Saturday, February 27, 2016

Stretched Thin

Sweetwater at sunset
Browns and golds.  It seems to be this year's theme. Some of the most difficult birds have been very accommodating lately.  Sometimes I'm alone.  But lately it seems, I'm meeting lots of new faces.

Regal Horned Lizard
A couple friends came from out of town last week to search for some rather rare and secretive birds.  One was an ABA lister and she needed two birds for her list. So I started out by scouting for the wintering Rufous-backed Robin.  This is a bird that is not impossible to see, but it is a bird that is normally quite secretive. After a couple hours, I was able to locate the bird near a mountain stream at Catalina State Park.  I snapped photos for my friend Gordon who was hosting these two ladies for the weekend.  He manages the Phoenix sector and I am the Tucson sector.  Together, we created a route that would make sense and flow accordingly around their travel time while making sure they found their two target birds. 

As the snow melts from Mt. Lemmon, mountain streams form and run through Catalina State Park
And so they came down from Phoenix and went searching for the Rufous-backed Robin first. I sent Gordon landmark pics so that they all knew where to look. As for me?  Well I was stuck at work:( The issue with finding this bird came from lots of talkative hikers and their furry friends. After an hour of searching, the crew was able to get wonderful views of the bird.  Mission accomplished.

Rufous-backed Robin
During this same week out(and side note), I also decided to stop by the Butterfly Magic display at the Tucson Botanical Gardens.  When I asked a volunteer if my tropical butterfly mentor was around, he began to squirm.

"Sir, I'm sorry to inform you, but Dr. Elizabeth Willott passed away last year." WHAT??!!!  I have been so involved with birds, I forgot to stop and remember where it all began. How can a year fly by?  And how did I not hear about this?!!!

As many of you know, I began this blog about gardening 6 years ago today. I would work with Elizabeth often at her newly created Butterfly Magic display.  She had a messy office which is where I believed she slept at night:) I enjoyed working with her and we had a lot of fun inside the greenhouse, the office or the chrysalis chamber.  Today her legacy continues at the Botanical Gardens.  Elizabeth, you will be missed.  Thank you for teaching me the ways of tropical butterflies and about the plants they require to survive. I'd also like to dedicate this post to Tina Forrester(aka East EG Gwillimbury Camera Girl), who along with her husband, were tragically killed in a car accident this last week. She was both artist and birder. My heart goes out to their family and friends. Lately, I have been overwhelmed with good-byes. 

On Mt. Lemmon switching from stressed out teacher to stressed out birder:)
When I first began blogging, I was all alone. Six years later, I have met so many wonderful people who have become real or virtual friends. The only difference now?  I use plants as a way to find "my" birds:)  So back to our story. But we had to find a VERY tricky bird....the Sinaloa Wren. This is a bird I've seen often in Mexico and in the US but never have I been able to get great looks at this fast moving little bugger. They act like little mice in the leaf cover and are tricky to observe in the wild. One time I sang to one and it came to me but only in the shadows where it thrives. 

Look carefully.  She's nesting in a dangerous location. 
We checked into the military base(Ft. Huachuca) and were issued our ID cards.  This allowed us access into the wilderness areas of the fort. When we arrived, we headed to the location where we had previously observed this bird last year. 

The secretive Sinaloa Wren
Softly, we pished. And silently, the wren popped out from the shadows.  Gordon saw the little head pop up from an area and whispered, "Is that the wren?"  Inside both of our heads, we screamed, YES!  Silently, Gordon went back to get the ladies and quietly, I sat down on the bank waiting for the bird to make a return.  

Sinaloa Wren-the money shot.  I will no longer need any photos of this bird:)
With a soft pish, I had the bird back out feeding among the leaves. As the cameras rattled away, the bird became fascinated by us and the sounds our equipment made.

