Thursday, November 11, 2010

Las Cienegas Adventure!

by John Yerger

Paul Green (Executive Director), Scott Wilbor (IBA Coordinator) and I were joined by 5 generous Tucson Audubon supporters on an excursion to Las Cienegas National Conservation Area. This unique area supports a wide variety of habitats from grassland to cienega marsh, oak-juniper woodland to riparian cottonwood-willow stands - with perennial water!

Our first stop produced several grassland species, the highlight being a local specialty: Eastern "Lilian's" Meadowlark. While currently still considered a "subspecies" by the birding powers that-be, a scientific paper was recently published proving through DNA analysis that this is actually a species unique from "eastern" Eastern Meadowlarks. We enjoyed good looks at a few other birds typical of the area in winter, such as Vesper Sparrow, American Kestrel, and Red-tailed Hawk.

We were fortunate to have arranged for Karen Sims, a wildlife biologist from the BLM, to meet us at the Empire Ranch HQ. Karen obligingly accompanied us for the rest of the morning, sharing her extensive knowledgeable about the area's history and ecology. We were pleased to learn about the BLM's efforts to restore part of the grasslands to their original state through a large-scale mesquite removal project. Karen also led us to an area where endangered black-tailed prairie dogs have been reintroduced, and seem to be faring quite well.

In the immediate vicinity of the HQ we had good looks at a small flock of Brewer's Blackbirds and a Lark Sparrow. Thanks to windy weather, birds largely eluded us for the rest of the day - though we studied the differences between all of the sparrow species we could find (primarily Chipping, Brewer's, Lincoln's, and Vesper). Nevertheless, we were constantly impressed by the high value of the varied habitats at Las Cienegas.

We were engaged by all manner of other wildlife: endangered Chiricahua leopard frogs in Empire Gulch; a large praying mantis in the lower end of Gardner Wash; and a Western diamondback rattlesnake that we could hardly convince to move off the road! Check out the footprint for scale.

Afterwards, we enjoyed a fantastic picnic lunch in the shade of an awesome cottonwood. TAS staff Erin and Jean served up delicious gourmet fare from Delectables catering.

As you can see, a good time was had by all. Please join us for the next adventure!

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