Friday, April 28, 2017

Boyce Thompson Arboretum State Park

site at BTA below Picket Post Mountain
The drive from Justin’s Diamond J RV Park in Tucson to Boyce Thompson Arboretum State Park was about 120 miles. A chip shot compared to some of our longer driving days we had endured on our swing through the Pacific Northwest.
Arriving at the park by early afternoon where we were met by another volunteer couple who had been instructed to direct us to our site. We spent the rest of the day settling in: hooking up utilities, laying out “pack rat deterring rope lights”, and a cursory exploration of our immediate surroundings including a walk to the park’s visitor center.
Our site provided us with a stunning view of Picket Post Mountain. On a purely practical note, Carol was delighted to find the laundry facility (free to park volunteers) was just a few steps away.

view from Tom's desk window
During our first year on the road as full-time RVer’s, we had stopped for a day at the park, never realizing then that we would wind up as park volunteers. Carol’s parents had settled in Apache Junction, a suburb of Phoenix (an hour or so to our west) some 40 years ago so Carol was no stranger to the park (although much in the park had changed since then).
This was our third season volunteering in the Arizona State Park system, our two previous seasons volunteering at Kartchner Caverns State Park. It was only natural then that we started comparing how the management styles differed. Quite a bit as it turned out.

a massive transplant into BTA from an arboretum in Flagstaff was underway
At Kartchner all volunteers reported to a single volunteer coordinator. At Boyce Thompson Arboretum State Park (“BTA”) there were three volunteer coordinators. One to handle all off-site volunteers from the surrounding area, one to handle Hospitality (the Gift Shop and events support), and an Education volunteer to oversee volunteers doing interpretive work. The latter category was where we fit in.

barrel cacti - Arizona's version of a pumpkin patch
The property started out in the 1920’s as the Southwestern Arboretum, the idea of wealthy philanthropist William Boyce Thompson who had made a fortunate in the copper mining industry via the stock market. His inspiration was to create an arboretum to study plants from around the world with the goal of using such research to enhance man’s symbiotic relationship with plants in an arid region. Thompson, along with the arboretum’s first director, Franklin Crider, fashioned a mission for the arboretum; that it be used for scientific research and public education, studying plant-people relationships in arid and semi-arid parts of the American Southwest, and to study the economic utility and aesthetic appeal of plants to better mankind.

Picket Post House - Boyce Thompson's home in the 1920's
The arboretum first opened to the public in 1929. In the mid 1960’s the arboretum entered into a bilateral agreement with the University of Arizona which accounted for the fact that a majority of present day employees work directly for the university’s Ag. Department.
In recognition of recreational, educational and historical significance (and the fact that the arboretum was looking for more funding) bilateral agreement was expanded in 1976 to include Arizona State Parks.

This new trilateral agreement between the arboretum, the U of A, and state parks allowed the arboretum to weather fiscal crises while at the same time employ creative manage techniques to preserve and grow a complex resource.

Fall colors and sunset view from the RV
Today the chief attraction for most visitors is the Boyce Thompson Arboretum’s system of dog friendly nature trails (over two miles) that weave through a series of botanical gardens representing plants from South America, the Chihuahuan Desert, Australian Desert, and the Sonoran Desert. The Smith Interpretive Center and Greenhouse house cacti and succulent plants from African desert habitats. A recently reworked Demonstration Garden displays many native plant species to Arizona as well as a Hummingbird and Butterfly Garden. The five acre Cactus Garden is a living collection of over 800 cacti, many representative of the Sonoran Desert habit where the park is located. The Taylor Family Legume Garden with several species of mesquite, peanuts, beans, alfalfa, ironwood, and palo verde (Arizona state tree), demonstrate the importance legumes play in feeding the world. The Wing Memorial Garden, the site of the former Clevenger homestead, displays drought tolerant herbs and aromatic plants. A Children’s Horticultural Garden hosts several interactive displays geared toward kids. As for water sources, the Silver King Wash and Queen Creek pass through the park providing a rich riparian area.

Gray fox foraging for food; King Creek after a rain (typical a dry wash)
Our volunteer responsibilities included leading guided historical/plant tours along the arboretum’s main trail (a mile and a 1/4 long). Along the walk we informed visitors about the park’s history, pointed out plants, and of course wildlife (with an emphasis on birds - go figure).
However, before we could begin leading tours, we ourselves needed to be trained. And this portion of our experience is where we differed the most from our experiences at Kartchner.
At Kartchner we attended over fifty hours of classroom instruction learning all the aspects of conducting a cave tour. This was followed by several days of mentoring before we were ever signed off to become cave tour guides. Such intensive training at BTA was virtually non-existent.

