Tag Archive | tour

Arizona Monsoon Madness: Naturalist Journeys Ranks This Essential for Bucket List Birding Tour and Travel

TODO Elegant trogon

Elegant Trogon, Portal Arizona, image by Tom Dove

August in Arizona – It Must Be Madness!

Why would anyone go to Arizona in August?  It’s hot there, a visit would be Madness!  According to the guides of Naturalist Journeys, a top birding and nature tour company based in Portal, Arizona, a visit in August is a must do on a savvy natural history traveler’s agenda, part of that bucket list one might never have thought of.   Why the fervor for this season?  Monsoon Madness.

Arizona in August is extreme. Summer rains, called monsoons, power extreme biodiversity, and produce off-the-chart, unreal numbers of species.  Naturalist Journeys owner Peg Abbott recalls her first visit to Portal at that time of year, over twenty years ago. “I was making a call from the phone booth outside the Portal Café. I started looking around and realized I had company – over 17 species of insects, large, colorful katydids, praying mantis, and a wild Rhinoceros-looking beetle.  I hung up and quickly called my entomology friend, a professor at Colorado College, telling her she had to see this.  She did, later that fall with a field class.  It’s wild, in summer the whole region gets green.  In fact, in Southeast Arizona August is the greenest month of the year.  Landscapes are transformed. Grass grows thigh-high. Wildflowers explode. One has to see it to believe it.

A sense of adventure beckons naturalists in the know to Arizona each August. Even the local Border Patrol agents train to recognize the odd behaviors of August visitors.  Birders gather in groups at night, passing silently under ghost-like sycamore trees, scanning limbs for small owls. Wilder than birders at night are those in cars on the road – sometimes very remote roads – that swerve, and stop suddenly. From them people jump out of all sides, carrying sticks. Border agents learn these are “herpers”, the local name for professional and amateur snake and reptile enthusiasts. This is their time. August brings out peak numbers of numerous species. Bob Ashley,  a reptile enthusiast and owner of the Chiricahua Desert Museum, describes a good “herper” night as warm, with no moon. August is the peak month, when nights are warm and humid. In a couple hours of driving one might see 30 snakes of more than a dozen species.  Antelope Pass, in neighboring New Mexico, reports the highest number of lizard species in the United States. The region has 8 species of toads. Insect diversity abounds. In the natural history realm, it’s madness.

All through August, for those going out,  need for precaution prevails.  Weather is extreme.  Lightning extraveganzas happen almost daily as clouds gather.  This signals cool, shaded afternoons – until electricity sends residents (human and other) to shelter.  People find a place with an open view, and watch with fireworks-style fascination. Strong rains follow the show, at times causing flash floods.

A simple dinner invitation in Portal can turn into a slumber party, as guests have no way to cross raging Cave Creek to get home.  Resident Susanne Apitz, active with the local Emergency Response team, says, “We take it in stride. Like northern states have to be ready for ice on the roads, freezing temperatures, and high levels of snowfall, we get ready for stranded cars, spot-fires from lightning strikes, and hikers with hypothermia on mountain trails where it may even hail”.  So much for it being too hot in August in Arizona!

Ten Reasons Not to Miss Arizona’s August Monsoons:

 1. Extreme Biodiversity.  Find fourteen species of hummingbirds, observe butterflies that stray north from Mexico, tally a list of lizards – Ashley says, “nearby Antelope Pass, just over the state line in New Mexico, has the highest number of species in the US, with almost 30 species”!  Hire a guide from small companies such as Naturalist Journeys in Portal to help you learn and observe.

2. Stunning Photography:  Find a rare Elegant Trogon pair with chicks. Try some timed exposures for lightning shows, or star trails. Portal, Arizona sports Sky Village, a subdivision home to serious amateur astronomers, some willing to share their expertise.

 3. Time to Get Dirty.  Poke and probe on forest trails of Coronado National Forest, abundant in each of the Sky Island Mountain Ranges.  Portal, Arizona has a Visitor Center staffed on weekends to help you find your way.  Work up a sweat going for gusto to one of the finest lookouts in the Southwest, Silver Peak in the Chiricahua Mountains. Stand and let powerful monsoons rains wash you clean.

