Thursday, January 15, 2009

Bartolo Canyon, Atascosa Mountains

Ever since the Atascosa Highlands CBC on December 15, I've been meaning to return to the area for a couple reasons. One is that I had a large owl near my camping spot along the Corral Nuevo road that may have been a Long-eared Owl, and I wanted to look for one there using my iPod and with flashlight ready at hand. Another is that there are still several canyons in the circle that I'm not familiar with — Bartolo Canyon being my target on this trip.

The owling was only partially successful. There were actively calling Great Horned and Western Screech, but no Long-eared. It was colder than I was prepared for (upper 20's °F), and my iPod's battery seems to be bad, giving out after only a few minutes of playback. So after looking for from 4:30-5:15 a.m. this morning, I returned to my warm sleeping bag and slept until 8:00.

Bartolo Canyon, which flows north from Ruby Road into Arivaca Lake (the lower stretch is called Cedar Canyon) is a remote area that no one covered on the CBC, so using coordinates that I gleaned from Google Earth, I created a route on my GPS that took me to the base of Bartolo Mountain, pictured in the panoramic above (click on any of the photos to see the full-sized photo).

I did the hike today, the whole route being 6.5 miles and taking a very leisurely 6 hours. I parked 1/2 mile south of Ruby Road on FR 4178, hiked east down into upper Bartolo Canyon, down the drainage to about 3.6 miles, and then came back via a side canyon that is only a little smaller than Bartolo and approached the car from the west.

The birding was great – I was able to bring in mixed flocks by pishing and imitating owls at nearly every stop where there was a nice patch of oak-juniper-pinyon woodland. I kept track of the numbers of all the birds I saw, eventually tallying 45 species. The best birds were two Black-headed Grosbeaks in a fabulous mixed flock that also had at least one Hepatic Tanager, a Painted Redstart, and 5 Red-naped Sapsuckers. Other bird highlights were a Golden Eagle, 10 Montezuma Quail, 36 Mountain Bluebirds, 15 Townsend's Solitaires, 4 Black-throated Gray Warblers, 5 Townsend's Warblers, 7 Hepatic Tanagers, and 2 male Scott's Orioles.

This Striped Skunk was wandering about in the broad daylight.

I also noticed some interesting plants. This Tillandsia recurvata (Small Ballmoss) is the only bromeliad that reaches Arizona, and it is found in only a very few canyons near the international border. (There are an additional 14 species of Tillandsia in the United States, mostly in Florida, and the well-known Spanish Moss, T. usneoides, is the most widespread.) Same family as pineapple (Bromeliaceae)!

This cool plant is Mexican Orange, Choisya dumosa var. mollis. It is in the same family as citrus (Rutaceae), and this particular variety is endemic to a very few canyons in these mountains.

Given that it has been dipping into the 20's regularly here, it was a bit surprising to find activity among the invertebrates. In addition to a dragonfly (Variegated Meadowhawk), I spotted this wasp (Polistes sp.)

and five species of butterflies, including this Lyside Sulphur, not a common sight in January. The other butterflies were Cloudless Sulphur, Sleepy Orange, Mourning Cloak, and Red Admiral (hilltopping!).

Here are some more views of the habitat in this area. In the last photo, the view is to the NW, with Baboquivari Peak visible at the far left.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

A Day in the Santa Catalina Mountains

On my sister's last day here before she leaves for her home in Utah, we visited the full range of elevations and habitats found in the Santa Catalina Mountains just north of Tucson. We started in Sabino Canyon, where I spotted this Spine-tipped Dancer, Argia extranea, apparently a first January record for the species in Arizona.

The habitat farther up the mountain changes drastically, first through oak grassland, then chaparral, then coniferous forest.
In this last spot, Williamson's Sapsucker and Pygmy Nuthatch were at home.

Winning Wines

These are the top five wines from the party (with thanks to Brad Boyle for running some statistics on the scores):

Rex Goliath Pinot Noir, no year (France)
Willamette Valley Vineyards Pinot Noir, 2006 (Oregon)
Olaia Tempranillo/Prieto Picudo/Merlot, 2005 (Spain)
Little Penguin Pinot Noir, 2007 (Australia)
Barefoot Zinfandel, 2007 (California)

Maybe Pinot Noir just goes well with spaghetti bolognese and garlic bread!

