Category Archives: Wanderings

Our casita in Tucson

We stayed in a really cool place for the couple days we spent in Tucson; we found it on Airbnb and it was even pretty reasonably priced! I hate staying in run-of-the-mill places when visiting a new area; it’s so much more fun to stay in something more “typical” of a place. True, you don’t really know what you’re going to get, but oftentimes what you get is way more interesting! We’ve never ended up in someplace truly awful, but there have been a few places that were more “interesting” than expected.

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We stayed in the guesthouse which, together with the main house, was centered in a sort of circular design around this gorgeous pool. I’m generally not much of a pool person, but this was a welcome respite from the Tucson heat. We made good use of it – mostly in the late afternoons, but Jay also had a few early morning dips.

The landscaping on the property was super pretty; I took approximately three million photos of this particular saguaro cactus in order to capture it from every possible angle and in its best light. I don’t imagine ever getting tired of looking at saguaros.

This is the adobe guesthouse or “casita” where we stayed – it was SO small inside, but the architecture made up for it, somehow. I don’t think there was a straight line in the whole place – everything was curved! It was comfortable enough, but quirky – the bed was in the kitchen! The outdoor space made up for a lot, I guess.

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The walled-in area in the midground above surrounded a small table and patio where we spent time looking at the stars and where I sat up a couple nights by myself waiting for wildlife to show up. One night a coati climbed up in the tree next to the patio to have a look at me (!) and one night I heard and smelled (but never saw) what must have been a javelina! Lots of frogs and/or toads were attracted to the little waterfall that’s part of the pool; I never really got a look at them, but they made a racket every night.

This is the little seating area that we walked through to our front door from the parking area. We never sat out there as it wasn’t ever shady, but it was a good place to look for lizards! We had nice birds on the property, too!

This was another favorite view, another favorite cactus in the parking area. I guess it’s some sort of a barrel cactus that I was so tickled to see blooming. Pretty, right?

We chose this Airbnb property because it seemed to offer a central location and was close to Mt. Lemmon which we had planned to visit. It was a total win in my book: pretty, well-priced, mostly centrally located, and interesting. Have you used Airbnb? Any experiences to share or are you a “safe” traveler, preferring to stay in the tried-and-true?

Rock Corral Canyon

Our first full day in AZ started ridiculously early. We had a 45 minute drive to meet our birding group, so we were up well before the sun… at 3:45 am.Β  Ugh! Our group met at 5:15 and drove south from Tucson towards the Tumacacori Mountains and what was promised as a “secluded canyon birding tour”.

Rock Corral Canyon is fabulously remote. It’s reached via a short, and very rough dirt/boulder-strewn road that leads west from I-19 between Tucson and Nogales. Luckily, we were able to carpool with someone who had a high clearance 4WD vehicle and so were able to enjoy the views along the way. In the middle of the thorny-scrub and ocotillos, we spotted this Antelope Jackrabbit working very hard at being invisible.

Look at those legs! Look at those ears! Look at those eyes! Wowza that’s not any ordinary bunny rabbit… so cool to see this fella.

Not having grown up around mountains or the desert, I had no real idea of what birding in the canyons of Arizona would be like. My first impression was that it was much more green than I had expected, but I guess that even a small change in elevation gives way to a cooler and moister climate for plants to grown in. It being monsoon season meant that there was water flowing in the wash where we had to walk which also meant slow and careful stepping on the rocky trail.

We got one of Jay’s target birds here – can you see it?

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I’m not certain that I ever really got a nice look at this Canyon Wren because it was hiding in the shadows of the rock wall, but its song was lovely!

Photo by Roberto Gonzalez

Have a listen to the Canyon Wren’s song here at the Cornell Lab site.

We also saw a couple new tanagers there – Western and Hepatic – and quite a few Varied Buntings and some lifer vireos that I don’t even remember. Yikes! The most difficult thing about that first day was that everything was new – all the plants, animals, birds, sounds, etc. in a new environment were almost overwhelming – so I mostly tried to focus on enjoying myself in the unfamiliar surroundings. We spent a couple hours exploring until the flowing water and necessary climbing made us have to turn back… there was lemonade and cookies before we headed out to our next stop.

