Saturday, May 2, 2015

Veni, Vidi, Vici

The power and beauty of nature! at Empire Gulch
This weekend was a whirlwind as the Wrenegades united once again for a good cause to find as many birds as we could around Southern Arizona. It was a successful trek into mountain, riparian, desert and grassland habitats.  Along the way, we avoided heat stroke, falling asleep at the wheel and a rabid skunk attack!

Northern Pygmy Owl
 Overall, our team discovered 163 birds which beat our record from last year. There were a lot of great birds that unfortunately were too far for my camera to pick up. Or it was too dark!  Among my favorites were an Olive-sided Flycatcher, Flammulated and Barn Owls, and Buff-breasted Flycatcher.

Two-tailed Swallowtail
 Timing is everything on these trips and it's tricky business doing three things at once. However, I need to train and practice for this upcoming Mexico trip! Finding the birds.  Entering the data.  And photo documentation.  By the end of our Audubon Birdathon, we were exhausted. I fell asleep but woke up later with a splitting headache!  I've never experienced that kind of pain before and I think it was related to an overworked eye.  It's intense non-stop birding that really doesn't allow for a break.  So when I got home, I took a shower and fell asleep. 

Wrenegade strategist and data analyst Tim leads the team over a stream to potential birds while Wrenegade surveyor Sara carefully scans the surrounding area with her excellent spotting. 
 But our treks were successful and very rewarding. Anytime you work with a group, you always pick up something new that you didn't know before. Take for example, these Black-tailed prairie dogs(below).  They are a threatened species that have been reintroduced back into the CiĆ©nagas Grasslands near Sonoita after being wiped out since the early 1900's.  These mammals have been doing very well and seem to be reestablishing their population once again. In the past, ranchers poisoned these "pests" off their lands. This is a keystone species for the grasslands in that other species benefit by their presence.  Without them, other species begin to decline.  Since their introduction, Burrowing Owls have returned thanks to the abandoned Prairie dog burrows. 


In other news, I have been following my heart on several other birding treks.  We were going to hike up a mountain a week ago but it had rained that day.  Working on a hunch, we headed down to Cochise Lake and scored big!  Not only was it freezing cold(very unusual this time of year) but the storm pushed a thousand+ shorebirds our way!  Hot birds for this frigid day included my first state Sanderling, a Greater White-fronted Goose, Bonaparte's Gull, Forster's Tern, and my favorite, the Franklin's Gull(below).  



Large numbers of Lesser Yellowlegs(below), Long-billed Dowitchers and Wilson's Phalaropes were also present. White-faced Ibis and Marbled Godwits dotted the lake shore as well.  It was an amazing day out. Plus shorebirds are a fun challenge. Sometimes you gamble and win!  This day was definitely one of those times:)

Lesser Yellowlegs
It's now May and my current list for North American birds is at 303 species for the year. Last year I finished the year with 476 birds(including Mexico).  This year I hope to beat that number with 500. The Life bird chase has slowed down dramatically now until I am free from work for the summer.  This year has been quite unique for me. The "Americano" chapter of my birding life feels different.  For one thing, it lacks the crazy adrenaline chases of last year's "Across America".  It's much more relaxed, but I find myself pulled in deeper to the birds that I know. For many I smile, but for others I worry. 

American Avocet
For example, the Barn Owl below.  I have been documenting a lot of dead Barn Owls this year along our highways.  This particular LIVING owl is also nearby the interstate and I worry for its safety.  They are low flyers and are often hit by motor vehicles. Their numbers seem to be in decline in many areas.  When I see an owl, I get excited, but I never want to disturb them.  I quickly snap their picture from a distance and leave.  Sacred birds, they are.  I wish this one well!  


