Friday, November 30, 2007

The Last Week of November

November 27th

Evening falls on Sycamore Canyon with a golden glow. In the gray dusk a shadowy bird flies past like a thought, undefined and fleeting. Silence descends upon the desert in fits and starts, until, by midnight, I question if the earth is still breathing. Then a yapping starts, followed by louder barks and howls, voices lifted in a frenzy, then tapering off to silence once again. Who knows what other creatures stalk the night?

November 28th

With dawn the daytime desert comes alive. Now the sunlight brings the birds. Finally a male hummingbird, the first I’ve seen here at my house, alights at the feeder, its purple gorget flashing the reflected sun. This violet hood stream backwards on the bird’s throat as if blown back by wind as he streaks through the air. The males are shier than the females. They dart off at the slightest movement I make inside the house. The females will sit and let me watch them, unafraid. I can sometimes see the yellow pollen on their beaks and their tiny tongues flicking in and out as they sip the nectar from the feeder.

I hear the rolling trill of a rock wren. Looking up I see it right outside the window on the block wall. It bounces up and down as if doing deep knee bends. I wonder if there is a bird drill sergeant in its mind commanding the rhythmic motion.

When I first moved here and put out my birdbath the birds didn’t seem to know what to do with it. Now they visit regularly. Today up to four house sparrows at a time are splashing merrily in the water. There is something so joyously happy about a bathing bird. They seem to go at it with reckless abandon as they dip their bodies into the water and splash small ripples across their backs. Then the flight into a nearby tree or onto the block wall to sun themselves.

Suddenly there is the rush of wings as birds scatter in all directions. I watch amazed as a cooper’s hawk flies in, soaring through the wash, then banking. It flies strait towards me as I watch from inside the house. At the last minute it pulls up and flies over the rooftop. The next thing I see is it landing on the bock wall behind my mesquite tree. It tarries but for a moment, then flies off in pursuit of prey elsewhere. The yard is empty and silent briefly, but before long the birds return to feeding, bathing and sunning themselves.

November 29
The sweet scent of the damp desert awakens me. I brew a cup of tea, gather up my notebook and some yogurt, and head out onto the patio to welcome the dawn. Wrapped in a blanket with pen in hand I write in my journal as the morning birds descend upon my feeders. I listen to the other sounds of the waking world: trucks backing up with their warning signals beeping, garage doors humming as they open and close. Nearby I hear the echo of worker’s hammers ringing off the mountains, and always the peeping, cheeping, twittering sounds of birds. Sometimes the mourning doves will fight for position beneath the feeders. They raise their wings and snap them at their rivals. It sounds like a locker room during a towel fight.

As the sun rises behind leaden skies a soft gray light washes over the canyon. Soon a gentle rain starts to fall, soaking the earth around me. The sound of water in the desert is a wonder, a melody from a dream, perhaps. A remembered, comforting sound of life. The collected water from my rooftop pours from the rainspouts into the back yard splashing off the hard soil before soaking in. All day long the rain comes and goes teasing us with its life-giving properties. Autumn rain is gentle and promising.

As I walk through the neighborhood I see more and more Christmas decorations appearing in the front yards of my neighbors. Without evergreen trees to decorate I see live oaks and willows adorned with garland, lights, and ornaments. As in every other state I’ve lived in the rooflines are strung with lights. Today I saw my first Christmas tree peeking through a front window. This will be my first Christmas where it doesn’t snow.

November 30, 2007

Today the air is pregnant with a storm. All the world is waiting. It is as if the desert is holding its breath. I have so much to do, but the desert is calling me. A comfortable coolness envelops me as I step out the door. On this last day of November I marvel at the land around me. The gray light from overcast skies lends a softness to the desert. It is a thorny quilt spread out before me. Beyond the cacti and ever rising houses Mt. Fagan watches over us, his slopes now burnished copper, gray and sage. A low cloud rests on his shoulders, then drifts away.

The bare ocotillo branches scrape the November sky. Finches grasp the thorny branches and then a Gila woodpecker. I wonder how they can avoid the thorns? The smaller birds I can understand, but how does the larger woodpecker manage it? The woodpecker is a gray silhouette on a gray branch against a gray sky. It looks like a large bump on the branch, part of its structure, but then it moves, climbing the branch like a ladder.

