Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Partners in Eco-Education: National Park Service, Tucson Audubon, and Lauffer Middle

Lauffer Middle School and Tucson Audubon's Youth Hiking and Naturalist group the Trekking Rattlers is off to a great start this semester. We've teamed up with Saguaro National Park and the National Parks' Centennial Celebration to offer a series of Parks-specific events for students.

The partnership kicked off with a BBQ and night hike with Park Rangers in Saguaro's West unit. Using black-lights, we counted ~75 scorpions along the hike and learned about scorpion biology.

An interpretive Park Ranger introduces the students to the Park
We were treated to a stunning sunset as we set up the BBQ
December brought cooler temps and the annual storming of Wasson Peak, Saguaro National Park-West's highest point at 4,687'. The challenging 7.4 mile hike tests the legs and the mind, so we always make sure to warm up and stretch those muscles before we really get going:

Views from the trail into Avra Valley are stunning!

Along the way we spot gilded flickers, Gila woodpeckers, and the occasional phainopepla and black-tailed gnatcatcher. Tracks of deer and javelina follow us up the hills. Although this hike is mainly just a hike as it takes so much effort to get to the summit, there are occasional chances to stop and learn about plants and signs of wildlife that we encounter along the trail.

As we ascend the peak, the temperature rises faster than any of us had hoped. The day's forecast for a balmy 77F feels much hotter while we climb higher under the gaze of a full and unrelenting sun.

The saddle between the east and west sides of the Tucson Mountains makes a good almost-halfway place to take a break and recharge for the steep country ahead
Steep climbing but still smilin'

Above it all, at last!
White-throated swifts and grasshoppers cheered us to the top. By the time we'd finished lunch atop our sweeping summit perch, many students--promised access to reserve water should they finish theirs--had summarily drained their supply. This author's water bottles were thus emptied in no time at all. Luckily, I'd brought along a big bag of clementines that I produced at the 11th hour of communal exhaustion. We took the King Canyon wash channel back to the trailhead, stopping at the well-known Hohokam petroglyphs.

Seven miles hasn't diminished the power of a good day out in nature. I am betting they had no trouble sleeping that night, though.

The Trekking Rattlers will be partnering with Saguaro National Park for several more events this season, including citizen science and volunteer service learning activities. Stay tuned for more updates...

*All photos taken by Lauffer Middle School students and Tucson Audubon staff. Thanks to Tucson Audubon volunteer Tim Helentjaris for generously donating cameras for this project.

Friday, September 30, 2016

Under-birded Areas of SE Arizona - Agua Caliente Canyon

Guest post by Tim Helentjaris
September 28, 2016 

Trailhead sign and looking up-canyon with
Mt. Hopkins Observatory on the right
This morning, I wanted to explore a new area, so I headed down to Agua Caliente Canyon on the west side of the Santa Rita Mts. More people are familiar with the Agua Caliente Trail in Madera Canyon that leads up to the Agua Caliente Saddle, this particular trail also extends up to the saddle but from the west. To access the trailhead, take the Elephant Head Road east off of the frontage road for I19, off of and south from the Canoa exit. On EHR, you’re heading towards Montosa Canyon and eventually to the Mt. Hopkins observatory, but just before reaching the observatory headquarters, you will turn off on the well-marked side road to the northeast leading to Agua Caliente Canyon and the visible radio towers. This graded dirt/gravel road is in excellent shape, passable by any sedan, including my Prius if I had taken it instead. A few miles up, you will come to the trailhead, which is marked by a prominent sign right on the roadside, one of those larger rusting metal ones used by the Forest Service. Park here or just a short ways back down the road at an obvious pull-through.

I have an older, out-of-print book, Hiking Guide to the Santa Rita Mountains of Arizona that describes this and many other trails. It seems to describe another start to this trail further back along the road. I picked an obvious pull-out/camping spot with the start of a trail to begin this day, not being aware of the actual, newer trailhead further up. Mistake, the trail dies out, and I was left bushwhacking through a section along the flowing creek. Not many birds through here, it was a bit more of a high desert habitat, ocotillo’s with only smaller oaks and thorny shrubs (Gila Woodpecker, Cactus Wren). Did see some interesting plants along here, Wild Cotton, Coral Bean seed pods, Hummingbird Trumpet in bright, red bloom. Eventually refound the road further up and pressed on to the actual trailhead. In my (usual) defense, it seemed like a good idea at the time.

