Thursday, November 12, 2015

Build a nest box, here's proof that they work!

Guest post by Mary Graf, Photographs by Mary and Chuck Graf

Few things are more rewarding than attracting wildlife into urban landscapes, and becoming the permanent residence of a special bird is a bonus! Providing shelter, water and food generally garners the 'usual suspects', but with some extra effort, the possibility to attract a unique resident increases.

Tucson Audubon is hosting a "Build Your Own Nest Box" workshop on November 14 and again on December 12, aimed at cavity nesters in the Tucson area. Lucy's Warblers, flycatchers and screech-owls would be the beneficiaries, and I can attest that providing a nest box WILL work!

"Screechy" surveying his domain on Tucson's west side in November.

Since our move into the Agua Dulce/Sweetwater in the Foothills neighborhood in the Tucson Foothills in April, an almost daily visitor has made his presence known.

We watched the nest box carefully, hoping to see the Western Screech-owl we'd been told was a frequent resident. Soon enough, he showed himself. . . . not in the nest box high in a mesquite, but on a rafter on our patio, leaving a headless mouse on the patio floor like a gift from an avian welcoming committee.

The late spring and early summer days found him in and out of the nest box. Many days I spied him sleeping in a shady and cool bush, which was perfectly located so I could watch him from my kitchen window. Late afternoons he'd usually relocate to the nest box, swooping out of it at dusk to go about his nocturnal affairs.

Hiding from the August heat on a shady perch.

The owl was joined by many other birds, as well as frequent coyotes, a javelina pack of 7, and a bobcat (all captured on a hidden motion detector camera by our front gate).

Our desert community proved to be a real haven to wildlife, winged and otherwise. The Sweetwater in the Foothills community was recently re-certified by the National Wildlife Federation as an official Community Wildlife Habitat®, going through a rigorous certification process to attain that designation, which it has held since 2007. (And one of only 2 communities in Arizona so recognized.) This program developed from the NWF's Backyard Wildlife Habitat program, which has allowed individual households to register their backyards as wildlife habitats since 1973. Now expanded to the community level, NWF recognizes communities and neighborhoods that keep natural native areas and landscape with native plants in a way that offers local wildlife food, shelter, water and a place to raise young. As with the Tucson Audubon's Bringing Birds Home program, creating wildlife friendly habitat has proved especially fortuitous for the birds of our area, as residents have added plants and water features sure to attract and keep the flyers frequent.

Hoping that our solo owl would find a mate, we've continued to watch and listen, and one summer midnight heard the bouncing ball back and forth between our resident and another screech-owl.

So far we still have a solo resident, but with plans to build another nest box at an upcoming Tucson Audubon workshop, perhaps the addition of another nest site will encourage the midnight hooters to start a brood in 2016!

Build Your Own Nest Box

Build a nest box for backyard birds in this Tucson Audubon workshop. After a brief orientation to cavity-nesting birds in Tucson, you will build a nest box as an individual or a team using a kit supplied by Tucson Audubon. Staff and volunteers will be on hand to help you. You can take your box home with advice on where to put it. Cost depends on the kind of nest box you build, due to the different sizes of the kits.
  • Lucy's Warbler (small box): $20 (members) $25 (non-members)
  • Flycatcher (medium box): $25 (members) $30 (non-members)
  • Screech-Owl (large box): $30 (members) $35 (non-members)
Saturday, November 14, 2015, 9:00 – 11:00 am

University Blvd Nature Shop, in the Historic YWCA courtyard

Register for November 14

Saturday December 12, 2015, 9:00 – 11:00 am

Tucson Audubon's Mason Center
Register for December 12

For more information, contact Kendall Kroesen, (520) 209-1806.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Sandhill Cranes: Sojourners from the North

Guest post by Elizabeth Blaker, Photos by Dyer Lytle

The distant wild trumpeting of cranes and geese on the wing raised the hair on the back of my neck from the sheer thrill of it. I had never seen nor heard such multitudes of geese, cranes, and ducks flying over until my first trip to Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge near Socorro, New Mexico. From up the Rio Grande waves and waves of approaching birds were faint charcoal scribbles against the twilight sky. Closer and closer they came, slowly resolving into distinct V’s. The first arriving snow geese circled the flooded fields, splashing down into the water like seaplanes.  Ducks flew high with quick short wing-beats, while the longer wing-beats of the geese rowed the air. The first V’s of Sandhill Cranes sailed in, as light as thistledown, circling low, their ululations like a declaration of triumph. Barely skimming the water’s surface, they brought their legs forward and dropped out of the sky, landing with a light hop or two.