Jim Shepherd with an Edible Plants Tour; Tom with a General Tour; Carol helping at Hospitality
Our first meeting with our volunteer supervisor consisted of a three hour meeting in our RV where we spent a good deal of time talking about….our volunteer coordinator’s life. She informed us that we needed to visit the Smith Interpretive Center (the park's original visitor center) to view a series of panels consisting of the arboretum’s history along with biographical data on Boyce Thompson. We were expected to “shadow” a couple of long-time off-site volunteers to get a feel for how a general tour should be conducted. When we felt we were ready, we were to let her know so she could put us on the tour schedule.

Carol helping band Monarchs in the Butterfly Garden
There was little to nothing in the way of a printed volunteer handbook (mainly an out-of-date self-guided tour pamphlet). There was a well-stocked library which we were encouraged to use, mainly for researching plant information. She promised to email us a copy of the volunteer work schedule (none ever appeared). We pretty much came to the conclusion that we were on our own.

painting the Human Sundial; South Africa presentation in the Smith Building
At Kartchner we were required to wear state park issued volunteer shirts and hats plus khaki colored shorts or pants. From day one, we were issued name tags. By contrast, BTA didn’t require any of the sort of uniform. We strongly felt (as did other volunteers) that when leading tours in a state park, it’s a matter of professional courtesy to identify yourself as a state park volunteer. We did get state park shirts. And we already had state park windbreakers (purchased while at Kartchner). Initially we were told that given our “short three month stay”, a name tag would not be issued. However, an employee who dealt with plant sales stepped up to the plate and on his own, made us name tags.
Since we’re both self-motivated, our self-training surged ahead. We shadowed Jim Shepherd (an extremely knowledgeable long time volunteer) on a four hour walk covering all the salient points we were expected to convey to the public: park history, key plant families, and the general route. Later the same week we shadowed another long time volunteer and, with much online research online, within a few week’s time, we felt confident to start doing general tours.

a portion of the library; tallying birds following a Friday walk
Before being allowed to do cave tours, we were first extensively mentored by staff. At BTA, our mentoring consisted of our volunteer coordinator asking, “If you want me to act as a tour visitor to hear your presentation I could do that - if you wish.” Volunteer coordinator mentoring was optional? So while not necessary, we did opt to have her accompany us on a run-through tour scenario. Apparently we passed.
We had arrived at a seasonally slow time in the park as far as general tours go. The high season wouldn't begin until Feb when many of the snowbirds started arriving in large numbers. Visitors were not required to make tour reservations for the general tours nor was there a tour size limit. At Kartchner, we rarely teamed up on a tour and even then, one was a leader while the other was a trailer. At BTA we double teamed on a tour, each of us taking turns talking about various aspects of the arboretum. It was actually a lot of fun doing it together. And if we wound up with a particularly large group, we could always sub-divide the group as needed.

two of our Friday regulars, Diane, Dana after a long Xmas Bird Count
General tours occurred once a daily. Beginning at 11:00 a.m., they lasted an hour and a half. Midway through November, as the number of daily visitors started to grow (mainly due to the Christmas holidays), we were asked to do the Sunday tours as well.
In addition to the general tours, a number of non-resident volunteers lead specific tours. These tours focused on specific topics. There were seasonal Wildflower Walks, seasonal Butterfly Walks, an Edible and Medicinal Plants Walk, a Plants of the Bible walk, and a Geology Walk. Area expert birders (mainly from the Phoenix area) guided the weekend bird walks. These walks were held on alternating Sundays and Saturdays. Participating in these weekend walks we got to meet a lot of the area’s top birders. We also realized there was a need for a walk on a weekday.
We quickly initiated a weekly Friday bird walk which by the time we left the park at the end of December, had become quite popular. So popular, in fact, that we encouraged two of our “regulars”, Lisa and Peggy, who worked in the Aviary Department at the Phoenix Zoo, to continue the weekly walks. They agreed and by all accounts are doing a terrific job (as we knew they would!).

our last Friday bird walk group before we left BTA
what bird walk would be complete without a scope?
We also realized a need to encourage beginning birders. Several visitors would show up for bird walks without binoculars so it was always helpful for Tom to carry our scope (and a laser to quickly point out bird locations). We also realized that offering a few beginning birding classes would be beneficial. We wound up developing and presenting three separate 3-hour classes during October and November that honed in on Arizona birds. It consisted of an hour in the classroom followed by two practical hours in the field to test out what they had learned and to build their birding confidence.

