Friday, April 11, 2014

Twelve Year Quest for TBC Long-eared Owl

The 14th Annual Tucson Bird Count takes place April 15 to May 15. Over the last 14 years volunteers have tabulated over half a million individual birds from 248 different species! This data helps towards the goal of making Tucson a more friendly place for birds through improved urban habitat.

For more information on how you can join the fun and adopt a route please visit the TBC info page here to see what routes are available.

Guest post by Brian Nicholas
Long-Eared Owl (Courtesy Paul Suchanek)

The birds were active that Sunday morning in early February after a very light rain fell the day before.  Any rain is good rain in the desert, where conservation is survival, at least for the plants and wildlife.  Paul Suchanek joined me for a day of counting birds for the Tucson Bird Count, a citizen science project now run by the Tucson Audubon Society, which monitors the status of the Tucson area bird community over time.    Our first point count was Castlerock lake, where in five minutes Paul rattled off 23 species as I stood and scribbled names and numbers.  Even for this diverse water habitat 23 species was one of our highest counts.  

Our next count area was the nearby mesquite bosque.   This would be ten minute count in which we would walk through the mesquites and count birds seen and heard.   As we waited to start the clock I mentioned to Paul that there was one bird which had eluded me in this transect in the twelve years I'd been surveying this "park."   It was the mysterious Long-eared Owl.  In fact, I created this transect specifically with this bird in mind, since I had seen it in years past in these very mesquites.  That was over twelve years ago.   In subsequent winters it would be seen sporadically yet never during the Tucson Bird Count (or CBC count day).   I would call it a nemesis, but our relationship was not of hunter and prey, nor as competitors.  Our meetings were a gift to behold whenever seen, and part of the uniqueness was its unpredictability.   It was always a pleasant, unexpected surprise.

Our walk was rewarding as a Ruby-crowned Kinglet chattered, and 3 Western Bluebirds flew overhead.   An Ash-throated Flycatcher, rare in winter, gave out a single syllabled “pop.”  We already had some interesting birds for this woodsy section.   I calmed my usual anticipation as we neared the area where the owl had been seen in past years.  I knew its various perches, but this time wanted to clear my mind of expectations.  "You need to look with fresh eyes," I thought, "as if it's your first time here."  

With this in mind I scanned the vegetation to the right of the trail, where the owl had never been seen.   My eyes came upon a vine tangle which looked a little too solid.  I brought my bins up, focusing on its rich dark brown plumage, then turned to Paul with an excited whisper. "It's here!"   We marveled at how camouflaged it appeared, hiding in plain sight.  This owl has a way of stretching its body upward until it looks just like a thin broken branch.  After finishing the transect we came back over to its location on our way to our next point count.   As we slipped by the branches seemed to open up, and we were treated to an unobstructed view of this wonderfully rare friend. 

This long sought addition to our park count list of birds would also be a first for the Tucson Bird Count!  I was so happy to finally experience the awe of this bird's presence during a TBC.   What are some of your special wildlife experiences?   Thank you for appreciating the incredible diversity of our unique desert habitats. 

Tips on separating Long-eared Owl from the sometimes similar Great Horned Owl.   The Long-eared Owl has a cross-hatched pattern chest pattern, a slimmer build with longer tail (when in camouflaged posture here), and long ear tuffs which are set closer together than on Great Horned.  The Great Horned Owl also has a white bib on the throat.   Note that some Great Horned Owls will appear to have dark cross hatching on the chest.   The dark line which extends vertically through the Long-eared owl’s eye is one of the most reliable field mark for this species.     

Good Birding!

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Spring Sapsucker Surprise

Guest post by birder, Tucson Audubon member, supporter, Birdathoner, and volunteer, Brian Nicholas.

I'm a firm believer in omens, especially good ones. As I met Paul Suchanek at our neighborhood lake he had already spotted our first good omen, a Peregrine Falcon sitting on our favorite dead Eucalyptus tree. It was already a great day of birding.

