Sycamore Canyon 8-8-2008
I took a drive out to Sycamore Canyon yesterday. I have been wanting to do this for days. Finally I was free after dropping the grandson at school and I headed south on Houghton Rd. I stop at the Rita Ranch Fry’s to buy a coffee and a bag of Smartfood popcorn, but as soon as I park the car and open my door I hear a Verdin calling. Next thing you know I am counting birds in the parking lot! This used to be my regular stomping grounds when I lived in corona de Tucson 15 miles south of here. As I walk inside I think to myself, I rarely come here now and soon I will not come here at all. After making my purchases I get back in the car and drive around the parking lot just to see if there are any more birds to count before I get back on the road.
I always like the drive up to Corona de Tucson. The road used to be a country road, narrow and quiet. But now as I head south I see a new Houghton Town Center sign at the junction of Old Vail Road and Houghton. Houghton Town Center? Are they creating a new town here called Houghton? There is already a fast food Chinese place on the corner and down over the hillside yet another Walmart has risen from the dust of the desert. The once wild area has been scraped clean of all vegetation and massive asphalt parking lots have been laid out for more stores and restaurants to go in. I suppose it is not so bad hear because it is already near an industrial area and the highway, but I still now that birds and wildlife have been displaced to make room for this “progress.” I am sure the people who live nearby will be thankful they do not have to drive as far to get to Walmart!
I drive up over the train tracks, cross the highway, and continue my way south. As I drive I am scanning the utility poles for Red-tailed hawks. While I used to see them all along Houghton road, I only see one until I pass the Pima County Fairgrounds. Between Dawn Road and Sahuarita Road I spot three individual hawks on the sides of the road, along with a common Raven, a Phainopepla and a pair of cactus wrens and a pair of Red-shafted Northern Flickers! But there is yet another change since I lived out here before: Not only have they put two new schools in on the west side of Houghton, I also notice the increase in traffic in both directions as I drive. I want to stop and count more birds, but there are at least five cars behind me, and the one directly behind me looks like it might be a cop, so I keep on driving.
When I reach the intersection I am trying to decide if I should go straight or turn right. I want to shake this car on my tail. I decide to turn right. It follows me. I am hoping that it will go straight when I turn onto South Harrison Road, the Road that leads to Sycamore Canyon. I watch in my rearview mirror. It does not turn on its turn signal so I turn on mine and pull into the turning lane. So does the white car with the large antenna behind me.
Now I am heading uphill towards Sycamore Canyon but I want to turn onto a dead end road to count birds. With the white car still on my tail, I decide to turn left onto Comino del Toro. I figure I do not want to be alone on a dead end road if this person is following me. I look again to see if the driver behind me has his blinker on. He does not. We are very near the turn, so I turn mine on and slow down. He does the same! Now my heart is beating faster as I make the turn. I also notice a phainopepla and a mourning dove up on the wires. My car crosses the cattle guard and I am starting to think of what my strategy should be if this vehicle continues to follow me. I decide I will cross Comino del Toro and head for the Road Runner Market back down on the junction of Houghton and Sahuarita Road when suddenly the white car makes a right turn into one of the neighborhoods! Finally! I pull off onto a parallel street which is marked out for more housing but hasn’t been developed yet and take a deep breath, but not for long.
Around me now is open desert scrub with ocotillo, mesquite, prickly pear and various other plants rising from the desert. On a nearby cholla I see a Curve-billed thrasher perched. Poking around on the ground and in the bushes and cacti are a couple of cactus wrens. A phainopepla flits about catching insects, and on another nearby bush a Rufous-winged sparrow calls! Bingo! This is one of the species I was hoping to see while out here! It is species number 86 for my 2014 Year List and my Big January List! However, as I sit here I remember how this place used to look.
