Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The Missing Mountain Plovers

The Mountain Plovers were seen by birders the day before, earlier in the morning, and the following day, but not when Kathie Brown, Chris Rohrer, and I birded the Santa Cruz Flats the weekend before last. Where were the darn things? We still had a great day, and we were comforted by meeting a couple birders visiting from the East who were having the same difficulty.

I used to bird this area a lot in the late 1990's when I still owned a car, and it produced a lot of good birds for me, such as the state's first Pacific Golden-Plover, the third Upland Sandpiper, and vagrant Bobolink and Rufous-backed Robin. I don't get out there nearly as often any more, so when I heard that fellow bird bloggers and super enthusiastic birders Kathie and Chris were headed out there (links to their blogs), I invited myself.

We actually made our first morning stop at Silverbell Lake in Christopher Columbus Park on the west side of Tucson to see the Pacific Loon that had been found the day before. We didn't know if it would still be there, as lost birds like this might get up and fly away at any time. Chris said he couldn't sleep with the anticipation. We later learned that the bird was too weak to fly off and never did manage to feed here. It was picked up dead a few days later with an empty crop and no fat reserves.

Once out in the flats (the really flat area west of Picacho Peak and south of Eloy at the I-8/I-10 interchange) Kathi and Chris kept track of every bird we saw as we crisscrossed the flats on the grid of roads, most of them exactly one mile apart. There are rows of pecan trees, actively cultivated fields that rotate between sorghum, wheat, and cotton, a few sod farms, some new plots of native brittlebrush plantations (perhaps for seed?), fallow fields that will slowly revert to desert perhaps 500 years from now, and little bits of native desert here and there. The area is well known for the raptor diversity, and as it turned out, today there were teams of volunteers counting for a raptor survey. We saw six species ourselves, including 8 Northern Harriers, 26 Red-tailed Hawks, 4 Ferruginous Hawks, 3 Crested Caracara, 12 American Kestrels and 3 Prairie Falcons. My eBird summary tells me that our day's birding total came to 69 species of 3531 individuals.

A lifer for both Chris and Kathie was Bendire's Thrasher, and we ended up with 4 for the day, including this one foraging in the middle of the road somewhere in the middle of the flats.

It can be a tricky bird to identify, being so similar to Curve-billed Thrasher. The bill is proportionately shorter and less curved, but they can be quite variable, and it takes a lot of practice to tell them apart. There are also subtle differences in color, especially in the face, and in the shape of the spots on the breast. But these are also variable, and juvenile Curve-bills are especially good at fooling birders. A better measure is the habitat. Curve-billed Thrasher is essentially anywhere with a few cholla cacti. It can be hilly or flat, rocky or sandy, dense urban areas or pure desert. Bendire's, in general, needs it flat, with loose soil, weedy and grassy with thickets, rows or hedges of mesquite, and no cholla. They don't mind being near houses but seem to stay away from larger urban areas. The two species are found in close proximity very rarely.

At the end of the day we got to hear one sing its most distinctive feature – a rambling, twisting, continuous pinball machine warble that lacks the obvious repeated phrases of most thrashers. This one was singing at the Arizona City development around the lake there and shows its finely marked arrowhead-shaped spots.

This is a Sage Sparrow, one of our winter visitors with a very picky habitat preference – very flat areas with scattered saltbush (Atriplex). Rocky desert with any other type of brush and cacti just won't do. So they're rather restricted in range here, and the stretch of Sunland Gin Road north and south of Harmon has been the best area since I started coming out here 15 years ago.

Other good birds for the day included a couple of Common Ground-Doves, tons of Horned Larks and American Pipits, a calling and flyover Chestnut-collared Longspur (more were seen and heard by birders here the next day), and one field with a gross of Killdeer visible from one spot. That's a dozen dozen.

