Monday, October 27, 2014

Tucson Audubon's Mason Center Gets Help, but Needs More!

Kendall Kroesen, Urban Program Manager

Volunteer applies a water seal to wood
Every year for several years now Tucson Audubon has participated in the United Way Days of Caring. We sign up as a "project" and one or more businesses and other groups sign up to come and do our project.

This year the Days of Caring were on October 22 and 25. On October 22 we had volunteers from IBM, AAA Arizona and La Paloma Academy helping out at the Center. On October 25 a group of 18 students came from the University of Arizona's Eller College of Management. We'd like to give them all a big THANK YOU!

These annual work days really contribute a lot to the Mason Center. However, we also need regular weekly and monthly volunteering for tasks that need to be done regularly. Please have a look at the list of needs for the Mason Center at our volunteer page and see if they are something you could do. The Mason Center is on the cusp of growing into a Nature Center that will attract people wanting to see upland desert birds, experience a patch of unspoiled desert in a rapidly growing region, and better understand how to live sustainably in the Sonoran Desert, which we demonstrate at the Center. Get in on the ground floor to help us move forward!

Volunteer moves a rock for the new rainwater harvesting basins

On the 22nd we put up an ocotillo fence behind the composting toilets, worked on the stage area under one of the ramadas and started some rainwater harvesting and flood control work out by the parking lot.

The rainwater harvesting volunteer team from Eller College
On the 25th we continued the ocotillo fencing by the well, continued the rainwater harvesting work, painted some wood preservative on the bare wood on the ramadas and a special team--headed by volunteer Doug Noble--worked on resurrecting the small ramada along the trail that fell down in a storm.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Helping the Habitat

Francine Wetzel, Tucson Audubon Intern

Restoration area at Atturbury
Wash (Francine Wetzel)
I have recently been working every Friday to help with habitat restoration at the Atturbury Wash, one of the Tucson Audubon Society’s sites for their habitat restoration program. A large portion of the work has been unburying vegetation after the recent storms, planting more vegetation, and clearing away woodchips from the base of many plants that have been subjected to rot.

After the flooding that occurred approximately three weeks ago, many plants were either slightly or completely buried by sediment that filled their basins. Along with staff members Matt Clark and Andy Bennet, I worked to uncover the vegetation and reconstruct many of the berms that the floodwaters wiped out. Although the berms were built to retain the water that flowed throughout the floodplain, they were not quite tough enough for the heavy downpour that occurred.

Wood chips moved away
from the base of a plant
(Francine Wetzel)
Another issue we are facing is that a small percentage of the vegetation has died off due to rot. The woodchips that were strategically placed in basins to capture and retain moisture have become an issue for certain species. The storms brought an abundance of moisture to the plain, and although it was amazing for our vegetation, it was also a treat for fungi. The fungi generated from the woodchips were slowly causing rot in the bark of many plants. It then became an important task to pull away the woodchips from the bark but still allow it to remain in the basins to retain moisture.

Sediment and wood chips
cleared from base of plant
(Francine Wetzel)
Planting more vegetation has also been an important task at the site. I recently helped construct a large basin that held roughly a dozen grasses. We also had a volunteer day that finished planting over 50 more grasses. We are hoping that by the time the program has been completed at this site, the vegetation has solidified their presence enough to continue growing long after we leave.

For more about habitat restoration and environmental stewardship at the Atturbury Wash site, go to

Large area planted with native grasses (Francine Wetzel)

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Minimizing Birder Disturbance: A Cautionary Tale

Guest post by Tara Tanaka
Have you ever witnessed something involving a helpless party and felt that you should have spoken up or intervened – and it just kept bothering you that you didn’t?  I had this happen in the spring of 2013, and now I’ve been given a second opportunity. 

My husband and I flew into Tucson in April of last year to do some birding in Madera Canyon and the Huachuca Mountains.  It was our first trip to both places, and we were excited about seeing a lot of new species.  I do a lot of digiscoping (taking photos through a spotting scope), and photographing new birds was a big reason for the trip. 

We have friends in Green Valley – both excellent birders, and we made plans with them for a trip to Madera Canyon.  They told us that a Western Screech Owl had a cavity in a Saguaro cactus right across the street from their home, so we made plans to stop by on our way from the airport to our B&B in Madera Canyon.  We arrived late in the afternoon, and just before sunset two of us walked across the street to the Saguaro, and sure enough, the little owl was just waking up.  He was having trouble keeping both eyes open, and was making soft little noises (see the mesmerizing video!!, ).  The digiscoping system I was using is 1200mm, so I was able to stay well back at a distance that didn’t cause him any stress as he slowly woke up and his eyes adjusted to the fading light, preparing for his evening of hunting.  I lowered my tripod and sat on the ground, using a remote.  My camera is one of the mirrorless designs, so when I press the remote there is virtually no movement and I can take photos with very slow shutter speeds without a flash.  