Peregrine Falcon

As we walked around the lake and nearby field it was clear spring migration had begun in earnest, just two days after its heralded beginning. Lucy's Warblers were singing from the mesquites, four varieties of swallows circled the lake, and Lincoln's Sparrows gave short buzzy bursts from the knee-high grassy understory.

Peregrine Falcon digiscoped from 300 feet

My first Black-chinned Hummingbird perched over us in the mesquites, and the soft sounds of White-winged Doves could be heard above the mockingbird's repetitive spring repertoire.

Neotropical Cormorants
Neotropic Cormorant & Northern Shoveler
Large groups of Neotropic Cormorants were also a pleasant surprise. Each group which passed seemed larger than the previous one, the last being 18 individuals. Ebird would be flagging this entry as a high count for sure.

In the first one and a half hour stretch we had seen just under 40 species, a good clip for early migration. I pitched the idea to continue on to our cattail pond, a diverse habitat which could be a warbler trap. This winter a juvenile Yellow-bellied Sapsucker had also taken advantage of the predrilled holes in the Eucalyptus trees along the shoreline. Paul agreed, and both of us hoped we would also see some raptors catching thermals for migration as the heat rose up from the desert floor, what is locally known as the "lift off." We would be disappointed in this area (only a single migrating Turkey Vulture) but our birding efforts would be rewarded.

A medium-sized bird caught our attention as it flew to the uppermost dead snags of the tree before us. It was an American Robin, an uncommon sight in the low desert this late in the season. Two Neotropic Cormorants had also stopped down for a bite, or should I say swallow, as we watched it engulf some sort of sunfish. They both soon departed and we left the pond's shoreline to walk the wash directly behind it. We looked up at the tall budding Eucalyptus before us. There was some fluttering about, but mostly Yellow-rumped Warblers. I thought back to when this tree was a migrant magnet, with tanagers, grosbeaks, warblers, and vireos captivating my senses for hours. Perhaps this could be another such year...

Williamson's Sapsucker-photo property of Paul Suchanek
It was so unassuming as if flew into the loftier reaches of the tree, resting on a upwardly sloping branch. It then became immobile except for it's head, which cocked about slowly and curiously around the loose light bark. Paul and I were both locked onto it with our bins, but neither of us called out its name. We shot each other a puzzled glance. I had the better angle of the mostly hidden bird (and was looking through a scope), and noticed barring on the flanks. A long shot came to mind. "Female Williamson's Sapsucker?" It was more of a question than a statement. The last time it had been recorded in the low desert of Tucson was in 2011, and in 2009 before that. And never this late in the season.

Paul noted other field marks, the yellow on the belly, the relatively unmarked brown head, and we both got looks at the black bib, all differentiating it from not just other sapsuckers but it's closest lookalike, the Gila Woodpecker. It was not only a first for the neighborhood, but a life bird for me as well (1st ever sighting).

As we craned our necks with our cameras to document this unusual gift, I smiled, remembering the special trips I had taken up Mount Lemmon this year, just to see this species. The trips had all been unsuccessful, but had prepared me for this moment, seeing this unique specialty right in our own neighborhood patch. Thank you for appreciating the unique gifts in your neighborhood!

Ebird entries can be found below;
Cattail Pond Birds
Castlerock Birds (excluding Cattail birds)

Images credit to Brian Nicholas unless otherwise noted.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

It's April and Birdathon is On!

To begin the Birdathon month, we start at the beginning. Read on to see how the Tyrannulets' Big Day started last year. Account is written by last year's Grand Prize winner, and Tyrannulets' team leader, Kendall Kroesen. Kendall, Janine, and Brian are back this year as the Valiant Verdins. Donate to their or another Birdathoner's effort at (click on Birders).