Around twenty-thousand Sandhill Cranes and a similar number of geese winter in the Middle Rio Grande Valley each year. The geese come from as far away as Canada, while the Sandhill Cranes breed in the northern states, Canada, and on up into Siberia. They are sojourners from the north, reminding me of distant summer prairies, lakes, and sloughs, and also of a time before history when birds filled the sky without number.

Sandhill crane take-off.
Sandhill crane take-off.

Sandhill Cranes are a particularly ancient species. A nine million year old fossil is nearly identical to the bones of modern Sandhills. These birds have a prehistoric look, too, long legged and winged, powerfully beaked, a blaze of crimson skin on their foreheads. When a Sandhill Crane is excited, the bright red skin engorges with blood and expands, extending to cover the crown of the head. Gray feathers tinged with rust drape their bodies, graceful plumes trailing. There are three subspecies of Sandhill Cranes distinguishable from each other by size: the Lesser Sandhill Cranes, Intermediate or Rocky Mountain Sandhills, and the Greater Sandhill Cranes. Genetic analysis shows that the Rocky Mountain and Greater Sandhills are more closely related to each other than to the Lesser Sandhill Cranes. The Lesser Sandhills migrate the furthest and have the largest wing-span to body-weight ratio. The added lift saves energy during long distance flights. All Sandhill Cranes are efficient flyers, migrating mostly by day to so they can use the rising sun-warmed air to carry them high into the sky – using a minimum of languid flapping, they slide down the edges of the thermals at a shallow angle, speeding along at 50 miles per hour as they gradually lose altitude until they come to the next thermal which carries them up. In this manner they can fly five hundred miles in a day.

trumpeting cranes
Three sandhill cranes trumpet in unison.

They are no fools, these cranes. Instead of migrating in one go, they make the long journey in stages. The majority of Sandhill Cranes flying north from wintering grounds in Texas, New Mexico and Arizona stop along the Platte River in Nebraska, where they spend a few weeks resting and feeding on waste corn in nearby fields. When they have regained their energy, they fly on. Those making for Siberia stop over again in Alaska before the final push to their breeding grounds. We know this from a study in which researchers captured a small group of the cranes using rocket propelled nets fired from special gun-like devices (one brand is called the NET-ZOOKA). The scientists fitted each crane with a small transmitter that could be tracked by satellite as they flew their migration routes. Researchers continue to learn more about the migration patterns of these birds, and have made fairly detailed maps. As good as Sandhill Cranes are at long distance flights, it turns out there are groups of them living in Florida and Cuba that don’t bother to migrate at all – why should they when they are living the good life?

Sandhill Cranes disperse over large areas on their breeding grounds. They are territorial nesters, sometimes fighting each other over prime sites. Though they form strong pair bonds that can last many years, if a mate dies, the widow or widower crane will usually find a new mate. Once settled at the breeding grounds a crane couple will begin age old mating rituals. First they smear mud and rotting vegetation into their feathers. If the soil is rich in iron, their feathers retain a tinge of rust well into winter. Biologists posit that it aids in camouflaging the birds during their long vigil of nest sitting. After the feathers have been properly adorned with mud, the male throws his head back and utters a series of loud, vibrating honks. The female raises her head, but not as far, and replies with trumpet blasts of her own. They may perform several rounds of raucous duets. The duets strengthen the bonds between the pair and stimulates a flood of hormones in the female that prepares her ovaries for breeding. The blaring songs also proclaim their territory to other cranes. Though the duets are an important part of the mating ritual, Sandhill Cranes can be seen calling this way on their wintering grounds as well, and sometimes the fledglings join in. Researchers suspect unison calling at these times is likely to ward off aggression in crowds of other cranes.

Sandhill landing
A sandhill crane approaches a landing and puts its feet down in anticipation.

All kinds of cranes are known worldwide for their elaborate dances. Dancing is part of a complex of social behaviors and is not simply a mating ritual; it occurs in groups, between males, and so on. Dancing cranes bow and leap, they sprint with wings flapping, they hold stylish poses that impress onlookers, bird and human alike. But when a couple is finally ready to mate, one or both of them will lean forward as if to fly, heads raised, but instead hold this posture for a time. The male then circles behind the female. If she is receptive, she will lift her wings and allow him to mount. Afterwards, they face each other bill to bill and sedately bow.

