Thursday, January 28, 2016

NE Tucson’s Rillito River Sparrows

Rillito River

Last Thursday I spent a couple hours of the morning checking the sparrow flocks along the Rillito River with my friend Keith Kamper. It was a good excuse for a bike ride (about 12 miles round trip), and I wanted to follow up on a report of Clay-colored Sparrow from the Tucson Valley CBC over 5 weeks ago. Thanks to the rainy first week of January, there’s still water flowing in the wash.

We tallied 36 species as we walked the wash between Craycroft and Swan Roads, slowly flushing birds as we navigated the sometimes dense brush. One of the first birds I spotted was a White-throated Sparrow, a bird that was missed on the CBC and the second one to be found in the circle since then. I failed to get a photo of it. Birds disappear quickly in this habitat.
Rillito River

By far the most abundant bird this morning was Lesser Goldfinch. Most of them had already eaten and bathed and were joining in a chorus of insanse mimicry in the mesquites lining the bike path. We hoped to find  Lawrence’s among them, but there weren’t any.
Lesser Goldfinch

The shrub they and the many other sparrows are feasting on is a composite with very strange fruits, Ambrosia salsola, Burrobush. It used to be placed in the genus Hymenoclea but now is merged with the ragweeds and bursages.
Ambrosia salsola, Burrobush

Ambrosia salsola, Burrobush

There were lots of White-crowned Sparrows, and just one of them was of the rare (here in winter) subspecies oriantha, with the black lores and pinkish orange (not yellow) bill.
White-crowned Sparrow oriantha

There were a few Rufous-winged Sparrows.
Rufous-winged Sparrows

But we paid particular attention to the flocks and flocks of Brewer’s Sparrows, drab, but cute.
Brewer’s Sparrow

Brewer’s Sparrow

And it finally paid off – a Clay-colored Sparrow amongst them! Extremely similar in size, shape, proportions, and call note, they usually hang out with Brewer’s. The pale lores, broad grayish-buff supercilium, contrastingly pale whitish malar, gray collar, and well-defined ear coverts with a warm brown center are all good marks, but it was the contrasting brown patch in the wing caused by the edges of the tertials and secondaries that first caught my eye.
Clay-colored Sparrow

We flushed a couple Greater Roadrunners on our way back.
Greater Roadrunner

It was still cool, but there was an active nest of these shiny, smooth harvester ants. Their small size, shinyness, time of year, and shape of the nest help identify them as Veromessor pergandei.
Veromessor pergandei

Veromessor pergandei

Sycamore Canyon in the Patagonia Mountains

I’m almost to Peru, where I’ll leading my WINGS tour in the states of San Martín and Amazonas. Some really cool birds are waiting for us, and I’ll take a break boning up on their call notes in order to share a few photos from the only birding I did in the past week.

Last Wednesday I joined my friends Ken and Laurel from Fairbanks (we were all birders in Corvallis when I was in college). Only after they arrived at my place did we decide on where to go, and since they had not managed to find any Spotted Owls in the still very cold and icy canyons in the Huachucas on their own, I thought it would be fun to see the area where one I saw on the Patagonia Christmas Bird Count five weeks earlier. It wasn’t in the same tree, but it was nearby. Ken walked right under it before I spotted it.
Spotted Owl

The grassy, open oak woodlands here is ideal habitat for Montezuma Quail, but we didn’t find any today. But like five weeks ago there were still lots of flocks of Chipping Sparrows and Dark-eyed Juncos, and we spotted to Black-throated Gray Warblers among them. In one of them I spotted a rare Slate-colored Junco, the only one I’ve seen this winter.
Dark-eyed Junco (Slate-colored)

This would be a wonderful bird quiz photo, and I know some people who could probably figure it out. But I saw it well, and it called at the time, and can confirm it as a Hammond’s Flycatcher. The wingbars are too broad even for a Hutton’s Vireo, and to tell it from Dusky Flycatcher, the length and spacing of the primary tips as they project beyond the tertials is important.
Hammond's Flycatcher

We saw two Golden Eagles soaring and flying around repeatedly during our hike.
Golden Eagle

I was surprised to find an active grasshopper on this chilly date. It was actually quite small and it was remarkable how it flushed from the grasses to retreat into the lower branches of an Alligator Juniper. If my submission to Bugguide get labeled, I’ll try to remember to update it here.
2/21/16: I've just received notification from Buggide that David Ferguson has identified this as Aidemona azteca, the Aztec Spur-throat. It is one of only six species of grasshopper that have been posted from the month of January in Arizona.

