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 eBird.org 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 Kashley@tucsonaudubon.org.

Climate Change Conservation News

News related to the accelerating global warming crisis has captured the headlines this week. Today the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) released its annual Greenhouse Gas Bulletin, announcing that “The amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere reached a new record high in 2013, propelled by a surge in levels of carbon dioxide.” The WMO reports: “The observations from WMO’s Global Atmosphere Watch (GAW) network showed that CO2 levels increased more between 2012 and 2013 than during any other year since 1984. Preliminary data indicated that this was possibly related to reduced CO2 uptake by the earth’s biosphere in addition to the steadily increasing CO2 emissions.” It is not surprising then that 2013 tied with 2003 as the fourth warmest year on record, and May of this year was the warmest ever recorded. Today’s announcement from WMO has “injected even greater urgency into the need for concerted international action against accelerating and potentially devastating climate change.”  

Our rapidly changing climate is already having serious consequences for human and wildlife communities alike. From unprecedented ocean acidification that is killing off vast expanses of coral reefs, to megadroughts that threaten to further exacerbate major water shortages in major cities and drought-driven high raptor nest failure rates in southern California, no place on Earth is immune to the reach and consequences of global warming.

Birds are an important barometer for predicting and measuring the impacts of climate change. The Climate Report, released today by the National Audubon Society, predicts many potentially dramatic changes and challenges our birds will face under various climate change scenarios. The new report “is a comprehensive, first-of-its kind study that predicts how climate change could affect the ranges of 588 North American birds. Audubon scientists used three decades of citizen-scientist observations from the Audubon Christmas Bird Count and the North American Breeding Bird Survey to define the “climatic suitability” for each bird species—the range of temperatures, precipitation, and seasonal changes each species needs to survive. Then, using internationally recognized greenhouse gas emissions scenarios, they mapped where each bird’s ideal climatic range may be found in the future as the climate changes. These maps serve as a guide to how each bird’s current range could expand, contract, or shift across three future time periods (2020, 2050, and 2080). Of the 588 North American bird species Audubon studied, more than half are likely to be in trouble. Our models indicate that 314 species will lose more than 50 percent of their current climatic range by 2080.” 

Here in southeast Arizona, many birds we know and love have been identified to be at risk by The Climate Report, including fairly common species like Swainson’s hawk, Green-tailed towhee, Rufous hummingbird, Gilded flicker, Gila woodpecker and the Western screech-owl. National Audubon Society’s models predict a “troubling situation on the breeding grounds” of the Green-tailed towhee. The model for this species predicts a “51-percent decrease in areas with proper climate . . . presumably as they are forced up in elevation and into smaller and smaller areas by drier and hotter conditions below.” Climate impacts will be felt differently for different species, depending upon their natural history, adaptability and the impacts of climate on vegetation and other food sources. By 2080, the Rufous hummingbird is projected to lose 100 percent of non-breeding range in the United States . . . models project that the hummer’s breeding range will also be disrupted and move north. How all this disruption affects this charismatic bird, and how changes to flower phenology factor in, remains to be seen.”  And just because climate conditions (i.e. temperature, precipitation, humidity, and seasonality) will shift into new areas does not necessarily mean birds associated with those climate variables will be able to quickly colonize and adapt to surviving there. Another factor to throw into the mix is that summer and winter ranges are predicted to be effected differently for some species.  According to the model predictions, the Western screech owl faces this climate conundrum:  “Altogether, the summer and winter ranges may become increasingly decoupled. In order to adapt the Western Screech-Owl may need to adopt a partially migratory life history—an uncertain prospect at best.”

Even bird species whose ranges are predicted to grow with climate change in the U.S. face unique problems.  For example, National Audubon reports, “the model projects huge gains for the Gila Woodpecker, with suitable climate in both winter and summer spreading all the way to peninsular Florida. If the species does in fact commence a vigorous range expansion, it will encounter and possibly hybridize with two congeners from which it is currently isolated: first the Golden-fronted and then the Red-bellied woodpecker.” The Gilded flicker faces a similar dilemma, “Although closely related, the two flickers are generally isolated today by geography and habitat, but they interbreed freely in a few Arizona locales where their ranges meet. As the Gilded Flicker, assisted by climate change, penetrates the range of the Northern Flicker, extensive interbreeding could ensue. Genetic “swamping” by one species, or mixing of both species’ gene pools, may be the unfortunate result.” 

Click here to learn 5 things you can do to help protect birds in the face of global warming.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

A Perfect Tribute Enhances Tucson Audubon's Nature Shop Garden

Earlier this summer, the front yard at Tucson Audubon's downtown Nature Shop got a very special upgrade. Tucson Audubon member Damiana Cohen generously donated a lovely bench for the yard. The bench now provides a place for visitors to sit, relax, and enjoy the plants in the yard and the many different birds that visit this urban habitat. The story behind the bench adds to its poignancy.

