Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Winter Duckfest

Guest post by Dan Weisz

Our Southwest desert is not known for its ducks, but in winter, many “snowbirds” head south to warmer climates. Ducks move into the waters in Tucson including the lakes and ponds at local parks and golf courses. Below are some photos of colorful ducks found this week at Sweetwater Wetlands, Ft. Lowell Park, and a nearby golf course.

Many ducks can be grouped into two categories: either Dabbling Ducks or Diving Ducks.

Dabbling ducks are surface feeders and feed by tipping-up (rear end up) in the shallows of lakes, ponds and marshes for their food. Dabblers are able to fly up off of the water in one bound, rising almost vertically.

Diving ducks dive under the water to find food. Because they are built to dive and swim under water, their feet are further behind them than those of dabbling ducks. That makes diving ducks awkward on land and they need to run along the water’s serface to get airborne.

Dabbling ducks include the common Mallard:


and see him tipped up and dabbling?


Other dabbling ducks include the Green-winged Teal. In most dabbling ducks, their tails are held high above the water.


One more dabbling duck is the American Wigeon. This appears to be a juvenile whose green facial color is just coming in.


And here, another wigeon is feeding along the surface of the water:


Here is a dabbling duck swimming with a diving duck. The Cinnamon Teal (the cinnamon colored male below) is swimming alongside a female Bufflehead Duck. Note how the bufflehead’s tail is almost in the water. She is riding much lower in the water than the teal is. Also, dabbling ducks have larger, “duck-like” bills. Diving ducks often have smaller bills.


Here are two diving ducks side-by-side. A male Ruddy Duck leads the female bufflehead duck. The ruddy duck’s bill has already turned blue in anticipation of breeding season, but his body has not yet turned that beautiful ruddy color. See how he rides low in the water like other diving ducks.


And here is a male and a female Ruddy Duck. The male has a black head and a clean white cheek and the female has a lighter head and a gray cheek with a stripe running through it.


Another swimming bird (but not a duck) frequents Tucson area waters. This is a Pied-billed Grebe. Grebes have lobed toes, as opposed to a duck’s webbed feet, to aid with swimming. They are excellent divers so their feet are placed far back on their body just as diving ducks’ feet are, making it very tough for grebes to walk on land. The word “pied” means two or more colors, and in the summer the pied-billed grebe has a thick black stripe down the middle of his beak. (Remember the Pied Piper of Hamlin, who wore a coat of many colors?)



Thursday, January 19, 2017

Nictitating Membrane- Nature's Goggles

Guest post by Dan Weisz

Remember that pair of red-tailed hawks from last week along River Road?  Here are two more photos from that morning, each showing one hawk and it’s nictitating membrane.  The nictitating membrane is a third eyelid that is translucent or clear.  It is used as an extra level of safety for the eye, moistens the eye while maintaining vision, and allows the bird to still see while affording its eyes an additional amount of protection.



The nictitating membrane on the bird on the right is only halfway across her eye.  this membrane always moves horizontally, unlike the “regular” eyelids which move up and down.  I caught this bird mid-blink.



Nictitating comes from the latin nictare, meaning to blink.  In the photo below, I’m not really certain we are looking at a nictitating membrane or a closed eyelid.  The lid doesn’t look like the blue-ish translucent in photos of other birds.  Either way, it’s interesting to see the prairie falcon mid-blink (taken near Rio Vista Park).



Here is a yellow-headed blackbird from Red Rock mid-blink.  The lid is moving from front to back.



Also at Red Rock from last spring, this Chihuahan Raven is mid-blink.  His eyelid is also moving from front to black.  How can I tell this is a Chihuahuan Raven?  See the white base of his neck feathers?  In Chihuahuan Ravnes, they have that white base unlike Common Ravens.  Their scientific name is Corvus Cryptoleucas, meaning "raven with the hidden white".



And at full nictitating state.



This broad-billed hummingbird seems to have his eyelid closed rather than his nictitating membrane.  Agreed?



