Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Nature Shop Front Yard--Summer Wildlife

Kendall Kroesen, Urban Program Manager

Sara Pike watches hundreds of "tiny"
native bees on graythorn flowers
Come visit Tucson Audubon's nature-friendly front yard at the Audubon Nature Shop at 300 E. University Blvd. Over the years we have gradually developed the yard into a place that harvests rainwater and grows diverse native plants. Now, in mid-summer, after the initial summer rains, it is at its best! Below are a few recent photos from the front yards. Read more about the Nature Shop front yard.

A big thank you to Lynn Hassler, bird and native plant expert, for taking on the weekly maintenance and improvement of the yard. Read more about Lynn on page 11 of the July-September 2014 issue of the Vermilion Flycatcher. Lynn is also a presenter at the Tucson Bird and Wildlife Festival, taking place August 13-17.

The Nature Shop front yard is a demonstration site for bird-friendly and sustainable landscapes and gardens in our region. Learn more about this at Tucson Audubon's Urban Program page.

Native bees on graythorn flowers (Ziziphus obtusifolia)
Queen butterfly on a blue mist flower (Ageratum corymbosum)--these
flowers are targeted by male milkweed butterflies, such as queens and
monarchs, because they contain an alkaloid that the butterflies ingest
which is later released as an aphrodisiac for attracting females.

Mourning Dove at the fountain

Wild petunia flower (Ruellia nudiflora) with a spider

Native bee on a little-leaf cordia flower (Cordia parvifolia)

The front yard contains diverse, dense native plantings

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Introducing: Seven Saturdays in Patagonia

HIKE, LEARN, EAT. Starting this fall—one Saturday per month, October through April—Tucson Audubon's Paton Center for Hummingbirds will offer three separate activities in Patagonia. 

You are invited to attend one, two, or all three:
  1. HIKE: The day's events will begin early with a guided Bird and Biodiversity Hike. Allow Bryon Lichtenhan to introduce you, month-by-month, to hidden corners of the species-rich country surrounding the Paton Center, from the Patagonia Mountains (one of Arizona's newest IBAs!) to the San Rafael Grasslands. Learn more about Bryon below.
  2. LEARN: Following the morning hike our Relaxed Lecture Series will provide informal discussions on a variety of topics regarding the natural history, ecology, and conservation actions of southeast Arizona. (In October look forward to learning about the local sub-species, including the Azure Bluebird.)
  3. EAT: Join fellow birders, biodiversity enthusiasts, and armchair conservationists for a Picnic in Patagonia. Support the local economy and help maintain Patagonia as a thriving hub for eco-tourism by purchasing your lunch in town.

Bryon Lichtenhan
I am a Tucson native, life long naturalist, and self-described “desert rat”, with an interest in learning everything I possibly can about the natural world. I find every aspect of life on this planet to be endlessly fascinating and strive to simply pay attention to what’s going on in the community of life around me. The Sonoran Desert and surrounding ecosystems hold a very special, and vitally important place in my heart. The more I learn about and explore this region, and the life it supports, the more enthralled and inspired I become. I have always been happiest wandering in wild places and sharing my joy of the beauty, diversity, and wonder of the world with any and everybody. I am very excited by the chance to play the role of a catalyst during this series of outings; helping people to develop new knowledge about, and connection to, Patagonia, AZ and it’s surroundings, as well as notice and appreciate the myriad of life forms present in the vicinity, because it is truly an area of amazing variety and beauty.

Learn more about Tucson Audubon's Paton Center for Hummingbirds at .

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Species Driven Restoration – Tumamoc globeberry

Healthy Tumamoc globe berry vine and fruits growing in a creosote on Tumamoc Hill.

Healthy Globeberry fruit on vine - about the most likely thing
for one to notice about the plant.

If, near the tail-end of the monsoon season, you find yourself walking among the creosotes and acacias, you may notice a small vine twining its way up through their branches to expose a handful of leaves on the shrub’s surface. Then again, you might not. You might pass by and never notice this spindly vine. If you do spot it, it will probably be the subtle color differences that grab your attention—a blue-green vine against the yellow-green creosote or the bright red of their small fruits (that is, if you can catch them before they’re eaten by bird or beast).

Dormant Globeberry fingerling
What you do not see are the underground tubers of the Tumamoc globeberry (Tumamoca macdougallii Rose). These amazing Sonoran Desert natives are in the same family as gourds and melons. They were historically common through the Avra Valley where they grew among the creosote flats. However, with the spread of agriculture the globeberries disappeared, residing finally in just a few known refuges including Sabino Canyon, the Painted Hills, and Tumamoc Hill. In 1986 they were listed as a federally endangered species. During construction of the CAP canal, many were relocated into a preserve on the eastern side of the Avra Valley, adjacent to the canal. Upon discovery of widely scattered populations in the Waterman Mountains to the west of Avra Valley and remote deserts in Sonora MX, they were delisted in 1993. Although no longer “officially” endangered, their numbers on Tumamoc and in Sabino Canyon continue to decline and the Tumamoc globeberry is remains a species of conservation concern by the Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan. These plants are root perennials, sprouting out a new vine each summer that will dry up after the monsoon season ends. The tuber itself will live for many years…baring predation that is. (See the website maintained by FrankReichenbacher, the leading expert on Tumamoc globeberries, for more details on the listing/delisting and population levels of the globeberry.)