2013 Birdathon Adventure of The Tyrannulets 
Kendall Kroesen, Brian Nicholas and Janine McCabe 

This is an account of our Birdathon trip: an attempt to see as many bird species as possible in 24 consecutive hours in order to raise money for Tucson Audubon Society.

Getting Started

I picked up Brian Nicholas as he got off work at 4 p.m. Friday. He had to talk his way out of a meeting that was running long. Birdathon waits for no meeting.

 Brian offered to fill up my thermos with coffee from his office. I assented. I wasn’t going to drink any more that day. I wanted to be able to sleep well during the relatively few hours we were likely to get. But it would still be warm the next morning when we woke up at a remote campground with no Starbuck’s for miles.
Then we headed toward Desert Survivors Nursery where Janine McCabe works. She wasn’t working but it was a convenient place to meet us and leave her truck behind a locked gate for the night. Plus she sometimes sees an Inca dove there. These doves were once fairly common in Tucson but are now hard to find. We might start off the trip with a tough species.

We went into the nursery and found her. But no Inca doves were around that afternoon. However, as we loaded her things in the truck Brian and Janine simultaneously saw a roadrunner across the street. This seemed a good sign. Roadrunners, though widespread, are never very numerous in any given spot, and have been missed on many a Birdathon. We checked the time and decided we could start the Birdathon clock then and there.

Digging up a Burrowing Owl

In our region burrowing owls live in desert basins, adopting mammal holes for their nesting burrows. But humans have developed many of the lowland areas they favor. So burrowing owls are another species that’s a bit hard to find. Janine knew of a place close to Desert Survivors where owls from areas slated for development have been relocated to artificial burrow complexes. We went there next.

Arriving Janine quickly spotted a burrowing owl in front of a PVC pipe sticking out of the ground. I’m glad I don’t use the same architect.

Burrowing owls are cute but we didn’t have time to appreciate it. This is the phase of Birdathon when every species is new to your trip list. Even while driving to the owl spot we saw verdin, house finch, house sparrow, white-winged dove, Eurasian collared-dove, great-tailed grackle, rock pigeon, lesser goldfinch, mourning dove and European starling.

While still at the owl stop we saw a soaring red-tailed hawk and driving away we saw (or heard) Gila woodpecker, Gambel’s quail, Lucy’s warbler and black-chinned hummingbird.

Sweetwater Wetlands

Our strategy for this Birdathon was to hit Sweetwater Wetlands in the late afternoon and evening, the Santa Catalina Mountains at night and in the early morning, and then some other more distant environment later in the second day. The more different environments you visit, each with a characteristic mix of species, the more species you are likely to see.

Sweetwater Wetlands is the premier location of high species diversity in the Tucson metro area. It combines ponds, wetlands, shallow mudflats and riparian trees with some desert vegetation to attract the widest range of species possible. Over 290 species of birds have been seen here in the 15 years of its existence (see It attracts winter waterfowl, spring migrants, nesting birds, post-breeding wanderers and “accidental” lost birds far from their normal range.

As we went down Sweetwater Drive I suggested we drive past the gate and lawns of the Roger Road Wastewater Treatment Plant first before turning into the wetlands. I had seen Inca dove here before, along with other species. We were delighted to see lazuli buntings on the grass, vermilion flycatchers catching bugs and Cassin’s kingbird perched on a wire.

Inca dove is a small “ground dove.” This group of doves is probably named that because they spend a lot of time foraging on the ground, but it might as well be because they are the color of the ground. But as we swung around and headed for the wetlands Janine spotted one on the ground alongside the road. She pointed it out but it took Brian and me a minute to focus. This was good fortune indeed, and I was now having high hopes for this Birdathon.

We pulled into the parking lot at Sweetwater Wetlands and headed up the trail. A big part of the appeal of the wetlands—to birds—is the insects. Swallows circled the ponds, verdins plied the mesquites, yellow warblers sang daintily in the cottonwoods—all because of the presence of the bugs they eat. Beautiful common yellowthroats sang—mostly hidden but sometimes emerging from cattails. Many of the waterfowl species present there eat aquatic arthropods. Flycatchers like western kingbird gobble up insects on the wing.

