Wednesday, August 16, 2017

The Grassland Road

Several months ago I began working with Luke Safford to guide a trip with Tucson Audubon and their wonderful Southeast Birding Festival. I got to pick the place and how we birded.  So I had to choose.  My favorite places to bird in August are the grasslands, Mt. Lemmon and Willcox Lake. So I chose my absolute favorite, Las Cienagas Grasslands. 

Botteri's Sparrow
 It was a bit scary but Luke was very helpful and gave me all the tools I needed to tailor this trek for our guests.  I needed a driver.  Done.  I wanted another guide with me.  Done.  Before I knew it, our trip to the grasslands was booked!  Twenty hopeful birders got into our two vans and placed their life lists in our hands!  The thing about the grasslands is that I feel very connected to the birds here. I knew our guests would fall in love with the landscape.  And they'd soon fall in love with our sparrows.......even if they didn't think they would:) 

In fact, as an educator, I feel it important to bird areas that have the most activity.  During this time of year, the grassland birds are extremely vocal and easily seen.  Our friends had no problem spotting birds.  But my goal?  Teaching them the calls and sounds of our grassland birds.  And by the bird gods did they learn them!  I had goosebumps listening to the birders pick out the sounds while ID'ing the birds on their own.  

To make things even better?  First class personality and professional bird guide, Chris Benesh joined the party. He is a relaxed and funny guy who helped take the stress out of this trip with our 20 guests. I'm not used to leading a group with so many people!

The weekend before the festival, I went with Magill Weber and we birded the area for my target birds that I wanted to present to the group.  On our list, I had put down birds like the Thick-billed Kingbird, Cassin's, Grasshopper and Botteri's Sparrows, Eastern Meadowlarks and the Cassin's and Western Kingbirds. make something truly special....I mean.....really really special.....I feel that there needs to be more than just birds.  

And the Cienagas Grasslands have it all.  There is history.  There are birds.  There is epic landscape dotted with colorful wildflowers.  And there are Pronghorn. I feel at peace here. 

I think this trip was one of the cheapest of the tours.  And it was the one that made a lasting impression on everyone.  We saw coyotes, pronghorn and prairie dogs.  Speaking of Prairie Dogs....

Mojave Rattlesnake during our scouting mission
 We were running behind schedule and I was worried we wouldn't make all of our stops because we were enjoying the morning.  So I had scheduled a stop at the Prairie Dog settlement on the tour.  I wasn't sure if the group wanted to go and see more mammals but thankfully several participants spoke up and said that they wanted to see the furry little critters.  So we went.....

Cassin's Sparrow
 Cassin's Sparrows were EVERYWHERE!  This is a specialty bird here in Southern Arizona during our monsoon season.  They are very vocal and the last of the sparrows to breed for the summer.  And they can breed many times during a nice wet monsoon season.  This year has been another exceptional year for this grassland species. 

We arrived at the Prairie Dog settlement. I was looking for Burrowing Owls.  They were looking at the dogs.  

Juveniles played.  Adults fed.  And an Australian couple was more interested in a strange bird out in the field. Chris was helping other birders ID certain critters. I was helping a birder ID a Western Kingbird in flight when Willy and Jess asked me about the weird looking bird.  Thinking regular resident birds, I asked them if it was a Killdeer.  They told me "no".  It was too big.  Ok.  How about a Long-billed Curlew?  Hesitation.  Then Willy said he was pretty sure it wasn't a curlew. That got my attention. 

Black-tailed Prairie Dog
 I left the lady after she had ID'd her Western Kingbird. I joined the group who were all now looking at this strange bird.  What happened afterwards was funny and awesome at the same time.  Both Chris and myself put our binos up on the bird and excitedly told the group that we had a mega rare bird!  The Upland Sandpiper!

Everyone became serious.  Photographers grabbed their cameras.  Never in my life had I expected to see an Upland Sandpiper in Arizona!  The birders got excited and their cameras began snapping off shots left and right.  

I think I almost wet my pants.  It wasn't a lifer for me but it was an excellent state bird! No scope was needed and everyone got to see the bird well.  It doesn't get better than this in the epic world of birding. 

