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Meow Travel Diaries
At The Birdhouse at Heartstone Mountain Retreat
Birding Excursion No. 1

As the temperatures are soaring into the hundred and teens, I find myself reminiscing about last November when my girlfriend (and partner in crime for MEOW Magazine) Katy surprised me with a birthday trip down to south of Sonoita/Elgin wine country, near Parker Canyon Lake: The Birdhouse at Heartstone Mountain Retreat.

I’m a lifelong plant enthusiast, but recently have been fascinated by birds — the obsession has led to me joining the Tucson Audubon Society and purchasing several books on local birding. I’m slowly learning my birds, though it isn’t as easy to key out species of organisms that elude and move (plants don’t flee away from you when you are trying to observe them). I have to admit, birds are much more of a challenge to learn. Katy is much better at birding than I am, and she has encouraged my interest. 

November 21, 2016
As we head south from Tucson, we watch the low desert flora give way to high desert flora, give way to grassland and oak woodland. It is fall, at this time, and we pass the rolling grasslands of Sonoita and Elgin which have become straw-colored with winter dormant grasses, dotted with evergreen oaks, and the occasional group of flickering, towering canopies of yellow (the cottonwood preparing for its brief winter sleep). 

With a few stops along the way, it takes us a few hours to get to our remote destination, nestled in the Canelo Hills just between the Huachuca and Patagonia mountains. 

As we pull up to the property (down a dirt road just off of route 83), surrounded by towering oak and walnut trees, the muscles all along my spine begin to relax. We meet the property manager, Dave, who lives on site; he shows us where all the amenities are and answers our various questions.

The “Birdhouse” was originally owned by avid birder, Dr. Bev Allen, who kept meticulous notes on the feathered visitors and residents of the 9 acre ranch. To date (and mostly documented first by Dr. Allen) more than 110 species of bird have been identified here. After Bev Allen passed away, a group of women that includes Jo Schneider (owner of La Cocina Restaurant & Cantina) purchased the ranch in hopes of maintaining its birding legacy. Visiting birders continue to contribute to documenting the bird life at the birdhouse. 

The first species we notice is the acorn woodpecker. They are communicative and social, bobbing their heads, and watching us with their intense green eyes. Their dark heads, topped with fiery red crests, poke around the trees, and they are ensuring us that this is their territory. Watching them closely, they do seem to be extremely territorial, and Dave tells us it’s nearly impossible to keep fruit trees on the property because the woodpeckers destroy them; we notice that all the native walnut trees are riddled with holes.

Also present, but not nearly as prevalent on property is the northern flicker. Another “woodpecker”, this bird prefers the ground to the tree canopy. I later find out that they scrounge about for ants and beetles, though I do see a few at the bird feeder.

Dave gives us a tour of the property. There are two houses, one is a bunker that can sleep a team of about 8 people. The main house (where we are sleeping) has two bedrooms with two queen beds and a few couches, so it could sleep about 6 people. The kitchen has just about everything you need, and we put that kitchen to the test (we love to cook).

After our tour we gather wood from the pile (mostly juniper) and start a fire — remember it’s cold this time of year and a nice fire is quite welcome. Juniper wood emits one of the finest smells I know as a fuel. We brought a lot of food with us because we intend on doing two things this trip: eat well, and look at birds. So we start cooking beans and roasting a chicken. And while waiting for those to cook, we eat truffle brie, olives, sardines, olives, artichoke hearts, capers, and of course, salumi. A proper person would drink wine with this meal, and we have wine. But we ain’t proper so we drink crowlers of craft beers we brought from Tap & Bottle (Katy works there, and we are their best customers). We eat, read by the fire, and since there is no internet, we read some more. 

November 22, 2016
We have been working a lot this past year, and quiet nights in the country are very welcome. We sleep well. I wake up and immediately pull out my Sibley’s Guide to Birds so I can identify as many feathered beasts as possible. There are many of what Katy calls LBBs (little brown birds), which are difficult to identify at first. Slowly, I am learning them. But I spot a few showy birds too. In addition to the aforementioned species, I see a ladder backed woodpecker, and a Mexican bluejay.

Dave made us aware of the kayaks in the barn, and we lash them to the roof of our old subaru and head for Parker Canyon Lake at about noon, which is only a few minutes away. There is a tiny shop with fishing gear available for rent, and lots of bait, snacks, and other random items. The shop manager is very friendly, lends us two fishing poles and gives us advice for good spots. We try to pay him for pole rentals but he refuses, though he lets us purchase bait. We fish and bird for a number of hours spotting loons, various ducks, but not too many other birds. We enjoy exploring the lake’s perimeters. We catch only a few small fish and toss them back. 

