Saturday, November 18, 2017

The Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge

Guest post by Dan Weisz

I just returned from the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival and really enjoyed seeing the varied habitat and the rich birdlife there.  The Festival is very well run.  The first day we visited the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge.  This area is famous for having the second highest bird count of any of the national wildlife refuges in the United States.  It is also now famous as the site where the new border wall that President Trump promised is going to be built.  The wall will rest on a levee that is one mile from the border and the vegetation will be cleared for 100 yards on either side of the wall, cutting right through the center of the refuge.  Here is the refuge’s webpage:

A view of the water and thick vegetation in the Santa Ana Wildlife Refuge

A Golden Fronted Woodpecker on a snag as viewed from the top of an observation tower above the canopy.  It looks similar to our Gila Woodpeckers but with the added yellow feathers at the base of its upper bill and a golden nape (the back of its head).

Green Jays were everywhere we went over the weekend.  This one was in a group coming to seed feeders in the refuge.

Green Jays are colorful tropical birds found primarily in Mexico and South America.  Green Jays just makes their way into the US in southern Texas (see the range map below).

There is also a resident population of Green Parakeets and Red-crowned Parrots in Harlingen, the town that hosts the festival.  The Red-crowned Parrots are native to a small region of northeastern Mexico, but through illegal pet trade, escaped birds and released pets have established colonies of feral population in a number of cities in the United States.

We found them near sunset in a residential neighborhood of Harlingen.

South Padre Island is a popular destination for Spring Breakers, but it is also a popular stop-over for migrating birds and offers a year-round sub-tropical environment for many other birds.

In one park, we saw a female Tennessee Warbler enjoying fruits on a tree on its way to its wintering home.  This is a bird that summers in the Canadian boreal forest.  Check out the range map to see how far this little bird has already flown on its way south.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

A Birding Trip to Northeast Botswana: Part 2

Guest column by Alan & Albert Adler
Read Part 1

Botswana is a landlocked country with no intercontinental airports. We left Tucson on November 23, 2016 to fly first to Atlanta and then take the Delta flight directly from Atlanta to Johannesburg, South Africa. It is a 14-hour flight (one of the top ten longest flights in the world) and we knew we would need a little downtime once in South Africa to reset our clocks. We stayed two nights in Johannesburg at a small hotel with lovely grounds. After a 36-hour layover we flew the final 700 miles to the Maun (population 56,000) on South Africa Airlines. The flight attendants on that flight worked their tails off to provide drink service and a hot lunch – impressive. There was always a small nagging thought that we would arrive in Maun and find no one there to meet us. Even though we had travel insurance, we were far from anywhere, feeling quite dependent. When we got through passport control and walked out to see our names on a Kit Adventure card we were totally relieved. For the first of many times Richard and the other Batswana we met during our journey proved we could count on them. We grabbed our bags and headed for the converted Land Cruiser that would be “birding central” for the next two weeks.

The Road to Sango Camp
Lilac-breasted Roller
It was 1 p.m. on November 26th when Richard picked us up at the Maun airport to head out to the first of three camps within three different areas, and we began birding almost immediately. The vehicle Richard provided had rows of seats in the back, which enabled us to obtain wonderful views out either side and over the cab. It combined the childhood thrill of riding in the back of the pickup with the safety of seat belts. And it had a sunshade. There was always a cooler for our preferred drinks to refresh ourselves or to toast a particularly fine view.

It was on the road to Sango Camp that we immediately became familiar with Richard’s style. He would see or hear something that we had no clue about, suddenly pull over or back up, turn off the truck, and point out the object of his interest. This gave us ample opportunity to find the bird, listen to the call, and take almost as many pictures as we wanted. Neither of us are wildlife photographers and our only big camera was the Canon Powershot SX60, so there was a lot of zoom fiddling, but Richard was always the height of patience. It must be noted that we were able to photograph with this camera nearly all the birds identified in this trip report. As a result we have recorded a lot of memories that would already be faded.