To be continued…

De colores: Tucson’s barrio viejo

I’m not really sure how other people go about planning vacations, but we tend to do it by the seat of our pants. This trip to Southeast Arizona was one that Jay and I had been vaguely talking about for years, but it had never gone beyond mulling it over as something to do “someday”. Out of the blue one Sunday afternoon, we just decided to go, bought the plane tickets, made lodging accommodations, and signed ourselves up for a couple birding field trips. Just like that.

I love this about us, love the spontaneity of it, but it also makes me a little nuts.

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I’m not a person who likes surprises really, but the anxiety involved in properly planning and anticipating a trip is almost worse, so I guess the way this trip happened was perfect. In the short time that I had to plan, I researched the Tucson area for things we might do to fill our time when we weren’t out looking for birds.

Arizona: Desert, cacti, mountains, and some canyons, grand and scenic, right?

I dug past the obvious and the first thing I came up with was a visit to the Barrio Viejo: Tucson’s “old neighborhood” – it’s filled with 19th century adobe homes and businesses that preserve the old architectural styles. Sadly, much of the northern parts of the neighborhood were destroyed in the 60’s and 70’s whenΒ  Mexican-American families were displaced as the area became gentrified.

Those that are left are well-tended and beautiful. So colorful and vibrant. Despite the ridiculous heat that first afternoon, I wanted to keep exploring because at every turn there was something delightful.

I have the sense, too, that the community is as vibrant on the inside as it appears from the outside. It felt like a neighborhood that loves where it lives and engages with its neighbors in (sometimes) surprising ways.

For example, the photo above – the Taco Cristo, one of a cast of saints appearing throughout the barrio. I’d sought this mural out after seeing a photo of it on Instagram. To find it painted on the side of a shed, in a dusty backyard next to a raspado stand, facing an alley, brought me an irreverent sense of joy .

Doesn’t Jesus holding a taco make you giggle, too?

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I loved the colors of this neighborhood and the way that each home distinguished itself from the one beside it. The photographer in me delighted in the contrasts of color and texture and the use (or lack) of garden plantings.

Who would think that cacti and other desert plants could be so beautiful and versatile?Β  I learned that cacti take on a range of shapes and colors, and their spines can capture the sunlight to make them glow. They somehow make you want to touch them, despite knowing better!

This street portrait of poet Jim Harrison was another pleasant surprise, also facing an alley for passerby to enjoy. Harrison wintered in nearby Patagonia, Arizona and is something of a model to me of how to enjoy the local culture.

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I wish we’d had more time to explore and more tolerance for the heat, but I think someday I’ll find myself back in the barrio, camera in hand.

Greetings from Tucson!

Tucson is a desert wrapped in mountain panoramas and approaching from the air gives no real hint of what a magical space it is. The Sonoran Desert that surrounds Tucson is the lushest desert in the southwest. It is also the hottest. We visited during the “rainy” monsoon season because it’s great for migrant hummingbirds and also plays host to many breeding birds during the “second spring” in the desert. We’d hoped to stargaze under its clear dark skies. We wanted to eat authentic Mexican food. We wanted to get up close and personal with the desert – and all its varied inhabitants – without getting hurt (i.e. rattlesnakes, scorpions, cacti, etc.)

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Our first stop was lunch at a local place in downtown Tucson where I had a life-changing plate of huevos rancheros. I think Jay ate enchiladas every single day thereafter, proclaiming each, “the best I’ve ever had!” The rest of that first afternoon was spent on a walking tour of the historic “barrio viejo” neighborhood photographing the colorful adobe homes. It was poor planning on my part to do that during the hottest part of the day, but a good lesson about the Tucson heat. 106 degrees in the shade has to be experienced, I guess, before it can be understood. We had the good fortune to be able to meet up for dinner with some NJ birding friends on the last night of their tour and enjoyed some mariachi music and more enchiladas! The birding world is small and sweet and filled with good friends, even in faraway places.

