Thursday, January 29, 2015

Patagonia Trail Blazing

Guest post by volunteer Bob Brandt
On Wednesday, January 7, some dozen able-bodied volunteers set about the task of building a hiking trail from Tucson Audubon’s Paton Center for Hummingbirds to The Nature Conservancy’s (TNC) Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve. The single-use trail will be nearly a mile long and will allow hikers to walk from either of these two birding hotspots to the other while enjoying some great views of the surrounding landscape from elevated parts of the trail.

Chris explains the basics of trail-building techniques and
specifications to the work crew before the actual work begins.
Crew leader Chris Strohm, a winter resident of Patagonia, has years of experience in trail building and maintenance as a result of his work on the Pacific Crest and Lake Tahoe Rim trails in California as well as maintaining and improving the 21 miles of trails in the Sonoita Creek State Natural Area adjacent to Patagonia Lake State Park. Chris, TNC preserve manager, Luke Reese, and Tucson Audubon board member, Bob Hernbrode, laid out a rough corridor before Christmas 2014, then Chris and others “tight flagged” the first section of the trail prior to the first group work day. The crew plans to work on the trail every Wednesday until it is completed, hopefully before the blistering heat of summer arrives.

The crew clears an 8-10 foot corridor of most plant material, then creates a 24 inch wide tread on which the hikers will actually set foot. The trail will meet modern trail building specifications that will ensure patrons a safe and enjoyable trek through some of the most beautiful terrain in Southeastern Arizona.

Typical view of the trail terrain before the crew clears the 8-10 foot trail corridor.
A view of part of the first section finished by the crew on Day 1.

As I post this first blog entry, about 20 individual volunteers have completed three days of trail-building, logging in more than 150 hours of effort already. The crew, affectionately known as the Dirt Bags, so far has consisted of volunteers from Patagonia, Rio Rico, Green Valley and even Tucson. Both men and women are pitching in to bring this trail to life.

Crew Leader, Chris Strohm, stands next to the sign marking the trailhead of the
The Nature Conservancy’s Geoffrey Platts Trail, part of which will be incorporated into the new trail.
Joe Watkins and Dennie Allen, both of Rio Rico, muscle a huge rock
from the future trail on the first day.
Members of the crew hard at work.
Members of the crew quench their thirst after a hard day’s work courtesy of
Tucson Audubon Vice President, Bob Hernbrode.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Conservation News January 21, 2015

Study: Are human behaviors shaping bird communities in residential areas?
A new study published by researchers with the Wildlife Conservation Society indicates that the behavior of humans and their domesticated animals in exurban landscapes could be playing an important role in determining relative bird abundance. Exurban development is characterized by low density and large lot sizes in rural areas. The research was conducted on five “functional groups” of birds living in exurban developments and control sites in two distinct ecosystems: the Adirondack forest and the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. The researchers hypothesized that development impacts to bird communities would be greater in the closed canopy Adirondack forest than they would be in the Yellowstone Ecosystem that is characterized by grasslands interspersed with trees and shrubs. However, the data collected did not support their hypothesis. The study found that four of the five functional bird groups show similar responses to exurban development, with Neotropical migrants, low-nesters, and area sensitive species being negatively impacted and edge specialists benefitting. 

The research was featured in a Science Daily article, which reports, “The impacts were greatest on the low-nesting species such as ovenbird, hermit thrush, and winter wren in the Adirondacks and Brewer's, savannah and white-crowned sparrows in the west with 70-100 percent change in abundance between subdivisions and control sites  . . . These unexpected results are fueling more questions that may ultimately lead to informed landowners lessening their impacts on local wildlife.” The study concludes, “These similarities across diverse ecosystems suggest that the ecological context of the encompassing region may be less important than other elements in shaping avian communities in exurban systems. This finding suggests that humans and their specific behaviors and activities in exurban areas may be underappreciated but potentially important drivers of change in these regions.”
In Tucson Audubon’s most recent issue of the Vermillion Flycatcher, we explore some of the ways we can modify our behavior, neighborhoods and properties to create and enhance habitat for birds and other wildlife. This approach draws from the emerging scientific field of Reconciliation Ecology, a branch of ecology which aims to promote coexistence and reconcile biodiversity conservation in human-dominated landscapes.

