Thursday, December 23, 2010

Arizona IBA Team Ventures into San Rafael Valley!

Jennie MacFarland, IBA Program Assistant - Biologist

On the cold, crisp morning of December 10, a team of intrepid Important Bird Area surveyors traveled to the San Rafael Grasslands. As dawn steadily crept over the mountains, our caravan crested the top of the hill and suddenly the entire valley was laid out before us. The sight of sweeping vistas of golden grasses was breathtaking in the morning light.

As the purpose of this venture was to establish and test out new IBA survey routes, we split up into teams of 2 or 3 and began to survey our assigned routes. Some problems such as locked gates and confusing road signs were speed bumps to the endeavor, but the teams powered through and figured out routes that would work. The on-the-ground information these teams discovered and reported back is invaluable to Arizona IBA establishing survey routes in this area for repeat surveying of grassland birds.

The teams also kept meticulous track of all the birds they encountered as IBA survey data. Some of highlights include Prairie Falcon, Eastern Meadowlarks, Vesper Sparrows, one Baird’s Sparrow out at the famous Vaca Corral, huge flocks of Horned Larks and large quantities of Savannah Sparrows. One team encountered a good number of Grasshopper Sparrows and a rolling, tumbling flock of Chestnut-collared Longspurs that called continuously and dazzled us with flashes of their white underwings. Another team, positioned further south, found unexpected birds such as Red-naped sapsucker, Mexican Jays and Phainopepla. The other two teams, positioned in the central valley, turned up some great birds as well such as Northern Harrier, Brewer’s Blackbird, House Wren and Brewer’s Sparrows. This was a fun day of surveying, survey route establishment and birding with some terrific birds turning up!

The Arizona IBA crew will be heading back out to the San Rafael Grasslands to formally conduct surveys on the routes we established this month. There were some target birds that eluded us, such as Sprague’s Pipit and McCown’s Longspur, that we hope to find in January and February when we journey back.

If you are interested in participating in these surveys, please contact the IBA office at Tucson Audubon Society at 209-1804 or email us at or It will be a great time and we could use your help finding these amazing and secretive birds!

Monday, December 20, 2010

Tucson CBC at the Mason Center!

by Scott Olmstead
A couple of students from the Sunnyside Audubon StudentUrban Naturalists (SASUN) program joined in the Christmas Bird Count on Sunday. We slowly walked the nature tail at Tucson Audubon’s Mason Centerand carefully noted all of the bird species and individuals that we could find. House Finches and Mourning Doves were the most abundant species, and we also found a large group of 15 Gambel’s Quail, actively foraging on the ground. We were treated to the high-pitched “zing!” given by a male Costa’s Hummingbird in his display flight, and enjoyed an amazing closeup encounter with a Verdin. This American Kestrel gave us a nice long study as she surveyed the surrounding desert from on top of one of the magnificent saguaros at the Mason Center.

After we finished our count, we logged into, a national bird sightings database, and uploaded a report of our excursion. It was abeautiful morning, brisk and sunny, and filled with good birding, yummy hot chocolate and cookies (yes, cookies!), and excellent company.

See you next time!

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Robb Wash Cleanup Day

Erin Olmstead

Robb Wash is a tributary of Tanque Verde Creek on Tucson's east side. The neighborhood (near Speedway and Pantano), along with Tucson Parks and Rec, and Tucson Clean and Beautiful are all working together there to increase the importance of the wash to wildlife and to the neighborhood.

Last Saturday's TogetherGreen Volunteer Day at the wash was a great chance for several superstar members of Tucson Audubon's Birds & Business Alliance get to know one another while joining forces to improve wildlife habitat. A Bobcat sighting was a special treat that reminded us all of the important habitat value of our urban washes!

Bobcat photo by volunteer Corey Mitchell

Tucson Clean & Beautiful provided handy litter-grabber tools and trash bags, which we filled with lots of trash and recyclables picked up along the wash. Volunteers also cleared brush and other bulky obstructions from the wash. The newly forming Friends of Robb Wash organization will continue stewardship efforts along their adopted wash.

Special thanks to Birds & Business Allies Adventure Birding Company, Kimberlyn Drew, and The Riverpark Inn for lending a hand!

Kimberlyn Drew, Rick Galligan of the Riverpark Inn, Erin Olmstead and Kendall Kroesen of Tucson Audubon, and Jake Mohlmann of Adventure Birding strike a pose in front of one of several large piles of brush and trash removed from the wash.

We have several other TogetherGreen Volunteer Days coming up, including more opportunities to improve our urban washes. Stay tuned to our Events Calendar for more info! TogetherGreen is a program of National Audubon Society funded by Toyota.

To find out how you can help, contact Kendall at 971-2385!

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Mistletoe is a great native plant

by Kendall Kroesen

On November 30, 2010 the Arizona Daily Star published an article advocating the removal of desert mistletoe (Phoradendron californicum) from Sonoran Desert trees. The article repeated the myth that mistletoe is dangerous to trees that it should be removed when ever possible.

