Birding by RV, ch. 1In the Beginning

In the Beginning, Oregon to Arizona

Months before October 2014, yours truly and Linda, wife and life-giver of decades, incubated a seed that quickly grew into a new adventure. We would downsize our belongings, donate our stuff in honor of common sense and homage to George Carlin, sell our home. After a year touring the country in a class-B RV, we may rent an apartment or, we might just keep going. Our plan is to travel the country to witness locations we had never been and revisit places once experienced during fleeting vacations of yesteryear. Our time was right. For the last several years, we had been caregivers to our parents and other relatives. We had put on the back-burner our wish, actually our need, to travel. The plan grew, with the wish to fulfill our nomadism until we need to shift gears. During our travels, we would collect national parks and national wildlife refuges, and enjoy the country and its wildlife.

Good-bye Birdmobile, hello RV


Of course, being a retired ornithologist of the Department of Interior’s Biological Survey at Smithsonian and Linda’s keen interest and knowledge of birds would mean going to certain avian hotspots in Arizona, Texas, Florida and elsewhere. Living in a small RV should provide easy and inexpensive travel and increase time for birding. Those quick stops during earlier SUV road trips to glance a target species will be behind us. We will have time to more than just tick a new species. We will have the opportunity to become far more familiar with the birds we find.

This and chapters covering travel to Florida are chronicled with more detail, especially relating to birding, in “Milestone 700. The last 100 species.” Chapters chronicling travel after reaching 700 species of birds, with apology to nonbirders, will provide more details about birds and wildlife, and learning about the country and the lessons of day-to-day RVing.


22 October 2015

Today, we sadly say goodbye to Linda’s brother and begin a new journey. It is also the beginning of making the journey in a different mode and the start of a new life style. We had traveled by planes, trains, boats and automobiles. Today we head away from our former home turf, Medford, Oregon, for points beyond. Our plan is wintering in the Southwest, early spring in Texas, most of April in Florida, north up the eastern coast to Maine in June and then, keeping to the northern routes, across the northern states to Washington before traveling south to Oregon by September.

Winter is showing its teeth and we are happy to motor across the Cascade Mountains for our first night in Lava Beds National Monument south of Tule Lake. I once worked in the monument where I was fire chief. Luckily, then, back in a mid-1960’s, the frequent threat of fire never reared its ugly head. Our first night on the road and as residents of our 23-foot RV requires considerable care to park in a level camp. At least, that is our wet-behind-the-ears belief, which we base on earlier recommendations to park on a level place so that our refrigerator would stay cold from the Propane gas. We may have over done the search for a perfectly level location. The campground was almost empty, but park policy stated generators should not run late into the night. We are fine, level and cozy for our first night in the RV.

The first camp.  Lava Beds National Monument, CA


The RV, besides being 23 feet long, is wide. The dual wheels keep the hulk steady around curves and slicing through side winds. The powerful Chevy engine easily carries us over the mountains despite the fact our fresh water tank is brimming, Our collection of clothes, books, paper, tools, food, medicine, everything you might find in a well-stocked bathroom and more were crammed into the overhead cabinets, under the propane two-burner range and kitchen cabinet. On the right side, forward a cabinet that had compartments from the floor and a large space for dry foods is a couch. Opposite that couch is another couch. Both are equally uncomfortable and are a misuse of space. Our realization of the unfortunate design is obvious, but it would take more nights on one of couches to decide a solution to fix our backs and have better storage areas.

In the meantime, during the night, we snuggle in the safe confines of the RV. Coziness wins over the makeshift bed. Our first night in the harsh lava fields and inside the cocoon created by the RV feels right. It feels comfortable and exciting. In the quiet darkness, we wonder if this will be our new normal.

23-28 October

We only briefly tried the furnace during our August shopping for what we hoped will be a perfect RV for our remaining days. The furnace does come to life and removes the chill from the waking hours of Lava Bed. Townsend’s Solitaires were everywhere. We decide to stay an additional night. Staying the extra night allowed for better acquaintance with October birds in this desolate lava.

The cold invites navigation southward. We were still worried about frozen water pipes. To avoid potential storms howling out of the Sierra Nevada, we opted for a more inland route from Reno south to Arizona. The route could not have been more boring.