The other mistake I confess to this morning was starting too early, just prior to sun-up. Seems like this time of year, I still begin as in the summer, as early as I can get there, but I have noted the last few weeks, that the birds don’t really become active for another hour or so, even though it’s not really that cool just yet? Since they are off their territories, the young are gone, they just don’t seem to have the same early drive. From the trailhead, you have great views, up-canyon, you can see the ridgeline, with its saddle, leading up to the obvious observatory atop Mt. Hopkins. Back down-canyon, you can see out across the valley to the freeway and beyond, with Baboquivari in the distance. The trail climbs pretty gently for more than a mile before beginning its steep ascent to the saddle. It’s also pretty obvious in most places, although a bit overgrown with vegetation from the sides, so long pants or gaiters are recommended. The canyon bottom has a lot of larger oaks along its drainage, but also some sycamores and junipers. At this point, I spied some madrone’s loaded with not-yet-ripe berries, perhaps a portent for interesting vagrants from the south this winter? It’s not very far up that smaller pines also begin to intrude. What is most striking about this area is the lush understory, very complex with a number of different shrubs and wildflowers, several I could not identify but some striking red Bouvardia blooms were still in evidence. Always a good marker for a diverse and healthy bird population.

Looking up-canyon towards Agua Caliente Saddle

Looking down-canyon.

Morning birding started out kind of slower, I heard a lot of chips in the underbrush but had a hard time getting them to pop up and identify themselves. Instead I had my usual, raucous escort of Mexican Jays both up and down trail. Also heard some other expected residents for this habitat, Blue Grosbeak, Northern Flicker, Rufous-crowned Sparrow. Grew impatient and wanting to get a better handle on what was residing here, I worked a little harder. Got an Arizona Woodpecker to respond. Then heard a Rock Wren working up in the steeper sides of the drainage.

Blue Grosbeak, Martin Molina. Arizona Woodpecker, Tom Ryan.

At one point then, heard a few more birds in the dense brush to the sides and set off an “owl bomb” (N. Pygmy Owl recording) and waited to see what came in. First a surprising Painted Redstart, then joined by the more expected Bridled Titmice (a small but noisy and aggressive flock), followed by an exciting progression of Vireo’s, a bright Cassin’s, then Hutton’s and Plumbeous. Also noted a Western Wood-Pewee and Black-throated Gray Warbler off to the side as well. That’s more like it. I can see that during the breeding season, this could be an exciting place, with a lot more species than I was able to draw in today. The lush understory seems to reflect the fact that I saw no evidence for any extensive grazing up here, always a good sign in any western location, and bodes well for a healthy ecosystem. On my walk back down, the cicada’s were really firing up, seems like the cuckoo’s left too soon.

Painted Redstart, Frank Retes. Black-throated Gray Warbler, Jackie Bowman.

I will definitely come back here, the area has a lot of pro’s: relatively close to Tucson, easy access along a good road, nice scenery, a level trail leading into a complex habitat for some distance, solitude away from the crowds, and so the promise of some interesting birds. I think many folks might enjoy a visit down here and I encourage folks to give it a try.

Bonus Mystery Question: on the way back down the side road towards Elephant Hill Road, you will see an odd structure up ahead and off the road. Not visible on the drive up-canyon, I can only describe it as looking like some large prop structure from Mad Max Thunderdome. If anyone knows what this is, I would greatly appreciate hearing, or at least their own theories.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Binoculars for Sport and Fun!

By Sara Pike, Marketing & Operations Director for Tucson Audubon Society

Have you been considering buying a pair of binoculars? Or how about upgrading from that clunky pair from 1970 that you found in granddad’s attic? Let’s get a conversation started here about binoculars and hopefully this will guide your way forward.

