Friday, December 30, 2011
Thursday, December 22, 2011
On the cold morning of December 9th, 2011, two members of the AZ IBA team headed out to search for Grey Vireos. This endeavor was part of a larger effort organized by Arizona Field Ornithologists to determine where this species winters in Arizona. It has been documented that the winter range of this species is closely tied to the occurrence of Elephant Trees (Bursera microphylla) which produce a red fruit on which the vireos feed. This means that the species switches from its diet of insects in the breeding season to fruit in the winter, a rather unusual strategy in the avian world.
This coordinated effort had teams searching for the Grey Vireos in locations where Elephant Trees are documented, but not Grey Vireos. Tim Helntjaris and I headed out to our assigned area of the Waterman Mountains in Ironwood National Monument. I had never been out here and was astonished by the beautiful views and the remote feeling of the area. This area seems like true wilderness with few roads and limited access. There are however, abandoned mining sites that are a harsh reminder of this areas exploitative past.
The most difficult part of this adventure was getting to our survey location which required a rather long walk through difficult terrain covered in pokey plants. The maps showed an old road, suitable for walking but not driving, that ran rather near our survey points, but we could not find it. As we bushwhacked through the desert and towards our points, we did observe some birds. There were Verdins everywhere and Phainopeplas gave their whoop call from several directions. One of the best sightings was a small group of Western Bluebirds foraging in the desert and an energetic Ruby-crowned Kinglet. Once we finally did reach our points, it was very easy to see the road we had been looking for. At least we could use it to get down when we were done.
Now it was time to conduct our surveys. There were indeed many Elephant Trees present in the area, but they all appeared to have died back, most likely due to the hard frost of last winter. At first, Tim and I despaired that they were dead. Then we noticed that almost all of them did have shoots growing from the base covered in leaves! While none of the trees had any fruits and we did not find any Grey Vireos on our surveys, perhaps the Elephant Trees will have recovered enough by next winter to produce fruits. Then maybe there will be Grey Vireos there to feast upon them!
Tuesday, November 15, 2011
For the month of October—leading up to Halloween—the current work area at the North Simpson Farm habitat restoration site has been a ghoulish place!
There has been an impressive infestation by salt marsh caterpillars. In some areas, particularly among the weeds they were eating, there were an estimated 5 caterpillars per square foot. There must have been tens of thousands of them or more across the site.
These insects come in a variety of colors—most notably black and bright orange! They are fuzzy and actually pretty cute for a caterpillar.
As the temperature went up in the morning they would seek shade and sometimes become quite concentrated under our vehicles.
They would also fall into the planting holes we dug. So many were ambling across the ground and falling into the holes that at one point I scooped them up and Rodd Lancaster took this photo.
Salt marsh caterpillars are crop pests, so perhaps it’s not surprising that we have seen this in the Avra Valley in an agricultural area.
As November started the number of caterpillars is way down and we imagine they are pupating. One of these days we’re expecting to see a lot of white moths—the adult form of the salt marsh caterpillar.
More about salt marsh caterpillars can be found at http://entnemdept.ufl.edu/creatures/veg/leaf/saltmarsh_caterpillar.htm.
Thursday, November 10, 2011
by Matt Griffiths
A very birdy morning in the Rincon Valley greeted my BioBlitz team (Aleck and Vivian MacKinnon) on October 22. With some last minute manuevering we crafted for ourselves probably one of the best birding routes in either the west or east districts in Saguaro National Park. Our described path was to follow the Manning Camp trail up onto the saguaro-filled ridge, surely a great hike in this "off limits" area of the park guarded by the exclusive X-9 ranch. Once we arrived at Madrona Ranger Station though, a quick look at the map and a real look at the wonderfully lush Chiminea Canyon changed our minds without a second thought. We decided to explore the creekside habitat of towering sycamore, oak and feather tree, which is only found north of the border in these south-facing drainages of the Rincon mountains.
