Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The Long Arm of Hurricane Norbert Goes to Work at Tucson Audubon's Ecosystem Restoration Sites

Most all of us in southern Arizona experienced first-hand the powerful remnants of Hurricane Norbert during that soggy second week this September. The steady and unrelenting rain led to flash flooding of highways, houses and everything else in its path, including Tucson Audubon's restoration areas in Marana and southeast Tucson.

Simpson Farm the day after the September 8th flood (Marana, AZ)

When the field crew arrived for work at our Simpson Farm restoration project near Marana on the morning of September 9th, they were greeted by a rare and sobering site: the Santa Cruz River, normally tamed and contained by man-made channelization and diversions along its entire course from Tucson to Simpson Farm, had flooded. Big time. Irrigation lines were tossed about at random, hulking debris piles stood against anything above-ground in neatly arranged Jenga-like stacks and, to the crew's dismay, dozens of meticulously planted and nurtured native restoration plants had been buried. Floodwaters had also re-contoured many areas of the site, carving out access roads and rendering them impassable in places, and completely filling in arroyos and depressions.

Field crew veteran Dan Lehman surveys the deluge at Simpson Farm

The Santa Cruz River receding from Norbert-strength at Trico Road,
 Marana, AZ. Simpson Farm begins on the other side of the bridge.

Stakes marking spots where native restoration plants
were planted in 2013-at ground level

Suddenly, a site that on average receives considerably less rainfall per year than Tucson had become a series of lakes. Despite the buried plants and general chaos that the flood created, we couldn't help but revel in this blessing of immense moisture--delivered free of charge by Mother Nature, irrigating better than we could ever hope to. As we carefully dug out our buried plants and realized that most of them were probably going to be just fine, our dismay turned to hope. As of September 22, the rare sight of standing water persists in many spots at Simpson Farm, and most of those buried plants look great.

The locals were out in full force after the flood: checkered
gartersnake at Simpson Farm. Dozens of newly hatched and adult
 Couch's spade-foot toads were also out enjoying the plentiful puddles.

Back in town, the leftovers of Norbert produced similar but thankfully less catastrophic flooding at our urban restoration project along Atturbury Wash.  The Atturbury Wash-David Lyman Nature Preserve is a narrow swath of intact desert wash ecosystem located within Lincoln City Park, near Davis-Monthan Air Force Base. This restoration project is a two-pronged endeavor combining dozens of stream restoration structures which increase on-site moisture and reduce channel incision with over 900 native restoration plantings to revegetate areas denuded by decades of off-road vehicles and heavy equipment use.

Demonstration area at Atturbury Wash in 2012,
before the project began

The same area in May, 2014

July, 2104
The stream restoration structures installed along Atturbury Wash and its tributaries are intended to work with the natural process of flooding, but every built object has its limits. The flooding from a 1.5" storm in late July coupled with the 2.5" that Norbert dished out in early September pushed some structures beyond their limits.

Gully-plug, unplugged

Boulder vane unraveling after flood

Despite the failure of some of the structures, most of them weathered the floods quite well and have performed admirably. We've watched incised and degraded channels aggrade (fill-in), have seen more moisture and increased vegetation along the washes, and, during two storms, have even witnessed Atturbury Wash itself flood over its banks and irrigate its water starved flood plain for the first time in quite a long time. Due to this flooding we've seen an unprecedented response from annuals like common sunflower (Helianthus annuus) and tansy aster (Macranthera spp.), as well as perennials like blue palo verde (Parkinsonia florida) and burroweed (Isocoma tenuisecta).

Tell-tale flood debris shows us that the Wash over-topped its
 banks and irrigated its floodplain

A one-rock dam, 1 of dozens at the site, successfully trapping
 sediment, slowing flows, and aggrading this tributary to
 Atturbury Wash

We were pretty concerned about one area of the site where an incised wash was threatening to cut back ("headcut") into the nearby hiking trail. The one-rock dam that had been initially installed to stop this from happening had failed in a flood last August, and the worst seemed imminent.

One-rock dam failing at headcut

So we set out to remedy the problem. Developed by stream restoration guru Bill Zeedyk after ancient farming structures on the Zuni Pueblo, a Zuni bowl creates an energy-dissipating plunge-pool that stops a head-cutting wash from progressing up stream and further degrading an area.

Zuni bowl under construction. That's our dependable volunteer
 Stuart Lueders on the right; he and another awesome and equally-
dependable volunteer, Bill Sievers, completed this Zuni bowl that day

The same structure going strong in September after 3
 major flood events, including Norbert's wrath.

