Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Under-birded Areas in Southern Arizona: Gila Box

Guest post by Tim Helentjaris 

MAP and More info about Gila Box

A few years ago while driving lazily up the back way to the White Mountains, I stopped at an overlook for the Gila Box Riparian National Conservation Area, northeast of Safford, managed by the Bureau of Land Management as one of only two Riparian NCA’s in the whole country.

Drainage for Bonita Creek, at Lee’s Trailhead, accessible by roads from the West Entrance or from Safford via the Solomon Road.

Wow, I was stunned by how much water flowed in the river through there, something I just wasn’t used to in Arizona, and the size of the cottonwood gallery. It really looked like some interesting habitat from an avian perspective. Didn’t have any time to extensively bird that day, so I just made a mental note of it for the future as some place to come back to and investigate. So, when Pete Bengtson invited me to take a couple of days and poke around in here, I was up for it, even though we knew the birding this time of year would not be great, it just seemed like a good time to characterize both the habitat and access.

We first stopped in at the BLM office in Safford where the helpful folks there gave us advice and maps. I recommend it as a first stop. From there we headed to the West Entrance via Sanchez Road. As I remembered from my previous visit, the riparian area itself is very impressive, with a good water flow and large willow and cottonwood gallery extending as far as you can see. There are probably six access points here within a mile where one can get close to the river, but this is it, the road doesn’t not go any further upstream along the Gila River. Since it is so incised here, access elsewhere can be difficult and its probably going to take a float trip to really evaluate the wildlife along here.

What we noted was that on the surface, this was all pretty impressive but there was also a lot of bare ground between the willows (which can be quite large) in places. Since the river drains a large mountain area in New Mexico, the heavier flows probably scrub a lot of the canyon bottom clean, carrying away all but the more tenacious plants. Compared to some of the other rivers around here, the Santa Cruz and San Pedro can have a lot less water flowing here but also more and diverse vegetation surrounding their channels. So, somewhat of a mixed bag, and a continuing trend elsewhere along the Gila River: difficult access due to few roads and a very incised canyon, very large trees but less undergrowth than expected. So, with the steep canyon walls, the immediate flanking areas for birds to feed are limited and this is exaggerated even more by the fact that the flanking hillsides above and surrounding the river have a very rugged and tough habitat, very rocky ground with little vegetation beyond widely scattered creosote bush and a few prickly pear cactus and little grass, a trend that seemed to extend for miles and miles from the river channels.

Typical habitat in the hills outside the channel, along the Solomon Road leading to Bonita Creek.

Birds found here in the channel area now were limited to an AMERICAN ROBIN or HERMIT THRUSH, RUBY-CROWNED KINGLET, perhaps a LADDER-BACKED WOODPECKER and at this time of year, YELLOW-RUMPED WARBLERS. On the flanking areas, many fewer birds other than a very occasional ROCK WREN and BLACK-THROATED SPARROW. As we drove the roads flanking the incised river, we were continually surprised at how few birds we could scare up. So, we would be keen to know if this sparseness of avian life would also be true in the summer? Hard yet to see without a few visits then, given how few the eBird reports were from this general area.

After exploring this general area around the West Entrance, including a few different access points and some nice but under-utilized campgrounds, we then backed up a bit and headed up the West Rim Trail for Bonita Creek, trying to get to the Lee Trail area which was highly recommended to us. The good road departs from the creek and winds its way through the mostly barren foothills, the creek only partially visible now and again due to its deeply incised channel, despite its lush riparian nature.

