Monday, May 13, 2019

Marcia’s Big Year…aka Marcia's 365 #2

Guest series by Marcia OBara

Follow along this year as Marcia travels around the US in search of birds and freedom in the "Roadrunner!"

Thanks to everyone who is following me on Facebook. Your comments are very much appreciated!

The first day was great fun. I met a lot of great folks in Madera Canyon and have decided to try my hand at some photos. First batch were not bad, so I will keep trying.

A valuable lesson learned while on my e-bike on the road out of Bog Springs campground…downhill and a tight turning radius with a 60 pound bike are a bad combination. For those of you old enough to remember Laugh In, I bore an eerie resemblance to the guy on the trike that falls over sideways. Thanks to Linda Landry at Santa Rita Lodge for helping me bandage the wound.

The first few days were the warm-up for the long rides ahead. A visit to Paton’s was very productive, and I stayed at Patagonia Lake State Park. I began to appreciate a well-designed, clean shower room.

Ash Canyon yielded a Lucifer Hummingbird as well as many local specialties, up close and personal. I also bought a lovely Lucifer Hummingbird pin from Mary Jo Ballator.

Lucifer Hummingbird. Peter Hawrylyshyn

An overnight in Willcox and then off to the playa. The main birds of note there was a pair of Great Horned Owls and several fuzzy owlets. The journey to Roswell NM was not related to birding, just a visit to the UFO museum. Not one of my better choices.

Carlsbad Caverns was the next stop, and was an amazing place to see. I misjudged how long the caverns would take to see and so I was a bit rushed. Right about this time I needed to re-evaluate my timeline and itinerary plans. Too short a time for stops and too long for driving.

I belong to a traveling group called Harvest Hosts. For a small yearly fee I can dry camp (no hookups) at wineries, breweries and golf courses. My first HH stop was St. Clair Winery outside Deming NM. Great wine, food and huge flocks of Yellow-headed Blackbirds were the highlights of that stop.

After a very long drive through miles of construction, I arrived at South Llano River State Park. The park information on the web looked promising and it sure was. Several trails to walk and the location for the first TWO lifers for the trip: Golden-cheeked Warbler and Black-headed Vireo. Both were singing and I had excellent looks. My challenge came when I tried to set the GPS for the next leg to Balcones NWR in Texas. No cell signal, no Wi-Fi and I discovered the address I had was incorrect. I was offered the use of a landline and was able to reach the campgrounds–seems the published address does not work and I needed a different address to reach the site. I will leave out the description of the campground. Oh, my...

Imagine my surprise at Balcones when I ran into Gordon Karre, Chris Rohrer and their guide Laurie Foss. That was a nice encounter. I also picked up new Facebook friends for my closed group page.

The road to Galveston was pretty easy. The FeatherFest started the morning after I arrived. My big challenge was unhooking my RV every morning to drive to the venue to catch the buses. Imaging if every day, in order to go somewhere, you needed to pull in your slider to the bedroom, unhook the water supply, remove the electrical cords and stow them, check all the cupboard doors and make sure everything is safely stowed, at 0530, in the dark. Fun times! I also did not take into account the very high parking lot surrounding the community center. Keeps out flood waters and also makes RVs bottom out. I used the entrance the buses used, that solved the problem nicely.

The FeatherFest was great fun. Well organized and lots of field trips. One of the highlights for me was that we rode in buses-huge windows and lots of room.

Not many warblers, but the appearance of a Fork-tailed Flycatcher was a high point. At the Fork-tailed Flycatcher site I also ran into Laurie Foss. I better start looking for her wherever I go. Visits to High Island, the rookery, Roll Over Pass and Lafitte’s Cove were filled with alligators, Red-winged Blackbirds, ibis, pelicans and all manner of Laughing Gulls –and a few Franklin’s Gulls for interest.

During one of the field trips we noticed a small mud pile, round with a hole in the center. The leader explained it was a crawfish mudhole. Left me wondering about how they live, swimming around, underground in streams.

At the Rookery

After FeatherFest I spent a day touring The Strand and Galveston Harbor. Tall ships are amazing.

After leaving Galveston I took the ferry – yep, I did. After watching the bus drivers I realized it was less tricky then I thought. My goal was Sea Rim State Park but it was full and with a very high tide I headed out for Lafayette, Louisiana. An unplanned stop at Smith’s Woods gave me lifer 3 for the trip – Chuck-wills-widow. A call to the swamp tour operator on Lake Martin, LA assured me of a space on the tour.