The hard work of scrambling over boulders all morning, some the size of a large SUV, paid off! Rock Wren was definitely the bird of the day, but sparrow diversity really surprised us. Right off the bat, while our eyes were still waking up, an unfamiliar sparrow song challenged us and turned out to be a Rufous-winged without the bouncing ball. The day produced Green-tailed Towhees, Lincoln, Black-chinned, Brewer's, Chipping, Lark, Song, Black-throated, and numerous White-crowned Sparrows.
The presence of water and large trees was certainly the reason for finding 40 species and a great cross section of birds from Black and Say's Phoebe, Northern and Gilded Flicker, Blue-gray and Black-tailed Gnatcatcher, White-breasted Nuthatch, Solitary Vireo, as well as Verdin to Western Flycatcher. Most surprising were a Painted Redstart flying in and perching above our heads and a single female Indigo Bunting we were able to pick out among the various sparrows.
Tuesday, November 1, 2011
On October 29th, 2011 Arizona IBA staff and volunteers gathered on Mount Lemmon to party! The Arizona Important Bird Area Program simply could not operate without its dedicated and talented volunteers! Our volunteers help with surveys, data entry and at special events such as the recent BioBlitz! Very recently, Arizona added two new IBAs (San Rafael Grasslands for wintering sparrows and Aubrey Valley for migrating raptors) and expanded the Sabino Canyon IBA to include Tanque Verde Wash. This program simply would not have the 42 identified IBAs (5 of which have Global status!) without the data collected by our wonderful volunteer surveyors!
To celebrate our awesome volunteers, the Arizona IBA program held a barbeque at the Rose Canyon picnic area on Mount Lemmon! All enjoyed grilled hotdogs/turkey dogs, grilled corn and many delicious goodies brought by attendees! Everyone enjoyed good company and conversation while dining on a great lunch! Later everyone participated in a bird trivia contest with the top prize being a $25 gift certificate to the Tucson Audubon Society Nature Shop and a copy of the newest edition of Finding Birds in SE Arizona (just released!) and second place also received a copy of the book. When all of the excitement settled down, all volunteers present received a special custom hat so they can proudly display their participation in the IBA program! To all of our Arizona IBA volunteers, past and present, one-timers to those who have helped for years on end: THANK YOU! We couldn’t do it without you!
On October 21-22, 2011 the much publicized BioBlitz was held at Saguaro National Park. This was the 5th annual BioBlitz in a series of 10, each held at a different National Park, leading up to the centennial celebration of the Park Service. This 24 hour species inventory of the Park was both a scientific endeavor and an outreach opportunity.
On the 21st thousands of children from all over Tucson were brought to the park to learn about why biodiversity is important and how Saguaro National Park is a preserve of nature right in their own backyard. Tucson Audubon was heavily involved in the bird portion of their natural discovery. Our base camp was the Valley View Picnic Area where we helped the groups of children survey mini transects and look for birds. It was delightful to see how excited the children were to see a common bird such as a Phainopepla or Cactus Wren, birds that are old hat to the likes of us. The children were interested in everything and we did our best to keep up with the steady stream of questions. There were a few logistics bumps in the road, but overall it was a gratifying morning. Hopefully many Tucson children now have a firmer understanding of the natural world and how awesome it can be!
Now it was time for the science part to begin! I led a nocturnal bird survey of Saguaro National Park West while TAS volunteer-extraordinaire Tim Helentjaris led one in Saguaro East. The public was invited to sign up for many of the inventories during the BioBlitz so many people were able to experience what a biological survey is like. My team managed to hear several Great-horned Owls, one loud enough for the entire team of about 12 adults and 2 children to hear, several Western Screech-Owls and three Elf Owls. A tarantula stole the show for a few minutes when it was spotted crossing the road and everyone was excited to spot several scorpions glowing under a black light. The team seemed delighted at all the wonderful critters we uncovered together.
