Among Friends 24 February 2021, Cactus Wren

by Walt Anderson

There is nothing understated about the Cactus Wren; perhaps that’s why it’s Arizona’s State Bird! It’s often stated that it is brash, bold, and brazen; it truly makes a statement whenever it’s around with its rrar rrar rrar call like the delayed starter of an old car, as we oldtimers can remember.

The Cactus Wren is also our largest wren, though it has some even bigger cousins in South America.

While it occurs in many desert situations, this xenophile (freed from dependence on free water) also occurs in desert grassland and up into chaparral-covered slopes, as long as it finds the prickly company it likes to keep. It is found throughout the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge, including all the way up Brown Canyon until it becomes Madrean oak woodland.

Appropriately named, the Cactus Wren has a real fondness for cacti, especially chollas, its favorite nest site. Highly adaptable, the Cactus Wren even thrives in residential areas as long as the spiny succulents are sufficient in number.


The Cactus Wren forages on the ground and in low vegetation, using its long beak as a probe and a pick. It gets its share of insects, like most wrens, but it also takes seeds and fruits, such as cactus pulp.


Cactus Wrens often have multiple nests in their territory, perhaps implying that this is a high-wren district, only for searching predators to find most of them disappointingly empty. The spiny supporting vegetation also deters most predators. Here a wren has gathered some soft lining for its nest. Parents jointly build the first nest, and when those young have left the nest, the male feeds the fledglings while the female incubates a second clutch. The mates may sleep in separate roosting nests.


Globular nests about the size of a football have side entrances. Nests are usually of flexible grasses and forbs, unlike the sticks used in the globular, side-entrance nests of tiny Verdins or the flat cups of thrasher nests.


A Cactus Wren hot-footing it atop a saguaro. What a terrific choice for this to be Arizona’s state bird!

Wild Wednesday 24 February 2021. Light

by Walt Anderson

The Granite Dells is a sensational landscape at any scale, but the job of a serious photographer is to see such a place in a new light. In mid-day without a cloud in the sky, it becomes a bit challenging to find a subject that isn’t too contrasty, too flat, too “ordinary.”

There is a magic hour, however, before the sun sets that often brings the landscape to life. There are the same rocks, the same trees, the same birds, as any other time, but if you can truly see the light, the ordinary becomes extraordinary.

In recent years, the opening of the Peavine and Iron King Trails; the creation of public open space in parts of the Dells, including the lakes; and the educational campaigns of Save the Dells and Granite Dells Preservation Foundation have awakened residents and visitors alike as to just how important and beautiful this landscape is. Public support has been tremendous, and we are at a crucial moment where a developer’s annexation proposal has reached the development agreement phase. Soon those details will be revealed, and the public can weigh in on the finer points until the City Council concludes the negotiations, and the annexation, we hope, becomes the win-win-win we have been promoting all the way along.

This Wild Wednesday is a celebration of this precious, unique landscape. All these photos of the landscape and some local waterfowl were taken recently. I will comment on how the light helps make each one special.

The AED annexation is a vital step in our desire to protect as much as possible of the Granite Dells as a regional park and preserve valuable to people and wildlife alike. In addition to our own celebration of this special place, we need to do everything we can as caring citizens to help our decision-makers see the light.



The sun is casting its last rays on the dramatic summits of Easter Peak and Point of Rocks. In the foreground shadows, the Peavine Trail invites us into this scene. Scattered clouds are illuminated, creating interest that would be missing on a clear-sky Arizona day. As this day comes to a close, a Canyon Wren in the rugged turrets of Point of Rocks sings its haunting vespers. It’s soon time for us to hurry home while we can still see the trail.

A few minutes later, we pass the base of Point of Rocks. It’s hard to imagine the underground forces that created this intricately patterned, almost tortured, granitic sculpture over the past 1.4 billion years. How lucky we are to have been born just at the right millennium to view this natural monument! I would have hated to have missed it by being born just a million years too late.


The low-angle light draws my eye to a giant petrified lizard eating a boulder-sized egg. The lighting is attractive on its own, but the playful eye sees something much more memorable here.


Late-day sun lends a warm richness to this scene in a cove of Watson Lake as seen from the Peavine Trail.