Adrift in Galveston Bay

When I arrived at the tour boat office, two Cajun gents assured me that I was going nowhere that day. “There’s rain and then there’s weather. This here is weather”. A discussion with the tour boat owner assured me that not only would there be no tours, we were in for really nasty storms. I asked for her opinion about moving on and she asked “do you wanna be in front of ‘em or behind ‘em?”. I left.

Next stop was Biloxi. The less said about an RV park with no bathrooms or showers the better. I did ride out those storms you saw on The Weather Channel.

My trip list is growing faster than I expected. As of April 25, I am at 229.

This trip continues to be great fun. I hope you are enjoying my blogs and postings. On Facebook you can read about my almost daily adventures by asking to join Marcia365 (info below).

About Marcia
Marcia OBara has been a birder since 1984. What started out as a little trip across the country after retirement has evolved into a rather unconventional Big Year.

After 48 years as a nurse, Marcia will travel across the eastern US in an RV, trying to visit as many birding festival as possible and birding every day for 365 days! She does not have a goal, but 500 species would be great.

Marcia has been an active member of Tucson Audubon for the past 5 years, joining in for field trips, volunteering for festivals and events as well as at the Paton Center. She has participated in Christmas Bird Counts, cuckoo surveys and her favorites, Elegant Trogon surveys. She was pleased to be offered the chance to blog about her Big Year here and hopes the Tucson Audubon members and other readers will enjoy reading about her adventures. She is also on Facebook in a closed group, so visit Marcia365 ( and ask to join!

Thursday, April 11, 2019

I Love Lucy’s

Guest post by Carmen C. Christy

Lucy’s up. Lucy’s first up.

Until this spring, Mr. Abert’s Towhee has always maintained the title of First One Up, pinging out his contact call as he moves around, sharply suggesting to Mrs. Abert’s that she get up and get going. He’s followed shortly by Mr. Gambel’s quail who-Lives-on the-East-Side calling to his morning-grumpy family to come on and get breakfast. Mr. Gambel’s-Who-Lives-on-the-West-Side gets up much later and wanders in with his family whenever and wherever—this flock is far more casual (maybe the dad’s an old hippie). Then there’s the raucous Gila family woodpeckering away, beating tattoos all around the place this time of year, but mostly on the vents on my roof. The little sparrow flock is last up. They argue noisily among themselves, everybody talks at once, and they flutter in and out of bed. It’s hard to sleep past 5 a.m. in springtime.

It’s Mr. Lucy’s Warbler to us. Now that I’ve learned to recognize his three-part song, I can hear it echoing an acre or more away. Today I find him silhouetted black against the lightening eastern sky, high up in a mesquite tree. I can see no color, only movement. His little rounded head busily checks things out between bursts of song, which ring out every three or four seconds while he’s in the mood. He lifts his head, opens his pointy beak, and spreads the news. “I’m here!” Loudly. Repeatedly.

Image by Lois Manowitz

A couple of weeks ago they showed up at my hummingbird feeders, hopping confidently around the edges, clinging with their impossibly tiny little claws, helping themselves to sips of sugar water. These weren’t first-timers. These were birds who knew how to get a mouthful of something nourishing. The male Lucy’s came first, I think. I didn’t know who they were at the time, but I knew they were not my teensy golden-headed Verdins. Too big, more stream lined, with longer tails and wait, eye rings! I love field marks!

If it hadn’t been for Tucson Audubon Society’s new nest box program, I would never have known about Lucy’s Warblers. We bought a couple of their experimental triangular nest boxes and hung them in early March, according to the directions, in appropriate places. A few days later, both the male Lucy’s, with russet red decorating his cap and rump, and the plainer female with no red cap and only a bit of russet feathering, were flitting around in the mesquite where we’d hung a nest box. How lucky to see Mr. and Mrs. Lucy’s clearly house-hunting. I don’t think they’ve chosen the prefab, though. I think they are going au naturale.

Spring in my desert sanctuary along the Rillito River is always full of music and activity. It’s nice to have the old gang back together again. Some overwintered with me, and some have returned from winter vacations, but it’s all the more exciting when new feathered folks arrive. They add to the gaiety of nations around here. Mr. Abert’s can stay in bed. Now I have a new wake-up call to look forward to every morning: Lucy’s.

The other characters in this play:

Abert's Towhee by Jim Burns
Gambel's Quail by Doris Evans
Gila Woodpecker by Laura Stafford

Tuesday, April 2, 2019

Marcia’s Big Year…aka Marcia's 365

Guest series by Marcia OBara

Follow along this year as Marcia travels around the US in search of birds and freedom in the "Roadrunner!"

