Monday, January 27, 2014

Finding Rare Birds in Arizona

Guest post by Bob Bowers

Because Storm Chasers get lots of publicity on television, most of us are familiar with these daredevils that grab their video recorders, hop in their cars and head for the center of weather-related calamities like tornadoes and hurricanes.  One of the foremost of these crazy people is Warren Faidley, who has chased, filmed and survived 25 years of storms, fires, floods, lightning, grapefruit-sized hail and other disasters.  His website even reports he has survived ‘pitchfork-yielding farmers’.  They probably mean ‘pitchfork-wielding farmers’, but we get it.  Less well-known, but undoubtedly more common is a group that could be called Rare Bird Chasers.  Farmers with pitchforks is a conceivable hazard for bird chasers, but overall this is a much safer hobby than chasing tornadoes, and, besides, it’s hard to find birds in a hurricane.

The most significant publicity for bird chasing probably was the 2011 movie, ‘The Big Year’.  The movie is a fictionalized version of the 1998 ‘Big Year’ described by Mark Obmascik in a book with the same name, about three obsessed birders and their attempts to record the most species of birds north of Mexico in a single year.  The book (and the movie) opens on January 1, 1998, with Sandy Komito having a pre-dawn cup of coffee in a restaurant in Nogales, Arizona.  As dedicated as any storm chaser, he has just flown 2,400 miles from his home in New Jersey to find birds, and he launched his year in Arizona because in the prior week Arizona had reported more rare birds than anywhere else on the continent.  One bird in particular drew him to Lake Patagonia, a bird that had last appeared in the U.S. during Truman’s presidency, the Nutting’s Flycatcher.  A decade passed before this bird was seen again in Arizona, but it is now reported fairly regularly at Bill Williams River National Wildlife Refuge near Lake Havasu, and spring nesting birds have been confirmed.

Nutting's Flycatcher by Bob Bowers

On November 6 of this year, Prudy and I were surprised (and shocked) to find a young male Calliope Hummingbird at one of our feeders.  Although we have seen many Calliope Hummingbirds in Colorado in July, as they pass through on their migration back to Mexico, and have spotted similarly migrating Calliopes in Greer in August, we had never seen one anywhere close to SaddleBrooke.  The Tucson Audubon Society’s ‘Finding Birds in Southeast Arizona’ shows the Calliope as an uncommon migrant in late summer in Arizona, but only as a rare or accidental bird in November, making this addition to our yard list and SaddleBrooke’s bird list particularly special.

Calliope Hummingbird by Bob Bowers

Rufous-backed Robin by Bob Bowers

The Arizona-New Mexico List Serve regularly summarizes rare bird reports for the two states, and confirming photographs are often posted on the web site for AZFO, the Arizona Field Ornithologists.  Some of these postings reflect birds that are rare for a particular location or time of the year, while others are remarkable for being noted anywhere or anytime in Arizona.  Rufous-backed Robins used to be quite rare in Arizona, but now are routinely reported.  On New Year’s Day, 2008, we joined about 100 other birders to look at one in Catalina State Park, but they have now been reported in nearly every month of the year.  Other rarities that are currently being reported on the List Serve include Eastern Phoebe, Sinaloa Wren, Black-capped Gnatcatcher, Rufous-capped Warbler, Painted Bunting and Plain-capped Starthroat. Other rare birds that have been seen not long ago include Blue Jay and Scissor-tailed Flycatcher.  Most of our rare birds wander north from Mexico or from distant states, but in December, 2012, a birder with a sharp eye at Gilbert Water Ranch discovered a bird that was a LONG way from home.  This bird, which drew hundreds of bird chasers from all over the country, was a Baikal Teal from Siberia, and he stayed around until December 11.  Who knows what might be reported this month?  Keep your eyes open and your camera handy.  You might get lucky and experience the same rush Sandy Komito felt when he saw that Nutting’s Flycatcher at Patagonia Lake.  And you don’t have to risk grapefruit-sized hail in the process.

(This article originally appeared in the Saddlebag Notes newspaper in December 2013.)

Check Tucson Audubon's Rare Bird Alert or the Arizona/New Mexico Birding News for all the latest interesting bird sightings in the region.

