Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Caving In

On a cold November day in 1974, Gary Tenen and Randy Tufts, two University of Arizona students who were also amateur cavers, squeezed through a narrow blowhole in the foothills of the Whetstone Mountains in southeast Arizona. Several hours and four hundred feet later, they discovered what would in 1999, become Kartchner Caverns, Arizona’s 25th state park and eventually, one of the world’s top ten caves known for its mineralogy and color.
Having spent a fair amount of time birding in southeast Arizona we had been aware of Kartchner Caverns SP and passed by many times. For one reason or another, we had never stopped. Until now. We had signed on to be 2014-2015 seasonal volunteers at the park with a goal to become Lead Guides on cavern tours.

our site for the next seven months
Although our official arrival date wasn’t until October 1, we took the the opportunity to arrive early by about a week and a half. This gave us a tremendous leg up on our park orientation and to get some initial training out of the way. By the time October 1st rolled around, we had become qualified cave tour Trailers and could hit the ground running. Well, walking. Running is not allowed in the caverns.

Upper Village before other volunteers arrived; view out our back window
The term “Trailer” had nothing to do with RV’s. A cave tour Trailer is someone who literally trails behind cave tours to assist the cave Lead Guides as needed. Sounds simple enough but Trailers play an important role for a successful and safe tour. This became even more evident when we eventually became Lead Guides ourselves.
Located in Southeast Arizona at the foot of the Whetstone Mountains, between Sierra Vista and Benson, we were about an hour’s drive from Tucson. On the surface, Kartchner Caverns isn’t as large as other parks we’ve visited. But underground? It has over 2.4 miles of caverns that includes some pretty compelling scenery.
Arriving volunteers like us, who live in their RV’s, are given a choice of being situated in either the Lower or the Upper Volunteer Village. As we soon discovered, both had advantages and disadvantages. The Lower Village was located much closer to the Discovery Center, the park’s Visitor Center, which made walking to work a lot easier. On the other hand, it was closer to the main highway and the maintenance buildings, plus, the RV sites were bunched closer together.

every evening brought a different sky
The Upper Village, although much further away from the Discovery Center, was also further away from the highway road noise. The sites were larger with more flora. But what really sold us was that the Upper Village is where volunteers with an interest in birding preferred to stay. Birds? That would be us. The only downside we could determine was that the water pressure was noticeably lower but given the other pluses, our choice worked very well. Our unobstructed view of the Whetstone Mountains out our rear window surely didn’t hurt.
For the next three weeks we were the only ones in the Upper Village but eventually, more volunteers in travel trailers, fifth wheels, or motor homes, began to trickled in. By that time, we had completed more training. In addition to being Trailers, we had learned to work the gate house at the park’s entrance where we welcomed visitors. We had also added “Portal Person” to our resumé. A Portal Person staffs the entrance to the caverns (the Portal), monitoring tour comings and goings and assisting guests as needed. But our main focus still centered around taking the training to become Lead Guides. At the first opportunity, we signed up for the next available Lead Guide training class.
Lead Guide training turned out to be a lot more involved than we had anticipated. Marlo Buchmann, the parks incredibly organized volunteer coordinator, encouraged ALL seasonal volunteers go through Lead Guide training. Her reasoning was that even if after completing the rigorous training, that participants would have a much better understanding and appreciation about the caverns and its day-to-day operation.
Training consisted of 3 1/2 days of classroom study (complete with a huge three-ring binder to study, pop quizzes, and a final exam). All manner of topics were presented: Geology, Hydrology, Chemistry, Paleontology, Biology, the cavern’s history, and working with the public, just to name a few topics.
After passing our final exams and opting to try to qualify to be a Lead Guide, we worked under the tutelage of various mentors (park staff) who critiqued our Lead Guide techniques during live tours. We were required to lead a minimum of three tours from start to finish, completely on our own. Once we satisfied our mentors, we were scheduled to lead a tour under the watchful eye of the Volunteer Coordinator. We each passed our on our first try! We were promptly added to the weekly tour schedule as Lead Guides and in addition to our other duties, began to guide the public through the caverns on the Rotunda/Throne Tour.

