Thursday, January 27, 2011

Pulling Together

Kendall Kroesen

In honor of Martin Luther King Day nearly 50 volunteers gathered at Billy Lane Lauffer Middle School on January 17th. The goal was to remove invasive buffelgrass from Julian Wash, near the school.

Volunteers had some breakfast and heard a great presentation by the Sunnyside-Audubon Student Urban Naturalists, a group that Tucson Audubon is working with through an Arizo
na Department of Education Learn and Serve Grant. These excellent middle school students explained why buffelgrass is bad for the ecosystem and how to remove it.

Volunteers then went out to the wash and, after a moment of silen
ce in memory of the Tucson shooting victims, got final instructions and then dispersed around the wash. Some picked up trash and others dug and pulled buffelgrass out of the ground. While herbicide treatments can be effective on thick infestations at some times of year, the surest way is to dig it out by the roots.

Beautiful sunny winter weather and great camaraderie assured that this was an enjoyable and satisfying event for all. The following week Pima County Flood Control employees hauled off many, many bags of buffelgrass and trash.

Partners in this effort included Sunnyside School District, Tucson Clean and Beautiful, and Pima County Regional Flood Control District. Funding for this event came from the Department of Education grant and from TogetherGreen, a program of National Audubon funded by Toyota.

Please join us February 5th at Robb Wash (on Tucson's east side) for another buffelgrass removal. Saturday, February 5th is the annual Beat Back Buffelgrass Day, on which a large number of volunteer groups and many county and municipal agencies join in many locations in the greater Tucson area to remove buffelgrass. Tucson Audubon will be coordinating with Friends of Robb Wash, Tucson Clean and Beautiful, and Tucson Parks and Rec in this effort.

To join Tucson Audubon for Beat Back Buffelgrass Day, contact Kendall Kroesen at (520) 971-2385 (cell) or

Directions: We will meet on the 1600 block of North Sarnoff Drive, just south of Pima Street. Park on the west side of Sarnoff along the school bus bay for Bloom Elementary School. From central Tucson, go east on Speedway to Pantano. Turn left (north) on Pantano one-half mile to Pima Street. Turn right (east) on Pima Street. Go about one-quarter mile and then just past Bloom Elementary School, turn right on Sarnoff. Park along the right side of the road.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Sonora, Mexico Christmas Bird Counts

I just returned to Tucson after a great few days in Alamos, Sonora, where I participated in a couple Christmas Bird Counts. I'm not the official compiler for these count circles, so for complete details or numbers and species you'll have to wait for the CBC publication. Anyway, here's a little taste of the events from my perspective:

Alamos's count was on January 2nd, so Jay Taylor, John Yerger, and I took the overnight bus down the night before and arrived just in time for the count. John and Jay headed off to the upper Mentidero Wash area, where they had a good day with some good birds, including several Buff-breasted Flycatchers and the count's only Grasshopper Sparrow. Mingo (a locally trained bird guide) and I took a group of birders up to upper Aduana Wash (above the village). We ended up having a great day in there. Highlights included 12 White-eared Hummingbirds, a surprise Broad-tailed Hummingbird, two Russet-crowned Motmots, and an amazing mixed flock with almost 30 species in it, including Tufted Flycatcher, several Slate-throated Redstarts, several Elegant Trogons, and ten species of warblers (including several Rufous-capped Warblers). Rufous-backed Robins were thick in the fruiting figs -- we had upwards of 55 by my count. Mixed in were a few White-throated Robins.

The Alamos count had an astounding 40 participants this year, more than doubling the previous high number of 19. Not surprisingly, we broke the count's species high count with 172 species seen/heard on count day (the previous high count was 169). I suspect that the count week total will probably be ten or so species higher than that. Seven Mexicans participated, which is a great turnout of local talent.

The second count we participated in was a brand new one up in the mountains to the east of Alamos. The count circle is officially called the REMM (or Rancho Ecologico Monte Mojino) count, but everyone referred to it as the Santa Barbara count for the small village up in the mountains within the count circle. This count was a huge logistical challenge, so kudos to Suzanne Winckler, David MacKay, Stephanie Meyer, and others for setting it all up. The circle was set-up to encompass a lot of varied habitat on the edge of the Sierra Madre, and included stretches of pine and oak habitats. Several of us had sections high up in the mountains, which we accessed by driving up to Santa Barbara the day before via a very rough 32-mile road that took 5 hours to drive. It was an adventure all in itself. On the way up we had amazing looks at Colima Pygmy-owl and Masked Tityra.

