Nature’s Wonder

I think it was 8th grade (or some such) that I learned there are 7 natural wonders.  If you asked me to name them I’d have to use Google to look them up.  Since then I have learned from actual experiences that the world possesses many more than 7 what I call, Nature’s Wonders.  

As we explore the world, and our home state of Arizona, we find it to be an amazing, stunningly beautiful wonder.  Recently we have been exploring more depths as we are awed by animal migrations.  Most of us have likely heard of the wildebeest migration and seen fantastic photos of this Nature’s Wonder.  We have recently enjoyed small examples of the depleting butterfly migration in Northern CA.  It is surprising to me to find how few people, particularly Arizonans, have never even heard of the sandhill crane migration to Whitewater Draw in southern Arizona.  It is a feat and spectacle difficult to describe.

To set the stage, Whitewater Draw is outside of Willcox, AZ in the south eastern part of the state, just 12 miles from the Mexico border.  People come from around the world and country to see it.  We meet very few Arizonans, but on our recent trip we met people from as far as Canada, Florida, and Minnesota.  Sandhill cranes often mingle about all day in marshland ponds that surround the site.  Walking paths and viewing platforms allow visitors to sit at one of many benches along the way to contemplate life, see a variety of bird life, and watch the ‘show’. 

There are generally two big ‘shows’, the mass fly-out at sunrise when the cranes fly to corn fields nearby to graze; and the fly-in around sunset when they come back to sleep in the ponds to protect themselves from predators.  The sheer volume of their squawking, the noise, and the abundance of nearly 40,000 birds all flying over in waves is spectacular.

To catch the show you have to be at Whitewater Draw at dawn.  The nearest hotel is in Willcox an hour away.  In the winter months between November and March when they are here, sunrise is around 630am and sunset 530pm.  There is an overflow parking area that many camp at.  It has no electricity or water, but it does have pit toilets.   Some sleep in enormous rigs with generators running, others in vans or campers, and some ambition types sleep in their cars.  Mind you the temps can be quite cold.  On our last visit it snowed, and was 17F.  It’s luck of the draw, as weather does vary.

When we stayed overnight in our camper, our evening entertainment was the ‘rest of the show’ of Nature’s Wonder.  We heard owl calling to their mate and hooting and hollering up a storm.  That is, until we heard the screech of a hawk jet by.  That put an end to the owl’s banter.  Later we heard the yowl of a mountain lion close to our camper, several times, in hunt for its prey.  Then there was the sing-song of coyotes howling in the distance.  The noises of natures continued as we fully immersed ourselves in Nature’s Wonder until the spectacular spectacle of thousands of sandhill cranes ranting and chattering getting ready to take flight.  In a thunderous roar massive waves of cranes took off and filled the air.  It truly is a sight to see, and incredible to witness one of Nature’s Wonders.

Snow geese have joined the raft of cranes and breed as far away as north of the timberline in Greenland, Canada, Alaska, and the northeastern tip of Siberia. They migrate in the winter to warmer climates, making Whitewater Draw an increasing popular destination for them. Albeit, this year they were probably wondering if they made a wrong turn when they wound up in a snowstorm in Southern AZ.

Following the adventures we were met with at Whitewater Draw we ventured to our next stop, not far away, Chiricahua National Monument. You can see my post here … https://kritterspix.com/2023/01/28/chiracahua-national-monument/

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Dead Horse Ranch State Park

Dead Horse Ranch State Park is conveniently located outside of Cottonwood, AZ and offers the public an abundance of reasons to go. With 423 acres, the park hosts a number of scenic hiking & bicycling trails through willow and cottonwood forests, past 3 lagoons, and along the Verde river. The environment provides habitat for mammals (deer, javelina, rabbit, etc.), reptiles, amphibians, and over 200 species of birds. We even saw our first AZ river otter that had come in for some fishing.

The animals aren’t the only ones fishing. The park is popular among fisherman trying to snag a trout of their own.

