Sunday, May 21, 2017

To Be Young Again

Spring.  It's an unofficial holiday; a celebration and renewal of all things centered around life.  For many in the US, it's a happy time as the weather warms up and those dreary gray clouds disappear.  Then the green and colorful blooms begin! In Southern Arizona, we start a little early. Our true spring begins in March. In May, "spring" really feels like the start of summer.  However, nature still tells us that it's "spring" around here with all the little critters making a fuss. 

Brown-crested Flycatcher collecting food for the recently hatched young
We had cooler temps in the mornings this past week and I wanted to take advantage of them while I still could.  So I got the equipment ready to do some serious documentation on the nesting and breeding birds at several of our local parks. 

I'm always surprised by how quickly the young grow up.  I mean.....this can be said about any species! Even humans! My nephew is already going to be a sophomore. Where did the time go? How did my family get so old??!!!  The only conclusion I can come up with is that they live in Wisconsin.  I haven't aged a day here in Arizona:)  So you ask about the gray in my beard?  Well, that's easy. I spray painted that stuff into my hair to look wise and Gandalf-like so that my family wouldn't feel any different :)

Red Torch Cactus
You know what?  I hate teaching.  Or so I say:)  When it comes down to it, I love my kids. I hate the politics behind teaching....and also some of the bad parenting happening out there. #stopenabling  It was so very sad saying good-bye to my Seniors as they will leave for the military or college or.....nowhere in a few short weeks.  The free spirits told me that they just want to explore.  WOW!!  I remember those days.  Now I'm bogged down paying for health insurance, home repairs, protecting our environment, fighting that asshole of a man known as Trump and cleaning the kitty litter(I swear he's been crapping in the litter! I know he's been doing it to our country. For example, take his 3 AM tweets on the toilet) But back to being young. I still explore because it's in my blood.  So I tell my Seniors......explore.  Be safe.  And discover! 

Baby Mallards
In my life, I've had near misses myself.  They were scary.  Almost losing my sister on a Guatemala trip was something that to this day has scared the hell out of me. One year, a faithful Spanish student of mine went off to explore the world and was nearly killed when a motorcycle hit him head on.  I know it's not my fault, but I couldn't help but feel partly responsible for encouraging him with my words to explore the world. It took years of rehabilitation. Just a couple weeks ago, he graduated from college.  And I am so proud of him. And I'd still tell him the same thing.  Explore!  But be careful!

Female Gila Woodpecker feeding the young.  Look at that amazing Saguaro cavity!!!  That is amazing!

Youth.  Inexperience.  I wish I could telepathically share with them all my life experiences.  Be careful when dating.  Be careful settling for something that you are not ready for.  Don't take out too many student loans.  Stay away from those damn drugs. But have fun!  How do I pass that information on to the future generations? Were they listening to my lessons? Quite simply, I have to let them go.  They have to leave the nest at some point. It's something they have to EXPERIENCE on their own. 

A male Gila Woodpecker pokes his head out to see what's going on
Life is dangerous.  It's also beautiful.  As I listened to the young birds call for their parents, I worried for them.  Get away you Cooper's Hawk!! I watched our nesting Common Ravens get bullied by this bird.  One of the ravens actually whimpered.  Again, I wanted to tell the raven, HEY!  Wake up!!! You're bigger!  Kick that bully away from your nest!  Years ago, I realized I cannot change the world nor control the outcomes of others. So, it gave me a certain freedom knowing that it's my life that I need to take charge of.  It's not my responsibility to try and "fix" others. But I can hope that both Common Ravens will stand up to that nasty Coops:) Birds are like people; people are biological creatures.....and we are all connected.  Their story is our story. And vice versa. 

Northern Beardless Tyrannulet
I walked around more and heard our infamous Northern Beardless Tyrannulets.  Everyone comes to this park to see these tiny flycatchers. On this day, the parent Tyrannulets were training their young one to fly from branch to branch.  I stood a safe distance and watched as one parent flew under the shade of the mesquite calling "PIU PIU PIU!" Translation:  Ok.  Fly here. The little one would respond with not quite the same call and fly to the branch.  The parent would then reward the little one with food. And over and over they did this in the hopes that one day, this little Tyrannulet will one day fly off and live its own little life. 

