Thursday, September 30, 2010

Arizona IBA Team Visits Patagonia Mountains

By Jennie MacFarland
On September 17th, the intrepid Important Bird Area team headed out once more to survey birds. This time we ventured into the exotic wilderness of the Patagonia Mountains. As we cruised up Harshaw Road, higher and higher into the mountains, we were pleasantly surprised by an amazing drop in the temperature. Everything was going well and spirits were high and then we hit our first road block. The road was literally blocked by a huge fallen tree. After we all got out of the car and had a look, we decided to try to drive around it. This involved moving some rocks and trying to kick out a small pine stump. Once we had successfully cleared this obstacle we had to ford a small stream, which involved moving more rocks. After successfully thwarting all of these obstacles, we reached our campsite and set up.

After dinner we conducted some nocturnal bird surveys as darkness fell. We heard several Common Poorwills calling from different directions and also what sounded like a sleepy frog croaking out a ‘good night.’ We then walked down the road to conduct our next survey and hit paydirt! There was another Common Poorwill calling and then the sharp-eyed Matt Griffiths spotted a small owl which turned out to be a Whiskered Screech owl once we shined a light on it. As we were leaving the area, we noticed a funny shaped silhouette at the top of a tree that turned out to be a turkey vulture that we had awakened! We also heard one Great Horned Owl and several Elf Owls, including one right in our campsite that had not quite mastered his call. What a good night for raptors!
Bright and early the next morning, the two teams conducted their surveys. Jim Hays and Jennie MacFarland surveyed Mowry Wash, a beautiful stream area. There were many interesting birds to be found here. Dusky-capped Flycatchers were singing all over and several Arizona Woodpeckers were both seen and heard. A large snag was filled with arguing Chipping Sparrows who were constantly chasing each other. We also saw migrants such as Black-throated Gray Warbler and Orange-crowned Warbler.

The other intrepid team of surveyors consisting of Scott Wilbor and Matt Griffiths explored Finley and Adams Canyon in pursuit of feathered friends. They spotted many cool birds including Peregrine Falcon, Band-tailed Pigeon, Hutton’s Vireo and two Western Wood-Pewees. All in all, it was a beautiful morning to be birding in the Patagonia Mountains. This was a terrific back-country adventure in the pursuit of avian data to help the Important Bird Area program. If you are interested in putting your birding skills to use in helping to protect birds while having a great time in beautiful locations, contact the Tucson Audubon Society IBA office at 629-0510 x7004 or x7005 or visit our website at We have several events coming up, including a training workshop on November 20 and December 4 as well as the fun Bird Blitz for Conservation on November 13; this is the perfect time to get involved in this great program. Let’s go birding together!

Monday, September 27, 2010

TogetherGreen Volunteers Put in a Strong Performance at Ironwood Forest National Monument

On Saturday, September 25—National Public Lands Day—about thirty-five volunteers headed out to a hillside in the Ironwood Forest National Monument. Their objective was to pull up invasive buffelgrass and clean up trash at a site where people shoot at targets. The volunteers were recruited by Tucson Audubon, Friends of Ironwood Forest, and the Town of Marana.

Volunteers were to be lauded just for making the drive out to this remote location west of Tucson—it’s about twice as far as driving from downtown to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum! The location is called El Cerrito del Represo—the “little hill next to the cattle tank.”

In the foreground volunteers pick up trash while in the background others can been seen digging out buffelgrass on "El Cerrito del Represo"

We split into two groups. One dug up buffelgrass on the hill while the other picked up trash—mostly spent shells and debris from targets. It is legal to shoot on public lands such as this, but it is not legal to litter! There are responsible shooters who pick up their ejected cartridges. But there must have been an awful lot of people over the years that didn’t, since there are thousands upon thousands of shells littering the ground.

The shooting site where we parked and picked up trash, as seen from the hill

Tucson Audubon’s objective here was not only to pull buffelgrass and pick up trash. It was to expose people to the great outdoors, to teach them about some of the many environmental issues that we are facing, and to demonstrate the kind of work that Tucson Audubon does in this region--and that other Audubon chapters do all over the country. Tucson Audubon’s participation in this project was partially funded by a TogetherGreen Volunteer Grant. TogetherGreen is a program of the Audubon Society, funded by Toyota.

Volunteer Julia Fonseca uses one of the BLM's magnets to pick up spent shells

The offending grass, foreground, with volunteers ready to pounce on it

About halfway through the morning, we called a break and Darrell Tersey of the BLM talked about some of the history and prehistory of that part of the monument. The Hohokam grew seasonal fields of corn, beans and squash in that area irrigated by runoff from a variety of small washes. Then everybody switched jobs and went back to work.

A highlight of the morning was finding a desert tortoise on the hill. In a very short time it went from perhaps never having seen a human to being very heavily photographed! Some participants had never seen one in the wild!

Erin and Scott Olmstead examine desert tortoise scat—another new experience for them

We quit by noon since the September heat was getting pretty intense. Cooler and equally picturesque volunteer days are coming up. Keep an eye on the Event Calendar at the Tucson Audubon website for other upcoming volunteer days. We will be visiting several scenic and interesting locations this fall and winter to plant trees, remove invasive plants, and pick up trash.

