Saturday, May 31, 2014

Out and About With the Naturalest Naturalist – Part 1

Jeremy Gatten – The Naturalest Naturalist and Aquilegia chrysantha
Any excuse for exploring my favorite corner of Arizona will do, so when Jeremy Gatten of Victoria, BC emailed me out of the blue and presented his own naturalist history blog as credentials – The Naturalest Naturalist – as well as our connection with the Peru Birding Rally Challenge (he won a free spot on the press van on last year’s event) – I said I’d be happy to join him. He was going to be in Phoenix for a course on bats and would do some birding on his own before it, but he was especially interested in looking at butterflies, dragonflies, and other critters if I were available afterward. I suggested the southward-flowing drainages of the Atascosa-Pajarito Mountains on the border, and I also proposed we camp in order to try for Buff-collared Nightjars.

So the day after Anthony and I birded the Chiricahuas, Jeremy stopped by my place before dawn, and we made a bee-line for Ruby Road, starting on the west end at Arivaca. Of course, we found it impossible not to stop and made two random pauses on Arivaca Road where Gray Hawks screamed, Rufous-winged Sparrows were in pairs everywhere, migrant Lark Sparrows were in flocks of a hundred or more, and a distant Crissal Thrasher was in full song. Once beyond Arivaca, we saw two Antelope Jackrabbits (the first 2 miles of Ruby Road are the best place I know for this species), made a quick stop hoping for Thick-billed Kingbird in Oro Blanco Wash (a very birdy spot with migrants such as MacGillivray’s Warbler and Green-tailed Towhee, but no kingbird), and then stopped just when we got into the oaks just short of the watershed divide.

As soon as we got out of the car, I heard the distinctive whistles and proceeded to show Jeremy how to whistle in Montezuma Quail. This male came right up to us after just about 2 minutes of whistling. There was another nearby that wasn’t quite as close and at least three more about 100 yards away on another hillside.

By the time we left here at 8:00 a.m., we had already seen and heard nearly 70 species of birds, and we still hadn’t even started down California Gulch yet. I had Jeremy come to a stop when I saw these blooming Huachuca Mountain Rocktrumpet, Macrosiphonia brachysiphon just above the California Gulch Road. They were still quite fragrant, but at night the heavenly scent of a single flower can perfume a large room.

We were hoping for odonates (dragonflies and damselflies) when we stopped just below the upper dam in California Gulch, but it was still too cool; a cold front had just passed through making the temperatures very pleasant for us. This bold Vermilion Flycatcher was fun to watch in any event.

I made Jeremy stop for another plant on the side of the road, this Pine-needle Milkweed, Asclepias linaria, an individual plant I know well, as it’s been here for years.

There were a few flowers, but I was looking for moths and bugs. There were some Oleander Aphids, Aphis nerii, common on almost any type of milkweed.

And probably not a coincidence nearby was this Spotless Lady Beetle, Cycloneda sanguinea.

We then spent the next couple of hours exploring the highest part of the California Gulch Road where it overlooks Old Glory Wash and its confluence with Warsaw Canyon. Before long we saw Five-striped Sparrows here, but we had to scramble down the slope to see them well. One of the rather tropical plants in this same area is Doll's Head, Lagascea decipiens, one of my favorite composites. What you are seeing in this photo is a cluster of single-flowered heads at the end of a branch. Each showy little flower is subtended by its very own phyllaries, a highly unusual arrangement in Asteraceae.

This plant bug nymph is probably in the genus Largus. Even adults are difficult to identify to species.

There were several grasshoppers in the diverse desert scrub, and we still don’t have a name for most. All appeared to be band-winged grasshoppers, subfamily Oedipodinae. During the summer rainy season and fall, this subfamily is far outnumbered by spur-throated grasshoppers, Melanoplinae, so it’s interesting that we didn’t see any of those. This distinctive one is either Leprus wheeleri or Leprus intermedius; the shape of the pronotum seems to point to the latter, called Sassure’s Blue-winged Grasshopper, but then color of the hind wing seems better for Wheeler’s. I’ll defer to Dave Ferguson on Bugguide when he gets a chance..

This bee fly appears to be Exoprosopa butleri, but an expert on Bugguide will have the final say. Bee flies often perch and have field marks, so despite their parasitoid lifestyle, the field ID of them is a lot like damselflies. You just need a good macro lens and patience.

This Macdougal's Nipple Cactus, Mammillaria macdougalii closely resembles Pancake Cactus.