4. Redefine Adventure.  In the Chiricahuas you don’t need bungee cords, canopy towers, zip lines, or boats.  Weather and the wild world combine to keep your adrenaline pumping.  Those with curious minds can dig for a honeypot ant, follow a troop of coatimundis, or join a rattlesnake count each August in Barfoot Park, recently (2011) declared by the Park Service as one of the country’s first official National Natural Landmarks.

 5. Scream Back!   Cave Creek Canyon has one of the highest densities of breeding raptors and owls on the planet, on a par with the famous Snake River Birds of Prey area in Idaho. In August young are fledging, making demands on their parents. Feisty Apache Goshawks can split your skull if you wander too close.  Luckily their screams alert you to invasion of their territory.  From Golden Eagles, to tiny Elf Owls, the airways abound with clatters, clucks, chatter, calls, songs and screams.  Take off the headphones, and listen!

6. Dare to Unplug.  Portal, Arizona just got cell service in 2013, and it only reaches the mouth of Cave Creek Canyon.  WIFI locations, like the local library, the porches of local lodgings, or the Chiricahua Desert Museum, make for good social encounters.

7. Reap the Harvest.  The monsoon rains bring life to all things wild, including those who like Prickly Pear Margaritas. The cacti’s aubergine-colored fruits are called “tunas”.  Locals do the work to harvest them, remove small spines, and make a syrup good on pancakes, or mixed with lime. Buy some at the Sky Islands host farmer’s markets, weekly as agriculture kicks into high gear with the rains.  Bisbee’s Saturday market, in an historic mining town located between Portal and Sierra Vista, has flavor beyond its food vendors and is not to be missed.

8. Go Wild.   During Arizona’s August monsoons, local biology-types can be found with glazed over stares, not unlike those coming down from a long weekend party. Recognize sleep deprivation, as they’ve been up at dawn to look for Elegant Trogons, stared through scopes in search of shorebirds passing through from the arctic, and strained to see fine feather variation of hummingbirds at feeders.  They’ve hiked mountain trails, where after the 2011 Horsehoe II fires wildflowers appear in August in profusion.  They may have surveyed 150 ft. Douglas Fir trees in search of Mexican Chickadees that only live in the Chiricahuas, revealing their presence in a call too high-pitched for many to hear. And then there is “herping” to do long into the night…

9. Unwind.  If you can’t keep up with biodiversity-crazed locals and visitors, just enjoy yourself. There are no fancy accommodations here, but the area’s Inns, lodges and B and B’s all have in common splendid views, porches to sit on to appreciate them, and good old western hospitality.

10. Brag. Tell Your Friends – YOU Visited Arizona in August (weird?), and let them ask you WHY.  Smile and say – you know, it’s Monsoon Madness.

Naturalist Journeys, LLC has expert guides, and can help you plan your visit in July or August for Monsoon Madness through their Independent Ventures program. Participants can enjoy either 4 or 6 nights split between two great eco-lodges in a package that includes dinners at local restaurants, expert guides, and special discounts with local vendors.  Not ready yet?  August 4-10,  2014, join them for their popular week-long group tour, entitled –you guessed it – “Monsoon Madness”.


NATURALIST JOURNEY’S NEWS: Hawaii Birding Tour Groups Take Heart as Nesting Success Announced for Seabirds

Biologists report this week that nesting success for seabirds has increased at Kaʻena Point State Natural Area Reserve on the northwest tip of Oahu, Hawaii. Some 2000 seabirds breed here and this year, the dominant species, Wedge-tailed Shearwater, has topped previous high-count for chicks by almost 15% over a previous high count in 2007 – achieving the highest count since 1994.

Increased nest success is the direct result of efforts to place predator-proof fencing around 59 acres of primary nesting areas.   The fence design came from New Zealand, another fascinating island archipelago where seabirds struggle against predation by introduced predators such as rats, cats, dogs, and mongooses.  Large seabird chicks born in burrows and often on their own for periods of time as adults go to sea to feed particularly vulnerable.   Last year, one of our Naturalist Journey’s tour groups visited one of these fenced “ecological islands” New Zealand, and saw first-hand the robust construction required to keep predators OUT.