Test and Try binoculars [Sara Pike]

Have you ever just get a better look at that bird high in the tree, or wanted to see the face of the upset coach down on the football field, but were too high up in the bleachers to get a good look? What about getting a closer look at that comet in the night sky? Or how about watching that Elk down in the valley, or getting a better look a wildflower that was just a bit too far into the bushes? Binoculars can be quite fun to use, and they can enhance so much of your viewing of sports, landscapes, the night sky, animals, birds and yes, even bugs and wildflowers!

These days, binoculars come with so many features, and there are so many brands, it may be daunting to get started looking for a new pair. Start by asking yourself what you hope to use them for? Will it be hunting, bird watching, or do you want a small pair to have while hiking? What about just something to take to the sporting event or the theater? Answering this question will help you get started in your search.

Let’s start with some basics here to help you feel more prepared.

A brief history of the binocular, ( ):

“The binocular first appeared in the early 1600s as a variation of the telescope. Similar to the early telescope, binoculars were large and hard to use. Modern binoculars - or opera glasses for the theater, field glasses for sport – are largely the result of two innovations in design. The first occurred in 1825 when Lumiere of Paris produced a binocular with an internal screw, centrally placed between two monoculars. This screw allowed the user to focus both eyes simultaneously, thus making binoculars easier to adjust.

The second innovation came from 1870 when Ernst Abbe of the Carl Zeiss Company created the binocular prism. The prism acts like a mirror, which allows a manufacturer to shorten the length of the binocular barrel. Now binoculars could be collapsed to fit into the palm of a hand.”

And today, we have hundreds of styles of binoculars out there, in plenty of sizes, colors and varying qualities to choose from.

Understanding the basics

The style: In your search, you’ll likely see two styles of binoculars, the porro prism and the roof prism. The porro prism binocular is shaped like an “M” due to the two prisms within the barrels being off-set, causing that zig-zag design. Roof Prism binoculars are shaped like an “H” and have prisms that are directly in line, creating a more compact and easier to hold binocular.

Roof Prism design [Sara Pike]

Roof prism binoculars have a more complex light path and require more optical precision in manufacturing (hence the typically higher cost!) and have a protected focusing mechanism. They are typically a sturdier design. Porro prism design is more light efficient, but more difficult to hold and focus, and also has an exposed focusing mechanism allowing for things like sand to muck up the gears.

In your search, you’ll likely see more roof prism design binoculars since these ended up dominating the market due to their more compact design. Either style will provide you with just as much viewing pleasure, though. Testing and trying both will help you decide what feels best in your hands.

The numbers: On every pair of binoculars you’ll see the numbers. They look like “7x35” or “8x42”. What do they mean? Simply remember “Power and Light” and you’ll be set.

The first number is power of magnification. An 8x42 will mean the image you are viewing will be magnified 8 times. The higher you go on the first number, the more magnification power. As the power increases, though, the steadiness of the image becomes compromised and you will see the image shaking more. A tripod is required for higher powered binoculars (Typically 12x and up.)

The second number will let you know how much light gathering power the binocular will have. This number refers to the millimeter size of the objective lens (the lens further away from your eye. The lens that is closest to your eye is called the eye piece.) An 8x42 binocular will have a 42 millimeter size objective lens. The bigger the objective lens, the more light it can gather (ultimately giving you a better image.) But again, be aware that the bigger the objective lens, the heavier the binocular.

Porro Prism design [Sara Pike]

Optimal viewing for the clearest image is typically a millimeter size objective lens that is close to 5 times the magnification. (7x35, 8x42, 10x50.)

The coatings: As light passes through each lens within a binocular, some light is reflected back out ultimately losing some brightness in the image before it reaches your eye. Coatings on lenses help allow more light to get through to your eye. Back in the 1940s, it was discovered that magnesium fluoride did a great job at allowing more light to pass through the lenses. These days, most binocular manufacturers have specialty coatings that are distinct to their binocular line. As you are searching, you will see different coatings named depending on the brand. The better and more complicated the coatings, the brighter and clearer the image you see through the binoculars (and often the binocular will be more expensive, too.) Ask your sales person or search online for the details of the coatings of the binocular you’re interested in.

Close Focus: The Close Focus number you will see with binocular specs is simply how many feet away you’ll be able to focus at the closest point. Those who are interested in looking at butterflies, lizards, wildflowers or backyard bird feeders will enjoy a good close-focus binocular. Today, you can find binoculars that focus up to 4 feet away!