Volunteers Fashion Nest Boxes at Tucson Audubon's Mason Center

Kendall Kroesen, Urban Program Manager

Linda Matson and Bill Sievers assemble a nest box
Saturday twelve volunteers put together nest boxes for American Kestrels. This is part of our nest box pilot program, a new initiative of Tucson Audubon's Urban Program.

We're putting out about 40 experimental nests this spring designed for American Kestrels and Ash-throated Flycatchers. The kestrel box also will work for Western Screech-Owl and the ash-throated box probably will work for Brown-crested Flycatchers. We want to do a pilot program to see if we can make nest boxes successful here, as they have been in other parts of the country.

Paul Winnik and Laurie Neidich  finish a box!
We will also put out some gourds with small holes to see if Lucy's Warblers will nest in them. We have heard from two people that had success with Lucy's Warblers nesting in gourds or gourd-like objects. Next year I plan to grow dipper gourds in order to make more experimental nests.

The conventional wisdom is that nest boxes won't work here because they get too hot. But we now know of several successful Western Screech-Owl boxes, and we have heard of successes with the kestrels, ash-throated flycatchers an Lucy's Warblers. We want to see if we can replicate these successes and under what conditions the boxes succeed. If we can figure out how to be successful we will start public outreach that will involve a lot of new Arizonans in bird conservation and make new friends for Tucson Audubon. Bluebird box programs have had great successes such as this in the Midwest and East.

We are aided in this effort by Keith Ashley, a Tucson Audubon volunteer and masters student at Prescott College. He has taken the idea of a nest box pilot program and made it reality. Without his research on the needs of hole-nesting birds, correspondence with interested parties and coordination of volunteers at events like this we would not be nearly as far along on this project. He's done a great job.

Joe DeRouen, a skilled carpenter and father of Operations Manager Sara Pike, has also been an exemplary volunteer. He has cut wood for boxes on his table saw at home and on Saturday morning he was indispensable, using his portable equipment to fix little problems and make new parts as needed. Thanks Joe!

Joe DeRouen, carpenter and
nest box enthusiast
A big thanks to all the volunteers who came out to this and the previous nest box assembly party! There is one more scheduled for Saturday February 1, 10 - noon, in the courtyard outside the Tucson Audubon Nature Shop at 300 E. University Blvd. Contact Keith at to sign up.

Some nice birds made an appearance at the Mason Center this morning. I took a break from the volunteers to snap some photos.

Gilded Flicker
Costa's Hummingbird

Friday, January 10, 2014

Electric News from Tucson Audubon's Mason Center

Kendall Kroesen, Urban Program Manager

I knew we were making gobs of electricity at the Mason Center with our new solar panels, but I didn't understand everything on the inverter readout. So here's my attempt at deciphering it via the user manual.

Mason Center energy production meter

Let's start with the graph in the upper left corner. This shows the energy made each hour for the last 16 hours. It can be changed to show the energy made over the last 16 days. The funny-looking symbol to the right that looks like a hand means that you can "tap" the display with your finger to change the readout.

To the right of the hand is the amount of power, in watts, being made at this instant (3:04 p.m. on January 10, 2014). At that moment we were making 2,886 watts. Below that is the amount of energy made so far on this day measured in kilowatt-hours (a kilowatt is 1000 watts and a kilowatt-hour is one kilowatt of energy expended, or created, for one hour's time). We were at 21.56 kilowatt-hours and we finished the day around 25.

Below that is the total amount of energy made by the system up to now in megawatt-hours (a megawatt is one million watts and a megawatt-hour is one megawatt of energy expended, or created, for one hour's time). We're getting close to having made one million watt-hours since the system was turned on in the last week of November!

At the bottom the graphic shows the solar panels on the left sending 4.6 Amperes of input current to the inverter, represented by the box with the equal sign and tilde. The inverter converts DC to AC, sending 124 volts output to the electrical grid.

One cool thing that the readout doesn't say is that this new inverter system allows the Mason Center to go on using electricity from the solar panels when the grid goes down (a blackout). Counter-intuitively, on older "grid-tied" systems even though the panels continued to make electricity, during a blackout that electricity wasn't available. This grid-tied system has a special circuit that switches off electricity to the grid and makes it available to the Mason Center in case of a blackout.

Cool, huh!