Nature

Naturalist Vincent Pinto on Spring at the Ranch

 

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Circle Z Blog – Spring
Although spring officially begins later in March, it has arrived at Circle Z – owing to the warmer climes of southeast Arizona’s Sky Islands. Despite winter rains being down a bit, many hues of green are descending upon the ranch as various native trees, shrubs, and wildflowers send out foliage. Mexican Elderberry trees are fully leafed out and poised to proffer fragrant flowers soon. A nice variety of wildflowers are in bloom along Sonoita Creek and in the surrounding grasslands and desert scrub, adding color to Circle Z’s seemingly endless, wild expanses.

Perhaps most notable among the flowering plants is a medium-sized yellow shrub, sometimes called Willow-leafed Ragwort. You’ll know it when you encounter this stream-side shrub, as it has a veritable explosion of blooms that are often covered in beautiful butterflies, as well as other native pollinators. Rich Bailowitz, who coauthored the book Finding Butterflies in Arizona, recommends Sonoita Creek as the key location for finding them in February in all of the state! Look for Texan Crescents, Pipevine Swallowtails, Fatal Metalmarks, Tiny Checkerspots, and others at this fragrant shrub in the Aster family.

Meanwhile, 2 good years of rain have allowed wildlife populations to rebound nicely in and around the ranch. Guests this season have reported countless sightings of a wide range of species. White-nosed coatis are certainly on the prowl, searching for Netleaf Hackberries and other fruits as well as for any hapless invertebrate or small vertebrate. These fascinating tropical members of the Raccoon family have their main distribution in Latin America, but infiltrate our region as one of our so-called “Mexican specialties” – species who barely infiltrate into the U.S. Adult female and young male Coatis travel in groups, while adults males – the so-called Coatimundis – go it alone, save in breeding season. Sighting Coatis and other mostly tropical wildlife is truly a thrill. In fact, staying at circle Z is akin to traveling into Mexico without crossing the border – something special and exotic to be savored! Most guests come back repeatedly and the natural environments at the ranch are certainly a key reason for this.

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Gould’s Wild Turkeys – the largest subspecies – have made a remarkable recovery at Circle Z from the days when they were over-hunted in Arizona. Flocks of up to 30 birds have been seen this winter as close as the horse corrals. Mike, who helps run the ranch, even spied one in the jaws of a hungry Mountain Lion! Speaking of whom….. Ranch owner Diana Nash took several stunning photos of Cougars this winter from the ranch. One was of a Mountain Lion lounging in a tree, while a second (from a remote wildlife camera) shows a Cougar leaping spectacularly across Sonoita Creek! Seeing wildlife at the ranch is not just hypothetical, it’s a real possibility.

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Birders at the ranch have a treat waiting for them this spring as resident birds are joined by both returning neo-tropical migrants, as well as lingering wintering birds. My recent bird tours have unveiled an average of 40 – 50 species over the course of half a day. These including some Mexican specialties, including Hepatic Tanager, Painted Redstart, Montezuma Quail, Gray Hawks, and others All of these and other birds find safe haven on the extensive conservation easements at Circle Z.

Whether you are a non-birder, beginner, or advanced birder, know that when you come to the ranch and Sonoita Creek you’ll be at one North America’s birding Meccas! When you’re at the Ranch look for free the free, weekly Nature Walk by Naturalist and Wildlife Biologist Vincent Pinto – usually on Wednesday morning prior to your ride. He’ll introduce you to the flora, fauna, and geology of the region and help you to find local wildlife. Vincent is also an expert Wilderness Survival Instructor and will share some intriguing tips during the walk. Each week he also offers either an Astronomy Program or a Full Moon Walk, depending upon the Moon’s cycle. If you would like to go beyond your rides and these free programs, then he also can be hired as your private Nature Guide for exploring the region at large.

I can honestly say that despite traveling the world in search of wildlife and adventure (Africa, Asia, Europe, South America….) my favorite places to immerse in Nature are in southeast Arizona!