And at the Desert Museum last spring, we were training a new Harris’s Hawk to join the family.  He often landed on the audience’s handrail, which would not have worked out so well during a typical demo.  In any case, he had his nictitating membrane beginning to close in this shot.



Another Harris’s Hawk during a demo with his eye fully covered by the nictitating membrane.  Raptors will use this membrane when attacking prey as an added protection.  Additionally, it is also serves to protect the eyes of a parent from their chicks while they are feeding them.  Nobody wants their offspring to poke them in the eye.  Peregrine falcons will use the membrane repeatedly during their high-diving stoops to clear dust and debris and to moisturize their eye during the dive.



Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Tucson Audubon’s Newest Tradition: CBC4KIDS!

Guest post by Deb Vath

What a Christmas Bird Count! This year 14 kids, ages 5-16, participated in the Tucson Audubon CBC4KIDS. Our number one goal? Have fun birding! 




Families and friends took kids birding at various locations throughout the Tucson Valley on Saturday, December 17th. Each group gave their team a name, such as “The Wumpus Warblers”, “Team Safford”, and “The Coot Counters”. They then birded their area for 2 hours and met back at Himmel Park Library for a celebration which included pizza, raffle prizes, free Year of the Hummingbird calendars, and participation certificates.

Dorian filling out the Big Board

All species were tallied on the “Big Board” and compiled by young birder, Dorian Escalante. “Wow, I didn’t think we’d see that many species,” said Dorian as he counted 74 species tallied.

Students from Ironwood Tree Experience spent time birding KERP (Kino Environmental Restoration Project) with one of their teachers. These experienced teen birders have volunteered to lead outings at the new Kids Birding the Parks! outing being held on January 28, 2017.

Special thanks to Luke Safford for his help in organizing this fun event. It looks like the CBC4KIDS will be a new Tucson Audubon tradition!



Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Partners in Eco-Education: National Park Service, Tucson Audubon, and Lauffer Middle

Lauffer Middle School and Tucson Audubon's Youth Hiking and Naturalist group the Trekking Rattlers is off to a great start this semester. We've teamed up with Saguaro National Park and the National Parks' Centennial Celebration to offer a series of Parks-specific events for students.

The partnership kicked off with a BBQ and night hike with Park Rangers in Saguaro's West unit. Using black-lights, we counted ~75 scorpions along the hike and learned about scorpion biology.

An interpretive Park Ranger introduces the students to the Park
We were treated to a stunning sunset as we set up the BBQ
  
December brought cooler temps and the annual storming of Wasson Peak, Saguaro National Park-West's highest point at 4,687'. The challenging 7.4 mile hike tests the legs and the mind, so we always make sure to warm up and stretch those muscles before we really get going:


Views from the trail into Avra Valley are stunning!

Along the way we spot gilded flickers, Gila woodpeckers, and the occasional phainopepla and black-tailed gnatcatcher. Tracks of deer and javelina follow us up the hills. Although this hike is mainly just a hike as it takes so much effort to get to the summit, there are occasional chances to stop and learn about plants and signs of wildlife that we encounter along the trail.




As we ascend the peak, the temperature rises faster than any of us had hoped. The day's forecast for a balmy 77F feels much hotter while we climb higher under the gaze of a full and unrelenting sun.


The saddle between the east and west sides of the Tucson Mountains makes a good almost-halfway place to take a break and recharge for the steep country ahead
Steep climbing but still smilin'

Above it all, at last!
White-throated swifts and grasshoppers cheered us to the top. By the time we'd finished lunch atop our sweeping summit perch, many students--promised access to reserve water should they finish theirs--had summarily drained their supply. This author's water bottles were thus emptied in no time at all. Luckily, I'd brought along a big bag of clementines that I produced at the 11th hour of communal exhaustion. We took the King Canyon wash channel back to the trailhead, stopping at the well-known Hohokam petroglyphs.

Seven miles hasn't diminished the power of a good day out in nature. I am betting they had no trouble sleeping that night, though.

The Trekking Rattlers will be partnering with Saguaro National Park for several more events this season, including citizen science and volunteer service learning activities. Stay tuned for more updates...