Though the male may attempt to help her, the female ignores his offers of nest materials and builds a simple bowl of grasses and twigs on the ground. Over two days she will lay two spotted eggs.  These the couple will incubate, taking turns at nest-sitting and guarding for thirty days.  Finally the parent cranes hear the older chick peeping inside its egg, the shell cracks, and over many hours the chick frees itself with no help from them. The second chick hatches two days later. Sometimes the chicks fight with each other and the older may kill the younger, but if the parents manage to separate them, one chick will follow mom, and the other will follow dad. The parents teach the chicks how to find tasty roots, insects and other morsels.

Sandhill cranes flying against an orange New Mexico sunset.

Nesting and raising chicks is a race against time, especially for the Lesser Sandhill cranes breeding in the far north. They must mate and incubate the eggs early enough in the season that the chicks can fledge before they must begin their journey southward. If they wait too long, chicks will freeze or starve. It takes at least sixty days for a lesser Sandhill Crane chick to fledge.

As recently as the 1930’s, the Sandhill Cranes were nearly finished off by hunting and habitat destruction. Thanks to the unceasing efforts of a crew of dedicated amateur and professional ornithologists, refuges were established at breeding, migratory staging, and wintering grounds. Hunting was banned. Over many years the population of Sandhill Cranes rebounded.  Hunting is now allowed in several states, but not wantonly. The US Fish and Wildlife Service and state agencies carefully monitor crane populations and the numbers of birds killed. But I do wonder, who could stand at the edge of a marsh listening to the wild cries of birds on the wing, seeing these stately sojourners from the north riding the air currents down from the heavens, and not be moved?

This article originally appeared on

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Bird Droppings: The Saguaro and Gila Woodpecker Make Fine Companions

Guest Column by Pat Bean

With few exceptions, you can only find saguaro cactus in Arizona. The same can be said for the Gila (pronounced heela) Woodpecker. The plant and the bird go together like apple pie and vanilla ice cream. If you see one, you almost always see the other.

Images by Michael Ehrhardt

The pair share a mutually beneficial relationship. The saguaro provides shelter and food for the woodpecker and the woodpecker rids the plant of harmful insects. I’ve seen the plant and bird together often when I go out birding. I also see the woodpecker quite often on my third-floor balcony, where it hangs upside down on my hummingbird feeder so it can get at the nectar. It’s a rather comical sight.

Since I live next to some undeveloped patches of land that have been left to Mother Nature’s whims – and her whims include saguaro cactus – and where I can escape daily out of sight of city chaos, Gila Woodpeckers often make my daily birding list. These woodpeckers don’t migrate but stick around in the Sonoran Desert through both the summer heat and the cooler, if not cold, winters.

Earlier this year, I saw a pair of these brown and zebra-striped woodpeckers raise three chicks in a hole pecked out in a tall, three-armed saguaro, which was most likely over half a century old. Saguaros grow slowly and can live well-past 150.

By Pat Bean

I probably wouldn’t have discovered the woodpecker’s nest if it hadn’t been for the young ones clamoring to be fed. I saw them about a half dozen times after that, and then one day the nest was quiet and deserted.

I wonder if one of those young Gilas will one day visit my humming bird feeder.

Pat Bean is a retired journalist and now a freelance writer who is passionate about nature, books, art, – and birds. A native Texan, and longtime Utah resident, she now lives in Tucson with her canine companion Pepper, and is putting the finishing touches on a book about her nine years of full-time travel across North America in a small RV

Write and Smile RainbowPat Bean

Friday, September 25, 2015

Cuckoos on the Coronado - One Last Adventure!

By Matt Griffiths

The Western Yellow-billed Cuckoo survey season ended with an epic journey into the wild and remote Canyon del Oro on the northwest face of the Santa Catalina mountains. With rumors of long lost gold and magical habitat that could harbor cuckoos, Rodd Lancaster and I set out to explore this canyon two weeks prior in Tucson Audubon's Polaris Ranger all-terrain vehicle. That trip was cut short by a faulty starter switch, luckily before we headed out into the forest!

