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monsoon days, a trip report: vegas and southeastern arizona july 1999

2011-08-12 - 8:40 a.m.

photos © 1999 by roger williams and elaine radford
they say it hadn't rained on this ranch in 2 years but then peachfront came to town

Peachfront's Note: I found the hard copy diary of this vacation a few hours ago. I'm not sure if I've previously published the story, but I can't find it on Diaryland, so get ready for a stroll through the past.

July, 1999

After the success of the October 1998 RAPTOURS trip to Veracruz, Roger was eager to acquire a better pair of binoculars, and both of us were committed to making another birding trip in 1999. Because Roger had limited vacation time left after our RFB [Room, Food, Beverage] invitational vacation to the grand opening of the Venetian, I was dithering between the one week options -- a July tour to Southeastern Arizona and a December tour to Texas. I asked Roger to cast the deciding vote, and he opted for Arizona, which he had never visited. As he has limited free time to enjoy the high roller lifestyle, I also scheduled a few days at the Luxor in Las Vegas. Little did the American Southwest realize it, but the monsoon season was about to hit in full fury, as the raincloud that follows me about in life was only too happy to take its own Western vacation.*

July 6-9, 1999: A Life of Luxury at the Luxor

We were to leave around 5 PM on the 6th, so as to be able to get a good night's sleep for once before playing. Alas, I had foolishly succumbed to the travel agent's blandishments and scheduled the journey for Continental Airlines. [Is that a blast from the past or what? Yes, as late as 1999, you still needed a travel agent to buy airfare at the cheapest price.] As the Victorian novelists might say, "It is better to pass over the next sequence of events with an averted glance and a quiet shudder of dread." We eventually did arrive in Las Vegas, on the usual [now long defunct] Delta Airlines red-eye flight, Continental Airlines having managed to misplace their own airplane.

We arrived around 3 AM and were given a luxurious suite at the Luxor. It had a large separate living room and small wet bar area. Alas, its hot tub, as seems to be the standard in the desert, was only big enough for one person at a time.

Blackjack Team-Member B. came up to talk with me while I was playing. I failed to recognize him. He now, I'm sure, thinks I'm an idiot. It's best for security reasons not to socialize with team members, but it's getting pretty sad when you can't even remember their faces.

Outside the casino, Las Vegas experienced (gasp) two and a half inches of rain, with (mostly mobile) homes being swept away and much destruction of property. The Forum at Caesar's Palace flooded. TV pictures of the area around Harrah's and the Imperial Palace looked like a raging river. It seemed better to stay inside, despite the unexciting game being offered at Luxor. [The game in question was actually a blackjack video machine which offered a small edge if you played two machines, spread enough and included the cashback/generous comps of the day.] After all, I'd had a pretty spectacular June so I could rest on my laurels a bit.

Wednesday's dinner was at the Steakhouse, with similar wine list and black bean soup as the original Circus Circus. Heavenly! We were also comped into fantastic seats at Imagine! which included the acrobats from the People's Republic of China. Thursday's dinner was at Papyrus, the Polynesian/Chinese Asian restaurant. Excellent sea bass. Afterwards, more great seats, this time for Bill Acosta, the impressionist. I would like to study how he can change his facial features to resemble so many different people. Could be a very useful skill...Friday was the first day I ate lunch, which was at La Salsa, a friendly Mexican place noted for the size and strength of its Margaritas. Dinner was at Isis, a fantastic gourmet house, although Roger noted that the theme was "fat and alcohol." Of course I could not pass up the flaming lobster bisque, always a highlight of my visits to Isis.

Checked with host [name redacted] to make sure that everything was properly comped. She loved my action -- [can't remember the max bet on the blackjack machine, but it was somewhere between $50 and $200, which is good action for a $1 slot machine, which is how it was being tracked]. She even arranged for a limo to take us to the airport in the morning. It's so easy getting comped and treated like a king when you play slots. No wonder Jean Scott gave up blackjack.

The profits weren't too impressive though. We won a grand total of $280 for 26.75 hours. Roger and I made out better than the team, since we were given over $900 in rebates by the slot club in addition to a comped vacation. It's no longer a mystery why [two team members whose names will be redacted here] have become "addicted to machines and shot their win rate all to hell," as D. complains. I wonder if I should suggest that rebates go back to the team instead of the players?

July 10-17, 1999: For the Birds...

