Monday, June 18, 2012

June's Volunteer Shout-Out

Meet these stellar Tucson Audubon volunteers!

By Kara Kaczmarzyk and Jennie MacFarland 

Soon after Jim Chumbley moved to Arizona from Alaska, Jim contacted the Important Bird Area program at Tucson Audubon looking for ways to get involved. Luckily there was an IBA training session coming right up, which Jim attended and then he was off! Jim has helped in almost every IBA survey event this season and then volunteered to help with a regularly surveyed route in Tanque Verde Wash! His tenacity, willingness to help and excellent hiking abilities have made him a huge asset to the IBA program. Way to make a splash Jim! We are so happy to have you as part of the IBA volunteer family!

Scott Olmstead is a professional bird tour leader and a volunteer at Tucson Audubon. Recently, he led an All-Star Birdathon team to see 118 species in one Big Day. His stunning, colorful photos of birds from all over the Americas are frequently projected onto the screen at Sky Bar during Tucson Audubon’s monthly Birds & Beer social. He has been heavily involved in youth birding activities (and now has a full-time career teaching Spanish in a Tucson high school). Always a fountain of knowledge and a friendly face, you will see him around Tucson Audubon events a lot. In fact, next week he leads a group of Tucson Audubon members in the special birding trip to Ecuador. Thanks Scott!

Carol Palmer joined the Tucson Audubon volunteer team two years ago and has lent much expertise on plant ID and care to the 20 acres of ironwood saguaro habitat at our Mason Center. She comes out regularly to make sure the hummingbird and butterfly gardens are prospering, watches over the heritage grapefruit tree, and transitions in new volunteers to help maintain the property. This spring, she’s been working with Habitat Program Manager Kendall Kroesen and a group of Tortolita Middle School students led by Kathleen Neighbors to install plant ID signs around the Mason Center trail. Look for pictures of the finished project this summer, and learn about some native plants this fall when the Mason Center bird walks resume or during the Harvest Festival and Mesquite Milling.

Bird image credit Doris Evans

Friday, June 15, 2012

Dastardly Duos - Pygmy-Owls

By Larry Liese
From the Vermilion Vaults
Originally appeared: May/June 2003 issue

Everybody likes owls. I don’t know anyone who won’t drop his or her binoculars (not literally) from viewing a ‘regular’ bird when someone spies a day-roosting owl and calls out “I’ve got an owl here!”

This issue’s duo is two cute little owls belonging to a family of owls characterized by diurnal behavior, long tails and ferocious aggressiveness. They’ve got attitude! Often taking prey their own size or even larger, pygmy-owls are not known as ‘cute’ to the songbirds of the world, and are frequently mobbed by them when found. An imitation of their whistled calls will frequently bring in a host of small birds, all wishing to shoo the owl out of their area (please see note at end of article).

An uncommon permanent resident in our area, the Northern Pygmy-Owl (Glaucidium gnoma) is found in open coniferous and mixed woods above 4000 feet elevation. Two subspecies are present here, G. g. pinicola, which gives single hoots and is thought to reach its southern limit in the Catalinas, and G. g. gnoma, which gives double hoots and is found in the mountains south of the Catalinas down through Chiapas, Mexico. (More on hoots below.) Very rare and local in our area, in dry riparian habitats at low elevation is the similar appearing Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl (Glaucidium brasilianum). Source of much controversy with regards to habitat protection and the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in our area, this formerly common species has dwindled to a few tens of known individuals north of the border. The subspecies here is the Cactus Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl, G. b. cactorum, different from the one in southern Texas.

Both of these owls are often heard from a distance. The whistled hoots of the FPO are a rapid whi-whi-whi-whi- ... typically three per second with rising inflection, continuing for what seems like minutes, the Energizer Bunny of the owl world! The pinicola form of NPO gives a slower single hoot than the Ferruginous, but much faster than NPOs from northern states; roughly one to two per second. It is a clear whistle of more constant pitch. The gnoma, or ‘Mountain’ Pygmy-Owl form breaks into a double-hoot, with odd single hoots thrown in, but clearly double for the most part. The double hoots are given about a second apart and have a similar tonal quality to the pinicola form. Don’t be surprised if this species is split in the future.

Since these two owls are not found in the same habitat, you shouldn’t have trouble discerning which one you’ve run into, but here are the visual characteristics that distinguish them. NPOs have a dark brown head with many small white spots on the crown, have coarse dark streaks on white underparts, white spots on their brown sides, and have a long tail with alternating white (narrow) and dark brown (wider) bands. The brown colors of FPOs are lighter, they have fine white streaks on their crowns, unspotted sides, similarly streaked white underparts, a slightly longer tail with alternating brown and rufous bands (no white). Their tails have more bands than the NPO, but they would be hard to count in the field!

