Friday, January 29, 2016

Sharpie, the Cooper’s ‘Innocent’ Cousin

Evil-eyed Cooper's Hawk
Guest post by Bob Bowers

Wherever you find birds in the greater Tucson area, sooner or later you’ll find a Cooper’s Hawk, as well. This is to be expected, since Cooper’s Hawks feed almost exclusively on other birds. And, being resourceful, Cooper’s Hawks are commonly found in and around residential yards, especially those with bird feeders and quail blocks. These well-supplied yards rank high on Cooper’s Hawk TripAdvisor restaurant lists. If you’re like us and want to attract birds to your yard with seed feeders, understand that the quail and doves dining at your feeders are an entree themselves in the eyes of a Cooper’s Hawk. And the next time a hawk is perched on your wall scanning the menu, take a good look at those eyes. Those large yellow eyes and black pupils telegraph the bird’s appetite and mind set as clearly as those of a novice poker player. An unmistakable evil burns there that screams death and destruction, and any fat bird still lounging around nearby is already a day late and a dollar short. The Cooper’s is a killing machine so effective it’s probably been researched by the Pentagon. And if you think the oversized Cooper’s, with nearly 3 feet of wingspan, would be luckless pursuing a dove through tree branches and around corners, you’re mistaken. This is a bird’s worst nightmare, doing zero to sixty in milliseconds, capable of turning on a dime and probably parking parallel. If your yard goes from 200 birds to none in a flash, look around for a Cooper’s and a deadly eye laser.

Even while dining a Cooper's looks mean.

This brings us to the Cooper’s cousin, the Sharp-shinned Hawk. Both belong to the genus Accipiter, both feed on birds and they both look so much alike it’s difficult to tell one from the other. Around here, Cooper’s are far more common than Sharpies, who are more likely to be seen at these elevations in winter. Sharpies are smaller than Cooper’s, both in length and wingspan, though these differences often are hard to distinguish. One relatively good diagnostic tool is their menu. While Cooper’s have an appetite for quail and doves, Sharp-shinned Hawks seem to prefer lighter fare like sparrows and finches. Maybe they’re just watching their weight. Years ago, birding mentor Rick Wright suggested you could distinguish Cooper’s Hawks from Sharp-shinned easily, simply by looking in their eyes, and I’ve been a believer ever since. That determined killer look so obvious in the eyes of a Cooper’s Hawk, is nowhere to be seen in the Sharpie’s eyes. To the contrary, and in spite of his identical intent, the Sharp-shinned Hawk looks docile and friendly, a buddy to share a beer with. The Sharpie seems innocently sweet and innocuous with a quizzical ‘who, me?’ in his eye, and to underscore this casual friendliness you’ll find him perched in the open like a Walmart greeter. Of course, he’s motionless and frozen to his spot (sometimes on the ground next to a feeder), but he doesn’t look mean. I don’t think anyone has researched this, and I don’t know if one look is more successful than the other. I do know that my yard is just as empty of entrĂ©e birds when either an evil-eyed Cooper’s or an innocent-eyed Sharpie is hanging out. Birds seem fully capable of understanding what’s behind those eyes regardless. Too bad we can’t do the same with politicians.

Sweet faced Sharpie

Welcome to Walmart

Previously published in Birding the 'Brooke and Beyond Column for Saddlebag Notes, January, 2016

If you have questions or comments about SaddleBrooke’s birds, or to receive emailed information about bird walks led by Bob and Prudy, call 825-9895 or email Previously published articles can be found at

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Crowback Birding at Circle Z Ranch

By Keith Ashley, Development Director
We arrived at Circle Z Ranch ( after dark and a little late for birding—or so I assumed, but in my room I discovered two Arthur Singer prints hanging above the bed: a pair of Northern Mockingbirds, and another of Eastern Bluebirds. More modernist paintings of Gambel’s and Scaled Quail bookended the room from opposite walls. There were even birds on the bathroom tiles and the bedroom curtains. Good omens for morning birding, I thought.

After dinner, lively Patagonia naturalist Vincent Pinto almost added to my list of unexpected sightings as he provided guests with an astronomy program by bonfire light. He described a constellation I had never even heard of—Corvus, the Raven. Though not in our line of site this evening, the discovery got me thinking—there are always new ways to encounter birds, including through historical and cultural contexts like constellations of the ancients and (soon-to-be) 90- year-old dude ranches, like the Circle Z.

