Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Three SE Arizona Christmas Bird Counts

How time is getting away from me! I got home December 4 from my Yucatan tour and dug myself in to get the post-tour materials done while at the same time preparing for the Tucson Valley Christmas Bird Count, for which I’m the compiler. This year I had some help from local birder Luke Safford, and next year he will be the compiler. I’ve had fun organizing this for the past five years, and I’m very lucky to have already found someone to pass it on to.

As I have for the past years, I made tons of home made chili from scratch (no chili powder – real toasted dried chilies ground in the food processor with other ingredients such as cumin and cocoa powder) and baked several loaves of breads for the CBC countdown potluck. The six batches of chili took all day Monday the 12th, and the bread took much of the next day. The CBC was on this past Wednesday, December 14, the first day of the CBC season.

Two loaves each of a traditional French sourdough (30% whole wheat), and a hearth rye seigle (60% rye).

I chose to cover the area that involves a very strenuous hike up Finger Rock Canyon to Mount Kimball with my friend Max Li. It’s a total of about 13 miles round trip as we did it (going a bit beyond Mount Kimball into upper Pima Canyon and back), and elevation gain of 4860 feet over 5.7 miles.

I last did  this four years ago in the snow, but this time we had record high temperatures, and in only a few very shady slopes were there tiny patches of snow from a front that came through over two weeks ago. This area has the highest elevations in the circle with lots of oak-pinyon forest and even a few stands of Arizona Pine.

Here’s a view looking south over Tucson towards the Santa Rita Mountains.

Here is looking southwest at the back side of the rocky peak that has Finger Rock (the tiny, slightly left-leaning spire to the left of the highest ridge).

The slopes to the north and west of Mount Kimball are even steeper, if that’s imaginable, and views that direction have no intervening ridges. This is Picacho Peak right along the I-10 corridor towards Phoenix.

Many species occur in these woods and nowhere else in the circle. The pinyons had a good crop of cones this year, and we had plenty of all three species of jay, including this Woodhouse's Scrub-Jay (the others being Steller’s and Mexican).

It was so warm, we had four species of butterfly, such as this Red Admiral.

We had two Coues's White-tailed Deer at this viewpoint called Linda Vista.

This Cooper's Hawk, with a molting tail, almost giving it a Sharp-shinned shape, provided a bit of an ID challenge.

Other good high-elevation birds we had included Acorn Woodpecker, White-breasted Nuthatch, Bushtit, Bridled Titmouse, and a rare Juniper Titmouse. This Rufous-crowned Sparrow sat on the trail on our way back down the mountain, but this species was found by one or two other groups covering other foothill canyons that get into grassy slopes above the desert scrub.

Our last new bird of the day and yet another scoop for our area was this Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet, only about 1 ¼ miles from the car. It’s rare in the Tucson area in the winter; this is only the 8th year out of 45 that it has been found.

With my legs in excruciating pain from the ridiculous hike, I then proceeded to hike a total of about 6 miles the very next day for the Patagonia Christmas Bird Count. I birded with Malcolm Chesworth (left) and Josh Stewart (right, tooting into his pygmy-owl whistle). This was the same area I covered last year, called Sycamore Canyon and Finley and Adams Canyon, both off of Duquesne Road between Nogales and Patagonia. We were about 3 ½ miles from the border with Sonora Mexico.

Here’s a view of the San Rafael Grasslands and Huachuca Mountains, looking to the southeast.

As last year, we had a stakeout Spotted Owl in a known territory.

We had at least four Hepatic Tanagers, a scarce winter bird in Arizona.

My best find was this Golden-crowned Sparrow, chirping loudly on a weedy hillside with two White-crowned Sparrows and about a dozen Lincoln’s Sparrows accompanying it.

We had lots of Western Bluebirds but only one small group of Eastern Bluebirds of the resident subspecies. Note the white belly, the brighter orange tone to the breast, and the pale cheek contrasting with the top of the head.

It was another record warm day (up to 84°F in Tucson, probably about 5 degrees cooler here), so it wasn’t surprising to see seven species of butterfly and even a few grasshoppers. I think one is Melanoplus lakinus, the Lakin Grasshopper.

