Friday, April 11, 2014

Twelve Year Quest for TBC Long-eared Owl

The 14th Annual Tucson Bird Count takes place April 15 to May 15. Over the last 14 years volunteers have tabulated over half a million individual birds from 248 different species! This data helps towards the goal of making Tucson a more friendly place for birds through improved urban habitat.

For more information on how you can join the fun and adopt a route please visit the TBC info page here to see what routes are available.

Guest post by Brian Nicholas
Long-Eared Owl (Courtesy Paul Suchanek)

The birds were active that Sunday morning in early February after a very light rain fell the day before.  Any rain is good rain in the desert, where conservation is survival, at least for the plants and wildlife.  Paul Suchanek joined me for a day of counting birds for the Tucson Bird Count, a citizen science project now run by the Tucson Audubon Society, which monitors the status of the Tucson area bird community over time.    Our first point count was Castlerock lake, where in five minutes Paul rattled off 23 species as I stood and scribbled names and numbers.  Even for this diverse water habitat 23 species was one of our highest counts.  

Our next count area was the nearby mesquite bosque.   This would be ten minute count in which we would walk through the mesquites and count birds seen and heard.   As we waited to start the clock I mentioned to Paul that there was one bird which had eluded me in this transect in the twelve years I'd been surveying this "park."   It was the mysterious Long-eared Owl.  In fact, I created this transect specifically with this bird in mind, since I had seen it in years past in these very mesquites.  That was over twelve years ago.   In subsequent winters it would be seen sporadically yet never during the Tucson Bird Count (or CBC count day).   I would call it a nemesis, but our relationship was not of hunter and prey, nor as competitors.  Our meetings were a gift to behold whenever seen, and part of the uniqueness was its unpredictability.   It was always a pleasant, unexpected surprise.

Our walk was rewarding as a Ruby-crowned Kinglet chattered, and 3 Western Bluebirds flew overhead.   An Ash-throated Flycatcher, rare in winter, gave out a single syllabled “pop.”  We already had some interesting birds for this woodsy section.   I calmed my usual anticipation as we neared the area where the owl had been seen in past years.  I knew its various perches, but this time wanted to clear my mind of expectations.  "You need to look with fresh eyes," I thought, "as if it's your first time here."  

With this in mind I scanned the vegetation to the right of the trail, where the owl had never been seen.   My eyes came upon a vine tangle which looked a little too solid.  I brought my bins up, focusing on its rich dark brown plumage, then turned to Paul with an excited whisper. "It's here!"   We marveled at how camouflaged it appeared, hiding in plain sight.  This owl has a way of stretching its body upward until it looks just like a thin broken branch.  After finishing the transect we came back over to its location on our way to our next point count.   As we slipped by the branches seemed to open up, and we were treated to an unobstructed view of this wonderfully rare friend. 

This long sought addition to our park count list of birds would also be a first for the Tucson Bird Count!  I was so happy to finally experience the awe of this bird's presence during a TBC.   What are some of your special wildlife experiences?   Thank you for appreciating the incredible diversity of our unique desert habitats. 

Tips on separating Long-eared Owl from the sometimes similar Great Horned Owl.   The Long-eared Owl has a cross-hatched pattern chest pattern, a slimmer build with longer tail (when in camouflaged posture here), and long ear tuffs which are set closer together than on Great Horned.  The Great Horned Owl also has a white bib on the throat.   Note that some Great Horned Owls will appear to have dark cross hatching on the chest.   The dark line which extends vertically through the Long-eared owl’s eye is one of the most reliable field mark for this species.     

Good Birding!

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Spring Sapsucker Surprise

Guest post by birder, Tucson Audubon member, supporter, Birdathoner, and volunteer, Brian Nicholas.

I'm a firm believer in omens, especially good ones. As I met Paul Suchanek at our neighborhood lake he had already spotted our first good omen, a Peregrine Falcon sitting on our favorite dead Eucalyptus tree. It was already a great day of birding.


Peregrine Falcon

As we walked around the lake and nearby field it was clear spring migration had begun in earnest, just two days after its heralded beginning. Lucy's Warblers were singing from the mesquites, four varieties of swallows circled the lake, and Lincoln's Sparrows gave short buzzy bursts from the knee-high grassy understory.

Peregrine Falcon digiscoped from 300 feet

My first Black-chinned Hummingbird perched over us in the mesquites, and the soft sounds of White-winged Doves could be heard above the mockingbird's repetitive spring repertoire.

Neotropical Cormorants
Neotropic Cormorant & Northern Shoveler
Large groups of Neotropic Cormorants were also a pleasant surprise. Each group which passed seemed larger than the previous one, the last being 18 individuals. Ebird would be flagging this entry as a high count for sure.

In the first one and a half hour stretch we had seen just under 40 species, a good clip for early migration. I pitched the idea to continue on to our cattail pond, a diverse habitat which could be a warbler trap. This winter a juvenile Yellow-bellied Sapsucker had also taken advantage of the predrilled holes in the Eucalyptus trees along the shoreline. Paul agreed, and both of us hoped we would also see some raptors catching thermals for migration as the heat rose up from the desert floor, what is locally known as the "lift off." We would be disappointed in this area (only a single migrating Turkey Vulture) but our birding efforts would be rewarded.

A medium-sized bird caught our attention as it flew to the uppermost dead snags of the tree before us. It was an American Robin, an uncommon sight in the low desert this late in the season. Two Neotropic Cormorants had also stopped down for a bite, or should I say swallow, as we watched it engulf some sort of sunfish. They both soon departed and we left the pond's shoreline to walk the wash directly behind it. We looked up at the tall budding Eucalyptus before us. There was some fluttering about, but mostly Yellow-rumped Warblers. I thought back to when this tree was a migrant magnet, with tanagers, grosbeaks, warblers, and vireos captivating my senses for hours. Perhaps this could be another such year...

Williamson's Sapsucker-photo property of Paul Suchanek
It was so unassuming as if flew into the loftier reaches of the tree, resting on a upwardly sloping branch. It then became immobile except for it's head, which cocked about slowly and curiously around the loose light bark. Paul and I were both locked onto it with our bins, but neither of us called out its name. We shot each other a puzzled glance. I had the better angle of the mostly hidden bird (and was looking through a scope), and noticed barring on the flanks. A long shot came to mind. "Female Williamson's Sapsucker?" It was more of a question than a statement. The last time it had been recorded in the low desert of Tucson was in 2011, and in 2009 before that. And never this late in the season.

Paul noted other field marks, the yellow on the belly, the relatively unmarked brown head, and we both got looks at the black bib, all differentiating it from not just other sapsuckers but it's closest lookalike, the Gila Woodpecker. It was not only a first for the neighborhood, but a life bird for me as well (1st ever sighting).

As we craned our necks with our cameras to document this unusual gift, I smiled, remembering the special trips I had taken up Mount Lemmon this year, just to see this species. The trips had all been unsuccessful, but had prepared me for this moment, seeing this unique specialty right in our own neighborhood patch. Thank you for appreciating the unique gifts in your neighborhood!

Ebird entries can be found below;
Cattail Pond Birds
Castlerock Birds (excluding Cattail birds)

Images credit to Brian Nicholas unless otherwise noted.

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.