A few people stayed the night up at Santa Barbara to be in the oak habitat there during the count, and scored great birds such as Black-headed Siskin, Gray-crowned Woodpecker, and Spotted Wren. My group, which included Jay, John, David MacKay, and three locals from Alamos -- Alejandro, Mario, and Mingo -- hiked down into an amazing barranca (steep sided canyon) to spend the night. Our first birds for the count day were calling Mottled Owl and Colima Pygmy-owl. David, Jay, and Mario headed back up-canyon for their section, while Alejandro, Mingo, John, and I went into Arroyo Verde, an unbelievable side canyon off of the main barranca. Arroyo Verde is only 600 meters long or so, but has some of the most amazing habitat I've seen in Sonora. It was full-on Tropical Deciduous Forest (TDF), and the birds were thick and diverse. Some of the more exciting birds were Masked Tityra, Bright-rumped Attila, scores of Brown-backed Solitaires (there were so many singing it was sometimes hard to hear other birds), Orange-billed Nightengale-thrush, Tropical Parula, Rufous-bellied Chachalaca, White-striped Woodcreeper, etc. At one point we found a tree that was swarming (literally) with redstarts -- at least 30 Slate-colored and Painted Redstarts were up in the canopy. While we were watching this, we heard the unmistakable "Squee-chuck" of an Eared Quetzal. We spent 20 minutes following the sound up and down the canyon (I seriously think they can teleport) without seeing the bird, until one suddenly alighted in the tree above me. I called for John and as he and Alejandro were hurrying up, the bird flew and landed closer to where they were -- and it was followed by another, then another, then another.... At one point we had 6 Eared Quetzals all in the same tree and all vocalizing.... If that's not a birding highlight I don't know what is. It was amazing. The birds all appeared to be male, which was interesting. In addition to the quetzals, we tallied over 30 Elegant Trogons in the canyon.

Closer to the bottom of the canyon Mingo discovered a Rusty-crowned Ground-sparrow - a lifer for me. Once back into the main canyon, we also added Rusty Sparrow, Northern Waterthrush, Squirrel Cuckoo, and Lineated Woodpecker to the tally. Once we had hiked out to the road, we also added Laughing Falcon.

The compilation dinner was at a rancho owned by Nature and Culture International, and Stephanie Meyer hosted the meal. Good food and ronpope (eggnog) were had by all. Of the twenty-five or so volunteers for this count, almost half were Mexican -- a wonderful show of local talent and support and an example of the growing environmental awareness in parts of Mexico. A yowling mountain lion in the middle of the night was another highlight. The species count total for the Santa Barbara count was 144. And best of all, not a single House Sparrow, Rock Pigeon, European Starling or Eurasian Collared-dove were seen!

A third count (and one I wasn't able to participate in) took place on the coast at the Navopatia Field Station, a remnant tract of pityal cactus forest. Definitely consider checking this area out as well if you are down this way.

For additional photos of my trip, please see:

For information about next season's Sonora Christmas Bird Counts, please email David MacKay of Solipaso Tours at Their website is

For more information on the conservation efforts in Southern Sonora by Nature and Culture International, please see

I encourage anyone interested in these counts to consider coming down next year. It was a great time!
-matt! brooks
Tucson, AZ

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

A Long Weekend in Vancouver

Tucson Audubon Field Trip Report -- November 18-22, 2010
By Rick Wright

The weather is always a topic of conversation on British Columbia’s Lower Mainland—but never would I have predicted that we’d be talking about snow and cold in mid-November.

But snow it did, and though the record cold wasn’t really much by the standards of other, less temperate regions, it still meant parkas and gloves every one of the five bird-filled days our congenial group got to spend together.

Undaunted, we went on to find 112 species, all within an hour’s drive (and most much closer) of our comfortable hotel; apparent hybrids and identifiable forms upped the total further. There were lifers aplenty for some of us, but all of us enjoyed the opportunity to get to see—and to get to know—so many birds that can rarely or never be watched in the areas we call home.

We began at one of North America’s best and best-known urban birding spots, the 1,000 acres of forest and shoreline of Stanley Park. Birding the edges of English Bay gave us our first looks at the abundance of waterfowl that is so characteristic of this region in winter; close views of Barrow’s Goldeneyes and Surf Scoters are always exciting, but it was the Harlequin Ducks that provided the real show, squeaking and diving and generally looking irresistible just off the seawall.

Lost Lagoon was quieter, but the famous sparrow spot at the west end was good as always for nice looks at a variety of passerines, including Chestnut-backed Chickadee and the first of many Golden-crowned Sparrows we would see.