To the north of my position, which is down slope, it used to be open desert grassland. I would often see Western kingbirds here in summer, and it was a great place to find sparrows in winter. Various Raptors used to course over the slopes, including red-tailed and Swainson’s hawks, kestrels and northern harriers, and once in a while a Peregrine Falcon. Now all that is gone, filled in by suburbia. Hundreds of new homes have been built cheek to jowl with more lots being sold every day. The spot where I am parked has ornate iron fencing alongside it with new road entrances cut out ready to tear up the remaining desert and put in even more housing. These once rich slopes full of wildlife are being denuded more and more each year. Soon the very reason that people move out here will be destroyed. While some wildlife that is able to adapt will remain, I know that much of it is gone already, and it makes me sad.
I continue along Comino del Toro and find a few more birds alongside the road. A Say’s Phoebe makes a sortie into the sky and returns to its perch. At the east end of Comino del Toro a kestrel looks down at me from atop a utility pole with dark round eyes. It appears to look straight at me and I can see the gleam in its moist eye as it looks over its shoulder. It is so cute to me, yet it too, looks sad. I turn my car around and head back towards Sycamore Canyon. As soon as I turn left, I turn left again. I am now officially in Sycamore Canyon. At this point Harrison Road turns left and dead ends, while to continue straight on would now be Sycamore Leaf Road. I like to pull off onto this dead end and park to count birds. There is open desert around me and a wash to the north. No one comes down this road, so I am usually not disturbed, but I know I can usually see some good birds here on this short two-tenths of a mile stretch. There are plans to eventually run this road up the mountainside where I suppose even more houses will go in, but first they need to fill in all the rest of the open space they have already destroyed below.
As I get out of the car I start putting on my binoculars and getting my camera ready. I wore long pants thinking it would be a bit chilly out here, but the sun is quickly warming this place and I shed my extra layers of shirts and remain with only one long-sleeved one on. I brought along a sleeveless shirt just in case and I am starting to think I will need it! But right now I just want to count the birds. I am looking and hoping for more sparrows here, but I am seeing dozens of Mourning Doves as well as a few House Finches.
Gila woodpeckers are calling, as are Curve-billed thrashers and Cactus wrens. Finally I see and hear a few Black-throated sparrows, and then I find a pair of Canyon Towhees. A bit farther down the road a covey of quail moves slowly through desert making soft almost cooing noises as they move. I can tell they are wondering if I am a threat, but I move slowly as well and make no moves towards them and they slip away into the desert.
I am soon distracted from the quail when a few White-crowned Sparrows hop up onto a nearby Palo Verde tree. These are the Gambel’s subspecies as they do not have the black lores of the Mountain subspecies. Most have the crisp black and white striped heads, but a few have the tan striped heads of first year sparrows. I watch them for a few moments, knowing that it will be more rare to see them on the east coast, then continue on my way, but I am nearing the main road now where vehicles continue to move up and down the road. All this time I have been assaulted by the constant rumble and fume belching noise of heavy machinery across the street. I do not know what is going on over there but every time one of the heavy pieces of equipment backs up it makes that loud “beep! Beep! Beep!” that everyone is familiar with. The soft twitterings of Lesser Goldfinches are all but lost in the noise as I turn and head back toward my car.
I think that I have seen all the birds I will see here on this little side road, but then I find small Costa's hummingbird pumping its tail as it pokes around the twigs and branches of a nearby tree. While the male of this species can look quite ferocious for its size, the female has a sweet look to her face. She is so tiny! I am constantly amazed by these little brilliant birds! Costa’s hummingbirds love these desert slopes and I used to get 12 to 14 of them at one time at my feeders during the winter when I lived here. I wonder how many I would see if I still lived here now.
It is now after 10:30 a.m. and my bladder is warning me I need a restroom break. My other purpose for coming out here was to say good-bye to my friend, Sherri, so I decide now is the time to visit her and take care of both needs at once! I spend over two hours with my friend and though we sat outside the entire time facing the open desert I only counted a couple of a ravens, a Red-tailed hawk, yet another Costa’s Hummingbird, a Verdin, a couple of Mourning Doves and we hear a few Gambel’s Quail moving through the desert below us. It is nearly 1 pm when I leave and head for the Sycamore Canyon Wash.
