Tuesday, January 29, 2013

November New Jersey with Tucson Audubon: Day Four

Guest post by Rick Wright


When we set it up last winter, I’d called this field trip The Eider Express, in the cocky assurance that the now traditional flock of Common Eider at Barnegat Light would be present and accessible by the end of November.

Then came the storm called Sandy. Long Beach Island was shut off for a goodly while, and I wasn’t even sure we’d be able to get out to the famous lighthouse at its northern tip, much less wander around looking for coldwater waterfowl.

Happily — for us, but especially for the people who live on the barrier island year-round — the dunes had done their work in those places where they’d been maintained; and even where the tide had swept across nearly to the bay, the white sand had been plowed and piled, so that our drive north in places recalled a wintertime trip between snow fences on the Great Plains.

Barnegat Bay, that great winter haven for birds and birders of all kinds, was full of Bonaparte’s Gulls, and a little patience turned up half a dozen Laughing Gulls, a species sure to clear out by the end of the year.

Bufflehead, Long-tailed Ducks, Red-breasted Mergansers, and little family parties of Atlantic Brant were scattered out on the water and up in the rocks.

These little black geese seem to have had a good year, with bar-backed young nearly as common in most flocks as adults.

The real specialties of Barnegat Light are farther out, so we set out on the jetty-top sidewalk to see what we could see. It wasn’t more than a few steps before we found our first Harlequin Duck.

Between us, the members of the group had had hundreds of sightings of hundreds of harlequins over the years, but there’s just something about this bird that makes it impossible to move on once it swims into sight. This one was having a good breakfast,

diving constantly

and probably munching on blue mussels like these.

Knowing there would be more harlequins as the morning went on, we tore ourselves away and started the long slog out the beach.

To my relief, the Common Eider flock, still New Jersey’s most reliable, was in place, and the unusually calm waters let us check thoroughly for rarer species (nada). We counted 32 eider, among them a number of nice rosy-breasted, green-naped drakes, along with more Harlequin Ducks, Black Scoters, and the constant stream of southbound Red-throated Loons offshore. A lone Great Cormorant was out on the usual distant perch, and after a while a boil of about forty adult Northern Gannets (the brown ones must already be south) formed not far out and began to fish, diving and splashing spectacularly. Late birds often linger at the mouth of the inlet; this time we were surprised to see three Brown Pelicans and two Royal Terns, warm-weather birds that don’t have many more days at this latitude.

It was past our lunchtime, too, so we headed back to the van and to the nearest open diner, where our sandwiches were served with yet another generous helping of spray-tanned Jersey authenticity (what was that young woman thinking? And where was my camera?).

Flight times and Philadelphia traffic were on our minds already, but there was still a good stretch of bayshore to cover. Buffleheads and Red-breasted Mergansers were the constant, but we weren’t seeing much else until Betty spotted a small heron flying across the spartina islands. The last day of November is late for Tricolored Heron anywhere in the state, but there it was, a great bird to end a great field trip on the Jersey shore.

Check out Rick's Blog to read about the rest of this tour.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Tucson Valley Christmas Bird Count Final Results

Guest post by Rich Hoyer, TVCBC Compiler

The numbers have been duly crunched and I can report a resoundingly successful CBC this year. I'm extremely grateful for everyone's contribution. View the final spreadsheet here.

I wanted to bring a few highlights to the forefront. The first highlight is a record 129 participants (124 in the field and 5 feeder watchers). I'm sure we'll get more next year – we are a metro area of over a million, after all.

Three new species were added to the all-time list: Whiskered Screech-Owl (one repsonded to my imitation way up the Finger Rock Canyon Trail; they've always been there in the circle, but no one has tried for them, and they don't always respond during the day), Pine Warbler (found by Mary Gustafson of Texas on a break between meetings 11 days before the CBC), and Yellow-throated Warbler (found by Mark Stevenson 13 days before the CBC). With 11 species of wood-warblers, it was quite the winter! (And we missed Yellow Warbler and Black-and-white Warbler, which were seen before and after the count.)

The final tally of 153 species falls just one short of tying the 1977 record, and looking at what we missed, a higher total is definitely within our reach. With a developing culture of pre-CBC scouting (the new, young organizers of the Albuquerque CBC have set a high bar), I certainly see 160+ species possible every year.

The most interesting results are the actual numbers of individuals – which ones were low this year and which ones were high, and I've color-coded the spreadsheet to make them easier to find. Those species that I marked as notably low in numbers were those that fell below both the long-term mean and median.

