Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Be a Strong Voice for Nature’s Bottom Line by Becoming a Conservation Advocate

By Matt Clark
Tucson Audubon Conservation Advocate

Help us to grow the power of our collective voice for the conservation of birds, other wildlife and their habitats in southeast Arizona. We need your voice to amplify Tucson Audubon’s positions and recommendations to our elected leaders and decision makers. We have made it easy to do!  Check out our Conservation Action Alert web page for information and targeted actions on current issues we are working on in conjunction with our partner organizations: http://www.tucsonaudubon.org/act-now  

City-County Cooperation Saves Saguaro-studded Painted Hills
The Arizona Daily Star recently published an opinion editorial written by Pima County Board of Supervisor Richard Elias and City Councilor Regina Romero celebrating our community’s newest conservation success story: the preservation of Painted Hills.  In their editorial, the two community leaders say, “The saguaro-studded Painted Hills at the gateway to Tucson Mountain Park finally is getting the protection it has long deserved, due in large part to years of cooperative efforts between Pima County and the City of Tucson. City and county officials worked hard and in concert to achieve this milestone, as neither entity could have done it alone.”  

The Pima County Board of Supervisors on Monday approved a $7.5 million agreement to purchase the 287 pristine acres that make up the striking Painted Hills between West Speedway and West Anklam Road, using bond funds that the Tucson City Council allocated for a $3 million down payment. The willing seller is the Dallas Police and Fire Retirement System. A less preservation-minded Board of Supervisors in the 1960s had zoned the acreage for residential development, but the ravine-laced rocky crags of the Painted Hills repeatedly defied development efforts. Pima County and city voters approved open space bonds to purchase Painted Hills in 1997 and again in 2004.”  The funding for the purchase of Painted hills was levied specifically for Community Open Space acquisitions.
Tucson Audubon commends the both the City and County for their efforts to purchase and preserve Painted Hills. Representatives from Tucson Audubon and the Coalition for Sonoran Desert Protection, of which Tucson Audubon is a founding member group, have attended many meetings over the past decade in support of preserving this special parcel of land. Now we can celebrate this long-awaited conservation achievement! 

With an estimated 9,000 saguaros, Painted Hills has abundant wildlife, wash corridors, peaks and ridges of scenic value and lush upland desert habitat. It is directly adjacent to the proposed Tucson Mountain Area Important Bird Area, and is an excellent addition to the iconic Tucson Mountain Park. The Painted Hills property will provide excellent recreational opportunities for Tucson citizens and out of town visitors for generations to come and is a good investment for our community. Painted Hills is exactly the type of open space purchase that the 2004 Community Open Space Bond was passed by voters to purchase and protect, and directly supports the implementation of the visionary Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan.

Call or email your County Supervisor and City Council Representative to thank them for their leadership, collaboration and commitment to preserving Painted Hills.

Also, we encourage you to write to the Pima County Bond Advisory Committee and tell them you support the next open space bond package to be as fully funded as possible so that conservation success stories like Painted Hills can continue to be possible. Click here to read more and to learn how you can take action to support the future of open space preservation in Pima County.

Solar, Wind and Wildlife – Can We Strike a Balance? 
The conservation community has been actively engaged in tackling the growing threat posed to birds, bats and other wildlife by the development and operation of many new utility scale wind and solar installations. The rapid growth of these new forms of energy production has resulted in efforts by the government and the public to craft new policies in order to strike a balance between renewable energy development and the conservation of wildlife and other natural and cultural resources. 
In recent news, North American Windpower recently reported that on July 31st, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) issued the first ever eagle take permit for EDF Renewable Energy’s Shiloh IV wind project in Solano, California. The article also notes that a public process is now underway by the FWS to retool eagle take permit polices. Tucson Audubon will be reviewing the proposed revisions to the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act permit regulations. The final policy governing take permits, including the maximum length of time permits can be issued, is expected to be finalized by the end of 2015.

Meanwhile, things are heating up in the Mojave Desert of California, where birds are being scorched out of the sky by the new Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System (ISEGS). Read the Arizona Daily Star article on the issue. The project is currently the largest solar thermal power plant in the world. What is being done to avoid, minimize and mitigate impacts to our wildlife from energy development?  Visit the and American Bird Conservancy and Defenders of Wildlife’s websites to learn more about the issues and how we can get engaged.

Outdoor Cat Suspected of Killing 5 Endangered Lesser Long-Nosed Bats
Recently, in nearby Cochise County, three endangered Lesser Long-Nosed bat carcasses were collected from a mortality event of five bats found under a hummingbird feeder over several days. According to the USGS National Wildlife Health Center diagnostic report, “All three bats had evidence of bite wounds resulting in death; bite wounds were small and deeply penetrating, consistent with a small carnivore such as a cat.” While this case is not yet definitive, cat-caused mortality events such as this may be occurring much more often than we realize because the vast majority of them likely go undocumented.