I watched a Bell's Vireo collect nesting material.  I asked myself, Is this the second clutch?  OR Did the first nest fail?  In the mind of a bird, a failure means try again.  Move on.  And do it again.  There's a message in there somewhere. 

As I walked out my classroom door, another Senior stopped and told me that he was thinking about taking a bird watching class at his university.  I had a huge smile on my face and told him that this made me very happy. While my objective is always teaching the Spanish language, I also try to connect my lessons through life experiences.  In the background, I'll have a bird on my SMART board.  When I disappear for that one day at school, my students know that I'm not sick but instead chasing a rare bird:) And it's my obligation to show them my results the day after:)

Arizona Bell's Vireo collecting nest material
I have one more week of school to go.  The forecast will be in the 100's again.  So I called my a/c guy to check our unit because I HATE the heat and want to prevent disaster from happening!  I climbed up on my roof and sat with him as he went over each of the specs. I thought to myself, Why don't I live up here?  It's beautiful!  Anyhow, everything looked good to go.  If there's one thing that stresses me out, it's the fear that our a/c unit will die in the middle of summer.  I have a secondary unit back up but still.....

So I'm ready for summer.  I've said my good-byes. And now it's time to move forward because life doesn't wait for any of us.  I've been stuck at 759 lifebirds for too long! If I remember correctly, there are over 10,000 bird species out there that are waiting for me to find!  And you know what that means.......

The many owls I've seen this year! Most shared with people I love.  Thank you all for your friendship. 
An adventure is waiting to happen.  Here are my reports from this past week.  For people coming to Tucson, you'll find these areas easy to access.  Go early before the heat. Birds are active from 6 AM to about 10 AM.  And don't forget to bring water!

1. Reid Park
2. Lakeside Park
3. Agua Caliente Park

Until next time........

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

My Nomadic Inclinations

Arizona Gray Squirrel
As I hold in a pattern of wait before our next grand adventure, I hang out in my little cubby hole like the Arizona Gray Squirrel above.  

Black-headed Grosbeak
A lot of planning and work is going into the Las Aventuras summer and fall adventures.  Another exciting trek is also getting mapped out into a remote area of the world that many do not explore. There will be birds, culture, tequila and laughter. I look forward to that photo shoot. But for now....

Wild Turkey
Life is short.  One day you're a lizard eating an ant.  The next, you're food for a Mountain Pygmy Owl. 

Mountain Pygmy Owl
As I'm planning and budgeting the money, I'm keeping my birding local.  After all, this is Arizona birding.  There are so many opportunities to witness some of the world's most amazing birds close to home.  So in short, to keep the costs down, I've been birding locally. 

It's rather fun.  My challenge?  To keep my birding skills sharp as a knife.  But the other challenge?  To capture something truly amazing in that one moment.  It's one thing to take a pic of a bird; it's another to capture it doing something interesting. 


So what was this weekend's challenge?  Well, it wasn't as exciting as last BUT it was still fun.  Near the White Citadel(San Xavier Del Bac), our group received word of an uncommon Black-bellied Whistling Duck in a mysterious watering hole.  That piqued my interest.  So I headed towards the mines of Moria and the White Citadel near the edges of my Old Pueblo.  And sure enough.....there was water in a great hole in the ground. 

The bird life was incredible.  How long have I lived here and never known about this obscure place?  Well, it's on my radar now.  Mission both senses of the word "mission":)  As I fine tune my Pima County birding, I'm also getting a sense that the regular Pima County birders are doing the same.  We have spread a net over our area and I'm liking the team work going on.  Before it was 2 or 3 birders finding rarities.  Now, it's more like 10 or 12 excellent birders covering the area.  

And quickly from the Tucson garden.  Ever notice white fuzzy spots on your Prickly Pear Cactus?  If the answer is yes, you're hosting the cochineal bug, a scale insect.  While watering my garden this weekend, I noticed that the scale had gotten out of control.

