Friday, June 20, 2014

The Study of Birds

Birding is more than just looking at birds.  There are so many facets to this "hobby" or passion of ours.  We sometimes will play the part of explorer or detective.  Obviously observation plays a big role in all of this.  The more we do it; the better we become.  As time progresses, we grow individually and as a group collecting data for organizations like Audubon, AZFO, or Cornell University(aka Ebird).  On the outing to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon last weekend, our focus was on nesting birds.  However, as many of us discovered, there was a lot more happening than just nesting activity.  

The first part of the journey began with our beautiful California Condors.  They are still very much endangered due to lead poisoning.  This, many times, happens when hunters use lead bullets instead of the copper ones. The lead spreads through the carcass that is left behind.  At that point, scavengers will feast on those remains.  Currently, the state of California has banned the use of lead, but Arizona and Utah have not. Therefore, Condors still face this threat.  They are all tagged and checked each year.  Often, several condors must undergo a detoxification process. Sadly, some will lose the battle.  Hunters, for the most part, are responsible, but the lead poisoning continues which indicates that some may not be playing by the rules. One would think Arizona would move forward adopting a ban on lead similar to the one in California. My friend Ranger Gaelyn, the Geogypsy at the North Rim wrote in a comment, "In AZ, and now in UT, game & fish works on hunter education with 80-90% voluntary compliance. The lead problem may not be exclusively from hunters either.". Thanks Gaelyn for the info! If we can figure out the lead issue, these birds could make a strong comeback. Other issues that Condors face....Golden Eagles, coyotes and power lines. 

On our outing, we tallied 5 CONDORS!  As mentioned previously, all the condors are tagged.  Each Condor was ID'd via the internet.  There are places, like the Peregrine Fund, that helped me ID the backgrounds on each of these birds.  The lettered Condors indicate that they were captive bred at the Portland Zoo. The websites also gave me the age, when they were released and how they were raised.  For example, L3(above) was raised by a foster parent Condor while 53(below) was raised by a hand puppet:)  It sounds funny, but it's true.  Sometimes the Condors are raised by their biological parents in captivity or in a few cases.... the wild!  This is great news for the Condors as their range is SLOWLY spreading into new areas.  In fact, Utah has reported their first condor chick in the wild! Congrats!

Our main study revolved around nesting birds. There was quite a bit of bug collection going on everywhere we turned.   

Western Bluebird
 Bluebirds, like other birds in the area, also nest in the cavities of trees.

There were several stretches of burned trees along the North Rim. Now to the human eye, burned areas look like a stain on the landscape, but on closer inspection, we found that many woodpeckers and sapsuckers used these burned areas for nesting like this Williamson's Sapsucker below.  

Williamson's Sapsucker(male)
We also made yet another discovery while on the trails.  This unfortunate Common Poorwill may have been hit by an oncoming vehicle.   It is a difficult bird to see at night.  Like most nightjars, it prefers to sit along dirt roads near shrubs and flies the evening skies capturing insects for a meal.  However, the team was allowed a closer inspection of this normally difficult-to-see bird.  I always imagined the bird to have rough feathers, but when we touched them, they were amazingly soft.  

Common Poorwill
 We also discovered that there were warblers favoring certain trees.  We commonly found the Virginia's Warbler feeding on blooming New Mexican Locust trees. 

Virginia's Warbler
 Finally, we were able to really study the differences between Cassin's and House Finches.  The Rim was full of Cassin's Finches and were rather easy to find around water sources. 

Cassin's Finch
For me, the detailed study of birds has become a passion.  The only time it isn't a passion is when it's too hot outside:)  I help when I can, but I am constantly exploring new areas.  But one day, I will be forced to sit down.  And if that happens, I'll probably begin painting the birds I have seen in this lifetime.

Black-throated Gray Warbler
It's one experience to observe a lifebird for the first time; it's another to see it repeatedly and truly understand the bird's habits. 

The adventure continues......

Lesser Goldfinch
For more birds from around our world, check out Wild Bird Wednesday

As Far As The Condor Flies

We had an adventure planned to the North Rim this past weekend.  It was to find as many nesting birds as we could.  And we did. We discovered so many nesting Williamson's Sapsuckers, Western Bluebirds, Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, and Brewer's Blackbirds!

Nesting Brewer's Blackbird
For many of us, it was to exhaust our pent up energy from being trapped inside of our homes. The desert is too hot right now to explore.  And so our hungry eyes and eager ears went to work as we scoured every nook and cranny of the much cooler North Rim.

