Leaving Canyon de Chelly, we visited the Petrified Forest, briefing talking to a young couple from England who were visiting this part of the country a couple of weeks. We couldn't help but wonder what kind of impression of America they would take home. We refrained from picking up any samples of petrified wood. They're really testy about that, and actually have rangers patrolling the roads looking for offenders.
Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park would be familiar to anyone who has seen old western movies. John Ford made a number of movies here including Stagecoach and The Searchers, both starring John Wayne. It is a land of unique rock formations, a result of wind and water erosion over millions of years. It is within what is referred to as the Navajo Nation. It was not clear exactly what this means, legally, but it was almost as if it was a nation within a nation. The accuracy of the gas pumps, for example, was certified by the "Department of Measures, Navajo Nation".
Further down the road was the Barringer Crater, site of a large meteor strike that hit the earth about 50,000 years ago. It is estimated that the meteor was about 150 feet across, weighing several hundred thousand tons and struck with a force greater than 20 million tons of TNT. It is interesting to speculate on the consequences of a similar meteor strike today.
After driving many miles through the Reservations of the Hopi and Navaho Indians, noting the harsh and barren lands allotted to these people, we arrived at the Grand Canyon. We had thought that after having seen so much of the Grand Canyon in movies, TV, etc., we would find it rather,,,,anticlimactic. Well, the Grand Canyon is truly GRAND! A spectacular and strangely beautiful place.
This whole Four Corners area where Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona meet at a single point is known as the Colorado Plateau, a vast geologic province of sedimentary rocks. Much of the plateau sits a mile and more above sea level. The Grand Canyon, in the southwest portion of the plateau, is where the Colorado River has sought to return to sea level. Because the land is so uplifted and the river has been eroding downward for 3 to 5 million years, it is here that rocks are exposed that are nearly 2 billion years old. Each exposed layer of rock has a story for the Geologist. A visitor doesn't have to be a Geologist, though, to enjoy the beauty of this area. There are many accommodations for visitors on the South Rim, from campgrounds (that's us) to quite deluxe and expensive hotels. Many restaurants are there to serve the visitors and many more just outside the park. We were there after the tourist season, which was great, although we understand that at the height of the season it gets a bit crowded.
We had been keeping a list of birds we had seen on this trip, finally ending with nearly 170 birds sighted of which 33 were new , never before seen. That is to say, never before seen by us! Birds named in parentheses will be new birds sighted in that location. (This is being provided for all the readers of this web site who just have to know this kind of important information!) We saw two new birds at the Canyon. (Gray-headed Junco, Juniper Titmouse)
We spent a few days here, hiking, driving the fine roads and just enjoying the whole area.
From the sublime beauty of the Grand Canyon we drove to Las Vegas, at the opposite end of some kind of scale. We stayed at the Circus Circus RV park right on the Strip. Las Vegas is...flashy. Bright lights, Casinos, each outdoing each other to attract customers, restaurants everywhere and just about every kind of entertainment imaginable. We spent a day and night here gawking at the sights, eating good food and, yes, even dropping a few bucks in the casinos.
But Las Vegas is not really our kind of town and after a day we left, headed to our son's home and family. We had new granddaughter we were looking forward to seeing. They had moved since we saw them last to Rancho Palos Verde and so a new home and for us,,,, new freeways to get lost on. We had a great visit, spending Thanksgiving with them. The granddaughters are great. We only wish we could see them more often. (Chipping Sparrow, Allen's hummingbird, Say's Phoebe)
Continuing our journey, we stopped at a couple of wildlife reserves. Bolso Chica is just south of Long Beach (Least Tern, Belding Savannah Sparrow), and the Santa Rosa Plateau Ecological Reserve. (California Towhee, California Spotted Towhee, Oak Titmouse, California Thrasher) Bolso Chica is mainly waterfowl and shorebirds, while Santa Rosa has a number of inland environments and a great variety of birds.
One of the largest state parks in the country is Anzo-Borrego Desert State Park, south and east of Los Angeles. It is, as the name implies, a desert, but a desert with an oasis. It is named for Juan Bautista de Anzo, the first European to explore this area and, Borrego, the Spanish name for the Big Horn Sheep which inhabit this area. We camped here for a week, hiking, studying the plants, birding and relaxing. The plants of the desert, while rarely what we would call beautiful, are quite interesting in their adaptation to an arid environment. The Ocotillo, as one example, looking nothing more than a tall bundle of bare, spiny sticks, will put out leaves within 48 hours of rain. It will keep these leaves for a month of no rain, then drops them and goes dormant again. The Ocotillo might do this as much as eight times a year.(Black-throated Sparrow, Verdin, Common Ground Dove, Rock Wren)
Surrounded by the park, is the small town of Borrego Springs, suggested to be what Palm Springs looked like 70 years ago. Maybe, but it was a very small town with little to offer the tourist. There are several golf courses here, some with gated communities surrounding them. There are also many citrus groves here. It was here that we first became aware of the great importance of water in this area. Borrego Springs sits on an aquifer that was formed millions of years ago. While it is vast, it is dropping several feet every year. Estimates as to how long there will be water varies, but it is definitely limited. It is said that 10% is used by the people in the village, 10% by the golf courses and 80% by the citrus farms. There is actually a proposal to buy the citrus farmers out, and let the land go fallow, retaining the water for future growth. Still, it is a finite resource as no new water is being added to the aquifer. It's just a matter of time before it is depleted.