We spent four days around Tucson – did a couple field trips as part of the Southeast Arizona Birding Festival, visited the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum and wandered around on our own some before heading south for a couple days to a little town in the high desert close to the Mexican border. We spent a day exploring Bisbee and a day hunting for birds in the canyons of the Huachuca Mountains. Before we knew it, it was time to come home. πŸ™

It was a great vacation and I look forward to sharing some pictures and stories here.

Greetings from Tucsonmural by Victor Ving and friends at Miller’s Surplus (N Arizona Ave & E 7th St) – this mural was high on my list of Tucson street art and I had to go back a couple times to see and photograph it because there was always a van or bus parked in front of it.

Snowy

snowyConsidering all the time I’ve spent in Florida the last couple years, you’d think I’d have seen a snowy plover by now, right? Well, I FINALLY got my life snowy at the end of last year when we spent Christmastime at Cape San Blas on the Gulf Coast of Florida.

Cape San Blas is one of my favorite places on the “forgotten coast” – not too many people, no condos or hotels, and a 30 minute drive to a decent restaurant or grocery store. My kind of place!

I very nearly stumbled over this bird! It was so totally camouflaged in its winter plumage (and so tame!) that, were it not for its movement, I never would have seen it. I wonder how many others I’ve stumbled past without ever seeing…

You might notice in my photo that the bird is banded – only one leg is visible – I found out that this bird is a regular winter resident at St. Joseph’s State Park on Cape San Blas, but that it breeds elsewhere.

Snowies are sweet birds – small and plain compared to the piping plovers I know so well – but pretty similar in their habits. And like other Florida birds, exceptionally tame. I wonder why that is?

Just shooting

IMG_5639Since being back in Atlanta, I’ve gone out with a couple local photography groups to participate in meet-up events; I’m doing this to meet new people and hopefully find new, interesting places for photography, but also to maybe learn some proper photography techniques.

We went a couple weeks ago to photograph an abandoned Astroturf factory and later in the day visited Howard Finster’s Paradise Gardens. The gardens are a dizzying, dazzling maze of sculptural monuments, embellished outbuildings, found-object assemblages, and elaborately painted signs, all interconnected by a series of inlaid concrete walkways. I visited there a couple years ago and was happy to find the gardens in better shape than last time. There’s even a new visitor’s center (and a much expanded “gift shop”). It’s an interesting place and worth a visit if you’re in the area or have a particular interest in visionary or “outsider” art. This summer while in NJ, we took a day trip to Philly and visited the Philadelphia Magic Gardens, which have a similar feel, but on a much crazier scale.

At any rate, what I enjoy most about meeting and shooting with other photographers is the opportunity to see how each of us approaches photography differently; we all share photos on Instagram (via a common hashtag) and it’s really interesting to see the various perspectives and points of view of others in the group. We’re a diverse bunch, with varying skill levels from novice to professional. If you’re interested (and on IG) check us out with #atlantaurbanphotowalkers.

How to: play hide and seek

Hide and Seek (beachnesting bird version) is a game where threatened and endangered chicks attempt to conceal their location in order to grow up and survive. It’s pretty basic, but various challenges have arisen throughout the years making the game more difficult. All you need to play are a few beachnesting friends and some hiding and spying skills. This game is a great way for chicks to practice real-world survival skills!

IMG_0941Step one: find a suitable location

An outdoor location near the coast works best and it should have plenty of sand and pebbles or clam shells. It will be necessary to set boundaries for hiding or you will have chicks running off to too many far-off locations. It’s not called Run a Mile and Go Seek!

  • If you’re playing with your parents around, make sure they know what’s going on. They may not want you hiding in the driftwood at the wrack line, under the lifeguard stand, or too close to the water.
  • Try to play in different places every time. If you play every game in the same spot, then the birds who play “it” (predators) will remember the good places and search there first.

IMG_1033Step two: select the players and set down the rules

  • If you have players of different ages, take this into consideration. Younger chicks can fit more places, but they sometimes choose less-than-brilliant places to hide and don’t have the longest of attention spans.
  • If you do not set down rules, you will have chicks running to places that shouldn’t be hidden in — either unhatched eggs end up breaking or another pair’s territory gets intruded upon — or someone gets eaten by a laughing gull.
  • Make sure everyone stays safe. You don’t want your friends running out in front of loose dogs or hiding beneath a fish crow’s perch.

