Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Sage, Sagebrush,or Saltbush? Sparrow or...?

This last week I birded the Santa Cruz Flats of Pinal County with my close friends and birding guides Keith Kamper, Jake Mohlmann, and Gavin Bieber. We tallied 67 species of birds, including Bendire's Thrasher, Ferruginous Hawk, American Pipit, and Horned Lark, but after many stops to look at weedy fields, brushy hedgerows, and well-watered sod farms, we stopped at a patch of native habitat that hadn't been plowed, graded, or watered – a rare thing in this valley. We were looking for Sage Sparrows.

The name Sage Sparrow is a bit misleading on two counts. It doesn't occur in sage and it's not a sparrow. With Sage Sparrow being officially split into two species this past year, we are now a bit closer to the truth, Sagebrush Sparrow being the name of the Great Basin breeder now known as Artemisiospiza nevadensis. That's its winter habitat in Pinal County, Arizona above. The other half of the split is Bell's Sparrow, Artemisiospiza belli, which has two subspecies.

Here are some definitions to help you understand.

Sage = Salvia. A genus belonging to the mint family, formerly Labiatae, now Lamiaceae, with the familiar square stems, opposite leaves, bilabiate flowers, and a fruit comprising four nutlets. It's a very large genus that includes the common kitchen herb, among many other aromatic plants.

Sagebrush = wormwood = mugwort = Artemisia. A genus belonging to the aster family, also known as composites, formerly Compositae, now Asteraceae, having many tiny flowers in compact heads, all with inferior ovaries, each with one-seeded fruits. Another huge genus, not used commonly in cuisine in this country as far as I know, even though very aromatic, but at least one is used in the classic version of Absinthe. Notice that the new genus of Sagebrush and Bell's sparrow, until recently part of Amphispiza now gives a nod of recognition as this plant being the favored habitat.

Saltbush = shadscale = Atriplex. A genus of plants related to spinach and beets formerly in the goosefoot family and now lumped into the huge amaranth family with very small flowers lacking typical petals and sepals, also with odd fruits bearing large bracts.

Passerellidae = the newly named family of New World "sparrows" or "buntings" formerly lumped with the Old World bunting family Emberizidae, and also not to be confused with Passeridae, the original sparrows such as House Sparrow and the petronias. This hasn't been adopted by any of the taxonomic committees yet, but it's inevitable.

One problem is that the subspecies of Bell's Sparrow (A. b. canescens) that breeds in saltbush desert in the Mohave Desert and San Joaquin Valley looks extremely similar to Sagebrush Sparrow – so much so that field identification is not a sure thing. It is a short-distance migrant, mixes in winter with Sagebrush Sparrows, and has been known to occur as far east as where we were. (The other Bell's Sparrow, A. b. belli, is non-migratory in California's chaparral where its favorite plant is Chamise, Adenostoma fasciculatum, in the rose family, and it looks and sounds quite different.)

In winter, Sagebrush Sparrow leaves the freezing Great Basin and Colorado Plateau sagebrush steppe and winters in lower elevation saltbush desert. Here's the habitat in south-central Pinal County. Scattered mesquites and wolfberry break up the monotony of the saltbush.

A closeup of Desert Saltbush, Atriplex polycarpa.

Thanks to the long, soaking rains we had in late November and early December, the Fremont's Wolfberry, Lycium fremontii, is in full bloom. A Costa's Hummingbird staked out one as his territory.

With pale malar streaks and obviously streaky backs, most if not all of the sparrows we saw were probably Sagebrush Sparrows, though I can't swear we didn't see some canescens Bell's Sparrows. More study needed.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

A Gnatcatcher Big Day

Southeastern Arizona is the only place in the United States one can see three species of gnatcatcher (genus Polioptila, family Polioptilidae), though I have a hard time of thinking of any other area in the entire world where one can do this. There are more species of gnatcatcher as you progress south through the tropics (as there are with most groups of birds), but there is usually just one species of gnatcatcher in each area, with a few areas having moist and dry tropical forest each harboring a species within close proximity.

Gnatcatchers were long considered to be members of the family of Old World Warblers, Sylvidae, but that concept has been superseded by a new understanding based on genetics that has made many families out of that old Sylvidae. The new arrangement gives us an entirely New World family with three species of gnatwrens and 13 gnatcatchers, though there are some pending splits that will increase those numbers soon.

