mexico with no plans but to try and visit the National Parks, Monuments and Wildlife Refuges. The first one we stumbled across was Chiricahua National Monument, this park was located in a valley of a beautiful mountain range in the middle of the desert! We drove in not knowing what wildlife was around, first stop was the visitors centre to see where we could camp and what there was to see.
We were meet by a very helpful ranger that told us this place was one of the worlds most bio diverse areas and we could find a lot of rare and wonderful animals here! The mountain range was a centre point where four completely different ecosystems meet, The Rocky Mountains to the North, Chihuahuan Desert to the East, Sierra Madre Ranges to the South and Sonoran Desert to the West.
He also filled us in on a great place to visit on the other side of the mountains called Coronado National Forest near Portal, we would have to check this out as there was a very special bird there called a Elegant Trogon.
There was a great little camp site nestled in between two massive shear cliffs, we were soon greeted by the boisterous Mexican Jays and brightly coloured Acorn Woodpeckers! The Mexican Jays were very friendly and soon figured out we had delicious nuts they could steel.. Haha
MEXICAN JAY TAKING AN ALMOND FROM LAUREN’S HAND
Lauren even got to hand-feed the friendly resident Acorn Woodpecker! Who ever gets to hand-feed a Woodpecker!?!
We settled into camp then decided to take the scenic drive up the canyon to the look outs, WOW what a view from up the top! The mountain range had amazing sweeping views over the desert below and these interesting rock formations that looked like cities; like nothing we had seen before.
THE VIEW OVER THE CHIRICAHUA’S
We headed back to the camp to do a walk to try and find the very interesting Coatimundi which is a medium size mammal that has migrated from their usual home in South America. We lucked out on the Coatimundi but saw our first Chipmunk at the old homestead.
The following morning we got up early to get a couple more landscape photos up the mountain then made the steep and rough drive over the mountain range to Portal, a very small town in an oasis of beautiful green.
As we normally do, we visited the ranger station and Ron the local ranger filled us in on what there was to see, we even got a free reptile feeding show while we were there. Ron was one of the most helpful rangers we have meet on our trip so far and if your in the area make sure you go and see him. Ron also told us the area was full of keen birdwatchers and they should be very helpful if we bumped into one.
We made our way to a great campground called Sandyflat just down the road and settled in for the day. We were greeted by a lovely guy called Dick, he was from New Mexico and had been visiting here for years. He filled me in on what was around and invited us to sit with him at his hummingbird feeders which was fun. He also showed me a little hole in a Sycamore Tree near our camp, this was the home of an Elf Owl. The Elf Owl is the smallest and lightest owl in the world; weighing in at only 40g and standing at around 11cm tall. He was high on my list of animals to see, we had all afternoon to waste so I stayed close by the hole and waited. His tiny head and large eyes peered out of this little hole looking straight down at me, he was really cute.
ELF OWL IN HIS ROOST HOLE
That afternoon we spent hanging out with Dick at his hummingbird feeders, he was even kind enough to supply the drinks! While sitting there we managed to see a few new species of hummingbird including Magnificent, Broadbill, Black-chinned and this beautiful male Blue-throated.
That evening we decided to drive a few of roads in search of a Rattlesnake which I really wanted too see. The nice guy that feed the snakes at the visitor centre told me of a good spot to start.
It wasn’t far down the recommended road that Lauren spotted a snake warming himself on the gravel, lucky for us it was an absolutely stunning Diamond-backed Rattlesnake! He even posed for a couple of photos!
ME & THE DIAMOND-BAKCED RATTLESNAKE
That evening under the Sycamore Tree waiting for the Elf Owl to come out turned out to be a great spot to meet the fellow campers. We meet so many nice people including Ron & Janet which helped me ID the Rattlesnake we found, they were very similar to us and we were soon in deep conversation about birding and travelling for the next hour or so!
They filled me in on what I could see in Arizona and this is when my dream of seeing the very elusive Gila Monster began. They gave us a book on Arizona’s reptiles which came in very handy when we later came across a few more snakes.
