Thursday, January 8, 2009

Rancho Hildago and Whitewater Draw

This week we had friends Dave and Joan visiting a mere 150 miles away in southwestern new Mexico, so today we took a day trip to visit and spend some time with them. They bought land near Animas, NM last year, and were spending time at the development. We talked them into a lunch in Douglas, about an hour away, then a side trip to Whitewater Draw, a favorite attraction of ours. Fortunately, they agreed!

The construction west of Animas is not your normal project - it is an offshoot of Arizona Sky Village - an astronomy-themed development about 30 miles to the west near Portal. It is geared towards astronomers - give them pristine dark skies, and make sure there are none of the normal "security" lights that adversely affect your night vision. Over the years, they have sold all the plots in the Portal area, so they moved to, and bought a working cattle ranch west of Animas - Rancho Hildago. We met mover and shaker Gene Turner at the ranch headquarters and the 5 of us talked for about an hour about their experiences at ASV and some of the plans for Rancho Hildago. It sounds like a spectacular project, and with 2,000 acres there, lots of elbow room! The ranch headquarters were very comfortable and well-appointed, and the guesthouse where Dave and Joan stayed was also very nice. The landscape could be called high plains (elevation about 4,700 feet), with some mountainous hills off in the distance. This project is still in it's infancy, but is likely to be a future astronomy hotspot!

After our time with Dave and Joan, we were headed west towards Tucson, and they east back to Animas, so unfortunately, we had to drive separate cars for the rest of our day... We headed southwest for the 1 hour trip towards Douglas for a late lunch. A good sign you are in the middle of nowhere (where astronomers love to be!) is if you have to drive over an hour for a grocery store or a restaurant! Since I was the only one who had been to Douglas (twice for the Cochise Classic bike ride), I was in charge of picking a spot. Recalling there was a restaurant in the Hotel Gadsden, we headed there. What a spectacular place! The lobby is magnificent - an Italian marble staircase and marble columns with a 42 foot wide Tiffany stained-glass desert mural. The food was great - half of us had the lobster enchilada special, which were great - no leftovers to worry about!

Finally, about 3, it was time to head to Whitewater Draw. A regional birding hotspot, the previous trip a couple weeks ago the Sandhill Cranes arrived very late in the day and seemed fewer in number than previous years. We weren't sure what to expect this visit. We found some cranes waiting for us upon our arrival, but at quite a distance from the observing platforms. They again seemed to be congregating in some fields to the west. But we were able to take some photos of cranes flying past the LBT telescope on Mount Graham 75 miles to the north and Snow Geese moving west towards the fields.

We searched around for other birds and fortunately, my personal favorite, a male Vermilion Flycatcher was in the area and was very obliging as I stalked him and was able to get within about 60 feet. The flycatchers are interesting in that they will fly an irregular path in search of insects, but almost always return to the same perch. This behavior seems to be followed by almost all varieties of flycatchers... Anyway, I got some fine shots of this fellow - but I couldn't decide which I liked better - the over-the-shoulder look or the formal-portrait pose. I also got a nice shot of him taking off, showing the red plumage over nearly everything but his wings and tail.

As sunset came and went, there were a number of owls hooting a couple hundred yards to the south. With the onset of twilight, one was spotted moving to a branch about 50 yards away, and I was able to get a semi-decent shot of the Great Horned Owl. The large yellow eyes and already dilated pupils in the growing darkness was it's most striking feature.

Some of the cranes moved over to the wetlands area from the fields, but always stayed on the far side of the water. I am sure there are only about a third of the birds from last year, but it is still an amazing visual and aural feast as twilight descends. Probably at least one more trip this winter yet! All of the bird photos taken with the Canon XSi and Meade 80mm F/6 triplet APO.

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