Objective Lens and numbers [Sara Pike]

Field of View: The Field of view is how wide an area you will see through the binocular image. This is typically expressed in the width of feet at 1,000 yards. The field of view is affected by eyepiece design and will usually be narrower with a higher powered binocular. A wider field of view makes it easier to find objects within the view without having to scan around as much.

The importance of testing in person: Eye Relief and Inter-pupillary Distance. Every human face is different! A pair of binoculars that works for your friend may not work for you! Your comfort and ability to see a clear image will depend on a few features about the binoculars.

Eye-relief is how far the eye piece lens sits away from your eye, and can be adjusted by the eye-cups on the binocular. Every style and brand has a different eye-cup relief measurement. Some people have deeper set eyes which will require more eye relief. If you wear glasses, this will require you to adjust the eye-cup relief to fit with your eye glasses.

Inter-pupillary distance is how far the two barrels are able to be pushed together or pulled apart to allow for the light to enter your pupils. If the binoculars cannot be set up to allow light directly into your pupils, you will not get a good, clear image. You will not know this unless you have the pair of binoculars in your hands to try.

These two features tend to be most troublesome for people when using binoculars and least understood at the beginning of a binocular search. If these two features are not working for you, your binocular viewing experience will not be as good as it could be! These two things can only be tested and tried in person, making an online purchase difficult and occasionally frustrating if you receive your new pair and you are not seeing perfectly through them.

Hopefully you are now better equipped to begin your binocular search. Knowing these details can help you feel empowered when searching, and understand a little more when reading about a pair or discussing with a sales person. Good luck!

Talk with binocular manufacturers directly!

Interested in talking directly with a binocular manufacturer? Visit our Southeast Arizona Birding Festival on August 12–14 and you can talk directly with representatives from Swarovski, Zeiss and Opticron at the Vendor Fair. Visit for hours and details.

Tucson Audubon Nature Shop binocular sales, credit Debbie Honan

Visit the Store!

The Tucson Audubon Nature Shop downtown has one of the best selections of binoculars in town. The volunteers and staff running the shop are well trained and versed in the features of binoculars and can most certainly help you find the right pair. The main Nature Shop is at 300 E University Blvd, #120. Monday – Saturday, 10am – 4pm. Test and try with no pressure to buy. Searching for binoculars is a very personal experience and our volunteers are trained to respect this process.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Local landowners seek to address extreme threat to San Pedro watershed

COMMENTARY (first appeared in the Sierra Vista Herald June 29, 2016)
Guest post by Peter Else

As chair of one of the landowner-based organizations challenging the Army Corps of Engineers’ failure to consult with the Fish and Wildlife Service on the proposed Villages at Vigneto development’s wildlife impacts, I feel compelled to explain the harm this proposed development would bring to our watershed and to explain who are the so-called “outsiders” and the “extremists” in this debate.

Tuscany in the desert??
Not everyone in the San Pedro watershed wants a massive new retirement community — essentially a medium-sized city — to pop up in the last remaining natural river ecosystem of southern Arizona. The organization I lead represents landowners who promote conservation of the San Pedro ecosystem’s water resources that support the area’s rural lifestyles, sustainable working landscapes, hunting, and ecotourism.

Most of our members have lived in Arizona long enough to have witnessed what happens when you try to support rapid housing growth in the desert with massive year-round groundwater withdrawals. Everyone in the region is forced to dig deeper and deeper wells.

Natural riparian vegetation dies. You no longer live in a rural community where you can hunt, grow food, and live in harmony with Arizona’s wildlife.

Instead, you fight traffic caused by tens of thousands of new residents who have a very limited sense of place, going to strip malls that look like every other stick-and-stucco strip mall in the Southwest. The proposed Vigneto development will bring these unwelcome water resource and traffic impacts not only to Benson, but to the entire watershed.

The future for Benson?
We have witnessed the death of major river ecosystems in Tucson and Phoenix. Like everyone else, we’ve become resigned to the fact that the major watersheds of the so-called Sun Corridor are now supported by imported water, and rely on land in the San Pedro watershed to mitigate impacts on wildlife habitat caused by rapid development sprawl in the growth corridor.