I leave you with a collage of the owls I've seen this year.  I've heard several others and will hopefully get some photo documentation on them. The Flammulated Owl still evades my camera. Although it had no problem flying over my head early Friday morning! Next week, we slow down and enjoy an event known as "The Big Sit".  If you'd like to donate to the Tucson Audubon, click here. A login is not required after you go to the donate button. Remember, we are the Wrenegades and our fearless leader is Jenny Wren:) A Birdathon Big Day is an important way to share the excitement of being outdoors and watching birds while raising funds to support the programs that make this region a better place for us all to live(or visit!) and enjoy. Since 1987, Birdathon has garnered support for birds and bird-friendly habitats, and for Tucson Audubon's work to conserve these unique natural resources and to educate our community on their importance.  Until next week friends....


Top left-Long-eared owl, Top right- Barn Owl, Bottom Left-Spotted Owl. Middle Right-Great Horned Owl  Bottom Right-Northern Pygmy Owl

Monday, April 27, 2015

Breath and Life

Cactus Wren nesting in Tree Cholla
People always ask me when they should come and visit Arizona.  Well, it's a complicated answer depending on what the individual wants to see or experience.  If you are a lover of color, warmth and amazing garden tours, then I'd suggest Tucson during the month of April. 

My attempt at impressionism(via a computer program) on a blooming cactus
This past weekend, I focused on nesting Cactus Wrens around Saguaro National Park and our very own Desert Museum. This museum is situated on a pristine track of Sonoran desert land which makes it a great area for nesting desert birds. The Desert Museum is a MUST SEE for all people who come to visit Tucson.  You won't regret it!  A museum??? Yeah I guess it's a museum of sorts, but it's not the kind of museum you'd expect.  It's a living representation of our incredibly diverse Sonoran desert.  

Coachline Lake in Marana from last week Thursday
I've been into gardening this month and enjoying my work around El Presidio.  I've also kept up with some birding, but I've been into the artistic side of it. In fact, I'm beginning to research art courses beginning next year.  I want to paint my work.  I think at some point some birders enter this chapter of their lives. For me, it's a way to reconnect to the experience and also just create. One of my friends has expressed an interest as well. So it'll be fun to have a partner in crime. I have included several of my photos above using a computer program to capture the moment. A blogger who has inspired me now for several years is Gillian Olson.  She does amazing work with her own photography and I love it. 


Northern Cardinal
I start my Saturday morning with coffee and look out my window for inspiration. Where will I visit today? Many times, I just leave my birding up in the air with several places in mind.  My first visitors are the hummingbirds and Northern Cardinals....


White-winged Dove doing a bow at my feeders:)
But on this Saturday morning, I hear the unmistakable "Who cooks for June?!" outside.  PS.  That's not the expression birders use to memorize their call.  I just made it my own:)  June is my good friend's mother and I like to think of her when I hear this call.  It's actually, "Who cooks for you?!"  Anyhow, enough of my gibber gabber.  My point is that they were all over my feeders!!!!  It's that time of year when they arrive in great numbers!  And unlike other doves, they are not shy at all!

Hybrid Torch Cactus
Their arrival means one thing.  Desert blooms!  They will feed from our blooming Saguaro cactus soon.  When the blooms are gone, many will move on to other places. Well, that's how it is here in Tucson.  Some do remain. 


Birds are nesting and life is happening everywhere.  Little hummingbirds are hatching out of their tiny little eggs. 

Female Costa's Hummingbird
As for curiosities this week.  There was one.  Below is an iguana I keep seeing at the Desert Museum.  It is not caged nor does it belong in this part of the Sonoran Desert.  Many times I will walk around the grounds and have one staring back at me closely.  So I did some research.  It is a spinytail iguana that isn't found in Tucson.  These lizards were released on the museum grounds in the 70's where they have established a colony. Apparently they are a genetic cross between the San Esteban Island Spiny-tailed Iguana and the Sonoran Spiny-tailed Iguana.  They are found in the Sonoran desert just not in this part of our desert. 


Hopefully, this guy stays out of the way of this Greater Roadrunner below!