Upland Sandpiper
Chris immediately called the Andrew Core hotline(the AZ rare bird alert contact) and I went to the Arizona Rare Bird page on Facebook to post our findings. During that morning, other birders would visit our very special find and be able to count it on their lists.  That night a huge storm blew into the area and the Upland Sandpiper disappeared.  

 What a very special weekend we all had!  One of the participants said that when we got quiet during our initial ID, they knew we had a special bird.  They were excited for us as well!  There's nothing quite like the adrenaline rush of finding something new.  

 I lead a tour the next day to Madera Canyon.  We found some excellent birds and it was fun watching people get excited about adding lifers to their lists.  And it was fun leading them.  Even better?  Raising money for a good cause!  I will continue to help support Tucson Audubon for as long as I can.  They do a great job protecting our areas around the state.  It gives me great pride to hear people say the words, "Wow! This is so beautiful!"  A lot of the money raised helps protect these amazing wildlife sanctuaries of our world. 

My life is different now.  My birding style has changed.  I feel absolute joy watching others discovering our birds for the first time. Just look at the intensity above as they discover their first Painted Redstart.  I want to send a shout out to Luke Safford for helping me put this trek together and to Hollie Faulkner Mansfield for her amazing driving skills.  She seriously has a talent for taking the roads slow so that I could listen for birds.  And also to Chris Benesh for joining the trek. What an honor! I don't know how you do it as a full time job but I do know why you do it.  I was exhausted after a busy weekend out.  Eventually I'll get to the Costa Rican posts, but I am off this weekend to help out with the Jaguar cams and bird surveys down in Mexico.  It will be my final trek down to this particular site so I am a little sad about it all.  I'll have that report next week.  Here are the ebird reports from our trek out to the Cienagas Grasslands. 
For the Cienagas Grasslands, click here
For the Prairie Dog Colony, click here

Until next time.....

Monday, August 14, 2017

As The Caspian Tern Flies

As I balanced family outings with birds, I found the Caspian Tern always nearby. 

Purple Coneflower
I tried focusing on the birds, but there were schedules to maintain and lots of fun family outings. If we weren't watching the little ones, we'd find them drinking out of the bird bath!  Baby J was taking birding to a whole new level!

My sister looked into the flames to glance the future.  "The night is dark and full of terrors."

Meanwhile my mother's own dragon, her macaw, sized me up.  "To bite or not to bite?  That was the question."  He let me know that I could rub under the wings but he wouldn't guarantee that he wouldn't bite me.  So.....that was a no go. 

Azul, our Blue-and-gold Macaw
Between the fun, I'd run to the shoreline and watch birds.

Or we'd take the nephews and nieces out to have some fun at several of our amazing nature centers. 
Hopefully, their curiosity grows into something lifelong. 

My nephews were fascinated by the fish. 

I think I spent most of my time outdoors and as much time as I could along the lake.  

Great Blue Heron
On this one perfect day, the wildflowers gave off a scent along the lakefront.  Have you ever had that moment of perfection standing alone in nature?   You know.  The kind that overloads all the senses at once and gives you a natural high?  Picture this. Brightly colored wildflowers swaying against the shore as the waves lap against the rock. The fragrant air gently kissing the skin. And when touch, smell, sight and sound all work together, it makes the body tingle with happiness. 

Family snaps me out of my reverie. And on that same day we replace an old light fixture with a fun one. 

Then it would be back to the lake watching birds again. 

Lesser Yellowlegs
Sometimes we had double trouble:) Both bird and human alike!

And there were yummy dinners.

And then it was back to the lakeshore.  Or river. 

Song Sparrow
After an expired milk mishap, both my younger sister and I cleaned out our parent's fridge. Lots of expired foods had to be thrown out. When carrots start looking like the one below, it tells you something. However, this carrot is still edible. Or rather.....was edible. 

On Game of Thrones night, we had homemade Frey Pie.  Very tasty!

