Tag Archives: Cochise County

Sandhills on My Horizon

Each spring and fall, sandhill cranes migrate over our home on the west slope of the Sierra.  Like so many of my friends and neighbors, I run outside to hear their calls and witness their grace.  So, imagine my delight on vacation here in Abbey  Country, when my friends Sheri Williamson and Tom Wood, who run the Southeastern Arizona Bird Observatory, asked me if I’d like to take a drive and see sandhills in their “loafing place”–Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area near the Mexican border in Cochise County, Arizona. I met up with them on a cold, clear day in Bisbee. Snow had dusted the town the night before.

The cranes leave this loafing area around dawn to go feed miles away.  Here, we can see them on the distant horizon as they return to rest and digest their meal.

The cranes leave this loafing area around dawn to go feed miles away. Here, we can see them on the distant horizon as they return to rest and digest their meal.

The Whitewater Draw is in a riverless basin. The water is accumulated rain water from  the last monsoon season. The cranes bathe in it and use the water to soften the corn in their crops--corn they gleaned earlier in the day over 10 miles away.

The Whitewater Draw is in a riverless basin. The water is accumulated rain water from the last monsoon season. The cranes bathe in it and use the water to soften the corn in their crops–corn they gleaned earlier in the day over 10 miles away.

The viewing deck is quite a distance from the cranes; the only close up view is with a scope.  Here's my attempt to take a photo through the scope.  Not elegant, but at least you can get an idea of what they look like up close.

The viewing deck is quite a distance from the cranes; the only close up view is with a scope. Here’s my attempt to take a photo through the scope. Not elegant, but at least you can get an idea of what they look like up close.

Each day, dozens of people come to visit the cranes, ducks, geese, falcons, hawks, and doves that frequent the Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area.  Here, Sheri and Tom adjust their scope for this young birdwatcher.

Each day, dozens of people come to visit the cranes, ducks, geese, falcons, hawks, and doves that frequent the Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area. Here, Sheri and Tom adjust their scope for this young birdwatcher.

Through her work at Southeastern Arizona Bird Observatory, Sheri teaches hundreds of children each year.

Through her work at Southeastern Arizona Bird Observatory, Sheri teaches hundreds of children each year.

The cranes rest and digest near the ducks, with whom they live in harmony. The crane's most significant predator is the eagle.

The cranes rest and digest near the ducks, with whom they live in harmony. The crane’s most significant predator is the eagle.

Noon approaches and more birdwatchers arrive. Sheri spontaneously fields questions and offers fascinating bits of information.  For instance, within the huge flocks, the sandhills travel in family pods of three or four birds. Sadly, if a youngster is orphaned, he or she will not be adopted by other adults.

Noon approaches and more birdwatchers arrive. Sheri spontaneously fields questions and offers fascinating bits of information. For instance, within the huge flocks, the sandhills travel in family pods of three or four birds. Sadly, if a youngster is orphaned, he or she will not be adopted by other adults.

Tom explains to fellow birdwatchers about the daily migration of the cranes from the cornfield--their feeding place--to Whitewater Draw--their loafing area.

Tom explains to fellow birdwatchers about the daily migration of the cranes from the cornfield–their feeding place–to Whitewater Draw–their loafing area.

More and more cranes kept arriving.  Tom estimated there were about 10,000 cranes on the ground and in the air. Each crane consumes a pound of corn a day.

More and more cranes kept arriving. Tom estimated there were about 10,000 cranes on the ground and in the air. Each crane consumes a pound of corn a day.

The cranes will feed and loaf in Cochise County until midwinter, when they will begin their migrations. Some will travel as far as Siberia.  These aren't the cranes that pass over my house in the Sierra, Tom says.  Those sandhills winter in California's central valley.

The cranes will feed and loaf in Cochise County until midwinter, when they will begin their migrations. Some will travel as far as Siberia. These aren’t the cranes that pass over my house in the Sierra, Tom says. Those sandhills winter in California’s central valley.

Reluctantly we left Whitewater Draw a bit after noon, stopping on the way to glimpse some doves camouflaged in the brush, then to attempt to photograph elusive Merlins and hawks. “We’ll have to come back tomorrow,” Sheri said to Tom, “for a hawk stalk.” For twenty five years they have been visiting here, first when they were stewards of the Ramsey Canyon Nature Preserve, and now as administrators of the Southeastern Arizona Bird Observatory–SABO. For more information about their work, or to make a contribution to SABO, visit them at http://www.sabo.org.

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Filed under Abbey Country, photographs

Riding the Wind

“I’m sure the way to enjoy life is to live in obscurity with frequent escapades” –Freya Stark, late 19th Century explorer

Cochise County: May 12, 2012

I arrived at the airport near my mom’s house with Tony the Amazing Tour Guide and Charles, another person who wanted to fly that day. I was a little nervous. I’ve been in many small planes and I love flying in general, but I’d never been in a glider before. I’d never flown in the air without benefit of the almighty engine.

