Friday, May 6, 2016

Our Volunteer Experience at Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge in Sasabe, Arizona

Whenever we finish a volunteer stint at a wildlife refuge, we always find ourselves analyzing our experience: Were we affective? Did we make any difference?  Did we have fun?    True to form, we started the discussion immediately following the completion of our two month volunteer experience at the Buenos Aires NWR (BANWR).

A little background regarding the refuge
BANWR is located in Southern Arizona along the Mexico border.    It was created in 1985 as a place to try and bring back two and possibly three species that had gone extinct in the region during the 20th century. The habitat is described as dessert grasslands and consists of 115,000 acres in what is known as the Altar Valley.  Later additions to the refuge included a riparian corridor located near Arivaca, AZ and a nearby canyon (Brown).       When the refuge was initially proposed, there was  local opposition from remaining traditional ranchers still grazing cattle in the area.    They deemed their way of life to be threatened.  Despite this opposition, the refuge was created  and cattle grazing ceased within the refuge boundaries.   Areas surrounding the refuge continue to be ranched to this day.  

Prior to its establishment, five different families ranched the refuge area for over 150 years.  At one point, the valley contained over 50,000 head of cattle.  This concentration of grazing coupled with cyclical droughts destroyed the landscape that had been in place since the last ice age.    At one point, the valley was called the bone yard because of the number of dead cattle stricken from famine and thirst.   New plant species, specifically alien grasses and mesquite were brought into the valley by the ranchers and planted to try and stabilize the soil that was quickly eroding and washing away with each rain.  By the turn of the 19th century, the ranchers had also began using “new” pumping technology to bring up ground water from over 500 feet.   Pumped water was later stored into created dikes and ponds, the advent of the availability of first generation bulldozers.  

Historical accounts describe the valley prior to ranching and grazing as a sea of chest-high grasses with a large valley floor marsh.   The surrounding mountains and creeks flowed winter and summer monsoon rains into the grasslands where they percolated into the soil to form the basis of an unimaginable productive ecosystem with large concentrations of plant and animal species.   Fast forward 150 yearsto 1985, and the marsh lands were gone, the grasslands altered with invasive species, the topsoil disappeared, the land no longer absorbed rain but instead simply accelerated the flow across its contours forming large erosive gullies and washes, and the creeks and cienegas were almost all dry.   This was the landscape the US Fish & Wildlife Service inherited in 1985 to try and bring back extinct species.

After its establishment, the refuge began its efforts to re-introduce the Masked Bobwhite Quail and Pronghorn Antelope.    Both species had been eliminated through  habitat destruction and hunting.    The plan for the quail was to raise them at the refuge and release them on the refuge.   Originally, it was thought Masked Bobwhite were extinct in the world, but two tiny populations were found to still exist in Northern Mexico.  Members of these groups later became the breeding stock for the refuge’s efforts.  The Pronghorn presented a much different problem. The sub-species of Pronghorn that had once roamed the valley, the “Sonoran”, was now extinct.   This required the refuge to bring in a different sub-species of Pronghorn from Texas.    Pronghorn antelope are an amazing creature.   They are a remnant species from the Pleistocene era.   They are also the fastest animal in North America, capable of incredible bursts of speed.  This speed serves them little use today, but that was not  the case in earlier times.   During the Pleistocene, the Pronghorn’s greatest predator was the American Cheetah with speeds probably comparable to today’s African relative.   The Sonoran Pronghorn was able to outlive its ancient adversary, but  couldn’t survive ranching.    The third species that was considered for re-introduction was the Aplomado Falcon.   This small Falcon was killed off in the 20th century and now resides in the U.S. only in Texas at the Laguna Atascosa NWR after re-introduction.   The refuge decided to forego re-introducing the Aplomado.