Monday, January 28, 2013

A Hobbit in the Garden

Well, it does live in burrows in the ground, but from its behavior it might actually be an ogre. Or maybe even Gollum. (Can you tell that I just got back from seeing the Hobbit in 3D?) It's actually that pocket-gopher I mentioned in a previous post.

This is what it's been doing recently. Just a hole with finely churned soil around it. No damage, but I knew something was coming up. So I tried flushing it out last weekend. I put the hose down the hole and turned it on. Slow at first, and it quickly washed the loose soil down into it. Then turned it up, to maybe 3 or 4 gallons a minute. And left it there for maybe...2 hours? Nothing. Where did all that water go? (My landlords aren't going to be happy with the water bill this month.) I fully expected a drenched rodent to surface somewhere, water bubbling up from unknown access points to the tunnel network. But nothing. The next day there was a plug of newly churned soil in the hole.

Then today a saw the first victim – a wilted arugula plant.

Sure enough, the root was severed just below soil surface.

Well, I needed help with the arugula in any event. I've been on a campaign to eat it three times a day lately, just to keep up. Sauteed and braised for a bed under my breakfast soft boiled eggs (the new steamed method from Cook's Illustrated – 6 1/2 minutes in 1/2 inch of boiling water in a covered saucpan. Perfect.) Salad for lunch and dinner. It's good stuff. The arugula (rocket to the Brits) is the dense, impenetable patch on the right.

This part is dominated by mizuna, a mild Japanese mustard good raw in salads and sautéed. There's also some red giant mustard, Russian kale, a row of lettuce, some broccoli, and some parsley. I swear it all added two inches as a result of the winter rains we had the past couple of days – totaling nearly an inch of precipitation. Fabulous.

One more photo – a tiny moth on the screen door in late January. Turns out my friend Margarethe Brummermann had one the same day, which she posted to Bugguide, my source for the ID. It's Iridopsis obliquaria, a geometrid whose caterpillars (inchworms) feed on Soapberry. Winter is a good time here.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Migrant Meadowlarks – Eastern vs. Western

I actually got out birding twice this past week. I'm home between tours at the moment (and actually have been so for a few months now), but I'm mostly sticking to the computer, trying desperately to catch up on many tasks. I leave for Baja California in just a week.

My target last week was the Avra Valley just west of Tucson where I hoped to catch up on a report of a wintering flock of Eastern Meadowlarks.  It's a puzzling biogeographical and ID problem here in SE Arizona. We have resident Eastern Meadowlarks that don't migrate and can be found year round on their territories, but their habitat is quite specific – high elevation native grasslands, not weedy fields and agricultural lands. If you find meadowlarks in that habitat here (and you will find them there only in the winter), you are probably looking at Western Meadowlarks, a very migratory species that vacates much of the Colorado Plateau and Great Basin.

However, there is apparently a small population of Eastern Meadowlarks in central and north-central Arizona that is migratory. Where do they winter, and can they be found around here in winter? Looking at maps on eBird it seems that they might all winter in the Gila River valley west of Phoenix. But that's assuming all of those entries are correctly identified. You see, telling the two apart is not so easy.

As it turns out, the entire flock of 18 meadowlarks on Reservation Road (a few miles west of Saguaro National Park in the middle of the valley) were all Western. Before I had a chance to study any intricate field marks, I noted the telltale "weme?" call notes of several birds as they flew and disappeared into the tall weeds. It's the only bird I know that calls its own four-letter banding code. Their flight was also rather buoyant and with more consistent flapping. It's been pointed out to me by Jon Dunn that Eastern Meadowlarks have a faster and more intermittent wingbeat, holding their wings down between flaps in a style vaguely reminiscent of Spotted Sandpiper.

The classic, supposedly clinching field mark is the yellow on the throat. On Eastern it's restricted to the throat, with the white malar tract of feathers clearly delineated from the yellow throat. On Western, the yellow bleeds across into the malar region. The problem is that this is hard to see without a really good view, and only on adult birds is it really obvious. Here's an obvious bird – where you can see yellow down from the bill, even though the bird is slightly facing away. That's because you're seeing yellow in the malar; the center of the throat isn't really even visible.