officially Lead Guides
Kartchner offers two tours. The “Rotunda/Throne” tour, covering a 1/2 mile and lasting 1 1/2 hours, is offered year-round. The theme of the Rotunda/Throne tour is water - how water played a significant role in the formation of the cave and its formations. The “Big Room” tour covers 1/2 mile, lasts 1 3/4 hours, but it's offered only six months of the year. The emphasis of this tour is all about the cave’s discovery with an overview of its bat population. Bat population? The Big Room closes between April 15th and October 15th to allow a small returning bat population time to breed and rear their young undisturbed. Due to the popularity of both tours, it is strongly recommended that advance reservations are made.
Rotunda/Throne rooms tours consist of up to twenty guests of all ages and depart twenty minutes apart. Up to three tours are run simultaneously. The Big Room tour group is limited to fifteen guests with no children below the age of seven. Two Big Room tours can be run simultaneously. One learns very quickly that running simultaneous tours requires a lot of exact timing. So much so that all Lead Guides and Trailers are required to set their watches to an atomic wall clock that hangs in the break room. And woe to the guide who falls behind…

Park's front entrance; trams waiting to ferry guests; the portal
To become Lead Guides for a Big Room Tour, we would be required to take additional classroom training (a day and a half), go through more mentoring (minimum of three satisfactorily run complete tours), and be signed off with a final "yay or nay" by the Volunteer Coordinator. However, we were still qualified (and scheduled) to trail in the Big Room. For now, the Rotunda/Throne Room would keep us busy...but we would also keep an eye out for the next available chance to sign up for Big Room Lead Guide training.
The Discovery Center (Visitor Center) is the park’s hub of activity. It consists of a front desk (another volunteer opportunity for which we were trained but rarely assigned), a movie theater, a museum, a well stocked gift shop, an amphitheater, some picnic areas, a butterfly garden, and a food concession (the Bat Cafe). The park also offers RV campsites (water and electric) plus tent sites. There are two hiking trails. The Guindani Trail is 4.2 miles in length (moderate to strenuous) with an elevation of 4750’ to 5620’ through semi-desert grassland and oak-juniper woodlands. The Foothills Loop Trail is about 2.5 miles long, also rated moderate to difficult. The trail passes over a limestone hill north of the cave and descends into the Guindani Wash with views of the San Padro Riparian area. Typical vegetation consists of ocotillo, creosote bush, buckthorn cholla and hackberry.
From a Lead Guide’s perspective, a typical Rotunda/Throne Room tour consists of a ten minute introduction at a pre-determined location outside the Discovery Center. Guests then board a tram for a short ride up to the Portal where they disembark and hear more about what they are likely to encounter in the cavern. It’s also one last opportunity for a guide to review the cavern “do’s and don’t’s. The biggest rule? “Don’t touch!”
One is never in total darkness during a cave tour. A series of rope lights along the pathways are always lit. However, guides need to trigger various light switches along the route that control additional show cave lighting to illuminate various speleothems (cave formations). Did I mention that timing is critical? There are specific points during a tour where a guide has to turn on a light which then also triggers a cue for another tour that began twenty minutes later. This all has to happen seamlessly and without guests being made aware of what’s happening. Moving a tour group along in a timely fashion to access these trigger points, while managing to cover all salient cave information (and ensuring a tour ends on time to re-board an awaiting tram), may sound simple enough. However, all kinds of variables can throw a tour into a tailspin. As Lead Guides and Trailers, we all have to know how to address these variables while magically keeping the tour fun, exciting, and on time. As the saying goes in the break room, “A happy tour is a tour on time”.

hiking the Guidani Trail
Discovery Center
hiking the Foot Hills Trail
one very big ocotillo

Monday, February 23, 2015

Tucson to Tombstone

site at Desert Trails

 It was a pretty straight forward drive from Rusty’s, mostly on Interstate I-10, to Tucson. In the past we usually made Diamond J RV Park our regular place to park but it seems we've always had a hassle trying to get rates online and then trying to connect with anyone in the office (we see that since our visit that their web site has finally been updated to include rates). Since our stay in Tucson would be short and time was of the essence, we opted instead for Desert Trails RV Resort, a park we’d used in 2009. While Diamond J back-in sites would have given us more direct access to several thousand acres of public land, our trip to Tucson this time was mostly business and not so much for birding.

