The Canada del Oro Wash; a Natural Aviary

Great Horned Owl family on the Canada del Oro Wash (photo by Bob and Prudy Bowers)

Great Horned Owl family on the Canada del Oro Wash (photo by Bob and Prudy Bowers)

One of metropolitan Tucson’s major washes, the Cañada del Oro ‘flows’ some 80 miles south and west from the slopes of Mt. Lemmon,  past SaddleBrooke and Catalina and through Oro Valley until it finally joins the Santa Cruz River west of Interstate 10.  Typically dry, the wash can run swift and heavy with monsoon rain in late summer or calm and brook-like after light spring showers.  These semi-annual soakings promote lush growth, and even when dry as dust the wash offers shade, shelter and insects to area birds.  A wide variety of trees, from hackberry to ash grow along the wash, providing a green ribbon oasis for resident and migratory birds.

Birds are common throughout the wash, but in the more remote areas north of Oro Valley their numbers rise dramatically.  If you followed the Cañada del Oro Wash (CDO) north from where it joins the Sutherland Wash in Catalina State Park, you would travel through more than 10 miles of bird rich state and regional park land before reaching SaddleBrooke.

Cooper's Hawk at Catalina Regional Park (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

Cooper’s Hawk at Catalina Regional Park (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

Separated from the more popular state park by less than a half mile, Pima County’s less-known Catalina Regional Park lies along the east side of Lago del Oro just south of Miraval.  The park was established after heavy monsoon floods following the 2003 Aspen Fire devastated homes along the wash, and it consists of a narrow two-mile stretch of mesquite bosque bordering both sides of the wash. It’s undeveloped, fenced and off-limits to motorized vehicles, but trails are open to horses and hikers.  A willow and cottonwood oasis with a spring-fed pond is located at the south end near the Pima Pistol Club, and a blind gives birders a hiding place to observe birds.  The pond is a magnet for resident and migratory birds, and nesting birds include Bell’s Vireo, Vermilion and Ash-throated Flycatchers, Gila and Ladder-backed Woodpeckers, Bewick’s Wren, Lucy’s Warbler, four species of hummingbird, Cooper’s Hawk and Great Horned Owl.   The pond area, from Golder Ranch Road south, is an eBird ‘hotspot’ with more than 100 reported bird species.  The sandy wash can be walked easily, giving birders visual access to both tree-lined sides.

Mistletoe addict, the Phainopepla (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

Mistletoe addict, the Phainopepla (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

Desert mistletoe is common among the park’s mesquite trees, making it a dependable place to find Phainopeplas.  The Phainopepla is one of only four species of silky flycatcher, and the only one found in the U.S.  This sleek, crested black bird (females are gray) with a red eye, as might be expected feeds on flies, but also has a symbiotic relationship with mistletoe.  Phainopeplas are dependent upon mistletoe berries, gobbling them like moviegoers after popcorn.  The undigested seeds are then passed in a sticky matrix that clings to the host mesquite’s branches, fostering a new growth of mistletoe, and of course, more berries.  The next time you’re munching popcorn at the movies, try to think of something else.

Brown-crested Flycatcher, CDO Wash adjacent to SaddleBrooke (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

Brown-crested Flycatcher, CDO Wash adjacent to SaddleBrooke (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

North of the regional park, the most beautiful, birdy and remote stretches of the CDO wash lie right next to SaddleBrooke, providing what could be one of the premier reasons to live here.  Alongside SaddleBrooke, the wash flows through state trust land, separated from the community by a barbed wire fence.  Fenced or not, anyone with an inexpensive, easily-obtained state trust land pass is allowed to walk on and enjoy these rich Arizona assets.  State trust lands, including those next to SaddleBrooke, often are leased for cattle grazing, and these are fenced to keep cattle from wandering into places they don’t belong, like neighborhoods and golf courses.  However, the fences are there to keep cattle in, not people out, so gates are provided for access.  Not so, unfortunately, for SaddleBrooke residents who want to walk their dog, take a nearby hike or find a special bird.  Our access to this amazing resource is precluded by a total absence of gates.  Even old retired people are resourceful, though, and if you walk the two-mile stretch of fence from Unit 21 past the Preserve, you’ll find attempts to breach, crawl under or otherwise bypass the nasty barbed wire.  Some of these are next to 20-foot drops into the wash, and all of them represent a sharply barbed hazard to anyone trying to access the wash.  Fencing contractors are employed to reseal openings, but this fence mending is costly and just triggers a new round of hazardous breaches, which in turn leave openings for cattle.  However, a simple solution exists:  Install five gates, one every half mile or so along the stretch, with a signed reminder to close and latch the gates.  Safe and easy access to the wash will enhance the community’s reputation and benefit all of our residents.

The above article was originally published in the Saddlebag Notes Newspaper for October, 2015.

About Bob

A lifelong naturalist, Bob's avocation is birding, including field observation, study, photography and writing. He spent a career in computers and consulting, but his free time has been spent outdoors backpacking, fishing and enjoying nature firsthand. Bob has traveled extensively, exploring and photographing above and underwater in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, Egypt and throughout the United States, Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, Central and South America. Now retired, as an amateur ornithologist Bob studies, photographs and writes primarily about birds of the Western Hemisphere. Formerly the Feature Writer for Latin America and Caribbean Travel at, he has been Suite101's Feature Writer for Birds and Birding since January, 2010, and has received seven Editor's Choice awards, which are listed below. Bob also writes a monthly birding column for a newspaper in Arizona, and his work appears in the travel magazine, Another Day in Paradise, published in Zihuatanejo, Mexico. His blog, Birding the 'Brooke and Beyond, discusses birding, travel and other topics in Southeast Arizona and beyond. Bob is a member of the National and Tucson Audubon Societies, Western Field Ornithologists, Arizona Field Ornithologists, the American Birding Association and other birding and conservation organizations. Bob and his wife, Prudy, live in the Santa Catalina Mountain foothills near Tucson, Arizona. To date, Bob has received Suite101 Editor's Choice awards for the following articles: • Birding by Cruise Ship in the Caribbean • The Xantus' Hummingbird, Baja California's Only Endemic Hummer • Birding the White Mountains in and Around Greer, Arizona • The Greater Roadrunner, New Mexico's State Bird • Where to Find Steelhead on the Lower Deschutes River in Oregon • Birding La Bajada near San Blas, Mexico • The 2008 Christmas Bird Count at Estero del Yugo in Mazatlan
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