Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Colossal Cave Mountain Park 8-29-2010

On Sunday morning, 12 adventurous souls braved the unknown and joined me on a birding trip to a relatively underbirded Tucson birding destination. The park contains much more than just the cave, including a great stretch of riparian habitat complete with large cottonwoods and a pond.
Staking out the elusive Yellow Playground Horsey

Birding was quite fantastic this morning -- we racked up 53 species by the time things quieted down around 11am. We were greeted by a calling Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet right when we got out of the cars, and he serenaded us for the next half hour as we walked down the dry wash area downhill from the parking lot.

There are currently large numbers of buntings in the grassy areas along the wash, and we got good looks at a nice male Varied Bunting as well as passable looks at a good number of Lazuli. No Indigo Buntings, though I did have one the day before while scouting. There was an overnight push of birds into the area -- on Saturday I had one Bullock's Oriole and one Nashville Warbler, while today they were the stars of the show! We tallied 35 Bullock's Orioles (17 in one tree) -- plus two Hooded -- and over 30 Nashville's.

The scrubby areas of the wash/riparian area were where all of the action was. We spent 20 minutes in one spot and added almost 20 species to the list. Among them were Black-headed Grosbeak, Summer Tanager female, Western Tanager, Purple Martin, Ash-throated and Dusky-capped Flycatchers, Abert's and Canyon Towhees, etc.

Three very vocal Zone-tailed Hawks soared overhead for virtually the entire time -- they actually outnumbered the vultures this morning. We saw a quick flyby of an adult Gray Hawk early on, but were eventually rewarded with prolonged scope views of a winey juvenile.

A highlight for everyone were the Vermilion Flycatchers -- three different males gave great looks. Rufous-winged Sparrows and Blue Grosbeaks sang from various locations. A Warbling Vireo was our last score of the day.

For anyone who hasn't birded Colossal Cave park yet, I encourage you to do so. It's a location that's easily accessible and close to town, but is very underbirded. Increased birder presence here is bound to turn up something great. If you go, it's best to park at the cowboy statue (ask at the entrance) and bird down the wash (through the Arizona Trail gate), then come back up to the parking lot and go up along the road and the Equestrian Trail, which parallels the riparian zone above the small pond. The trail below the pond continues along good habitat, as well.

Thanks to all who participated in the walk this morning. What a great group!

-Matt! Brooks

*addendum -- One of the participants (Don Morgan) had this to add:
Hi matt, thought I would give you an update on Colossal Cave birding after you and the group left. Along with Nancy Rivera, I stayed til almost 5 PM, mostly retracing the trails you followed. Nothing spectacular, but we did get a few good looks. We went through the gate again, and down into the wash and surrounding areas. we saw lots of Rufous-winged Sparrows there, but no Buntings. The highlight, however, was the immature Gray Hawk, who suddenly appeared right over our heads. He was only 100 or so feet high, and circled over us for a minute or 2. Best look at 1 I've ever had. On the other side, past the pond we had good looks at alot of the birds we had seen earlier, including a Varied Bunting male and the Gray Hawk, sitting in his tree again. I had an Indigo bunting, which I had not seen earlier. Last bird of the day was gorgeous male Western Tanager, by the pond. We had to sit out a thunder storm, but it didn't amount to anything there. However back at the parking lot there was a roar, and on investigation, the dry wash was 6 feet deep! First time I have ever seen one come up like that.

I went back Tuesday AM, hoping for a shot at the tyrannulets, but not a sound or sight of 1. I had a great time though, watching 4 Zone-tailed Hawks trying to fly in formation. They kept me occupied for at least an hour, and I got enough good looks to have a better handle on ID ing them at a distance. I also saw a falcon, which I'm sure was a Perigrine, flying out beyond the ZT Hawks. Too far for field marks, but definitely a falcon, and based on the way it flew, I believe Peregrine, not Prairie. No sign of a Gray Hawk, and no buntings either. I only saw 2 Nashvilles, so I think you managed to pick a great migration day. I couldn't find the other trail you mentioned, and it got hot around noon, so I left.