Desert mistletoe

Instead, it is well established that both our desert mistletoe and our trees are native species that have coexisted for a very long time, probably millenia. Mistletoe is a partial parasite that takes some nutrients from trees, but also contain chlorophyll and creates its own energy. If mistletoe were a parasite that quickly killed their host trees, it would kill itself--something not to its advantage.

Trees that are dying and that contain mistletoe are probably dying from a combination of factors, such as old age, disease, and drought--not just from the mistletoe. Mark Dimmitt, on page 260 of A Natural History of the Sonoran Desert, as well as at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum website, notes the value of mistletoe to wildlife and that it is rare for mistletoe to kill trees.

Mistletoe is indeed a native plant that is very important for wildlife. Birds and other animals eat the berries. Phainopeplas are heavily dependent on mistletoe berries in the Tucson area. (For more on the value of desert mistletoe, see the January-February 2010 issue of the Vermilion Flycatcher, pages 16-17).

Please do not heed calls to remove mistletoe from trees. Desert mistletoe is a native plant, as is the tree in which it is growing. Who are we to choose which lives and which dies? Besides, the effectiveness of removing mistletoe is minimal since you cannot kill it unless you cut off the branch of the tree it is growing on. The mistletoe will grow back from root-like filiments that are inside the tree branch.

Kudos to Tropical Birding for Ecuador Introtour

by Kendall Kroesen

Tropical Birding, an Ecuador-based birding tour company, is a member of Tucson Audubon's Birds and Business Alliance. They also provided the grand prize for last spring's Tucson Audubon Birdathon--two spaces on their Andes Introtour.

Having won that prize and now having made the trip--with birding companion Brian Nicholas--I can say that it was superb. We had more great experiences than I can recount here, but here are some tidbits.

We flew to Quito from Phoenix via Miami on November 17--a long travel day. We arrived three days before the Introtour was to begin to get in a little extra birding. We paid for a guide and driver for two of those days, and on our first full day there we set off at 5:30 a.m. for the high rolling "paramo" (high treeless plains) near the volcano Antisana, southeast of Quito. This is what it looked like.
High paramo near Antisana

We saw amazing high-elevation birds that day, including Andean Condor, lots of Carunculated Caracaras, Black-faced Ibis, Black-chested Buzzard Eagle, and many more.

On the second day, we set off again with our guide Gabriel Bucheli to another high-elevation area east of Quito, Papallacta Pass. We saw birds of a Quito suburb and the temperate forest on the way up to the pass, such as Southern Yellow Grosbeak and the stunning Golden-crowned Tanager. A highlight at the end of the day was a feeding flock that had us following one amazing species after another. However, we dipped on Rufous-bellied Seedsnipe on the top of the mountain--still, the scenery from up there was fabulous.

Gabriel and Brian on Papallacta

Our third day was a free day in Quito before the Introtour started. We visited the artisan market, saw some sights, had Vietnamese food (strangely enough) and also did a little birding in the Botanical Garden at Parque Carolina. That is where I got my best bird photo with my old point-and-shoot digital camera: the Great Thrush. It was a common bird almost where ever we went.
Great Thrush at the Jardin Botanico

The next morning the Introtour started with breakfast at 5 a.m. at the Hotel Sebastian--apparently the preferred hotel in Quito for starting and ending birding tours--and a 5:30 a.m. departure. The Introtour hits many spots northwest of Quito on the verdant west face of the Andes. We were whisked away by our guide Sam Woods and our driver Nico. Sam is a phenomenal guide, spending almost every second of the tour looking for birds like this...

Sam Woods

...or trying to draw birds out of the misty cloud by recording them and playing the song back, like this:

Sam Woods

We spent much of the first day at Yanacocha, in temperate forest, on a wide trail on the side of a mountain. We spent a lot of time like this, looking off into the forest below or above, occasionally through clouds.

Road at Yanacocha

I can't begin to list all the birds we saw along the road, with Andean Guans high in the trees, flocks of tanagers passing, and Glossy Flowerpiercers flitting by. At the end of the road we arrived at hummingbird feeders where at least five kinds of stunning hummingbirds gave us a great show.

From there we headed down the Old Nono-Mindo Road toward the Tandayapa Lodge, which would be our home base for the Introtour. We were carried by our small bus, very expertly and carefully driven by Nico.

The Bus

On the way down the road we stopped to look at a dizzying array of birds that constantly changed as we dropped from temperate forest to the beginnings of the subtropical forest. Among others we saw Turquiose Jay, Spectacled Whitestart and a couple familiar SE Arizona birds, Band-tailed Pigeon and Tropical Kingbird. At the location shown below we stopped to glass an Andean Cock-of-the-Rock lek across the valley, and before we could do so a Plate-billed Mountain Toucan landed right in front of us. It was a stunning "two-fer," as we finally turned to the stunning-red cock-of-the-rocks after the toucan gave us amazing views.

