Friday, February 15, 2013

February Volunteer Shout Out

by Kara Kaczmarzyk & Kendall Kroesen

These volunteers are birding pros!

Whether you want to bird in the north, south, west or east of Tucson, Mary Ellen Flynn is the leader for you. On Saturdays, Mary Ellen leads the Mason Center Saturday Morning Birdwalks, alternating with Jim Gessaman and Mike Sadatmousavi. On some Thursdays, she leads the Wake up with the Birds walks at Agua Caliente Park. In addition to Tucson Audubon, Mary Ellen also volunteers for Pima County Parks and for the National Parks Service, and has led trips to Sweetwater Wetlands, Catalina State Park, Honeybee Canyon, Oracle State Park, and more. For some years Mary Ellen also volunteered in our Nature Shop. She combines the birding and shop skills during offsite events such as Wings Over Willcox and the Festival of Books, where she shares her extensive birding knowledge with the public. Next month, you can pick her brain in the Science Pavilion of the Festival of Books, where Tucson Audubon will have an IBA and Tucson Bird Count-themed citizen science booth. It may be no surprise that this expert birder also does the Christmas Bird Count, and surveys with the Important BirdArea program. Mary Ellen is also great with kids, and has led Cub Scout and youth walks for Tucson Audubon. She is a Massachusetts native, but her accent is subtle. Now retired from a legal career, Mary Ellen spends part of her time in Gloucester, MA, and it’s no surprise she also volunteers there, leading field trips at beach/dune and saltmarsh habitats and working primarily with youth. How does she do it all? I see it as a combo of being super passionate, and super organized!

John Higgins always lifts your spirits. He has an unfailingly upbeat personality. This must have come in handy in his many years working for child protective services. It probably also came in handy some times during a decade as Tucson Audubon’s volunteer Field Trip Coordinator, a job that requires coordinating with staff, coaxing field trips from trip leaders and being vigilant for ways to improve the field trip program. Nobody exceeded John’s enthusiasm for the latter; he changed and improved field trips in several ways during his tenure. John leads field trips too, and his are always some of the most fun trips to take. His enthusiasm for the program is only exceeded by his enthusiasm for birds.

Apart from the field trip program, one of the most astonishing things John has done was to tabulate bird sightings at the Avra Valley Sewage Treatment Plant before a redesign of the ponds, and then visit the ponds 94 times, almost weekly, to gather his own data about how birding there had changed. The results are documented in an article he wrote on page 18 of the October-December 2011 Vermilion Flycatcher. I commend it to readers as one of the most useful and interesting articles that anyone has published in this magazine.

Cactus Wren image credit Doris Evans

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Sky Island Birding Cup 2012 – First Runner-up

by Jennie MacFarland, IBA Conservation Biologist

Even though it is still early in the year plans are well underway for the Tucson Bird & Wildlife Festival and the Sky Island Birding Cup. With the promise of spring up ahead around the corner I cannot help but think of all the fun birding this year may hold. I am especially looking forward to Summer, specifically August when the temperatures soar, the monsoon clouds tower high and the Sky Islands erupt in colorful blooms. During the 2012 Sky Island Birding Cup my team, the Vireosos, was the first runner up with 162 species during the Big Day and we had a blast! Here are some highlights from our hectic, bird filled day.
Our Team Logo! Go Vireosos!
We decided to take a completely different approach from the year before and broke from our normal strategies for a Tucson based Big Day. As we were up against some stiff competition, we needed to shake things up!