Tucson Valley will definitely stand out in the nation this year for having broken FIVE all-time highs – 104 Cooper's Hawks, 818 Gila Woodpeckers, 190 Vermilion Flycatchers, 19 Plumbeous Vireos, and 796 Verdins. The hawk and flycatcher populations have been increasing in Tucson, and we've been the #1 count for those for several years, so they aren't much of a surprise (though the number Vermilion Flycatchers was quite a stunning blow to the old record of 116, held by the Kingsville, Texas CBC since 2003). Tucson Valley also leads the nation in Gila Woodpecker and Verdin every year, so with a record number of observers, we should have had a good count of those. The old Verdin record of 592 was held by the Salt-Verde River CBC since 1991, and we beat our own record of Gila Woodpecker. The Plumbeous Vireo numbers was quite a surprise, especially since the number of Cassin's Vireos wasn't especially high. There were just a lot of them around this winter.

We had high counts for a fair number of other species some of which will surely be national highs for the year, a statistic that is compiled each year by Brent Ortego of Texas. Possible contenders (which we won't know until all counts have been entered online, usually not until March) will be Rock Pigeon, Mourning Dove, Broad-billed Hummingbird, Cassin's Vireo, Cactus Wren, Chestnut-sided Warbler, Yellow-headed Blackbird, Lesser Goldfinch, and Lawrence's Goldfinch. Tucson Valley has had up to 9 national highs in a few recent years; this year we'll probably break that barrier.

Next Year:
The Count Compiler has the liberty of choosing the CBC date each year – any time from December 14 to January 5. In recent years, Tucson Valley has been held on the first Sunday of that period, immediately following the Santa Catalina Mountains CBC, and the nearby Avra Valley CBC has usually been around the same weekend. A fair number of observers would probably like to do at least two of these CBCs but don't want to do two back-to-back. (I personally have never done either count because there is no countdown dinner, which for me is half the fun; and this year they were held on the same day.) So with those thoughts in mind, I'll be creating an online poll sometime in the next months to find out whether a significant number of you would prefer a weekend or a weekday, and how many would want to do both CBCs. Another thing to keep in mind is that next year we'll have a larger, more centrally located, indoor location for the countdown dinner.

Thanks again, and see you next year.


Rich Hoyer
Tucson, Arizona
Senior Leader for WINGS

Tucson Valley Christmas Bird Count: http://aztvcbc.blogspot.com
Atasocsa Highlands Christmas Bird Count: http://atascosahighlandscbc.blogspot.com

Friday, January 11, 2013

January's Volunteer Shout-Out

Our first monthly volunteer shout-out of 2013!

by Kara Kaczmarzyk

The fifth annual Tucson Audubon Society gala, A River of Birds, will be held on the evening of Wednesday, January 30th. This special night will include live music, a silent auction, raptor free-flight, talk by professor David Wilcove, and presentation of the David Yetman Award for Promoting Conservation in Southern Arizona and the President's Award, in addition to delicious food, lovely decorations, and wonderful company. The success of this evening is largely due to the contributions of volunteers, who lend their expertise in planning, decorations, silent auction procurement, and so much more. Here we meet a few of the ladies behind the gala. On the gala night, approximately 20 stellar volunteers will be onsite to ensure the night runs perfectly.

Bonnie Wong joined our volunteer team in 2012 as an enthusiastic, inquisitive, funny, and motivated non-birder. She was attracted to Tucson Audubon’s conservation work, and wanted to help in any area. From snapping photos as an Amateur Event Photographer to help writing press releases to reviewing and updating parts of our website, proofreading, data entry, Tucson Bird & Wildlife Festival, Bonnie takes on new projects with gusto. Look for a book review by Bonnie in an upcoming blog post. She finishes projects so quickly that I sometimes have trouble responding quickly enough! Her role as silent auction procurement coordinator has kept Bonnie busy since the fall. Thanks to her tenacity and fresh ideas, our 2013 silent auction includes many new, unique and exciting items. When not finishing a Tucson Audubon volunteer project at super speed, she loves being outside, hiking, and rock climbing. Bonnie also volunteers for the Nature Conservancy. Bonnie relocated from Texas and is interested in environmental law and in being doused with colored cornstarch in the upcoming Color Me Rad 5K run.