Arizona is currently in an extended drought and has a lower priority for receiving Colorado River water via the Central Arizona Project. Will we now allow this sprawl to take over the last desert river ecosystem available to mitigate growth impacts in the Sun Corridor? If so, we would be destroying the very wildness that attracted people to this part of Arizona in the first place.

Given these facts, it appears to many of us that it is “extreme” to allow an outside corporation and a single municipal government in the watershed to rapidly push through a continuously growing plan for a new instant city larger than Flagstaff, without first examining the impacts this new plan will have on a hemispherically important desert river habitat.

We need to look before we leap at the first sugar daddy who emerges from an air-conditioned office in Phoenix with a plan for building a lush Italian city in the middle of the Sonoran Desert.

We did our best to get the Army Corps and the Town of Benson to listen to rural conservation interests, but their ears have been deaf to the long-term concerns about the impacts to the river and to nearby landowners.

It is not extreme to want to keep one of our last free-flowing rivers flowing. It is not extreme to be concerned about a truly sustainable economy. It is hardly extreme to ask that the government give this proposal a good hard look and that it seek to minimize or eliminate the harm to our precious river.

It is extreme, however, to stand idly by and watch our river and the land and ecosystem it supports dry up to profit big developers.

Peter Else is chair of the Lower San Pedro Watershed Alliance

Attend three final public meetings for the Villages at Vigneto Community Master Plan (CMP). Come prepared to share your concerns at these upcoming public meetings:
    • Planning & Zoning Commission hearing @ 7:00 PM, July 5th (Benson City Hall)
    • City Council work session @ 9:00 AM, July 9th (Cochise College Center in Benson)
    • City Council hearing @ 7:00 PM, July 18th (Benson City Hall)

Read Tucson Audubon's Conservation Alert (July 1)

Executive Director Karen Fogas's address from our Storytelling and Poetry on the San Pedro event

Friday, June 24, 2016

Owlphelia: Chronology of a Screech-Owl Nest Box

Habitat at Home yard
recognition sign
For several years now Tucson Audubon has been encouraging people to place nest boxes in their yards for desert birds. This process is now integrated with our Habitat at Home program, which asks people to do a variety of things in their yards to create safe, sustainable bird habitat. Then the program then recognizes their achievements (see the sign to the right)!

A couple years ago, one of our nest boxes went to a couple living in the Tucson foothills. They are long-time members of Tucson Audubon and had closely followed the development of this program. The box was placed on the rafters of their second floor balcony where they hoped it would catch the attention of American Kestrels. It didn't, so in late 2015 they felt they needed to make a change. They decided to move the box to another location where it might be more successful.

Western Screech-Owl (Doris Evans)
In October 2016 Tucson Audubon Society's Bringing Birds Home Program Manager, Kendall Kroesen, helped them find a new place for the box in a palo verde tree near the house. The reasoning was that this new location might be good for attracting Western Screech-Owls.

Below is a chronology of events starting when the first owl moved in, which they named Owlphelia! This is based on reports from the residents of this home. (If you have a nest box, we would love to see your reports of activities in your box!)

October 8, 2015
Box moved to palo verde tree.

March 4, 2016
When I went to put down the window shade this morning, I happened to look out at the bird house you and we had moved to the large mesquite tree. Lo and behold there was a face in the hole!!!  I had been hearing a screech-owl recently at night that sounded quite close by. It must have been he, or she? Very excited. We've named her Owlphelia.

First screech-owl sighting in box

March 8, 2016
We checked the box last night after our resident left to hunt and/or find a mate. No eggs. Will check again next week. 

March 30, 2016
We noticed the first egg March 23, the second one March 26, and the third one March 29! 

April 4, 2016
Normally when we check the box at dark every few days, there is no one home. Last night when we went to do the same, an owl flew out when we opened the box. There are three eggs and we were able to get some pictures of them. An owl is perched in his/her usual whole today, so it looks as though we did not scare them off!

