Friday, March 23, 2012

Owling In Southeast Arizona

By William Harvey
From the Vermilion Vaults
Originally appeared: May/June 2003 issue

Note: The conditions at some of the locations mentioned here may have changed.

Southeast Arizona is a marvelous place for the birder who is looking for owls and nightjars. During the year a birder can find as many as fourteen owl (if one counts Mountain and Californicus N. Pygmy-Owls as two species) and five nightjar species in southeast Arizona. A few of the owls and essentially all the nightjar species are here only in the appropriate seasons (mostly summer). Some of these birds are abundant in the appropriate habitat while others are so rare that barely one or two are reported every few years.

If one is going to see and/or identify owls and nightjars at night, recordings of their calls and a playback device are necessary. On many nights you will merely hear the birds and even when you see a bird you might not be able to visually identify it. For some birds their voices are the single sure way to identify them, so you must familiarize yourself with their calls. If you “must” see one of these elusive birds, your best chance is to lure them into the light by playing a recording of their species’ calls. There are ethical and legal considerations to doing this. One should not harass nesting birds, nor should one disturb birds of special concern such as the Buff-collared Nightjar. Legally protected species such as the Ferruginous Pygmy- and Spotted Owls are just that, protected. One should not attempt to call in (even if you can imitate their call) or even squeak in or approach closely one of these protected species. Only the most passive search methods are appropriate for protected (and sensitive) species. Fortunately for birders, Ferruginous Pygmy- and Spotted Owls can be found in daylight hours.

Other legal prohibitions should be observed. Harassment of wildlife, which includes the playing of calls, is strictly forbidden on properties administered by the National Park Service. Playing of recorded calls is prohibited at some popular birding sites including Madera Canyon, Ft. Hauchuca, South Fork near Portal, and all Nature Conservancy properties. As a general rule you are allowed to tape birds and animals in National Forests and AZ State Parks. Beware of curfews.

One can find owls in southeast Arizona twelve months a year but in general you can maximize your chances of locating a variety of owl and nightjar species by searching from Mid-April through June. Recommended and easily accessible areas for nightbirding are Mt. Lemmon, Catalina State Park, Sabino Canyon, Tucson Mountain Park, Madera Canyon, Cave Creek near Portal, and Pinery Canyon. Other similar sites can be every bit as productive. Every site is unique and has a different mix of active nightbirds. Calm, moonlit nights are probably best for nightbirding.

Cave Creek seems to mix a great variety of species almost at the same elevation. One can locate Elf, Western Screech-, Northern Pygmy-, Whiskered Screech-, and Flammulated Owls, Poorwills and Whip-poor-wills by owling from Portal to the end of the South Fork Road. Madera Canyon has the ever cooperative Elf Owls in the utility poles at the Santa Rita Lodge with calling Whiskered Screech-Owls, Whip-poor-wills, and Northern Pygmy-Owls (in 2002) at the same elevation. Lower down in the canyon and in the grasslands Poorwills and Western Screech-Owls call. A hike to Boggs Springs (not the campground) sometimes produces Spotted Owls on day perches in the big trees near the springs. Catalina State Park is notable for the high density of calling Elf Owls on the ridges bordering Sutherland Wash. Western Screech-Owls and Poorwills are also in this area in high numbers.


In the Tucson area one can maximize the number of species of nightbirds which it is possible to locate by birding from Tanque Verde Wash to the top of Mt. Lemmon (or Mt. Bigelow). You will probably need to make some tradeoffs on this expedition because of time considerations. You should prepare for this foray in advance because there is a 10PM curfew at Mt. Lemmon’s more accessible birding areas. A permit to exceed this curfew can be obtained from Forest Service Headquarters at Sabino Canyon (contact officer: Mindee Roth). Plan to do this trip Monday-Friday because of crowds of weekend revelers. As to the trip, look for Great Horned-, Barn-, Elf-, and Western Screech-Owls, Lesser Nighthawks, and Poorwills from Tanque Verde Wash to Prison Camp campground. Good spots to check are Tanque Verde Wash at Houghton Rd., along the borders of Aqua Caliente Park (its possible to get a key to the gate from County Parks), the parking pullout at the southern boundary of the National Forest on Catalina Hwy. (Elf Owl & Poorwills), Molina Basin, and Prison Camp (reliable for Western Screech-Owls). From Cypress (Lower Bear Canyon) Picnic Area and upwards, look and listen for Flammulated-, Whiskered Screech-, Spotted-, and Northern Pygmy-Owls and Whip-poor-wills. At the very highest elevations there are remote chances for Saw-whet and Californicus type N. Pygmy-Owls. If you still have the energy on your return go to Sabino Canyon (open 24 hours) where Elf-, Western Screech-, and Great Horned Owls and Poorwills are relatively common. If one’s time is limited it is suggested that one begin at the three Bear Canyon Picnic Grounds and work downward along Catalina Highway. A trip to Rustler Park in the Chirichuas from either the east or west sides can produce a like mix of nightbirds. You should be aware that at higher elevations nights can be cold and that snow and ice can linger well into May in some years.

One should monitor the hotline and local birding websites for owl and nightjar sightings. These reports are your best chances for finding out where such winter rarities as Sawwhet-, Long-eared-, and Short-eared Owls are being seen. Sightings of the much-sought-after Buff-collared Nightjar are also likely to be reported on these media. Click on birding at the Regional/Specialties page.