Written by Vincent Pinto, naturalist at Circle Z Ranch

By |March 14th, 2016|Nature|0 Comments

A guests guide to birding and horseback riding at the Circle Z

Yes, I was the kid who always hoped for a pony under the Christmas tree. But if one wasn’t going to be forthcoming (and it wasn’t), another good choice for Santa would be a new field guide or better binoculars for my other outdoor hobby: birdwatching. I’ve continued to pursue both hobbies pretty well life long and love finding vacation spots where both are readily available.

Enter the Circle Z.

Southern Arizona is widely known by birders across North America as being an exceptional place to find birds that are difficult, and even impossible, to discover elsewhere on the continent, as many here are at the extreme northern limits of their ranges. This is true even in the depths of winter, which is when I visit the ranch.

The ranch’s location is ideal for birding in southeastern Arizona, as they are bordered on the east by Patagonia Lake State Park and on the west by the Patagonia-Sonoita Nature Preserve. Just across Highway 82 is the famed Roadside Rest, known for turning up rare birds year after year.
From the other side, any reader of guest ranch guide books knows that the Circle Z has been famous for its great horseback riding program for 90 years.

There are numerous ways of combining the two hobbies at the ranch. One of my favorites is merely watching for the frequently-amazing bird life while you are out on horseback, exploring the canyons, desert washes and mountain foothills nearby. I have found that many birds are less shy of humans when those humans are mounted on horseback than when on foot. As well, birds that prefer the more remote settings are much more easily found on a ride than when it would involve a trek of several miles over frequently-rocky and uneven trails on foot. During my week here in January 2016, I have seen flights of 20 or more Mexican (Gray-breasted) Jays fluttering iridescent blue in Flux Canyon, have been surrounded by flocks of Black-Throated Sparrows in the mesquite scrub, and have seen Montezuma Quail, that secretive skulker, scurry away up the hillsides.

Several wranglers who lead the rides (ranch manager Jenny, and wranglers Alice and Johnny) are all good birders in their own right, and are always keen to help identify a bird or to take a ride to the spot where a specific species has recently been seen. On many days it is also possible to ride for half of the day and then go birding for the other half. Paton’s Hummingbird Sanctuary is only a 10 minute drive from the ranch, and other well-known hotspots such as Kino Springs (one of my favorites) and San Pedro Nature Preserve can be easily covered in a half day. If you can spare a whole day from riding (a difficult decision to be sure!), Madera Canyon and Whitewater Draw would easily welcome you.

Some special birds are also big draws to the ranch area. It is one of the few spots where the Elegant Trogon can be seen reasonably regularly, and the nearby nature preserve was the site of the first sighting ever of Sinaloa Wren in the US. And this is all just during the mid-winter season. Come spring, hosts of hummingbirds, flycatchers and other species that prefer warmer weather, or are on their migratory route, begin to appear within easy viewing, often at the feeders on the ranch grounds.
Come to think of it, I might just have to try a Spring trip ….
Written by Barb Mclintock, long time Circle Z Ranch guest

By |January 22nd, 2016|Nature|0 Comments

Arizona’s Spectacular Sky Islands

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Southeast Arizona is extraordinarily endowed with surprisingly high levels of species diversity or biodiversity. Although the stereotype that most people harbor of Arizona before they ever set foot here is often one of expansive deserts, these are merely the the lowest of landforms above which loom a surprising array of habitats. Driving or, better yet, walking from the base of one of our loftier mountain ranges to its highest peak constitutes a virtual trip (in terms of habitats) from Mexico to Canada. From Desert to Spruce-Fir forest in a mere few hours! All things considered we may well be the most biologically diverse area in North America north of Mexico! For within Santa Cruz and a few surrounding counties we have bragging rights to an astonishing variety of taxa. All these figures are for North America north of Mexico:

• About 500 Bird species recorded – representing about 50% of all the birds recorded in North America – including the most Hummingbird and Sparrow species in this area

• More Mammals than any comparable area in N. America – over 100 species

• The most Reptile species, including the most Lizards, in North America • High levels of Ant and Bee biodiversity

• More than 2000 native Plant species

Why, then, do we possess such unexpected biological treasures? In a word – Geology. Landforms and their arrangement as well as elevation changes help in part account for our high levels of biodiversity. Here lofty mountains rise precipitously from normally very flat valleys in a Basin and Range topography so typical of much of the western U.S. and which stretches from Oregon well into Mexico. Nothing too unique in that then. However, our tall isolated mountains lie strategically positioned at a sort of biological meeting grounds or crossroads given our exact latitudes and longitudes. They trend North-South, connecting the temperate and tropical realms, allowing many southern species to reach the northern terminus of their ranges, while many Northern species barely make it into Northern Mexico.