Scientists from the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently estimated that outdoor cats kill an astounding 1.4 to 3.7 billion birds and 6.9 to 20.7 billion mammals in the United States annually.  Even well-fed cats instinctively kill birds and other small animals. Therefore, developing public policies governing the management of outdoor cats that are informed and responsive to the best available science is crucial to addressing this growing problem.

Tucson Audubon is disappointed in the recent Pima County Board of Supervisors approval of a trap, neuter and release (TNR) program for feral cats.  We believe it was the wrong decision for biodiversity and for the health and human safety of Pima County residents. Although the TNR program will undoubtedly reduce feral cat euthanasia and intakes into shelters, there is no credible evidence that it will actually reduce the number of feral cats in the environment. If the newly adopted TNR program does not significantly reduce the number of feral cats on our streets and in our local natural areas, it will be a failure.
In addition to many common species outdoor cats kill, a few examples among special status species that outdoor cats may be putting at risk of further endangerment in Pima County include the Southwest Willow flycatcher (Empidonax traillii extimus), the Western yellow-billed cuckoo (Coccyzus americanus), Mountain Plover (Charadrius montanus) and the Lesser Long-Nosed bat (Leptonycteris curasoae yerbabuenae).

In light of the decision to adopt the “Community Cats” TNR program, Tucson Audubon is asking Pima County to take reasonable steps to document the performance of the program and to avoid some of the pitfalls of other TNR programs. We are asking that Pima County: 1) fund an independent study of the feral cat population in the zip codes affected by the program, before, during and after the three-year program; 2) not allow cat colonies near several key locations for birds and bats that are within the project area; 3) listen and respond favorably to people who don’t want cat colonies near them or their property; 4) not allow cat colonies near The Loop or other bicycle routes in order to assure the safety of cyclists; 5) abandon the current TNR program if it fails to reduce feral cat populations over the three year period for which it is funded; 6) partner with Tucson Audubon and the American Bird Conservancy to educate people about the benefits of keeping cats indoors; and to 7) consider adopting and funding other approaches and solutions, such as developing a more robust adoption program, and creating a larger county-operated no-kill facility for cats that are deemed unsuitable for adoption. Click here to learn more and take action!

Twin Mining Pollution Disasters Remind the Public and Policy Makers of the Industry’s Many Environmental Hazards
Two recent major mining-related pollution disasters are a stark reminder of the many serious environmental hazards posed by the hard rock mining industry, which unfortunately aims to build new open pit mines in both the Santa Rita and Patagonia Mountains of southeast Arizona.

The first disaster occurred near Mount Polley in the Cariboo region of British Columbia, Canada.  According to Wikipedia, “the disaster began in the early morning of August 4, 2014 when the Mount Polley tailings pond partially breached, releasing 10 million cubic meters of water and 4.5 million cubic meters of slurry into Polley Lake. The contaminated slurry carrying felled trees, mud and debris "scoured away the banks" of Hazeltine Creek which flows out of Polley Lake and continued into the nearby Quesnel Lake. The spill caused Polley Lake to rise by 1.5 meters (4.9 ft). Hazeltine Creek was transformed from a 2-metre-wide (6.6 ft) stream to a 50-meter-across (160 ft) "wasteland." Cariboo Creek was also affected. The spill has been called one of the biggest environmental disasters in modern Canadian history” The mining disaster has begun a conversation about ways such disasters might be avoided in the future, like in this article in the online magazine The Tyee.
The second disaster occurred at the Buenavista copper mine in Cananea, Sonora, Mexico. According to a Mexico News Daily report, “The mine spilled 40,000 cubic meters of copper sulphate acid solution into the Sonora and Bacanuchi rivers on August 6, leaving some 22,000 people without drinking water in as many as seven area municipalities. The National Water Commission has issued a prohibition against contact with the water due to unsafe levels of arsenic, cadmium, copper, chrome and mercury. The environmental protection agency is expected to conclude its investigation into the spill this week and decide on what sanctions will be imposed on the mine’s owner.”

This twin set of mining disasters in our neighboring countries is a wake-up call for us too. Southern Arizona now faces numerous large-scale mining proposals in ecologically sensitive areas such as the Santa Rita and Patagonia Mountains.  Not only would such mining cause extensive habitat loss and fragmentation, they would also put our community’s water and air quality at risk.