Arizona Utility SRP Proposes Rate Hike for Rooftop Solar Customers
Rooftop solar in Arizona has grown 142 percent in the last three years, and employs more than 8,500 workers throughout the state. Producing electric power on site with photovoltaic panels uses significantly less water than fossil fuels do, avoids the loss of power associated with long-distance electricity transmission, is beneficial for our air quality and reduces heat-trapping greenhouse gas emissions. Going solar has become substantially less expensive over the last decade. The average cost of installing a residential solar system dropped from about $8.50 per watt in 2007 to just over $4.00 per watt in 2013. Falling prices and government incentive programs have helped to significantly increase the number of residential solar systems. According to the Solar Energy Industries Association, the number of solar powered homes in the United States has grown to nearly 600,000.

Despite the increasing affordability, growing popularity and environmental benefits of rooftop solar, the Arizona utility company Salt River Project (SRP) has decided to penalize rooftop solar customers to help pay for maintenance and enhancement of the electric grid. SRP proposes a rate hike that would cost solar home-owners $50 to $100 more per month. This would be very detrimental to the rooftop solar market within SRP service territory because it would create a financial disincentive for residents to invest in purchasing photovoltaic systems.

Take Action! Send your public comment to SRP to voice your opposition to this rate hike using Environment Arizona’s online system, or write SRP directly at the address given under “Contact Us.”

Superior Court Judge Hears Challenge to Rosemont Copper’s Air Quality Permit
A Maricopa County Superior Court judge is considering a legal appeal of the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality’s 2013 decision to issue an air quality permit for the proposed Rosemont Copper Mine in the Santa Rita Mountains. The Associated Press reports, “G. Van Velsor Wolf Jr., an attorney for the Santa Ritas group, cited a state law that says a permit shall be denied if an applicant can't show it is designed in such a way that it "may be expected to operate" without emitting pollutants in violation of state laws and rules. The mining company and ADEQ, however, contend the state law only directs permit applicants to another law that doesn't contain requirements that specific.”

Feds Reverse Approval of Exploratory Mine Drilling in the Patagonia Mountains
A Cronkite News
report appearing in the Arizona Daily Star confirms that federal officials with the Coronado National Forest Service have pulled back their approval for the Sunnyside exploratory mine drilling project in the Patagonia Mountains.  The news report states, “The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service extended threatened status to the yellow-billed cuckoo in October — more than a month after the U.S. Forest Service had given Regal Resources the go-ahead to drill for evidence of copper in the Patagonia area of the forest. The Fish and Wildlife Service in December withdrew its concurrence in the project. That has led the Forest Service to pull its approval, according to a Jan. 9 letter from the district ranger for the forest service. No activity can take place on the so-called Sunnyside project “until after consultation is concluded” and a new decision is issued, Sierra Vista District Ranger Mark Ruggiero said in the letter.”

The reversal comes after the Patagonia Area Resource Alliance and the Defenders of Wildlife sued the federal agencies in late October of 2014, charging that the approval of the exploratory permits violated environmental regulations. The lawsuit was filed several weeks after the Fish and Wildlife Service officially granted threatened status to the Western Yellow-billed Cuckoo under the Endangered Species Act. The proposed project area also contains habitat for the threatened Mexican spotted owl and the endangered jaguar, ocelot and the lesser long-nosed bat, among other sensitive species.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Tucson Audubon Goes WILD, Kicks Off Restoration Education Program

Just before Thanksgiving, Tucson Audubon and the Western Institute for Leadership Development Charter High School kicked off a year-long ecological restoration and education project entitled "Growing Skills for the Green Economy".  This dynamic project, funded by a Toyota TogetherGreen Innovation Grant, begins a new chapter in K-12 education for Tucson Audubon. Only 19 of these grants were awarded to a pool of over 120 applicants, so we feel very lucky to have been selected. The project is a foundational building block for an Ecological Restoration Education Program that Tucson Audubon aims to develop with area partners.