Fast forward to today, thirty years after the creation of the refuge, and we ask, how did BANWR do in its quest to re-introduce extinct species on the refuge?  Unfortunately, the answer is not good.    BANWR was unable to successfully re-introduce Masked Bobwhite into the wild and its Pronghorn population remains today at only around 50 animals.  Between 1986 and 1996, over 20,000 Masked Bobwhite Quail were released into the wild.  Today, not one can be found alive.   What happened?  How could this be?   The answer is complex and brings up some very difficult questions.   It turns out, the Masked Bobwhite that lived in the Altar Valley were on their way out when ornithologists discovered them in the early 20th century.   The habitat was so gone, they could not survive.   When the refuge began releasing Bobwhite onto the refuge, they coupled their efforts with programs to renew the ecosystem: removal of mesquite, better grassland management, and a host of different efforts.   As it turns out, it simply wasn’t enough.     The land had been too altered by prior ranching; the Bobwhite were unable to survive, even with the changes brought on by the refuge.   Gone still was the waste-high grass, the marshy valley floor, the creeks flowing into the valley…gone was the past.   The rain still washed into the gullies; the mesquite still choked the grasslands; and the grasslands still contained 50% alien species.  

We have to ask ourselves, did the former refuge managers have hubris in thinking they could grow a bunch of quail, throw the cattle off the land and believe the formula would be successful?   I don’t think so.    I believe they always knew the task was formidable and they would have to be creative and make changes to their methods if they were unsuccessful.      The refuge’s files are crammed with studies and programs regarding bringing the Bobwhite back.   I believe the refuge’s efforts were large and sincere.  Unfortunately, I also believe the refuge underestimated the enormity of the task, specifically as it pertained to the severity of the early landscape destruction.   They simply didn’t know how bad it was when they took the helm of managing the lands.    Which brings up the question: can the land ever be brought back to its former self?   The answer is probably no.    Again, the refuge is surrounded by ongoing ranching.   New residential houses continue to pop up in surrounding watersheds.   Each house and ranch operation requires new wells to water the animals or serve the households.  From simple anecdotal accounts from folks that have been in the area for the past ten years, they describe how ground water is now deeper underground, creeks are now almost dry, and riparian areas are a fraction of what they once were…that’s in ten years.  The relentless pursuit of water through pumping groundwater is not going to stop and the land continues to erode with every rain, so, no, I don’t think the refuge land will ever meet its former self.     

To this day, the refuge continues to be an amazing place for nesting grassland birds and a variety of life;  there is still wildlife to be found.   BANWR continues raising quail but now works with international partners in Mexico to do releases in areas thought to be better remnant habitats.  Some of this has already happened with the recent delivery of 70 Masked Bobwhite down to Mexico.

So, getting back to the analysis of our experience: Were we affective? Did we make any difference?  Did we have fun?    Again, the answers are complex.    I think we were probably affective at what we did, but did we make any difference?   Probably not.   Even if we had  doubled our efforts at being volunteers, it’s doubtful we would have had any impact on bringing back the Bobwhite, helping the Pronghorn, or returning the land to its former self.   So, if we didn’t have an impact, did we have fun?  We agreed we had fun learning about the refuge and getting to know and work with refuge staff and other volunteers, but, in the end, our hearts were heavy at witnessing the fate of the Bobwhite, Pronghorn, and the land itself.  I never discussed  what happened to the Pronghorn after they were re-introduced from Texas.   It turns out that Pronghorn are very visual animals, so, in order to survive, they need healthy grasslands with unobstructed view planes to see predators.  If they are placed into an area with a sea of mesquite trees, it turns out their newly born babies become easy prey to predators; so, no, the Pronghorn are not thriving.   

Again, we left the refuge in our trailer that last day with quite mixed feelings, wondering (and doubting) if we had made any difference.   In the end we decided it didn’t matter.  We agreed that the only real power we have in any volunteer situation was simply the power of our own intentions.    We were not going to be able to solve the refuge’s problems or change the surrounding community’s attitudes regarding wildlife, cattle grazing, or restoring native habitat.   The only real power we have is to make ourselves happy.   In the end we called it free will…the freedom to seek and be happy.   We both agreed that our happiness lies in seeking and seeing those final wild places and  to experience the remaining magic in the world.

Please enjoy the photos.