This Bogle Merlot received just a middle-of-the-pack ranking out of 14 wines but was within statistical spitting distance of the top wines.

Monday, January 12, 2009

My 39th Birthday Spaghetti and Wine-tasting Party

On January 9 I turned 39. The birthdate is dubiously shared with Richard Nixon.

A last-minute invitation was sent out to a bunch of friends to do another wine-tasting party. At first light I baked a chocolate cake and then went out birding (seeing the local Blackburnian Warbler). When I got home, the carrot cake came next, then I spent half of the day making 4 batches of a fabulous spaghetti bolognese sauce (with pancetta, mixed ground meats, porcini mushrooms and reduced wine being the key ingredients), a veggie kale & white bean sauce, and lots of yummy garlic bread. Thanks again, Cook's Illustrated.

Meanwhile, my eldest sister Katheryne, visiting from Utah, was a huge help. She got the makings for and put together the hors d'ouvres (little toasts with brie and goat cheese), which were crucial as the spaghetti was still being finished as the first wines were open, and she made the green salad as well.

14 kinds of red wine were brought by my friends, and I provided score cards. We're still working on the results. A great time was had by all.

Katheryne practicing her new love

Saturday, January 3: Dudleyville CBC, AZ

I did this CBC last year as well, covering a 2-mile stretch of the San Pedro River south of Winkleman. This CBC is famous for its formerly resident Streak-backed Orioles and first state record of Carolina Wren. As on other southern Arizona CBC's, numbers of sparrows were low, with the notable exception of Lincoln's Sparrows, which are in near record high numbers. The best bird in the area that I covered with Morgan Jackson and a couple from Phoenix was a Golden-crowned Sparrow that I found, but the Sandhill Crane flock that was tallied by three teams in addition to ours was very unexpected. The count had a near record-low species count of about 102 despite good coverage and great weather. Average is about 120; the lack of high elevation/northerly irruptives really killed the total. The only other highlight I can think of was a Black-and-white Warbler. Morgan and I finished early so we could drive 6 miles outside the circle to chase a White-winged Scoter that had been found the previous day.

Female White-winged Scoter at Kearney Lake

Monday, December 29: Monterey Peninsula CBC, CA

Jim and I skipped the Pinnacles countdown (I only would have given the compilers a hard time, anyway) and drove to Monterey, crashing at our friend Brian Sullivan's place. For this CBC Jim and I covered the Carmel River mouth and beach, areas to the south of the river, and parts of Carmel itself. We were joined by my friend Beth Russell for part of the day. What a contrast to the previous day's CBC! We had 106 species in our area alone, and the count had a total of 197, a near record high. Our best birds were Swainson's Hawk (probably a third record for the count), Wilson's Warbler, and "Western" Flycatcher. The best bird on the count was a male Archilochus, probably a Ruby-throated Hummingbird, found by Will Russell. It was feeding high in a eucalyptus and being chased by Anna's Hummingbirds, and as far as I can tell has not been relocated. Other goodies were Bullock's and Baltimore Orioles and Rose-breasted Grosbeak. Frustrating was having to book my frequent-flier flights in early September, before most CBC's had announced their dates. Otherwise, I would have stayed on a couple days and done the San Francisco and Moss Landing CBC's.

Friends Jim Tiezt and Matt Brady after the countdown

Sunday, December 28: Pinnacles National Monument CBC, CA

I was in the Napa Valley, CA for Christmas with relatives, followed by a day in Walnut Creek for a fun Hoyer reunion on the 27th (where I got to meet some fourth cousins-once-removed). After the reunion I was met by my good friend and fellow CBC maniac Jim Tietz (he did four in a row this week). After stocking up on Trader Joe's food, we drove south and camped at the national monument (about 30 miles S of Hollister, CA). In the cold (25°F) morning we met up with one of the three coordinators to receive our assignment. While waiting, we saw a California Condor at its roost up on the ridge. We covered part of one road and a trail in the monument, which was beautiful, but with relatively few birds. We had only 39 species, the best being Townsend's Warbler and Chestnut-backed Chickadee. After covering our area, we ran into one of the coordinators and found that our area had been divided in half and given to other teams to cover, which was a bit irritating. So it was a pretty day, a nice hike and time catching up with a friend, but not much of a CBC.