Now my vacation as well as Roger's had begun, although I spent the rest of the week with $18,000 strapped to my body. [Bad guys, don't get excited. I haven't played blackjack or carried team cash in over a decade.] I didn't need to go down more than $4,000 or so during my trip to the Luxor but I had hoped to play at some other hotels before the flood intervened. Now I rather wish I hadn't brought such a large wad. Oh well. Arizona undoubtedly has a much lower crime rate than back home! [Probably no longer true, not because our crime rate has dropped but because theirs has soared.]

I must have fallen asleep on the plane from Phoenix to Tucson, because I didn't realize the plane had ever lifted off. I thought we were going to crash instead of ascending from Phoenix, until Roger pointed out that we were already descending into Tucson. Jet lag is a terrible thing.

Our guides are the best, as we know from Veracruz. [And, as I'm sure, all the world knows by now.] Bill Clark is the co-author of A Photographic Guide to North American Raptors [and now other titles]. and John Schmidt is the well-known artist for National Geographic, Wild Bird, and others. [Sadly, I seem to have lost track of John but I assume I'll encounter him again one day on the bird of prey finding trail.] It's a small, intimate group, which makes it easy fopr everyone to see everything.

The Tucson hotel is beautiful, with a cactus garden. One of the first birds I see is the Gila Woodpecker, a friendly and ubiquitous presence that I recall from my last trip in 1983. Arizona's state bird, the Cactus Wren, is also abundant. We made a quick stop at the always magnificent Desert Museum. I was wearing one of the loud "Vegas" shirts, and one of the hummingbirds in the hummer aviary touched me curiously with his beak to see if it might be a flower.

A highlight of Sunday afternoon was observing tame adult and young Cooper's Hawks in a park, while an extremely cheesy-looking Renaissance Festival/Society for Creative Anachronism meeting was going on, which impressed neither the birds nor I one little bit. Were the SAC costumes always this lame? Both a male and a female Vermilion's Flycatcher, a favorite of mine, were present in the area, although I don't know if they were a pair. From time to time, Mockingbirds would harass the fledgling Cooper's Hawks, which I thought very courageous of them.

It was a rainy week, and the monsoon was still hot on my heels, flooding Tucson a couple of days after I had left town. The flood waters caught up with us later in the week at the Sulphur Spring Valley, in an area that local guide Arnie Morehouse said had been in drought for months if not years. That was before I visited. Roger snapped pictures of me, binoculars, fanny pack of cash, and all, wading through the rising flood waters to help flush the Barn Owl, which was promptly set upon by angry Ravens. We had seen an active nest of Common Ravens with begging babies nearby, apparently a favorite food of Barn Owls, so I couldn't blame the protective adult Ravens. Anyway, after viewing the owl, the group then beat a hasty retreat before John's small rental car was completely swamped.

Roger loved the Saguaro Desert, which he had never seen before. I told him of how I had painstakingly searched zillions of Saguaro holes in 1983 looking for Elf Owls, only to discover more and yet more Gila Woodpeckers. One rainy night, later in the week, I was finally to observe a real Elf Owl, peeping out from a hole in a telephone pole. Who knew?

We visited many beautiful mountains around Tucson, both with and without Saguaros. In one campground, an intoxicated person who appeared to be living in a tent "shared" how his wife had left him that morning and how he had almost had his breakfast bacon consumed by a bear. Despite this adventure, and the absence of hoped-for Goshawks, the campground was very productive, with a variety of interesting and colorful species, including the Strickland's Woodpecker [now Arizona Woodpecker] as well as the striking if more common Acorn Woodpecker. A beautiful Painted Redstart appeared briefly.

The specialty hawks we came to see were the Gray Hawk, the Common Black-Hawk, Harris's Hawk, and Zone-Tailed Hawks, and we found them all. The Gray Hawk is no more popular in Arizona than it is in Veracruz, where we'd seen it scolded by a Golden-Fronted Woodpecker. Here in Arizona, Mockingbirds and Western Kingbirds policed the area. We also had many good opportunities to compare Zone-Tailed Hawk to the Turkey vulture.

We enjoyed many terrific views of the Fuerte race of the Red-Tailed Hawk, including a juvenile who seemed to be rather self-consciously hunting for large insects. We had great views of Swainson's on many occasions as well. Black Vultures were not common here but we had good views of a few. Turkey Vultures, of course, were ubiquitous. There was a nice if distant view of a young Golden Eagle flying out from a reddish cliff. We had excellent views of both male and female Mississippi Kites -- close enough to sex them from underneath.

