Monday, October 19, 2020

Strides of Blue

This week's adventure takes us to the beautiful Channel Islands for some in depth study on a part of the Santa Cruz Island I had never been....Prisoner's Harbor. I'll also have some updates for people who have been thinking about visiting these amazing islands. 

I was feeling trapped inside with this terrible Tucson heat over the past several months and I very much needed something new and different to study with friends Celeste and Cheroot.  Originally, I had planned to stay in Antigua, Guatemala during my fall break for a very much needed Spanish retreat at this sanctuary in the hills, but Covid changed that plan.  Instead, within a safe 6 hour drive from Tucson, we headed to Ventura for specific wildlife studies. 

Cheroot brought his squirrels.  We brought our coolers for day lunches out on the beaches and parks. We contacted Island Packers for a mini pelagic out to Santa Cruz Island.  I was hoping for some whale and dolphin action in much needed cooler weather.  It did not disappoint.  In fact, for most of our stay, we were on the water. 

The boat ride is a little under an hour and a half.  Birds were on our itinerary but really it was all about the whales. 

Every time I've gone over to those islands, we've seen something special like a pod of Orcas, dolphins and a variety of whales. This trek would be no exception.  On this day, we observed 3 incredible Blue Whales up close. I cannot describe the excitement that we felt by seeing this incredibly large sea creature.  In fact, it's the largest mammal on the planet. 

Then there's the beauty of birding around the islands. We caught up with birder Eric Heisey below who also had similar plans to bird in the cooler temps.

It is as magical as it looks.  Complete wilderness and now free of human developments.

Once we arrived at Prisoner's Harbor we began to hike uphill onto Nature Conservancy land to study vegetation, birds, lizards and insects.  In some parts it was rather steep, but the views overlooking the island and ocean were incredible. 

 Back in 2014, Micheal and I went to camp at Scorpion's Point which was on the other side of the island. A storm a couple years back destroyed the pier and since then, the campground has been shut down.  BUT I have good news!  It will finally be opened up this November.  I highly recommend this camping trek.  It's a lot of fun and quite different from the experience at Prisoner's Harbor. 

We are birders and for Celeste, she had never seen the Island Scrub-Jay, one of the endemics only found on this island. People say that Prisoner's Harbor is the best place for this jay and it was.  We had many birds right at the entrance of the port. For me it was a better opportunity to study them up close.  Their numbers have grown over this 27 mile stretch of island.  In fact, Channel Islands National Park is a success story in conservation. 

Since our visit back in 2014, the Island Fox, yet another endemic, had a small number of reintroduced fox around Scorpion's Point. Today, this species has succeeded in repopulating Santa Cruz Island. They now number in the thousands. At one point, they almost went extinct due to predation by Golden Eagles, but thanks to great conservation plans and practices, I'm happy to report that this fox is back in business.

Celeste was hoping we'd see one so we backtracked from the tourists when they weren't around.  After our little hike up Pelican's Point, we turned around and headed to the picnic area for lunch.  The secret to finding one of these foxes?  Find stupid tourists who leave their food out.  And find vacated areas were stupid tourists were eating.  Celeste was talking to me when I noticed that one of the foxes came from out of nowhere to check out a recently vacated picnic area. The look on Celeste's face was priceless.  Yes, these foxy foxes are one of the many reasons to explore Channel Islands National Park. 

Not happy with ANY of the leftover food choices, this fox decided to find their own. 

And not too far away, a fresh meal was waiting to be found. A mouse!  Yum!

Another species that doesn't mind human food is the clever Common Raven.  Number 62, more on that in a bit, was watching a couple stupid tourists who were distracted by yellowjackets. True they could have been stung, but 62 had his eye on the turkey sandwich in the flailing male's hand.  As the yellowjackets overcame this unsuspecting tourist man, the raven took the opportunity to snatch the sandwich out of his grasp.  He brought it back to his "friend" and together they shared THEIR turkey sandwich.  And we, the birders, secretly scored the match between raven and man.  Corvid 1 Man 0

Now onto a TAGGED COMMON RAVEN!!!!  This species of bird is plentiful.  So why tag a raven?  Well, they are studying how these Common Ravens interact with the rare nesting Ashy Storm-Petrels on these islands. These Storm-Petrels already have a small population with about 10,000 in the world.  Their nesting grounds, the Channel Islands, are home to at least 50 known breeding pairs.  They are nocturnal and can be difficult to find on a nest as they choose cracks and crevices.  The pic below is not mine but it's an artist's recreation of where this secretive Storm-Petrel hangs out. 