It’s a great place to contemplate, watch the sunrise or set, enjoy the ducks bobbing for supper, or partake in one’s own picnic. Dead Horse has campsites for RV’s or tents, and cabins for rental. It’s close to the freeway (I-17 / SR-260), and a hidden oasis for wildlife watchers, and outdoorsman alike.

We learned a lot on our visit, and found all the people walking around the pathways to be friendly and kind. We’ll definitely be back for more.

California Cruising

Our Oregon coast trip took us through California on our way home. You can check out our Oregon pix here… https://kritterspix.com/2022/09/30/oregon-coast/

It is stunning to see the diversity of the California coast. The Northern end dives inland into massive redwoods lining the roads. The gigantic ancient trees are impressive to see as they cast a dark shade across the road even in the daylight. The dark roads were narrow with constant twists & turns that made them challenging and stressful to drive, while trying to enjoy the scenery along the way.

As we continued down the coast we moved from forest and trees to ocean with rocks littering the landscape as far as the eye could see.

North of San Fransisco there are wineries galore through Mendocino, Napa, Sonoma, and Santa Ynez valleys just to name a few.

As we got past San Francisco / Oakland area our landscape changed to agricultural. We stopped at Gilroy for some of their famed garlic, and Salinas, known as the ‘Salad bowl of the world’ for fruit & nuts – something CA is known for.

It was fascinating to see the change in landscape along the long coast, as we made our way.

Benny Creek

We’re not normal campground folk. We drive long distances to amazing overlooks to camp on our own throughout our forest lands. Unfortunately, that is becoming increasingly difficult, you can see my gripe here: https://kritterspix.com/2022/06/18/everything-changes/. When we were going through Big Lake, we stayed in the Big Lake Campground where we had a nice view of the lake down the road.

Big Lake is a popular fishing lake in the area. There are actually quite a few of them in the Pinetop / Lakeside area, most with designated campgrounds (some with ‘No Camping’).

Greer Lakes is another, with fishing at any of three reservoirs: Bunch, Tunnel, or River Reservoirs. There are 2 pay campgrounds: Rolfe Hoyer and Benny Creek.

Benny Creek Campground has a flowing stream at its base and overlooks Bunch Reservoir from the top of the hill. Fishermen on the dock and in boats can be seen from its shores, along with blue heron seeking their own meal.

Along the long dirt roadways we took, we did find a number of animals from birds to big horn sheep.

While I had hoped to get some pix of black bear, which are known to be prevalent in the areas we drove, we weren’t so lucky – this time. We’ll keep trying though. In the meantime, we continue to enjoy the outdoors and everything it has to offer.

Lake Havasu

Lake Havasu is home to the famed London Bridge, but it is also home to a lot of RV’ers and boaters.

During our brief stay, we had a wonderful visit with our special friends, and saw an abundance of large (& fast) boats driving through town and on the waterways. Though February is not necessarily prime time for the boaters, it certainly was for the RV’ers, who litter the campgrounds and desert with big rigs.

While we weren’t there long, we enjoyed our stay and the warm weather (89F) away from our snow packed roads (6F the morning we left).

Gotta love the diversity of Arizona.

Birds a feather…

What do they say? Birds a feather flock together. That is no more true than at Whitewater Draw, where thousands (we heard numbers anywhere between 20,000 and 47,000) sandhill cranes flock to this lush marshland in southern Arizona.

But it’s not just sandhill cranes. The area is rich with all sorts of birds, including the blue, green, and cinnamon -winged teals, Northern pintails, red-winged blackbirds, Northern shovelers, grebes, egret, hawks and owls.

Cinnamon teal at Whitewater Draw
Green-winged teal
Northern shoveler rests in water at Whitewater Draw

We saw quite a variety of waterfowl during a trip to Whitewater Draw for a Photo Workshop sponsored by Arizona Game and Fish. (See my post here… https://kritterspix.com/2022/02/06/whitewater-draw-workshop/)

Pintail duck at Whitewater draw

We saw birds I never heard of, like the colorful Vermillion Flycatcher and Northern Harrier.

