Mining, Ranching, Birding & More In Patagonia, Arizona

Our narrative begins about 60 miles southeast of Tucson in a small historic mining town that still holds claim to a huge treasure—the birding kind.

On the road to Patagonia. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
On the road to Patagonia. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

At an elevation of over 4,000 feet between the Santa Rita Mountains and the Patagonia Mountains, you arrive in the town of Patagonia. Here, the South Pacific Railroad once hummed with cattle ranchers and prospectors who worked the nearby silver mine. Ranches still dot the hills and historic ghost towns have replaced thriving mining outposts.

At first glance Patagonia is a town that you pass through on the way to somewhere else. However, a second glance will reveal some surprises about this historical former Spanish land grant. There is a growing community of artists and crafts people that have decided that this is a very desirable area to live and work.

Although the rail tracks were abandoned by 1970, the depot is now restored and adjoins a park in the center of town. McKeown Avenue is Patagonia’s authentic but small main street, housing the local saloon and shops.

Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve © Rex Vogel, all rights
Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Patagonia is home to several arts and multicultural festivals throughout the year and also has numerous galleries here you can browse local pottery and paintings as well as other contemporary and traditional arts.

Chances are you’re here for Patagonia’s other side—the one that draws thousands of birders each year. Look closely, because this is the time of year when butterflies linger and more than 300 bird species migrate, nest, and live in Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve, managed by the Nature Conservancy since 1966. Bird enthusiasts come thousands of miles to catch a glimpse of some of them. Of particular interest are the gray hawk, vermilion flycatcher, violet-crowned hummingbird, thick-billed kingbird, zone-tailed hawk, green kingfisher, white-throated sparrows (in winter), and black-bellied whistling duck.

You’re in luck: Now through September draws the greatest diversity of birds to what the Nature Conservancy dubs “the richest of the remaining riparian (or streamside) habitats in the region.”

Swimming and picnic area at Patagonia State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights
Swimming and picnic area at Patagonia State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights

The 850-acre sanctuary is where a cottonwood-willow canopy follows the ribbon of gentle Sonoita Creek, which runs year-long. You can opt for a guided tour of the preserve or you can head to the open-air ramada visitor center to study maps, peruse a list of the latest bird sightings, and get suggestions from the ranger to shape your own visit.

Three miles of easy walking trails take you along Sonoita Creek and through rare, 140-year old cottonwood willow forest.

A trip to Patagonia would not be complete without a visit to the Paton Center for Hummingbirds. Wally and Marion Paton first began inviting birders into their yard shortly after moving to Patagonia in 1973. They eventually put up a canopy and set out benches, bird books, and a chalkboard for people to record their sightings. The Patons had a special vision for supporting their backyard birds with an array of feeding stations—and supporting the wider birding community by sharing the riches of their yard. After Wally passed away in 2001 and Marion in 2009, the birding community was left with an inspiring legacy upon which to build.

212 bird species have been reported for this cozy home lot on the outskirts of the town of Patagonia, including violet-crowned hummingbirds, thick-billed kingbirds, gray hawks, and varied buntings. This amazing diversity results from its location in an ecologically rich and healthy corner of the state. Surrounding the Paton Center you will find: The Nature Conservancy’s Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve, the Patagonia Mountains (one of Arizona’s newly declared Important Bird Areas), the San Rafael Grasslands, and the Sonoita Plain.

Sonoita Creek Natural Area © Rex Vogel, all rights
Sonoita Creek Natural Area © Rex Vogel, all rights

Continuing south on Arizona Highway 82 is Patagonia Lake State Park, a small paradise for wildlife and outdoor enthusiasts. Fishermen and beachcombers enjoy a man-made lake more than two miles in length. At an elevation of 3,750 feet and adjacent to the Sonoita Creek Natural Area, the park becomes a year-round haven with 105 campsites with a picnic table, a fire ring/grill, water, and 20/30/50-amp electric service; select sites also have a ramada. A dump station is centrally located in the park.

Patagonia Lake offers a 0.5-mile hiking trail that leads to Sonoita Creek, a popular birding area. Additional trails can be accessed through Sonoita Creek Natural Area.

Worth Pondering…
I only went for a walk, and finally concluded to stay till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.
—John Muir

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What Is Birding?

If you had asked me a decade ago about birding, I would have said, “What is birding?”

Pair Yellow-crowned Night Herons at the Valley Nature Center, Weslaco, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved.
Pair Yellow-crowned Night Herons at the Valley Nature Center, Weslaco, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved.

I knew about some of the more common birds including chickadees, robins, finches, and blue jays, but had no idea birding was an activity people did together in an organized fashion.

Birding has become one of the fastest-growing and most popular activities in the US and around the world. An estimated 30 percent of all Americans go birding each year.

Bird watching is also one of the few activities open to all ages and levels of ability.

It doesn’t take much to get started in bird watching. You don’t need special hiking boots or clothing and you don’t require special equipment. Birds can be observed with the naked eye, although a pair of binoculars makes the experience more enjoyable.

Using one or more field guides is also recommended. The choice of a field guide for birding can be a very personal thing. Partly it depends on what you want from your field guide; partly on how you process information.

Scrub Jay at Catalina State Park near Tucson, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved.
Scrub Jay at Catalina State Park near Tucson, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved.

The Sibley Guide to Birds is THE North American bird book if you’re a serious birder. The volume covers all the birds, and most of the plumages of all the birds you can find in the US and Canada.

Kaufmann Field Guide to Birds of North America is also THE guide to own. The text is clear and the illustrations are very well done.

According to a US Fish & Wildlife Service study on the demographics and economic impact of birding, birdwatchers contribute over 36 billion dollars annually to the nation’s economy. One in five Americans has an active interest in birding. Some 47 million bird watchers, ages 16 and older, spend nearly $107 billion on travel and equipment related to bird watching.

