Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Dirt Fields, Mountain Plovers, and a Rufous-backed Robin

On Friday, January 21, John Yerger and I volunteered our time to survey the southern Santa Cruz Flats of Pinal County for wintering Mountain Plovers. We made countless stops along remote county roads such as this, overlooking off-season cotton fields. This is looking NE toward Picacho Peak, familiar to commuters along I-10 between Tucson and Phoenix.

In our search for Mountain Plovers, we were getting warmer when we looked over the sod farms near Tweedy and Pretzer roads.

We finally located a group of 15 Mountain Plovers in a relatively flat dirt field (few dirt clods or plants) to the southwest of the intersection of Hotts and Tweedy Roads.

I also noticed this minute velvet ant – actually a wingless female wasp. This species is Dasymutilla foxi.

Since it was in our area, we also stopped at this row of fruiting privet where Richard Fray and Laura Steward found a Rufous-backed Robin just five days earlier.

It was not there for the first several minutes, but while we were chatting with Laurens Halsey and Andrew Core, it flew in and began feeding out in the open. I managed this "digibinned" shot with my Canon PowerShot S90 held up to my Zeiss binoculars.
I kept track of our sightings for entering into eBird. We came up with a total of 55 species:

Mallard 5
Great Blue Heron 1
White-tailed Kite 2
Northern Harrier 6
Cooper's Hawk 1
Red-tailed Hawk 22
Ferruginous Hawk 3
Crested Caracara 11
American Kestrel 9
Prairie Falcon 1
Killdeer 3
Mountain Plover 15
Least Sandpiper 16
Eurasian Collared-Dove 158
Mourning Dove 576
Greater Roadrunner 1
Gila Woodpecker 25
Ladder-backed Woodpecker 1
Black Phoebe 2
Say's Phoebe 18
Loggerhead Shrike 6
Chihuahuan Raven 18
Common Raven 41
Horned Lark 176
Verdin 2
Rock Wren 1
House Wren 2
Ruby-crowned Kinglet 2
Rufous-backed Robin 1
Bendire's Thrasher 1
Curve-billed Thrasher 2
European Starling 19
American Pipit 212
Orange-crowned Warbler 2
Yellow-rumped Warbler 18
Common Yellowthroat 1
Green-tailed Towhee 1
Abert's Towhee 6
Brewer's Sparrow 12
Vesper Sparrow 43
Lark Sparrow 10
Lark Bunting 161
Savannah Sparrow 68
Song Sparrow 6
White-crowned Sparrow 39
Northern Cardinal 1
Pyrrhuloxia 6
Red-winged Blackbird 550
Western Meadowlark 222
Yellow-headed Blackbird 50
Brewer's Blackbird 475
Great-tailed Grackle 12
Brown-headed Cowbird 350
House Finch 5
House Sparrow 19

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Rock Corral Canyon – A Subtropical Surprise in SE Arizona

Rock Corral Canyon in the Tumacacori Mountains is better known to some as Arizona's Wild Chile Botanical Area, but few have been there. It's reached via a short, but rough dirt road that leads west from the Tumacaori/Carmen Exit #29 on I-19 between Tucson and Nogales. (Click on any photo for a larger image.)

My reason for going in here with Jake Mohlmann and Corey Mitchell earlier this week to was to get to know it for the Atascosa Highlands Christmas Bird Count. Chris McCreedy had several good birds here, such as Elegant Trogon, Western Flycatcher, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet, and Hepatic Tanager on this year's CBC. As you can see from the shaded pink area on this map, the upper parts of the canyon are just within the NE part of the CBC circle.

The 2.5-mile entrance road is rough in places, requiring high clearance (and 4wd would be good to have), but it goes through lots of Rufous-winged Sparrow habitat.

The rock corral itself, the Wild Chile Botanical Area (the northernmost natural occurrence of Capsicum annuum var. glabriusculum, Cayenne Pepper in Arizona), and the location of the Black-capped Gnatcatchers that Keith Graves found in January 2004 are all actually just outside the circle, but there is plenty of habitat inside the circle. There's a fun NPR Weekend Edition Saturday show with Scott Simon being led by Kevin Dahl too look for chiles. They went up there after a near-record late start to the monsoon (remember the fire in the Santa Ritas in 2005?), and the area was still parched and plant-free. Poor Kevin! You can listen to it here.

Once inside the CBC area, the canyon is rocky and steep-sided, but with very interesting thorn-scrubby vegetation on the more protected canyon walls.

The very range-limited Goodding's Ash, Fraxinus gooddingii, occurs here in good numbers. It has small leaves and is evergreen.

