McNeal

Every year we make a late winter trip down to McNeal in southeastern Arizona to see the Sandhill Cranes. These 4-foot tall birds with a 7-foot wingspan, along with many other birds, use the Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area as their winter migration stop.

The winter weather has been typical this year with day-long rains and snow in the higher elevations across Arizona. A little weather was predicted for the trip, but we decided to hit the road anyway.

We drove east through Globe to Safford before dropping south through Wilcox. The spring orange and red desert poppies were in bloom across the San Carlos Indian Reservation hillsides. Blue lupins lined the roads as we made our way towards Safford. We did stop for lunch in the small farming community of Thatcher at Kainoa’s Hawaiian Grill. The food there is always good, so we always stop there. Pretty simple.

We got to Whitewater Draw on a beautiful evening and squeezed into a camp spot near the old hay barn.

Pam and I found a Great Horned Owl couple in the hay barn. One of the owls was nearly hidden in the huge nest in the rafters, while the other kept watch from his rafter perch.

The Sandhill Cranes has just returned for the evening from feeding in the farm fields to the north when we arrived. There were still thousands around the ponds.

A group of Snow Geese were also calling the area home as they will soon begin their migration north. You can tell the Snow Goose from the Ross Goose by the black lips of the Snow Goose. Who knew a goose had lips?

The Arizona Wildlife Game and Fish Department purchased the area some time ago and fill the ponds with water from a local well. The ponds were lower than usual, but the waterfowl appeared to like this reduced level because it made bottom feeding a little easier. Three female, Northern Shovelers were enjoying shallow water.

These two Long-Billed Dowitchers were also enjoying the reduced water level and larger feeding areas that it produced. While they spend the winter along the Arizona-Mexico border, soon they will fly to their summer home at the northern shores of Alaska and the Arctic Ocean.

Once night approached, the owls took to the skies for hunting. The great horned owl perched on a pole until it spotted something in the grass and became a high-speed, silent glider about to eat. There was also a bat house in the hay barn. As night fell you could see the hundreds of bats take flight to feed on the local insect population.

The sunset turned beautiful colors of orange and gold as we sat outside and enjoyed the evening.

A little rain was predicted for the next morning, and we heard it start in the middle of the night. It was still raining in the morning and the ground was fully saturated. Also, the dirt in this region turns to a slick clay that makes walking and driving a little more interesting.

The folks camped next to use were up and gone at daylight. We didn’t need to be anywhere until noon, so we had a nice relaxing morning in the rain. I even walked out to see the birds again and realized that the ground was just not muddy, but a little slick getting around.

We packed up and left the site and had to travel two miles by dirt road to get back to pavement. I put the rig into 4-wheel high and even then, noticed that the back of the rig was not always directly behind us. We turned north out of the Whitewater Draw area and could see a couple of RVs and fifth-wheels stopped in the road about a half a mile to the south. It soon became obvious that they were not stopped as much as stuck on the road as we fish-tailed north on the road in 4-wheel.

We turned onto the road we came in on and about ¾ of a mile on that road was the couple that was camped in front of us the night before. They had made it 1 & ¾ miles in the clay muck but came up ¼ mile short of the pavement. I stopped a little distance away to leave some recovery options open. The road was luckily flat in the middle, but I didn’t want to get too close to the side and slide into the ditch.

I walked over to discuss options since the Roamer has a front and rear winch. I figured I could winch him back towards us to get him aligned with the road and the get in front of him and winch him to the pavement. The Ontario couple we glad to see us, but they had already contacted AAA and a tow truck was on its way.

Our tire treads were big enough and the vehicle heavy enough that we pushed down the 2 inches or so to the clay surface of the road. You can see their tread mark in front of our back tire, where they were not even pushing any mud away and eventually got stuck. Even our rig was tough to keep aligned with the road as the picture shows.

Unfortunately, they had been sitting there for hours (since daybreak). No regular tow truck from AAA would agree to get them out because they probably couldn’t. AAA called in a bigger tow truck from Douglas, about 50 miles away, to do the job for $425. They arrived a few minutes after we did. The tow truck had nice big rear dual wheels so it left a nice path for us to follow.