At home once again I am looking out the window at a gilded flicker on the suet. Explosively the birds take flight. The Cooper’s Hawk is back! Though she swoops and soars she is unsuccessful. She lands on the block wall across the wash. I grab my binoculars and focus on her. I can only guess that she is a female because of her size. In birds of prey the females are usually larger than the males. She is rather large with a dark cap and dark gray back. Her breast has the rusty barring of an adult. A juvenile would sport vertical striping instead. She scans the wash and drops below the sight line of my own block wall. I rush out to see if she is in the wash, if she has gotten prey, but she is gone. I never saw her fly up above the wall. I can only assume that she flew low up the wash before rising to the sky once again.

Monday, November 26, 2007

An Angel in Sabino Canyon

Finally a team was assembled to begin an Important Bird Survey in Sabino Canyon. Emails had been exchanged for two weeks. It was decided that we would meet at 8 a.m. on November 14 at the Sabino Canyon Visitor Center. None of us had met each other, but we all agreed to identify each other by our hats and binoculars—standard fare for bird watchers. Our plan was to get to know each other and hike into the creek to walk the transect route for future surveys. Once again I got up early, fed cats, and dogs, ate breakfast and walked the dog.

My husband and I left at the planned time of 7 a.m., which I thought would get me to Sabino Canyon on the north side of Tucson in plenty of time. We stopped at the Roadrunner market in Corona De Tucson where Gus filled my gas tank as well as his. I had put all my birding gear in the car the night before in order to save time in the morning. The weather was suppose to be in the 80’s, so I had not brought a jacket with me. However, when I opened the window to talk to Gus at the gas station a chill breeze blew through. I suddenly remembered how cold it was birding in Green Valley the week before, so when the gas tank was full, I decided to head home for my jacket—just in case. Wrong move.

After retrieving my jacket, which took about 10 minutes, I headed north on Houghton Rd. The drive to Sabino Canyon took me much longer than anticipated. By the time I arrived it was twenty-five minutes after eight. Birders wait for no one, though I suspected they had waited a few minutes. Now what to do? I had never been here before and had no idea where the riparian area was. However, I really wanted to meet these women and see where we would be birding. Undaunted, I went into the visitor’s center and asked where the riparian area might be. I knew from the emails it was only a mile in and they were hiking there, so I knew I could do that also.

After obtaining instruction and a map from one of the volunteers I headed for the Sabino Dam Trail. In spite of my fears of being cold, it was quite warm and I didn’t take my jacket with me. Dressed in a T-shirt, light sweater and crop pants I was comfortable with my camel pack on my back and a granola bar in the pocket. The dirt trail was wide and golden in the morning sun. Long shadows lay across the trail. In the brush I spied a phainopepla, a silky flycatcher with black feathers and a crest. I walked on, unsure of myself, but determined.

Along the way I met other hikers already returning from their morning hikes. I asked one and then another if they had seen three women with hats and binoculars. No one had. Another women walked towards me with a floppy hat and a walking stick. Her hair was shoulder length platinum gray/ blond. A thin nose separated kind eyes. Older and shorter than I, she looked like a forest gnome. I asked her the same question. She had not seen the women either but offered to accompany me when she heard this was my first time in the canyon. I took her up on her offer and we introduced ourselves. Her name was Beth.

Beth and I headed farther up the trail, chatting as we went. She told me that mountain lions had been seen in this area and she didn’t want me to go alone. We talked about lions and birds and nature. Beth told me she lived nearby and often walked this trail. I looked about me at the high rock walls closing in around us. The creek bed was mostly dry, but during the Monsoon it had raged with water. Two people were swept away during a flash flood just this summer and drowned. Walking in the rocky and sandy creek bed now, it was hard to imagine.

We got out of the creek bed and back on the trail. Soon we came to the dam. Bamboo grew thickly along the creek edges, along with cottonwoods, sycamores and willows. "This is where the lion was spotted," Beth told me. We crossed the damp creek bottom to the other side, but then returned. I wanted to walk up the creek bed, but Beth suggested we stick to the trail. "I don’t think they will be in the creek," she said. I thought to myself, "that’s exactly where they will be," but I followed on.

The smooth beaten path wound through more bamboo and trees. We could not see very far ahead or even off to the sides. I was beginning to think we would never find the others when we came to a bend in the trail and there ahead of us were three women with binoculars, hats and a clipboard, walking up the creek. "Are you Jean, Pam, and Peggy," I called out. The three women turned to look at me, astonishment on their faces. We had found them! Beth graciously retreated, but not before I thanked her profusely. She was a guiding angel for me. A forest gnome with a walking stick.