top: the Werlings with Dick's sister Pat and husband John; bottom: out for lunch with Dick and Sally
Aside from general tours and bird walks we were from time to time tasked with ‘special projects’.  During our three month stay we presented a well attended program on our trip to South Africa, cleaned and repainted (Tom’s knees suffered for many days afterward) the Human Sundial in the Children’s Garden, contributed photos to the BTA’s Facebook page and Flickr page, developed a donor form and policy (to be used for anyone wishing to donate to the BTA library), shelf-read all the books in the BTA library (plus created two pages of instructions on how to shelve materials), lead private tours when asked, participated in the area Christmas Bird Count, censused bird species for our three month period, and toward the end, developed “touch stations”. Touch Stations are portable kits made up of materials a volunteer could use to cover specific topics. A Touch Station would be located at key spots in the park. Our initial touch stations included written and demonstration materials to educate visitors about Cacti, Succulents, and Hummingbirds. Our impression was that more touch stations would be developed to cover other topics.

out on a private tour with Betty and Scott
out for pizza with Leslie and Don
When we weren’t researching topics, we often spent our off days walking the gardens and interacting with visitors (a common practice while we were volunteering at Lake Woodruff NWR). We also went further afield exploring the Pinal Mountains, area restaurants, birding, the Salt River Canyon, the Phoenix Zoo (complimentary tickets from Lisa and Peggy), and visiting with family and friends who managed to find us at BTA. The park hosted several annual and seasonal special events in which as volunteers, we were always welcomed to participate.

lunch with Sharon and Mike
showing Dean and Chris around BTA
lunch with Russell and Connie (more bird walk regulars)
Carol’s sister Marge flew out for a week to enjoy the park's tours and scenery. WI friends Scott and Betty Seaborne stopped by for a day while they were in AZ visiting family in Prescott. Birding friends Chris and Dean Hitchcock visited several times (they were parked at a nearby RV park). We spent Christmas in Tucson birding with bird club WI friends Debs and Stuart Malcom. Of course we managed trips to the AZ-Sonoran Desert Museum in Tucson. We made a few few trips to the Gilbert Water Ranch, a birding hot spot we learned about from some of our Friday morning bird hike (thanks Dana and Diane and Connie and Russell!). Dick and Sally Werling, along with a few of Dick’s siblings, made the trip from north of Tucson to tour the park (and of course manage a lunch out!). Oregon birding pals, Leslie and Don who stopped by for a tour (and then pizza!). Finally drove to Mesa to have lunch and connect with former Kartchner Caverns volunteers, Sharon and Mike.

Carol and Marge at Salt River Canyon
Tom's 70th birthday was in December. We spent the day with Marge birding the Gilbert Water Ranch, coupled with breakfast and a tour at the Queen Creek Olive Mill in Queen Creek. Unbeknownst to Tom, Carol had contacted dozens of our friends requesting they send a birthday card...but to general delivery to the nearby post office in Superior, AZ

on tour at the Olive Mill; birthday celebration
During a birthday celebration at the RV, Carol presented the cards to a stunned Tom. 
Overall, birding at BTA was slow given the time of year. Between birds seen in the park and birds we attracted to our feeders and water, we tallied 79 species. We did, however, manage to add one ABA life bird: Rosy-faced Lovebird. There was an established population located in a neighborhood in Apache Junction.

our regular feeder visitors: Gambel's quail and Phainopepla
Our overall experience at Boyce Thompson was positive. We learned a great deal about the park’s history as well as increasing our own knowledge of native Arizona plants and how people have historically utilized these plants for survival. Staff at the park were extremely friendly and supportive, even if our volunteer coordinator didn’t offer much in the way of training or feedback. As resident volunteers we had 24/7 access to park trails. And as we always do, we made a new friends who we now stay in touch with via Facebook.

Debs and Stuart on a chilly (but sunny!) Tucson day
Will we return? Given that on the day of our departure our volunteer coordinator didn’t even say goodbye didn't bode well. Add to that we had no substantive feedback from her during our stay (either positive or negative). A few weeks after our departure, she emailed to say she was sorry not to have said goodbye and to not take that as a negative.
However, the hospitality coordinator (on several occasions) asked if we were returning and if so, to please consider working for her. Unfortunately, our preference is always interpretive work. The hospitality position didn’t include interpretive work.
Another consideration about whether or not to return was that the nearest acceptable grocery store was a 25 mile drive away (and that the nearest propane dealer was a twenty mile drive away in the opposite direction). Returning probably wasn't in the cards. Specially since we already had some interesting invitations for volunteer work in Texas.
On the first of January, we spent New Year’s Day closing up the RV and driving to Tombstone Territories RV Park near Sierra Vista where we would take a three month break from volunteering and getting ready for our next trip back to Costa Rica…the subject of our next blog entry.
Several more photos from BTA posted here at Flickr

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