The fence was completed in March, 2011, in time for the seabird nesting season.  In addition to the more numerous Wedge-tailed Shearwaters, sixty-five Laysan Albatross pairs set up nesting on site; about half of them producing chicks, and this number is hoped to more than double in the next five years.  Laysan Albatross on low-elevation islands of northwestern Hawaii suffered a high degree of loss in last year’s tsunamis. Kaʻena Point is a safer, higher, elevated site, an example of what may be needed if sea levels rise with climate change. It is hoped that other species may be attracted to the site, including Black-footed Albatross.  Participants on our Naturalist Journey’s Hawaii tour with seabird expert Doug Pratt should have great looks at the enormous Laysans and their chicks.

The fence in Hawaii is 6.5 feet tall, reinforced with a mesh skirt buried below ground and a wire hood curving out above.  Marine grade mesh protects direct entry, and painting the fence green has lessened its visual impact to park visitors.  The cost estimate was $250,000 and it took about five weeks to install.  This was a joint state (Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources), federal (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service), and private (several non-profit NGO’s).  Essentially, with the fence in place, managers have created a “mainland island”, important safe nesting habitat for magnificent Laysan Albatross alongside the more numerous Wedge-tailed Shearwaters.

Naturalist Journeys offers a Hawaii tour nearly every year, as for birders, Hawaii is an important location for seeing tropical seabird species in addition to its legendary endemic honeycreepers.  Two species are endemic to the islands, Hawaiian Petrel and Newell’s Shearwater; both can be encountered on pelagic birding trips.  The day cruise we take off the west coast of Kauai is ideal for our search, and there is still space on this year’s Hawaii tour.  Join Doug Pratt, the Birds of Hawaii and the Tropical Pacific field guide author, who will is in his element on deck as the boat plies the waters between Niihau and Lehua, in addition to the endemics calling out Black Noddies, Wedge-tailed Shearwaters, Laysan and Black-footed Albatrosses, up to three types of tropicbirds, Black and Brown noddies, Greater and Lesser frigatebirds and Red-footed, Masked and Brown boobies, and one year, a Christmas Shearwater.  Through ecotourism, projects such as this predator-proof fence can find support and with that, seabirds will prosper.  The journey also highlights seabirds when visiting scenic Kilauea Lighthouse on Kauai. Tour dates are Feb. 26-March 9, 2012.

Hawaii Birding & Ecotourism: Naturalist Journeys, LLC Supports the MAUI BIRD RECOVERY PROJECT

Learning about the Maui Bird Recovery Project from coordinator Hanna Mounce was one of the highlights of our 2011 Hawaii Nature and Birding tour with field guide author, Doug Pratt. We met them on the trail at The Nature Conservancy’s Waikamoi Preserve, as they were returning from a morning banding session. Aspiring biologists, new team members were pleased to meet Doug, and we were pleased to hear more about their dynamic work.

Their focus is on the most critically endangered of the surviving Maui honeycreepers, the Maui Parrotbill and `Akohekohe’ or Crested Honeycreeper, both rare species we are typically successful at finding on our tours with Doug.  The team combines habitat management work with research to better understand reasons for continued population decline.  Reasons for decline of several Maui forest-associated birds includes: habitat loss, introduced predators and ungulates, and introduced diseases.  On all the islands, exotic diseases such as avian malaria and avian pox restrict forest birds to high elevations where invertebrate vectors and disease organisms cannot survive cooler temperatures.

Maui Parrotbills live in extraordinarily lush and beautiful forests and they are rare. The Maui Bird Recovery Project monitors nesting success on existing habitat (TNC Waikamoi Preserve is a stronghold) and is also working on habitat recovery to support a restored population on the drier east side of Maui, where avian malaria is less of a threat.  Parrotbills favor mature Koa forests. Regrowth of forests between existing healthy stands in riparian areas depends on fencing OUT pigs and invasive animals. Saving “Kiwikiu” (the native name for Maui Parrotbill) requires dedication and funding. We know the dedication portion of this measure for success is in place with Hanna and her team. We can help with funding. Naturalist Journeys, LLC supports The Maui Bird Recovery Project and hopes that our Blog readers will too.

