Wetlands Annual Burn Scheduled for Tuesday

Sweetwater Wetlands will be closed on Tuesday for a prescribed burn. The burn is done to clear thick cattails and other growth from around the ponds which not only improves visibility for birders but also eliminates habitat for mosquito larva. They only burn one half of the Wetlands each year, leaving plenty of shrubbery for birds and other animals.

The Wetlands will reopen Wednesday morning.

Tucson Audubon is offering a free bird walk on Wednesday:

“Join Mike S. every Wednesday for an easy walk through the Sweetwater Wetlands to see waterfowl in the hundreds, regular and visiting warblers, and several exciting species hiding in the reeds. Birders of all experience levels welcome! Contact leader to sign up and get meeting time, mike.sadat@gmail.com”

Snow on the Catalinas

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Changes at the Wetlands

Tucson Audubon Society’s blog has a very informative post explaining all the changes affecting the Wetlands.

The water levels are down, the ponds at the Roger Road Treatment plant are closed, and a new visitor parking lot is under construction. But don’t fret, the Wetlands are still open for exploring and good things are ahead.

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ABC = Amazing Buffelgrass Crew

This morning I had the great fortune to dig out nasty, invasive buffelgrass with the best volunteer crew ever!

In the buffel busting world we figure that a good pull should average one bag filled with buffelgrass per volunteer hour.

Using that formula we should have ended up with about 18 bags. Our group not only shattered that average with 31 but we eliminated the last remaining section of buffelgrass at the Wetlands! Woot!

Charles, Alison, Geoff, Peggie, Lance – you are all amazing! Thank you for all your hard work!

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Santa Cruz River Cleanup

Two weekends ago several hundred volunteers spent a few hours pulling garbage out of the Santa Cruz River. They spread out south from Camino del Cerro down to Silverlake Road.

Thanks to their hard work they removed over 8 tons of trash! On the one hand it is staggering to think about that much junk in our lovely river. On the other hand, it is a relief to know that the Santa Cruz is in much better shape now!

Thanks to all those hardworking volunteers and to Jean Hickman at Tucson Clean and Beautiful.

Trash Taken from the Santa Cruz River

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New Entrance to the Wetlands

In an exciting development there is a new entrance on the west side of Sweetwater Wetlands. The work was completed as part of the Santa Cruz River shared-use path improvements, funded through the nearby Prince Road/I-10 overpass project.

For birders the gateway provides easy access to the east bank of the Santa Cruz River, with great views into a lush, desert riparian zone. The trees in the wash are known to host many a migrating bird.

For path users, the entrance serves as an invitation to explore the Wetlands. Hopefully, these new visitors will come to know and appreciate this rare glimpse into Tucson’s watery past.

The opening is located under the protective canopy of a sizable mesquite tree and offers bike racks, a bench, and a trash can. Truly a wonderful addition to the Wetlands!

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October Events at Sweetwater

Pima County Natural Resources, Parks and Recreation has a busy schedule of events lined up all over Southern Arizona next month. Two of them will be held at none other than our favorite spot, Sweetwater Wetlands!

Tuesday, October 15, 8am: Join naturalist Jeff Babson in exploring the amazing world of dragonflies and damselflies at Sweetwater Wetlands. All ages.

Wednesday, October 23, 8am: Join birding expert Jeff Babson to look for ducks, shorebirds, sparrows, hawks, and warblers at Sweetwater Wetlands. Ages 12 and up.

We attended an Owl Walk led by Jeff Babson a couple months ago and found it to be an interesting and engaging experience. I’m certain he’ll bring the same level of enthusiasm and expertise with him on these upcoming walks.

These events are free, open to the public, and do not require advance registration. For more information check their website or contact: 520-615-7855 or eeducation@pima.gov.

The weather will be cooler and birds have already started their southerly migration, so what are you waiting for? Come on over to the Wetlands and explore this riparian jewel in the desert!

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Behind the Scenes at Sweetwater Wetlands

Our visit to the Tucson Bird & Wildlife Festival this past weekend was a brief one, but we had such a good time that next year we plan on attending both days. The main draw for us was a talk by Bruce Prior, a hydrologist with Tucson Water. He is our point person for projects at the Wetlands and his talk was enticingly titled “Behind the Scenes at Sweetwater Wetlands.” How could we resist?

Bruce started off by surveying the attendees, “Show of hands how many people have been to the Wetlands?” Surprisingly only four of us raised our hands. Bruce wasn’t shocked, he called the Wetlands Tucson’s best kept secret. If people only knew what they were missing!

The complex of recharge basins, ponds, and waterworks were built to satisfy a fine levied against Tucson Water by the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality. Back in the mid-1990s the utility was cited for failing to meet water testing requirements and assessed a $400,000 penalty. Instead of paying the fine ADEQ approved an alternate plan allowing Tucson Water to use that money to build a public facility provided it met three requirements: created a 17.5 acre wetland habitat (similar to what once existed along the Santa Cruz River), provided educational opportunities, and filtered reclaimed water.

I’ve heard that Tucson Water spent quite a bit more than required during construction of the Wetlands. In 1997 600 shrubs and trees were planted and the Wetlands officially opened in 1998. Bruce showed photos from 1998 and then contrasted those with current shots. The transformation from bare dirt to a lush oasis was amazing.