Greater Roadrunner catches a lizard for lunch
  Next week, we will sweep Southern Arizona by storm as the Wrenegades once again reunite! Together we join forces to find the most birds in one day for this Tucson Audubon fundraising event!  Will we outdo our list from last year?  Stay tuned for more!


Sunday, April 19, 2015

The Land Of Shadows

Grace's Warbler
This past week was a whole lot of crazy.  I had a hard time coming up with a theme for this post. Birds and Blossoms?  No.  The Mt. Ord Jinx?  No.  Updates on the owls? No.  So instead, it's an assortment of fun. 

Sonoran Bumblebee
My week started out well but soon turned into crazy at work. I had decided that my focus for the birding trek over the weekend would be centered around Gray Vireos, Hermit and Grace's Warblers.  It would also include flowering plants found around the various areas. However, an Eared Quetzal, the gem of all gems, showed up in a remote area known as Gardener Canyon.  This tropical bird is so quiet and elusive that it makes the chase very difficult.  I decided to stick to my original plan and let all the other birders do the chase.  Glad I did!

Ocotillo Bloom
We had been receiving updates from Gardener Canyon throughout the day. The Eared Quetzal was a no show for the 20+ birders. So the gamble paid off...this time.  On Saturday, me and the Magill headed up to Mt. Ord to find the above mentioned bird species. But little did I know, a dark shadow lay between Magill and this mountain. It didn't take long before we began spotting birds. Whenever there are Ocotillo blooms(above), the Broad-billed Hummingbirds will zip around the blossoms.  Now the Broad-billed Hummingbird is considered a rare bird for Maricopa, but it is quite common in the Tucson area all year round!  So we lucked out on this day and found two of them!  That was a pretty special way to kick start the day. 

Broad-billed Hummingbird
While up on Mt. Ord, we spotted two other rare birds.  The first species was Laurence Butler(Butleri larencei) while the other was Gordon Karre(Kare gordonis).  And mentally, I was relieved! Why?  Well, apparently they had also decided not to chase the Eared Quetzal. When the holy triad of cars came together on the dirt road, I smiled. While it was brief, it was nice seeing everyone together. It doesn't happen often! The moment lasted for a few minutes and then it was back to "work".  

Desert Mariposa Lily
So while I was planning on working with one group of birds, I found myself distracted by other things.....which is natural.  It's not always about the birds. 

Microtia dymas or Tiny Checkerspot
We found large numbers of Black-throated Gray Warblers moving through the area.  They were the dominant warbler species on this day. Our count had an amazing 40+ tally!


Black-throated Gray Warbler
Blue-gray Gnatcatchers would also be quite numerous on this day. 

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
And we kept on the dusty and rocky roads observing several of our target birds which included the Gray Vireo. Our Mt. Ord bird count was outstanding! However our return trek down the mountain side would prove to be too much for Magill's car. The shadow of Ord.

Gray Vireo
As you might imagine with treks like these, our amazing views and amazing birds can sometimes come with a hefty price:)  Magill has had issues on this nasty road twice!  This trek, unfortunately, wouldn't be any different.  We got a flat on the way down.  At least it wasn't at the summit!  As we attempted to change the tire, the jack slipped on the uneven dirt road as we were about to put on the spare.  And now the jack was bent. 

Top of Mt. Ord
 While we tried figuring out what to do(since our cell service was spotty), a Scott's Oriole sang in the background. "With a sigh you turn away.  With a deepening heart no more words to say.  You will find that the world has changed forever. And the trees are now turning from green to gold. And the sun is now fading." It was really quite sad. But this brilliant yellow oriole sang to the feathered gods and our birdy prayers were answered. A golden gas guzzling hummer slowed down to help us out. Within this majestic vehicle, there were two friendly Canadians.  And they had the jack of all car jacks! A hummer car jack! Invincible!  