Here in southeastern Arizona we have a small population of wintering Blue-gray Gnatcatchers along our willow and tamarisk-dominated riparian areas in the lowest, mildest elevations of the Colorado River tributaries. Only a few make it as far "upriver" as the Santa Cruz in Tucson, where a stream of treated sewage replaces our lost river and feeds an ever-changing strip of willow, cottonwood, seepwillow, and tamarisk. This is where you can find Blue-gray Gnatcatcher in winter. There's an entirely different population which breeds in our higher-elevation oak and oak-chaparral habitats, but they all disappear in winter, probably well south into tropical western Mexico, possibly also northern Central America.

Then we have our resident desert-scrub specialist, Black-tailed Gnatcatcher. Permanently-bonded pairs have small territories in almost any kind of desert. It's interesting to note that they are missing from the largely exotic plantings of urban Tucson, found only in the perimeter of the urban area where there is native desert scrub.

Finally, the subtropical Black-capped Gnatcatcher, mostly found in western Mexico's tropical deciduous forest and subtropical thornscrub, staged an invasion in 2002. From scattered records of just individuals and a pair or two in the previous three decades, suddenly we had a dozen or more pairs  throughout the SE corner of the state in the few canyons and washes where the appropriate habitat (barely) exists, with a pair showing up even in Guadalupe Canyon, New Mexico, just over the Arizona border and only a few miles from the international border.

This past Sunday (a week ago, now) I invited Kelly Rishor and Chris Rohrer to join me in attempting see all three in one day. Kelly and Chris had helped me out in my area of the Tucson Valley CBC, and on that day Kelly admitted to having still not seen Blue-gray. Chris also mentioned that he had tried for but not convincingly seen Black-capped. So they seemed like obvious and enjoyable companions for this quest.

We started on the Santa Cruz River where the dry Rillito River meets the Santa Cruz, where a group of Lawrences's Goldfinches had been found on the CBC, and a local birder looking for them a couple weeks later found a very rare wintering Dickcissel. We found all three species – the Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, the goldfinches, and the very cooperative Dickcissel.

We then moved to the lovely Montosa Canyon in the western foothills of the Santa Rita Mountains, about an hour's drive south.

There is plenty of desert scrub in this area, and we quickly found a pair of Black-tailed Gnatcatchers, but right along the creek (usually dry, as it was now) is an astonishing diversity of trees and shrubs. Two kinds of hackberries, two oaks, three sumacs, Graythorn, Blackthorn, multiple acacias and mimosas, ash, walnut, Coralbean, Kidneywood, California Rosewood, Hopbush, Oreganillo, and many others create a woodland that the Black-capped Gnatcatcher has found suitable since at least October 1, 2003, when I found a pair here. The male and female are very closely bonded, and when they get more then ten or so meters apart from each other, they call back and forth, making for easy detection and identification. The 1) long bill, 2) black above the eye in the male in winter plumage, 3) brown on the back and wings in the female, and 4) entirely white outer tail feathers are visual cues that separate them from Blue-gray and Black-tailed, but getting all of those takes patience, time, luck, and honest assessment of what you actually saw. Or, in a nanosecond, you can hear them call and eliminate all doubt. These guys were calling. Here are a couple horrendous images of the male I took with my point-and-shoot camera through my binoculars. My recordings can be heard at xeno-canto.org.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

The Other Madera Canyon Hike

For the Green Valley Christmas Bird Count on December 28, I hiked up Madera Canyon, but not the usual, well-worn route up to Josephine Saddle. Instead of heading up the Super Trail and down the Old Baldy, or vice-versa, I followed the main drainage up beyond the Mount Wrightson Trailhead and turned right on the Vault Mine Trail.

This trail makes many switchbacks up the east-facing slope of Mount Hopkins, in about a mile reaching the Agua Caliente Trail. This trail is not for the out-of-shape, as it goes up, up, and up.

In the first half mile or so of trail, Hermit Thrushes were everywhere, and I ended up with 58 for the day, more than a third found on the entire CBC.

Then near the top of the trail, I was imitating Northern Pygmy-Owl, which worked to bring in juncos, more thrushes, and Bridled Titmice (which were very scarce this year) when suddenly a flock of Cassin's Finches came in. But I was close to large stands of Cercocarpus montanus, the Birchleaf Mountain-mahogany, and this is the favorite food of Cassin's Finch, so they weren't a huge surprise. But then another bird flew in silently and landed on a dead branch right in front of me – a Northern Pygmy-Owl! I managed to get this recording of it.

The view from the top, looking north towards Tucson, was stunning.

In the next half-mile I had two more Northern Pygmy-Owls, this one perched in a Birch-leaf Mountain-mahogany. In this area, Yellow-eyed Juncos were particularly numerous.

