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Desert Treasures

by Michael MacCaskey

A Harris hawk stars with trainer Sue Tiegielski at the raptor demonstration.

Southern Arizona is a popular winter destination for many good reasons, mild temperatures and golf among them. But the area is also a naturalist's paradise. Perhaps because the desert environment is so demanding, the plants and animals that have adapted to it are all the more intriguing.

The single best place to experience and learn about the desert is the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, near Tucson. It is no ordinary museum filled with specimens. In fact, this combination zoo, natural history museum, and botanical garden contains more than 300 kinds of animals and more than 1,200 kinds of plants at home in their native habitats. After a day here, you'll never again think of the desert as an empty place with nothing but cactus.

Travel and Leisure magazine ranks the 21-acre museum among America's top 10 zoos, along with the Bronx Zoo in New York and the San Diego Zoological Park. The New York Times calls the desert museum "one of a kind ... not to be missed." Peak season for a visit is December through April, when the desert is pleasantly warm, not searingly hot.

The private, nonprofit museum was founded in 1952 by naturalist William Carr and conservationist Arthur Pack, a former editor of Nature magazine. With the American Museum of Natural History in New York, Carr had earlier founded the Bear Mountain Trailside Museum, today a part of Iona Island National Estuarine Research Reserve, Stony Point, New York. Carr took the Iona Island experience, which focused on native plants and animals, and headed West.

The popular symbol of the desert, the saguaro cactus, doesn't grow everywhere in the Southwest. But it does thrive in the Tucson area, and the western portion of Saguaro National Park is adjacent to the museum. These magnificient plants, some of them 200 years old and up to 50 feet tall, are reason enough to visit the museum.

A male lazuli bunting in the aviary.

Highlights for bird-watchers
It's personal preference of course, but I always head first to the walk-in aviary, home to some 40 birds that are native to the Sonoran Desert. It was here I first saw a Gambel's quail and a magnificent sparrow-sized hummingbird, and the irridescent lazuli bunting, pictured at right.

In a separate hummingbird aviary live eight kinds of small hummingbirds, from the tiny but formidable rufous to the finch-sized Anna's to the brilliantly colored Costa's. Rufous hummingbirds are the migration champions of the bird world, each year completing the round trip between Alaska and Oaxaca, Mexico.

But bird-watchers can enjoy the entire garden because native species such as cactus wrens and gila woodpeckers make their homes and find their dinners in the gardens, just as they might anywhere in the desert. Compared to birds in the wild, these birds seem a little more comfortable around people, meaning that you are much more likely to get close for a good view.

Througout the winter months of November through April there are daily raptor free flight demonstrations on the desert loop trail (see top photo). The museum emphasizes that the demonstration is an opportunity to see raptor behavior up close: it's not a bird show. Photographers can even make arrangements ahead for special sessions with a raptor specialist.

Lizards, scorpions, snakes, tarantulas, and other desert creatures are also well represented. If a museum docent is available, you might even get to pet a tarantula, a memorable experience for kids, and maybe adults, too.

Altogether, 17 displays focus on different aspects of desert life. You'll see animals common to many regions of the West such as bighorn sheep, as well as desert specialists such as chuckwalla and Gila monster (lizards), coati (a raccoon relative), jaguarundi (wildcat), and javelina (a wild boar relative).

Photographers, both professional and amateur, are drawn to the opportunities for one-of-a-kind shots. Watching them work may give you tips on how best to capture the plants and animals with your own camera.

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