Wednesday, January 30, 2008

The Mystery Hawk and the Red Surprise

Tuesday, January 29

My birding day started with watching two ravens chase a red-tailed hawk out of our neighborhood. I am driving down Sycamore Leaf when I see them and I pullover to watch the drama. The ravens are relentless in their pursuit and tag team the hawk, one after the other diving in for the attack. When I reach Sahuarita Rd. I stop, and there on the utility pole is a kestrel. A good day of birding has started.

I am heading for a new location today, a park I found on eBrid called Lakeside Park. It’s much later than I wanted to get out of the house, but at least I am getting out. It is a beautiful day here in Tucson with sunshine and temps already in the 60’s. I have a long-sleeved shirt on over my t-shirt, but I won’t need it for long.

As I pull into the parking lot at Lakeside Park I see a hawk swooping down into an adjacent field. I quickly pull into a spot, grab my binoculars and bolt up the hill. The hawk is on the ground doing a Mexican hat dance. He’s trying to stomp on something but whatever it is is quicker than the hawk. The hawk has its wings raised for balance. With the morning sun streaming from behind the bird illuminating every feather it looks almost mythical there backlit by sunlight. I see legs feather to the knees, but no further. The hawk has a white breast streaked with brown. Its tail is long and when it turns there is no red in it, nor are there any “backpack straps” that would indicate a redtail. Through my binoculars the hawk seems huge and I am hoping for a ferruginous hawk, but this one does not have legs feathered to the toes, or the huge gape of the ferrug. No luck there.

The hawk flies up and lands on the chain link fence which surrounds what I now realize is a field next to a school. Ground squirrels are standing up watching this drama, just like me. Now I know why the hawk is hunting here. I walk the short distance back to my vehicle and get the D80 out, which I wisely brought with me this time. I pull my car up next to the fence parallel to the hawk and use it as a blind. After rolling down my window I snap a couple shots off, then decide to see if I can get some shots from outside the car.

I step out and start shooting. The hawk stays. Five step closer, “Snap! Snap! Snap! The hawk stays! I did this several times and was amazed at how close the bird let me get before it took to the air one again. Once home I looked at my pictures and my bird guides and I think it is a juvenile Cooper’s, but I’ve sent off the pictures to some Audubon friends for confirmation. (If you think you know who this hawk is, please leave your suggestions in the comments section below)

Lakeside park in a manmade lake with lots of men sitting around fishing and chewing the fat. It seems there is always at least one guy who looks like Santa Claus in the off season. I walk the perimeter of the lake as the sun beats down on me. Most of the birds I am seeing are what I’ve already seen at other locations, but I did pick up a spotted sandpiper, a pied-billed grebe, and 3 northern rough-winged swallows diving over the water.

While I am standing on a steep bank looking out over the water a flash of red flies at me and lands on a nearby branch. I cannot believe my eyes, for there is a vermillion flycatcher posing for me. He is so close that I am able to snap off a good picture this time, but I am wishing Gus was here and he could capture this picture.

Just as I am ready to leave I hear a bunch of bird in an old Palo Verde tree near the parking lot. Looking with my binoculars I see a deep hole where a branch was obviously lost recently. Just poking out of the hole are some black and white tail feathers. It looks like the tail of a Gila woodpecker. I can see the ragged edges of the scar, but in the middle the hole is perfectly round. Soon the culprit backs out of the hole and stops to look at me. I now know where a Gila woodpecker nest will be this spring. What a great day!
Big January: 76. Pied-billed grebe, 77. Northern Rough-winged swallow, 78. Spotted sandpiper,

Monday, January 28, 2008

A Few New Birds and a Few New Photos

What’s Been Happening at the Feeders?

The Gilas must be hungry, for I’m watching five of them outside the den window right now. I’ve put up a new “woodpecker bar” last week and within 30 seconds a Gila woodpecker was pecking.

Later on the Gambel’s Quail decided to check it out, sooooo…

The Gilas decided to steal nectar instead!

But then the Cooper’s got hungry and buzzed the feeders!

He wasn’t successful, so he just perched on the fence looking disgusted with himself.

A roadrunner stopped by looking for dinner, but he only stayed long enough for a photo shoot.

I think all the Costa’s hummingbirds are finished molting. They used to have a ragged appearance…

But now they are elegant gentlemen!

In pursuit of my “Big January” we visited Las Cienegas National Conservation Area Saturday night. We mostly saw raptors, including this Harland’s hawk which took hours of research to positively identify.

Sunday it rained all day. We tried to get a good photo of a vermillion flycatcher at Himmel Park in Tucson. We were a comedy team as I held the umbrella over Gus and the camera while he tried to get a shot. We got many but none were very good. We need a bigger lens or more patience and a sunny day!

From there we travelled over to Christopher Columbus Park where I saw 35 species on my last visit. It had stopped raining when we arrived, but soon started up again and we had to leave, but not before Gus got a really nice photo of an egret and I counted 12 Lark Sparrows feeding in the ball field!

Big January count: 70. Great Horned owl, 71.Western Meadowlark, 72. Harris hawk, 73. Vermillion flycatcher, 74. Eared Grebe, 75. Lark sparrow.

What Made Me Smile

Sometimes it only takes a little thing, a simple thing, to make me smile. I like the unexpected things the best, serendipitous things that happen in a day. This morning I got up and started my usual routine of opening shutters, feeding the animals, and fixing my tea. We had a stormy weekend with rain all day Sunday, so this morning the roads are damp and the sky is full of cloud ships. A virtual chorus of birds is singing outside the windows and while my idealistic mind likes to imagine they are saying “How great it is to be alive!”, in reality its probably more like, “Get away from that seed. It’s mine!”