This pic is from a trek I did several years ago during a Storm-Petrel study out along the California Coast.  Within their limited range, they are quite common, but if there ever was an oil spill, etc, it could have a devastating impact on this species. 

Unfortunately, we didn't see any storm-petrels on this trek, but I did learn about how some Common Ravens can raid these storm-petrel's nests. Hence the tagging.  I reported the tag to the banders. You can read that information here. In fact, the Channel Islands are all about restoring balance.  At one point, the Island Foxes almost went extinct due to Golden Eagles hunting them.  There had been Bald Eagles on the island but when they died from DDT poisoning, the mammal hunting Golden Eagles took over.  Today, the fish and duck hunting Bald Eagles are back on the island and the Island Foxes are back:)  It has taken years for the Nature Conservancy and National Park system to restore the balance to these islands.  And to see them today in their full glory is really quite something!

We had a successful trek out and I didn't want the day to end.  I think the California Coast is full of so many amazing wildlife opportunities. 

All good things have to come to an end, but we have one more adventure coming up....the wineries of Los Olivos and a certain magpie. 

Until next time.....

Sunday, October 11, 2020

Blue Dreams

I sat thinking for a month what I wanted to do for my fall break.  Originally, I had wanted to do a spiritual retreat at a monk sanctuary in Guatemala, but that will have to wait.  October is a very special month for me.  It's the month of beginnings and reflective work.  If I couldn't lose myself to chants and birds in Antigua; I would have to think about the next spiritual place that makes me feel whole as a person.....and in the US.  Oregon and Washington were too far to drive.  But the coast of Southern California was close enough to spend some quality time with birds that I don't often get to see. 

Celeste and Cheroot joined me for the second time this year to do some very special birding in another part of Southern California.  And it wasn't just birding.  My only expectations were to find the endemic Yellow-billed Magpies and get photos of them.  Each day was meticulously crafted for maximum ocean use. We stayed in Ventura near the beach in a very questionable hotel. However, everything was within a mostly 10 minute driving distance.  

We arrived on Sunday in the early afternoon. Our Sunday and Monday rules were to have fun on the beach.  Tuesday was a trek out to the beautiful Santa Cruz Island.  Wednesday was a short drive to wine country and magpie land.  And then Thursday, we needed to get home.  It was so fast!

Perfection?  Coffee and fresh clam chowder on the beach. Or how about a misty coastal fog that blankets the beaches?  We walked the beach for miles.  Sometimes we sat and observed people.  Other times I got up close and personal with some shorebird favorites. There were so many birds along the Venturan coast.  

During our stay, we met birders who also had similar ideas about escaping the Arizona heat and it really was refreshing to bird all day long. But unlike the other birders, we weren't really chasing any new birds.  If fact, there weren't any lifers on the list.  I just needed the ocean and a magpie shot which really makes the birding stress free. 

Birds are incredible.  While we have Long-billed Curlews in Arizona, this species makes for a better observation here along the coast. 

People walked the beaches, but the birds didn't seem too concerned.  Sometimes they would just come within a foot of us if we stood or sat still.  It was here that we were able to witness a little courtship display between the curlews below.  It was very beautiful.  Their wings half raised and flutter beat at the same time in a tight formation.  

We watched these birds forage around the beach for sand crabs and fleas. There were plenty of insects as well zipping around the seaweed. 

Meanwhile Cheroot was discovering sea weed on the beach.  There were piles of them. Sometimes he'd pick a kelp branch up and run with it.  Never have I seen him so happy running along the waves.  Being that he's also blind, he was shocked when a wave went a little too far and wet his paws. I don't think he minded too much.  