The highlight of the first morning may have been a visit from NW
Wildlife Rehabilitation Center's amazing raptors, including this Harris Hawk

Growing Skills for the Green Economy will outfit the Western Institute for Leadership Development (WILD) school with several sustainability features. These features will be installed during educational community workshops open to all. A rainwater-fed greenhouse will be used to raise native wildlife-friendly plants that will be planted to restore wildlife habitat on a portion of the school's 10 acres. Several varieties of native food plants important to birds, such as chiltepin, will also be cultivated. Additionally, native plants will eventually be raised for community plant sales held by the students. Rainbarrels and passive rainwater-harvesting basins will also be installed.

During the kick-off, one group of students constructed a scale-model of the hoop house that will be built during a workshop on January 31, 2015. This model will serve as a demonstration to the community of how easy it can be to build such a structure in a backyard or small schoolyard.

Made-in-a-day: the finished hoop house frame

One of WILD's goals-as well as the project's-is to transform the grounds into an oasis for wildlife and people, but there are some challenges. The school sits on the grounds of an old drive-in movie theater lot, so as you can imagine, the native landscape was bladed off, the soil compacted from thousands of cars driving around day after day, making natural regeneration challenging. All of this disturbance produced ideal conditions for invasion by exotic species such as buffelgrass and Russian thistle (tumbleweed).

WILD students and Tucson Audubon staff map out the extent of invasive vegetation at the school (buffelgrass covers the foreground)

During the kick-off, two classes were dedicated to documenting and mapping plant life at the school. The art class collected, identified, and illustrated species present on the grounds.

The science and math classes took on the complex and important task of mapping out invasive species on the school property. One of the goals of the project and essential components of ecosystem restoration is the control of invasive species that can successfully out-compete fledgling native species that are planted.

TAS staffer Jonathan Horst discovering schoolyard plants with WILD students

Math teacher Ramon Munoz checking out invasive tumbleweed

Using GIS, Students generated maps like the one above to illustrate invasive species'
distribution on the school's grounds

Here's a fun little video of the weed-mapping classes created by science teacher Nicole Snook:

Once we had the invasive plants all mapped out, it was time to pull. The Sonoran Desert Buffelgrass Society helped out with an informative presentation and dozens of shovels and trash bags. Everyone teamed up to rip out buffelgrass and tumbleweed.

Throughout the 2-day kickoff, a group of WILD students documented the activities with camcorders and camera, honing their journalism skills by conducting interviews of participants. This is a video that they put together from all of their documentation:

We are looking for volunteers interested in becoming a part of this project. We are especially looking for folks with:
  • greenhouse experience
  • an educational background or educational experience
  • an interest in working with high school students
  • an interest in helping us realize the success of the project through greenhouse maintenance, monitoring, and plant watering over the summer
Contact Andy Bennett @ or 520.891.9446

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Is it Safe to go Birding in Mexico?

Guest post by Bob Bowers
(Originally appeared in Birding the ‘Brooke and Beyond)

Beginning sixty some years ago with a high school Spanish class in a broken down bus from Kansas City, I have traveled to Mexico far too many times to count. One reason we retired in Arizona was its proximity to Mexico, and since living here, we have crossed the border dozens of times, flying to remote Mexican cities and driving our own or rental cars almost everywhere in that fascinating country. One reason, of course, is the birding. More than a thousand birds can be found in Mexico, including many tropical and exotic species not found anywhere else in the world. We have never found ourselves in danger, never worried about our well-being and never felt at risk, even when driving some of the worst roads imaginable in some of the most far flung places rare birds often prefer. In spite of this, most of our friends are worried about travel to Mexico and few of them would ever join us on one of our trips. The reason is simple: almost continuous media reports on violence south of the border.

Social Flycatcher (All images by Bob and Prudy Bowers)

However, in spite of flamboyant homicides and the press’s proclivity to sensationalize them, the risk to tourists and birders is more perception than reality. When the facts are examined, a tourist is less likely to be murdered in Mexico than in the U.S., and the risk in many U.S. cities is far higher than that in Mexico.