Our wonderful crew, Gordon, Peggy and Jennifer
In short, our guests, Jennifer and Peggy, got wonderful views of these naturally secretive birds. And I'd like to thank them for chasing these birds.  Normally, I wouldn't have gone after this wren had they not come to visit. So it was fun playing detective again for others. The best way I can describe the Sinaloa Wren experience is by using the word "intimate".  I was sitting only a few feet from the bird watching it hop around the leaves and feed.  Meanwhile, a VERY quiet crowd formed behind us and also enjoyed the wonderful views of the bird. It was one of the best birder moments I've ever experienced. 

A rare Baltimore Oriole swings in for a visit
Then the next day came. I was exhausted and didn't want to drive great distances. So I went alone to Sweetwater and attempted to relocate the rare Baltimore Oriole.  This year has been something very special so far.  Not only are hard to find birds appearing before my very eyes; but they are allowing me to have great looks! Whether this is the gained experience that everyone talks about from years of birding or just plain dumb luck, I don't know, but it has been a phenomenal start to the year.  Streak-backed Oriole, Sinaloa Wren, Rusty Blackbird, Baltimore Oriole, Brown Thrasher, American Bittern, Five-striped Sparrow, Sprague's Pipit, Yellow-billed Loon, etc etc. I just shake my head and think, "Wow! What a start to the year!"

I have been exhausted.  I DID become sick thanks to a disease spread by the Snowbird people. And I DID discover that I am mortal. One night I wasted away in my bed wanting nothing more than to sleep. This constant "GO" mode is draining.  And it is very exciting.  I continue to do fieldwork with Audubon and several other organizations while still helping out visiting birders. I don't know when this transition happened, but it just did.  The camera has taken a back seat for the most part as I have seen most of these birds many times.  And the lifers that I do see now are some of the trickiest to capture on camera!

Marsh Wren hopping around

I clean my garden and fill my feeders.  Lesser Goldfinches, House Finches and Sparrows visit,  reminding me of the simpler times before it all became so much more.  While this "hobby" is demanding, I am so fascinated by discovery and exploration that it's hard to stop and waste a moment watching TV or just doing "nothing". Courses are always being plotted.  Travel is always in the works.  And birding has become a way of life. 

Mediterranean Gecko-I have many living under the rocks in my garden!
Check out the birds seen this month.  I am no longer posting individual pics of them on this blog anymore as I have shared enough photos of them from the past.  If they are doing something crazy and I capture it on camera, I'll post them. 

While much of my work these past two months has been about helping others, it's time to work a little harder on that life list.  During the month of March, I hope to present several new birds from our treks.  Until our next encounter.....

In the video, you can hear the human f(W)REN-zy happening in the background.  

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Flat Landon and the Endangered Bird

Recently, I went on a trek with a good friend from Wisconsin, Flat Landon. He wanted to know what it was like to live in the state of Arizona.  

Stanley loved the California Poppies!
Landon was very happy to be in Tucson.  He told me that it was very cold in Wisconsin this time of year.  And I told him that it was one of the reasons why I moved to Arizona so many years ago. I asked him if he wanted to do some hiking outdoors with me to find a very special and rare bird.  Landon was excited!  So I gave him a pair of binoculars and together we set off to find a rare Rusty Blackbird. 

Curve-billed Thrasher
Before we took off, I had to talk with Landon about hiking in the Arizona deserts and mountains. 

So he put on his seat belt and off we went. 

Rule 1.  Always bring water with you.  The desert is hot and dry.  Water is very important during a hike.  So Landon brought along a reusable plastic bottle to fill with water.  He wanted to reduce the amount of plastic bottles thrown away.  What a smart guy!

Brewer's Blackbird
Landon found several blackbirds but they weren't the Rusty.  At one point, he forgot about our Saguaro Cactus(pronounced saw-gwa-row)!  He accidentally got stuck on one of our massive native Sonoran plants! Rule 2. Watch where you step. 

Landon pretended to smile.  But deep down, I knew he was hurting.  I've also fallen into several cactus myself during my hikes.  It really hurts!

As we moved into the mountains and along the great Salt River, Stanley asked me, "Why is the Rusty Blackbird so important?  It's just a bird."  

