ARIZONA-SONORA DESERT MUSEUM EDUCATES AND ENTERTAINS BOTH YOUNG AND OLD PUTS BOTH IN TOUCH WITH THE DESERT-OUCH!
Walking the dusty desert trail, chirping from a Cactus Wren chirps fill the air. In the distance, I hear the thunderous sound of the Javelina running about in the morning chill, the slightly overcast skies silhouette a passenger jet crossing over the Tucson Mountains
headed for TIA, the engine thunders as they slow for landing. Enjoying these sounds and resting on a bench Fred Fisher from San Jose, Ca says he comes every year for the Gem and Mineral show and now extends his visit each year to spend four or five days visiting the Desert Museum. “We come as often as we can–when we are here, it is so exceptional. “Spectacular”, he says, “this quiet solitude, the magnificent wildlife and birds. We’ve been coming to Tucson for 12 years now. We started spending a few hours here and now we spend whole days. Monday was a modest crowd he said. Tuesday was completely jammed ! I thought we were going to get trampled.”
Some ideas hit the ground running, grow, embellish and over-take their mentors before anyone knew what happened. Folks say they are no-brainers, but it takes courage for the first and unsteady steps that leads to such success—Tucson’s Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum is one example. Called “one of the ten best museums in the world” that title might be argued, however, it’s success is without doubt. Tucson residents might be guilty of taking such a treasure for granted, visiting on birthdays or when relatives come to town, but ASDM can be busy as a beehive during Southern Arizona’s cooler months, thousands of visitors come to town, rent motels, eat in Tucson restaurants and spend their entire day surrounded by the incredible beauty of the Sonoran Desert.
The parking lot fills up daily and stays full all day long with license plates from 30-35 different states including 2-3 Canadian providences each day. When things slow with the approach of the summer months, ASDM opens earlier, so visitors can beat the heat and enjoy the Museum’s wildlife, before they bed down away from the sun’s heat. Throughout the year, special events are held after dark, when the critters once again come out, so a world-class wildlife experience, is available anytime of the year. The biggest contribution to ASDM success is the fact that it has grown with the times and has expanded over the years.
When the Museum first opened its doors in 1952, cages where laid out in the desert and folks walked around the critters behind bars. Today, new techniques and technology, the museum has engineered fake rocks constructed to contain their critters and allowing them to live in settings designed for their comfort and in habitat typical of where they would live in the wild. Back in the day, the Jaguar, was the last cat to live behind bars because of it’s ability to escape and resourcefulness, after that cat’s death, ASDM decided cages were no longer true to the Museum mission and the species went dark for decades. Today plans are on the drawing board for a new 1.5 acre exhibit called “Coasts to Canyons”, perhaps the most ambitious and expensive habitat, ever envisioned for the facility. Its completion would greatly increase visitors and no doubt bring out the locals to see the new digs and blow away visitors with the new air-conditioned exhibit. While this exhibit was part of Proposition 427, a $99 Million bond designed to improve roads, water control making Tucson a better place to live, it was defeated by a 39% voter turnout most of which were Republicans who felt an additional $18 a year would break their backs. Lots of private funds have been donated to ASDM and those monies alone will open the new “Winged Wonders of the South West” in 2015 and the million dollar “Midden Project” in 2017 where visitors will be greeted by a 75’ Diamondback Rattlesnake which they can choose to climb through.
In 2013, the Desert Museum opened it’s first major exhibit in a decade. The aquarium exhibition, called “Rivers to the Sea,” highlights the role of the rivers, including the Colorado and the Gulf of California. The 1,100-square-foot aquarium exhibit, housed in one of the historical structures built in 1937, includes many now-endangered species of freshwater fish, as well as several dozen species of fresh and saltwater creatures found to be at home in the brackish waters near the Sonoran coast, and the Sea of Cortez. That $1.3 Million project was opened with private donations.
Some might complain that $20 a visit might be a stiff ticket to buy, but ASDM basic membership costs $55 for a year and includes two guest tickets for the following year, allowing a year and a half of access, and that should be affordable for most.
Lots of snowbirds que up at the Raptor Free Flight. Two kids fidget as they await the Docents that remove the ropes allowing the crowd to filter into the performance staging area. The two boys, each carrying a stuffed lion, have the white pasty legs of folks living back east who have not seen the sun for months. The large crowd gathers 25 minutes before the start of the Raptor Free Flight, where about a 100 people stand at the entrance and there is standing room only, water bottles stick out of purses.
Three Desert Museum docents walk down to the crowd, they ask the crowd not to move until they finish their count to ten and one docent “who drew the short straw” has to take down the chain … that lets the Raptor Free Flight Crowd advance. “Please keep to the rails”, they ask. “You folks talk funny”, notes one docent, “flex your knees and steady yourselves,” another docent tells the crowd.
