February Road Trip - New Mexico and Arizona

Bitter Lake NWR near Roswell, NM
The morning of February 19th we had once again set our sights on going home. I was still a bit shaken from the mountain lion experience, neither of us had completely shaken the sinus cold, and we were feeling road weary. We would come back to Carlsbad Caverns and Guadalupe to hike in summer, and we could come back to Arizona this March.

But then I looked at the weather forecast back home - snow, cold and high winds. Hmmm.

We were pretty close to Alamogordo, where we could stay and rest up a few days, then decide if we were really ready to go home. Mike was on board with the idea immediately, so we got another 3 days at Holloman. Gotta love spontaneity!

Our room wouldn't be ready until 3PM and by luck I noticed the Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge west of Roswell wasn't much out of our way. We saw a small group of Scaled Quail at the visitor center which was closed, unfortunately.

Scaled Quail at the Bitter Lake NWR visitor center

But we had a most memorable birding experience on the auto loop road. I spotted an American Bittern directly to Mike's left in full view! Rather than flush when we stopped the car, he continued his hunting. While Mike shot photos, I observed the bird catching and eating a fish through binoculars. We both marveled at the opportunity to see such an elusive bird at close range for so long.

American Bittern

Further down the road, we stopped at a boardwalk leading to a birding blind. We weren't seeing much through our binoculars, but when I put mine down for a minute, right under our noses was another bittern! This one was much closer at the edge of the tall grass. Like the first one, he didn't seem to mind us checking him out. This is a bird I particularly have been wanting to see ever since hearing them in New Zealand.

A family of Sandhill Cranes at Bitter Lake NWR

We drove on through Ruidoso because I had never been there, and had dinner at an unremarkable Irish Pub.

It was relaxing to check into our digs at familiar Holloman. We got caught up on laundry, ate at our favorite local BBQ spot, and picked up a new router at a discount price at the Exchange. We even hiked some more at White Sands. The R&R did us wonders. By the morning of Wednesday the 22nd we were gung ho about continuing our trip into Arizona.

Black and White study at White Sands

Ripples and Shadows on White Sands

Fortunately my Aunt Lois didn't mind the last minute notice of our visit. We met her rescue cat, Elfie (short for Elfin Owl) and went out for dinner with my cousin and his wife. We saw Lesser Goldfinches, Cactus Wrens and even picked up a new life bird, the Curve-billed Thrasher, birding in her back yard.

Cactus Wren
Curve-billed Thrasher

Mike loved the wool caps protecting cactus flowers

The next day Aunt Lois suggested a morning at Tohono Chul Park, including a lovely lunch at the Tea House. We were happy to see our first hummingbirds of the season here - the Black Chinned variety. I lived in Tucson years ago and somehow missed this delightful little desert garden, but we'll be sure to visit it again.

We took the scenic drive up to Mount Lemmon Ski Valley the next morning and had another delicious lunch up top at the Iron Door Restaurant. If you go, do not miss the fresh fruit cobbler or pie!

Susan and Aunt Lois on the way up to Mt Lemmon; Tucson in the background

New age Sedona
Next stop, Sedona. We had a blast hiking in red rock country in Feb/March '09 and were ready to for more. On our last trip we stayed in Oak Creek did most of our hiking was down there largely to avoid the main part of Sedona due to major road construction and awful traffic. This time we stayed in Uptown Sedona and walked to our first morning brunch at Wildflower Bread Company. It was delicious! Then we walked to the visitor info center and got tips on hiking from a forest service ranger.

Our first stop was the iconic Cathedral Rock formation at Red Rocks Crossing, but gosh darned it, we'll have to come back yet again to see it when there are leaves on the cottonwoods.

Cathedral Rock viewed from Red Rock Crossing

A stop most tourists miss, next we visited Bubbling Ponds, an Audubon Important Birding Area just west of town, and picked up our first Canvasback.