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Looking at a map of the major local biomes or bioregions in the Southwest quickly confirms that a number of such key areas converge right here with Circle Z right in the thick of things. The Rocky Mountains sweep in from the North, lending us their Spruce-Fir Forests and a number of species more characteristic of higher latitudes. The Great Plains and the relatively high and cool Chihuahuan Desert trickle across from the East, providing such species as Scaled Quail, Ornate Box Turtles, and Lark Buntings. To the West we are dominated by the lower and warmer, and hence more diverse, Sonoran Desert. Finally, and bearing an inordinate level of importance, the Neotropical and Madrean (think Mexicoʼs Sierra Madre Mountains) provinces allow otherwise subtropical and tropical species to infiltrate our area. Many people are rightly awed by the presence of Jaguars, Ocelots, White-nosed Coati, and other “Mexican Specialties” in our Sky Islands – species whose ranges are mainly south of the U.S. border. We even used to periodically host Thick-billed Parrots before they were persecuted into their present rarity in Mexico and Mexican Grizzly Bears until they were pushed to extinction.

Add a great range of elevations to this every-which-way directional mixing of species and you have the perfect palette upon which Nature has painted its masterpiece of temperate biodiversity. Traveling from lower elevations into higher ones, an idealized view of our vertically-stacked habitats goes something like this: Desert (either one), Grassland, Chaparral, Great Basin Conifer Woodland, Madrean Evergreen Woodland, Pine Forests, and topping out with Spruce-Fir Forests and Montane Meadows eerily reminiscent of Canada. The very fact that the heavily wooded habitats within this retinue are perched above the relatively open and timber-free ones creates our famous moniker: Arizonaʼs Sky Islands. Islands of isolated forested habitats loom above virtual seas of deserts and grasslands.

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Circle Zʼs large slice of protected Sky islands habitats include their own high levels of biodiversity. The biological centerpiece of the ranch is Sonoita Creek, which artfully meanders through protected conservation easements. Along its banks youʼll find a Riparian Forest, rich in towering tree species. In the surrounding uplands you will variously see Grasslands, Desert Scrub, and hints of Oak Woodland. Each of these beautiful and unique habitats contain their own distinct, yet overlapping, complement of flora and fauna – all here for you to enjoy at Circle Z.

Come on one of my free Nature Walks on Wednesday after breakfast (no, you wonʼt miss your horse riding!) or schedule a private Naturalist Saunter with me to discover things at you own pace and length. Either way, keep a keen eye open and you never know what might show up. Maybe youʼll be the one to see a Mountain Lion, a Gila Monster, an Elegant Trogon, White-nosed Coati, Gila Woodpecker, Clarkʼs Spiny Lizard, Gray Hawk, Gila Topminnow ………

By |October 31st, 2015|Nature|0 Comments

Patagonia Lake: A Park and Preserve

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Guests riding the higher trails on the western side of the ranch often glimpse the shimmering blue waters of Patagonia Lake in the distance. Despite blending beautifully into the scenery today, the lake didn’t even exist when Lucia Nash first came to the Circle Z as a child.

Patagonia Lake near Circle Z ranch

Patagonia Lake was formed by damming up a portion of Sonoita Creek

In the late 1960s a group of local citizens formed the Lake Patagonia Recreation Association, Inc. (LPRA) with the intent of creating a lake and recreation area. In 1968 a dam was built on the Sonoita creek west of the Circle Z, creating 256-acre Patagonia Lake.

Over the next several years the state authorities worked to acquire land surrounding the lake, which at the time was owned by oil company Conoco. Eventually the State of Arizona also secured title to Patagonia Lake itself and in 1975 Patagonia Lake State Park was established. So when Lucia acquired the Circle Z in 1976 she knew the land immediately to the west of the ranch would always be protected!