I was awakened the next day, before my phone alarm could buzz, by the double whistle of a Curve-billed Thrasher—a sound I’m certain has always greeted folks before dawn at Arizona’s longest continually-running dude ranch. I found my way to the edge of Sonoita Creek well before the sun rose. A flock of Brewer’s Blackbirds huddled in a tree by one of the pastures and something croaked (a Green Heron?) further down the creek.

Curve-billed Thrasher by Joan Gellatly

Bridled Titmouse by Rhett Herring

Canyon Wren by Alan Schmierer

As the sun worked its way from the tops of the Cottonwoods down toward the creek-bed everyone seemed to spring to life at the same golden moment; Northern Cardinals, Gila Woodpeckers, Bridled Titmice, and White-breasted Nuthatches called, sang, and flitted about in search of breakfast. A Black Phoebe perched and pumped its tail just over the glistening water. I followed the call of a Canyon Wren until I found the bird standing sentinel on a mini-cliff above the creek, white-breast puffed out as he sang his cascading song. Although it was late November, I’m pretty sure a Gray Hawk whistled in the distance.

Back in the dining room I warmed my hands with a cup of coffee and took in a trio of Ray Harm prints: Phainopepla, Pyrrhuloxia, Lazuli Bunting. Breakfast was itself a cultural event not to be forgotten: chile rellenos, beans, potatoes, biscuits. When we stepped out into full morning, I found that the birds I had tracked down earlier had also come back to the ranch house for breakfast. Here again at the feeders were nuthatches, a phoebe, and now a Canyon Wren singing from the cantina patio. I learned later that a family of them fledged last spring in the tack room. Ahh, yes, the tack room—I had been looking forward to the birding considerably more than the promised horseback ride, but if I was going to ride a horse, I figured this was definitely the place for it.

If you’ve been told there are no crows in southeast Arizona, you haven’t met the horse they set me up with at Circle Z. I was a little concerned when I heard his name that he might have big ideas about flying across the countryside—with or without me managing to hold on—but Crow turned out to be a very patient and gentle fellow. I’m pretty sure all four feet never left the ground at the same time.

Karen and Keith on the Circle Z

Using binoculars is frowned upon when horseback riding—at least for absolute beginners (I’m pretty sure the Cavalry, Comanche Chiefs, and the Lone Ranger could manage it no problem)—but, as it turned out, I really didn’t need them. Crow carried me at a dreamy pace through the fall woods, up into the desert hills, across miles of Arizona’s most beautiful landscape, and down toward Patagonia Lake. He also transported me back in time to an Arizona I have read about forever, but never really touched—certainly not like this. We still saw birds, of course—Rock Wrens, gnatcatchers, Ground Dove—not to mention a javelina we surprised—and I’m pretty sure all four of his feet did leave the ground at the same time!

It dawned on me that like Tucson Audubon, Circle Z engages people with the great outdoors for the benefit of those people as well as the benefit of Arizona. They care for their land in partnership with the Arizona Land and Water Trust. They inspire others to care by offering them a unique kind of access—and they care for our cultural history by keeping it alive.

The Circle Z Ranch is a member of Tucson Audubon's Birds & Business Alliance program. Learn more about the program and support businesses that support Tucson Audubon!

Thursday, November 12, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hiding from the August heat on a shady perch.

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

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

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

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

Build Your Own Nest Box

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

University Blvd Nature Shop, in the Historic YWCA courtyard

Register for November 14

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

Tucson Audubon's Mason Center
Register for December 12

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

Monday, October 12, 2015

Sandhill Cranes: Sojourners from the North

Guest post by Elizabeth Blaker, Photos by Dyer Lytle

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

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

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

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

trumpeting cranes
Three sandhill cranes trumpet in unison.

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

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

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

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

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

Sandhill cranes flying against an orange New Mexico sunset.

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

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

This article originally appeared on

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Bird Droppings: The Saguaro and Gila Woodpecker Make Fine Companions

Guest Column by Pat Bean

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

Images by Michael Ehrhardt

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

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

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

By Pat Bean

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

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

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

Write and Smile RainbowPat Bean

Friday, September 25, 2015

Cuckoos on the Coronado - One Last Adventure!

By Matt Griffiths

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

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

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

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

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

The view down into Canyon del Oro (below)

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


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


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

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

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

Cheers to the cuckoos!!

Monday, September 21, 2015

Tucson Audubon Field Trip Report: Oracle State Park

Report by leaders Bob and Prudy Bowers

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

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

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

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