Bright and early the next morning it was time for my daytime bird inventory. Many TAS volunteers led bird inventory routes and the public was again invited to sign up to join a team. As a result many people who were new to birding or had never ever birded before signed up for these teams and could see for themselves just how much fun we have all the time. My route was the Douglas Springs Trail to Bridal Wreath Falls in Saguaro East and it was beautiful! As we walked the route we turned up many expected species such as Black-throated Sparrows, Rock Wrens (both in high numbers!), Curve-billed Thrashers and Phainopeplas. The team was very excited to get good looks at these common species which was heartening to me. I guess they only seem common if you see them all the time. We also managed to spot some less usual birds during our survey. Everyone had excellent views of a Loggerhead Shrike which gave me the opportunity to tell them about the fascinating and “dark” side of these “butcher birds” which they loved! We also saw White-throated Swift, Broad-billed Hummingbird, Sharp-shinned Hawk and my favorite bird of the day, a Dicksissel! It was a fun morning where we found lots of birds and several people walked away with a new appreciation of birding and how fun it can be! The BioBlitz was a good time and I would like to send out a big THANK YOU to all the TAS volunteers and staff that helped Tucson Audubon’s involvement go smoothly! I hope you all had a good time!!
Thursday, October 27, 2011
New hummingbird feeders on the front of the house at the Mason Center make the porch a delightful place to sit and enjoy their current visitations. A male Costa’s often perches and sings from the adjacent mesquite tree or from a plant trellis at the north end of the porch.
So come visit the Mason Center. Friday morning bird walks are at 8 a.m. If you can’t make it on Friday, there are staff members at the Mason Center on most other weekdays and as long as the chain across the driveway is down you are welcome to park and walk in. Give a knock and let us know you are there (we like visitors)!
The Mason Center is at 3835 West Hardy Road, on the southwest corner of Thornydale and Hardy (entrance on the south side of Hardy just west of Thornydale).
Thursday, August 25, 2011
Promotional materials for the Sky Islands Birding Cup state that “The challenges involved in this particular competition are intriguing.”
My team members and I discovered just how “intriguing” the challenges could be as we participated in the first of this annual bird watching competition on August 17, 2011.
The Cup is a “big day” competition, meaning that the objective is to see as many bird species as possible in a 24-hour period, starting at midnight and ending the following midnight.
August is a great time to do this in southeast Arizona because it’s the period of highest bird diversity. Nesting species are still here, migrating species are starting to come through from the north, and others show up as part of their pre-migration post-breeding dispersal. It’s also a time when it doesn’t conflict with other birding competitions like the World Series of Birding in New Jersey and the Texas Birding Classic.
The first challenge was coming up with a team name. I left much of the planning to others while I was on vacation and when I got back our team was named Can’t Stop the Rock Wrens. This was apparently in honor of a rock anthem that 50+-year-olds have never heard of.
Jennie and Vern at the Patons' place, note their Tucson Bird and Wildlife Festival shirts
But the important part is the birding and my team members had also decided on a great route—a slight variation on of one of the standard southeast Arizona big day routes. It looked good to me! I was excited about the challenge of finding as many bird species as possible.
The key challenge to big days is getting to as many different environments—containing habitat for distinct assemblages of birds—as possible in the time allowed. Accordingly, the first part of our trip would take us up the Santa Catalina Mountains for high-elevation species, before hitting other desert, wetland and grassland locations.
There are only so many species you can find at night so we eschewed starting at midnight. Instead we met for a 2 a.m. start. I was grateful for the extra two hours of sleep.
After loading the car and making sure we had enough coffee, it was more like 2:15 as we started driving five miles through the high desert toward the base of the mountains.
Stopping in the desert we found western screech-owl. At the base of the mountains we heard both elf owl and great horned owl. Further up the mountain we heard whiskered screech-owl and common poorwill. But the rest of the morning before light we drew a blank, missing other owls and never finding a Mexican whip-poor-will.
There were three unexpected discoveries in the mountains in the early morning hours. First was the number of animals we saw besides birds. Snakes were crossing the road as we drove up, and several skunks were seen along the road. After first light we saw several white-tailed deer.
Second was the temperature. The desert in August at 2:15 in the morning is very comfortable, but as we went up the mountain, reaching nearly 8,000 feet, it got cold. I thought that a T-shirt, a long-sleeved shirt and a warm vest would be enough but I still was a bit chilled.