IMG_0992Step three: choose someone to be “it”

  • Working out who is “It” can be done a variety of ways, for instance: the youngest chick might be “It” first; or the chick who is closest to fledging can be “it” first; or use an elimination word game, such as “One Potato, Two Potato” or similar game. Or just pick a number out of a hat, and #1 is “It”.

IMG_1112When playing with chicks, an adult is often a good person to be “it”

  • If one chick is older than the rest, they might make a natural “It.” Adult birds have longer attention spans and can think outside of the box better than their offspring.

IMG_0713Step four: start counting out loud

  • Once the bird who will be “It” has been chosen, he or she closes his or her eyes and begins counting out loud to a decided number at a steady pace. Or they could say a rhyme or sing a song. Anything that kills some time so everyone else can go hide!
  • Make sure there’s no cheating! The bird who is “It” needs to have their eyes closed, wings over their eyes, and preferably facing the water. No peeking!

IMG_0721Step five: start hiding!

  • All of the chicks who are not “It” should run off and quietly hide from the bird who is counting. The bird who is “It” is not allowed to peek at the birds hiding from him or her. Make sure you’re quiet as you’re hiding or “It” can use his or her ears to tell the general direction you went.

IMG_0619Once you find your hiding spot, be silent and still

  • You don’t want to give yourself up once you’re hidden! . If you’re noisy, even the best hiding spot won’t conceal you.
  • Remember the goal is to be invisible!

IMG_1000When a young chick is “it”, don’t hide too well…

LETE chick copyor the game can get too frustrating for them

  • The younger you are, the more frustrated you could get with other chicks who are really good hiders.

IMG_4083Step six: keep your eyes open and start searching!

  • Once the bird who is “It” has finished counting, he or she yells “Ready or not, here I come!” At this point, they must try to find all of the other chicks who have hidden. Be sure to look with your eyes and listen with your ears!
  • If you are hiding and “It” is close to discovering you, move deftly. Crawling or slithering are the best options. However, if it is too late, be still and silent. The “It” can actually overlook you and go away.
  • The chicks who are hiding can move or switch hiding places, if they so choose. It’s a good idea to change positions and go hide in a place the seeker has already looked. That’s called a survival strategy.

Good luck and have fun!

Good vibrations

Your paradigm of an alligator, if you happen to have one, is likely of a large, aquatic, mostly solitary reptile, according to a statistic I just made up.

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If you’re at all like me, you also think they’re kinda scary, when you remember to think of them at all.Β  As someone who’s only just learning about alligators, I have to constantly remind myself of the possibility of an alligator whenever I kneel down at the edge of a pond or marsh here in the Southeast.

The Georgia coast and Florida are rich in ‘gators. There are large gators and baby-sized gators; gators who sun themselves and camouflaged gators and midnight-black gators; puddle gators and swamp gators and stealthy, silent-as-death gators; smiling, don’t-you-want-to-pet-me gators and American Coot-eating gators; and just this past weekend at St. Marks NWR, I can add to my list: bellowing gators; and… well, very many gators.

Alligators aren’t an everyday worry for me here in the city, so a lot of the year is pretty shy on them. But when we travel south looking for ducks here for the winter, the gators make their presence known, taking up residence on banks and logs, near salt water and brackish, flowing and still. They are one of my very favorite surprises of living in the South, though it takes a certain amount of caution to enjoy them. If you want to be safe, loving alligators from a distance is a good place to start.

And that bellowing sound they make… the closest thing I can liken it to is a motorboat that’s slow to start.

Ever heard it?

Pelican portraits

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I give myself away as a tourist and a Yankee anytime there’s a pelican about. I can not resist them or their prehistoric goofiness.

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They’re somehow both stately and silly… and seem to know that they improve any view.

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Pelican, piling, old tire.

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I know they’re beggars, but how can anyone resist?

pelican2Can’t you just hear him begging… “Please take my photo. You need at least a thousand more.Β  A thousand more photos of me!”

The Brown Pelicans of Cedar Key were very well documented during my time there. I’m thinking of producing a wall calendar.

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What bird can’t you resist a photo of?