common yard birds at Desert Trails - Gambel's quail and Gila woodpecker
We seem to always have more than one iron in the fire and this winter season was no different.  We had been on a waiting list to rent a cabin near San Ramon, Costa Rica, about an hour's drive from San Jose. After waiting over a year and a half, we’d finally gotten word that a cabin had opened up and we agreed to take it for ten weeks. Since we were already going to be in Costa Rica in March with one of our birding tours, this would work out very nicely.
Our commitment at Kartchner was through the end of December. At the start of January we planned to store the RV and truck in Tucson and fly to Costa Rica. But then we realized that we had enough people on our Costa Rica waiting list for a possible second tour. After consulting with our long time friend and Costa Rica bird guide, Richard Garrigues, he amazingly managed to pull together an itinerary for a second trip. We put the word out and it didn’t long for a second trip to gel. We amended our cabin rental to be six weeks and spend the last four weeks of our ten week stay on tour birding. But what to do with the RV and truck? Hence our business in Tucson: find a  safe and convenient place to store the truck and RV.

Our first day at Desert Trails was consumed with grocery shopping, laundry, and putting together a list of possible RV storage sites. With our Costa Rica timeline now settled, we purchased our airline tickets to Costa Rica. By the next morning we started exploring possible storage sites.
We had three central concerns about storage. The first two were about security and cost. From what we had gathered the cost to store an RV and truck would run us anywhere from $300 to almost $800. The difference in cost was whether the storage site had covered storage and if it was paved or unpaved. One might ask, "what’s the big deal about being paved or not?". The answer - pack rats. The pack rat was our third concern.
Pack rats. Also called woodrats. Cute cuddly little creatures on the Nature Channel. Cute and cuddly they may be but when it comes to wreaking havoc on parked vehicles in the desert, they have few equals. Pack rats love to nest in man-made objects like vehicles and especially, nice cozy RV’s. It wouldn’t be so bad if all they wanted was a place to stay. The problem is that they love to chew things. Like truck, car, and RV wiring. They do this mainly to maintain sharp teeth...potentially thousands of dollars to keep their teeth honed. Not their money but ours.
Pack rats generally prefer unpaved lots over paved lots. Or so we were told. Paved storage lots cost a lot more money so one has to weigh the benefit/cost of using a paved versus unpaved storage facility. And since our RV is our home, we were very concerned about pack rats.
After spending a few days interviewing several storage lot managers, we settled on a lot near the Tucson airport. It was paved, the security seemed adequate, and it was conveniently located near the Tucson airport where we would be departing for Costa Rica.
A few logistical issues remained like the timing involved in moving the RV while still having a place to live but we’d sort that out when the time came. For now we had a game plan for RV storage which was one of our goals while in Tucson.

Saguaro NP and Nancy's home in Oro Valley
RV storage out of the way, we had a bit more time to relax. Carol needed a haircut and Tom needed to get to the Apple Store for computer updates. We spent time at Saguaro National Park. We had been invited to our friend Nancy’s house in Oro Valley for a cookout. Tucson is a very attractive cultural center and while were several other things in Tucson we wanted to do, we decided that most could wait until we were settled in at Kartchner Caverns which was only an hour away.

Phainopepla male (top) and female
We had originally planned to start at Kartchner on October 1. It was now September 17. The volunteer coordinator at Kartchner had extended an invitation to us to arrive sooner if we wished. Looking at our options and costs for RV parking while waiting for October to arrive, we opted for an early arrival. But first, a few days layover at Tombstone Territory RV Park near Sierra Vista.

