Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Sweetwater Wetlands

One of the most reliable places in Tucson to find wildlife is Sweetwater Wetlands. Indeed, it is a very popular spot for “birders,” and a destination for countless school groups who come to learn about the ecology of wetlands in an otherwise very arid environment.

Besides being a Mecca for birds, mammals, reptiles and insects, Sweetwater Wetlands is an integral part of the nearby sewage treatment facility. Effluent from the traditional treatment facility is channeled into a series of ponds where the treated water then percolates back into the underlying aquifer. This natural filtration further cleanses the water and it is then “reclaimed” when it is withdrawn again for use in irrigation, mostly of golf courses and the landscaping of business parks.

I have to admit I am ambivalent about the extensive signage warning not to drink the reclaimed water (presumably aimed at our homeless population) while there is nary a public drinking fountain to be found in the city of Tucson. “Irony” does not do justice to this situation. Maybe I just got spoiled growing up in Portland, Oregon where there is a public fountain on nearly every corner downtown.

Back to the wetlands. There is plenty of interpretive signage along the several trails that course between the ponds; and also at the wildlife viewing areas that take the form of small peninsulas extending into some of the ponds. Benches offer places to rest, drink, and snack as well as wait for birds to come to you. An average visit may yield such birds as the Common Moorhen, or a blue-billed male Ruddy Duck.

Lizards, mostly Desert Spiny lizards and whiptails, scatter in every direction at your approach, one seemingly every couple of feet. There are Greater Roadrunners in the area, but they seem to hardly make a dent in the herp populations. One can only wish for some predator to eat the non-native Bullfrogs that have come to call this place home. You can hear the “Jug-a-rum” call of the males at nearly any time of day.

I come here for insects and spiders, too, of course, and am rarely disappointed. Though this year has been sparse for most insects, I can always count on seeing Blue-eyed Darners, Rhionaeschna multicolor, like the female above that I found on my last visit. Also present in abundance are the Blue Dasher, Pachydiplax longipennis, and the Mexican Amberwing, Perithemis intense. I have also seen the Flame Skimmer, Libellula saturata, and a Roseate Skimmer, Orthemis ferruginea, this year.

The wetlands are torched nearly every year, a prescribed burn charring some parts of the area annually. It does not seem to adversely impact the animals, and in fact the scorching of the willows and cottonwoods sometimes makes them more of an attraction to insects and nesting and feeding birds. I recently found a giant crab spider (genus Olios) under a burnt strip of bark on a willow.

Do make a point of visiting this little gem the next time you are in Tucson. It is especially spectacular during waterfowl migrations, but any time of year is likely to reward you with a great “urban nature” experience.

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