Another nice person we meet was a crazy young man; Dorian, who was doing a Green Big Year for charity on his push bike sponsored by Best Western called “Biking for Birds” and he had a rule of no motorised transport for 1 year. We got on really well with Dorian and will follow him on his blog to see how he finishes up for the year! Hopefully he will come and visit us in Australia and we can show him around our backyard.
The following morning we headed to see an unusual visitor to the United States from Mexico; the Elegant Trogon which nested in the area. This is one of the only places in the USA to see one so we were very excited.
We spent the morning searching the area but didn’t manage a photo. We did get to see a very brightly coloured male fly overhead but sadly this was one of our first targets we missed out on getting a photo of.
We headed back to camp to say goodbye to our new friend Dick, he gave Lauren his Hummingbird feeders which was very generous! We really enjoyed his company and he was full of useful information.
LAUREN WITH HER NEW HUMMINGBIRD FEEDERS
That evening we headed too a private property we were told of where a local called Bob had a lot of bird feeders out the back of his property. We sat quietly and were greeted by a great menagerie of birds including a few news ones to us, Lazuli Bunting, Green-tailed Towhee, Bullock’s Oriole and Zone-tailed Hawk to name a few.
MALE LAZULI BUNTING
We even got to see his resident Coatimundi friend there, he hangs around the area steeling the honey from the bees nest near the bird feeders.
THE RESIDENT COATIMUNDI HAVING A NAP
The following morning we thought we would move on to our next destination, we had a quick look at Google maps and decided we would head for Sierra Vista to check out the mountain range behind the city and finally get our car serviced.
We were lucky enough on the drive up the mountain to find this absolutely beautiful Sonoran Mountain Kingsnake, luckily I had my new book thanks to Ron so I could ID him 🙂 The view from the top of the mountain was spectacular.
SONORAN MOUNTAIN KINGSNAKE
Next place we headed to after the car was serviced and repaired was Tucson to see the giant Saguaro Cactus at Saguaro Cactus National Park. These cacti are the biggest in the world, growing up to 45 feet tall and are very impressive.
The National Park had no camping at all and was very touristy so we back-tracked a bit to a place called Colossal Caves, they had primitive camping which suited us perfectly and was also a great spot to see my number one target the Gila Monster.
THE VIEW OVER COLOSSAL CAVES WITH THE SAGUARO CACTUS
The park was privately owned and they lock you into the campground at 5pm till 8am which was very weird. The park manager was very helpful but without being able to drive the roads on dusk we had no chance of seeing any wildlife except for around our camp.
From Colossal Caves we took a bit of a punt and headed back down toward the Mexican border to a place on the map I had spotted which looked interesting. It was called Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge, the reviews said it was a long way out of the way but to us it didn’t seem that far, the park was beautiful and we were the only people there!
We first stopped at a little walk at the Western entrance of the park where we got to see a heap of Hummingbirds, Vermilion Fly-catcher and our first Gila Woodpecker at his nest, for a middle of the day walk it was very fruitful.
MALE GILA WOODPECKER AT NEST HOLE
Along the drive to the visitor centre we got to see a big Red-racer (Snake) which I picked up and got bitten. I knew he was harmless, a bit of fun and excitement for the day!
The staff at the visitor centre were very helpful and told us about a bird bath they had out the back which they were happy for us to sit there any time. We took them up on the offer and spent a couple of hours sitting quietly that afternoon and also the following morning. We got to see Blue Grosbeak, Hooded Orioles, Varied Bunting, Ground Doves, Yellow Warbler and Lucy’s Warbler. They even had nesting Cactus Wrens and Barn Swallows in the light fitting on the back porch.
MALE VARIED BUNTING
They haven’t had rain here in a long time so the wildlife was reasonably easy to find. The Pronghorn scenic drive from the rangers station was great that afternoon, we got to see our first Bobcat, Pronghorn Antelope including a new born and a stunning male, Antelope Jackrabbit and a very cool Long-nosed snake which Lauren handled and didn’t want to let go, but still no Gila Monster.
OUR FIRST BOBCAT
The Ranger Station was situated only 5 miles from the Mexican border so the presence of the US Border Patrol was everywhere, they drove past our camp site 3 or 4 times which was a little unsettling. This was defiantly most unsafe we have felt since being in the US but still had no problems.