Magill calling AAA.  The catch?  AAA doesn't cover dirt roads.  Of course.
Together we were able to change the tire while Magill told these poor souls about the horror stories that have happened on Mt. Ord:) Afterwards, we slowly crawled back to Phoenix on the spare. Magill said good-bye one last time to Mt. Ord. Never again will she attempt to drive the hairpin turns along this mountain's rocky one lane road. It was over.  But I also remember Cher saying the same thing about her retirement concerts. However, you can find her in Las Vegas STILL performing! So we'll see.....

"Fame" Rose Bush.  A good and almost pest free Rose bush for Tucson.  Only catch?  Not fragrant like other roses.  But the roses last longer.  We placed this particular rose bush within our school garden several years ago and it has endured the test of time!  
I hadn't planned on studying swallows and their nest sites, but I did:)  Below are two swallow species found in Arizona.  Both nest differently.  The Cliff Swallows create mud huts over water while the Violet-green Swallows live at higher altitudes nesting within tree cavities.  


And FINALLY!  This past week at my job, I've been able to monitor our nesting Great Horned Owls.  They began hanging out on the rim of the baskets which is a very good sign.  My guess is that they are no longer in the basket.  Well, the weaker one might still be there. There's always the one that lingers. Two are pretty bold and the third is a yawny follower:) Both owl parents have been near them during this transition period.  For the next several weeks, they will develop their leg strength as they learn to eat their prey and climb trees.  During the last part of May and beginning part of June, they will begin to fly.  



So there you have it!  It has been a pretty amazing week full of fun treks.  

 
The next several weeks will prove to be challenging and exciting as we get into migration more. I'd like to once again acknowledge Doug Taron and Margarette Brummermann for helping me out with the bug ID's. 

Spotted Towhee
Here's a parting glance at a Chitalpa blossom from the El Presidio garden:)  A little impressionism for you all:)


For more from other birders and their friends, check out Hootin' Anni's Chronicles and Wild Bird Wednesday. Until next time....

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Seeds of Promise

Northern Beardless Tyrannulet
Reconnecting with birds already seen 10 times over, he patiently waits. Birds are amazing and he spies them easily now knowing exactly where they can all be seen. At least in Arizona. 



However, this explorer is at times impatient.  He knows he cannot sit at home and wait.  He must continue observing the same birds over and over again until they are ingrained into his mind.  This makes him a better birder.  A stronger birder. 


He observes with friends to keep it fresh. For some, it's their first time seeing many of these amazing creatures.  And it feels good. The educator within him comes out and it feels natural.   




He abides his time waiting for the seeds of promise.  Each night is a study session.  Tropical birds, habitats and places unknown.  These things swirl about in his dreams.  Something new.  Something exciting. 


Eastern Meadowlark(Lillian's Subspecies)
A life's journey is ahead.  Each year, he focuses on areas around Central America, Mexico and of course, the rest of North America. 

Plumbeous Vireo
Ticking and listing away, he discovers that there are many difficult challenges ahead.

Barn Swallow
Quite honestly, it's not about the tick or the check for him.  All birds are amazing.  Even the everyday kinds. But challenges are fun and he's all about pushing the envelope.  After birding the same areas over and over again, the birder is ready for a delicious challenge.

Marla imagining life at Empire Ranch
For now, this birder must strengthen his skills if he's going to succeed. When the time comes to discover a new species, he must be prepared! It's like practicing for a marathon or preparing for a food competition.  Soon his skills will be tested.  {end of narrative}


Texan Crescent (Anathassa texana)
Always strange to write in the 3rd person voice but I was feeling creative.  Lately, I have been anxious about a great many things.  One of those things happens to be a major trip that is scheduled for this summer.  I'm going to be surrounded by a wonderful team of birders. I am excited about the trek with my birding bud, but I am working on getting my reflexes ready with the camera. I also know this is going to be mentally exhausting. Rain forest birds are fast and usually in the shadows before one can get a shot of them.  Not good for photography! This is an opportunity to work with an amazing crew and possibly add on 200 new life birds!  So what's the concern? Excellent birders=quick spotting and onto the next bird.  I'm a "stop-and-watch-the-bird-for-awhile" kinda guy.  So I don't know what to expect. I can keep up with the group but I've never done this before.  On my treks, I usually stay one week in one area to study the habitat and surrounding areas both day and night.  My results are usually top notch.  This time around it's a different habitat for each day!! Now that's exciting but also overwhelming. In some cases from those evening studies, it's a one shot thing which doesn't leave much room for screwing up:) For now, I'm practicing practicing practicing for the weeks ahead!

