Friday, July 31, 2015

Coronado Cuckoos: Snake Week

By Matt Griffiths

Well, week 3 of surveys didn't quite go as planned for me, but the combined efforts of all the teams still found plenty of Yellow-billed Cuckoos and other exciting things. Like snakes!

I missed out on more Santa Rita mountains surveys due to sickness, but I rebounded for the second visit to Lyle Canyon in the Canelo Hills. My team thought we had found two new territories in a section of the canyon we didn't survey last time. Another pair and a single. Then, we didn't find either the pair or single from last time. Did they simply move a little over a kilometer away?

more cuckoo survey fun! saw a pair copulate and got video of the female making a soft knocking call (at 2 sec in the vid) and wagging her tail to the male to call him back in. both had food in their mouths.
Posted by Tucson Audubon Society on Monday, July 27, 2015

We were all set to survey a new canyon in the Whetstone mountains after a rain delay, but found access blocked by lots of private land and locked gates. Other teams that day found cuckoos along Sonoita Creek and in French Joe Canyon. Earlier in the week, a team saw a pair copulating in Montosa Canyon!

Now enjoy some snake photos.

More mating. Two black-tailed rattlesnakes in Madera Canyon.

Sonoran whipsnake in Lyle Canyon.

Sonoran mountain kingsnake in Madera Canyon.

There are still more surveys that we need help with! Don't miss this opportunity to contribute and explore some great Sky Island territory to boot!

Check out the info here, , contact Jennie MacFarland, and we'll see you in the field!

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Bird Droppings: Thanks to a Great Horned Owl

New Tucson Audubon column 
By Pat Bean 

Back before I became a birder, but when I was traveling with a car full of HawkWatch volunteers on their way to count raptors as they flew over the Goshute Mountains, one of the passengers in the van yelled: “Stop”

He then explained that there was an owl in the large tree beside the road. Everybody piled out, binoculars in hand, and went to look. I was the last one to spot the bird, and had to wonder how in the heck someone had seen it from a moving vehicle. Who would have guessed back then that I would become one of those people yelling for a driver to stop because I had spotted a bird?

The eyes of great horned owls are amongst the largest and most powerfully acute in the animal kingdom. -- Wikimedia/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Photo. 

I blame that darn Great Horned Owl, whose golden eyes stared into my blue ones when it blinked to check out all the commotion beneath its lofty perch. From that day forward, I began noticing all the birds living out their lives in a world that before this day had been mostly invisible to me.

I’ve seen many Great Horned Owls since that day back in the late 1990s. My most recent encounter with this second largest North American owl – the Great Gray Owl is the largest – began this past February when a pair of them began courting. Normally active only at night, I could hear them hooting at all hours of the day, but especially in the early morning.

They were trying to set up a nest in a large tree visible from my third-floor apartment balcony. A couple of Ravens and a Cooper’s Hawk, however, began loudly pestering them and they moved to another tree. I couldn’t blame the harassers, however, because they knew the pair would be looking at their offspring as a meal for their young owlets. 

Two of the trio of juvenile great horned owls flitting around my apartment complex. -- Photo by Pat Bean.

I continued to hear, and occasionally see the mated pair of owls, on my early morning walks, and eventually located their nest. Now there are three Great Horned juveniles flitting around my Catalina Foothills apartment complex. Since young birds haven’t yet learned to fear us humans, they’ve been putting on quite a show. What a treat.

But I still wonder how that first Great Horned Owl I ever saw was spotted from a moving vehicle.
Pat Bean is a retired journalist and now a freelance writer who is passionate about nature, books, art, – and birds. A native Texan, and longtime Utah resident, she now lives in Tucson with her canine companion Pepper, and is putting the finishing touches on a book about her nine years of full-time travel across North America in a  small RV

Write and Smile Pat Bean

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Paton Center is Getting a Makeover.