Three screech-owl eggs

April 20, 2016
Haven't seen our owl today. Usually someone is sunning himself/herself in the portal all day. We saw someone fly out of the box at twilight and when we checked in the box, the three eggs were still there but no owl. 

April 29, 2016
We looked today and she was still sitting on the eggs. 

May 16, 2016
Owlphelia was hanging out in the portal of the bird house when we approached to check on her. She dropped down into the box and when we opened it, she had a wing spread trying to cover what looked to be a big ball of fluff. We could see only one, but the others were probably under her wing.  She is spending more time in the portal, so I imagine the eggs have hatched and she doesn't have to be sitting on them. We'll check in another day or two to see if we can see more. 

May 22, 2016
Yesterday evening around dusk I noticed our cat looking out the bedroom window at something on porch beam. Usually it is a dove or house finch, but much to my surprise, it was the screech owl staring back at us. Since we didn’t see anyone in the portal of the nest box, we thought it might be Owlphelia on the porch. We went to the box and opening the door, we found two fledglings.  Don’t know what happened to the third egg. We were surprised that they were so far along. The last time we looked a few days ago, what we could see still looked like balls of fluff. 

This morning I noticed this face in the portal. My husband went out to take a picture from the porch.  The owl backed away a bit, so you get to see only part of him/her. While we were out there, Owlphelia flew into the nest and has been there ever since. Will keep an eye on the box to see when the fledglings come out on the tree limbs.

First sight of a nestling peaking out of the box

May 26, 2016
This photo speaks for itself!

May 27, 2016
Two young owls looking out of the box

June 1, 2016
Everyone seems to be gone!  When I looked out this morning, no one appeared on the branch or in the box portal.  Later this morning we opened the box and no owls, not even the one we think was not alive. We will miss them. It has been fun. 

June 2, 2016
We spoke too soon! Guess who's back? When we checked the house yesterday, there was nothing in it except for the shavings and other things we did not investigate. This morning when by habit I looked out the window to the nest box, there she was in the portal. Since returning, she has been in and out of the house, occasionally sitting on the branch. Have not seen any sign of the kids. Would screech owls continue to use the same home even after nesting? We are assuming, of course, that this is Owlphelia and not a different owl?

P.S.  Just looked and there is Junior in the portal window!  

Fledged screech-owls still hanging around the box
Everyone out!
June 23, 2016
When I looked out our bedroom window, I noticed a lot of droppings on the porch floor. Looking up, who should be looking back at me but our old friend Owlphelia. Further along the beam were two juveniles. There has been only been one with her when we have seen them lately. They obviously are hanging around our house and the nest box. We are happy to have them and are glad they have chosen to stay around.

Owlphelia in the porch rafters

Fledged screech-owls in the porch rafters near Owlphelia!

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Why We Need You Now More Than Ever

Storytelling and Poetry on the San Pedro
Address by Karen Fogas, Executive Director
Singing Wind Bookshop, Benson, AZ | June 12, 2016

What do you think when you see this photo?

The first time I saw this sign, I did a double take. Attractive as it is, it reflects nothing I’ve encountered on the Santa Cruz. Was it someone’s wishful thinking? Someone’s idea of a bad joke? Delusion? A part of me grieves every single time I go by it.

Outside interests are working to turn the abundant, vibrant San Pedro River, the Southwest’s last major free-flowing river, into the same caricature that is illustrated here.

This is a description of the San Pedro River valley, as Coronado experienced it in 1540:

…At that time the climax grasses were so luxuriant as to hide a man on horseback; the now deep, shifting river channel and its affluents were an almost continuous, broad marsh; thousands of beavers saw to that. The relatively few mesquites and catclaws were confined to the first bench above the willows and baccharis, which is their normal habitat. ….the Sonora otter enjoyed its slide; antelope, black-tailed and white-tailed deer, elk, wild turkey, quails, and other game were abundant in this land of the Apache….During migration time great swarms of waterfowl, shorebirds and other transients winnowed the air along this flyway, while the gaudy Avocet and Black-necked Stilt remained to scream above their nests in the long valley where flowed the placid San Pedro.