So, is the vegetation primarily limited by climate and geology or by over-grazing? Saw evidence for both, some fenced areas had more diversity and and grass cover but the area seemed harsh in general. At one of the several interpretive exhibits along the roads here, there was a nice discussion of the limitations of this land to usage without supplied water and we certainly noted a lot of rubber tubing along the ground supplying cattle tanks. And we noted that where no such tubing or tanks existed, the grasses actually seemed a lot healthier, perhaps due to the absence of grazing in those areas. Got to the Lee Trail area, the last mile down is a very rough road, taking a bit of a toll on Pete’s Subaru. Bonita Creek is also very striking in its riparian nature and again, seemed to extend as far as we could see for many miles. But again, the flanking hillsides here were pretty barren, both for birds and vegetation. A little bit of birding here produced a similar list as around the west Entrance area. Heading back towards Safford on the Solomon Pass Road, we did run into a fenced area for the mine, which seemed to have just a bit more grass in with the cactus and creosote and were surprised to see a fair-sized flock of MOUNTAIN BLUEBIRDS actively feeding among the prickly pear.

Back in Safford, we decided to finish the afternoon at a couple of local eBird hotspots, first stopping at Roper Lake State Park. Nice diversity of waterfowl here, RUDDY DUCKS, COMMON GOLDENEYE, REDHEADS, WESTERN and PIED-BILLED GREBES, and a number of striking COMMON MERGANSERS. Did have one odd bird flying away from me that I could not parse out, the flight style and shape was confusing, and after hearing a wild rumor about the Ringed Kingfisher being re-spotted, we had to wonder? From there, we headed south to Dankworth Pond, an associated area with again a very nice pond, albeit a bit smaller than Roper Lake, and checked out the additional waterfowl there, our best find being a COMMON LOON. Both places can be very birdy and especially in the winter attract a lot of water birds and often a rarity or two, as especially evidenced by this year’s Ringed Kingfisher, way out of range and Arizona’s first record. A Rose-throated Becard found at nearby Cluff Ranch is another clue that some strange avian wanderers can show up around here and that the area warrants more birder visits despite its out-of-the-way location.

Spent the night in Safford and the next morning, made a quick stop back at Roper Lake SP, just in case the Ringed Kingfisher was really back. It was, but we had no luck in spotting it and I concluded my own mystery bird from the day before was probably just a poorly-seen BLACK-CROWNED NIGHT HERON flying away from us.

So, we headed back to Gila Box, this time to take the Black Hills Backcountry Byway all the way through. Not really following the river, this road took us up and over a pass before eventually descending towards the Old Safford Bridge on the Gila River, another nice area and a primary put-in for those planning to float this stretch of the river. Along here, the hills did not seem so desolate with a bit greater plant diversity, we picked up more species, including a flock of EASTERN BLUEBIRDS, and several sparrows, including WHITE-CROWNED, BLACK-THROATED and CHIPPING. At the bridge and Owl Creek Campground, pretty much a repeat of before, with a very deeply incised riparian system, good river flow and large trees, but a lot of scrubbed bare ground below. Birds here included RUBY-CROWNED KINGLETS, AMERICAN ROBINS, HERMIT THRUSH, YELLOW-RUMPED WARBLERS.

A segment of the Gila River near the Old Safford Bridge, the primary put-in for floaters and accessible via the Backcountry Byway.

So, nothing really spectacular as far as birds in the Gila Box area and associated tributaries, but the scenery was great and it was striking to see how much country is back there that is probably seldom visited by birders. I don’t think we answered our question as to whether there is a lot of avian potential here, but I did subsequently hear from a number of nice folks who have birded in here and were able to cite some interesting finds in the breeding season including Common Black Hawks and Yellow-billed Cuckoos. I would just encourage folks to make a few more summer visits to determine how interesting this area is during the breeding season. For the adventurous, consider floating the river and getting out at otherwise inaccessible places, or just plan to walk it and the San Francisco River and Bonita Creek, not minding wet feet for the chance to see some great country and birds without a lot of company.

Friday, November 9, 2018

Farmland Raptors

Guest post Dan Weisz

The Marana area has a 4000 year history of agriculture and directly to the northwest of Marana is Pinal County, home to one million acres of farmland.  That area attracts certain types of wildlife and, in the winter especially, a large number of raptors and wintering birds.  A friend and I recently visited the agricultural part of Marana (north of the city core) as well as the Santa Cruz Flats in Pinal County which lie northwest of Marana, an extension of the flat landscape west of the Santa Cruz River extending from Marana to beyond Picacho Peak.  We saw a wide range of raptors that morning.