In fact, much of our sightings were quality bird observations.  Often, we'd just sit and watch the birds up close. Our rare bird sighting happened in the gardens of the Channel Islands Tourist center on the beach.  There we spied a Black-and-White Warbler.  I can NEVER find them here in AZ but if I go to Ventura, I magically will find one.  This was my second rare Black-and-White Warbler in Ventura.  And I've only been to Ventura twice.  So I'm a magnet for that warbler there.  Anywhere else?  Forget about it. 

 The ocean called us.  And we listened carefully. There were seals.  There were whales and foxes and deer.  And at times, we stopped at places like a fresh produce stand where we bought a huge bag of sweet oranges for 5 dollars.  I also purchased 3 punnets of strawberries.  I also learned some new English from Celeste.  She is of course from the first age of proper English speakers.  Americans are savages in every way possible and I clearly have a limited vocabulary set. A PUNNET is the little green basket that holds strawberries and other goodies. OH! And I bought a huge bag of avocados for 5 bucks!  Anyhow, I brought my magic cooler that keeps everything nice and cold and was able to get them back home in pristine condition. I wish we had produce stands like this in Tucson!  

These kinds of stands are possible thanks in part to the hard working hispanic population in and around Ventura.  It reminded me of the markets in Mexico and it was wonderful. 

Everything was dog friendly for the most part. Sometimes, you have to return to a place to absorb the things you missed the first time. Over the next couple blogs, we'll rediscover why I love birding Ventura so much.  But we'll be visiting new locations that I had never visited before.  We'll stop at Prisoner's Harbor on Santa Cruz Island.  Several years ago we camped at Scorpion Campground.  Then we'll have some wine with a magpie outside of Ventura.  Until then, stay safe.

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Beautifully Ugly

                                                     The sun sets eerily masked by the western fires

If we had to use a few words to describe the year 2020, how would we describe it? Over the past few weeks, a phrase came to mind.....beautifully ugly.  Sometimes it repeats itself during moments of tears and anger. Because behind all of this terrible sadness comes a different kind of joy.  Take for example the sun above.  Normally in Arizona, you would never be able to look straight at it.  But because of the devastating wildfires in the West, this sunset is one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen.  Beautifully ugly. 

                                                                                         Willow Flycatcher
To date, Arizona has seen some of the wildest birds this year because of all the tragedy surrounding our state.  It might be because everyone is stuck birding locally and finding very special rarities in their local patches. It might be that we have so many professional bird guides living in Arizona and out of jobs that they are forced to stay home....and bird.  Or it could be from the environmental damage happening everywhere.  The fire events in California and other states are huge but pale in comparison to the one that happened in Australia earlier this year. In any case, I think it's a little bit of everything mentioned above.  Rarities from the north, east, west and southern provinces have been showing up all over the state.  Many of us believe that this could be an even more amazing year than it already has been due to birds being forced into new or alternative migration routes. Arizona is one of those states.

                                                               Cooper's Hawk
And so while it may be exciting for birders here, it's also a national tragedy as hundreds of thousands of  birds have been found dead in many of the western states due to extreme weather conditions.  

It's chaos here in the US.  Last Friday while looking for a rare Red-eyed Vireo in Pima County, the news broke that Supreme Court Judge Ginsberg passed away.  The country was already deeply divided and this just adds to the flames.  Birders texted each other the news from a patch of willows at an urban park while we tried to find the vireo, but somehow it took the wind out of our sails.  That was a sad drive back home because she was a pretty dynamic woman. Her passing could be the end of women having rights to their own bodies or firing people who are LGBTQ from their jobs because they go against "god's wishes".  It's very sad.  What's worse is that the Republican Senate stole a seat from Democrats back in 2016 when Obama left office.  And now the hypocrites are reversing their own rule they made up and will appoint a very conservative judge on the court.  It's like we're going back in time instead of progressing forward.  Compound all of that with the tragedies happening around the world and.......well.........there's the ugly. If anything, it has made the American people wake up like I've never seen before.  So there's the beautiful.  

                                                                     Pectoral Sandpiper

Yet in all this chaos, birds keep us somewhat sane.  And excited.  A rare Ruff was reported in the nasty slop ponds of a dairy farm.  And so we, the birders of AZ, went to find the diamond in the Ruff.  