Damiana envisioned the bench as a way for her and her children to commemorate Damiana's parents. The bench is a memorial to Augusta and Lester Cohen, who tragically died on June 10th, 2013. As Damiana shared, "The bench is a perfect tribute to them, as they were lovers of nature, gardens, and birds.  They took great delight in watching birds at their feeders in their beautiful backyard.  We wish to remember them with peace and beauty, which is exactly how the garden at Tucson Audubon feels."

Damiana is a Tucson Audubon member who really became involved with Tucson Audubon when she took Lynn Hassler's Backyard Birding & Beyond class Tucson Audubon last spring. Lynn, Tucson Audubon instructor, author, and gardener extraordinaire, has been the leading force behind the transformation in the garden at the Nature Shop. You can read more about Lynn's endeavors as the spotlight volunteer in the current issue of the Vermilion Flycatcher. A big thanks goes to Lynn for working closely with Damiana to realize this vision.

Damiana not only generously funded the bench, she was passionately involved in every step of the process. She worked with Lynn and Tucson Audubon staff to determine the best bench, taking aesthetics, fabrication materials, and comfort into consideration. The result, a bench from Zona Fountains, is attractive, comfortable, a perfect complement to the landscape, and a lasting memory.

Damiana, thank you for this gift, it will be enjoyed by nature lovers for years to come.

Piles of Purple Martins on the Lower San Pedro

By Jennie MacFarland, TAS Conservation Biologist
Lower San Pedro Global Important Bird Area
As someone who lives in Tucson, how much do you really think about Purple Martins? Purple Martins are those birds who live in big white apartment style bird houses right? I think I once saw a really cool one for sale in Sky Mall. For most of the United States this is likely how they think of Purple Martins, as large swallows that live in their yard and cannot survive without a friendly hand from humanity. I did once see in print that Purple Martins can no longer survive without human created artificial nesting structures. As condescending as this is, it also turns out to be completely false, especially in SE Arizona. The Purple Martins we have nesting in SE Arizona are special and amazing, so much so that they are their own sub-species known as the “Desert Nesting” Purple Martin. These bad-boy martins shun human created “martin condos” and raise their young in saguaro cavities created by woodpeckers. 
Male and Female "Desert Nesting" Purple Martins by Doris Evans
They especially favor areas where saguaros lie near riparian zones where they stalk their insect prey. An excellent example of where these two habitats meet is the Lower San Pedro Global Important Bird Area.
Over a thousand Purple Martins along the road that parallels the river
 This past summer the Important Bird Areas team had a chance to partner with Kevin Frasier of York University, a scientist who specializes in Purple Martins. With the goal of studying this little known sub-species of Purple Martins he and his crew traveled all the way to Tucson from Canada with the hope of capturing a number of these amazing martins and outfitting them with satellite trackers so their migration path and winter home could be discovered. Surprisingly, no one knows precisely where these martins go, they are on a completely different migration schedule than the other Purple Martins. 
 The "Desert Nesting" Purple Martins are 30% smaller than "regular" Purple Martins
The Arizona IBA crew had a great time working with Kevin when he was here in June and he did get a gps marker on one female Purple Martin. Many DNA samples were also collected from individuals caught in a mist net stretched out near the large pond near the river. The DNA will help determine how genetically different our Purple Martins are from the main group. The large vegetated pond on the east side of the Lower San Pedro near San Manuel had become a remarkable gathering place for these Purple Martins in the evenings. We went out there three separate evenings and watched the martins gather in huge flocks to drink and bathe.
Many Purple Martins are flying over this pond if you look closely
 Then on an unknown cue they would all take off and fly in synchronized patterns like Starlings. Just before darkness completely descended there would be another unknown cue and they would all funnel down to a few large cottonwoods near the river to communally roost for the night. It was an amazing thing to see. Kevin and his crew are returning next summer to conduct more extensive studies on these little martins and I will be giving a full account of the work done this last summer at the upcoming AZFO meeting in Globe on October 4, 2014. Hope to see you there.
Beautiful evening by the pond waiting for the Purple Martins to go to roost

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Be a Strong Voice for Nature’s Bottom Line by Becoming a Conservation Advocate

By Matt Clark
Tucson Audubon Conservation Advocate

Help us to grow the power of our collective voice for the conservation of birds, other wildlife and their habitats in southeast Arizona. We need your voice to amplify Tucson Audubon’s positions and recommendations to our elected leaders and decision makers. We have made it easy to do!  Check out our Conservation Action Alert web page for information and targeted actions on current issues we are working on in conjunction with our partner organizations: http://www.tucsonaudubon.org/act-now  

City-County Cooperation Saves Saguaro-studded Painted Hills
The Arizona Daily Star recently published an opinion editorial written by Pima County Board of Supervisor Richard Elias and City Councilor Regina Romero celebrating our community’s newest conservation success story: the preservation of Painted Hills.  In their editorial, the two community leaders say, “The saguaro-studded Painted Hills at the gateway to Tucson Mountain Park finally is getting the protection it has long deserved, due in large part to years of cooperative efforts between Pima County and the City of Tucson. City and county officials worked hard and in concert to achieve this milestone, as neither entity could have done it alone.”  