Great spot, Matt, thanks for leading the walk. If I get back to the area, it will be on my visit list.



Wednesday, August 25, 2010

A Bad Day in the Chiricahuas is Better Than... Well, Just About Anything Else

Kendall Kroesen

Last Saturday and Sunday my friends David Rife and Brian Nicholas went with me to Willcox and the Chiricahua Mountains. It was a quick trip, leaving about 2 p.m. Saturday and returning about 5 p.m. on Sunday. The idea was to find some migrating birds and test our ability to detect birds in August. It was also a chance for David to see an area he hadn't visited before.

One thing we noticed right away was that it was hot! Arriving at Willcox Twin Lakes about 4 p.m. we walked around in a hot, humid haze. The sun managed to shine on us fairly consistently in spite of the clouds and rain showers that surrounded us.


We had to settle for some fairly common birds--none of the migrating rarities for which this site is known. A Sora called from the cattails in the pond nearest the golf course. The usual Western and Cassin's Kingbirds chattered on and near the golf course. A beautiful alternate plumage male Ruddy Duck swam in the algal waters. A tantalizing bunting of some sort passed by but got away. An ephemeral pond to the west of the lake--usually interesting when there's water in it--was so full there was no shoreline on which to find shorebirds. I'm sure there was a Green Heron lurking around somewhere but we didn't find it.

On the shore of the big lake we puzzled over some peeps, finding most of them to be Least Sandpipers. There were lots of Wilson's Phalaropes probing shallow water or spinning their demented twirls. The lake was not overly exciting, though it was nice to see quite a few American Avocets. Black-necked Stilts, Spotted Sandpipers and a single Long-billed Curlew rounded out the group. The water level here was surprisingly low given recent rains and the level of the ephemeral ponds. Other small sandpipers foraged on a distant sand spit but we didn't have the scope power to bring them into clear view.


We hopped on Highway 186 and headed toward the Chiricahuas... and finally drove into the shade of big clouds. This is a delightful drive, rising from Willcox Playa grasslands, through high desert and into higher oak-studded grasslands. And it's even better in a cooling afternoon in monsoon season. Near the town of Dos Cabezas, over a nearby peak, we noticed a Red-tailed Hawk mixed in with a large kettle of Turkey Vultures that were circling, soaring and darting around in the mounting winds.

Stopping a bit before the turn east toward Chiricahua National Monument, we birded in some grasslands along the highway. Brian recognized a Botteri's Sparrow song, and we heard it sing several more times. Then it showed itself by perching on a support wire for a telephone pole. Male Blue Grosbeaks also were perching and singing out in a seasonally late-ish expression of desire.

Heading up into the mountains past the turnoff to Chiricahua National Monument, the grasslands intergraded with oak forest and junipers. Then we began to see the large, ponderous pines without which Western forests would seem daintier, and not so "Western."

We could have stopped every quarter mile to look and listen, but it rained off and on and we wanted to set up camp at Pinery Canyon campground before it go dark and wet. Still, we stopped once and saw quite a few Violet-green Swallows, with a few Barn Swallows mixed in. Brian saw an American Kestrel from the car window.

At Pinery Canyon (remote, no facilities--just the way I like it!) we set up camp on a flat off the entry road, just above a splashing creek. The now dense, lighting-sprouting clouds dripped on us, as if trying some kind of water torture. But it held off for the most part until our sleeping arrangements were ready. Later as we went to sleep it rained for two or three hours, but never hard. Some water ran under the tent on the tarp and got David and I a bit wet, but nothing too upsetting. I have to say I was about as comfy as I've ever been, having parted with a significant amount of cash at REI for a 3.5-inch thick, self-inflating pad! No more aching hips after the first half-hour in bed!

Ironically, Brian stayed the driest under his jerry-rigged plastic tarp, which was stretched over his sleeping bag by an elaborate set of ropes that were tied to trees and rocks. And it took him less time to set up than my antiquated tent, with the 25 or so pole segments that all fit together in some dome-algorithm that I still have some trouble figuring out.