Finally, on Saturday the 17th I did my third and final CBC before I have to leave for my Oaxaca at Christmastime tour, which starts on December 22. This was the Santa Catalina Mountains CBC, which borders the Tucson Valley circle to the east. And as last year I did it with my friend Andrew Broan.

This time we were assigned a portion of the Arizona Trail starting at Molino Basin, in the lower oak zone, a much easier route than the treacherous cross-country trek we did last year starting higher and ending at this location. Our route today was only 8 miles, though my legs weren’t quite back to normal and pain free yet. I figured the activity (pain relieved a bit with some ibuprofen) was better for recovery than sitting at the computer all day.

We went over a small ridge and then had gradual downhill multiple use trail (horseback riding and mountain biking too), turning off toward La Milagrosa Canyon to drop down into the NE Tucson basin. Much of the hike was in mid-elevation desert grassland, and northern slopes had Red-berry Juniper woodland.

In this zone we had the count's only Sage Thrasher, and I got this very distant photo of it.

I’m pretty sure this is Mammillaria macdougalii, MacDougal's Nipple Cactus, formerly known as pancake cactus, but a young, well-watered, and swollen individual.

Our hike eventually took us down through the “thermal belt,” the cold-drained lower slopes of the Santa Catalinas covered in Saguaro forest. Here we had the count's only Gilded Flickers.

Andrew spotted this Saguaro in full bloom, exactly 6 months out of sync.

With the passage of a cold front the night before (including lots of wind, ¼” rain, and high temperatures nearly 30 degrees lower than two days earlier, bird activity was still high in mid-afternoon when we got back to the car at the Horsehead Road trailhead.

Female Northern Cardinal

Male Pyrrhuloxia

A very photogenic Black-throated Sparrow right next to the car.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Christmas Bird Count Prep 1 – Pima Canyon

In preparation for the Tucson Valley Christmas Bird Count on December 14 (for which I’m the primary compiler), this past Saturday I made a workout of biking to and hiking Pima Canyon, in the foothills just a few miles north of where I live. I’m planning on doing the Finger Rock Canyon trail to Mt. Kimball and back, which is the distance and elevational change equivalent of hiking into the bottom of the Grand Canyon and back. One should be fit, and that I am not.

That day was the day of Tucson’s largest annual biking event, El Tour de Tucson, and as I biked up First Ave and approached Ina Road, part of the race’s route, I came across this incredibly stupidly placed sign alerting northbound drivers to expect exceptional bike traffic ahead. It’s impossible for me to put myself in head of the county worker who placed this sign, completely blocking the bike path for any cyclists not part of the race. Could he have not been aware that was a bike lane? Or unaware that people bike in Tucson other than on that single day? I’m convinced that headlines such as “Tucson region receives 'Gold Award' as bicycle friendly community” are completely spurious political favors and have no basis in reality. But don’t get me started. Yes, I moved the sign, after the city police prepared to direct traffic at the intersection ahead shrugged their shoulders and said "not my problem – that's a county road." If was mad to begin with, I became furious.

It was indeed a good workout, and I pumped the frustration out of my circulation, biking almost entirely uphill all the way, followed by a rigorous hike of 1 ¼ miles through hilly desert before I reached birdable riparian habitat. Here’s a view of the most lush section of canyon bottom with two kinds of willow and Fremont Cottonwood, among a huge diversity of shrubs and vines.

This is where I located this Bell's Vireo, almost certainly the same bird that Paul Suchanek had in this area the past two winters. Though he only had it while scouting before the Christmas Bird Count last year, we had bad weather on the CBC day, making finding birds difficult. When he found it on the CBC two years ago, it was the first in the Tucson Valley CBC’s 44-year history. I think there are only a couple other winter records for elsewhere in SE Arizona. This bird lacks the bright yellow flanks and greener back of the eastern subspecies, so I’d guess that it comes from the northern edge of the SW subspecies’ breeding range in Utah or Nevada and anomalously migrates just this far.
Bell's Vireo, Pima County, Arizona