Do read their archived newsletters on www.mauiforestbirds.org. The behavior and breeding ecology of Kiwikiu is fascinating and we are learning more every year. You’ll learn about a strange “divorce”, “super pairs” that retain larger than life territories producing young every year, and about young that won’t leave –staying with parents for up to 17 months.  The organization’s website is full of information and full of HEART – a lot of effort goes into their work and their commitment is obvious browsing this site. You can also spread the news of their work by clicking the LIKE button on their Facebook site.

Photo: Maui Parrotbill, from the website of www.mauiforestbirds.org

INDIA: Snapshots from a Naturalist Journey’s Nature Tour: The Colors of India

Women with School Children at a Nature Reserve, India Photo by Peg Abbott











My small community hosts Forums with invited lectures, and for this I called my talk on India, the Colors of India.  When I reviewed my photos (countless photos!)  from Tiger stripes to market vendors, peacock tails to people that we encountered in cities and rural villages, color was the essential element of all.

India is a paradise for the photographer. People seem fine with the lens facing their way, they go on about their lives with little notice. And their lives are vibrant. Day to day we encountered weddings, women forming fuel from cattle dung, five persons stuffed onto a Susuki, markets filled with fruit.  In nature we found stunning birds with electric hues – some of my favorites being several species of kingfishers.  Even herons and storks don bright feathers in India!  

What I like about our Naturalist  Journey’s tour is the marvelous blend of nature and culture. Every drive between nature reserves and World Heritage Sites provide adventure. Drives pass quickly, as all around life if happening, people coming and go, by every conceivable form or transport imaginable.  In India, it seems like you can feel the color.  In winter, to unwind in their lovely climate, with varied habitats amid all this color feels divine!  And the dark eye of the Tiger, set against its special blend of orange, is rivaled only by the tones of tiles that line the stunning Taj Mahal.  An intricate maze of color that knits this edifice together, and time in the early morning at the Taj to see fine light is essential.  Consider INDIA as a great winter escape this next February 12-23, 2012.

A Typical Market in India photo by Peg Abbott

Kansas Isn’t What You Think It Is By Ed Pembleton © 2010

Prairie Hike by Ed Pembleton

A Prairie Hike in Kansas by Ed Pembleton

“Kansas isn’t what you think it is.” Those words from one of the September 2010 Splendor in the Grass tour participants pretty well summarize the trip.

It seemed to be a cumulative thought that developed during our week. As our tour progressed from Wichita through the spectacular wetlands of Cheyenne Bottoms and Quivira, through bison pastures and on into the geologically bolstered prairies of the Flint Hills, Kansas acquired new meaning. On closer inspection, the state that is supposedly flat, dry and boring turned into a charming place with friendly people and big skies covering wide open prairie landscapes. We entered a living and working landscape harboring a wealth of history and native ecosystems that inspire people to embrace the present, put down deep roots, care for what they have and prepare for the future.

This year we were a bit behind shorebird migration and a little ahead of peak fall color on the prairie, but Kansas gave us a great show of autumn, butterflies, bison, birds wildflowers and weather. We enjoyed warm days and cool evenings and were even treated to an impressive Great Plains thunderstorm that ended our evening with a rainbow!

Prairie plants and tallgrass ecosystems quickly became a comforting countryside that provided surprises and new discoveries at every turn. Big Bluestem, Indian Grass and Switchgrass seemed to reach out and almost demand a caress or handshake as people walked to the crest of a hill. Prairie wildflowers brightened our days with brilliant yellows and showed us how they played host to a gathering of butterflies, other insects and spiders. The wind, a near constant companion, quivered the cottonwood leaves, changed the clouds in the sky, reminded us to secure light objects, blew our hair and cooled our brows. Seven Scissor-tailed Flycatchers gave us an unexpected delight with a greeting from their perch on a power line and even the Great-tailed Grackles surprised us with their clever parking lot food gathering strategies.

And most friendly of all, were the Kansans who greeted us in the small town cafes, shops and hotels, shared their natural and historical heritage in centers and museums and expressed their gratitude for our interest in the place. Looking back it seems like we were hugged by the place.

Sil and I return to lead another Naturalist Journeys, LLC adventure this spring – why not join us May 1-6, 2011?