Interestingly, these owls lack the feather adaptations of the nocturnal owls – the soft comblike leading edge and fuzzy upper surfaces that quiet their approach. They have dark ‘eye-spots’ on their napes thought to confuse mobbing birds and increase predatory efficiency by confusing prey. They have large territories, up to a mile in length. They attack in a rapid pursuit flight. Large prey items for these two have included American Robin (NPO), and Gambel’s Quail (FPO). Ferocious indeed!

So, if you’re out birding, particularly at dawn or dusk, and hear some whistled hoots, you may be in for a treat – but don’t drop your binoculars. Good luck!

NOTE: As birding has become more popular, activities such as pishing, whistling imitations and playing recordings of bird songs and calls to attract them have come under debate as to their impact on the birds we are trying to enjoy. If you are one to go out and enjoy what nature offers you without these enhancements – more power to you! I’m told that performing any activities such as these is ILLEGAL for animals protected under the ESA, which holds for the Ferruginous Pygmy-Owls here in Arizona

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Owl Prowl Field Trips Report

by Jennie MacFarland
     The recent Owl Prowl field trip turned out to be far more popular than I suspected it would be. When I was contacted by Kate Reynolds, the TAS field trip coordinator, and asked if I would like to co-lead an owl field trip I was thrilled. The other leader was Ryan Carpenter, a visiting birder from Colorado, a National Park Ranger who conducted many owl surveys in his neck of the woods. We decided that the best place to do such a trip was through the many elevations of Mount Lemmon. We posted the trip on a Thursday with a limit of 20 people. Then I had to go to the PinaleƱo Mountains for the weekend to conduct some Important Bird Area surveys. When I came into the office on Monday, over 40 people had sent me emails signing up for the trip. Ryan was only in town for a few days, so I decided to offer a second field trip, led by just me, the next week for all those on the waiting list.
So here are the two reports from the two trips!
    The first trip was May 31, 2012 and we met at the McDonalds on Tanque Verde and Catalina Highway at 7pm. We had a brief orientation about the different birds we might see and the importance of playing bird calls responsibly in the field. Then we squeezed into as few cars as possible and were off! At our first stop, Molino Canyon, we heard Common Poorwill right away and then after some waiting we heard an Elf Owl calling with its otherworldly laugh. We then zoomed to the Gordon Hirabayashi Rec site in an attempt to hear a Western Screech-Owl, which we never did though another Common Poorwill was calling quite loudly.
     We then went up in elevation and stopped at Middle Bear. Here we hit the jack pot! The large moon had risen by this time and several Mexican Whip-poor-wills were calling loudly. We then heard a Whiskered Screech-Owl calling faintly in the distance. After a few minutes the call was considerably louder and closer and then suddenly there were three of them calling from different directions around us. It was thrilling! We then went to the parking lot right off the General Hitchcock Highway at Rose Canyon Lake and listened for Flammulated Owl, which we did not hear here, but there were a few more Whiskered Screech-Owls calling. We then went to Bear Wallow, where the road bends sharply to the right and parked in the wide spot. Here we listened quietly for awhile and then Ryan did detect a Flammulated Owl calling. After a few minutes, the call became louder and eventually the entire group heard it. We then zoomed up to Ski Valley in an attempt to hear the Northern Saw-Whet Owls which was a total bust. Exhilarated and well behind schedule, we all headed down the mountain after hearing some great owls and nightjars!
   The second trip was June 6, 2012, less than a week later than the first trip and was surprisingly different from the first one considering we followed the exact same route! Pretty soon after leaving the McDonalds we spotted three Lesser Nighthawks flying, a bird we missed the week before. At Molino Canyon, the Common Poorwill called strongly, but we never did hear an Elf Owl, possibly due to some winds that were blowing through the canyon at this time. We did however all see a large bird fly low right over us that turned out to be a Great Horned Owl. This is  another bird we did not encounter the week before and the second group actually got to SEE an owl, something that did not happen with the first group. We had the same result at Gordon Hirabayasi, where are the Western Screech-owls on Mount Lemmon?
     The most noticeable difference was a Middle Bear. Even though it was less than a week later, the moon had not risen at this time like it had the week before. With no moon, the Mexican Whip-poor-wills were only faintly calling intermittently and very few people in the group heard them. We had to wait quite a while for a Whiskered Screech-Owl to call but eventually we had two calling quite loudly from two different directions. The stop at Rose Canyon Lake was a bust and the wind picked up again. We then zoomed up to Bear Wallow and that’s when the magic happened. Pretty soon after we all settled in a listened, a Flammulated Owl started calling pretty clearly and loudly. Soon everyone in the group had heard it. Then we realized that there were actually two calling in tandem from either side of us. We listened to the two tiny owls duet for awhile and then called it a night and headed down the mountain. It was a great night!
     Yeah for owls!! If you would like to encounter some of these owls for yourself, they are calling away right now on Mount Lemmon!