In Washington State alone, wildlife viewing and photography adds more than $5 billion each year to the state and local economy.

Roseate Spoonbill feeding at South Padre Island World Birding Center, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved.
Roseate Spoonbill feeding at South Padre Island World Birding Center, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved.

About 88 percent focus mainly on backyard birding. But some extreme listers travel extensively in search of rare birds for their life lists.

The legendary birder Phoebe Snetsinger became obsessed with bird watching when she learned she had only one year to live—she was diagnosed with terminal melanoma in 1981. Living another 18 years, she fervently observed birds across the globe setting a world record of 8,398 bird species before her death in a 1999 car accident in Madagascar.

Others, like master birder Connie Sidles, find endless joy in daily visits to one favorite spot. She has written two books describing the natural beauty and wonder she finds at the Montlake Fill (Union Bay Natural Area), a premier birding oasis in Seattle. The “fill” is a former landfill located in the heart of northeast Seattle on the banks of Lake Washington.

People give different answers when asked what drew them to bird watching. For most, it starts with the simple aesthetic pleasure of enjoying the grace and beauty of birds and sharing the experience with family and friends.

Wood Stork at Long Point Park, Florida © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved.
Wood Stork at Long Point Park, Florida © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved.

Wildlife viewing is among the most popular forms of outdoor recreation, and birds are the most visible and accessible form of wildlife, especially in urban and residential areas. You can even enjoy them from the comfort of your own home.

Birds also symbolize freedom for many because they fly with such ease. For some, it has spiritual qualities and evokes feelings of peace and tranquility. It’s healthful and restful and no doubt good for your blood pressure and general well-being.

Their exquisite plumage and vivacious songs enliven our sense of the magnificence and beauty of the world we share. Our love affair with birds connects us with the simple bliss of being alive and feeling at home in the natural world.

Like many pursuits, birding embraces a whole subculture, with many levels of expertise and intensity. For some, it is highly competitive. For others, bird watching involves serious study of physiology, behavior, and the role of birds in the ecosystem.

For many, like us, it’s a pathway into the natural world by combining photography and RV travel with birding.

As a birder, I want to find and enjoy new birds, observe their behavior, and document what I see. As a photographer, I want to photograph birds in good light and a pleasing background, and above all return to my motorhome with quality photos.

Worth Pondering…

Have you ever observed a hummingbird moving about in an aerial dance among the flowers—a living prismatic gem…. it is a creature of such fairy-like loveliness as to mock all description.

—W.H. Hudson, Green Mansion

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Junction: Texas Hill Country Hospitality Starts Here

Watch some birds, take a leisurely stroll, tube down the river, enjoy a sunset—and relax.

Along the North Llano River at Junction. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Along the North Llano River at Junction. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Junction boasts first-class outdoor recreation, a big-rig friendly RV park with true Texas hospitality, and all the mouth-watering Texas BBQ you can eat.

I expected the fresh air and open sky. After all, Junction is located on the western edge of the Texas Hill Country, elevation ranging around 2,000 feet. The abundance of outdoor activities was no surprise, either—the town is named for the junction of the north and south forks of the Llano River. Junction is ideal for fishing, tubing, and related activities, and there are scores of low-traffic roads for biking and a sprawling state park and wildlife management area checkered with hiking and biking trails.

What I hadn’t planned on was great Texas BBQ. Junction is a good place to work up an appetite, and, as it turns out, to satisfy it, too.

Along the North Llano River at Junction. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Along the North Llano River at Junction. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

As we exited I-10 (Exit 465) for Junction North Llano River RV Park my heart skipped a beat as it jumped for joy! There to the back of a large parking lot was a huge BBQ pit surrounded by many, many, many cords of firewood piled higher than a man’s head like fortress walls. And an outdoor area with picnic tables under the spread of an enormous oak.

The food gods were really smiling on me. Heading west to Arizona with limited time and no hope of seeking out Texas BBQ, I lucked upon Cooper’s. Yes, Cooper’s Bar-B-Q & Grill is a happy accident food-wise on any road trip.

The Cooper family opened its original barbecue joint in Mason in the early 1950s, and Cooper sons later took the tradition to Llano—a location eventually sold outside the family—and here. Roy and Sheila Cooper, their son Mark and daughter-in-law Kim and their children all work at the restaurant, which has been in its current location for 16 years.

Texas Hill Country is the Lone Star State’s prime outdoor destination. But it’s not mountaintops and dramatic views that make this a vacation mecca—it’s water. More than 800 freshwater springs percolate to the surface in crystalline rivers and lakes, and the spot where the North and South Llano rivers meet spawned the town of Junction in 1876. One of the town’s first civic projects was a dam for power and irrigation, and Junction eventually became the commercial hub of Kimble County, named for an Alamo defender, George Kimble. But that has never meant many more than 2,500 people enjoying life in the county seat. Canoeing, kayaking, and tubing are the most popular ways to pass a day in Junction these days.

The dawn of another day along the North Llano River at Junction. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
The dawn of another day along the North Llano River at Junction. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Rolling hills and open spaces still define Junction. Wild turkeys also are a big part of the landscape. The largest concentration of Rio Grande Turkeys in the American Southwest gather in South Llano River State Park south of town. The gregarious birds winter in large flocks around the cottonwood riparian areas growing by the river. Turkeys can be spotted year-round, especially along the scrubby brush and open grasslands of the Fawn Trail that loops up open slopes for three miles.

The 524-acre park and adjacent 2,155-acre wildlife management area were donated to the state by cattle rancher Walter Buck Jr. Two miles of park front the river, but most folks congregate around the bridge near the entrance.

Activities include camping, picnicking, canoeing, tubing, swimming, fishing, hiking, mountain biking, bird-watching, and nature study.