Today the park consists of over 2,600 acres in addition to the lake and abuts the Sonoita Creek State Natural Area along with the Circle Z, all ensuring a stable environment for the unique ecosystem found along the Sonoita Creek and around the ranch. Tracks from the New Mexico/Arizona railroad like beneath the lake, the same railroad that forms some of the well-worn tracks at the Circle Z.

Fishing is popular at Patagonia Lake in southern Arizona

Channel your inner angler at Patagonia Lake

The lake is a habitat for bass, crappie, bluegill and catfish, and is stocked with rainbow trout during the winter months making it a popular spot for fishermen. Kayaks and canoes are available for rental. If your next visit to the Circle Z has you “angling” to do some fishing or paddling, Patagonia Lake would be a good choice. For the rest of us, the lake provides a beautiful reflection of that magnificent Arizona sky.

Patagonia Lake is a perfect spot for canoes and kayaks

Quiet waterways among the marsh grasses provide wonderful spots for kayaking.

By |June 5th, 2015|Community, Day Trips, History, Nature|0 Comments

Nature at the ranch: April Report

Post by Vincent Pinto

April is a unique time for nature at Circle Z Ranch. While the conventional notion is that Arizona is too hot to visit in late spring, this is certainly not the case at here! An elevation of 4,000 feet combined with lush and shady forests strewn along Sonoita Creek afford ample cooler retreats for guests.

The Varied Bunting brightens up the Arizona landscape; Zak Pohlen, Flickr

The Varied Bunting brightens up the Arizona landscape; Zak Pohlen, Flickr

The entire month of April is punctuated by a spike in the numbers of migrating birds, particularly those that travel later from their wintering grounds. Look for Varied Buntings, Yellow-billed Cuckoos, and Blue Grosbeaks making their first appearances. The Varied Bunting is a “Mexican Specialty” species, much sought after by birders flocking themselves to the ranch. Yellow-billed Cuckoos are riparian specialists, so keep an eye out for them amidst the towering Fremont Cottonwoods and other broadleafed trees lining Sonoita Creek. They often dine upon hairy caterpillars and require intact riparian zones. As such, they are rather rare and are now federally threatened.

The lushness of Circle Zʼs forests are in evidence this May given our ample rains last monsoon season and this Winter. Their cover affords quality foraging and sleeping areas for White-nosed Coatis – tropical members of the Raccoon family that barely enter the U.S. Many guests have been these seeing these special mammals of late, particularly on the old New Mexico and Arizona Railroad bed. Other mammals to look for in May include Coues Whitetail Deer, Mule Deer, Collared Peccary, Arizona Gray Squirrel, and Mountain Lion. Yes, Mountain Lion! Some guests recently spied and photographed an adult Cougar while out on a ride. This is great evidence of a healthy, functioning ecosystem at Circle Z. The ongoing conservation work here has truly paid off with over 5,000 protected acres providing vital habitat for a broad spectrum of flora and fauna.

Gila Monster: look but don't touch! By Dave Govoni, Flickr

Gila Monster: look but don’t touch! By Dave Govoni, Flickr

Plenty of other wildlife abounds at the ranch in April. Many species of lizards can be seen, including Sonoran Spotted Whiptail, Ornate Tree Lizard, Clarkʼs Spiny Lizard, and the threatened Gila Monster. This venomous lizard is the largest in the U.S., but only poses a threat if you pick one up, which is never a good idea! Leave all of the plants and animals at Circle Z to their own devices, taking only photographs and leaving only tracks.

Cane Cholla, by Gem66 on Flickr

Cane Cholla, by Gem66 on Flickr

Despite the dryer weather in April, certain plants literally come into full bloom. Cacti and members of the Asparagus Family in particular have evolved to blossom now. Cane Cholla, several Prickly Pear species, Palmerʼs Agave, and Sotol fall into this warm season flower category, adding color to the landscape.