view out our back window at Tombstone Territory and hummingbird drawn to our feeder
The morning of the 18th we departed Desert Trails RV and arrived at Tombstone Territory RV Resort where they had plenty of spaces available. On our way to the park we happened to notice several rain storms sweeping through the area, mainly to the east where Portal and Rodeo were located. In fact most of the time at Tombstone Territory, the skies in that direction were dark and menacing. Little did we know at the time but Cave Creek Canyon and the Portal area were being slammed with heavy downpours that made the earlier storms looks pretty tame. Even the San Pedro River, just down the road from Tombstone Territory, was running dangerously high.

thunderstorms all around
Now just twenty minutes from Kartchner, we were curious about the volunteer RV parking options.  There were two volunteer parking areas - the upper and lower “volunteer villages”. Earlier email communications with the park’s volunteer coordinator indicated that the ‘birder’ leaning volunteers preferred parking in the upper village. And after a quick look at what the upper village looked like, that’s where we decided we would park.
Now it was Saturday the 20th. Laundry and last minute grocery shopping in Sierra Vista. Early Sunday morning we joined the weekly EOP (Environmental Operations Park)
bird hike hoping to catch up with friend Erika Wilson who usually leads the hikes. We discovered that she and her husband Jim were off trying out their new camper. Little did we know that they were caught up in massive flooding in Cave Creek Canyon and were stuck for three days in the Sunny Flats campground as they waited for the flood damaged road to be cleared enough to allow them to leave. We had been watching local news about the flooding as well, reading personal accounts from some of the residents in Portal as to the devastation. Lucky for us we had managed our visit to Portal just before the the rains came.
On Monday, September 22, we packed up the RV for a very short pull to the upper volunteer village at Kartchner Caverns State Park, our home for the next three months.

hiking at the EOP
San Pedro river in a typical Sept; then this Sept.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Rodeo Drive

Rusty’s RV Ranch near Rodeo, NM has been a regular stop ever since we began RVing in 2009. The sites are huge, the park is never crowded, the manager always friendly, the views of surrounding Chiricahua Mountains stunning, and the daily rate for parking is cut in half by using our Passport America card (with no limits on the  length of stay). However, the biggest draw is that Rusty’s positions us along the New Mexico/Arizona border between Rodeo, NM and Portal, AZ with some of the best birding in the southwest within easy reach.

our site and Rusty's and views of the Chiricahuas - rain and shine
Our week long stay began with some Fall birding in Cave Creek Canyon at the South Fork Zoological and Botanical Area. Enroute we stopped in Portal to check on the property and home that southern California birding friend Lori Conrad and her husband had recently purchased. Within the next year they intend to retire and make Portal their home. Lori had given us directions on how to find the house and while they would not be there (they had visited the week before) we were welcome to take a look. The house and grounds looked ideal and outstanding for the possibility of having Montezuma quail as yard birds. And the view of the entrance to Cave Creek Canyon entrance from an upper deck was stunning.

view from Conrad's deck and approach to Cave Creek Canyon

We’d heard that heavy rain storms had significantly altered the creek bed in South Fork. That was still in evidence when we arrived at South Fork entrance to find the road gated and closed to vehicular traffic. No big deal to us as we easily hiked the 1.3 mile up to the parking lot/picnic ground. In fact, the lack of traffic made our walk all the quieter. So much so that we found a bobcat casually meandering the road near the bridge below the cabins (good to see the cabins and bridge was still intact).

gated entrance and water running high in the creek
A few birds we expected to see were found. Mexican jay, acorn and Arizona woodpeckers, and painted redtstart. What was impressive was the amount of water still running in the creek. Usually at this time of year water, if present, was just a trickle. A lot of debris - large boulders and downed trees - had required sections of the road to be graded. The work appeared to be complete and a chat with the volunteer on hand at the visitor center confirmed that the road would be open soon. Perhaps the next day?

blue-throated (top) and magnificent hummingbird
Southwest Research Station was next on our list to visit, a stop always sure to net us blue-throated hummingbird and magnificent hummingbird. We were not disappointed.
We’d be at Rusty’s for a week so we didn’t feel pressured with our time but still, the next morning we were anxious to get out to State Line Road, a gravel road that as the name implies, is a dividing line between New Mexico and Arizona. We were a bit late getting out to the road so the birding wasn’t as robust as we had hoped. We were even more disappointed to discover the “Willow Tank” wetland located along Sulphur Canyon Road had been completely dredged and graded. No indication of what the fate of the property will be going forward but hopefully, its simply a major project to rework the wetland.

