Friday, November 9, 2018

Farmland Raptors

Guest post Dan Weisz

The Marana area has a 4000 year history of agriculture and directly to the northwest of Marana is Pinal County, home to one million acres of farmland.  That area attracts certain types of wildlife and, in the winter especially, a large number of raptors and wintering birds.  A friend and I recently visited the agricultural part of Marana (north of the city core) as well as the Santa Cruz Flats in Pinal County which lie northwest of Marana, an extension of the flat landscape west of the Santa Cruz River extending from Marana to beyond Picacho Peak.  We saw a wide range of raptors that morning.

One of the first pleasant surprises was finding two adult Crested Caracaras.  They were at the road’s edge when we first saw them but they quickly retreated to the fields and wandered away, occasionally looking back at us.  Caracaras spend a lot of time on the ground hunting for food, so this bird was comfortable wandering the aisles of its personal grocery store.

A female American Kestrel was warming up her back in the sun on this cool morning.  Kestrels often fly away quickly when I pull up in a car, so she must have really needed the sun’s heat that morning.  Her brown wings let you know that she’s a “she”.  Kestrels are American’s smallest falcon.

At one point, we stopped to look over a large dirt berm at what is fondly called the “sheep dump”.  We startled a huge flock of about 50 Black Vultures who took to the air.  They flew into the nearby desert but very quickly returned to the pasture that a herd of sheep were in.  This is lambing season and after a lamb is born, the ewe will expel the placenta or afterbirth.  This provides welcome food for vultures.  Black vultures are residents of southern Arizona year-round but I’ve never seen a flock this large.  Often, they will be mixed in with Turkey Vultures, but this flock wasn’t.

In flight, you can see the white ‘fingers" of the Black Vultures.  You can also see how short their tails are.  While Turkey Vultures find prey with a terrific sense of smell, Black Vultures use their keen eyesight, and they will also follow Turkey Vultures to prey.

A little further down the road we came across this Red-tailed Hawk.  There were very many around thanks to winter migration.

Now compare the look of the Red-tailed Hawk above with the one below.  The hawk below is called a rufous morph Red-tailed Hawk.  Note the rufous color of it head and neck and leg feathers.  The breast (hidden in this shot) is also rufous as is most of the flight feathers.

The rufous-morph Red-tail roused and, between that behavior and the wind, looked very different than it did just a few seconds prior.  You can see more of the darker feathers of its belly in this shot.

The Barn Owl was fast asleep in its usual location, tucked into this corner of the barn’s ceiling.  The Barn Owl’s partner was missing from view.

We saw a few Prairie Falcons.  This juvenile (told by the strong markings on its breast) was having a tough time.  As soon as we pulled over to get a good look and to try to take photographs, a nearby Red-tailed Hawk flew right at the Prairie Falcon, chasing it from its perch.  While the hawk assumed the perch spot of the falcon, the Prairie Falcon flew to a nearby pole.  Within a minute, the hawk again flew towards the falcon, chasing it from its spot and supplanting the falcon on its perch.  This behavior repeated for over six times with the birds going back and forth.  Finally, the Prairie Falcon flew to a pole a little further away.  Apparently, that was far enough out of the Red-tail’s territory that the hawk flew nearby but quit harassing the falcon.

Prairie Falcons are large falcons, almost the size of a Peregrine.  They have pointed wings, a white eyebrow and a (falcon) mustache.

Our last great surprise was seeing this beautiful Ferruginous Hawk.  We had seen one soaring above us Santa Cruz Flats, but this one was sitting on a telephone pole in Marana.  It did not spook with we stopped the car and got out to take its picture.  Ferruginous Hawks are the largest soaring hawk in the United States and live on prairies, grasslands, and agricultural areas of the west.  They summer up north but some winter in southern Arizona.  They are very white below and feature a rusty color on their wings (top and bottom) and on their leggings.  Their name, “Ferruginous", comes from the Latin ferrous referring to iron or rust.  Ferruginous Hawks have a very large gape, or mouth.