Another thorn-scrub-indicating plant is Hopbush, Dodonaea viscosa, one of few plants found native on every vegetated continent in the world – even on Hawaii. In SE Arizona, wherever Five-striped Sparrows have been found breeding, these two shrubs are common, also occurring with Kidneywood and several other species of shrubs on steep slopes to create a distinctive habitat found nowhere else in this country. One should look for Five-striped Sparrow here after mid-April when they are singing.

The main road going higher into the canyon.

Looking NNE down the canyon. The blue line is my GPS track, showing that we hiked quite a ways up the NW fork side canyon (towards the upper left), but didn't get far up the main draw (towards the lower left).

In some areas, the bottom of the main canyon opens up into mesquite grasslands with scattered oaks, and this is where we relocated the pair of Hepatic Tanagers and the Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet.

The south-facing slopes are more like typical Sonoran desert scrub, and Rock and Canyon Wrens are common here. We also found several Black-chinned Sparrows in this part of the canyon (apparently a recent influx, as they've never been in this area on the CBC).

Another satellite view looking WNW up the middle draw. The CBC area goes all the way up to the watershed divide, and in this shot you can see the green area of the Bear Grass Tank, Murphy Canyon, and Lobo Canyon area and the the turquoise Peck Canyon Complex area.

The middle side canyon to the NW actually has an old mining track one can hike up, in some places very steep and in one stretch annoyingly choked with Catclaw Mimosa, Mimosa aculeaticarpa.

This side canyon is very well vegetated, and the Evergreen Sumac, Rhus virens, was full of berries, loved by Hermit Thrushes.

The denser oak woodlands had Bridled Titmouse, Hutton's Vireo, at least two Black-throated Gray Warblers, two Dusky Flycatchers, one Hammond's Flycatcher, and two Red-naped Sapsuckers.

This is near the end of the track.

Looking downcanyon to the SE.

This lush oak grove is at the very head of the canyon, though the intrepid birder could scramble up higher into some steep, oak-lined draws just below the cliffs.

Spiny Hackberry, Celtis ehrenbergiana, also a good wildlife plant.

 Another indicator of good thorn-scrubby vegetation is Kidneywood, Eysenhardtia orthocarpa.

The upper cliffs had a nook with a roosting Great Horned Owl, and later we saw a Peregrine Falcon flying and calling.

One of the exciting finds was this evergreen vine in the pea family. It was growing up this rather large Texas Mulberry, Morus micryphylla, right at the end of the track, in a very protected spot. The tree is leafless, and all the leaves belong to the vine.

The big attraction were these gorgeous seeds hanging on to the opened and twisted seed pods. Thanks to my friend Greg Corman and his contacts, I was able to give it a name – Rosary Snoutvine, Rhynchosia precatoria. And it turns out this is the only place it is know in the entire U.S., first collected in 1977. Check out the specimen maps at the SEINet Collections website. (Note that their coordinates are a bit off, but the locality description is the same.)

Here's one last satellite view looking down towards the SSW. Chris had found an Elegant Trogon in the side canyon in the lower right, and we hiked up here as well.

The habitat is much more open, so I suspect that the trogon wintering here (one of eight on the Atascosa Highlands CBC!) roves about the entire canyon complex.

It was surprising to see water still in some of the tinajas.

It's still winter, but in these cold-drained canyons, and especially on warmer sunnier days, there are insects to be found. We saw at least five species of butterflies, and I'm still trying to ID this spur-throated grasshopper. [Update: Thanks to Bob Behrstock for the ID as Gray Bird Grasshopper, Schistocerca nitens.]

Friday, January 14, 2011

Sedge Wren at Pena Blanca Lake

Yay! After four tries I finally saw and heard the Sedge Wren at Peña Blanca Lake, first found by Alan Schmierer on November 27, 2010. This bird is the first record for the entire state of Arizona, and my 456th species for the state

Here are Jerry Bock, Brian Gibbons, Morgan Jackson, and John Yerger at the spot where we saw it this morning.

Here's the recording I made with my brand new Olympus LS-11 and uploaded to

Photos by Alan Schmierer can be found on his Flickr site here.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Day 3 On The WINGS Galapagos Cruise

"Galapagos" Magnificent Frigatebird - a potential split in the works
My last post here was a while ago. I've been concentrating my blogging energies on both my weekly BirdingBlogs posts (even skipping a week) and the Atascosa Highlands Christmas Bird Count blog.

