Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Black-tailed Gnatcatcher nest at Tucson Audubon's Mason Center

A Pima College class visited the Mason Center on this week. On tours of the Mason Center we often show people the sustainability features of the buildings and gardens, and then take them around the short inner-loop trail. We talk about the key role of saguaros in the ecosystem--providing homes for many birds. And we talk about the "nurse" role of many of the trees on the property, creating a microclimate where saguaros grow more easily. We point out many plants and their roles for wildlife. Among them we point out desert mistletoe, which also has been proposed as a keystone species.
We tell them that desert mistletoe berries are important to a variety of birds, like Phainopeplas. And that Phainopeplas--and other birds--sometimes nest in the dense clump that mistletoe often provides. 
On this occasion, arriving at desert hackberry, we explained how great that plant is for wildlife. Nearby, there was a small clump of mistletoe growing in an acacia. We notices there was indeed a very small nest inside this clump. Almost small enough to be a hummingbird nest. 
And then we saw the unmistakable tail and head of a Black-tailed Gnatcatcher sticking up over the rim of the nest. We had seen them foraging nearby a couple weeks before. 
It was almost impossible to get a good photo because the nest is so well concealed in the mistletoe. But after trying a variety of angles we finally got some decent shots. In the photos below we zoom in from the mistletoe, located in a whitethorn acacia, to a closeup of the bird in the nest (below). We hope you enjoy this little piece of nature from Tucson Audubon's Mason Center!

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Tucson Audubon Invites You to Engage with Nature!

By Sarah Whelan and Sara Pike

In a world full of screens and electronic devices, it is more important now than ever before to go outside and engage with nature. When we press pause on a game, close the laptop, or turn off the TV and go outside, something magical happens. Even something as simple as 30 minutes a day engaged with nature helps reduce stress. Nature offers a great way to spend time with those you love or to provide some much-needed time by yourself. When we go outside and take part in the natural world around us, we support our emotional, intellectual, physical, and spiritual development and well-being.

Children can benefit greatly from time outdoors. The National Wildlife Federation highlights the benefits to getting kids outdoors on their website, summarizing that children’s stress levels fall within minutes of seeing green spaces, exposure to natural settings may be widely effective in reducing ADHD symptoms, and being in nature can enhance social interactions and value for the community.

Even WebMD has an article titled, “Do You Need a Nature Prescription?” This article references, “…a 2010 Japanese study of shinrin-yoku (defined as “taking in the forest atmosphere, or forest bathing”), for example, researchers found that elements of the environment, such as the odor of wood, the sound of running stream water, and the scenery of the forest can provide relaxation reduce stress; those taking part in the study experienced lower levels of cortisol, a lower pulse rate, and lower blood pressure.”

There is no doubt what being outside can do for you and your family. For those who are new to the outdoors in general, the question is “Where to start?”

An easy place to start would be a walk in your neighborhood. Look at the trees and plants, listen for birds or other sounds of nature, feel the breeze or the heat from the sun. If you are an urban dweller, find your closest park and spend 10 minutes looking, listening and feeling. For longer excursions, driving up Mt. Lemmon or visiting a local state park for a picnic and a walk can make for a nice morning.

Tucson Audubon offers a variety of programs that can then expand your horizon and get you outdoors. Check out the ½ mile, easy to walk desert trail lined with stunning saguaros and ironwood trees at Tucson Audubon’s Mason Center, attend a 7 Saturdays program held in Patagonia at Tucson Audubon’s Paton Center for Hummingbirds, attend a birding field trip (beginners to advanced birders all welcome!), or watch for an upcoming class on gardening for birds or sharpening your birding identification skills. You can find all of this information on the Tucson Audubon website,

If you are a reader and prefer to learn about an activity before partaking, or if you enjoy having a book as your guide as you go along, the Tucson Audubon Society Nature Shops have what you need to get started and what you need to dig deeper into your experience with the great outdoors. Whether you are starting your first nature journal, tracking your latest bird sighting, planning your spring pollinator’s garden, or wanting to spend more time with your kids outdoors, we have the supplies you need to keep you motivated and answer your questions on how to engage with nature. You can find these great books, plus an opportunity to engage with nature at these locations:

Tucson Audubon Society’s Nature Shop – 300 E University Blvd. #120, 520-629-0510, Monday – Saturday, 10am – 4pm. This location provides the perfect opportunity to see an urban yard built for wildlife in action. Sit on the bench out front; enjoy the fountain and watching the birds at the plants and feeders.