The Rusty Blackbird!!!
I told Landon that all life is important to our planet.  And we must protect these amazing creatures from extinction or we could face our own extinction. The Rusty Blackbird is in danger of disappearing forever and within our lifetimes:(

Landon was shocked!  He thought all endangered creatures were only found outside the US.  When he discovered that we had endangered mammals, birds, frogs, etc in the United States, he was sad.  I told him to keep hope.  When I was his age, there were only 22 California Condors left in the wild.  But today, after conservation efforts, there are over 425 Condors alive.

Just then, wild horses caught Landon's attention!  "What are those doing here?"  I told him that they were the last of the wild horses in the West. He responded, "Like from the time of cowboys?"  Yes. Now while I knew that these horses weren't good for the natural habitat of the Salt River, I kept it to myself.  It's good to let kids dream.  For now, it was a magical moment. 

Then Landon asked me what we could do to help out the Rusty Blackbird.  As I was about to respond, I noticed Landon walking along the rocks not paying attention.  As he was about to put his foot down, I yelled, "WATCH OUT!! YOU'RE ABOUT TO STEP ON A RATTLESNAKE!"

  Landon screamed.  And I screamed with him. Rule 3. Don't step on snakes. He was about to throw rocks at the snake.  When I stopped him from doing so, he asked me why we shouldn't kill the snake.  I told him that while I'm not a big fan of snakes, they serve a very important role in nature.  "But you screamed too?" And I may have messed my pants a little. My response was quick.  "In the desert, we have to watch where we step at all times." He smiled, "Wow!  You've got to keep your eyes open all the time.  Cactus, snakes, heat....what else?"  I thought about telling him about giant spiders and cats, but a snake was enough for one day. 

"Landon, you are the future caretaker of this planet.  The Rusty Blackbird migrates through Wisconsin in spring.  You asked me what you can do to help.  I'll tell you.  Today, we are going to record this bird and report her online to help scientists figure out a way to save her species and protect her home."

"So even I can save the Rusty Blackbird?", he asked.  "YES. We ALL can." For 25 minutes, we observed this special bird feed with the other birds along the shores of the river. 

After a wonderful day out, Landon was exhausted from the sun and the desert adventures. Once we returned back to Tucson, we submitted all the necessary data into ebird and AZFO.  Landon told me that he had a fun day out and wanted to go birding some more. YES!  A future birder!

I told him that we would go birding in the morning, but for now it was time to sleep.  Then he saw bats hanging from his ceiling.  However that is another story.  The Sonoran Desert is one of the most spectacular places on this planet. 

  Landon will have lots of stories to share when he heads back to Wisconsin:)  Until next time....

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

The Slippery Slope

Scouting areas for my tour.  Sandhill Cranes launch at sunset in the thousands over a field at the Kansas Settlement

When is too much birding wrong?  For those addicted, never.  For the spouses involved with these addicts? Often. Yes I am an addict, but in today's post, my addiction prevented a disaster. And I gotta tell you all, life experience, knowledge of my birds and working with groups of people saved this outing from becoming truly disastrous! It's certainly one I won't forget anytime soon. Today's post is about the human side of birding. So here we go.....

A Red-tailed Hawk for my photographers in the group
The ancient and wise birders warned me. But I'm a glutton for punishment. Damn my stubborn German side! I promised I'd help out with a birding tour during the Wings Over Willcox festival.  This was my first time as a paid bird guide and I learned LOTS from this little adventure! Mainly that it's not an easy job. But I liked the check:)

a nice Vesper Sparrow to find out who my birders and photographers were; this is a good bird to help me figure out who is a serious birder or beginning birder; it's also an easier sparrow to explain when it's time to talk about "field marks" for the beginners
We had all levels of birders in the group ranging from no experience to A LOT of experience. I was ready for their challenge. It was a, "I've never seen a Pyrrhuloxia before."(easy) to "I've never seen a Montezuma Quail."(Now you're talking!) trek. As a teacher, this is something I can handle easily. I have the knowledge. My stops and bird searches were fine, but there was something more important than the birds.....bathrooms! Thanks to my friend Kathie, I remembered to make sure we had frequent stops.  Although I still lost one man to the woods:)  I felt his pain!