The park offers approximately 20 miles of hiking/biking trails—15 of them prime for mountain biking—58 campsites with water and 30-amp electric service, six walk-in tent sites, and five hike-in primitive campsites.

Rest at one of the park’s top-notch bird blinds. These comfy shelters overlook water and feeding stations frequented by birds pretty much all day, although morning and evening are prime times. Common sightings are flycatchers, swallows, wrens, warblers, hawks, and hummingbirds.

Big-rig friendly North Llano River RV Park at Junction. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Big-rig friendly North Llano River RV Park at Junction. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Next door, the Walter Buck State Wildlife Area is a destination to hike, watch birds, and polish wildlife photography skills.

Planning a Visit? Experience true Texas hospitality with welcoming smiles at Junction North Llano River RV Park. Sit back, relax, and enjoy a clean, spacious site nestled in a natural pecan grove along the banks of the North Llano River. Big rig sites over 80-feet in length are available; spacious full hookup sites with 50/30-amp electric service, free cable, and Wi-Fi.

There’s something for everyone whether you’re staying for one night, a week, or more—water sports, birding, fishing, hunting, scenic hill country drives, restaurants, golf, shopping, and good Texas BBQ! We’d be back in a Texas minute!

Texas Spoken Friendly

Worth Pondering…

No matter how far we may wander, Texas lingers with us, coloring our perceptions of the world.

—Elmer Kelto

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Top Campgrounds, RV Parks & Resorts For Outdoor Recreation (Birding & Hiking)

These selected RV parks offer outstanding opportunities for outdoor recreation including birding, hiking, and fishing.

A+ Motel & RV Park, Sulphur, Louisiana © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
A+ Motel & RV Park, Sulphur, Louisiana © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A+ Motel & RV Park is centrally located in Cajun Country near Calcasieu “Big” Lake and other great fishing, hunting, and birding destinations and the Creole Nature Trail All American Road.

Enjoy the Old West in and around Angel Lake RV Park in Wells, Nevada. Some of the least known, pristine outdoor recreation areas in the West is all easily accessible. Deer, antelope, and other big game populate the surrounding back country. Anglers will find nearby lakes, reservoirs, creeks, and streams much to their liking. Angel Lake, tucked into the East Humboldt mountain range, is a particular favorite for its fish and striking 8,400 foot scenery.

World-class birding and the Texas Tropics surround you at Bentsen Palm Village RV Resort in Mission. The World Birding Center Headquarters at Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park welcomes Bentsen Palm Village RV Resort residents to the top birding observation center in the nation. You can bike through the Park or take advantage of the convenient tram service.

Thousands of acres of state and federally protected wildlife habitat, lakes, parks, trails, and a 40-foot high Hawk Observation Tower on the banks of the Rio Grande River are within easy walking distance of your front door at Bentsen Palm Village RV Resort. Additionally, the North American Butterfly Association (NABA) outdoor butterfly park is adjacent to Bentsen Palm Development.

Camping at Bentsen Palm Village RV Park south of Mission.
Bentsen Palm Village RV Park, Mission, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bosque Bird Watcher’s RV Park is a small mom and pop operation offering basic gravel parking lot type sites with full hookups. It’s nothing fancy but is quiet and clean and handy to the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge.

RVers, birders, photographers, and all lovers of nature and the outdoors are attracted to Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge. Thousands of sandhill cranes and snow geese arrive for the winter each November amid a backdrop of purple mountains clothed in autumn colors and bathed in the light of New Mexico’s spectacular sunrises and sunsets.

Catalina State Park protects a choice section of desert on the western base of the Santa Catalina Mountains near Tucson. The environment offers great camping, hiking, picnicking, and bird watching—more than 150 species of birds call the park home. An equestrian center provides a staging area for trail riders and plenty of trailer parking is also available.

Miles of equestrian, birding, and hiking trails wind through the park and the adjoining Coronado National Forest, as well as an interpretive trail to a prehistoric village.

Catalina State Park, Oro Valley, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Catalina State Park, Oro Valley, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Usery Mountain Regional Park contains a large variety of plants and animals that call the lower Sonoran Desert home. Usery Mountain offers over 29 miles of trails for hiking, mountain biking, and horseback riding. Park trails range in length from 0.2 miles to over 7 miles, and range from easy to difficult. These trails are popular because they have enough elevation to offer spectacular vistas of surrounding plains. The park’s modern campground is excellent for RVs of all sizes.

Wake up to a breathtaking sunrise; wind up the day with a spectacular sunset at the Van Horn KOA, set in a beautiful desert valley surrounded by mountains. This country setting, landscaped with native plants that attract wildlife, is filled with the sounds of birds. Visit Guadalupe Mountains and Carlsbad Caverns national parks, Fort Davis and the town of Marfa, whose “Ghost Lights” have defied explanation since 1883. The full-service KOA Cafe can deliver a Texas dinner to your campsite.

Vogel Talks RVing selected the list of top campgrounds, RV parks, and resorts from parks personally visited.

A+ Motel & RV Park, Sulphur, Louisiana

Van Horn KOA, Van Horn, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Van Horn KOA, Van Horn, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Angel Lake RV Park, Wells, Nevada

Bentsen Palm Village RV Resort, Mission Texas

Bosque Birdwatchers RV Park, San Antonio, New Mexico

Catalina State Park, Oro Valley, Arizona

Crystal Lake RV Park, Mims, Florida

McCammon RV Park, McCammon, Idaho

North Llano River RV Park, Junction, Texas

Quail Ridge RV Park, Huachuca City, Arizona

Usery Mountain Regional Park, Mesa, Arizona

North Llano River RV Park, Junction, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
North Llano River RV Park, Junction, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Van Horn KOA, Van Horn, Texas

Wildhorse Resort & Casino RV Park, Pendleton, Oregon

Worth Pondering…

Keep close to Nature’s heart…and break clear away, once in awhile, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.
—John Muir

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RV To The Sun: Arizona Grand Tour Continues

Arizona is destination like no other.