Tucson Audubon Society’s Nature Shop at Pima County’s Roy P. Drachman Agua Caliente Park – 12325 E. Roger Rd., 520-760-7881, Thursday – Saturday, 10:30am – 1pm. This location offers ponds, park, picnic tables and walking paths throughout the park, and is a local birding hotspot, too!

Get out there, engage and enjoy!


WebMD Article

National Wildlife Federation Article

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Poisoning Pack Rats Kills Owls (and other wildlife!)

Guest post by Bob and Prudy Bowers

We showed our Portland friends, Jeff and Lynette, a local Great Horned Owl's saguaro nest, complete with three almost-fledged babies. Jeff took this video of Winkin, Blinkin and Nod, three semi-adorable owlets, which includes Winkin's struggle to consume Fat Albert, a full-grown white-throated wood rat (aka a pack rat).

This video is hilarious, but serious, too. It's why we advocate so strongly against the too-common practice of using poisoned bait to 'control' pack rats.

A Great Horned Owl can eat one rat a day throughout its 25 year expected life span. That's 228,125 pack rats you add to the rat population when you kill one owl with a poisoned rat. Not to mention the thousands of rat babies each of those spared rats would also produce. 

Poisoned rats die slowly, staggering around for more than a day, and are easy prey for owls, hawks, bobcats, coyotes and other desert animals that control our perpetual rat population naturally. Please don't use rat poison, and if your pest control company does use it, find another pest control company and tell your company why you are switching.

Monday, April 18, 2016

BIRDATHON: Competitive, Casual, Creative—but Forever a FUNraiser

By Keith Ashley, Resource Development Director

When competitive and casual teams come together to have fun and raise money for a cause they believe in, the results are extraordinary—but it’s worth noting that Birdathon is the Tucson Audubon FUNraiser that almost never took flight…

Board Member Ruth Russell is the obvious go-to person for Birdathon history. Not only is she one of the event’s founders, but she has also participated annually for 29 years running! And here’s the beautiful secret: in 1987, when Ruth recommended Birdathon be adopted as an official event by the Tucson Audubon Board of Directors, they all voted against it—even her husband, Steve. She decided to hold a small, unofficial Birdathon anyway just for fun. And the rest is history…

Despite his “no” vote, Steve ended up leading Ruth’s team (the Coots) and four more local teams formed to compete (the Larks, the Becards, the Eagles, and the Kingbirds). Each of the five teams had three members: two birders and one recorder. Teams only birded for six hours each, but their star-studded cast knew where to find the birds. A few of the participants were John Bates, ornithologist and now associate curator of the Chicago Field Museum; Kenn Kaufman, acclaimed birder and author of Kingbird Highway; Gale Monson, “the father of modern Arizona field ornithology”; and Steve Russell, retired University of Arizona professor and researcher in ecology and evolutionary biology. Also on board was Arnie Moorhouse, at that time the organizer of the Christmas Bird Count in Elfrida.

Ruth describes Arnie: “He, for instance, knew where to find every single Barn Owl in his territory. He counted 57 one year. Arnie would give you directions to some deep hole in the ground. You’d look in and sure enough, there was a Barn Owl roosting.” Arnie proved to be the Coots’ ace in the hole. The team won the competition by spotting 138 species in just six hours. Total Birdathon donations for the event came out to $2,190.

Debbie and Tom Callazo with Blue
There are as many different approaches to Birdathon as there are different ways to love birds. Last year’s prize-winning team, the Wrenegades, saw 163 species. (Team member Tim Helentjaris points to Sara Pike’s “Just one more bird, just one more bird!” as the key to their success). Debbie and Tom Callazo, a decidedly more casual team, took their dog Blue out with them and included both an “American Rooster” from Barrio Hollwood and a Great-Horned Owl of the plastic roof-top variety among their 45 sightings.