My Big Year is a work in progress. Believe it, or not, there are rules for Big Years. Most Big Years are V-E-R-Y expensive, require a year of your life and include frantic flights and land travel to cram in as many species as possible. According to the ABA website, in order to submit my total the year must start at 0000 on January 1 and end on December 31 the same year. The birds must be countable and be seen or heard by me in order for it to count.

Are you wondering who sets the Big Year rules? The American Birding Association, of course. The very same ABA that splits and lumps species and rules on rarities. So I won’t be submitting my stats to them.

My Big Year will break some of the rules. Mine is intended to reward myself for a long life of caring for others. It is designed to be a reasonable cost, no expensive air flights, and a laid-back effort to see as many birds as possible in 365 days of travel by RV, foot and electric bicycle. My intent is to visit most of the states east of the Mississippi as well as some southwestern areas. I may even get to Canada a few times. All in the ABA area, but the rule breaker is that mine will start on April 1, 2019 (maybe starting April Fool’s Day is not the best idea?) and last for 365 days– at least that is the plan as of February 20, 2019.

Here are the rules I have set for myself:
  • If heard-only it must be a species I know or be so obvious that I cannot miss
  • If others with me see or hear a bird, I will not count it unless I also do so
  • I will eBird every sighting, I will try to submit one or more lists every day
  • I can and likely will hire local guides (unless they insist on taking me out just for the fame that will come of helping me)
  • I will bird in the RV, walking or on the electric bike – or in planes, trains and automobiles
  • In the case of rarities, if an eBird reviewer does not agree with a sighting I will keep it on my private list, not on the trip list – but I reserve the right to blog my displeasure
  • I will not play recorded calls or songs unless not in breeding season. For rare or endangered species no recordings at all
  • I will spish, squeak and make all manner of weird mouth noises, guaranteed to be irresistible to all birdlife in the vicinity
I will drive my 24’ class C motorhome. I have named her The Roadrunner. I will not tow a car, so good-bye to The Bird Car. She has been a great companion to me and I will miss her. My new ride will be a Pedego Interceptor electric bicycle, an adventure in itself.

The Roadrunner!

I will look for as many nature or birding festivals as I can find along my route. More eyes = more birds. Birders I meet will be the best source of bird finding info. I will also ask those following my Facebook page for advice.

The very kind and generous folks at Tucson Audubon have offered to let me blog on their web site. I will also have a closed Facebook page called Marcia365. If you visit and request to follow me I will accept.

I am new to blogging so I will try to keep it interesting, and take pictures. I am hoping my bird photography skills improve or you will all be treated to photos of me dumping the waste tanks.

My early trip will start in southeastern Arizona, head out to New Mexico and to Roswell NM (can’t bird all the time) for some alien viewing. Then to Austin TX for Golden-cheeked warbler and Black-headed vireo. Next stop will be FeatherFest in Galveston. Looks like a great festival there.

I will head for Ohio (bet you can figure out why!) with a swing through the southern states and a visit to my sister.

After 10 days at the Biggest Week in American Birding (I plan to enter the best bird tattoo contest), I will head to New York, and the Buffalo area. The Allegany Nature Pilgrimage will be my next stop and it will be so nice to see old birding buddies and see the wonderful hardwood forests of southern western New York.

Follow me here and on my Facebook page if you are interested. My blog postings will always be after I have left an area and I will not blog about specific locations or dates. Dang it, broke the rule already with festival mentions.

I would love for you to follow my adventures. Join me and let’s see if I can hit 500 species (not my real goal, but every birder so far has asked me my target number) in 365 days!

About Marcia
Marcia OBara has been a birder since 1984. What started out as a little trip across the country after retirement has evolved into a rather unconventional Big Year.

After 48 years as a nurse, Marcia will travel across the eastern US in an RV, trying to visit as many birding festival as possible and birding every day for 365 days! She does not have a goal, but 500 species would be great.

Marcia has been an active member of Tucson Audubon for the past 5 years, joining in for field trips, volunteering for festivals and events as well as at the Paton Center. She has participated in Christmas Bird Counts, cuckoo surveys and her favorites, Elegant Trogon surveys. She was pleased to be offered the chance to blog about her Big Year here and hopes the Tucson Audubon members and other readers will enjoy reading about her adventures. She is also on Facebook in a closed group, so visit Marcia365 ( and ask to join!

Welcome and I hope you enjoy.

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.