Watching Cocks-of-the-Rock (Cock-of-the-Rocks?)

The Tandayapa Bird Lodge was simple, clean and had a very welcoming atmosphere. The staff took care of us, fed us wonderful meals, and help us see birds.

Numerous trails from the lodge allow for good birding there--including night birding. With Sam's help the group saw Lyre-tailed Nightjar, Colombian Screech-Owl and Common Potoo. Sam writes about this and shows a photo of the screech-owl here on his blog.

The most impressive thing about the lodge is hummingbird feeders on the patio. Suffice it to say that in one hour at their feeders you can see as many species of hummingbirds as you can see in a lifetime in Arizona. My favorite was the Violet-tailed Sylph.

Everywhere we went the forest plants were spectacular. Towering trees, bromeliads, orchards, and other flowers adorned our routes. Here are two examples.


Orchid (?)

The second day of the Introtour was the only day we weren't far from the lodge birding or on the bus for 10-14 hours. After a morning in the upper Tandayapa Valley, we spent the afternoon at the lodge taking short hikes or resting in front of the hummingbird feeders. Still, we logged an impressive list of species that day.

The third day was a magical day at two preserves owned by the Mindo Cloudforest Foundation in the Milpe area: the Milpe Bird Sanctuary and the new Milpe Gardens. I can't begin to do it justice here, since we saw over 100 species--mostly lifers. But to be brief we had a fabulous morning seeing Club-winged Manakins, Blue-necked Tanager, and wintering Blackburnian Warbler. We spend much of the day looking like this, watching brilliant tanagers and any number of other tropical taxa flit through the trees.

Birding the trails at Milpe Bird Sanctuary

In the afternoon we went a bit down the road to Milpe Gardens and began a late afternoon that was the most spectacular birding I've ever done. My notes from this time read: "Rufous Motmot, Smooth-billed Ani, Choco Toucan, Hook-billed Kite, Striped Cuckoo, Chestnut-mandibled Toucan (wow!), Yellow-billed Siskin, Variable Seedeater, Masked Water-tyrant, Olive-crowned Yellowthroat, Yellow-bellied Seedeater, Lineated Woodpecker, Chestnut-collared Swift, Guayaquil woodpecker, Pacific Hornero...." How can you beat that?

The next day was at a relatively new birding site: a muddy mountain road referred to as Mashpi. My photos that day are memorable for grayness, as the cloud forest was in clouds all day. We were constantly misted, as was the thick forest which dripped with moisture. While the grayness didn't help us see birds, it was for me one of the essential experiences of the trip. Cloudforests are a key to watersheds in the tropics. Before our eyes the forest was harvesting the cloudy mist, storing it in foliage and dropping it to the ground, where it coalesced into streams that ran in beautiful cascades down the mountainside. Deforestation not only ruins habitat for much of the wildlife, but disrupts this critical watershed process.

In spite of the cloudy forest, it was a rewarding day of birding since species are found here that formerly were only found farther north near the Colombia border in the Esmeraldas region. Among others we saw Black Solitaire, Esmeraldas Antbird, Indigo Flowerpiercer and many others.

The next day was at Rio Silanche, another Mindo Cloudforest Foundation preserve. This was the lowest elevation we reached, about 500 meters. I was afraid this day could be uncomfortably humid, warm and buggy, but the cold snap Ecuador was experiencing was in our favor. High clouds damped down the heat in the morning and afternoon sun was warm but not uncomfortable. There were almost no bugs, and even the chiggers we were warmed about turned out not to be a problem for anyone.

Here I am at Rio Silanche

Rio Silanche was another magical day. The number of birds you can see here is stupendous (see the Rio Silanche bird list at the Mindo Cloudforest Foundation website). Suffice it to say we saw Scarlet-breasted Dacnis (Sam's photo) at close range, plus an amazing range of birds including Black-tipped Cotinga and White-necked Puffbird. We saw more species here than anywhere else on the trip.

We finished the tour with a day that included a morning at Paz de las Aves, a small-holding of orchards and grazing land with a patch of intact cloud forest. Several years ago Angel Paz realized that in his forest he had many of the birds birders were coming to the area to see, including an Andean Cock-of-the-Rock lek, Golden-headed Quetzals, and Giant Antbirds. He began to draw reclusive antbirds and Dark-backed Wood-Quail out of the dense forest with worms and now people flock there to see them.

We finished the morning with a great Paz de las Aves breakfast, including about the darkest, richest coffee I've ever had. Sam managed to find us a yet another tanager species while we breakfasted!

Giant Antpitta at Paz de las Aves

We finished the day heading back into Quito, with a stop in the dry western portion of the Interandean Valley. It reminded us of the desert to which we were soon to return. Sam managed to find us a couple new species, including the endangered White-tailed Shrike-Tyrant.
This put a smile on Brian's face since by now we were both well over 300 life birds.

Brian Nicholas