Snacks, water and first aid

This effort would not have been possible without Lahsha Brown of Friends of Ironwood Forest and Darrell Tersey of the BLM. A big thank you also to BLM staffers Francisco Mendoza and Kristen Lenhardt, and BLM law enforcement officers who patrolled the area in which we were working.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Volunteer(s) for Habitat Restoration!

By Matt Griffiths

No, not that kind of volunteer. I'm talking about vegetation. We've noticed a much higher survival rate of germinating seeds (or volunteers) of all types at Tucson Audubon's habitat restoration sites this year.

At the Simpson Farm site in Marana we guess that the main cause of this (among a host of other variables) is the first favorable amount of rain in at least two years! Winter seed germination of species such as saltbush has occurred at a pretty good rate recently, but survival of these volunteers has been very low to nonexistent. This year a fairly productive winter rainy season led to good germination and something approaching a more "normal" amount of summer rain (any water really! In reality it was roughly 4 inches) has allowed a great majority of the small plants to survive and actually flourish!

Desert saltbush volunteers in foreground surrounded by annuals
I've never seen anything like it in my six years of working at these sites. There are plants everywhere! Tucson Audubon has spent a lot of time spreading seed mixes of native trees, shrubs and grasses, and so far the output has been pretty sad. But things have changed! We spread seed at our new work area, the "Bowl" just this past fall and winter, and now the once barren sand flats are full of three kinds of saltbush and gramma grass along with naturally occurring annuals like purslane, false purslane, amaranth and wooly tidestromia. This growth followed a spring explosion of annuals also from our seed mix.

On top of this good news is the fact that already established plants (installed by Tucson Audubon and naturally occurring) are reseeding themselves at higher rates too. Once again the saltbush species are the stars of the show, but some tree species are also doing very well so far. Summer germinators such as velvet mesquite and paloverde have had a very productive season in low spots on our sites where soils have a higher clay content. It remains to be seen whether winter rains will be adequate enough to ensure the survival of these seedlings.

At Esperanza Ranch down in Santa Cruz county we've also seen a resurgence of giant sacaton this year. This is mostly the result of our seed mix but there's probably some reseeding going on here too. Look at this beautiful wall of wispy golden seedheads!

Giant sacaton at Esperanza Ranch

It's easy to see this year that a few good years of rain in a row could have a tremendous effect on the restoration efforts at these sites. Come on rain!

And, oh, if you're still reading and are interested in being the other kind of volunteer for Tucson Audubon, we have plenty of opportunities for you. There are field days coming up where you can get dirty and plant or remove invasives (Contact Kendall Kroesen). There's also a Volunteer Orientation on Sept. 29 where you can learn about all the ways to help us (Contact Becky Aparicio).

Here are some recent photos of the vegetative bounty this year.

Gramma grass (ID anyone?)
Tidestromia and purslane in the Bowl
Four-wing saltbush surrounded by volunteers of 3 saltbush species
Red-tailed Hawk using one of our perches
Velvet mesquite volunteers in Bowl
Devil's claw in Bowl
Sacaton and Santa Ritas, Esperanza Ranch
Raptor perch

Monday, September 13, 2010

Another Nail in the Coffin of Invasive Grasses

Kendall Kroesen

Many canyons and washes in the Tucson area are infested with fountain grass (Pennisetum setaceum), an ornamental grass imported from Africa. Tucson Audubon is working to remove it from the bottom of Esperero Canyon (between Ventana and Sabino Canyons in the Santa Catalina Mountains), where we own 15 acres of land. By doing the work Tucson Audubon is setting an example for surrounding landowners, and also training many volunteers to recognize fountain grass. The work is rewarding and the scenery here is unbeatable.

Esperero Canyon (photo by Matt Brooks)

On Saturday, September 11, one staff member and 18 volunteers trekked into the canyon. We swept up the canyon through an area cleared earlier, pulling out any regrowth. Then we reached a heavily infested area where we hadn't worked yet. We made a heavy dent in the fountain grass population.

Brian Nicholas and others tackle a badly infested area.

Clearing fountain grass will allow more space and moisture for native vegetation. We are only just beginning to catalogue the botanical treasures of the canyon with the help of botanist Jim Verrier, manager of the native plant nursery at Desert Survivors. He has found about 140 species so far, some of them rare in the region. We hope to find many more as we reclaim this canyon for the natives!

This was our first TogetherGreen volunteer day of the year. TogetherGreen is a program of National Audubon, funded by Toyota. Volunteer days are designed to take on important conservation projects while introducing new people to the Audubon movement.

We would particularly like to thank the United Way and volunteers from Davis Monthan Air Force Base. For this volunteer day we teamed with United Way's Days of Caring program, which matched us with volunteers from the base. Twelve volunteers from the "DM" contributed a lot of muscle power to the effort!

There will be many more opportunities to volunteer with Tucson Audubon on projects like this. For more information contact me at 971-2385 or

Saturday's volunteer team celebrates victory in an area cleared of the grass!