Bell's Vireo, Pima County, Arizona

Bell's Vireo, Pima County, Arizona

I pished and tooted up a few mixed flock of residents and winter birds. The Black-tailed Gnatcatchers are here year-round and have apparently had very good breeding success recently – I tallied 16 on my eBird submission.
Black-tailed Gnatcatcher

I had only about three Rufous-crowned Sparrows, but they are at the lower edge of their elevational range here (they don’t know the elevation, but their distinctive preferred habitat of open brushy and rocky slopes with bunch grasses is more continuous higher up).
Rufous-crowned Sparrow

A Spotted Towhee was either a local altitudinal migrant or a medium-distance migrant from the northern tier of US states or southern Canada; I suspect the latter, but I don’t think you can tell from the plumage characteristics here.
Spotted Towhee

It’s been unbelievably warm with no real cold fronts yet this season, so arthropods were in full abundance. This is Archilestes grandis, the Great Spreadwing.
Archilestes grandis, Great Spreadwing

The larger of these two wasps on Coreocarpus arizonicus, Little Lemonhead is a female in the family Scoliidae and genus Campsomeris. I have no idea about the other, but it might be a male of the same species.
Campsomeris sp. scoliid wasp

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Another Blog from Home – Garden, Moths, Knitting, Bread, and Wine

I got home from my private tour to Amazonian Ecuador and a short scouting trip to SE Peru just over two weeks ago, and time has flown by. I’ve sorted my photos and weeded out thousands of useless ones, but that still leaves 1505 photos, many of which I still haven’t even labeled. I’ll be posting here some eventually.

Despite the incredibly depressing election news, and a few days of severe morosity that resulted in my inability to do anything productive (you may not be a racist and a bigot if you voted for Trump, but you are an intellectually inept moron, not deserving of American citizenship), life has slowly resumed a normal pace if not with normal expectations for the future. My garden had mixed success, but overall positive, and I’m certain my work on the soil will have benefits for months to come. It turns out that many vegetable seeds don’t live long in the unprotected environment of my house; maybe the warm, humid monsoon is bad for them. But almost everything from freshly-ordered seed this past late summer sprouted abundantly, and just thinning the rows of mizuna, bok choy, and arugula seedlings provided me with a two big, delicious salads. Here’s what the garden looked like 31 days after sowing it.

The I’itoy onions went berserk, nasturtiums and snow peas had 100% and very rapid success, and all the sweet peas around the perimeter did well. Most of the things from the previous garden that I tried to transplant didn’t survive the trip – four days in a wheelbarrow (watered and covered with straw to protect them) was just too much of a shock – one red Salvia, two peppers, and the native Penstemon parryi are all that are left. All of the snapdragons, marigolds, and Monarda I put in as young starts from the general garden store were fine. But that still left many rows of soaker hose without any winter veggies. So the day after I got back from Peru I ordered more seeds from Nichols Garden Nursery of Albany, Oregon, my favorite source of seeds for their huge variety of heirloom and organic seeds. I sowed the seeds as soon as they arrived, and the first poked their heads out 5 days later. Here’s the garden yesterday, 39 days after the original sowing and 9 days after the second sowing.

I’ve regularly been checking the front porch light for moths, and from the signs of nibbles in all of the plants around the yard, there should be plenty around. But most are probably micromoths that go undetected. Here are two larger ones that I was able to ID:

Tornos erectarius, a native Geometrid.

Noctua pronuba, Large Yellow Underwing, an introduced species not yet with any records from Arizona on Bugguide.

I haven’t been able to knit much in recent months, but I finally finished two hats I’ve been working on extremely slowly since late May (there’s a sweater I’m designing and is about 3 years behind schedule, so I try not to start anything new). I’ve already given these away as gifts to my friends Matt and Sarah.

I’ve also put my new rye bread book to use: this is the Pumpkinseed Rye Bread.

Finally, I had a mini pizza and wine-tasting party last weekend, with only about 10 friends instead of the 60+ last time. I now have a tiny fridge and just can’t hold enough of the dough to hold a huge party any more. The surprise this time is that all of the wines were boxes.

The winning wine after ranking all of the scores was #5: The Naked Grape Cabernet Sauvignon.