We probably saw over 30 new species at Sweetwater, many of them insect eaters. American avocets and black-necked stilts walked in the shallow water of the infiltration basins, with spotted sandpipers and killdeers on the water’s margin and Wilson’s phalaropes swimming circles in the water and then lifting into the air to circle the ponds, perhaps on their way to a nighttime migration trip.

Overseeing all this was a great horned owl perched in a tall eucalyptus across the street where it has its nest. It probably eats mostly the abundant cotton rats that live in the wetlands.

It was dusk when we were walking out of the wetlands and Brian pointed out lesser nighthawks circling the wetlands with their seemingly erratic flight—turns on a wing, little dives and climbs. They chase the big insects—moths and such—that are out at this time of day. 

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Volunteer Spotlight Brian Nicholas' Top Bird Lists

Brian Nicholas is the Volunteer Spotlight in the April/May/June issue of the Vermilion Flycatcher. We couldn't fit all the interesting info about him in the magazine article (or here for that matter), so read on for some of Brian's birding hot lists.

Favorite birding spot. The varied habitats along the Tanque Verde Wash, and our yard. When I was young I envisioned my dream house to have fields and moutains and a stream going by the house. This habitat has a wash, desert scrub, nearby mountains, fields, a pecan grove, a cattail pond and lake, along with beautiful riparian stretches of mesquite, cottonwoods, and Arizona Walnut. I do believe I found my dream house and more.

Favorite sighting. The semi-annual sightings of Long-eared Owl in our area are always unpredictable and breathtaking.

Funniest Birding Experience. Sending in a video to Mark Stevenson of a Grasshopper Sparrow for verification, and having him not only verify the sparrow but to point out a Bobolink I had miscalled earlier in the tape. It's one of the best birds seen in our neighborhood and I am thankful for his catch.

Best birds in neighborhood. Bobolink, Clay-colored Sparrow, RB Merganser, Long-eared Owl, Rufous-crowned Sparrow, Horned Grebe (Paul Suchanek), Bay-breasted Warbler (Richard Fray). Yellow-eyed Junco, Sagebrush Sparrow, Swamp Sparrow, Mexican Jay, Prothonotary Warbler, American Redstart, American White Pelican, Arizona Woodpecker, Red-breasted Sapsucker, Common Grackle, Rusty Blackbird (Mark Stevenson), American Crow, Least Bittern, Greater Pewee, Tropical Kingbird, Lewis's Woodpecker, Tricolored Heron, Cattle Egret, Sage Thrasher, Gray Hawk, Ferruginous Hawk, Bald Eagle, Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Grasshopper Sparrow. White-eyed Vireo, Violet-Crowned Hummingbird, Greater White-fronted Goose.

Neighborhood Wish list
Common Black Hawk
Northern Saw-whet Owl
Crested Caracara
Many warbler species
Varied Bunting
Fox Sparrow
Golden-crowned Sparrow

Biggest Challenge
Getting out early to bird. Sometimes yard birds make it difficult to go out since it is so exciting just looking out the window. Our cats also encourage me to sleep in with them. I recently led a sleep in special bird trip which was very popular, so it is comforting to know I am not alone. There others who enjoy birds, and sleeping in!

Many Thanks to the Nest Box Pilot Project Citizen Conservation Corps!

by Keith Ashley
Thanks to the expertise, creativity, and brawn of many volunteers, the Nest Boxes for Urban Birds pilot project is up and running for the 2014 nesting season.  Tucson Audubon would like to recognize all of the people who made this infant program a reality.  Thank you!  We wish we could individually acknowledge each person whose donation of time and energy was crucial to the project.  While that’s not possible, we can celebrate the contributions of a few.