Prescott   © Rex Vogel, all rights
Prescott © Rex Vogel, all rights

Arizona has everything: Lakes and mountains, forests and rivers. Mostly, though, Arizona has desert. Acres and acres of desert. Dee-lightful.

From towering red rock spires to urban excitement, to the Grand Canyon’s stunning vistas to quiet mountain towns; Old West legends to Native American and Mexican culture, and professional sporting events to world-class golf—Arizona has it all!

Arizona is all of this, but there is so much more that awaits the RV traveler.

Prescott

Nestled in a stunning mountain bowl and surrounded by a large ponderosa pine forests, this beautiful town is steeped in history with an authentic taste of western heritage. Banners proclaim Prescott as “Everyone’s Home Town.” You won’t find high rises, but the downtown businesses clustered around the 1916 Yavapai County Courthouse and its plaza are thriving.

On one side of the Court House Plaza is Whiskey Row. It’s more sedate now than it was prior to 1900 when the whiskey flowed and the faro tables were jammed 24 hours a day in its forty or so saloons. The former territorial capital of Arizona, Prescott boasts 525 buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights
Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights

Monument Valley

The red buttes protruding from the painted sand of Monument Valley look like memorials sculpted by a mythical goddess.

Sandstone buttes, mesas, and spires rise majestically from the desert floor. Monument Valley offers the quintessential Western backdrop made famous in movies directed by John Ford.

Monument Valley’s towers, which range in height from 400 to 1,000 feet, are made of de Chelly sandstone, which is 215 million years old, with a base of organ rock shale. The towers are the remnants of mesas, or flat-topped mountains. Mesas erode first into buttes like the Elephant, which typically are as high as they are wide, then into slender spires like the Three Sisters.

Jerome

Jerome © Rex Vogel, all rights
Jerome © Rex Vogel, all rights

Jerome is high up on the side of a mountain. When I say on the side of a mountain, I literally mean that. At an elevation of 5,248 feet, Jerome hangs precariously on the 30-degree slope of Cleopatra Hill on the edge of Prescott National Forest. In fact, through the years some of the houses have lost their grip and have slipped down the slope.

This hidden gem was once a roaring mining town of 15,000 people, with multistoried buildings and fine homes. For a time, Jerome was the state’s fourth-largest town. But like all towns in the West, founded on digging up a limited resource, it is now a mini-version of its former self.

Jerome started off as a copper mining town and became known as the wickedest town in the West, with more than its share of saloons, opium dens, and brothels.

Birding & Patagonia

Vermilion Flycatcher Vermilion Flycatcher at the Paton Center for Hummingbirds © Rex Vogel, all rightsat the Paton Center for Hummingbirds © Rex Vogel, all rights
Vermilion Flycatcher at the Paton Center for Hummingbirds © Rex Vogel, all rights

Home to many talented artists, artisans, and writers, Patagonia is located in a lush riparian habitat where Sonoita Creek meanders year-round between the Patagonia and Santa Rita mountains. The diversity of vegetation (riparian, desert, and mountain) provides sustenance for more than 300 bird species—including Mexican and Central American species that reach the extreme northern limit of their range here.

The Nature Conservancy’s Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve, the Paton Center for Hummingbirds, and Patagonia Lake State Park are renowned for the 300 species of birds that migrate through or nest along their creeks and waterways.

Oatman & Route 66

The romance of Route 66 continues to captivate people around the world. Running between Chicago and Los Angeles, Route 66 earned the title “Main Street of America” because it wound through small towns across the Midwest and Southwest, lined by hundreds of cafés, motels, gas stations, and tourist attractions.

Oatman: Living Ghost Town, Gunfighters & Burros © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Oatman © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Driving a twisted portion of Route 66 to the historic town of Oatman is a favorite Arizona road trip. Once a gold-mining boomtown, Oatman hunkers in a craggy gulch of the Black Mountains.

Though Oatman is only a shadow of its former self, it is well worth a visit to this living ghost town that provides, not only a handful of historic buildings, but costumed gunfighters and 1890s style ladies strolling the wooden sidewalks, as well as the sights of burros walking the streets.

Please Note: This article is one of an on-going series on Arizona destinations.

Worth Pondering…

Alone in the open desert,

I have made up songs of wild, poignant rejoicing and transcendent melancholy.

The world has seemed more beautiful to me than ever before.

I have loved the red rocks, the twisted trees, the sand blowing in the wind, the slow, sunny clouds crossing the sky, the shafts of moonlight on my bed at night.

I have seemed to be at one with the world.

—Everett Ruess

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Boyce Thompson Arboretum: Plants of the World’s Deserts

Spring wildflowers, autumn colors, year-round birding, two miles of scenic walking trails, a picnic area shaded by Argentine mesquite trees are all available at Boyce Thompson Arboretum.

Boyce Thompson Arboretum: Plants of the World’s Deserts © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Boyce Thompson Arboretum: Plants of the World’s Deserts © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

At 323 acres, this park is Arizona’s largest and oldest botanical garden, founded in 1925 by mining magnate and philanthropist Col. William Boyce Thompson.

In 1917 Col. Thompson served as co-leader of a Red Cross mercy mission to Russia, where he came to understand the importance of plants as the ultimate source of a large portion of mankind’s food, clothing, and shelter. It was then, that he determined to use his wealth to improve the use of plant resources. The Arboretum is one of his legacies.

Col. Thompson’s goal was to bring together plants from arid lands so that scientists and researchers could study, experiment, research, and investigate uses and attributes that made the plants unique. He also wanted the arboretum to be open to the public. By the time he died in 1930, the arboretum had already gained a reputation that extended far beyond the borders of Arizona.

