Monday, November 15, 2010

A Day in Scottsdale with Friends

Avi and I woke up before everyone else and went out on the balcony to see if there were any birds around. Well, of course there were! Apartment complexes use sprinkler systems so, even with the desert landscaping, there were Curve-billed Thrashers and Gambel’s Quail in the area.


We also heard a distant hummingbird. When they woke up, we suggested to our hosts they put out a hummingbird feeder. Hopefully they do!

The first order of business for the day was getting a good cup of coffee. Actually, this is the the first order of business most days. We settled on a place called Jolta Java before moving on to breakfast elsewhere. On our way out we were approached by someone with “Yianni” embroidered on his shirt. He asked us where we were from.

When we answered, “San Antonio” he got all excited, telling us he was opening his new restaurant in San Antonio that night: My Big Fat Greek Restaurant. Apparently, Yianni is starting to build a franchise, with eleven of them in Arizona. San Antonio’s would be the first one in Texas. We promised we would go when we got home and he told us to ask for Lefty and Chris and tell them he sent us.

<Slight diversionary footnote here: We went to the one in Scottsdale that late afternoon AND the one in San Antonio when we got home. I highly recommend both places. Despite some of the kitsch (plate breaking, dancing, “Opa!” yelling), the food is fresh and well prepared.>

Breakfast was at a New York styled “deli” and so, thus fortified, we went on tour, our friends taking us around different areas of Scottsdale and trying to “get us” some birds.

In addition to looking for birds, we also made a stop at Taliesin West, Frank Lloyd Wright’s western headquarters. After all, we were in the area and it seemed like something we really had to see.

The tours were a bit too rich for our blood, especially being five people, with the lowest priced tour charging $32 each. But we were able to see the exterior of one of the buildings.

Wright, in spite of poor engineering execution on many of his homes (the ones up north are often cold and leaky), he certainly was, and still is, the master of building homes that just seem to meld into the surrounding landscape.

Taliesin Taliesin-1 Taliesin-2

Sandi and Jack (and their daughter Hannah) took us around to different areas to show us views from neighborhoods being developed in the hills of Scottsdale. In one of the areas Avi yelled “STOP!” He had spotted this beautiful Accipiter perched on a small tree.


Let me preface all this by telling you we’re not experts at Hawk ID. And this was a fairly LARGE Accipiter. We knew it wasn’t a Sharp-shinned Hawk, but couldn’t wrap our heads around a Cooper’s being quite as large as this bird seemed to be. We hoped it was a Northern Goshawk, a bird we need for our life list.

Luckily, the hawk was very tolerant of our walking around her, snapping photos from all different angles.

When I got home, I posted the photos, asking for help. Help came from Peter Gustas, a hawk watcher and counter. He pointed out several field markings indicating she is a Cooper’s Hawk, rather than a Northern Goshawk. This is one of the things I love about birding – people more expert than you are always willing to help with ID’s and identification education.

Here’s another shot of our little lady. (I say lady because female accipiters are larger than males, and this lady, as I said before, was large).Hawk-3

Avi and I told Sandi and Jack that we needed to go where there was water to get any decent list of birds. We found that water (of course) near one of the area malls that was adjacent to a golf course. That’s when we really began seeing birds, albeit mainly waterfowl and shorebirds.

Hannah, their daughter really started enjoying the concept of birding at that point. Here were birds she could wrap her head around. They were moderately stationary, close-up, and had some color to them. So Avi spent some time teaching her how to use her binoculars and we both started helping her by telling her the birds’ names and how to identify them.

Hannah Rzepka 

We ended our time with a decent list, having had a wonderful visit with some friends we hadn’t seen for several years.

Thanks Jack, Sandi and Hannah!

April and the Rzepkas

We returned to the apt. Packed up the Mazda, and headed out to stay the night in Willcox, AZ, which would put us in perfect position to visit Chiricahua National Monument the next day.

Our day ended with this creature greeting us at the entrance to our evening’s accommodations:

Willcox Centipede

Yes, it was alive. No, we didn’t kill it, or take it home (the more likely option, if you know us well)!

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Through Sedona to Scottsdale

Just briefly, after our sunrise tour and before our checkout time of 11, Avi and I decided to do a little bit of dedicated birding at the Grand Canyon.

The last time I was there, with my son, we boarded his dog for the day at the Grand Canyon Kennels. I recalled it was in an isolated area, away from all the tourists, and in a wonderful forest of conifers.

We drove out there and did, indeed, get a nice variety of birds. So, if you’re ever interested in birding at the Canyon, do check out the roads leading to the kennel. They’re quite birdy!


Since we got out of the Grand Canyon earlier than anticipated, we decided to make good use of the Mazda Miata and drive to Scottsdale by way of Sedona and Oak Creek Canyon.

The road was curvy and the scenery dramatic – the perfect combination for a drive in a small convertible with the top down.


The area between the highway and Sedona is called Oak Creek Canyon, though most of the signs there say you aren’t allowed to park anywhere without a Red Rock Park Pass. Quixotically, there didn’t seem to be anyplace along the way selling these required passes. So, when we wanted to stop for a view or some photos we just hoped we wouldn’t be penalized for this seemingly unobtainable permit.