Vermillion Flycatcher
Juvenile vermillion flycatcher in the weeds along Whitewater Draw

Not to mention the very entertaining sandhill cranes.

Sandhill crane graze at Whitewater Draw
Sandhill cranes chatter

Whitewater Draw has had increasing numbers of sandhill cranes year over year. This area is the best sandhill crane-viewing site in Arizona, and one of the largest migration sites in the country. It’s a thrilling sight to see and experience.

I got a lot of trigger time with my camera, and practiced my Birds-in-Flight (BIF) photography. Check out my post of BIF photography here.. https://kritterspix.com/2022/02/06/birds-in-flight-bif-photography/

Christmas on the Beach

Sometimes when you need a distraction, you have to do something different.

It’s been a difficult year for us, so we decided a change of scenery for the holiday was in order.

We thought some beach wildlife was just the thing… and we knew just the place. Only 30 miles south of Paso Robles is a wonderful stretch of beach rich with sealife.

We camped out for nearly 2 weeks and took in the sea otters along Morro Bay.

When we got our fill of that, we moved on to Pismo Beach to check out the butterfly migration.

We took in blue heron fishing in a stream.

And were lucky enough to watch them catch supper.

It rained much of the time, but we managed to get some pix nonetheless.

If you are patient enough and persistent, one can capture beautiful moments.

It was a wonderful break. We are ready for a New Year full of positivity and promise.

East Clear Creek

With all the rain we just got, we hoped to get some low hanging clouds and fog hanging in the trees along East Clear Creek.

The bridge across the FR 95 / 96 Road had lifting fog as the sun tried to break through, and didn’t disappoint.

Fog streamed down through the trees to unveil East Clear Creek below. It was a memorable sight, and one I was happy to capture the terrific moment I found myself in.

Mingus Mountain

It’s always fun exploring new areas. We had never been to Mingus Mountain, so decided with weather coming in… it was a good time.

The campground is pretty developed, and was fairly full. But it was quiet and had a series of trails behind each campsite offering terrific views of Camp Verde and Cottonwood below.

We recall our friend Gary waxing poetic about Mingus Mountain when he used to hang glide from Mingus. Following massive rain and winds that we endured through the night and into the morning, we encountered a complete white out of low hanging clouds and fog.

We checked out Gary’s Mingus launch site and considered the courage it took to jump off this cliff into the great blue below. Ah, but I must take pause. Gary would admonish me as the ‘uninitiated’ for using such a word. A hang glider pilot does not ‘jump’ off a cliff, he flies. In fact, an experienced pilot approaches it with eagerness and exhilaration.

When we were there it was nothing but clouds – not a good day for hang gliding, but eerie and fantastic nonetheless. It was a nice spot, with beautiful views. We enjoyed the weather and all the moody scenes it provided, making for interesting photographs.

Our trip definitely reminded me that it’s fun and exciting to try new places and new experiences. It’s easy to get stuck in our doldrums of same ‘ol, same ‘ol. We need to get out more to enjoy new and different experiences.

North Rim, Grand Canyon

We frequent the North Rim of the Grand Canyon much more than the South Rim, in large part because we don’t actually enter the park.

We are able to enter the outside of the Park boundaries where we can camp and mostly enjoy great views in solitude. I will admit this time we saw more people on our trip than I think we ever have before. It was a treat to meet fellow travelers who were like minded and shared similar interests.

We drove all the way to Point Sublime (for which we obtained a Back Country Permit, as it is just over the Park Boundary) and camped for several days.

Surprisingly the leaves had hardly begun to change and temps were fairly warm. Unfortunately, we saw very few clouds. By the time we got home we were welcomed with cool temps, clouds, and rain. No matter what, though, it’s always a pleasure to enjoy nature and a good view.

Check out more pix here … https://kritterspix.com/2021/09/26/rainbow-trail/