It was while all these thing are happening that the unexpected happens. Now don’t get too excited because it really is a small thing, but it made me smile. As I said, I was making my morning cup of tea. Since the teapot is empty, I have to refill it with water. I grab my glass four-cup measure from the cupboard and put it under the refrigerator spigot to get filtered water. When I press against the bar to start the water’s flow, a light comes on. No big deal. But then I look down, and there dancing on the floor is a flickering star of light. It seems to be full of energy. It seems to be alive! Instantly I think of Tinkerbelle and the little sprite is calling me back to childhood. “Don’t go away! Stay here and play!” the light says to me while dancing on my tiled floor. A smile spreads across my face. I feel it as it creeps up to my ears. I know my eyes are twinkling, but only Tinkerbelle sees this.

Of course there is no fairy. Of course it’s just the light from the refrigerator refracting through the glass stirred up by the motion of the filling water, but I live in a world full of wonder where little things make me smile. Often it is the sight of the daily birds that visit my yard, but today it is the light of fairy dancing on tile while I fill my measuring cup with water for tea which I am now drinking as I sit here and write. Not a bad way to start the day, don’t you think?

Saturday, January 26, 2008

What I Found While Searching for Birds

Thursday's Survey of Sycamore Canyon ( January 24)

I am determined to survey the birds in the canyon today. It has been a long time since I walked the 2 mile length of the road and counted birds. Trying to compete for the Big January total with Larry of the Brownstone Birding Blog has prompted me to go out even more than normal. Plus, since I have started eBirding I am having more fun than ever adding new totals to my life list. So, at 9:45 a.m. under mostly sunny skies I head out the door complete with binoculars, notebook and water. I leave the D80 home because I want to focus on identifying and counting species, instead of photographing them. However, I do have my Nikon Coolpix in my pocket for any impromptu photographs.

I don’t have to go far before spotting a Rock Wren bouncing on the block walls along Rustling Leaf Trail. In the brush nearby a small flock of sweet-faced Brewers’ sparrows flies up. I cut across the desert to the main road hoping I might see a cactus wren or some black-throated sparrow, but all I see is an abandoned cactus wren nest in a spiny cholla cactus.

Out on the road I scan the desert for birds. I spot a lump on a tree that looks like a bird of prey. Sure enough, a Cooper’s hawk is perched near a wash watching for something to fill its belly. Farther down the road I hear some twittering. I look up to the retention basin near the Meritage neighborhood and see many small birds hopping about and scratching in the grass. Slowly I creep up to the fence and watch. Scattered about the wash under various trees and shrubs the little sparrows are searching for breakfast. I find some black-throated sparrows here, along with white-crowned sparrows and Rufous-winged sparrows. I saw my first Rufous-winged yesterday on a road called Garigans Gulch. I had suspected I have seen this species here before, but it is a new species for me and required further study. Now I am confident as I spot the two dark whisker marks flanking the lighter throat. An eye-line bisects the face and the sparrows raise their striped Rufous crest. While the breast is unstreaked, the rufous wing patch on the bird’s shoulder isn’t always visible. Today I am at a good angle and the bird is quite close, so I am able to see it. How exciting! This is another new life bird for me. Now I am wishing I had brought the D80!

The canyon is alive with bird today. I spot my first yellow-rumped warbler in this location as well. Farther down the road at the juncture of Harrison and Sycamore Leaf the sidewalk is alive with small birds hopping about. I freeze at the corner and train my binoculars on the birds. So many sparrows! Black-throats and Brewer’s are easy to pick out. There are a few more Rufous-winged sparrows also, but here are more species that I am uncertain of. If I only had that camera I could photograph them and figure them out at home. I start to scribble notes, but switching back and forth from binoculars to writing is awkward. Then a huge construction truck drives by and the birds flee to the desert. Once they’ve taken wing I realize there are far more than I thought there were as a flock of fifty plus birds flies up and then down into the grasses and brush, too far away for me to see them anymore.

By now I’ve been at this for almost 2 hours. Once again I am tired, hungry and cold as the clouds have moved in once again along with the wind and the drop in temperature. I turn around at the last wash before Sahuarita road where I find two mockingbirds eating hackberries from the tree that hangs over the wash. This is one of my favorite places to come to. It reminds me of my grandfather’s pasture from when I was a child. Though he wouldn’t have cactus in Connecticut, there’s still something familiar about the feel of the land, the rustling of the leaves and of course, the cow pies, for this area is fenced off for cattle and sometimes I see them here, though I have no idea what they find to eat! I will come back one day and sit here to think and feel this desert feeling, this wooded spot alongside the road. It is a vignette of a time and place long gone for me, but this spot brings me back and reminds me that it once existed and I was once young. I set out to go birding but found a memory instead. Not a bad deal, don’t you think?

Big January Total: 67. Rufous- Winged Sparrow. 68. Canyon Towhee, 69. Cassin’s Sparrow

Friday, January 25, 2008

Finding Birds

In my quest to add to my Big January list I have gone out birding every day for the past three days. On Tuesday it was the Green Valley Waste Water Treatment Plant where I added the Ross’s Goose to my life list. Wednesday I tried Aqua Caliente Park again. I went there in pursuit of a Lewis’s Woodpecker which has been reportedly seen there on the Tucson Audubon’s Rare Bird list. I have never seen one, but what a treat that would be. An incongruous mix of colors, the Lewis’ has “oily green feathers” as Kaufman describes in his bird guide, with a red face, a pink belly and a gray collar! It was reported sighted in the palm trees but I searched everyone to no avail. No Lewis’ woodpecker today, which would be a life bird for me.

It was afternoon when I arrived under stormy skies. As I got out of my car I saw a Great Egret lifting off on silent wings to fly gracefully away over a distant ridge. Seeing the egret gave me hope that this would be a good day for birding. This time there are few people in the park and I walk around peacefully. The gray light of overcast skies softens the appearance of everything. A light wind rustles the palm fronds with a stronger gust every now and then. Mallards are in abundance, but so are Ring-necked Ducks and American Widgeons. In my grandfather’s old birding book the widgeons are called Bald Pates. I like that name better for it more readily describes that broad white stripe that stretches from their forehead over the top to the back of their necks. It truly looks like the bald head of an old man. In my mind now I think of them as Bald Pates, but I record them by their new names.