For those of you who need company outdoors at night there are a number of guides listed on the Tucson Audubon website. Tucson Audubon occasionally sponsors owling trips. The Santa Rita Lodge has nightwalks (owling) during April and May and birdwalks to Boggs Springs where Spotted Owls sometimes roost. Nightwalks (emphasis on walk) are regularly scheduled at Sabino Canyon and periodically in Saquaro National Park. Sometimes researchers (on owls) are happy to have birders accompany them on their rounds. Call Arizona (or U.S.) Fish and Wildlife.

A tenting expedition is recommended to anyone who is interested in owls and nightjars. In the spring you can fall asleep to the yapping of Elf Owls, the hoots of Great Horned Owls, or the incessant calls of Whip-poor-wills. Boggs Springs Campground in Madera Canyon and Pinery Canyon are recommended sites.

Your own backyard might be a great place for night birds if it backs up against a wash, has extensive natural vegetation or mature landscaping. Poorwills, Western Screech-, Great Horned Owls and even the rare Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl may be regular visitors to your suburban neighborhood.

It is recommended that you make a stop at the Tucson Audubon Bookstore and Library where many fine references can be obtained.

The Owls and Nightjars are out there in the night waiting for you. Go out and get them!

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Great Day to be Outside

By mid-morning a gentle southeast breeze slid up the north end of the Tucson mountains, creating an updraft along the mountains' east face. The first bird I saw soaring along the ridge was a Prairie Falcon.

It would turn out to be a fun day of work at the gravel pits off Coachline Road, where Tucson Audubon has planted some native vegetation to enhance the area for wildlife. The morning consisted of three intense watering sessions and time between to do other tasks. When Rodd Lancaster, our Field Supervisor, brought a full tank of water on the water trailer, we would fire up the pump and run from plant to plan giving them a good soaking. Then, while Rodd was away filling up the tank, I would drag deadwood around the areas we planted to discourage off-road drivers from running over them.

During these times I couldn't help but keep an eye on the ridge, where I had seen lots of raptors in the past.

Soon there was not only the Prairie Falcon, but two Red-tailed Hawks and a raven--all in the same binocular view!

This was on top of birds swirling around our worksite. House Finches and Lesser Goldfinches sang lustily. Brilliant Vermilion Flycatchers lit up the trees.

Later, when I looked up again, five Red-tailed Hawks now soared about the rocky ridge. A couple of White-throated Swifts also dodged around the rocky hill at one end of the ridge.

After some more work, and several more glances west toward the ridge, I was rewarded by the hit of the day. A Common Black-Hawk circled lazily on the updrafts along the ridge, making its way a little farther north with each pass.

Later I also saw an Eastern Phoebe, probably one that had been seen several times in this area but that hasn't been reported recently.

Kendall Kroesen
Habitats Program Manager

PS. This location is known among birders as the Coachline Gravel Pits. In other circles it's called the Marana Borrow Pits, the El Rio Open Space, or the Marana Rock Disc Golf Course. It is reached by going east from I-10 on Twin Peaks Road, turning right on Coachline Road, and then turning right on a dirt road just past a small, walled wastewater treatment plant. Go to where it ends at the berm and walk over the berm to the north.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Dastardly Duos: Bluebirds

By Larry Liese
From the Vermilion Vaults
Originally appeared: Oct 2003 issue

Did you know that the ‘blue’ in bird’s feathers doesn’t come from pigment, as do most other colors? If you find a feather from a Steller’s Jay or other bird sporting blue colors, look at it closely and you’ll see that it has a darkish color that changes as you twist it to and fro. The blue colors we see on these birds is caused by structural properties of the feathers, with small irregular bodies in a transparent layer of the feather surface reflecting only blue wavelengths of light, while absorbing other wavelengths. Neat!

But for all that, our three bluebird species sure are blue! This month we’ll look at the females of two that are somewhat tricky to tell apart if the males aren’t about.

Here in southeast Arizona, the Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis) is an uncommon local permanent resident, found mainly in evergreen oaks and pines in the Huachuca, Chiricahua, Parajito and eastern Santa Rita mountains and sparsely in the Catalinas. They can also be found in the Patagonia area.

The Western Bluebird (Sialia mexicana) is more widespread but still an uncommon resident, with additional winter visitors making the bird fairly common in the cooler months, particularly where berries are available.

The males are fairly easy to tell apart. The western has a blue throat and bluish belly, with rusty scapulars; the eastern has an orange throat extending onto the sides of the neck and contrasting white belly and undertail coverts. The female eastern has that same contrasting white belly and orange on the sides of the neck, though the throat is white. The western female has a grayish-blue throat and a dusky belly color that does not show a sharp dividing line. Some western females will show a brownish patch on the back that contrasts with the nape, though some lack this.

Don’t be surprised if you have trouble when only females are present. There is much variation among individuals, and having a male come along and join a female after you make your call always helps (if you’ve guessed the right one, that is!).

Although pretty, bluebirds are pugnacious little creatures, and both male and female Eastern Bluebirds have been known to kill each other over mates and nest sites. Egad! So when you’re trying to tell these birds apart, don’t get in their way. Good luck!