                                                               ~ Herbert Brandt, Arizona and its Bird Life

Lower San Pedro River. Matt Griffiths

The lush river valley, with its tall grasses, the river work of thousands of beavers and its abundance of wildlife might well describe a foreign landscape when compared to the San Pedro we know today. A century or more of ranching, groundwater mining and development have significantly impacted this last major, free-flowing southwest river. And the potential to have a future description equally jarring in its contrast is occurring right now.

The pressures on the San Pedro are daunting. Major power lines, mining and development loom large. Literally. The Villages at Vigneto promises another 70,000 people added to Benson’s population of about 5,000. The Villages development is to be modeled after Tuscany, with its approximately 36” of rainfall per year, or 3” per month. How does that reconcile in an environment that receives less than 12” annually?

At stake is the future of what is arguably one of the single most important biological features in the arid Southwest. Unlike the highly degraded Santa Cruz River, which has been dewatered and deforested by decades of unsustainable groundwater withdrawal, there is currently enough surface flow to keep the San Pedro’s vital riparian forests alive. These forests are critical to the estimated four million birds that utilize them as a migration stopover; some traveling as many as 5,000 miles. Imagine traveling thousands of miles – you’re literally out of gas and you arrive to find nothing to eat or drink. Other species require healthy, abundant riparian forests to nest and reproduce.

That the San Pedro River serves as such a valuable resource is due in large part to its remarkably intact riparian system that supports extensive stands of cottonwood, willow and large mesquite bosques. These increasingly rare riparian forests rely upon the maintenance of surface and subsurface flows of water. As the Santa Cruz River’s history warns us, these crucial flows and the forests they support are readily put at risk by developments that cannot be sustained in such an arid environment. However, major new development and an increasingly hotter and drier climate threaten to rob the San Pedro of its most crucial ingredient: water.

De-watered and unvegetated Santa Cruz River

The nearby Santa Cruz River stands as a cautionary tale, a tale actually captured in a book called “A Requiem for the Santa Cruz.”— The Santa Cruz has been sucked dry by decades of unsustainable groundwater mining, resulting in the significant loss of nesting and migratory habitats. Unless we write a different story for the San Pedro River, it will join the list of dry riverbeds, with little to offer birds and wildlife.

And yet, as alarming as the future of the San Pedro may well be, it is emblematic of an even bigger problem. The public does not understand the history of water in this state, and as a result naively accepts actions that will irrevocably – and significantly – change this area for humans, birds and wildlife. There is not an inexhaustible supply of water, as those who would exploit it for short term gain would have us believe. History reveals this over and over in documented, dramatic changes to the landscape.

We must change the conversation about water to rewrite the story for precious resources like the San Pedro. A little more than a year ago the Tucson Audubon Society changed the conversation regarding the Villages at Vigneto, by intervening to ask that the Army Corp of Engineers consult with the US Fish & Wildlife Service, consider new hydrological information and evaluate the significantly larger plan for development. Having called attention to this impending development debacle, numerous entities joined in the fight, including our friends from Earth Justice, Sierra Club, Center for Biological Diversity, Cascabel Conservation Association, Lower San Pedro Watershed Alliance, Maricopa Audubon Society.

Tucson Audubon intends to change the conversation about water in our region not only by acting to intervene, as we did with the Villages at Vigneto and on numerous other conservation issues threatening birds and bird habitat, but also by endeavoring to shape policy and conduct broad public education. We must change how people view our fragile riparian systems. Only by doing so can we change the outcome for precious resources like the San Pedro. With the investment of supporters, we can change how people value what remains of our fragile, incredibly biologically diverse and important riparian areas, 95% of which have vanished.

Author, poet, activist, landowner, book lover, parent, grandparent, whomever….You came today because you care about the beautiful, fragile, last free-flowing desert river called the San Pedro. I hope you will leave with a new awareness of the region’s water challenges, as evidenced by what is happening here, today, with the San Pedro under more threat that she can bear.

I ask you to support us. Work with us. In whatever capacity you can – member, donor, volunteer – or all three! We are connected to this river, and its wealth of wildlife, including birds. We cannot allow the story that is written to be “A Requiem for the San Pedro.”

Donate today to support Tucson Audubon's work on behalf of the San Pedro River

San Pedro rainbow. Ariana La Porte