As the last light was fading and it was getting too dark for me to take photos a man arrived and walked over with his camera gear.  He said he’d heard about the owl from a friend.  He was polite and got behind me and set up his gear.  We walked back to our friend’s house and visited for at least another thirty minutes before we said our “goodbyes” and walked out to our car.  I was horrified to see a very bright strobe flashing over and over again right on the owl’s cavity.  It was completely dark, and the man was repeatedly hitting the bird in the eyes with an intensity of light that made me wince. 

I should have gone over there and said something.  The owl couldn’t speak for himself and say “Hey!  My eyes are supposed to be adjusting to the dark so I can go out and catch my food.  What are you thinking???” Maybe he wasn’t thinking, or maybe he just cared more about getting what he thought was a better photo than if he’d taken it in an unobtrusive way.  Either way, the owl was at his mercy and I saw it and I should have said something.

A few days later, during our stay in Madera Canyon, I heard a report that an Elf Owl was using a cavity nearby.  Before sunset we joined a growing crowd of about twenty-five others and waited quietly to get a glimpse of this special bird.  The second the owl showed his face in the cavity entrance, a woman who was off to the side and much closer than the rest of us, blasted his no doubt wide-open pupils with a bright flash from about twenty feet away.  As many of us gasped in shock, she made no apologies to the owl or the waiting crowd of birders.  It was another forty-five minutes before, with much fear and trepidation, he showed his face again, and by then it too dark for anyone to get a decent view. 

It is not my intent to say that all use of supplemental lighting is wrong in bird photography, although I have made the personal decision not to use it. I do however think that it is wrong to use a flash in the ways and situations that I witnessed it being used last year. 

I’ve been disappointed in myself for a year and a half for not speaking up. Yesterday I received an email from Matt Griffiths with the Tucson Audubon Society, asking if they could use a photo of a Western Screech Owl that they saw on my Flickr site as a cover for the magazine.  I said of course, and by the way - there’s an interesting story behind that photo if you’d like to share it, because there is something I’ve been needing to say.

Tara and her husband live on the edge of a 45-acre cypress swamp in north Florida that they own and manage as a sanctuary for Wood Storks, Great Egrets, Wood Ducks and other birds and wildlife.  Tara’s photos can be viewed on Flickr:

Also see:

More info on birding ethics from the American Birding Association:

1. Promote the welfare of birds and their environment.
1(a) Support the protection of important bird habitat.
1(b) To avoid stressing birds or exposing them to danger, exercise restraint and caution during observation, photography, sound recording, or filming.
Limit the use of recordings and other methods of attracting birds, and never use such methods in heavily birded areas, or for attracting any species that is Threatened, Endangered, or of Special Concern, or is rare in your local area;
Keep well back from nests and nesting colonies, roosts, display areas, and important feeding sites. In such sensitive areas, if there is a need for extended observation, photography, filming, or recording, try to use a blind or hide, and take advantage of natural cover.
Use artificial light sparingly for filming or photography, especially for close-ups.
1(c) Before advertising the presence of a rare bird, evaluate the potential for disturbance to the bird, its surroundings, and other people in the area, and proceed only if access can be controlled, disturbance minimized, and permission has been obtained from private land-owners. The sites of rare nesting birds should be divulged only to the proper conservation authorities.


Friday, October 3, 2014

Fall Birding Adventure in the Atascosa Highlands

Guest post by Tim Helentjaris
Our target bird for this trip was the Five-striped Sparrow in California Gulch. Matt Griffiths and Jennie MacFarland had never seen this species and had never been to the Gulch, I was last there in the early 90’s. We also thought we would try to pick up a couple of other uncommon species on this trip. We were originally going to go two weeks ago, then last week, each time postponed due to scheduling conflicts. We knew this was late in the season, the FsSp’s were no longer singing and harder to find, but we were determined to try, and in spite of the weather problems (some parts of Nogales had up to 8 inches of rain the last couple of days). Wow, this was a great day of birding, it’s not often that you get all of your target species but even some additional ones! Late season birding in southeast Arizona is still top-notch!