In her 29 years of Birdathon participation, Ruth has run the gamut of approaches—but she clearly excels at the creative Birdathon. “We once held a strictly warbler Birdathon, beginning in Mexico, and ended up with 50 species,” she explains. “Another time we counted how many hummingbirds we could band in a day.”

Ruth always kicks off the Birdathon season with a letter to her supporters informing them of the nature of the year’s Birdathon—and to let them know why it is so important to her to raise money to support the work of Tucson Audubon.

Join the 2016 Birdathon fun! Join or create a team or donate to your favorite team at

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Experience The Best Of Spring Migration At Patagonia Birdathon Events!

Violet-crowned Hummingbird by Dan Weisz
By Nick Beauregard, Paton Center for Hummingbirds Coordinator

Spring migration is always an exciting time to get out birdwatching. You never quite know what you might find when you head to your favorite birding spots. For many, there’s no better place to experience spring migration than Patagonia. This year’s Birdathon will be featuring two exciting events in the Patagonia area, giving birders the opportunity to experience some of the most sought-after southeast Arizona specialties in a beautiful landscape!

The first event is a Big Day with the Patagonia Birder Patrol team on Friday, April 22nd, led by Paton Center Coordinator Nick Beauregard. We will begin the day at the Paton Center at 8am where we will have easy and intimate access to several species of hummingbirds including Violet-crowned, Rufous, Black-chinned, and Broad-billed. Continuing our exploration of Sonoita Creek, we’ll head to The Nature Conservancy’s Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve to make sure we get good looks at Gray Hawks, several flycatchers and kingbirds, and many other spectacular migrants using this lush riparian corridor on their journey north. After making a loop of the Preserve, we’ll set our sights on the Patagonia Mountains, an amazing but under-birded Sky Island that is home to Elegant Trogons, Northern Goshawks, Rufous-capped Warblers, and numerous other rarities that inhabit these lush montane forests. This trip will involve some hiking, but the rewards will be worth it!

Black-chinned Hummingbird by John Hoffman

Broad-billed Hummingbird by John Hoffman

Gray Hawk by Collins Cochran

Elegant Trogon by Lois Manowitz

The second Birdathon event will be a Big Sit at the Paton Center on Sunday, April 24th from 8am – noon. With dozens of bird feeders throughout the property, participants will be treated to a dazzling display of birds of all kinds! In this peak of spring migration, flashes of color and bursts of song come from all corners of the Paton yard, so birders should expect nothing less than an exciting show. We’ll see a number of rare southeast Arizona specialties in addition to dozens of migrants and resident breeders. The easy and comfortable access of the Paton Center makes this event perfect for folks who want a relaxed environment but exciting birds.

What better place for a Big Sit? Richard Freshley

One of the best reasons to participate in this year’s Birdathon in Patagonia is because our events fall on the same weekend as Patagonia Earth Fest 2016! Throughout the weekend there will be numerous talks, film screenings, nature walks, and other events taking place in the community, all celebrating nature and the wonderful biodiversity of our region! So it might even be a good idea to pack a bag and plan to spend the whole weekend with us in Patagonia!

For all things Birdathon, including creating a team, joining a team, or donating to your favorite team, please visit

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Birdathon? Only birders would come up with such an activity!

By Sara Pike, Operations & Marketing Director, Tucson Audubon Society

That’s right! Birders did come up with this activity, but if you have any interest or love for the outdoors, then a Birdathon can be fun and of interest to you!

So, Birdathon…Did you know that each year, Tucson Audubon Society hosts an annual Birdathon event? This event is a fundraiser for Tucson Audubon, but it’s also a great way to get started into birding if you have an interest or a great way to get out there further if you’re already a birder (someone who enjoys birds.)

Birdathon is like a walkathon where you can get someone to sponsor you per mile, but in this case you can ask for a pledge per bird species. How cool and different is that? Then, you choose your day during the designated Birdathon time frame and go out and see as many bird species as possible. Some people do this individually, some join a team and some create their own teams.