The Ferruginous Hawk took off.  This great flight photo has a phone line in the foreground unfortunately, but I thought the look of the bird helped to make this shot a keeper.

From the angle in the photo above and below, it appears that the hawk has an enlarged crop.  That bulge in its throat may mean that it has recently eaten and it is storing food in its esophagus until there is room in its stomach to digest it.

It definitely was a great morning for raptors.

Friday, September 21, 2018

Who's Been Drinking My Hummingbird Food at Night?

Guest post by Dan Weisz

Bats, that’s who- specifically Lesser Long-nosed Bats. Arizona is home to 28 species of bats. Twenty six of those species are insect eaters. Two are nectar feeders. During the fall, from August through October, hummingbird feeders in Tucson provide one source of food for these special creatures.

The Lesser Long-nosed Bat undergoes a long distance migration to get to the Tucson area (and they are one of only a few species that migrate such a distance). They come up every spring from Mexico, following the flowering or fruiting cycle of their food sources: saguaro, organ pipe cactus, carton, and agave- their primary food sources. The pregnant females roost in neighboring mountains in large groups and have their babies in the summer after a six month gestation period. Bats give birth to one pup per year. 

In the photos below, I have removed the red tops to the hummingbird feeders to allow for a better view of the bats. Please don’t do what I do. Leave the red tops on the feeders and the bats and the hummingbirds will still be able to feed without spilling the nectar all over your porch Thanks.

Bats are mammals, so they nurse their young as all mammals do. After a month or so, the pups will leave the maternity roosts and begin flying and feeding on their own. The bats are the only mammal that can fly and they come out at night to feed.

Bats cannot hover to drink nectar like hummingbirds do. Their technique is to fly up to food and right at the moment they are at the top of their flight, before they begin falling, they “stop” midair to slurp up some nectar.

And then after taking a quick slurp, they fall away, splashing droplets of hummingbird food around them. Many of my photos are of this type as the bats appear quickly, out of the dark to feed and my reflexes are not as fast as they are. In the photo below you can see another feature of the Lesser Long-nosed Bat. It does not have a tail, and is described as “wearing pants”. Most bats have a membrane between their legs. For Lesser Long-nosed Bats who migrate long distances, the membrane would produce more drag in the air, making it more difficult to fly long distances. So there is no membrane and that allows the bats to expend less energy when they migrate.

Bats wings are made up of a thin membrane stretched over the bats arm and fingers. Bats have a thumb and four fingers. The tiny thumb is at the bend atop their wings and is visible in some of the other photos. It has been said that bats fly through the power of “jazz hands”!

You may have noticed that “belly button” thing sticking out on each bat. I asked Scott Richardson, the local US Fish and Wildlife Bat expert, about that and sent him several photos. His response was: "Both sexes have an appendage. In females, like your photo, it is a small appendage. In males, it is the penis and it is obviously larger than the female appendage. You just have to see a bunch and it becomes obvious. Most of the bats at feeders are female and most are juveniles (young born this year or last). It can be harder to tell male from female in juveniles, but it is still pretty obvious. If you get a male, I am guessing it will be obvious to you that it is a male. It is most likely all you are seeing is females.”

I’ll leave it up to the reader to decide.

Doesn’t this bat look cute? It appears so happy to be close to a tasty drink. Notice the pointy thing sticking up on its snout? That is called a noseleaf and Lesser Long-nosed Bats are part of the leaf-nosed bat family.

You can see this bat's thumbs sticking up above the wings.

Bat Man!

On this bat, you can see the thumb and all four fingers, and you can see the “pants” it is wearing.

The tongue of a Lesser Long-nosed bat has adaptations for lapping up nectar. Their tongue is actually almost as long as their body to allow them to probe deeply into the big flowers they feed from.

Now look at the legs of this bat. You can see a membrane stretched between the legs, letting us know this is the other nectar feeding species found locally- a Mexican Long-tongued Bat.

One last look at the lack of a tail membrane on this Lesser Long-nosed before we look again at the other bat, our Mexican Long-nosed Bat.

You can see the membrane or skirt between this bat’s legs. You can also see that this bat has a much longer snout than the Lesser Long-nosed one.