The tow truck came with a helper in a 4-wheel drive truck who was driving to all the folks stuck on these backroads and getting them into the cue. The tow team must have made some good money that afternoon. The local sheriff stopped by and said as soon as we cleared the area the roads were being shut down.

Luckily, we did make it out because we were heading to a wine tasting even just south of Wilcox, AZ at the Bodega Pierce winery. Not only is this area known for the sandhill cranes, but it is quickly becoming one of the better wine regions in the state. Twice a year they hold a tasting event to release new wines, in Cottonwood, AZ, near Sedona, and Wilcox, AZ.

We dried off, I shed a layer of mud off my boots and we sat down for a nice afternoon of wine tasting. After a few hours we left with a new selection of wines to compliment future dinners at our house.

We then made our way to Chiricahua National Monument to camp for a couple days. While the rain had finally stopped, the clouds were still very low as we climbed up to roughly 5,000 feet into the Chiricahuas.

We camped at the Bonita Springs campground within the NM. The campground was very nice. The camp sites were big and there was a small stream running though the campground.

We caught some good birds in the campground too. This Acorn Woodpecker was busy digging for bugs and making holes to put acorns into in a tree next to our site. There were also large Mexican Jays flying around the campground but they moved from branch to branch so quickly I never got a good picture of one.

When we have hiked the Chiricahuas in the past, we have driven to the top and hiked down into the canyons and then back up to the vehicle. This time we decided to hike from the campsite up and then back down on the way home. We found out later that the rains had caused some rockslides so the road to the top was blocked most of the day. I did see a backhoe with a big front bucket drive up the road towards the top as we were getting ready to hike. I guess my hunch was right.

We hiked up along the stream into the canyons. The rhyolite rock pinnacles that surround you along the hike are eroded volcanic ash from a volcano eruption that occurred just south of this area millions of years ago.

Here is Pam on one of the few sections of rock steps as we approached the Heart of Rocks loop.

The Balancing Rock is an interesting site.

We made our way back down to the campground after about a 7-mile hike. Because our spot was nicely shaded, our solar panels didn’t get a chance to recharge our camper battery during the beautifully sunny day. I had to let the rig idle for awhile to generate enough juice to take a hot shower, make dinner and have a cup of good coffee in the morning.

We headed home the next morning to finish up a very short, but nice trip.

Madera Canyon

We started our 2020 Roamer adventures with a short trip with Clark to Southern Arizona. Jill was out of town, so we kidnapped Clark, saving him from a boring weekend home alone. Our trip began with a visit to the Titan Missile Museum just south of Tucson. It’s a sobering Cold War experience in its technical construction and its devastating power. Its motto was “Peace through Deterrence”. By assuring mutual annihilation both the US and USSR existed in a stalemate for several decades following WWII.

There were 54 of these Titan II installations across the US, becoming operational in 1963 and keeping the peace by sites like these being on alert 24 hours a day, 7 days a week until their deactivation in 1987. This museum is the only installation left to remind us of the state of the world during the Cold War and what could have happened.

After descending 3 floors you enter the control and living quarters area of the facility by passing through two enormous blast doors that were designed to never be opened at the same time.

The control room was a flashback to 1960’s technology, but effective in its simplicity. A simulated launch was performed by the two-person crew it took to verify and launch a strike. After completing the verification of a legitimate launch command, the missile was airborne within 1 minute. All the systems have been de-classified except the three possible destinations that each missile site could strike. Even the operators who manned the sites never knew the destinations.

The hallway between the control center and the missile launch silo was suspended on springs to withstand the substantial ground movement near a nuclear strike. The blast doors and separation also provided the safety buffer for the crew in case of a missile fuel explosion during launch.

