Green Sanctuaries Amid the Brown

by Tom Leskiw

“Where is my oasis? Too far from
here for me to crawl with these
dead legs, refusing to co-operate
Hands and fingers clawing uselessly
through the grains of sand…”

— Kiera Woodhull, Chaos of the Mind

The late-November air warmed quickly as Carianne Campbell, landscape restoration program manager at Sky Island Alliance, spoke to our group of volunteers.

“We’re here in the Whetstone Mountains to monitor McGrew Spring, which is located at Kartchner Caverns State Park. In Arizona and throughout the desert southwest, springs serve as vital rest and re-fueling areas for migratory wildlife such as birds, butterflies, and mammals.”

Carianne paused and pointed eastward toward the distant cottonwood-lined course of the San Pedro River. “Scientists have long acknowledged the critical role of rivers and streams in desert areas. As a result, watercourses and riparian areas have been intensely studied. However, springs have been somewhat overlooked. In addition, previous monitoring efforts didn’t use a standardized protocol that would allow us to discern changes at individual sites or assess and compare the relative importance of each site. With your help, we’re embarking on this exciting new project.”

After a short question-and-answer period, Carianne asked us to introduce ourselves. There was Nikki Miscione, a Kartchner Caverns employee, and Carol Jelinek, a Kartchner volunteer. Stuart Brody was originally from upstate New York—a fellow snowbird who visited nearby Patagonia… and ended up staying. Rosemary Schiano was a wildlife biologist and tracker who leaves Colorado each winter to explore these borderlands. As for me, I’m an avid birder and retired hydrologic-biologic technician who, together with my wife, spend the winter months about 40 miles from Kartchner.

We stuffed a measuring tape, other equipment, data forms, a small bucket, and short section of plastic pipe into our daypacks and set out down the trail. As we hiked, Carianne identified many of the trailside plants and expanded on the goals of the project, “Springs are keystone ecosystems in the Sky Island Region and are known to be biodiversity hotspots.”

I reflected on the concept of desert springs as keystone ecosystems. Although I was familiar with both the critical role of water in the desert and the concept of keystone species such as wolf, beaver, and Red-naped Sapsucker, the term keystone ecosystem was new to me. But it made sense, given what I knew about the definition of keystone species and their disproportionate influence on surrounding landscapes. Beavers and their dam-building activities, for example, slacken water velocity, raise the water table, and expand wetlands. Their beneficial activities that reduce water’s erosive power and provide a measure of flood control have all-too-often become clear only after they’ve been removed from a watershed. In addition, beaver ponds increase suitable areas for water-loving plants like willow and cottonwood to become established, thus helping to improve water quality, stabilize stream banks, and benefit a wide range of wildlife.

I gazed through the heat waves to the highest point in the Whetstones: 7,711-foot Apache Peak. Although they were little more than distant green splotches, ponderosa pines near the summit testified to this sky island’s ability to milk moisture from passing clouds, with a diverse mosaic of plant communities—desert to pine forest—being the result. Witnessing such diversity brought to mind Roger Tory Peterson’s words from his travelogue Wild America, published in 1955. Although he was referring to the nearby Chiricahua Mountains, the description rings true for the Whetstones as well:

There they were, in the crystal morning light, rising like a massive blue island from the sea of the desert. And an island it was, in truth, part of an archipelago composed of a dozen similar ranges. They are as much a true archipelago as the Azores or Hawaii, but no surf washes their talused bases; instead the desert, dry and shimmering, besieges their foothills and sweeps across the flats to the next range, twenty, thirty, or forty miles away. And like islands, their climate, plants, their animals are as different from those of their surroundings as though they were isolated by the sea.

Birders and naturalists have long known that southeastern Arizona’s sky islands’ reputation as a biological crossroads and incredible melting pot of diversity is also due to their ecotonal location at the intersection of the Sonoran and Chihuahuan deserts, plus being where the southern Rocky Mountains meet Mexico’s Sierra Madre Mountains.

Our hike brought us to a gate, a corral, and a tall, cylindrical metal water tank—range improvements built by cattle ranchers. Stealthily, we approached the tank, startling six Mourning Doves into flight. The tall grass just upslope of the tank was lush by Arizona standards and the damp, squishy meadow suggested that McGrew Spring lay just upslope. After several more minutes of hiking, we reached a narrow rivulet of water. We paused at the upper end of the grassy area, where surface water surrendered to the thirsty desert, percolating into the soil. Large mesquite and netleaf hackberry trees provided shade as we walked beside the narrow channel of water.

Surveying in the Whetstone Mountains – image by Carianne Campbell

We pulled measuring tapes, cameras, pencils, and data forms from our daypacks. Item by item, we collected data, such as the aquatic insects, butterflies, and birds at the site. Long ago, the spring had been dug out to create a small pond, which we measured to be 25 feet long by 14 feet wide. Permanent photo points had been established around the perimeter of the pond during July’s monitoring efforts, their purpose being to aid in creating a photo record of changes at the spring. Carol stood at these points and snapped photographs, while Rosemary noted the tracks of wildlife that were using the site. We measured the length of the shallow rivulet that drained the spring; it flowed for a distance of just under 50 feet before disappearing into the soil. I placed the section of 2-inch-diameter pipe into the flowing water and, digging with my hands, packed mud around its haunches. I continued to add mud to my small dam until it reached six inches high and extended to both banks of the tiny stream. When all the water was captured and flowing through the pipe, I set a bucket under it and the group performed a timed count to determine how many gallons per minute the spring was producing.

