We packed all our supplies, clothes, etc. for a three-week trip last night. At five this morning, I load up the valuables - cameras, laptop, spotting scope, voice recorder and the like. We leave home about 6:15 am, happy to beat the sun, though not by much. Our cat Boomer is starting the trip riding in the pickup with us. We'll often put him in the trailer, and let him ride back there. Lucky cat.
Out to California Highway 101, south to Gilroy, east on 152, over Pacheco Pass, past San Luis Reservoir, then south on Interstate 5.
We start the first of two CDs-on-tape we have - "The Big Year," about three American birders who by total coincidence are each trying to break the record for most species seen in North America in one calendar year, from January 1st to December 31st. It takes place in 1998. We've each read the book, but it's a pleasure now to hear it "read" to us on the CD player of our radio. A more fun first birding book you cannot read.
We drive south to the bottom of the Grapevine and pull off to park under a nice shade tree near some service stations and restaurants and have our lunch, excellently prepared by Chef Sharon.
After a relaxing lunch, we go back onto I-5 and head south, up over the Grapevine, down the other side, then we go east when we get to the I-210. We follow it till it crosses California 55, which we take south to the I-10, then we travel further east till we get to our destination, Banning.
We watch the freeway signs like hawks because there is always a KOA sign on the highway telling you which turnoff to take. Scratch that 'always' word because there ain't no SIGN! I finally pull off, find a Chevron service station and fill up. I ask the attendant inside if there is a KOA around here. "Yes, it's back about 10 miles, on the right. You can't miss it." I neglect to ask her if she's positive it's a KOA or might it just be an RV park she's seen. Stupid neglect.
We reverse our direction on the freeway and finally make it back ten or twelve miles, to an RV park on the right, but it's not a KOA and I noticed it on the way here. I take the next exit and turn around, getting in some very slow traffic, again heading east. We call the national KOA number, but no one's home on Sunday, or rather everybody's home.
Now there's another problem we have because I tried to save $20 and not buy the new Woodall's RV Park Directory for 2008. I figured my 2006 version would be good enough. Anyway, there's only one RV Park in Banning and Sharon calls it. "Yes, we're the KOA" they say, and give Sharon directions to get us there. We finally pull in at 5 pm, having wasted about an hour because I hadn't done deep enough research to have this problem already solved.
Upon checking in, we learn that they just recently became a KOA. I don't say to them, "You should put a KOA sign out on the freeway." But I want to. Not the first time on the trip I'm gonna say, "DANGIT!"
During the day today, I noticed the ice cream bars from the freezer were slightly soft. Then even more so this evening. It finally hit me that the active propane tank must be empty or nearly so. I'll switch over to the other tank, which I already know is pretty low, and propane up tomorrow.
On the Road Birds Today: American Crow, Common Raven, Cliff Swallow, Brewer's Blackbird, Red-winged Blackbird, Lesser Goldfinch, Turkey Vulture, Mourning Dove, Rock Dove.
No Life Birds.
Trip Birds: (A "Trip Bird" is a bird we see for the first time on this trip.
If it's also a Life Bird - one we've NEVER seen before, it'll be in THAT category
RV Park: Banning KOA, Banning, California. $33.
Miles today: 444, a huge day.
This is a pretty nice birding park, with lots of trees and a field adjacent. We pick up some nice morning birds before heading out about 7 am. We'll drive a couple of hours, then have a breakfast break.
We break at 9:30. Sharon has hard-boiled herself a few eggs and I like my V8 because I hate the expression, "I could have had a V8." We each have brought several books to read also. Sometimes I'll read a little from my current book, sometimes a magazine, sometimes I'll review maps of the next few days' destinations.
Stopping in Blythe, we fill the empty propane tank at $3.00 per gallon, which is a small bargain, compared with gasoline. Then we're off again. Arizona is directly in our crosshairs.
Mamacita, we cross the Colorado River and we're in Arizona. My spirit lifts a little every time I cross into a new state during an RV trip, and I get a nice little bump in AZ.
A little before noon, we stop for lunch and a one-hour break, then head back out. We're aiming for Casa Grande tonight. At 1 pm, Sharon gives me a driving break. I have a snooze in the passenger seat while she cranks out another fifty miles or so, then I take the wheel again.
I notice that we pass Robbins Butte. I don't think I'd have spelled it that way.
A half hour or so before Phoenix, we take Highway 85 south, then turn east again near Gila Bend, where we enter Interstate 8. From there it's a straight shot of an hour or so to Casa Grande, where we check into the Buena Tierra Campground. Allow me to translate: That means Good Tierra. I know it's weird to LOL at your own stuff, so I do a GQ. Giggle Quietly.