The widgeons make this squeaking sound that carries over the water “Wheet whew! Wheet whew!” which is high pitched and pervasive. The sound follows you everywhere. Mixed with that is the quacking of the mallards and the squeaking laugh-like call of Gila woodpeckers. In short, the park can be a pretty noisy place! I spotted a couple of green-winged teals in the bunch and to my amazement, a Canvasback. Because of the palm trees, Gila woodpeckers are everywhere. I counted 19 before I left, though at times there are far more than that. Northern flickers were well represented with a total count of 6 of the red-shafted variety.

At the north end of the park the trail leads past the lake to the mesquite bosque. Here a more traditional woods like habitat takes over. Tall eucalyptus trees mix with mesquite and cottonwoods. A thick undergrowth of prevails before the mesquite bosque takes over. It’s like three habitats in one area. One only has to stand quietly at this juncture to see Bewick’s wrens, Verdin, curved-billed thrashers, Abert’s towhees, white-crowned sparrows, northern flickers, Gila woodpeckers, mocking birds, and warblers. On a previous visit I have spotted a hermit thrush in this area, along with Ruby-crowned Kinglets and Hutton’s Vireos. Today to my surprise I see a bird I never expected to see in Arizona.

I am watching a flock of white-crowned sparrows in a thick tangle of brush near a big dead tree trunk. The trunk has to be at least three feet around with deep shaggy gray bark. I notice a small bird the color of the bark with a curved bill creeping up the tree trunk. It flies to the bottom, and then starts up the trunk again probing in the crevices for insects. It is a Brown Creeper, of course, but I have only seen them in Maine. I had two there that visited my yard regularly in the winter, so I know what this is as soon as I see it, but I am taken aback. I never expected to see one here!

All the while I am standing here looking at birds the wind has picked up, the temperature has dropped and a brief shower passed by. I am cold and damp but the air smells so fresh and the world feels so alive. Is it possible to have a peaceful wildness? That’s how it feels to me. I could stay for hours if I had a warmer jacket, but the day is waning. Soon it will be dark. I have a 45 minute drive to get home, so I walk back to my car and drive away, but not before stopping at the gate for one last count of Brewer’s Blackbirds and Great–tailed Grackles lined up in hoards on the utility wires. I don’t know why they like to do that in the evening, but they do. I counted 64 Brewer’s Blackbirds and estimated around 75 grackles before I drive off to end my count for the day. I counted 30 species in all, with 6 new ones to add to my January total. I will sleep well tonight.

Big January: 61. Canvasback, 62. Bewick’s Wren, 63. Brown Creeper, 64. Great Egret, 65. Northern Flicker, 66. Starling,.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Ducks in the Desert

You wouldn’t think there would be ducks in the desert, but there are. Besides the few oases and year round rivers, one of the best places to find shore birds and waterfowl is at the Waste Water Treatment Plants. In my quest to compete for a Big January I decided to stop at the Green Valley Waste Water Treatment Facility today on my way to the store. It was well worth the effort, for, not only did I increase my month total by 14 birds; I also added a new species to my life list.

The GVWWTP is off Continental rd. To visit you must sign in at the office and sign out when you leave. I arrived at 11:55 a.m. and parked my vehicle near the evaporation ponds. I haven’t been here since my birding trip with Tucson Audubon. That time I was with a group of 12 or more. This time I was alone-just me and the birds, and there were a lot of them.

I walked quietly to the first pond which is full of Northern shovelers. I see a few Widgeons here also. Along the “shore,” if you can call it that, least sandpipers and killdeer are picking along with great-tailed grackles and rock pigeons. Across the pond Red-winged blackbirds and Brewer’s blackbirds flock in the brush and among the buildings and equipment. The stench is noticeable but not overwhelming. I’m soon lost in a world of birds and I no longer notice it. The mesquite trees offer me some shade and some camouflage. I stand quietly and the birds soon relax as if I’m not even there. In the middle of this pond the water rushes out of some giant spout. It causes a constant wave to lap the shore and all the ducks face into the current in a circle, so most of them have their tails facing outward. It’s almost as if they are taking part in some duck idol worship with the spout being the object of adoration. Sometimes one or another will swim towards the shore before joining the flock again.

I walk quietly north towards other ponds scanning the horizon for birds. It is now that I see a patch of white on the far bank. I look through my binoculars but can’t believe my eyes. I think I see a snow goose, but it slips down below the bank. I walk farther north and finally see the goose again, but wait! There are two of them. Since this is a new sighting for me, it requires a consultation with my bird guides. I slip my bag of notebooks and bird guides to the ground, pull out my glasses and start researching. I can’t believe what I am reading, for the information before me says I am seeing Ross’s geese, not snow geese. I continue to watch the geese for 30 minutes or more. I snap off 10 to 20 photos in hopes that I will be able to get a better look once I am home. I notice that both geese have small pink bills and rounded heads, though one seems more rounded than the other. Still, I am not seeing the characteristic “Grin patch” of the Snow Goose or the longer, flatter bill shape.

In the pond where the geese are I find more ring-necked ducks and ruddy ducks, along with green-winged teal. I spot a few gadwalls in the bunch, as well as some coots. Sandpipers and killdeer are everywhere along the shores. I catch a movement from the corner of my eyes and look off to the east where there is yet another pond. Here I watch as a prairie falcon swoops down towards the ducks, lands on the shores, then takes to the air again. With strong beats of its pointed wings it swoops and dives, then flies off over the eastern bank. At the same time the falcon is swooping and diving, a Northern Harrier makes its lazy flight over the grassy banks and the desert beyond.

