Monday, January 27, 2014

Tread Lightly

Tread lightly.  Do not disturb air, ground or wind.

Black-capped Gnatcatcher eating a praying mantis
Catch the scent of the wild.  Listen for the light rustle of a leaf.

Inspect every shadow. Every twig.

In every corner.  Near every bush.

The masking of bark and feather; fur and rock.

Williamson's Sapsucker(female)
From above or below, both near and far...... 

Ferruginous Hawk
Just hidden at the edge of human reach.....

Ruddy Ground Doves
....they are among us.  If we tread lightly.

Mammals featured over the past couple of months at Las Aventuras.

Highlights from the past two months

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Suddenly Seeking Sparrows

Baird's Sparrow
Pull me in deeper.  Deeper still into this world of birds.  I CAN'T shut it OFF!  The life birds are harder to find and I realize I can't do this alone. An opportunity presented itself for both researcher and birder alike. This past weekend I made a 4 day sweep around Southern Arizona. This would be the first day of that event.  Without my birder allies, I would have never been so fortunate for the up close views on some of these very special birds.  My BIGGER JANUARY report continues!

Dr. Janet Ruth releases a Savannah Sparrow
Standing at the birder crossroads, I took a major step forward in my own research on the elusive birds of Arizona. A month ago, Dr. Janet Ruth sent out an email out seeking volunteers to flush sparrows for her banding research project.  We set up nets in three different locations, created semi circles and swept the grasses together flushing up sparrows into the nets as we crossed the golden grasslands.

We begin to set up the fine nets
Janet was studying Grasshopper and Baird's Sparrows.....both sparrows I needed desperately to understand.  I had seen one Baird's the weekend previous but did not have great views.  These sparrows run in the grasses and are difficult to find.  Together the 15 volunteers joined forces with Dr. Ruth and her assistant Jason to find these sparrows.

we prepare to flush sparrows
We flushed Grasshopper, Baird's and Savannah Sparrows by clapping hands and moving forward.  It reminded me of my travels and flamenco dancing in Spain years ago. There wasn't any singing allowed, but I could have sworn that several people were gypsies:)  Before the birds were banded, Janet would go over the important details for each of the species found.  For me, it's not about just "seeing" the bird.  I have to know....I mean really really know what to look for....what to listen for......etc.

Grasshopper Sparrow released after being weighed, etc
As we walked the fields of gold, I felt free.  I held the poles that would set the nets....and it felt right. When people talk about those moments in life that change a person's life, it was there at that point with these amazing people that I began to think....."I could do this."  I didn't know a single volunteer in that group but we were all a part of something greater. Something good.

the crown of the Baird's Sparrow is brightly colored
As we studied the top of a Baird's Sparrows head, we could see all the incredible detail up close.

banding begins
They set up their table and banded.....

Dr. Ruth explains the Grasshopper Sparrow in detail
 .....and I recorded.  At this point in my life, I am comfortable saying that I am an observer of all things. Perhaps that's why I love photography and travel so much.  These people carefully banded, weighed, and measured each sparrow.

Grasshopper Sparrow
 They were then released back around Davis Pasture in Sonoita where they were found.

Each volunteer had a chance to release a sparrow(s).  Adults don't smile much.  There's really not much to smile about some days.  But I watched as each adult released a sparrow back into the grasses and there was this wonderful smile that developed on their faces.  Observing these moments with the group made me realize just how powerful an experience this can be for many people.  They don't even realize sometimes that they let their guard down for just one moment as that childlike wonderment sneaks out.

There is something very powerful about participating in the natural world around us.  Most of us who read blogs, etc understand this very special bond.

But we understand that there is also a lot of work and preparation that goes into these projects.  Early mornings, sun burn, itchy hikes full of nasty burrs......

checking the health of a sparrow by how much fat is on the bird's breast
.......and yet somehow none of that matters.  Because at the end of the day, it all was worth it.  These days my life flies by much too quickly.  The only way I can stop time is by taking pictures of the moments......guarding them inside my mind forever.

Savannah Sparrow
 They completed their studies near Sonoita, Arizona over a 4 day period with great success thanks to the help of many dedicated volunteers.  The success of banding sparrows requires many more people when compared to the banding of an owl or hummingbird.

The afternoon came to a close and the volunteers exited the grasslands of Southern Arizona. We found our Baird's Sparrow, but we also discovered so much more.

A special thank you to Dr. Janet Ruth and Jason for giving us the opportunity to get close to the birds we love so much.  Check out more birds from around the world on Wild Bird Wednesday!

“Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much”
Helen Keller

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

A Bigger January

Snowy Egret

It has been an amazing January so far.  And the month isn't even over yet!  If it's one thing I learned about last year's BIG JANUARY, it's not about how many birds you find as it is more about locating the rare birds first. And then finding the easier ones along the way. With that strategy in mind, I've really been able to rake in the birds this month.  So here are some of my birder tips for the Big January Challenge.......

Eared Grebe
Study where each of the birds hang out.  It took me a year(and I'm still learning about new locations!) to figure out where everything is!

Female Costa's Hummingbird
Take a trip somewhere fun on January 1st to jump start your Big January. It doesn't have to be far, but preferably a place with a different habitat full of different birds that you won't find in your own area. We chose the ocean and found lots of great water birds that of course, are rare to our desert.
Marbled Godwit
Familiarize yourself with human behaviors.  People can be difficult to work around....especially the ones with dogs.......and truly the ones that refuse to keep their pets on a leash!!!  Once people enter the picture on the trails or beaches, the birds disappear.  So understanding human routine is very important.  Plus birds are the most active during those early hours of sunrise. If you are chasing a rare to find bird, head directly to the area where it is seen and DO NOT STOP to count the other birds.  That can come later. More than likely the bird will be gone if you make too many stops. 

Fox Sparrow
As a global community, we have forgotten about working together.  Many things are done online or with computers which of course takes the human equation out of the picture.  I have found in my own profession that much of the work is now mandated without discussion.  Collaboration is just a word.  But in the real world it is still very much alive. Teaming up with other birders has allowed us to find greater amounts of birds and share in that celebration. And it is a celebration.  The greatest gift for a birder is a life bird. Plus we're really easy to shop for....anything with a bird on it:)

Recently, I teamed up with Gordon's Birding Adventures, Kathie Brown from Kathie's Birds and Melody Kehl(a bird guide who knows her stuff!) and Audubon. And there are more dates with other birders coming up.  We can accomplish the impossible with an extra set of eyes or ears. Together we all enjoy the benefits and beauty of this passion we call birding. 

Allen's Hummingbird
I will follow up with totals and other incredible birds on part 2 of this "Bigger" January in a few weeks.  But for now I'll leave with some special moments while on the trails.



Townsend's Warbler

Mexican Spotted Owl

Rosy-faced Lovebird

Greater White-fronted Goose
Harris's Sparrow(juvenile)

Western Screech-Owl

Rufous-capped Warbler
Elegant Trogon
And that's why this January has been a much bigger January:)  Stay tuned for more......

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

An Ocean Between Us

Each year, Las Aventuras decides to spend the holidays somewhere strange and mysterious.  I needed to jump start this big 2014 year with lots of new discoveries.  And thus it was decided.....a camping trip to Santa Cruz Island off of the coast of Southern California.  My heart lately has been drawn to the great mysteries of the ocean.  I needed a break from the desert and a change of pace.  It is now time to leave my beloved Arizona and discover more of the US.

We took a trek across the Pacific Ocean to find the Island Scrub-Jay on Santa Cruz Island.  The only place in the world to find the Island Scrub-Jay.  With our gear packed and batteries charged, we crossed over to Channel Islands National park where we would spend two days exploring part of the nearly 22 mile long island.

Western Gull
And so we left the beaches of Ventura, California and headed away from the overpopulated coastal cities of LA towards the isolated and quiet islands of this fantastic national park!  Had it not been for the Island Scrub-Jay, I may have never known about this place!  The lure of an endemic bird is very attractive, but one doesn't need to twist my arm to head towards the great and vast ocean.

As we left port, we prepared for the pelagic part of our trip.....that is......searching for birds only found in the ocean. What an amazing show!  So many life birds were found on that day!  As we approached shore, we prepared our gear for set up.  And so the tent went up.  The food locked up.  Santa Cruz is home to its' own endemic island fox.  It didn't take long before these cat sized animals found their way into our campsite at Scorpion Ranch Campground.

I have to tell you the story of the Island Fox because I think it will make you smile.  It's not often we hear success stories in the wild so I'd like to share something positive for a change.  In the 90's, this fox almost went extinct.  I know I doesn't sound like a happy story, but give me a chance to explain:)

In the 70's, DDT had been wiping out birds to near extinction.  This chemical got into the water supply poisoning fish and other creatures. The birds ate the fish which made bird egg shells very brittle. When the parent birds sat on the nest, the eggs were often destroyed.  Bald Eagles were once a common bird on this island until DDT wiped out the entire population.  When these fish eating eagles disappeared, the Golden Eagle took over the areas that the Bald Eagles used to inhabit. And the Golden Eagles eat small mammals.  The fox became prey and their populations were almost wiped out.