Thousands of shorebirds were spread out over 4 different ponds.  It took us about 20 minutes to locate this really cool shorebird.  It was also a chance to meet new birders.  

                                                    The rare Ruff surrounded by Baird's Sandpipers

This year has been challenging for so many people.  And in the midst of all the terrible, we discovered the kittens trapped in a storm drain back in July.  They made the news.  I saw their faces and two of them stole my heart.  It didn't make sense then.  And it doesn't make sense now.  But we are so happy they are with us.  

Last week we finally adopted these two little love bugs.  They are so wonderful.  We now have 6 cats.  Are we crazy cat hoarders?  Depends on who you ask.  Many said no, but they also have 8 to 12 cats!   They might be a little bias. 

With covid on the rise again in many states, this is the perfect time to rescue or raise a young kitten or puppy.  Home projects are great, but laughing and cuddling with new furry friends is even better in your newly renovated home.  We have to find our happiness during these dark times. For us, it came by rescuing two kittens who very much needed a home.  We needed each other.  It sounds cheesy, but we bonded quickly. Sometimes, without question, someone or something very special comes into your life.  You don't question it. You accept it unconditionally.  If you don't listen to your heart, you'll come to regret it.  And life is way too short for regrets. 

Speaking of dark, Kosmos gets into everything and easily disappears into the shadows.  I have to constantly watch where I'm walking:)  His sister, Nebula, or Little Nebbie, is often part of the action.  The two are inseparable and keep each other entertained. When they aren't playing, they're sleeping.  The older girls have their routines and these two use them as ping pongs.  It's quite the scene. 

Beautifully ugly.  That's 2020 in a nutshell.  

Until next time.....


Saturday, September 12, 2020

The Pima County Birding Challenge

From the birdy office of Las Aventuras, I bring you all the latest in Pima County birding.  Pima county is located in beautiful southeastern Arizona and this year has been an exceptional year for crazy birds.  Pima County has improved a lot of habitat over the past two years at parks and water reclamation plants. With covid ever present in all of our lives, many are forced, or have chosen, to stay home. 

With every major wildlife trek cancelled, I had to find myself a new challenge for the year.  In fact, I think a lot of people have done the same in their own way.  I chose to add new "life" birds to my Pima County list this year.  Every time, I reach a mile marker, I post about it.  For the world life list, it's every new hundred birds.  With my Pima County list, it's every 10 birds. The start of those new ten birds began on October 2019.  On Wednesday, I completed that "10" marker milestone. 
Painted Bunting at Agua Caliente Park

There is something very rewarding about staying within your own county and birding.  It makes you a better birder. And a better detective. It's also fun.  It can also be tedious. One of the birds, I hadn't had on my Pima Life List was the Painted Bunting.  It was a lot of fun to chase and easy! It was also a bird that required a better observation.  This year in Pima, Painted Bunting, the western subspecies, have been everywhere and in good numbers.  They will disappear with the warmer weather come October. 

Arctic Tern at Canoa Ranch

The Arctic Tern was one that wasn't on anyone's list.  It was a mega rarity that showed up at Canoa Ranch.  There were very few documented cases of this tern in Arizona.  That was until now. 

Birders from all over the state came to see this bird as it was a very good state bird for many people. 

This has been the year of rare Mexican migrants. A first Pima record, Clay-colored Thrush, showed up in Arivaca along a muddy watering hole full of worms. There it sang its beautiful song.

Clay-colored Thrush at Arivaca Cienegas Creek Preserve

Again, this was a bird that has only one other record in the state.  But it stuck around and people from all over the state came to Pima County to chase this rare bird.  I remember the several sightings to be quite beautiful and memorable. 

This next Pima "lifer" was not my favorite chase.  I like vireos and the hike was gorgeous on Mt. Lemmon, but the terrain made it difficult to get good views of this somewhat rare breeder on Mt. Lemmon. 

Gray Vireo on Mt. Lemmon
While looking for the bird, I almost stepped on the Sonoran Gophersnake below.  The hike itself was new for me.  I will admit in years past, I was quite lazy to chase this bird.  It's a cool bird but it didn't inspire me to look for it in Pima when they are quite numerous in Maricopa County.  So this bird was work. 