We get a pull-through, so we don't have to disconnect the truck from the trailer tonight. This campground is huge, in the straight up desert, and after we have dinner, we do an easy walking circle around our little section of the camp.
We pick up some nice birds on the way and then it's into the trailer for the night, and a little cable TV.
Morning Banning Birds: House Finch, Killdeer, House Sparrow, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Nuttall's Woodpecker, Northern Mockingbird and European Starling. I don't like to say "starling" without saying the word "stupid" in front of it.
On the Road Birds: Golden Eagle, Western Kingbird, Great-tailed Grackle, Cattle Egret.
Evening RV Park Birds: Northern Flicker, Gambel's Quail
Still No Life Birds
RV Park: Buena Tierra Campground, Casa Grande, Arizona. $30.
Miles Today: 362
Total Trip Miles: 805
Waking up in Buena Tierra Campground, I empty the gray and black RV tanks. We head out a little before 8:30 am, headed for Green Valley, south of Tucson.
I am eager to get there, get set up and head out to Madera Canyon, where there are two lifers (life birds) hopefully waiting for us. But Sharon has another idea, and you should listen to your wife. If you don't have one, then listen to somebody else's.
She wants to stop at the Desert Museum. I think we've been there before, but we're early and Sharon doesn't remember, and I'm not certain either. So we're going.
Pulling into the parking lot about 10:30 am, we immediately hear one of our hallmark desert birds, a Cactus Wren. They have a very distinctive call, and we quickly realize that there are many around us.
A volunteer outside the office has a Harris's Hawk on his arm.
We pay the $13 each to get into the museum and check out the map. Let's see we want to see the hummingbird aviary, the larger aviary and the night mammal display, among other features.
Sharon forgot to bring a hat, and it's going to be very hot on this trip, so we'll buy her one at the museum.
The hummingbird aviary is fun, and there are even hummers nesting in here.
The larger aviary has some nice birds, including a pair of Pyrrhuloxias, which very much look like cardinals with dark brick-orange replacing the brilliant red.
Pyrrhuloxia, in the Arizona Desert Museum Aviary
The night mammal display is a bit of a disappointment, because all the animals seem to be sleeping. We thought the whole point was to simulate night conditions, when the animals would be active. Though I like taking naps in the day.
We finish up at the Desert Museum, go back into Tucson, then continue south to the Green Valley RV Resort, where they don't take credit cards. Cash or check, thank you. We sign up for two nights, thinking we'll do all our driving around from here, then head out for New Mexico the morning after the second night here.
We set up, and unhitch the trailer, so we can zoom around in the pickup. Our first goal is Madera Canyon. I've checked the Arizona RBA (Rare Bird Alert), and together with an old where-to-find-birds-in-Arizona book, the RBA information tells me that we have a shot at two life birds up in Madera Canyon.
It's about an hour drive as I recall, so we head out, arriving at the B&B where the Mexican visitor bird on the RBA hangs out. As we park and get out, we see perhaps 12-15 birders standing around in a big semicircle, obviously waiting for the bird.
I take a couple of pictures, then after about ten minutes, BAM, a spectacular male Flame-colored Tanager drops in to snag some red jelly that has been put out in a feeder. We get excellent views, but after I've got a good look, and before I can get my camera out, he disappears, not to be seen again by us. That's a lifer!
Inset from the Internet
A couple tells us that earlier today, or was it yesterday, they saw another owl in a sycamore tree next to the visitor center in Ramsey Canyon. This owl would also be a lifer, and immediately begin to work out a plan to get it. It's a couple of hours away, so we would ask for our money back for our second day at the Green Valley RV park, and go over to Sierra Vista and stay there tomorrow night.
But that's for later.
Heading down to a certain specific lodge, about two miles back towards Green Valley, we arrive about 7 pm. An old-timer at the B&B earlier told us that the bird we hope for at this lodge will "appear at 7:37." That's a good one.
There are other birders here at the parking lodge, some from the B&B, who saw the tanager, and others who came just for this bird. One couple just flew in from Cincinnati, and has stopped to see what the fuss is all about. They are in for a treat.
While waiting, we bird the area, picking up some very nice trip birds.
Then, at 7:35 pm, the smallest owl in North American makes its way out of its nest, deep inside a telephone pole, and perches in the nest entry hole, as if to stretch and yawn for its morning wakeup. We can't tell the sex, and it's likely a female. Shortly it disappears back down the hole, then after a few minutes it's back up.