*All photos taken by Lauffer Middle School students and Tucson Audubon staff. Thanks to Tucson Audubon volunteer Tim Helentjaris for generously donating cameras for this project.

Friday, September 30, 2016

Under-birded Areas of SE Arizona - Agua Caliente Canyon

Guest post by Tim Helentjaris
September 28, 2016 


Trailhead sign and looking up-canyon with
Mt. Hopkins Observatory on the right
This morning, I wanted to explore a new area, so I headed down to Agua Caliente Canyon on the west side of the Santa Rita Mts. More people are familiar with the Agua Caliente Trail in Madera Canyon that leads up to the Agua Caliente Saddle, this particular trail also extends up to the saddle but from the west. To access the trailhead, take the Elephant Head Road east off of the frontage road for I19, off of and south from the Canoa exit. On EHR, you’re heading towards Montosa Canyon and eventually to the Mt. Hopkins observatory, but just before reaching the observatory headquarters, you will turn off on the well-marked side road to the northeast leading to Agua Caliente Canyon and the visible radio towers. This graded dirt/gravel road is in excellent shape, passable by any sedan, including my Prius if I had taken it instead. A few miles up, you will come to the trailhead, which is marked by a prominent sign right on the roadside, one of those larger rusting metal ones used by the Forest Service. Park here or just a short ways back down the road at an obvious pull-through.

I have an older, out-of-print book, Hiking Guide to the Santa Rita Mountains of Arizona that describes this and many other trails. It seems to describe another start to this trail further back along the road. I picked an obvious pull-out/camping spot with the start of a trail to begin this day, not being aware of the actual, newer trailhead further up. Mistake, the trail dies out, and I was left bushwhacking through a section along the flowing creek. Not many birds through here, it was a bit more of a high desert habitat, ocotillo’s with only smaller oaks and thorny shrubs (Gila Woodpecker, Cactus Wren). Did see some interesting plants along here, Wild Cotton, Coral Bean seed pods, Hummingbird Trumpet in bright, red bloom. Eventually refound the road further up and pressed on to the actual trailhead. In my (usual) defense, it seemed like a good idea at the time.



The other mistake I confess to this morning was starting too early, just prior to sun-up. Seems like this time of year, I still begin as in the summer, as early as I can get there, but I have noted the last few weeks, that the birds don’t really become active for another hour or so, even though it’s not really that cool just yet? Since they are off their territories, the young are gone, they just don’t seem to have the same early drive. From the trailhead, you have great views, up-canyon, you can see the ridgeline, with its saddle, leading up to the obvious observatory atop Mt. Hopkins. Back down-canyon, you can see out across the valley to the freeway and beyond, with Baboquivari in the distance. The trail climbs pretty gently for more than a mile before beginning its steep ascent to the saddle. It’s also pretty obvious in most places, although a bit overgrown with vegetation from the sides, so long pants or gaiters are recommended. The canyon bottom has a lot of larger oaks along its drainage, but also some sycamores and junipers. At this point, I spied some madrone’s loaded with not-yet-ripe berries, perhaps a portent for interesting vagrants from the south this winter? It’s not very far up that smaller pines also begin to intrude. What is most striking about this area is the lush understory, very complex with a number of different shrubs and wildflowers, several I could not identify but some striking red Bouvardia blooms were still in evidence. Always a good marker for a diverse and healthy bird population.

Looking up-canyon towards Agua Caliente Saddle

Looking down-canyon.

Morning birding started out kind of slower, I heard a lot of chips in the underbrush but had a hard time getting them to pop up and identify themselves. Instead I had my usual, raucous escort of Mexican Jays both up and down trail. Also heard some other expected residents for this habitat, Blue Grosbeak, Northern Flicker, Rufous-crowned Sparrow. Grew impatient and wanting to get a better handle on what was residing here, I worked a little harder. Got an Arizona Woodpecker to respond. Then heard a Rock Wren working up in the steeper sides of the drainage.


Blue Grosbeak, Martin Molina. Arizona Woodpecker, Tom Ryan.