Thompson’s home, the 8,000-square-foot Picket Post House, is immediately adjacent to the arboretum and is easily viewed from the far end of the main trail. It was in private hands for years, but in 2008, the state purchased it with Heritage Funds and it is now under park management.

The Arboretum features plants from the world’s deserts, towering trees, captivating cacti, sheer mountain cliffs, a streamside forest, panoramic vistas, many natural habitats with varied wildlife, a desert lake, a hidden canyon, specialty gardens and more.

Boyce Thompson Arboretum: Plants of the World’s Deserts © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Boyce Thompson Arboretum: Plants of the World’s Deserts © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cooperatively managed by the University of Arizona and Arizona State Parks, the arboretum sits at the base of the Picketpost Mountains and features a collection of 3,200 different desert plants in a unique series of botanical gardens, and a 1.5-mile main loop walking trail that roughly parallels the normally dry Silver King Wash.

The main trail begins at the visitor center and quickly enters the colorful Hummingbird/Butterfly Garden, with a collection of plants designed to bloom throughout the year to attract Arizona’s diverse hummingbird and butterfly species.

A 2.5-acre Demonstration Garden shows various plants in functional landscapes; an area complete with patios, walls, shade structures, vine arbors, walkways, and rockwork.

Several trails branch off from the first part of the Main Trail, so you don’t have to walk far to see the highlights, and much of the trail system is wheelchair-accessible.

The historic Smith Interpretive Center, a short walk down the main trail contains botanical exhibits and displays, and two display greenhouses feature cacti and other succulents that might not otherwise survive the winter cold at this 2,400-foot elevation.

Boyce Thompson Arboretum: Plants of the World’s Deserts © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Boyce Thompson Arboretum: Plants of the World’s Deserts © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Shorter trails cut through three desert environments. Find native medicinal and edible plants in the Sonoran Desert; plants from desert landscapes in western Texas, southern New Mexico and Chihuahua, Mexico, in the Chihuahua Desert; and flora from the Cuyo, Monte, and Chaco regions of Bolivia, Argentina, and Paraguay in the South American Desert.

Look for the bizarre boojum trees from Baja California. The two specimens were brought here from Mexico in the 1920s and are the tallest ones on display in the U.S. The tall conical plants are related to the native ocotillo.

The Arboretum’s Australian Walkabout, Eucalyptus forest, South African collection, and herb garden offers more specific collections, colorful wildflowers, and varied cacti.

Boyce Thompson Arboretum: Plants of the World’s Deserts © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Boyce Thompson Arboretum: Plants of the World’s Deserts © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

More than 270 species of birds have been recorded, including Gambel’s quail, Canyon wren, and black-throated sparrows, making it a prime spot for birders. A checklist of birds is available upon request. Ayer Lake and Queen Creek on the Main Trail are good places to watch for wildlife; and you may even see endangered species such as the Gila topminnow and desert pupfish.

Queen Creek cuts through the Arboretum’s bottomlands, and supports the water-loving trees that take root there, including Fremont cottonwood, Arizona ash, black willow, and Arizona black walnut. Take a look at the spiny branched ocotillo, the green-stemmed Palo Verde, the thorny acacias, the low-growing mesquite, and the golden-flowered agaves.

Visit the Arboretum and have your horizons expanded as to the value and use of plants and trees from arid lands for food, shelter, and livelihood, both in the past and the present.

Details

Boyce Thompson Arboretum State Park

Elevation: 2,400 feet

Location: U.S. 60 near mile marker 223

Directions: From junction Highway 79 and Highway 60, 12 miles east on Highway 60

Address: 37615 U.S. Hwy 60, Superior, AZ 85273

Phone: (520) 689-2811

Entrance Fees: $10; children ages 5-12, $5; age 4 and under, free

Websites: www.azstateparks.com and www.ag.arizona.edu

Boyce Thompson Arboretum: Plants of the World’s Deserts © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Boyce Thompson Arboretum: Plants of the World’s Deserts © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

When I walk in the desert the birds sing very beautifully

When I walk in the desert the trees wave their branches in the breeze

When I walk in the desert the tall saguaro wave their arms way up high

When I walk in the desert the animals stop to look at me as if they were saying

“Welcome to our home.”

—Jeanette Chico, in When It Rains

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Birding in South Texas

Not fitting the stereotype of the avid birdwatcher who travels to the most exotic corners of the globe, many RVers simply want to be where the birds are.

A few of the hundreds of black-bellied whistling ducks that make their home in the Mission area. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
A few of the hundreds of black-bellied whistling ducks that make their home in the Mission area. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Not wearing the latest outdoor gear, carrying the biggest scopes, peering through the most expensive binoculars, and checking another bird off the official life list, we carry our mid-priced super-zoom cameras and take great pleasure in seeing the beautiful creatures that fill the air with music and the skies with color.

That’s what draws us and many other snowbirds to South Texas.

Located at the southern tip of Texas, the Rio Grande Valley hosts one of the most spectacular convergences of birds on earth. Well over 500 species have been spotted in this ecowonderland, including several that can be found only in this southernmost part of the U.S. Each year, birders come to The Valley to see bird species they can’t find anyplace else in the country—from the green jay, black-bellied whistling ducks (pictured above), and the buff-bellied hummingbird to the great kiskadee (pictured below), roseate spoonbill, and the Altamira oriole.

The Great Kiskadee has a bright yellow belly and looks a little like a kingbird on steroids but with it’s bold black and white striped head, and reddish brown upperparts it is stands out from other species. It is also large (almost 10 inches in length) and loud, repeatedly calling out its name. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
The Great Kiskadee has a bright yellow belly and looks a little like a kingbird on steroids but with it’s bold black and white striped head, and reddish brown upperparts it is stands out from other species. It is also large (almost 10 inches in length) and loud, repeatedly calling out its name. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

After all, The Valley offers not just one but a total of nine World Birding Centers, and it’s located at the convergence of two major flyways, the Central and Mississippi.