The six-inch tall Elf Owl soon flies out of the hole and perches in a nearby tree, calling and calling. It may be calling to its babies, trying to coax them out. They don't come, and it flies back, but into a hole higher in the pole, where it disappears. A minute later it flies out of the original hole and perches again, calling and calling.
Elf Owl, from the Internet
I'm so excited, I forget to take video. The digital still camera wouldn't be able to function in the growing darkness but the video camera would. The good news is, we get our second lifer in two hours. Ahhhhhh.
We drive back in the dark to the RV park. We have climbed quite a bit to get up into Madera Canyon, and the city and country lights are beautiful.
We have a light dinner and solidify plans to move to Sierra Vista tomorrow if we can get our money back from this place in the morning. Actually when I factor the cost of gas in, we're money ahead to move, even if we can't get tomorrow's money back.
Morning Desert Museum Birds: Inca Dove, White-winged Dove, Curve-billed Thrasher, Abert's Towhee, Cactus Wren.
Afternoon Madera Canyon B&B Birds (LIFE BIRDS ARE IN CAPS): Phainopepla (on the drive), Cassin's Finch, Black-headed Grosbeak, Black-chinned Hummingbird, Broad-billed Hummingbird, Magnificent Hummingbird, Mexican Jay, White-breasted Nuthatch, Hooded Oriole, Scott's Oriole, Lincoln's Sparrow, FLAME-COLORED TANAGER, Bridled Titmouse, Wilson's Warbler, Gila Woodpecker.
Evening Madera Canyon Lodge Birds: Lazuli Bunting, Dark-eyed Junco, Painted Redstart, ELF OWL.
Life Birds: (Flame-colored Tanager and Elf Owl)
Trip Birds (Includes Life Birds):
RV Park: Green Valley RV Resort. $35 no credit cards.
Miles Today: 152
Total Trip Miles: 957
It's a new tax year, beginning today and we are going to celebrate by trying for another life bird.
I head over to see if I can get our money back for today's camping, but they open at 8 and it's 7:30. I do a little birding around the park while I wait, and at 8 am, I go into the office. No problem. They give back one day's fee in cash, and I go back to the trailer.
We back the truck under the fifth wheel, engage the hitch, insert the hitch locking pin, plug in the electrical connection cable between the truck and the trailer and lastly hook up the emergency trailer brake breakaway cable. If the trailer should for some unfathomable reason become unhitched from the truck while we're driving down the road, the truck-anchored cable will pull out an insert and the trailer brakes will lock on, bringing the trailer to a halt, assuming it's not flying off a cliff or something.
An hour later, we come up over a ridge and are dropping down the other side. It's like rolling prairie hills all around instead of desert. There is no cactus anywhere.
We're in Sonoita by midmorning and gas up there at $3.499 a gallon. While maneuvering around the cab, I accidentally knock the gps, which is plugged into the cigarette lighter socket, off the dash. It lands on the steering column, then drops to the floor, by the accelerator. I retrieve it and set it back on the dash.
Sharon asks what that tick-tick-tick is, and I don't know. We look around and notice that the display on the trailer electric brake module is going on and off with the tick-tick-tick. Is the sound coming from that? I put my ear down, but that's not it.
We look at each other and wonder, "OK, what'd we do now?" After about five minutes, it "suddenly" dawns on me what could cause the brake module display to blink. I check the emergency flasher button, located on the steering column, and realize that when the gps fell onto the column, it landed directly on the button that turns on the flasher, before it dropped to the floor.
I push the flasher button again, it shuts off, and everything is ok. Whew. We didn't need an electrical problem at this point.
We get to Sierra Vista and I realize that we've camped here before, years ago. I drive over to where the camp should be, but there's nothing there. Sharon gets out the Woodall's RV Campground directory, but the only entry it has is defunct. Dang me for not buying the new 2008 Woodall's.
Asking in a couple of places, we learn of a mobile home park that also has a few temporary overnight spots. So we make our way to the Sierra Vista Mobile Home Park. I check us in and we set up the trailer. I unhitch while Sharon makes us a lunch to take into Ramsey Canyon.
It's a very easy drive into Ramsey Canyon, to the visitor center parking lot, where we park and extract all our birding and lunch gear. We can see a birding scope on a tripod, pointed up into a huge sycamore tree, which is moving quite a bit in a good wind. There are a few people there, and they say that the scope is pointed to the nest hole of the bird we're after. It should appear within ten or fifteen minutes, according to their experience.