The ultimate goal is to raise funds for Tucson Audubon Society, your local non-profit and expert on birds and habitat conservation. Habitat conservation means more open space for birds and other wildlife, which ultimately means a more beautiful southeastern Arizona! If you live here, you’ll know what I mean. We live in a beautiful location, with such a diversity of birds (over 300 species you can find here in our region alone) that it’s hard not to notice the beauty and range of habitats, from the top of Mt. Lemmon to the bottom of Saguaro National Park, when you get out and about.

Let me share a bit of what a Birdathon might look like on the ground. This year, I am joining my long standing team, the Wrenegades (yes, pun intended on the bird name!) There are other teams already set up and ready for you to join, such as the Owlympians, the Patagonia Birder Patrol, The Birdbrains, or the Scott’s Orioles. If you are new to birding and want to give it a try, you can simply join one of these expert-led teams and let the birding expert do all the planning for your bird watching day. You just show up and have a great time, learn about birds and gain a new love, or further enhance your love, for the outdoors, bird habitat and the art of bird watching.

This year, the Wrenegades are planning a “Big Day” which means we hope to go out birding for most, if not all, of a 24 hour day. We’re planning to start at 3:00am! What birds can we see at 3:00am you ask? Well, if we show up at Reid Park with a good ear for listening and a flashlight, we might be able to hear (and start counting for the official species list for the day) Great-horned Owl and possibly an overly-excited Northern Mockingbird or Vermilion Flycatcher. By briefly shining a flashlight along the lake at the park, we may see American Coot, Ring-necked Duck, Black-crowned Night-Heron, and of course the beautiful Mallard Duck.

Black-crowned Night Heron


Vermilion Flycatcher
From there, we make the drive up Mt. Lemmon, in the dark, stopping at various elevations to listen for owls and other night birds. It’s funny to imagine a group of folks, traipsing around in the dark with hands cupped to ears listening for owls to call, but yes, this is what makes Birdathon fun! Different owls prefer different habitat and elevation, so we can count different species along the entire nighttime drive up to the top of Mt. Lemmon. Then, as we watch dawn break in the sky, we can enjoy the glory of a dawn chorus of daytime birds calling out their territories, such as Red-faced Warbler and House Wren. For a Birdathon, you can count a bird species if you hear it, too. So, having someone on your team (like one of the expert leaders of the expert-led teams) who knows bird calls is helpful, but not required.

Red-faced Warbler

Wilson's Warbler
A drive down Mt. Lemmon with a lot of the same stops as we made on the way up in the dark can bring a whole list of new, daytime bird species to count, such as Wilson’s Warbler and Red-tailed Hawk. Once we’re at the bottom of Mt. Lemmon, we’re on our way to various bird watching locations around Tucson and southeastern Arizona. These may include Patagonia, Madera Canyon, and a few wastewater treatment plants, because birders know that birds love these places! By the end of our Birdathon, we’re hoping to have counted around 150–160 species of birds. Yes, you can count this many species, if not more, in a days-worth of intense and focused birding around southeastern Arizona.

For the more casual birder, just a morning of Birdathon will do. Maybe a trip to a State Park, maybe a walk up Madera Canyon, or a shorter route to the parks around Tucson, will suffice to bring in 30 – 40 species and make it a fun day of bird watching without too much hassle. Some of the expert-led Birdathon teams, such as the Tucson Birding Trail Map team, have such short, relaxing days planned for you already; they just need you to join up!

You could also consider a “Big Sit” which means you join up with a group, and spend time in one location and count the birds within a specified radius of your location. The Agua Caliente Birdbrains Big Sit, or the Paton Center for Hummingbirds Big Sit teams will do just this!

Each team raises funds, or there is a minimum suggested donation to join an expert-led team.

In the end, it’s all for a great cause that supports birds and conservation of bird habitat in southeastern Arizona.

To get more details on this fundraiser and to join a team, see the Tucson Audubon website here:

Get out there and enjoy some of the great birds southeastern Arizona has to offer!