Western Tanager
For many of us, our journey to the North Rim began with the infamous California Condors at Marble Canyon.  In many ways, I consider them the sentinels of the North Rim.  Travelers have to cross a magnificent bridge into a magical area known as the Vermilion Cliffs. It was here that the Condors circled and soared around us. For many in the group, these birds were lifers.  For me, I watched the birds and the people's first time reactions as they all stood in awe of these massive creatures in flight. 

California Condor
Our journey would lead us into the canyon down gravel and dirt roads. 

We set up our base inside an unknown and remote area.  No bathrooms or hotels.  Just our tents and coolers.  And it was magical. 

The rough camping isn't for everyone, but I thought it was a lot of fun.  I haven't done this kind of thing since college! Plus I got to camp with my birding buddy Gordon

Weidemeyer Butterfly
The area is not birded very well and so we did a lot of research on habitat as well as ask ourselves, "Can we find these birds here?"
So we searched for the elusive Dusky Grouse, Three-toed Woodpecker, and Flammulated and Northern Saw-whet Owls.

Two large vehicles of people drove through the dirt roads while sitting outside their windows and in the back of trucks filming everything around them....including the birders:) It was fascinating! They wore handmade outfits and unique hairstyles that I haven't seen in about two decades. Anyway, there were a lot of happy faces in the group waving at us. 

What lies beyond the horizon? On the following day, our incredible group of birders continued surveying the area along the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. We had plenty of laughs in our exhausted bodies.  The Flammulated and Northern Saw-whet Owls kept me awake!

In my zombie state, I pulled out my recorder to capture the Flammulated owl's soft calls.  It was a lifer for me.  

Having a couple laughs with Magill and Gordon
I watched Stellar's Jays go after nests.  Sometimes they would snatch a fledgling and eat them.  The parents would desperately chase them or try and lead the Jays away from the nest.  In the wild world, anything can happen at any moment. Everything must fight to survive. 

Evening Grosbeak
On this trip into the cool wild west, we made many wonderful discoveries.  It also allowed us to escape the heat and enjoy the majestic Grand Canyon. 

I'd like to thank Eric Hough for organizing this trip through AZFO. It was a real pleasure helping out. For more birds from around our world, check out Wild Bird Wednesday

And the adventure continues next week from another part of the world......

Monday, June 9, 2014

It's A Dry Heat

Yellow-eyed Junco collects nesting materials
June has arrived here in the Sonoran Desert. And it is hot hot hot!  Birders get up at 4:30 AM to start their day! They can bird "comfortably" for a few hours before being forced to return home. The retired birder gets up early and birds.  Then they take an afternoon nap:)  For me, I am trapped inside my house during the day because of all the projects/conferences/appointments going on.  However, I still try to bird up on the mountain for some cooler temps and even cooler birds when I get the chance.  

Just a couple weeks ago, we lost yet another hiker on a popular trail in Phoenix.  The cause?  Not enough water to stay hydrated.   He passed out and never woke up.  These sad stories are always difficult to hear. For us desert rats, they are important reminders to carry lots of water.  Of course, no one should be hiking in the deadly afternoon sun for so many reasons. So what's a birder/hiker to do? Go early. Let someone know where you're going. Or go with others. Bring lots of water or a camel pack.  Wear a hat and sunscreen. 

Painted Redstart
So I went hiking up on the cooler Mt. Lemmon because I despise the heat. I followed several trails near the UA space observatories. At one point, I sat down observing the birds calling around me. 

House Wren
In one location, I sat near a puddle of water in the woods.  Here warblers and thrushes came down for a drink.

Red-faced Warbler
As of late, I haven't been able to really do any serious birding because of various projects.  El Presidio needed a parking lot makeover.  And so I supervised the project and funding.  After it was done, it looked so beautiful that I didn't want to park on it at all:)

El Presidio gets a little TLC
 As a reward for surviving the late morning temps with the parking lot crew, I quickly took a break and drove to a local park to find a rare Canada Goose. These birds are common everywhere but Tucson:) 

So I quickly walked and sweat my way in 111 degree temps to find this one bird.  It took 15 minutes and then it was back in my car. 

Canada Goose at Columbus Park
When I become antsy, I sit down, edit photos and watch my feeders from the windows.  

American Robin
I've been playing around with a different photo program on an Apple computer to enhance the details of the pics better. 

Hermit Thrush has quite the appetite
But even that gets to be a little too stationary for me. 

On the quiet trail, I looked down upon the Tucson valley.  I could almost feel the heat from where I stood.  There was no escaping it.   One day later, we headed into the hotter city of Phoenix for Comicon. 

I love art!  This is an Effie impersonation utilizing a sweet butterfly design from the Hunger Games movie!  
 I had a difficult time staying inside buildings surrounded by thousands of people.  It was a little too much.  To ease my mind, I looked for things that were nature inspired. 

And I found lots of interesting things that included wildlife into their designs.  We had a great time, but I still needed to bird a little.  There have been sporadic reports over the years about two Mute Swans hanging out at a cemetery.  We escaped the massive crowds and braved the 114 degree temps.  People like to say that in our desert, we have a dry heat. Yeaaaaah:)  It's still hot and we still sweat....creating humidity:)  So we found the swans without any issues, but the bugs were terrible around the grassy areas. That outing lasted 20 minutes. 

Mute Swan
So what do most desert people do during our driest and hottest month in Arizona?  We take trips to cooler places like San Diego, Flagstaff, Pinetop, attend any convention or event that has lots of air conditioning etc etc. 

My brother Matt(in a Batman outfit he made from scratch!) with Deathstroke and Bane

Star Wars action!

Richard Dean Anderson from Macgyver and Stargate SG-1
A very special epic and COOL trip is about to happen this upcoming weekend. More to come from Las Aventuras next week. For now, stay in the shade and drink plenty of fluids.  And thanks for stopping by!

Check out other birds from around the world at Wild Bird Wednesday!

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

The Island of Misfits

Checking out the new visitors and looking for some love and attention
A brochure with the name Oasis Sanctuary sat on my desk for months under piles of paperwork in the "must check out" basket.  So when we had our first 110 degree day and birding was out of the question, we went to explore the much cooler Oasis Sanctuary near Benson, AZ. 

This Blue-and-yellow Macaw, taken from the wild, has the right idea as he swings near the misters on this very hot day

Today's topic is a sensitive one for bird owners and birders.  I had put up my photo essay on Facebook and had all kinds of responses. Obviously, it's different for each person and I would encourage you to add your opinions to the comments section below. This is just my opinion backed up by years of living with parrots and caring for them.  It is one of the contributing factors today as to why I love birding so much. Today my parents still live with two Macaws and an African Grey. This post was inspired after our trip to the sanctuary.  After seeing all the abandoned birds, watching several TV specials, reading reports, living the breeding captive parrot experience, and visiting with border patrol agents and other sanctuaries, I am ready to share my commentary on this uncomfortable topic.  

A Cockatiel decides to pick out my grey hairs and speed up that ever expanding bald spot
For several years, I raised a Peach-faced Lovebird(aka known as the Rosy-faced Lovebird in the wild) on my own.  I loved that bird very much but felt guilty for placing the bird in a cage.  So I'd often let the bird fly around the house with me.  While I took my shower, she would stand on the edge and clean up in the mist.  There came a point when I realized I couldn't bring the bird with me everywhere I went.  I traveled often and for long periods of time. So it broke my heart when I had to give Quetzali back to my mother.  I learned quickly that having parrots or dogs as pets were out of the question. It was unfair of me to have a pet and not be able to spend enough time with them. 

An Amazon parrot is very intelligent and has the ability to mimic human voice
And it wasn't just me.  My mother began to experience some of this as well.  People began to go to my mother for help with their parrots.  She would try to find a home for the birds, but sometimes it was impossible.  The bird was "too mean"(because they imprint on their original owners....especially when they are younger), "too loud", "too destructive" or just "too much work". At least these were some of the excuses we heard when owners gave their parrot away. Some had begun picking their feathers.....a sign of stress.  My mom would try and work with the birds, but sometimes it didn't help.  Then my Dad began to see an influx of birds in our basement. Both of my parents have big hearts, but there was a limit.  And so the parrot years would come to an end. My mother couldn't help all the stray parrots.  It had become a problem. There were too many bird owners out there who hadn't considered the long term commitments of their "demanding" parrots.  

My first documentation of Scarlet Macaws in the wild.  Note how they fly in pairs.  When one dies, the other will fly alone but stay with the flock.  Taken in Costa Rica
Parrots, of course, are not demanding, they are bonded to the owner as they would with their own partner in the wild.  And for awhile, it's wonderful until life happens......a child is born, a spouse comes into the picture, a job takes one elsewhere, etc.  It can be a tricky thing to balance for many people. 


