Pat’s Wildways: Arizona Skies

By Pat Foster-Turley

The sun sets over the Sonora Desert cacti.

One of my main motivations for visiting southern Arizona with my brother recently was the attraction of the night skies. Arizona has a number of certified Dark Sky Places where artificial lights are dimmed or absent and the myriad of stars in the night sky are there for the viewing. One such place is in and around the Sonora Desert and I managed to find a nearby lodge with resident astronomers and hefty telescopes available for viewing the stars. I love the Sonora Desert, and I wanted to go there again anyway. And to stay at a place with dark skies and telescopes? Wow, sign me up!

Cat Mountain Lodge is a wonderful place embedded in the Sonora Desert, with classic adobe architecture, artistically and comfortably appointed, and complete with a labyrinth defined by stones, a nature trail, and meditation benches. My brother and I arrived there around sunset, in time to take stunning photos of the sun sinking below giant saguaro cacti. It was cloudy, though, great for sunset shots but not so great for stars. But, determined to see the night sky at last, I woke up at 5 a.m. when it was still dark and wandered alone in the Sonora desert to a bench situated far away from anyone. But there was a glitch in my plan. It was a full moon and very few stars were visible. But wow, wow, wow, heck with the stars! I walked around the desert landscape and sat on my stone bench for two hours, watching the desert lit up by the light of the full moon, and then, as the moon set on one horizon, I watched the sun come up around 6:30 a.m. on the other. The word “magical” does not do justice to this miraculous time I spent alone in the desert.

Dawn over Cave Creek is a miraculous event, different each day.

A few days later we were at the Cave Creek Ranch, a birder and naturalist paradise tucked into a canyon in the Chiricahua Mountains a bit to the east. This place is in a transitional zone between the Sonora and Chihuahuan deserts and is the largest of the Arizona Sky Mountains that provide habitat for birds migrating through. Cave Creek Ranch is well known to birders around the world who flock there in season to see 14 species of hummingbirds and many other rare bird species that inhabit this landscape. Coatimundi and ringtails (both raccoon relatives), javelina (collared peccaries), and four species of skunk, among other interesting mammals, live there too, and as a zoologist these were my target animals to spot. Well, I did manage to see a hooded skunk patrolling the grounds at night, a new sighting for me, and a number of mule deer and squirrels, but my target animals evaded me. But that didn’t matter at all. What mattered were the dawns! I got up early each day and wandered down to Cave Creek and the beauty of the dawns was a wonder to behold.

The creek seems ablaze with fire on one such dawn.

I thought that was all the sky events I would witness during this Arizona trip but I was wrong. I boarded my plane out of Tucson at 6 a.m. on a nearly cloudless morning and settled into my seat with earphones on watching a movie while my seatmate closed her eyes to sleep. About 15 minutes into our ascent — BOOM and a bright FLASH jolted everyone to attention. Did the plane explode!!!!! It took three minutes or so for the pilot to come on the speaker with the reassuring words, “Don’t worry, we were hit by lightning, it happens frequently and the plane is not damaged. We are continuing on to our destination.” Presumably, the delay was due to the fact that the pilot and copilot were busy checking all their instruments to make sure that information was true.

As for we passengers, you can imagine the scene. No one actually panicked once we realized the plane was still flying normally and we were still alive. I must admit those first seconds filled me with thoughts of, “I don’t mind if I die, but what will Bucko do?” And other scary thoughts. But once the coast was clear I used my offbeat sense of humor to calm other passengers. “Hey look, this is just like how a movie starts!” Maybe that wasn’t so funny, as most movies starting this way end badly. Luckily, this one didn’t, and soon enough, we were all back to dozing and watching movies in our seats.

As my niece Margaret commented on my Facebook post, “You left Arizona with a bang!” And so I did. But I will be back.

Pat Foster-Turley, Ph.D., is a zoologist on Amelia Island. She welcomes your nature questions and observations. [email protected]