As I’ve been standing and watching the sun has steadily risen in the sky. I’m starting to feel warm in my fleece vest. My stomach is starting to growl and I really have to pee. All the ducks are tucking their beaks into their wings for an afternoon nap. It feels warm and lazy and peaceful with the dull hum of the treatment plant motors in the background. My eyes are getting bleary form bird watching and my brain has turned to mush. Still, it is with reluctance that I decide to leave. I just KNOW there are more birds to be counted beyond the next bank.

I get in my car and drive back to the office to sign out. Then, on my way out I scan the trees and fences again. I stop by the mesquite tree near the pond when I hear a sound. I see movement and pull out my binos once again. A yellow-rumped warbler is my reward. On the utility wires I spot a kestrel, then on the fence I see the shape of a flycatcher. I have to get at a better angle for the sun, and once I do I can verify a Say’s Phoebe. Enough already! I roll up the windows and drive to the store where I walk around aimlessly thinking of birds.

Once at home I check the Tucson Audubon Rare bird alert. It is here that I read about the Ross’s geese seen at the Green Valley Waste Water Treatment Plant. One is a purebred Ross’s goose, and the other is a hybrid that hangs out there. Reading this verifies what I suspected. I am learning to trust my observations even more.


New today: 46. Ross's Goose, 47: Gadwall, 48. Ruddy Duck, 49. Bufflehead, 50. Green-winged teal, 51. Lesser Scaup, 52. American pipit, 53. Red-winged blackbird, 54. Least sandpiper, 55. Prairie falcon, 56. Red-winged blackbird, 57. Brewer's blackbird, 58. Great-tailed grackle, 59. American Kestrel, 60. Rock pigeon.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

January Bird list: the game is on!

Larry of the Brownstone Birding Blog has challenged us to a Big January. For those of you unfamiliar with the concept,that means listing all the bird species you can see in one January within your own state. I've never done this before but since I started eBirding it makes it much easier to keep track: they do all the counting for me! So, here is my list for this month so far:

1. Burrowing owl, 2. American Widgeon, 3. Mallard, 4. Northern Shoveler, 5. Northern Pintail, 6. Northern harrier, 7. Great Blue heron, 8. Mourning dove, 9. Greater Roadrunner, 10. Abert's towhee, 11. Yellow-rumped warbler, 12. Phainopepla, 13. Curved-billed thrasher, 14. Northern Mockingbird, 16. Cactus wren, 17. Verdin, 18. Gila woodpecker, 19. House finch, 20. White-crowned sparrow, 21. American coot, 22. Ring-necked duck, 23. Ladder-backed woodpecker, 24. Hutton's verio, 25. Northern Cardinal, 26. Black-throated sparrow, 27. Black-tailed gnatcatcher, 28. Costa's hummingbird, 29. Lesser goldfinch, 30. House sparrow, 31. Say's phoebe, 32. Brewer's sparrow, 33. Cooper's hawk, 34. Red-tailed hawk, 35. Acorn woodpecker, 36. Common Raven, 37. Mexican Jay, 38. Bridled titmouse, 39. white-breasted nuthatch, 40. Dark-eyed junco, 41. Townsend's warbler, 42. Rock wren, 43. Gilded flicker, 44. White-throated swift, 45. Gambel's quail.

45 species so far. And where does one find herons and ducks in the desert? At an Oasis of course! But, you can also find them at the wastewater treatment plants, which are excellent places to bird I have found out! We have some very nice habits made from the treated water, one of which is called Sweetwater Wetlands. Perhaps I should go visit...

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Two Moments

Yesterday the wind gusted so, that I stayed in the house all day, even though the sun was shining. When I stepped out to refill the bird bath, the wind had such a bite in it I was reluctant to venture forth again. And so it was I spent the day entering data into eBird, which I finally took the time to sign up with. Since I keep bird lists of all my birding expeditions it wasn’t hard for me to find data, it was just hard to take a break. With the information I have entered so far I have discovered that since moving to Arizona I have seen 111 birds!

After a long day at the computer the sun finally set and I went about the house shutting the shutters and turning on the lights. As I went to close the shutter by the front door my eyes caught a movement on the other side of the glass. I stopped and peered between the slats as a little Rock Wren hopped and bobbed about along the sidewalk leading to the front door. My house is of the style where the garage sticks out on one side and the front bedroom on the other forming a sort of tunnel or hallway to the front door. Here the little gray bird searched the perimeter for crickets. He hopped towards me, eyes alert, pointing his thin beak up and down the walls and along the cracks. Its fluffy under tail covets bounced with each step like a ballerina’s tutu or a square dancer’s petticoats. I watched with delight for the few minutes the bird was there, and then he hopped around the corner and was gone.

Just before I went to bed I stepped out the front door into the cold of the night to see if I could find the moon. I had heard on the news that Mars and the moon were going to be right next to each other tonight and I thought I would like to observe that phenomena. Well, I should have stepped out sooner, for in the clear diamond strewn sky the moon was not to be found. Then I noticed a bit of a glow behind one of the rooftops to the west. I walked down the sidewalk to get a better view and there dangling over the desert was a Cheshire cat smile glowing tangerine. I suppose Mars was somewhere around, but all I saw was the soft glow of an almost half moon right before it dipped below the western horizon. I went back into the house with a smile on my face, glad that I had taken a moment to step out the front door.

Once inside it occurred to me that the two best moments of the day were the Rock wren and the moon. I may have 111 birds so far for Arizona alone, but knowing that did not make the moon more beautiful or the Rock Wren more sweet. It was those two moments when I paused to see what nature had to offer me that really made my day.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Sunday with the Birds: a photo essay

We started the day driving to Madera Canyon. On the way we saw this Cooper's Hawk perched on the wires on Sahuarita Rd. Gus stopped and got this picture with his new Nikon D80.

The clown-faced acorn woodpecker is always a favorite at the Madera Picnic Area.