To consider the relative safety of traveling, birding and being in one place or another, a little research is worthwhile. To a prospective tourist, two considerations are paramount: personal risk and the relative rate of homicide. For all its negative publicity, Mexico actually scores well on both counts. Consider that Mexico is as big as Western Europe—Great Britain, France, Germany, Spain and Italy combined. There are 2,457 municipalities in Mexico, and most violence occurs in less than 10 percent of them, while more than 1,500 municipalities are violence-free. Thirteen of the Thirty-one states in Mexico have no travel advisories whatsoever posted by the U.S. State Department, and all but four states have only partial travel advisories. Much of the State Department’s advisories can be summed up as follows: stay out of high risk areas, avoid driving at night, avoid casinos, other gambling and adult establishments and stay away from drugs and drug dealers. Obviously, this advice could apply to the U.S. as well. Mexican homicides are largely drug-related. When Calderon became president in December, 2006, he initiated a war on drug cartels, which led to battles between police, the military and the cartels, and subsequent turf wars between cartels for lucrative distribution routes initiated most of the worst violence. According to Mexican statistics, 90% of drug war-related homicides are criminals, 6% are military and police and 4% innocent bystanders.

Xantus's Hummingbird

Streak-backed Oriole

It’s important to note that foreign tourists, including birders, have never been targeted throughout this escalating violence. If you have ever been in the opposite situation, you will appreciate the significance of this. In 1994, we traveled to Cambodia while there was a bounty on U.S. citizens, and in 1996 we spent 3 weeks in Egypt while radicals tried to bring down the secular government by killing tourists. Of course, an innocent bystander can always be caught in crossfire, but it’s a lot different when someone is actually trying to kill you. This is not to say no U.S. citizens are ever killed in Mexico, but when you look at the numbers it’s clear how little risk actually exists for American tourists. Since 2006, more than 140,000 murders have taken place in Mexico. In the past three years, about 70,000 people have been murdered, more than 20,000 annually, but during that same three years only 265 of those were Americans. The 81 killed last year represent a rate of only 1.35 per 100,000 tourists, far below the U.S. homicide average of 4.8 and only a fraction of the overall Mexico rate of 18.8. You’re actually 4 times safer in Mexico than in Arizona, where the rate in 2012 was 5.5.

Mexico’s murders are publicized out of proportion, as well, due no doubt to our shared border and the fact that half of all U.S. citizens living abroad live in Mexico. The homicide rate in Mexico is actually lower than much of Latin America. The homicide rate per 100,000 habitants in Honduras is four times the rate in Mexico, and 13 western countries and territories exceed Mexico’s rate, including such tourist destinations as Belize, Jamaica, Guatemala, Trinidad and Tobago, the Bahamas and Puerto Rico. Worldwide, there are other popular destinations with higher homicide rates, including South Africa at 31.0.

Gray Silkies

Citreoline Trogon

In 2008, we drove more than 5,000 miles birding Mexico from Tucson to Oaxaca along the central mountains and returning along the coast. We’ve birded the length of Baja California three times, and this past January we rented a car in Cancun and birded more than 2,000 miles of the Yucatan peninsula including the states of Chiapas and Tabasco. Other than a little car trouble, we have never experienced an unpleasant incident. We have found the country warm and inviting, the people friendly and helpful and the birding magnificent. Nevertheless, there are places we avoid based on feedback, travel advisories and our own research, and not, incidentally, just in Mexico. Researching material for this article, I read dozens of articles and reports, and reviewed State Department advisories as well as statistical data available from the U.S., the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), the Mexican Statistics Agency (INEGI) and Mexico’s National Security System (SNSP). There is no shortage of factual information about safety in Mexico, and anyone contemplating a trip should take advantage of this wealth of data and opinion. Who knows, you might decide to join the six million Americans who visit Mexico annually. The birding alone is worth it.

Learn more about birding in Mexico by reading Bob's new column in our magazine, the Vermilion Flycatcher. Find it starting in the new January--March 2015 issue.

If you have questions or comments about SaddleBrooke’s birds, or to receive emailed information about bird walks led by Bob and Prudy, call 825-9895 or email Previously published articles can be found at