I had the chance to go back down to Tucson Audubon's Paton Center for Hummingbirds two weeks ago with Keith Ashley. I had a blast doing completely different work than last time. On my last visit, I was equipped with a rain jacket, muddy boots, and shovels to get down and dirty with Paton Center maintenance. This time I came with all of my cameras and office gear prepared to meet with multiple people to discuss some different issues. The day started meeting with Wendy Russel and Luke Reese, who have close ties with the Patagonia Area Resource Alliance and the Nature Conservancy. We discussed the Sonoita Creek watershed, where the Paton Center is nestled, and various issues surrounding it. I loved gaining all of the local insights from residents with intense passion and love for their homes and communities. They are worried about more than just human communities, they are working to conserve areas of land that help support the amazing biodiversity in the watershed. Southeastern Arizona is a birding location across the entire world because of the array of species that can be seen here. I always manage to see a Violet Crowned Hummingbird when I go to Paton Center, and last visit made no exception!
Violet Crowned Hummingbird
After the meeting ended, Keith and I had a few free hours before we had any other engagements, so I grabbed my camera and set out for the backyard. There were finches abound!
Lesser Goldfinch
Lesser Goldfinches feasting
I like seeing so many different types of birds in one place, it can be funny to see how they interact with other species and within their own.
This White Wing Dove thinks it is a House Finch
Are these Broad Billed Hummingbirds kissing or fighting?!
It took a lot of patience, but I managed to snap some amazing photos of Broad Billed Hummingbirds feeding at some of the many feeders on the property.

This male is about to perch and have a snack
I caught this one mid-flap!
It can be all too easy to bypass the Richard Grand Memorial meadow that has been planted with beautiful vegetation to attract more bird diversity. I always make sure to spend some time there!
The meadow doubles as an Important Bird Area

I have not been able to figure out what types of flowers these are, but they create the attraction that brings so many pollinator species to the meadow.

After a couple hours of free times, students from the University of Arizona began trickling into Paton Center. What exactly is a group of 8 students from the U of A and Professor Annie Kurtin doing at Paton Center? 
These are students in the College of Architecture, Planning, and Landscape Architecture in the Sustainable Build Environments major. They are in a class called a Summer Studio taught by Annie Kurtin (front). In this course, students are tasked with a design challenge where they must design a layout for an architectural design. These students have a real client for their course: Tucson Audubon Society and Paton Center! If you have been to Paton, you know that the wildlife viewing tent is functional, but can be less than impressive. These students are giving the wildlife viewing area a makeover and creating potential designs for a brand new pavilion. They came to Patagonia to meet with Keith Ashley and Tucson Audubon Board members, their clients.
Keith Ashley discussing the project

The students and some of the board members involved in the process.
Tucson Audubon Society is so excited to have the opportunity to work with Sustainable Built Environment students to create an enhanced wildlife viewing experience for Paton Center visitors. While the students will be submitting just their designs, experienced professors the University will work to turns those designs into reality!

Friday, July 24, 2015

Coronado Cuckoos Part 2

By Matt Griffiths

My second week of Yellow-billed Cuckoo surveys for Tucson Audubon was just about as exciting as the first week! More adventures in the wilds of southeast Arizona.

The first survey took place in Pima Canyon on the southwest corner of the Catalinas. Not quite the proper habitat for cuckoos, but we gave it the old college try. We hiked deep into the canyon, survived a small wasp attack, found a bunch of great birds and got out of there before the heat did a number on us.

The look back from deep in Pima Canyon

Grinding holes in Pima Canyon

The next survey trip took the teams to the Patagonia mountains, which never disappoint. My team was doing the Flying R Ranch transect (eBird list), on which we refound the one cuckoo from the previous round. We didn't turn up any others in this wet drainage, but we did chase a coati up and down a few trees! We also had pretty good responses to our playback from a couple of Elegant Trogons. Might there be some resource competition between these two species? We wonder.

Coati up to no good

Huge mushroom coming right out of the tree

Flying R Ranch meadow

The final trip of the week took place in the Atascosa mountains, west of Rio Rico and Nogales. I was lucky enough to go into Rock Corral Canyon, a place I have heard about and wanted to explore for years! There is an incredible diversity and density of vegetation here, and plenty of water. No wonder the avian life responded in kind (eBird list). Also see Rich Hoyer's great blog post about this canyon.

We found one cuckoo and possibly a second on this humid, mostly overcast day. We had the feeling of being in a far-off land, tucked back in this very scenic and remote canyon. Varied Buntings, Gray Hawks, a couple of garter snakes and several Canyon Wrens were our companions, thanks to the very rough road keeping most people out.