On the way out of town, we saw for the first of many, many times what we believe is the most ubiquitous, beauteous bird in all the world: the Lilac-breasted Roller. Richard told us that it is the unofficial national bird of Botswana. Other ubiquitous birds that we saw that exciting first afternoon in country were: the Fork-tailed Drongo, (a few days later we took a photo of one harassing a Brown Snake Eagle); the Ring-necked Dove, with distinctive white patches on its tail, and the beautiful Helmeted Guinea Fowl; the secretive but quite striking Red-billed Spurfowl whose calls would greet our every morning. One of the most unusual families of birds are the hornbills; that day we saw the Southern Red-billed, Southern Yellow-billed, African Grey, and the Bradfield’s Hornbill as well as our first Bee-eater: the Blue-cheeked Bee-eater, which is a predominantly green bird; only the males have a blue cheek. As we were going along, Richard suddenly stopped and about 10 yards from the road amidst the trees was our first of many sightings of a Giraffe. It was on the road to Sango camp from Maun that we saw the Striated Heron, the Emerald–spotted Wood Dove, the Pale Chanting Goshawk, the Groundscraper Thrush, the Double-banded Sandgrouse , and the Crested Francolin – all from families of birds with which we were familiar. But on that road we saw two 15-inch tall land birds: the striking Senegal Coucal (one of several species of coucal that we were to see elsewhere with their black crests pure white bellies, and lovely russet wings), and the Red-crested Korhaan (one of two species of these birds that have very distinct, beautiful markings on their back and upper part of their wings).

Southern Yellow-billed Hornbill

Bradfield’s Hornbill

Southern Red-billed Hornbill

Crested Francolin

In the 12 days we were together, we never failed to be amazed by his extraordinary ability to be barreling down a dirt road and still pick out something amazing – sunbirds at the top of a tree 100 yards away or a pair of male lions quietly resting 10 feet from the road, perfectly camouflaged in the dry brush. Our delight and excitement with each new bird, and, oh yes, cape buffalo, impala, and lion and elephant tracks, meant that our 2-½ hour trip to Sango Camp took close to 5. We were thrilled, and after all, we thought, isn’t that what we came for? Evening was falling by the time we rolled across the bridge and into the Sango camp within the Khwai Community Area.

Stay tuned for Part 3! 

Lilac-breasted Rollers


Alan and Albert Adler have been residing in Tucson since 1998. Alan has been a lifelong birder, and from June 1999 through August 2002, he served as a writer and the volunteer editor of Tucson Audubon's Vermilion Flycatcher. In the spring of 2000, he was very pleased to report that the 32-page “newsletter”, as it was known then, was ranked 1st among those from 10 other “very large” chapters, beating Seattle, Greater Denver, and Fairfax, Virginia in the competition held by the National Audubon Society.  For the past seven years, Alan has volunteered with the Lend A Hand Senior Assistance, Inc., twice serving as its co-President. Albert began birding as an adult and has worked as a pediatrician with the Tohono O’odahm tribe since August 1998. The photos that accompany the article were taken almost entirely by Albert.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Journeying Home - Paton Center for Hummingbirds

 Guest post by Bonnie Paton Moon

NOTE: Tucson Audubon Society's efforts to preserve the Paton Center, while making necessary upgrades to accommodate tens-of-thousands of visitors annually, prompted the launch of a Capital Campaign in April 2017. A reunion of major donors included a visit from one of Wally and Marion Paton's daughters, Bonnie Paton Moon. Recently, Bonnie shared her reflections on this special spring weekend in Patagonia.

I hadn’t journeyed home to Patagonia in awhile, but this trip was a celebration I would not miss−the three-year reunion of Paton supporters who had been instrumental in “saving” Paton’s Birder Haven. The weekend also marked Tucson Audubon’s Capital Campaign Kick-off to fund improvements to the house. While there, I had the great honor of sharing from my book, Journey Home─How a Simple Act of Kindness Led to the Creation of a Living Legacy ─ the story about my parents, Wally and Marion Paton and the creation of their world-renowned bird watching backyard.

Bonnie Paton Moon Shares from Journey Home-Cady Hall, April 29, 2017

Entering the yard, so familiar, yet different now, I was immediately struck by all the improvements completed by Tucson Audubon Society since my last visit two years ago. What a thrill to see my parents honored for creating this birding mecca that still attracts thousands of visitors each year from all parts of the globe. While reading the sign, a couple from British Columbia approached−their first visit to Paton’s. “Where do we pay?” was their first question to me. “There is no entrance fee” I replied, a tradition my parents established decades ago and continues today. The “sugar fund,” originally an old coffee can hung on the fence, is now a spiffy donation box, and remains strictly voluntary.

Paton Legacy Sign, Tucson Audubon’s Paton Center, April, 2017

After three glorious days during which Paton supporters were treated to some fabulous spring migration birding, tours of the property by various staff involved in improvement projects, talks by Hummingbird expert, Sheri Williamson, from Southern Arizona Bird Observatory (SABO) and Jesus Garcia, Director of the Kino Heritage Fruit Tree Project at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, it was time to say goodbye once again.