Often referred to as The Texas Tropics, this area is very popular, too, with snowbirds from the Midwest and Central Canada. However, these winter tourists are not simply referred to as snowbirds but affectionately dubbed Winter Texans. After all, these birdwatchers and winter visitors are very important to the area’s economy, so they are, indeed, welcomed.

Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park, just south of Mission, is not only Texas’ southernmost state park, but since October 2005, the headquarters of the World Birding Center.

The 760-acre park draws visitors from as far away as Europe and Japan hoping to spot some of the more than 325 species of birds and over 250 species of butterflies, many of them from neighboring Mexico and Central America.

green jay
The colorful green jay is usually seen in brushy areas and dense woods in the lower Rio Grande Valley.. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cars are not allowed in the park but a trolley makes regular pick-ups along the 7 mile paved loop allowing birders to hitch a ride from one feeding station to the next. It’s a quiet, beautiful, place and it is filled with birds.

As the trolley rounds the bend into the park visitors are frequently greeted by a sizable flock of the loud and raucous plain chachalaca, a brown, chicken-like species that’s found only in this part of the country.

To assist the casual birder Bentsen offers a series of bird blinds strategically placed near various feeding stations. The hut made of horizontally-placed wood slats is reached by a ramp so it is accessible to those with disabilities.

Inside the blind the wood slats can be folded down to form a platform for cameras so a tripod isn’t necessary to keep the camera steady. All you need to do is sit and watch the show as the birds keep coming to feed. We sat on a bench in the blind, peered through the opening and pressed the shutter repeatedly without disturbing the birds.

Yellow-breasted great kiskadees swooped down in front of us and drank from the small pool of water. This flycatcher has black and white stripes on its crown and sides, appears to be a kind of cross between a kingfisher and a meadowlark, and attracts attention by its incessant “kis-ka-dee” calls.

Green jays (pictured above) postured and fluttered at the feeders. This beautiful bird is, indeed, green-breasted (unlike our blue jay), with green wings, but there’s also some white, yellow, and blue plumage. This bird’s flashy coloring, boisterous nature, dry, throaty rattle, and frequent “cheh-chehcheh-cheh” call make it very easy to spot.

common pauraque
A widespread nightjar throughout the Americas, the Common Paraque reaches the United States only in the Rio Grande Valley. Its call is a loud burry whistle, “purr-WEEE-eer.” © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A golden-fronted woodpecker fed at the peanut butter log. Barred with black and white above and buff below, the male has red restricted to the cap; nape orange; forecrown yellow; the female lacks red but has an orange nape. Its voice is a loud churrrr; the call a burry chuck-chuck-chuck.

Another World Birding Center located in McAllen, is at Quinta Mazatlan, a historic 1930s Spanish Revival adobe hacienda that’s surrounded by 15 acres of lush tropical landscape and several birding trails.

Estero Llano Grande in Weslaco attracts a spectacular array of South Texas wildlife with its varied landscape of shallow lakes, woodlands, and thorn forest. Commonly seen species include the great kiskadee, Altamira oriole, green jay, groove-billed ani, tropical parula, common pauraques (pictured above), green kingfishers, grebes, black-bellied whistling ducks, and an assortment of wading birds like the great blue heron, and roseate spoonbill.

The warm winter climate and the awesome bird watching attract Winter Texans to The Valley and keep them returning year after year. We’ll be back, Hope to see you there.

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Magnet For Birds & Snowbirds

They may be blue in the North Country, but in the Rio Grande Valley of South Texas, the jays have bright green backs, purple-blue heads with black trim down to the chest, and yellowish-green underparts.

green jay
Take up bird watching. Many of the colorful birds found in Sunbelt regions are tropical species, reaching their northern range limits. The colorful green jay is usually seen in brushy areas and dense woods in the lower Rio Grande Valley.. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Valley, as it is affectionately called, is an area near the Mexican border that stretches from Brownsville and Harlingen in the east to Mission in the west—a distance of about 65 miles. Starting in the east and heading west, there’s Brownsville, Los Fresco, Rio Honda, San Benito, Harlingen, La Feria, Mercedes, Weslaco, Donna, Alamo, San Juan, Pharr, Edinburg, McAllen, and Mission.

The Valley is one of North America’s meccas for birders. And the green jay (pictured above) is the official bird of McAllen, the area’s largest city with 135,000 residents.

Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park—an area well known by both birders and the U.S. border patrol—is a great spot for bird watching.

Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park, just south of Mission, is not only Texas’ southernmost state park, but since October 2005, the headquarters of the World Birding Center.

Dozens of green jays along with the raucous chachalacas (pictured below), great kiskadee (pictured below), and Altamira orioles (pictured below) congregate around a series of feeders a short distance from the roadway at the first stop on a tram ride from the visitors center.

The raucous Plain Chachalacas are just one of the very common birds you can find congregating at feeding stations placed throughout the nature centers in the Rio Grande Valley. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved.
The raucous Plain Chachalacas are just one of the very common birds you can find congregating at feeding stations placed throughout the nature centers in the Rio Grande Valley. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved.

This is bird watching made easy in what is touted as one of the most ecologically diverse areas of the United States.

From an observation tower in the park’s south end, visitors catch a glimpse of the meandering slow-flowing Rio Grande and neighboring Mexico. Sharing the park with birders and cyclists, are numerous border patrol vehicles, keeping watch along irrigation canals for people trying to enter the US illegally.

The green jay, along with some 500 other species that stay in the Rio Grande Valley year-round, is one of many head-turning attractions for the tens of thousands of Winter Texans who flock to The Valley annually.