The following morning we headed to Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, I was told I had a chance for Gila Monster there too.
Organ Pipe National Monument was created to protect the very unique Organ Pipe Cactus which the park is famous for, they are found nowhere else except within 100 miles of this park.
We arrived at the park again not to sure what to expect but where pleasantly surprised they had a beautiful campground which was empty and an amazing 21 mile scenic drive into the mountains which looked perfect for seeing wildlife.
The biggest problem we had in the park was it was HOT! About 104F (40c), very uncomfortable in the middle of the day. When it’s this hot you are only going to see wildlife for the first 3 hours in the morning and the last 2 hours in the evening so we had to make do and watch a lot of laptop TV.
We did the scenic drive the first afternoon, it was AMAZING! This beautiful 21 mile loop (33km) wound through the hills and canyons, along the plains through all the beautiful Organ Pipe & Saguaro Cacti. It was so cool we drove it twice! We didn’t end up seeing much the first evening except a Coyote and a very cool Harris’s Hawk but we don’t give up that easily!
HARRIS’S HAWK WITH PREY ON A SAGUARO CACTUS
The following morning we were up early to do the loop again, again we didn’t see much except heaps of Cotton-tailed Rabbits and a Black-tailed Jackrabbit.
That evening we were out again; but this time I was more interested in getting some quality landscape photos of this beautiful place. I got a heap of really cool landscape photos which turned out great.
ORGAN PIPE CACTUS AT THE MONUMENT
We had the best surprise that evening just on sunset (7:20pm) on the way back to our camp, we finally stumbled upon a young Gila Monster walking across the road!! We could’t believe our eyes as everyone we talked to just laughed at us and said “Good Luck finding on of those!”
Now that we had finally found a Gila Monster my biggest challenge was the light, it was getting dark really quickly. I had to try and get a photo ASAP! I had to sacrifice my ISO a bit and put it up to 1000 and pull my F-stop right down to F2.8, after firing off 700 or so photos and filling up one of my CF cards I had to have at least one to put on my website. After sifting through the hoards of photos I had half a dozen OK shots, the one below is my favourite.
THE YOUNG GILA MONSTER WE FOUND ON DUSK
After finally getting my photo of the Gila Monster we both decided to do the drive north to the Grand Canyon which is located in the far North of the state. The weather had warmed up a lot in the last couple of weeks up there and we needed to get away from this 40 degree silliness that they call spring!
We headed north; along the way stopping at a random little camp in Kaibab National Forest for the night. We got up early to visit a town a friend had recommended called Sedona, it suited us as it was the scenic way up to the Grand Canyon and we always take these drives.
Mother nature had a different idea, there was a massive bush fire raging just out of Sedona. It had destroyed 20,000 acres of forest and the road north was closed. So after driving the 25 miles up to Sedona we had to turn back and go around! The town was very pretty apart from the choking amount of smoke sitting in the valley and smothering the town.
We eventually made it to the southern entrance of the world famous Grand Canyon. We were very sceptical of this place as I hate touristy things, when we pulled up to the entrance station it was four lanes wide and had 50 cars lined up to get in so we were a bit concerned! It got even better when Lauren said to the ranger “Geez it’s busy today” he laughed and said this is quiet! We then asked if the camp had sites left the ranger said good luck!!
THE LINE-UP FOR ENTRY INTO THE GRAND CANYON
Luckily we managed to find a nice shady spot at the Desert View campground located 25 miles east of the main centre, this spot was actually a lot better and quieter than the main Mather Campground so it worked out for the best. We enjoyed a quiet afternoon in the sunshine waiting till the late afternoon to go and explore the park, hoping the hoards of day trippers had left and the light would be a lot better for some landscape photos.
We back-tracked toward the main entrance at 4.30pm stopping at all the view points along the way, this way we could work out where to be for our sunset and sunrise photos. We decided on Grand View viewpoint for sunset, I was hoping to climb out onto a rock ledge I saw as it would make a great photo and was away from all the people.