Pat Carlson is no stranger to Tucson Audubon galas. In addition to attending them, a couple of years ago she chaired the silent auction committee. This year, she is putting her creativity front and center, as the silent auction staging chair. In this role, she will make the silent auction look fun, using props and decorations to bring the experience home. Pat is involved in so many areas at Tucson Audubon. She is on a donor wall committee for our Mason Center. She joins husband Richard Carlson, Tucson Audubon Board Treasurer, in various meetings and events for Tucson Audubon. A great place to be for great birders, the couple are near Agua Caliente Park and can often be seen at the Thursday Wake up with the Birds walks. Pat also likes to travel a lot and spend time with her grandchildren. This year celebrates one decade in Tucson for Pat and Dick. Pat also enjoys butterflies and is redoing her garden.

Pat (center, in blue) at the 2012 gala, Our Changing World

The woman with the vision, Sandy Elers was instrumental in getting Tucson Audubon to hold its first gala, five years ago. Each year, as the Gala chairperson, Sandy is part of so many components of the gala, from script edits to themes and decorations to music and food choices and everything in between. Sandy is the Vice President of the Tucson Audubon Board of Trustees, was the chair of the development committee, and remains quite involved in fund development. Sandy and her husband Karl enjoy traveling around the southwest in their RV. Sandy brings experience with galas, and many other things, from her time spent in Houston, TX. There, she was also heavily involved with the local Audubon chapter. Sandy was born and raised in Tucson; it is fascinating to hear her stories of youth friends, important personages of Tucson. Read more about Sandy in her board bio here.

Sandy (left) at the 2012 gala, Our Changing World

Thank you to all the gala volunteers for supporting this important fundraising, and awareness raising, evening!

Photo credits: Doris Evans, Bonnie Wong, Matt Griffiths

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Kendall's Alternative Transportation Blog, Entry 2

Kendall Kroesen, Habitats Program Manager

This is week two of the new year, and week two of my new year of alternative transportation. I carpooled once last week and also rode my bike once last week.

This week I rode the bike yesterday and carpooled with Erin Olmstead today to get to the Mason Center (farther than I'd want to ride my bike, at least in this stage of my training!). It's nice to have somebody to talk to on the way to work. Today we somehow got onto the topic of our fathers' military service, and our own experiences relating to war and veterans. I'm about twice Erin's age and have a different generational perspective, so it was interesting to hear her experiences.

Yesterday I made it to work (our offices at the Historic YWCA building) in 21 minutes on my bike. I mapped my route on Google Maps and selected the bicycle option. I was a bit disappointed to see that it predicts it should take 17 minutes. I'm not sure if my reaction should be "it's the beta version of the Google Maps for cyclists and what does it know anyway" or "well, as I get in better shape I'll strive to make the trip in 17 minutes." I don't think I'll be making the trip home in 17 minutes any time soon since it's slightly uphill on the way back and I go a little slower.

I will start calculating my savings in fuel costs, that should be pretty easy. I'll need some help figuring out how to calculate my reduction in emission of pollutants and green house gases. More next week.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Sky Islands Birding Cup: reflecting on 2012, looking ahead to 2013

Guest post by John Yerger

I can’t believe that 2012 is already over! When I switched over to the 2013 calendar, one of the first things I did was scribble in the next Sky Islands Birding Cup (August 14). Yes, THAT’S how excited I am about it! Ok, so I’m a total bird geek…but I’m especially fond of Big Days, an all-out effort to find as many species in 24 hours as possible. Not only has it been a lot of fun, but it’s a great way to raise money for a good cause: improving bird habitat.

I’m hoping to get everyone else excited about it, too, because it’s not too early to start planning if you want to field a team in 2013! For Registration materials, Game Rules, etc, visit: tucsonaudubon.org/cup

If looking back at this summary of our Sky Islands Birding Cup effort may inspire you to sign up, read on. Either way, I’ll hope to see you in the field on August 14!
Cheers, John Yerger

2nd Annual Sky Islands Birding Cup summary: Birding the Midnight Oil 
August 15, 2012 was an exciting day for team “Birding the Midnight Oil.” We had planned for a few months, scouted for a few weeks, slept for a few hours before midnight…and we were feeling good about our prospects for cracking the 200 species mark! We’ve run quite a few Big Days before, but not many in August. We decided to try a different tactic than last year, and began in the highly biodiverse Chiricahua Mountains. Since I now live about 7 miles from the mouth of Cave Creek Canyon, it seemed appropriate to capitalize on my heavy dose of local scouting, and stay at my house to maximize our pre-Birding Cup sleep potential.  