I joined the others and introduced myself. I apologized for being so late. We continued our trek up the creek searching for the best path to take and deciding where we might stop for point count surveys come breeding season.

The creek snaked through the canyon past rocky cliffs. In places there was water lying in pools. The mud and sand adjacent to it held footprints of animals other than dogs or cats. They reminded me of raccoon footprints. Could they be coati’s? Beth had told me she has seen them here before. Farther up the creek two rock wrens bobbed and called from scattered stones. Then we saw a flash of chestnut as a canyon wren scurried in and out of the rocks looking for insects. In a thicket in the middle of the creek a tiny bird scolded and chattered at us. We never got a good look, but the others thought it might be a Bewick’s wren. On some stones in the middle of the creek someone spotted a tiny tree frog the gravelly color of stone. It blended right into the rock and was no bigger than a pebble. I was surprised anyone even noticed it, then concerned there may be more and I might step on them.

We finally climbed out of the creek at Tram Stop One. Sabino Canyon has a paved road it uses to transport people farther up the canyon. You pay $5 to ride the tram and can get on and off as many times as you want to. I haven’t ridden it yet but I was told it use to go all the way up 9 stops to the top. A huge flash flood a couple of years ago wiped out the road and now you can only ride to stop 4, but repairs are being done and the hope is you will be able to ride all the way to the top again.

Here in Sabino Canyon, which is a National Park, they actually have restrooms with flush toilets. We all took a restroom break before heading back down the canyon. As I sat on the seat I pulled the toilet paper down and was startled when something fell out of the roll! There on the floor was another tiny tree frog! This one was a bit larger, about the size of a dollar coin, with reddish toes like suction cups and a translucent tan body. I gently cupped the poor creature in my hands and escorted it outside the building. I dreaded the thought of some one stepping on it or, heaven forbid! —flushing it down the toilet! It stuck to the brick exterior on the side of the building with no trouble. It was the highlight of my day!

We hiked out of the canyon two by two. Jean and Pam chatted with each other up ahead while Peggy and I got to know one another. It had grown even warmer while we were hiking and I had removed the light sweater long ago. I never needed my jacket and if I hadn’t gone back for it I would have been on time, but I never would have met Beth or had such a fun adventure!

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Winter Warmth

The golden sun rises now behind Mt. Fagan. There is a chill in the air as I step out my back door to read the thermometer. It registers 44 degrees at 7:35 a.m. Last night we turned our heat on for the first time in this new house. A new sound came from the garage as the furnace kicked in. It filled the rooms with the odor of heat and stale air. Still, the heat felt good against the evening chill as we came back from our walk with Blossom. I am really wanting a fireplace!

This morning the sunlight only slants across the farthest kitchen corner. The winter angle of the sun and the permanent placement of my house prevents sunlight from piercing the interior now when I want it most. The sun will briefly flood my bathroom with light as it has the only south-facing window in the house. Then, in late afternoon the front bedroom will be full of light as the sun sets in the west, but that will be it. If I want to bask in sunlight now I will have to go outside and find a place sheltered from the wind.

After breakfast Gus and I decide to take Blossom for a walk to the park. We feel the chill in the air as we head out. At the bottom of the cul de sac we cut through the desert trail. Across the wash my eyes catch the movement of a large bird in a tree. While I have left my binoculars behind, the huge dark bird is plainly visible. As it flies from its perch its red tail confirms it as a Red-tailed Hawk, probably the same one I heard crying as I stepped out the front door. The whole desert seems alive this morning. I see towhees, sparrows, thrashers, and cactus wrens all the way to the park. Once again I hear the silver tinkling of black-throated sparrows. As I think about it, I am amazed at how many birds I can tell by their voices now. This is a new skill for me, but I still have a long way to go.

We walked the paved trail around the park, the only place we can see grass out here. The green lawn is dotted with rabbit scat. They must come out in herds at night to feed. The green expanse glistens with silver water droplets from the morning’s irrigation. On the sidewalk I also observe fox scat. Unlike dog excrement, it is full of animal hair and sometimes, small bones or seeds. They like to mark their territory in this manner. We walked one loop around the park, then headed home. By now the air has warmed and we are feeling it.

In the late afternoon we drive to Sahuarita to get pizza, an easy and welcome change after days of turkey leftovers. Gus drives while I look out the windows, scanning as always for birds. I see another Red-tail perched atop a phone pole. Small birds perch on wires, or fly through desert scrub. The sun is sinking behind a bank of clouds low over the horizon. On Old Nogales highway we drive through a tunnel of pecan trees, still in full green leaf.