Wind, even in the open habitat of Nevada did not create driving hazards. We kept the fresh water tank close to the full mark for the extra weight just in case the wind is too strong for a safe journey. Having sufficient fresh water is also necessary for cooking, cleaning, hygiene and to keep ourselves hydrated. Because of Linda’s good since and nursing career, we attempt to keep our pee clear. Someone once remarked that a person should be able to read a newspaper through their urine. Exactly what that means is puzzling. Does it mean as the urine is excreted, or looking through a glass of pee, or does it mean urinating on the paper. Maybe puppies in training are also getting the latest news. We recall that our first use of the RV toilet was somewhat of a shock. Our urine was so colorful. We could see through the pool, but did not disturb the liquid by inserting a newspaper between us or in the collected pool. What we were observing was the undiluted pee not so familiar in a house toilet. Actually, the RV toilet let us better gage the function of our kidneys. Clear meant drinking plenty of water, yellow might equate to hello to drinking more, orange is too orange and red is you are dead. We try to keep our used water away from any dark spectrum.

29 October to 12 November 2014

At last, we arrive at Bog Springs Campground after riding up a slope in the Santa Rita Mountains and driving above Madera Canyon. The steep paved road requires taking the climb in low gear. I worry a little as the narrow road becomes even steeper and feel relief that the engine of the RV seems to be at ease with the terrain. There are only a dozen or so campsites. RVs of various sizes from small to almost medium, occupy many of the sites. This is not a place for Class A’s, since the length of each campsite is close to a maximum of 30 feet. The parking area is at a tilt, but our leveling app on the smart phone reveals the refrigerator is okay and so is a covey of Montezuma Quail scurry throughout site.

The campground requires a fee that goes to the US Forest Service. The sites, as do all Federal campgrounds, discount the overnight fee down to half of the normal fee since we are old enough for the Golden Pass. Fees vary and at Bog Springs, we paid only $7.00. The site is a bargain, with fresh spring water on tap at almost every campsite, picnic table, fire pit and nearby vault-toilets. The toilets are not the outhouse Grandpa built. Sure, there is a meager stink, but considering what is down the hole, the smell is more than tolerable. However, if the wind is blowing, the odor may require some adjustment as cold air cools exposed bottoms.

Our back door at Bog Springs


Several trails connect to the campground. From our bird-finding guide, we knew that the trails would take us to great birding sites. However, being somewhat out of shape following preparing for travel and the last several days navigating from Oregon would not allow serious hiking without regaining some muscle tone. More importantly, we are in rarefied air at about 5,000 feet elevation and the trails of interest all lead higher into the Santa Rita Mountains.

The informative host at Bog Springs remarked that our site was slanted and asked if we were bothered by not being able to level our RV. It was a problem. The back door would not stay open and walking inside the RV requires allowing that one side of the floor and the bed are lower than the other side. It was not so bad that it was impossible to power the refrigerator with propane, but it was a little uncomfortable. Our host loaned us a set of plastic leveling blocks until we purchased a set on our next trip down to Green Valley. The only shortcoming to Bog Springs is that it is about a dozen miles from a dump station and almost that far to obtain propane. With the exception of only a couple of campers, this is our favorite camping site in Arizona. We hasten to add that Madera Canyon runs north and south, which computes to noticeably late sunrises and very early sunsets. The shorter periods of sunlight also meant lower temperatures. That should be an advantage most of the year, but not so much in late October and November. The excellent birding in and around Madera Canyon has been rewarding, but winter might not be so welcoming.

13-14 November 2014

By now, we are attempting to practice some of the habits of true RVers. Of course, we realize that true RVer comes in many and varied plumages. Surely one field mark of a true RVer is the lust for adventure. Number two is flexibility in decisions about when and where to locate for the most agreeable weather. Even that varies depending on the need to ski or strip down to shorts and sandals. In our case, plummeting temperatures, especially during the night promise to bring the snow tracing the ridge to Mt. Wrightson down to our snug RV. The road from the campground down to Madera Canyon is steep and not likely negotiable if covered by snow. It is time to top off our fresh water and drive to Green Valley, pay the $15 dump fee and stock up on food before heading to what we trust will be weather less resembling winter.