In Madera canyon we saw Bridled titmice, Acorn Woodpeckers, Gray-headed Juncos, a Hutton's vireo, a Ruby-crowned kinglet, a white-breasted nuthatch and Mexican jays. This was the best photo of the jay Gus got while it was feeding near the gift shop.

At the Proctor Trailhead parking area the mequite trees are burnt black from a fire a few years ago. The ladderback woodpeckers are finding fine dining in the burnt wood. We saw a male and a female. Here you can see the male drumming in the wood.

I like the patterns in nature so I snapped this picture of the sycamore tree near Madera Creek with my Nikon Coolpix. The bare white branches look like polished bones to me.

These are the colors of Madera Creek.

Gus pulled over the car to call his folks as we were leaving Madera Canyon. While he was on the phone a flock of White-crowned sparrows flew into a bush right outside my window. I grabbed the D80 from the back seat and snapped this picture.

What does the Cooper's hawk think when you get too close? "I'll fly away!"

Saturday, January 12, 2008


It was finally warm enough today to open windows and turn the heat down, so in the afternoon I shut off the computer and headed for the wash with the new camera. I hoped to capture a photo of a Black-throated Sparrow, and maybe see a new species. Instead of trying to climb through the barbed wire fence, I walked up the end of the street and climbed down the steep slope near the culvert. From here I headed south up the wash to territory I’ve only walked on one time before.

It is 4 p.m. when I head out, but already the sun is low in the sky. The whole west side of the wash is already deep in shadow, and I can see the darkness creeping towards me. Undaunted, I keep walking and hoping for some new bird. The birds are few and far between, however. Is this unusual for this time of day or year? Since I am new here, I don’t know. And since there has been a lot of road construction gong on lately, I have no idea how many species have been scared away. As for the sparrows, they are playing hide and seek with me, flying up like musical notes from the desert and settling behind cactus and brush, or diving into the grass. I see them briefly, but as soon as I raise the camera they are gone. There is a mixed flock here of Brewer’s Sparrows and Black-throated Sparrows and they are winning at this game we are playing.

I am frustrated by the crunch of my shoes in the sand. It’s impossible to take a stealthy step. Here in the quiet of the canyon my steps seem to roar in my ears. I take a few steps, then pause, take a few more, then pause. I am listening for movement, song, anything. I am wondering how the Native Americans got about without shoes to protect their feet from thorns and spines. Perhaps I need a pair of leather moccasins. Perhaps they will offer protection and silent steps.

As I walk up the wash I can see how the channel has changed over time. Deep cliffs are cut on the east and west rims. Spread out between these canyon rims are the deposits of numerous storms. All manner of trees, cacti and scrub have sprouted on soil deposited hundreds of years ago. Where the new channel cuts through I walk on deep sand and gravel. To the edges of this large boulders and rocks are deposited. I am amazed at the colors of stone, from normal string gray and brown, to green, purple, red and white. I need a geologist to explain it all to me. I find one mesquite tree grasping the cliff desperately. Its exposed roots twist and writhe as they grasp the eroding soil. The roots bulge like muscles on a weight-lifter and the tree still stands. I wonder how old it is, and how much longer it can last.

A few mourning doves and Gila woodpeckers fly over my head. The sparrows continue to elude me in the grass. A Costa’s hummingbird scolds me from an ocotillo, but that is all I see. I’m starting to wonder how I will get out of this deep canyon, when I find the trail up to the eastern rim. It’s a bit steep and bumpy but I make it and I feel like I am on top of the world again. I gaze out over the desert sloping away to Green Valley and Sahuarita, when I am startled to hear voices. I swing around to discover 2 men standing on a mound of dirt with a dune buggy parked nearby. I see the road that’s been newly excavated as development pushes into this part of the canyon. It was fun to feel like I was alone in the world in a wild place, but the truth is this is very tame, and I am close to home. I hurry back down the trail, feeling a little sad. Suddenly a desert cottontail is startled by my footsteps and scurries off the path. Then I hear the yipping of a coyote, frantic and wild across the wash. It’s not too tame yet.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Evening Shadows

Though it was such a beautiful day here yesterday I got caught up inside working at the computer. By 5 p.m. I’d had enough and decide to go for a walk. I crossed the street to the trails and headed for the fence. After consulting the Sycamore Canyon trail map I discovered that the trail went right through this spot. This is part of what we pay for with our HOA fees, so, not to be deterred; I climbed through the barbed wires and stood in the wash once again.

The setting sun cast long shadows and golden light around me. It is so quiet at this time of the day. Not a leaf twitches. Not a peep is heard. The only sound is the crunch of gravel beneath my feet as I head south up the wash. The rays of the setting sun play through the branches of trees and scrub. It paints gold onto the clay walls before me. All the rocks, stones, sand and saguaro bones take on the golden cast until it appears as if I stand in a glided outdoor palace. The shadows cast by the tree branches create a black filigree against the burnished walls. I walk forward with my footsteps pounding in my ears.

I see the four Saguaro Sentinels towering above me on my left. The Purple Martian holes are vacant now. I will have to watch for their return. I wonder if they will return, now that there are new houses so close by. I catch a movement off to my right from the corner of my eye. Quietly I turn and focus my binoculars in the fading light.
Little sparrows are flitting about in the brush. They dart behind the twigs and dive into the grasses. I step cautiously forward and finally fix on one. It is a black-throated sparrow hopping around the base of a prickly pear cactus. I smile to see his black throat outlined in white. He is a striking bird for a sparrow. So many sparrows are hard to identify, that birders frequently call them LBJ’s, or Little Brown Jobs. This bird is a uniform brownish-gray with a white eye line, white whisker marks, and a black throat that extends partway down the breast. It has a silvery voice to match its distinguished attire. He is the gentleman of the desert and his voice the song of the desert bell choir.