We started driving west on Ruby Road from the exit and this road is still in excellent shape, all the way to the turn-off to California Gulch. That road, not so much. As Richard Fray reported even before these last intense rains, there are some deep flooded pools on the way in that will test most vehicles. I think most folks would only be comfortable trying this in a full-size, high-clearance vehicle.

We first stopped at the flooded area behind the dam, probably even enlarged over that reported by R. Fray a couple of weeks ago. Walking along the side, there were a lot of birds in the willows and on the hillsides. After a short while, we spotted three LEAST GREBES, including at least one immature, stripy-headed one, probably no more than 50 ft away. We all got good looks at these birds and were able to observe them for some time. Among all of the songs and chips we heard there, one low, fast chattering caught our attention. We wondered if it was a Green Kingfisher back deep in the willows on the other side of the flooded area, where we could not go. Our confidence in this ID is not real high, seems like there are a number of species that can produce similar sounds, we just call it to everyone’s attention to at least consider it and see if they can get a firmer identification.

From there, we drove further south towards the path down to the gulch, just prior hearing the unmistakeable “UFO”-call of the male MONTEZUMA QUAIL. Always exciting, even when you don’t see them. Walking down the path and into the gulch, we were surprised that within just a few minutes of reaching the bottom, we looked higher on the slopes to the SW and saw a FIVE-STRIPED SPARROW, sitting up high in a shrub. Unmistakeable through the scope (thanks for lugging it down there, Jennie!), it stayed put and within our view for some time, presumably the moisture and weather working in our favor this time, as the bird appeared to be trying to dry itself. Whew-whew, pretty exciting!

The lifer Five-striped Sparrow!
Jennie spots the sparrow from the bottom of the Earth.

We were pretty sure we had a second bird in the same area and then even a third but careful examination revealed that the striped head of that last one belonged to a GREEN-TAILED TOWHEE. We worked further down the gulch, but were frustrated by high water levels, having to remove our shoes once and wade. We observed at least one other FsSp before having to give up due to even more high water in the Gulch without any relief in sight. We retreated and decided to move on to other spots. Climbing up out of the Gulch and just before reaching the top and our car, we were surprised to see a nightjar flying around amongst the small trees and shrubs. Flying and landing and flying again, at one point landing less than 15 ft away and affording us excellent views. Clearly not a nighthawk, it was very dark brown overall and with obvious buff tail corner patches and no white patches under the wings. It appeared to us to be a female BUFF-COLLARED NIGHTJAR, wow, how cool is that to catch one out in the open in the daytime! Made it to the car just as it began to rain heavily. We ate some lunch and began to retreat back towards the east.

The Gulch was really flowing!

Our next stop was Pena Blanca Lake. The water was high and muddy and may have discouraged a lot of water birds, not too many ducks among the coots. We did observe an OSPREY along the far shore at one point. DUSKY-CAPPED FLYCATCHERS were calling, we saw a pretty male WILSON’S and a more surprising LUCY’S WARBLER. We also found a fledgling YELLOW-BILLED CUCKOO that was then attended to by an adult, carrying the largest caterpillar I had ever seen. Stuffed it into the little guy’s throat and he couldn’t swallow it for some time. He just sat there with his mouth open, it stuck in his gullet, for several minutes. One more example of fledgling birds still being fed by adults seemingly late into the season this year. Again along this path, we heard male MONTEZUMA QUAIL calling to their flock-mates.

On our way home, we decided we didn’t want the fun to end yet and we make a quick stop at the Amado Ponds to see if we could spot the FORSTER’S TERN that had been reported there earlier. BAM, as we drove up mid-afternoon, there it was flying about the pond. Another life bird for two of our party. Also saw ~10 BLACK-BELLIED WHISTLING DUCKS and one RING-NECKED DUCK along with one DOUBLE-CRESTED CORMORANT. A great end to a really nice day of birding. Don’t quit yet for the season, there are still a lot of good birds and their behavior to see out there.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The Long Arm of Hurricane Norbert Goes to Work at Tucson Audubon's Ecosystem Restoration Sites

Most all of us in southern Arizona experienced first-hand the powerful remnants of Hurricane Norbert during that soggy second week this September. The steady and unrelenting rain led to flash flooding of highways, houses and everything else in its path, including Tucson Audubon's restoration areas in Marana and southeast Tucson.

Simpson Farm the day after the September 8th flood (Marana, AZ)

When the field crew arrived for work at our Simpson Farm restoration project near Marana on the morning of September 9th, they were greeted by a rare and sobering site: the Santa Cruz River, normally tamed and contained by man-made channelization and diversions along its entire course from Tucson to Simpson Farm, had flooded. Big time. Irrigation lines were tossed about at random, hulking debris piles stood against anything above-ground in neatly arranged Jenga-like stacks and, to the crew's dismay, dozens of meticulously planted and nurtured native restoration plants had been buried. Floodwaters had also re-contoured many areas of the site, carving out access roads and rendering them impassable in places, and completely filling in arroyos and depressions.