Altar Valley with Baboquivari Peak in the distance- the peak is sacred to local Native Americans.
Stars of the show: the Masked Bobwhite


Male Pronghorn Antelope

The Visitor's Center is a wonderful place to bird. As we have learned, when there are large trees with a water feature... you get birds.
There was a pair of nesting Common Ravens...they will make nesting for some of the smaller birds a challenge.
American Kestrel looking down at its dropped meal
The American Kestrel dropped this Ring-necked Snake...but not before removing the head

A "prairie" or richardsonii Merlin...this was the first time we had seen this lighter colored Merlin
There were many Ash-throated Flycatchers around the refuge. We are not sure what cavities they are using to nest but appear to be paired off and in nesting mode.
A Desert Maripose
This little rattlesnake was living in the kitchen closet that housed the water heater at the Visitor's Center. A pair of our volunteers that have a great deal of experience with snakes were nice enough to relocate it to a safer spot on the refuge:-)
We never knew what we might see...we spotted this Crested Cara Cara near the entrance to the refuge. This species seems to be moving north from Mexico to breed.

One of the few Saguaro cactus that we saw on the refuge. The cavities in these cactus provide nesting locations for many bird species.
Swainson's Hawk
Barn Swallows were competing with a Say's Phoebe for nesting rights at the Visitor Center.
We think the Say's Phoebe won one nest and the Barn Swallows had the second nest.
Bell's Vireos are nesting around the Visitor's Center. Their unique song could be heard all day long:-)
This  Black-throated Gray Warbler stopped by for a bath did this MacGillivray's Warbler
The Vermillion Flycatchers were nesting all around the refuge. We think this female was already feeding young in the nest.
Western Kingbirds started migrating through, stopping by the water feature for a drink and bath.
Very large lizard! 
Male Black-headed Grosbeak
Chipping Sparrows could be found all around the Visitor's Center
This female Common Yellow-throat had us stumped for awhile
This is a clump of spider eggs! Not sure how many or what type...but I am sure a lot!
White-winged Doves were looking for partners
This Wilson's Warbler was hanging around the water feature for days:-)
Male Audubon's Yellow-rumped Warbler stopped by...
The refuge provides a place for their volunteers and visiting researchers to park their RVs or stay in the refuge housing. During the height of illegal immigration traffic from Mexico there were hundreds of illegals crossing into the U.S. through the refuge. As a result, the refuge felt it necessary for safety reasons to install this fence and security system.
...a bit daunting but very safe :-)
Brown Canyon is situated at the base of Baboquivari Peak. It is a section of the refuge that was purchased at a later date from a local artist and ranchers.  We were fortunate to be invited to participate in a hike up the canyon. Guided hikes are offered to the public twice a month during the cooler time of the year. The canyon has year round water. As a result, it contains diverse plant & wildlife species, including desert tortoise.

A peak at the peak
The arch at the top of the hike
 Bob found a buddy:-) This jaguar skin was confiscated at the Dallas airport from a poacher trying to smuggle the skin in from South America where he had shot & killed it. Customs turned the skin over to U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, who in turn had the skin taxidermied into the display seen below. The jaguar is located at the Education Center in Brown Canyon because this area is still known to have jaguar visitation from Mexico. To put the display size into perspective, our hiking group came up with a consensus that the weight of the jaguar, when alive, was approximately 350 lbs!
This Desert Honeysuckle was a magnet for hummingbirds and insects along the trail.
Prickly Poppies dotted the desert landscape
Some type of desert penstemon
Arivaca Cienega & Creek Trail are part of the Arivaca Creek riparian watershed. Like Brown Canyon, the Arivaca section of the refuge was purchased later through a partnership with the Nature Conservancy. It has some of the last remnants of permanent water in the entire valley, though that is slowly changing (disappearing).

The endangered Chiricahua Leopard Frog
One of two nesting Cooper's Hawks
Gray Flycatcher are common in the cienega
Desert Rose Mallow ??

Scorpion Weed

Love can sometimes be a contact sport:-)

Black Vulture
Bob spotted this Grey Fox sleeping in a tree. We learned that the Grey Fox has claws for climbing unlike its eastern relative, the Red Fox.

