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!

Friday, September 11, 2015

Pena Blanca Canyon Biodiversity

Tucson Audubon Field Trip Report by Tim Helentjaris

This morning (Sept. 8, 2015) I led a Tucson Audubon field trip to both Pena Blanca Canyon and the nearby Lake, ostensibly to look for the recent sightings of Rufous-capped Warblers and Green Kingfisher.  Not surprisingly, we dipped on both of these, they haven’t been reported for several days, but we did find some other nice birds.

Male Elegant Trogon with juvenile by Pete Baum

In Pena Blanca Canyon, we walked a little over a mile in and just past the RcWa stake-out spot.  Got many of the expected birds for the oak-grassland habitat in this somewhat open drainage, DUSKY-CAPPED FLYCATCHER, HUTTONS VIREO, BRIDLED TITMOUSE, etc.  On our way back out, we watched a pair of ELEGANT TROGONS (a male and a juvenile) actively feeding in a sycamore tree for some time.  Seemed to be a pulse of WILSONS WARBLERS moving through as the most common warbler with several feeding in some different sycamores.  Also picked up BLACK-THROATED GRAY and ORANGE0-CROWNED WARBLERS as well as a PAINTED REDSTART.  Watched a presumed PEREGRINE FALCON soaring with some TURKEY VULTURES high over head.  Also GRAY HAWKS and a young RED-TAILED HAWK complaining loudly from a cliff.

At the lake, walking around the southern end, we observed two YELLOW-BILLED CUCKOOS a couple of times, actively feeding along the lake. The first time, I spotted them in literally the same tree I saw them feeding young in on Sept 19 of last year! Again saw both WILSONS and ORANGE-CROWNED WARBLERS there as well, but a late season LUCYS WARBLER was a nice find near the picnic ground as we ate some lunch.  No Green Kingfisher but did refind a BELTED KINGFISHER flying around the south end.

Barn Owl by Dan Weisz

On the way back, shorts stops around Rio Rico produced a BARN OWL and several BLACK-BELLIED WHISTLING DUCKS at the nearby pond, now becoming seriously dry.

Here are some of the great sightings from the day.

By Pete Baum

Green Heron by Pete Baum

Black-tailed rattlesnake by Dan Weisz

Lucy's Warbler by Pete Baum

Morning glory by Dan Weisz

Black-tailed rattlesnake by Dan Weisz

Black-tailed rattlesnake by Deanna Mac Phail

Canyon tree frog by Dan Weisz

Widow skipper by Dan Weisz