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If you've enjoyed reading about my experiences in Tanzania here, check out the new blog I've started on Wordpress as of November, 2017. It's called "Back to Tanzania" and you can read it here. All new adventures in Tanzania from an older, wiser, more experienced expat.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Birdwatchers

I love wandering aimlessly, especially in a place I haven't seen before. Wandering with a specific aim can be good, too, especially if you're open to getting sidetracked.

A few weeks ago, I missed what sounds like an amazing festival, Wings over Willcox, which celebrates the huge flocks of sandhill cranes that spend the winter near the little town of Willcox, Arizona. I love sandhill cranes. I used to see them every summer when I lived in Logan, Utah. I've migrated to southern Arizona to escape the cold weather, just like the cranes. We're like kindred spirits, so of course I wanted to see them here in their winter habitat.

My friends Alice and Alice and Sue and I headed southeast from Tucson in late January to seek out the cranes. Alice B., who grew up in Tucson and has an encyclopedic knowledge of fun outdoor activities in the area, suggested we go to to Whitewater Draw, a state wildlife area, because we might be able to get closer to the birds than at Willcox. Our route would pass through Benson and Bisbee and a whole lot of desolate tan desert.

As we cruised into the town of Benson, Alice R. said, "There's an awesome used book store in Benson." (I met her at a book club.) I said, "I need to find a bathroom." To which Alice R. replied, "There's a bathroom in the book store." So we pulled over and took a break to shop for books.

 Alice was right--it was awesome! We all bought a few books. Supporting small business...

You can tell you're in Southern Arizona by the murals of Sonoran desert vegetation!

On to Bisbee! Bisbee's an old mining town turned funky Old West tourist attraction. We immediately got distracted by a guy selling gourmet fair trade coffee at a sidewalk booth-not because of the coffee, but because he had the cutest puppy with him! But we bought some coffee, too.

 Then it was just a few more steps into a funky little vegan cafe. I was hungry from buying books, and convinced Sue and the Alices we should eat before hiking.

Sue remembered a trail up a hill to visit the large cross visible from parts of town. We wandered the streets, asking a few of the funky friendly locals where to find the trail. At the uphill edge of town, the street narrowed and steepened. I marveled at the courage of the locals who owned these little houses tucked into the steep hillsides, held up by concrete and rock retaining walls, seemingly ready to slide, but all looking as if they'd been there for a hundred years.

A foot trail took us up a hill covered in dry golden grass.

 We were tracing the history of religion, in a way, because before we got to the cross, we entered this little Buddhist shrine off to the side of the trail. And maybe that cow on the left makes it a Hindu shrine, too?

At the top of the hill--this must be the cross we saw from town...

 ...part of a Catholic shrine, with a Mexican flavor. It was built around 1980 by a local family, from bricks, stones, and cement.

 Below the cross, petroglyph-style designs in paint. Different people leaving different messages and intentions.

Historic Bisbee down below.

 One last funky Bisbee attraction--a Bisbee Art Car. Sue says it's somewhat of a tradition around Bisbee.

 Contrary to what you read in the news, there must be some liberals here in Arizona!

This was so weird, I Googled it to see if it really is a "thing," and it is. You can click here to see pictures of several Bisbee Art Cars in the "Bisbee Blog."

From the ridiculous to the was late afternoon by now, and time for the sandhill cranes to fly in from the fields where they feed to congregate in the marshes of the Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area. The two Alices sat in front and navigated us through a network of narrow roads, looking for that elusive desert marsh (maintained by the Arizona Game and Fish Department through a series of ditches). Sue and I were in the back. She made the mistake of telling us she'd once dated a man who lived in this area. So, while the Alices looked for the correct turn, I looked for the worst-looking shacks and mobile homes in the desert and asked Sue, "Is that his house? Is that his house?" After awhile, Alice R. got distracted from the map and started saying, "What about that one? Is that his house?" Lucky for Sue, it didn't take long to find the birds...

 ...and we were captivated. No attention left for teasing Sue!

Thousands of cranes waded in the shallow water, flapped their wings and jockeyed for position, flew in from somewhere and passed over our heads in pairs and threes and v's. And made a lot of noise! They have a loud, ratcheting bugle of a call which wove in and out and around the marsh. We stayed there with the birds for a couple of hours, in the cold air (but not that cold for January!) and yellow afternoon light. Beautiful beautiful beautiful!

We met two older men camped out on the boardwalk with lawn chairs and spotting scopes on tripods. They pointed out to us a coyote in an adjacent meadow. It was hunting rodents, jumping straight up into the air, and landing on front paws, ensnaring dinner. (Sorry, no photo of that! Too much tall grass and dim light.)

They told us they'd been there for five hours, watching the cranes. Then one of their wives walked up and asked how much longer. "Two hours, at least until dark," was the answer. She got the truck keys, so that she and the other guy's wife could sit inside the truck, out of the cold wind.

Other birds we saw (but did not love quite as much as we loved the cranes) included...

 ...this Northern Harrier hawk cruising around looking for dinner...

 ...perhaps a nice Northern Shoveler duck rendered defenseless by its comic feeding posture...

American Bittern.

 But, twilight approached, and it was time to head home.

Back at the parking lot, we saw the two wives sitting in the truck. It was a brand new really nice truck, but still. We all made some comments (not to them--the windows were rolled up against the wind) asking why do women spend time watching their men pursue their sports and hobbies, but it never goes the other way--no bored men on the sidelines watching their wives ice skate or tie quilts. We all thought once the ladies got the truck keys, they should have headed for Bisbee and had cocktails inside a warm bar and come back to pick up the husbands later.

And we headed back to Tucson, through a Border Patrol checkpoint where the agents were in a good mood and told us a couple of jokes and sent us on our way north.


  1. So many amazing sights and such beautiful shots!

    1. Thank you! The bird refuge is really amazing--so many big birds all gathered in one spot