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Success! (and a giant cardboard check)

Erin Olmstead

I'm thrilled to report that TAS has been selected to receive a grant from Cox Charities for our "Connecting Kids to Nature" Green Schools program! This project, which brings the outdoors into the classroom by bringing functional wildlife habitat into the schoolyard, helps teachers engage students in learning about their Sonoran desert surroundings and instill environmental literacy in Tucson's youth (a.k.a. tomorrow's decision-makers.)

Cue happy dance!

To help celebrate Cox Charities' 2010 grants, Tucson Audubon was invited to a recent Arizona Diamondbacks game, so Vice President Mich Coker and I Prius-ed up to Phoenix for an exciting daytrip last month. Upon arrival, were herded down onto the field where we posed for photo ops. Here's me with the giant cardboard check:

and here we are on the jumbo-tron before the game! Notice we are not touching the grass (a big no-no).

Afterward, we headed back up to a party suite where we enjoyed the game and mingled with the other grantees over hot-dogs. It was a great opportunity to network with other youth education organizations. An awesome day (even though the D-backs lost.)

CSI: Mason Center

by Lia Sansom

There is an important lesson to learn from this blog post.
On Monday, the field crew and I stopped by the Mason Center on our way back from the field to water some new garden plants. As usual, I crept around carefully until I could establish where the resident rattlesnake was hanging out that day. This rattlesnake, probably a western diamondback, can usually be found somewhere around the buildings and gardens. Volunteer Tom Bethard recently named him Don Diamond, because he seems to own the place as we give Don top consideration it what we do and where we go. Don has a particularly favorite spot to curl up: a dried pile of mud gloop in a basin alongside a path. Don is not offensive, in fact he has never rattled or given humans any notice. At the recent Nature by Night event, he even allowed close-up photos. He was looking classy that night; bright and shiny like he recently shed his skin. So Don became a stakeholder and a friend of the Mason Center (even though I felt he could have done a better job of eating pack-rats.) So it was shocking and tragic when I found him like this on Monday near that favored spot:

He was dead. It took a moment for this to register and I began to feel a little sad. I called the crew guys over to see and as I waited for them I inspected him closely and realized, this was no ordinary snake death. Look closely and you will see Don's head in the center of the photo biting his own body. There were no other signs of struggle: like marks on his body from a possible predator. A mystery. Well, I am embarrassed to admit how many episodes of the CSI tv shows I have watched, but those shows definitely influenced my next actions. I got out my camera phone and began snapping photos of the scene before I touched anything. Then I took some snake tongs and turned his body every which way and documented all angles of the bite:In the picture on the left you can see a small pink and grey feather stuck in his fang, which the three of us noticed with interest. Satisfied we had as much evidence as we could gather, we left the scene and planned a burial for a later date.
At the office the next day, I downloaded the photos and emailed them off to local herpetology experts, including Cecil Schwalbe. I thought this might be a common occurence easily explained by those in the know once they saw the pictures. I mentioned my theory that the snake had tried to attack House Finch (based on the feather) and accidentally bit itself in the heart (based on a diagram of snake anatomy I found and some research that told me snakes don't die from their venom). A few hours later Cecil called in utter amazement of what I had found and he asked this:

"Did you freeze it?"

Oh! What a rookie mistake! As Cecil went on about the possibilities of what happened and all the people he knew who would have loved to disect and examine the snake to figure out what happened, I sat cringing. I berated myself for having lost the opportunity to solve the mystery, to potentially advance knowledge about rattlesnakes and to give Don's death meaning. I asked Cecil if he thought Don's body might not have desiccated too much, even though 24 hours had passed since I found him. Cecil doubted it and my own experience told me the ants had probably eaten him to the bone already. So I changed the subject and asked if he had been able to identify the scat from this photo I had sent him a few weeks earlier:This was also from the Mason Center and I knew it was something potentially odd. The separation of the white uric acid indicated bird or reptile, but it was a large amount (evidenced by my keys used for scale) for either type of animal. I was hoping for Gila Monster, which had not been seen on the site for many, many years. Cecil said:

"That is cool. Did you pick it up and keep it? Otherwise it's too hard to tell."

Two for two failures at being an investigative naturalist! Well that was too much. I hopped in my car and raced to Mason, praying Don's body was still there in decent condition. Mason is a nature center, and I was not managing it well if I was allowing so many opportunities for knowledge to pass via unsolved mysteries. Thankfully, the body was in much better condition than I expected. The bite wound had opened up so the head was no longer clasping the body, and it was pretty smelly, but I put him in a couple of plastic bags and into the freezer. (Don't worry, I turned the freezer down to very cold and will bleach it when I take the body out).
Cecil promises to put it in his own freezer designated for these types of things and will examine it when he has time. So all you readers will have to wait, like me, before we get any kind of answer. Meanwhile, we wait to see what snake will take Don's place in the territory as the new Boss.

And the lesson? Well, if you haven't figured it out: when you find something cool that's dead or inanimate that needs an explanation- pick it up and freeze it! Mind those with whom you share a freezer, though. Frozen dead critters laying around may be a dealbreaker for some relationships.