Returning with a tuned up Ranger and a full tank of gas, we hit the road to Charouleau Gap and soon discovered why this is a favorite route for hardcore 4x4 enthusiasts. We were immediately thrown down into a steep, boulder-strewn wash then up and down again and again on a narrow track. I had never driven anything like this, but the Ranger was certainly up to the task! It was probably very happy to be out in the real wilds for the first time and proved why it's labeled "Hardest working, smoothest riding."

Our first major obstacle of the day was this steep rock face. We scouted it out and soon found that yes, the Ranger can easily drive up something like this!

As we got higher up toward the Gap we entered possible cuckoo habitat with larger oaks and some cottonwood along the drainage. A few survey points turned up no birds though.

The view from the top of Charouleau Gap looking back toward Catalina and the Tortolita mountains in the distance (above). We had made it over the Gap and then realized the road was not going to get any easier! (below)

The view down into Canyon del Oro (below)

We finally made it down to the trailhead we were going to survey and found a nice parking spot for the Ranger under an oak tree.


We found a wonderland of flowing water and beautiful vistas in this very hard to reach corner of the usually-crowded Catalinas. It was great to discover and know that a seemingly-wild set of canyons so close to Tucson still exists. We saw there were loads of birds, just no cuckoos. It was obvious that one of the fires of the last 10--15 years had come through here and drastically changed the landscape. There weren't a lot of the larger trees that cuckoos seem to key in on. Of course, we didn't make it all the way to the end of the suitable habitat, there could be birds farther up the trail!


Before we knew it, it was time to head back over the Gap. With experience now under my belt, the return trip was much easier. Don't get me wrong, there were still a couple of hair-raising problems to solve! Here is the same steep rock face mentioned earlier, this time going down:

This was a great adventure into territory both Rodd and I had never explored before. It was too bad we found no Yellow-billed Cuckoos, but I'm not entirely convinced that there's not at least one pair up there!

We (including the Ranger) made it back to civilization in one piece but severely rattled from the rough road. In the lower photo below you can see the Charouleau Gap in the upper left.

Cheers to the cuckoos!!

Monday, September 21, 2015

Tucson Audubon Field Trip Report: Oracle State Park

Report by leaders Bob and Prudy Bowers

Fifteen birders joined us this morning for a 2-hour ramble birding easy trails in this beautiful but strangely under-appreciated state park. 42 species recorded between yesterday's check-out walk and today's official trip. Sweeping vistas from the Granite Overlook trail, and somewhat elusive but occasionally cooperative birds in this 4,300-foot oak/juniper habitat. Highlights from today's 32 species included a pair of Harris's Hawks, Bell's and Hutton's Vireo, 6 Western Scrub-Jays, Bridled Titmouse, 9 Bushtits, 3 species of wren, Black-throated Gray Warbler, Black-tailed Gnatcatcher, our 'first of season' White-crowned Sparrows (down from Alaska), Green-tailed Towhees and 18 Phainopeplas. The complete checklists for both today's field trip and our check-out walk the day before are listed below.

Note also that we have had a male Hooded Oriole at our home hummingbird feeders the last few days. He looks a lot like 'Gray Head', the hardy oriole that stopped by in September, 2010 and refused to continue to Mexico with his cousins, staying through the 'hundred year winter' until the other orioles returned in March. We'll keep you posted if he winters over again.

Our next field trip is tentatively planned for Peppersauce Canyon on October 1. This 5,000-foot location is a few miles beyond Oracle State Park on the Mt. Lemmon road that climbs the back side of the mountain.

Male Phainopepla, one of 18 silky flycatchers seen today
The Rock Wren
Lots of Western Scrub-Jays in Oracle State Park, too
Great group of birders on a grand Arizona morning
Our Harris's Hawks this morning were on trees and power poles, but they're
tougher than cactus, too.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Trekking Rattlers On the Loose...Again!

Those precocious students from Lauffer Middle School are at it again this Fall season, hiking and exploring Southeast Arizona's wildlands with Tucson Audubon's Trekking Rattlers program. We began our first adventure of the season with an hour or so of bird-watching at Tucson Audubon's Paton Center for Hummingbirds. Swarms of hummingbirds, including the rare violet-crowned, kept everyone entertained.  Ever-helpful Paton Center caretaker and naturalist extraordinaire Larry Morgan was on-hand to answer questions and guide many of the students to their first sightings of several species, including itinerant rufous and calliope hummers.