Of course, I would love to find the elusive five-striped sparrow. I have only read of this bird in my bird guides. According to the books, the five-striped sparrow in a rare visitor to a few rugged canyons near the Mexican border and mostly seen in spring and summer. This sparrow looks similar to the black-throated sparrow, but without the extensive black on its throat and with an additional white stripe that splits the throat patch in two. Thus the five stripes are 3 white and 2 black. It’s highly unlikely that I will find one here, but I keep hoping, so I examine each black-throat carefully.

I stand in the wash where I saw the sparrows and look off to the south where the last rays of the sun tint the limestone mine on the slopes of the Santa Ritas pink. I think that it may be called Helvetia mine, but I am not sure of this. Another research project for me I suppose, but nothing can take away the silent beauty of this moment, this ephemeral peace that I carry with me out of the wash and home.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Don't Fence Me In

A warm gray day awaits me this morning. “The warm before the storm” as the saying goes. While the yard is full of birds, the burrowing owl is nowhere to be seen. We hurry through our morning preparations and head for Saguaro National Park East; I with my new binoculars and Gus with his new Nikon D80 SLR. We soon discover we are beset by what I’ve decided to call the three W’s: Warm Winter Weekend. That means the parks are full of winter weekenders drawn out by the warm weather. The parking lots are full, the streets are full, the trails are full, and the birds are all hiding! We only saw 12 species at Saguaro East, so we left and decided to try Agua Caliente Park.

Agua Caliente is a true desert Oasis on the northeast side of Tucson. Due to the year-round spring, palm trees grow in profusion and the birds there are a mixture of the typical desert species and various waterfowl. We were able to see Gila woodpeckers, cactus wrens and a roadrunner in the same place as a blue heron, American Widgeons, ring-necked ducks and Northern pintails. But Agua Caliente is full of people, kids, and dogs. We take a few shots but decide to leave. I’ve recorded 19 species here.

We spend the afternoon at home, then take a walk just before sunset. There is still no sign of the owl. Perhaps he has moved on. Still, I was hoping I would see him for more than just a day, and I was really hoping that Gus would be able to take a photograph of him. Instead, I convince Gus to come to the desert and see the wash with me. We cross the street and pass between the houses. I am getting excited, for Gus has never come out to the wash with me. I am eager to show it to him. This is where Liz and I picked all the prickly pears for our jelly last summer. This is where I saw the Gila monster I tell him. And then I stop dumbfounded. Stretching across the trail that leads to the wash is a brand new barbed wire fence!

I don’t know what to think. My heart fills with many emotions. I’m disappointed and angry. “NO!” I cry. “NO! They can’t do this! When did they do this!” My mind races as if this is incomprehensible. How can there be a fence here?

I know I don’t own this land, but easy access to the desert and the wash is one of the reasons I like living here. It never occurred to me that I would be fenced out of it. I felt like this was my special place where I could flee civilization and be alone with the birds, the bugs and the lizards. Now what will I do?

Gus and I head for the upper trail along the backs of the houses. Here we can see into everyone’s backyards and they can see us. Some yards have dogs that bark furiously at us—not a peaceful walk by any means and certainly not conducive to wildlife watching. Finally we are past the houses at the end of the cul-de-sac and I am pleased to see that so far there is not a fence here. But I fear it will come one day. For now I will have to access the wash from this location and it will require some scrambling down the steep bank.

Gus and I head up a trail along the top of the wash. By now the sun is setting and the sky is aflame with color. The thin blanket of clouds reflects the sinking fire. It seems every 10 seconds the colors change. In the west it is as if the Golden Fleece has been hung in the sky. Then, as the sun sinks lower, it throws color and light across the sky till we are surrounded with shades of pink, lavender, gold, and blue. Mt. Fagan catches a bit of the rosy hue and blushes with warmth. Saguaros appear as sentinels silhouetted against the sky. Looking through the branches of a creosote bush towards the west looks like a black filigree screen in front of a blazing fire. It is a burning bush in the desert and God is speaking in the wind.

All around us the soft voice of the desert whispers. Here we are past the fences and human habitation. Here the desert is open and inviting. Here it is calling us to wildness and freedom. I need this wildness, this open space, not only for my feet, but for my heart and mind also. I don’t like barriers. I can’t be contained. I must fling my soul into the sky and see where it lands. Perhaps that is one reason why I like birds so much. To a bird, a fence is but another thing to fly over or perch on. A bird is not contained by a fence or a block wall and I want to plead with the universe, “Don’t fence me in! Give my heart wings and let my spirit soar.”

Friday, January 4, 2008

Evening Owl

I’ve named the owl Piper because it lives in the pipe. The best info from Audubon says to leave it be and let nature teach it not to nest in drainage pipes. So, I will enjoy my owl as long as I can. I saw Piper again tonight while walking the dog and I tried once again to snap a picture. This is the best I could get with this camera. Hopefully Piper will still be there in the morning when Gus can snap a shot with his new Nikon D80.

We had a beautiful sunset tonight, and my little camera had no trouble capturing the beauty of the desert sky in winter. It was 73 today and it will be in the low 70’s again tomorrow but then a “winter” storm comes in and the temperature will drop to the 50’s with rain expected on Sunday.

Burrowing Owl Confirmed

There is no longer any doubt that I have seen a burrowing owl. I decided to look in the drainage pipe in the wash this morning and sure enough, there he was. The pictures are poor quality because I’m still using my Coolpix digital and I didn’t want to get too close and disturb the bird. I have yet to learn how to use the new camera but hopefully Gus and I will be able to capture a better photo sometime this weekend. My biggest concern is that when it rains that wash will fill up and wash the poor bird out. I have contacted Tucson Audubon about this and am waiting for a reply. We are expecting a good rain on Sunday. Still, I am so thrilled to have a burrowing owl living in the wash next to my house!

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Two Birding Incidents

It’s warmer but grayer here today as a storm rolls in. The curved-billed thrasher has become a regular visitor to the suet and seed cakes. This afternoon the Gila woodpeckers were back and I was able to observe an interesting behavior.