The pecan groves wind like a green river through Sahuarita and Green Valley. I have been watching the pecan trees to see if they change color before they drop their leaves. I know they drop their leaves, for their bare branches reached into the winter skies in January when we visited. However, it is almost December and there is only the faintest gold appearing in some trees. If the leaves change and fall, it must happen quickly, and they aren’t gone for long. By the time we moved into this house in April a faint lime blush was visible in the pecan orchards. New leaves were already emerging.

With the sinking sun the temperature falls once again. While these nighttime lows are nothing compared to Utah, Connecticut or Maine, it certainly feels cold when the winds blows. After daytime highs in the 80’s last week, the 40’s chill my bones. I still get that cozy winter feeling, so I make a cup of hot chocolate and curl up with a good book. For winter warmth I have my cats who curl up with me and radiate heat.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Thanksgiving Evening and Beyond

Well, after the threat of stormy weather, Thanksgiving Day warmed up enough that I was back in a sleeveless shirt and sandals by noontime. It stayed sunny and warm for the rest of the day. I saw my first kestrel in the canyon as it flew in and alighted on the block wall across the wash. About the size of a mourning dove, its cinnamon colored back was to me, but it flew off when I tried to take a picture. I am seeing many more raptors lately, while the vultures have all but disappeared. They were a daily sight during the spring, summer and early autumn.

We shared Thanksgiving dinner with my son and his wife. We had our fill of turkey with all the trimmings, and my kid’s favorite—homemade crescent rolls. Around 10 o’clock at night Gus and I decided to go for a moonlit walk. An almost full moon cast silver light across the desert. Though cooler, it was still warm enough to go without a jacket. In fact, Gus still had on shorts, while I changed into a long-sleeved shirt. He’s from Maine and he insists he will wear shorts every weekend all winter long! A post holiday silence spread out like a blanket, wrapping the homes in comfort. We saw one house dressed in red and green Christmas lights. Another was fully decked out with lighted holiday figures. Across the desert to the north the lights of Tucson twinkled like a string of amber-colored diamonds. Every now and then a light breezed caressed our faces. It was after eleven by the time we returned home.

The next morning dawned sunny but slightly cooler than the day before. Gus fixed breakfast while I busied myself with filling bird feeders and the birdbath. We ate out on the patio with birds for company. Flickers, woodpeckers, finches and mourning doves flocked to the feeders, chattered on the block wall, and drank from the birdbath. Only four feet from Gus my iron ballerina sculpture held up a nectar feeder where hummingbirds boldly buzzed in for a sip. I smiled in delight at them all. I never grow tired of their antics. A Gila woodpecker fought with a mourning dove over position at the birdola seed cake. Finches are constantly bickering and fighting over seed, as dramatized by an incident earlier this week.

I have a bird feeder that is a tube type surrounded by a wire cage to prevent larger birds and squirrels from scarffing all the seed. It is right outside my den window and as I was talking on the phone and watching I saw 2 house finches get into a fight within the cage part. I thought they would tussle and get over it but one bird pinned the other to the bottom and just kept pummeling it with its beak! The under-bird was trapped with its head sticking out of the cage wires. On top the mean bird hammered, ripped and tore at the other finch’s head and breast. It couldn't seem to free itself to escape. I watched for about 30 seconds to a minute but I couldn't take it anymore. I rushed out the door with the phone still in my hand. As soon as I came around the corner the other birds fled, including the bully on top. The under-bird looked like it was still stuck in the feeder, its head dangling through the wires. I was sure it was dead, but then righted itself, found an opening, and flew off. I swear if I hadn't been there the mean bird would have killed it! Who knew that these benign looking finches could be so vicious! It was a fight to rival anything seen in Ultimate Fighting on TV.

However, most of the time it is quite peaceful here. When the mourning doves snuggle into the soil and sun themselves it is one of the most peaceful scenes to observe. They often gather beneath the mesquite tree for a snooze. Sometime they spread one wing out to catch the warmth of the sun, then they pull that one in, roll onto the other side of their breast, and extend the other. It makes me happy to know they feel that safe in my yard.