We need to initiate work on the interior of the RV, specifically to remove one of the couches and replace the space with a wooden cabinet that Linda and I designed. Our plan is a structure, with shelves and doors that will allow us to organize our stuff. A RV company will do the work. Unfortunately, the Tucson RV company cannot perform the work until 1 December.

Owing to the colder weather, we drive to Gilbert Ray Campground. It is operated by Pima County. The campground, in Tucson Mountain Park, brings Gila Woodpeckers perching on top of towering saguaro cactus and unbelievable sunsets. The climate here is agreeable and the location is close to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, which is on our agenda. A hefty fee offers beautiful cacti of numerous species, wildlife, some of which is in captivity and trails to entertain and teach. A Gilded Woodpecker is the prize bird. This will be the perfect spot for a visit by our adult disabled nature loving son.

16 November to 30 November 2014

Three nights camping near Proctor Road allow us to snuggle up to the base of the Santa Rita Mountains, a range hard to resist. The campsites along Proctor Road are essentially scrapes in the desert. The sites are dispersed camping sites. There is no water or toilet and there is no fee. The western exposure and slightly lower elevation is slightly warmer than at Bog Springs in Madera Canyon. Nonetheless, we happily return to Bog Springs campground on 18 November. For the next several days, hiking the trails and enjoying visits by Montezuma Quail and other birds, occupy the time. Nighttime temperatures plunge, but we run the propane furnace enough to keep the RV water running

1 to 5 December 2014

We turn over our home to an RV company in Tucson and hold-up in a motel a few blocks away. The motel room is full of boxes that contain all the items under the one couch. While twiddling thumbs in the motel, we look back over some of our expenses during the first half of November. Camping fees include 14 days at Bog Springs for $70. Three nights at Gilbert Ray cost $60. That seems a high price for electricity, but the desert flora and sunsets provided another adventure. Of course, the different birds and cactus help defray the differences. Entering the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum was a hefty $38, but the tour was worth it. We purchased two books at the museum, one on cactus and one on desert flowers for $27. We estimate an expenditure of about $140 mostly on groceries. Because our travel was limited, we spent only about $70 on gasoline. As for the second half of November, it is safe to say that the mostly groceries total might be another $140 and gasoline might have approached the $70 mark. Camping fees were most likely mirrored the first half. Even so, we likely spent over $1,000 in November. That is far less that we were spending at our stationary home, the one that had the same view day after day, offered all too familiar wildlife, the usual pulling weeds, racking leaves, you name it. Being stationary has its advantages, but we just cannot come up with any for our near future.

Anyway, one grand, unfortunately is less than the cost of our new cabinet! Custom work is not cheap and the hourly rate charged by the Tucson company, apparently comparable to most such businesses, is getting up there in the rarefied and unreasonable air rates that are well beyond my pay grade. Ornithologists and registered nurses, professions we once practiced, do not garner such fees.

5-23 December 2014

Birding takes a back seat while we reorganize the interior of the RV. By now, we had passed our one-month anniversary living in our trusty RV, traveling, regularly changing our view from the windows, and thus reveling in the ever-shifting scenery and wildlife out our back door. Thanksgiving had come and gone. Our dinner that day was uneventful. Turkey was absent as part of the meal, but Wild Turkeys did strut nearby.

We top off a few more days and nights at Bog Springs, three days back at Gilbert Ray and a rainy stay at Snyder Hill, a BLM dispersed campground west of Tucson, by two nights at Patagonia Lake State Park. The park is almost four miles on a paved road north of Arizona highway 82 east of Nogales. The location is famous for its role in the movie and book, “The Big Year.” A very rare Nutting’s Flycatcher, discovered in the park in 1997, was the main attraction for many birders that came to observe this waif from Mexico. A rare species is a perfect start for anyone beginning a Big Year, an event to observe as many species of birds possible during a calendar year. The Nutting’s Flycatcher kicked off a Big Year confined to the ABA area, which is North America north of Mexico.

Naturally, our arrival in Patagonia State Park requires a look at the site once occupied by such a famous bird as the Nutting’s Flycatcher. Of course, and unsurprising, not one Nutting’s Flycatchers is present. However, birding is good and the showers near our campsite most welcome. Many other RVers appear to stay close to their sites while taking advantage of the showers, electricity and clean water. Besides the amenities of the campground, Patagonia Lake, accompanying cattail marsh and nearly human free trails is something to enjoy in itself. We are getting our monies-worth by not ignoring the wildlife and beauty.