A Break in Christmas Bird Counts in California

I used frequent flier miles to spend Christmas with relatives in St. Helena, California and to attend a Hoyer reunion in Walnut Creek. But of course I combined it with some birding.

For two nights I stayed with my friends Joe Morlan and Robbie Fischer and on the 23rd they guided me around the San Francisco region in search of some of the local rarities. We easily saw the Worm-eating Warbler right in downtown, then picked up the Orchard Oriole (below) at Fort Mason.

Then we looked for the Northern Shrike that had been at Las Gallinas near San Raphael, but we couldn't find it and instead just enjoyed a great birding area.

Christmas was fabulous at Aunt Marjorie and Lynn's place in St. Helena. We had 17 adults and two kids there for dinner. Dad and Sharon stayed in Oregon due to bad road conditions from recent storms, and Aunt Virginia and Uncle Ed decided to stay in Sacramento for the day. Here are some photos from the day.
Roger and cousin Stuart (Roger is my cousins' uncle through their father)

First cousin once removed Talia Jolie (Andrew and Meiko's daughter)

Cousin Jennifer

First cousin once removed Leah (Jennifer and Michael's daughter) and Aunt Marjorie

Cousin Andrew and Meiko

Sunday, December 21: Tucson Valley CBC, AZ

I used this CBC as an excuse for a lower body workout, hiking up to the highest elevation areas of the circle, which is largely urban. The five miles from the trailhead to Mt. Kimball cover 4155 feet of elevation change, so there was quite a bit of muscle burn going on. I began at 6:30 (well before light) at the Finger Rock Canyon trailhead and finished by hiking down Pima Canyon and meeting up with the team that covered that area to get a ride back to my friend's car. It was a total of 12.7 miles, but only about 2.8 were actually in my area of the circle, the first and last stretches being in areas counted by other teams (and some of the upper parts of the trail outside the circle). These mountains are incredibly steep, and the habitat ranged from saguaro forest to dense pinyon-juniper woodland and even some Ponderosa Pine in the protected slopes. It has been a horrible winter for high-elevation/northerly irruptives (no White-winged Crossbills here!), but even then I had the only Western Bluebirds, White-breasted Nuthatches, Mexican Jays, and Yellow-eyed Junco for the count. In a good year, this area will have 10-20 scoops, and previous compilers have done nothing to make sure it gets covered. It does take someone crazy, like me, I admit. The most fabulous bird found on the count, by Chris McCreedy, was a Blackburnian Warbler, the first winter record in the state and the interior West, and one of probably fewer than 10 for the whole country. It's still there in the willows on the Santa Cruz "river" (sewage outflow; the river died 40 years ago), being seen daily by birders. A Rose-breasted Grosbeak was also great find on the count, and a Summer Tanager and Orchard Oriole were stakeouts. I departed very early the next morning for California, barely with any energy remaining to pack.

Saturday, December 20: Puerto Peñasco CBC, Mexico

I rode over with Will Russell on Thursday afternoon on my first visit here since March, 1990. Wow, has this place changed. It's been utterly gringofied with high rise condos and sprawl. Former wild dunes are gone under hundreds of fancy villas. But the area still has lots of good birding. Will and I birded causally all day on Friday and then covered many of the same areas on the CBC, including the sewage lagoons and the dump, seething with gulls. Highlights were Rusty Blackbird (found by Will, probably the fifth or sixth record for Mexico, now 3 are from this town), Bronzed Cowbird, Spotted Towhee (quite a rarity here), Red Phalarope, Long-tailed Duck and Eastern Phoebe. A pitifully low number of participants (8) was disappointing for such an interesting area birdwise. I saw hundreds of Heermann's and Yellow-footed Gulls, Le Conte's Thrasher, American Oystercatcher, Reddish Egret, Blue-footed and Brown Boobies, and Wilson's Plover. So close to Arizona!
Will at the dump, having a great time

The beach at Las Conchas, with Wilson's Plover, American Oystercatcher, and Reddish Egret, among many others

