Where the water ends

Confluence of Cienega Creek and Davidson Canyon

Just east of Tucson, a collection of small creeks come together to form Pantano Wash, which winds its way through Tucson before eventually joining the Gila River, which flows across the state to the Colorado River.  Most of these little creeks only flow during summer floods or occasionally during a wet winter.  However, one of the major tributaries, Cienega Creek, runs perennially through several extensive stretches, only becoming intermittent during the driest periods.  Cienega Creek drains Las Cienegas National Conservation Area.  It’s one of my favorite places to record soundscapes (see Monsoon Rearrangements and Grey Hawk).  Collectively, three different mountain ranges contribute to these creeks.

At this location east of Tucson where the washes converge, Cienega Creek is still flowing, it’s banks lined with vibrant green cottonwoods and willows.   There is a trailhead nearby that provides relatively easy access to the creek.   So a few weeks ago, on an overcast morning, I headed down to Cienega Creek to see how far the creek still flowed after this very dry winter.

As I approached the creek, I could hear the dull roar of Interstate 10 behind me.  The tree canopy was alive with birds and singing insects.  I hiked on down the creek, listening to its lovely gurgle and hiss as it made its way over the rocks .  Along the way, I was startled to see a small group of American Robins taking a drink from the creek.  Although common through most of the country, I’ve never seen them this close to the desert before, so I assumed they were stopping on their migration north.  They were a quiet bunch, and moved on without a single “cheerup cheerio.”

American Robins drink from Cienega Creek

About a half-mile downstream from the confluence with Davidson Canyon, the water disappeared into the sand.    The last isolated stand of cottonwoods was 100 yards downstream and, as if to remind me where I was, a lone saguaro stood on the hillside above the now dry creek bed.

Cienega Creek disappears into the sand

I turned back to the cool shade of the cottonwoods and set up my recorder.   A male Vermillion Flycatcher darted back and forth over the water, trading places occasionally with a Black Phoebe.  Towhees, warblers, woodpeckers and a Verdin called, all sounding like they were seriously gearing up for the breeding season.

Another mile or so downstream, a small cement dam was built to capture the Pantano’s water for irrigating a series of golf courses associated with a large subdivision.   The dam is now silted in (although “sanded in” might be more accurate), but in our current drought, the water doesn’t make it that far anyway, at least not on the surface.  The sand behind the dam holds enough water to support a lovely riparian area.  But below the dam, except during major flood events, Pantano Wash is usually dry and sandy.

April through June is the dry season here; as the temperatures soar past 110 degrees many of the streams dry up.  This stretch of Cienega Creek will probably retreat to a few stagnant puddles, or disappear altogether if the summer rains are a little late.   Some birds can probably lay their eggs and fledge their chicks before the water situation gets too dire.  Then they can fly north and repeat, getting another clutch in before heading south for the winter.  Others will wait here or nearby for the rains.   Some, like the robins, will avoid the gamble entirely and find more hospitable places to raise their young.  Some of the birds who breed up north will stop here in late summer, taking advantage of the monsoonal flush of insects to rebuild their energy stores and complete their molts, before finishing their southbound journey.  As I listened to the murmur of the creek and the whisper of the cottonwood leaves, I marveled in the many individual stories of these little birds.   I find the intricate patterns and relationships of nature endlessly fascinating.

Recorded with a Sony PCM-M10 and Audio-Technica AT2022 mic with Felmicamps SK3.5 preamp.

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