As I skirted the slopes of Mount Hopkins, I found shady patches and talus slopes a bit tricky to navigate.

This is looking to the east towards Mount Wrightson, the higher of the Santa Rita's two peaks.

I had a few other good birds worth the invigorating hike, including three Golden-crowned Kinglets and this Williamson's Sapsucker.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Pajarito's Sycamore Canyon on the Atascosa Highlands CBC

Here are some photos from my fabulous, memorable day on the Atascosa Highlands Christmas Bird Count on December 22nd last year.

Jake Mohlmann, my close friend and now sole compiler of this spectacular and unequalled CBC, assigned me to do the hike into Sycamore Canyon from the trailhead, joined by Alex Baish, a graduate student at ASU. Alex was game for anything, so I suggested we camp, get up early, and get some owls down in the canyon and that way avoid covering the same stretch of canyon twice during daylight hours.

We awoke just before 2:00 a.m. and soon had a pair of Whiskered Screech-Owls at the trailhead, just after Jake came by as he was owling his way down Ruby Road. Alex and I began hiking down at 2:25 a.m.

This is a pretty rigorous hike with two rather tough spots – in the daylight, that is. During the dark, it turns out to be downright treacherous. Here's an older photo from the toughest spot that had me sweating it.

But we made it without injury and had a great day. We heard 8 Whiskered Screech-Owls (seeing two of them), heard a pair of Great Horned Owls, and most amazingly, heard then saw the eye-shine of a caterwauling Mountain Lion. I barely could make out that there was some sort of body below the eyeshines in my head lamp's beam, but that was cool enough.

One of the first birds of the morning was this female Elegant Trogon. This one and another that we heard ended up being half of the 4 seen on this year's CBC. This is the best place in the US for this species in the winter.

Some scenery shots from the canyon:

A dormant harvester ant (Pogonomyrmex sp.) colony.

Finally, on the way out of the canyon, we heard the Mountain Lion again, but only very distant, and weren't exactly certain what we had been hearing. Before we got very close to the sound, she had stopped. We had forgotten about it, and perhaps 20 minutes and a couple hundred yards later stopped to pish in a group of birds, and then she started yowling again. She seemed to be in a cave about 50 meters upslope but not visible from where we were (which is probably why she felt safe to start calling again). Her voice came and went as we assume she turned and faced into the cave, just out of sight. I got this recording:

Back at the trailhead, I discovered this Jerusalem Cricket underneath my tent.

Jake will soon be posting a summary of this great CBC at http://atascosahighlandscbc.blogspot.com.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Recipe: Brazilian Passionfruit Mousse from Cristalino Jungle Lodge

Spending months over the past 9 years at Brazil's Cristalino Jungle Lodge has allowed me to get to know the rather large repertoire of their kitchen, and all of has been good. But this particular dessert was one recipe I had to have, so I wrote down what my friend and cook Arlene did and modified it for our ingredients and the way I've learned how to make mousse. I've made it for several potlucks and get-togethers with friends, and most recently people enjoyed it at the Tucson Valley Christmas Bird Count compilation.

It has also made a regular appearance in my menus for the week-long WINGS tour at Gambell, Alaska, for which I am cook. In the past I've brought the passionfruit juice concentrate home from my trips to Brazil, but recently I discovered a lone source of it here in Tucson! Lee Lee Oriental Supermarket has a small Brazilian section in one of its aisles, and they even have Goya brand frozen passionfruit pulp.

Cristalino Jungle Lodge Passionfruit Mousse

1 packet unflavored gelatin
1/4 cup boiling water
1 cup whole milk
1 can (14 oz) sweetened condensed milk
1 cup (1/2 of a 500-ml bottle) Maguary brand passionfruit juice concentrate
1 cup heavy cream
1 fresh passionfruit or 1/2 cup frozen passionfruit pulp, thawed (optional)

1. Dissolve gelatin in the boiling water, stirring gently until completely dissolved, about 1 minute. Set aside to cool for about 10 minutes. Chill heavy cream, a medium mixing bowl, and hand mixer attachment in a freezer for 5-10 minutes while performing step 2 below.

2. Put milk into a blender, and with the motor running on high (cover when you start to keep it from splattering at first), gradually pour in sweetened condensed milk, followed by juice concentrate. Slowly pour in cooled gelatin solution and continue to blend on high for another minute or two until thickening and a slightly frothier consistency is noticed. Pour into a bowl and set aside.

4. Whip cream at medium speed in chilled bowl until beginning to thicken, about 15-30 seconds, then whip on high speed for another 45-60 seconds until soft peaks form. It will take longer if the cream is not very cold, but be careful not to over-whip and cause the butter to separate. Gently fold whipped cream into milk-juice mixture until no white streaks remain.