The Eastern Phoebe I found at the sewage lagoons

Large-billed Savannah Sparrow

Red Phalarope in the harbor

A billboard in town, in which Will noticed the use of a Sibley Western guide as one of the of the props

Tuesday, December 16: Salton Sea (South) CBC, CA

Crazy, yes. I was borrowing a friend's car and couldn't convince anyone else to join me, but I managed to stay awake during the drive. So after birding from 4:00 a.m. - 6:00 p.m. and hiking 11 miles over rough terrain on the Atascosa Highlands CBC, I got in the car and drove for some 6 hours and got 4 hours of sleep in a Calipatria motel. The next day I saw nearly as many birds in my area alone as had been seen by all 21 teams on the Atascosa Highlands CBC (6139 vs. 7405). Fun were 120 Stilt Sandpipers and 15 Large-billed Savannah Sparrows. I also had the only Bullock's Oriole. After the countdown at 1:00 p.m (!), I joined the other participants in chasing the Rusty Blackbird that Oscar Johnson had found two days earlier, the Bendire's Thrasher that Paul Lehman found (I missed it), and the Sprague's Pipits that are annual in the Bermuda grass fields near the prison.

Monday, December 15: Atascosa Highlands CBC, AZ

This is probably the sexiest and most brilliantly designed circle in the state, started in 1960 by Bill Harrison. I compiled this count this year with Jake Mohlmann. It was last done in 2001, so there is an unfortunate gap of 6 years in the data.

In the previous 4 weeks I put a lot of work into designing well-defined areas, providing area leaders with good maps and birding information, and recruited like a maniac. I also paid 4 visits to the circle to learn more about areas that were unknown to me.

We ended up with an amazing 55 participants and 139 species, a huge success. The previous high was 136 species in 1991. (The average is 117, and a low of 96 was seen in 2001 when most people went home early due to rain. Yes, just plain old RAIN, wimpy Arizona birders.)

The center of the circle is located exactly 57.14 miles SSW of my house in Tucson, which places it west of I-19 and to the NW of Nogales. It actually overlaps the Nogales CBC circle by 0.8 of a mile. It incorporates Peña Blanca Lake in the SE (by a mere 1/2 mile) and Arivaca Lake in the NW (by a mere 1 mile); all of Sycamore Canyon, California Gulch, and associated drainages (encompassing the entire known breeding range of Five-striped Sparrow in the country); and all of the Atascosa and Pajarito Mountains. There is 1/2 mile of paved road in the circle, one decent dirt road that cuts through the center (Ruby Road), and miles of rugged tracks that require high clearance. There are probably fewer than 5 residences and no bird feeders in the circle. There are at least two Jaguars that are known to roam this area, as well as a fair amount of illegal border crossing activity. There are no Rock Pigeons. Most participants had to drive at least an hour and a half just to get to the circle (and we had participants as far away as Flagstaff and Paso Robles, CA).

I covered an area unknown to birders called Pine Canyon (pictured at the top). It was a two-mile hike just to get to the start of the canyon, and it has the only tall pines in the circle (Chihuahuan Pine), another mile and a half up the canyon. It apparently had been covered years ago only twice by a Forest Service employee who was known as "the mountain goat" and said to be partly crazy. None of the previous compilers had ever been there. It was fabulous. I added Olive Warbler to the all-time list, had the only Fox Sparrow (Slate-colored) and Cassin's Vireo, and was constantly working over Bridled Titmouse/Kinglet/Bushtit/Hutton's Vireo flocks with my birding partner, Sarah. One flock had four Townsend's Warblers in it, virtually unheard of here in such numbers in winter, but that was to be a theme in many of the areas. We saw four Hepatic Tanagers and a Painted Redstart for additional color. I also started the day owling (having camped near the start of my area after doing the Patagonia CBC yesterday), adding Short-eared Owl and Whiskered Screech-Owl to the all-time list. (The latter should have been had in previous years, as it is common, but 34 counts since 1960 failed to make any special owling efforts. This year, three teams had the species.)