We slowly made our way to the visitor centre to check out the rest of the vistas, along the way we saw this very impressive Bull Elk on the side of the road.
MALE BULL ELK
By the time we had finished at the visitor centre it was time to head back to Grand View to catch sunset, there where a lot of people around but luckily no one adventurous enough to venture out onto the ledge I spotted earlier.
ME (LAURIE ROSS) BEING AN IDIOT ON THE LEDGE I WAS TAKING PHOTOS
It was an absolutely amazing spot to watch the sunset and even managed a couple of absolutely beautiful photos, check them all out here www.laurieross.com.au/usa-landscapes.
It really is a magical spot that everyone has to see in their life time.
SUNSET AT THE SOUTH RIM OF THE GRAND CANYON
As I said before I am really not a fan of touristy things and big crowds but this place is so impressive you just put up with it.
The following morning we were up at sparrows fart (4.30am!) to catch the sunrise at Desert View near our campsite. We were the first to arrive which was a surprise so I jumped the barrier and went in search of some panoramic’s shots. What a glorious morning it was and I added more beautiful photos to my USA Landscapes gallery including this one below.
SUNRISE FROM THE SOUTH RIM OF THE GRAND CANYON
From the Southern Rim of the canyon we decided to also go and explore the North Rim which was around 200 miles away (330km), along the way we had so many landscape and temperature changes it was insane! At one stage the temperature dropped 25 degrees F in under an hour.
At Vermilion Cliffs we crossed the famous Colorado River at Navajo Bridge so we stopped to get a photo.
THE VIEW OVER THE COLORADO RIVER AT VERMILION CLIFFS
To our great surprise we found out that this was also the spot where a pair of very rare Californian Condor had a nest. Within 30 minutes we saw 6 individuals, we couldn’t believe our eyes as these birds are on the brink of extinction with only around 200 left in the wild, this means we saw 3% of the wild population and they are one of the rarest birds in the world!
THE ADULT CALIFORNIAN CONDOR (THEY ALL WEAR RADIO TRACKERS)
We carried on up the mountain passing through some beautiful scenery and meadows. We made it to the north rim entrance but found out the campground was already full! Lucky for us there was a really nice forest campground only 5 miles back so we decided to head there and relax for the remainder of the day.
That morning I got up early to see what was around the camp, I found a few great birds including Mountain Chickadee, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Black-backed Sapsucker, Dark-eyed Junco, Ruby-crowned Kinglet and this Western Tanager.
MALE WESTERN TANAGER
We got to the North Rim campground at about 8.30am, lucky for us someone had canceled and there was one campsite available. We have never come across a campground that is full at 8.30am!
The campground had great facilities including free wifi and an awesome shower!
We decided to do a hike while it was still cool, we found a lovely 4 mile (6.4km) walk out to a beautiful view point over the canyon. We meet some really great Texans on the walk that invited us for a drink later if we could find them at the campground.
After the walk we headed back to the camp for lunch and to relax for the rest of the afternoon. The camp had great wifi so I caught up on all my uploading to my website and we enjoyed a couple of giant 25 oz (740ml) beers!
OUR WELL DESERVED GIANT BEERS AT THE SOUTH RIM OF THE GRAND CANYON
Sunset came around quickly so we headed down behind the camp to watch the sun go down, on the way back to camp we stumbled across the Texans we meet earlier on the hike.
Bob & Nina, John & Claudia insisted we sit down with them to enjoy a delicious bottle of Texan red wine and yummy venison sausage! Before we knew it we had talked for hours and it was 10pm and time to call it a night. Only problem we had now was trying to find our way back to camp, slightly intoxicated and in the pitch black! Lets just say it was hilarious, Lauren even walked into a tree.
The following morning we got up early, I had a great surprise while eating my breakfast when I spotted a very rare and endemic Kaibab Squirrel dashing across the camp site. After following him and losing him up a couple of trees I managed a photo. He’s going to be hard to beat for coolest Squirrel!
A VERY RARE KAIBAB SQUIRREL AT OUR CAMP
Well Arizona you have been awesome! The landscape and wildlife we have seen in this state will be hard to beat and hopefully one day you can visit too.
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