Before going to sleep we walked up the forest road away from the ever-more-enthusiastically flowing creek to see if we could hear owls or other night birds. Apparently wet owls don't sing. All we heard was thunder grumbling up and down the canyons, and wind in the pines. Not owls, but not a bad chorus of nature sounds.

In the morning we made coffee and packed up wet gear. We headed up the road to Barfoot Overlook. None of us had ever been there, and we wanted to see the view from there, and pick up any birds that might be along the trail. We also hoped to get a glimpse of one of the Short-tailed Hawks that's been seen from the outlook.

This was the best part of the trip. The cool part of the morning was particularly pleasant at over 8,000 feet elevation, on a well-wooded trail up the mountain. The only bird abundant on the way up were Yellow-eyed Juncos, including several immatures, and one very, very recently fledged. We also saw a large flock of Pygmy Nuthatches with loosely affiliated Hermit and Grace's warblers. A Zone-tailed Hawk passed as we climbed, but no Short-tailed Hawk was ever to be seen.

At the top the view was splended. This was the best part of the day. Yellow-eyed Juncos, House Wrens and Yellow-rumped Warblers cavorted at the top of the mountain. We heard a Northern Pygmy-Owl in the forest below to the west, but there people down there too. They could have been birders using owl calls.

By the time we got down to the Southwest Research Station, Cave Creek and Portal, it was hot and bird activity was pretty minimal. And it was time to head home. I felt like I should go back to the mountain tops soonn and spend a week or two!

Thursday, August 19, 2010

A Day at the Beach

Guest post by Rick Wright
From Aimophila Adventures

Tucson doesn’t really have a beach, but less than four hours’ easy drive south and west are the sands and rocky points of Puerto Peñasco, the nearest and easiest place for us desert rats to do a little seabirding. This past Wednesday I led a Tucson Audubon field trip down to the Sea of  Cortez in search of shorebirds. We wound up with only eighteen species of waders, a slightly disappointing tally for this time of year–but among them were some goodies, and there was plenty else to keep us busy during the nine hours we had on the beach before turning back to Tucson.

We left town that morning a little after 4:30, with a hint of dawn already visible behind the Rincons. By the time we entered caracara country, it was daylight, and we saw two Crested Caracaras checking out the night’s offerings on the highway east of Sells. A bit of a puzzlement was a medium-sized, relatively brown owl flying stiffly across the highway near the old Mesquital Migrant Trap: anywhere else, at any other time of year, I’d probably have ticked it off as a Long-eared Owl, but that’s just too weird for the desert in August.

Our border crossing at Lukeville was easy as pie–we didn’t even show our passports, much less have to stop for what is usually a desultory inspection. A few Black Vultures and Harris’s Hawks joined the abundant Turkey Vultures around the Sonoyta dump, and then, good conversation making the time and the miles slip away, we were in Puerto P.



We’d timed our tour so as to have a few hours before tide started coming in. We started in the inner harbor, which was lined with the usual Brown Pelicans and Heermann’s and Yellow-footed Gulls; our only Lesser Yellowlegs of the day flew past us here, and Willets hunted the rocks and the sandy edges, oblivious of fishermen and early swimmers. Off the seawall we saw our first terns of the day, mostly Common Terns but with the odd Black Tern or Royal Tern passing. Careful scoping produced small numbers of Brown and Blue-footed Boobies, and two distant Black Storm-Petrels. A couple of Black-vented Shearwaters flew in and landed on the water, but so far out that for most of us they were nothing more than occasional heads occasionally visible above the more than occasional waves.

With the tide good and low, we decided to run out to Rocky Beach (or whatever the beach at Sinaloa Ave. is called) and see if we could find any rockpipers. Wilson’s, Semipalmated, and Black-bellied Plovers were wandering the flats and pecking at the edges of the tide pools, accompanied by the omnipresent Willets. A couple of Black-vented Shearwaters were in attendance on the pelicans right in the surf, the splendid views more than making up for the frustration the earlier birds had caused. Royal Terns were almost constantly in sight here, and it wasn’t long before a fine Elegant Tern came in, passing close to us and to its thicker-billed cousins for an excellent comparison.