Early on in the production process Joe DeRouen of Oro Valley offered his home carpentry shop as a base for cutting more than half the wood that would later be assembled into 40 nest boxes by 30+ volunteers.  A master carpenter of beautiful furniture, Joe straightened out warped planks, smoothed over the rough edges of his carefully hewn oval entry holes, and—most amazing of all—took his carpentry shop on the road when we found that some last minute adjustments needed to be made in order to assemble the boxes. 

Carl Boswell
, also of Oro Valley, invited a group of nest box enthusiasts to his home to demonstrate the ins and outs of his highly successful box for Western Screech-Owls.  Carl’s box has fledged owlets for three years running—exciting activity he has monitored and recorded with a nest cam.  In addition to making home movies of his adopted birds, Carl reports his observations to Cornell’s NestWatch program.  (Mama owl has already laid five eggs for the 2014 Nesting Season!)  Carl has also been setting up his neighbors with nest boxes he is building and helping them to mount.

Meanwhile, recent NAU grad in Biology—Jessica Windes—designed a nest box observation protocol for the pilot project.   Jessica has devised step-by-step directions for Tucson Audubon nest box hosts to link up with the NestWatch program on-line and register observations that allow both Cornell and Tucson Audubon to gather important data.  Jessica helped build boxes along the way at assembly gatherings, proving herself a Jessica-of-All-Trades.

Chip Hedgcock also found a variety of valuable ways to support the project:  cutting box pieces at home, designing a low-cost closure for the box doors, attending assembly gatherings, and teaching other volunteers to assemble the boxes.  Most recently Chip expanded the program to include an 8 foot “nest ledge” he crafted for barn swallows at Manzo Elementary.  Manzo Counselor Moses Thompson is hoping to keep the birds at the school, but redirect their nesting to a more appropriate area. 

Tucson Audubon’s Restoration Ecologist, Jonathan Horst, volunteered his time to cut a shipment of boards at home and also helped Moses at Manzo to install one of the kestrel nest boxes 20 feet up in an Aleppo pine at the edge of the campus.  Tim Helentjaris helped to investigate the heat sensors that will be used to monitor nest box temperatures.  Around town, many volunteers have used our nest box plans to build and mount their own boxes at home—some   One project participant reports that a Western Screech Owl moved into her box just days after it went up.    Thanks again to everyone for your contributions!

Volunteer Shout-out to Techies and Recyclers!

Snapshots at some of the incredible volunteers who are part of the Tucson Audubon volunteer team!

by Kara Kaczmarzyk

A couple of recent activities spurred shout-outs for two great Tucson Audubon volunteers, Ann Mavko and Pete Bengtson.

To correspond with the recent launch of the online volunteer time tracking program, I wanted to highlight Ann Mavko for her contributions to this online program. As the database administrator for Tucson Audubon, I work closely with Ann on a variety of database tasks. When I wrote up the volunteer hours instructions, I passed them by her to make sure they made sense (and they didn’t, really, but she had some great comments). Attention to detail is a critical part of Ann’s volunteer role at Tucson Audubon and one she holds highly. I literally get giddy with excitement talking spreadsheet formulas with Ann, and it is clear that she takes a real care in the problem-solving, data-driven work she is doing for Tucson Audubon. One of the projects Ann works on is connecting National Audubon members with Tucson Audubon, and thanks largely to her results, an increasing number of National Audubon members are engaging with Tucson Audubon’s conservation, education, and recreation programs. I remember interviewing Ann last fall; when she told me she was looking for a long-term volunteer commitment after already devoting about 13 years to another volunteer organization, I was practically sold! This time of year Ann is also busy volunteering for tax preparation related activities. When she is not behind a computer, Ann also enjoys quilting and gardening.

"I began volunteering at TAS because it allows me to combine my love of birding with my computer skills and contribute to an organization whose mission and sense of purpose are actively contributing to the natural environment of Tucson and beyond."