As I wandered the property on that last day I spent a few moments in the yard reflecting at some special spots. My Dad’s pecan tree still thrives in the back yard, bigger and more robust that ever and still producing a good amount of pecans each year. I sat a good while on my parents’ memorial bench and reflected on the beauty of this place ─ the land they had nurtured for decades, still loved and nurtured. It had been positioned near to the site of my Dad’s former orchard in the front yard. Plans to re-establish an orchard here are underway. Jonathan Horst, Restoration Ecologist, is heading up this project.

Wally Paton’s Pecan Tree Thrives in the back yard, April 2017

I stopped to remember my Mom’s rose garden in the front yard, ready to pop with bloom−her passion. I sat on a bench in the Richard Grand Memorial Meadow with Carol and Paul Lamberger, Paton supporters. We sat for a good while at this peaceful spot overlooking the newly created pond−all possible because of the kindness and generosity of Marcia Grand and the hard work of Tucson Audubon staff and volunteers.

Bonnie Paton Moon in front yard. Marion Paton’s Roses Bloom in background

Then a very special moment happened. As I was getting in the car to leave, Carol Lamberger inquired if the rose bushes in the front yard were my mothers. “Yes,” I answered, “she loved roses. We would always gift one or several at Mother’s Day.” Carol smiled and promised to take special care of them. And in that moment I was reminded of the special magic that surrounds Paton’s ─ it seems to bring out the very best in people ─ it always did and continues to do so. It is the underlying essence of the place and that spirit of kindness and generosity that my parents exemplified that will continue in perpetuity. In addition, of course, to remaining one of the top birding sites in the world.

Sitting in the Richard Grand Memorial Meadow with Carol & Paul Lamberger

Learn more about Wally and Marion Paton and how Paton's Birder Haven came to be in Bonnie's book, Journey Home─How a Simple Act of Kindness Led to the Creation of a Living Legacy. Pick up a copy at our Nature Shop today!

Monday, October 30, 2017

Desert Hackberry Fruits Attract Birds

Guest post by Dan Weisz

One of the Desert Hackberry plants behind my house is loaded with fruit now and I’ve been watching birds move in and out this week, partaking in the juicy berries.  The timing and quantity of fruit ripening is highly dependent on rainfall.  Fruits can ripen any time between July and December.  The fruits are very bright and sweet, with one hard seed in the middle.  

Want hackberry and all these fun birds in your own yard? Read on to learn about our Habitat at Home program and how you can make your outdoor spaces better for wildlife!

Gila Woodpeckers are enjoying the fruit.  (Gila Woodpeckers eat insects, fruit, seeds, occasional birds’ eggs, and lizards).  Each time this bird would grab a fruit, it would then fly off to another location to eat it.  He was eating snacks “to-go”.

Northern Mockingbirds also enjoyed the berries.  Although I wasn’t able to get a photo of this particular bird with the fruit in his mouth, he had just swallowed a fruit whole and you can see the lump in his throat and a satisfied look in his eyes!  With that long narrow bill, mockingbirds seem to be built to eat insects.  They do eat mainly insects in the summer but switch to eating mostly fruit in the fall and winter.

Gulp!!  And the fruit continues its travel down the mockingbird’s throat!

I saw many House finches going in and out of the plant.  With that beak, house finches would seem to favor diets of seeds, but they do eat all parts of plants including fruit.  This is a “before” photo so you can see the beak size/shape.

And I finally caught a house finch in the act.  The fruit was probably too large to be swallowed whole and the finch seemed to be biting through chunks of the fruits.

A female Pyrrhuloxia enjoyed the fruit as well.  At first, it seemed like she was having trouble getting that entire berry in her mouth.

But she definitely managed just a few moments later, swallowing the entire berry whole.

Here is another Mockingbird with a berry.  This bird seems to have a few feathers sticking up above its eye.

And down the hatch it goes.

Habitat at Home Recognition program – Create a beautiful, water-saving landscape that attracts birds and other wildlife

A Habitat at Home landscaping can lower your water bills, reduce yard maintenance, and beautify your home while providing food and habitat for the birds that enrich our community. Native species allow you to enjoy a cooler, low-maintenance, and beautiful landscape in Tucson’s hot and dry weather. Join the program and we'll show you how to do it!