It's even easier when he turns to show the entire throat and malar, the second shot marked to show the line between the throat and the malar.

But some birds aren't so obvious – on this one the malar even looks contrastingly white:

But here it turns with a better profile, and though it's faint, there is some yellow in the lower part of the malar region.

It's even harder with immature birds like this that have no real yellow on the throat at all. Then you have to trust your ears. Judging how dark the head streaks are against how pale the background of the head is can be useful if you've seen lots of birds. And when they fly, the amount of white in the tail is a good mark, but it can also be very hard to see. I guess the Loggerhead Shrike is looking for smaller prey.

This coyote might be the shrike's main competitor.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Christmas Bird Count Backtrack: Patagonia

Patagonia, Arizona was the 3rd CBC I did this winter, on Thursday, December 20. I already posted some photos from the first two that I did, Buenos Aires NWR and Tucson Valley (see the links to the right for older posts), so this is the last one for the blog.

I've done this CBC ast least three other times in the past 14 years, always being assigned an area along Sonoita Creek. This time the compilers asked me to do a section in the highest elevations of the Patagonia Mountains, an area I had been to only once before. I was in a team with four others – Craig Anderson from Phoenix, and Tim Helentjaris and Bev and Andy Robertson from Tucson. We divided up into two vehicles and started our birding at about 17°F in the old mining town of Harshaw. No birds. So we continued up to an open area at the top of the road that had already received the morning sun. A huge flock of Chipping Sparrows and assorted subspecies of Dark-eyed Juncos greeted us. Eastern Bluebird (Azure) called from the open juniper woods. Then we split up for the rest of the morning, Craig and I heading up the north road to Guajolote Flat (guajolote means turkey in Nahuatl).

A fire had gone through here last year, but the grassy areas still harbored flocks of sparrows and juncos. This is looking east; in the distance are the Huachuca Mountains, across the San Rafael Grasslands.

Ice crystals of uniform size, with sunlight refracted through them cause this irisation known as a sun dog. It indicates some very cold air above us.

We reached the crest of a low pass in the Patagonia Mountains and found ourselves looking northwest over the Santa Cruz Valley and towards the Atascosa Mountains, where I would be doing that CBC in two days.

Later in the afternoon Craig and I wandered up a darker canyon into some nice patches of Chihuahuan Pine forest that apparently has Elegant Trogon in the summer. It's pretty protected from the sun this time of year, so a light dusting of snow lingered.

Even then, this incredibly hardy vebena in the genus Glandularia (there are two common species here) was still blooming.

I had been pishing and imitating owls all day to bring in mobs of small birds, but in this canyon a pair of Whiskered Screech-Owls started hooting back at me. There weren't many appropriate trees, so spotting them wasn't too difficult.

A couple other highlights from the day were Townsend's Warbler (three individuals) and an Olive Warbler, all rather scarce birds here in winter.

On our way back down to Patagonia for the countdown dinner we stopped to whistle for Montezuma Quail (no luck) and admire the light on these gorgeous mountains.

Total count for our area:
33 species
867 individuals

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Christmas Bird Count Backtrack: Atascosa Highlands

The Atascosa Highlands CBC is my favorite. It's a magical, mysterious, and enigmatic region of complex biogeography to the west of the border town of Nogales. The southward draining canyons stand out, as most of Arizona's waterways flow north then west out the Gila and Colorado Rivers. Here, Sycamore, Tonto, Warsaw, California, and Holden Canyons eventually connect with the Rio Magdalena to drain into the Gulf of California much farther south.

I'm also compiler of this Christmas Bird Count, since 2008, and am helped by my co-compiler Jake Mohlmann. I could go on and on about the virtues of this circle, but I reserve most of that for the blog I keep for the CBC.