Field crew veteran Dan Lehman surveys the deluge at Simpson Farm

The Santa Cruz River receding from Norbert-strength at Trico Road,
 Marana, AZ. Simpson Farm begins on the other side of the bridge.

Stakes marking spots where native restoration plants
were planted in 2013-at ground level

Suddenly, a site that on average receives considerably less rainfall per year than Tucson had become a series of lakes. Despite the buried plants and general chaos that the flood created, we couldn't help but revel in this blessing of immense moisture--delivered free of charge by Mother Nature, irrigating better than we could ever hope to. As we carefully dug out our buried plants and realized that most of them were probably going to be just fine, our dismay turned to hope. As of September 22, the rare sight of standing water persists in many spots at Simpson Farm, and most of those buried plants look great.

The locals were out in full force after the flood: checkered
gartersnake at Simpson Farm. Dozens of newly hatched and adult
 Couch's spade-foot toads were also out enjoying the plentiful puddles.

Back in town, the leftovers of Norbert produced similar but thankfully less catastrophic flooding at our urban restoration project along Atturbury Wash.  The Atturbury Wash-David Lyman Nature Preserve is a narrow swath of intact desert wash ecosystem located within Lincoln City Park, near Davis-Monthan Air Force Base. This restoration project is a two-pronged endeavor combining dozens of stream restoration structures which increase on-site moisture and reduce channel incision with over 900 native restoration plantings to revegetate areas denuded by decades of off-road vehicles and heavy equipment use.

Demonstration area at Atturbury Wash in 2012,
before the project began

The same area in May, 2014

July, 2104
The stream restoration structures installed along Atturbury Wash and its tributaries are intended to work with the natural process of flooding, but every built object has its limits. The flooding from a 1.5" storm in late July coupled with the 2.5" that Norbert dished out in early September pushed some structures beyond their limits.

Gully-plug, unplugged

Boulder vane unraveling after flood

Despite the failure of some of the structures, most of them weathered the floods quite well and have performed admirably. We've watched incised and degraded channels aggrade (fill-in), have seen more moisture and increased vegetation along the washes, and, during two storms, have even witnessed Atturbury Wash itself flood over its banks and irrigate its water starved flood plain for the first time in quite a long time. Due to this flooding we've seen an unprecedented response from annuals like common sunflower (Helianthus annuus) and tansy aster (Macranthera spp.), as well as perennials like blue palo verde (Parkinsonia florida) and burroweed (Isocoma tenuisecta).

Tell-tale flood debris shows us that the Wash over-topped its
 banks and irrigated its floodplain

A one-rock dam, 1 of dozens at the site, successfully trapping
 sediment, slowing flows, and aggrading this tributary to
 Atturbury Wash

We were pretty concerned about one area of the site where an incised wash was threatening to cut back ("headcut") into the nearby hiking trail. The one-rock dam that had been initially installed to stop this from happening had failed in a flood last August, and the worst seemed imminent.

One-rock dam failing at headcut

So we set out to remedy the problem. Developed by stream restoration guru Bill Zeedyk after ancient farming structures on the Zuni Pueblo, a Zuni bowl creates an energy-dissipating plunge-pool that stops a head-cutting wash from progressing up stream and further degrading an area.

Zuni bowl under construction. That's our dependable volunteer
 Stuart Lueders on the right; he and another awesome and equally-
dependable volunteer, Bill Sievers, completed this Zuni bowl that day

The same structure going strong in September after 3
 major flood events, including Norbert's wrath.

None of our successes at Atturbury Wash would've been possible without the incredible help of 100s of volunteers over the past 2 years. We'll be holding 3-4 more volunteer events this season at the Wash, so please come on down to lend a hand and learn about stream restoration, native plants, and much more. You can check our Events Calendar or contact me for more information.

Hope to see you out there!