Ste Line Road and what's left of the tank wetlands
Back at South Fork we found the road to South Fork had been reopened. While hiking along the stream we encountered a small flock of migrating sulphur-bellied flycatchers. Typically we’d expect to see these birds in Arizona in mid-summer so these late migrants were a welcome sighting. The last time we’d seen them in Arizona was 1999!
While it remained dry at Rusty’s, we’d witnessed a few rain squalls sweep across the top of the Chiricahuas but on Wednesday, the weather looked promising so we took advantage of the clear skies with a drive up to Rustler Park Campground. The last time we were at Rustler, the campground was still closed due to the  2011 Horseshoe II fire we had witnessed. The campground had been devastated requiring many months to rebuild and while there still remained a lot of work to be done, the road to the campground was at least now open to hiking.

view going up to Rustler and then the campground
We barely recognized the place. Most of the pines had burned and those that remained standing had been removed. It will take years for trees to reestablish themselves. The altered landscape would recover but the bird life we’ve associated with the park had all but disappeared. Still, we found yellow-eyed junco and Mexican chickadees which were a couple of species we’d hoped would still be around.

yelloe-eyed junco and gila monster
Leaving Rustler we back-tracked to the high meadow Barfoot Park section which for the most part had been spared from the fire…but being so late in the year, any hope of finding warblers vanished. We did manage a few late Olive warblers and a Hutton’s vireo but that was it.
Instead of retracing our descent we took the longer way around through the town of Paradise and then Paradise Road back to Portal. By that time of day it had warmed considerably and the birding was slow. But a chance encounter with a Gila monster crossing the road more than made up for the lack of bird life. This was the first time we had found one in the wild! As for the birds, another visit to Paradise Road from the Portal side would be in order on another day. But since we were so close to Rodeo we swung by the Chiricahua Desert Museum and Gift Store (a must see if you're anywhere near Rodeo) and then nipped in for an early evening of beer and burgers at the Rodeo Tavern.

scaled quail and Scott's oriole
An earlier start the next morning on State Line Road met with far more success. Scaled quail, Bendire’s and crissal thrashers, and Scott’s oriole were our reward.
Along the road to Herb Martyr Campground above the Southwest Research Station we came across Montezuma quail, a bird we rarely see. In fact, a bird most birders rarely see. It was turning out to be a pretty good day. We ate our packed lunch at the research station (although the gift shop was closed for the season).

Rodriguez feeders and Anna's hummingbird
A second visit to Paradise Road and we finally caught up with rufous-winged, black-chinned, Cassin’s, and Vesper sparrows. Then a stop at the feeders at Bob Rodriguez’s (the former Dave Jasper property) for Inca dove, Cassin’s vireo, Gila woodpecker, pyrrhuloxia, and verdin. We’d learned that Dave had purchased another piece property just up from the Portal Cafe which he intends to stock with feeders. But in spite of stopping a few times, we never connected with Dave on this trip. But we did connect with the Portal cafe for breakfast.
The hummingbird feeder at our RV netted us Anna’s and broad-billed hummingbirds. Along Hwy 80, the road that connected us with Rusty’s and Portal, we stumbled upon a common black-hawk sitting atop a fencepost. Another at South Fork added MacGillivray’s warbler, hermit warbler, and black-throated gray warbler…and another stop at the Portal Cafe at the Portal peak Lodge for breakfast.

black-chinned hummingbird and acorn woodpecker
All in all we managed 34 FOY bird while at Rusty’s. Our annual list was looking pretty meager and we wondered if we would hit 350 let alone have any chance at 400 species for the year. But there was still some time left before we were due at Kartchner Caverns SP and we still had some time to spend outside Tucson where we were headed next.

black-headed grosbeak
cactus wren
black-throated sparrow
Bendire's thrasher
crissal thrasher
Mexican jay
Montezuma quail
red-tailed hawk
western kingbird
western wood-pewee
cordilleran flycatcher
South Fork