Sara Pike has been with Tucson Audubon Society for 10 years. She started watching birds when she was 20 years old, thanks to an introduction by her cousin who is into the hobby. Sara is proud to be a resident of this area and to be able to appreciate the beauty of southeastern Arizona, and the diversity of birds and wildlife here.

Friday, March 25, 2016

A Search for Bendire's Thrashers in the Sulphur Springs Valley

Guest post by Tim Helentjaris
March 18, 2016

Bendire's by Muriel Neddermeyer
I was out today with my colleagues from Tucson Audubon, Matt Griffiths and Jennie MacFarland, to look for Bendire's Thrashers in the large valley south of Willcox. As part of this large survey this year, I had mapped a number of putative winter territories in both the Santa Cruz Flats and Avra Valley. Unfortunately, going back within the last few weeks, not one of these "territories" was still occupied by a presumed breeding bird and I also could not find any Bendire's in nearby areas. Similarly, volunteers searching random transects in the southern third of the state have been uniformly unsuccessful. Just this Tuesday, I found none on two random transects near Cascabel, AZ.

Rethinking this problem, I did some searching on eBird for summer observations of Bendire's and found very few in the southern third of the state, other than the occasional single bird here and there. There were two interesting exceptions, large clusters of summer observations in the Sulfur Springs Valley, especially around Elfrida, and another around Rodeo just east of the Chiricahua Mts. The three of us made plans to do a driving search in the valley today.

Typical habitat we found Bendire's in Sulphur Springs Valley

The intrepid surveyors

Starting this morning around Sunsites, we started working our way south and eventually passing through Pearce on the Ghost Town Trail. We stopped and used playback at interesting areas but didn't find any Bendire's. After turning east at Gleeson and heading towards Elfrida, we found our first territory just west of town. Wow, pretty exciting, and we were pretty jazzed in having any success. It wasn't another 0.2 miles that we heard another Bendire's singing from a tree in a residence's yard. Getting out, we found three birds at this territory and then in just another 0.2 mile, another pair! We continued through town, doing a rough grid search, sometimes using playback but on most successful stops, finding birds either visually or by hearing their songs before ever having to resort to playback. For the morning, we found six territories in the Elfrida area and another near White Water Draw for a total of eleven Bendire's Thrashers! Never dreamed we would be this successful and to me, it again proved the worth of eBird data in allowing us to efficiently target our searches to areas where our success was many times greater than random searches. No question, as suggested by eBird, that there are breeding territories for this species in the southern part of the state.

Wolfberry (Lycium sp.) was present at most of the sites we found Bendire's

There's Bendire's Thrasher at the top of that pole! They do not seemed concerned with human presence.

One major point of this survey is to understand the habitat requirement for this species and we all agreed, that we are probably now more confused than before we started. The other large concentration of breeding Bendire's in this state, west of Wickiup in the Chicken Springs area is a rich mixture of Sonoran and Mojave deserts while the winter territories around Tucson are in some of the most degraded habitats I have ever found birds in, mostly creosote and scattered mesquites with lots of bare ground. This morning, the predominant habitat was disturbed grasslands with scattered, dwarf mesquites. About the only common factor we can observed was the presence of bare ground with loose soil. Check the videos below of a bird running and another bird singing its lungs out!

A great day altogether, we also had some other neat observations, coveys of SCALED QUAIL, a zooming PRAIRIE FALCON, lots of RED-TAILED HAWKS and AMERICAN KESTRELS, but also a group of Javelinas grazing in a lush alfalfa field, proving once again that you can never imagine all the places you might see these animals and what they might be eating. A stop at Willcox Lakes on the way home produced a lot of ducks, predominantly AMERICAN WIGEONS and NORTHERN SHOVELERS, as well as 24 RING-BILLED GULLS.

The Arizona Important Bird Areas program is still looking for people to join the Bendire's Thrasher survey team this spring. The data show this species is in steep decline and Arizona is a large part of their remaining range. Citizen-science volunteer point count surveys have been established and we are looking for birders to help us do these surveys. You would adopt a route of three point count locations and do the survey on a morning of your choice until mid-May.

For more information and to sign up please visit