We started in the morning darkness at Sweetwater Wetlands. Our hope was that we could quickly capture the many species that use this area. Our pre-dawn owling was disappointing but as the sun rose we quickly found many species as we raced around the wetlands. We then jumped into the car and zoomed onto the I-10 to the I-19 and headed to Montosa Canyon in the Santa Rita Mountains.
Montosa Canyon
Things really heated up here! We quickly either heard or saw many canyonland specialties such as Rock and Canyon Wren and surprises such as Northern Cardninal and Pyrrhuloxia turned up promptly. As a Plain-capped Starthroat had been recently reported in the area, we hoped for a glimpse of this rare hummingbird. This is something to be careful of during a big day. All birds count equally and spending too much time chasing a rare bird and then missing two common birds hurts your overall score.
Matt Brooks and Sara Pike in Montosa
With that in mind, we really wanted to see this bird. Luckily, it turned up pretty quickly. It was heard by the whole team and seen by at least two. As we quickly hiked up the canyon we kept our eyes and ears peeled (audio birds count too!) and picked up more species as the morning sun entered the canyon. It was so birdy that it was difficult to tear ourselves away, but we needed to press on to other habitats.
Matt, Sara and Ric Zarwell
Looking everywhere for the Plain-capped Starthroat!
We kept going south on the I-19 and stopped in Rio Rico at the flooded pastures. This area can attract a surprising diversity of birds, unfortunately this was not one of those days. We did get the staple birds for the area however including Black-bellied Whistling Duck and White-faced Ibis as well as Red-winged and Yellow-headed Blackbirds in one mixed flock. We jumped back in the car and were headed back to the freeway when someone in the backseat yelled: “Roadrunner!!” We quickly backed the car up and everyone watched the sheepish looking Greater Roadrunner on the side of the road. This is a very easy bird to miss on a Big Day as their location can be so unpredictable, excellent find!

Our next stop was Las Cienegas for some grassland species. We quickly checked off Casssin’s and Grasshopper Sparrows as they sang away in the grass. Western and Eastern Meadowlarks were also singing away but we missed the White-tailed Kite we had so hoped to find. Oh well, onto the next. We then made a quick stop at the famed Patagonia Picnic Table (Thick-billed Kingbird!) and the Paton’s yard in Patagonia. Here we scored an Inca Dove and others.
The competition meets and then birds together
As we arrived in Willcox we immediately headed over to Cochise Lakes to find summer shorebirds and other wetland species. Here we ran into our competition and fellow bird friends, Birding the Midnight Oil. We briefly scanned the ponds together and headed out while the other team lingered. As we were driving around the ponds one last time we watched as a Peregrine Falcon plummeted out of the sky and made a grab at a duck on the water. Breathless for a moment we wondered if the other team had seen this. A look though my binoculars at the other side of the pond assured me they had, they were dancing around in excitement.
Matt at Inspiration Point
Then came a long stretch of driving as we headed back to Tucson, where we would finish out this Big Day. As we came into town we made a beeline for Catalina Highway and zoomed up Mount Lemmon. As we had strategically skipped Madera Canyon (gasp) we really needed to get the Madrean Oak Woodland species here on the mountain. Zooming up and then down the mountain we did get many species at the varying elevations and life zones. We also had some surprises such as a female Rose-breasted Grosbeak (the male was seen by other birders in the area we ran into) and a female Calliope Hummingbird. We missed some species we had really hoped to see such as Buff-breasted Flycatcher and surprisingly, Arizona Woodpecker. But most of the needed birds appeared including Magnificent Hummingbird, all three nuthatches and Bridled Titmouse. As darkness fell we prepared to try and pick up some owl species that we had missed in the morning. When we were in the higher elevations we hoping to hear a Flammulated Owl or Whiskered Screech-owl and waited for some time. It is against the rules of the competition to play recordings but is perfectly expectable to make sounds yourself. As a team member tried his best Whiskered Screech-owl imitation a Mexican Spotted Owl called very suddenly and very close by in the complete darkness. It was a shocking thing to hear and the entire team froze for a moment. We knew there was supposed to be a pair of them on the mountain but had never hoped to actually hear it. Once the shock wore off we all celebrated our amazing encounter with this special bird. It was a great way to end an awesome day of birding!

We ended up with 162 species, the winning number from the year before. Alas, this was not enough to win the cup. That honor went to Birding the Midnight Oil, clearly a team of epic skill and astonishing luck. In August 2013 I look forward to facing off with you again!

A special shout out to the amazing folks who made up the Vireosos 2012 Sky Island Birding Cup Team: Matt Brooks, Sara Pike, Tim Helentjaris, Ric Zarwell and Jennie MacFarland.