Owls were the hit of the trip, with great views of 6 species. I've already mentioned the Elf Owl and the Barn Owl. We also got up-close and personal views of a pair of very tame Spotted Owls, who were sitting cuddled together right over the trail, completely unafraid of birders. It is a shame that such a tame and confiding bird should be threatened by extinction. They give off an aura of such peace and calm that it is difficult to imagine who would want to harm them. However, money corrupts, and trees are getting to be ridiculously valuable in this wicked world. We should know, this trip coming only weeks after an outrageous "accidental" removal of many of the last ancient oak trees in Mandeville. [A bold crime that was never punished, but that was the way of things in Mandeville in 1999. The mayor of the time was not removed or jailed for over a decade later, for a different dirty deed, and it took federal FBI agents, not local cops, to get the evidence of corruption they needed for a conviction.]

The Burrowing Owls nested in a colony, with many adults and juveniles visible. At first, we saw only one pair of adults, with three juveniles. Then, suddenly, we realized that the Owls (as well as our first Roadrunners of the trip) were everywhere! We saw some handsome Great Horned Owls by day, and a silent but deadly Whiskered Western Screech Owl which crept right up on top of us by night -- so close we could see the "whiskers" above its eyes.

Hummingbirds were another specialty. Many local people apparently make a hobby of setting up multiple hummer feeders and allowing birders to visit their yards to view them. We saw 12 species of hummers and also many other handsome birds, such as the close-up views of Scott's Oriole. I could sit for hours and watch the hummers interact, especially the Rufous Hummingbird (always prefaced by the word "pugnacious," until I think Roger came to believe that its actual name was the Pugnacious Rufous Hummingbird.) Watching these birds spar made you understand why Hummingbirds were the symbol of the Aztec god of war. They are utterly fearless.

A Great Blue Heron nest was behind one of the hummer houses. These young herons didn't subscribe to the "It's not the heat, it's the humidity" theory, as they were gaping as if it were very hot. Ha. They shoulda been in Louisiana. I was quite cool, considering the lack of humidity and the frequent rains which kept the temperatures lower than expected for that area of the country.

In the Portal area, we made a special search for the Sulphur-Bellied Flycatcher and the Elegant Trogon. I was disappointed in my brief view of the Elegant Trogon, the disappearing backside of a female, but could not have been more pleased with the intimate view of the two handsome Sulphur-Bellieds. The Goshawk and the Peregrine Falcon remained elusive, but as the group saw 154 species and I saw 143, I think everyone was well satisfied. New life birds included Elf Owl, Spotted Owl, Burrowing Owl, Red-Faced Warbler, Sulphur-Bellied Flycatcher, Strickland's [Arizona] Woodpecker, Calliope Hummingbird, Lucifer's Hummingbird, Magnificent Hummingbird, Violet-Crowned Hummingbird...and no doubt many others. I will have to dig out my old list from 1983 to be sure.

The return trip was an experience too horrifying to record here, except to say that Continental Airlines once again proved why it has so many times [in the 1990s] been voted America's worst airline. My only cheering thought on the way home was that I had not yet paid the credit card bill and that I could employ my right as a dissatisfied customer to demand a chargeback!

Peachfront's Final Note: Actually, unknown to me at the time of my original trip report, even in the 1990s, it was not considered possible to chargeback an airline ticket if you actually took the flight and got home alive, and the process of getting a refund for our god-awful experience took approximately one year and a lot of documentation of all the screws-up all along the line. Although I did win a full refund in the end, I don't recommend trying it. The odds are extremely high that you will lose the dispute and have to pay a bunch of fees on top of everything else. But we really did have a ridiculously, impressively terrible experience, and it was many a year before we dared to travel on Continental Airlines again, long after they'd received public recognition for "most improved." They're not really the same airline that they were in 1999, however, so I wouldn't take my thoughts of 1999 to be a reflection of my experiences of them in the 21st century, which have mostly been in the first class cabin anyway...

Arizona Raptor Workshop Bird List July 10-17, 1999

This is just my list. The group total was higher.