We started off at the crack of 12:01am owling in Cave Creek Canyon. Owling in August is a struggle! We tried our best vocal imitations, since audio playback is strictly forbidden during the Cup. (Imagine a dozen teams playing tapes in the same area, potentially counting each others’ playback as a “real” bird…) Perhaps we sounded wildly unlike wild owls, or perhaps they simply don’t like vocalizing in August, but we ended up with a mere 3 species: Whiskered Screech, Western Screech, and Great Horned Owl. After three hours of valiant effort, we decided a short nap was a better use of our time. 

Dawn saw us at Willow Tank - with travel mugs of coffee in hand - where we detected some roosting White-faced Ibis and a few swallow species, then headed up Stateline Road to nab a few Chihuahuan desert specialties like Chihuahuan Raven (of course) and Scaled Quail. We even lucked out with both Bendire’s and Crissal Thrasher, normally skulking species. A highlight right around 6:30am at Quailway Cottage was a flyover Solitary Sandpiper – a great species for the Birding Cup, but also a stellar new “yard bird” for me! From there we plugged right along through the tiny hamlet of Portal, where my friend Maya’s yard held a prized Lucifer Hummingbird (wow!), a migrant Calliope Hummingbird (always unpredictable), and a bonus: Juniper Titmouse! Cave Creek Canyon was reasonably productive for diurnal birds (a calling Northern Pygmy-Owl was probably the highlight), then it was up to Rustler Park (Mexican Chickadee!) and over Onion Saddle (Zone-tailed Hawk!) down to Willcox. By the end of birding around Willcox, we had figured that over 150 species were possible if we got EVERY bird. Well, we didn’t even get close to every bird…but we were steadily adding species, and the day had been great so far. 

Lucifer Hummingbird

Willcox Twin Lakes gave us about 80% of what we were seeking in terms of shorebirds and early-arriving waterfowl. Now that it was early afternoon, the least birdy time of day, it was time to take the long drive to Patagonia via the sewage ponds at Benson and the grasslands around Elgin. One goal on a Big Day should be to canvass every available habitat, and we were certainly doing that! Another goal is to sweep the common birds – on the Birding Cup, a European Starling counts just as much as a Lucifer Hummingbird. Disturbing, but true! (Good thing we had plenty of chances to pick up a Starling, because amazingly it was 2:00pm and we hadn’t seen one yet...they’re actually a rare bird in the Chiricahuas!)  


We had shockingly good luck in Elgin, starting with a Common Nighthawk perched on a telephone wire in broad daylight! We lingered a moment longer than Big Days normally allow, taking in a beautiful White-tailed Kite floating over the gently waving grasses. We even kicked up a Grasshopper Sparrow, normally a furtive species. But the clock is always ticking, so on to Patagonia! 

At a certain point on a Big Day, you realize you’re either on track for your goal, or based on your “misses” you know you’re going to fall short. Well, we were finding great birds and having a blast, but a recount of the tally made it clear that we weren’t going to hit 200. Now it was survival mode: just find as many birds as you can between now and dusk, so at least you have a shot at first place! A quick review showed plenty of “easy” birds: Ash-throated Flycatcher and European Starling for sure, maybe a Great Egret at Rio Rico, and Violet-crowned Hummingbird was practically a given at Paton’s feeders. 

Well, the Violet-crowned came in practically as soon as we set foot in Paton’s yard. Not only a bird with stunning good looks, but another species for the list! Abert’s Towhee and a few specialties followed shortly thereafter, including Gray Hawk and Thick-billed Kingbird. And wait! Everyone hear that? Sure enough, a Yellow-billed Cuckoo clucked hollowly from the Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve. Maybe we were back on a roll!  

Yellow-billed Cuckoo by Jim Burns

We pulled up to Rio Rico, spirits high, and waited to tally a few more random species. Annnnnd…got nothing. Nothing, really? Well, nothing new, anyway. Hmm… Time to reevaluate the end of day plan. With daylight fading, we figured we had just enough time to race over to Peña Blanca Lake, where at least 25 species were possible. Even if we got 10 of those, that would push us over 180. And 15 birds? Heck, that would put us in a position to approach 190 or 195 with some creative work after dark. Not bad for a day’s work! (Hey, what’s that flock of small dark birds going down behind the trees in the distance? Oh, you guys missed it? I think they were Starlings… Doesn’t count unless we all see them.) 

We wheeled in to Peña Blanca, and found…five more species? Maybe two more species? Maybe…nope, zero new species. So, we were stuck. Sometimes, that’s how it goes! A count, recount and triple count on the drive to the “Goal Line” in Tucson confirmed the results: 173 species. Well, we could at least stop along the way to pick up an appropriately nocturnal Black-crowned Night-Heron, but then we called it quits at 174. Exhausted though we were, we all agreed: hey, 174 isn’t bad!  

The checklist

The coveted trophy

Reflecting on your Birding Cup run always helps to plan for next year. What were our big “misses?” How should we alter the route to maximize birding time and minimize driving time? The biggest question: how did we miss EUROPEAN STARLING?!?!? Wait, actually I think that’s a highlight!  

See you out there for the 3rd annual Sky Islands Birding Cup, Wednesday August 14, 2013! !

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Kendall's Alternative Transportation Blog, Entry 1

Kendall Kroesen, Habitats Program Manager

My 2013 New Year's resolution is to ride my bike to work at least once a week.

Having written about my resolution in the Vermilion Flycatcher (Conservation Corner, page 20, January-March 2013 issue), I cannot now ignore it! Well, I could, but some nitpicking Auduboner would eventually ask me the status of my resolution and I'm not a good liar. (If you don't receive the Vermilion Flycatcher, Tucson Audubon's quarterly magazine, in the mail, this issue will be posted some time in January at www.tucsonaudubon.org/vfly.html).

My Trek 7.3 FX hybrid bicycle (mountain bike-style
handlebar; wider, puncture-resistant street tires)
So I'll be documenting the effort to comply with my resolution here on the Tucson Audublog.

I started today, January 3. I should say that I have ridden my bike to work before, irregularly. To put it in birding terms, sightings of me riding to work have been "rare" (defined in Finding Birds in Southeast Arizona as "present in very small numbers; occurs annually but easily missed").

Here is the story of today's ride. First I took a long breakfast, allowing the below-freezing early morning temperatures to rise a bit. (I also checked the weather report several times, looked at Facebook, petted the dogs, fed the dogs, read the paper, cleaned up the kitchen and took a hot shower.)

Realizing I was now late to work, I bundled up in a long-sleeved T-shirt, long-sleeved flannel button-down shirt, sweater, scarf, gloves, watch-cap, jeans, helmet and a bright yellow safety vest. It was somewhat hard to move, but I was ready. I reasoned that in colder parts of the country, even thusly dressed, I would be a snowball or ice cube in short order.

Rejoicing therefore at Tucson's weather, I stopped by my truck to retrieve something. The sun was now warming the cold steel carport, causing frozen moisture to drip to the ground. I waved goodbye to my trusty pickup and headed down the alley. My first obstacle was the still-unfreezing alley puddles left over from the last rain.

So far successful, I turned west onto Pima Street. Almost immediately I narrowly missed a mesquite twig that had fallen into the bike lane. The thorns on this twig--from one variety of South American mesquite--are 1.5 to 2.0 inches long! I circled back to pick it up so that nobody else would run over it, and so I could provide the startling photograph below. Please plant only native mesquites, which have much, much smaller spines and are probably better for birds.

Mesquite spines

I proceeded west on Elm Street to Tucson Blvd. My preferred route is to go south on Tucson, west on 3rd Street, through the University of Arizona mall and then west on University Boulevard to the Tucson Audubon office at the History YWCA building. Today I wanted to go by the bank, which is on Speedway. So I continued west, crossed Campbell and then went south along the east side of the University Medical Center, pausing to glance at the lawn where hundreds of memorials were left in the wake of the Tucson shootings almost exactly two years ago. (Poignant sights like this are harder to come by in an auto.)

I dodged construction of the new street car project and stopped at the bank. I left my lunch on the bike with the thorny twig strapped on top of it so that nobody would mess with my food.

By this time I was actually quite warm and took off the gloves, watch cap and scarf. The rest of the trip was uneventful, except for more small detours on University Boulevard where streetcar construction is underway. (Remember to cross rail tracks on the perpendicular, rather than near to parallel. You can get the front tire caught in the slot next to the steel track and take a bad fall.)

Well, I feel healthier already and I haven't emitted any greenhouse gasses yet today (well okay, my vehicle hasn't). I plan to ride home before dark to make it easier for drivers to see me, and to increase my chances of seeing birds along the way!

Stay tuned for more 2013 alternative transportation capers! I plan to carpool sometimes when I go to Tucson Audubon's Mason Center, and maybe I'll even try the bus. And the streetcar!