Sycamore Canyon Wash is a holds a special place in my heart. It was here that I first started eBirding. It is here that I first honed my skills and learned about desert life. I used to love my walks up the desert wash and I would see so many birds! I have even found a Gila Monster here while hiking years ago. I also almost stepped on a rattlesnake once while hiking here with my husband, Gus, on International Migratory Bird day in May. That’s when I learned to stay out of the wash during spring and summer!
While at Sheri’s house I changed out of my long-sleeve shirt and into my tank top. Now I slather my arms with sun block before heading off into the desert. As I am making my preparations I am watching a Cactus Wren and then a Black-tailed gnatcatcher as they both move through the cholla cactus and mesquite and acacia around me. I am remembering all the birds I have seen in this area before and hoping I will see them yet again. I soon heard the piercing call of a Gilded flicker ring over the wash, but once I head in that direction I am unable to locate the bird. I know I have seen Pyrrhuloxias and rock wrens here before, but today there is only quiet. The gravel path crunches beneath my feet as I head uphill. The warm sun blazes down on me if I stop but if I stay moving it’s not so bad. Once in awhile a slight breeze tease me as if wafts across my face and arms. I have my water bottle swinging at my side just in case.
As I move up the gravel road that runs alongside the wash I am scanning both sides for birds. I see a Curve-billed thrasher down below and watch a Gila woodpecker as it clings to its hole in a Saguaro. I know I will miss these plants and the uniqueness of the Sonoran Desert, but I feel a change has happened in my heart and I keep thinking of the Atlantic coast and the blue water and all the birds I will see there. Finally I reach the spot when the trail divides and I head down into the wash itself.
I intend to walk back down the wash to my car, but as I near the cliff base I use to walk along I can’t help turn south and head up a short distance. Besides, I hear some sort of bird calling and I want to see what it is. As I turn, suddenly a Great Horned Owl takes silent flight from its hidden roost in a twisted mesquite tree. It flies low and ponderously up the wash before me and all I see is its gray-brown back and pointed wings as it flies. Even from this angel I can see the round head and no neck of this magnificent bird! I had no idea it was there until it flew.
I only walk another tenth of a mile before turning back, but this little detour paid off with the owl and a Bewick’s Wren I found scampering along a tree trunk. I looked farther up the wash where it all use to be wild, but now there are large “Estate Homes” overhanging the canyon walls and cluttering up the view. I walked back west towards my car in the wash.
The iron-oxide cliffs rise above me on either side with the exposed roots of mesquite trees twisting like large varicose veins from the edges. Still, it is so silent here! I know some of that has to do with the time of day and the time of year, but I can’t help thinking I used to see more birds here. I have not seen even one Phainopepla in the wash, and I know I used to see one here regularly in winter.
I can feel that I am sad and discouraged by this visit. I guess I really did come to say Good-bye. I thought that I would feel some sense of regret or longing, but I don’t. I guess I really am ready to move on. I am so happy for the memories of my time here back in 2007 to 2010. Those were the good years when things were still raw and undeveloped. Now it has all changed, but so have I, and I want something different now I think.
I think driving out here yesterday helped me make peace with this move. I don’t feel restless anymore. Seeing the changes in Corona de Tucson and Sycamore Canyon helped me let go of that place. I did leave with a sense of loss, not so much for myself, but for what was. When I first moved there I thought the idea the developer had was good, of trying to preserve the land and have man live in harmony with nature, but at the moment it seems the development has gone too far. Sycamore Canyon is not responsible for all of the development. The lower slopes have been developed by others. It is too bad that someone did not see the value in saving what used to be pasture and wild lands. I wish the cows were still grazing where the new neighborhoods now stand! When I got home last night, I wrote the following poem: