Monday, December 15, 2014

The Tucson CBC-Winterhaven and the Rillito Wash

Each year, Tucson Audubon has their annual CBC(Christmas Bird Count). And each year, I participate.  However this year something changed.  I became a group leader for the first time.  And so our team had a mission to find common and rare birds in Area 23 or as we like to call it.....Winterhaven.
From my photo series called, "Holiday Rush" back in 2011.  The blur represents this crazy time of year and also how fast this CBC went this year!
Winterhaven is a wonderful urban forest full of old trees and landscape. It's also a place Tucsonans visit to get into their holiday spirit!

Some of the largest Aleppo Pines can be found in this neighborhood.  Nesting hawks, owls, and ravens use these trees to nest. 
To make the task less daunting, I was joined by friend Gordon Karre and Jan Wilson.  It was a crazy weekend full of scouting for the "big day". While none of us expected life birds, we did find lots of wonderful birds just a couple miles away from my house. 

Black-tailed Gnatcatcher
On Friday, I went with Jan to scout several parks within our area.  Our mission was to cut some time on Sunday and find the reported Bronzed Cowbirds, a roving Cassin's Kingbird, several Great Horned Owls and a family of Harris's Hawks.  Together, with the help from the local neighborhood, we were able to pinpoint known locations of their infamous feathered and VOCAL residents. Some of the people actually replicated their calls!  Not bad at all! I asked them questions about what kinds of things they saw.  One lady described a group of hawks hanging out together in a group.  Then I asked her, "Were they brown?  Did they have yellow legs?" And she invited us to come into her backyard to have a look. Our hunch was correct.  Harris's Hawks.

Harris's Hawk
On Sunday, we were able to find all of them.  It was early to rise for the Great Horned Owl! And it was our first bird for the day as a team!  We also had a Red-breasted Nuthatch in the neighborhood on Friday.  But come Sunday, we weren't able to locate the bird again.  Instead, we found a White-breasted Nuthatch!

A Redhead!  And yet our Tucson CBC circle dipped on two of these birds!  Had I known, we could have poached another group's area to add them to our list!  These were seen on Saturday night!  But  midnight Sunday is when the count officially begins.  
Saturday, Gordon drove down from Phoenix. Here in Tucson it rained all morning! We tried to find the reported Baltimore Oriole and ended up looking at the fantastic waterfowl around the Sweetwater Wetlands and Reid Park.  After a cold and fun day out in the field, we had a nice dinner at a local Thai restaurant. 

Then Sunday came.  Being titled "Area Leader" is bit scary.  It's a big responsibility that required me to pull up the map and really focus on areas with the most birds that were inside our area. Time is a major constraint on these counts. We also worked on some hunches.  Some worked out; some didn't.   I know Area 23 well as I drive it everyday to work.  But it's still a bit overwhelming to lead and guide a team.  I didn't want to fail in the eyes of the Master Planner, Mr. Rich Hoyer.  For two years, he took the time and showed me how a birder must scout for birds in both known and unknown locations.  He KNOWS the routes and areas of his CBC circle well. Not all CBC count leaders are like this. Afterwards, we had a wonderful potluck. Rich made a delicious chili. Everyone eagerly listened to those rare bird reports from around town.  And there were quite a few! 

A Red-tailed Hawk watches us
As I sat with these birders, I thought about how amazing they were. I may not know many of them in person, but I read their reports daily.  There were so many stories, secret birding spots and bird behaviors shared during this dinner.  I went home wanting to know more.  Do more! As birders, we learn crazy things from each other.  We are our best teachers.  

Pied-billed Grebe
A personal goal for me on this count was to explore one of the last wild stands of cholla(pronounced ch-oh-ya) in the neighborhood.  Our Cactus Wren population within the city is disappearing.  Their populations are either declining or stable(depending on which end of the city you're on) due to habitat loss from housing developments.  Many homeowners don't want this plant around their property. 

Cactus Wren
I notice that wherever there isn't cholla cactus, Cactus Wrens are either not present or there are very few. I have them nesting at my work site in Oro Valley within a healthy preserved section of Sonoran desert.  There these birds nest every year in several chollas. Curve-billed Thrashers will also use this very important cactus for nesting. 

A Curve-billed Thrasher nests in a most protective Teddy Bear Cholla
Humans, however, hate this "jumping cactus" as it can be quite painful on the skin. It will hook onto anything that passes by and if that happens, you won't forget the sensation. That is how it spreads:) We had good news on our count that day as we found 3 Cactus Wrens!  That was my highlight from our trek around Area 23 for the day. 

My favorite pic from the day!  Gordon is TALL and so are these Cholla Cactus!  What a trooper! No Cactus Wrens were seen in this area.  There was some nesting evidence in a couple.  As Gordon went deeper into the patch, he didn't notice much in the way of old nest material but he did find plenty of Mourning Doves hiding!
Overall we found 43 species for the day which is higher than past CBC reports from our area.  We added 6 new species to the list! Love was in the air as we observed Red-tailed Hawks "in the mood" and a Costa's Hummingbird showing off for his lady friend. He danced high above us with his high pitched whir.  

Female Costa's Hummingbird
We discovered all birds on our lists from Friday and Sunday minus the Brewer's Blackbirds, Townsend's Warbler,  Rufous-winged Sparrows and Hutton's Vireo.  The top birds from our area that were "must finds" for the count were the American Pipits, Bronzed Cowbirds, and Vermilion Flycatchers. All achieved!

Bronzed Cowbird
Our first team bird wasn't the dreaded Rock Pigeon but the Great Horned Owl!  Our last bird for the day was a beautiful Red-naped Sapsucker. 

Eurasian-collared Dove
The most common birds were easily the Lesser Goldfinches(181 birds), House Finches(359 birds), and Mourning Doves(318). Overall we had a wonderful weekend outdoors!

Target birding is back on for the next two weeks and should be interesting.  How interesting? You'll have to stay tuned for more!  As one year of goals finishes up, a new one will begin and it will take me to far away places:) Opportunities, like this CBC, give me a better insight about what's going on locally with our birds.  When we take this sliver of data and add it to what's happening globally, all of us involved begin to see the bigger picture.  To get involved in the US with the Christmas Bird Count, contact your local Audubon and find out when they have their CBC.  They need volunteers who can hike or just sit in their house and count birds at their feeders. It's really a great experience!  More next week....


  1. You had a very productive day.

    The light swirls are great. How do you do them?

  2. What a wonderful weekend you had birding and all your shots are fantastic. My favourite is the Cactus Wren

  3. That sounds like a great experience in several ways. I usually do a bird count with a leading a team but was away this year and no-one else would organise it unfortunately.

  4. Adrian,for the lights, I left the camera on long exposure and moved the camera around in various patterns focusing on holiday lights giving me that swirly blurred look:)

  5. Cheers, worked well. Better than I manage when I draw the blighters.

  6. How exciting! Just gorgeous shots too, by the way! I saw a snippet of CBC story on PBS recently.. you make me wish I would have set the DVR. This is just wonderful. Enjoyed every bit of it! Thank you for sharing. -Tammy p.s. those lights are amazing also!

  7. There were three days, "hunt" birds were beautiful birds are far from your home, was pyszszna lined up, so together - it was nice. Regards.

  8. So many great shots! I especially liked the cactus wren shots. Those cactuses don't look pleasant to deal with!

  9. You almost had me joining in there Chris with your usual exuberant description of the day. Had I been nearer i certainly would have been part of your team, albeit lacking in the finer aspects of Arizona birds but definely 100% keen.

    You have some fine pictures today e.g. Redheads and Canvasback - good for comparison, and also the cactus Wren - superb.

    Our Redwing (Turdus iliacus), a thrush, is not the same family as your Red-winged Blackbird but i'm sure it is a vagrant to the northernmost parts of North America.

  10. Thanks Phil! That's what I thought! The Redwing didn't look quite right. Sometimes they have subspecies etc but this is a completely separate bird......pretty cool thrush! I'd love to have you on the team. That would be so much fun! You'll have to come to Arizona!

  11. Thanks for sharing your experiences of this interesting weekend Chris. I trust your 'team' appreciated all your pre-count efforts.

  12. such great shots! would love to see a cactus wren someday. and a REDHEAD! i have a duck carving of one but have never seen one in person! beautiful!

  13. Chris, I enjoyed reading your report on your CBC count.. Sounds like you had an awesome day with great bird sightings.. I do not think I will ever reach that level of birding.. I just like doing it for fun! Happy birding and have a great week!

  14. How cool for you and the team that you were their leader. You know this place, and its birds, so it's really nice to share it with others. I'll bet you're working on an awesome wrap up to this year.

  15. Looks like a great time Chris! Amazing Canvasback shot! If I was a field guide author, I would pay you to use that photograph-well done!

  16. Thanks Tommy! Hope all is well with you. The end of December is coming soon and I have to go back on the road again....Utah, California or Texas. Big decisions to finish this year off! Happy holidays!

  17. Hi Chris,
    Thanks for sharing the pictures.
    Photo 9 and 12 are my favorite.
    Best regards, Irma

  18. Hey Chris,
    Very nice shots!! Amazing that hawk.
    And nice to see so much different birds. The one on shot 9 is very wonderful.
    Funny garden with all creative things on the wall.

    Best regards,

  19. Love the idea of the Christmas Bird Count - well done on the total. Great photos - the first one is brilliant - I've tried to get similar effects but not as good as yours!!! Enjoy the rest of your birding year :)

  20. We should participate in the bird count...I have those verdins in my yard! :-) I really enjoyed this journey along with all of you. I may not be able to hike, but I can sit here and enjoy that you did and get to see everything you found! Great variety of birds! I do still see the occasional cactus wren in the yard but I think that's because we have some great neighbors with cholla and other cactus species. I've had them come right up on my porch. I used to see curved bill thrashers in my daughter's yard but haven't seen any here. I don't think you saw a post I did a couple of weeks ago (Sabino Canyon I) that showed a hummer at the end of the post taken from pretty far away. I thought he might be costas, but I wasn't sure. Have a great Christmas!

  21. That's a wonderful shot of the Cactus Wren!

  22. What fun and great captures, all. I love the idea of a bird count for Christmas and I am sure you were a super leader.

  23. Hello There, I enjoyed your post today. Looks like you all had a very successful count. I love that little Cactus Wren. Precious!

    Sorry I haven’t been around much lately. I do try to read blogs—but just haven’t commented very much lately like I usually try to do. Please don’t give up on me. Hopefully my life will be back to ‘normal’— whatever that is (ha), sometime in January.

    I did get a cortisone shot in my knee —which has helped with the pain somewhat. In January, I will most likely have meniscus tear surgery…. BUT—in the meantime, I plan to have a fantastic Christmas —and hopefully get to see my kids/grands… God is Good.


  24. Wow Chris, these entries are all equally wonderful!

  25. You had a wonderfully successful day, Chris. I really like your photo of the Cactus Wren.

  26. Amazing birding days... Appreciate your pictures and me an idea of what pro" birding and birding with a team would be like! Something I'll probably never be able to experience in real life,!

  27. Hi Betsy, no stress. This is something we do for fun and I completely understand. Hope you have a wonderful Christmas as well. Thank you all for your kind comments. Wishing a wonderful end to the year and a fantastic beginning to the new one!

  28. wow, fantastic bird count and so many different birds that I've never seen in my part of the world

  29. Good job, Chris! It didn't hit me until I read this post that you were doing a new and different area from the one you and I did when i lived there.

    I cannot believe you only found 3 cactus wrens! That is shocking! I am glad you had fun and glad Gordon was able to help out and come along for the count. Great pictures as always.


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