At first light we started hearing daytime birds, with Stellar’s jay being the earliest and most vociferous. The third surprise was the best bird—at least most unusual bird—of the trip. Perched in a dead pine on the slopes above Summerhaven was a short-tailed hawk! Formerly found only south of the border and in Florida, in the last decade small numbers of this species have shown up in southeast Arizona, mostly in the Chiricahua, Huachuca and Santa Catalina Mountains.
As the sun came up we heard more and more squawks and chips and we kept stopping along the road to try to identify them. This presented one of the “intriguing challenges” of the competition: when to give up on a location and move on. It’s tempting to stick around and try to squeeze the least few species out of a location like Mt. Lemmon, especially beauties like red-faced and olive warbler, western bluebird and hairy woodpecker. But that might mean that you don’t make it to one of the other habitats where more species await. Eventually we hurried on.
All in all we stayed in the mountains too long. By the time we got to our next stop—Sweetwater Wetlands near downtown Tucson—it was mid-morning and it was hot! It would have been nice to have gotten there a little earlier when bird activity was higher and before the mid-morning heat. I had not brought anything in which to carry my water bottle, thinking we would always be close to the vehicle. So I was flagging a bit as we circled the wetlands.
Still, Sweetwater Wetlands has a huge number of birds, from tropical kingbirds to common gallinules. Even though they were growing less active with the heat, we still racked up an impressive list there.
Moving on, we headed to Madera Canyon. We added some additional species including grassland sparrows and Say’s phoebe in the lower end of the canyon. At the Madera Kubo feeders we saw some new hummingbird species—including the brilliant violet-crowned hummingbird.
Brian Nicholas finds a Botteri's sparrow below Madera Canyon
Richard tracking down a Hutton's Vireo at Madera Canyon
As we watched hummingbirds the weather reversed again and heavy, cold rain drops began to fall. An easy decision was made to move on to our next stop. In this case it was a gas station and mini-mart in Green Valley, to buy fuel and drinks! I loaded up on Gatorade and iced frappuccino, since I needed both to rehydrate and to stay awake. This was a combination that would come back to haunt me later during the long, restroom-less drive to Willcox.
At the Amado sewage ponds there were several swallows we hadn’t seen as well as black-bellied whistling duck and a few other species. In the flooded fields and ephemeral ponds off of Rio Rico Drive we picked up great egret and green heron.
The trick now was to make a couple stops in the Patagonia area and still have time to get to the Willcox ponds before dark. The ponds are a magnet for migrating waterfowl and shorebirds in the middle of dry, high-desert grasslands. But it is a long drive—nearly two hours—from Patagonia.
At the Patagonia Roadside Rest there were thick-billed kingbirds squawking as soon as we exited the car. At the Patons’ place we added an Anna’s hummingbird and a few other species.
By mid-afternoon the high desert heat had given way to stormy, overcast skies not uncommon to August afternoons. We had to make a decision about our final chess move of the day. We had time to get to Willcox before sunset, but with the skies full of clouds it would be darker than usual. We decided to go for it, since it still represented our best chance for a whole new set of species.
On the road north from Sonoita to I-10 we had a huge delay of over 15 minutes while we waited for a flagman to wave us through a construction area with only one lane of traffic. We were afraid this would derail our effort to get to Willcox with some light remaining. The only good thing that happened while we waited was that a peregrine falcon flew buy.
Jennie as we streaked toward Willcox
As it turned out we were able to get on our way and rushed down I-10 toward Willcox. We picked up a Swainson’s hawk along the highway and then arrived with enough time to see quite a few species around the ponds. Lots of sandpipers were still visible in the waning light. In the final moments of light quite a few black-crowned night-herons emerged from the trees around the golf course and gave us our final species of the day as the circled the ponds.
Dusk over Willcox Ponds
We finished with 137 species. This was no where near the record (199) and not enough to win the competition, but it was a great day for us. We have great memories and any number of reasons to do it again next year. Having experienced the challenges—and also the payoffs—of birding southeast Arizona in August, I’m sure we’ll want to do it again.