I get out the lunches and before we can start eating them, out pops the little seven-inch WHISKERED SCREECH-OWL. Our third life bird in two days! Life is grand. I get some still shots and some video, through our scope.
Finishing our lunch, we decide to hike up the trail a ways and see what's around in the way of birds.
A few deer, a band of turkeys, some squirrels and after an hour or so we head back to the truck, then drive back into Sierra Vista to our RV.
Upon inquiring about showers during check-in, I learned that the shower is in a locked building which includes a visitors book exchange library, a kitchen and some sleeping quarters.
I have a shower and change my pouch, which I do about every 5-7 days. This is after Sharon has her shower. I pick out a few books to take, and feel a little bad that I only have one to leave, so I think of it as matching another person who took one book and left six. Not that I'm justifying or anything. But they must have a thousand books here. Each one is color-coded with the book's genre.
We have a nice easy evening. Tomorrow we'll do some serious driving into New Mexico, heading towards Milnesand, 18 miles this side of Texas. Our target tomorrow is Alamogordo.
Waiting for the Green Valley RV Park Office to Open Birds: Cooper's Hawk.
Ramsey Canyon Birds: Harris's Hawk (on the drive), WHISKERED SCREECH-OWL, Prairie Falcon, Broad-tailed Hummingbird, Black Phoebe, Chipping Sparrow, Wild Turkey, Acorn Woodpecker, Arizona Woodpecker, Hammond's Flycatcher, Hutton's Vireo, Black-throated Gray Warbler.
Driving Back to the RV Park: Red-tailed Hawk, American Kestrel, Common Nighthawk, Lark Sparrow.
Life Birds: (Whiskered Screech-owl)
RV Park: Sierra Vista Mobile Home Park. $28
Miles Today: 128
Total Trip Miles: 1085
I decide I took one too many books, so I return the "1000 Jokes for All Occasions" book, yellow-tagged for comedy, to the library. I'm later sorry I did it, but we leave before I can re-reconsider.
We get around really slowly, and bird the grounds a bit. It's a very tight space we jammed ourselves into yesterday, and it takes a bit of back-and-forth maneuvering to get out without hitting something. We finally get out and on the road about 8:00 am, even though I knew we had to leave about six to make Alamogordo. Oh well, we're on vacation, and I think it'll leave us plenty of time to get to Milnesand by Friday afternoon.
We take Highway 90 north out of Sierra Vista, then 82 east to near Tombstone. From there, it's north on the 80 to near Benson, where we pick up I-10 eastbound. After about an hour, we take a break for a small breakfast, then head out again. At a rest area near San Simon, we break for lunch. It's around 11 am.
The temperature variation is very wide, sitting in the pickup today. Sometimes I'm cold and sometimes I'm just right, without my jacket. I discover that if I put my jacket on backwards, I can easily slip it forward and onto my lap if I get warm. Have you noticed that occasionally the right solution to a problem is very unconventional?
So there we are, zipping down the road, me with my jacket on backwards. My baseball cap bill is facing forward though, so there's still that.
At 11:30 am, my GPS says we're right at the New Mexico border, and boom, there it is.
The time changes to mountain daylight time, so it's 12:30 and we lose one hour. Right AT the New Mexico state border, the highway changed from mildly rattly to extremely smooth. Nice.
We pull into a service station just before 1 pm and just short of Lordsburg, where we fill up at a Love's, then are on the road again. We cross the Continental Divide about 2:30 and a half-hour later, I pull over to change drivers so I can get my nap ration. We're just short of Deming.
After 45 minutes of restful snooze, I change with Sharon and drive us on into the Hacienda RV Resort in Las Cruces, definitely our most luxurious RV park on this trip.
We speak on the phone with the guide we've arranged, Grant Beauprez. He will pick us up at our trailer Saturday morning. I also touch base with Willard Heck, the rancher/Lesser Prairie-chicken enthusiast, who is one of the key organizers of last weekend's festival. He tells us we can give a $25 check to the proprietor of the small store in Milnesand, and gives us directions on where to park and connect to electricity.
Morning Before We Leave Sierra Vista Mobile Home Park Birds: Ladderback Woodpecker, Bullock's Oriole, Pine Siskin
On the Road Birds: Cassin's Kingbird (just leaving Sierra Vista), Swainson's Hawk, Barn Swallow
RV Park: Hacienda RV Resort, Las Cruces, New Mexico. $40
Miles Today: 271
Total Trip Miles: 1356
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