Here’s a zoomed in view of the Atascosa Mountains 25 miles to the west.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

ABC Field Trip and a Montosa Elegant Trogon

I managed to get out birding twice in the past two days. On Sunday Jennie MacFarland from Tucson Audubon and I volunteered to help Dan Lebbin with the field trip he had organized for the American Bird Conservancy’s board, who had been in Tucson for the past few days for meetings. Since one can’t really be in total control of a group of 35 participants who were there to just have fun, I didn’t even try, and I ended up having a really nice day with some wonderful people. Dan had planned the itinerary with my consultation, but it was his idea to first head to the Sonoita grasslands of Las Cienegas National Conservation Area to look for Baird’s Sparrow. Here is part of the group, elated after our having seen one extremely well. Some of them even got really good photos.

Looking to the west from the Cienegas NCA, one could see Mount Wrightson (elevation 9453 feet) in the Santa Rita Mountains.
Mount Wrightson, Santa Rita Mountains

We made stops at the Paton Center in Patagonia, along the Santa Cruz River by Tubac, and at Montosa Canyon, seeing lots of great birds. Montezuma Quail right on the shoulder of busy AZ Highway 82, a Lazuli Bunting at the Paton Center, Lawrence’s Goldfinches at Tubac, and Black-capped Gnatcatchers and two Common Poorwills at Montosa were the highlights. Here is a grainy shot of one of the several Lawrence’s Goldfinches, a truly stunning finch.
Lawrence’s Goldfinch

Then yesterday I returned to Montosa Canyon with my friend Greg Corman, a plant person, artist, and an increasingly keen birder. It had been only just over 12 hours since I was here with the ABC group, but it’s one of my favorite places in SE Arizona with lots of side drainages to explore.  I began coming here in 1997, long before it was in any of the bird-finding guides, and it eventually made it to the list of places to visit when I found Black-capped Gnatcatchers here in October 2003, a bird I had predicted to occur here since my first visit. The geology and topography combine to create some wonderful views and fascinating mix of plants. This is looking east up the canyon to Mount Hopkins and one of the Smithsonian’s telescopes in the Whipple Observatory. This is the sister peak, at 8553 feet, of Mount Wrightson.
Mount Hopkins, Santa Rita Mountains

Looking in the opposite direction, between the limestone peaks on the flanks of the Santa Ritas, you can see Baboquivari Peak 40 miles away.
Baboquivari Peak from Montosa Canyon

We hiked about a half mile up the canyon from where the road leaves the main drainage and begins to climb up to the observatory. Lush grasses and other plants from the abundant monsoon meant lots of birds.
Montosa Canyon habitat

Montosa Canyon habitat

We’ve had several winter rain events as well, putting a small trickle of running water into the main Montosa drainage.
Montosa Canyon habitat

Here’s Greg under a huge Rhus virens, Evergreen Sumac, normally a shrub to 3-4 feet high.
Rhus virens, Evergreen Sumac

We tallied 42 species here and in the lower part of the canyon. This American Robin was the only one we saw; it’s not a common bird here at any time of year.
American Robin

We had lots of Dark-eyed Junco flocks. This is the subspecies Gray-headed Junco, but we also had Pink-sided and Oregon subspecies.
Dark-eyed Junco, Gray-headed Junco

The abundant sumac (three species!) and hackberry fruits means lot of food  for Hermit Thrushes, and our tally of 27 is indeed a lot for a single outing.
Hermit Thrushe

But our best find was this Elegant Trogon, which I predicted we might see. Individuals have been found wintering lower in the canyon in previous winters, but there haven’t been any reports since November, and few people venture this far up the canyon.
Elegant Trogon

It was surprising to see this Carphochaete bigelovii, Bigelow’s Bristlehead (an unusual composite with no ray flowers and relatively huge disk flowers) in bloom, with a very lush patch of plants bursting with flower buds. The ancient Arizona Flora says it begins blooming in March.
Carphochaete bigelovii, Bigelow’s Bristlehead

Another nice fruiting shrub in this canyon is the subtropical Condalia correllii, Correll’s Snakewood. Greg has a related species in his yard, C. warnockii, and he says Pyrrhuloxias find it irresistible. Indeed, towards the end of our day I watched one feeding on these fruits.
Condalia correllii, Correll’s Snakewood

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Home Blog – kitchen, garden, and knitting

I’m home for only just four weeks between travel, and the time is flying. I’d have no idea what happens to all my time, as I’m trying to be good and work at home instead of going out and playing. But it turns out there are plenty of distractions around the home too. My desk has never been so tidy until this week, for example. And now I’m caught up on my blog – the next posting might not be until my northern Peru tour begins in just under 2 weeks.