Among the reasons to enter this competition is that earnings from the Sky Island Birding Cup are used to protect areas where birds live and where birders go to see them. This is important for the health of our environment, the enjoyment of birders, and to safeguard and build the large economic impact of ecotourism in our region. Wildlife watching in Arizona—much of which is bird watching—has a “total economic impact” of around $1.5 billion annually. That’s more than the impact of golf.
The Sky Islands Birding Cup will become an institution that adds to that economic impact and that brings a lot of enjoyment to that portion of birders who feel like a little good-humored competition once in a while!
Monday, June 20, 2011
Tucson Audubon had the chance to interview Liscum when we discovered that he had led a very interesting life. He was one of the founders of Maricopa Audubon and had seen over 5,000 bird species.
Unfortunately, Liscum died May 17, 2011, shortly after this conversation.
Thanks to Mich Coker for the questions and Linda Pizzuto for conducting the interview.
When did you first get interested in birding?
When I was five years old I liked to visit all the subways in New York City. My mom thought that was unhealthy and wanted to get me interested in other things so she bought my first book about birds. It was just a standard bird book. I was fascinated and thus began my lifetime interest in birding.
How did that interest grow into a lifetime journey into some of the farthest corners of the Earth?
I started buying books about birds in remote places in the world never thinking I’d actually visit these places. After WWII I started thinking about traveling. There was an explosion in travel after the war. Some of the first trips (maybe one out of ten) I took were divided tours where the men would go birding and someone else would take the women on other excursions. When I was a child I’d go to museums and zoos to see the birds and was quite intrigued. Many of the birds were from different parts of the world and I thought “Gee, I’d like to go there.”
Where was the most remote location you visited in search of birds?
The most remote location was in the Himalayan Mountains. As a side note I also visited ham radio operators in a lot of these countries. We had to get a permit to go into certain areas. We started walking and before long we were being shot at because of the revolution going on at the time. Fortunately no one was injured. There have been cases where birders have been shot. On the Tibetan border we could see Mt. Everest. We slept three to a room and fully clothed because it was so cold. The nearest bathroom was outdoors and down a hill do you avoided going as much as possible. Many explorers used this place as a base camp. In India there was a train that was so small they called it the “Toy Train.” We didn’t take it up because it was so slow but took it partially on the way down just to say we’d taken it. The tour leader would take us right through the bush even when trails were just a few yards away. He was quite controlling. He and I got into many battles so he wrote me a note telling me not to join anymore of his trips. I wrote back and never heard back from him. Our driver liked to show off and he drove like crazy.
What were you looking for specifically?
Did you see it/them?
Appears that you've visited several far-flung areas not know for their
safety or political stability. What was the most challenging trip you took in search of birds?
Refer to the story in the Himalayans and the one in Africa.
What species or species group has held the greatest appeal to you as a
Pheasants were of great interest to me. When I was a little boy I dreamt of a silver one not knowing there actually were any. I saw them in India.
Is there a particular bird, or birding experience, that you remember even more fondly than all others? If so, what?
My trip to Australia was quite interesting. I saw over 500 species. We were with a famous tour leader named Orville Crowder who was a pioneer in birding trips. He and I had a game to see who could stay ahead in counting birds and I did. He didn’t like that. He was a real character. He never dressed well and was quite full of himself. He was recently written up in one of the birding magazines. He died of a heart attack just before one of our tours. There’s a place in Southern Australia that many people come to to watch several hundred penguins arrive to spend the night.
We saw in one book that you had managed to collect a feather from a
Ruwenzori Turaco. Do you remember that? Did you see that bird?
Yes. We had to walk in a stream two or three hours to get to it.
I think it was in Oct/Nov of 1976.
What was your trip through Central Africa like in that year?
