A Day at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum
On a warm morning in Tucson, Arizona, George Montgomery, curator of botany at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum and an old botanical friend of mine, left me a pass at the museum’s front gate. Professional courtesy is the term that this is used for this little perk, like a surgeon giving another a discounted triple bypass.
I had barely come through the main entrance when I was passed by no less than four docents (trained interpretive volunteers) dressed in long sleeved, button-up white shirts with embroidered museum arm patches, each carrying a living creature of the Sonoran desert. One held a Harris’ hawk, a handsome social hawk that hunts in family groups. It was tethered in true falconry fashion with a leather strap wrapped around one of its feet that grasped the docent’s heavy glove. Another docent carried a kestrel, the smallest hawk in North America, about the size of a cardinal. She held this hawk tethered in similar fashion to the much larger Harris’ hawk, as did yet another docent who was holding a four-inch tall pygmy owl that was even smaller than the kestrel. A fourth docent carried a mysterious insulated lunch box that she told me matter-of-factly “is full of scorpions.”
One of the most unique things about the design of the Desert Museum is its seamlessness. The paths meander through desert vegetation that is maintained to be as natural and unpretentious as if you were hiking in the wild and open desert, but with the convenience of wide concrete paths and regularly spaced, refrigerated drinking fountains.
Within a few minutes, George had caught up with me and as we walked, we passed yet another docent (they were everywhere!) named Betty Anne, who stood behind a low table full of insects preserved in various stages of their life cycles. There was a gravelly-looking tubular structure made by the larval stage of the caddis fly, an adult sphinx moth speared through the thorax with a long, slender pin, and a dozen more insects forever preserved in some stage of their interrupted metamorphosis. Betty Anne shared the physical qualities of the other docents I’d seen—female, white-haired, and a long term social security check recipient. George introduced her as the oldest docent at the museum, a designation that she quickly downplayed by saying, “He means the most experienced.”
Leaps and bounds
Around the corner towards the west, directly above the Geology Ramada, was an elevated overlook of Avra Valley and the Tohono O’odham reservation that included a clear view of the observatory at Kitt Peak in Baboqivari Mountains (see topmost photo above). Large rectangular ponds were also visible in the distance and George told me they were used to recharge the underground aquifer with imported Colorado River (CAP) water. This water was cleansed by the aquifer, then pumped out, mixed with more CAP water, and distributed to the residents of Tucson.
Since George was on-the-clock and I was just a free-loading visitor from another botanical garden, he said goodbye, and I headed straight towards Phoebe’s Coffee Bar, a convenient bistro attached to the far end of the gift shop. After a double espresso, I jogged towards the Mountain Woodland exhibit, hoping to catch a glimpse of the Desert Museum’s trademark animal, the mountain lion. Having lived in the desert southwest for over half of my life, I have seen just about every animal in the wild at least once, but the mountain lion has eluded me.
When I reached the boulder-filled enclosure, it was mid-morning, already over 90 degrees, and the lion had just shifted from lying on his stomach to his back, looking not unlike a family dog taking a nap on the living room rug. As docile and lethargic as he was at this particular moment, the mountain lion is still an impressively big animal up close—males can weigh up to 145 pounds and have been known to jump 23 feet in a single leap.
Animals above, caves below
One of the most unique things about the design of the Desert Museum is its seamlessness. The paths meander through desert vegetation that is maintained to be as natural and unpretentious as if you were hiking in the wild and open desert, but with the convenience of wide concrete paths and regularly spaced, refrigerated drinking fountains. Each new exhibit, from Life on the Rocks to the Walk-in Aviary, appears organically out of nowhere, and the feeling after reaching each one is that of personal discovery. The map that everyone receives is almost a hindrance, a last resort designed for visitors to become unlost—but not to find.
At one I point, I accidentally entered the exit of the limestone cave in the Earth Sciences area and exited the entrance, then circled around from the opposite direction without realizing that I had entered the actual entrance again. The exhibit is a re-creation of a limestone cave complete with an optional and claustrophobically narrow tunnel with lots of tight twists and turns that they actually encourage you to crawl through. There was no sign that warned, “Please, only really thin people lubricated with Vasoline should attempt to climb through this cave.” So I snaked my relatively thin frame through, all the while wondering how they extricated the pudgier folk who inevitably got stuck. I mean, it just had to happen.
Though many of the nocturnal animals were bedded down for day, I was able to get great photographs of desert bighorn sheep, wide awake and walking along the man-made rocks in the Riparian Corridor exhibit. Next door, steep concrete stairs led down to a viewing area below the adjacent otter and beaver pond. I had always thought of beavers as blue-collar, working class animals, bulky fur bearers that rose early, gnawed down a few trees, piled them up into a dam, and then kicked back and waited for a pond to form. In reality, once they are in the water, they are sleek, athletic swimmers with the smooth underwater shape of a diving penguin and the gracefulness and agility of a seal. Beautiful to watch.
Burrowing owls and prairie dog holes
There is plenty of opportunity to eat with a centrally located snack bar, a coffee shop (Phoebe’s), and two full service restaurants. The restaurants aren’t over-cooled like most indoor spaces; in fact, the Ironwood Terraces Restaurant is evaporatively cooled with additional air movement from large, industrial floor fans that knock the napkins off of your cafeteria trays but make the transition into and out of the heat much less of a shock.
In the hour I had left after lunch, I caught a glimpse of a burrowing owl diving into a prairie dog hole in the Desert Grasslands exhibit, heard dozens of Inca doves calling in the Walk-in Aviary, and spotted a Costa’s hummingbird, the only active hummer in the hundred degree heat of the afternoon, in the Hummingbird Aviary. As was the style of all of the other exhibits, the aviaries blended into the surroundings effortlessly. Only the entry air locks and the nearly transparent netting above gave away the fact that the birds were actually captives.
Youth (13-17): $15.50
Children (4-12): $6.00
March – September 7:30 a.m. – 5 p.m.
October – February 8:30 – 5 p.m.
June – August Sun - Fri 7:30 a.m. - 5 p.m. Sat 7:30 a.m. - 10 p.m.
Attractions and exhibits
21 acres and two miles of walking paths
16 individual gardens
1,200 Sonoran Desert plant species
56,000 individual plants
230 live native animals, reptiles, amphibians, insects, and birds
Docent-led grounds tours
Live animal presentations
Earth Sciences Center cave and mineral collection
On my way towards the exit, at the Reptile and Amphibian House, a four or five year old girl was going from one glass-fronted snake cage to the next, saying at each, “Oh my god! Look-it!” Her dad was following patiently, naming off the snakes. “That’s a Black-tailed rattlesnake that lives…” –before he could finish, she was on to the next, jumping onto the step in front and putting both her hands against the glass. “Oh my god! Look-it! Oh my god!” This went on and on and by the time I left, the father had quit apologizing to the other visitors.
The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum is a family place, certainly, but diverse enough to appeal to everyone from hardcore desert plant and animal lovers (like me), to anyone who wants to learn and experience the bountiful natural history of the Sonoran Desert.
- Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, Tucson, AZ - Zoo, Botanical Garden and Art Gallery
The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum is a world-renowned zoo, natural history museum and botanical garden, all in one place. Exhibits re-create the natural landscape of the Sonoran Desert Region with more than 300 animal species and 1,200 kinds of plants