Great Horned Owl - Desert Museum

Reflections on Snowbirding

As we wrap up our first winter as Snowbirds (those who come from the north to spend winter in the south), its time for reflections on all we have learned about our new winter home in these past four months. I have written in past posts about some of our adventures, discoveries, and adjustments to retirement.  All we have learned about being in an RV full-time will be a whole different post.  That is another whole topic.

Arizona (and the Tucson area specifically) is an amazing place, a whole other world from what we are used to in Colorado.  Our exploration range around Tucson has been a radius of about 150 miles.  We have been out in the desert 4-wheeling, up in the mountains in snow, through border patrol check-points coming out of Mexico, and experienced a drenching rain that filled the washes and flooded the roads.  It has been cold (below freezing at night) to over 90 degrees (but not both in the same day).  Winds are a frequent occurrence, raising dust storms and a constant haze that make picture taking of the surrounding mountain ranges difficult. (Winds come out of out of the south and can create huge rolling dust storms called HaboobsWhat a great word!  We didn’t experience one this time, but were warned about what to do if we experience one.)

Reflections on Flora and Fauna

I have been fascinated by the saguaro cactus in the Sonoran Desert.  Saguaros (sah-wah-ro) only grow in the Sonoran Desert (a fact I didn’t know) and they are prolific around Tucson. There are saguaro forests instead of tree forests.  Each saguaro, once they get arms (around 65 years old, by the way), develops an individual personality.  Some have lots of arms while others have just one or two.  Arms can curl up, down or around.  The tops can be crested but that is pretty rare.

Crested saguaro - Desert Museum

Crested saguaro at the Desert Museum

While saguaros are what most people think of as desert cactus, there are so many other kinds.  Ocotillo look like dead sticks until they encounter water, when they quickly break out, covered in little green leaves.  The water goes away and they turn back into dead sticks. You an take what looks like a dead ocotillo stick, plant it in the ground, water it, and it will continue to grow and bloom.  They are also used as building materials for fences and ramada shelters. If you are lost in the desert, look for a barrel cactus.  Usually they are bent over a little, bending toward the south.  (Kind of like Aspen on the south side of mountain and pines on the north.)  Cholla (choy-a) come in lots of different varieties, but all are dangerous.  They are very prickly and will get you.  The Teddy Bear cholla looks so cuddly… don’t be fooled!  But not all plants out in the desert are cacti.  Some are succulents and it might be hard to tell. The website, Cactusguide.com, is a great resource for cacti and succulent identification.  There are just too many to list.  Then there are the different bushes, grasses, and trees.  Right now, in the spring, the desert is in bloom and absolutely gorgeous.  Flowers abound EVERYWHERE!

The fauna is just as diverse as the flora.  Javelina (look like a kind of wild pig but are really a rodent), mountain lions and coyote abound.  I have only seen coyote in the wild, but that is probably because the others roam mostly at night and we go to be pretty early.  We have seen what pack rats can do to the RVs and wiring on trucks if you don’t put rope lights around your vehicles and under your truck.  Don’t leave any kind of food out on the ground that the javelinas can smell.  They don’t climb up on picnic tables, though,  so our little BBQ has been safe.

 

Javelina are rodents, not pigs

Snakes, lizards, and spiders also live in the desert.  We had what we think is a wolf spider on our picnic table bench early in the season.  The rattlers are coming out now that it is getting warm and have been seen around the RV park. One was found last week and moved back to the desert by one of our neighbors.  Lizards range from little gecko-sized one to larger gila monsters and komodo dragons.  It can be kind of disconcerting when one crossed your path.  I would show pictures, but those things are really fast.

Wolf spider with babies

Wolf spider with babies

And then there are the birds.  There are so many birds!  Now that we have been here a while, I can tell the different between the call of a cactus wren and the abundant quail.  The doves here are different from the ones in Steamboat, but are everywhere.  Hummingbirds are everywhere, and we put out a feeder and attracted several different kinds, but it didn’t take long for the Africanized bees found the feeds and took over.  We took them down.  We also quit feeding the doves because they became such pests.  Birds around us are all nesting (it IS spring) and I actually got to see and photograph a humming bird on its nest.