Mexican Yellowshow was in bloom throughout the canyon

Tim and Olya take in the scene

A lush stand of oak dominates the upper reaches

A gaggle (?) of swallowtails

There are still more surveys that we need help with! Don't miss this opportunity to contribute and explore some great Sky Island territory to boot!
Check out the info here, , contact Jennie MacFarland, and we'll see you in the field!

Friday, July 17, 2015

Cuckoos on the Coronado

By Matt Griffiths

Through a contract with the Coronado National Forest, Tucson Audubon Yellow-billed Cuckoo surveys are underway! We are helping to determine the extent of cuckoo presence in Madrean oak habitat that surrounds the Sky Islands of southeast Arizona. It’s a great project that will help determine the policy future of this recently-listed threatened species. For me, it’s the perfect way to explore new territory in some amazing oak-studded canyons!

This week survey sites included the Santa Ritas, Whetstones and the Canelo Hills area just west of the Huachucas. I’m happy to report that many cuckoos were found in all of these areas, and there were lots of other great wildlife sightings. You never know what you’re going to find in the wilds of southeast Arizona!

Here are some highlights.

Montosa Canyon - At least one cuckoo detected, Black-capped Gnatcatchers, a nest-building Northern Beardless Tyrannulet and a multitude of Verdins and Bell's Vireos!

Great habitat at the "culvert"

The Broad-billed Hummingbirds loved this plant

The "sweat lodge" area is full of birds (and strange rock structures)

Mala Mujer

Canelo Hills - The area had just taken a beating the night before from heavy rains, so the creeks were running and alive! After negotiating a few creek crossings, we started off by seeing a black bear! The birds were out in force: Elegant Trogons, Sulphur-bellied Flycatchers and Gray Hawks were our companions. Of course, we found cuckoos, and more!

Canelo Hills cuckoo

Rock Rattlesnake

Canyon Tree Frog

Oak, pine and juniper

Kelly and the old timer alligator juniper

There are still plenty of surveys that we need help with! Don't miss this opportunity to contribute and explore some great Sky Island territory to boot!

Check out the info here, , contact Jennie MacFarland, and we'll see you in the field!

Monday, July 13, 2015


If you have been following Tucson Audubon Society on Facebook recently, then you know about the Villages of Vigneto. The Tuscany inspired housing development is planned to develop 28,000 homes and a golf course in the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area.

An illustration of a portion of the proposed development.

 A Riparian National Conservation Area is designated by the Bureau of Land Management for its value as a transitional ecosystem between a body of water and land. In other words, a riparian area is created by the presence of water flowing through a landscape. Riparian areas are typically very lush areas that home many different species are high in biodiversity (a measure of the number of species in an ecosystem relative to the abundance of individuals). The San Pedro National Conservation Area is created by the San Pedro river and situated on a 57,000 acre plot of protected land. This land supports over 220 species, many of which only occur in this area or very few other places across the world. SPRNCA is also designated by the Environmental Protection Agency as an Aquatic Resource of National Importance and is recognized by the National Audubon Society to house two Globally Important Bird Areas. So, this area is valued and protected by many different agencies for its important role in hosting so many different species and providing ecosystem services to people and animals alike.

Part of the San Pedro River as captured by Matt Griffiths

Alright. So we know why the San Pedro river and its riparian habitat are really important, but what does that have to do with the Villages of Vigneto? It is not like the houses are going to be built directly on the habitat. Since this land is protected, it is safe from immediate development, but the land around it is not. Herein lies the issue: although land on the surface of the earth may be separated by political boundaries, the underground resources are not so considerate to human legislation. This means that ground water (the water the keeps the San Pedro flowing and chock full of diversity) will be shared by SPRNCA and the Villages at Vigneto.

Vigneto proposes to add up to 70,000 residents to the Benson area, which has a current population of 5,100 people. Water managers are already struggling with shortages across Southern Arizona, and this development would add a lot of water consumers to an already scarce supply.