None of our successes at Atturbury Wash would've been possible without the incredible help of 100s of volunteers over the past 2 years. We'll be holding 3-4 more volunteer events this season at the Wash, so please come on down to lend a hand and learn about stream restoration, native plants, and much more. You can check our Events Calendar or contact me for more information.

Hope to see you out there!

-Andy Bennett
Tucson Audubon Restoration Staff

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Grand Canyon National Park Dedicated at Global Important Bird Area

By Jennie MacFarland, Tucson Audubon Conservation Biologist
Officially Recognizing the Grant Canyon as a Global IBA
On September 13, 2014 the Grand Canyon National Park was officially dedicated as an Important Bird Area of Global Significance. This IBA is only one of fourteen Global IBAs in Arizona and the only one that qualified as Global for three different species. 
The remarkable Grand Canyon National Park
The highest profile bird that made this area a Global IBA is the California Condor. This well publicized species has had a high-profile recovery and was so critically threatened that at one point all wild individuals were captured for an intensive captive breeding program. That program was largely successful and there are now individuals living successfully in the Grand Canyon. 
Tice Supplee and David Uberuaga, Superintendent of the Park
The Mexican Spotted Owl is the second qualifying species for Global IBA status found here in surprisingly high numbers. Over thirty nesting pairs have been confirmed by Park biologists and there are certainly others in the unsurvey portions of the canyon. They favor the shady crevices of the canyon and possibly forage for rodents in the small tracts of forest within the canyon or above the rim. 
Martha Hahn, Tice and Jennie celebrating the new Global IBA
The charismatic third Global IBA bird that lives in the National Park is the Pinyon Jay. This lovely sky-blue colored jay moves around this area in large groups and was documented by citizen scientists using eBird.org and submitting checklists of where and when they observed flocks. 
There were over 70 people in attendance at the dedication
The designation of this National Park as a Global Important Bird Area was a great example of different partners coming together for the greater cause of conservation of bird species and their habitats.
The IBA Dedication was part of Wildlife Day
There were 70 people in attendance that helped us to celebrate this remarkable habitat and excellent IBA and the signs proclaiming this area as  Global IBA will be prominently displayed. This will help with further outreach by informing the many visitors to this international destination that such areas are beautiful to look at but also serve as critical habitat for many bird species, including those of high conservation concern.
Jennie and Tice engaging the public about birds and IBAs
Huge thanks to all who came out for this event, the excellent speakers who made the event so special and to all partners, including birders engaged in citizen science, that made this Global IBA designation possible.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

WILD Nest Boxes for Urban Birds

By Keith Ashley, Coordinator: Paton Center for Hummingbirds

Recently I found myself in a curious situation: sitting on the floor of a high school MakerSpace—what we used to call “shop class.” I was brokering a business deal with fifteen teenagers—a tough crowd if ever there was one. Mr. Perales and I had to leave the room so they could hash out the proposal amongst themselves.

Fortunately I’d come prepared with a very reasonable offer, thanks to the vision of Tucson Audubon’s Nature Shop Keeper, Whelan. We will pay these students a very fair amount for the American Kestrel and Western Screech Owl nest boxes they’re learning to build, and then we’ll sell them further as part of our Nest Boxes for Urban Birds (NB4UB) pilot project. Although we haven’t had any Kestrels nest yet, the Screech Owl business is booming.

A sleepy owl on a sunny day photographed by Carrie Merkle, box built by Dave Montgomery. Carrie and Dave built their box for a Kestrel according to plans distributed by Tucson Audubon during the Winter Appeal in December 2013 as part of the Nest Boxes for Urban Birds pilot project. They are quite pleased to have a Screech Owl for their current tenant.

We’re offering to pay the students plenty so they can invest in more wood to build more boxes (and perhaps some automatic urban chicken feeders, vegetable storage bins, and traditional ollas for sustainable gardening).  They’ll also be building skills as business-minded carpenters—and hopefully building an interest in supporting local wildlife into the future.

Eleven of the fifteen said “yes” to the venture. Screech Owls all over town breathed a sigh of relief.

These students are “Changemakers” from the Western Institute for Leadership Development (WILD), a new and visionary charter high school just off 22nd Street. The school is committed to providing students with real world projects and results while these students transform themselves and the larger community to create a more equitable and sustainable world. When I heard Academic Director, Luis Perales, M.S., talking to the MakerSpace students about a “triple bottom line” of “planet, people, and profit” for their business, I knew I had found a hopeful place.

Students at the Western Institute for Leadership Development working on their first round of nest boxes.
The next trick is getting these students down to the grasslands in Sonoita so they can see the future site of our Win-Win for Azure Bluebirds and Arizona Vineyards conservation project, and perhaps deliver a couple of bluebird boxes they’ve built. Then it’s on to the Paton Center and the Patagonia Mountains. I don’t think we can expect anyone to love and fight for a world they’ve never seen.