One of the first pleasant surprises was finding two adult Crested Caracaras.  They were at the road’s edge when we first saw them but they quickly retreated to the fields and wandered away, occasionally looking back at us.  Caracaras spend a lot of time on the ground hunting for food, so this bird was comfortable wandering the aisles of its personal grocery store.

A female American Kestrel was warming up her back in the sun on this cool morning.  Kestrels often fly away quickly when I pull up in a car, so she must have really needed the sun’s heat that morning.  Her brown wings let you know that she’s a “she”.  Kestrels are American’s smallest falcon.

At one point, we stopped to look over a large dirt berm at what is fondly called the “sheep dump”.  We startled a huge flock of about 50 Black Vultures who took to the air.  They flew into the nearby desert but very quickly returned to the pasture that a herd of sheep were in.  This is lambing season and after a lamb is born, the ewe will expel the placenta or afterbirth.  This provides welcome food for vultures.  Black vultures are residents of southern Arizona year-round but I’ve never seen a flock this large.  Often, they will be mixed in with Turkey Vultures, but this flock wasn’t.

In flight, you can see the white ‘fingers" of the Black Vultures.  You can also see how short their tails are.  While Turkey Vultures find prey with a terrific sense of smell, Black Vultures use their keen eyesight, and they will also follow Turkey Vultures to prey.

A little further down the road we came across this Red-tailed Hawk.  There were very many around thanks to winter migration.

Now compare the look of the Red-tailed Hawk above with the one below.  The hawk below is called a rufous morph Red-tailed Hawk.  Note the rufous color of it head and neck and leg feathers.  The breast (hidden in this shot) is also rufous as is most of the flight feathers.

The rufous-morph Red-tail roused and, between that behavior and the wind, looked very different than it did just a few seconds prior.  You can see more of the darker feathers of its belly in this shot.

The Barn Owl was fast asleep in its usual location, tucked into this corner of the barn’s ceiling.  The Barn Owl’s partner was missing from view.

We saw a few Prairie Falcons.  This juvenile (told by the strong markings on its breast) was having a tough time.  As soon as we pulled over to get a good look and to try to take photographs, a nearby Red-tailed Hawk flew right at the Prairie Falcon, chasing it from its perch.  While the hawk assumed the perch spot of the falcon, the Prairie Falcon flew to a nearby pole.  Within a minute, the hawk again flew towards the falcon, chasing it from its spot and supplanting the falcon on its perch.  This behavior repeated for over six times with the birds going back and forth.  Finally, the Prairie Falcon flew to a pole a little further away.  Apparently, that was far enough out of the Red-tail’s territory that the hawk flew nearby but quit harassing the falcon.

Prairie Falcons are large falcons, almost the size of a Peregrine.  They have pointed wings, a white eyebrow and a (falcon) mustache.

Our last great surprise was seeing this beautiful Ferruginous Hawk.  We had seen one soaring above us Santa Cruz Flats, but this one was sitting on a telephone pole in Marana.  It did not spook with we stopped the car and got out to take its picture.  Ferruginous Hawks are the largest soaring hawk in the United States and live on prairies, grasslands, and agricultural areas of the west.  They summer up north but some winter in southern Arizona.  They are very white below and feature a rusty color on their wings (top and bottom) and on their leggings.  Their name, “Ferruginous", comes from the Latin ferrous referring to iron or rust.  Ferruginous Hawks have a very large gape, or mouth.

The Ferruginous Hawk took off.  This great flight photo has a phone line in the foreground unfortunately, but I thought the look of the bird helped to make this shot a keeper.

From the angle in the photo above and below, it appears that the hawk has an enlarged crop.  That bulge in its throat may mean that it has recently eaten and it is storing food in its esophagus until there is room in its stomach to digest it.

It definitely was a great morning for raptors.

