Thursday, December 11, 2014

The Paton Center: A view from above

The Wednesday before Thanksgiving, John Hoffman came over with his remote operated quad-copter to take some photos of the property so that we can better show changes through time.

The copter is a little GPS-stabilized chopper with 4 propellers. It’s incredibly stable allowing careful positioning to take just the photo wanted. John hooked his phone up to the remote control and so was able to see exactly the photo taken. To this comparative Luddite (i still have a flip-phone!) it was pretty unreal.

I’ll let the photos and captions tell the story.

Paton Center Ambassador Larry Morgan holds the controls
while John Hoffman sets up the quad-copter.
Hoffman orients the copter to the
guiding satellites. This involved
holding it vertically and turning it 360°,
then holding it sideways and repeat.
And, LIFTOFF!      
Red and green lights orient the flier
to which direction the copter is facing
since it is identical from all sides.
Even so, it's easy to get disoriented.
A very careful flier

The controls. By syncing his phone to the controller and the copter, 
Hoffman had a real-time view of what the quad-copter was about to photo.
A view from above -- the front of the Tucson Audubon Paton Center for
Hummingbirds showcasing the new parking areas, front lawn, and new
information kiosk.
Shadows prove to be the biggest obstacle to good photos. Maybe we'll need more on a cloudy day or in winter when more trees have fewer leaves.
A north-facing view of the meadow,
from the south.
(photo credit: John Hoffman)
A west-facing view of the meadow,
from the east.
(photo credit: John Hoffman)
Batteries low, almost touchdown.
Hoffman collects his copter after a
successful outing snapping the
desired photos.

Fun times. Personally, i can’t wait for the next time we need some photos of the site…and with all the ongoing changes, that should be pretty soon.  -- Jonathan

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Paton workday update: Just before Thanksgiving

By Jonathan Horst, Restoration Ecologist

The week before Thanksgiving the crew was back at it at the Paton Center with more work around the property.

We began creating the trail around the paddock, turning it into a meadow. The trail will be a short loop trail primarily around the perimeter with good views of a healthy mulberry tree, a nice grove of locusts, and some large old mesquites. Lots of plans for the future, but i won’t spill the beans on all that just yet.

Volunteer Logan and Matt Griffiths planning where the trail should lie.
Volunteer planting a purple 3-awn grass at the gate signaling the start of the loop trail.
Andy Bennett transplants native bunchgrasses along the trail
Still in process – but progress
Ok, now that looks like a trail! And, it’s bordered on either side with transplanted bunchgrasses saved from the new parking area.

At the back corner of the meadow loop trail our crew and awesome volunteers began prepping and installing some memorial benches.

Lots of work to get it right, but pads for the benches installed! The demo bench will be replaced by some AMAZING benches being restored by some amazing volunteers (you’ll have to wait for next post to see them).

There’s also an amazing little mulberry tree – little for now, it’s gonna grow fast. The main part of the trunk was dying so we had to cut it off, now all those resources go to the new trunk! And the stump becomes the base of the water feature. The water is designed to spill some water over, keeping it fresh, which will water some lush hummingbird plants. First step dig in the tiered basins.

Andy Bennett roughs in the tiered basins.
Completed basins.

Of course there are a ton of other tasks too. We also took down the rest of the fencing from the old fountain area. The fencing will be reused for future gates in the javelina-proof fencing. Reuse first, recycle the rest.

Volunteer Chris Strohm busts the concrete footer away from the fence posts with his impact hammer.
Volunteer John Hughes wipes the protective oils off the new information kiosk.

Volunteer Terry Weimouth power washes and scrubs down the cover of the shaded seating area in the back yard. Looks like new!

Oh, and let’s not forget that we got basins dug to harvest water from more of the new parking areas…

Basins and plants!

