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.
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.
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.
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.