Uprooted tuber ready to plant

Last summer, at our Martin Farm restoration site, we began an effort to reestablish the genetic linkage between the population in the Waterman Mountains and those populations to the east. Pollination for this species is not well understood, however the tiny, non-showy, and relatively unscented flowers make long-distance cross-pollination unlikely. This necessitates a chain of relatively close populations to increase the likelihood of genetic flow. We purchased a flat of 32 tubers, each a year old, from Miles Anderson at Miles' to Go--Cactus and Succulents, about the only nursery in Tucson that sells them. We planted them across the site in a generally linear fashion.

The succulent nature of these tubers makes them a favorite food of many desert mammals, including javelina, ground-squirrels, and jackrabbits. To protect our newly transplanted fingerlings, we planted them in 5-sided cages of hardware cloth, staked deep into the ground.  Nothing would be able to bite into them from the sides or top, they have plenty of room to grow (the tubers can get quite large but the largest are smaller than the cage size), and the vines have plenty of space to stretch out. We planted them under the protective shade and vertical structure of creosote bushes.  These provide a slight filtering of the sunlight that might reach the tuber, and a lattice for the vines to twine among.

Young globeberry vine growing through cage and up into the creosote bush above.

...And it's gone. Hole where 
globeberry tuber used to be.
Last week we went out and checked the plants to see how many had survived from last year. We knew that a few had been eaten last summer by ground-squirrels burrowing under the cage and snacking on the tuber. Quite happily we found that the ground-squirrels had only destroyed four.  The other 28 have pushed out a tiny start of a vine for this year…a tiny start 1” to 8” long awaiting the onset of monsoon rains to take off and grow. If the rains are good, each could produce up to 10m of vines before the end of the season and will hopefully produce fruits to help spread the population.

Given time and financial opportunity we hope to be able to restore more populations across Avra Valley and restore the genetic flow between populations on either side of the valley. If you want to become involved with critical conservation and restoration efforts like this one, please contact us! We’re always looking for more help with ongoing research into the needs of specific species (like our Nestboxes for Urban Birds/Nestbox Experiments – blog coming soon) or optimizing efficiency in restoration techniques (check out pg. 22 of the next issue of the Vermillion Flycatcher).

Finally. if you would like to join the yearly effort surveying for Tumamoc globeberry plants around Tucson, please contact Frank Reichenbacher – especially important this year as the proposed Southline Transmission Projectgoes within 11 yards of the remnant globeberry population on Tumamoc Hill.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Oracle State Park Bird Walk

Fourteen participants signed up for our Tucson Audubon field trip in Oracle State Park this morning (June15), enjoying beautiful weather and beautiful birds.  This was a special opportunity, since this is the first time in five years of budgetary cutbacks the park has been open between May 1 and October 1.  Even on a mid-June morning, the park was comfortable at 4,300 feet.  Highlights included an inquisitive Bushtit that came almost close enough to touch, a half-dozen Western Scrub-Jays, a pair of Bewick's Wrens warning us to stay away from their nest, Lucy's Warblers, 3 Hooded Orioles and 3 Scott's Orioles, including a newly-fledged Hooded male and both male and female immature Scott's.  22 species in all, as listed in the checklist below.

Our thanks to Tucson Audubon and Oracle State Park for helping us put together a jointly-sponsored field trip, and to Jennifer Rinio, the park ranger at Oracle State Park, for providing us access to the park an hour before it normally opens.

Two more trips to Oracle State Park are currently scheduled, one for June 22 and another on August 10.  Others may be scheduled later, but if you are interested in either of these, click on the following link to Tucson Audubon's field trips and scroll down to the trip you want and follow the procedure to register.  Online registration is required to join these trips and they each are limited to 14 participants.

Hope to see you soon!

Bob and Prudy Bowers

Some of the birds we saw today (note the photos were taken elsewhere):

Ash-throated Flycatcher   

Our favorite sparrow, the Black-throated   

Male Scott's Oriole   

Singing Lucy's Warbler   

Gambel's Quail  2
Turkey Vulture  3
Red-tailed Hawk  1
White-winged Dove  2
Mourning Dove  3
Anna's Hummingbird  4
Gila Woodpecker  1
Say's Phoebe  1
Ash-throated Flycatcher  4
Western Scrub-Jay  6
Common Raven  1
Verdin  4
Bushtit  2
Bewick's Wren  4
Northern Mockingbird  1
Phainopepla  12
Lucy's Warbler  4
Canyon Towhee  2
Black-throated Sparrow  3
Northern Cardinal  3
Hooded Oriole  3
Scott's Oriole  3

View this checklist online at

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.