Eastern "Azure" Bluebirds in the Patagonia Mtns.

If you happen to be reading this, and happen to have some carpentry skills, and happen to be looking for a great volunteer gig, we’d love to have a few folks help us out in the MakerSpace from time to time. The students meet afternoons, 2:20 to 3:30, Tuesdays and Thursdays. If you’d be interested in working with these youth to help them hone their nest box building skills—even once or twice a month—contact me at Kashley@tucsonaudubon.org.

Climate Change Conservation News

News related to the accelerating global warming crisis has captured the headlines this week. Today the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) released its annual Greenhouse Gas Bulletin, announcing that “The amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere reached a new record high in 2013, propelled by a surge in levels of carbon dioxide.” The WMO reports: “The observations from WMO’s Global Atmosphere Watch (GAW) network showed that CO2 levels increased more between 2012 and 2013 than during any other year since 1984. Preliminary data indicated that this was possibly related to reduced CO2 uptake by the earth’s biosphere in addition to the steadily increasing CO2 emissions.” It is not surprising then that 2013 tied with 2003 as the fourth warmest year on record, and May of this year was the warmest ever recorded. Today’s announcement from WMO has “injected even greater urgency into the need for concerted international action against accelerating and potentially devastating climate change.”  

Our rapidly changing climate is already having serious consequences for human and wildlife communities alike. From unprecedented ocean acidification that is killing off vast expanses of coral reefs, to megadroughts that threaten to further exacerbate major water shortages in major cities and drought-driven high raptor nest failure rates in southern California, no place on Earth is immune to the reach and consequences of global warming.

Birds are an important barometer for predicting and measuring the impacts of climate change. The Climate Report, released today by the National Audubon Society, predicts many potentially dramatic changes and challenges our birds will face under various climate change scenarios. The new report “is a comprehensive, first-of-its kind study that predicts how climate change could affect the ranges of 588 North American birds. Audubon scientists used three decades of citizen-scientist observations from the Audubon Christmas Bird Count and the North American Breeding Bird Survey to define the “climatic suitability” for each bird species—the range of temperatures, precipitation, and seasonal changes each species needs to survive. Then, using internationally recognized greenhouse gas emissions scenarios, they mapped where each bird’s ideal climatic range may be found in the future as the climate changes. These maps serve as a guide to how each bird’s current range could expand, contract, or shift across three future time periods (2020, 2050, and 2080). Of the 588 North American bird species Audubon studied, more than half are likely to be in trouble. Our models indicate that 314 species will lose more than 50 percent of their current climatic range by 2080.” 

Here in southeast Arizona, many birds we know and love have been identified to be at risk by The Climate Report, including fairly common species like Swainson’s hawk, Green-tailed towhee, Rufous hummingbird, Gilded flicker, Gila woodpecker and the Western screech-owl. National Audubon Society’s models predict a “troubling situation on the breeding grounds” of the Green-tailed towhee. The model for this species predicts a “51-percent decrease in areas with proper climate . . . presumably as they are forced up in elevation and into smaller and smaller areas by drier and hotter conditions below.” Climate impacts will be felt differently for different species, depending upon their natural history, adaptability and the impacts of climate on vegetation and other food sources. By 2080, the Rufous hummingbird is projected to lose 100 percent of non-breeding range in the United States . . . models project that the hummer’s breeding range will also be disrupted and move north. How all this disruption affects this charismatic bird, and how changes to flower phenology factor in, remains to be seen.”  And just because climate conditions (i.e. temperature, precipitation, humidity, and seasonality) will shift into new areas does not necessarily mean birds associated with those climate variables will be able to quickly colonize and adapt to surviving there. Another factor to throw into the mix is that summer and winter ranges are predicted to be effected differently for some species.  According to the model predictions, the Western screech owl faces this climate conundrum:  “Altogether, the summer and winter ranges may become increasingly decoupled. In order to adapt the Western Screech-Owl may need to adopt a partially migratory life history—an uncertain prospect at best.”

Even bird species whose ranges are predicted to grow with climate change in the U.S. face unique problems.  For example, National Audubon reports, “the model projects huge gains for the Gila Woodpecker, with suitable climate in both winter and summer spreading all the way to peninsular Florida. If the species does in fact commence a vigorous range expansion, it will encounter and possibly hybridize with two congeners from which it is currently isolated: first the Golden-fronted and then the Red-bellied woodpecker.” The Gilded flicker faces a similar dilemma, “Although closely related, the two flickers are generally isolated today by geography and habitat, but they interbreed freely in a few Arizona locales where their ranges meet. As the Gilded Flicker, assisted by climate change, penetrates the range of the Northern Flicker, extensive interbreeding could ensue. Genetic “swamping” by one species, or mixing of both species’ gene pools, may be the unfortunate result.” 