Truly with one of the highest levels of biodiversity in all of the U.S. the Sky Islands of southeast Arizona and Circle Z Ranch are perfect destinations to enjoy the beauty of Nature – including in April!

By |April 25th, 2015|Nature, Observations|Comments Off on Nature at the ranch: April Report

Nature at the Ranch: February Report

Post by Vincent Pinto

February is a special month at Circle Z. As the ranch’s Naturalist and Astronomer, I am excited to share a plethora of exciting natural history and celestial events that world-weary guests can enjoy while seeking the solace of Nature.

Arizona Cottonwoods, with fluffy flowers beginning to give way to leaves. Photo courtesy Verde Canyon RR-flickr

Arizona Cottonwoods, with fluffy flowers beginning to give way to leaves. Photo courtesy Verde Canyon RR-flickr

Just as you may flock to southeast Arizona for a well-deserved respite from Winter, so too do legions of birds. Our warm weather and nearly tropical latitudes add up to a veritable birder’s paradise! A short wander from Circle Z near the inlet of lovely Lake Patagonia is a well-known wintering haunt of rare Elegant Trogons. February holds the promise of many other birds as well. Bridled Titmice acrobatically frolic in towering Fremont Cottonwoods and winsome Sycamore trees, searching for a snack of insects. Lesser Goldfinches prefer seeds and are often spotted at the ranch’s feeders. Here today–then gone tomorrow–are sleek Cedar Waxwings questing for wild fruits such as Mistletoe and Netleaf Hackberry.

Hepatic Tanager, courtesy Melanie C. Underwood-flickr

Hepatic Tanager, photo courtesy Melanie C. Underwood-flickr

I’ve even sighted wintering male Hepatic Tanager – a species that breeds in local Pine forests in warmer seasons. Any visiting birder should well be able see 50+ species in a normal day of birding. Many of these species, such as Abert’s Towhee, Gila Woodpecker, and Rufous-winged Sparrow are local specialties, difficult or impossible to see outside of southeast Arizona! Finally, listen and look for Great Horned Owls, who may have eggs or even nestling during February.

Many mammals are also on the prowl during February at Circle Z. During my weekly Nature Walk guests often learn about fascinating tracks of Coyotes, Bobcats, Grey Fox, Mountain Lion, White-nosed Coati, and other mammalian delights.Less frequent, though worth the time spent outside of course, are direct sightings of these and other species. In fact, February is prime time for a glimpse of the otherwise reclusive Arizona Gray Squirrel. Nearly endemic to its namesake state, this species would rather quietly skulk away rather than chatter at you, a la other North American Tree Squirrels. Whether afoot or astride a horse, past guests have been lucky to glimpse Gray Fox, Coati, Virginia Opossum, Whitetail Deer, Mule Deer, and even a Mountain Lion on rare occasion!

White nosed coati, photo courtesy Harvey Barrison-flickr

White nosed coati, photo courtesy Harvey Barrison-flickr

The Dainty Sulphur butterfly is delicate indeed. Photo courtesy of Anne Reeves-flickr

The Dainty Sulphur butterfly is delicate indeed. Photo courtesy of Anne Reeves-flickr

Although technically still Winter, February is truly the start of Spring at Circle Z. Witness the beautiful flowering Senecio shrubs along and near Sonoita Creek. These fragrant, yellow blooms attract Butterflies, about 330 of which have been recorded in Arizona. Small, slow-flying, and rather tame Texan Crescents can be common on warmer days, along with Queens ( a Monarch relative), Pipevine Swallowtail, Dainty Sulphur, and Tailed Orange.

 

 

Other plants are all over the place in their response to February. As I write, many Spring annual wildflowers are peeking their young leaves above the soil – a prelude to the many colors to come! Hairy Bowlesia, Popcorn Flower, Evening Primrose, and Prickly Poppy are just a few of the dozens of species that will grace us in Spring. Meanwhile, Mexican Elderberry is putting out leaves and will soon flower. Mock Buckthorn has ripening fruit and many plants are waiting for the last frost to leaf out. February is indeed a special time in Nature at circle Z!

By |February 11th, 2015|Nature, Observations|Comments Off on Nature at the Ranch: February Report