The Sierra Vista airport in Cochise County is the most versatile airport in the country, my sources say. It is utilized by military, civilians, border patrol, and fire fighters.

The airport was quiet this Saturday, and we quickly found John, one of the pilots and partners in Southern Arizona Flight Services. His partner, George, was bringing the plane around.

John and George’s motorized glider sits on the tarmac at Libby Field–“Libby” to those who know it on a first name basis.

Despite the monsoon-like storm a couple days earlier, the May day was already hot. It was a little after noon as Charles prepared for his flght.

Charles, left, gets the 411 on the glider ride from George and John (right).

When Tony told me that George had been flying for 50 years, and John for 40, I had to admit the word geriatric came to mind. I was quickly humbled. Whatever ages these gentlemen are, it is the new 50.

George was a pilot in the army before he retired and started Southern Arizona Flight Services about fifteen years ago. Here, he quickly pulls the hatch down and starts the engine.

When Tony first told me about the glider ride, I pictured a hang glider and immediately thought: My mom will freak out! Many people first conceptualize a hang glider, Tony and John both told me. John reminded me that the typical glider is towed by a small engine aircraft, then released in mid air for the float down. But Libby won’t allow operation of that kind of glider, so they went with this Austrian motorized machine. The pilot (George today) will cut the engine at about 12,000 feet.

Charles (left) and George ready for the taxi out.

This baby is all wing.

Charles and George were gone from our landscape in a moment, audible only through the occasional radio transmissions that came through John’s walkie talkie while we waited and chatted about Southern Arizona Flight Services. In addition to helping out the military by shadowing its UAVs, the two entrepreneurs run a burial operation called Final Flight, complete with a CDU (Cremains Dispersal Unit) that George designed and the FAA approved. John, unlike George, came from a civilian background; he was a commercial pilot for decades before retiring. He’s also Coast Guard certified and in his spare time, if he’s not SCUBA diving, is a tennis umpire for the the professional circuit. (He’s officiated over John McEnroe’s games.) When I asked John why he and George chose to invest in the motorized glider when it’s a small, fiscally insignificant portion of their business, he replied without blinking. “For the love of it,” he said. “To share with people the joy of silent flight.”

Charles landed safely and I took his seat, remembering the thrill of being in a small plane, and thinking, as I inevitably do in such situations, about perceived risk.

George’s wings reminded me of my father’s. It’s fascinating to find put your life in the hands of a complete stranger.

I got the feeling that George could fly all day every day and still have this smile on his face.

George started the engine and the propeller quickly became a blurry circle directly ahead. It was noisy, hot, bumpy, and exciting.

leaving the tarmac for the hazy desert sky

We flew over the outskirts of Fort Huachuca and the town of Sierra Vista.

We traveled toward the Mexican border and the Huachuca Mountains.

9,500 feet and climbing

We almost have the altitude we need as we approach the Huachucas.

The bits of verdant green on these high desert mountains were encouraged by the early monsoon three days before.

Bird’s eye view: The Huachucas

The desert as it wanders into Mexico

We climbed and climbed, glimpsed the border and the Coronado National Monument as we peeked over the Huachucas. I watched the altimeter complete circle after circle with its two hands–like a clock gone mad. I wondered how it would feel in my body when George cut the engine.

12,500 feet. it’s time.

George pulls down on the throttle. The engine stops, but the sound of the wind is almost as strong. The propeller freezes and I stare at it whimsically through the windshield. It’s a strange, exhilarating feeling.

There we were, hovering over the mountains I love, a tiny plane with two people, riding the wind.

The propeller rests as we begin our very gradual descent over the Huachucas.

The closer we nestled into the land, the more I felt that impatient feeling I remember from my childhood. I did not want this to end. I wanted to hover above those mountains and never come out.

Before I knew it, we could see Sierra Vista and the tarmac. George spoke to John over the radio: a bunch of numbers and of course “Libby”.

We glide in for the landing.

John and Tony watch us taxi in. Another glider ride; another enthusiastic passenger.

Although my glider flight lasted about an hour, the afterglow lingered for days. It is a privilege to see our world from a different perspective. A few years ago my friend Holger took Mr. Lightcap and me up in his Cessna. It was mid winter and we asked him to fly us over our house and then up into the high country we love so much. We saw Lake Faucherie snowed over, Jackson’s Meadow a luxurious white canvas, sleeping deeply. Then, here in Abbey Country, I went inside the hills that protect Kartchner Caverns, and said as I still often do, that I will never look at a hill or mountainside the same way again. “It pleases me, loving rivers,” Raymond Carver said, but it is the mountain that is my greatest lover, and seeing one from the sky or from the inside out is beyond breathtaking for me. The morning after my glider ride I enjoyed my usual sunrise walk, complete with a view of the Huachuca Mountains. As I gazed up at them I felt a deeper kinship, a kinship that came from riding the wind.