Sonoita Creek
Today's post features photos from the Empire Ranch in the Cienagas Grasslands near Sonoita and the Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve in Patagonia, Arizona. A special thank you goes out to Doug Taron(entomology) and Karina Hilliard(herpes)for the butterfly and last post's lizard ID. Also featured in this week's post is my partner-in-crime from work.



We had a fun day observing Gray Hawks in flight. Lots of gray birds in this post:) Until next time.....

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Whispers of Wonders


The traditional seasons in Arizona are not always visible to our visitors. In the US, most states celebrate a distinct fall, winter, spring and summer. If you've lived in the desert for awhile, you begin to pick up the subtle beauty of the Sonoran desert.  Some people describe our seasons as "hot or not as hot".  And while that may be somewhat true, I'd like to present our version of spring this week:)

Hedgehog Cactus
The "summer" birds begin to arrive into Southern Arizona while others are in the middle of nesting. Cacti begin to bloom.  Butterflies begin to show up in greater numbers while the "Snowbirds" (the human and bird kinds) begin to leave:) Reptiles begin to hang out on rocks. Snakes slink their way across roads and into Herpetologist's hearts.

Elegant Earless Lizard
And the owls.  I love the owls the best.  It's one of the better times of the year to find owls near their nests....or just find owls period:)  Our Great Horned Owls were successful again this year raising 4 owlets!  Along with another teacher, we monitor their nest each day to make sure they are developing as they should.  With over 2000 people on our campus, it's amazing that the parent owls return each year to this site.  But we're glad they do.  It's also a great way to educate future birders.  Soon they will leave this make shift nest and bounce their way into the nearby Ironwood Trees.

4 Great Horned Owlets
While monitoring my ebird work patch, I found this soon to be leaving White-crowned Sparrow taking a dirt bath.  The bird didn't seem to mind me watching. 

White-crowned Sparrow
As it warms up, the birds begin looking for a companion to begin their nesting process. Some nest within the holes of these massive Saguaros below. Others prefer nesting within the Cholla cactus(center)

From left to right.  Saguaro Cactus(large upright cactus), Tree Cholla(reddish blooms), Palo Verde Tree(yellow blooms)
This is also a great time to visit southern Arizona. It's not too hot or cold and there's lots to see!  While on my treks this week, I spotted a Cooper's Hawk feeding.  Normally I don't see them banded so I did some follow up.  When I don't know something, I throw the information out on the google machine and Facebook. I am always thankful for the positive feedback I get from people.  The University of Arizona is conducting a study on Cooper's Hawks.  These birds are numerous in the Tucson area and their population appears to be growing. In fact, the Old Pueblo has one of the highest counts in the US. This may also explain why our Inca Dove population has almost completely disappeared from the area.  

A 8 year old male Cooper's Hawk
Anyhow, I found the right person and he emailed me back straight away. Here's the info he gave me on this bird. 
"Hi Chris:
The bird you saw was a male and was banded as a nesting adult on 13 June 2007. He was nesting on Silverbell Golf Course  (just south of the wetlands) at that time and has been seen there each year since. Your photo lets us record that he is alive and back in the same area again this year.  Thanks!
Bill Mannan"

If you find a banded Cooper's Hawk, you can report your sighting and pic to this email. mannan@ag.arizona.edu.  
Until next time......

Tree Cholla Cactus Bloom