I had just done the Patagonia CBC on Thursday, December 20, staying overnight there with my friends Liz and Linda, and had the bulk of the 21st to scout the area and decide on a place to camp. I intended on waking up early and looking for owls.

My scouting took me to some unbelievably scenic areas. I drove down the Summit Motorway to the edge of the circle and noted that much of the oak-covered slopes had survived the June 2011 Murphy Complex Burn.

I also did the long loop down Warsaw Canyon Road and back up the California Gulch Road. I made a few birding stops and noted a heard Gambell's Quail right at the international border and a Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet on a slope that in summer has Five-striped Sparrow. The former ended up being missed on the count.

This view is looking north from what I call the Ruby Divide – from here the canyons flow north into either Peck Canyon or Arivaca Lake, while behind me they flow south into California Gulch.

I ended up camping in the same spot I have in the past, pitched my tent and decided to forego reading or knitting in the dark and chilly night and went to bed at 6:30 p.m. I woke up a few times, as the moon was bright and the thermal pads too thin, and the silence was baffling. There wasn't a breath of wind, and I was so far from any human activity that I had to rustle my sleeping bag to convince myself that I hadn't gone deaf. I finally gave up waiting for my alarm to go off at 3:15, got up at 2:50, and began my owling efforts. Within the next hour and a half I had heard 4 Western Screech, 6 Whiskered Screech, and 1 distant Great Horned Owl. At one point I was listening to four Whiskereds and 1 Western while standing in one spot.

This is a view looking east to the Atascosa Mountains over the area where I camped and owled.

At dawn I met up with Max Li and was surprised to find he brought a friend, Kimberly Baeza, to join us on the hike to Pine Canyon. We made a good team for this long, somewhat difficult, but stunningly beautiful hike.

There is one spot where you have to hike up and over the hill to avoid an impassible box (a narrowing of the canyon with sheer cliffs and a pool of water at the bottom).

Compounding the difficulty was the abundance of water where two weeks earlier there had been none. It must have rained quite a bit in the storm that passed through here in early December.

If it had been this wet here all fall, we might have seen Wilson's Snipe or Swamp Sparrow in a spot like this, but we saw little more than a Lincoln's Sparrow here.

Some of the red cliffs on the way up Pine Canyon, highlighted with chartreuse lichens.

We finally got to the main part of our area around 12:30, the only stand of Chihuahuan Pines in the entire circle.

And here we relocated the Elegant Trogon that Jake, Alex and I had found here in early December. This is a poor digibinned shot of that bird, a young male. The CBC ended up with a total of six, by far the high count for the country this year.

We also found a White-throated Sparrow, which I was certain was going to be a scoop for the CBC until we got to the countdown and learned that another 4 had been found by other teams, a record for this CBC. This photo is actually of the one at Peña Blanca Lake, which I saw a few days after the CBC.

American Pokeweed, Phytolacca americana, blooming on December 22.

The day's birding culminated at Widsom's Cafe in Tumacacori for the species countdown. I read down the species list, each team chimed in with additional species and highlights, and we arrived at a total of 141 species, 2 more than the previous high count in this CBC's 52-year history. Then after almost everyone had left, John Reuland of the Lower Sycamore Team finally arrived, dropping of his list and adding Five-striped Sparrow – number 142! Thanks to Celeste Wisdom for this photo of the countdown.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Damage From The Freeze

It's hard to comprehend the weather here this winter. Today it was in the mid-70s°F and it felt hot. The forecast lows tonight are higher than the high temperature during the day a week ago. Bizarre. The adage that "climate is what you expect; weather is what you get" is utterly outdated. You get what you get, and nothing can be expected any more.

