The Sonoran Desert occupies the southern portion of Arizona (with a version extending west into California), but most of it lies in the northwestern portion of Sonora, Mexico. It is a hot, dry, but amazing lush desert, as it is subject to flooding rains during the summer – the exact time when plants need it the most. Mild winters and rainy summers support a tremendous biodiversity, including the giant saguaro and cardon cacti, and a rich bird and mammal flora. The following recordings present some of the springtime diversity of bird sounds in the northern Sonoran Desert, from south-central to southeastern Arizona.
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Sonoran Desert Dawn (13:38)
In early March, 2014, a friend and I went camping out in the middle of the Sonoran Desert, near Ajo, Arizona, searching for a “wild” Sonoran desert soundscape. On a remote stretch of BLM land, we pulled off and camped for a couple of nights, and I recorded the dawn choruses. Although “wild”, it was in no way unimpacted by humans. We were on the edge of the Barry Goldwater Air Force bombing range, and we spent our evenings watching flare after flare being dropped from military jets, and heard the distant rapid thudding of strafing runs. It was quite eerie. Much of the BLM land in the area is open to off-road vehicles, which have left extensive scarring of the desert, as have the drug runners from Mexico and the US law enforcements attempts to interdict them. The hidden pockets of wild Sonoran desert in the US are getting smaller and smaller, and the opportunities to record wild soundscapes, without the roar of military jets or off-road vehicles, are becoming even rarer.
But in this nearly wild portion of the Sonoran Desert, the dawn was greeted by a chorus of House Finches, Phainopeplas, Gambel’s Quail, Gila Woodpeckers, Cactus Wrens and other desert birds.
Recorded in the desert near Ajo, Arizona on March 5, 2014.
Where the water ends (16:45)
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 Arizona 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.
In March 2014, I took a hike to Cienega Creek, to see how it was holding up after a very dry winter. About a half-mile downstream from the confluence with Davidson Canyon, Cienega Creek 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 cactus stood on the hillside above the now dry creek bed. Vermillion Flycatchers, Black Phoebes, and Yellow Warblers contributed to the chorus.
Recorded east of Tucson, AZ, March 20, 2014.
Kingfisher Morning (17:12)
Sonoita Creek is a small creek that drains the Sonoita Plains and Patagonia Mountains, before it runs into the Santa Cruz River and flows through Tucson. For most of its length it flows year-round, creating an important source of water for plants and animals near the US-Mexico border. It’s been an important source for millennia – ancient rock art, dating back 1000 years or more, can be found on the rocks lining its banks. It was the rock art that drew me to Sonoita Creek in April of 2013. But the rich sounds of the birds and insects along the creek prompted me to set up my recorder while I went off exploring.
Recorded along Sonoita Creek, near Tubac, AZ, April 11, 2013.
The Exurban Sonoran Desert (10:33)
The change in habitats and habitat structure that occurs in and near cities also affects the soundscape. I’m not talking about the cars, trains, planes, and lawnmowers. I’m talking about the wild sounds. I’m reminded of this every day when I walk out the door. I’m almost always greeted with the sounds of Great-tailed Grackles from my neighbors pine trees, and House Sparrows nesting in a nearby Saguaro cactus. The grackles are native, but they like trees and moister habitats, so they were pretty unusual in the Sonoran desert before urbanization came along. The House Sparrows are not native at all. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s All about birds website, “You can find House Sparrows most places where there are houses (or other buildings), and few places where there aren’t.” It is native to Europe and Asia, but has now been introduced to most of the world, and is considered one of the most widely distributed bird species. Eurasian collared-doves have recently moved in, too, adding another voice to the soundscape. So although the habitat is superficially similar to the “wild” Sonoran desert, the soundscape is quite different.
Recorded on the outskirts of Tucson, AZ, March 2014.
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