Monday, December 8, 2014

Lark Buntings in the Tucson Valley CBC

Guest post by Rich Hoyer, TVCBC Compiler
A recent eBird submission for Lark Bunting at Rio Vista Natural Resource Park got me to thinking. This park is only a mile from where I live in north-central Tucson, and I’ve seen the species in this neighborhood only once in the more than 17 years I’ve lived here. Then it occurred to me that we’ve missed it on several recent Tucson Valley Christmas Bird Counts (happening this weekend, Dec. 14!), including last year’s record-breaking species count. But has it always been a difficult bird here?

Lark Bunting at Rio Vista Natural Resource Park found and photographed by Joan Gellatly.
I was surprised at what I discovered when I looked at the data since Tucson Valley’s current circle was described in 1971. The most surprising is what has happened only since the late 1990’s. Our Lark Buntings have all but disappeared, and they used to be annual, sometimes in the thousands.

This quick blog can’t begin to investigate what might be the causes of this decline, but we can rule out lack of observer coverage. The graph I generated actually accounts for observer coverage by dividing the number of birds by the number of total hours birders spent in the field, the simplest bit of statistical work you can do with these numbers.

To start, one might look at local and regional changes in habitat availability (maybe we’ve lost the habitat they prefer). I did look at about 17 years of area-by-area data, and when they were most abundant, Lark Buntings were found all over the circle, presumably in the larger washes. But they were in the Rillito Wash, way up to where Pantano and Tanque Verde join. They were often in the CaƱada del Oro. And most regularly they were along the Santa Cruz River. At least the latter of these has changed drastically since the mid 1990’s.

Or perhaps one might look at larger scale changes in habitat use and distribution (maybe there’s some other area that is now much more superior where they now prefer to winter). But perhaps most telling might be to look at other CBCs and census data to determine if there’s been a overall decline in the entire population that is mirrored in our CBC data.

But this example shows at least that while nearly all of us are participating in a Christmas Bird Count because it’s fun, relatively common, easy-to-observe, and easy-to-identify birds actually produce some useful data. It’s nice to know that our birding habits might leave a legacy.

Contact Rich Hoyer to sign up for the Tucson Valley CBC. Learn more about the count here:

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Thanksgiving and a Tale of Two Turkeys

Guest post by Bob Bowers
Originally appeared in Saddlebag Notes, November, 2014

When November rolls around, thoughts turn to Thanksgiving, being thankful and, inevitably, turkeys. Whether turkeys think about our holiday has yet to be proven, and except for the annually-pardoned White House bird, domestic turkeys have no reason to be grateful.  On the other hand, most of their wild cousins have plenty of reasons to be thankful.  Give or take, about 7 million reasons.

Bearded male Wild Turkey in Madera Canyon (photo Bob Bowers)

Worldwide, there are two species of turkeys:  the Wild Turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) and the Ocellated Turkey (Meleagris ocellata).  The species we are most familiar with is the Wild Turkey, a resident of all 50 states, Canada and Mexico, while the Ocellated Turkey’s range is limited to some 50,000 square miles of the Yucatan Peninsula.  About the same size as Wild Turkeys (up to four feet in length), the Ocellated species are the trimmer of the two.  The males run about 11 pounds (females about 7) compared with 16 and 9 pounds for their cousins.  In ‘A Guide to the Birds of Mexico and Northern Central America’, Steve Howell’s description of the Ocellated suggests a Halloween witch:  ‘horn nail, naked head and upper neck, blue and orange warts and an inflatable forehead wattle hanging over a black bill.’  But then he describes the iridescent plumage and you realize this is one beautiful bird.  In his short write up of the Ocellated Turkey, Howell uses 16 descriptive colors: black, blue, orange, reddish pink, metallic blue-black, blue-green, golden metallic green, burnished copper, dark brown, white, vermiculated grey, violet-blue, flesh, orange-red, metallic sheen and grey-brown.  I probably missed a couple.  Our Wild Turkeys are colorful, too, but they’re blown away by the Ocellated.  Unfortunately, this sister species to our Wild Turkey is losing ground, figuratively and literally.  Precise population numbers are unknown, but habitat loss and subsistence hunting have led to an estimated 50% reduction during the last century, perhaps leaving as few as 20,000 breeding adult birds, and it is now considered threatened by Mexico.  Fortunately, we got to enjoy these spectacular birds in January, spotting a couple in the jungle near the Mayan ruins at Calakmul, 22 miles north of Guatemala.