The argument held by El Dorado Holdings Inc, the developer, is that the types of water that will be used to supply the consumers and SPRNCA are separated. They claim that the clay layer separating the aquifer supplying human populations from the groundwater supplying the San Pedro will not interact when pumping in the aquifer occurs. The United States Geological Survey begs to differ. They say that the clay layer will delay any effects on the San Pedro river and its riparian habitat. This means that groundwater for SPRNCA will become depleted long after the Villages at Vigneto are built.

I keep mentioning effects of groundwater pumping, what are those exactly? Well, there are many, but let's talk about the Western Yellow-Billed Cuckoo. It is a federally listed threatened species that uses areas of SPRNCA for habitat. Tucson Audubon's own Jennie MacFarland has been commissioned by Arizona Game & Fish to estimate just how many Western Yellow-Billed Cuckoos there are in Southern Arizona.

Western Yellow-Billed Cuckoo by Steve Baranoff

The first third of the huge area will have been surveyed by the end of the week. Staff and volunteers have already found several Western Yellow-Billed Cuckoos in the study area that will provide useful information about the places cuckoos may be found. Current places where cuckoos have been seen are the Patagonia Mountains, Miller Canyon, and the Atascosa Highlands. The remaining two thirds of the land will be surveyed throughout the rest of the summer. Yellow-Billed Cuckoos have already been recorded at SPRNCA, so we definitely know that they are taking residence in Southern Arizona in protected habitat.

What does groundwater pumping have to do with the Western Yellow-Billed Cuckoo? A lot more than one would initially think. Underground water surfaces have water tables that fluctuate in response to the amount of pumping. If a lot of rain occurs and infiltrates into the soil, it will recharge the aquifer and raise the water table. Conversely, if groundwater is extracted without replacing it, the water level will fall. We are worried about the latter issue in this semi arid climate. The San Pedro river is a manifestation of the groundwater that feeds it, meaning that the water table appears above ground and the river happens.

If the water table falls drastically enough, it will fall below the earth's surface and the San Pedro river will either lose a massive volume of water or completely disappear. If the river dries up, I can only imagine how the vegetation that makes the habitat so conducive to biodiversity will hold up. Plant roots used to a certain depth water table will be found reaching even deeper for water access and many will die. The habitat may have some surviving riparian species, but most of the plants will not be able to survive the shock of losing the water source. Especially since these plants consumer high amounts of water, that is why they root near available water. The result will be more desert where life once flourished. This is bad news for species other than the Western Yellow-Billed Cuckoo. If this occurs, all of the riparian species will disappear and a once diverse biological hot spot will shrivel.

Groundwater pumping and wildlife habitat are not the only issues. Many of the Benson local residents are concerned about the traffic Vigneto will bring. The addition of 70,000 residents will increase the Benson area population 13 fold. Residents are concerned that the city infrastructure will not be able to support an increase in population that drastic. Community members have also noted that there are many vacant homes in Benson already, and argue that these homes should be filled before building 28,000 new ones.

The most shocking about the Villages at Vigneto to me is the permit El Dorado Holdings Inc. is using to support this development. The permit was issued in 2006 to a different developer for a completely different development. The development was called Whetstone Ranch, it proposed to add a maximum of 20,000 homes on 8,000 acres of land. Vigneto wants to go even bigger weighing in at a proposed 28,000 homes and 12, 324 acres. The permit was issued to the former development, not the Villages at Vigneto. I feel as though this should warrant an entirely new permit application, but El Dorado Holdings Inc. still currently plans to move forward with that permit.

PLOT TWIST! There is something YOU can do to stop this development. And, it's easy! Benson City Officials will be deciding tomorrow, yes TOMORROW, if they will consider Tucson Audubon Society's formal request to review the permit. That is really soon, but you can still act. Write and email to your local decision makers encouraging them to review the permit and demand that sound scientific research be used when determining habitat impacts of the Villages at Vigneto. You can read about the issue in short below:

If you would like even more detail, read the Conservation Action Alert that gives talking points if you are having trouble getting started on a letter. 

August Hummingbird Migration Mornings at WOW Arizona!

If you haven't heard about Christopher Vincent and MaryEllen Landen's amazing "bird shangri-la" in the foothills of the Catalina Mountains, now is your chance to experience it first-hand! They are hosting Hummingbird Mornings in August, complete with amazing food.