One day we had to walk in a stream for quite a long distance to get to the place we wanted to be. We had to wear boots and carry our shoes over our shoulders. One particular place had a rare bird that nested practically in the stream. We had to sit there two to three hours before the bird would stick its head out. One of the guys on the tour fell asleep and missed it. The bird was a yellow-headed rock fowl. I was in Africa several times. On some of my trips to Africa we would use elephants to get to our destinations. In 1977 I was there when Idi Amin captured an airplane of American (a side note: Linda’s mother and stepdad were among the Americans captured). Our tour leader came in and told us what was going on. One of my trips to Africa was six weeks and one was a month. While in South Africa a revolution was imminent and my wife had seen enough and wanted to go home. She got a ride to the nearest big city and went home but I stayed because I wanted to see more birds. A huge group of Americans went home. The place we stayed was surrounded by armed guards because the crime rate was so high. On one of our trip to Africa we went to Victoria Falls birding.
Do you have a favorite birding destination that you visited again and again?
We went to Carmel several years in a row. I like it because of the birds (over 100 identified) and because of the great food. We also went to London several times. Frequently it was a starting point for a birding trip elsewhere but we combined vacation and birding while in London. I really don’t have a favorite because I enjoyed most of my trips; however, Colombia was not one of them because of the tour guide. He would take us out and keep us out for more hours than the group wanted and take us through difficult to reach places through the bush. He lost his luggage and we all had to go shopping. Most of us cut the tour short but a few stayed on and they told me that there luggage was lost as well. Too many things went wrong while we were there. It was physically rough and the tour leader didn’t care at all about the comfort of the group.
Do you have a "nemesis bird" (a species you have sought many times but not yet seen)?
In South America there was a night parrot I never saw. It may be extinct now.
It appears you may have crossed paths with some of the world's premier birders and/or ornithologists. Whom have you encountered during your travels? Any memorable experiences with those individuals?
Orville Crowder and Don Turner. In Australia four of the best birders in the world but unfortunately can’t remember their names. I’ve met lots of famous birder and ornithologists. Look through the blue books that I gave you.
Describe a humorous, ironic, or bizarre experience you had while birding the world.
Again, while in Australia, I was asked to write an article about a famous ham radio operator whose nickname was Tubby. He was also a birder. I wrote the article for the Adelaide newspaper and while in the airport getting ready to go on a day trip to an island for birding ran into Tubby. He asked if my name was Liscum. Also, someone wrote an article about me because Australians at that time couldn’t believe that an American would come all the way to Australia just to look at birds. By writing this article they wanted to bring light to conservation in Australia. Our tour leader would sometimes take us out at 5 am and not bring us back until 9 pm.
Any idea how many species you have seen?
A bit over 5,000.
Do you have an opinion about local Audubon societies and the role they play in birding/conservation? Any good experiences with an Audubon society that you'd like to share?
Yes, I think they do a good job helping others get interested in birds. The more birders, the more money. They are a powerful lobby for conservation and have more political power.
Why is birding an important part of your life?
It was a hobby. It took me away from the humdrum of daily life and transported me into another world and I got to meet some very interesting people and many interesting parts of the world. A lot of men met their wives on birding tours. Not me however.
How has your relationship with birds and the natural world enriched your life?
It’s given me endless hours of pleasure as well as giving me purpose in life to do good. (Liscum had has given considerable donations to Nature Conservancy)
Liscum's considerable book collection enhanced Tucson Audubon's member libary with hundreds of out-of-print and hard to find titles, all about birds and birding with subject matter spanning the entire globe. We are always looking for book donations to add to our growing library, so if you have books you'd like to donate, please do! As always, most of the books in the library are available for check-out by TAS members.
Thursday, May 19, 2011
We observed the first lizards to emerge—including whiptails, zebra-tailed and spiny lizards. And now we’re seeing plants blossom and birds nest! A beautiful male Costa’s Hummingbird is coming to our feeders and doing its whirring territorial song and dizzying display flight.
Curve-billed thrashers are nesting in a big cholla cactus. Baby birds can be heard in a Lesser Goldfinch nest high in a palo verde. And a House Finch pair has a nest with three eggs in it, all hidden deftly in another cholla.
More information about the Mason Center is here: www.tucsonaudubon.org/masoncenter