Yucatan's Endemic Ocellated Turkey (photo Prudy Bowers)

Displaying Wild Turkey, Madera Canyon in April (photo Bob Bowers)

The Wild Turkey suffered a crisis of its own, due to unregulated hunting.  Over-hunting nearly led to extirpation of American turkeys by the 1930s, prompting a desperate attempt by state wildlife agencies to save the bird.  First attempts to rescue the turkey consisted of releasing pen-raised birds, but the near-domesticated turkeys couldn’t survive in the wild. This failure was finally reversed 20 years later by capturing wild turkeys in one area for release in other, non-populated locations.  Ironically, the biggest boost to the Wild Turkey's recovery came in 1973, with the founding of the National Wild Turkey Foundation, established primarily to protect the future of turkey hunting. The NWTF is a nonprofit conservation and hunting organization, and its efforts, together with that of other state and conservation organizations has proven enormously successful. The number of Wild Turkeys that had recovered to about 1 million birds by 1973 is now estimated by the NWTF at more than 7 million. On Thanksgiving, the Wild Turkey does in fact have reasons to be thankful.

In Arizona, we have two of the six sub-species of Wild Turkey, merriami (Merriam’s) and Mexicana (Gould’s).  Gould’s were a table favorite of miners, and by the time Arizona regulated hunting in 1929, they were non-existent north of Mexico.  An active capture and release program is slowly restoring our population of this species, which now numbers about a thousand birds.

Although hunting in Arizona is permitted for both native species, it is strongly restricted and tightly controlled. During two limited seasons in spring and fall, permits for a single bearded male turkey annually are available only by lottery. In addition to being lucky, you need a fat wallet.  License and tag fees are ‘just’ $75, but then you need a finely patterned, camouflaged shotgun, ‘quite expensive’ ammunition, and, to maximize success, a guide ($2,100 for a 3-day Tucson-based expert).  Makes a free-range grocery store bird look like a bargain.

If you have questions or comments about SaddleBrooke’s birds, or to receive emailed information about bird walks led by Bob and Prudy, call 825-9895 or email  Previously published articles can be found at

Northern Gray Wolf’s Trek to Arizona’s Kaibab Plateau

By Matt Clark, Tucson Audubon Conservation Advocate

Gray Wolf’s Presence Highlights the Importance of the Grand Canyon Ecoregion for Wolf Recovery and the Need for Strong ESA Protections and Corridor Conservation on a Continental Scale

The wolf sports a tracking collar. AZGF
According to the authoritative website Lobos of the Southwest, “The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has confirmed, through DNA tests on scat, that there is a female northern Rockies gray wolf on the Kaibab National Forest, near the north rim of Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona. This brave female is the first wolf in this area for more than 70 years!”  Wolves were completely eradicated in the American West by the powerful livestock lobby and government-sanctioned hunting programs (except in the Western Great Lakes area where they persisted). Sadly, by the 1940’s, the howl of the wolf was silenced on the North Kaibab Plateau by such programs. And now the wolf has returned to the Kaibab – not via direct reintroduction – but rather by following its own instincts in search of new territory, prey and a mate. This lone female wolf is thought to have traveled hundreds of miles from the Yellowstone region where wolves have been successfully reintroduced by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. This wolf’s amazing journey highlights the importance of the Grand Canyon Ecoregion as a prime location for future wolf recovery efforts and the need to protect the core habitats and corridors that enable such important wildlife dispersal movements to occur. The implementation of this vison has been championed by the Wildlands Network and a host of partnering conservation organizations. Last year, this collaborative launched a project called TrekWest, which followed adventurer John Davis on a historic 10-month, 5,000 mile human-powered journey along the “Western Wildway” from northern Mexico all the way to the northern Rockies. Wolves were amongst the wide-ranging animals Davis highlighted as he hiked through the Blue Range and Grand Canyon Ecoregion in a herculean effort to document crucial corridors and draw public attention to ongoing efforts to connect, protect and restore wild nature. Sign a petition to protect America’s fast-disappearing corridors. The arrival of this northern gray wolf in Arizona also underscores the importance of maintaining strong legal protections for the northern gray wolf under the Endangered Species Act, as wolves have only regained less than a tenth of their historic range in the lower 48 states.