While Ann exemplifies the many volunteers who work behind the scenes for Tucson Audubon, our other shout out volunteer, Pete Bengtson, is often front and center for the organization.

The timely idea to feature Pete was spurred at a recent Tucson Audubon staff meeting, during which staff discussed ways we can be sustainable in our day to day activities. Some things seemed more obvious than others, but all were good reminders, like using reusable water bottles, recycling anything that is recyclable, buying local, and using environmentally sensitive products. Each step we take, whether as staff or as volunteers, adds up to make a big difference. During these conversations, a few staff members brought up the individual contributions that other Tucson Audubon members play in these efforts, specifically highlighting Pete Bengtson. 

At Tucson Audubon’s downtown nature shop, Pete often receives and unpacks new shop merchandise deliveries encased in non-biodegradable Styrofoam packing peanuts. A while ago, Pete took initiative to collect and bring the packing peanuts to a local UPS store. No longer waste, the peanuts are now reused in outbound UPS packages!

Stop by the downtown Nature Shop on Wednesday mornings to have Pete help you pick out that perfect item. You can also find him and his wife Betty engaging new people with Tucson Audubon through many offsite events in which they represent Tucson Audubon and share their birding knowledge. I always appreciate hearing Pete’s constructive, thoughtful feedback that focuses on how Tucson Audubon can improve our services to the birding community. Pete and Betty are strong supporters of Tucson Audubon’s programs and also very involved with other Audubon chapters, the Sierra Club, and local advocacy efforts.

Pete with Tucson Audubon board member Nancy Young Wright at last month's Our Changing Climate gala

"My wife, Betty, and I decided we wanted to get serious about birding in about 2005.  We had always paid some attention to birding not seriously.  We bought good binoculars at the Nature shop, took a few TAS classes, and started attending birding festivals around the country.

I enjoyed birding with the TAS and felt the need to contribute some time to the organization.  I tried working in the nature shop and enjoyed it.  It is great to be one of the Nature Shop Volunteers so I can help out when I'm around and have other people work when I want to travel.

This is the perfect volunteer position for me."

Friday, February 28, 2014

Tucson Audubon's Paton Hummingbird (and White-tailed Deer) Haven

Kendall Kroesen, Urban Program Manager

Violet-crowned Hummingbird at the Patons' on 2/28/2014
As we speak the Paton property in Pagagonia, Arizona, is in the process of being transferred to Tucson Audubon's ownership. This is big news and was covered in the local Tucson paper (Arizona Daily Star, December 13, 2013) as well as in the current issue of Audubon Magazine (March-April 2014).

Apart from the media it's big news for birders because after the passing of Wally and Marion Paton--and a period of uncertainty--the property will now remain a great birding site for the foreseeable future.

I was there today and a wide variety of birds was being seen, including stunning Violet-crowned and Broad-billed hummingbirds.

White-breasted Nuthatch at the feeders, 2/28/2014
Birders may not see big changes in the immediate future but Tucson Audubon gradually will make improvements to the house, the landscaping and the back yard. We hope it will be possible to use the property for other things as well, like environmental education, while never interrupting the birding that is the main focus of visitors.

There will be management challenges, and we will need your help meeting those challenges. You can do this by leaving money in the sugar fund when you visit and by donating online.

White-tailed deer at the feeders today
One management issue I witnessed today was a question of how to feed the birds without feeding the white-tailed deer! They easily hop the fence in the back yard and make themselves right at home.

It was fun seeing them up close but they probably can gobble up a lot of seed in a short period of time.

If you have thoughts about the management of the property let us know. New things you'd like to see? Things we should do differently? What should we do first?

Comment on this blog post or contact me (520-209-1806) and I will bring your ideas to the management team for the property.

White-tailed deer leaves no feeder untested, 2/28/2014
Please visit Tucson Audubon's Paton Hummingbird Haven and enjoy the birding (and the deering).