Mexican Jays came in for a visit on the way up to the Chircahua National Monument

By guiding an already preset route designed by the coordinators and drivers at the festival, I studied my habitat and made notes on the birds my crew would probably want to observe.  My tour was called "Birds on the Mountain"....specifically the Chiricahua Mountains. An epic place to bird. I am quite familiar with these mountains and truly enjoy birding this area. So I studied the route they told me we were taking and was shocked early morning to find out that we were going elsewhere. NO communication! When I do a trip somewhere, I expect to be taken to the places promised in the brochure. So it was going to be one of THOSE trips....the "think on your feet" kind.  All the scouting I did was for naught.

The creek before the fatal mistake of driving the slippery slope

As with every group I teach, I ask beforehand what birds they wanted to observe.  Then I asked how many were photographers, etc etc.  The overall expectation was that we would be heading to Portal or at least Rustler Park for the Mexican Chickadee.  The problem?  The route was scheduled to go to the Chiricahua National Monument which is a beautiful place to visit but not very birdy due to the windy conditions of the peaks.  It's a place you take photographers, not birders. And it wastes precious birder time on the road. It also wasn't in the brochure.

Pretty but not much in the way of birds; photo taken 5 years ago 
The other problem? SNOW. This is a non-negotiable variable and it's okay. What's not okay? The drivers and coordinators knew there was snow on the mountain and yet still planned on driving the routes!  In my mind, I was livid!  We had the time and they paid the money.  I had a back up plan but it was rejected. I began to ask myself if drivers and bird guides have occasional disagreements during a tour. And if so, how do they deal with it? So here's where it gets very interesting.

Instead of changing the route to a safer one, they kept going with their original one.  Midway up to the Monument, we had to turn around because the road was closed due to heavy snow. Even though they already knew that.  I could have prevented what the drivers were going to experience. But as I have learned from my own experiences, sometimes, you just have to let things play out as they will.  Clearly I was also forced to be a participant in this routing disaster of a plan. In the back of my mind, I heard the ancient voices of my bird masters whispering, "We told you."  And they really did. Last year. 

We could learn so much from Sandhill Cranes.  They fly in an organized pattern.  Humans?  Not so much.
Then we went into Pinery Canyon and tried for another spot where the group could sit and watch the bird feeders.  This would satisfy the photographers in the group.  Everything seemed to be going well until we saw that the road to Rustler Park was closed. Again this was expected. I wasn't expecting the lower road to be an obstacle! Again, the drivers were warned. In the birding world, you have to adjust according to the weather. We had enough gas, time and food and drink. Yet, the overall plan was not to be reexamined.  In teaching, this is called a poor evaluation. 

Coues Deer

Had we been on the "birdier" side of the mountain heading up from Portal, it would have been different. Paved roads, more stops and less snow. We still wouldn't have been able to make it up to Rustler Park, BUT we could have gotten to the research station or the George Walker house or the lower level birding trails! I began to question if this route was planned by an actual birder or a Sunday afternoon driver looking at pretty scenery. The driver's mission was to take us to the end of Pinery Road where we'd eat lunch at this locally run campground.  The problem?  Our vans got stuck on a steep ledge.  One of our participants had a meltdown and ran ahead of the van. I made more mental notes inside my head. And I took pics.  I couldn't make this stuff up even if I wanted to!

Excellent drivers backing up on a very dangerous ledge with a lot of physical pushing and yelling back and forth.  Something about turning the wheels...:)
In my teacher calm, I helped direct everyone to where they needed to be. I also reminded them to look around the area and keep birding. And I also pointed out photography opportunities like the icicles hanging from the cliff. During that time period, a Canyon Wren, Golden-crowned Kinglet and Hairy Woodpecker made themselves present.  

Meanwhile the driver's were stressed to the max, but with a little group effort all was not lost and we were able to get the vans off the ice and down into an area where they could safely drive again. Another promised location not happening! We ate lunch along a cold creek where someone asked me about American Dippers. I shared my personal stories while eating my turkey on rye.  Another asked me if eating turkey was a birder faux pas. My response, "Not when it tastes so good." 