At one point then, heard a few more birds in the dense brush to the sides and set off an “owl bomb” (N. Pygmy Owl recording) and waited to see what came in. First a surprising Painted Redstart, then joined by the more expected Bridled Titmice (a small but noisy and aggressive flock), followed by an exciting progression of Vireo’s, a bright Cassin’s, then Hutton’s and Plumbeous. Also noted a Western Wood-Pewee and Black-throated Gray Warbler off to the side as well. That’s more like it. I can see that during the breeding season, this could be an exciting place, with a lot more species than I was able to draw in today. The lush understory seems to reflect the fact that I saw no evidence for any extensive grazing up here, always a good sign in any western location, and bodes well for a healthy ecosystem. On my walk back down, the cicada’s were really firing up, seems like the cuckoo’s left too soon.

Painted Redstart, Frank Retes. Black-throated Gray Warbler, Jackie Bowman.

I will definitely come back here, the area has a lot of pro’s: relatively close to Tucson, easy access along a good road, nice scenery, a level trail leading into a complex habitat for some distance, solitude away from the crowds, and so the promise of some interesting birds. I think many folks might enjoy a visit down here and I encourage folks to give it a try.

Bonus Mystery Question: on the way back down the side road towards Elephant Hill Road, you will see an odd structure up ahead and off the road. Not visible on the drive up-canyon, I can only describe it as looking like some large prop structure from Mad Max Thunderdome. If anyone knows what this is, I would greatly appreciate hearing, or at least their own theories.



Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Binoculars for Sport and Fun!


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

Have you been considering buying a pair of binoculars? Or how about upgrading from that clunky pair from 1970 that you found in granddad’s attic? Let’s get a conversation started here about binoculars and hopefully this will guide your way forward.

Test and Try binoculars [Sara Pike]

Have you ever just get a better look at that bird high in the tree, or wanted to see the face of the upset coach down on the football field, but were too high up in the bleachers to get a good look? What about getting a closer look at that comet in the night sky? Or how about watching that Elk down in the valley, or getting a better look a wildflower that was just a bit too far into the bushes? Binoculars can be quite fun to use, and they can enhance so much of your viewing of sports, landscapes, the night sky, animals, birds and yes, even bugs and wildflowers!

These days, binoculars come with so many features, and there are so many brands, it may be daunting to get started looking for a new pair. Start by asking yourself what you hope to use them for? Will it be hunting, bird watching, or do you want a small pair to have while hiking? What about just something to take to the sporting event or the theater? Answering this question will help you get started in your search.

Let’s start with some basics here to help you feel more prepared.

A brief history of the binocular, (www.museumofvision.org ):

“The binocular first appeared in the early 1600s as a variation of the telescope. Similar to the early telescope, binoculars were large and hard to use. Modern binoculars - or opera glasses for the theater, field glasses for sport – are largely the result of two innovations in design. The first occurred in 1825 when Lumiere of Paris produced a binocular with an internal screw, centrally placed between two monoculars. This screw allowed the user to focus both eyes simultaneously, thus making binoculars easier to adjust.

The second innovation came from 1870 when Ernst Abbe of the Carl Zeiss Company created the binocular prism. The prism acts like a mirror, which allows a manufacturer to shorten the length of the binocular barrel. Now binoculars could be collapsed to fit into the palm of a hand.”

And today, we have hundreds of styles of binoculars out there, in plenty of sizes, colors and varying qualities to choose from.

Understanding the basics

The style: In your search, you’ll likely see two styles of binoculars, the porro prism and the roof prism. The porro prism binocular is shaped like an “M” due to the two prisms within the barrels being off-set, causing that zig-zag design. Roof Prism binoculars are shaped like an “H” and have prisms that are directly in line, creating a more compact and easier to hold binocular.

Roof Prism design [Sara Pike]

Roof prism binoculars have a more complex light path and require more optical precision in manufacturing (hence the typically higher cost!) and have a protected focusing mechanism. They are typically a sturdier design. Porro prism design is more light efficient, but more difficult to hold and focus, and also has an exposed focusing mechanism allowing for things like sand to muck up the gears.