Yesterday grew colder as the day wore on. We closed all the windows in the house to keep the heat in. Last night the news was buzzing with Winter Storm Warnings. Having lived in Maine it was almost a joke to hear them talk of the temperature dropping into the 30’s with snow above 6,000 feet. We only had a brief shower last night and today woke to cloudy skies without a flake in sight. By noon it should be back into the 60’s. While I haven’t turned the heat on yet, today is the day I really wish I had a fireplace. I could at least pretend it is winter.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Thanksgiving Day in the Morning

After a calm and relatively warm night I awoke this morning to flashes of lightening and the gentle rumble of distant thunder. Now the wind is gusting, causing the trees to toss and the flag to flap and snap. The air is scented once again with the smoky sweetness of creosote bush. We must have had a light sprinkle for, while the street glistens in the gray dawn, the dirt is my back yard shows no trace of being damp.

I step out the front door to see the world on this Thanksgiving morning. As I open my door I can’t help but wonder what the pilgrims would have thought if they had stepped out into this desert when they arrived. After the lush, foggy dampness of England, this would truly be a foreign experience in more ways than one.

A rock wren’s call rings out as it lands on the street before me. Overhead I hear the whistle of mourning dove wings as they coast in for breakfast at my feeders. Soon all the feeders will be busy with bird life. When the Gila woodpeckers arrive they will announce their presence with laughter-like squeaks. A couple of days ago a Gilded Flicker grasped the cage of the seed cake while Gila woodpeckers feasted at the peanut feeder. It was the first time I'd observed them so close together and I was amazed by their size difference. The flicker is much larger than the woodpecker. House Finches and House Sparrows are still in abundance. I am getting more Lesser Goldfinches right now, and though they don’t come to my feeders, I see Say’s Phoebes in or around my yard almost every day. A form of flycatcher, they eat insects instead of seed.

I have discovered that now is the time of year when my birds need water more than any other. During the summer they were able to get water from irrigation systems or Monsoon rains. It wasn’t unusual then to see birds drinking from irrigation tubes as they dripped their life giving water at the base of trees, bushes and flowers, but now most irrigation has been shut off, and it’s been quite awhile since it has rained. My birdbath is one of the busiest spots in the yard.

As I head back into the house I steer clear of the acacia trees in my front yard as the wind whips their thorny branches. I walk back past the newly hung evergreen wreath on my front door. For me, Thanksgiving is also the beginning of the Christmas season. It's hard to believe it's coming, since yesterday we were still wearing shorts and sandals. However, with this morning's change in weather I am wishing I had a fireplace!

I have so much to be thankful for today. Before the hustle and bustle of baking and cleaning and cooking starts, I pause to reflect on the goodness of life. Like most people I am thankful for family. I have a wonderful husband, great kids, and awesome siblings. I love my in-laws and we are all thankful that Dad is still here to celebrate with us. He’s in the hospital recovering from open-heart surgery right now, but we hope he will be with his family once again by Christmas. I am also thankful for the many wonderful and faithful friends I have across the United states. Everywhere I have lived I have made at least one new friend and each one of you is dear to me. Besides nature and family, friends are what make life worth living.

I am thankful for all the places I’ve lived and the amazing birds I have seen in each place! I’m thankful that someone had the foresight to preserve wild places like Yellowstone National Park, the Grand Canyon and Saguaro National Park. I’m glad they are not paved over with million dollar mansions with million dollar views that only billionaires can see.

And, I am thankful to be alive. I am grateful to my son and all of the military who are serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. I pray for their safety this morning and hope that we can bring them all home soon.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Whitewater Draw

On Sunday, November 11th I awoke at 4:30 a.m. to prepare to meet another group of birders from Tucson Audubon, only this time, my husband was going with me. I kept expecting him to come up with some excuse to back out. I still couldn’t believe he agreed to go with me, especially on a Sunday when his Giants football team was playing, but he insisted he was going and he never changed his mind.

I was told to never be late to a meeting place as the others would not wait for you, so Gus and I rushed around the house feeding pets and trying to eat breakfast ourselves. The meeting time was 6 a.m. We had put most of our belongings in the vehicle the night before. Now we packed our cooler with drinks and sandwiches. As Gus reached in to grab one last can of Pepsi his hand brushed a glass bowl which smashed all over the tile floor spreading broken glass and green goo everywhere! Somehow we were able to clean it all up, stop and fill the car with gas, and still make it to the parking lot north of I-10 on Houghton Road in time.