Those who like to combine birding with spectacular architecture do what we did and head to the city-owned Quinta Mazatlan, one of the largest adobe-style mansions in the US.

There, staff relate stories of Jason Matthews, the adventurer who is said to have fought the Turks with Lawrence of Arabia and who built the estate, including a rooftop “hooch” made of sticks.

The great kiskadee has yellow on its crown that is often obscured by the black stripes that frames it. However, if you get a view of the top of its head as I did in this photo, the yellow brightly stands out on this Rio Grande Valley specialty. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
The great kiskadee has yellow on its crown that is often obscured by the black stripes that frames it. However, if you get a view of the top of its head as I did in this photo, the yellow brightly stands out on this Rio Grande Valley specialty. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The place was nearly demolished after being damaged by a hurricane in 1967 but a local couple bought it for a song and restored it to the point it was honored for its splendor by the State of Texas.

At the end of the ’90s, the property was once again up for sale and the city outbid developers seeking to raze the mansion and develop the site. Now Quinta Mazatlan, like the state park, is one of the region’s most important birding areas and one of the most photographed spots in McAllen.

Edinburg Scenic Wetlands and World Birding Center sits on 40 acres within an Edinburg city park. Built on re-claimed farm fields adjacent to the city’s effluent and floodwater ponds, Edinburg Scenic Wetlands is a showcase for wildlife and a native habitat site set amidst an urban setting. Surrounding the Interpretive Center, the 3.5-acre native butterfly habitat offers some of the most diverse habitat in the region.

Waterfowl and shorebirds like the green kingfisher, black-bellied whistling duck, least grebe, and American avocet have a home here, and can be easily viewed from platforms overlooking peaceful freshwater lagoons. At least 13 species of ducks flock here in winter months.

Estero Llano Grande has a well-deserved reputation as a can’t-miss birding destination. At the geographic center of the World Birding Center network, Estero Llano Grande in Weslaco attracts a spectacular array of South Texas wildlife with its varied landscape of shallow lakes, woodlands, and thorn forest.

The Altamira Oriole is a bird of Mexico and Central America whose range just reaches into southern Texas. The largest oriole occurring in the United States, it makes the longest nest of any North American bird: its woven basket-like nest can reach 25.5 inches in length. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
The Altamira Oriole is a bird of Mexico and Central America whose range just reaches into southern Texas. The largest oriole occurring in the United States, it makes the longest nest of any North American bird: its woven basket-like nest can reach 25.5 inches in length. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Estero Llano Grande shares some of the same specialty birds as Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park. Commonly seen species include the great kiskadee, plain chacalaca, Altamira oriole, green jay, groove-billed ani, tropical parula, common pauraques, green kingfishers, grebes, coots, black-bellied whistling ducks, and an assortment of wading birds like the great blue heron, roseate spoonbill, and long-billed dowitcher.

The many area RV parks are packed with Winter Texans who have for decades discovered Texas as a more economical alternative to Florida.

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Mission a Prime Destination For Winter Texans

Located right in the heart of the Rio Grande Valley, about 250 miles south of San Antonio, lies a tight knit community of friends, family, and children.

The raucous Plain Chachalacas are just one of the very common birds you can find congregating at feeding stations placed throughout the nature centers in the Rio Grande Valley. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved.
The raucous Plain Chachalacas are just one of the very common birds you can find congregating at feeding stations placed throughout the nature centers in the Rio Grande Valley. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved.

During winter, they embrace the thousands of Winter Texans that call Mission their temporary home. With winter temperatures averaging 72 degrees and with a ZERO percent chance of snow… why wouldn’t they?

Mission has a little bit of everything for everyone. Close enough to the hustle and bustle of a larger city, but far enough from the harsh cold winters most are trying to escape. While Mission has over 80,000 permanent residents, the Sunbelt community caters to those looking for a sunny alternative to blizzards, snow shovels, and tire chains.

Mission looks forward to another season full of fun loving, adventure seekers who also want to just kick up their feet and enjoy a margarita right on the calm waters of the Rio Grande. There is never a shortage of activities to do, places to visit, or delicious Tex-Mex food to eat.

With more than 300 butterfly species, Mission is proud to be the butterfly capitol of the US.

Two hundred butterfly species have been seen at Mission’s National Butterfly Center, a project of the North American Butterfly Association (NABA), a nonprofit organization dedicated to the conservation and study of wild butterflies in their native habitats. This 100-acre wildlife center and native species botanical garden contains trails for exploring, observation areas, garden café, educational exhibits, and a plant nursery. The beauty of the natural world, the wonder of butterflies, particularly and the powerful role they play in maintaining healthy ecosystems and sustainable food resources. The Center is open for exploration daily.

Camping at Bentsen Palm Village RV Park south of Mission.
Camping at Bentsen Palm Village RV Park south of Mission. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The National Butterfly Center is honored to host the 19th Annual Texas Butterfly Festival. From November 1-4, 2014, attendees will spend three days exploring renowned public lands and private properties with world-class trip leaders and expert guides. The Festival is taking place during prime butterfly season, when you may reasonably expect to see more than 60 species in a day.

In keeping with all the nature that surrounds the area, Mission is also home to the World Birding Center. Known as one of the top birding destinations in the country, Bentsen Rio Grande Valley State Park well deserves its status as headquarters of the World Birding Center. Birders across the nation know Bentsen as a treasure trove of unique Valley specialties, tropical birds found nowhere else in the United States.

Striking Green Jays with bright green backs, purple-blue heads, and yellowish-green under parts; radiant orange Altamira Orioles; Great Kiskadee, an eye-catching mix of black, white, yellow, and reddish-brown; and raucous Plain Chachalacas are just a few of the very common birds you can find congregating at feeding stations placed throughout the park.