Sorry, you can't sample the food right now, but you can check out some of the commonly-occurring hummingbird action in this video:

August Hummingbirds from Christopher James Vincent on Vimeo.

Just so you know, Christopher and MaryEllen also host twice monthly birding field trips for Tucson Audubon. Their next outing in scheduled for Sunday, July 19.

From the WOW Arizona web site:

Share a delicious breakfast on their "hummingbird patios" surrounded by 25 feeders within arm's reach! 

Full menu: Fruit Juice, Tea, Coffee, (regular & decaffeinated), water and our own version of mimosas, ‘Razmosas & Strawmosas’, a delicious Sunrise Wine/Juice Spritzer created from our own handcrafted artisan Dr. Decadence Pure Fruit Wines. Homemade muffins are baked each morning to enjoy with your beverage of choice. A variety fruit plate (in season) is offered, along with the main entrees of Southwestern Scrambled Eggs with Green Chiles, Oven-roasted Seasoned Crispy Red Potatoes, and Oven-roasted Bacon.

Dates and Prices
We ask a minimum $25 dollar tax-deductible donation. To compliment the Tucson Audubon Bird & Wildlife Festival, we will be offering a gathering each morning August 12-16. August 7&8, and 21&22 are also offered. Group sizes can vary, with a minimum of six and a maximum of twelve per visit.

Go see the hummingbird spectacle! Please go to for details on how to sign up.

A New Friend of Agua Caliente Park

My work with Tucson Audubon brought me to the Roy P. Drachman Agua Caliente Park on the east side of Tucson the other day, and what an oasis it is! I went with the operations and retail coordinator Sarah Whelan to pay a visit to our dedicated volunteers at the Agua Caliente nature shop an do some inventory. That's right, Tucson Audubon has ANOTHER nature shop for people who live far from the location on University Blvd or for anyone who wants to experience this quirky park and historic ranch house.

Agua Caliente Park (commonly referred to as ACP among frequenters of the area) is a very unique gem in Tucson, because it sits on a huge preserve of 101 acres and was once home to 9 hot springs! Sadly most of the springs have since dried due to a variety of environmental factors, like invasive species and increased groundwater withdrawal from a growing population. The remaining lake is now fed with treated effluent (waste water that has been treated at a facility and is recirculated for non-drinking purposes) and the animals love it. 
After my first quick scope of the park, I entered the Agua Caliente ranch house, which has been home to many a family, and is now on the National Register of Historic Places. Another little known fact about the ranch house is that Tucson Audubon has a nature shop inside 
A glimpse of the ACP nature shop
The two devoted volunteers running the shop were busy hosting customers after the weekly bird walk every Thursday morning, so Sarah and I joined the friendly docent for a tour of the house. It turns out the house has a long history of homing several prestigious families before it was turned to the hands of the City of Tucson. Every occupant left their own mark on the property, and you can learn about them by visiting the house and going on a tour, ours was personally led!

A view of the hallway giving the photographic history of the home.

Once the bird walk dissipated Sarah and two volunteers, Rosie Bennett and Liz Harrison, went to work taking inventory. I went for walk around the property to become acquainted with the facility and see some animals. I had no shortage of wildlife to view, my first sighting being a Vermilion Flycatcher.
He saw me before I saw him.

Throughout my walk I realized this oasis is also a dumping ground for domestic animals that have lost their homes. I saw an albino catfish walking along the lake while I watched the smaller fish swimming close to the shore. When I told Sarah, she recalled a time a domesticated goose approached her and tried to make her its new owner. Silly goose!

These are the first small fish I noticed.
I did a double take when I saw this swimming through the water amass the crowd of small fish.
I saw a number of other animals, including a Gila Woodpecker and Road Runner. I was sadly unable to photograph them, but at the end of my walk I spotted a female Broad-Billed Hummingbird!

This one was difficult to snap a photo of, but I got it!
These binoculars face the water for your viewing pleasure
I had a fabulous time visiting Agua Caliente and I plan on returning at my very next opportunity, this time with a picnic! If you would like to learn about this cultural and ecological gem on the east side of Tucson, read the Agua Caliente Park overview from Pima county.