But this was a shorebird trip, and so we kept our eyes downcast, hoping for the movement that would betray the presence of waders on the rocks. Aha, there they are! Three Surfbirds, all adults, all still with a hint of golden spangling on their scapulars and hearts not on their sleeves but on their flanks, were feeding quiet and calm nearby.



For a long time, this was the only shorebird I’d seen in Sonora and not in the US (a fall trip to California finally took care of that for me)–and I still haven’t seen it in Vancouver, which may well have been an earlier port of call for these very individuals as they made their way south.

The day couldn’t get any better, I thought, but we trundled out to the rocks at Pelican Point, where the tide was so high that people were swimming merrily on the path I’d intended to use to get out to look for boobies. We did stand on the ever narrower strip of beach, the tide lapping at our tripod feet, long enough to see another Black and two Least Storm-Petrels, completing the list of tubenoses reasonably to be hoped for from shore.

The usual constellation of boulders had disappeared beneath the tide, so we looked for a spot to look down on the rocks. We’d been seeing both species of booby fly past all morning, but here was where we finally got good views of them perched, some of them at distances so close as to convince us that they deserved their disparaging English name. Most were Blue-footed Boobies, their eponymous webs glowing blue-violet against the white glare of the rocks.



But there were Brown Boobies among them, too, adults dapper in brown and white, juveniles elegantly somber in two-tone chocolate.



With the tide rapidly approaching its highest, we turned back to visit the head of Cholla Bay, where rising waters can concentrate shorebirds and terns in impressive numbers. I can’t say that we ran into masses of birds this time, but the quality was high if the numbers weren’t: we had up to eleven Snowy Plovers at once on the beach, and Least and Forster’s Terns joined the Commons, Blacks, and Royals loafing on the rapidly submerging sandbars. The commonest of the large sandpipers was Marbled Godwit, always a happy sight.



They shared the sand and salicornia flats with curlews, including plenty of Whimbrels



and gentle-faced Long-billed Curlews down from the prairies.



The really big show here at high tide is the abundance of Large-billed Sparrows, the large, blurry Passerculus endemic to the Sea of Cortez. When the water is low, they scamper through the saltwort, generally unseen this time of year; but when it rises, they emerge to feed on the roads and to fly flutteringly from emergent patch to emergent patch of taller vegetation. Our estimate this time: no fewer than 33 individuals, many of them giving great looks as they fed on the sandy road and sought shade under the rocks (all the time, no doubt, aware that my camera batteries had died).

I replaced my batteries, or at least my camera’s, and we struck off for terra incognita–the golf course ponds tantalizingly just visible across the head of the bay. We’d been watching birds drop in there, from terns to an adult Reddish Egret, and decided to spend the last of our day trying to figure out how to get in. Geographically, it turned out to be quite straightforward: the golf course is called Laguna del Mar, and it’s reached from Highway Eight north of town. Fortunately, it didn’t take much Spanish to let the guard at the gate know what we wanted, and even less to understand that he would give us 20 minutes, no more.

We zoomed. We zoomed past small ponds that must be some of Puerto Peñasco’s very best migrant traps, past lavishly irrigated lawns that must prove irresistible to stray grasspipers, past remnant patches of bleak saltbush that must hide Le Conte’s Thrashers. But we stopped, too. We stopped for a gang of some 45 Horned Larks, with streaky and spotty juveniles among them, and we stopped for an incongruous female-plumaged Red-breasted Merganser on one of the large ponds. And we stopped for a fine flock of shorebirds, including the day’s only dozen or so Ruddy Turnstones and a couple of American Oystercatchers.



We pushed it hard, but it was still half an hour before we turned in our permit and thanked the friendly guards for letting see their muchos pajaros; on the way out, we pondered whether it might not be worth it to buy a lot just for the birding privileges.

The drive home was as pleasant as the drive down that morning had been. Our border passage took no more than ten minutes, and Tucson was nearly in sight by the time the Lesser Nighthawks started swooping over the road. Home at 7:30 pm, and ready to dream of the next visit to our very own tropical beach.