During our travels by RV, SUV and any other means of movement, we are almost always dismayed that so many people fail to notice the wildlife that surrounds them. We also wonder why so many, who do notice wildlife, do not take advantage of bringing their view closer with binoculars. The range in price of binoculars is wide, but a reasonably good pair may be less than $100. Today, we spend about half that per month on cell phones or maybe your satellite feed for your RV. Pawnshops and big box stores often have binoculars for less than $50. If binoculars are not dropped, they will entertain for years to come. If interested, for example, in close-ups of butterflies, look for binoculars that focus within six to 10 feet. Birders prefer such an instrument, but enough said. The ins and outs of binoculars are another story. Nonetheless, a pair of binoculars is a great tool to enhance the experience of observing nature, be it animal of mineral, such as rock formations, trees and more. With or without binoculars, there is so much more out there that goes unnoticed.

Most everyone at Patagonia is staying close to home. Some are parenting kids during their Christmas break. The camp host is busy watching over the grounds and maintaining a couple of bird feeders. Besides the host, Linda and I may be the only ones enjoying the birds coming to the smorgasbord. Birds coming to feeders have to be weary of potential predators, and to birds, two-legged ones are every bit as dangerous as a hungry Cooper’s Hawk or some irresponsible person’s pet cat. Outdoor cats, domestic and feral, in North America kill billions of birds per year. Thankfully, there are no cats. Nonetheless, some of the birds are ready to take flight at the least provocation, including escaping from approaching humans. Binoculars take care of the problem. As always, we take great care not to point our binoculars toward other people, their RV or their vehicle. That is a cardinal rule, whether trying to catch a good binocular enhanced view of a Blue Grosbeak or, yes, a cardinal. xxx

24 December 2014 to 1 January 2015

Our two-night stay in Patagonia Lake State Park provided running water and opportunity to enjoy some different habitat. The rolling dry mesquite-covered hills are reminiscent to parts of the west slope of Florida Wash region west of Bog Springs, but a healthy cattail marsh grows on the east side of the lake where Sonoita Creek enters. It is in strange contrast to the background of brown desert. Sonoita Creek, bubbling slowly along a trail under tall but barren deciduous trees, offers more variety in habitat and birds. Now, leaving the park behind, we are on our way west side of I-19 where the desert is even drier and less vegetated than most of the foothill of the Santa Rita Mountains.

We travel westward over the narrow pavement to Arivaca. Although not mountainous, the often-bumpy road is full of curves as it goes up and down and around ravines. We stop in Arivaca, a tiny old town populated by hardy friendly people. Perhaps most are excited that tomorrow is Christmas Eve. Linda and I are likewise excited that we are arriving in the remote land of Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge, one of few Federal refuges that allow camping. Our final destination for the day is campsite #72. It is about a quarter of a mile off highway 286 connecting travelers to Tucson and to Sasabe, Mexico.  We are near refuge headquarters and about 5.5 miles north of the border.

Our camping site has a circle of rocks around a few ashes marks where we spend our best ever Christmas. Although extremely remote, we are able to make requisite well wishes to our children in Texas Oregon and Connecticut. Despite our glee, the wind picks up to about 25 mph and by dark it is raining. The dirt road to our campsite is soon super slick. Because our site is downslope from the pavement, we are reasonably certain we might be stuck at our site for a while. I jump outside to gather up our satellite antenna and the stiff wire connecting it to the RV. Despite the mud, I jump behind the wheel and tell Linda to hang on as we drive back to the pavement. The reddish mud flies behind the dual tires as we slither to level ground. The rain continues. There is a place to park near the pavement, but it is partially occupied by a border patrol vehicle. Its occupant is shocked to see us coming up over the slippery hill, but is fine with us parking near his pickup. In minutes, he departs, leaving us alone on the mostly deserted route.

For the next several days, we enjoyed the refuge. On the day after Christmas, the pleasure included meeting, at refuge headquarters, an old friend and colleague from Smithsonian. I had not seen him since my retirement in 1996. After some great birding, Linda and I discover that the dirt road to campsite #72 is dry. It is great to be home again. Our view from our back door is 7700-foot Baboquivari Peak, sacred mountain of the Tohono O’odham Nation to the west.

Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge       Baboquivari Peak

Winter is taking a stronger grip of the region every day. In a couple of days the morning temperature is in the mid-20s. It is still cold on 28 December, the day we pick up our general delivery mail at the Arivaca. We drive about four miles toward the junction to California Gulch where I saw Buff-collared Nightjar and numerous Five-striped Sparrows in 2009. Although the road is paved, it is narrow, with all too many bone jarring holes and bumps. A widened spot at the top of a hill a few yards from Ruby Road is our landing for the night. Except for the road right of way, private property surrounds us, but everyone, including a local police officer, ignores our presence.

A dumping station just outside Arivaca and availability to propane is just what is needed for two more nights in Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge, this time at campsite #39 on a ridge about ¾ mile north of the Arivaca-Sasabe Road. Two other RVs occupy the ridge, but are too far away to worry about running our generator. Electricity keeps the batteries up to keep the furnace going enough to maintain suitable interior temperature. On New Year’s Day, snow covers Baboquivari Peak down to maybe 500 feet above our ridge-top camp. Our trusty weather radio announces tomorrow’s early morning temperature that will be 19 degrees. The dirt road of the ridge is slick with frozen rain and snow.

It is time to get to a lower and warmer elevation and we know why. We cannot take a chance on freezing our water system . Departing Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge, we cross The Tohono O’odham Nations Land. Saguaro cactus along the way look healthier than any seen in other parts of the range of the giant plant except those protected near Tucson. Those growing saguaro along the interstates suffer from vandalism according to park service staff. Most of the injuries to the cacti are from being shot, although they are also subject to about any other destructive method that comes to stupid minds. Why? That question is difficult to answer, but not our destination of Why, the settlement. According to the gazetteer of our road map, Why is populated by 167 people, but that number may be excessive. We turn left at Why and head toward Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. However, that is a destination for some other time, and not far out of Why we turn onto a pale tan and sandy road leading to Gunsight Wash and the vast BLM dispersed campground. There are RVs everywhere, but we easily find a site at the edge of the expansive wash.

2-7 January 2015

The next days and nights are full of birds and quiet nights at the edge of Gunsight Wash. We bring out the birdseed tucked in the outside storage area of the RV and sprinkle the avian bait under bushes a few feet from our back door. It does not take long as first a Northern Cardinal, then two species of thrashers, House Finch, Green-tailed Towhee and Gambel’s Quail entertain. An orange cut in half and placed near the smorgasbord attracts a Gila Woodpecker. On 3 January we take a 10-mile day trip to the good-sized former mining town of Ajo to do laundry, take showers, fill our fresh water tank and purchase a few groceries. We are happy to return to the BLM site feeding birds, hiking the banks of the wash and enjoying the dry and warm temperature.

8-12 January 2015

Experiencing the roads less traveled, we leave Why and the remote desert to travel Interstate 8. After so many days on routes traversed by less frenzy, the speed and boredom of the interstate delves us a blow of culture shock. However, our plan to drive west to yet warmer weather is comforting and will take us to our goal. In the meantime, we hold up in the Yuma region, first at a BLM site with the moniker, Yuma Campground and later on a Wal-Mart parking lot.

Mining debris near Ajo, AZ              BLM camp near Yuma, AZ

The BLM location, a few miles north of the interstate, is adjacent to a paintball battlefield amid tamarisk trees. The paintball people were an entertaining group. Fortunately, we found a place to park in the shade of the tamarisk. A nearby railroad track angled up from the Colorado River valley. The steep incline and heavy load of apparently full shipping containers required four or more diesel engines to make the grade. The periodic clanking, grinding, rattling and rumbling of the multiple engines practically shook the ground in an otherwise peaceful setting. Surprisingly, at least to us, the campground was nearly birdless, perhaps because of the trains, paintballers or both.

Time on the Wal-Mart tarmac offers even worse chances to enjoy wildlife, that is, if humans are not part of the fauna. Compared to other such locations, the noise level did little to induce and maintain sleep. There are enough different exhaust sounds to form an orchestra. Why endure this and not head further west to the next destination? I call it the need to have my coumadin aka warfarin dipstick checked. That check is allegedly to avoid having a clot and thereby having a stroke or worse, bleeding to death. A Yuma clinic takes my blood and we are soon on our merry way west.

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