The Pima County Board of Supervisors on Monday approved a $7.5 million agreement to purchase the 287 pristine acres that make up the striking Painted Hills between West Speedway and West Anklam Road, using bond funds that the Tucson City Council allocated for a $3 million down payment. The willing seller is the Dallas Police and Fire Retirement System. A less preservation-minded Board of Supervisors in the 1960s had zoned the acreage for residential development, but the ravine-laced rocky crags of the Painted Hills repeatedly defied development efforts. Pima County and city voters approved open space bonds to purchase Painted Hills in 1997 and again in 2004.”  The funding for the purchase of Painted hills was levied specifically for Community Open Space acquisitions.
Tucson Audubon commends the both the City and County for their efforts to purchase and preserve Painted Hills. Representatives from Tucson Audubon and the Coalition for Sonoran Desert Protection, of which Tucson Audubon is a founding member group, have attended many meetings over the past decade in support of preserving this special parcel of land. Now we can celebrate this long-awaited conservation achievement! 

With an estimated 9,000 saguaros, Painted Hills has abundant wildlife, wash corridors, peaks and ridges of scenic value and lush upland desert habitat. It is directly adjacent to the proposed Tucson Mountain Area Important Bird Area, and is an excellent addition to the iconic Tucson Mountain Park. The Painted Hills property will provide excellent recreational opportunities for Tucson citizens and out of town visitors for generations to come and is a good investment for our community. Painted Hills is exactly the type of open space purchase that the 2004 Community Open Space Bond was passed by voters to purchase and protect, and directly supports the implementation of the visionary Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan.

Call or email your County Supervisor and City Council Representative to thank them for their leadership, collaboration and commitment to preserving Painted Hills.

Also, we encourage you to write to the Pima County Bond Advisory Committee and tell them you support the next open space bond package to be as fully funded as possible so that conservation success stories like Painted Hills can continue to be possible. Click here to read more and to learn how you can take action to support the future of open space preservation in Pima County.

Solar, Wind and Wildlife – Can We Strike a Balance? 
The conservation community has been actively engaged in tackling the growing threat posed to birds, bats and other wildlife by the development and operation of many new utility scale wind and solar installations. The rapid growth of these new forms of energy production has resulted in efforts by the government and the public to craft new policies in order to strike a balance between renewable energy development and the conservation of wildlife and other natural and cultural resources. 
In recent news, North American Windpower recently reported that on July 31st, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) issued the first ever eagle take permit for EDF Renewable Energy’s Shiloh IV wind project in Solano, California. The article also notes that a public process is now underway by the FWS to retool eagle take permit polices. Tucson Audubon will be reviewing the proposed revisions to the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act permit regulations. The final policy governing take permits, including the maximum length of time permits can be issued, is expected to be finalized by the end of 2015.

Meanwhile, things are heating up in the Mojave Desert of California, where birds are being scorched out of the sky by the new Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System (ISEGS). Read the Arizona Daily Star article on the issue. The project is currently the largest solar thermal power plant in the world. What is being done to avoid, minimize and mitigate impacts to our wildlife from energy development?  Visit the and American Bird Conservancy and Defenders of Wildlife’s websites to learn more about the issues and how we can get engaged.

Outdoor Cat Suspected of Killing 5 Endangered Lesser Long-Nosed Bats
Recently, in nearby Cochise County, three endangered Lesser Long-Nosed bat carcasses were collected from a mortality event of five bats found under a hummingbird feeder over several days. According to the USGS National Wildlife Health Center diagnostic report, “All three bats had evidence of bite wounds resulting in death; bite wounds were small and deeply penetrating, consistent with a small carnivore such as a cat.” While this case is not yet definitive, cat-caused mortality events such as this may be occurring much more often than we realize because the vast majority of them likely go undocumented.

Scientists from the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently estimated that outdoor cats kill an astounding 1.4 to 3.7 billion birds and 6.9 to 20.7 billion mammals in the United States annually.  Even well-fed cats instinctively kill birds and other small animals. Therefore, developing public policies governing the management of outdoor cats that are informed and responsive to the best available science is crucial to addressing this growing problem.