  1. Double-Crested Cormorant
  2. Great Blue Heron
  3. Black-Crowned Night-Heron
  4. White-Faced Ibis
  5. Mallard
  6. Blue-Winged Teal
  7. Cinnamon Teal
  8. Common Merganser
  9. Ruddy Duck
  10. Black Vulture
  11. Turkey Vulture
  12. Mississippi Kite
  13. Cooper's Hawk
  14. Sharp-shinned Hawk
  15. Common Black-Hawk
  16. Harris' Hawk
  17. Gray Hawk
  18. Swainson's Hawk
  19. Zone-Tailed Hawk
  20. Red-Tailed Hawk
  21. Golden Eagle
  22. American Kestrel
  23. Prairie Falcon
  24. Scaled Quail
  25. Gambel's Quail
  26. Am. Coot
  27. Killdeer
  28. Am. Avocet
  29. Black-Necked Stilt
  30. Lesser Yellowlegs
  31. Spotted Sandpiper
  32. Marbled Godwit
  33. Long-Billed Dowitcher
  34. Western Sandpiper
  35. Least Sandpiper
  36. Baird's Sandpiper
  37. Stilt Sandpiper
  38. Wilson's Phalarope
  39. Black Tern
  40. Band-Tailed Pigeon
  41. Rock Dove
  42. Mourning Dove
  43. White-Winged Dove
  44. Inca Dove
  45. Common Ground-Dove
  46. Greater Roadrunner
  47. Barn Owl
  48. Whiskered Western Screech Owl
  49. Great Horned Owl
  50. Elf Owl
  51. Burrowing Owl
  52. Spotted Owl
  53. White-Throated Swift
  54. Broad-Billed Hummingbird
  55. Violet-Crowned Hummingbird
  56. Blue-Throated Hummingbird
  57. Magnificent Hummingbird
  58. Lucifer Hummingbird
  59. Black-Chinned Hummingbird
  60. Costa's Hummingbird
  61. Anna's Hummingbird
  62. Calliope Hummingbird
  63. Broad-Tailed Hummingbird
  64. Rufous Hummingbird
  65. Allen's Hummingbird
  66. Elegant Trogon -- better view desired
  67. Acorn WOodpecker
  68. Gila Woodpecker
  69. Ladder-Backed Woodpecker
  70. Hairy Woodpecker
  71. Arizona Woodpecker
  72. Western Wood Pewee
  73. Greater Pewee
  74. Cordilleran Flycatcher
  75. Black Phoebe
  76. Say's Phoebe
  77. Vermillion Flycatcher
  78. Dusky-Capped Flycatcher
  79. Ash-Throated Flycatcher
  80. Brown-Crested Flycatcher
  81. Sulphur-Bellied Flycatcher
  82. Cassin's Kingbird
  83. Thick-Billed Kingbird
  84. Western Kingbird
  85. Purple Martin
  86. Violet-Green Swallow
  87. No. Rough-Winged Swallow
  88. Cliff Swallow
  89. Bank Swallow
  90. Barn Swallow
  91. Steller's Jay
  92. Mexican Jay
  93. Chihuahuan Raven
  94. Common Raven
  95. Bridled Titmouse
  96. Juniper Titmouse
  97. Verdin
  98. Red-Breasted Nuthatch
  99. White-Breasted Nuthatch
  100. Pygmy Nuthatch
  101. Brown Creeper
  102. Cactus Wren
  103. Bewick's Wren
  104. Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher
  105. Eastern Bluebird
  106. Hermit Thrush
  107. American Robin
  108. Northern Mockingbird
  109. Curve-Billed Thrasher
  110. Phainopepla
  111. Loggerhead Shrike
  112. European Starling
  113. Bell's Vireo
  114. Plumbeous vireo
  115. Yellow Warbler
  116. Yellow-Rumped Warbler
  117. Black-Throated Gray Warbler
  118. Red-Faced Warbler
  119. Yellow-Breasted Chat
  120. Painted Redstart
  121. Hepatic Tanager
  122. Summer Tanager
  123. Western Tanager
  124. Northern Cardinal
  125. Pyrrhuloxia
  126. Black-Headed Grosbeak
  127. Blue Grosbeak
  128. Spotted Towhee
  129. Canyon Towhee
  130. Abert's Towhee
  131. Black-Throated Sparrow
  132. Grasshopper Sparrow
  133. Yellow-Eyed Junco
  134. Red-Winged Blackbird
  135. Eastern Meadowlark
  136. Yellow-Headed Blackbird
  137. Great-Tailed Grackle
  138. Bronzed Cowbird
  139. Hooded Oriole
  140. Scott's Oriole
  141. House Finch
  142. Lesser Goldfinch
  143. House Sparrow

*Although I can't guarantee results, I'm open to being invited anywhere that somebody needs rain. Just pay my expenses -- airfare, food, and hotel, and you may be surprised at the downpour you get in return, ha ha. Even on my most recent trip to Las Vegas, at the end of July 2011, I succeeded in bringing some badly needed rain to the desert.

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