Registration opens on November 14

For more info on Desert Hackberry plants, here are a few references.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Tohono Chul Park and "Forest Bathing"

Guest post by Dan Weisz

NPR ran a story about the practice of “Forest Bathing”, aka, a retreat to nature which can actually boost your immunity and your mood. You can read or listen to the story at this link:  

I’ve been spending some time at Tohono Chul Park doing just that and, besides the flowers and lizards and butterflies, have come across some interesting birds.

Right at the entrance to the park there was a large cholla cactus with a cactus wren nest on it.  As I approached, two cactus wrens emerged from the nest and flew off, and then a young cactus wren emerged and stayed for a while.  You can tell it is a juvenile by its brown eye.  As an adult, the bird will have a red eye.

A young male Costa’s Hummingbird enjoyed the morning sunlight.  His gorget is just beginning to grow in.

This Anna’s Hummingbird has a beak covered with pollen.

I had heard that a Cooper’s Hawk had a successful nest in the park and that there were three juveniles flying around.  While I was sitting on a bench, this one came crashing through the trees chasing a bird.  It continued to hunt without any regard for me.  Obviously, it is used to people being around.

As it hopped from branch to branch, it appeared oblivious to me.  The vertical streaking on its cream-colored breast and that yellowish eye tells us this is a juvenile.  As an adult, the bird will have a red eye and the breast will be covered with warm reddish barring.

Stalking its prey.

I had also heard about some young Western Screech Owls that had fledged in the park.  I was unable to locate them during my first few visits but was determined to find them. Finally, I did find them right where people said they were likely to be.  Of course, they were hiding in plain sight buried in this lemon tree.  Two are visible here.

A close-up of one owl finds it behind many leaves and branches.

Here is a second perched behind a twig.

After peering through the tree, trying to find the best window to see the three hidden owls, a docent walked up and said “Oh, you’ve found the owls.”  I said yes and pointed to where the three were hidden and she said “what about this one” pointing overhead to one owl that was right in the open!  This juvenile still does not have its facial disc and still has the juvenile barred feathers on its chest.  The vertical striping has yet to come in.  What a great sight to finish the morning!

Forest bathing at its finest!

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Elvis's Final Act - Western Screech Owl Final Update

Guest post by Dan Weisz

On Monday two of the owlets fledged and hung out in their mesquite tree.  They seemed unable to do much more than hop from one branch to another.  Of course, after I went in around 8:45 they had the rest of the night to practice.

On Tuesday, the mother owl did not appear on the ladder as she had in the past.  After sunset but before dark, she swooped past the house around to the back.  There, she took a long sip of water.  I believe that this owl, like most birds, laps water into her bill and then tilts her head back in order to swallow.  She always closed her feathered eyelids when drinking.

Her head is tilted back in order to swallow the water.  You can see a large drop on her bill.

One last look at this adult Western Screech Owl. Note the dark facial disc, looking like parentheses around her face.  And also note the bold, black vertical streaks and compare that to the owlets' look in the following photos.

Second night out of the nest and this owlet still looked fairly klutzy to begin the evening.  Here, it struggled to perch on a small branch.  Below it is head first, and wings up.

And then it was head’s up and wings down.

And finally he found stability.

One of the owlets (without the black dot on its eye).

The same owlet, and you can see the faintest beginning of the black vertical striping around its neck.

Here is the second owlet, the one with the spot on its left iris.  He found an unusual perch, but they do live in the desert!

Busy cleaning or scratching its talons, eyes closed to prevent any accidents.

One last look at an owlet.  Actually, after a half hour, both little birds were flying around very handily.  They even flew to other trees and then followed their parents into the desert.  That was just two nights after leaving the nest!   The parents will continue feeding them but they now can follow parents around during the hunt.

And the last little owlet remained in the nest.  I never saw the parents feeding it, but she looked strong and active.

And of course, she slept lots of the time too.

On Wednesday the two fledged owlets never reappeared, and the parents also did not perch near the nest box.  I only heard them calling a very few times before 9:00 when I retired.  They had not fed the youngest at that time but I am certain they returned to the nest often during the night.  Tonight (Thursday) the owlet in the nest box appeared healthy and alert and poked its head out after sunset, looking around and apparently waiting for its dinner.  By 8:45, I had not heard the parents, but I know they are out there taking care of the two fledged birds before returning to the nest box regularly.

I will continue my watch, and keep you posted, but this email is likely the last in the Western Screech Owl series, until next Spring!