The road itself follows Oak Creek, a smallish stream that is used by hikers and people who want to do some fishing. There’s thick foliage in the area, with the rich red cliffs rising up like so many islands in a green sea.


We made a short stop in Sedona. It’s a town that is definitely geared toward tourism, with small craft shops, restaurants, coffee shops, and souvenir shops along a well-developed commercial street.

As we drove we also passed several churches of different denominations. I joked about where the Jewish synagogue would be and, coincidentally (or logically) that was almost the next religious structure we passed.

Driving down the main road in Sedona is a series of one traffic circle after another. It became a joke after about the 4th one. It certainly slowed us down a bit. But it was well worth the slower road to have experienced such a beautiful drive!

We arrived in Scottsdale, and our friends’ house, at around 4 p.m. We had a wonderful evening together and looked forward to seeing a bit of Scottsdale the next day.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Grand Canyon Sunrise

After reading about it and debating it, Avi and I signed up for a Sunrise Tour of the Grand Canyon. We decided it would be the easiest way to do it and we would probably learn something as well. So, we paid our $20 each, woke up in the pre-coffee dawn, and went to meet our bus and driver at the main building of the Maswik Lodge.

Our driver and tour guide was Bob, a history buff who was also a great host for our 90 minutes of sunrise vistas at three different stops.

The first real highlight of the tour was a close encounter (right on the road) of a male Elk. This is an animal I’ve been wanting to see for several years throughout a couple of trips. It was at this moment I decided the trip had been well worth the $40 we paid, even if the sun decided not to rise that morning.

Of course, as is true of most encounters of this sort, the camera was unavailable and the moment passed before we had the wherewithal to get it out and get some photos. On the plus side, we had wonderful views of the Elk while we weren’t fumbling around trying to find the camera.

We arrived at our first stop about 10 minutes before sunbreak and stood around in the cold – did I mention it was cold? There was frost on our car when we left our room.


At first we all looked east, where the sun would be coming up. Cameras began snapping at its first crowning over the horizon.


But then we began to realize that the real show was on the other side where the sunlight was hitting the formations facing it.

We made three separate stops of about 20 minutes to a half hour each, catching views of the Canyon in optimal photographic light. So, rather than blather on, let me just share some of what we saw that morning.







And a departing photo of the two of us, still cold, but happy and ready for our well-deserved coffee, followed by our departure on to Phoenix via Oak Creek Canyon and Sedona, AZ.


Saturday, November 6, 2010

Day Two at the Grand Canyon

Day two dawned with a blue sky and slightly warmer temperatures. Avi and I took the Grand Canyon bus to the Bright Angel Lodge to check out their coffee shop. It is actually doing double time, becoming a bar later in the day. My cappuccino was good and Avi’s coffee was also eminently drinkable.

Then we headed out to spend the morning hiking along the Rim Trail.

As we hiked we also birded and had one of those special birding moments. Avi and I were looking at a nearby tree – at two different birds. Avi was looking at a Ruby-crowned Kinglet. I focused on a Warbler and directed Avi’s attention to it. We both agreed it was a Northern Parula. Only problem? It wasn’t supposed to be at the Grand Canyon.

We mentioned it to a Ranger we met a bit further down the trail, but it didn’t seem to register with him. Later in the day we were going to attend a talk by a representative from Hawkwatch International, so we decided to bring it up with him that afternoon.

As a little addendum, two other birds we saw that were supposed to be there were a wonderful migrating Peregrine Falcon and a Cooper’s Hawk.

We continued on with the usual breathtaking vistas of the Canyon in optimal light.


Along the Rim Trail, there are markers indicating the billions of years of depth in the Canyon as distance markers. We walked about two miles, equaling about 4,600+ million years. Avi and I began debating about the formation of the Canyon.

We were fortunate enough to meet up the a Ph.D. candidate in Geology, doing some work at the Canyon as part of an internship/education (his, not ours) program. He told us the Canyon was mostly started by the Colorado River and enlarged by eons of erosion by rain, snow, ice, and wind. This was a bit of a conflict from the theory that there was seismic activity that contributed to its formation. But it seems that the river theory seems to be the more popular one – at least this year!


At one of the overlooks, while walking out on the path, we encountered a very insistent Rock Squirrel. S/he kept going from person to person, standing in front and begging for food. Nobody I saw rewarded this behavior. But there must be some rewards forthcoming, since the squirrel seemed a bit miffed s/he received nothing from those of us that were there that morning.


Rock Squirrels are very pretty animals. Here’s one in a less anthropomorphic position:


Something new I learned this time at the Grand Canyon is the fact there used to be a uranium mine there. In fact, some of the equipment and the entrance to the mine is still visible from the overlook. The area was “cleaned up” a few decades ago. But, considering the mine was still active during the 1960’s, I wonder what’s still emanating from that open hole today?

P1100744 P1100745

We took a bus back to have lunch at the Arizona Room, also in the Bright Angel Lodge. The Arizona Room has interesting and reasonably priced meals for lunch and dinner. Also, their tables for two are at a window by the rim area of the park.