There were four Gilas scattered about on the suet and rock wall. While one Gila fed at the suet, two crept along the wall behind. One Gila apparently didn’t want the other on his wall. He puffed himself up like a body builder inflating his muscles. His head went up, his neck puffed out along with his chest, and then he started swinging his head from side to side in a threatening manner as he advanced towards the other Gila woodpecker. When he got too close for comfort, the other Gila flew off! It was amazing behavior to observe. Meanwhile, the other two Gilas were gobbling up the suet and the seed cakes, to they made out just fine.

Then, this evening at dusk I went outside to get one of the hummingbird feeders to clean and change the nectar. As I stepped out the door in the gray light a feathered shadow flew over my head from off my rooftop. Gus and some friends had spotted an owl on the fence around the wash on Christmas Eve, so I knew it had to be the owl. I grabbed my binoculars from inside the house and walked over to the east wall to see if I could spot and identify this owl. I barely got to the wall and was starting to lift my binoculars when the owl landed right on the blocks not 3 feet from me! We both looked at each other startled, then the owl lifted up on silent wings. It hovered there a moment, then flew off to the wash on the north side of the house. I hurried over there and saw it on the ground behind a Palo Verde tree, but by the time I repositioned myself to see past the tree and lift my binoculars, it was gone, along with what was left of the light.

From the flash of a moment when I saw the bird I saw that it had long legs, a speckled coat, round head-no ear tufts, and big eyes. It was larger than a robin, more the size of a flicker but chunkier. It had a short tail. I want to see an elf owl, but this bird was just too large for that. After consulting 3 bird guides and numerous online resources I can only assume it was a burrowing owl. For size, location and habitat, my choices are really limited. I am thrilled that I have an owl living in the wash beyond my house!

Buenos Aries NWR Part One: Arivaca Cienega

One of the last things we did last year was visit the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge. We waited until we were sure Gus’ new SLR digital camera he ordered for Christmas wasn’t coming. We had hoped it would be here so he could take pictures and I could watch birds, but alas, it didn’t arrive in time, and we went anyways. My little Nikon Coolpix7600 would just have to do. All the photos seen in this Blog so far have been taken with it. I like to take it birding because it fits neatly in my pants pocket, though I hate the delay when taking pictures and it really isn’t powerful enough to zoom in on distant birds.

However, I did have my new Vortex 8x42 Diamondback Binoculars to try out. We bought these on Friday from the Tucson Audubon. I had brought Gus there to see some Leupold’s compact binoculars I have my eyes on, but at half the price and nearly as good optics, I chose these for now. Perhaps later I will but the Leupold’s. I am gradually working my way up in quality of binoculars. Until now I have had 2 pairs of Bushnell binoculars, my most recent being 8x40, but with a focal length of only 15 ft I couldn’t watch birds that were closer than that, and frequently they are! My new Diamondbacks focus at only 4.5 feet!

On Sunday, December 30, 2007 we loaded up the car with food, water and clothing. Gus filled the gas tank the day before. While we had never been to the wildlife refuge before, I read enough about it on the internet to know I needed to be prepared for everything. This is a remote area of the country and the chances of finding food or fuel were even more remote!

After days of what for Tucson was cold, this day was not only sunny, but warm. Gus wore shorts and a t-shirt while I opted for layers with light-weight pants, a t-shirt, and a long-sleeved thermal over that. As the day wore on it proved to be a good choice.

We drove south on I-19 through Green Valley and exited at the Arivaca and Amado exit. A right turn off the exit and a right at the T brought us between the Longhorn Grille and the Cow Palace. We’ve eaten at the Cow Palace before where many famous people are suppose to have eaten, including that most famous cowboy, John Wayne. A left turn here gets you onto Arivaca road and on your way to the refuge.

Arivaca road is a winding two-lane road through desert scrub and mesquite bosque. Old ranches hide in the scrub lands. Sometimes we see horses and cattle, sometimes nothing more than scrub and birds. One of the first birds we see is a roadrunner as it scurries across the road. On numerous phone poles throughout the day we see red-tailed hawks. As the road winds along the contours of the land change. Suddenly over the hill a great peak like some chiseled stone monument appears over the rolling slopes of a grassy hill. It spikes into the blue vault above, then disappears as we descend into another dip in the road. Eventually it appears for good towering over what we soon learn is the Alter Valley. The peak is called Baboquivari Peak and is sacred to the Tohono O’odom people.

We finally round a corner at the edge of Arivaca and see the first sign of the Buenos Aries National Wildlife Refuge. We decide to pull into the parking lot of a place known as the Arivaca Cienega. It’s only later that we discover this is a good choice. Though only a small part of the refuge, it is one of the best places to go birding since it has grasslands, mesquite bosque, Arivaca creek, which actually has water in it, and a marshland, complete with cattails and rushes! A few tall cottonwoods tower over the grasslands, but the first bird we see is a ladder-back woodpecker pounding away at a mesquite tree right near the parking lot. I pull my little camera out to take a picture, but the photo doesn’t come out very well and I discard it. While we are standing there looking at the bird another person comes up with the exact camera and lens that Gus is eagerly waiting for, so he gets to see what it will look like. I think he got a good shot of the bird!

We wander down the cement sidewalk as it winds through the bosque. In the shade of the thicket a barrel cactus is growing, leaning towards the sun. In the twisted twigs of some scrub I hear a sound and focus in on a Bewick's wren! The next bird I see in the same area is a white-crowned sparrow. We are nearing the edge of the trees and the sun is beating down. I remove my thermal shirt and tie it around my waist. Overhead a red-tailed hawk circles lazily in the sky.

We continue down the path to a fork. We decide to take the right fork for we see someone looking into the crown of a towering cottonwood. From high in the tree we hear the squeaking scolding of a flicker, but which kind? The flash of red under its wings identifies it as a northern flicker. What’s it so upset about? A great-horned owl roosting on a cross branch. Gus really wishes he had his camera now!