Click here to learn 5 things you can do to help protect birds in the face of global warming.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

A Perfect Tribute Enhances Tucson Audubon's Nature Shop Garden

Earlier this summer, the front yard at Tucson Audubon's downtown Nature Shop got a very special upgrade. Tucson Audubon member Damiana Cohen generously donated a lovely bench for the yard. The bench now provides a place for visitors to sit, relax, and enjoy the plants in the yard and the many different birds that visit this urban habitat. The story behind the bench adds to its poignancy.

Damiana envisioned the bench as a way for her and her children to commemorate Damiana's parents. The bench is a memorial to Augusta and Lester Cohen, who tragically died on June 10th, 2013. As Damiana shared, "The bench is a perfect tribute to them, as they were lovers of nature, gardens, and birds.  They took great delight in watching birds at their feeders in their beautiful backyard.  We wish to remember them with peace and beauty, which is exactly how the garden at Tucson Audubon feels."

Damiana is a Tucson Audubon member who really became involved with Tucson Audubon when she took Lynn Hassler's Backyard Birding & Beyond class Tucson Audubon last spring. Lynn, Tucson Audubon instructor, author, and gardener extraordinaire, has been the leading force behind the transformation in the garden at the Nature Shop. You can read more about Lynn's endeavors as the spotlight volunteer in the current issue of the Vermilion Flycatcher. A big thanks goes to Lynn for working closely with Damiana to realize this vision.

Damiana not only generously funded the bench, she was passionately involved in every step of the process. She worked with Lynn and Tucson Audubon staff to determine the best bench, taking aesthetics, fabrication materials, and comfort into consideration. The result, a bench from Zona Fountains, is attractive, comfortable, a perfect complement to the landscape, and a lasting memory.

Damiana, thank you for this gift, it will be enjoyed by nature lovers for years to come.

Piles of Purple Martins on the Lower San Pedro

By Jennie MacFarland, TAS Conservation Biologist
Lower San Pedro Global Important Bird Area
As someone who lives in Tucson, how much do you really think about Purple Martins? Purple Martins are those birds who live in big white apartment style bird houses right? I think I once saw a really cool one for sale in Sky Mall. For most of the United States this is likely how they think of Purple Martins, as large swallows that live in their yard and cannot survive without a friendly hand from humanity. I did once see in print that Purple Martins can no longer survive without human created artificial nesting structures. As condescending as this is, it also turns out to be completely false, especially in SE Arizona. The Purple Martins we have nesting in SE Arizona are special and amazing, so much so that they are their own sub-species known as the “Desert Nesting” Purple Martin. These bad-boy martins shun human created “martin condos” and raise their young in saguaro cavities created by woodpeckers. 
Male and Female "Desert Nesting" Purple Martins by Doris Evans
They especially favor areas where saguaros lie near riparian zones where they stalk their insect prey. An excellent example of where these two habitats meet is the Lower San Pedro Global Important Bird Area.
Over a thousand Purple Martins along the road that parallels the river
 This past summer the Important Bird Areas team had a chance to partner with Kevin Frasier of York University, a scientist who specializes in Purple Martins. With the goal of studying this little known sub-species of Purple Martins he and his crew traveled all the way to Tucson from Canada with the hope of capturing a number of these amazing martins and outfitting them with satellite trackers so their migration path and winter home could be discovered. Surprisingly, no one knows precisely where these martins go, they are on a completely different migration schedule than the other Purple Martins. 
 The "Desert Nesting" Purple Martins are 30% smaller than "regular" Purple Martins
The Arizona IBA crew had a great time working with Kevin when he was here in June and he did get a gps marker on one female Purple Martin. Many DNA samples were also collected from individuals caught in a mist net stretched out near the large pond near the river. The DNA will help determine how genetically different our Purple Martins are from the main group. The large vegetated pond on the east side of the Lower San Pedro near San Manuel had become a remarkable gathering place for these Purple Martins in the evenings. We went out there three separate evenings and watched the martins gather in huge flocks to drink and bathe.
Many Purple Martins are flying over this pond if you look closely
 Then on an unknown cue they would all take off and fly in synchronized patterns like Starlings. Just before darkness completely descended there would be another unknown cue and they would all funnel down to a few large cottonwoods near the river to communally roost for the night. It was an amazing thing to see. Kevin and his crew are returning next summer to conduct more extensive studies on these little martins and I will be giving a full account of the work done this last summer at the upcoming AZFO meeting in Globe on October 4, 2014. Hope to see you there.
Beautiful evening by the pond waiting for the Purple Martins to go to roost