We met the other birders and headed out with 10 people in 4 cars. We headed east on I-10 and stopped in Benson to pick up one other birder. After a brief restroom and snack break we continued through Benson to highway 80 where we turned south towards Tombstone. It is an odd thing to me to travel through these historic western towns. They are stuff of TV westerns, not reality. However, I grew up in the east where George Washington was suppose to have eaten at just about every wayside Inn in the state. I grew up surrounded by history also, but it was the history of pilgrims, Puritans and Patriots. The Revolutionary war just didn’t grab my imagination like the west does.

Tombstone is pretty quiet early on a Sunday morning. It’s not very big and we passed through quietly. We continued our southerly trail until we turned east once again. Eventually we reached a place called Whitewater Draw. I had never head of this place, but hey, I’m new here. It had taken us over 2 hours to get here. As we turned into the gravel road leading to Whitewater Draw the group leader, John Yerger pulled over and we all got out. Overhead a prairie falcon soared, though it took a moment to confirm its identity. Then they set up scopes to view the various sparrows hiding in the field grasses. We saw Brewer’s sparrows, white-crowned sparrows, Savannah sparrows and lark buntings. It was my first time seeing lark buntings and to me they just looked like house finches with smaller beaks, but John and his friend Jake pointed out the eye rings and the white wing patches that became visible when the birds took flight.

On a nearby snag someone spotted a larger bird roosting. A look through the scope revealed a scaled quail just sitting there warming itself in the early morning sunlight. This bird is a rare find and we were all pleased to see it, another life bird for me. We added a meadowlark, a red-tailed hawk, a vesper sparrow and a loggerhead shrike to our list before we continued into the Draw.

This time there was a restroom right in the parking lot. We barely got out of our vehicles before we saw a black phoebe. Then, right under the picnic pavilion we found two Great-horned Owls roosting. But, most amazing of all, on a gravel heap before us was a Crested Caracara, or Mexican Eagle. It just stood there on the mound undisturbed by our presence as if to say, "Hey, look at me! I’m posing just for you." Crested Caracaras are rare in the U.S. This was a marvelous addition to my life list. The bird appeared to be a young one as his colors were more subtle and not quite the dark contrasting black and white of an adult. The eagle’s shaggy leg feathers looked like bloomers on its long legs, which met at an almost 45 degree angle to the horizontal body. From the front of this plane the neck rose almost vertically to the crested head and a huge beak. The hooked gray beak had a blush of pink near its base. A look in my Sibley’s bird guide told me that the beak can change color in an instant! However, it failed to tell me what causes the change—fear, excitement, temperature, who knows. Gus found this bird most interesting and we watched for quite awhile. He said he could have watched it for hours. Even when we moved off to look for birds on the ponds the Crested Caracara never left though the trail passed quite near him.

Whitewater Draw is apparently a wetland with 3 or 4 ponds. Surrounding the ponds are fields and farmland with mountains in the distance. Overhead we heard the "garooing" of Sandhill Cranes as they crisscrossed the ponds flying above us in small groups. We saw more ducks and grebes and blackbirds in and around the ponds. In some nearby willows a ladder-backed woodpecker drummed on a branch. With all the autumn gold and chartreuse of the foliage and the steel blue of the water a beacon of color caught my eyes. The blood-red feathers of a vermilion flycatcher flew up over one of the ponds. It caught an insect and then alighted on its perch once again. It is as if nature concentrated all the red it could in this one tiny bird.
We headed to a willow grove strung out like a tail at one end of the ponds. Long-eared owls had been spotted here in previous years, but this time we were unable to find them. However, someone did find two barn owls roosting for the day in the thick of the trees. Their gray and tawny bodies looked exactly like a broken tree branch until you saw their white heart shaped face peering back at you. We stood on a sandy bank with our scopes and viewed these sleek owls from a distance.

Our lunch was consumed on the fly, so to speak, as we continued on our trip. We were headed north now towards Wilcox, but not before stopping a couple of times along the way. Our first stop was on a dirt road along the central highway near some farmland just south of Elfida. Here we looked for more sparrows in the grasses and were rewarded with a Cassin’s sparrow among others. Gus took a nap in the car while us crazy birders tramped through the fields getting our socks full of stickers and grass seed. We flushed a covey of scaled quail a couple of times. Overhead we trained our binoculars on what looked like a swarm of black flies but was really huge flocks of Sandhill Cranes riding the thermals in the warming sun. The sounds of their garooing filled our ears as their images filled the eyepieces of our binoculars. What a spectacular sight! Just as we headed back to our cars to continue our journey a young golden eagle came soaring across the fields out of the mountains beyond. Its wide wings showed the typical white wing patches of a young golden, along with the white base at its tail. Young Bald Eagles do not have a white tail and in fact take up to 4 to 5 years to develop their typical adult plumage.