The Arizona Daily Star reported, “Wolves often roam vast distances in search of food and mates. But the farther they go, the less likely they are to find a mate, said Ed Bangs, who led recovery efforts for wolves in the Northern Rockies over two decades before retiring from the Fish and Wildlife Service in 2011. “It’s looking for love,” he said. “It leaves the core population and doesn’t know the love of its life is going to be right over the next hill, so it just keeps traveling.” About 25 percent of the roughly 1,700 wolves from the Northern Rockies are being tracked, wildlife officials said. They are distinguished from the Mexican gray wolves found in the Southwest by their more full bodies and less pointed ears. Mike Jimenez, with the Fish and Wildlife Service in Wyoming, said Northern Rockies gray wolves are hard-wired to disperse and have traveled hundreds of miles. One young female started off in Montana and traveled 3,000 miles over six months, making stops in Wyoming, Idaho, Utah and Colorado before it died, he said. Colorado had been the farthest journey south for the animals until the female was confirmed in Arizona, he said . . . The Fish and Wildlife Service in recent years lifted federal protections for the animals in the western Great Lakes and the Northern Rockies. A federal judge recently ordered the protections reinstated in Wyoming after wildlife advocates sued. Environmentalists are pressing for continued protection of gray wolves. Meanwhile, they celebrated the news of the one in Northern Arizona.”

This lone female wolf, now a symbol of hope for wolf recovery in the region, needs a name! Lobos of the Southwest has launched a contest to solicit name ideas from our youth, “We think this amazing pioneer inhabiting an area where wolves once thrived deserves a special name. That’s why groups from all over the west are working together on this contest! With the help of their parent or guardian, children under the age of 18 can learn more and enter the naming contest at this website.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Arizona IBA partnership with Student Conservation Association

by Jennie MacFarland, IBA Conservation Biologist

For a second year the Arizona Important Bird Areas Program has been partnering with the Student Conservation Association and this has brought our volunteers together with these college-age students of the SCA in remarkable ways. This partnership was born of another partnership, that between Tucson Audubon and Audubon Arizona in Phoenix who share the coordination of the Arizona Important Bird Areas Program. Tice Supplee, Director of Bird Conservation at Audubon Arizona, teaches a class at Phoenix College on Wildlife and has become a mentor to students within the SCA on wildlife survey techniques. These students receive a very diverse set of skills through different training sessions including wilderness first aid, "leave no trace" and wilderness fire fighting. For the bird survey portion of their training they are working with us at Arizona IBA with the further benefit of generating useful data for the program.

SCA students and IBA volunteers at Buenos Aires Oct 2013
Last winter in Buenos Aires NWR the SCA students and IBA volunteers paired off into teams and did driving transect surveys with an emphasis on grassland birds such as wintering sparrows, thrashers and raptors.
Mel from the SCA crew records the bird data seen through the spotting scope!