The Huachuca Mountains on my sunrise walk.

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Filed under Abbey Country, Back Yard Days, photographs

New Frontiers: Kartchner Caverns

Cochise County, Arizona

Whenever I visit my mother in Abbey Country, I try to take her to someplace she’s never been before. My mom is over 90 now, a world traveler who still lives alone with relative autonomy. She’s buried a husband, son, and grandson. She is as wise as her years. There isn’t a lot she hasn’t seen. When my dad was alive, they traveled to many places near their southern Arizona home, so finding something new can be a challenge. Amazingly, she’d never been to Kartchner Caverns, a state park about 20 minutes from her house. I went there a few years ago with my husband and sons, so I already knew how indescribably special it is. Not even photographs can express the cavern’s intricacy and majesty. I figured the walk would be too much for her, half a mile in dim light, so we borrowed a wheel chair at the front desk, hopped on the tram, and I wheeled her into the side of a very ordinary looking little mountain.

Cavers Gary Tenen and Randy Tufts discovered the caves in 1974 and kept them a secret so they wouldn’t get trashed by idiotic people, and thank goodness they did. Ranger Dave, who led our tour, said that men walked on the moon before setting foot in this natural cathedral. Dave, who seems to be a reincarnation of Mark Twain (who himself was a big fan of stalactites and stalagmites) was quite solicitous toward my mom, making sure she could see clearly from her perch in the chair. Her enthusiasm got the better of her several times, and she practically leapt from her seat, holding the rail and staring at the unique and bizarre formations that always look more to me like beeswax than millennia of rock, water, and nature’s chemistry. Wheeling her up and down the ramps, looking down at her soft grey curls and delicate shoulders, I felt a different kind of love for her than I’ve ever felt for anyone. It is not exactly a direct inversion, when the child begins to care for the parent. It is a sort of poetic payback, a retributive act that is in its own way romantic and warm. Pete, Ranger Dave’s assistant, kept a special eye on us, locking the chair for me when we stopped on inclines, offering his own brand of humor in his deep baritone. “What’s the difference between a cave and a cavern? A cavern has a gift shop.” Mom didn’t miss one joke, one soda straw formation or trippy “bacon strip”, or the deeply spiritual tone of the hidden world of Kartchner.

When Tenen and Tufts set out to keep their secret, they gave the caves the code name Xanadu. The most magnifcent formation in the Throne Room they named Kubla Kahn. There are benches in front of this formation, and the tour ends here with a light show, complete with music. I sat next to her, she in the chair, I on the bench, in perfect silence. I thought of all the Masses she’d taken me to, then later dragged me to, all the Hail Marys and Memorares I recited with her throughout my childhood. Now, here we were in my church, and she got it.

Witnessing her enthusiasm for this gorgeous place filled me with pride. Once again I’d succeeded in showing her something new in her own back yard. She came into my room to tuck me in that night, and put her hand over her heart, holding it there, pressing gently. “Thank you so much,” she said, “for showing me those caverns. We will always have that now.” Our identical green eyes danced with each other a moment. All around us, we felt peace.

[This link offers a map of the Caverns, and clicking on the map offers you several photographs. Visitors are not allowed to take photographs inside the caves. Extensive information about the Caverns is available onllne.) http://www.pr.state.az.us/Images/parkmaps/kartchner_map.html

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A Walk Along the San Pedro River

Photographs from Abbey Country

“It pleases me, loving rivers.”  Raymond Carver

The San Pedro River flows north from Mexico into southeastern Arizona.  It is one of the last free flowing rivers in the Southwest.  At the San Pedro River Riparian National Conservation Area in Cochise County, the river winds through a grove of cottonwood and willow trees at the juncture of four distinct geologic zones.  I visited the San Pedro about a month before locals expected summer rains, and at times it was reduced to a healthy trickle. (My friend in Bisbee said he’s recorded 17/100ths of an inch of rain since October, 2010.)  Below are some images I captured along the San Pedro in mid May, 2011.

Looking from San Pedro House toward the river.

The San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area is visible for miles around: a luscious green strip of cottonwood and willow in the midst of the high desert.

lone, brave thistle flowers in the high desert wind

Suddenly, an oasis.



a little rapid, and it made a lively gurgle despite the algae




Green Kingfisher Pond is an old sand and gravel quarry.






One of the many giant cottonwoods gracing the San Pedro. Some measure over 35 feet around.

The San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area is visited by birders the world over. The Southeastern Arizona Bird Observatory (SABO) bands hummingbirds here in the spring. Next time I visit I’ll try to bring a birder friend and get some photos for you.

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Filed under Abbey Country, Education, Sustainability