But my biggest distraction is the kitchen. For starters, I had to do something with the 20-some Meyer lemons that my cousin Tom gave me in Sacramento. I’ll try an experiment with two different methods of making limoncello, recipes I gleaned from the web. On the left is the more standard method of macerating the peel of many lemons directly in the alcohol. Since this variety of lemon lacks the bitterness in the pith, I didn’t try to remove it from the peels. There are 15 lemons in 1.5 liters of alcohol, which is ¾ 40% vodka and ¼ 90% Everclear. On the right is what seems to be an improbable method. Two lemons are suspended in an airtight container over the alcohol, which is 750 ml using half of each of the same types as above. After a month or more, the zest of two lemons is then added and allowed to macerate for just 15 minutes before being strained. Then both are diluted with the same proportion of simple syrup. I’m looking forward to the taste test, which will probably happen in late May.

I’m baking, of course. This is simply a whole wheat bread following the Naturally Leavened Caroline Wheat Hearth Bread recipe in Peter Reinhart’s Bread Revolution. I made it to show my friend Beth some of the techniques in the book. And I needed a good excuse to use the amazing bread knife she gave to me for my birthday.

I also needed a good loaf to make the croutons necessary to complete the French onion soup I had to make to use up all the extra onions I had lying around. I cooked the onions in the oven for 2 ½ hours one evening. Then next morning I browned and deglazed the pot four times (three times with water, the last time with dry sherry) before adding the broth, herbs, and completing the soup.

I’m knitting a little bit, but not nearly as much as I’d like. I finally finished Clayton’s socks, the yarn for which he bought when I was visiting in San Francisco last early July.

And I’m enjoying my garden, which I sowed as the airport shuttle arrived on October 8. Thanks to a timer on a drip system and what’s been a very good winter for rains, everything has been growing well.


Bok choy


And a row where in my rush I accidentally sowed lettuce, carrots, bok choy, and mizuna all together far too densely.

Friday, January 15, 2016

My 46th Birthday

I almost forgot. Three days before my birthday, which was a week ago tomorrow, I hadn’t made any plans other than what was surely going be a pleasant dinner out and movie with my close friend Hal. He was planning on treating me for my birthday, but I didn’t know that. But what about the idea of spending the evening in the presence of all my wonderful friends in Tucson? Thanks for the reminder Corey! I rescheduled with Hal and sent out a quick email for a potluck invitation (but regrettably forgot to add some people). And Hal ended up coming over after all. What a great evening.

I frantically cleaned up the house (which I’ve been slowly working on all week) while at the same time baked two cakes – after the German tradition of hosting a birthday party, where the host provides the cake. One was the Cook’s Illustrated Classic Chocolate Layer Cake, and the other was from a German cookbook I bought in 1991 for a Zitronentorte (lemon cake). The Zitronentorte vanished, and only a small wedge of the chocolate cake was left over after the evening. I also had made some pizza dough the night before and as people were arriving baked five pizzas.These photos are from my friends Beth and Greg.

My friend Andrew and I.

The nature of my potluck parties has changed a bit over the past 2 years – there are now up to four little kids running around, threatening to break into the Chlorox and other cleaners under the sink.

But I also have fun with them. Both Pierce (on my lap) and Roland (in the foreground) love to play on the piano, but in very different ways. Roland wants to push every button and key, turn every page; for Pierce rhythm is all important. Missing from these photos are Grayson and Owen. Next time.

By the time everyone left, many bottles of wine, beer, and a half gallon of Sazeracs had been consumed, but I still made off with quite a haul of fantastic wines, rye whiskey, and even some Pisco. A perfect excuse for using up some of the extra egg whites left over from the recipes.