It’s getting dark as we head back but we see lots of wild turkeys and raptors. We have two nights booked at the birdhouse, but we decide as we drive back that we need to book another night and luckily it’s available (we have to make the phone call from the road because there is no cell reception at the birdhouse). We go to bed early, but not before a nice dinner, a bottle of 2013 grenache from Rune Wines (we purchased a bottle from the Sonoita Mercantile on the way in), and some reading. It is the rare night that we get to bed before 10pm.

November 23, 2016
The next morning we pack up the car with food and head for Patagonia Lake. We’ve been there many times fishing but have never have we hiked the Sonoita Creek Trail. This path meanders along the Sonoita Creek which is one of the last, intact Fremont cottonwood-Goodding willow riparian forests in southern Arizona, a drainage between the Patagonia and Santa Rita Mountains. Because it is such a frequented destination for locals looking to catch a few fish, we have overlooked the importance of this spot ecologically, and never noticed that birdwatchers come here from all over the world.

The trees impressively tower over the trail, the cottonwoods topping at about 100 feet tall! More than 300 species of birds migrate, nest, and live in this critical habitat. By the way, I am keeping a list of birds. But, I’m not here just to check species off my list. My goal is to become more familiar with their life histories. My note-taking will be followed up with some research, most likely from books I will get from the Audubon Society bookstore in Tucson. Where do these birds all come from? Which ones live here year-round and which migrate from distant places? How many are reaching their northern or southern limits? What do they eat? Will I see a rare bird?

There is never enough time. But my takeaway from this hike is that next time I camp out here, it will not be just for fishing, but spending more time along this wonderful trail in different seasons. And I will need to hike this trail many, many more times. 

We drive back home, make another epic meal, consume another bottle of wine, and hit the sack.

November 24, 2016
God, did we almost move in? We didn’t take too much in the way of clothes, but it takes several trips to pack the car up with all the coolers of now mostly empty food containers. We do love to eat and drink.

There are many possible birding locales to hit on the way back to Tucson, but we finally decide to find Las Cienegas National Conservation Area, which is about 450,000 acres managed by a partnership between BLM and the nonprofit Empire Ranch Foundation. The landscape mostly consists of rolling grasslands, with some oak woodland, nestled at the western base of the Whetstone Mountains. We enter the preserve through the southern entrance off of route 82 in Sonoita.

The preserve is riddled with roads, and occasionally you find a sign that maps most of them. We tested our old beaten-up Subaru, prone to overheating (we think it’s a faulty tube feeding the cooler but we ain’t mechanics) and even navigated washed out “roads” we weren’t sure we’d even seen on the maps. At first we didn’t see too much in the way of wildlife and almost thought we had wasted some time and took unnecessary risks. I mean, there were lots of LBBs, and pretty amber-colored vistas. But was the stress worth it? There is no cell reception out here, and our car could easily break down, or get a flat. And the bottom of the car had been scraped more than a few times…what if we punctured our oil pan? The last road I was on that was this terrible was in the Sierra Madre of Sonora. 

But our willingness for adventure paid off when we spotted, of all things, black-tailed prairie dogs! We did little research before we ventured into this area, so this was a very welcome surprise and we did some research afterward. Once extremely common, this species was not seen in Arizona for about half a century before being reintroduced at the preserve in 2008. Humans totally exterminated the prairie dogs from Southern Arizona. The reintroduction was a collaborative effort between Game and Fish and the State Land Department, with volunteer support from Sky Island Alliance, the Animal Defense League of Arizona, and the Sierra Club. The reintroduced population was collected from a ranch in New Mexico, chosen based on their similar genetics to the population that previously existed in the state.

We marveled at them for some time, contemplating their social behaviors and watching them pop in and out of their holes. But we need to return to reality and head home soon, and we are still unsure of our choice to take such rugged roads in our old Subaru. So we continue on and finally get to some roads that don’t include literal piles of boulders to drive through.

But just before we get to route 83, which heads back to I10, and home, we bump into a few magnificent, monstrous cottonwoods, and happen upon Empire Ranch, which is now a historic landmark. We poke around the remains of the 22-room adobe and wood frame building, and come to find that it was a working ranch for about 140 years before a series of land exchanges put the property into public ownership under the administration of the Bureau of Land Management. Apparently, as I write this, the ranch is temporarily closed for needed repairs. 

Finally, we are back on paved roads. As we head back to Tucson, I realize this is one of the few times I’ve spent this much time in the area and not visited one winery (though we did make sure and drink local wine during our stay). While many Tucsonans are aware of the area because of wine, we shouldn’t overlook the value of the region’s biodiversity–especially in light of the proposed Rosemont Copper Mine set to blast a mile-wide, half-mile deep hole on 4,000 acres of the mountains which would draw 5,000 to 6,000 acre-feet of water every year from local aquifers (this threatens not only the local wildlife but local farms like the pecan orchards just west of the area.

Yes, reality. Back to the realm of human beings. If only more people spent more time with that which is ruled by nature, we all might behave a lot differently.



Jared "Kitty Katt" McKinley

Publisher, botanist, explorer, and proud desert dweller.