The day’s list is on line here. If you see anything you like, join us next August for another shorebirding trip to the Sea of Cortez; it will be announced on the Tucson Audubon website as soon as we’ve settled on a date.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Sierra Vista: Cooler than you think.

Erin Olmstead and Lia Sansom

A sunshade adorned with this cheeky slogan winked at us from behind the windshield of the only other car in the parking lot when we arrived at San Pedro House for an early morning walk. Our plan was to check out the river for a bit before heading into town to help out at TAS' booth at the Southwest Wings festival. What a way to start the day! If the amount of caked-on mud accumulated on the soles of one's boots is any measure of the level of enjoyment derived from an hour's worth of mucking along the banks of a flowing desert river, then you'd have been able to tell we had a blast. They really ought to make a detergent commercial featuring a few intrepid birder-naturalists on the chase. We grown-ups can get just as dirty playing outside as little kids do!

Thanks to a healthy amount of rain over the last several weeks, our surroundings were a lush green and the river was really flowing. The weather was perfect and bird highlights were Gray Hawk, Yellow-billed Cuckoo, and Blue Grosbeak. Other exciting finds were snakeskin incorporated into a bird's nest, a beaver's gnaw marks, and a variety of fungus, feathers, and footprints. Here are a few shots from our refreshing ramble along the San Pedro. Enjoy!




Friday, August 13, 2010

Half past... what now?

Kendall Kroesen

At Tucson Audubon we've grown pretty accustomed to curiosity clocks with birds drawings and bird songs. There are several on the market, and we sell one model in our Audubon Nature Shops.

But when Tucson Audubon staff member Matt Griffiths passed this one in a local store, it reignited his curiosity.


If you look closely, none of the bird illustrations correspond to its label. For example, at 7 p.m. there is a dandy illustration of a black-throated blue warbler, but it is labeled "White-Breasted Nuthatch." [Update: Matt Brooks corrected me recently. This is not a black-throated blue warbler but a similar-looking Old World flycatcher.]

I don't recognize a lot of the other species but I think they are Old World species labeled with New World bird names. This is clearly a quick attempt at a knock-off by a disreputable manufacturer.

Here are some close-ups.













Some people turn off the songs on their clocks, getting annoyed at hearing them over and over. But we gladly leave them turned on. Many of the calls are unfamiliar to us, so we are not sure, but we are dubious whether any of them actually correspond to either the drawing or the label.

No manufacturer's name graces this clock, perhaps in recognition of a design effort that wasn't up to snuff. It only says "QUARTZ" and "Made in China."

We hang this clock in our office with pride, and wait to see if visitors take a closer look. Most do not, and have to be encouraged to admire our novelty.

A quick Web search did not turn up any other people lucky enough to have encountered this clock. But if you have seen it or know anything about its origins, please do comment on this post. (We're dying to know!)

Better yet, come by and visit us. It probably won't be good for our productivity but it'll be great for our morale!

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Tanque Verde Creek

Kendall Kroesen
Tanque Verde Creek has been in the news lately so Saturday morning I set out to have a look.

First I stopped at Tanque Verde Loop Road. The broad reach of the recent flooding was obvious, especially in the corrals to the southwest. I headed east and turned into the Forty-niners golf club community. I saw a lot of cleanup activities along the streets closest to the wash.

Then I stopped at Wentworth Road. The dirt road crossing the wash was closed since the county hasn't bladed it smooth yet, so I parked up the street and walked upstream.

At first the wash was fairly wide and had patches of cottonwoods, willows, elderberries and ashes. Between these patches I saw dense mesquite forest.

It wasn't particularly early in the morning but some birds caught my attention. Cardinals sang from unseen perches and several phainopeplas whistled as the moved from treetop to treetop.

As I got a bit farther along, I found the creek was running. The water wasn't running down all the way from the mountains, but instead was draining into lower areas of the creek bed out of saturated sand and silt. Two children and their mother were catching pollywogs with little nets. Four dogs, ranging from a large, cream-colored lab to an absurdly small chihuahua, emerged from a nearby house. It was a barking charge at first but by the time they got halfway too us they were silent and wagging tails.