There are more shadows than highlights here, but those highlights give depth to a scene of weathered rocks and incredibly tough trees.


I am not afraid to shoot into the sun if its power is restricted by foreground elements that create interesting starbursts (the sun is a star, after all). What surprised me was all the aerial flotsam that the starburst makes visible.


Late afternoon at Watson Lake created a very appealing portrait of a Mallard drake swimming away from the sun. The light emphasizes the green curve at the back of his head and is just right to catch that reflected highlight in his eye. I panned with the bird, who was swimming fast. This kept him and his reflection sharp while blurring the reflections of cocklebur into pleasing abstraction.


Here I had to shoot at a speed that stopped the drake Shoveler’s motion and didn’t blur the small sticks projecting up from the water. The bird is gorgeous, but it is the context—the reflections—that makes this special.


If you are out and about earlier in the day, you can take advantage of an Arizona blue sky by using it as the cool reflection. The iridescent green on the head of this handsome Common Goldeneye is emphasized by the front-quarter lighting. The head is also positioned right at a point of power, and the bird has room to move into the picture (a couple little photo “rules” that often help).


I don’t want to suggest that a clear, blue sky is always detrimental to photography. Here it provides welcome simplicity and lovely contrast with the warm colors of late-day light on the summits. The deep foreground shadows tell you that the sun is almost down, its rays lingering a bit longer on the higher terrain. This view from the Peavine Trail is just waiting out there for you to pay attention and catch it!


Finally, sunset can provide striking silhouettes against a colorful sky. Here, it’s all about balance. The dove in the pinyon snag adds a nice touch.

As the human population and its inevitable pressures continue to grow, we need to be proactive to counter the forces of destruction that will make this place physically and spiritually uninhabitable. Every community needs to have the collective wisdom and political will to do the right thing for those who follow, including the millions of other species that share this lucky planet with us. Mars is getting a lot of attention right now, but its lush heyday is gone.

We are not too late to save the best of our local environment—the Granite Dells. Let’s join forces and do it!

Among Friends. 17 February 2021. Chipmunks

by Walt Anderson

The pawed cast for this week includes some of the most charming of the rodents—chipmunks. Of the 25 species in the US, Arizona has 6, though the most widespread is the Cliff Chipmunk, star of this show. Its range runs from Utah and Colorado down through Arizona in a broad band from the northwest to the southeast and well into Mexico, including a disjunct population near Hermosillo on the coast of Sonora, where they live in the proximity of boa constrictors!

The Baboquivaris are the westernmost of the Sky Islands, and as a biogeographic island, they have not received every potential colonist from the “mainland.” Friends of BANWR come from elsewhere in Pima County and perhaps beyond, but I imagine most can see chipmunks in the Santa Catalinas. Chippies are absent from the Santa Ritas too despite the proximity of other Sky Islands.

The Cliff Chipmunk is only modestly striped compared to some of its brighter cousins. All chipmunks have striped faces, which help distinguish them from the larger Golden-mantled Ground Squirrels, often mistaken for chippies, though they only live in the higher elevations of the northern half of Arizona.

The genus Tamias means “storer,” referring to their cache economy. Expandable fur-lined cheek pouches allow them to hold large qualities of seeds to carry back to their caches or to haul away dirt and debris from tunnel digging.

A bit hyper and “chippy” by our standards, chipmunks actually got their common name from a corruption of an Ojibwa word for “headfirst,” since they can scamper up and down vertical boulders or tree trunks with ease.

Chipmunk chipping incessantly. Despite what Alvin might tell you, chipmunks do not sing Christmas songs, though they do have a variety of calls—chips, chucks, chatters, trills, warbles, even whistles. I enjoy watching chipmunks chipping, with their tails jerking wildly with each note. After an hour of listening to incessant scolding, however, I am ready to change the channel to, perhaps, some lovely bird song.


Classic Cliff Chipmunk with distinct facial stripes but subtle dorsal stripes. They are alert little creatures, as they have to be, as there are plenty of snakes, raptors, and small carnivores that love fresh chippy. I’ve never seen one swimming, so I don’t think you’ll find fish and chippy.