This Purple Scalystem, Elytraria imbricata is impressive only if you look very closely. It’s amazing that it could have such profuse blooms in this parched, limestone outcropping with such little rain this winter.

Doctorbush, Plumbago zeylanica. This rather tropical genus of plants just barely makes it into the US in SE Arizona, Texas, and Florida, and here only in a few localities. I have no idea why it has that common name; maybe someone imagined  “Zhivago” in the scientific name?

We scrambled to a small but prominent peak above the road and found it to have not only this fabulous view, but also some hilltopping insects.

A hilltopping Mormon Metalmark, Apodemia mormo. (The English name is a conflagration of the specific epithet, which means “dark,” but that’s how a lot of common names of butterflies have been coined. Take the skipper Carrhenes bamba, for example; it’s called Ritchie Valens’ skipper since he made the song La Bamba famous, but that’s probably a Jim Brock invention.) [Update: Jeremy looked into this one further and found that it is actually a MEXICAN METALMARK, Apodemia mejicanus mejicanus! I'm sure I've seen this in Arizona before, but it's been so many years, I totally forgot about that as an option.]

A Mournful Duskywing, Erynnis tristis. Unlike the Paciuvius from the Chiricahuas, this one is trickier to identify, looking especially similar to Funereal, but it helps that this is a fresh individual with brightly colored forewing patches and a nice, bright hindwing fringe.

This Pahaska Skipper, Hesperia pahaska was one of two very territorial ones on the hilltop.

I don’t know if this bee fly, Poecilanthrax poecilogaster was also hilltopping or just on a typical territory.

Finally a few more plants that were in this area: the usually spineless and often purple-stemmed Santa Rita Prickly-pear, Opuntia santa-rita. The flowers were full of tiny thrips, but they were too small for me to get a good photo.

This plant I recognized from the Galapagos, Waltheria indica, with Uhaloa being the common name on the plants.usda website, which I don’t quite understand. It’s ok for the plants native to Hawaii, but should we be also changing the name of our Short-eared Owl here to Pueo? In any event, when I first learned this plant it was still in Sterculiaceae, the same family as cacao, but that whole family is now lumped into the mallow family, Malvaceae. I always thought this one looked more like a mallow anyway. It just barely makes it into a few southern states in the US.

There are more Daleas (prairie-clover) than you can imagine in Santa Cruz county. This is almost certainly Dalea pringlei, but the traditional botanical keys don’t let you just look at flowers – you need fruits, stems, leaves, and in some cases even roots to see whether it’s an annual or perennial.

This one is also pretty much a guess, Dalea pulchra, Santa Catalina Prairie Clover. It’s rather shrubby and weedy but very attractive up close.

This takes us up until about noon only on this really full day of natural history exploration. I’ll cover the latter half of the day in the next blog.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Four Days of Fun in Southeastern Arizona

Anthony checking his photos of the Sinaloa Wren.
This past late April I took four days off of my usual busy work at home to have fun in the field with friends visiting from out of state.  First came Anthony Collerton of New York (and a very avid Long Island birder), whom I first met 12 years ago on a tour to Bolivia. He was in the state for a meeting and tagged on some days to look for some of our special birds.

After rather quickly finding the Rufous-capped Warbler pair in Florida Canyon (and coincidentally bumping into our friends Ken and Sue Feustel also from Long Island), we continued to look for the Sinaloa Wren by Tubac. By then it was mid-day, and in about two hours we heard and saw lots of birds but no target bird. A pair of Common Ravens were nesting near here, and I snapped this shot just as the wind blew the neck feathers of this member of the pair. Pitfall for the unwary: Common Ravens also have very pale bases to the neck feathers; it may be a bit more extensive or even whiter in Chihuahuan Raven, but it’s not a reliable field mark. Look at the size and proportion of the bill and nasal bristles instead. Or listen to the voice. Or leave them unidentified as “raven sp.”

There weren’t many insects around, but I did find this Plateau Spreadwing, Lestes alacer while waiting for the wren.

We finally decided to cut our losses here and try for the other wren – an hour and a half away on Fort Huachuca. It didn’t take long before I spotted this very sneaky Sinaloa Wren feeding in the dense streamside habitat. The first US record of this species was less than six years ago in Patagonia, while one was found in this same location the following spring, five years ago this month. This one was discovered last fall, but was said to be a juvenile bird, which would make it a different individual. I'm not sure how it was aged, however, and it seems a mighty strange coincidence to have the 2nd and 4th US records in exactly the same spot.