The house they came from look fine even though it was immediately adjacent to the lowest part of the wash--I couldn't tell for sure whether floodwaters had entered under doors or around window, but nothing looked very amiss from the outside. A bullfrog bellowed from pond by the house, which appeared to have been muddied a bit by the flood.

A little farther up a red-tailed hawk cried from near the top of a cottonwood. Later from another angle I saw a nest up there. And a little farther up a Harris's hawk croaked from a tall mesquite.

At this point—maybe a half-mile up--the wash bed became wider, and there were fewer big trees. I suddenly felt alone in a very big place. There were few structures visible from the wash, and I seemed to have emerged into another era. A Cassin's kingbird swooped nearby. I was brought back to now when I found parts of what I took to be crayfish--a non-native interloper--that had not survived the flood.

There was little evidence of fast-moving floodwaters here. The big, wide floodplain had opened its arms and accommodated the water.

This is true of much of Tanque Verde Creek. If you are in the creek bed when the water comes, of course you are in grave danger. But other than that it is only where people have built structures on the broad floodplain does any damage occur. And relatively little is swept away or damaged here by the velocity of the water, since it is relatively wide and gentle in the upper part of the floodplain. The damage comes from muddy waters rising and entering homes.

Already there have been some renewed calls for dikes that would keep water away from homes, particularly in the Forty-niners area. But there have been at least equally strident calls from local residents to do nothing. Some residents know that the safety of dikes and soil cement comes with a big trade-off.

As soon as you constrain floods into narrower passages, the water runs deeper. As water runs deeper, it runs with more velocity and power. More velocity means it scours out the sand in the wash. You are left with a deep, sandy channel--something like the Rillito or Santa Cruz River. The latter are dead hulks of rivers. They hold floodwaters in a small area, but reduce the “sponge effect” of the big floodplain. The sponge soaks up broad, slow-moving floods, recharging the aquifer and keeping forests alive.

When streams are channelized the living, rural floodplain becomes the "historic floodplain." High, dry and dead.

I walked back downstream past a flock of lesser goldfinches drinking from the stream, and frightened up a blue grosbeak. Two tropical kingbirds flitted ahead of me. There are some problems with this wash that we can fix--like invasive plants. But once we take the floods off the floodplain, we will lose everything.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Mt Graham 7/30 to 8/1, 2010

By Matt! Brooks
I had a chance to escape the desert heat this past weekend and made my way up to Mt. Graham. It was my first time up there and I must say, it was quite a dramatic change from lowland Sonoran desert! I guess part of the reason it felt so dramatic is that there was a weather system sitting right on top of the sky island the whole weekend, so the weather varied between heavy fog with drizzle to heavy fog with torrential rain. The torrential rain seemed to coincide well with meal times, forcing me to get creative with my cooking habits. The campground host's rain gauge measured 2 inches of rain during the first night I was there!







The wet weather was exactly what I was looking for however, so it didn't dampen my enjoyment at all. I spent a good amount of time hiking and birding and enjoying the 50 degree weather. Birds were understandably scarce or quiet due to the weather, but House Wren families were out in force. I even had a young wren fly into the cab of my truck and explore under the seat! Another highlight was a family of Brown Creepers. Vocal, winy fledglings were following the adults around and being fed. Night birds were silent, with the exception of some contact calls of a female Mexican Spotted Owl and a single burst from a Mexican Whip-poor-will during a break in the rain.




I highly recommend checking out this hidden gem of a sky island if you get a chance. It's off the birding track and so open for many discoveries. Check it out!

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Ramsey Canyon Eye Candy

Erin Olmstead
My weekends so often get hijacked by unexpected projects or a week’s worth of postponed chores. Surely I'm not the only one? So my husband and I decided to take advantage of a light school workload last weekend, and get some relief from the heat and associated cabin-fever. To heck with the laundry! We headed down to the Huachucas for a relaxed birding daytrip.