Today, I like to stop at various sanctuaries while visiting other countries for several reasons.  One, I like to get the first hand reports/stories about why the animals/birds are there.  Second, I don't mind giving a donation if it will help the organization out. And finally, it also allows me to study the wildlife up close.  Who doesn't want to get close to a Spider Monkey or a Black Lory? 

Lesser Cockatoo

There is something very powerful and real about connecting with our wildlife.  I am much more aware of the issues going on with illegal poaching, etc.  I can read about it in a newspaper safely from my home or I can actually see the issues happening right in front of my face. In Southern Arizona along the US/Mexican border, birds, like parrots or eagles, are still smuggled across illegally. Often we tell US agents at the border about our birding treks in Sonora, Mexico.(because they generally ask us what we were doing down there) Then they share with us the stories about birds found on people crossing over to the US. An agent told us a story about a hawk hidden inside of a cardboard tube. They had to call in a local wildlife agency to deal with this very angry bird.  By observing all this up close and personal, I feel something. 

Back at Oasis, it was fun to note that there were 4 parrots/parakeets I've seen in the wild.  They were the Monk Parakeets, the Scarlet Macaws, the Nanday Parakeets. and our little Rosy-faced Lovebirds up in Phoenix.  There were so many other birds that I needed to study.  Many of them are found in Australia and Africa. 

A younger me before bed with my love bird Quetzali
The Oasis Sanctuary is home to 700+ parrots/parakeets and other birds. Every year over 1000 birds are turned away from the sanctuary because there isn't enough room.  Many birds are placed on waiting lists. 

Taken in 2011 in Boquete, Panama at a sanctuary.  I love all critters....especially the ones with a little attitude:)
Staff work around the clock making sure these birds are healthy, fed well, and happy.  It was really wonderful to know that the volunteers knew all the names of the various parrots/parakeets. 

Azul and my mother pose for a Christmas card many years ago.  And many years later, Azul is a cover model for pet magazines.  He resides with my parents in Wisconsin.  
When the organization first began back in the nineties, they became a safe place for parrots and parakeets. Before Oasis, many birds faced euthanasia due to the loss of a caregiver, physiological impairment, handicap, behavioral unsuitability, old age, abuse or lack of home placement options. Sadly, some of this still occurs today. The Oasis Sanctuary does not breed, adopt out, sell or trade birds. Once a bird enters the doors, they are guaranteed a lifetime of care and compassion.  It was the first Sanctuary in the United States, completely dedicated to the care of captive birds, to be accredited by the American Sanctuary Association and Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries. 

What's going on over there?
Feral parrot populations have grown in the United States due to escaped birds or an irresponsible owner who doesn't want their bird anymore. And there are many accidental escapes:) The escaped bird incidents are always difficult.  Birds love to fly and when a bird soars high above, it sometimes keeps going and going. I had it happen to me once.  A kid opened a sliding door and out flew my bird from the cage.  Luckily, both of us were able to find our buddy in the neighborhood the next day.  Later on, I would discover that my Lovebird and her peers were establishing themselves up in Phoenix by the thousands.  Today these non-native beauties can be seen in many Phoenix parks and bird feeders. 

Several Monk parrots share a couple secrets with me
I do love chilling out with birds and being close to them.  But after many years with parrots, it is my personal opinion that birds should remain free of cages and be allowed to roam the great big sky.  I love being surrounded by birds because they make me happy.  

I meet Ophelia, a Black Lory, and we fall in love.  She gives the best kisses.
My answer to people who love birds and want them close?  Bird feeders.  In the morning, I wake up and fill the feeders. Obviously, it's a bit different than having a bird right on your shoulder, but I feel much happier watching them play outside than inside a cage.  Again this is just my personal opinion. 

A Cactus Wren recently seen at my feeders-a new one for my yard list
One last thing to consider if you live with several feathered friends.  People have told me over and over to put your birds in a living will. I'm often with birders who have parrots/finches/canaries in their homes.  In several instances, I've spoken with zoo and refuge officials.  Their response is to have a plan for your friends just in case something does happen to you. 

So what's the answer to this issue?  I don't know because it's very complicated. But you can educate yourself before adopting a parrot. For a visit to the Oasis, give them a ring at 520-212-4737.  A 10 dollar donation is suggested.  So what say you?  Do you own a parrot?  Or should parrots be left alone in the wild? Here is a link with some thoughts by Jane Goodall. 

Several wild parrots are featured on Wild Bird Wednesday!  A great place to see these birds in their natural habitat.  More epic outings to come....