Bruce was careful to explain that the only life forms brought in were the plants – all the wildlife came of its own accord. After all in a desert, where there’s water, there will be wildlife. Except in the case of the turtles, those are thought to have been dropped off by thoughtless pet owners.

While we love the Wetlands for the beauty of its riparian habitat and the wildlife it attracts, the Wetlands are much more than a pretty place. It also processes one of Tucson’s water sources. Bruce explained that decades ago all of Tucson’s sewage was treated and the effluent was discharged into the Santa Cruz River. As Tucson grew and our aquifer shrank officials began looking for new water sources.

The $4 billion Central Arizona Project canal was one option for potable water but closer to home officials realized that effluent could be re-used. Since that time effluent is no longer considered wastewater, it is now called reclaimed water which is used for irrigation (golf courses, parks, and even some school playgrounds).

Tucson Water owns a filtration plant that puts the finishing touches on treated effluent. That plant has a 10 million gallon/day capacity. Just across the street, the Sweetwater Wetlands complex has a 20mg/d filtration capacity. Bruce mentioned that three more recharge basins will be completed soon. That addition will increase total capacity to just under 40 mg/d. For perspective, an average 18 hole golf course uses 1.5 mg/d during the summer months. That’s a lot of water!

Bruce wrapped up his talk by sharing a couple exciting new developments at the Wetlands. There will soon be an overflow parking lot north of the entrance, a welcomed improvement as the current lot fills up quickly. Also, there is a new access point on the west side of the Wetlands. As part of the ongoing expansion of the Santa Cruz River Park Trail the path by the Wetlands has been widened and paved; and benches and a bike rack will soon be installed by that entrance. From inside the Wetlands this provides easy access to the riverbank which offers views of an entirely different habitat.

So what are you waiting for? Come on out and explore the Wetlands!

New Entrance

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Upcoming Tucson Bird & Wildlife Festival

Mark your calendars – the third annual festival runs from August 14 through the 18th. The event is headquartered at the Riverpark Inn downtown (near Congress St, west of I-10). There are workshops, field trips, guest speakers, a nature expo, and other nature related programs – all celebrating the amazing diversity of watchable wildlife we are so fortunate to have here in Southern Arizona. Plus, the festival raises money for important habitat restoration and conservation work.

I recently attended a talk by Erin Olmstead and Jennie MacFarland of Tucson Audubon called “Southern Arizona is for the Birds and Birders Mean Business.” They shared the results of a recent study examining the economic impact of Arizona’s watchable wildlife. Using numbers from 2011 they found that nature loving folks spent $1.4 billion dollars in our state. $304.4 million of that was spent in Pima County. That’s a tidy chunk of change!

Of special interest to Sweetwater Wetlands lovers is the free 1pm talk on Sunday the 18th intriguingly titled, “Sweetwater Wetlands, Behind the Scenes with Bruce Prior” this is a can’t-miss event.

Hope to see you there!

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Babies at the Wetlands

On the morning of the 18th we dropped in at the Wetlands for a stroll before the day heated up. Other than a passel of lizards things were pretty quiet. We were attracted to one of the recharge basins by an odd squeak. After a few minutes of careful observation we found the source of the noise, a young Black-necked Stilt and its parent. Typical kid it didn’t appear to be listening, much to the adult’s consternation.

As we continued our way around the ponds we encountered another strange sound. This time it was the call of a critter in distress. We quickly narrowed down the location to a large saltbush. The sound morphed into a tiny mew and for a second we thought perhaps we had stumbled upon a baby Bobcat. That could’ve been dangerous! Hell hath no fury like an angry mom and if that mom has claws and fangs much the worse.

From Lance’s vantage point he was able to see a small kitten face. I stood still and started quietly talking to the little one. Soon I heard branches rustling. Finally a face peeked out at me. A tiny grey and white face. Eventually I was able to pick up the wee kitty – it was mostly skin and bones. But it purred and rested contentedly in my arms.

No more birding for us that morning, instead we headed straight home. We set up the hall bathroom with food, water, a soft bed, and a litter box. We doled out the food and water in small increments so that kitty didn’t gorge. I made an appointment with our vet for later that afternoon. Kitty ate, drank, and passed out on the bed.

Turns out our tiny furball was a girl about ten-weeks old. She was dehydrated and needed an IV of fluid but her other vital signs were normal and she tested negative for disease. The most serious concern was the injury to the side of her head. Her face was swollen and she had blood oozing from her cheek and her ear. Poor thing! The vet put her on antibiotics and said we’d know in the next 24 hours if she would make it.

I dreaded opening the bathroom door the next morning – it was awfully quiet in there. When I turned the handle I heard a little meow and I knew she was going to be just fine. Not what we had expected that morning when we toured the Wetlands, but as I’ve said before, the Wetlands are full of surprises!

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Active Wildlife at the Wetlands

There’s all kinds of activity at the Wetlands these days: from nesting birds to feeding rats to mating lizards to hunting snakes. There’s plenty to see.

We tend to swing by in the late afternoon when it’s a bit cooler while there’s plenty of light left. Mornings are a great time to visit as well (they’re just harder for us). If you are a morning person, Tucson Audobon leads bird walks every Wednesday morning—during the summer they start at 6am (RSVP required).

There are a few bonuses for walking the Wetlands in the evening. The Nighthawk flyover is amazing and there’s a chance of spotting the resident bobcat or raccoon.

So head on over to the Wetlands and enjoy the show!

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