An intervention happened with the fox in the late 90's to save it from extinction.  The remaining few were then captured and captive breed.  DDT by this time was banned in the US and the Golden Eagles relocated. With the threat eliminated, the fox was released back into the wild.  Today their population numbers are healthy and growing. And so are the Bald Eagles:)  However, the fox is not shy around people.  People are not supposed to feed the wildlife, but I saw a person throwing food into another person's campsite to take pictures!!!!  I wonder how he'd like it if someone put food around his tent?!!!

The hiking around the island is epic with sweeping landscapes and wonderful trails.  But we still couldn't find our Jay!!!  When I asked Park Rangers if they had seen the Island Scrub-Jay around Scorpion Ranch, they all just shook their heads.  Even the guides told us that it was unlikely we'd find the Jays around the campground.  I was a little frustrated.  We had gone all that way to find this bird!  But with all the birding experience now, my eyes have gotten better at spotting critters.  I had to believe that we could find this bird even with impossible odds. I'll leave specific tips below this photo essay at the end of my report in case you are interested in visiting this amazing island.

We hiked into a grove of Blue Gum Eucs.  The smell was wonderful.  The trees full of Allen's Hummingbirds and Townsend's Warblers. The white flowers were so calming as they swayed in the ocean breeze.

We walked in the shadow of the great Eucs along a dry wash.  The guides told me the Jay was secretive and liked to hang in the shadows.  So I kept my eyes open for any slight movement.  Of course this could have been all so much easier had we gone to Prisoner's Camp for the day trip 16 miles away.  Apparently they are very easy to spot in this location with their brilliant blue feathers along the picnic tables. But somehow this felt much more exciting......

Townsend's Warbler
From the corner of my eye, high up in the shadows of a Euc, I spotted something watching us from behind a branch.  American Robins, Fox Sparrows and Yellow-rumped Warblers were everywhere! Even a Sage Thrasher!  But this bird was acting differently.  The moment we spotted the bird, the Island Scrub-Jay revealed itself from the shadows and dazzled us with a brief and brilliant blue sparkle in the sunlight......much brighter in color than the Western Scrub-Jays. I cannot describe in words how brilliant that blue was in the sunlight other  The picture does not do justice because as you can see, the Jay went back into the shadows.

Island Scrub-Jay
It was a high five moment for both of us as we achieved what seemed the impossible.  We were not successful locating the bird again during the last part of our stay.  Luckily, we spotted the bird early on during our island trip that we could explore other canyon areas and overlooks.  We climbed a steep hill and watched the whale migration from the cliffs.

While most of the US was/is under a freeze, we were able to enjoy the beautiful California sun.

On our trek back to Ventura, we spotted these amazing Orcas(CA 51 Matriline-the mammal eating kind:) It was incredibly cool to watch these creatures chase after a pod of dolphins.

This group had 5 individuals.  There was a mother with two calves.  Unfortunately I could not ID the other two.  I posted these shots on Facebook and a researcher excitedly contacted me on our sightings.  She gave me the family history and I could feel her emotion in the email.  That was very special and I'm glad I could help out the people protecting these beautiful creatures.

But like all good things........
With vacation almost over and my job starting up, it was time to grow up and settle down again until our next big adventure.  For my AZ birder friends, I will put some info below that hopefully will help with this trip if you are interested.

Information for the Island Scrub-Jay

Island Packers is the company you need in order to visit Santa Cruz Island from Ventura Harbor. The people were great and the boat trip was a one hour ride full of Cormorants, Murres, Shearwaters, Northern Fulmars, Jaegers, Grebes and Auklets!  We stayed overnight the night before our trip around the Ventura Harbor finding lots of great birds like the Black Oystercatchers, Willets, Marbled Godwits, Plovers(Snowy and Black-bellied), Sanderlings, Brown and American White Pelicans, a million Gulls (Western, CA, Ring-billed, Heerman's) and finally Whimbrels to name a few!) The road trip from Phoenix or Tucson is relatively quick.  It was full of active driving.  I liked this trip much better than the one to Bosque Del Apache in New Mexico because there was lots on the road to keep the mind active:)

Finding the Island Scrub-Jay.  This is a great trip to take with your other half.  If you are interested in just a day trip and an almost guaranteed sighting of the Jay, Prisoner's Harbor is where you need to go as they are quite common there.  If you want to camp(highly recommend!), reserve a campsite at Scorpion Ranch Camground.  It's super quiet after the day trippers leave and the campground wasn't full which made it even more special.  A reservation has to be made online for 15 dollars but there is no charge once you are at the campground.  Everything is packed in and out.  Bring a lock to protect your food from the Island Fox. Lock boxes are provided.  The fox got into everything. The camping option is great because there are a lot of amazing birds around the campground.....especially along the dry wash! It is there that we spotted one, possibly two, Jays. They are a little more difficult to find. There are pit toilets stocked with lots of toilet paper and excellent clean running water.  Happy birding!