-Andy Bennett
Tucson Audubon Restoration Staff

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Grand Canyon National Park Dedicated at Global Important Bird Area

By Jennie MacFarland, Tucson Audubon Conservation Biologist
Officially Recognizing the Grant Canyon as a Global IBA
On September 13, 2014 the Grand Canyon National Park was officially dedicated as an Important Bird Area of Global Significance. This IBA is only one of fourteen Global IBAs in Arizona and the only one that qualified as Global for three different species. 
The remarkable Grand Canyon National Park
The highest profile bird that made this area a Global IBA is the California Condor. This well publicized species has had a high-profile recovery and was so critically threatened that at one point all wild individuals were captured for an intensive captive breeding program. That program was largely successful and there are now individuals living successfully in the Grand Canyon. 
Tice Supplee and David Uberuaga, Superintendent of the Park
The Mexican Spotted Owl is the second qualifying species for Global IBA status found here in surprisingly high numbers. Over thirty nesting pairs have been confirmed by Park biologists and there are certainly others in the unsurvey portions of the canyon. They favor the shady crevices of the canyon and possibly forage for rodents in the small tracts of forest within the canyon or above the rim. 
Martha Hahn, Tice and Jennie celebrating the new Global IBA
The charismatic third Global IBA bird that lives in the National Park is the Pinyon Jay. This lovely sky-blue colored jay moves around this area in large groups and was documented by citizen scientists using and submitting checklists of where and when they observed flocks. 
There were over 70 people in attendance at the dedication
The designation of this National Park as a Global Important Bird Area was a great example of different partners coming together for the greater cause of conservation of bird species and their habitats.
The IBA Dedication was part of Wildlife Day
There were 70 people in attendance that helped us to celebrate this remarkable habitat and excellent IBA and the signs proclaiming this area as  Global IBA will be prominently displayed. This will help with further outreach by informing the many visitors to this international destination that such areas are beautiful to look at but also serve as critical habitat for many bird species, including those of high conservation concern.
Jennie and Tice engaging the public about birds and IBAs
Huge thanks to all who came out for this event, the excellent speakers who made the event so special and to all partners, including birders engaged in citizen science, that made this Global IBA designation possible.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

WILD Nest Boxes for Urban Birds

By Keith Ashley, Coordinator: Paton Center for Hummingbirds

Recently I found myself in a curious situation: sitting on the floor of a high school MakerSpace—what we used to call “shop class.” I was brokering a business deal with fifteen teenagers—a tough crowd if ever there was one. Mr. Perales and I had to leave the room so they could hash out the proposal amongst themselves.

Fortunately I’d come prepared with a very reasonable offer, thanks to the vision of Tucson Audubon’s Nature Shop Keeper, Whelan. We will pay these students a very fair amount for the American Kestrel and Western Screech Owl nest boxes they’re learning to build, and then we’ll sell them further as part of our Nest Boxes for Urban Birds (NB4UB) pilot project. Although we haven’t had any Kestrels nest yet, the Screech Owl business is booming.

A sleepy owl on a sunny day photographed by Carrie Merkle, box built by Dave Montgomery. Carrie and Dave built their box for a Kestrel according to plans distributed by Tucson Audubon during the Winter Appeal in December 2013 as part of the Nest Boxes for Urban Birds pilot project. They are quite pleased to have a Screech Owl for their current tenant.

We’re offering to pay the students plenty so they can invest in more wood to build more boxes (and perhaps some automatic urban chicken feeders, vegetable storage bins, and traditional ollas for sustainable gardening).  They’ll also be building skills as business-minded carpenters—and hopefully building an interest in supporting local wildlife into the future.

Eleven of the fifteen said “yes” to the venture. Screech Owls all over town breathed a sigh of relief.

These students are “Changemakers” from the Western Institute for Leadership Development (WILD), a new and visionary charter high school just off 22nd Street. The school is committed to providing students with real world projects and results while these students transform themselves and the larger community to create a more equitable and sustainable world. When I heard Academic Director, Luis Perales, M.S., talking to the MakerSpace students about a “triple bottom line” of “planet, people, and profit” for their business, I knew I had found a hopeful place.

Students at the Western Institute for Leadership Development working on their first round of nest boxes.
The next trick is getting these students down to the grasslands in Sonoita so they can see the future site of our Win-Win for Azure Bluebirds and Arizona Vineyards conservation project, and perhaps deliver a couple of bluebird boxes they’ve built. Then it’s on to the Paton Center and the Patagonia Mountains. I don’t think we can expect anyone to love and fight for a world they’ve never seen.

Eastern "Azure" Bluebirds in the Patagonia Mtns.

If you happen to be reading this, and happen to have some carpentry skills, and happen to be looking for a great volunteer gig, we’d love to have a few folks help us out in the MakerSpace from time to time. The students meet afternoons, 2:20 to 3:30, Tuesdays and Thursdays. If you’d be interested in working with these youth to help them hone their nest box building skills—even once or twice a month—contact me at