Tuesday, April 1, 2014

It's April and Birdathon is On!

To begin the Birdathon month, we start at the beginning. Read on to see how the Tyrannulets' Big Day started last year. Account is written by last year's Grand Prize winner, and Tyrannulets' team leader, Kendall Kroesen. Kendall, Janine, and Brian are back this year as the Valiant Verdins. Donate to their or another Birdathoner's effort at www.tucsonaudubon.org/birdathon (click on Birders).

2013 Birdathon Adventure of The Tyrannulets 
Kendall Kroesen, Brian Nicholas and Janine McCabe 

This is an account of our Birdathon trip: an attempt to see as many bird species as possible in 24 consecutive hours in order to raise money for Tucson Audubon Society.

Getting Started

I picked up Brian Nicholas as he got off work at 4 p.m. Friday. He had to talk his way out of a meeting that was running long. Birdathon waits for no meeting.

 Brian offered to fill up my thermos with coffee from his office. I assented. I wasn’t going to drink any more that day. I wanted to be able to sleep well during the relatively few hours we were likely to get. But it would still be warm the next morning when we woke up at a remote campground with no Starbuck’s for miles.
Then we headed toward Desert Survivors Nursery where Janine McCabe works. She wasn’t working but it was a convenient place to meet us and leave her truck behind a locked gate for the night. Plus she sometimes sees an Inca dove there. These doves were once fairly common in Tucson but are now hard to find. We might start off the trip with a tough species.

We went into the nursery and found her. But no Inca doves were around that afternoon. However, as we loaded her things in the truck Brian and Janine simultaneously saw a roadrunner across the street. This seemed a good sign. Roadrunners, though widespread, are never very numerous in any given spot, and have been missed on many a Birdathon. We checked the time and decided we could start the Birdathon clock then and there.

Digging up a Burrowing Owl

In our region burrowing owls live in desert basins, adopting mammal holes for their nesting burrows. But humans have developed many of the lowland areas they favor. So burrowing owls are another species that’s a bit hard to find. Janine knew of a place close to Desert Survivors where owls from areas slated for development have been relocated to artificial burrow complexes. We went there next.

Arriving Janine quickly spotted a burrowing owl in front of a PVC pipe sticking out of the ground. I’m glad I don’t use the same architect.

Burrowing owls are cute but we didn’t have time to appreciate it. This is the phase of Birdathon when every species is new to your trip list. Even while driving to the owl spot we saw verdin, house finch, house sparrow, white-winged dove, Eurasian collared-dove, great-tailed grackle, rock pigeon, lesser goldfinch, mourning dove and European starling.

While still at the owl stop we saw a soaring red-tailed hawk and driving away we saw (or heard) Gila woodpecker, Gambel’s quail, Lucy’s warbler and black-chinned hummingbird.

Sweetwater Wetlands

Our strategy for this Birdathon was to hit Sweetwater Wetlands in the late afternoon and evening, the Santa Catalina Mountains at night and in the early morning, and then some other more distant environment later in the second day. The more different environments you visit, each with a characteristic mix of species, the more species you are likely to see.

Sweetwater Wetlands is the premier location of high species diversity in the Tucson metro area. It combines ponds, wetlands, shallow mudflats and riparian trees with some desert vegetation to attract the widest range of species possible. Over 290 species of birds have been seen here in the 15 years of its existence (see https://sites.google.com/site/sweetwaterwetlands/checklist). It attracts winter waterfowl, spring migrants, nesting birds, post-breeding wanderers and “accidental” lost birds far from their normal range.

As we went down Sweetwater Drive I suggested we drive past the gate and lawns of the Roger Road Wastewater Treatment Plant first before turning into the wetlands. I had seen Inca dove here before, along with other species. We were delighted to see lazuli buntings on the grass, vermilion flycatchers catching bugs and Cassin’s kingbird perched on a wire.

Inca dove is a small “ground dove.” This group of doves is probably named that because they spend a lot of time foraging on the ground, but it might as well be because they are the color of the ground. But as we swung around and headed for the wetlands Janine spotted one on the ground alongside the road. She pointed it out but it took Brian and me a minute to focus. This was good fortune indeed, and I was now having high hopes for this Birdathon.

We pulled into the parking lot at Sweetwater Wetlands and headed up the trail. A big part of the appeal of the wetlands—to birds—is the insects. Swallows circled the ponds, verdins plied the mesquites, yellow warblers sang daintily in the cottonwoods—all because of the presence of the bugs they eat. Beautiful common yellowthroats sang—mostly hidden but sometimes emerging from cattails. Many of the waterfowl species present there eat aquatic arthropods. Flycatchers like western kingbird gobble up insects on the wing.

We probably saw over 30 new species at Sweetwater, many of them insect eaters. American avocets and black-necked stilts walked in the shallow water of the infiltration basins, with spotted sandpipers and killdeers on the water’s margin and Wilson’s phalaropes swimming circles in the water and then lifting into the air to circle the ponds, perhaps on their way to a nighttime migration trip.

Overseeing all this was a great horned owl perched in a tall eucalyptus across the street where it has its nest. It probably eats mostly the abundant cotton rats that live in the wetlands.

It was dusk when we were walking out of the wetlands and Brian pointed out lesser nighthawks circling the wetlands with their seemingly erratic flight—turns on a wing, little dives and climbs. They chase the big insects—moths and such—that are out at this time of day. 

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