Our lives contain many different chapters.  The birds are timeless fixtures that dot the background of our life story. Whenever I see these birds now, memories surface from the moments I first saw them. And they take me back to that page in time so that I can reread it and savor the moment all over again.    

As the Caspian Tern flies, I stand with Chuck Sontag, my Dad, Gordon, and countless others reliving our first moments together observing these birds.  My very first moment with this bird was with Micheal at the Salton Sea in California. I was just beginning this grand adventure. After years of birding and thousands of miles later, I am at a different place now in my life.  The great seas await me.  Unexplored birding territories in the Spanish speaking world require my eyes. 

As I end my Wisconsin journeys, I reflect on THIS chapter of my life. I am so happy that I could share so many years with my Grandmother as we birded her backyard together.  Just last year, she discovered the Eastern Phoebe. She had seen it for years but never knew the name.  Now whenever I see an American Goldfinch, Baltimore Oriole or Ruby-throated Hummingbird, I will think of her because those were HER favorite birds.  She would tell me to continue my journey and write more chapters! 

In October, we head back to Colorado for some fun. 
And I still have to write 2 more posts from our Costa Rican adventures! I also had some fun with Tucson Audubon as I lead several trips to our grasslands and the infamous Madera Canyon.  I'll also be heading back to Mexico at the end of the month to do my final and last good-bye to a ranch that gave me several important lifers. There will always be good-byes and hellos. And that has taught me to cherish each and every moment. Next week, we'll be heading back to Costa Rica and exploring the beautiful Talamanca Highlands with Serge Arias.  Until next time..... 

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Horicon National Wildlife Area

During my trek back home to Wisconsin, I met up with friend and naturalist Nancy Gill.  I think I first met Nancy through a former teacher of mine on Facebook.  So once again, Facebook is legit as a social network.  When and where would I have met Nancy otherwise?!  

Nancy discovers what may be a "fake goose".  Turns out, it was a sneaky juvenile Trumpeter Swan!  Excellent find!
Last year during our trek to Wisconsin, Nancy was so kind to share with me the wonders of her backyard!  And from that point forward, we have had a blast birding her farm and now Horicon Marsh State Wildlife Area. I even landed my lifer Eastern Screech-owl at their farm this past winter!  How cool is that?!

Red Milkweed Beetle
Nancy is all about responsible conservation on her farmland.  She was excited for a planned Monarch project next year on her farm.  Monarch numbers, as most of us know, continue to decrease in many areas.  She's hoping that by creating a larger Monarch friendly area, it will help contribute to a population increase around the farm.  And we did see quite a few Monarchs on their property while I was visiting.  The secret is milkweed, a plant necessary for their reproduction needs. The problem?  During my youth, fields of milkweed were wiped out for housing projects, factories and farmland.  Today, there is an effort to increase the monarchs to their once abundant numbers decades ago.  As a kid, I remember them everywhere!  But the fields that had the milkweed are all gone.  And so are most of the Monarch butterflies. I'm hoping we can reverse that trend. 

We then continued to talk about the Bald Eagle population in Wisconsin.  This winter I reported that I had seen them everywhere.  And while it is true that the Bald Eagle population has increased, it is now facing yet another decline due to feeding from carcasses that are left behind by hunters. The carcasses still contain the lead pellets which then poisons anything that feeds off the carcass.  In fact, Mother Nature asked this Eastern Wood-Pewee to point out what the Federal Government is doing about hunting at Horicon on their side.  However, the state is a different story. As reported before, California Condors face the same exact threats in AZ, CA and UT.  CA has banned lead bullets.  Arizona has a voluntary copper bullet rule. (lead spreads while copper does not but copper bullets are more expensive than lead)  I thought most hunters would ignore that suggestion but I was shocked to discover that most hunters are responsible and have adopted copper over lead here in AZ.  I actually sat in on a hunting lecture to get a little education and was quite happy about what they were saying.  So hopefully the state of Wisconsin will adopt similar measures (if they are not planning on doing so already).  