Here is one last look at that tail membrane and the snout of the Mexican Long-tongued Bat.

The town of Marana has been studying these bats for years now. For information on the study and how you can participate, see

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

A Very Elegant Bird

Guest post by Dan Weisz

Elegant Trogons are another one of those birds who count southern Arizona as their only home in the United States. Upon seeing one in the wild, your first, immediate thoughts are “Wow, this is a tropical bird”. A Trogon's rose-red belly and metallic green back are vivid. Trogons are found during the summers in the canyon forests of southern Arizona’s Sky Islands among oak and sycamore trees.

Check out this range map to see where Elegant Trogons can be found in the United States:

A week ago, a friend told me about a nest she had been following in Madera Canyon and invited me along for a look. We waited for over a very long hour-and-a-half by the tree with the nest cavity. A female appeared suddenly and fed the chicks in the nest but flew off as soon as she was finished. We waited another half hour or so until the male Trogon finally showed up. The male’s behavior was very different. He sat on a perch holding a very fat caterpillar and waited and waited while facing the nest cavity. The male bird below could be molting, as the feathers on its belly appear a bit scruffy.

Meanwhile, the two chicks in the nest were eager to be fed. The chicks seemed to be old enough to fledge and leave the nest very soon. Trogons are cavity nesters, but they are unable to ‘dig’ their own cavities. They are largely dependent on woodpeckers to first create the holes which they then use in following years.

One baby seems to be much more hungry and assertive than its sibling.

Finally, the father Trogon approached the nest after waiting for five minutes or more. In the photo below, his wings are blurred due to the camera's slow shutter speed, but seeing the bird’s posture and the young Trogon’s reactions makes this shot. So who gets the juicy snack? The belly colors of the Elegant Trogon stand out here as does the red eye-ring against the dark green/black face.

Apparently, the bird on the right was left empty handed, or empty beaked. The adult Trogon’s metallic green back and square-tipped tail are evident as is the bird’s gray, finely barred side feathers.

Papa Trogon left to continue hunting while one baby was chowing down and the second bird looked perplexed.

Within minutes, the adult Elegant Trogon reappeared with a cicada in its yellow beak. Note the bird’s white chest band.

The cicada is carefully but firmly held in the Trogon’s beak

.And then papa delivers to the second hungry bird in the nest. This is another, closer look at the feathers on his back.

The female Elegant Trogon is colored very differently from the male. This photo was taken when we first saw her before the male arrived. I was shooting into the bright sky and the angle isn’t the best, but you can see that the female does not have the bright green back that the male does. She has more of a gray head, chest and back and a belly lightly washed in red. She also has a white teardrop behind her eye. The female Elegant Trogon does have a square-tipped tail like her mate’s and but it is more coppery colored.

I feel very fortunate to have witnessed these birds that day. I learned that the babies were no longer in the nest just two days later and I believe that they had fledged and were being fed and taken care of out of the nest somewhere in the Canyon. I know I will look for them again next spring.

Here is a nice, short story on Elegant Trogons by the podcast Birdnote. You can hear the Trogon's unique ‘barking’ sound here:

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Intern Spotlight: Fernando Diaz

          Tucson Audubon has been a proud supporter of youth in conservation since the very beginning of our organization. Be it classes, field trips, internships or other special events!
         Every once in a while we like to put a little spotlight on our hardworking interns and volunteers to recognize their hard work and encourage others to volunteer in conservation. Today’s spotlight is on Fernando Diaz, a sophomore at University of Arizona pursuing a Bachelor’s Degree in Ecology & Evolutionary Biology. 

Fernando is being recognized today for his "can-do" spirit, hard work and fast learning! 
Great job!

        He started as an intern at Tucson Audubon Society after asking his adviser for help finding ornithology-related experience. What better place than Tucson Audubon? By contacting our Volunteer Coordinator, Luke Safford, Fernando was set up with opportunities that our multifaceted organization offers: bird surveys, habitat restoration, nestbox installation/monitoring, and data entry.

