The Tucson Sonoran Desert Museum is the highest rated destination in the Tucson area, according to TripAdvisor…and I will certainly not argue the point. Personally, I would not consider any trip to Southern Arizona complete without a morning at the Desert Museum. If you have never visited, “museum” hardly does the place justice, and may, in fact, be misleading. The SDM is, certainly, part traditional Museum, with display rooms and exhibits, but it is also part Zoo with many of the animals of the region in modern natural enclosures, and part Botanical garden. In addition to a formal Cactus garden featuring native species, and demonstration Desert Gardens, the grounds themselves are layed out and landscaped to represent the best features of the region. For birders and bird lovers, the animal displays include a large Aviary with free flying birds of the Sonoran Desert (currently closed for renovation, but scheduled to reopen this fall) and a smaller (but very intense) Hummingbird Aviary…but, of course, the grounds are home to many of the native species of the area. It is a great birding destination in its own right.
I was in Tucson recently for the 4th annual Tucson Birding and Nature Festival and my colleague and I did spend a morning at the SDM. For this trip I limited myself to a single camera: the Sony DSC-HX400V… though it is hardly a limitation with its 24mm-1200mm equivalent zoom, excellent macro capability, and exposure modes to handle any conceivable situation.
The Museum opens at 7:30 AM during the summer months and you want to be there early to catch the desert animals still active, especially in the August heat. We were still on our way to the Mountain Woodlands displays to try to catch the Mountain Lion when we came across this group of Rock Squirrels. Touch any image in the tiled gallery below to see a larger version. The Rock Squirrels were exceptionally cooperative and allowed me to frame them with a variety of zoom settings for everything from intimate portraits to group shots
It took several passes by the Mountain Lion enclosure before we caught the cat prowling, but it was worth the effort. The SDM had some of the first “natural” wildlife enclosures, built of artifical stone, with water features and native plantings, to resemble as closely as possible the actual habitat of the animals on display. The Mountain Lion enclosure is particularly successful, especially from a photographer’s point of view. It is possible to catch images that could pass for shots from the wild.
Further along the same loop of trail you come to Cat Canyon, another natural enclosure housing the smaller cats of the Sonoran Desert: Ocelot and Bobcat, along with the Porcupine and a Grey Fox. In my experience the smaller cats and other animals here are hard to see even in the enclosures intended to display them. The enclosure features two levels…a lower level with windows looking on the floor of the canyons and an upper level looking down into the canyons. The Ocelot was just barely visible on a high shelf behind vegetation, I did not see the Porcupine or Fox, but the Bobcats were both out. The full profile shot is through the glass on the lower level. The others are from the top.
Also in the Mountain Forest and Desert Grassland section you will find the Mexican Wolf and White-tailed Deer enclosures, along with a minature Prairie Dog town behind glass.
We decided to take the Desert Loop Trail early, before the full heat of the August day desended. When I first saw the Coyote standing the shade of of the mesquite tree I thought it was a wild visitor to the SDM. The fine mesh fence that encloses the Coyotes is all but invisible from some angles. The Cactus Wrens are indeed wild, and we were happy to find our first Fishhook Cactus in bloom.
Life on the Rocks is a new display, not yet completed, which is the SDM’s most ambitious attempt at a natural enclosure yet.
One of my favorite enclosures is the Hummingbird Aviary. It is not big but the Hummingbirds have space to fly and feed naturally and often perch within a foot or two of quiet visitors. Most of these images were taken at less that 600mm equivalent field of view. The Aviary uses special feeders, developed at the SDM by one of the volunteers, which do not attract bees. This has made a major difference in the Aviary since my last visit. Both the hummingbirds and the visitors can be more relaxed. Though there are more species in the Aviary I was able to get decent shots of Anna’s, Costa’s, and Black-chinned (the western cognate of the Ruby-throated).
Next to the Hummingbird Aviary is a small Butterfly Oasis with plants to attract a variety of Sonoran Desert and Southwest species. The well worn Red-spotted Purples would not sit still for me. Monarchs and Gulf Fritillaries were easier, and of course the Green Shield Bug sat perfectly still and allowed a true macro at about 80mm equivalent field of view. Away from the special plantings of the oasis the most common Butterfly was the Gulf Fritillery, which we saw in every section of the SDM.
We continued around past the main Aviary, which was temporary closed for renovation. When open it is my favorite spot at the SDM. The renovated Aviary will, according to a volunteer we met, have even more species. Beyond the Aviary you come to the Desert Bighorn Sheep enclosure and another of the two level enclosures…thus one with underwater and above water views of Beaver and River Otter. The beavers were in their den which has a glass wall. Pressing the light switch gives you a glimpse of them. The Otters, on the other hand, were active and playful. It might be anthropomorphic to say, but nothing in the natural world seems to have as much fun as an Otter at play. The water of the Beaver and Otter enclosures attracts dragonflies, like the big brilliant Flame Skimmer and the smaller Blue Dasher.
Flowing water and plantings attract just about every native bird to the grounds of the SDM, and the same factors make Lizards abundant along the paths everywhere. Zibra-tailed Lizards is the most striking, but there are also Sonoran Desert Whiptails and Eastern Collared Lizard. We also encountered a Chuckwalla.
Though August is not prime flowering season no visit to the SDM is complete without a little time in the Cactus Garden.
Though the Earth Sciences Display comes early in the usual path through the SDM, I always skip it and leave it until near the end of my visit…not because I don’t like it…it is one of my favorites, but because it is underground and relatively cool. In August, that makes a difference as the day warms up. You enter the display through a well designed and constructed replica of a natural limestone cavern…and a wet cave at that. You can even choose the narrow loop that gives you something like the sense of wriggling through a living cave. Deep in the heart of the display there are two rooms, one devoted to a geological history of the Sonoran Desert region, and one filled with mineral specimens on display.
The Reptile House and Aquarium are in the building to the right and left of the main entrance to the SDM, and are, like the Earth Science display, best left to the last, especially in August when you will, by then, need some relief from the sun and heat (the Aquarium is directly behind the gift shop). The images here were all taken without flash in the subdued light of the enclosures using the Sony HX400V’s Anti-Motion Blur mode.
Though it is not the most typical creature of the SDM, I will finish with an another image of the Flame Skimmer we found in the Desert Garden display…just because I like it! And I can almost guarantee that you will find something to like on any visit to the Tucson Sonoran Desert Museum!