Since I last posted photos only from the first two days of my Galapagos Tour and just a couple days ago learned that WINGS will be offering the same tour this coming November, it's about time to post the rest of my photo highlights.

One reason for our offering this same itinerary in a somewhat "last minute" fashion (still 11 months away, actually) is that the Galapagos National Park will be instituting their new rules in January 2012 – limiting boats one visit every 2 weeks on each island. This means that a itinerary suited to birders wanting to see most of the endemics would require a boat to offer a comprehensive, attractive itinerary one week, and an itinerary of dregs in the second week. As far as we can tell, most boats, including the fabulous Integrity, are choosing to offer instead alternating weeks of attractive itineraries that each visit half of the most bird-rich islands.

So unless things change, 2011 may be your last chance to see the bulk of the Galapagos Island endemics and specialties in a single week's cruise. After that you'll have to choose between a week offering Waved Albatrosses and boobies or another week to see Penguins, Medium Tree-Finch and Cormorants. (Though a Galapagos Penguin or two might be possible on the first week as well.)

This was our day on the island of Floreana and nearby islets (such as Champion, where we saw the Floreana Mockingbird and did some fabulous snorkeling). Birds weren't as diverse or easy to photograph today, but it was an interesting day botanically.

We began the morning at Punta Cormorant, surveying the beach which hosted a Whimbrel, a Black-bellied Plover, a Wandering Tattler, and Least Sandpipers.

At Punta Comorant (named after a boat, it seems, not the bird) we admired this lone (and fragrant) Black Mangrove, Avicennia germinans. There are several species of trees called mangroves, but they are not even closely related to each other – they only share the general ecological niche of shallow saltwater. Black Mangrove is the only one in the verbena family, and this flower certainly looks the part.

This is Galapagos Bitterbush, Castela galapageia, in the tropical Quassia family Simaroubaceae.

Members of the family Asteraceae, known as composites, must have been among the first plants to colonize the Galapagos, as they have diversified tremendously here, many having no close mainland relatives. There are entire genera endemic to the archipelago including this Lecocarpus pinnatifidus.

This looks something like pickleweed and does indeed grow right next to the salty ocean, but is the completely unrelated Turtleweed, Batis maritima, Batidaceae

This is an unusual beach. Some people are rather unsettled by the thought, but it's really not so scary to actually slowly wade into the lapping waves and wait until the water clears... see Diamond Stingrays reveal themselves right at your feet. Sometimes they touch your feet, but they won't sting unless you actually walk on them, which isn't easy to do if you wade slowly and then just stand there.

If this isn't your cup of tea, you could stay higher on the beach and watch this Semipalmated Plover and Sanderling fight over feeding territories.

Richard Polatty, the best officially licensed naturalist guide in the Galapagos, takes the post out of the box at Post Office Bay. Most all postcards are deposited by other tourists without postage. If you find one for someone near where you live, you take it home and deliver it by hand. Some people address one to themselves to see how long it takes (and meet fellow travelers). I saw one card that had been written just a week earlier by two clients who were with me in Costa Rica many years ago – Hi Mark and Libby!

Spotless Ladybug, Cyloneda sanguinea, exactly where I had seen them on previous trips here.

We then took an inland excursion to the highland interior area called Asilo de la Paz. Here were learned about the interesting history of colonization and saw the single-island endemic Medium Tree-Finch.

Another endemic genus of asteraceae Scalesia. Most members of this huge family are small plants to large shrubs; only on the Galapagos do some become as tall as trees, such as this Scalesia pedunculata.

Presumably Darwin was the first to collect species from this genus, as it was named by his good friend Joseph Dalton Hooker. And presumably Hooker named it after a Mr. Scales, as that -ia ending is added to a proper name in order to coin plant genera. (Fuchsia was named after Leonhart Fuchs, Poinsettia was named after Joel Roberts Poinsett, etc. I just haven't been able to find out who Scales was, as internet searches always turn up other uses of that common English word.) Keep this in mind when pronouncing "Scalesia," so as to keep the one-syllabled name Scales intact – please, not sca-LEE-sia, which sounds more like a disease or an obscure country north of the Caucasus.

On a totally different scale (ahem), here's the endemic Galapagos Peperomia, Peperomia galapagensis, growing as an epiphyte on a rock.

After our barbecue dinner by the beach, I noticed this moth on the walls of the building, thinking I must have yet another cool endemic. I actually recognized the genus Melipotis, but I was quite surprised to find that this is the same species that I photographed just year before last in Sycamore Canyon and at my friend Mich's house in Tucson – the Indomitable Melipotis Moth, Melipotis indomita.