The majority of these two adjacent “sky island” mountain ranges are publicly owned land, managed in trust by the Coronado National Forest. These sky islands harbor impressive endemic biological diversity – and are a birding hotspot that is a major economic draw to the area. Both the ecology and economy of the region are threatened by several large-scale mineral mining proposals from foreign-owned companies. Efforts to stop these disastrous proposals from becoming a reality are hampered by the antiquated Mining Act of 1872. Legislative attempts to reform and modernize this law have been obstructed by powerful pro-mining lobbies. New legislation has been introduced that would better address the environmental and societal impacts caused by modern mining operations.

Tucson Audubon is working in partnership with organizations like the Patagonia Area Resource Alliance, Save the Scenic Santa Ritas and Earthworks to prevent these potentially disastrous mining proposals from becoming a reality and to build a constituency to demand that our government modernize its mining laws. Click here to learn more and take action!

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Are Playback Apps Good or Bad for Birding?

Guest post by Bob Bowers

I would guess there are few people around unfamiliar with apps, but if you’re one of them, here’s a quick explanation:  Apps, short for ‘mobile application software’, are clever little programs you can download (often for free) onto your iPhone, Droid or other mobile device, giving you the ability to play games, connect socially, stay current with news and weather, plot your caloric intake, map a route, find the cheapest nearby gas station and a million other things.  Literally.  Apple now offers more than a million apps with thousands of new ones added monthly, and more than 60 billion have been downloaded.

There are apps for just about everything, and birding is no exception.  You can download a Sibley birding app, for example, that puts most of the 3-pound, 545-page ‘Sibley Guide to Birds’ in your pocket, including thousands of colored illustrations and range maps for all birds found north of Mexico.  The app lets you organize this wealth of information taxonomically or alphabetically by either first or last name, and gives you comparative side-by-side drawings of similar birds.  The app’s most dramatic feature, however, is its ‘playback’.  Playback allows the user to play the calls and songs of more than 900 birds.  This powerful tool is significantly valuable to field ornithologists, guides and anyone wanting to learn more about birds.  Using playback to learn songs has helped me identify hidden birds, and in leading field trips I have used playback to find elusive birds for birders who have never seen them.  In Mexico this January we found a beautiful kingbird perched in the open.  Easily seen, we still couldn’t identify him with certainty.  We knew it was either a Tropical or a Couch’s Kingbird, but they are identical except for their song, and this bird wasn’t singing.  I played a short snippet of the Couch’s song and the bird answered back with the same, giving us a positive ID (and a new ‘life bird’).  In spite of these benefits, however, playback is controversial and has no shortage of critics.

 Playback proved this Couch's Kingbird was not a Tropical Kingbird (All photos by Bob Bowers)

Birds establish territories for feeding, attracting mates and nesting, and males patrol these territories, singing to draw a mate or to keep competitors at bay.  Playback leads the bird to think another male is challenging his territory, and he’ll fly to the sound to defend his territory, giving the birder an opportunity to see a bird he might otherwise miss.

Detractors argue that field use of playback can be harmful to birds by luring them into the open, exposing them or their nestlings to predators, by disturbing the status and relationship of males to females and by distracting and stressing birds unnecessarily.  Critics also cite the impact on other birders, who can be misled and annoyed by artificial song recordings while they are listening for real songs to track birds.  While the annoyance factor is inarguable (think of cell phone use in a restaurant or theater), actual harm to birds has not been proven.  Harm theories seem logical, but there are counter arguments that are equally credible.   Supporters argue the use of playback is actually less disruptive to birds, saying that drawing a bird into view from a distance is better than physically invading the habitat.  They also point out that playback targets a single species, with little or no impact on other birds, and that successful playback will minimize the time (and disruption) of birders in the habitat.  Even a birder sitting quietly for a prolonged time in a bird’s habitat can have negative impact.

Playback helped find this rare Indigo Bunting near Oracle

 Using songbird playback when a Cooper's Hawk is nearby might be a bad idea

You don't need playback to get a good look at a Northern Cardinal

Birding by any means is generally invasive and disruptive to birds.  Tramping through habitat, pointing binoculars, scopes and long-lensed cameras at feeding, foraging and nesting birds can impact them, and there is little difference between birders using playback and those who pish or mimic bird calls and songs.  Consequently, lacking scientific findings to the contrary, playback seems a useful and acceptable tool.  Nevertheless, the field use of such a powerful device should be moderate and responsible.  Playback should not be used when other birders are present without their permission or where prohibited.  In a birding group, the leader decides whether or not to use playback, and if you are alone, the decision obviously is yours.  There should be a reason to use it (if birds are obvious or otherwise identifiable, it’s unnecessary), and if you choose to use playback it should be limited to a targeted bird.  Use calls rather than songs first, and play short snippets with longer intervals of silence.  Birding is a lot like fishing.  If you get no response within a few minutes, move on.  Above all else, don’t overdo it.  I suspect that birds can get just as annoyed at excessive playback as we can with cell phones in restaurants.

