Cienega Creek Natural Preserve

By Dan Weisz

On a recent morning, I took a walk in the Cienega Creek Natural Preserve.  Located in Pima County east of Vail, this 4000+ acre preserve is managed by the Pima County Natural Resources, Parks and Recreation Department.

We were at the trailhead at 6 AM and were fortunate the morning sky was heavily overcast- at least in the beginning we wouldn’t have to walk in the heat!  The trailhead is named for Gabe Zimmerman (the Director of Community Outreach for Congressman Gabbie Gifford) who was killed in the January 2011 shooting.  Gabe was an avid hiker and outdoorsman.

The trailhead leads into Davidson Canyon and this is the view towards the East and the Rincon Mountains.  It is a hazy and overcast morning.  You can see the “river” of mesquite trees in the foreground that merges with the tall Cottonwoods of Cienega Creek.  Davidson Canyon runs from the Santa Ritas north to this point and is a perennial stream that would be impacted by the proposed Rosemont Mine.

This short access to Cienega Creek is part of the 819 mile Arizona Trail, a non-motorized path that runs across Arizona from Utah to Mexico.

I don’t think this millipede was walking the entire Arizona Trail but it was crossing this portion of the trail.  Here is some information from the Desert Museum on millipedes:  

Walking down Davidson Canyon, we approached the lush riparian area of Cienega Creek.  The creek is a perennial stream meaning that it flows in some parts of the river channel all year round during years of normal rainfall.   Because of that feature, Cienega Creek has been named an “Outstanding Water” by the State of Arizona because it has met standards for surface water quality.

It was shady in the riparian area.  Among the regular summer visitors are Gray Hawks, who return every summer to raise young.  We found two of the juvenile Gray Hawks high in the cottonwoods.

The two birds would call to each other periodically.  You can listen to Gray Hawk calls and learn more about this special bird here: 

Another summer visitor to southern Arizona is the appropriately called Summer Tanager.  This bird also remained high above us in the trees so the photo angle isn’t great.   Female Summer Tanagers are a mustard yellow.  Summer Tanagers can be seen across much of the United States each year and they migrate as far as the middle of South America for the winter.

The male Summer Tanager is the only completely red bird in North America. This is a young male so he is not as bright as he will be next summer when he returns. Still, a striking bird.

I’m not sure whether this is the same bird or the adult of the family.  These tanagers did not sit out in the open for long.

On the way back to our car, we saw an Ash-throated Flycatcher in the mesquite trees that lined Davidson Canyon.  These birds have very unique songs too: 

This was a very nice way to spend a cloudy July morning in the Tucson area.  If you haven’t been to Cienega Creek, perhaps you can plan an outing there once it cools down a bit.  It is another of Tucson’s little known treasures: 

By the way, if you follow Cienega Creek downstream long enough, it becomes Pantano Wash- same river/different name at that point.

Return to Foothills Clusters Home