So I took the hose and washed off my cactus pads.  People have asked me if the scale is bad for their cactus.  Most years, it doesn't present a problem but for some reason, this year it has been bad.  We had a wet winter but it was followed by a super hot and dry spring....which allowed for the scale to grow! And it was doing damage.  So I took the hose to it. 

Cochineal Bug...notice the yellow coloring.  Not good.
As the scale washed off, it looked like blood pooling up around the base of the plant. The Cochineal bug plays an important role here in the Old Pueblo.  The native people use this bug to dye their clothes.  Historically, it was also important in the world trade market.  Today, this carmine dye is used primarily as a food colorant.

Last but not least.  Warblers.  This year has been a sensational year for so many warblers in the state of Arizona.  The year isn't over but look who has come to visit over the past several months.  Las Aventuras will continue the search this summer.

Until next time.....

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Seek And You Shall Find

Brian searches for the distant Common Crane
Talk about a spontaneous and fun weekend!!  A Common Crane (rare to the US) was spotted at Mormon Lake near Flagstaff, AZ.  Every birder,both in and out of the state, came to view this rare Eurasian migrant.  A scope was needed to spot this bird.

A little help with a scope.
Now, I've seen this bird twice.  Once in Europe and the other time in Roswell, New Mexico.  But I needed it for a state bird.  Anytime a new bird arrives into Arizona (and I don't have it on my state list), I go chase it.

Common Crane
It's a pretty amazing crane as far as cranes go.  Once we spotted the bird, we had to make a decision.  Bird Flagstaff or bird Oak Creek Canyon. 

West Fork Campground at Oak Creek Canyon/Haddie, the dog, takes Magill for a walk
We made a great decision and decided to explore the incredibly beautiful Oak Creek Canyon near Sedona.  This place was FULL of our Western Warblers!

Red-winged Blackbird
Along the way we counted birds in the often chilly and shaded canyon.

In fact, this week has been an amazing one in that the weather has been COLD!  We had rain and overcast skies allowing us to enjoy our birding treks.  It has been unbearably hot this winter with one May day reaching 106 degrees!  Way too early for those temps. 

Jon heads near an area searching for rarities

During the week, I noticed something happening everywhere.  Warbler fallout.  It was a visible sign that a storm was soon arriving to our state. And it was moving from the Gulf of Mexico!  So we kept our eyes out for Eastern rarities and migrants......

The brilliant colors of a Brewer's Blackbird in full sun
Back in the desert, little birds were beginning to leave their nests. 

Juvenile Black-tailed Gnatcatcher

It's easy to fall in love with the little fledglings as they learn how to become adult birds.  BUT, I have to be aware of the dangers around me.

I nearly messed myself when I saw this rattlesnake.  I like reptiles but snakes make my skin crawl.  Why was this snake hiding?

It was eyeing up these young Round-tailed Ground Squirrels nearby.  Meanwhile, the warblers began to grab my attention.  They were EVERYWHERE!  Every bush and every tree were full of them.  Normally they are difficult to spot but not this week!

Wilson's Warbler
Then it happened.  The second state bird arrived the following day after our Common Crane spot.  It was the rare and beautiful Blackpoll Warbler. 

Blackpoll Warbler
I stood for a couple hours trying to get these pictures of this very rare migrant.  This male is heading up to Alaska to breed but for some reason, he chose Tucson's Sweetwater Wetlands for a stop.

He stayed for several days and made several birders very happy.

After observing this bird for quite awhile, I packed up my gear and felt really happy. In fact I glowed for the next several days afterwards.  It's almost impossible to get two new state birds in one weekend anymore.  So it was a very satisfying weekend:)

Life is amazing.  And it's only getting better.  Until next time.....

Thursday, May 4, 2017

The Wrenegades Awaken

Pic courtesy of Sara Pike
Each year, I tell myself I'm not going to do it again.  And then I do:) Why? I like the crowd.  I like the challenge.  Raising money for Tucson Audubon is a good thing especially when our current US administration is cutting funding back for many of our conservation programs around the US. 

Tim's secret plans
Each one of us is in charge of something on this 24 hour crazy-thon.  We go a full day straight looking for birds in Southern Arizona.  Tim is our excellent organizer and planner.  Every bird hotspot is carefully chosen with a timed response.  This means we have to find as many birds as we can in our window timeframe. Then we are whisked away by our drivers Sara, Matt and Tim.  

