Today was a long day, even by our standards. Our goal was to visit Madera Canyon, 25 miles southeast of Tucson.
Just south of Tucson was the Mission San Xavier del Bac on the Tohono O’Odham San Xavier Indian Reservation. The mission was named in 1692 by Padre Eusebio Kino for a pioneering Christian missionary and co-founder of the Society of Jesus (Jesuit Order), Francis Xavier.
Completed in 1797, the church has Mexican, Spanish, and Tohono O’odham influences.
Dubbed the “white dove in the desert,” visitors come from near and far to see the ornate and detailed artwork, to learn about the history, and to admire the careful preservation. Because of time limitations, we did not go inside.
From the Mission, we drove mostly east to Madera Canyon located in the Santa Rita Mountains, one of the largest of the Mandrean Sky Islands. The canyon and its immediate surroundings are therefore home to wide variety of flora and fauna, ranging from cactus covered desert in the lower reaches of the canyon to aspen and pine on Mount Wrightson. With fifteen species of hummingbirds, elegant trogon, sulphur-bellied flycatcher, black-capped gnatcatcher, flame-colored tanager, thirty-six species of wood warblers, and 256 species of birds documented in total, Madera Canyon is rated the third best birding destination in the United States. Our first stop was the Santa Rita Lodge which provides lodging facilities in the canyon. The gift shop has a viewing area (free) frequented by both birdwatchers and photographers (amateur and professional). We were not disappointed. We drove further up the canyon to an elevation of almost 6,000 feet, and hiked a short distance to the snow line, hoping to see the Elegant Trogan—no such luck! However, the mountains are my happy place.
Rather than return to Palm Creek and despite the afternoon hour, we opted to drive further south and east towards the border with Mexico to Patagonia, AZ, home of the Paton Center for Hummingbirds. Renowned for its backyard birds and scenic location, the Paton Center was acquired by the Tucson Audubon Society with generous help from the American Bird Conservancy and Victor Emanuel Nature Tours early in 2014. It was established as an international birding destination several decades earlier by Wally and Marion Paton, homeowners with a heart for birds and birders alike. When the Patons passed away in 2001 and 2009, the birding community began pulling together to save this gem for future generations. Wally and Marion Paton first began inviting birders into their yard shortly after moving to Patagonia in 1973. They eventually put up a canopy and set out benches, bird books, and a chalkboard for people to record their sightings. The Patons had a special vision for supporting their backyard birds with an array of feeding stations—and supporting the wider birding community by sharing the riches of their yard. After Wally passed away in 2001 and Marion in 2009, the birding community was left with an inspiring legacy upon which to build. Many people and events conspired to bring the Patons’ home safely under the direction of Tucson Audubon. It began when 104 year-old Ann Cullen Smith contacted Victor Emanuel with news that the house was for sale. And, as they say, the rest is history. It was truly an amazing place.
To top off our day, we had a delightful drive north on scenic US Highway 83 through Coronado National Forest, surrounded by rolling grasslands turning into desert near I-10 east of Tucson. And then our real fun began. Two accidents on I-10 north of Tucson halted traffic for over 3 hours, and it didn’t matter what shortcut or detour was attempted, long, long lines of traffic awaited travelers driving north. Consequently, we reached Palm Creek well after 9 PM with takeout food from Taco Bell—Mexican food never tasted so good.