By Simon Woolley and Julia Casson
We had both been to North America before, but never together, and never on a 'pure' birding trip. I had read about the wonders of Arizona's late summer 'second spring' for years, and was keen to try for maximum hummingbird diversity, along with breeding activity in many other species. Once we had priced up flights, it became clear that it was an attractive option to add on an extra week in California, primarily for pelagic birding and mammal watching, but also to pick up some endemics and near-endemics, Pacific coastal passerines and waders.
The flights with United Airlines from London to Phoenix (via Washington, and, as it turned out, LA as well..), Phoenix to San Francisco, and San Francisco direct to London, all with United, cost a total of £480 each plus tax, which I think represents a huge bargain. The extra flight to San Francisco, and the 'open jaw' nature of the transatlantic flights only cost us about £60 extra each! We booked these flights through ebookers.
We 'umm-ed and ahh-ed' about this for some time. We weren't keen to camp under canvas for three weeks. Should we get a car and book motels, or get some sort of RV or motor-home? The former would be easier to drive over distance, but might be a bit dodgy on rougher tracks. Also, the comfort of motels, A/C at night and showers was attractive! However, we were keen to be birding as early as possible each day, so the RV option looked attractive. But we had visions of vast lumbering Winnebagos, and were unimpressed. What about a VW type camper van? I searched around on the internet, and quite quickly found two suitable companies offering VW Westfalia rental (that's the kind with the extending roof). This seemed to be perfect compromise, so we went for it and booked. We used Roamin' Holidays for Arizona, and California Campers for California - only to find out the two companies were in joint venture and we were really talking to the same people in each case!
A good idea? On balance, yes! The vans were easy to drive (though do try and specify manual transmission - we had automatic in California and it was not good news), spacious, versatile on, shall we say, less good roads, and comfortable to cook and sleep in. We did feel like old hippies at times, especially in California, but we could live with that!
Once we'd decided on a VW van, accommodation became less of a problem, since (in Arizona at least) it wasn't high season, and most of the campsites were virtually empty. The standard charge for a non hook-up Forest Service site is $10, payable in an honesty box on site. We paid $15 for electric hook-up near Tucson, and camped for free once or twice in pulloffs on public land. Showers are rather few and far between on these campsites, as are toilets beyond the 'pit' version - but your standards soon lower, you get better at hand-washing clothes, and you become a past master at nabbing the odd shower when you can - e.g. the tactical $5 day use permit at Patagonia Lake State Park followed by showers in the lavish washroom block!
Perhaps inevitably, we did crack two or three times, and booked in to a motel for a complete hose down. Motel prices vary from the cheap to the surprisingly pricey - do shop around and, if booking ahead, make noises about it being too much - the operator often 'miraculously' finds you a 'special' rate for the very night you want to stay. Basically it's a fairly cut-throat market, and out of season, I suspect you could almost name your price.
The situation in California was rather different. August is high season on the coast, and camp sites get very full early in the day. We made the error of not booking ahead, and we did waste quite a bit of time trying to sort this out once in California. The advice has to be, book ahead, even if you're camping. If you're motelling it, definitely book ahead at this time of year, especially at weekends.
This has to be split into two :
Hot in the deserts! Very hot! It regularly reaches 110°C in the Sonoran desert, and it cools to little over 90°C at night. This sort of heat is appalling, even if you're used to Israel or Morocco in spring. And don't let anyone kid you with this 'dry heat' business - at this time of year, the air is quite humid, coming as it does from the Gulfs of Mexico and California. All this humidity, of course, triggers thunderstorms, the so-called Arizona monsoon. Each afternoon, huge thunderheads build up over the hills and roll down onto the plains, soaking small areas with intense rainfall, but leaving immediately neighbouring areas dry. These spectacular, but localised electrical storms are a real feature of the region at this time of year, and offer welcome relief from the heat.
The key approach to avoiding the heat, however, is to climb the hills, the so-called 'sky islands' of SE Arizona. A whole series of discrete ranges of mountains rise up from the flat plains, and each one is distinctly different in topography, climate, and of course, birds. What they share, however, is a cool microclimate! As you climb the roads up the hills or into the canyons, you can see the vegetation changing with every mile. The best example is Mt. Lemmon on the outskirts of Tucson - you start off in baking desert with saguaro cacti, climb through mesquite thornscrub, into juniper scrub, into oak/juniper woods, into mixed oak-pine forest, and end up in boreal-type conifer forest with alpine meadows, all within about an hour and a half! By climbing to 9500 ft, the temperature drops dramatically, and it is genuinely cold at night. We used this tactic almost every day. The added advantage is, of course, that by visiting all these different habitats, you get maximum bird diversity.
A side point - you get a fantastic sense of these belts of forest on each range being islands of habitat trapped in time - as the climate gets wetter (over, say 15,000 years), the (say) juniper forest will presumably descend the hills, spread across the plains, and (say) Bridled Titmice from the Huachucas will meet their long lost cousins from the Santa Ritas, whereas now, they are separated by non-Titmouse friendly desert. What will happen when they meet? Inter-breeding? Or are the birds so genetically isolated (already?) that they won't? Could they be species already? The joys of taxonomy and vicariance island biogeography.
Much cooler! Along the coast (where we were almost exclusively), the main potential problem is fog. This is caused by moist air cooling over the very cold offshore water, the same water that drew us to California in the first place for pelagic seabirds. The fog can be clear by 8.30am, or it can linger into the afternoon - it comes and goes in any one place, too. Pot luck, really. Just pray that it clears offshore by the time you go on boat trips! Offshore, the wind tends to pick up a bit in the afternoon (sea breezes), which can give slightly choppy conditions, but it really shouldn't be too bad at this time of year. Rain is rare in California in the summer months.
As ever, the key to success is excellent gen. For Arizona, we used the superb A Birder's Guide to Southeastern Arizona, by Richard Cachor Taylor (1995), published by the ABA in their Lane Birdfinding Guide series. It's a really well designed book, spiro-bound with a tuck in back flap to keep your place, lots of very clear maps, tear-out trail maps for several of the canyons, and brilliant status text and tables for all the special species in the back, plus full lists of mammals, butterflies and other groups. We highly recommend this excellently produced book. In addition, we had trip reports from Bob Self and Katie Hoff (1991, Jim Frazier (1995), Alex Lees (May 2001) & Mark Lawlor (1993), plus itineraries/reports from 2 or 3 commercial bird tour companies to suggest routing. We also had tons of site gen. and maps, leaflets etc. from Dave Hawkins (Norfolk), contacted courtesy of Chris Mills.
In California, our primary source was Kemper's (1999) Birding Northern California. Although we only used a small proportion of the book, we found it clear, accurate and entertaining, though not as readable as Taylor's Arizona guide. In addition, Todd Newberry of Santa Cruz was fantastically helpful on e-mail and in person, and we had further information from Mark Lawlor (1993), Mark and Sandra Dennis (2000), the Monterey Bay Whale Watch web site, Don Roberson's Monterey County site, Joe Morlan's California pages, the Point Reyes Bird Observatory site, and the Bodega/Sonoma County Audobon Society page.
On both legs, our primary bird book was, of course, David Sibley's fantastic new North American Bird Guide (2000), backed up ably by the older, less accurate and taxonomically retro National Geographic guide. We used no tapes or recordings.
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