On one of our hikes up a canyon to a springs, we encountered a band of Big Horn Sheep. This was quite a fortunate sighting and, as they crossed the trail right before us, we got a close look.
The evenings on the desert are memorable. As the sun sets you can hear the haunting and eerie cries of the coyotes, often sounding quite close. As the sky darkens, the stars appear, and the great constellation of Orion rises in the east. The planets were making a special show this year with Venus, Jupiter and Saturn all visible. When the sky is totally dark, dark as only seen in a wilderness area, the Milky Way blazes across the heavens. A truly spectacular sight.
The cities of El Centro and Brawley, almost at the Mexican border, are not exactly tourist destinations. Being in the Imperial Valley, they are farming communities. The Imperial Valley produces about a billion dollars of agricultural products per year. There is abundant sun and an enormous amount of Colorado River used for irrigation. The use of water here is quite complex, to include a bit of a water war between the farmers, the city of San Diego, environmentalist and other states using Colorado River water.
The reason we were in this part of the country was to look for birds. (Gila Woodpecker, Abert's Towhee, Lesser Black-backed Gull, Mountain Bluebird, Swainson's hawk, Mountain Plover, White-faced Ibis, Gray Vireo, Burrowing Owl) After spending a few days in this area, we drove north along the Salton Sea toward Palm Springs. There was once a land boom along the Salton Sea, promoted as a great vacation and recreation area. But the Sea,,, smells bad and the only fish in it are Tilapia and Croakers, neither which are great game fish. All through the area are deserted home sites, boarded up hotels, signs of lost fortunes and broken dreams.
Beyond the north end of the Sea, the land becomes increasingly green with vineyards and date palm orchards. A large aquifer provides water to the farms and a series of cities in the Coachella Valley, including Palm Springs, where we planned to spend a few weeks.
There is much to do in Palm Springs and the surrounding area. Considered a resort and recreation area since the 1920's, the area probably has the finest winter weather anywhere in the states. (Nuttall's Woodpecker)
Leaving Palm Springs, we headed north, through Santa Barbara, (Salt Marsh Song Sparrow) on our way to Morro Bay where a Migratory Bird Festival was taking place. Just before Morro Bay is Pismo Beach where we saw the wintering Monarch Butterflies.
These butterflies have migrated from as far away as Canada. There were about 20,000 the day we were there, but the count sometimes exceeds 200,00. The story of their migration is quite remarkable. They spend the winter here before going north in late February. They then lay eggs on milkweed plants and die. The larvae hatch and eat milkweed leaves for two weeks. Forming a chrysalis, it emerges two weeks later as a butterfly. This butterfly then flies further north, following the growing milkweed. These are known as summer monarch and they live only about 6-8 weeks each laying eggs and repeating the cycle. This might happen 4-5 times during the summer, each generation traveling further north. When the days begin to shorten in October, the last generation does not lay eggs and die, but begins to migrate south to start the process all over again. It is a complete mystery how the last generation of butterflies knows where to go as, of course, none have ever made the trip before. It was quite a sight to see the trees covered with the brightly colored butterflies.
One of the crazy things birders do at times, is to embark on a "Big Day". The idea is to find and record as many birds as possible in one day. We signed up for a Big Day trip as part of the festival. From 7 in the morning to 5 at night, we sighted 106 different birds. This is an activity that can get very competitive! (Snowy Plover, Lark Sparrow, Large-billed Savannah Sparrow, Ross's Goose, Nelson's Sharp-tailed Sparrow, Heermanni Song Sparrow)
After Morro Bay, we began the trip home, traveling north on Highway 1. A few miles north of Morro Bay, we (and several hundred other people) spotted Elephant Seals, thousands of them! It was a birthing beach and nearly every female had a pup. Males stood guard over their harems, often fighting with other males.
These seals were once nearly hunted to extinction, however, with the decline in demand for oil and passage of the Marine Mammals Act, their numbers have increased. The population now exceeds their original number, and occupy more beach every year. It was a fascinating sight,,, and sound.
After many more miles and a couple of days along this beautiful coastline, we crossed over the border into Oregon. The clouds had dropped low obscuring the hills, the wind beat rain against the windshield. Strangely enough, it felt just fine. We were home!
The soul of a journey is liberty, perfect liberty, to think, feel, do just as one pleases.
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