Borton’s Environmental Learning Lab

One of the unique features of Borton is Borton’s Environmental Learning Lab (or BELL) – a 2.5 acre desert area immediately south of the Borton playground. Though it is surrounded by the school, businesses, and other development, this area contains many native desert plants, and has attracted many birds and small animals.

Borton students have created many pieces of artwork to enhance BELL. The biggest is the Lizard Bench, but there are many other ceramic projects throughout the area. The latest addition is a tortoise enclosure, built just south of the pond.



BELL History


The 2.5 acres of land directly south of the Borton playground has been owned by TUSD for years, though it was generally viewed as property for future development. Fortunately, that development never happened. In the early 1990’s, Borton received a Heritage Grant. At that time, this inner-city desert site was transformed into a place which would attract native bird species, as well as a place for students to experience hands-on study of the desert environment.

Sign showing trail map of BELL

The important features of the site were created at that time: the main loop trail, the pond and drip system, the cactus garden, the butterfly and hummingbird areas, and the ramada. It was then named the Borton Bird Sanctuary.

To continue as a viable educational site, this property requires three things: a long-range vision for development and usage, constant maintenance, and ongoing orientation and education of the ever-changing Borton community. Since the initial development phase, Borton has sought and received Educational Enrichment Foundation (EEF) grants, NEFF grants and Exxon Math/Science grants to support its continued development and use by students. Since the site’s focus is truly on student usage, we renamed it the Borton Environmental Learning Lab, or BELL for short.

Message board with info on current conditions



BELL Environment

BELL is not just a half-block sized piece of undeveloped desert. It has some areas specially designed to show different facets of the desert environment. It includes a butterfly garden, which contains plants whose flowers attract butterflies and hummingbirds; a cactus garden, which displays several types of cacti and succulents; and a pond, which supports some of the plants which grow in the desert’s rare riparian areas.

Trail sign beside the trail

There is a Nature Trail which guides visitors through the various parts of the area.

small pond with tall grass around it

The pond is kept wet by the irrigation system.

The lizard bench just fter completion

The Lizard Bench was built in the spring of 2006 as a place for a class to sit for lessons about the desert environment.


BELL Plants

BELL contains both native plants which have sprouted and grown naturally, as well as specimens which, while native to the area, have been planted by volunteers so the area shows more of the variety of the desert environment.

two saguaro and two different types of cholla

Cholla and saguaro in the cactus garden.

Mesquite tree beside a creosote bush

A mesquite tree (Prosopis velutina) with a creosote shrub (Larrea tridentata) next to it. Creosote is responsible for the characteristic smell that the desert has after a rain. Both plants are native to Arizona.

thin branched cholla with red flowers

Christmas cholla (Opuntia leptocaulis) growing underneath the creosote. It is called this because of its red fruits that remain on the plant through much of the winter. It is native to Arizona.

Cassia wislizenii -- large shrub with yellow flowers
  This flowering yellow shrub is Cassia wislizenii, a type of senna that is known for how very dead it looks in the winter (it has a long dormant period) and then how beautiful it looks during its short bloom period in late summer/early fall. It is native to the Sonoran desert (Mexico and parts of Arizona).



BELL Birds

BELL was originally called the Bird Sanctuary because birds are the most visible residents of the area.

The wild area attracts many native birds.

Two quail running across a path

A pair of quail running between the bushes.

Gray and red bird in a tree

A desert cardinal (pyrrhuloxia) is nesting in a tree near the pond.

profile of a bird's head inside a cholla

A curve-billed thrasher has returned to the same nest in a cholla near BELL’s entrance for the past few years.


3 blue eggs in a nest

This year there were three eggs in the nest.


3 fuzzy black baby birds in a nest

By the last day of school, the eggs had hatched.



BELL Animals

Besides birds, BELL is a home to many other species of animals, including reptiles, small mammals, and many varieties of insects.

Horned lizard under a branch

A horned lizard hiding near some leaves.

Horned lizard in the open

Another horned lizard.

Hole in the dirt under some cacti

A hole dug by some small rodent under this cactus. The rodents living in BELL are hard to spot, but from holes like these we can tell that they're there.


A butterfly perched on some leaves.


A grasshopper.



Desert Tortoise

In 2011, a tortoise enclosure was built in BELL, complete with a burrow, a pond, and desert plants. It was all ready, and finally we heard the tortoise was coming. The school held an election, and it was decided to name him Old Rango.

Tortoise pen with low concrete walls and a stone burrow

In April, Old Rango finally arrived, moved into his new home.

Principal placing tortoise in the pen


He checked out the facilities... Tortoise tasting some leaves Tortoise tasting some leaves
Tortoise by a concrete pond Tortoise tasting some leaves Tortoise tasting some leaves
Tortoise by a concrete pond Tortoise by a concrete pond  

Then headed indoors to get out of the sun.

Tortoise at the opening of its burrow