On that day, I got to meet the Bowens.  They are doing a big year in Arizona and doing quite well.  If these rarities keep showing up like they are, they could break the year record!  

Another chase that didn't really excite me but needed to happen was for the rare Sanderling.  It was at a sewage pond far away.  Pima County is quite large.  In fact, it's larger than some states!

Sanderling at Ajo WTP

The consolation prize for not only finding this bird was from all the incredible blooming wildflowers along the road.  It was also a more innocent time before covid took hold of everything. It would be the beginning of the end to all new promises of 2020.  Trips and festivals were starting to be cancelled. I remember feeling melancholy on this day. It was a long drive with much time to think. 

Then came the Sagebrush Sparrow.  It was a cold winter day and I was in the mood to play detective.  So I did.  That's when I found my Pima lifer Sagebrush Sparrow.  Again, I had been lazy with this one.  These sparrows are much easier in other counties of Arizona. I remember sitting in my vehicle speaking with Park Ranger Chip Littlefield about putting together a special field trip to Saguaro National Park with my students. Again, this was a time full of hope and excitement.  

Sagebrush Sparrow in Marana

An enjoyable chase for a Ruddy Ground Dove in December 2019 brought me to the rose garden of Reid Park. 

There I watched this somewhat rare dove forage around the garden for bugs. 

Ruddy Ground Dove at Reid Park

The next bird is a curiosity and probably the most unknown random species in Pima County.  Unlike most places in this country, the American Crow is super rare here.  I've lived in midtown now for years.  With covid happening and work at home, I leave my doors and windows open to hear all the wonderful birds on our property.  I don't have pics or a sound recording but I believe we are on some sort of migration route for these birds. I've checked records on ebird and there seems to be specific time periods with a "line" showing a route over the Rincon mountains into areas like Willcox, etc.  Their unmistakable "CAW CAW CAW!" was heard in March as I was gardening outside. I looked up and they zipped over our El Presidio grounds....again.  In October, I got a visual of them as they were making a lot of noise flying over our house. I don't have digital evidence for ebird and their evaluation crew, but I am hoping to get some documentation on this bird next month.  It's always in the afternoon when I'm in the middle of something.  Had I not been working from home, I would have missed them!  

American Crow over El Presidio Courtyard

Another treat was a beautiful hike back in December last year to the Buenos Aires Wildlife Refuge.  It was a cool winter day full of birds.  I was excited to chase this rare warbler for Pima County.  He was sneaky too!  The Prairie Warbler was like the cherry on top of an amazing day of birding. Plus I like hanging out with the volunteers there listening to them speak about the Northern Bobwhite reintroduction efforts happening. 

Prairie Warbler at Buenos Aires Wildlife Refuge

The detective work in Pima County is far from done.  I still have a LeConte's Thrasher to chase which is not really a fun idea for me because it's far and lives in some of my most unlikable bird habitat....the Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome habitat.  Desolate, remote and hot. 

There is truly only one man in Pima right now "in charge" of all the birds.  Brian Nicholas, since he has retired, has really done an amazing job connecting other birders to some rarities.  He specifically monitors Canoa Ranch where a very rare national, state and Pima County bird showed up.....the Northern Jacana.  Like the Eared Quetzal, everyone is flying or driving from all over the country to see this bird and get it on their lists. 
It's a pretty common bird in Mexico and I've seen them close to the AZ border in Sonora, Mexico.  But this one crossed over into the ABA area.

Northern Jacana at Canoa Ranch

And finally I got another Pima lifer, the Black Tern. Normally they migrate this time of year through parts of Pima County but they never stay.  I've been too lazy to chase them over the years.  I had tried initially and then just took the approach...."If I'm in the area one day..."  And that was the case with the Northern Jacana.  Birders were saying, "Have you heard?  They have 4 species of tern down there at the Amado pond."  This past week with that Black Tern, I added number 381 to my life list in Pima County.  Now that is something!

Black Tern at Amado WTP

We can give up or we can create our own challenges during these challenging times.  I'd rather try my best even if I'm not exploring strange new worlds and civilizations.  There is still adventure nearby.  But instead of us traveling to all those exotic places to find them; we wait for them to visit us. Until next time.....