After lunch we walked over to the Lookout Studio to see if there were any California Condors around. Most of them had already gone to winter in southern Utah. But there were, supposedly, about a dozen remaining in the park’s area. Luck was not on our side.

Earlier in the morning, Avi saw a very large bird swoop down behind one of the Canyon walls. We’re not sure if he saw a Condor or not. He’s still trying to decide if he wants to claim it on his list or not.

Since the Hawkwatch talk was at 2, we decided to head out to Yavapi Point, the meeting spot. We got there a bit early, so we did a little watching of our own. Before Felipe, our Hawkwatch rep showed up, we tallied a Red-tailed Hawk for the list.

The migration talk was the usual, except for learning that you watch hawks down in the Canyon, rather than up in the sky. We hadn’t really thought of it. But the thermals push the hawks up within the Canyon, and then they glide over to the next thermal, also within the Canyon. This offers a most interesting hawk migration watch, since you’re seeing the birds from above, and more closely, making identification a bit more accessible. Cool!


We spent a little time with the Hawkwatch people, while I told Felipe about our Parula. He was quite interested and asked for my email. He said he would be having dinner with the Ranger who maintains the park’s bird list and would pass the information along.

That night I received an email from the Ranger asking for more details on our sighting – otherwise known as a “Rare Bird Report”. We submitted it and it was accepted. We now have credit for only the third sighting of a Northern Parula at the Grand Canyon. Again, cool!

Finally, the other attention-grabbing thing from our morning at the Canyon was the witnessing of a helicopter rescue. There are often helicopters around the Grand Canyon, mostly tours and supplies deliveries. But this one was a little different, since there was a rescue basket hanging from the bottom and it was coming up from lower in the Canyon.

We found out there are over 300 of these rescues a year at the Grand Canyon, mostly young men who think they can hike down to the bottom and back up in one day. They miscalculate any number of things and wind up in trouble. Rescues occur via Ranger, mule, or helicopter.


If you’re morbidly curious, there’s a book all about tragedies in the Grand Canyon: Over the Edge: Death in the Grand Canyon by Michael P. Ghiglieri and Thomas M. Myers.

I’ll leave you with a shot of the Hopi House, designed by renowned architect Mary Elizabeth Jane Colter, one of the first American architects to appreciate the utility and beauty of American Indian design. Following Hopi architectural traditions, the building was constructed primarily by Hopi workmen using native stone and wood.

Of course, the fact that two Common Ravens had decided to perch on it, was what motivated this photo.


Monday, November 1, 2010

Day One at the Grand Canyon

After leaving the Petrified National Forest we began the long drive to the Grand Canyon National Park. We decided to take the scenic route through the East entrance. Unfortunately, our sunset timing was off and we arrived at the park well after dark.

The “Village” is a convoluted area of curving roads and we had a tough time navigating our way to our specific lodging (there are about four different accommodations in the park). But we were able to sniff our way to the Maswik Lodge with the help of Thelma, our trusty Garmin nuvi GPS. Thanks Thelma!

We awoke in the morning to thick fog and heavy on and off drizzle. UGH! We made an executive decision to cancel our trip to Bryce Canyon and stay an extra day at Grand Canyon. Luckily the Lodge was able to accommodate us for another night. Instead of staying in the park, we decided to drive back east, catch a few views of the Canyon, and head up towards Kanab, UT to do some sightseeing and shopping. I only intended to buy a few small gifts, since the trunk of a Mazda Miata matches the size of the car.

What a great decision it was! On the way out the fog and heavy cloud cover made for some breathtaking views – possibly even more breathtaking than the Canyon on a sunny day. Of all the photos we took, we call this one the “money shot”.

Note the rainbow near the center.

We continued up to 89A, the scenic route that would take us through the Marble Canyon and Vermillion Cliffs. We tried very hard to capture another shot enhanced by the inclement weather, but weren’t quite as successful. Remember now, we were only using a point-and-shoot Panasonic Lumix (albeit with a Leica lens).


The drive took us over the Navajo Bridge. They really were two bridges – one you drove over and the other for pedestrians. We did the walking bridge twice. Once on the way up and the other on the way down.

Our return visit was prompted by someone telling us Condors sometimes like to perch on the bridge. But not today. But we did get spectacular views overlooking the Colorado River, the river that eventually runs through the Grand Canyon.

We stopped at an area called Cliff Dwellers. It was a bit of a misnomer – there were no cliff dwellings. However, there were enormous boulders,one of which was used as a home for a woman who came to this area and decided to make it her home. There are people and vehicles in this series of photos to give a sense of scale.
This one shows true scale. Look at the man in the lower left area of the photo.

We drove back to the Grand Canyon via the east entrance and caught a few glimpses of the low sun against the Canyon.

During our drive we had seen spectacular scenery and I was able to purchase a few gifts – earrings and a necklace fit nicely into a small compartment in the car. I also made good use of a nuno felted scarf I purchased before the trip.

scarf at grand canyon

Upon our return to the Lodge, we saw a few White-tailed Deer. A lovely end to the day!