Trainer Wally Hestermann welcomes the crowd and gives a quick run down on the birds he will be working with for the 10 am show, first comes the Chihuahua Raven and the magnificent Great Horned Owl who came to the Desert Museum from a top shelf in the Oro Valley Home Depot. The Prairie Falcon–drinks no water, says Hestermann, “they get all their water from their prey”. The Ferruginous Hawk used to thrive here on Prairie dogs”, he says “but since those critters are now extinct, we don’t see this hawk around here anymore.”
“Red-tail Hawks in the wild, often die in the first year, reports the trainer “they know they have it good here, we take care of them, they can take the day off if they want.” “We want these birds to look natural, so they wear no equipment, this soaring behavior took six months to learn and they respond to visual signals from 2500.” Redtails can live 7-10 years in the wild or 10-25 years in captivity and one holds the record for 65 years. They eat farm raised mice and quail or “tissue meat”. “Our birds are orphans from rehab”, but these social birds often hunt and play in family groups of five to seven birds.
Arizona has four owls, three falcons and 7 different hawks and the Golden Eagle. The 2 pm Raptor Flight performance is different from the earlier show and features different avian residents of the desert.
One Phoenix photographer, Stu Glenn told me he often comes down to Tucson spends the night and both days at the Museum’s “Raptor Flight” a very popular performance during the cooler months. “It’s quite spectacular,” he says killing time at the Big Horn enclosure. I didn’t come down here for pictures of the rear end of a ram, he says, yesterday I got the “most excellent Harris Hawk images”, he coos.
While birds have little issue with the desert heat, non-desert-dwelling spectators have been known to drop like flies, and before the show concludes in April the Museum places “spotters” in the crowd looking for tourists who frequently collapse from the warm days and harsh sun. Regardless, “Raptor Flight” is a huge draw for spectators and photographers alike, in spite of the size of the crowds, there is not a bad seat in the show. Photographers should hang to the fringes or outside of the crowd, the birds which have been trained to feed on the branches surrounding the large group move all around and everyone gets a front row seat. I would have said it impossible if I had not seen it for myself. Some birds receive an audio signal from their trainers and perform accordingly, no bird is a prisoner, they jump at the chance to show off for treats. Photographers should be using their fastest shutter speeds to stop the flapping of these birds wings, an amazing photo opportunity.
Photo opportunities do not stop there. Early morning will find coyotes, black bear, otters, Javelina and Mexican wolves or “Lobos” all out to delight your camera. “That coyote, doesn’t seem as big as the ones in my neighborhood—they are probably controlling his diet–he probably doesn’t get a tabby cat every night, said one visitor. The coyote called “God’s Dog” by the Navajo is often “the trickster in Native American legends has an evasive and puzzling role as the fool or demigod in Native American traditions.
The Mexican Grey Wolf, has a sign in front of its enclosure that says there are 50 now living in the wild but recent headlines have said its population has doubled reaching 100, a South West success story.
The amazing Hummingbird enclosure, full of lots of species who nest and buzz about the visitors and their cameras. Their eggs look like gum drops, the hummers are going so fast, one visitor jumps back, a baby cries, camera shutters click, big cameras and cell phones alike. One parent tries but can’t pull one kid away from his cell phone. “I hear the hummingbird! He’s way up there,” attempting to get his picture. “See the hummingbird?” says another dad, “brace yourself with that long lens,” he coaches.
The Museum developed this enclosure and garden while and in doing so it developed new understandings of what attracted these fast-moving birds and what it took to keep them happy and alive. They wrote the book on Hummingbird gardens.
While scientific understanding has been expanded in the decades of working with the animal and plant species living in the Sonoran Desert. Spring can often brings great delight, this year’s second week of April, produced two baby Big Horn Sheep, an ewe and a small ram both now are on display with their moms and their magnificent father.
Further west of the Big Horn exhibit, is the Black-tailed Prairie Dog exhibit has a bunch of new pups, who enjoy wrestling and running, delighting crowds every hour of the day.
The Desert Museum has perhaps the most incredible settings found anywhere in Southern Arizona, the only spot in the United States where the giant cactus, the Saguaro, is found to grow. The smallest detail in this lush desert is found to have the most delicate beauty. The mid-March wildflowers season is followed in early May with cactus blossoms that bring yellows from the Prickly pear, purples from the Hedge-hog, yellows and reds from the Cholla and get a ladder for the white bloom on the Saguaro. Finally the two species of Palo Verde drape the entire desert with brilliant yellow blooms, finally yielding to the Ironwood trees purple coat. The Desert Museum also features more exotic species found in the nooks and crannies of the Sonoran Desert, one like the Boojum, found in north central Baja.
Not all visitors to the Desert Museum are people. One photographer I know was amazed by a scene he captured between a wayward rattlesnake trailside and an impromptu ground squirrel. He saw a women making pictures with her smart phone and he moved in tight with his Nikon and “got some amazing images” but he had never considered that rattlers might be found trailside, regardless of signs, warning folks to be alert to the possibility.