This article was previously published in the Saddlebag Notes newspaper.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Don't Miss the Tucson Bird & Wildlife Festival This Week

Whether you're flying out, riding the new Modern Streetcar over, exiting I-10, walking or biking, be sure to make it to the Tucson Bird & Wildlife Festival at the Riverpark Inn this week! 

 The festival kicks off with 24-hours of birding during the team competition, the Sky Islands Birding Cup on Wednesday, August 13th. Register your team at www.tucsonaudubon.org/cup or donate to cheer on these extreme birders, like teams Birding the Midnight Oil or the Border Petrels, here.  

The festival is packed with fun, free activities open to the public all weekend long during the Nature Expo. Just stop by, August 15-16, 10am-6pm, or Sunday, August 17 from 10am-2pm.

Get up close to live birds and animals from community partners like Game & Fish, Tucson Wildlife Center and Wildlife Rehabilitation of Northwest Tucson (they're bringing the festival logo bird, the adorable Elf Owl for the Nightlife Social on Thursday night). 

Find a perfect gift, or explore a new birding tour destination, at the exhibitor booths at the Nature Expo. Five birding tour companies, four artists, five optics companies, and nature exhibitors will be on display and ready to greet you!

If you want to learn about binoculars or are considering a new pair, then Optics Day is not to be missed. At 11, festival lead sponsor Zeiss Sports Optics will be giving a Binoculars for Birding talk, and at 3pm Zeiss, Leica, and Swarovski will lead digiscoping demos. All day long, the knowledgeable optics reps, and Tucson Audubon's expert binocular volunteers, will be on hand for you. Zeiss will also be raffling a pair of Terra binoculars to one lucky Optics Day guest! 

Credit Chandra Taylor Smith

We're really excited for the stellar lineup of free talks...a full itinerary for any nature enthusiast!
Friday, August 15
10AM Secrets of the Spotted Cats:  Jaguars and Ocelots in the Southwest with Pinau Merlin
11AM Special Optics Day talk in Sabino Room Binoculars for Beginners with our lead sponsor Zeiss Sports Optics
11:30AM How We and Our Avian Friends See the World:  Similarities & Differences with Michael McNulty
1PM Bears in Sierra Vista Post-Monument Fire: A Case History with Mark Hart
2:30PM Bats with Ted Fleming
4PM The Mighty San Pedro River with Jennie MacFarland


10AM Sonoran Desert Reptiles with Kevin Bonine

11:30AM Roadrunner Family with Doris Evans

1PM Desert Adaptations: Live Animal Presentation for Kids with Sam Huselton

2:30PM HUMMINGBIRDS: Flying Jewels of Arizona! with Karen Krebbs

4PM Saving Our Birds One Bite at a Time with Paul Green


10AM Biodiversity of the Alamos Tropical Deciduous Forest in Sonora Mexico with David and Jennifer MacKay

11:30AM Tucson Wildlife Center: Rescue, Rehab, Release! with Joan Cass 

1PM Sky Islands and Valleys: Beyond Madera Canyon and Other Usual Places with Doug Moore

Many activities have sold out in record time this year, but there are still plenty of fun festival programs that you can register for now. You can learn all about the basics of birding, urban gardening and attracting hummingbirds to your backyard in workshops that have openings. Snag one of a few spaces left for Robert Mesta's Friday dinner program, "The 40th Anniversary of the Endangered Species Act” with special guest, Congressman, Raul Grijalva. 

Be sure to bring the whole family on Saturday and Sunday! There will be hands-on activities for kids from 10am-3pm on Saturday & 10am-2pm Sunday. On Sunday, youth ages 8-18 (and their parents) are invited to the Youth Birder Outing from 6-9am at Sweetwater Wetlands. Just email festival coordinator, Julie Pulliam, at jpulliam@tucsonaudubon.org or 520-209-1809 to sign up.

For all things festival, visit www.tucsonaudubon.org/festivalProceeds from the festival go to Tucson Audubon’s conservation and environmental education projects in Southeastern Arizona. 

So whether you're coming from down the road or one of 24 states and multiple countries already reporting in, you will be sure to enjoy this celebration of the Sonoran Desert and Sky Islands. 

See you at the Riverpark Inn, 350 S. Freeway...Tucson Bird & Wildlife Festival headquarters!