Then we hear another raucous noise from atop the tree. To my great surprise there is a lone starling chortling away. Is he mad at the owl or the flicker, or is he just singing his joy to the world? Perhaps he is calling for his buddies, but no one is showing up. We left him squawking away and continued down the trail.

The path here crosses a marshy meadow. A boardwalk has been built across it to prevent damage to habitat as well as shoes. We stop almost immediately when we see a bird silhouetted on a weed. A quick look reveals a loggerhead shrike with his bandit-like mask watching over the field. Though he is quite near the boardwalk he doesn’t fly away as we pass silently by.

At the far side of the meadow we turn right up a small hill to an observation platform. A meadowlark flies up before us and disappears into the tall grasses over the hill. At the top of this knoll the platform looks out over the marshland. Though I don’t see any birds at first, I soon hear a coot which enables me to find it. In the brush near my feet some bird is scratching about in the debris but all I see are olive-green sides and yellow undertail coverts. I never get a glimpse of the head, but wonder if it is a common yellowthroat. As I turn to look back over the meadow I see a raptor perched on a fence post. I am hoping for a gray hawk, which would be a new life bird for me. They are suppose to be in this area, but this bird is big and brown and when it flies up I see the white rump patch of a northern harrier. We watch its beautiful flight over the meadow where it disappears beyond the treeline.

Glancing back over the meadow I see another hawk perched at the very top of the tall cotton wood tree where the owl roosts. This hawk is different than any I’ve seen before, yet it’s not gray. It’s brown with a patterned face, streaky breast and white at the base of its tail. It appears to be smaller than a red-tail or a harrier. I don’t have my bird guide with me, but I write down notes in my note book and take a mental picture.

We head back down the path to continue around the loop trail. Now the path enters a shady forested area with a marshy area to the left and a wooded and brushy hillside to the right. This spot is bursting with birdlife. I can barely count fast enough as a red-winged blackbird, white-crowned sparrows, green-tailed towhees, and cardinals appear. A Pyrrhuloxia flies across the path. Then, a covey of Gambel’s quail startle up before us. In the leaves on the hillside I hear a sound and watch as twigs and weeds move. I focus in and laugh when some rodent’s head pokes out a burrow. It has the end of a dried weedstalk in its mouth and it is trying desperately to pull the thing into its hole, but the weed is still firmly rooted to the ground, and for the moment the plant is winning over the animal! I have no idea what creature I am seeing. If I was in New England I would guess at a small woodchuck, but this is the desert southwest and it must be something else: a ground squirrel perhaps? Or maybe a muskrat. We are still close to the water, but most muskrats I know build lodges like beaver. I realize I still have so much to learn.

As we continue down around the loop Gus comments on how quiet and peaceful it is here. The path wanders in and out of the trees and alongside the creek. Eventually I do see what looks like a beaver lodge, only smaller. There is no dam and no ponding, so it must be something else that built the lodge. Farther around the bend we cross a couple of wooden bridges where song sparrows pick along the muddy creek bank. We stop just as we are about to emerge from the trees for there before us stand six mule deer. There appears to be two does with four fawns. They watch us casually, then three cross the boardwalk and pass into the meadow we just looped around and three head off in the other direction. Who can explain the thinking of a deer? We are just pleased to see them on this sunny day in late December.

I am keeping a lookout for a green kingfisher, which I have been told has been seen in this area, but all I see is a kestrel in another tall cottonwood tree. This tree stands near the creek where the water has collected in a deep pool. Other trees surround this spot and all have dropped their leaves on the banks and in the water. The damp smell of moist earth and rotting plant life drifts up and scents the air. It is a pleasant, familiar scent, reminding me of New England and streams in the forest there. A rustle in the nearby grasses causes me to turn. Here we see canyon towhees flitting in and out of the brush. More white-crowned sparrows fly up and back into cover again.

As we round another corner we walk into sunlight once again. He we meet a couple who warn us of a rattlesnake ahead on the trail. We walk cautiously forward and sure enough, a menacing rattle is heard. We pause and watch as the snake slithers out onto he warm cement sidewalk which starts up again at this very point. The snake is brown and tan and about 3 to 4 feet long. Its tail kinks upwards into bands of black and gray rattles, which the animal is vigorously shaking to warn us to keep our distance. We stay at least 15 feet away as it slithers across the path, but when I move to get a better angle for a photograph it stops and coils up as if to strike. Though I am quite far away, I pause until the snake no longer feels threatened. Gus and I watch as it finally slithers off into the grass and brush beside the path. We hurry by with pounding hearts back to the parking lot. It has been a thrilling day so far and we have yet to drive through Arivaca to the main part of the refuge.

When we return to our vehicle, I consult my bird guides—Sibley’s and Kaufman and find that the hawk I saw atop the tall cottonwood may have been a juvenile Gray Hawk. The color, location, habitat and behavior all fit. I’m fairly sure I have a new life bird. As we leave the parking lot and head west I see another hawk perched atop another tree. I make Gus pullover so I can identify it, but once the car stops it flies off before I can be sure of what I’m looking at. Time to get back on the road again.

In all I recorded 26 species at this segment of the refuge, though I know there were many more birds that I could not identify. These are the ones I am sure of with 2 questionable:

1. American Kestrel
2. Bewick’s wren
3. Black Phoebe
4. Canyon towhee
5. Cardinal
6.Common yellowthroat(?)
7. Coot
8. European Starling
9. Gambel’s quail
10. Gray hawk (?)
11. Gila Woodpecker
12. Great-horned owl
13. Green-tailed towhee
14.Ladder-backed woodpecker
15. Loggerhead shrike
16. Mourning dove
17. Northern flicker
18. Northern harrier
19. Pyrrhuloxia
20. Red-tailed hawk
21. Red-winged blackbird
22. Ruby-crowned kinglet
23. Says’ Phoebe
24. Song sparrow
25. Western meadowlark
26.White-crowned sparrow