Other neo-tropical varieties such as Ferruginous Pygmy-owl, Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet, Clay-colored Thrush, Hook-billed Kite, and Gray Hawk are also likely. Virtual clouds of migrating Swainson’s and Broad-winged Hawks are a popular spring and fall spectacle.

Pet friendly amenities at Bentsen Palm Village in the Rio Grande Valley include dog agility course and pet parade. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Pet friendly amenities at Bentsen Palm Village in the Rio Grande Valley include dog agility course and pet parade. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mission prides itself on the affordable appeal of the town and it’s amenities.

New restaurants and stores open weekly and huge projects such as the University Of Texas Medical School and a Space X commercial launch pad plan to call the region home.

The recent media exaggerations of the lifestyle in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas have raised some concerns. However, contrary to what is reported by mainstream media regarding safety and illegal immigration, Mission is, in fact, one of the safest places to be. The community’s priority is the security of their visitors and residents.

With its wide variety of outdoor recreation, such as kayaking, canoeing, biking, and golfing at one of four premier golf courses and world class birding and nature attractions, Mission is a place where simple activities become rich and enjoyable experiences.

Mission extends an invitation to come for a visit and see for yourself why thousands of Winter Texans return every year.

A few of the hundreds of black-bellied whistling ducks that make their home in the Mission area. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
A few of the hundreds of black-bellied whistling ducks that make their home in the Mission area. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Details

For additional information on the Mission, Texas, area visit the following websites:

Discover Mission: www.discovermission.com

The Greater Mission Chamber of Commerce: www.missionchamber.com

National Butterfly Center: www.nationalbutterflycenter.org

World Birding Center: www.theworldbirdingcenter.com

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Bird Photography is What I like to Do

With binoculars, scopes, and gazes turned to the skies, birders are often easier to spot than their feathered friends.

Green jay takes a bath in Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park, headquarters for World Birding Center. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Green jay takes a bath in Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park, headquarters for World Birding Center. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Birding has become one of the fastest-growing and most popular activities in the U.S. and around the world. An estimated 30 percent of all Americans go birding each year.

According to an U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service study, birdwatchers contribute over 36 billion dollars annually to the nation’s economy.
Bird watching is also one of the few activities open to all ages and levels of ability.

Getting Started

It doesn’t take much to get started in bird watching. You don’t need special hiking boots or clothing and you don’t require special equipment. Birds can be observed with the naked eye, although a pair of binoculars makes the experience more enjoyable.

Field Guides

Using one or more field guides are also recommended.

The choice of a field guide for birding can be a very personal thing. Partly it depends on what you want from your field guide; partly on how you process information.

Sibley Guide to Birds

Eastern and Western editions of The Sibley Field Guide of Birds of North America.
Eastern and Western editions of The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of North America.

The Sibley Guide to Birds is THE North American bird book if you’re a serious birder.

The volume covers all the birds, and most of the plumages of all the birds you can find in Canada and the United States. If you have more than a passing fancy, it’s well worth owning. Its large size makes it generally impractical for use as a field guide. Alternately you may opt to purchase this guide in smaller Eastern and Western editions as we have.

Kaufmann Field Guide to Birds of North America

Kaufmann Field Guide to Birds of North America is also THE guide to own. The text is clear and the illustrations are very well done. Kenn Kaufman took the illustrations from photographs and digitally enhanced them to bring out the species characteristics. This field guide quickly became my reference guide of choice.

Record Keeping

Keep a list of the birds you’ve seen.

A great way for birders to keep track of the species they’ve seen is with a “life list”.

The standard procedure for recording a species you’ve seen for the first time is to include the common name, the date and time, and location. Special notes regarding identification, weather conditions, or unusual plumage are often useful for later reference.

Many birders maintain their list by recording their sightings in their favorite field guide. This is a handy approach, but more than one bird watcher has managed to lose a field guide, and also their life list at the same time.

Some birding websites also make it easy for you to maintain a life list directly on-line.

If you decide to become even more serious about keeping lists of the birds you have seen, there are several PC-based packages that make it easy to create and manage your lists.

Birding with a Camera

Bird Photographers wait in predawn light for the sandhill cranes lift-off at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Bird Photographers wait in predawn light for the sandhill cranes lift-off at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A small but increasing number of birders have started to combine photography with their love of birdwatching.

It has been my experience that birding groups aren’t overly photography friendly.

Birdwatching runs at a faster pace and photographers are often considered a slowing threat for the listing expectations of the group. With their high powered scopes birders don’t require the same proximity to birds as do photographers.

As a result of past experiences I now tend to avoid groups of birders or at least maintain a distant presence. However, my encounters with individual birders have been pleasant and meaningful often sharing insights into our particular focus.

Although I deeply enjoy birding, I still consider myself first and foremost a photographer and writer. As a birder, I want to find and enjoy new birds, observe their behavior, and document what I see. As a photographer, I want to photograph birds in good light and a pleasing background, and above all return to my motorhome with quality photos.

I now take photos of birds with two purposes in mind.

Identification

The Black-vented Oriole made its home a short distance from our RV site at Bentsen Palm Village. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
The Black-vented Oriole made its home a short distance from our RV site at Bentsen Palm Village. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

I rarely carry binoculars with me. I can more quickly find a bird and observe it with the telephoto lens on my Canon D-SLR camera. When photographing a bird species for the first time, I’ll use my photo to help me identify the bird once the image has been downloaded to my computer.

Artistic Expression

Beyond and including simple identification, I want my photos to be artistic paying attention to form and composition, sharpness and exposure. I want to avoid compositions where the background will compete with the foreground for attention.

And that’s what gives me the greatest joy in photography and birding.

Worth Pondering…

Have you ever observed a hummingbird moving about in an aerial dance among the flowers—a living prismatic gem…. it is a creature of such fairy-like loveliness as to mock all description.

—W.H. Hudson, Green Mansion

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