We arrived in Tucson about an hour before our hosts and friends Sky and Anne
Hilts, whose flight came in after ours (they¹d been on holiday), so I
strolled around the airport. A large cactus stood outside the airport amid
several other plants indigenous to the area. I also noted on our drive
through Tucson, that most homes appeared to have dryland gardens and there
were few lawns.
The city of Phoenix has much more lawn. When writing an article for Ecos a
few years ago, I came upon a statement from a resident of Phoenix, Arizona
who had shifted from the East, that she liked her environment to be ³green,
not brown². From the air Phoenix appeared like an oasis in the desert.
Parts of Arizona pump more water from the ground than can be replenished by
rainfall. So there is a huge project to conserve groundwater (the Central
Arizona Project). A system 336 miles in length, it carries water to Phoenix
and Tucson. However, people do seem to be getting the message about water
conservation although I couldn¹t understand why houses didn¹t have rainwater
tanks or indeed solar panels. Some homes we saw must have been worth
millions, and yet people didn't wish to spend a few thousand extra on such
The Hilt's home, like most we saw, is a flat-roofed pueblo-type building,
rather modest in size, but homely and comfortable.. The many nooks and
crannies were filled with family photos, family trees, shells, Sky¹s medals
(he was a navy doctor during the Vietnam war) and books. There was a piano
in one corner (Sky is a very competent jazz pianist and serenaded me one
night, bringing back memories of a jazz pianist I knew years ago).
A large picture window in the dining-room overlooks the cactus-studded
garden and a view of distant mountains. We ate in style, sitting on French
provincial chairs at a 17th century table, drinking wine from antique
glasses and eating delicious meals with French sterling silver cutlery, the
salads served with a spoon from the Mayflower. Meanwhile myriad species of
birds plus Harris¹ Ground-squirrel and Cottontail rabbits feeding and
cavorting below us. It all seemed rather surreal, but was one of the most
enjoyable experiences I had on the trip.
Arizona is famous for the migrating neotropical birds that pass through and
make up about half of that state's bird list of 500. We didn't get to see
as many as we'd like in part because of my lectures and the inclement
weather it poured for most of our stay. Also we'd apparently come a
There were several birds in the area that were new to us. The first we
saw was Great-tailed Grackle common around town, then Silky
Flycatcher/Phainopepla, and Gambel¹s Quail. The latter was most numerous
around the house as were Mourning and White-winged doves, and Chipping and
White-crowned sparrows. The quail were quite aggressive. We sat at the
dining-room table watching them chase off any other wildlife that came near
Walking around the house we saw Pyrrhuloxia, a grey and brown bird with a
red cockatiel-like crest. The next day a cactus wren appeared in front of
the house, and later two woodpeckers, a male and female Gila. They fed on
oranges in the yard and then mated (the Gilas, that is). A Costa¹s
Hummingbird flew into to feed on the flowers of a nearby bush.
The garden also attracted Verdin (a cute little bird with a yellow head and
rufous wing patch) and Lucy¹s Warbler. A Cooper's Hawk was a common visitor,
dashing through the yard in an attempt to drive the other birds into the
windows, so Sky said. One day, above the garden on top of a pole, sat an
The garden consisted largely of Sky¹s passion cacti and one had to be
very careful of stepping backwards. And both Anne and Sky advised me not to
walk around bare-footed! Some of the cacti had spines over 8 cms in length,
and others were like fish hooks of a size capable of catching a good-sized
Marlin. My favourite cacti were the saguaro Cereus giganteus, the cactus of
cartoon fame. Local Indigenous people, the O'Odham, gathered its fruit to
make jelly and wine. Another attractive plant was the species of agave from
which mescale and tequila is made.
One common plant in both Sky's garden and wilderness areas, was the Ocotillo
(from Nahutal, an Indigenous language). According to Sky, it means ³little
pine². A member of Rosaceae, it flowers at the time of spring hummingbird
migration and is an important food source. These little birds and Carpenter
bees are major pollinators of Ocotillo.
Another common plant was Palo Verde, Parkinsonia florida (Family:
Fabaceae), a pretty tree with profuse yellow flowers, and green branches
that photosynthesise when, during drought, the plant sheds its leaves.
One morning we were invited to a potluck with anthropologist Susan Lobo and
the local writing group. One of the guests was David Ray who presented me
with a copy of his book of poetry, Kangaroo Paws. I enjoyed snippets of his
work all the way around the US.
Being Easter, one of Susan's friends had brought along a large chocolate
rabbit, and as a guest, I was given the job of smashing it so we could all
have a piece. We sat there talking, eating and watching doves and Ground
squirrels eat their way through a mound of bird seed.
After leaving Susan¹s, Sky and Anne drove us to the top of Mt Lemmon
nearly 9000 feet - through the most spectacular scenery. I only wish I¹d
longer in this wonderful place so I could learn more about the fascinating
On the lower slopes Saguaro cacti were prominent, then at the top fir and
pine kicked in. Birds were rather scarce, but we did see Scott¹s Oriole,
and Yellow-eyed Junco, a pretty little bird only found on mountains in
Near the top was a famous little pie restaurant in a tiny village called
Summerhaven. A recent huge fire had destroyed the village leaving only the
pie shop standing. Many new, grand houses were being erected, the value of
land had soared, and the little pie shop was designated for destruction.
When we arrived, journalists from the University of Arizona were
interviewing Julie, the shop manager.
Discovering my background (in journalism and tourism), they decided to
interview me as well. Having tasted Julie¹s blackberry, and banana crème
pie, and noted that the shop was crowded with satisfied diners, I had no
doubts that this little place could pay its way. Not only that, there were
Yellow-eyed Juncos hopping around the tables outside! However, I doubted
those features would be enough to save the little pie shop.
There was snow at the top of Mt Lemmon and it was freezing and blowing a
gale! The only obvious wildlife was, again, Yellow-eyed Junco.
Anne also took us to Saguaro National Park where we saw Hooded Oriole,
Black-headed Grosbeak, Canyon Towhee, Curve-billed Thrasher, and
Ladder-backed Woodpecker. The origins of this park lay in a plea made in
1933 to President Hoover by the President of the University of Arizona,
Homer Shantz, to set aside an area for conservation. Later, President
Kennedy added more land, followed by grants in 1991 and 1994 by Congress, to
create the National Park.
On the way back to Tucson we stopped to have a look at some petroglyphs.
There is evidence of human habitation in the area back to 7000 BP. People,
known as the Hohokam, inhabited the river valleys and deserts for about a
thousand years, till 1450 and the rock art is attributed to them. Now the
Hohokam have gone, but other peoples known as the O'odham carry on some of
Three days after arriving in Arizona I spoke at the Tucson Audubon Society..
This is the largest Audubon chapter in the country, with several thousand
members. Afterwards there were several questions, some about the birds,
others about my relatives, and one about the Barking/Whistling Spider
Selencosmia sp. I had shown. This lady was actually writing a book about
spiders and we had a most interesting conversation about them.
The last birds we saw in Tucson were Great-tailed Grackle parading around on
the road, and Northern Rough-winged Swallow, sailing around over a river
Denise Lawungkurr Goodfellow
PO Box 3460 NT 0832, AUSTRALIA
Ph. 61 08 89 328306
Mobile: 04 386 50 835
Birdwatching and Indigenous tourism consultant
The next day Michael and I returned to Los Angeles.
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