Tucson Audubon is disappointed in the recent Pima County Board of Supervisors approval of a trap, neuter and release (TNR) program for feral cats.  We believe it was the wrong decision for biodiversity and for the health and human safety of Pima County residents. Although the TNR program will undoubtedly reduce feral cat euthanasia and intakes into shelters, there is no credible evidence that it will actually reduce the number of feral cats in the environment. If the newly adopted TNR program does not significantly reduce the number of feral cats on our streets and in our local natural areas, it will be a failure.
In addition to many common species outdoor cats kill, a few examples among special status species that outdoor cats may be putting at risk of further endangerment in Pima County include the Southwest Willow flycatcher (Empidonax traillii extimus), the Western yellow-billed cuckoo (Coccyzus americanus), Mountain Plover (Charadrius montanus) and the Lesser Long-Nosed bat (Leptonycteris curasoae yerbabuenae).

In light of the decision to adopt the “Community Cats” TNR program, Tucson Audubon is asking Pima County to take reasonable steps to document the performance of the program and to avoid some of the pitfalls of other TNR programs. We are asking that Pima County: 1) fund an independent study of the feral cat population in the zip codes affected by the program, before, during and after the three-year program; 2) not allow cat colonies near several key locations for birds and bats that are within the project area; 3) listen and respond favorably to people who don’t want cat colonies near them or their property; 4) not allow cat colonies near The Loop or other bicycle routes in order to assure the safety of cyclists; 5) abandon the current TNR program if it fails to reduce feral cat populations over the three year period for which it is funded; 6) partner with Tucson Audubon and the American Bird Conservancy to educate people about the benefits of keeping cats indoors; and to 7) consider adopting and funding other approaches and solutions, such as developing a more robust adoption program, and creating a larger county-operated no-kill facility for cats that are deemed unsuitable for adoption. Click here to learn more and take action!

Twin Mining Pollution Disasters Remind the Public and Policy Makers of the Industry’s Many Environmental Hazards
Two recent major mining-related pollution disasters are a stark reminder of the many serious environmental hazards posed by the hard rock mining industry, which unfortunately aims to build new open pit mines in both the Santa Rita and Patagonia Mountains of southeast Arizona.

The first disaster occurred near Mount Polley in the Cariboo region of British Columbia, Canada.  According to Wikipedia, “the disaster began in the early morning of August 4, 2014 when the Mount Polley tailings pond partially breached, releasing 10 million cubic meters of water and 4.5 million cubic meters of slurry into Polley Lake. The contaminated slurry carrying felled trees, mud and debris "scoured away the banks" of Hazeltine Creek which flows out of Polley Lake and continued into the nearby Quesnel Lake. The spill caused Polley Lake to rise by 1.5 meters (4.9 ft). Hazeltine Creek was transformed from a 2-metre-wide (6.6 ft) stream to a 50-meter-across (160 ft) "wasteland." Cariboo Creek was also affected. The spill has been called one of the biggest environmental disasters in modern Canadian history” The mining disaster has begun a conversation about ways such disasters might be avoided in the future, like in this article in the online magazine The Tyee.
The second disaster occurred at the Buenavista copper mine in Cananea, Sonora, Mexico. According to a Mexico News Daily report, “The mine spilled 40,000 cubic meters of copper sulphate acid solution into the Sonora and Bacanuchi rivers on August 6, leaving some 22,000 people without drinking water in as many as seven area municipalities. The National Water Commission has issued a prohibition against contact with the water due to unsafe levels of arsenic, cadmium, copper, chrome and mercury. The environmental protection agency is expected to conclude its investigation into the spill this week and decide on what sanctions will be imposed on the mine’s owner.”

This twin set of mining disasters in our neighboring countries is a wake-up call for us too. Southern Arizona now faces numerous large-scale mining proposals in ecologically sensitive areas such as the Santa Rita and Patagonia Mountains.  Not only would such mining cause extensive habitat loss and fragmentation, they would also put our community’s water and air quality at risk.

The majority of these two adjacent “sky island” mountain ranges are publicly owned land, managed in trust by the Coronado National Forest. These sky islands harbor impressive endemic biological diversity – and are a birding hotspot that is a major economic draw to the area. Both the ecology and economy of the region are threatened by several large-scale mineral mining proposals from foreign-owned companies. Efforts to stop these disastrous proposals from becoming a reality are hampered by the antiquated Mining Act of 1872. Legislative attempts to reform and modernize this law have been obstructed by powerful pro-mining lobbies. New legislation has been introduced that would better address the environmental and societal impacts caused by modern mining operations.

Tucson Audubon is working in partnership with organizations like the Patagonia Area Resource Alliance, Save the Scenic Santa Ritas and Earthworks to prevent these potentially disastrous mining proposals from becoming a reality and to build a constituency to demand that our government modernize its mining laws. Click here to learn more and take action!