The bird wasn’t at all shy, once foraging just a meter from my feet and ignoring my movements and sound while trying to get other birders on it. But it moved steadily through the thickets, not making much sound, and was soon nearly invisible and impossible to follow once it was in the thickest areas of the shrubbery.

The next day, Anthony and I decided to try for the Slate-throated Redstart found the previous day in South Fork Cave Creek in the Chiricahuas by Chris Charlesworth. This would be a new ABA-area bird for both of us, and being the third record in the US this spring was clearly part of a unprecedented pattern. (There have since been two more found in the Chiricahuas, but neither seems to want to stay more than a day or two.)

We hiked the ½ mile or so through some gorgeous habitat.

We met many birders from out of state who were clueless about the Slate-throated Redstart report and were just as eager to see the comparatively abundant Elegant Trogon. Many of them missed the trogon, while we found ourselves seeing a pair again and again, almost tiring of this tropical gem. Shoo!

Painted Redstarts were everywhere, often joining the very active mixed flocks that also contained several migrants such as Townsend's and Hermit Warblers.

During the several hours we spent walking back and forth along a half mile of the canyon, I took time to look at some bugs. This bee fly is in the diverse genus Hemipenthes, and I can’t tell whether this one is H. scylla or H. sinuosa – or perhaps another more obscure species.

Pacuvius Duskywings, Erynnis pacuvius were here and there along the trail. Generally the duskywings are really hard to identify, but this one is more compact and has a more variegated pattern than most.

The huge Silver-spotted Skipper, Epargyreus clarus is easy to identify; nothing looks like it in Arizona, even if you can’t see the huge white slash on the underside of the hind wing.

Alpine Cancer-root, Conopholis alpina is a horrible sounding name for this parasitic plant, related to Indian paintbrush, but I suppose someone thought it’s better than boomrape.

By far our best finds along this trail were the snakes: I spotted this Black-tailed Rattlesnake, Crotalus molossus before it noticed us, but it was very quick to take up a defensive posture and begin rattling.

And right in the middle of the trail was this gorgeous Sonoran Mountain Kingsnake, Lampropeltis pyromelana, perhaps only the 4th or 5th one I’ve ever found.

After giving up on the Slate-throated Redstart (which was never seen again), we went to the highest elevations of the Chiricahuas, hoping for Short-tailed Hawk, but the wind from an approaching cold front was unbelievable. It was sustained around 30 or 40 mph, with gusts over 60.

So I enjoyed the flowers, such as this New Mexico Lupine, Lupinus neomexicanus

And this Scrambled Eggs, Corydalis aurea. I began botanizing knowing this as a member of the bleeding heart family, Fumariacaea; this has now been subsumed into the poppy family, Papaveraceae.

On our way down the mountain this tom Wild Turkey was displaying at a female. Notice the pale rump and tail tips, indicating one of the western subspecies. These birds were introduced here, perhaps from a Mexican or Texas population.

We finished the day with a short but bird-filled stop at “Lake Cochise,” the treated sewage pond behind the Willcox golf course. This is a Long-billed Dowitcher.

A group of White-faced Ibis foraged intently by the road that circles the lake.

Semipalmated Plover is a uncommon migrant here.

We coincided with the narrow window of migration for Franklin's Gull.

An a second-year Bonaparte's Gull stopped by for good comparison.

Not only birds are the attraction here: the Pink-flowered Hedgehog Cactus, Echinocereus fendleri was in full bloom.

I turned over a piece of wood and found this Arizona Stripe-tailed Scorpion, Vaejovis spinigerus.

Despite the lack of trees here, this Ornate Tree Lizard, Urosaurus ornatus was in the same area.

Anthony continued on to Phoenix, where he caught up with the established Rosy-faced Lovebirds, and then the next morning I joined Jeremy Gatten, visiting from Victoria BC – the topic of my next two blogs.

Addendum: For added observations and a different perspective, read Anthony's blog on this trip.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Oregon Shakespeare Festival and Birding – The Festival that's not a Festival

Now that the Peru Birding Rally Challenge is behind me, I’m busy formatting the bird lists to upload to eBird, but I’m also looking ahead to my upcoming tours and also slowly getting caught up in editing and labeling photos from past trips (and that backlog dates back a few years for some trips).

In the Looking Ahead category, my back-to-back Oregon in Late Summer and Birds and Shakespeare tours could use some more sign-ups. I know huge number of people who read my blog can only dream of going on a birding tour (and I’m sure there are a few who wouldn’t dream of going on one), but I thought maybe explaining what the tours are like and spreading the word might help.