We made a couple more stops in a place called Kansas settlement where we were able to see a ferruginous hawk and a roadrunner. We ended our trip at Twin Lakes Golf Course in Wilcox where we saw shore birds and ducks once again. This daylong trip yielded me a list of 63 species of birds, the most I had ever seen in one outing. When we returned home Gus was able to watch his Giants football game with our son, which he had recorded on the DVR.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Madera Canyon Birding

The past few weeks have been busy with many birding adventures. On November 6th I awoke early to go on my first birding trip with Tucson Audubon. Since it was chilly, I drank a second cup of tea on my half-hour drive to meet everyone else at the McDonald’s in Green Valley. Our first stop would be the Green Valley Wastewater Treatment Facility. I thought I had planned enough time to get there and use the restroom before we went out into the field, but I failed to calculate that The McDonald’s was at the south end of Green Valley, a full 10 minutes farther than my usual trips to the north-end grocery stores. As a result everyone was just packing up to head out. Since I didn’t know anyone there and I didn’t know our destination, I just followed along, a decision I would regret later.

We drove out Continental Road to Old Nogales Highway. Our caravan of 5 or 6 cars turned left onto the gravel road that led to the Wastewater Treatment Facility. As we pulled into the parking lot and got out of our cars a Wilson’s snipe gave flight. After signing in we set up scopes and watched the birds in the retention and filtration ponds. Though the sun had risen it was quite chilly and I grabbed my jacket from the back seat of my car. We spotted American Widgeons, buffleheads, ruddy ducks on the first pond. Ring-necked ducks, northern shovelers, northern pintails and mallards were scattered there and across the other ponds. Coots were in abundance. A few eared grebes dived in the water. Along the shores we watched spotted sandpipers and black phoebes. In a nearby tree we were delighted with the appearance of a vermilion flycatcher. Overhead a bird sang out "toot, toot, toot". A "greater yellowlegs" someone called, and all binoculars followed the bird’s flight.

Walking down between the ponds we saw sparrows, horned larks, and pipits. Along the banks we saw northern harriers. To our amazement a herring gull flew in from the north, landed briefly on a pond, then continued its flight south. While I have seen many herring gulls in my life, I didn’t know until now that it was unusual to see one here. What would a gull do in the desert anyway? I suppose that is part of the fun of birding, finding something unexpected, something out of place. Of course, there are always the lists. Birders like to make lists; I am no exception.

I didn’t realize this until a few years ago. I had always written down where I had seen a particular bird, but somehow I discovered that people made "Life Lists" of each new species of bird that was seen with the date and location recorded. So, I started my Life List. Then, I learned about doing the "Great Backyard Bird Count" with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. It happens every February over President’s Day weekend and it is a great way for new birders to get involved and contribute as citizen scientists. From there I learned of Project Feeder Watch where you keep track of the birds that come to your feeders over the winter. It helps scientists track winter migration and winter bird populations. That started me keeping lists of birds seen in my yard. From there it progressed to lists of birds seen in each state I’ve been in to lists of birds seen at my favorite birding sites and well, now I’m hopeless. I saw 34 species of birds at Green Valley Wastewater Treatment Facility last Tuesday. Just before we left someone spotted a wood duck at the far end of the near pond. Another bird out of place.

By the time we climbed into our vehicles my bladder was about to burst. We had been at the ponds for at least 2 hours. When the caravan pulled over to spot a northern shrike on the telephone lines I whinced in pain. It is a cruel fact of birding that restrooms are few and far between. Now, in the Northeast or even in the mountains of Utah one can usually find a tree or bush to serve as cover for the call of nature, but here in the desert at the wastewater treatment facility ironically there was no where to go and no bush or tree in site! However, I was assured there would be facilities at our next stop in Madera Canyon.

We drove the 15 miles into the canyon under sunny skies. Around me the desert fanned out in a slope from the Santa Rita Mountains. Along the roadsides mesquite and creosote bushes flourished with saguaros, chollas, and other desert vegetation. With each bump in the road I looked at the bushes with longing, each one a potential restroom stop, but I was in the middle of the car caravan, and I knew if I pulled over everyone else would also expecting to see some marvelous bird. I gritted my teeth and kept driving. By the time we pulled into the parking lot at the Proctor Trailhead, I no longer cared about birds. I was never so happy to see an outhouse in my life!