Because I was leading, my job is to get people on the birds and photographers ready for action so I don't have many photos of the experience.  Here is a stock photo from my Montezuma Quail studies.  This one was taken in 2014.  The latest Montezuma Quail photo can be see in a recent January post of this year. 

There was an older gentleman who was an excellent birder and had helped us get the vans from sliding off the cliff. I asked him what he wanted to see more than anything else in this world.  His answer, "Montezuma Quail". This was one of the few birds we had within our limited range from our list of possible birds we could see. And by the bird gods, I would get him his quail.  He had been searching for them for years and was frustrated.  I know these birds well! As I pointed to a patch of grass and rock along a dry wash, I told him to keep both eyes open. As I stepped down, a twig snapped and EXPLOSION! Five Montezuma Quail burst forth from the grasses!

Our trek lead us back into the grasslands where the group would also net a covey of 14 Scaled Quail.  The day ended up being a 3 Quail Day which was awesome.  Participants were able to observe Coues Deer and Coati.  We also were able to get them several lifers, but not the birds they were expecting like Blue-throated Hummingbirds and Mexican Chickadees.  I have seen a few Blue-throated Hummingbirds winter in the Portal area.

Another photo of a great bird that I was not able to find for my group.  This is the Blue-throated Hummingbird which does winter in Portal.  Not in great numbers but they can be found around the Bed and Breakfast feeders there. It was a bird they were hoping to see from the brochure.
I have also learned from my career that if you are given a lemon, you have to try and make lemonade. Sometimes the sugar is missing:)  But you have to try.  What was even more challenging for me on this tour was the mentally unstable woman in our group. The group did not particularly care for her too much. So I had to figure out a way to deal with that situation. And she was touchy! With friends, it's one thing but with strangers, it's not appropriate. At the end of the tour, I was mentally and physically exhausted.  When I finished my paperwork, I spoke with the coordinators. 

I stop the vans for a bird count on our way back to Willcox.  Not everyone saw the first Pyrrhuloxia and in this field there were two along with a great many other birds. While the mountain birds were quiet, the grassland species were very active!
They said the group had a great time which I had not been expecting to hear.  For many, it was an adventure.  For me, it was a routing disaster.

This is another bird the group got to see.  The Bridled Titmouse.
In short, they asked me back for next year. And this is what I said, "Only if you allow me to plan the route and really define the meaning of "Birds on the Mountain". I knew what the group was expecting. I don't think the coordinators did. Next time I do ANY guiding, I'll be the coordinator of the route and drivers 100%.  I'm OCD about my work."  They were birders.  I am a birder. And they should have stuck to the brochure because that's what the participants paid for! 

The Yellow-eyed Juncos played hard to find. Normally, they sit right in front of you for attention:)
What did I learn from this? Well, it's the age old adage, "If you want to do something right, you have to do it yourself." So I won't EVER let that happen again.  I have enough experience with people and planning to know how to do this properly!  And if they don't like it, they can find another leader.  Then they asked me to be on the committee.  Oh boy.

Our overall total for birds that day was at 51 species.  I found myself discussing the subspecies ID of Dark-eyed Juncos. We had Pink-sided, Gray and Oregon varieties. I found my group their lifer Yellow-eyed Juncos which played harder to find than normal. Usually, they're the first bird you see!  Everyone had a 3 quail day.  

These are stock photos from my photography collection. 

 I found the crew an excellent Red-tailed Hawk moment (above) and ONE Ferruginous Hawk. There were 12 remarkable White-winged Doves. And I was able to get them on 3 Brown Creepers of the Mexican subspecies which could be separated down the road as a new species of bird. Oh and yes, we found 3 Pyrrhuloxia:) 

After the tour was over, I was in control again. Next time I make the calls. I'm not trusting others to do it especially when my name in on the line:)  Guiding groups can be wonderful or terrible. I am grateful for the experience because it taught me a lot about guiding a large birding group of 20+ people. Until next time.....