February 2016 – During our RV travels in Tucson, we visited the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum which is located in Saguaro National Park. This really fun “museum” is really more of an outdoor nature walk and zoo that lets you see all the creatures native to the Sonoran Desert up close in their natural environment.
The Sonoran Desert spans the states of Arizona on the US side of the border and Sonora on the Mexican side of the border, and it is an ecosystem and habitat that we just love. But the most exotic birds and animals are a bit reclusive, and the iconic creatures aren’t so easy to find while out hiking in the desert.
So it was just fabulous to see a big horn sheep sitting up on a rocky hill and to be able to admire him will he slowly turned his head this way and that in the morning sun.
The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum has several habitats for the animals of the different regions of the desert, with a mountain habitat for the animals that like the cooler climes amid big rocks and trees, and open grasslands for the creatures that prefer those areas.
We haven’t ever seen a fox or a wolf while out hiking, but we got see both here at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. A beautiful wolf who was pacing in his enclosure, no doubt looking for Little Red Riding Hood.
Little did he know that Little Red Riding Hood was actually over at the mountain lion enclosure!
You can watch the mountain lion on two sides of her enclosure. There is a plexiglass window in one corner where the little girl was, or you can stand on a slightly elevated viewing area on the opposite side of the enclosure for another view down into her mini canyon.
This lioness kept everyone guessing and on the run. First she’d hang out by the window, but when the crowd got thick, she’d move around the corner out of sight. Then the crowd would trot around on the path to try and see her from the open viewing area on the other side.
What a hoot! As this enormous cat leaped effortlessly between the rocks by the window and the big open gully around the corner, all of us tourists ran back and forth on the path outside her enclosure, cameras and cell phones at the ready!
The trick to getting the most out of this museum is to arrive a little before the place opens at 8:30 a.m. When we arrived at 8:32, the parking lot was quickly filling and there was a line for tickets at the door already. The thing is, the animals are fed at opening time, so if you hustle down the path to the ones you want to see, you’ll catch them as they eat their breakfast.
Within an hour, most of the animals were settling in for a nap, and many of them were hard to spot!
We caught a fleeting glimpse of an absolutely gorgeous ocelot. What a fur coat!!
But after that out-of-the-corner-of-our-eyes peek at her, she was gone for the day in a quiet corner where we could just see her head moving as she licked her paws…
But we did see the bobcats. They were snoozing under a rock!
The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum is artfully laid out, with paved and dirt walking paths that intersect and wind through the property. In some higher areas there are lookouts, and we loved the gnarly shade shelter that protected one of them.
There are lots of more common animals too, and we got a kick out of the javelina, an animal we have spotted many times in the desert.
A little squirrel was busy scratching…
And a coyote posed for several minutes while a crowd of camera shutters clicked away.
We even spotted a deer back in the brush.
One of the big highlights of a trip to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum is the Raptor Free Flight presentation which happens twice a day at 10:00 and 2:00 all winter long. Again, even though we were there on a mid-week school day, the crowds were thick. Everyone stands along the walking path in one area and then a presenter begins to talk about the various birds that will be flying by.
There are two trainers who have yummy dead animal pieces in their pockets, and they go into the various bird enclosures and ask the birds if anyone wants come out and fly around and get a snack.
They bring out only those birds that are in the mood, so there is no guarantee who will be flying on the day you are there!
The first bird we saw was a raven. These guys love the western National Parks, and we’ve seen them many times, but it was still a thrill to see one swoop over our heads and land on the trainer’s hand.
Ravens and crows are extraordinarily smart birds, and I’ve read of a study of a flock of crows where one member of the flock was taken away for seven years and then brought back. The flock went wild upon his return, obviously recognizing their long lost buddy.
Perhaps most thrilling was the great horned owl. I have a super sweet spot for owls (we had a wonderful encounter with some adorable wild burrowing owls just a little southeast of Phoenix last year and watched a wild great horned owl at the sandhill crane roosting area in southeastern Arizona too).
To keep all these free flying birds within reasonable range, the trainers pulled bloody bits of thawed quail out of their pockets every so often and lure the birds over. (These weren’t pieces of the southwest’s sweet Gambel’s quail, thank goodness, but were commercially grown to feed raptors). Mark got an awesome shot of the great horned owl downing a bite!
What a beautiful bird!!
Last up was a peregrine falcon, and it was really wonderful to see a falcon flying without the leather hood that falconers usually put on them. This guy zipped around and did some fabulous dives.
Arizona was once home to a parrot species too. The Thick Billed Parrot lived all over the American southwest and was last seen in the Arizona’s Chiricahua Mountains in the 1930’s. They were reintroduced to the wild in Arizona in the 1980’s, but the effort was a tragic failure, in part because of predators, like hawks, and also due to releasing adults that had lived in cages for too long and had lost their street smarts.
The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum had two thick billed parros on display, and they were making a wonderful racket!
There are two big walk-through aviaries in the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum — one for bigger birds and one for hummingbirds.
What we’ve discovered in our RV travels around the southwest is that hummingbirds of all varieties are super easy to attract with a hummingbird feeder hung outside the rig, or mounted an RV window, and filled with a concoction of four parts water and one part table sugar.
Even better — and a reader just alerted us to this — get a hummingbird hand-feeding kit. Doesn’t that look like fun?! We’ve just ordered one ourselves!
Another great way to attract both birds and other small animals is to put out a dish of water a little ways from the rig. We’ve used a big upside down frisbee with great results. Several birds at a time, including cardinals, will stand in and around the frisbee, taking baths and drinking.
The Sonoran Desert spans the Sea of Cortez too. This is an unusual eco-region because the creatures that live in or near the water have to contend with the very cold Pacific Ocean temps and climate that sweep up from the open ocean and the very hot desert climate and water temps that develop each summer.
The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum has a tropical fish display that shows some of the fish of the area.
A trip to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum is a really fun excursion, especially for RV snowbirds looking for a neat daytrip during their stay in Tucson. Be sure to get there early so you can catch the animals as they chow down their breakfast!!
There’s more info at the links below…
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More info about the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum:
- Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum – Official Website
- Raptor Free Flights – Info about this neat raptor show
- Where is the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum? – Google Maps
Other fun animals sightings we’ve enjoyed in our Arizona RV travels:
- Wild Horses of the Salt River east of Phoenix, Arizona – Running free!
- Sandhill Cranes — and a Great Horned Owl – It’s a Wild Bird Party in Willcox, Arizona
- Burrowing Owls southeast of Phoenix, Arizona – Cutie pies with big eyes in Zanjero Park in Gilbert
- Water Birds of the Sonoran Desert — Waterfowl abound on the edges of hot, dry, Phoenix, Arizona
- To Catch a Hummingbird – Photographing hummers at our RV’s window feeder in Arizona
- Lovebirds in Phoenix – A Parrot in a Cactus — Non-native Lovebirds have taken up residence in Phoenix, Arizona
- Snowbird RVers — a Human Subspecies of their own — in Quartzsite, Arizona
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