Just as impressive, in a scurrilous way, were the park’s abundant raccoons, some of them feeding nearly from the hand of visitors braver or more foolish than they should have been.

A quick stop at the Vancouver Aquarium paid off with a fine Slate-colored Junco right in the parking lot; this is a very uncommon bird in southwest British Columbia at any season. A traditional spot near the disused salmon hatchery was occupied by an American Dipper, untroubled by the rain that turned to steady drizzle and chased us inside to lunch, a fortifying warm chowder beneath the watchful eyes of some stuffed mounties.

We would run into a real mounty the next day as we headed towards Iona Beach, where the Snow Geese on the Fraser River matched the weather.

They were joined by a few Trumpeter Swans, one of several flocks we saw over the weekend.

The great performance here, however, was that of a Peregrine Falcon, which materialized out of thin drizzle to suddenly and definitively adjust our Dunlin estimate—down—to 3,099.

The ponds themselves were packed with ducks, and the reliable roofs of the sewage plant were lined with gulls, among them a few Thayer’s. Golden-crowned Sparrows, by now familiar but no less exciting, joined dark reddish Song Sparrows and Sooty Fox Sparrows in the brambles, where a Northern Shrike kept a beady eye out for whom he might devour.

The masked bird no doubt ate well that day, though the four late Barn Swallows hunting in the air were certainly too fast and too maneuverable even for him.

The next morning really put the lie to Vancouver’s famous Mediterranean climate.

But the little pond at Vanier Park produced the hoped-for Eurasian Wigeon and a tiny, dark-breasted Cackling Goose. The source of the Northwestern Crows’ noisy excitement was revealed when a Short-eared Owl flew out over our heads, corvids in hot pursuit; the owl and its dark attendants flew up, up, and across English Bay, where we finally lost sight of the owl high over the water.

Jericho Park at sunrise was a pink and white winter wonderland.

The ponds harbored a female Eurasian Wigeon among the abundant Mallards and American Wigeons, and as the day brightened, Varied Thrushes and American Goldfinches climbed to the treetops to have a glance at this suddenly white landscape. On English Bay, hundreds of Surf and a few White-winged Scoters were diving for mussels. Horned and Western Grebes, Red-breasted Mergansers coming into their bright plumage, and the usual complement of natty Barrow’s and Common Goldeneyes rounded out an impressive day’s duck list.

Less cooperative was a single Ancient Murrelet far out on the bay, which granted a total of about two seconds’ visibility before diving and apparently swimming straight west to Japan.

Our alcid luck would improve on our final day’s ferry trip, but meanwhile there was Reifel Refuge, the North American continent’s biggest bird feeder, where everything from Sooty Fox Sparrows to Wood Ducks came out to partake of the millet feast.

We found what are believed to be British Columbia’s only wintering Black-crowned Night-Herons dozing on the roost, and sorted through the abundant waterfowl and feeder birds before heading out to the foreshore. An American Bittern flushed twice, unfortunately never staying up long enough for all to see it, and a small family of Sandhill Cranes permitted almost intimidatingly close approach.

Perhaps the day’s most dramatic sighting was one that didn’t “count” at all.

This dazzling male Northern Pintail x Mallard hybrid was the first any of us had seen in the wild; it’s a common and well-known combination in captivity, but I’m afraid that I don’t usually have the patience to scan through big flocks of waterfowl. And yet it worked again later that same day, when we discovered a very sweet, very white apparent Bufflehead x Common Goldeneye at the Tsawwassen Jetty. That combination is rare, or at least rarely seen; the Vancouver area seems to be a hotspot for it, though.

The next morning found us up and out early, early, early, to make the 7:00 ferry to Swartz Bay.

It was once again cold, so cold that we waited quite happily inside for the sun to rise.

Unfortunately, even after the brightened it was windy, making it physically impossible (not to mention uncomfortable!) to stand outside for the entire trip. But our excursions out onto the deck were rewarded with views of Common Murres, Marbled Murrelets, Pigeon Guillemots, and a couple of Cassin’s Auklets; as expected, we ran across large numbers of Brandt’s Cormorants once we were through Active Pass.

It’s often the case that the best birds show up on the way home—not this time. Instead we were treated to the best mammal of the trip, a small gang of Orcas loafing playfully just off the boat—a sure way to end a weekend’s birding on a high note.

In all, we observed more than 100 species of birds over the weekend, many of them giving outstanding and close views. Even better, we enjoyed good company over the entire trip, making the birding every bit as good as the birds.

- Rick Wright