• Ecology of the Southwest

Adventure Team Alpha at the Santa Rita Experimental Range

On Wednesday we said goodbye to our cacti friends at Organ Pipe National Monument, and headed east.

We first stopped in the Sonoran Desert Museum about 12 miles west of Tuscon. This museum is really more of a zoo-museum hybrid. A "zoo-seum" if you will. Most of the grounds are outside, and the landscape is made up of paths that wander through a gorgeous and surprisingly lush mosaic of native Sonoran Desert foliage and cacti.

We got to take a hands-on class called "Sonoran Supermarket," offered by the museum's staff, which covered the culinary and functional uses of different Sonoran plants by the Tohono O'odham people native to the region. We ate samples of Prickly Pear cactus (both the tangy, bell-pepper-like stem and the sweet seasonal fruit), Barrel Cactus fruits, Oak nuts, and a few other desert "delicacies." It was deeply fulfilling to finally taste the succulent cactus-insides and fruits that we'd only gotten to observe in Organ Pipe!

We roamed the huge "zoo-seum" for the next few hours, and I think it's safe to say that we were all thoroughly impressed by what we saw. It houses the only Hummingbird aviary in the world, and it was really neat to see these beautiful, always-fleeting birds up so close. There were also pronghorns, javelinas (adorable little wild desert pigs), mountain lions, otters, and other desert wildlife. The high standard of knowledge and helpfulness we encountered from the staff really contributed to the quality of our visit.

After the museum, we did another grocery run (always an exciting jaunt) before hitting the gravel roads to the Santa Rita Experimental Range.  We arrived at the range around 8:30, made a late dinner, and settled into our new cabins at the research facility.

Santa Rita Experimental Range

The place is truly spectacular. It covers about 20,000 hectares of land on the border of the Sonoran Desert's range, and spans from elevations around 3,000 feet to 5,000 feet. Established in 1903, it is the longest-studied wilderness research center in the country. Photographs of ecologists in bowling hats and suits, bespectacled and toting hiking sticks and field notebooks deck the small dining house, and it's exilerating to be sleeping in the same structures in which researchers from over a century ago slept.

On Thursday, we scouted the place out, hiked up through the babbling streambed, did some bird watching (this place is a FANTASYLAND for birders - the current goal of those with whom we talked is to spot the evasive Rufous Warbler which flies up from Mexico every season), and checked out the bone-dry valley below the range. It was a rest day, and a good way to get our bearings here.

Today, we did the longest and most strenuous of all the hikes we have done this trip. We started from our cabins at around 4,000 ft. elevation and trekked up for 5 hours - first through lush, diverse streambed in the valley, then desert-savanna, then deciduous-fir, then pine, then snow - until we reached the "Saddle,"  a mountain that connects two peaks. Then we scarfed down lunch like it was our first meal in years. An elephant could have walked by and we wouldn't have noticed.

Now we're all back, getting ready for dinner and discussion tonight. Tomorrow we'll visit the ASARCO mine - should be a fun day!



A parrot at the zoo poses
Hummingbird at the zoo, taken by Dr. Baack
At the "saddle" after a long hike, taken by Dr. Baack