Friday, September 21, 2018

Who's Been Drinking My Hummingbird Food at Night?

Guest post by Dan Weisz

Bats, that’s who- specifically Lesser Long-nosed Bats. Arizona is home to 28 species of bats. Twenty six of those species are insect eaters. Two are nectar feeders. During the fall, from August through October, hummingbird feeders in Tucson provide one source of food for these special creatures.

The Lesser Long-nosed Bat undergoes a long distance migration to get to the Tucson area (and they are one of only a few species that migrate such a distance). They come up every spring from Mexico, following the flowering or fruiting cycle of their food sources: saguaro, organ pipe cactus, carton, and agave- their primary food sources. The pregnant females roost in neighboring mountains in large groups and have their babies in the summer after a six month gestation period. Bats give birth to one pup per year. 

In the photos below, I have removed the red tops to the hummingbird feeders to allow for a better view of the bats. Please don’t do what I do. Leave the red tops on the feeders and the bats and the hummingbirds will still be able to feed without spilling the nectar all over your porch Thanks.

Bats are mammals, so they nurse their young as all mammals do. After a month or so, the pups will leave the maternity roosts and begin flying and feeding on their own. The bats are the only mammal that can fly and they come out at night to feed.

Bats cannot hover to drink nectar like hummingbirds do. Their technique is to fly up to food and right at the moment they are at the top of their flight, before they begin falling, they “stop” midair to slurp up some nectar.

And then after taking a quick slurp, they fall away, splashing droplets of hummingbird food around them. Many of my photos are of this type as the bats appear quickly, out of the dark to feed and my reflexes are not as fast as they are. In the photo below you can see another feature of the Lesser Long-nosed Bat. It does not have a tail, and is described as “wearing pants”. Most bats have a membrane between their legs. For Lesser Long-nosed Bats who migrate long distances, the membrane would produce more drag in the air, making it more difficult to fly long distances. So there is no membrane and that allows the bats to expend less energy when they migrate.

Bats wings are made up of a thin membrane stretched over the bats arm and fingers. Bats have a thumb and four fingers. The tiny thumb is at the bend atop their wings and is visible in some of the other photos. It has been said that bats fly through the power of “jazz hands”!

You may have noticed that “belly button” thing sticking out on each bat. I asked Scott Richardson, the local US Fish and Wildlife Bat expert, about that and sent him several photos. His response was: "Both sexes have an appendage. In females, like your photo, it is a small appendage. In males, it is the penis and it is obviously larger than the female appendage. You just have to see a bunch and it becomes obvious. Most of the bats at feeders are female and most are juveniles (young born this year or last). It can be harder to tell male from female in juveniles, but it is still pretty obvious. If you get a male, I am guessing it will be obvious to you that it is a male. It is most likely all you are seeing is females.”

I’ll leave it up to the reader to decide.

Doesn’t this bat look cute? It appears so happy to be close to a tasty drink. Notice the pointy thing sticking up on its snout? That is called a noseleaf and Lesser Long-nosed Bats are part of the leaf-nosed bat family.

You can see this bat's thumbs sticking up above the wings.

Bat Man!

On this bat, you can see the thumb and all four fingers, and you can see the “pants” it is wearing.

The tongue of a Lesser Long-nosed bat has adaptations for lapping up nectar. Their tongue is actually almost as long as their body to allow them to probe deeply into the big flowers they feed from.

Now look at the legs of this bat. You can see a membrane stretched between the legs, letting us know this is the other nectar feeding species found locally- a Mexican Long-tongued Bat.

One last look at the lack of a tail membrane on this Lesser Long-nosed before we look again at the other bat, our Mexican Long-nosed Bat.

You can see the membrane or skirt between this bat’s legs. You can also see that this bat has a much longer snout than the Lesser Long-nosed one.

Here is one last look at that tail membrane and the snout of the Mexican Long-tongued Bat.

The town of Marana has been studying these bats for years now. For information on the study and how you can participate, see http://www.maranaaz.gov/bats/