In your search, you’ll likely see more roof prism design binoculars since these ended up dominating the market due to their more compact design. Either style will provide you with just as much viewing pleasure, though. Testing and trying both will help you decide what feels best in your hands.

The numbers: On every pair of binoculars you’ll see the numbers. They look like “7x35” or “8x42”. What do they mean? Simply remember “Power and Light” and you’ll be set.

The first number is power of magnification. An 8x42 will mean the image you are viewing will be magnified 8 times. The higher you go on the first number, the more magnification power. As the power increases, though, the steadiness of the image becomes compromised and you will see the image shaking more. A tripod is required for higher powered binoculars (Typically 12x and up.)

The second number will let you know how much light gathering power the binocular will have. This number refers to the millimeter size of the objective lens (the lens further away from your eye. The lens that is closest to your eye is called the eye piece.) An 8x42 binocular will have a 42 millimeter size objective lens. The bigger the objective lens, the more light it can gather (ultimately giving you a better image.) But again, be aware that the bigger the objective lens, the heavier the binocular.

Porro Prism design [Sara Pike]

Optimal viewing for the clearest image is typically a millimeter size objective lens that is close to 5 times the magnification. (7x35, 8x42, 10x50.)

The coatings: As light passes through each lens within a binocular, some light is reflected back out ultimately losing some brightness in the image before it reaches your eye. Coatings on lenses help allow more light to get through to your eye. Back in the 1940s, it was discovered that magnesium fluoride did a great job at allowing more light to pass through the lenses. These days, most binocular manufacturers have specialty coatings that are distinct to their binocular line. As you are searching, you will see different coatings named depending on the brand. The better and more complicated the coatings, the brighter and clearer the image you see through the binoculars (and often the binocular will be more expensive, too.) Ask your sales person or search online for the details of the coatings of the binocular you’re interested in.

Close Focus: The Close Focus number you will see with binocular specs is simply how many feet away you’ll be able to focus at the closest point. Those who are interested in looking at butterflies, lizards, wildflowers or backyard bird feeders will enjoy a good close-focus binocular. Today, you can find binoculars that focus up to 4 feet away!

Objective Lens and numbers [Sara Pike]

Field of View: The Field of view is how wide an area you will see through the binocular image. This is typically expressed in the width of feet at 1,000 yards. The field of view is affected by eyepiece design and will usually be narrower with a higher powered binocular. A wider field of view makes it easier to find objects within the view without having to scan around as much.

The importance of testing in person: Eye Relief and Inter-pupillary Distance. Every human face is different! A pair of binoculars that works for your friend may not work for you! Your comfort and ability to see a clear image will depend on a few features about the binoculars.

Eye-relief is how far the eye piece lens sits away from your eye, and can be adjusted by the eye-cups on the binocular. Every style and brand has a different eye-cup relief measurement. Some people have deeper set eyes which will require more eye relief. If you wear glasses, this will require you to adjust the eye-cup relief to fit with your eye glasses.

Inter-pupillary distance is how far the two barrels are able to be pushed together or pulled apart to allow for the light to enter your pupils. If the binoculars cannot be set up to allow light directly into your pupils, you will not get a good, clear image. You will not know this unless you have the pair of binoculars in your hands to try.

These two features tend to be most troublesome for people when using binoculars and least understood at the beginning of a binocular search. If these two features are not working for you, your binocular viewing experience will not be as good as it could be! These two things can only be tested and tried in person, making an online purchase difficult and occasionally frustrating if you receive your new pair and you are not seeing perfectly through them.

Hopefully you are now better equipped to begin your binocular search. Knowing these details can help you feel empowered when searching, and understand a little more when reading about a pair or discussing with a sales person. Good luck!

Talk with binocular manufacturers directly!

Interested in talking directly with a binocular manufacturer? Visit our Southeast Arizona Birding Festival on August 12–14 and you can talk directly with representatives from Swarovski, Zeiss and Opticron at the Vendor Fair. Visit tucsonaudubon.org/vendor.html for hours and details.

Tucson Audubon Nature Shop binocular sales, credit Debbie Honan

Visit the Store!