Chipmunks are primarily vegetarian, eating seeds, flowers, nuts, and berries, though they will take animal matter (insects, spiders, worms, grasshoppers, even bird eggs if they can get them). That is especially true of female chippies, who need the extra protein to support the developing embryos and when lactating. Gestation is just 30 days, so the 2-8 newborns are blind and helpless, though they grow quickly and are adult size in 3 months. This chipmunk shows its capacious shopping bags, otherwise known as cheek pouches.


Chipmunks have excellent manual dexterity, easily manipulating seeds or nuts as they eat. They also are fastidious with personal hygiene, grooming their fur carefully and even moistening their paws and rubbing their ears much as a cat does. They are among the fast and the furriest.


In the northern parts of their range, they go into periods of torpor in winter, not true hibernation, but shutting down to a great extent. Then they wake up and eat from their stores. In much of Arizona and Mexico, they are active year-round, even coming out into the snow if there is a chance of finding some fresh groceries. This fur coat may be warm, but it loses its camouflage effectiveness in the snow.


Rodents are the most diverse of all mammalian orders, but they are often persecuted or simply ignored. Chipmunks are unintentional ambassadors for their kind, as to most of us, they are irresistibly cute and charming. We need to look beyond natural animal magnetism, however, and appreciate all the wonderful little things that populate this world of ours. We are just one element in the great flowering of animal diversity, and without the rest of life, we are totally out of context.

A History Of The Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge Land

In 1864 Pedro Aquirre, Jr. created the Buenos Ayres Ranch. After passing through several owners it in the following century it became the centerpiece of the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge when it was established in 1985.

The Spring 2006 edition of the Journal of Arizona History published an article about the origin of Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge titled IN THE LAND OF GOOD WINDS: An Informal History of Buenos Aires Ranch. It includes black & white photographs and an informative narrative by Betty Leavengood. She is an outdoor person and freelance writer. Her work includes the Tucson Hiking Guide and Grand Canyon Women: Lives Shaped by Landscape.

The article is available for reading online at JSTOR, a major digital library of academic journals, books and other primary sources. The article can be found at:

Leavengood, Betty. “IN THE LAND OF GOOD WINDS: An Informal History of Buenos Aires Ranch.” The Journal of Arizona History, vol. 47, no. 1, 2006, pp. 1–30. JSTOR, Accessed 16 Feb. 2021.

You must log into a JSTOR account to read it. You may already have access to JSTOR through your library or school. If not, you may register for a free account for online reading by going to to register either directly or through Google.

Once you have logged in, just click on the citation above to access the article.

Jim, A Volunteer At The Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge

by Ricardo Small

Jim started spending winters in Southern Arizona about 15 years ago. He’s been a full time resident for two years. He happened upon the Refuge during a November Festival years ago and hiked on the Refuge ever since. He’s volunteered for a couple years. 

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Jim said, “BANWR is a wonderful place filled with quiet, beauty, solitude and nothingness. A delight to hike and volunteer in, BANWR rewards the person with joy and tranquility. It is sublime.”

Jim volunteers other places, too, because he likes to contribute to our cultures, our surroundings and our communities, building a happiness for all participants. 

Jim thinks places like BANWR should never be lost. He said, “Charles Bowden stated it perfectly in The Importance of Being Nowhere. It defines why I love the BANWR.”

I didn’t remember reading that Bowden essay, so I searched online. Here it is at this link: The Tucson Weekly republished this wonderful essay back in August 2002. Bowden wrote, “God, in his infinite wisdom, has created places like Sedona and Santa Fe as sacrifice areas. Out here in nowhere, we are lucky. Nothing happens. Progress seems nil. We have a future.”

Jim is a wise man to define why he loves BANWR with Bowden’s essay. Jim is a great asset to our Refuge. Thank you, Jim.

Among Friends, 3 February 2021. Melt. by Walt Anderson

Arizona has been enduring drought for quite some time. January storms this year provided some relief, though so many plants and animals were hurting from the lack of water that recovery may only be partial. Of course, waterbirds forsake the dry grasslands when the few ponds with standing water have dried up. Yet when the rains come, the plants and animals respond rather remarkably. Winter is not over yet, so we wait to see if more moisture is in the offing.


Too often the clouds have rolled through, creating memorable sunsets but sending moisture elsewhere. The wind, in fact, may draw out more water through evapotranspiration than a light drizzle might provide. In Arizona, it’s a dry rain, they say!