Nesting Hummer

Nesting Hummer

Then there are the raptors, like ravens, hawks, and owls.  There are two Great Horned Owls living in the palm trees here in our RV park.  We hear them most every night.  And when they swoop down, they are HUGE.

Great Horned Owl - Desert Museum

Great horned owl

 Science and discovery

The University of Arizona is located in Tucson and, because of its location in the Southwest desert, the opportunities for national research and discovery abound.  We were able to visit the Kitt Peak National Observatory and the Biosphere 2 campus, both owned by UA.  Teams of researchers from all over the world propose projects to research at each of these facilities and are awarded time to explore their theories. The climate of the desert, along with the wide open skies and lack of pollution and city lights makes Arizona the perfect place for this research.  Besides the observatory, there is also the famous  mirror lab in Tucson that makes the huge mirrors for telescopes around the world.  Absolutely amazing!

The Biosphere 2 is now an open research lab in an enclosed facility where researchers can study effects of change on water and air in a controlled manner.  See our recent post on that visit.  It was fascinating.  What a concept and labor of love.

Kitt Peak Observatory Campus with Baboquivari Peak in the background

Kitt Peak Observatory Campus with Baboquivari Peak in the background

Biosphere 2 Campus

Biosphere 2 Campus

Heritage of the area

Long before Europeans discovered the east coast of North America, native Americans inhabited the entire country. .  As children, we learned that Columbus discovered North America in his search for India.  He encountered people he called Indians.  All through school and beyond we celebrated Thanksgiving and the story of sharing the big harvest feast with those Indians.  As more people came to settle in New England, it became crowded and civilization ( or what we would know as civilization) expanded west.  It was as if the Indians were only in the east, but we learned that, as the country expanded, there were Indian tribes everywhere.  It was sort of an aha moment for me, while exploring the University of Arizona’s State Museum of the archaeology and anthropology departments, that the country was also being explored by the Spanish, coming onto the western shores of Mexico and coming north.  I either never learned or was never taught about how the west was “won”, so to speak.  How naive of me.  I probably knew it deep down, but it really struck home while here in Tucson.  All of the European customs and mores taught us by our European ancestors are actually foreign to those who had grown up in their own cultures here in the southwest.  I am not stating this revelation very well, but, for me, it was profound.  What our forefathers thought would be good for the Indians, by teaching them European ways, were actually an assault on the cultures they had lived with for centuries.  A book I read for the book club here in the RV park, Yes is Better than Nobrought the clash of those cultures, even in modern times, to the forefront for me. Don’t get me started on “live and let live”.

Economy

I learned from one of the PBS shows I watched when we first got to Arizona something that every Arizona grade schooler must learn in class – the five Cs; cattle, cotton, copper, citrus and climate.  These are the things that have been the economic drivers in Arizona from the beginning, and still are.  Cooper and I are here because of the climate.  So are all those snowbirds from Canada, Montana and Wisconsin.  All winter there are people selling bags of oranges on every street corner. Ripe oranges, grapefruit and lemons make the trees droop from weight.   HUGE copper mines dot the landscape, creating new mountains of tailings where only desert had been. I never thought about cotton being a crop in Arizona, only in places like Georgia and Alabama, but its here.  And so are the cattle.

And then there are ROCKS

Rocks are a big deal in Arizona.  I wasn’t really into rocks before I got here.  To me, rocks are just rocks.  Boy, was I wrong.  Having now been to several museums and the largest rock and gem show in the world, one can learn a LOT about rocks. gems, and minerals.  It didn’t take too long before I had my head down looking for different colored rocks and minerals.  I even have a small dish of colored rocks that represent all the colors of the desert that I plan to take with me when we leave.  Around every corner is another rock shop and those places are always dirty and dusty but swarming with people. You meet some great characters, all with stories to tell, in rock shops.  It seems that all Arizonans are INTO rocks.

Wrap it up

I have fallen in love with Arizona and Tucson.  As we prepare to pack up and head out to our next adventure, I am already looking forward to returning next November for another winter.  We are headed across Arizona and New Mexico, headed to the Hill Country of Texas.  It is still snowing in Steamboat Springs, so we will take our time to explore these states before heading back north.  The driveway in Steamboat needs to be clear before we get there.  Cooper is looking forward to being able to work in the yard, putter in his garage, and get ready for the next trip in the middle of the summer, but NOT YET.

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