The Tucson Audubon Nature Shop downtown has one of the best selections of binoculars in town. The volunteers and staff running the shop are well trained and versed in the features of binoculars and can most certainly help you find the right pair. The main Nature Shop is at 300 E University Blvd, #120. Monday – Saturday, 10am – 4pm. Test and try with no pressure to buy. Searching for binoculars is a very personal experience and our volunteers are trained to respect this process.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Local landowners seek to address extreme threat to San Pedro watershed

COMMENTARY (first appeared in the Sierra Vista Herald June 29, 2016)
Guest post by Peter Else

As chair of one of the landowner-based organizations challenging the Army Corps of Engineers’ failure to consult with the Fish and Wildlife Service on the proposed Villages at Vigneto development’s wildlife impacts, I feel compelled to explain the harm this proposed development would bring to our watershed and to explain who are the so-called “outsiders” and the “extremists” in this debate.

Tuscany in the desert??
Not everyone in the San Pedro watershed wants a massive new retirement community — essentially a medium-sized city — to pop up in the last remaining natural river ecosystem of southern Arizona. The organization I lead represents landowners who promote conservation of the San Pedro ecosystem’s water resources that support the area’s rural lifestyles, sustainable working landscapes, hunting, and ecotourism.

Most of our members have lived in Arizona long enough to have witnessed what happens when you try to support rapid housing growth in the desert with massive year-round groundwater withdrawals. Everyone in the region is forced to dig deeper and deeper wells.

Natural riparian vegetation dies. You no longer live in a rural community where you can hunt, grow food, and live in harmony with Arizona’s wildlife.

Instead, you fight traffic caused by tens of thousands of new residents who have a very limited sense of place, going to strip malls that look like every other stick-and-stucco strip mall in the Southwest. The proposed Vigneto development will bring these unwelcome water resource and traffic impacts not only to Benson, but to the entire watershed.

The future for Benson?
We have witnessed the death of major river ecosystems in Tucson and Phoenix. Like everyone else, we’ve become resigned to the fact that the major watersheds of the so-called Sun Corridor are now supported by imported water, and rely on land in the San Pedro watershed to mitigate impacts on wildlife habitat caused by rapid development sprawl in the growth corridor.

Arizona is currently in an extended drought and has a lower priority for receiving Colorado River water via the Central Arizona Project. Will we now allow this sprawl to take over the last desert river ecosystem available to mitigate growth impacts in the Sun Corridor? If so, we would be destroying the very wildness that attracted people to this part of Arizona in the first place.

Given these facts, it appears to many of us that it is “extreme” to allow an outside corporation and a single municipal government in the watershed to rapidly push through a continuously growing plan for a new instant city larger than Flagstaff, without first examining the impacts this new plan will have on a hemispherically important desert river habitat.

We need to look before we leap at the first sugar daddy who emerges from an air-conditioned office in Phoenix with a plan for building a lush Italian city in the middle of the Sonoran Desert.

We did our best to get the Army Corps and the Town of Benson to listen to rural conservation interests, but their ears have been deaf to the long-term concerns about the impacts to the river and to nearby landowners.

It is not extreme to want to keep one of our last free-flowing rivers flowing. It is not extreme to be concerned about a truly sustainable economy. It is hardly extreme to ask that the government give this proposal a good hard look and that it seek to minimize or eliminate the harm to our precious river.


It is extreme, however, to stand idly by and watch our river and the land and ecosystem it supports dry up to profit big developers.

Peter Else is chair of the Lower San Pedro Watershed Alliance

TAKE ACTION!
Attend three final public meetings for the Villages at Vigneto Community Master Plan (CMP). Come prepared to share your concerns at these upcoming public meetings:
    • Planning & Zoning Commission hearing @ 7:00 PM, July 5th (Benson City Hall)
    • City Council work session @ 9:00 AM, July 9th (Cochise College Center in Benson)
    • City Council hearing @ 7:00 PM, July 18th (Benson City Hall)

Read Tucson Audubon's Conservation Alert (July 1)


Executive Director Karen Fogas's address from our Storytelling and Poetry on the San Pedro event