5. Pour into 9 X 9 inch square dish, cover surface with plastic wrap, and refrigerate for at least 5 hours.

6. Just before serving, remove plastic wrap and spread passionfruit pulp (including seeds if using fresh fruit) on surface of mousse for an added punch of tart flavor.

Master Chef Arlene Levandoski is one of the few employees of Cristalino Jungle Lodge who wasn't afraid to hold a Boa constrictor that I found on the lodge grounds in September, 2011.

Monday, January 6, 2014

The Last CBC of 2013-14

You'll note that the date of my last blog was the day before the Christmas Bird Count Season began. And then you'll note that yesterday was the last day of the season, with no blogs in the meantime. Not surprisingly, the more times I go out birding and naturalizing, and the more time passes, the more things I want to blog about, and the less time I have to actually write them up. I participated in only 5 CBCs this year, including Tucson Valley, which I also compiled. I also spent five days around Christmas in Mississippi with dear friends, and I knitted six hats in about as many days. I've baked four loaves of very different bread, and rashly threw together a winter veggie garden. So not only am I behind in blogging, I'm behind in many other things begging for my immediate attention. For now, here is a short blog on yesterday's last CBC for me, Buenos Aires NWR.

I had done this count twice before, the first time being January 4, 2002, when my friend Gabe Martinez spotted a Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl; and then there was last year's fun day with John Reuland, on which we saw several Long-eared Owls, about which I blogged.

Yesterday I did the upper San Luis Wash with Fabrice Schmitt, visiting from Chile. This was his first full day birding in North America, and it turns out even a highly accomplished naturalist (who has seen Snow Leopard and thousands of birds worldwide) can have fun and see a few new things in a relatively sparse Arizona desert in mid-winter. Besides the birds we tallied, Fabrice was excited to see Mule Deer, Collared Peccary (not new for him, of course), Antelope Jackrabbit, and Coyote. It was a good day.

We may have had the most diverse area in the circle with regard to habitats – desert washes with Velvet Ash and Netleaf Hackberries, rolling hillsides with mesquite and grassland grassland, some prominent rock outcroppings, and a few sparse patches of oak woodland. Most areas of this circle have much more open washes with only occasional trees and lots of open, flat mesquite scrub and grassland. As a result we had a pretty good bird list, totaling 58 species, including many "scoops" – species seen by no other group. I think Western Screech-Owl (3 seen and 9 more heard); singleton Acorn Woodpecker, Montezuma Quail, Hutton's Vireo, and Canyon Wren; and our two Black-chinned Sparrows were among those species no other group found. I think the two Killdeer we had on a cattle tank that we stumbled upon were the only ones for the count.

We had good numbers of birds most places we stopped, with Canyon Towhees (42 total), Black-throated Sparrows (64), and Bewick's Wrens (48) being at nearly every stop. In its 27-year history, this CBC has had a total number of Bewick's Wrens surpassing this only in 7 years. Another way of looking at this tidbit of data is that our area alone had more Bewick's Wrens than the entire CBC circle has tallied in 20 of those years. One year only 15 were found. 2013 must have been a very successful breeding season for this non-migratory bird.

Four of the Western Screech-Owls we detected tooted back to my imitation during the day (the other 8 were pre-dawn), a technique I use with pishing a lot (almost to a fault) to bring in mobbing passerines. But it works; just be careful what you pish for – at one point we were mobbed at very close range by about 85 birds of more than 12 species and had a hard time picking out everything. In the end, I think this mob had:

25 Western Bluebirds
20 Chipping Sparrows
12 White-crowned Sparrows
6 Black-throated Sparrows
4 Rufous-winged Sparrows
5 Bushtits
2 Gila Woodpeckers
1 Ladder-backed Woodpecker
1 Norther Flicker (never seen one of these respond so aggressively and come in so close!)
2 Yellow-rumped Warblers
4 Ruby-crowned Kinglets
1 Hutton's Vireo
3 Northern Cardinals
2 Black-tailed Gnatcatcher
4 Verdins
2 Bewick's Wrens

It was insane, but we had fun with it.

A little later, with a more manageable mob of only a handful of birds to deal with, Fabrice spotted this female Western Screech-Owl as she whistled back from her roost (the lower-pitched male tooting invisibly from a nearby tree).

We also had good numbers of Rufous-winged Sparrows (28), one of the most amazing and little-known comeback stories of a species that seemed to be on the brink of extinction just a hundred years ago.