Years ago, I setup a camera on a tripod behind the Desert Museum about 2am hoping to photograph a meteor shower. As I stared into the brilliant sky alive with stars and meteors streaking across the huge expanse I was rattled into self-awareness when something behind me let loose with a loud terrifying growl. In less than ten seconds, the tripod was down and I was pulling away from my pullout on the McCain loop. The shivers up my spine had been rooted in primal concern for my very existence, the only cat in the Sonoran Desert capable of launching such a roar, was a Jaguar, who no doubt was just another visitor to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum.
Wandering the grounds of the Desert Museum and listening to comments from visitors from all over the world gives one an appreciation for the rarity and the uncommon value found here at this popular visitor spot.
“Look it is a hedgehog cactus!”, says one visitor pointing to a prickly pear cactus. “This cactus has ears” says another. “Deer?” “I can see deer at home” says one! “I don’t see the parrot? “ You can see the wolf, he’s behind the agave.” “Wild turkey, heh! “Excellent, I could use a little wild turkey about now, says one noontime visitor. “Can you seem ’em ?”
“Let’s see the big turtles”, upon their return, “did you see your turtle?” “Nope–he’s hidden now-shall we see if the tortoises are around?” “I don’t think they hibernate in the desert”, said another. “I didn’t see any terrapin.” ”We saw nothing, I don’t know where they are!”
“This would be a cool scavenger hunt, bring a bunch of kids and see how many animals they see, offers one visitors. “I see something moving but I can’t tell what it is-a black something” (Coatimundi).
“You can see the roadrunner.” “Is anyone else being co-operative?” “Possibly not, but you have to look, like in the Gray Fox enclosure there are two sleeping beneath the ledge.”
“The beaver’s down this way, we’re on the right road. I want to jump in and cool off with that Beaver.” “Look, there’s fish in the water, 1-2-3-4-5-6-there’s the beaver.”
“Has every one seen enough of the desert?”
“What do you think about the Sonoran desert?” “It’s okay!” said one burned out Asian visitor. “Just look at this beautiful place” says another. “Now that Bighorn, I’d like to see him climb out,” says a woman with a leopard-skill umbrella shading her head from the sun.
The direct Desert sun can be harsh on folks who rarely see it, even on a day when temps top out at 79. “When we are all sunned out-we can go into the air-conditioning-there is a pop machine there and we can refill our water bottles.”
Critters from the Sonoran desert learned from birth, like the Bobcats sleeping under their ledge, that an afternoon siesta, is the best way to handle the heat. Because of that the Museum does feature indoor air-conditioned exhibits like the new reef display featuring 14 aquariums, or the beaver exhibit, snakes or spiders, cave underground or geology exploration or the shaded Aviary, so when visitors finally decide they don’t want to go back out in the sun they can go see the Hummingbird enclosure or explore any number of cooler options.
Two older women, stooped over, and barely moving up the grade, says “we’re pretending we’re kids. Running past these enthusiastic visitors must be 30 kids all wearing red-t-shirts which mark them from the same school, making it easier for their tenders, to know which kids to roundup or push along and to take home a day’s end.
The 98 acres of the Museum continue to be owned by Pima County and leased to the Museum. ASDM is governed by an independent Board of 24 members.
The Desert Museum is ranked on TripAdvisor.com as one of the Top 10 Museums in the country and the #1 Tucson attraction. Unlike most museums, about 85% of the experience is outdoors! The 98 acre Desert Museum is a diverse experience: featuring a zoo, botanical garden, art gallery, natural history museum, and aquarium. The 21 interpreted acres has two miles of walking paths through various desert habitats, housing 230 animal species, 1,200 types of plants with 70,000 individual specimens. It houses one of the world’s most comprehensive regional mineral collections. Beyond merely an attraction, the Museum’s conservation and research programs are providing important information to help conserve the Sonoran Desert region. The Desert Museum’s Art Institute inspires conservation through art education and gallery exhibits. The Museum’s publishing division, ASDM Press, has produced over 40 books and guides on the natural and cultural history of the Sonoran Desert.
The Desert Museum is recognized as one of the finest docent corps in existence today, it began in the fall of 1972. The genesis was a small group of volunteers trained to take school children on tours of the grounds, but now the docents are stationed around the grounds to provide live interpretation to all who visit. These docents, who undergo a rigorous 15-week training program, are now devoted to giving demonstrations on the grounds, and contribute today more than 75,000 hours annually to do this.
The Museum’s other education programs developed over the years, most notably by Hal Graswho created a program to take live animals to schools and other venues. His program, begun in 1955, dubbed “The Desert Ark”, touched tens of thousands of people. Even though Gras retired from the Museum in 1985, many people today recall being inspired to learn about the desert from Gras and his Desert Ark.
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