Eastern Wood-Pewee answers a question I had about lead bullets.  This is on the federally owned portion of Horicon
Horicon is one of Wisconsin's premiere birding hotspots.  One of my favorite birds is the Black Tern and I was thrilled to see them hunting over the waters in great numbers. 

Nancy showed me some areas around Horicon that Wisconsin birders normally explore.  Last time we were there, I tried figuring out a route on this massive wetland area and connected some of the dots.  In AZ, we have HUGE tracts of land that we lump into one birding list like the Santa Cruz Flats and the Cienegas Grasslands.  These stretches go on for miles and miles.  So where do birders normally stop for counts on these large tracts of land?  Nancy helped me figure out a route on our trek this time around.  It looks like there are two solid ways to spend your day! 

One of the areas that is pretty spectacular is called the Main Dike road. In this location, the birds like to stay hidden. However, the ones that are hiding are good ones and worth the search efforts:)

What can I tell you all about Wisconsin birding?  I know that when I'm here, I feel at peace.  I know that when I meet Wisconsin birders, I feel a connection.  Birding here is not the same edgy kind of birding found in Arizona.  I don't feel like my car is going to get broken into or that I'll die from heat exhaustion.  The birds are typical standard fare for the US.  Rarities?  Yes, there are some rarities but they are usually seen in Arizona.  So the edgy nature of finding some rare first-to-the US Mexican or ocean bird isn't there.  And it makes the birding super chill and fun.  

And I totally get why people get excited about going to Arizona.  We have some of the best birds in the world!  BUT, after my Grandma's passing, all I wanted to do was get lost in the reeds, listen to the waves and watch the gulls. Wisconsin is the way, I think, birding should be. And after every outing, it should be served with homemade blueberry pie and a side of vanilla ice cream.  On our day out, Nancy made delicious brownies for our trek.  THAT's Wisconsin.   

Oh by the way! Wisconsin doesn't have drinking fountains.  We have bubblers.  

We have McDonald's restaurants that proudly show off our natural wonders.  Sure, we may not be as edgy as the Grand Canyon but we have some of the best scenery in this country!  I've met a lot of people who take Wisconsin for granted. They've told me it's "boring" and "the same old; same old".  I thought the same thing once but not anymore. Nancy has known for years what I needed to figure out on my own.......that my hometown and state are truly special places. She has the most spectacular photography that captures the color and feel of Manitowoc County during any season. Winter.  Spring.  Summer. Fall. All beautiful. All special in their own way.

Spectacular flowers during the summer will make you stop and stare.  The crisp autumn air may carry the scent of pumpkin or apple pie as the leaves turn their colors. Each season has its moment. Each season brings with it a different Wisconsin dish.  And if you think I'm making that up, you haven't met a proper Wisconsinite!  We LOVE to drink and eat properly!

The Horicon Marsh and Wildlife Area is just a taste of the magical world of Wisconsin.  My next trek to Wisconsin and Minnesota will be up in the northern region towards Lake Superior.  This part of Wisconsin is known for its vast area of forests. I have a secret to admit.......

It rained like crazy at my Grandma's place! 
I love pickles and carrots and lots of farm fresh veggies!  Shoot!  I just remembered my mom bought some kohlrabi's we never ate!!!!  Maaaaaaaan!!!!  One of the hardest things to do was find an iconic thing that would remind me of my Grandma.  So I went one night to the house to find those several items that I could use with my kitchen ware.  I found a sugar bowl, a creamer, two "insignificant" salt and pepper shakers that have been with my grandparents since I was a kid and her infamous Chex mix bowl.  Well.  As I was digging around her pantry for those endless and classic Grandma Krause snacks, I found 3 cans of black olives!!! My grandma always held a secret stash of black olives for my sister.  Grandma learned early on that if she left the black olives out in the open, Bec would eat them all:)  Clearly, my sister did not find this stash of black olives and so I took the pic above and sent it to her:)  I know....pretty "sassy" as my Grandma would say.  Family is everything and I'm so glad that we had the time to be together. And I'd like to thank Nancy Gill and Jody Kuchar for a nice break from the funeral stuff.  So thank you both!!  Our Horicon report is here. Until next time....