When asked why ornithology interests him, Fernando said:
I’ve always been fascinated with biology, ever since I was a kid who took interest in dinosaurs. When I learned that birds are the only living clade of dinosaurs (and funnily enough, after reading/watching Jurassic Park’s constant references to birds) I couldn’t help but get interested in them. They became my favorite groups of animals, as birds are just so diverse and diverged, that I can spend countless hours finding out about new species I never heard of or even believe could exist (such as the birds of paradise.)
After taking a few classes related with my major, I realize that I do feel I have what it takes to be a biologist, and Professor Robichaux (who taught my ECOL 182 class) really did inspire that passion I had to be a biologist. I learned in his class that one of the world’s leading ornithologists, Ed Scholes, is conducting extraordinary research on the birds of paradise and took the exact same class I did with the exact same professor (Dr. Rob), and it was at that moment I realized “Maybe I could become a great ornithologist!” To be straightforward, Dr. Rob’s lectures and motivational speeches for us really did inspire me to pursue my interests in biology (ornithology specifically, of course) and I became determined to do something about it over the summer. So far, I feel I’m on the right path and hope to become a great ornithologist.”

So far this summer Fernando has put up Elf Owl nestboxes, gone on Elegant Trogon surveys, and done multiple habitat restoration projects in Patagonia, Arizona. Something new on a weekly basis!

Here we see TAS restoration crew and Fernando (first from the right) working on building a weir to prevent erosion in Corral Canyon of Patagonia Mountains. Tucson Audubon is unique in the fact that there is a restoration department in addition to conservation. They go hand in hand!

Some of the benefits of interning at Tucson Audubon Society include, but are not limited to:
  •        College credit
  •        Resume-worthy experience
  •        In-field knowledge and skill acquisition
  •        Networking with professionals in your field
  •        Discovering the hidden nature gems of Southeast Arizona
  •        Volunteer hours that translate into discounts in our Nature Shop

Tucson Audubon Society offers opportunities to get involved with outreach, media, habitat restoration, bird conservation, and other elements of a non-profit conservation organization. 

If you know someone who may be interested in an internship, please refer them to Luke Safford at

Friday, May 18, 2018

Western Screech Owl: Season 2, Chapter 3

Guest Post by Dan Weisz

Now that it is very hot each day, the female Western Screech Owl leaves the nest box shortly after sunset and spends up to ten minutes quenching her thirst.  She’ll get a drink, then look around for a while, then get another drink, and repeat.  The owls will lap later into her bill, then tip her head back to let it run down her throat.

On this night, after filling up with water, she found a nearby perch and relieved herself.  She squats down in order to do this.

This was a lucky shot.  The owl is “casting a pellet”.  Owls usually swallow their prey whole and break it down in their gizzard. The bones, teeth, fur and other indigestible material is compressed into a pellet shaped mass that is then disgorged by regurgitation. 

Later, she flew to the water dishes on the ground to take a bath.

A few night’s later, she was back on a perch and scratching herself.

Although this photo is blurry, it gives you a sense of what the owl looks like when she returns to her nest box.

I know that the eggs have hatched by the method the owl uses to drop down into the box.  Several weeks ago, when the owl dropped into the box after looking out of the opening, she just dropped down and disappeared quickly. For the past two weeks, she turns and looks down before descending. I am sure she is looking at the owlets so she doesn’t just step on their heads.

And then she slowly descends into the nest box.

The male leaves his daytime perch in our neighbor’s porch pillar around the same time the female leaves the box to take a drink.  I never see him drinking and usually he is out in the desert nearby hunting.  I rarely see him but often hear his calling from the desert.  One night this week he perched in my backyard.  When I moved, he straightened up and erected the feather tufts on his head.  That’s his disguise mode used to blend into the trees that are often behind him.  He has not spent as much time near me as his partner has.

A few night’s later, I saw the male again.  This time, he had caught some food.  He’s holding a Western Banded Gecko in his beak.  You can see a fresh wound in the gecko’s belly where the owl probably first caught him. Now, the owl is carefully holding the gecko by its skull and awaiting a call from the female to make the delivery to the nest.