Canvasback male (left)

The day ended with sunset at a lookout along Airport Road. Actually while Mike took pictures, I lost track of time getting groceries and catching up with my daughter on the phone. I left him out there after dark, but it was a beautiful evening and he didn't seem to mind. What a sweetheart.

Evening light on the red rocks overlooking Sedona

Sunset from Airport Road, Sedona

The next morning we drove the 5 mile dirt (almost 4x4) road out to Vultee Arch hike, which we our Saab couldn't handle back in '09. It was fun, but I hope we rent a jeep next time!

Mike standing on Vultee Arch

That afternoon we did the easy hike into Fay Canyon. Don't believe the "end of trail" sign -- if you want the views scramble up the rocks to see what we saw (below).

Looking back from the end of Fay Canyon

Another day, another great new hike! Huckaby overlooks the town all the way up to Midgley Bridge, although we cut it short because the winds were picking up and we were under a high wind advisory.

The view along the Huckaby Trail

Lunch was at the Oak Creek Brewery followed by a stroll around Tlaquepaque. Afterward we drove out to the West Fork of Oak Creek Canyon, aka Call of the Canyon, and strolled around realizing that once again the beauty would be better appreciated at a different season - fall color or spring for blossoming fruit trees would both be good. But we did see our first Acorn Woodpeckers and Mike spotted our first Bridled Titmouse.

Orchard at the Call of the Canyon area

Bridled Titmouse
Acorn Woodpecker

Snow fell one morning and we drove around admiring it on the Red Rocks. We drove up to the exclusive gated community called The Aerie and were rewarded with a Cooper's Hawk perched on a branch quite close. For lunch, we drove up to historic and funky Jerome and ate at Bobby D's Bar-B-Q Pit at the English Kitchen, the oldest kitchen in northern Arizona.

A snowy morning on Sedona's red rocks

Cooper's Hawk

The day that started with snow ended with another beautiful sunset with awesome late evening light on the red rocks.

Another gorgeous Sedona red rocks evening

The third new hike on our last day was Bear Mountain, a relatively short hike with killer gain leading to killer views. Mike summited alone -- I turned back after the first hour. Next time...

Susan on the rough trail up to Bear Mountain
View from the Bear Mountain trail

Fay Canyon and Sedona, viewed from Bear Mountain trail

San Francisco Peaks as seen from Bear Mountain summit

Sedona, airport and even the parking lot for the Bear Mountain trailhead

On this visit, we both came to appreciate the area around Boynton Canyon Road, a world away from the new age hustle and bustle of Sedona.

We really were ready to head home now, satisfied with our sightseeing, birding and hiking. But once again, the weather back home looked awfully wintry, so we booked a room in Socorro, NM then headed east on I-40 going south via Petrified Forest and Painted Desert. Very high winds made this a true windshield visit, but we had a fun lunch at the Route 66 themed restaurant and enjoyed seeing the original Painted Desert Inn.

Painted Desert overlook

Petrified wood litters the Petrified Forest landscape

At sunset we found ourselves passing by the Very Large Array so naturally we took a few photos.

Evening lineup at the Very Large Array

The sun sets behind a 230-ton VLA antenna

The next two days we relaxed in Socorro and lingered at Bosque del Apache NWR. A lone Sandhill greeted us right on in the road as we approached the Refuge! Later we learned he had a limp and thus may have been unable to make the migration. His family stayed behind with him - another reason to like Sandhills! We saw a total of just 6 cranes before we left.

We made a game out of trying to top our bird count from last January. Although we didn't see any new life birds, we had a fun encounter with a Greater Roadrunner and watched a pair of Northern Flickers doing their courtship ritual. Or it may have been two males battling for territory. Apparently the actions are the same.

Sandhill Crane straggler; one of only about six we saw

A lone coyote moves through a flurry of Red-winged Blackbirds
A Northern Flicker gets flashy with breeding displays

The cute little Pied-billed Grebe

Greater Roadrunner
Greater Roadrunner

Here's a link to all the pictures (and more) in this post and the previous two.

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