But when the rain gods are smiling, the clouds drop life-giving rain that runs over the grasslands and collects in artificial basins like Grebe Pond, which then become oases of exuberant life. When water is present, birds of many feathers arrive to take advantage of it. Just add water, and they will come. The absence of natural ponds in the Altar Valley delayed its settlement by ranchers until wells were finally dug and dams created to catch the occasional runoff.


Baboquivari Peak towers above the grasslands and is a cloud-catcher. Some of the rain that falls in the mountain range nourishes the Madrean oak woodlands and other communities at these higher elevations, but when rain is heavy enough, it pours out of the canyons and soaks into the water table beneath the grasslands.


The creek in Brown Canyon, the mountain portion of BANWR, during a mid-November rain event. Roads in the valley were awash with flash floods at this time.


Fresh water obeying the pull of gravity.


Water racing through sculpted granite is colored by sunset light on the canyon walls.


While plants won’t show the effects of the moisture until they can grow in response, lichens, those amazing compound organisms, are transformed immediately. These chartreuse lichens contrast dramatically with the pink granite. This shot was taken in Prescott, but you can find similar lichens in the Baboquivaris.


Lesser Goldfinches bathing and drinking in a temporary creek.


Adult White-crowned Sparrow finally gets a much-needed bath!


Immature White-crowned Sparrow. Notice how its reflection clears up the glare on the water. The reflection creates a crest, suggesting that this is a wannabee cardinal.


Mammals also suffered through the endless months of drought, so when water appears in the creek, it is imperative to connect, even though the meltwater is icy. Hydrologists measure water in acre-feet; hikers do so in aching-feet.


The water is too cold for me to bare my toes, so I am content to enter the water vicariously as an image in dozens of bubbles.


One of the traits of a naturalist is perceptual flexibility—the ability to switch seamlessly from the grand landscape to the minute details. Icicles illustrate water’s amazing transitions as solid, liquid, and gas. Water is the ultimate shape-shifter.


Grebe Pond after the storm

All of these changes are powered by the sun. We are so lucky to be at that sweet spot in the solar system where life has been able to exist and morph into countless forms so beautiful. Recognizing this, we need to take responsibility so that we don’t debase and ruin our special Eden.

Making It Safe For Wildlife, Barbed Wire Fence Removal

A Photo Essay by Ricardo Small
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Gila Monsters

by Ricardo Small

Not really a “monster” this species of reptile is one of the most memorable to see while visiting the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge.

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Highly colorful, Gila monsters are easy to see when they’re above ground. That’s not very often. In their book titled Gila Monster Facts and Folklore about America’s Aztec Lizard, Dave Brown and Neil Carmony describe the color as “… Halloween-hued skin the texture of Indian corn …” Most of the time, Gila monsters are in underground burrows. They find food in the underground nests of prey species like cottontail rabbits. Since this lizard is cold blooded, the more stable underground temperatures are attractive to them, more so than the hot summers and cold clear air of winters in Arizona.

Heloderma suspectum is the scientific name. According to Brown and Carmony, this species is North America’s largest and only poisonous lizard. It is the only reptile to have armored hide and the only lizard with a forked tongue like a snake’s. Their book is full of information including entertaining folklore. For example:

The Tohono O’Odham people, who live over to the West of Baboquivari Peak, explain the origin of the bright colored and textured skin. During the first saguaro wine festival centuries ago, the people invited all the animals. Since everyone wanted to look their best, the animals donned their most handsome garb. The Gila monster gathered bright pebbles and made a coat that was durable and beautiful – a covering still worn today.

Gila Monster Facts and Folklore about America’s Aztec Lizard (First Edition: 1991) is still in print and is available at your usual bookstores. David E. Brown is adjunct professor of biology, Arizona State University. Neil E. Carmony is formerly a chemist with the U.S. Geological Survey. 

Dave and Neil are friends of mine. I met them in the late 1960s. Dave worked for the Arizona Game & Fish Dept back then. Neil was involved in the same environmental group that I was 50+ years ago. Since then, Dave and Neil authored and edited many books about nature, among other topics. Their writing is based on decades of experience with wildlife and provides great information for our enjoyment. I recommend their Gila Monster book. It is one of the best sources of information about this iconic species.