The mating Hydaspe Fritillaries in the photo above were taken on my Birds & Shakespeare tour in southwestern Oregon a few years ago. I’ve done this tour four times previously, and all have been hugely successful and highly rated by the participants. It’s a successful mix of nature and culture in a part of the world that is surprisingly both wild and civilized. This year’s tour is September 5-11.

The rugged mountains here have a complex geologic history, and while we don’t go into any details (that’s a different tour), we do get to enjoy the scenery. This is from near the summit of Mount Ashland.

We visit a variety of forest types on our morning birding outings, including open pine forests, such as the one that contains this tallest Western White Pine in the world.

And below Mount Ashland are some alpine-like meadows and stands of true fir and Douglas-fir.

We start every day with a picnic breakfast in a gorgeous surrounding.

And then we see what birds are around, not necessarily looking for target species, but certainly keeping our search images sharp for regional specialties such as White-headed Woodpecker.

Mountain Quail occurs in coveys this time of year, so bumping into a group is more likely than in the spring when they are nesting.

If we have a chance to bird the lower elevation valleys, Wrentit would be a possible sighting. This amazing bird seems more like a tropical species in so many ways – males and females sing (the songs are slightly different), they form permanent pair bonds, they have small territories, and they disperse only very short distances from their natal area to form new territories. I could go on about Wrentits, but that could be the subject of another blog.

On four of the days after our morning of birding, we go to a play at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival – either an afternoon or an evening performance. The link is to their snazzy website. In the past we’ve seen as many as seven plays during the tour, but we’ve shortened the tour and limited it to two Shakespeare plays and two others. But what I feel I need to stress the most is that OSF is not a festival – it’s a full-time, world-class, professional acting company. I’d heard about it since I was in grade school, but somehow I never did take a class field trip there even though it is only 4 ½ hours south of where I grew up. And of course as a high school student I couldn’t stand Shakespeare, even though we had the relatively easy Taming of the Shrew as our assignment. So for the longest time I imagined it was a summer stage set up in a park with a troupe of locals who practiced for a few weeks to perform one month each year. It turns out this couldn’t be farther from the truth. The acting company has a huge staff and dozens of full-time, union actors who live in Ashland. They boast impressive backgrounds of training and experience from Broadway and Hollywood, stage, movie, and TV careers. There are three theaters in the complex, and at any one time during the 8 ½ moth season there are as many as nine different plays being performed during each week. Only four of them are Shakespeare, and the rest are an impressive variety of standard works, some more modern, some even older than Shakespeare, and some even commissioned for OSF.

When booking plays I try to choose two Shakespeare plays that complement each other – one comedy and one more serious, but this year the schedule worked out to have two lighter comedies: The Two Gentlemen of Verona and The Comedy of Errors.

The first of the two non-Shakespeare plays we’ll be seeing is The Great Society By Robert Schenkkan. It’s a continuation of the fabulous play we saw two years ago about Lyndon Johnson’s presidency; I’m really looking forward to it. The other is Water by the Spoonful by Alegría Hudes, also a serious play but one that looks to be interesting. It was hard to pick and choose from the nine plays offered during the time of the tour, and I’d love to see all the rest. Many play fanatics come here every year, stay for four or five days, seeing two each day.

Monday is a day with no plays, so we take off that day for the Klamath Basin and its wildlife refuges, huge mountain meadows, and fabulous scenery. We spend the night near Fort Klamath in a quaint, friendly motel and I prepare a grilled dinner for the group. On passing though the Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuge, we’ll stop at a spot where we might spot a roosting Barn Owl such as this one.

Then a real highlight for some is the next day as we drive back to Ashland via the stunning Crater Lake – mostly for the scenery, but also with some nice birds such as Gray Jay and Clark’s Nutcracker. Last year these two Red-tailed Hawks soared below us at one of the many overlooks on the Rim Drive.

On the way back to Ashland we stopped by a reservoir and saw a couple Great-tailed Grackles, a rare bird in Oregon.

We then have two more nights in Ashland, and if we haven’t spotted a Great Gray Owl in our wandering the forests during the day, there’s the option of an evening outing. Last year, all participants were bushed and happy with what we all saw. So was I, but I was still curious how easy they might be at night, since I had never tried it then. I made the drive on my own, about 35 minutes from our hotel, and instantly found this begging juvenile Great Gray Owl. While I watched it for a few minutes, an adult flew in, fed it, and flew off. It did make for a long day, so I do hope we’ll find one during the day this year.