Gray Hawks could be seen and heard around the area. They are now a common breeder in the area.
A Loggerhead Shrike in flight. Bob read some old breeding bird reports & discovered that the refuge is some of the best shrike habitat in the country.
My first Gilded Flicker...a true bird of the desert. Note the yellow/golden color under the tail and the bold red mustache.

We spied this Gopher Snake off to the side of the trail.... I am sure hiding from the American Kestrel and other predators.
Believe it or not, singing Rufous-winged Sparrows were common !
Zone-tailed Hawks nest in the Arivaca Creek

This female Common Yellowthroat was a challenge to identify! But then the male showed up...
The male Common Yellowthroat is anything but common looking
I think we were seeing the last of the Green-tailed Towhees for the season...they typically breed north and at elevation.

This flycatcher used to be called a "western" flycatcher. Later ornithologists determined that there were actually two distinct species differentiated by breeding location, call and even DNA. This version of the old western flycatcher is now called the Pacific-slope Flycatcher. This Pacific-slope Flycatcher helped with its identification since it was calling- otherwise we would not have been able to tell it apart from its  Cordilleran cousin.
Male Wilson's Warbler
...showing off his cap
The male Yellow Warbler 

... takes a bow
WHAT IS THAT??? An incredible find...this Sonora Mud Turtle was sitting on a log sunning amongst the birdsong. Magic! We have learned that during hot, dry periods of extended drought they can reduce their activity level and live in burrows along the water's edge. They can remain underground for more than a year during extended periods of drought! They even hibernate underground during the winter. Though aquatic, they can travel long distances over land to find water, a trait that is very helpful in the desert.
Arivaca Creek Trail is located downstream from the cienega. The creek bed is lined by old Cottonwoods and it is still full of life.

A glimpse at feeding Lawrence's Goldfinches. This was a rare sighting for us because they winter in Arizona but breed in the central valley of California. They were loving the blooming yellow flowers!
A male Broad-billed Hummingbird catching some sun
A Zone-tailed Hawk flew above our heads
If you continue beyond the creek bed on the Arivaca Creek trail, it leads you up towards Mustang Peak 

Ocotillo buds

Rattlesnake Weed

Baboquivari Peak in the background

An amazing area adjacent to the refuge is Sycamore Canyon and Pena Blanca Lake. On one of our days off we explored the area via Ruby Road (worse road known to mankind) and discovered some amazing countryside.

We found this male Elegant Trogon in a slot canyon on the Sycamore Canyon hike
This Lucy's Warbler was singing away
Views on the Sycamore Canyon hike

We enjoyed taking a few day trips to Green Valley and birding Florida Canyon in the Santa Rita Mountains. We have visited this area in the fall and have found the canyon to be just as prolific with life in the spring.

Female Calliope Hummingbird migrating north
Desert Black Swallowtail Butterfly
Northern Cardinal singing from the tree tops
Ocotillo Blooms- hummingbird nectar

Male Summer Tanager
Male Townsend's Warbler

Male Black-capped Gnatcatcher ... this bird is typically found in northwestern Mexico and is a rare visitor to southeast Arizona. Note white undertail. This differentiates the Black-capped from the Black-tailed Gnatcatcher.

Female Black-capped Gnatcatcher  looks identical to other female Gnatcatchers with the exception of the color of the tail underside.
Broad-billed Hummingbird in Ocotillo blooms

Female Lesser Goldfinch
Male Lesser Goldfinch
Orange-crowned Warbler
Verdin calling

One final view of Baboquivari Peak

The World is Full of Beauty & Wonder,
Turtle & Hawk


  1. Another fabulous collection of wildlife photos! I appreciate your heartfelt and honest sharing of your experience as volunteers. Your conclusion is inspiring (that it's your intention that matters) -- and it's also a gift that you share the beauty of these wild places with all of us.

  2. Thanks for your sweet thoughts- it is all about intention:-)
    Enjoy your travels and I hope we meet one of these days.
    PS- we are at Rusty's RV Ranch in Rodeo & it is one of those WINDY days-yikes!

  3. I hope we meet in person, too -- we'll set our intention and make it happen! We know exactly what you're talking about with those windy days at Rusty's. Crazy weather, indeed!