Copulating Killdeer
 I am the documentation guy.  I ebird every hotspot conscious or not:)  I keep the lists and photos of our journey for our donors.  After it's all over, we process the data and pics so that the group can send their supporters all the highlights and fun from our treks.  

Long-billed Dowitchers, Least Sandpipers

But I have to admit.  There are some spots I love more than others.  I love Willcox, AZ.  I love that after our search we stop at the Mexican restaurant to grab something to eat.  It's essentially the calm before the storm.  

American Avocet
 I love owling with the crew on Mt. Lemmon.  I don't like birding alone in the dark.  And you'd be surprised by how many random cars we see at night around 3 in the morning.  It's hard to see who is in the car since the windows are all fogged up:)

Scaled Quail
This year our team made some interesting discoveries.  At Cochise Lake, we found 4 Western Grebes.  I haven't seen these birds here before so it was an interesting observation. Also at Cochise Lake, we discovered, for the AZ birding crowd, a cute little Snowy Plover.  

But a big surprise was about to happen during our night out on Mt. Lemmon.  Our team has suspected for a long time that we had been hearing Northern Saw-whet Owls near Summerhaven over the past couple years.  We just never had visual confirmation.  Until now.  

A new bird to my Pima County list! Northern Saw-whet Owl
 Thanks in part from a tip by Brian Nicholas, a Tucson birder and really great guy, we went to an area near his coordinates.  Almost immediately, we heard a high whinny call that was NOT a Northern Pygmy Owl.  We knew we had a different and very rare owl on the mountain.  Any sleepy thoughts I had were quickly erased as I became super alert.  While the group was excited by the discovery, Matt and I grabbed the spotlight and flashed it up to where the call was being made.....and my camera got one shot and that was it. For Matt, it was a lifer.  For me, it was a significant discovery that will now lead me into a new investigation.  Is there a tiny population that breeds up there?  OR are they migrating through the area?  This bird alone made the trek worthwhile.  

But the fun didn't stop.  At dawn, the bird chorus on the mountain is overwhelming.  It began at around 4:30 AM and continued for 30 or 40 minutes.  One call in particular lead us to this hard to photograph warbler, the Virginia's Warbler.  For the first time in 6 years, I was able to get long and satisfying looks at this normally secretive warbler. This is one of my favorite pics from our trek. 

Virginia's Warbler
 As we continued throughout the morning, I began to get more tired.  It was cold and then it wasn't.  In fact, it got nasty hot.  And I hate birding in the heat.  But when doing a birdathon, birders have to keep going. 

Western Wood Pewee
 And we did.  The heat began to get closer to 100 degrees and my body was not having it.  

Hermit Warbler
At one point, I nearly passed out.  I couldn't do it anymore.  We were at the DeAnza trail in Tubac when I lost the energy to bird.  

the Davis Pasture in the Cienagas Grasslands-pic by Matt Griffiths

While Matt, Jennie, Sara, Corey and Tim kept hiking the 90 degree, chigger sensational DeAnza trail, I sat in the park under the ramada and counted birds.  I am, after all, a mere mortal.  I should have taken two days off instead of one but finals have arrived and students need their teacher for support.  

Matt, Jennie, Sara, Corey, Tim and me in the back

By the end of the day, I acquired new information that I can now use for my own research.  The team was exhausted but we did it. And it felt good. Not only did we raise several thousands of dollars, we broke our old record and surpassed our 180 bird species goal in a 24 hour time period with 182 birds.  I really like these people a lot.  

 We cross paths throughout the year but really only bird on these two days together each year as a team.  It's a tradition that I hope we keep going every year.  If you'd like to track that tradition, here are some links to our past searches and how we've grown as a team. 
 2014-Blur  2015-Veni, Vidi,Vici 
 2016-Return of the Wrenegades

And as a side note, I'd be remiss if I forgot to mention how Tim is always attacked by some wild mammal. One year it was a rabid skunk.  This year it was a cow.  Good times!  Until next week:)