The mountainsides of the Santa Ritas folded in around us forming Madera Canyon. It was my first trip into the canyon since we visited last January for my husband’s job interview. We were out house hunting in Green Valley then and everyone we met kept telling us about Madera Canyon. That day we just drove to the top and out again. Now I was able to set foot on soil and experience the canyon first hand. We only saw a few birds at the Proctor Trailhead, so we headed farther up the canyon to the Madera Picnic area. It was here that I saw my best birds of the day.

Alligator junipers, with bark that looks like alligator hide, are interspersed with sycamores and live oak trees that shade the Madera Picnic area. Madera creek flows merrily by. Even as we headed down to the picnic tables we heard the acorn woodpeckers making a racket. It was my first time seeing these birds with their clownish faces. How can I describe them? They look at you from white eyes set in a black face with a yellow patch below their eyes and under their chins and a white band above their eyes across their foreheads. Their backs are black but atop their heads a bold red cap shines in the Arizona sun. When they fly their black wings flash with white patches. Acorn Woodpeckers live in communal groups and store acorns in holes drilled into a tree called a granary.

If Acorn woodpeckers weren’t amazing enough, I was thrilled to see bridled titmice. These tiny birds worked busily in the juniper trees gleaning insects off twigs. About the size of a chickadee and really the same color, they have a sporty little crest that pushes back off their heads like some punk hairdo. While their bodies are mostly gray, their faces are white with a black bridle stripe that starts from their dark liquid eye and rises back towards the crest, then turns sharply in a V down towards their throats. On top of their head their gray crest is also lined with black giving the bird a very distinguished appearance. I fell in love all over again. At the moment it is my favorite bird.

At the Madera picnic area we also saw mexican jays of exotic blue, a hepatic tanager, a Hutton’s verio and across the street, a rare Arizona woodpecker, which is the only brown woodpecker we have here in the United States. In all I recorded 18 species of birds in Madera Canyon. It was a productive birding day, though next time I'll leave a little earlier and forgo that second cup of tea!

Sunday, November 4, 2007

All Saint's Day in the Morning

With the cooler weather coming on I finally decided to venture out to the desert once again. I walk across the street and enter through the path along the block wall. The early morning shadows are still long and cool, but the desert sun is warming things rapidly. Ahead of me I see the Santa Ritas basking in the morning light. A flurry of sparrows flutters into the scrub. The black-throated sparrows are still here, but there are also white-crowned sparrows now, and possibly some Brewer’s sparrows.

I want to head south in the wash, which is actually uphill, but that is also the direction the sun is coming from and it shines straight down my binocular lenses—not the best for bird watching. I start to head north, which is downhill and makes the most sense as the sun will be at my back, but I’m so drawn to walk up the wash, so I turn around and head that way after all.

The cactus wrens scold from the brush. A curved-billed thrasher whistles from the top of a mesquite tree. Along the cliff wall I see movement and zero in on a rock wren hopping and bobbing about. Its shrill whistle rings off the canyon and is answered by another rock wren farther up the wash. I walk past the red cliff amazed at the thick mesquite root exposed by the erosion of the soil. It bulges out high above me as thick as a child’s arm and worms its way back into the cliff wall again. You have to be strong and resourceful to survive in the desert.

I find a shady spot under a different mesquite tree and sit on the gravel bank. Down here it is so peaceful! From this sheltered spot all I see is nature and I am able to pretend the houses above me on the cliff do not exist. I absorb the silence into my being. This desert beauty is a salve to the soul. Zeet! A canyon towhee flies across the wash. Then, a loud squawking and chatter across the wash draws my attention. Two cactus wrens are arguing about a particularly juicy insect as they hop from branch to branch. I watch their argument amused. A curved –billed thrasher flies in to see what the ruckus is all about. Is he annoyed by their chatter, or hoping to snatch their tidbit from them.

The thrashers and cactus wrens are year-round residents, but the purple martins have flown even farther south for the winter. Now the saguaros they called home are silent. I suppose there may be flickers still inhabiting some holes, but I have not seen them. Beside the saguaros my eyes are drawn to a bit of red. Is this the only autumn color I will see here in the desert? I do not know what I am looking at, but the bush before me has the most beautiful red seed pods dangling from it, and though I am far from New England, it does remind me of autumn there, with Christmas soon to follow.