We were greeted in Sierra Vista by a few fat raindrops, so the first order of business was to install the replacement wiper blade we picked up on the way. Presto change-o and we were ready to cruise for Scaled Quail under any conditions! We did end up getting a good afternoon thunderstorm complete with a double rainbow, but unfortunately, no quail! We pulled into Ramsey Canyon where the friendly preserve volunteers pointed us in the direction of some fun bird highlights near the visitors’ center:

A Violet-crowned Hummingbird was peering down at the trail from her nest;

while a pair of Painted Redstarts flitted around their nest nearby. What a treat!

We continued up the trail to the overlook, stopping along the way to check out the leopard frogs, and the many butterflies and dragonflies. It made me happy to see a scout troop and several families out exploring the preserve. It’s so important to make time to enjoy the outdoors [adults included!] and this daytrip was a great reminder for us to do so more often.

The next stop was Ash Canyon and Mary Jo’s impressive feeder setup, where we spent some time enjoying and studying the hummingbirds. Repeat, up close looks of a handful of species was like a pop quiz that helped me brush up on ID for hummingbird season! Before long, it was time to head back home. I can't wait to get back down to Sierra Vista this coming weekend for the Southwest Wings Birding & Nature Festival, where I'll be helping to man the TAS booth in the exhibit hall. Hope to see you there!

Holy Unexpectedly Flooded Field Sites!



Yesterday morning started off as a typical Monday; heading out early to the field. Matt Griffiths and I discussed whether we should water and what to weed, our appreciation for a high in the mid-90s rather than low-100s, and our weekend adventures as we shot up I-10 to our North Simpson Farm habitat restoration field site northwest of Marana. As we approached the site, I watched the roadsides for signs of a good rainfall from the weekend, as most of Tucson experienced. I saw some water pooled in ditches and let my hopes climb that we would not have to water our plants for another week, at least.

We arrived at our storage area, loaded the truck with tools, turned down the road to the site and...the road was closed! The only reason they close this road is for flooding at the bridge that crosses the Santa Cruz River (SCR). Twice in my 5+ year tenure with Tucson Audubon this site has flooded; the summers of 2005 and 2006. After 4 years of poor flooding, the "Road Closed" sign was an extraordinarily welcome sight.

Our efforts at habitat restoration take place on part of this old abandoned farmland along the SCR. Historically, the entire 1700 acre farm was part of the floodplain and would regularly flood during the monsoon. However, since the major floods of 1983 and 1993, large sand berms were built on either side of the river to prevent over-land flow that would impact active farmlands downstream. This effectively shrinks the riparian area because many native riparian plant species rely on flood waters for propagation and survival. So our work in attempting to create some kind of native, bird-loving riparian habitat here is challenging, at best. Most people in the field of restoration agree that restoring natural processes, like hydrology, is key to restoring habitat. However, the Simpson Farm has so many inhibitory factors, like these berms, that contribute to the impossibility of the site returning itself to a natural state that our role as habitat restorationists becomes one of large-scale gardeners, where the goal is to create a garden that requires minimal taxing on resources like groundwater and labor for maximal native vegetation denisty and diversity that may ONE DAY be able to take off on its own in spite of human-constructed blockades and climate change.

I admit, I often hold a lot of doubt in my heart that we will succeed in this goal at the Simpson Farm. We have been through many rainless summers there of late and end up relying on irrigation, even though we know nothing fully supplants rain and river water. Then, all of a sudden, I show up to work one day and hope is restored! The site is soaked from Santa Cruz River water that gathered from high-flows from an Eastside Tucson downpour, was shunted through the channelized washes and river of Tucson, hits the under-sized bridge on the upstream side of our site, jumps the riverbanks, travels down the road past the sandberms and WHOOSH! across our site. This kind of soaking, which was not strong enough to damage irrigation or scour out plants, will soak in the ground and probably keep soil moisture levels high for most of the remaining hot season. Our plants will be able to expand their root sytems for stronger establishment and better weathering of future dry times, without our supplemental efforts.

In conclusion, yesterday was a great day. I have the mud on my boots to prove it. The site flooding was a surprise because I was unaware of the extreme weather events that took place higher up in the watershed, but that made the day all the more enjoyable. And the best part? The boat we discovered at the Martin Farm, which is one mile upstream from the Simpson Farm, rode the river to Simpson! It appears the SCR is navigable!