So in case you missed the news, the Southwestern US had a highly unusual spell of cold weather last week. These sorts of arctic blasts aren't unknown, but they typically come down from the north, directed by a big loop in the jet stream, then move on east after a day or two. Instead we had two of these blasts back-to-back with no moving east of the trough, which gave us here in Tucson FIVE NIGHTS of "hard freezes" (a technical term used by local meteorologists) in a row. Here in my neighborhood, that meant 17-23°F each of five nights in a row. On a couple days it didn't get above about 45°F. That is ridiculous. Once every 3 or 4 years for one or two nights is OK. You deal. Five nights in a row? No one here has ever heard of "plugging in your car." You might as well move Fairbanks. You might have seen in this blog a few days ago how I was bringing in my hummingbird feeders in each night, and getting up an hour before sunrise each day to bring them back in. I'm sure glad that's over.

We weren't prepared, nor were our plants. We tried, we tried, and it looked for a few days that everyone around town had decided to do their laundry and hang their fitted sheets out to dry on their plants. But some plants just can't handle more than a few hours much below freezing, no matter how much you cover them with linen. Below you'll see photos of my landlords' grandmothers' lemon tree, a subtropical South African aloe that might yet still have a lovely secondary bloom spike, and the "Barbary Fig" cactus (Opuntia ficus-indica) that just couldn't handle the ice crystals in its tissues.

In my next posts I'll continue with some photos from my exciting eight Christmas Bird Counts. I've also gone birding a couple times this past week, baked some exciting bread, knitted a nifty scarf, started on some socks, gone to a couple nice concerts thanks to some generous friends, and began preparing for my next tour, Baja California Sur.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Bully Broad-billed Hummingbird Video

Christmas Bird Count Backtrack: Green Valley-Madera Canyon

This was my first time ever doing the Green Valley-Madera Canyon Christmas Bird Count. It's close to where I live and is full diverse habitats and lots of birds, but until this season's, scheduled for Friday, December 28, it just hasn't fit my schedule. This was to be my first of three back-to-back CBCs, something I've done only once before.

John Reuland (who had done the Buenos Aires NWR CBC with me) joined me for the hike up to the slopes of Mount Hopkins via the Carrie Nation and Vault Mine trails in Madera Canyon, one of the most famous birding destinations in the US. In summer. Here's a view looking eastward toward Mount Wrightson looming over the opposite side of Madera Canyon.

We actually started in a side ravine full of Arizona Madrones, only to discover much ice and no berries. And few birds. Actually on the way down we had two of our best birds, Townsend's Warbler and Olive Warbler. It's actually been a boom winter for the former.

Later in the morning we did run into plenty of mixed flocks, most of which seemed to have an attendant pair of Arizona Woodpeckers. Note: the bird photos are all taken through my binoculars.

It the northeast-facing upper slopes of Mount Hopkins, John and I were walking nearly a half-foot of snow.

Slopes that received more sun had lost most of their snow, and here the slopes were brushier, dominated by Alderleaf Mountain-mahogany (Cercocarpus montanus, which I learned as C. betulifolia years ago). I figured some pishing and owl imitations in here would produce some Spotted Towhees, and I was right. Plenty of both Dark-eyed and Yellow-eyed juncos also responded. What surprised both of us were these Cassin's Finches. An irruptive species this far south, Cassin's Finch had been utterly unreported in southern Arizona this winter. I recalled the amazing irruption we had in the winter of 1996-97, which also featured Red Crossbills and Clark's Nutcrackers, neither of which we were to see today.

Our best bird of the day was Golden-crowned Kinglet, three of them with three Ruby-crowned Kinglets foraging rather sedately at eye level in a pine tree below the trail, not from here. This is looking up at Mount Hopkins (and the Smithsonian's Whipple Observatory) from the unnamed saddle between Jack Mountain and Mount Hopkins. On the other side of Jack Mountain behind us is Josephine Saddle. Down to the right is the Carrie Nation fork of Madera Canyon and down to the left is Josephine Canyon.

Zooming in on Mount Wrightson in the opposite direction. With binoculars we could see hikers up there this day. It was cold but sunny and calm.

Looking back down Madera Canyon.