The Titan II missile bay was over 300 feet in height with acoustic and water suppression during launch that made its exit unnoticed by the crews in the control segment. The 103-foot missile carried a 9-megaton warhead to its intended destination up to 6,000 miles away. Our guide explained that if you filled a train boxcar with 9 megatons of TNT the resulting filled boxcars would extend from Tucson to the Canadian border. That’s a lot of TNT. The airburst mode would create a scorched earth patch of devastation 300 miles in diameter. The ground penetrating mode would vaporize the earth to create a crater nearly ½ mile in diameter. That doesn’t even include the additional devastating effects of the resulting EMP, radioactive fallout or seismic activity associated with a blast that large. The facility was designed to withstand everything but a direct hit.

When the missile was developed and tested in the Pacific (without the warhead) the US did not hide the tests from the Soviets. The incredible accuracy of the system was witnessed by the Soviets so that they would understand the ramifications of its use.

In the gift shop I bought a card game called “Nuclear War – The Comic Cataclysmic Card Game of Global Destruction”. It was the fiftieth anniversary edition of the game and when we played it later at our campsite it was probably realistic in that nobody was left at the end of the game.

We had never camped on the west side of the Santa Rita Mountains in southern Arizona so after the Missile Museum we headed that way to find a spot. We ended up at Bog Springs Campground up in Madera Canyon, a very popular birding destination.

There were several sites open when we arrived early in the afternoon, but the one we chose was big enough for both our vehicles, so we squeezed into one site.

The campground filled up rapidly after we arrived. Usually the Rangers frown on two rigs in one spot, but the Ranger that stopped in to check up on us didn’t mind. It allowed for another person to grab a spot, so he was OK with us sharing a site in the filled campground. He asked if we had seen the wild turkeys yet, and shortly after he said that, they arrived.

The turkeys were all in the 15 to 25-pound range and would leave and re-appear looking for any food in our site. The Ranger also gave us info on several more dispersed camping sites around the area to try on future trips.

One of the campsites had several bird feeders up to draw in a few of the special birds in this area. We had several Mexican Jays visit our site, but I couldn’t get a picture of one. They are a beautiful blue jay. Maybe next time I’ll get a shot.

There were many trails in the foothills around the camp, so we did a nice 5-mile loop that gained 1,900 feet up the side of the mountain. The weather was perfect for hiking. The loop through the Mt Wrightson Wilderness Area passed by three springs along the mountain side in the shade of some nice trees.

The view looking out over the Green Valley area of Arizona was spectacular.

Mt Wrightson peaks out at 9,453 ft, and although we were only 20 miles from the border, it still had some snow in the shaded crevasses from the recent weather that passed through the region. The late afternoon sun made the rocky peak glow a nice color as seen from our campsite.

Clark had to head home after the long weekend, but Pam and I decided to make one more stop and visit the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum on the way home. In addition to the beautiful desert flora and fauna on display at the museum, they have a raptor free-flight program where area raptors fly through the crowds for an incredible close-up view of these beautiful birds.

The first birds out were two Chihuahuan ravens. These smaller and more agile versions of the raven were impressive to watch.

Next out was a female Great Horned owl. The huge bird was raised in captivity and she called out during the entire time looking for a response from the crowd who she takes for her family.

The third bird in the program was the Ferruginous hawk. It gets its name from its rust colored feathers that cover its wings and tail. Trainers on both sides of the crowd provide these birds with little morsels of meat as they swoop just above your head from one side to the other.

The last bird was the striking Crested Caracara. The juvenile bird’s neck was still light brown but will slowly turn to white at it matures.

The raptors glide within inches of your head on their way to their next treat and head back to their home when they are full. It’s a great program to witness.

The bobcat and I had a stare-off contest.

However, like most cats the need to take a nap won out.

The had some big-horned sheep there too. At first, the big ram was so still I thought it was a statue. Then it moved and I saw its mate beside him on the rock.

Southern Arizona is the hummingbird area for the world. Nearly all of the 19 species of hummingbirds in the US can be found in southern Arizona.

A broad-billed hummingbird was out enjoying the sunshine.

A rufous hummingbird was keeping a watchful eye on the nearest feeder.

A female costa’s hummingbird stopped from feeding for a nice camera pose.

I also caught a monarch butterfly in the gardens.

It was a nice first trip for 2020 and we found a new camping spot that we will definitely return to in the future.