After we'd had our fill of the throngs of hummingbirds and goldfinches at the Paton Center, we bid Larry farewell and headed to the Nature Conservancy's Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve just next door. The Preserve's manager, Luke Reese, met us at the Visitor Center and regaled us with stories of the many creatures spotted at the preserve over the years. Luke also pointed us to his favorite spots along the trails and recommended a hiking path, which we gladly followed.

The Rattlers, deep in the heart of the Nature Conservancy's Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve
The Preserve was flush with the vibrant, writhing products of our unusually wet spring and summer bounty, crawling with vividly-colored caterpillars, butterflies, beetles and a myriad of other 6-, 8- and 10-leggeds that attracted a host of birds to the trees above. We even spotted one federally-threatened Western Yellow-billed Cuckoo.

The Rattlers try to measure one of the monstrous cottonwoods along the Creek Trail. The TNC Preserve house some of the largest cottonwoods on record, and many exceed 100' in height.

Angel's not quite sure if this cicada exoskeleton we found in the Preserve is alive or dead

Our excursion culminated with a barefoot walk up Sonoita Creek's rare perrennial waters. The water gurgled around our ankles and incited the crew to aquatic antics, stone-gazing, and the hunt for more birds.

For many students, a Trekking Rattlers adventure is their first brush with wild nature; many would not otherwise have access to the great outdoors. The program, active since 2012, is the brainchild of star Tucson Audubon volunteer Deb Vath. Vath has planned and coordinated every trip, ensuring that sufficient volunteer adult chaperons are signed-up and that the students are bringing everything they need to have a great time outdoors.

Deb Vath leads the Rattlers down a cool, shady walk along Sonoita Creek in Patagonia, AZ

Working in partnership with the Sierra Club's Inspiring Connections Outdoors and Sunnyside School District, Trekking Rattlers has immersed hundreds of children in the natural wonders of our region, inspired creative thinking and teamwork, and helped them develop a sense of harmony with nature.

The success of vital and exceptional programs like Trekking Rattlers truly relies upon the help of dedicated and passionate volunteers like Deb Vath. There are 8 trips remaining for the 2015-2016 school season, to places like the Santa Rita Mountains and Saguaro National Park---please consider volunteering! The hiking is usually rather mellow, so the most important qualification is an eagerness to inspire children in the outdoors.

You can also help the Trekking Rattlers keep on trekking by making an Arizona Tax Credit Donation. More information about the Trekking Rattlers and instructions on how to donate your Tax Credits here.

Until the next foray...Happy Trails!

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Book Review: Aviary Wonders Inc.

Aviary Wonders Inc.Spring Catalog and Instruction Manual Renewing the World’s Bird Supply Since 2031
Text and Illustrations by Kate Samworth
Clarion Books, 2014

Review by Jenise Porter
Most of my Young Adult reading group colleagues are teachers or school or public librarians. They know that I am a birder and now that I have been retired for a while they send me recommendations about “bird” books that I should read. I knew there was something special when three friends sent notes saying I absolutely had to see the new book called Aviary Wonders. I like to buy children’s or Young Adult books to read and then pass on to a child so I headed down to the Nature shop to purchase a copy of this book.

My friends were not mistaken. This is a gorgeous book, lavishly illustrated with shapes and colors of birds, some whimsical and some not so much. The premise of the book is that birds have gone extinct through use of insecticides, habitat loss, the exotic pet trade and CATS! Thus the subtitle “Spring Catalog and Instruction Manual.”

One can peruse the catalog and order bird parts to put together to create a creature that may or may not fly, depending on the way the parts go together. There are Legs and Feet, Feathers, Bodies, Beaks, Tails and Wings, Crests and Collars. There are instructions for teaching the assembled bird to fly and to sing and a section on Troubleshooting.

The true test of a picture book is to try it out on kids so I chose it, along with a more traditional narrative, to read to a 4th grade class at Holladay school for Love of Reading Week. Hats off to Kendall Kroesen if this was a group of students he has worked with because they knew about extinction and they knew what kinds of beaks and feet predators have and they understood why different wings create different kinds of abilities. It was an enormously entertaining half hour and when we finished I donated the book to the Holladay school library.

As a former librarian, I consider it my responsibility, and pleasure, to present children I know with books for birthdays, Christmas and whatever other holidays I can think of. If you are looking for a wonderful picture book about birds or other aspects of the natural world, I suggest you browse the selection at the Tucson Audubon Nature Shop. I never fail to find some excellent choices like this one!