IBA Volunteer and SCA student kicking up birds in the grass - M. Van de Water
This SCA Program focuses on students from very racially diverse and economically diverse backgrounds and gives them training that can help them to find jobs in the ecology and environmental fields later. We have found these students to be a delight to work with and they are very enthusiastic and eager to learn. They are normally assigned to the role of filling out the data sheets during the survey and their sheets are often the most carefully filled out sheets I encounter.
The SCA students had also worked with Pronghorn in partnership with USFWS

Students from the SCA have also helped us with other projects including Bendire's Thrasher surveys at the new Chicken Springs IBA west of Wickieup that is distictive for its large Joshua Trees.
Joshua Tree IBA - a mix of Mohave and Sonoran Desert habitat
A Bendire's Thrasher found by an SCA student
Just this last week we partnered again with the SCA and a group of students helped us to survey the Arivaca Cienega and Creek for the first time ever! These riparian surveys are a bit challenging so it was great to have such enthusiastic help from these young people!
SCA student in Arivaca Creek

IBA Volunteers and SCA students after the survey in Arivaca
This upcoming spring we will be working with the SCA students again to count Gilded Flickers in Cabeza Prieta NWR and Organ Pipe National Park to try and qualify the Sonoran Desert Borderlands IBA as a Continental IBA. Here's to partnerships!

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Paton Center Workdays - the makeover continues

We spent another couple days at the Paton Center working to protect the inner yard with its feeders and lush vegetation, while also beginning to integrate the rest of the property with the surrounding environment and make the whole site a wonderful place for birds, and birders too!

(If you haven't seen it, now would be a great time to read the guest post by volunteer Alice Cave on her experience volunteering at the Paton Center during the time covered by this post.)

We've been getting a ton done there. First and foremost, we've needed to complete the house yard fence and make it javalina proof to protect the back yard, now that the perimeter fencing has come done. We've gotten a new front gate installed to the house thanks to hard work from our neighbor Alex. The new front gate is the hummingbird gate from the fence protecting fountain in the back yard, refinished and sized to perfection. We're calling it the Puerto Colibri.
The Puerto Colibri, pre install, let the measuring begin.
Alex and Keith laying out and working on the Puerto Colibri
Alex digs out the hole for the railroad tie posts
The newly installed Puerto Colibri, anchored in place while
the concrete dries.
Rick and Alice came down and helped out with staining and sealing the new extended wooden fence; it's looking great.

After some hours of kneeling to stain, Alice wised up and brought in some cushy accommodations to finish out the work.
Alice enjoying the cushy work conditions, sun and a nice chair!
Some of the crew and volunteers Terry and John set the foundation and posts for the new information kiosk and then assembled it including re-using the corrugated sheet metal from the old paddock shed as the new roof. The kiosk was designed by local designer/fabricator Doug Thompson. It'll soon develop a fine rusty patina that will look fantastic as a back to the information signage that will be on its way soon.
Terry, Dan, and Andy mixing concrete
Looking pretty level, nice work guys!

The assembled frame concrete in place, waiting for it to dry.
John and Dan putting on the roof.
John and Dan with the assembled and roofed kiosk.
Underside view of the roof - shiny side down.
The completed kiosk, awaiting information.
We've also begun working on the new parking areas. Previously there would be a long line of cars along Blue Heaven Road. With the chain-link fence around the property they were separated out from the Paton's yard. However, now that the perimeter fence is down, cars parked there look out of place. We're consolidating parking near the NE corner of the property on smaller lots separated by water harvesting basins. The water from the parking areas will flow into and feed the water harvesting basins and keep lush hummingbird plants and native grasses and shrubs growing healthy there.
Andy, John, and Dan digging out the water-harvesting basin.
Dirt from the basin going onto the parking area to raise it.
Countless wheelbarrow-fulls of dirt.
And, it looks like parking...or is starting to.
Basin by the front entrance on Blue Heaven, just getting underway.
 Last (for this post), but not least is that the new trail around the meadow area is being roughed in. It'll be lined w/ native bunch-grasses and flowering plants, and lead around to some quiet area and excellent future birding least that's the goal! Right now it's a nascent path through a weedy field.
Andy beside the path he's just cleared.
Kickin' up some dust.
 Come on out and visit! Check out the changes in person and let us know what you think. And, as always, if you're interested in volunteering, contact Jonathan or Keith!