Rarities found by other teams during the day include Brown Pelican, Hooded Merganser, Greater Scaup, Eastern Phoebe (amazingly, none of the 3 that were found prior to count day were located, so there were 4 known to be in the circle), Western Tanager, Black-capped Gnatcatcher, and Red-breasted Sapsucker. At least as exciting were the high counts obtained for many species. We likely had high counts in the nation for 12 or more species this year, five of which were all-time highs. These five were Hepatic Tanager (27), Scott's Oriole (29), Montezuma Quail (268), Elegant Trogon (4), and Painted Redstart (14). Other birds that were possible highs for the year were Gray Flycatcher (59), Hammond's Flycatcher (26), Ash-throated Flycatcher (16), Black-throated Gray Warbler (31), Mexican Jay (321), Rock Wren (147), Canyon Wren (125), Rufous-crowned Sparrow (244), Five-striped Sparrow (1), Arizona Woodpecker (37), and Bridled Titmouse (216). This circle competes with Patagonia, Nogales, Ramsey Canyon, and Portal for some of these counts. We won't know the final winners for a few months.

A view of the Hells Gate area in Peck Canyon, on the way to Pine Canyon

During a break on our cross-country route back out of Pine Canyon

Sunday, December 14: Patagonia CBC, AZ

This is great circle with an amazing history of rarities (Blue Mockingbird, Crescent-chested Warbler, Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, Scarlet Tanager, Eastern Towhee). Yet since Dan Jones, the only local birder, moved to TX in the mid-90's, it's lost momentum. Only in the last couple of years have some new local birders begun putting more energy into it, and I was happy to participate for the first time since the 1999-2000 season. I covered the trail-accessible portion of the Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Nature Conservancy preserve with Dave Stejskal. We were split up, covering opposite sides of the creek, for most of the morning, and Dave found all the good birds: Black-throated Gray Warbler, Wilson's Warbler, and "Western" Flycatcher. I did have a covey of Montezuma Quail. Best bird of the count was a singing Gray Vireo found by John Yerger and Morgan Jackson. The most surprising sighting Dave and I had was of this small tarantula that may have been disturbed from his hibernaculum by a road grader.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Eight Christmas Bird Counts - A Quick Summary

The National Audubon Society has declared December 14 to January 5 each year to be the official Christmas Bird Count period. Compilers for the hundreds of 15-mile-diameter circles throughout the Americas announced the dates and recruited observers, and a tradition was continued. Many beginners participate in a single CBC, while more experienced fanatics schedule their entire holiday season around the announced dates to do as many as possible. I fall somewhere inbetween but lean toward the fanatical side. This year I did eight, a personal record. What follows above are quick summaries of the CBC's that I did.

Thanksgiving in Oregon

Hooray for Frequent Flier Miles.

I enjoyed two weeks in Oregon in late November. My first agenda item was to give the talk at the Audubon Society of Corvallis monthly meeting, which was titled: Putting it All Together. It's how I incorporate all aspects of natural history into my birding tours, such as butterflies & birds, plants and birds, as well as bugs, snakes, mammals, etc.

Then I went birding with friends to Mary's Peak and the southern Oregon coast.

Mary's Peak at dawn was gorgeous. At 4097 feet, it's the highest point in Oregon's Coast Range and forms the dominant feature in the skyline west of Corvallis, my home town. I was there with my friends Randy and Gislain. Few birds, though. Before and after our visit others saw Gray-crowned Rosy-Finches here.

On the south coast at Bandon, I birded with Alan Contreras, joined one day by Dave Lauten and Kathy Castelein. One of the puzzling birds was this gull, which seemed to have too much black in the wings for Thayer's and might have best fit a Vega Herring Gull.

This Ruff was near Coos Bay. Alan and I found it at the same time while scanning a flock of Long-billed Dowitchers and Greater Yellowlegs. Alan spotted two Lesser Yellowlegs in the same flock.

While in Corvallis I also went birding with friends Rob & Eve Gill. Here they are on a chilly afternoon at Finley National Wildlife Refuge, where we watched a Virginia Rail run through the rushes and into a rose bush like a rat.

Thanksgiving dinner at my sister Stacy's was a delicious affair. Her husband Brad brined the turkey in apple juice and roasted it in a spit grill in the back yard. It was the best turkey I have ever eaten. Here is the cast of feasters:
Stepmom Sharon

Niece Kelsey with my sister's two foster children

Niece Janelle

Niece Jamie with her boyfriend


Dad with sister Stacy