Carianne told us that plans to restore the area included the addition of native plants favored by pollinators such as hummingbirds, butterflies, and other insects. She added that McGrew Spring may be an important water source for several species of bat—cave myotis, Mexican long-tongued, Townsend’s big-eared, and lesser long-nosed—that roost in nearby abandoned mine shafts.

That evening, I leafed through a bulging file I keep on the importance of water in the desert. Since 2009, federal agencies, academics, and conservation groups have assessed the status of America’s birds in an annual “State of the Birds” report, which focuses on the habitats that species need to survive. The 2014 report found that “While some overall improvement has occurred to wetlands, arid-land habitats—which include the deserts, sagebrush, and chaparral of the American West—continue to be degraded. Birds in these fragile arid-land habitats show the steepest population declines in the nation with a 46 percent loss in the population of these birds since 1968 and a 6 percent drop just since 2009.”

One paper stated that “in Arizona and New Mexico, at least 80 percent of all animals use riparian areas at some stage of their lives, and more than half of these species are considered to be riparian obligates [require spring or streamside areas for breeding]. Studies in the southwestern United States show that riparian areas support a higher breeding diversity of birds than all other western habitats combined.”

Studying Neotropical migrant birds—and identifying management strategies to conserve them—is like peeling back the layers of an onion. Early research focused on Layer 1: the species’ breeding grounds. Habitat destruction or fragmentation or an increase in predators that consume adults, chicks, or eggs are among the factors that can affect breeding success. Layer 2: Identify and try to mitigate for threats that birds encounter when occupying their wintering habitat. Layer 3: Identify and try to mitigate for threats that birds encounter while on their migration route between summer and winter habitats. Scientists refer to this layer as stopover ecology: in this ever-changing world, are there suitable areas to rest and feed at appropriate intervals along the species’ migration corridor?

It had been a long day. My eyes were growing tired and words began to swim across the page. I struggled to stay awake as I read the following: “Additionally, over 60 percent of the species which are identified as Neotropical migratory birds use riparian areas in the West as stopover areas during migration.” My eyelids shut and the paper slipped from my hand…

I’m dreaming that I’m flying. But not like in previous dreams, where my frantic fluttering slowly lifts me toward the ceiling of a cavernous warehouse, away from the bad guys. This is a journey that spans several weeks.. I’m a Yellow Warbler, returning to northern Alaska after a winter in Peru. For several days, this has been my world: long nightly flights, followed by daylight respite: seeking shelter in groves of trees to feed, doze, and hide from the hawks and falcons that want to make a meal of me.

After the end of one more long night, dazzling pin-pricks of stars in an indigo sky begin to fade. The eastern sky slowly lightens, then the rays of the sun poke above the mountains. As the air warms, turbulence buffets me. Far to the west tower snow-capped mountains, but immediately below me, I see nothing but a parched brown plain, broken here and there by gullies with scattered shrubs. I descend to better scan the terrain and find a safe spot to spend the day. Nothing but rocks and brown dirt, rocks and more dirt.

Suddenly, I spot it: a patch of green, where I know I’ll find water and succulent bugs. I continue my descent, I make a brief, half-circle recon flight over the small cluster of trees before dropping into their protective embrace. There, I find caterpillars dining on the trees’ succulent foliage. One-by-one, I pluck them from the tree, their moisture replacing what I’ve lost during the long night. I lose track of passing time, intent on filling my belly with food. I hear a faint trickling sound and pick my way along furrowed trunk and thorny branches to get a better look. Water bubbles from the ground; a ribbon of green plants grows along the shallow gully that contains the water. But the green ribbon ends abruptly where the water disappears into the ground. Beyond this point lies nothing but rock and powder-dry dirt. Nothing stirs.

For many people, phrases like “biological crossroads” and “melting pot of diversity” are abstractions. Although not the highest, largest, or most well-known of southeastern Arizona’s sky islands, the Whetstones and the range of wildlife it nurtures brings these terms into clearer focus. A jaguar that’s been photographed a number of times since 2012 along the eastern flanks of the nearby Santa Rita Mountains was first photographed in the Whetstones during November 2011. And photographic evidence of an ocelot in the Whetstones was obtained in 2009. Groundwater that emerges as springs or a stream in this mountain range nurtures five species of amphibian: Sonoran tiger salamander; Sonoran mud turtle; and Chiricahua leopard, northern leopard, and lowland leopard frogs. And the mosaic of habitats doesn’t stop at the ground’s surface: Kartchner Caverns’ delicate formations such as “Kubla Khan,” the largest cave columns in Arizona, reveal the range’s limestone underpinnings. During the summer months, the cave’s Big Room serves as a nursery roost for over 1,000 female cave myotis bats.

Say the word “oasis,” and the mental image that most often comes to mind is a cluster of palm trees surrounded by a sea of rock or sand. This corner of Arizona is at too high an elevation to support palms, but its springs, creeks, and occasional river are nevertheless oases. As Wyoming writer Gretel Ehrlich points out: “As a topographic feature, an oasis is life; it is a gathering point, a sanctuary, and a feeding station. It is the desert’s umbilical.” The co-existence of limestone caverns, jaguars, and ocelots here—features and wildlife we normally associate with other regions—are dependent on the Whetstone’s life-giving waters.

Climate change and our own thirst for water threaten to unravel migratory processes that date back many thousands of years. As terrestrial and winged migrants alike encounter ever-warmer temperatures during their journeys, these ribbons of green, sustained by widely scattered desert water sources, are now more important than ever.


Tom Leskiw and his wife Sue and their dog Zevon split their time between Eureka, California and Palominas, Arizona. He retired in 2009 following a 31-year career as a hydrologic/biologic technician for Six Rivers National Forest. More than three dozen of his essays have appeared in literary journals.